The Courage to Do Less: StrongFirst and Sumi-e

A few weeks ago, I was testing some of my lifts in preparation for attending an upcoming StrongFirst Barbell Certification. Despite having limited experience with barbell training, I was pleased to find I met all of the strength requirements for the barbell testing even though I’ve only been using kettlebells and bodyweight.

During the previous week, I had also received some challenges from friends to perform dragon flags and Superman push-ups. I discovered I was able to perform these without ever trying them before. In both cases, I succeeded on my first attempt and my friends made comments insinuating that such techniques were simply easier for me, suggesting I possessed some unfair advantage that they did not.

StrongFirst equipment
Keeping my training as simple as it needs to be: a pull-up bar that doubles as a squat rack, a barbell, two 32kg kettlebells, and a Captains of Crush #2 gripper.

My friends didn’t realize that what looked like a lucky first attempt was the culmination of years of practice. In other words, I do have an unfair advantage: it’s called StrongFirst.

It wasn’t always this way for me and I can remember back to six years ago, before I discovered Pavel’s teachings, when so many things that I can do now seemed nearly impossible. It seems that several years of practicing the application of the StrongFirst principles and methods to a handful of techniques plus the “one mind, any weapon” approach have prepared me well.

An Explanation of the StrongFirst Methods

When it comes to StrongFirst, less is more. We pursue quality over quantity and programming over workouts. We emphasize strength as the skill, which facilitates achieving all other physical qualities.

  • When most trainers use a one-size fits all approach to exercise, we assess and re-assess so we can target weak links with laser precision.
  • While others use workouts of the day devised to entertain, we forge ahead with programs like the Rite of Passage.
  • Where others have fallen for “muscle-confusion,” we follow the “same-but-different” principle to train the same skill in subtly different ways.
  • While others pursue hundreds of reps to failure, we have the courage to pursue quality with grease the groove or programs like Easy Strength, doing 10 reps or fewer without fatigue and become stronger for it.
  • While most “programs” found in popular fitness magazines contain dozens of techniques, we choose programs like Power to the People and the Program Minimum that use only two techniques to perfection.
  • When others are at globo-gyms with millions of dollars of equipment and computerized machines that allow them to train while seated, we deliver superior results in our courage corners that typically contain little more than a few kettlebells, a barbell, and a pull-up bar.
  • While others are in a rush to take a photo of the biggest sweat puddle, create the latest exercise variation, or post a video of their own personal best, we work quietly and professionally drilling the basics and filling in the gaps.

To paraphrase something I heard Master SFG Dan John say in regards to Easy Strength: “Have the courage to do less.” A great StrongFirst approved training session is as simple as it needs to be, essentially a work of art where the rest achieves just as much as the work done.

StrongFirst and Sumi-e

StrongFirst and sumi-e
Kobukumeigekizu by Musashi

The other day I was looking at a favorite sumi-e painting of mine by the legendary warrior Miyamoto Musashi. On the surface, the painting looks quite simple: a bird perched on a dead branch, patiently waiting to capture a worm inching its way up the branch. The painting was likely done quickly while observing the bird in nature.

Upon closer scrutiny, you realize that entire painting was made with an economy of strokes so that most of the painting is essentially an empty canvas. The expression of the bird is remarkable and even its spirit seems to be captured. Having some experience with painting, I began to realize the elegance of each brush stroke and the discipline it reflected. As I continued to admire this painting, I realized that sumi-e painting can be a perfect metaphor for the StrongFirst methods.

In sumi-e, the artist is content to use black ink only and as few brush strokes as necessary while recognizing that the use of empty space is just as important, if not more so, than the ink. Mastering the art requires great discipline, concentration, and daily practice. Sumi-e is has been used as a metaphor for the way a warrior must live his life or fight a battle where the courage and discipline to release a single brush stroke without regret is compared to delivering a decisive blow. I imagine if the StrongFirst methods could be applied to a form of painting, it would be sumi-e.

A Lifetime of Preparation

A master artist was commissioned by his lord to create a particular sumi-e painting. The artist would receive a sum of money every day until the painting was completed. The lord waited impatiently for many months and finally journeyed to the artist’s home to see what the delay was all about.

When the artist insisted the painting was not ready and he could not commit to a delivery date, the lord demanded his painting be produced immediately under penalty of death. The artist calmly sat down with his tools and within minutes created a masterful painting with a mere handful of brilliant brush strokes. The painting was wonderful and exactly what the lord wanted.

