A reply to Breaking Muscle’s “A Frank Assessment of the Plank”

Breaking Muscle is a website and social networking presence that I follow and read a good amount. I respect their standpoints and expertise and like a lot of what they say. So consider this a respectful critique of author Charles Staley’s recent article “A Frank Assessment of the Plank: Just a Way to Burn Time?”

Coach Staley’s first criticism of planks originates in their supposed inability to improve body composition. He bases this critique on his belief that “this is by far the primary benefit that those who do planks expect to experience.” I can’t fault him for what other people expect; however, he could have pointed out that the plank serves most effectively as an activation exercise for most of the people who use it as such, not as a muscle-builder.

Additionally, the type of plank that Coach Staley is probably critiquing involves nothing more than basically maintaining a static pushup position on your elbows. When there is no attempt to actively engage the main core musculature (abdominal wall, intrinsic core stabilizers, glutes, erectors), perhaps because the exerciser is not able to actively or deliberately engage them, naturally there would be a reduced level of functional improvements and a decreased level of calorie-burn. Again, I can’t fault Coach Staley for the fact that most people don’t know to activate these muscles while planking, which would make the exercise 1000x more effective for all possible uses.

However, he is wrong in saying that “planks involve no actual movement, they don’t burn a significant number of calories, nor do they disrupt homeostasis enough to cause muscular hypertrophy.” An isometric muscle movement, of which the plank is one, is defined as an exercise in which the muscles are contracted but there is no joint movement. However, this contraction of the muscles certainly IS movement, which leads to both calorie-burn and muscular hypertrophy. Isometrics are not the most effective way to build muscle, but it is downright wrong to characterize them as being unrelated to either calorie burn or muscular development.

Furthermore, any movement intended to build muscular development shouldn’t be criticized further on the basis of how well it burns calories. The muscle that is gained increases a person’s BMR and burns the lion’s share of the calories, not the compound movement itself. That’s why increased BMR should be the end-goal of weight-training, not calorie burn. But that’s a sidenote.

Again, as an activation movement, and one that is properly progressed to include contraction of the abdominals AND glutes and a retraction of the shoulder blades, the plank has the ability to build the mind-muscle connection necessary for the average person to safely perform the compound lifts that Coach Staley asserts are the best or only way to build necessary core strength, and it does so in much safer and more controlled environment (which he later does acknowledge in the section titled “The Cost of Doing Planks”).

One question Coach Staley asks to plank practitioners is, “what type of real-life challenges will the plank make you better at? Don’t look at me [for answers].” The need to be able to activate and isometrically contract the core musculature is an absolutely ESSENTIAL skill for various functional activities. I don’t believe using deadlifts or squats to activate these muscles is as effective as planking because there are so many other mechanics in play while learning how to deadlift or squat, it is too easy to reinforce poor movement patterns/muscular imbalances at best, or screw up and injure yourself at worst.

In other words, the plank—which is itself a compound movement, yes, a movement—is also a kind of regression of compound movements like the squat and deadlift, the latter of which should not necessarily be implemented until adequate core activation has been achieved through such regressions. I’m not saying planking is the only example (here’s another: the glute bridge), or that other regressions more similar to actual deadlifting and squatting can’t be implemented as well. But a person who lacks the ability to activate the core shouldn’t be deadlifting, at least not any amount of weight necessary for “burning calories” or improving “body composition.” How is such a person supposed to build core strength by deadlifting if he or she can’t even activate those muscles? Any core strength built this way would be practically incidental. Maybe it worked out okay for the Coach, but for a lot of people, trying to deadlift without this skill will lead to injury.

After his apparent inability to identify any real-life challenges that planks help you improve upon, Coach Staley concludes, in all caps, “IF YOU CAN HOLD A PLANK POSITION FOR TWO MINUTES, YOU PROBABLY HAVE ENOUGH CORE STABILITY AND THEREFORE, DON’T NEED TO DO PLANKS. IF YOU CAN’T, IT’S LIKELY THAT YOU’RE SIMPLY WEAK OR OVERWEIGHT, WHICH MEANS THERE ARE FAR BETTER THINGS TO DO THAN PLANKS.”

How about, “if you can hold a plank for two minutes, progress it?” or “if you can hold a plank for two minutes, you’re doing it wrong in the first place”? If I can deadlift 320 or snatch 205 for 15 reps at 6’6″ tall and 175-pound bodyweight, I’m probably doing it wrong: jerking, flipping, jumping, flaring the S out of my ribcage, hyperextending the F out of my lower back. The same is true of planking. If it’s too easy, you’re doing it wrong. It’s just that planking is 1000x less dangerous than those other movements when done wrong.

“If you can’t [plank for two minutes], it’s likely that you’re simply weak or overweight, which means there are far better things to do than planks.” Like what? Since Coach Staley didn’t as yet mention any alternatives, I can only guess. Situps? Crunches? Hanging Leg Raises? Let me say that one or two of my favorite articles I’ve seen on Breaking Muscle are about how to spot a bad personal trainer. One telltale sign is, “does that trainer have you doing crunches or situps?” I agree with this. And hanging leg raises are completely inappropriate for most novices and many intermediates. Why? Because these folks are unable to activate their core musculature. Teaching how to activate it is what the plank is meant to do.

