Weight Loss: “Toning” versus “Strengthening”

When someone asks me about losing weight, there are usually two main approaches I discuss with them. I refer to the first as “Toning” and the second as “Strengthening.” Many things factor into deciding which method to use, and sometimes they overlap. I am going to describe how they are similar and how they are different, and what type of client is suited to each approach.

Toning

When people talk about “toning,” they usually mean losing fat and gaining visible muscle tone in a relatively short amount of time; say, three to six months. This is a perfectly reasonable goal to have, but it requires something special on the part of the client. It cannot be achieved haphazardly, passively, or by accident.

This is because toning requires a higher level of caloric burn than strengthening does. The process of losing fat in a rapid way is only achievable if the client follows a strict regimen of exercise and diet. If one of these elements falls behind, the results can be unsatisfactory.

Put differently, more changes in the person’s life are required to successfully “tone.”

Toning is also harder because it is harder to maintain. Once the goal has been approached or even reached, the diet and exercise regimen does not stop. It must continue in some form or the results will go away completely. There is no way around this.

Let’s say your goal is having visible abdominal muscles. You’ve been sticking to your meal plan and watching every calorie for three straight months, and doing your cardio homework three to five days per week. On top of that, you’ve eliminated alcohol from your diet (yes, this is necessary for toning), respected your cheat meal parameters, abstained from the donuts and cakes that show up in your office on a regular basis, et cetera. And one day, you notice something in the mirror that could be referred to as the beginnings of a “sixpack.” You smile big, and feel amazing.

Now that you’ve reached your goal, that doesn’t mean you’re “done.” You can’t stop watching what you eat. You can’t stop exercising. You can’t start going to the bar every night after work and drinking nine Miller Lights. I mean, you could, but everything you’d worked so hard for would disappear in a much shorter time than it took to achieve. I’m sorry but this is the truth.

Despite what “fitspo” memes would have you believe, dieting and toning is not like climbing a mountain, where you reach the top and then go back down. Instead, you must stay either stay at the top or go higher. This is why many people have so much trouble with “weight loss.” Doing it this way—the “toning” way—literally requires you to change almost your entire life. Understandably, it is too much for some people.

But I’ll tell you one thing: it works. Cutting calories, improving food quality, getting better sleep, reducing life stress, increasing daily exercise, keeping bad and self-destructive habits at a minimum or gone altogether…in other words, reorienting the majority of your life around fitness and nutrition totally works. How could it not?!

The truth is that you don’t have the body composition you have now because of one or even two or three bad decisions. You have it because of an entire lifestyle. This doesn’t make you a bad person. Our lives are unbelievably complex and full of obligations, stress, and uncertainty. But if changing your body composition is important to you, you must change your lifestyle, no matter what approach you use. That, again, is the honest truth.

Toning is one way to do this. It is best for people who are already active and comfortable with exercise (therefore requiring less overall life alteration), and who are disciplined in that they more or less stick to a course of action once they have committed to it. Toning is a hard way, an effective way, but not the only way.

Strengthening

Now I’ll discuss strengthening. By “strengthening,” of course I’m referring to strengthening the muscles themselves, but in addition to that, I’m using the word to mean strengthening the mind of the exerciser.

Why strengthen the mind? The amount of people who are willing to do everything I describe above is very small. That’s partly because “toning” requires a level of effort and focus that a lot of people aren’t comfortable with. If you’ve a) never exercised before, b) haven’t exercised in a long time, c) are uncomfortable with strenuous activity, d) deal with chronic pain, including psychological pain, or e) would describe yourself as lacking self-control or discipline, you’re in no position to vastly alter your way of being, not because you couldn’t handle it (it’s amazing what the human body can handle) but because you couldn’t stick to it.

One main challenge that some people have with accepting this reality is the moral judgment they attach to it. They feel that because they can’t or won’t completely alter their daily lives and live like the beautiful, fit people on Instagram ostensibly do, that means they’re “bad,” “weak,” “worthless,” or worse.

Unfortunately, this is the standard to which many people hold themselves: comparing themselves to fitness models who are often 10 to 20 years younger, who were probably engaged in exercise from a younger age, who may very well have fewer external obligations like jobs, houses, families, car payments, et cetera, and who essentially work in the (often harshly critical) fitness industry, which can be, needless to say, a strong motivator.

This is why strengthening the mind is so important. Many people lack what I call a “physical identity.” There is no context involving physical activity in which such people feel “like themselves.” Exercise is always a foreign activity, unwelcome, odd, an imposition. And by definition, uncomfortable. Dieting often comes to be viewed the same way. Hence, they have virtually no chance of ever becoming “toned” as I describe above, meaningfully, safely, and sustainably. They have no “way in.”

This is where strengthening the muscles comes in. The term “strength training” refers to the organized and structured process of increasing the amount of weight you can lift in a given exercise.

“But Coach Mark,” you might ask, “how do I lose weight by increasing strength?” Well, I should come clean. You may not lose a ton of weight through strengthening alone. But you will lose fat.

Increasing the size of a muscle by exercising it increases what’s called your Basal Metabolic Rate, or BMR. This term refers to the number of calories your body burns simply by existing. In burning the calories, your body is maintaining its tissues.

Muscle burns many, many more calories in this way than fat. Therefore, if you increase your body’s “lean mass,” which is a fancy term for muscle, it will burn more calories, which will in turn lead to the loss of body fat.

In addition to this, you will have better, safer movements, healthier joints, a stronger back, better posture, more useful strength for daily activities, higher bone density, and greater self-reliance as you age. And if that wasn’t enough, any fat loss you do accomplish will be more evident because of the presence of toned muscle underneath it. These are some of the many benefits of regular strength training.

So, if you engage in this organized and structured process, and each week, you increase the amount of weight you lift even a just a little bit, over time, your muscles will grow bigger and stronger, your BMR will increase, and you will have a healthier, more “toned” body composition. Simple, right?

Well, you can’t outrun a bad diet. If your diet stays the same, there’s a good chance that, although you will feel stronger, more “solid,” and more robust, you will look more or less the same, at least most of the time.

But one of the beauties of strength training is that it helps people develop a positive relationship to exercise. It does this by teaching them useful skills, specifically the squat, the deadlift, the overhead press, and the bench press, among others. It motivates them through the prospect of OBJECTIVE weekly progress: if you lifted more weight, you improved. Simple.

These skills and motivation start to form a competency that can produce a level of comfort with physical exertion that was never there before. In other words, strength training helps them develop a physical identity.

Based on this newly developed physical identity, it can become easier to implement dietary changes. You have seen the results of your exercise in the form of strength gains and you want to maintain them, so this motivates you to change your behavior, even just a little bit: drink more water, go to sleep a little earlier, eat a little less junk food and a little more lean protein or leafy greens, drink a little less alcohol, take your multivitamin, et cetera.

From there, you might want to add some extra cardio work during the week to keep your “work capacity” (which governs your energy levels during a workout) a little higher, or a designated stretch interval during the day to keep your knees and back and hips and shoulders healthy so that you can keep lifting each week without any obstacles.

