The chess lesson that can help you make better decisions in the gym.
A little while ago I saw this tweet from one of my favorite thinkers, Adam Robinson.
In chess a CRUCIAL prophylactic concept is OVERPROTECTION:
you don’t just protect an important piece or square—
you OVERprotect it!
Why? Masters know they can’t foresee everything, so they don’t take chances.
Key rocket components don’t just have backups—backups have backups!
— Adam Robinson (@IAmAdamRobinson) February 20, 2021
Adam is a rated chess master, bestselling author, investor, advisor, and all-around smart human being.
(For the unfamiliar, I highly recommend his guest appearances on The Tim Ferriss Show)
To me, the most invigorating aspect of chess is how often its lessons apply to areas of life, from training, to relationships, to writing. This chess lesson illustrates why so many people struggle to reach their fitness goals.
Whether it’s complete beginners or advanced trainees stuck at a plateau, I see people at all levels failing to grasp this concept.
(I hope that as long as you have a rudimentary understanding of how the chess pieces move, you’ll be able to follow along.)
Here is a made-up (by me) chess position with black to move.
The black rook is attacking the white bishop. The white knight is defending the white bishop, so in this position, black can’t take the bishop without losing the rook (a good trade for white).
However, the knight is the only defender of the bishop. If black can “distract” the knight and force it to move, the rook will be able to take a free bishop.
And black can do that on this move by pushing the pawn to c5, attacking the knight (remember, pawns capture diagonally).
The knight will move, the bishop will fall, and black will be on the way to victory.
This bishop is what my favorite chess teacher, Grandmaster Daniel Naroditsky, would call a “type II undefended piece.” A type II undefended piece is a piece that only has one defender, and is therefore susceptible to all kinds of types of tactics.
Now, let’s look at the same exact position with one key difference.
White’s pawn is on g4, defending the bishop.
The bishop now has two defenders. If white forces the knight to move by playing pawn to c5, white can simply move the knight without worrying about the bishop falling because the pawn on g4 is guarding it.
logic dictates that having double the defense is unnecessary: there’s only one attacker, and white already has a defender. But in this position white needs to overprotect in order to prevent the simple tactic that loses the bishop.
Concrete tactics supersede logic. This is true not only in chess, as we’ll see.
Overprotection doesn’t overprotect, it just protects.
The importance of consistency in training is one of the most harped-on messages in fitness and personal development. It does not matter how good your program is if you can’t just freaking show up to the gym.
But how often are you one “tactic” or slip-up away from skipping your gym session? Or, where is simple logic not enough to go, just as surface-level logic in the first position leads to losing the bishop? After you, if your rational, logical brain were always in control, you’d probably always go.
However, as anybody who’s struggled with motivation and willpower (i.e. all of us) know, showing up to the gym consistently is WAY easier said than done. In order for you to go to the gym, it seems, everything has to line up.
You have to get to bed on time, you have to have your gym clothes set up, you have to have the energy to do it.
To keep the analogy going, your chess position, with the goal of going to the gym, is one tactic away from crumbling. And with so many variables, you’re almost bound to succumb to an external variable. When this happens, you blame yourself. You just weren’t motivated enough. You start to question whether you’re a hard worker or not.
Well, blaming yourself is stupid, because we all have ebbs and flows of willpower, and the only way to build a true habit and consistent routine is to have systems set in place so you don’t rely on willpower.
You need to have metaphorical defenders of the pieces and squares that allow you to carry out the plan of going to the gym.
Just as a chess position has virtually unlimited possibilities and plans for you to carry out, the same goes for the real world. Instead of calculating all the possibilities (you can’t), coordinate your routines so that when things don’t go perfectly, your plan still succeeds.
As a grandmaster personal trainer (a self-proclaimed title), here are the typical strategies that can build in defenses to overprotect the ever-important habit of just getting to the gym.
I’m going on the assumption that training in the morning works for a lot of people, a suggestion I give to beginners in this article for Muscle & Strength. But even if this doesn’t specifically apply to your gym routine, it does apply to your day.
Generally I’m a believer that getting up when your alarm goes off is a good momentum builder. I don’t care if it’s at 4:30 or 10:30, but whenever you planned on starting your day, that’s when you should start it.
But here’s where so many (mostly annoying) people say “you just have to get up when your alarm goes off.”
This is horribly out of touch advice.
Waking up when you just want to sleep sucks, and at that point in time nothing is more appealing than a cozy bed and just five more minutes of sleep.
So, let’s overprotect it.