As far as alternatives go, I can safely assume that Coach Staley does NOT mean situps, crunches, or hanging leg raises. He means compound lifts. Another telltale sign of a bad trainer is having a client do compound lifts without having built up the proper body mechanics necessary to safely perform such lifts. Core strength, like strong abductors, shoulderblades that retract, a neck that doesn’t tip the head back, and heels that stay down, is just another one of these body mechanics.

Again, I can’t fault Coach Staley for only being aware of, or only choosing to criticize, the plank that most people do. I appreciate his critique of fitness professionals who have clients perform the boring “get on your elbows and wait” plank instead of applying any progressive, regressive, or functional principles to it at all. Seeing people planking like the woman pictured in the article, with absolutely no core or glute activation whatsoever and a bored look on their face, is probably what makes Coach Staley’s blood boil (my words, not his) when it comes to planking.

But I think a more worthwhile critique would have been to critique exactly this type of plank, the useless type, not planking in an absolute sense. When he does address the issue of alternatives to planking, Coach Staley says, “If you’re looking to improve body composition, I’d dial your diet in and lift weights. If, on the other hand, you’re concerned about your core stability, I’d first ask yourself why you feel your core stability is lacking. If you come up with a reasonable answer, I’d do things like this…”

And then he includes this video:

I’m not sure whether Coach Staley means to imply this or not, but the Stirring the Pot exercise is none other than….a plank progression. It is a difficult movement, not to be tried by novices whose core is unable to adequately contract to protect the lower back. As you can see in the video, this person’s back is completely flat and not dipping down at all. It wouldn’t look like that for a lot of less-fit people, I’ll tell you what. It’s irresponsible, in my view, for Coach Staley to suggest the Stirring the Pot exercise as an “alternative to a plank” for someone who “feels their core stability is lacking.”

Plus, Stirring the Pot IS a plank.

In conclusion, perhaps a greater point than the faults I perceive in Coach Staley’s article is how important it is that fitness professionals in general —trainers, class instructors, coaches, et cetera—stop telling people to plank without giving them any real understanding of what the plank is supposed to do: build activation and core strength by encouraging isometric contraction of the core musculature. Of course, that’s dependent on them KNOWING what the plank is supposed to do. The standard for fitness professionals must continue to increase, and I appreciate Breaking Muscle’s contributions to this dialogue, including the critiques that Coach Staley himself has made.

Still, a critique of the poorly-performed plank is needed. Coach Staley should try planking with his abs and glutes completely contracted and his shoulderblades retracted, if he hasn’t already. Then, he can write an article about planking that tells people what to do, not what NOT to do.

Why Fad Diets Usually Fail

I am sometimes asked why “fad diets” seem to fail so often for so many people, and what a simple diet plan would be.

In my opinion, fad diets—especially low-carb or no-carb type diets—usually fail because they involve trying to normalize extremes, specifically extreme restriction of calories and/or carbs. Being hungry or undercarbed (and as a result with poor energy levels and sometimes depressive feelings) can easily lead to falling off of the diet or outright binging. It takes the pleasure out of life to never feel satisfied after eating, and for every food to signify nothing but a certain number of calories. And who wants to live that way?

Pleasure is, believe it or not, just one principle from which to derive satisfaction in life. It is possible to derive satisfaction from other principles. For example, your food choices can be based on the general principle that your weight loss goals are valuable and worth sticking to, and some specific principles that fit within that. High caloric deprivation can cause feelings of fatigue, irritability, lethargy, and depression, especially when the calorie reduction is implemented all at once (to theoretically provide quicker results) instead of as a slow, gradual decrease in your daily caloric intake. Therefore, any principle upon which your diet is based must be strong enough to offset the displeasure that generally accompanies feeling tired, irritable, incapable, and unhappy.

Your thought process must be closer to “I am lean,” rather than “I should be lean.” Saying “I am lean” is an act of self-definition based on a principle whose validity you also define. Whereas “I should be lean” reflects more of a desire to conform to society’s principles, society’s definitions of what you should be. The more you validate societal principles, the more time, thought, energy, and passion you expend on them, the more you devalue yourself. Think about that for a moment.

What I’m getting at is this: the key to changing a behavior such as diet lies partly in understanding why you’re attempting to latch onto such a principle as “I should be lean.” Is it for your health, for your sense of well-being and happiness, your sense of accomplishment and personal growth based on the knowledge that you’re worth the time, effort, and appropriate level of self-absorption necessary to improve?

Or is it because you feel inferior to thinner, more jacked, or more “healthy-looking” people? Is it because you have failed in achieving fitness in the past, or failed in some other area of your life? Or do you feel defined by some other sense of just not being “good enough”?

Going a little further, does it seem like people go out of their way to make you feel bad about yourself, and your desire to get fit is a reaction to that? To appease them and shut them up? It’s a rough world and such things are common. But worrying about being super-skinny to please other people generally doesn’t make most people happy, even if they succeed. Indeed, such folks often feel weak, miserable, and irritable, as I mentioned above, and as though everyone is criticizing them, hence the stereotype of the high-strung temperamental dieter. And a lot of them understandably have body image issues. Wouldn’t you?