You might never quite make the jump towards an “active lifestyle,” but you will be objectively healthier, stronger, more aware, more empowered, and more capable of making that decision with an informed mind, specifically regarding whether it’s something YOU actually want or need, and not that person on Instagram with two million followers.

So who is suited to “strengthening” in this way? Everybody! Whether you’re the “get up and go, can’t sit still” type, or you like to chill on the couch with a book to unwind, whether you’re young or old, tall or short, happy or unhappy, injured or sound, strength training is achievable by virtually anyone.

There are so many wonderful lessons that are learned from strengthening your muscles in this way that I will save them for another article. Suffice it to say that even if squatting your bodyweight is not your goal, you will begin to see your body and yourself as the amazing and powerful things that they really are, capable of doing whatever you put your mind to, and the goals that you do have will become that much more achievable.

A Final Note on Female Strength Training

A lot of female exercisers worry about becoming too muscular. I’m going to put your minds at ease in two ways. The first is biological: with very, very few exceptions, women simply do not naturally possess adequate testosterone to ever become “bulky” with muscle.

The second point is a general rule: no one ever got bulky by accident. Doing three sets of five repetitions of squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, and bench presses two times per week (or some variation of that) is not going to change you into a She-Hulk overnight, overmonth, or even overyear. Getting big, blocky-looking muscles is achieved using many more exercises than just squats and deadlifts and with a much higher amount of sets and reps, often utilizing fairly extreme dieting methods on top of that.

If a woman, including you, wants to look “jacked,” that is totally fine. In fact, it’s awesome. But strength training alone generally won’t accomplish it. So rest easy. You can have stronger, more toned legs, better hip and back health, higher metabolism, and more useful upper body strength without having to look like a “bodybuilder.” At least, not until you want to. :)))

And if you don’t believe me, check out this 19-year-old world-class female powerlifter. Strong, solid, but not exactly a she-hulk is she?

Diaphragmatic Breathing for Lifting: The Basics

This article discusses the topic of diaphragmatic breathing as it relates to lifting heavy loads. For a more basic overview of diaphragmatic breathing as an everyday practice, check out this video. 

Diaphragmatic breathing involves breathing “into your belly.” This is one of those phrases, similar to “sit up straight” or “lift with your legs,” that we hear sometimes but are never really told what they mean or how to do them.

Breathing into your belly does not mean filling your stomach with air. It means breathing into your diaphragm, which is a large, dome-shaped muscle located between the lower part of the sternum (breastbone) and the ends of the lower ribs. As far as muscles go, it is kind of important: it allows us to breathe by expanding the ribcage.

Most of the time when we breathe, our breaths are somewhat short and the chest rises and falls with each breath. This is what’s called “chest breathing.”

In order to breathe into your diaphragm, however, breathing must involve movement at the area of the belly rather than at the chest. As you breathe in, the belly moves outward. This indicates that the diaphragm is expanding the lower ribs, creating a sort of air chamber.

By creating this air chamber while contracting the abdominal muscles, we create a state of “abdominal pressurization” that is extremely tight, stable, and sturdy. When lifting heavy weights that put direct or indirect load onto the spine, having this type of abdominal pressurization is vital for two reasons:

1) to protect the lower back,

and 2) to produce maximum force.

Studies by Dr. Stuart McGill and others have shown that when the core is tightened in this way, it produces greater muscular responsiveness throughout the body. Dr. McGill compares this mechanism to a “guy wire system,” similar to the rigging across a large sailboat. By maintaining tightness in the core, it helps produces greater tightness and responsiveness throughout the body, resulting in greater force. And if you can’t produce adequate force, your lifts will be limited.

So, how is this done? There are, as I indicated, two parts to the type of diaphragmatic breathing we are doing. One is taking the breath itself. The second is engaging the core muscles.

First, the breathing. This involves taking a breath, either into your diaphragm or into your chest and then “pushing” it down into your diaphragm, and actually holding the breath for a certain duration to achieve maximal tightness,

Then comes engaging the core muscles. Once the breath is in the diaphragm, the lifter forcefully engages his or her core musculature: the abdominals, obliques, glutes, and spinal erectors. Then, the lift is executed. The breath is held during the first phase of the lift and slowly exhaled during the second phase in order to avoid losing abdominal pressure all at once.

For example, during a squat, the breath would be held on the way down and slowly exhaled on the way up.

The exhalation step is critical for making sure the breath is not held too long, which would cause dizziness, headache, or loss of consciousness.

The principle is to maintain the breath and the abdominal tightness at its peak when the spine is under the greatest amount of stress, and to exhale the air during the moment of greatest effort. As per our squat example, the lower back is most tempted to round forward on the way down. Having a pressurized core during this period is vital for that reason, to prevent that from happening.

Some more examples of how this method of breathing would be integrated into various lifts include: during an overhead press, the breath is taken right before raising the bar overhead, and slowly exhaled as the bar is lowered. During a bench press, the breath is taken right before the bar is lowered toward the chest and slowly exhaled as the bar is raised again. During a barbell row, the breath is taken while the bar is hanging below the lifter, who then forcefully (but under control) pulls the bar forward, before slowly exhaling and lowering the bar at the same time.

So what is the best means of achieving all of these interesting but odd little steps? The answer is practice and mindfulness, along with something called the Valsalva Maneuver.

You’ve done the maneuver countless times in your life, because it (or some variant of it) is involved in coughing, laughing, sneezing, and numerous other bodily functions. It involves forcing air out of the lungs through a closed airway. That is, the air is forcefully breathed out but it can’t leave the body. This causes the abdominal muscles to tighten involuntarily.

Try this: put your hand on your belly and cough. You might feel your abdominal muscle suddenly tighten. This is a version of the valsalva maneuver: your body is trying to create forceful bursts of air to remove whatever is irritating or obstructing the airway.

When it comes to lifting, the trick is to be able to implement the valsalva maneuver voluntarily in order to create maximal core stabilization, or as much stabilization as we need. It produces what Dr. McGill calls that familiar “Hoik!” sound when you go to lift something heavy.

So, how to do it: take a breath—either into your belly or into your chest and press it down into your belly (so that your belly presses outward)—and attempt to breathe out while closing your airway in the back of the throat. This is the basic maneuver. Now your core is tight.

Further, mindfully engage (meaning flex, contract, tighten, harden, whatever) your abdominal muscles so that they are even tighter. Do this without “crunching” the abs.

The final step, to go even farther, is to do what’s called “bearing down,” and this is exactly what is sounds like. Apply pressure to the muscles of your pelvic floor as though you are trying to initiate a bowel movement. Take the necessary precautions to avoid any unplanned incidents.

While holding all of this together—the breath, the valsalva maneuver, the contraction, and the bearing down—execute your lift as described above, by holding the breath when the spine is most under duress and slowly exhaling as the weight is returned to the starting position. It should all take no more than about two seconds.

Introducing this technique is an odd transition to make and should be done slowly, with light weight, until the various steps are integrated into a repeatable pattern. Do not rush the process; the amount of core tightness should be proportional to the amount of weight you are lifting.