This is staggeringly simple, but one of the easiest defenders of your gym routine starts with where the hell your alarm is placed. If it’s RIGHT next to your bed, it’s so easy to just roll over, hit snooze, and go back to sleep. Poor defense.
To add a defender, move your main alarm clock on the other side of your bedroom. That way, you have to physically get up and turn it off. By the time you’re up, you’re more likely to get up, head to the gym, and start your day.
(As an aside, keeping your phone away from you at night will also enhance your sleep quality.)
The other cliché advice here is to set about 50 alarm clocks. You can do this too. That would be another defender. Personally, I find two works. My phone, and that one digital alarm clock that’s set up on my bookcase, both of which I need to get up to turn off in the morning.
Whereas the alarm clock strategy is like defending one of your pieces, I like to think of the calendar strategy as defending a key square on the board.
Sometimes in chess positions, the battleground is fought over defending a specific square, rather than a specific piece. It’s space you’re guarding, just like you should guard the space in your calendar when your workout is planned for.
Whatever your workout time is, block off that time. And, do so in many ways. Make sure you don’t have anything on the calendar, of course. But take this a step further. Do you have your gym clothes laid out the night before or packed in your gym bag to take with you to work? Do the people in your life know that’s time they can’t reach you?
Each one of these steps will clamp down on guarding your gym time, and enhance your chances of showing up to the gym.
Add a defender by enlisting a trainer partner. We all know what it’s like to have somebody waiting for us: we’re much less likely to blow them, and the gym, off. Another way to provide the accountability for this is to hire a trainer of course, and this accountability is one of the reasons why even trainers hire trainers. I’d go as far to say it’s why personal training still exists. After all, most of the best training info you can find online. It’s hard to not show up when you’re paying money for it, and that’s often the strongest defender.
In some ways, hiring a trainer is like a pawn defending your piece. A pawn is less likely to need to be chased away, so it’s a more sturdy defender. You just won’t skip your workout unless you don’t value money or other people’s time.
At the more advanced levels of training, most people have something specific they want to work on. Maybe you want to grow your chest, increase your leg strength, or shade time off your sprints.
If your goal is hypertrophy of a certain muscle group, your first instinct will likely be to increase the frequency of training that body part. Sure this is one variable you can adjust, but there likely remain aspects of your training that might account for a hypertrophic plateau.
For example, all major muscle groups have more than one major function. Let’s take a small, relatively simple muscle group as an example: the biceps.
Most people train the bicep in only one of it three major functions: by flexing the elbows (think of a classic bicep curl). Sure, you can grow your biceps by just training elbow flexion, a standard bicep curl motion. But there will come a point where it won’t be enough. The biceps have two other functions: shoulder flexion and supination. If you’re focusing on training your biceps as you would in a specialization program, you have to train them in all their functions and ranges of motion.
(Note: Dissecting all functions of major muscles is a major piece of the puzzle for enhancing the mind-muscle connection, which of course is inextricably linked to muscle growth. In this article, we breakdown the functions of all major muscles.)
Are you an athlete you want to get faster and more powerful? For the sake of simplicity, let’s say our goal is to improve your jumping ability, as jumping ability correlates with sprinting ability.
To improve this, a common strategy would be to train with typical plyometrics, exercises like bounds, sprints, and jumps where you’re working on training elastically and minimizing ground contact time in between jumps. If you’ve ever seen an elite sprinter at work, their bounciness will jump out.
But another component of power and speed is an athlete’s ability to produce force WITHOUT any momentum or elastic energy. This is especially important during the first few sprinting strides because an athlete doesn’t have previous momentum to elastically transfer.
I coin them “elastic” and “static” jumps, but the more scientific definitions which I’ll steal from my former boss Devan McConnell are “countermovement” and “non-countermovement.”
Some phases or days of an athletic performance program should include “bouncy” plyometrics, while others focus on jumping from a completely static, statuesque position.
For athletes, regardless of sport, I include both forms of vertical jumps on a weekly basis. Here’s my mediocre vertical jump ability on both fronts (in my defense this was two years ago).
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(Also shout out to the Umass Lowell boys on making it to the Hockey East Championship this season.)
Yes, backup plans are what Adam was getting at with this tweet. But I think this concept extends beyond that: it’s about thinking about what resources and strategies can you allocate to fully-proof your plans? To add a new dimension to them? Oftentimes, it’s not costly or inconvenient to include simple changes and measures to improve your routine and chances of success.
What one shift can you make that will make your plan harder to mess up?
I’m not sure if this chess analogy was helpful but this is just how my brain works. So. deal with it.
For more chess-related fitness reading, check out my article on 3 fitness lessons from the Queen’s Gambit.