Diggin’ a Hole to Install a Ladder to Wash the Basement Windows

Picture a house with absolutely filthy exterior basement windows, the kind that just barely peek out above ground level. The owner can’t see through the things, and they need a thorough washing. He could grab the bucket and a rag and squat or kneel down to commence cleaning. He could make it easy on himself, but for some bizarre reason, he doesn’t.

Instead, he spends the entire day slaving away with a shovel and a pick axe, hacking at the earth to loosen it and shoveling the loose dirt out. A deep hole appears, about eight feet in depth and wide enough to accommodate him and a ladder.  In goes the ladder, and he follows with the wash bucket and rag. Dirty, grimy, sweaty, and disheveled, he ascends the ladder to finally reach the basement windows. He manages to clean them, but his alternate self in a parallel universe – that guy who decided to just kneel down to wash the windows – has clean windows, a killer tan from spending hours at the beach doing pushups and sprints, a couple racks of ribs on the barbecue, and a nice glass of Cab paired with a wedge of French brie. He enjoyed his day, while the ladder enthusiast had to work for hours just to arrive at the same point.

At the end of the day, the windows are clean in both instances. But which method made the most sense? Which method featured a whole lot of redundant BS, and which method allowed for plenty of free time?

“Diggin’ a hole to install a ladder to wash the basement windows” is a phrase I love to use to describe the inanity and redundancy of contemporary conceptions of fitness. Sometimes our methodologies are inherently ridiculous, like with the Treadmobile, a mobile treadmill, or the StreetStrider, a mobile elliptical with endorsements from The Biggest Loser (need I say more?). Anyone can recognize the absurdity of taking a stationary fitness machine that is itself an attempt to recreate a real world movement – like the treadmill tries to mimic running – and turning it into a functioning way to get around the environment. As if having a pair of thick, clunky rubber soles between you and the ground weren’t bad enough, now people are actually using treadmills to stay as removed from nature as humanly possible. And the elliptical is already a ridiculous looking contraption (easy on the joints, sure, but it might replace or even divorce you from real, natural movement patterns like swimming that are equally easy on the joints), but if you do like to use it, just please keep it in the gym. No need to go flailing all over the road.

But on a more serious note, far too many people dig the proverbial hole for themselves when they try to improve their fitness levels by following CW’s lead. Take the Chronic Cardio crowd, for example. Most people still buy the line that running sixty minutes every day is the key to health, fitness, longevity, and happiness. They run those sixty minutes – hating perhaps fifty-five of them – every night to lose weight and get fit and to burn the all-important calories. Sure, some calories get burnt, but so do all their glycogen stores, stores that require restocking with tons of carbs, the more refined and delicious the better. They’ve just come home from a grueling seven mile run and they feel like maybe they deserve a little break, a little treat for all that hard work – so they order a large pizza and wolf the entire thing down, followed by a bowl of ice cream. They wake up feeling bloated (but man are those glycogen stores ready to go!) and horrible, which leads to mild self-flagellation and the decision to “hit the treadmill extra hard tonight” to make up for all the carbs. The same thing happens all over again. The wheels are in motion. This vicious, endless, Sisyphean cycle of Chronic Cardio and carb refueling leads to weight gain and broken spirits (“why can’t I lose the weight?!”) – and the broken, overweight, totally confused about what works and what doesn’t nation we see today.

That’s not to say the Primal fitness community doesn’t have its hole diggers. Some of us – and I’m guilty of this from time to time – make the mistake of thinking more is always better. More pain, more sprints, more weight, more sweat, perhaps even more vomit – are encouraging signs that good work is being done. Now, I’m a huge proponent of compound strength building movements, sprints, hikes, and anything that engages the entire body and works it hard to the core. These exercises are meant to tax and test our strength and our stamina, but there is a point of diminishing returns. There are occasions where – even if you’re doing Primal approved exercises – you run the risk of compromising your health and fitness. The body needs rest at times, and it possesses a pretty effective subconscious feedback system to let you know when it needs that rest. If you’ve lost count of how many hill sprints you’ve done, and each “sprint” has devolved into a plodding uphill jog, it’s time to stop. You’re not doing yourself any good; you’re only hurting your body and increasing your recovery/downtime. If that ain’t diggin’ a hole for yourself, I don’t know what is.