A common question is, can I hold one breath throughout two or three reps? When it comes to squats and deadlifts, the answer is no, don’t do that. Take a new breath for each repetition. Reset your breath and your core pressure between each rep. With presses like the bench press and the overhead press, you could maybe get away with it, but be mindful not to hold it too long or you’ll get dizzy. Trust me.

There are a few caveats when utilizing diaphragmatic breathing with the valsalva maneuver. At the moment the maneuver is activated, an increase in blood pressure can result. This is because the flow of blood returning to the heart (known as venous blood) is slowed. What this means is that the valsalva maneuver is generally considered contraindicated in anyone with a personal or family history of heart disease or hypertension. If you have such personal or family history, you will want to talk to your doctor and make sure heavy lifting using the valsalva maneuver is safe for you.

Additionally, a not-uncommon side effect of performing the valsalva maneuver regularly is hemorrhoids or hemorrhoid-like symptoms, due to the downward pressure placed on the lower trunk of the body. So that’s something to be aware of. If this happens, it usually means you moved too fast. Move a little more slowly and don’t bear down quite so hard. Build up to higher weights, when that level of bearing down is necessary, and you may be able to minimize these symptoms.

Another concern worth mentioning is that using this technique may make the belly look bigger. This is due to two things: the stretching of the abdominal muscle while the breath is held, and the thickening of the muscle itself as it grows stronger. Therefore, athletes who are oriented towards aesthetics—bodybuilders, physique or figure competitors, fitness models, any field where having a “tight waist” is an asset—may want to think twice about using it, or use it sparingly. (To my knowledge, it is possible to reverse this effect to an extent by performing an exercise called a “vacuum.”)

This technique of diaphragmatic breathing is common among powerlifters and weightlifters both competitive and recreational. But, as a somewhat more casual lifter or worker-outer (or at least viewing yourself as one), you might be wondering why the average person would feel it necessary to utilize a technique that seems so complicated and potentially hazardous. Admittedly, it is not for everyone. But the answer is simple:

maximum safety + maximum force = maximum potential progress

This is what diaphragmatic breathing delivers. It can take you to the next level, plain and simple.

Prior to utilizing it, you may reach a point in your lifts at which progress will start to slow or stop altogether. Let’s say you’ve perfected your form, worked out all of the muscular kinks, pains, and mobility issues, and worked backed up to your highest weights, but you still can’t exceed them. This may be because your are unable to generate the necessary core stiffness and resulting force to move heavier loads that exceed your current limits while keeping your lower back safe.

The answer is diaphragmatic breathing. If it is done patiently and carefully, with a mind for the end-goal, and with a doctor’s OK if you have a personal or family history of heart disease or hypertension, it is the best way to lift more weight, build functional core strength, and protect your lower back for the long term. Period.

Ten Simple Ways to Reduce Your Caloric Intake

I’m a big fan of lists. I find most people are. When things are clearcut and straightforward, it’s just easier. Adopt one or two behaviors and you’ve made a significant difference. Adopt them all and you could change your life.

So here we go!

1) Salad dressing on the side

We all know that salads are “good for you.” Well, if they aren’t drenched in high-fat or sugary salad dressings, full of cheese and a fist-sized portion of guacamole, this may be true. How can we moderate those calories? Well, obviously, by omitting them in the first place. But without those flavors, salad loses most of its appeal to all but the most eccentric plant-eaters (like me!).

So here’s what you do: have the salad dressing (oil-and-vinegar-based is best) on the side. For each bite of salad, dip your fork into the dressing, and then go for some greens. Just enough flavor, and a lot more control.

2) Eat before you go out to eat.

This sounds crazy. “I’m going to a restaurant to enjoy delicious foods! Why would I want to fill up beforehand?” The answer is simple: restaurant food is bad for you and it will disrupt your progress 99% of the time.

Why? Because most restaurants add salt, fat, and sugar to everything in order to make it taste better. One such meal can ruin an entire week of otherwise good eating, let alone more than one. Why do this to yourself?

So here’s what you do: eat your healthy foods (you are eating mostly healthy foods day-to-day, right?!) before you go to the restaurant.

That’s right! Your chicken breast, brown rice, and broccoli, or tilapia, sweet potato, and broccoli rabe, or your tofu scramble, chickpea, avocado, and arugula salad, and whole wheat toast with nondairy spread. Get ’em all in there. And then, go to the restaurant and order something healthy. Week: saved!

3) Use cooking spray instead of oil.

Generally, it’s great to eat chicken breast, broccoli, asparagus, or portabello mushrooms, but what about when it’s coated in oil? Is it still healthy?

One tablespoon of olive oil contains 119 calories. let’s say you had one cup of broccoli containing 31 calories, 6 ounces of chicken with 276, and 1/2 cup of brown rice clocking in at 109. Without any oil, that’s about 416 calories.

Let’s say you added one tablespoon of oil to each thing. Your slim-and-trim under-500 calorie meal rises to 773 calories.

So here’s what you do: use cooking spray instead of oil. A 1/4-second spray of Pam contains 0 calories. That’s right. (As you add spray, the calories may rise above 0), so count how long you’re spraying for. But at least there’s a chance.

4) Eat predominantly complex carbs

What is all this chatter about “simple” carbs versus “complex” carbs? In a nutshell, a simple carb has no (or very little) fiber, is less filling, and is more quickly broken down and absorbed by the body.

A complex carb, on the other hand, does contain significant amounts of fiber, is more filling, and is slowly digested by the body. Based on these criteria alone, you can see why complex carbs are more complementary to calorie control.

So here’s what you do: white bread becomes wheat bread. Breakfast cereal becomes oatmeal. White potato becomes sweet potato. White pasta becomes whole wheat pasta. White rice becomes brown rice. Don’t complain about it! Just do it! (or just don’t eat bread, cereal, pasta, potatoes….your choice!)

5) Keep a food journal

Just knowing that you’re going to have to relive all of your food choices can make a difference. If you don’t want to see it in your book, keep it off your plate!!!

Here’s what you do: use a notebook, your phone, apps like MyFitnessPal, whatever it takes. Do it at every meal, at the end of the day, or whenever works for you. Just write it all down, somewhere, somehow, right here, right now!

6) Avoid alcohol

Alcoholic beverages contain 7 calories per gram of alcohol. A “standard” drink—12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, and 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits—each contains 14 grams of pure alcohol. That’s 98 calories per drink. Ok, not that big a deal (unless you have five of them….)

But what may be even more impactful about alcohol is its effect on metabolism. Your body has a harder time absorbing nutrients from food when there is alcohol in your system. Your metabolism can also slow, contributing to weight gain and undermining your hard work in the gym.

So here’s what you do: follow Number 7.

7) Drink water, and more of it

Sooo many empty calories come from beverages. Soda, juice, beer, sweetened ice tea….there is very little nutritional benefit to drinking these with any regularity. Let’s say with breakfast, you have a glass of OJ: 112 calories. Then, with lunch, you have a glass of soda: 140 calories. Then, with dinner, a glass of 2% milk: 122 calories. Then, after dinner, a cocktail: 150 calories. That’s 500 calories!!!

