The Strenuous Life

1st July 2018

I was performing double unders recently when Laura Clarke commented to me that she was surprised I had listed them amongst my favourite CrossFit movements on my coaching bio. This assumption was presumably reached because she knew my double under journey.

Let me momentarily take you back a few years to 2013. I had achieved satisfactory double unders, which is to say I had them sporadically and enough to get me through a WOD, if not in a great time. When a combination of events conspired so that I didn’t perform DU’s for 4 months I was crestfallen when around Christmas time I discovered that I had lost the ability to perform a single DU.

It was so bad that during one particular WOD coach Andy watched me flailing and flogging myself with the rope and told me that he was baffled as to why I wasn’t able to achieve a single DU –especially since I ‘had them’ in the past. I knew then things were bad! I made a decision there and then – with the Open just a few months away – that I would nail DU’s properly and consistently in order to give myself a chance of performing well in the Open. I practiced every day for 15 minutes before or after the WOD and by February I was linking 50 or 60 DU’s consistently. Since then I have never looked back.

Going back to Laura’s comment, the reason I enjoy double unders is because of the toil and effort I put into the skill in order to perform them competently and consistently. To quote the old adage “the greater the effort the sweeter the reward”. And this brings me on somewhat belatedly to the subject of this blog: The merits of The Strenuous Life.

The Strenuous Life:

The Strenuous Life is a set of rules, or a doctrine that was implemented by the people of the late 19th Century, as evidenced by the great polar explorers of the time, and codified by the American President Theodore Roosevelt. Whilst at the time it was intended for men, thankfully now everyone in our society can take these rules and premises and apply them to their lives.

There was a short period in the late 19th Century – before the start of WW1 – when a group of people were increasingly feeling that a prolonged period of peace from war was rendering martial values and skills obsolete. At the same time, the industrial revolution was taking men and women from jobs where they were entirely self-sufficient and placing them into labour jobs which were menial by comparison. Here is a passage from an article written by Brett and Kate McKay from The Art of Manliness:

Their first area of concern centered on the effect the new economy was having on individual skill and autonomy. By virtue of their “profession,” men who worked the land had been required to be something of a jack-of-all-trades — knowing not only how to plant and harvest but also how to forecast the weather, use and repair tools, hunt, shoot, erect buildings, and so on. The relationship between sweat equity invested, and the fruits of one’s labor, could not have been more intimate and direct; sometimes, it was quite literally, fruit. Life was tough for a farmer, but it was self-directed; while he couldn’t control the whims of nature, he weathered the storms at the wheel of his own ship.

But as men’s jobs shifted from the fields to factories and offices, their work became less and less skilled and more and more specialized and abstract.

Laboring in a factory might involve simply pulling the same lever day after day. Toiling in an office certainly required learning new skills — softer ones — but the scope of one’s work was similarly circumscribed. In either case, employees were increasingly becoming specialists, losing the manual competence in a wide breadth of areas that their forebearers had embodied. Urban living only compounded this loss.

More and more of the tasks that lay outside one’s narrow occupational specialty became outsourced to those who specialized in that particular need, so that men felt less independent, and more interdependent — sometimes just plain dependent.

Workers of the second industrial revolution thus increasingly felt they had lost a vital sense of individual autonomy and self-reliance, becoming a mere cog in a wheel.

Increasingly groups of people started following the principles of The Strenuous Life to add purpose, direction and experience to their lives.

There are four key values or archetypes that are focused on in The Strenuous Life: The Craftsman, The Saint, The Pioneer and the Soldier. I will not focus too much on what defines these values since I wish to keep this essay relevant to CrossFit, but frankly, some of the archetypes are what defines the type of person who does CrossFit, so you might be interested to read more on the subject at your own leisure. Here is a summary:

The Craftsman: The archetype of the Craftsman celebrated the reclamation of skill, creativity, autonomy, and a celebration of tactile values. The pride that comes with useful, purpose-driven work.