Most mass-market fad diets play on people’s emotional insecurities and exploit them. The diets themselves are often designed by “doctors” or “nutrition experts”  (some of whom have no nutritional or even medical training) who are only trying to line their own pockets. Now, before any of you hardcore “free market” advocates come at me and say, “well is there anything wrong with wanting to line your own pockets?!” let me point out that not only have such business practices by “nutrition experts” NOT helped to curb the obesity epidemic in America, but anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders have steadily increased as well. So I say, YES THERE IS SOMETHING WRONG WITH THAT.

Whew. Almost went off on a rant there.

That is not to say that these diets don’t have a place. For instance, if you want to lose fat very very quickly, like for a wedding or upcoming beach trip, dramatically cutting carbs can make a big difference. However, such weight loss is generally not sustainable because living life without carbs is a ridiculous and bad idea, and your body knows it. Think of extremely low-carb diets as a specific tool, like a jigsaw or a pair of bolt cutters. They fulfill one specific need very well and aren’t terribly effective beyond that.

“Specific tools” is pretty much how I feel most diet schemes should be viewed. For instance, the technique of intermittent fasting (which I will discuss in detail in a separate article, along with its often-mentioned-in-the-same-breath counterparts, flexible dieting and 6-small-meals-per-day), is effective for some people at making bodyfat “melt” off. It involves utilizing only a relatively small window of time every day in which you get all of your calories and maintaining a fast throughout the rest of the day.

For some people, intermittent fasting, or IF, is a godsend. It is more of an eating schedule than a diet per se, and as such it provides clear guidelines and boundaries that do a lot to simplify the process of calorie control. And as I am nearly always willing to point out, if it works for you, do it.

But for a lot of people, not eating for long stretches of their waking day is not feasible. Some people work very physical jobs and it is not practical for them to start their work in the morning in a fasted state. Even people who work at desks experience trouble focusing while fasting and turn to caffeine or other stimulants to perk them up for the next 6-8 hours. Many people can’t exercise effectively or muster up the motivation to do so when they’re undernourished.

In general, it is unpleasant to be hungry for long periods of time, and I can imagine (I don’t have scientific data to back this up, but bear with me here) that it leads to cheating for a lot of people, if not outright binging. And this failure will have to be recovered from, as will the next one, and the next one….such is the definition of “yo-yo dieting.”

Continuing with IF for a bit longer, that’s why, from what I’ve seen, the people who have the most success with IF are not new to fitness or dieting. They are already engaged in one or more aspects of a fitness lifestyle, and use IF or other tools for a specific purpose, much like a veteran gym-goer who knows how to deadlift but only chooses to do so for a specific purpose, rather than the novice gym-goer who has no idea how and would probably get hurt if he/she tried. Deadlifting, and IF, are not good places to start.

The trick is, we’re trying to develop discipline. It’s hard to develop it if every time you try, you experience physical pain or discomfort. I get it, we need to break free of our comfort zones, et cetera, and that is 100% true. But let’s briefly think in Darwinian terms: imagine placing a gilled sea creature—the distant precursor of the human being—on the sandy shore and yelling “Evolve! EVOLVE NOW! BREAK FREE OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE!!!” at it. What’s going to happen? It’ll desperately try to get back to the water, and die from lack of oxygen. It took millions of years for those sea creatures to creep up onto the land, and then to breathe air, and then to walk upright. They crept up, and experienced a benefit: safety from much larger sea predators. They learned to breathe air, and another benefit was bestowed: the ability to sleep. Walking upright proved another benefit: reaching for sweet fruits from trees, making fire, and so on.

For successful dieting, it needn’t take millions of years. But it will still take patience, and experiencing particular benefits. You can’t get that from merely dieting. You need holistic health: nutrition AND exercise. That’s all I’m saying.

And now, after that picaresque detour, on to the second part of the question I am often asked: what is is a simple dieting plan that can be adhered to with relative ease?

A simple dieting plan would be to focus on nutrient-dense whole foods in meals, snacks, and desserts, monitoring salt, unhealthy fat, and empty calorie intake, drinking tons of water, and eating enough to match, exceed, or fall short of your TDEE (total daily energy expenditure) depending on whether your goal is weight maintenance, gain, or loss, respectively, all while utilizing an exercise regimen based on compound movements, flexibility, joint health, and cardiovascular health, consisting less of a certain number of sets and reps (although this is fine and works for a lot of people) and more of a specific amount of medium-heavy to heavy exercise per week and light-medium to medium exercise per day. Whew. Long sentence.

To identify your TDEE, do an internet search for TDEE/BMR calculator. I don’t want to push a specific on you because a lot of these sites are trying to sell you something. So try a few of them and average the results. But take my advice: never go below your BMR. Your body will go into starvation mode, your metabolism will become sluggish, and your weight loss will stagnate if not reverse itself. Let’s do this right, or not at all.

It is important to find exercises that give you a sense of enjoyment, just as it is important to find nutrient-dense foods that you also enjoy and can serve as staples. In order to lose one pound per week, you must reduce caloric intake by 500 calories. And when it comes to reducing caloric intake, think of it this way: you can reduce caloric intake by eating less, or by exercising more. That’s a liberating concept. The more you exercise, the more (healthy, nutrient-dense) food you can eat. You can be full all the time. Doesn’t that sound lovely?

And then, eventually, when you have a strong grip on portion sizes, you won’t have to count calories. Ever again. Counting calories is just a tool. Just a tool.