Nowadays, we hear more and more about how often thirst is mistaken for hunger. And guess what? It’s true! Also, stress becomes more pronounced we’re dehydrated, which compounds this effect.

So here’s what you do: buy a portable water container, or buy bottled water (just make sure to recycle!) and drink water all day, everyday!!!

8) Drink black coffee or tea

Caffeine addiction is no picnic, but at least it can boost productivity, if only temporarily and with certain downsides associated with it. But if your daily caffeine jolts are also contributing to your caloric intake, that’s a double whammy that you can do without.

So here’s what you do: drink black coffee! If it’s too bitter, there are a few options to choose from. The first is to drink better-quality coffee. Grind your own and try a few different kinds. Colombian is a great place to start!

The next option is sweeteners. Sucralose and stevia are the go-tos. Both are calorie-free and sweet as heck. And if you want to avoid the health hazards associated with sucralose, go with stevia. Bingo.

9) Use sweetness and saltiness to satisfy cravings, not hunger

When we’re hungry, sometimes the go-to is something sweet or salty. There is a biological reason for this. Sugar is a source of quick energy in the body. Salt is an electrolyte that controls blood pressure and allows our muscles to work properly.

When we’re low on either one, it produces a craving, which creates stress. Of course it does; we’re hungry! We’re not thinking clearly. The natural reaction is to make a beeline for the chips or Oreos. “I’ll just have one,” you say. A little bit later, the whole container is gone.

That’s because you used salt or sugar to satisfy not just your craving, but your overall hunger. Whoops!

So here’s what you do: eat more regularly. Get your healthy meals in, and have healthy snacks on hand to deal with cravings. Try fruit for sugar cravings and nuts, seeds, or carrots and hummus for salt cravings.

10) Exercise more

There are two ways to cut calories: eat less and exercise more. If you’ve ever used the Assault Bike, you know how long it can take to burn calories. While it’s true you can’t out-exercise a bad diet, what exercise can do is complement a good diet. Ideally, your food should fuel your workouts and your workouts should fuel your hunger. Good habits in one area complement them in the other, and keep you accountable, help you keep your eye on the prize.

So here’s what you do: take the stairs. Park far away from stores and walk there. Get a standup desk (and research it). Take regular walks throughout the day. Play with your kids more. Join an exercise class. Ask your trainer for more exercise routines to do at home when you’re not training together. Squeeze a stress ball. Chew gum. Fidget. It all adds up, trust me!

So, Long story short….well, not too short anymore. Ten is a lot!

Execute changes that build towards a healthier lifestyle. When you grow in one area, whether it’s fitness or nutrition, try to grow in the other area as well. It doesn’t have to happen all at once, and it may involve some trials and tribulations. Having a trainer or nutrition professional can make it much easier because you have guidance and accountability.

But as you move forward in your mind, you’ll find your body moving forward along with you, towards a healthier future of your own making. And that is what we’re after.

Do Not Betray Your Dreams

Do not betray your dreams or your goals, for to do so is to betray yourself, to deny the value of your own life. It is true that “you only live once,” but that is not the whole story. Not only do you only live your life once, but you also only live each moment once, and then it is gone. Each moment not spent in the pursuit of something more should be a moment used to recharge from all of the other moments spent in this manner. Make every moment count, and let every feeling be tied to a dream.

No matter how crazy your dreams may seem, never let their craziness stand in their own way. Don’t let anything or anyone stand in their way, especially you. No matter how possible or impossible…if it is possible, do it. If it is impossible, fight to make it possible, not just for you but for everyone.

It may take time, it may take failure, it may take heartache, it may take risk, but your parents took a risk by bringing you into this world. For whatever reason, they took the risk of creating a human life, someone who can hurt, and suffer, but who can accomplish things that might give the suffering a purpose.

Never believe that it is too late, but remember that your time is limited. You might have to refine your dreams as you go along, or pause on them as you take care of other things. You might make mistakes that can seem to take the dream away from you. This is why you must be careful, to guard your freedom, your avenues, your alliances, your friendships, the ones that cheer you on and believe in you, and not give in to the voices of doubt and infirmity that so many other people listen to and that are screamed at them from every turret.

You can stand above those voices, as a yes-voice, a voice that can say to others, “I believed in myself, in my dream, and I made it happen. I didn’t listen to the sad, the beaten, the destroyed, the cynical, even though I felt this way sometimes. I listened to my faith in my dream, to my confidence in my own desires, to my heart and my head working in perfect harmony towards what I knew had a chance of making me happy. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t short, perhaps it didn’t even turn out exactly the way I thought it would. And I’ll never be truly happy, never be truly content, or finished. But I didn’t use that as an excuse. I didn’t fall back on the safe and secure, on what was provided for me. I struggled for what I believe in, and saw it through, from one part of my life to the next: from a dream to a reality.”

Reality is beautiful, but it is in the minority. It is rare, endangered, and sought-after, not to be distributed far and wide, or beheld in all its beauty, but to be hoarded away by misers or crushed by misanthropes. If you want reality, you’re going to have to fight for it. But whatever it is, keep this in the back of your mind: your dream, much like your life, much like the world we live in, is always worth saving, improving, and fighting for. Feel pity for anyone who says otherwise, and rage at the voices that convinced them.

Who’s Had Butt Implants: My Thoughts On “Enhancement”

Imagine if a sculptor showed you her new sculpture and said, “It’s my first masterpiece in marble.” And what you saw was a brilliant and sublime piece of representative art, an image of an ideal, a flawless depiction of the human form that elevates humanity to new heights, new aspirations.

“Gosh,” you’d say. “I wish I looked so beautiful and classical and eternal.”

And then, as you stood there with your mouth open and eyes wide, your sculptor friend turned to you—like, twenty seconds later—and said, “Yeah, actually I didn’t make it. I designed it, though. But a bunch of scientists built it in a lab. It’s made of polymer, not marble. I really wanted it to look like that but I couldn’t do it without the help of science.”

You’d feel cheated. Misled. Lied to. You’d be like, “Huh. I guess it’s not that cool after all.”

And then the artist would say, “NO, but look! It’s not cheating! It’s ENHANCED! It gives people something to ASPIRE TO!”

But the doubt has been implanted in your mind. The image is not aligned with the reality. It is not really something people can aspire to because it’s not possible. You might as well aspire to grow antlers.

So where does that leave you? How are you supposed to know what to aspire to and whom to emulate now that you know how easy it is for “results” to be “enhanced”?

It is getting harder and harder to know these days, between doping and body implants in sports and fitness, and steroid use in the movie industry.

Now, let me preface the rest of this article by saying that all people should be allowed to do whatever they want with their own bodies. The problems arise when they deceive the public. I think most people can agree on that.

What is enhancement? In general, it means “improved.” In this context, whether we mean performance enhancement, breast augmentation, or butt implants, enhancement is the act of taking something that was not good enough before and altering it to be more like what is desired, expected, or profitable.