The Saint: Less about religious piety but focused more on developing the ethos of discipline, an indifference to consumerism (how this has come full circle again now perhaps?), a rejection of distraction and instead on focus, of self-mastery and patience. Surely core values we can try to encourage more today?

The Pioneer: The Pioneer embodies many of the above mentioned traits, but in addition includes initiative, ruggedness, hardiness, general toughness. It is about getting back to nature and embracing our primitive side. It is a counterbalance to overcivilisation.

The Soldier: A revival of the warrior ethos. As previously mentioned, during the late C 20th the prolonged peace inspired people to seek new challenges, and these manifested themselves in athletic endeavours. Athletics might be only an abstraction for war, but it does develop martial qualities such as competition, camaraderie, self-reliance and teamwork, toughness, discipline and stoic endurance. This is the quality we perhaps see most reflected when we observe CrossFitters putting work in. Paying the man.

Right now we are experiencing another technical revolution – albeit a digital one. Computer games, smartphones, social media all encourage us to experience life second-hand, not first hand. Using GPS instead of learning to use a map and compass, ordering a Deliveroo instead of taking time to cook, googling information rather than learning facts. Furthermore, our daytime jobs are increasingly sedentary.

Even those who go to the gym – let’s use the term globo gym here – are performing the same movements day in day out, the body is never tested fully, forced to adapt, in the same way those C 19th workers went from ‘jack of all trades’ workers testing their body daily, to labourers in a factory performing the same movement second after second, minute after minute, day after day. And this is why we do CrossFit. To test our bodies and force them to adapt, improve, day after day. We perform “constantly varied functional movements executed at high intensity across broad time and modal domains”.

In CrossFit we see a combination and synergy of the four ‘Strenuous Life’ qualities day in, day out. The Craftsman: Diligently drilling Olympic lift techniques, mobility, gymnastics. The Saint: working hard, putting in the hours, leaving ego at the door, being honest with scores, resisting distraction, patience in the process. The Pioneer: getting involved in competitions, in whatever manner that manifests itself. The Soldier: pursuing their fitness, celebrating it and also making it available to team-mates, mucking in, leaving no one on their own, clapping the last people in through the door, ensuring everyone is present and correct.

Maybe we can learn more from these C 19th pioneers, but we already see it inside our own box at CFN, and in the wider CrossFit community. Look at Tribal Clash for instance. This is the embodiment of the Pioneer spirit. A return to our primitive roots. Literally dozens and dozens of different tribes competing against each other, to better themselves, acknowledging and embracing the deep pain, and to come out the other side celebrating what everyone has achieved, and congratulating their teammates and their opponents.

In CrossFit we are already pursuing a high level of discomfort, whether that is in the training process, the WOD floor, the competition floor, or the dietary/lifestyle diligence it takes to improve oneself. By changing your social habits and looking after your body, getting more sleep, eating better, drinking less (alcohol). By taking ice baths, swimming in frigid lakes and running in driving rain. Each and every one of us is already on a journey of discomfort and embracing The Strenuous Life. How can you improve? Maybe read the four archetypes again and judge for yourself.

Next time you are in the box look around at the individuals surrounding you. Ultimately they are there for the same reason as you, which is to create a better version of yourself, and to achieve that by pursuing a strenuous activity. We truly are a brotherhood and sisterhood at CFN. We toil together and play together. Be proud of yourself and what you are achieving. And keep practicing those double-unders!

I will close with a quote from the original Strenuous Lifer, Theodore Roosevelt:

I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.” –Theodore Roosevelt, 1899

Credits: Much of the content for this article has been inspired by the article ‘A Call For a New Strenuous Life’ by Brett and Kate McKay on The Art Of Manliness. I have essentially condensed a 12,000 word essay into something you can hopefully read on your lunch break. If you have the time, I heartily recommend you read the full essay.

Go top