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SUSTAINABILITY OF YOU – Are You Training to Competency or Incompetency? The Peter Principle of Exercise

By Brian Beatty

We all want to train to perform at our best; however, we may unknowingly be training for a level of minimal competency. Knowing how hard to push and when to stop in exercise and training is a critical variable. As we start a new year, it is worth examining if have inappropriately learned how to judge the ‘when to stop’ variable. Training and practicing involves mental and physical aspects. Cardiovascular fitness and muscle mass are direct physical aspects, but the skill, coordination, and mental fortitude fall into the category of learning or neuromuscular control. When learning, the last memory is often the one that gets the strongest encoding in your brain. In this case, you are teaching your body to clearly remember the last rep of an exercise or training effort.

Give your all! Push through the burn! Leave nothing behind! Go for broke!

All good motivational phrases for maximal effort in competition, but if adopted for every workout or exercise set, this attitude could be detrimental. At maximal effort, the desired form, our movement efficiency, and desired quality of movement tends to deteriorate. At that moment, we are at risk for engraining a learned pattern somewhere between minimal competency and actual incompetence. We are at risk of unwittingly applying the ‘Peter Principle’ from business management to our movement learning.

The Peter Principle was a business management observation noting in a business hierarchy people tend to get promoted until they reach a level where they are no longer competent for further promotion. They tend to remain at that position and continue to work at a level beyond their optimal competency. The implication is that nothing gets done at optimal efficiency since everyone is pushed one step beyond his or her optimal performance. The organization is now made up of everyone doing more than what they are really good at and by default the whole system is limited from being in a position to truly thrive. 

This is clearly not an optimal way to work, nor is it a good way to train ourselves for health, fitness, or anything. Avoiding this trap is not that hard, if we recognize it and focus on prioritizing our training effort around the sense of what simply feels good, efficient, and comfortable. We have all experienced times when we are working hard, but things feel synced up or in flow and other times when that is not the case. Cultivate the ability to listen internally to your sense of the quality of your movement or activity. When your desired quality starts to deteriorate, ease off a notch until you find a level you like then stay there. Soak in the experience for you brain to remember. If you can’t find the quality you want, pat yourself on the back for a job well done up to that point and walk away for the day. Learn to perform at your optimal competency, not struggle at the edge of incompetency.

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Trailhead ‘Gyro’, aka Brian Beatty, physical therapist, spends whatever time he can and not as much as he wants, playing in the woods with feet, bikes & dogs.  When not there, he hangs out at Balanced Movement Studio (www.Balanced-Movement.com) trying to help others so that they can do more of whatever they enjoy.