But who is desiring it, expecting it, or paying for it? Society, a.k.a. other people. The rise in “enhancement” is symbolic of the fact that people want to be inspired by “supermen” and “superwomen.” Yet, at the same time, we want to be able to assume those men and women became “super” through “hard work” and “discipline,” and if we want to become “super,” we can too.

But only if you “want” it enough. Otherwise, or so the narrative goes, you’re a half-hearted failure, lacking in character and revelling in victimhood and self-pity, expecting everything to be handed to you on a silver platter “like those damn Millennials.”

Of course, hard work and discipline accomplish a lot, almost everything worth doing. But there comes a point at which, seemingly, it is not enough.

Let’s just say a person lacks adequate work ethic and discipline to MAKE their own hard work enough to succeed, yet they still want to be one of the “greats,” someone who is admired and recognized as a standout.

They believe that being admired and desired and basically having influence is how a person becomes successful, “awesome,” “cool,” memorable, or other Schwarzenegger-esque characteristics.

In a way, they want to be an authority figure on the subject of being awesome—of being admired and desired—and they want to be able to tell other people how to go about becoming extremely admired and desired too, like they are. They want that license, that validation, that influence and the doors that it opens, and they’ll do anything to get it.

Believing either that hard work is too hard, or that it wouldn’t be enough anyway to reach their goals (which may be true), they turn to “enhancement,” believing that simply looking the part is enough, whether or not they possess the necessary talent, experience, and strength of character to instruct anyone on anything.

And it turns out, they’re right. There are numerous fitness models, Instagram celebrities, YouTubers, authors, and others with huge followings who are regarded as authorities on fitness, muscle gain, weight loss, nutrition, lifestyle, business, success, manliness, and a host of other sensitive topics.

And while they might look outstanding (which is, of course, subjective), many of them repeatedly demonstrate a lack of actual knowledge regarding health or fitness, or sometimes anything else. Why? Because they’re, like, 25. Or because they learned everything they know from the internet instead of from education or experience.

And mostly what they learned on the internet is how to manipulate people by appealing to insecurities, how to tell people what they want to hear using clickbaity buzzwords to get attention, and how to use a “whatever it takes” attitude to rationalize whatever ethical compromises are required to succeed like the enhanced people who inspired them.

They talk a big game about “hard work” and discipline, when in reality they didn’t have enough work ethic or discipline to pursue their goals without enhancement, or the grounding in reality (which comes either with age or with good mentors) to realize that their standards of beauty were flawed, unrealistic, and based on similar deceivers who came before them.

And, they simply didn’t believe in their talent—real or imagined—enough to trust that it would take them where they wanted to go with adequate work. They “wanted it” enough to stick needles into their bodies, but not enough to rely on hard work alone.

But the real complication with “enhancement” in the fitness industry (and it is very true in sports as well) is, if everyone is “enhanced,” how is anyone who is not enhanced, regardless of talent, ever supposed to succeed in this competitive field, where ethics are as optional as a tie on Fridays?

There is one clear answer: People’s desires must change. Their expectations must change. And what they are willing to pay for must change. Otherwise, all of these enhancements will remain enhancements. All of the lies and half-truths will remain widely accepted as facts, and all of the failures of the average person to live up to these unrealistic expectations will result, again and again, in unwarranted and debilitating feelings of insecurity and failure.

Those who don’t turn to enhancement might very well never pursue their fitness or health goals again, or most any other goal, feeling like success is impossible, not because their idea of success is unrealistic, but because they simply don’t “want” it enough to put illegal substances in their body that might shrink their reproductive organs or produce breast tissue in men and facial hair in women.

They’ll go through the rest of their lives feeling like weak, indecisive, uncultivated people, living up to all of the nasty things people say about Millennials on a regular basis, never knowing that the demands being placed on them were unrealistic and not tied even one iota to their interests or to reality.

Culture does not generally change overnight. What has to happen first is that people must be encouraged to question results, to question the words of celebrities and hold them accountable.

It is not wrong in any sense to alter your own body if you want to, but until it is understood that it happens and it is openly discussed and the stigma has been removed, it will continue in secret. And as long as it continues in secret, the average person will continue to pursue fitness and health goals that are unrealistic, unsustainable, and unhealthy, and insecurity will continue to drive their decision-making.

When everything is out in the open, people will eventually respond to “outstanding” achievements with skepticism and discontent, similarly to the way you might respond to our fictional sculptor above.

And then, athletes and public figures and fitness models (and, one hopes, the millionaire team owners and Hollywood producers who control all of these folks’ financial destinies) will realize that at least some of their audience prefers what is real, what is natural, what is attainable, to what is falsified, tampered with, or “enhanced.”

Or, certain sports will lose money, and will have to try other ways of maintaining a steady profit besides relying on the self-exploitation of their athletes.

This will take a long time to achieve, because even though many people feel enhancement makes various areas of achievement unequal and unfair, they still find people using performance-enhancing substances interesting and entertaining, in that it exhibits human potential when natural barriers are removed and brings people to a “hyper-elite” level.

This “let’s have it both ways” standpoint illustrates an inconsistency. It’s easy to have a love/hate relationship with steroids in the same way it’s easy to both love and hate junk food.

It goes something like this: you hate it because you love it so much, and you love it so much because of how bad it is for you: salt, saturated fat, cholesterol, sugar, et cetera. Those bad things are, after all, what makes it taste so freaking good.

People like steroids because they allow athletes to serve as extraordinary entertainment, but people also dislike them because it gives some individuals an unfair disadvantage and makes the average person incapable of achieving stardom, no matter how hard they work.

Steroids can also make it harder to really admire those enhanced athletes who do succeed and achieve greatness, because they weren’t able to do it on their own. It makes them seem like less of a true authority on hard work, on discipline, on success, on striving, on being truly admirable, and more of an authority on shortcuts, instant gratification, wanting to be the greatest but not being good enough on their own, et cetera. In short, insecurity and dishonesty.

Why does this matter? Who cares if athletes, or anyone else, uses some enhancement to get ahead? Who wants to be mediocre, getting paid the average amount to do an average job? Who could blame someone for wanting to rise above, to be a star, to be a legend, no matter what it takes, asterisks be damned?

It matters because these are the folks ordinary people tend to admire, emulate, and look to for inspiration, not just athletes but all fitness icons and anyone else who strives for success. Every one of them wants to be seen as having gotten where they are entirely on their own merit, without any help or “enhancement” whatsoever.

Every person who has ever inspired anyone has had faults, failings, and foibles. And maybe some fibs. So does that mean there is no point in “aspiring,” or emulating people who inspire us?

No. It just means choosing who inspires you and what about them inspires you. Is it their physique or performance only? Is it their bank account? Or is it their honesty, their clarity and meaning of message, the content of their character, and whether they truly seem to want to help people other than themselves?