Why not shoot for losing 1/2 of a pound per week, and use those 250 “extra” calories you eat each day to fuel some heavy lifting, or high-intensity interval training? And building that muscle, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, will increase your BMR and you’ll become a “fat-burning machine,” all on your own, without any need for super-restrictive diets or ACTUAL machines!!!

When these two things (diet and exercise) go hand in hand, it is much easier to maintain your diet because you are seeing your health holistically. The foods you eat will affect the quality and enjoyability of your exercise, and vice versa. For example, a lethargy-inducing, nutritionally-deficient burger-and-fries meal will make you feel like crap, diminishing your desire to work out the next day. Knowing this and cultivating foresight and discipline may help you avoid eating in such ways.

The positive benefits of diet and exercise complement each other, and screwing up in one area will result in a hiccup in the other. In other words, your actions and behaviors have effects outside of themselves. This is another reason fad diets often fail: when diets don’t connect in some way to exercise or your life in general, you are simply depriving yourself of something for its own sake; it has no gravity outside of itself. Whereas when exercise and nutrition are related and based on your life—instead of some “fitness guru’s” arbitrary or semi-arbitrary pronouncements about what’s healthy—it is easier to commit and see a greater purpose in it, especially when it relates to improving the overall quality of your life and not just some immediate weight loss goal.

I know this article got pretty deep and philosophical, but I hope it has helped you think critically about fad diets and about dieting in general. There are three main points to come away with.

1) The first step to improving yourself is to know that you’re worth improving.

2) Diet and fitness must be viewed holistically, as part of “the whole you.”

3) Improve the whole by improving its parts.

Now go forth and modify!

How To Combat “Workout Burnout” (and not the good kind!)

For many people who leap onto the exercise bandwagon with both feet, working out is often super-fun for the first few weeks, but no matter great it feels, no matter how excited and enthused and eager you consciously feel, within a month, maybe two, old habits of inactivity set in and that beautifully short period in which you were an “exerciser” comes to an end, yet again.

The best way to combat this habit is….GO EASY ON YOURSELF!! Burnout is a part of working out in the same way that you’d get tired of your favorite foods if you ate them everyday. The answer is variety. Find alternative methods of working out and staying active, and if you can’t find one, make it your BEESWAX to ALWAYS just get to the gym and do SOMETHING. Or workout at home and do something. Just do something!

That way, you’ll feel better that you did SOMETHING, even if wasn’t exactly what you’d planned on doing. Along with that, PLAN those alternative methods into your workout routine. If you know or have a good feeling that what you’re doing in the gym will get tiresome in a few weeks, plan in advance to change it up somehow.

For instance, instead of doing the treadmill for one hour (blah), learn about some resistance-training methods, design a little program, and do them instead. Something like this: plank for one minute, do 20 glute bridges, and then do 10 pushups, 20 seated machine rows (or standing dumbbell rows, or elastic rows…), 30 bodyweight squats, high incline treadmill run for 2 minutes, and then plank again for 1 minutes with your abs and glutes clenched. And do this circuit, I don’t know, five times. Maybe reverse it once or twice. Trust me, this WILL git ‘er done.

And there are a million other things you could be doing to get your sweat on: bodyweight progressions, cycling, cross-training, suspension training, sleds, battleropes, medicine balls, landmine training, elastics, interval training, doing 50 burpees just ‘cuz. Research them online and try them out at home if you can or in a private corner of the gym first if you are self-conscious. The key is to at least LOOK like you know what you are doing, while minimizing risk of injury by using good form.

So that’s one thing that causes exercise dropoff: lack of variety.

Another cause that I have seen time and again is stress. Our lives are complex; our health and well-being often take a backseat to other concerns, like our jobs and families. It is this willingness to prioritize a client’s health and well-being that decides if she is “ready” to really make lasting changes in her life. And a lot of the time, she isn’t. But that’s not her fault.

Stress keeps us from going to the gym, a lot. Unless exercise has served you for a long time as a positive outlet for stress (which is usually dependent on it either being a character-building experience for you, or on seeing substantial results from it), it probably won’t serve you as one now. In fact, it may have negative connotations to you, symbolizing bad experiences in gym class when you were younger, or something that everyone ELSE seems to be good at while you “SUCK at it,” or just the pain and discomfort of subjecting your body to hard work.

No; old ways of dealing with stress—video games, Netflix and chill, glass of wine, a few slices of pizza—these will crop up as your stress outlets, because they are more comfortable. They don’t demand that you step OUT of a comfort zone, like exercise seems to do both physically and mentally.

If this is the case, the answer is not to beat yourself up about it. The answer is to try to deal with the root causes of the stress in your life and minimize it so that you can devote that energy to healthy activities. Why is this or that thing in your life constantly disorganized or overdue? Where are areas in which you need more support from the people around you? What are you devoting time to that is actually bad for your health and furthers your stress and sense of disempowerment?Developing positive/creative means of dealing with these sources of stress is part of entering and sustaining a healthy lifestyle, and it doesn’t happen overnight.

But, doing so will help you overcome any negative associations with exercise and cultivate a positive relationship to it, empowering the hell out of you.