Conventional notions about what constitutes an effective fitness regimen always make me shake my head and throw up my hands. I see people doing ridiculous, ineffective routines with every fiber of their being with nothing to show for it except some lingering injury or a lighter wallet. I can’t help but feel a bit superior, maybe even a tad patronizing, when unbending dedication to a failed, counterproductive fitness methodology persists. But that quickly disappears when I remember that it used to be me. I used to be the most ardent supporter of Conventional Wisdom around. Even when my ultra running and endurance training was physically wearing me down and forcing me into terrible dietary habits, I told myself this was normal. I assumed, despite mountains of evidence (both personal, anecdotal, and clinical) to the contrary, that I was ensuring a long, active life for myself. I think a lot of people are in that situation, so I empathize.

Are you engaging in redundant, inane workouts that go nowhere? Are you working out on a regular basis and failing to see any results?

You may be diggin’ a hole to install a ladder to wash the basement windows, when you could forget the shovel, lose the ladder, grab your wash bucket and handle business.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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46 thoughts on “Diggin’ a Hole to Install a Ladder to Wash the Basement Windows”

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  1. I dig your post Mark. Muscle glycogen has caught my attention lately. There are some interesting and diverse positions within the primal community about glycogen reserves and the convenience of replenishing them through dietary carbs vs. gluconeogenesis alone.

    The argument that we evolved to take advantage of tubers as a cost-effective way to replenish glycogen stores seems to hold some water. That could be an interesting topic for a future post.

  2. i agree with avoiding redundant workouts. however, i do have to say that not all of us live in warm, sunshine-y california. i’m not about to go for a run outside in pitch black darkness when i get home from work at 6 pm. yeah, i could use all that reflective gear to keep me visible, but i am a young, 23 year old girl and the thought of running alone in the dark completely freaks me out. i used to do morning workouts, but waking up so early was screwing with me on the weekends when i needed to sleep a little later (i am 23, after all, and i do go out with friends at night).

    anyway, i don’t think gyms or elliptical machines are evil. i have bad knees, and running exacerbated the problem. i don’t have access to a pool, either. so when i don’t feel like working out at home, sometimes the elliptical or other low impact machines just get the job done. i just think we need to consider that some people need the gym as an option.

    1. and when i say “running,” i mean it in a primal context… whether it’s going outside to do sprints or any other type of exercise…

      1. Erin,

        Have you tried running on trails? Much easier on the knees. And there is an awesome primal feeling to sprinting up or down a mountain path or even gunning it barefoot on the beach.

        I realize that does not help the fact it doesn’t fit your schedule… but maybe on weekends give it a shot?

        1. Hi Ridgeback,

          I actually haven’t given trail running a try. And I don’t live close enough to a beach. I live in Central New Jersey next to a major college town… “nature” is limited to parks with barely existent trails, haha. But maybe I should plan a little weekend trip to a decent trail?

    2. Erin,
      I live in the midwest (read: snow and cold) and have the same problem. I experience the same problems you have. I have class all day (I’m 21) and only have free time at night. I don’t like to run at night for a different reason than you, but thats not what matters.

      I too have knees that bother me, or i should say i used to. I now run barefoot and have had no problems (this is why night running is not appealing). Maybe give that a try. I’ve heard that this winter is supposed to be mild, so if you live up north there should be opportunities to go for a slow jog without shoes.

      Finally, find somebody else to run with you at night. I’m sure there are some nice, good-looking guys who enjoy running where you are living.

      Good luck! 🙂

  3. Erin, I hear you on the darkness factor and don’t think treadmills are completely evil. Are you POSE running? Effective running shouldn’t hurt the knees.

    I just recently had a conversation with a co-worker and “peanut butter and jelly sandwiches” came up. I said, “oooh…” She said, “what, they’re not healthy??” I said, “The peanut butter ain’t healthy, the jelly ain’t healthy, and the bread definitely ain’t healthy!” One step at a time….

    1. Chris,

      What is POSE running? Are you talking about spring intervals where you alternate all out sprints with recovery? I just find that any kind of running really causes pain in my knees. About three years ago during college (before I knew about primal living) I worked my way up to running anywhere from 30-60 minutes straight every day, either at my local park or on a treadmill. By no means was I anything close to a marathon runner, but I think I may have damaged my knees then :-/

      1. Erin check out the book Chi Running. It will show you a better running technique that doesn’t hurt your knees. I just finished a half marathon last Sunday and had virtually no knee pain afterwards and I didn’t even ice down my legs.