Sports figures are generally encouraged to be pretty low-key in terms of character. We are supposed to judge them on their performance only. This reduces them to the status of entertainers in a certain way: they are not there to make us think, but only to help us pass the time enjoyably, regardless of what’s really going on behind the scenes, what ideas and products we’re being sold, and who’s profiting from it all.

This is the hazard of entertainment: by accepting what we see without question, we accept what it takes to make that entertainment possible. In this case, we accept steroid use. We accept young men and women taking drugs to succeed where hard work and discipline just won’t cut it on their own. We accept limiting the opportunity of athletes who aren’t willing to inject illegal substances into their bodies. And we accept the sense of distrust and ill-ease whenever a star athlete accomplishes something great, because we know there’s a very good chance that he or she didn’t accomplish it; the drugs did.

We accept it, and we pay for it, both monetarily and at the cost of our innocence.

Remember These Words When You Haven’t Been Back to the Gym in a While

It happens. Whether your initial day away from the gym is a legit rest day, or you get sick, or “life gets in the way” and you say, “I deserve a day off,” a day turns into days, days into a week, a week into weeks, weeks into a month, and a month into “I can’t remember the last time I made it to the gym.”

But there often comes a day when you gather yourself together, re-ignite your passion, repack your gym bag, and begin rebuilding yourself where you left off.

Except that “where you left off” is a thing of the past. Muscles that were strong before are now weak and unresponsive; those that were limber are now tight, stubborn, and restrictive.

The spirit, the head full of steam you once had seems to have dissipated completely; the gym is no longer where you belong, if you ever did. It is a venue where weakness is displayed, your weakness, to yourself and everyone around you. The gym is not for you anymore; it is for the strong.

Nonsense! If you want to be there, that’s where you belong. You made it back to the gym because that’s where you want to be, or at least you want the rewards that come with being there, and part of you is ready to work for them.

So how do we keep the feelings of slowness and weakness and the regret that often accompanies them from scaring us away for an even longer period? From making us feel like losers, like we “Coulda been a contender?”

903-on-the-waterfront

Expect it, and own the fact that it is inevitable if time is spent away from exercise and activity. If you don’t challenge your muscles regularly, they get comfortable doing nothing. And then when you come back, they feel weak. They don’t feel up to the challenge.

But you know that they are up to it; they’ve been up to it before, otherwise you wouldn’t know the feeling of having once been strong.

If time is spent away from the gym, for whatever reason, this will happen. Even the act of moving weight plates onto and off of barbells is tiring if you’re not used to it, never mind the lift itself.

But after a week or so of sticking to it, this action becomes habituated. You can set up the exercise without getting tired and initiate the lift with a feeling of “yes I can, and I am, and I will.”

Take your ego out of the equation. You took some time off; it’s behind you, it can’t be undone. Now you’re dealing with it.

Now, you’re just doing what you have to do to get where you want to go. You won’t have to learn the hard way, letting a year or more or a lifetime pass before you make it back again, feeling completely deconditioned as though your original gym habit never happened, as though it was just a phase, a failed venture, a hobby that lost its luster.

You’ve made it back to the gym, and, as it turns out, you’ve learned the easy way. What have you learned?

Stay the course and believe in it. Own your decisions and your fitness. Don’t let it own you, don’t let it scare you, don’t let it intimidate you. It’s just exercise. It’s yours to do with what you will, and you get out of it what you put into it. How many minutes of your life do you intend to spend feeling like a failure? An underachiever? A person who “can’t” because, for a moment, you didn’t?

Put that feeling aside and act on what you know: that you did great things once, and soon will again, for real this time. You know you’ll always be back. It’s part of who you are. Just go and do something, and keep going. Before you know it, you’ll be back to where you were, but better: one failure wiser, one more stumble overcome.

What is Discipline and How Can I Have It?

We’ve all had those days. “I don’t feel like it.” “I’m too tired.” “I’m underfed.” “I worked out yesterday so I can miss a day.”

All of these are totally normal attempts to rationalize not doing something difficult, even though it’s something you supposedly want to do: exercise, be healthy, get bigger, get sexier.

Where do these rationalizations come from? I’ll tell you where: Feelings. No matter what your mind says you actually want, your feelings tell a different story. And feelings often win.

Don’t beat yourself up for it! Despite how much they complicate our lives, feelings allow people to do some of the greatest things on earth. Where would creativity be without human emotion? It’s hard to contemplate.

How would we know one thing is great and wonderful and another is bad and unacceptable? We would just…be indifferent.

Where would our families and friends and children fit into our lives if we were devoid of feelings? They wouldn’t.

So it’s misguided to associate having feelings with weakness. The question is, what thing, or lack thereof, causes weakness? What causes “those days” that I describe above?

It’s not the presence of feelings. It’s the lack of discipline. Discipline doesn’t take your feelings away. Instead, it organizes them into two categories: a) helpful to my goals, and b) unhelpful to my goals. And the feelings that fit into the first category get priority.

That’s all. Sounds easy doesn’t it? But like any other skill, discipline takes time to cultivate. In our culture, we are encouraged to “indulge” ourselves: during holidays, major sporting events, on birthdays, on weekends, after a long day of overworked and underpaid employment, or “just because.”

Discipline comes, in part, from deciding that your own life is going to be shaped based on how you choose to spend your time, not how others spend theirs.

The difficulty is in resisting the influence of others, whose priorities have affected us our entire lives from birth onwards. Some of these priorities are good and healthy and positive, and some of them are not so good. We absorb as much of the good stuff as the bad, and sometimes there is more bad than good.

So you can’t expect to have “discipline in all things” overnight. You weren’t made the way you are now in one day, and you can’t expect to “unmake” that person in one day either.

Cultivating discipline comes from approaching one area of your life at a time and making a change, and forcing that change to be maintained until it becomes a habit. And then you move on to something else.

However, what is a recipe for failure? Lack of knowledge. Trying to reinvent the wheel usually ends in a person not getting anywhere. Seek out people who have made the changes you seek to make. Learn from them how they did it, and employ those strategies in a way that fits your own life.

What you do might seem weird to some people. “You actually don’t do such-and-such? But it’s so much easier to do such-and-such, I just don’t understand!” Many people don’t understand why anyone would engage in an endeavor that is difficult, grandiose or selfless, or that deprives them of certain momentary pleasures in favor of long-term goals.

It’s not their fault. It’s how our society is organized: mind your own business and take the path of least resistance. Instant gratification is the solution to all of life’s ills.

But that doesn’t mean that you have to live that way too. Look at some of these people, people who haven’t taken many chances in their lives, or who just “went with the flow.” How happy are they? How fulfilled? How satisfied with themselves?

I’m sure some of them are just fine, but others, the ones with lots of feelings, like you….they might criticize your attempts to self-improve just to make themselves feel better.

Instead of doing what came easily and what “felt right,” which is really just what everyone else was doing, they wish they’d listened to their conscience, which told them early on that their lives were meant to be different and fulfilled.

Your journey may involve some trial and error, but just as the desire to stay in bed starts with a feeling, so does the desire to do great things.

