I dislike planking for the same reason I dislike Tetris: there’s no way to win, only to lose a little more slowly.
It happens often enough to be “a thing” worth writing about: an RVTKD student will tell me in confidence, “OMG, I really HATE __________. I’ll do it, but I sure don’t like it.” The word that goes in the blank varies from person to person. Running is probably the most common, but I’ve heard push-ups, pull-ups, sparring, meditation (especially when kneeling), and a range of specific techniques. If we do it, there’s probably been someone over the years who didn’t like it. . . and many have told me so. Sometimes with a whine or a whimper, sometimes with a laugh, sometimes with open resentment. Sometimes with a probing eye to see if I’ll miraculously tell them “Oh, you don’t have to do that anymore—why didn’t you just say something sooner?”
Our Taekwondo workouts are physically demanding, and we also ask our students to work toward competence in a broad range of conditioning benchmarks. It’s not surprising that people aren’t crazy about some of these challenging and sometimes uncomfortable activities. Because they might seem like an add-on, outside of our core curriculum, people seem more likely to complain about conditioning than the things we do on a daily basis in class.
If I’m honest, I’ll admit that my least favorite conditioning exercise is. . . drum roll. . . planking! I dislike planking for the same reason I dislike Tetris: no matter how good you are at planking or Tetris, there’s no way to win, only to lose a little more slowly. I love distance running—historically the most commonly loathed activity among RVTKD students—because once you develop a certain base of knowledge, you form a deep connection with your body and are in complete control of the balance between effort, speed, and pain. If you’re suffering, just slow down the tiniest bit, and suddenly you’re good to run all day long. Or take kneeling meditation. This is agonizing when you’re new to it, but your body adjusts fairly quickly, and with a bit of practice, you can achieve a kind of balance and stasis, where you can leave the physical discomfort behind and turn inward. . . and outward.
None of that is true when you’re doing a plank. From the instant you start, you are immediately losing. It’s only a matter of time before your body collapses, and you’re just trying to delay that collapse for a while. Even if you can plank for a long time, a demoralizing combination of discomfort and boredom sets in pretty quickly, and then it’s your constant companion for as long as you can manage to keep going. Not only that, but once you have even a little proficiency in planking, it takes a few minutes before the exercise has any benefit at all. If you can plank for five minutes, doing it for one or two minutes is worthless, you don’t even get tired. So you have to endure a few uncomfortable and boring minutes as the price of admission, and only then do you get to start the productive work. For me, this is a pretty unappealing potpourri of suffering.
Nevertheless, when I saw a friend’s social post a few months ago, I decided to see if I could do a five minute plank. She’s a serious marathon runner, runs quite a few each year, and does multi-hour runs a couple of days a week. All winter. In Michigan. I respect her fortitude, and when I saw she’d posted “Five minute plank achievement. . . unlocked” I thought, “Ugh. I wonder if I could do that.”
So I tried it and found two things:
- Yep, I could, and it wasn’t that terrible. I mean, it was terrible alright, but it wasn’t worse than it was in my imagination.
- After finishing the five minute plank on my second try, I then thought: “Maybe I should go for eight minutes, as one [crazed] RVTKD student1 mentioned he’d done as a project a while back.” I quickly found there was absolutely no way I was going to go for even one second longer than five minutes. it wasn’t terrible to do five minutes, but the combination of pain and boredom after that was just unendurable. I tried three or four times, said “OMG, I really HATE this,” and gave up.
I mention my loathing of the noble plank because it’s my bête noire, but if you’re reading this post, you probably have one (or more) activities in your life that are similar. The rest of this post discusses why it’s valuable to persevere against whatever activity is your nemesis and what satisfying results may come when you do.
Regarding hardship, there are three kinds of people: those who give in, those who endure it, and those who prevail. I want everyone in our Taekwondo school to be in the third group.
Making Peace with Your Foe
I’ve already written about one relevant insight in a previous post: Comfortable Being Uncomfortable. That article discusses how familiarity through repetition, combined with introspection, can make things that once challenged or intimidated you feel commonplace and unthreatening. If you haven’t read it lately, it might be worth another look.