As I said, a lot of people aren’t ready to make their health a priority and, in so doing, completely change their lives: maintaining a daily exercise habit in perpetuity, eating both plentifully and healthily, drinking enough water and getting enough sleep, and dealing with stress in beneficial ways, perhaps even learning to love challenges and adversity. Changing your life in this way requires making specific promises to yourself that are, by definition, not easy to live up to. The main promise is that fitness and health must become an absolutely crucial and central part of your lifestyle. There must never be a reasonable excuse to not work out, or eat in a mindless fashion.

But this promise—“I will because I want to, because I should,” or however you’d phrase it—can’t be the only reason you do it. You must learn to derive some enjoyment from it, some pleasure, some feeling of empowerment.

The “one fell swoop” approach to life-changing rarely works for most people. It takes a lifetime to become the person you are now; it may take a part of a lifetime to become the person you want to be. It requires great patience with yourself to see results, and a willingness to see progress in steps, proactively addressing one aspect of your life at a time until the overall picture starts to appear radically and beautifully different. 

We have so many things in our lives to deal with. Before we try to completely change our lives, it would be super to have some of these things taken care of first. So, one step, one brick, one thing at a time. You will have to find a specific medium, one with adequate discipline and rewards to hit your current fitness goals (and you will need goals; having a way to work out without a gym is a good thing too), but with enough flexibility that you can avoid the feeling of constantly failing and all of the debilitating stress and self-castigation that can go with that.

You don’t deserve that. You deserve to feel good about yourself. So when workout burnout peers out from behind the corner of tomorrow, take a deep breath and say, “time to change it up, and think about what’s keeping me from exercising, because whatever it is, I have the power to change it.”

Should Personal Trainers Require Government Licenses?

It’s been awhile since my last post and you’re about to find out why. I first heard about D.C. licensure law for fitness professionals over two weeks ago and it has taken me this long to look into it and form a semi-cohesive viewpoint on it. As you can see, it’s a somewhat complex issue. So here goes….

Currently, a new law in Washington D.C. seeks to mandate licenses for “personal fitness trainers.” The law was drafted in part by a group called the Board of Physical Therapy.

Within my industry, there is a controversy brewing, and with good reason. For instance, why is an unelected “Board of Physical Therapy” drafting legislation that applies to personal trainers?

Also, why is much of the opposition to the law coming from practitioners of CrossFit and owners of CrossFit facilities?

Why should such a law require personal trainers to hold four-year degrees in exercise science when many of us have been in the industry for decades and helped build it into the multibillion-dollar industry it is today?

Who really benefits from this licensure law? Is it the consumer, because the trainer will be undoubtedly held to a higher standard of training? Is it the government, because they will be able to lay claim to a groundswell of greater public health and safety (and the trainers will have to pay for their licenses, so there’s some money in it)? Is it government workers’ unions, because this mandate will create government jobs? Is it the fitness industry, because this law will start to address the less-than-ideal image of personal trainers as a bunch of meathead young’uns, usually working on commission in big-box gyms, who think that because THEY THEMSELVES are jacked (or because they’ve read about how to “pump, YOU UP” in a book), that means they know how to get SOMEONE ELSE jacked as well? “And you need me, bro, you need me.”

Based on my reading of the law, all of these concerns have validity. Trainers should be held to a high standard. The government should be concerned with improving people’s health and safety (even in America’s fittest city). Government workers’ unions should rejoice at the creation of more jobs. The fitness industry, like all industries, should embrace a swift kick in the rear every once in a while.

As it is, I don’t trust the government we have now to do much of anything for the best interests of almost anyone. It is not because the government in D.C. is Democrat and I’m a Republican. Nor is it because there are some Republicans in office, and I’m a Democrat. The reason is that I have observed what both parties have done in the past to address “the public good,” and in almost every instance, the main benefactor is one bunch of lobbyists, one massive corporation, one billionaire or another.

Now, let me say clearly that I support single-payer healthcare. I think we should kick the insurance companies in the crotch; government-run healthcare, equal and accessible and free for all, is the answer. Obviously, I don’t mean to contradict my earlier statement. Until there is a massive new influx of outside-of-the-box thinkers in government (so therefore neither Democrats nor Republicans, because both of those parties are owned by corporations, and, I’ll admit, misguided unions), the possibility of single-payer happening, let alone being well-run, is practically nil.

So my suspicion towards our government continues when it comes to effectively regulating personal training. I don’t kid myself; the fitness industry has its problems. But let’s talk about where those problems come from, and whether licensure can address them. Unfortunately, such problems are not unique to the fitness industry; they are reflections of our popular culture in general.

As an industry trying to grow, fitness professionals (and not-so-professionals) have repeatedly embraced problematic cultural mandates. Instead of encouraging positive lifestyle changes and the transition to a healthy lifestyle, some fitness professionals actually encourage and play on ideas like “GET SKINNY! GET BIG! GET SEXY! GET JACKED! GET A BIG BUTT! GET ABS! LOSE THAT FAT! FAT IS EVIL!” in order to propel their careers, playing on the emotions and insecurities of the client concerning weight and body image in general.

On top of that, we’re often “correcting your form,” telling you what you’re doing wrong and why you need us. These tendencies contribute to the poor image of personal trainers as elitist, judgment-oriented, snobby, and manipulative at best.