  4. I don’t think Mark was ragging on gyms, specifically. More so on contraptions such as Treadmobile and StreetStrider, which are for outdoor use. And especially on exercises that do us more harm than good, i.e. chronic cardio of any variety.
    I do all of my workouts indoors, either at a gym or in my tiny living room (plus sprints in my high-rise apartment building). Someday I would love to have a house with a back yard (not to mention a windowed basement!), and a park, forest or beach nearby. For now, I’m doing the best I can, and it’s working out very well, actually.

    1. Forgot to mention that I walk 10-12 miles per week outdoors, but I don’t think of it as exercise, just getting from pt A to pt B. And I guess it’s not very “natural” since I’m on concrete sidewalks and often wearing heels. Oh well. Looking forward to spending the holidays in San Diego and trying out sprints on the beach 🙂

  5. Mark, I love your hole digging metaphor. My 10th grade English teacher used to say, “you repeatedly hit your head against a wall so it will feel good to stop.”

  6. Mark, this post rings loudly for me, because I purposely limit time spent doing formal exercises.

    Once a week (sometimes twice, at most) I do Olympic-style weightlifting; but, as the nature of weightlifting is work density based on the “power law,” the actual work accumulation of an entire workout for me is, therefore, no more than a couple minutes, if even a minute.

    On other days, I stay normally active with low-level steady movement, and I don’t spend too much time sitting. Once in a while I’ll take the dog to the park and we’ll do sprints, or I’ll hop out to the garage and do a 10-minute kettle circuit to drive up the metabolic processes. But that’s it.

    My joints always feel great, my body no longer has tweaks, and I have more energy now than I can remember in my life. I believe that my 5% body fat is mostly a result of eating a paleo diet, not of exercise.

  7. Quick question–what do you guys think about an intense HIIT regimen that takes place five days a week, with a recovery stretch in the middle, and Sundays off? Say each session is about 30 minutes, and involves a mix of cardio and calisthenics? That’s effectively the INSANITY workout, and I’m going on my 4th day. Do you think that’s an ineffective workout, or one that pushes you too hard and thus ends up being bad for you?

  8. Hi Mark –

    I understand the Primal approach to exercise and have adopted most of it over the last 6 months. I say mostly as I was part of the Chronic Cardio crowd and still enjoy it at times even though I get that it’s not helping me be more healthy. Your work overall has helped me tremendously (eating, exercise, stress, sleep), thank you!

    My question is, what do you say to folks who “get it” but still want to do a half marathon or a century on an infrequent basis? Are there any Primal suggestions on most effectively preparing for those types of events?

    1. Robert,

      I say to each his own. As I say, my mission is to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health AND enjoyment of life. Trust me, I get the drive and love for endurance sports. I was there once.

      As for specific recommendations, here are a couple posts on the topic:




  9. Erin, I do a lot of my workouts at the gym, too, even though I have a nice outdoors to work in! I feel more disciplined in the gym setting. I have recently gotten good at using the gym equipment to mimic some of the actual physical work I do at home. For example, Once a month I have to unload and stack a couple of 50 lb. bags of chicken feed. Since it is only once a month, I never get any better at it! But recently I started lifting a 50 lb. dumbbell in exactly the same way I would lift, tilt, and drop down with a big feed bag. I do something similar with a 30 lb dumbbell – I walk all the way across the gym holding in it one hand, and all the way back. Switch hands and do it again. This mimics my weekly chore of hauling a 25 lb. water tank out to the chicken coop. I used to put the water tank in a wheel barrow to get it to the coop but now no longer need to. In fact, yesterday I carried the water tank in one hand and the 20 lb. feeder in the other all the way out to the coop – no wheel barrow!
    As for sprints, I do them on the treadmill to time and pace myself accurately. I find I improve better with the measurements since I can see when it’s time to either increase distance or increase speed.

    1. Exactly… I just feel that the gym can give some people the structure and convenience they need to work out. Admittedly, I would like to get outside more, but I work full time all day in an office and the gym is just much, much easier. Also, while I do a lot of bodyweight exercises and yoga, I just like the variety that the gym provides with dumbbells, machines, different cardio machines, etc.

      Anyway, I guess I’m not a fully primal person but I subscribe to a lot of the ideas… this site is great, even if I don’t apply every concept to my life.

      1. I’d love to be able to do stuff outside but I live in the ‘burbs where there are no sidewalks, the local schools lock up their tracks when school’s not in session and even the shoulders of roads aren’t wide enough to avoid minivan-wielding soccer moms. Not to mention the unique problems of walking alone while female, namely those who think the road is some sort of dating buffet. I go to the gym and lift weights when I’m motivated–my gym has a pretty good free weights area and best of all it’s never crowded because everyone’s on the cardio machines downstairs!