Beyond that, I’d say there are two obvious and important benefits to working specifically on the thing (or things) you enjoy the least:
THE EASY PATH TO IMPROVEMENT
The thing you like the least is often the area where you can improve the most. And as often as not, the thing you can improve the most is often the place where you can make the fastest progress with the least effort. It’s natural for people to neglect the thing they don’t like. If you have the choice between pizza and ice cream or a smoothie made from kale and protein gruel, which would you choose? Me too, but the kale/protein slurry is clearly much better for you.
It’s normal for people to focus on the things they like, and because they pay the most attention to them, they improve. This makes a virtuous spiral, where people become really good at a small number of things. . . and poor at all the things they neglect. If you’re an Olympic athlete or a theoretical mathematician or an musician, it’s okay to only be good at one thing and shine at that. But if you’re a martial artist, all the skills you neglect are a vulnerability that can be exploited. If you’re really fast but not very strong, your opponent can overpower you. If you’re fast and strong but have no stamina, your opponent can stay out of your way until you’re exhausted, then counterattack.
When our physical safety is on the line, we must search out every weakness and do our best to turn them into strengths. Most of us won’t have to test our martial arts skill in defense of our lives, but if we do, isn’t it obvious that we don’t want to leave obvious holes in our training—just as we don’t leave holes in our guard? Even if we never expect to fight with Taekwondo, we use the metaphor of self-defense, of martial prowess, to give us a sense of urgency and high stakes. The metaphor motivates us to seek self-development and strive toward perfection.
The fact is that if you can run a 7:00 mile and do two push-ups, it means you’re pretty good at running but not so great at push-ups. During a Taekwondo workout, you’ll barely notice if you do the difficult training involved in lowering your mile time to 6:45. On the other hand, it’ll help a lot if you build the muscular strength to do twenty push-ups. For most people, it’ll also be much easier to get to twenty push-ups than take fifteen seconds off a mile time that’s already pretty good. If push-ups are your plank—you just can’t stand them—it’s pretty plausible that you might only be able to do two. But if you keep at it, and do two push-ups three or four times each day, you’ll probably add one or two push-ups a week. At that rate, in ten short weeks, you’d be at twenty. You might not enjoy grinding out those infernal push-ups, but you might get some satisfaction from turning a thing you were terrible at into a skill where you’ve earned competence. And let’s face it, it doesn’t really take very long to do twenty push-ups, so the suffering is at least over quickly. (Unlike those [email protected]#4*! planks.)
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE STRUGGLE
Regarding hardship, there are three kinds of people: those who give in, those who endure it, and those who prevail. I want everyone in our Taekwondo school to be in the third group. Unfortunately, part of the price for overcoming the hardship is often spending some time, or maybe lots of time, in the middle. We endure.
Learning to persevere through things we don’t like helps us understand whatever is hard for us. Through learning why something is hard, we receive insight into how to prevail. We learn how to find the sticking point, then do whatever is necessary to become unstuck. It’s a valuable lesson to internalize: we don’t have to like something in order to do it. By detaching our feelings from the outcome, we can stay engaged and improve. If we approach these obstacles with self-discipline and perseverance, and our approach is both sustained and mindful, we will likely overcome them. In the process, we may even learn that we, unexpectedly, turn out to like them after all.
If you’re doing a plank, or running a long way—or whatever troubles you the most—and all you can think about is how much you dislike it and want it to be over, you’re in for a long and unpleasant time. Even five minutes can feel endless while you’re in the middle of it, if you allow yourself to obsess over the temporary discomfort. If you acknowledge the difficulty, but keep your attention on the process of beating it, you may develop a skill that helps you with every challenge you face. The more you repeat this process, the more you will succeed.
Change Who You Are
Finding what we do well is rewarding and satisfying. Most people find it fun to succeed and become accomplished at the things we enjoy. Succeeding at things we’re not naturally good at is satisfying in a different way, because in the process, we change who we are. We become better-rounded, more capable, and we realize we can accomplish things we previously thought impossible.