At worst, personal trainers are seen as incompetent and dangerous. Appealing to such cultural sensibilities as I describe above often leads to irresponsible fitness practices: inappropriate exercise programming, unlicensed nutrition advice, supplement-pushing, starvation diets, too-heavy weights or lifts for which the client has not been properly progressed, an underemphasis on corrective exercise and flexibility, et cetera. The trainer should be working to empower and inform the client for her overall long-term improvement. As it says in the ACE Personal Trainer Manual, the American Council on Exercise’s textbook to become a certified personal trainer,

Many personal trainers are afraid to teach their clients to be independent because they fear that their services will no longer be needed. In reality, failing to build client independence is related to less-motivated clients who will ultimately be more likely to drop out. On the other hand, people who enjoy the experience are likely to continue working a personal trainer and remain involved in an exercise program (ACE 30).

But the mindset of the fitness industry opportunist instead aims to establish a dependency of the client on the trainer, whereby as soon as their working relationship ends, the client’s bad habits all reappear.

Rather than saying, “oh wow; all of my weight came back. My trainer didn’t really help me at all,” the client will say, “Gee, I really messed up. I guess I need my trainer back.”

What I’m leading to is this: can licensure address any of these problems, practices, or prejudices? Not really.

When making any argument about licensure, the obvious examples of its success or failure are medical doctors and lawyers. Now, on a personal basis, I have had great doctors who did their best to help me, and I have had doctors who performed unnecessary surgeries, prescribed useless drugs, and tried to convince me that I needed them even though nothing they had done so far had actually addressed the problem.

Similarly, there are plenty of examples of lawyers who perform great services to society, and also those who are the reason, plain as day, for an entire category of “lawyer jokes.”

Therefore, it’s not a matter of whether licensure will solve problems of character on the part of the practitioner. It’s a matter of whether the culture that shapes that practitioner’s value system is being challenged and improved upon.

So, getting back to the licensing of personal trainers, it doesn’t seem quite cricket to me that a Board of Physical Therapists—who are indeed required to receive more schooling, and, incidentally, earn more on average yearly than us lowly personal trainers—should have anything to do with writing bills that affect us and not them.

The good side of effective personal training is maintained by those benevolent individuals who are well-trained and well-adjusted, and whose morals have not been compromised for the promise of higher income. In addition to strengthening muscle, increasing muscle size, improving performance, and reducing bodyfat, these wonderful men and women possess the ability to correct muscle imbalances, reverse the effect of harmful movement patterns, and encourage the type of positive lifestyle changes that prevent injury, illness, and unhappiness, many of the exact same maladies which cause people to seek the care of chiropractors, medical doctors, psychiatrists, and physical therapists.

In other words, personal training’s lower-cost options (albeit not covered by health insurance, which I think personal training should be, but that’s another article), are theoretically “taking money out of the pockets” of physical therapists.

Now let me be perfectly clear: physical therapists, like the other specialists I mention above, are an important part of the overall healthcare team in America. I refer my clients to a physical therapist on a regular basis when it is warranted. But all of the defects I ascribe above to personal trainers could apply to physical therapists.

Instead of advocating for a more healthy or active lifestyle, or taking any root-cause-analysis approach at all, it’s very possible for a physical therapist to recommend courses of action that result in a dependency of client on therapist. Same goes for chiropractors and licensed massage therapists. Does licensing prevent or address this questionable practice? No.

So would physical therapists want us to get licensed so that we CAN charge more for services? So that we CAN be covered by healthcare? So that we CAN take more of their business away, theoretically? That doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. More likely, they want to hobble our ability to work freely and openly, wherever we want, and charge whatever we want, while they are subject to certain regulations in terms of such things.

The government, meanwhile, in the good intentions of its public health-conscious mayor, Muriel Bowser, would probably have joined hands with a Board of Personal Trainers if one were to present itself to them. But personal trainers are not being financially threatened, theoretically. Physical therapists are. Right? So the physical therapists organized into a “Board” and started lobbying the government to protect their interests. This is America. That’s just what you do.

Oh, but wait one moment. There are some organizations who support licensure, such as the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), who are themselves in the business of certifying personal trainers. I will agree with this author on her point that perhaps it is because such certifiers feel threatened at the rise of Crossfit, whose certifications are only available from Crossfit, the company, whether out of a belief that the substandardness of Crossfit certification creates concerns for the client’s safety, or merely for reasons of decreased profits. I think we can assume it does indeed relate to profits.

So personal trainers ARE being threatened. Oh wait, not trainers; certifying organizations. Maybe that’s why there was no Board of Personal Trainers. Huh.

[Full disclosure: I am certified by the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). I reached out NASM to inquire about their position on DCFit. A representative informed me they had no position on it at this time.]

Meanwhile, owners of Crossfit facilities and supporters of the self-styled “sport of fitness” seem to stand pretty firmly against any licensure legislation and “big government” in general when it comes to regulating fitness professionals, while Crossfit’s reputation for injury (keyword: reputation) grows almost as quickly as the number of Crossfit gyms and the coaches who operate them. Is this because they don’t want more stringent laws dictating who can identify as a “fitness professional”? I personally have met many current or former Crossfitters who were injured doing Crossfit, at least as many of them who weren’t.

Of course, I have barely met a trainer or athlete who has never been injured either. But if you watch the CrossFit games, you see extremely problematic exercise form; injuries occur left and right, right in the middle of the games themselves. Injuries and pushing yourself too far seem to be almost a part of CrossFit culture. I don’t know. Seeing these things raises eyebrows and red flags.