  10. This post is so on the money!

    I used to run 5 miles, 5 days a week and I weighed 225 lbs and had all kinds of aches and pains, and low energy, didn’t sleep well, etc.

    Went primal, completely dropped running in favor of 20 minutes of bodyweight and some olympic exercises 5 days a week (pullups, pushups or dips, squats, deads, cleans, jumprope, etc.).

    Now I weigh 195, never hungry, lost at least 3-4 inches on my waist, plenty of energy and no aches and pains. Better at whatever sports I play (volleyball, surfing, etc.) than I have been in years.

    Primal diet and primal fitness work.

    1. By “primal” I meant primal diet (kept the dairy though, mostly cheese, and you can’t have my cheese until you pry it from my cold, dead fingers).

  11. I would need to know more about the guy’s motivation for digging the hole.

    I’m thinking of DeVany’s thoughts on randomness and the power law.

    I had a very large limb fall off one of my oak trees (big Calif. wind). I also had planned a typical weekday workout (20 minutes ofkettlebell snatchs girevoy style).

    Knowing the last time this happened I paid someone a couple hundred bucks to cut it up I decided to turn it into a workout.

    Bought a neat Stihl chain saw and went to work. It is really satisfying to go through a 10 inch piece of oak with that thing. Dare I say it got my “primal” juices flowing?

    The workout lasted for a couple hours and I was whacked. Saved moving the firewood to the stack for the next day (another workout).

    Except for the chainsaw and wheelbarrow I think is was primal. I was “Dirty, grimy, sweaty, and disheveled”.

    I constantly see opportunities for random workouts.

    I am going to buy an extension ladder in the near future. Not having a suitable truck I’m looking forward to carrying it 5 miles home like Grok would have to do; I’ll pretend it was the result of a successful hunt.

  12. I think the underlying lesson to learn from your article is that working harder isn’t always the answer, sometimes you just have to work smarter.

    I’m trying to not only approach my workouts that way, but everything nowadays. Great advice Mark.


  13. CW is a reflection of human nature and is always a work in progress. What are the actions that create a body of CW? What are the processes that create wisdom but doesn’t allow the C part? Kinda like velcro and dog hair.I say its a skill that can be cultivated like strength, balance,etc.

  14. Take anti-oxidant rich pom juice as a great example of this – most of these “anti-oxidant” rich drinks are full of sugar . . .

    The sugar yields elevated insulin and advanced glycation end products, contributing to an environment that leads to oxidized VLDL particles, which are what the antioxidants deal with.

    You’re drinking the poison and the “cure” in the same gulp. Because it’s good for you!

  15. This post hit home for me. Tonight I spent a couple hours at the climbing gym (after work, 10 hours on my feet moving, temps by quitting time in the low 30s, dark and cold) pulling down hard on the plastic holds with a fun new friend belaying me, and my teenager happily climbing with a friend, too. At the end of the workout we “climbed to failure,” doing “laps” on an easy route–up and down the 30′ vertical walls until our muscles were so spent they gave in and we collapsed into our harnesses, trusty belayer catching the fall. My forearms still ache as a type. My husband did the elliptical at the other gym we belong to, where I swam laps last night, and reported he had a good workout going hard at it after sitting on the job all day. I could NEVER get psyched for his workout. I crave variety–one night at the gym with friends, loud music blaring, and the next night zen-like underwater with my swim-p-3 going…outdoors running, mtn biking, climbing or maybe a long hike…jump rope, pull ups. But hey his work out works for him. Maybe swimming is more natural than the elliptical. I guess it’s nice to be able to swim across the lake. Funny thing is, he’s the one who sails and whitewater rafts…I don’t like those sports so I guess the movements I’m perfecting in the pool are about as useful to me as the elliptical. Sometimes I strike a balance and syncronicity with my workouts, work and diet. Sometimes not. Clearly there are many paths to get there.

  16. I only exercise when I feel like it. I hate it when it starts feeling like a job. Some weeks I don’t exercise at all, some I bust ass. I just do whatever feels good. Sometimes busting ass feels good. Thats when I know I’ve recovered.

    The weeks I don’t exercise I just make a point to not eat as much. I’ve tried to eliminate the thought of “exercise to burn calories” completely from my brain. Again it turns it into a job. I have enough work to do!

