The System

Here’s a little story. Jean Claude Van Damme walks into a bar. His loose fitting tank top sits on top his oiled, shorn body, glistening under the dim lights. His pants are baggy, always baggy. His $3,000 loafers side step a spilled drink on the floor and he surveys the bar.

This bar is like most bars: a mash up of disgusting human behavior and a few shiny gems strewn about. One gem catches Jean’s eye, a beautiful creature sitting at the bar. With hair like a fresh brewed espresso and fingers as crafty as a bonobo, this beauty lazily reclines on a barstool. One arm dangles over the back of the stool, the other consumes a juicy, fleshy treat.

“You know…I could eat a peach for hours…” says Nic Cage, the beautiful creature. A powerful feelings sweeps over Jean’s loins as he knows his night — Nay! His life! — cannot be complete without speaking to, without learning the secrets of Nic Cage’s heart.

Jean saunters up, thumbs hooked in his waist band, squeezing a few beads of sweat out onto his shoulders. He catches Cage’s attention and slowly rumbles, “Hello my sweet, may I buy you a dreenk?”

Cage, is startled, “Sorry boss, but there’s only two men I trust. One of them’s me. The other’s not you.”

Jean’s face slips into desperation. He can no longer hold onto his beaded sweat and it begins to embarrassingly soak through his tank top. Suddenly, a paw thuds on Jean’s shoulder. Despite the grease and sweat, the paw remains motionless after the sound of the clap echoes through the bar. All music and conversation has stopped. All eyes are on the man with the paw.

It’s literally a paw. There’s a guy holding a bear paw, and he slapped it onto Jean’s shoulder. It’s the creepy “Get off my train,” guy from the movie Ghost. He stares into Jean’s eyes and then asks, “Who do you think yer talkin’ to?” his words spilling out like gravel.

Jean’s biceps flex hard and he performs a flurry of unnecessary splits and the guy from Ghost falls through a wooden table, pieces of wood exploding throughout the room. A swarm of bar patrons rush to engage Jean, who somehow has already removed his shirt and is adamantly flexing, increasing his systolic blood pressure well over 170. Johnny Cage steps from behind a row of trees and Steven Segal somersaults into the room. Boba Fett crashes through the roof while Danny DeVito in his Penguin attire from Batman Returns stumbles in, opening and closing his umbrella menacingly. All of these villains begin beating Jean to the ground. As they pummel him, Jean looks through the mass of punches and kicks to see Nic Cage sitting on his bar stool laughing…laughing.

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Allow me to explain.

You are Jean Claude Van Damme. Your attraction to Nic Cage is your “bright idea”. Everything that happens after is a reflection of your bad decisions. Think of the bar in the story as your “system”.

I use the term “system” to summarize all of the crap going in the human body. In physiology, we teach all the systems separately to understand the whole. Systems of the body include the integumentary (skin), skeletal, muscular, nervous, endocrine, circulatory, lymphatic and immune, respiratory, urinary, digestive, and reproductive. It’s easy to forget how these are interrelated, whether from a training perspective or in modern medicine.

In our case, it’s important to pay attention to all the stuff that effects our system. This awareness can help make programmatic adjustments to prevent illness, injury, or poor performance because the state of the system is an indicator of recovery capability. If the system is “depressed”, or something causes a debilitating effect on it, then all functions of the system are hampered.

Let’s go through two case studies.

The first is a person with a lot of emotional stress due to relationship issues for a month. Significant emotional stress itself can lowers the can lower the capability of the system, but it’s often associated with altered dietary and sleep habits. The person is tired, not getting enough calories, full of inflammatory stress hormones, and then on top of all of that, they are trying to maintain their normal training load.

The person in this example now has a depressed system and their physiology is not functioning at a normal level. Now imagine that they go out for a night of drinking and stay up late — events that depress the system. Their metabolism is working to oxidize the alcohol and they are dehydrated, further harming the system. A day or so later, they get sick.

It’s not that they were hit with a super bug infection that knocks them on their ass. It’s that their system had the shit kicked out of them by several different things and a minor bacteria or virus took advantage of the immune system being compromised. A good training program is a stress on the system. But so is emotional stress, a lack of sleep, binge drinking, and a lack of calories. All of the factors together create a storm that the body can’t recover from. Eventually there will be a fail point.

For the second case study, we’ll travel to  this Reddit post in /weightroom. The TL;DR is that a young fella’s deadlift strength has significantly decreased. He made a list of potential contributing factors he thought may be contributing. My answer is in the comments (/u/70sbig), but I wasn’t surprised to hear that he took a few weeks off, started a manual labor job, was training 7x/wk, decreased his deadlift frequency, and had a decrease in caloric intake.

Any one of those things would provide a change on his system that would likely have a debilitating effect. Seeing them all sitting before you in succession makes it very obvious to see why his strength suffers. But if you’re living your life and not looking at all of the variables that can influence training, it’s easy to miss them until the fail point occurs. The fail point is when you get injured, miss a lift, or finally realize you’re sick.

You easily can find yourself in a situation. You’re in a metaphorical bar (a depressed system) attracted to a beautiful creature (training). You won’t see the danger you’re in until you’re getting a solid beat down from Segal, Boba, and bad guys that know Whoopi Goldberg (the things walloping your system). Look, this metaphor is wildly out of control. The lesson is this: you may not be able to avoid problematic circumstances, but you can at least identify them and make better decisions to accommodate them. The last thing you want is to helplessly see the face of Nic Cage laughing at you uncontrollably.

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