AN EXAMPLE CLOSE TO HOME
If you’ve seen me train in the weight room, you may be surprised that I used to feel about weight training the same way I now feel about planks. This was when I was about an inch shorter than I am now but weighed 125 pounds. I had negligible muscular strength, and I was terribly insecure about my physique. Lifting weights seemed little more than a masochistic way to spotlight my perceived shortcomings. I not only avoided it, I nursed not-so-secret contempt for the gym rats who spent all their time grunting and clanging heavy metal things. I thought I was just not wired to do this, and that was my destiny. Unsurprisingly, this meant I continued to be weak, and ashamed of my weakness, even after I’d started training in Taekwondo.
This all changed when Jeff Waller, the Jidokwan teacher who trained and tested me for my black belt, gave me a great gift where I least expected it. When I trained for my black belt in his small Vermont town, he required me to lift weights six days a week. That’s another story, but in one short summer, I’d gained ten pounds of muscle, almost doubled the amount of weight I could bench press—and forever changed what I thought I was capable of. I would never again be shy about lifting weights, I became comfortable in any gym, and my body changed permanently.
Through weight training I’ve gained some fifty pounds of (mostly) muscle. I’ve changed from someone who felt nervous and ashamed about his body into someone who has the luxury of not worrying about my body at all. When I do think about it, I generally feel confidence and pride. That alone is nice enough, but the really meaningful change is my realization that it really is possible to change something that I’d previously thought fundamental and unchangeable. I’ve never again thought that something is beyond reach just because it’s not how I was born. When confronted with a difficult challenge, I think instead: is it worth it, do I want it enough to do what is necessary. If the answer is yes, I do it more often than not. Lifting weights has taught me not only that it’s possible, but how to get there.
AN ELITE ULTRARUNNER
During the early pandemic, my wife and I went through a few weeks Netflix binging documentaries about extreme distance running. They were all interesting in their own way, but the one that’s relevant here is Running for Good. This one follows a British elite ultrarunner, Fiona Oakes, as she competes in a series of races all over the world. These aren’t just marathons, they aren’t just ultras, they aren’t even exceptionally tough ultras. They’re ultramarathons set in the most difficult, cruel landscapes on Earth: the North pole, the Sahara, Antarctica, you get the idea. They are extraordinarily sick, inhumane, absurd ultramarathons.
Despite losing a kneecap to a rare tumor when she was a teenager (!) and undergoing over a dozen surgeries just to be able to walk (!!) Oakes went on to become an elite ultrarunner, the kind of competitor who not only completes these races but often wins them. The story is as inspiring as it is freakish, but none of this is what left me slack-jawed with disbelief.
Turns out Oakes runs a shelter for animals, and she is as serious an advocate for animal welfare as she is a runner. An outspoken vegan and animal advocate, she reveals about an hour into the documentary that SHE DOESN’T EVEN REALLY LIKE RUNNING ALL THAT MUCH. By luck of the draw, she happens to be extremely gifted, but it’s not an activity she’s terribly invested in—except that winning races brings her a modicum of fame and fortune, which in turn helps her build a better platform for animal advocacy, which enables her to be more effective at the thing she actually cares about.
When I think about the tens of thousands of hours that Fiona Oakes has spent running, in the most difficult and soul-crushing conditions imaginable, as a means to a totally unrelated end, it makes me wonder why I’m such a baby about doing a plank for a few minutes.
We are what we make ourselves. Martial arts training, and the related activities that contribute to it, are intentionally difficult. They force us to confront things we might not not otherwise have the courage to face, or which we might be clueless about how to approach. In many cases, these obstacles are illusory. Once we realize we just need a process, and the determination to follow it, we will succeed. The process doesn’t have to be inherently enjoyable if it gets us somewhere we want to go.
An Open Challenge
To practice what I preach, I invite members of River Valley Taekwondo to fill me in on their own challenges, the hardest and most intractable problems they’ve experienced through training. If you are willing to dedicate yourself to overcoming something that seems impossible, or terrifying, or endlessly frustrating, I’ll consider meeting your commitment with my own in a dojang-wide challenge. If enough people are willing to take this on, I’ll join you and work toward increasing my time on the accursed plank to eight minutes. . . maybe even ten if people’s proposals are inspiring enough.
Email me at [email protected] if this challenge interests you, or you can leave your personal challenge in the comments below.
1 You know who you are, you plank-loving weirdo.