As long you’re constantly working to improve, choosing the feelings like conscience and ambition that help you grow, and building the discipline necessary for a life filled with met goals and fulfilled objectives, you’ll always come out ahead, and still possess the feelings required to enjoy it.

 

What is Intrinsic Motivation?

intrinsic-motivation-and-extrinsic-motivation

The first thing that sends many people to the gym is feelings of insecurity. Whether the goal is to get bigger or to get smaller, something is telling us that we’re not good enough as we are and only by changing ourselves can we become better.

In general, this characterizes extrinsic motivation, or motivation that starts outside of ourselves, like with a friend or family-member’s comment, a billboard or other advertisement, or the physical appearance of an admired public figure.

There is nothing wrong with this thought process on the face of it. It happens to be true that improvement is a form of change; therefore, it can only come with change, just as a fear can only be overcome by facing it, whether in increments or all at once.

The question is, then, how to maintain the improvement so that it becomes a part of you: the gym habit, the healthier diet, the better overall outlook. Most of us have experienced this firsthand; no matter how much we know we SHOULD do a thing, we watch ourselves not doing it, from time to time and then, regrettably, for indefinite periods.

It is a distressing feeling, but the emotional burden can be ameliorated with another feeling, one that should always accompany it: acceptance.

To me, acceptance is more than just the act of acknowledging something. It also involves the ability to move on from that thing, to move forward towards a goal.

In the context of deviating from an exercise habit, then, acceptance is acknowledging that you slipped up on your original plan, but also deciding that you’re going to continue towards the goal for which the plan was conceived, or at least a version of it, regardless of this shortcoming.

In other words, you learn about yourself from it and use that information as a reason to move forward, and this time more wisely, rather than as an excuse to give up.

Perhaps, in analyzing the source of the slip-up, you realize that your original goal and plan were unrealistic or poorly conceived. Perhaps they were created for someone else with different goals, or at a different level of knowledge. Perhaps too many other things in your life were in flux for you to readily sustain a big life change, and some of those things need to be at least partially dealt with first.

In any event, some modification is required, and part of your acceptance—part of your moving on from this setback—is deciding to make the necessary modifications.

After enough trials-and-error, you reach a happy medium; you find what works for you in terms of effectiveness, enjoyment, safety, and manageability. You start to reap the benefits of the improvement upon which you originally embarked.

And how? How did you do it? By accepting yourself, accepting that you make mistakes, that you take missteps, but deciding you are worth improving upon, and not giving up on. This feeling forms the basis of your future improvements.

In the future, you may have to struggle to hold onto that feeling when you fail again, which you probably will; any worthwhile endeavor brings with it the possibility of failure. But there is now a foundation of self-esteem upon which to base your decision to carry on and improve even more.

No more, or at least less and less, must that decision to improve originate in insecurity. It will originate in the knowledge that you overcame one challenge—your own fear and insecurity—and you can overcome another. And another. And another.

This forms the basis of true intrinsic motivation, or motivation that starts from within: the love of being challenged, and the firsthand knowledge of its rewards. Of course, there are also the obvious health and well-being benefits associated with exercise and good nutrition. To say nothing of endorphin addiction.

But one of the greatest benefits—“greatest” in the sense that it can affect your entire life and your attitudes—is the love of a challenge: to become a better person with each passing day, not just in your health but in your actions, in your compassion, in your desire to improve and to help the world improve, to see the rest of the world as deserving of positive feelings, the type that only come with acceptance of who you are and the subsequent overcoming of your fears, starting from within, and working your way outward.

Home Gyms: Yaaaay!! or Nahhhh!

Perhaps you have had trouble getting to the gym. You know, that big room with fluorescent overhead lighting and Taylor Swift on full blast, where big, sweaty guys and thin, sweaty gals move back and forth between various machines and bars and platforms, huffing and puffing and blowing away bodyfat like a big bad wolf with a sixpack? Where everyone is dressed in neato fitness clothes and sporting wearables, smartwatches, sick headphones, and even tablets for timing Tabatas (whatever a Tabata is)?

Without getting into the question of why you have trouble getting to the gym (although I may have touched on one or two of the reasons in my description above), let’s discuss a commonly conceived alternative: home gyms.

There are myriad mass-market fitness items on sale, from sporting goods stores large and small, from Amazon, from Craigslist, and from late-night infomercials.

Now, if you’ve read this blog before, you know perfectly well my opinion on a lot of these items, like Perfect Pullups, Perfect Pushups, P90X, and Bowflex: they may have a place in a fitness-oriented lifestyle, they may perform some important functions, they may fill a gap or a specific need. But they will not do the job for you. They will not MAKE your life a “fitness life.” Nine times out of ten, they will not serve all of your fitness needs.

For a fitness lifestyle is more than “20 minutes a day” or what-have-you. A fitness lifestyle persists for 24 hours a day. By that, I mean that the majority of your decisions pertaining to your health have fitness—not sensual enjoyment, but fitness (although you CAN get both at the same time)—as its guiding factor. And this fitness product or another may serve you for some of that time, but it will not get you there; it cannot substitute for full engagement in the activities and habits that make you and keep you healthy: exercise, nutrition, hydration, sleep, stress management, and self-confidence.

So, where does that leave home gyms? Let’s say you kept it very simple. A padded floor, a pair of adjustable dumbbells, a nice little adjustable weight bench, and a pullup bar of some kind. So, you buy all of this stuff. Floor pads: $50. Adjustable dumbbells: $300. Weight bench: $100. Pullup Bar: $50. So you just spent $500, not including the amount in property taxes or rent you’re paying for the space in your home to store these items.

What does this new home gym provide you? It provides you with just above the minimum amount of stuff required to work out your entire body. And that’s great. No doubts there.

On the other hand, what are these items NOT providing you with? A few things: the knowledge of how to use them effectively and safely. The knowledge of how to design a workout. The sustained interest and drive to use them habitually and to see the good results upon which the maintenance of all good habits is dependent. They’re not providing you with balanced nutrition. They don’t provide you with the energy, or the amount of time required in a day, to use them. They don’t make you dislike simple things and relish challenges. In other words,

THEY DON’T CHANGE YOUR LIFE.

I hate to start another sentence with “So…” but I’m going to anyway. So, what happens now?

You’re really jazzed about your new home gym (or workout product) and you make it happen for a few days, a few weeks, maybe even a few months. And then what? It gets old. It gets repetitive, uninteresting, unstimulating, unfulfilling. This illustrates a central benefit of going to a gym that’s outside of your home: variety and access to a lot more gear and space than you can reasonably fit in your home.

Continuing on the downward spiral, the early results you see start to diminish, or cease entirely. You wake up early and decide you didn’t get enough sleep in order to make your workout effective, so you go back to sleep. Or, you get home from work that night and decide your day was too stressful, and you need to “relax and unwind.” Both of which are perfectly natural and understandable things to want to do.

Suddenly, you have $500 worth of gear sitting idle, gathering dust, and even becoming the hook upon which you hang tomorrow’s outfit. How does that make you feel?