Could it be that CrossFitters are indeed a vehement opponent of licensure because they want to keep it the way it is now so they can keep their gyms open and keep making money, regardless of how many injured people they leave behind? Or it is because they feel like CrossFit is being targeted for a perhaps-unwarranted bad reputation (see link above)?

Despite Crossfit’s proclivity, real or reputed, to produce injuries, I personally don’t want to see hundreds of fitness facilities—where plenty of people do see positive results and cultivate fitter versions of themselves, to say nothing of the workers at these facilities—shut down indefinitely.

Here’s a thought: how about government actually “working with small businesses” to address this “problem”? Oh, and if the government cares that much about protecting people’s health, how about it fund some actual scientific studies to support its position instead of taking detractors at their word? (Note: to you anti-CrossFit folk out there: Let me know if there are any studies that I have missed).

Additionally, I wouldn’t be so presumptuous and arrogant as to besmirch, in broad strokes and without evidence, the integrity of ALL CrossFit coaches when so many of them, and the “boxes” they run, have contributed positively to the health and fitness identity of so many people. There are plenty of CrossFit coaches who put in the time to learn the gravity of fitness in society and in people’s everyday lives (if they didn’t know it already), who emphasize form and safety, who aren’t just cashing in on a hot trend, and who deserve to be protected from having their business potentially gutted.

So I guess I am at least somewhat suspicious of all sides.

I do an excellent job training people. I can’t afford more schooling right now and it would disrupt my career and my career plans of eventual gym ownership if I was required to stop training and go back to school. And if I did go back, I have a feeling the government wouldn’t foot the bill. It would just be taking my job away.

As someone whose degree is in English, the Board of Physical Therapists would perceive my lack of a four-year exercise science degree as a limit to my viability as a fitness professional. But I’ve always felt that my strong communication skills, which I cultivated writing papers about Junot Diaz and Jane Austen, are part of what make me a great trainer.

If there’s one thing a trainer needs to be able to do, it’s express himself or herself in a way that the client will understand. If the client doesn’t understand why she’s doing a certain thing, she’ll stop doing it. Or she’ll do it wrong and hurt herself. Pretty simple really. So I don’t think it’s at all fair to place the barrier of a four-year degree between becoming a “personal fitness trainer” and people who truly want to help people, especially for those who have been in the business a lot longer than I have.

In conclusion, (Yay!!), I don’t think this government—which refuses to label GMO food, which doesn’t mandate health class, which sneaks cuts to food-stamp programs into its farm bills, which invites insurance companies to write its healthcare legislation, which hastens the privatization of education and allowed student debt to exceed $1 trillion, which illegalizes poverty instead of combating it, and which bailed out the banks—has the time, the energy, the inclination, or the know-how to do virtually anything of great efficacy related to “fitness,” not because it’s stupid but because giving people access to quality fitness resources is not related to its interests.

I’ll admit, drug addiction prevention, increased mental healthcare coverage, veteran care….government can do SOME of these things FAIRLY well. But the vast majority of politicians are not unlike the majority of medical doctors: while they may know a lot about some things, they know very little about fitness and nutrition, and they use their positions of authority to advance agendas that actually hurt people and small businesses.

I think if you want to pass laws that help keep fitness professionals accountable, then do it. But you don’t keep us accountable by handing us over to lobbyists, by forcing us to add to our still-extant student debt, or by allowing a lot of unnecessary red tape and poorly conceived, poorly rolled out regulation to dissuade people who genuinely want to help others from entering this industry which needs them.

Thank you for reading.

How Do I Tell the Good Fitness Information from the Bad?

There are three questions to ask when you’re trying to determine if the fitness writing you’re reading or the product or supplement you’re thinking of buying or the diet you’re thinking of starting will help you at all. Like, AT ALL.

A) Does it relate to my goal?

B) Will it work for me?

C) What kind of promises does it make?

I’ll discuss these questions one at a time, as usual 🙂

Does it relate to my goal?

As I often discuss ad infinitum, if you don’t know precisely what you’re trying to do, it’s impossible to know if the information or product will help you. If you’re trying to burn fat but are not ready or willing to commit to a diet and exercise regimen, coconut oil will not only not help you but it can hold you back. If you want to get “shredded” fast, neither the Perfect Pushup nor the Perfect Pullup is perfect for that goal. And better long-term health won’t necessarily come from liquid diets, high-protein/low-carb diets, single-ingredient diets (like grapefruit or avocado), specific products like coconut oil, kale, or goji berries, or any other type of dieting fad that involves extremes of “eat this, not that.” It definitely won’t come from starvation diets.

This is because these products or fads, some of which may be useful tools, sell themselves as substitutes for a healthy lifestyle. That is, they tell you, “make this one change to your life and you’ll reach your goals!” This promise is a pretty sure sign that the product is not a good starting point. The only value these products have is as effective means of “learning the hard way,” because they so often result in failure and all of the demotivating feelings that come with it.

There is nothing wrong with the hard way as long as you actually learn from it. Besides learning and changing a particular behavior, the other outcome is that you don’t learn from it and you are hard on yourself about it. “Why can’t I just do what the guy in the commercial does and exercise with my new Perfect Pushup three times a day forever? I guess I’m just a weakling deadbeat failure.” The thing is, you can safely assume that the folks who sell these items don’t care if you use it even once after you buy it. They are trying to make money and get ahead in a crowded and competitive field.