    Allotting time for treadmills and ellipticals is just not something I’m interested in anymore. If it feels right… and there’s a TV show I want to watch, I might plod along on one for a while.

  17. I’m not chronic cardio. I’ll won’t go into the mountain biking I do as I do that for my own pleasure. When I can’t ride I jog 3 miles, maybe 2-3 times a week. I don’t enjoy it but my body type is such that I build muscle easily and I don’t want to build any more mass or put on more weight, even if it’s “good” weight. I’m planning on getting a road bike to eliminate the jogging but until then is this amount of jogging ok? I suppose I could stop that in favor of push ups but I don’t honeslty know if I’d like that better than the jogging.


  18. Females walking alone is a problem. Just last week a friend of my 16 year old daughter was the victim of an attempted abduction. She was walking back from a friends house in her own suburban neighborhood when a man in a black ski mask tried to grab her. She managed to get away though. My wife works at TCU, and a couple of weeks ago a student was pulled aside and very brutally sexually assaulted. Another attempted attack followed a few days later, and they suspect the same perpetrator.
    Taking up a Martial art is a good way to keep limber, get a good workout sparring and you get some self defense skills too. Although my daughter isn’t taking lessons (I wish she would) I’ve taught her how to break a hold and get away from an attacker. I “attack” her without warning periodically so it becomes reflex for her.
    Choose your Dojo carefully! There are a lot of “McDojo’s” out there that want you to sign a contract. Don’t.

    1. agreed…. so many women say “Oh, I’m not scared.” That’s great, but maybe you should be. My femalae friend was pulled behind a building while walking alone. She had her face beaten in with a glass bottle and her teeth knocked out while he tried to rape her. She managed to escape, and plastic surgery was able to return her face to something similar to what it was before, but so many are not so lucky. Enlist a buddy if you run or walk at night, it’s not disempowering.

  19. I am all for keeping the exercise as integrated into regular life as possible…the fewer gadgets the better. But for those of us who have health issues AND live in the Great White North, gyms RULE…especially when you get a great price on a membership. My husband who has a heart condition must not exercise outdoors in the winter. I, after having had both hips replaced (maybe we should have heard of your diet sooner??), must avoid ice. Road worthy ellipticals? Sound nutty to me, too.

    And in defense of the hole digger…that window is now a useful fire escape…and a garden up the wall of that hole would be lovely for the interior view!

  20. I live in a cold, snowy climate, and I agree that variety is the spice of life. Sometimes, the only walking that I do during the short, dark days is on my treadmill. Other days, I spend an hour shoveling, sledding, ice skating, or 8 hours snowboarding. Treadmills are also a great substitute when you are single-parenting and can only exercise in the house after kiddies are sleeping.

  21. I was in LA for a conference this week and there was a Bally’s Fitness center next to the hotel that guests could use. I was quickly reminded how much I hate gyms. People resting on the equipment and just a feeling that it was a bit unsanitary (never saw anyone wipe off the equipment when they were done).

    I did manage to do my circuits of push ups, pull ups (I didn’t see a single other person doing pull ups), dips, and overhead presses, but on my second visit I was struck with inspiration. The dumbbells were scattered all over the free weight area of the gym. I spent a good 20 minutes properly re-racking the dumbbells. Everything from 10 lbs. to 110 lbs. Talk about “Lift Heavy Things”! I was in and out of there before most members had finished their treadmill and elliptical workouts and I felt it the next day, particularly in my forearms.

  22. I am fairly new to the Primal life. I was a semi chronic cardio person with a side of starvation to stay thin. As a triathlete, I couldn’t hold my body weight, but I was fast. After being introduced to Crossfit, I knew I needed a diet that bolstered performance. I am not interested in Paleo and the PB was more accommodating to my lifestyle. I can’t eat every three hours when I lecture for 5 hours straight on Mondays.

    To go PB was not hard, once I realized I was on the wheel or ‘peat and repeat. I still compete in triathlons every season proudly, and I incorporate some very fast hard running, biking and swimming into my training. I just focus more on overall fitness. Maybe next season, I don’t want to do a triathlon but race sailboats – I have the strength and endurance to do it. Maybe I want to play basketball, I can do this with little or no redoing of my entire workout routine. The idea is to be fit in every aspect, not just one. It is also to feed your body what it needs and once in a while you can have what you want.

    So dig a hole to clean a window, or become adaptive and resourceful with what is available and make it work in your uncompromising pursuit for wellness.