At first the lord was pleased, but then he grew furious as he realized he had been forced to wait months for something that only took the master artist a few minutes to produce. When the lord demanded an explanation for why the artist made him wait, the artist simply said that although the painting had pleased his lord, it was not ready.

StrongFirst and sumi-e
Rogan-zu by Miyamoto Musashi

This made the lord even more furious. At that the artist showed the lord a room full of cabinets. The artist opened a cabinet and out fell hundreds of versions of the exact same painting. Then he continued to open every cabinet, and one after another each cabinet contained hundreds upon hundreds more of the same painting totaling in the thousands. As the lord looked on in amazement he began to realize that while each painting was a masterpiece, each consecutive painting was just a little better than the last, and the version that he witnessed the artist produce this very day was the best to date.

At that moment, it became obvious that what had appeared to have only taken a few minutes to complete had actually taken a lifetime to prepare for. The lord apologized to the artist and begged him to continue working on the commissioned painting until it was ready.

Be Your Own Work of Art

Training with StrongFirst methods is a lot like a masterful sumi-e painting. Some of our greatest works of art are programs like Power to the People, the Program Minimum, and Easy Strength.

We can get the job done with limited equipment, fewer techniques, and fewer repetitions. There are times of urgency when training goals and deadlines must be met, and then there is the majority of the time when we must simply be consistent and practice. Instead of constantly racing toward a result, we have faith in the process while pursuing improvement, and looking forward to the day when we will have hundreds or thousands of masterful training sessions under our belt.

Follow the StrongFirst methods and your strength, your skill, and your body will be your own works of art.

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John Scott Stevens
SFG II, SFB
John Scott Stevens is a SFG II Instructor, StrongFirst Bodyweight Instructor, Functional Movement Specialist, and 5th degree black belt teaching in Omaha, Nebraska.

He can be reached on Facebook at Omaha Elite Kettlebell and by e-mail at SFG.John.Stevens@gmail.com.
John Scott Stevens on EmailJohn Scott Stevens on Facebook

26 thoughts on “The Courage to Do Less: StrongFirst and Sumi-e

  • I’ve had to be away from this post – and Easy Strength and PTP – a long time to understand it.

    I got it the first time I read it. I even appreciated it, since it shows up in my bookmarks from months ago.

    But it took until the conclusion of an unsatisfying season and the subsequent culmination of an “uninteresting” but hugely successful training cycle to understand this post. Less is hugely more – and every credible strength author has been saying this for years. I – in many cases, we – have just been too bullheaded to hear it.

  • I used to hate exercising. I went through all the glitter workouts and beach muscle programs. Hated everyone of them. Last year I found “Enter the Kettlebell” and haven’t looked back. I just bought, and read, “Simple and Sinister”. Brilliant. When I was in high school, about 25 years ago, I read a book called “The Tao of Pooh”. The things I learned from that book just clicked and meshed with this article. What is the most important part of the cup? The cup itself, or the empty space inside? My strength training just changed exponentially.

  • Good article, great motivation! I really like the SF approach to training. Looking forward to you guys coming to my neck of the woods.

  • Tremendous article especially in light of the simplified program I’ve had to implement over the last .. strictly heavy volume two-hand swings using a mixture of 32, 40 and 48 kg bells. I made this drastic simplification due to large increase in work related travel and management responsibilities. After reading this article its not surprising how effective it is.

  • Sometimes as a trainer i feel like that artist. When i make clients training programs they say “oh that’s it?” I must admit i worry that they think i’m selling them short. It’s only the ones who persevere that get the great results realize the benefit.
    It always amuses me when i see a client who has modified the program i gave them (like the lord in a hurry). I’ll walk in the gym and see the guy curling dumbbells.

  • Master Stevens has the courage to be an artist in a sea of scientists. Anyone can follow the formulas, it takes strength, character, a habit of mastering… to paint outside the lines & create art according to the unique, sometimes conflicting, needs of each lord/client; MASTER Stevens does it consistently!

  • Have to admit I’m a bit surprised by the positive response to this article.
    Your positive comments have made my day.

  • Daniel, the “squat rack” is called the Fitness Gear 360 Core Suspension Trainer.
    I love it.

  • Excellent article John! You summed up StrongFirst well! Many of the points you hit upon are apparent in each of What is your plan for weekend and weekus! I especially liked your pic of our “Courage Corners” , simple and yet so effective! My clients and I train this way in our gym and they have come to understand what it means to be StrongFirst! Thanks John!

    • That for the kind words Betsy.
      The simple, not easy approach to mining the basics is not only how to train but how to get the most out of anything.
      At StrongFirst it appears Strong Minds ink alike, ;]

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