Not too good. You see, in general (meaning for most people), a home gym is not going to make you a fitness person. Only after all of the above challenges have been overcome or are starting to be overcome (poor nutrition, poor stress management, poor time management, a distaste for challenge or adversity, a fear of failure, a lack of commitment), can a home gym come anywhere near satisfying your needs. It can only serve to fill one area, maybe two, of your overall fitness lifestyle, and that area generally is: if you can’t get to the gym that day, you can always work out at home. And you certainly don’t need $500 worth of gear to do this type of workout. Bodyweight works fine.

Another good use for a home gym is to work out with someone else in privacy. In other words, for fun.

Additionally, if you’re a little under the weather but still want to get your workout in, you can work out at home without having to worry about getting other exercisers sick.

Owning some fitness gear is great when you’re traveling so you don’t have to miss a workout.

And yet another good use for a home gym is to re-acclimate yourself to the gym if you haven’t worked out in a while, so that when you’re back in the “real gym,” you can really make the most of it. Without getting into a huge thing about exercise lapses, they happen to us all. Don’t overthink it or over-judge it. Just get back on the horse. That’s all I’ll say.

Notice how all of these excellent uses for home gym equipment involve already being a “gym person” or “fitness person”? Now, I’m not saying that it’s impossible for a home gym to change your life and make you the fitness-person you’ve always known yourself to be. I’m really just saying that it’s not a given. Why? Because fitness is not about owning things. It’s about doing things. It’s about eating the right things. It’s about feeling certain things: a sense of achievement, self-esteem, patience, belief in yourself, and having a firm understanding of what constitutes realistic expectations. If any of these things are lacking, no amount of mats, -bells, plates, weights, benches, racks, bars, elastics, bands, balls, or boxes is going to do much good.

So if you decide to spring for some home gym equipment, be ready to tackle these challenges too. Be ready to change your life, not just the contents of one room, or your garage, or your basement. But your life.

Now that I’ve gotten all of the caveats out of the way, what are some good things to get for a home gym setup? What I mentioned earlier—pads, dumbbells, a bench, and a pullup bar—is the most solid set of gear you can get. But, it’s not the most versatile, and it’s hard to travel with weights. So what could you supplement—or even possibly replace—this outfit with?

A quick sidenote: why would you want to supplement your home gym with other stuff? Variety. Again, one item is probably not going to do it. As I mentioned earlier, variety is one of the main appeals of a gym that you leave home and walk, bike, or drive to. Variety makes exercise more fun and enjoyable. So having some variety at home makes working out at home so much more enjoyable that it can’t even really be quantified. Imagine if your home gym was a cafeteria. How would you feel about eating there everyday if it only served one thing? Get the picture? Good. Now, continuing on….

So what could you supplement—or even possibly replace—this pads/dumbbells/bench/pullup bar outfit with? Elastics.

There are two types of elastics: bands (which are like rubber bands, a closed loop of elastic material), and tubing (which is the kind of elastic that you can attach handles to). They are both excellent for things like squats, curls, resistance runs, rows, and also advanced stretching techniques. Tubing is probably more versatile, but bands are cheaper and just as good in a lot of ways. Also, bands can be used to add assistance to certain movements like pullups, or resistance to movements like barbell hip thrusts. Whereas tubing isn’t as good for that. However, they are both great. I use Spri bands and Bodylastics tubing.

A suspension trainer is a solid at-home item, and also very portable (assuming there’s a pullup bar or sturdy tree-branch wherever you’re going.) Suspension trainers require knowledge and practice, like any other training method, but they are also extremely versatile. There are expensive models, like the original TRX Suspension Trainer, and there are cheaper ones that are just as good on Amazon. Also, you can even make your own suspension trainer for the price of dinner at Applebee’s (and is a much better way to spend that money than on said dinner, I might add).

Doorway pullup bars like the Perfect Pullup are fine, and good for traveling. I have one myself, and I like using it for dips as well. But even better is a fixed pullup bar or a standing pullup bar station. Why? Because they make you want to use them a lot more. The Perfect Pullup and its various clones have a tendency to bend slightly while using them, or to not sit solidly in their spot against the doorframe. Also, they can damage doorframes. What will inspire you to do pullups more? A forty-dollar piece of shit that’s bendy and fucks up your doorway? Or something solid that is MADE to do the specific thing that it does, and well? If you’re keen on doing a lot of pullups, save your money and buy a better item. Trust me.

Without getting too “spending more money is better”-y, it is a good rule of thumb when it comes to workout gear. Poorly-made equipment feels dangerous and is not inspiring. Additionally, just because something is sturdy and well-made doesn’t mean you have to buy it new. There are plenty of folks on Craigslist and eBay that are selling decent-quality used gear for a fraction of the price. I mean, don’t buy a cheap piece of shit there either. Search and research. Check out a few things. Try them out before you buy them out. And get something that you WILL want to use multiple times. Because that’s why you’re buying it; not for the good feeling you get from buying a “fitness”-y thing. No. For the actual use you’ll get out of it.

Okay, so what else is good for home gyms? Kettlebells are generally well-made and indestructible, and are versatile as hell if you know how to use them. They can work your entire body, especially when coupled with bodyweight training. They are pretty portable, and you only really need to own two of them: one heavy, and one light.

If you are interested in kettlebells, do yourself a favor: go to a gym that has kettlebells in it and ask the staff if anyone who works there is super-knowledgable about kettlebells (make sure you say “kettlebells” and not “kettleballs”) and could that person show you a thing or two. They will probably give you a personal training sales pitch.

Now let me ask you this: is using the kettlebell safely and effectively worth the $70 or $100 it costs for one personal training session (assuming the person teaching you is qualified)? It might be. But that’s up to you. There is always YouTube. Make sure you have a strong, mobile rotator cuffs. That’s all I’ll say for now.

In terms of buying kettlebells, avoid shiny or colorful finishes. Avoid the ones with the unscrewable bases. The simpler, the better. It should be a spherical chunk of smooth metal with a big, round handle. A small handle is stupid, as is a square-shaped handle design. That’s stupid too. When in doubt, go big handle. Or if the price is right, that’s a good criterion too. Just be ready for sore distal bones on your wrist when using KBs with small or square handles.

Oh yeah, and get some wrist protection. I use these. They are cheap.

So what else? The Ultimate Body Press is an item I own. It is made to serve as a dip station and inverted row bar. It can also be used for suspension pushups. The one I have is an earlier-generation model, beaten up but still kicking. The newer models look better-made. A good item. Try to find one on eBay. (I was not paid to say this).

Here’s the takeaway from all of this. Home gym equipment should be well-made, affordable, portable, useful, versatile, safe, and effective. Don’t start with something that only does one thing, like the Shakeweight or Perfect Pushup (avoid the Shakeweight entirely). Be ready to try and buy different things, and to jettison an item or two on Craigslist or eBay if an item you bought doesn’t work for you. Or if you don’t feel compelled to work with it.

And that’s all I can think of to say about home gyms. They are nice to have, they can’t replace willpower, and a well-assembled one being used to propel you towards your fitness goals is a thing of beauty.