“Before I studied the art, a punch to me was just a punch, a kick just a kick. After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick no longer a kick. Now that I’ve understood the art, a punch is just a punch, a kick just a kick. The height of cultivation is really nothing special. It is merely simplicity; the ability to express the utmost with the minimum. It is the halfway cultivation that leads to ornamentation.”
– Bruce Lee
Overdone though it may be to quote the late and great Bruce Lee, it’s hard to argue against the the fact that the dude had a keen understanding of some of the finer points of movement practice. The quote above is one that I encountered during the martial arts obsession of my high school years, and it has always stood out to me.
If I may be so bold as to highlight the wisdom in Bruce’s words, it’s that the more you deepen your understanding of your craft, the more you come to recognize the unifying principles between seemingly unique skills. If you are not familiar with martial arts, a kick just looks like a kick. When you become a student, suddenly you recognize that there are round kicks, side kicks, front kicks, hook kicks, variations of these and many more, each with their own refined technical details. It’s the same in the world of fitness: an athlete may learn many variations of basic movements like squatting, pressing, and pulling as they progress through their formal training in the gym. The farther you progress towards that ever-distant mastery, however, the more you begin to see the gray zone that exists between techniques. It is in that endless void that the student learns how to adapt and improvise, to step outside of the bounds of strict technique and express something new.
This improvisation, however, can only be properly approached once the student has gained great proficiency with the formal expression of their art. (You have to learn the rules before you can understand how to break them.) As the late master warned, reaching into that gray zone too early leads to needless ornamentation – fancy moves without any solid rationale. In martial arts this manifests as the student has a repertoire full of flashy techniques, but lacks the foundation and understanding necessary to pull them off in combat. We see this all the time in the fitness world as well – exercise variations that have no purpose other than variation, training programs built around gimmicks instead of the deliberate pursuit of adaptation, and people pursuing advanced levels of movement that they simply haven’t earned. This act of overreaching one’s skill and fitness level is especially troubling, not only because it greatly increases the risk of injury (for the individuals and those around them), but also because their future pursuit of that skill may be compromised by learning it poorly early on. (Its much easier to build a new skill than it is to reshape an old one.)
In the end, as Bruce Lee said, the height of cultivation is simplicity. Advanced movements are nothing but the basics given new expression. If you truly want to be good at something, make the basics your priority, and continue to practice them no matter how awesome you become. It might not make sense while you’re a beginner, but the better you get the more you’ll see the value in constantly reinforcing your foundation. Be patient when reaching towards the fancy stuff, and always make sure you first understand the parts that make up the whole technique.