The goals that they give you—Lose the Weight And Get Shredded NOW!—may not be the goals you need. Let’s say I’d like to be a genius mathematician. Where do I start? Trying to calculate the tensile strength of a 75-ton iron beam while undergoing the cross-directional friction of 650-ton electronic bullet train generating a drag force of (1/2)*1.2*(160^2)*0.027*42.67 amidst an air density of 1.2 at sea level, and traveling 160 kph, with a 0.027 Drag Coefficient and 420.67m equalling the total approximate underside area of the train?

Hell no! I start at the beginning that suits me. Same goes for “getting shredded!” You definitely don’t start there.

Will it work for me?

The “fitness products” industry wants you to believe there are hard and fast rules for achieving “fitness” and health, such that if a product worked for So-and-so, it’ll work for you too. Two problems with this. A) you don’t know for a fact that it worked for So-and-so. People get paid to say things all the time. And B) Different people react differently to different things. There is no guarantee that the specific strategy that worked for So-and-so will work for you. This is pure marketing.

As I said, these items for sale may be useful tools. The other side of asking, “will it work for me?”is knowing how you will integrate a specific tool into your regimen. “Integrate” is the key word, because this one product will definitely not constitute your regimen. A product that does only one thing, or a diet whose purpose is weight loss and nothing else, is not of itself a recipe for success.

Real, long-term success comes from changes in overall lifestyle that integrate (there’s that word again!) practical principles of health and fitness into your everyday decision-making process. Whereas once you might have eaten to relieve stress, now you manage stress better. Whereas you used to use alcohol consumption to get rid of bad feelings, now its occasional use creates feelings of enjoyment. Whereas energy was a diminishing resource throughout the day, now it is abundant, et cetera.

The principles that produce these types of healthy life changes are not complex. They are essentially universal strategies; they pretty much work for everyone, though to different degrees and in different ways. And there are countless ways to put them into action. This wealth of options is what seems to complicate such simple ideas as the law of thermogenesis: if your caloric intake exceeds your caloric expenditure, you will gain weight (including potentially muscle). If your caloric expenditure exceeds your caloric intake, you will lose weight (including potentially muscle). This is a scientific fact. Your body and its multitude of tissues require calories in order to maintain themselves. If you reduce your caloric intake, you create the conditions for losing unwanted bodyfat.

Now, how and where you lose weight on your body is decided by your genes, and lowering your caloric intake too much can have harmful effects like causing binges, depression, hormonal imbalances, and other non-fun. But “cutting calories” doesn’t only have to mean reducing caloric intake; if you increase your caloric expenditure by increasing exercise, this also has the effect of cutting calories. So doing both, with a decent level of variety in both as well—NOT just one food product, or one type of exercise, or one type of ANYTHING—is the answer.

You see, ideas like this, which are so basic and straightforward and universal, so general and clearcut and unsexy, and place an emphasis on personal responsibility, are not as marketable as, “use this, get that!” The question, therefore, must not be simply “will it work for me?” but “will it work in my overall strategy to improve my health and well-being?” Which leads me to the last of the three questions:

What kind of promises does it make?

It shouldn’t be construed from what I’m saying that integrating helpful principles—no matter how simple they are—into your life and seeing great results is at all easy. It is hard, and it takes time. “Knowing” and “doing” are two different things, after all. Fitness products, however, often want fitness to look easy to achieve: instant gratification, without the work, without the big, disruptive lifestyle changes. You say, “Gimme!” and pay $49.95 for a book or a doorway pullup bar, and within the month, sixpack abs, a skinny waist, a massive chest, and an attractive butt will suddenly say hello to you in the mirror one morning.

The product may promise things like, “See Insane Results in Just Four Weeks!” or “The One, The Secret, The Answer, to All of Your Diet Prayers!” But the truth is simple, and it hurts: the only promises any fitness product can truly make are the promises you make to yourself. “I promise to go from little or no regular exercise to using this piece of equipment exclusively, daily and sometimes more than once per day, and/or going from eating whatever I feel like to, instead, sticking to this restrictive diet every day, all day, for the next indefinite period, and I’ll get jacked.”

If you actually did that, you would probably NOT get jacked, but you’d likely see some results. But almost no one does either. That’s not the product failing; that’s the marketing succeeding, in tandem with a widespread lack of knowledge surrounding fitness and nutrition.

Therefore, your best bet is ignoring the product’s promises and assessing your own level of motivation and readiness to get healthier. Each product must be seen, not as a be-all, end-all, but rather as a tool that is worth adding to your collection of fitness resources. You must ask yourself, “do I know how to get the most out of this product? Is it worth spending my hard-earned money on to expand my fitness options? Or build my ability to work out at home when I can’t get to the gym? Or to work out when traveling and no gym is available? What specific area of my health will this product help me with?”

Of course, this implies that you are concerned with more than one “area”: abs, chest, butt, et cetera. You want an overall feeling of health, a holistic experience of being able to access your physical self at will, a better sense of strength and robustness and better feelings in the mirror. Such a goal is not a destination; it is a process, one with ups and downs, one that requires work and resolve, but that needn’t be torturous or mired in harsh black/white perceptions of “success” or “failure.”

It is a journey that you will choose to take when you are ready, when you feel informed and motivated and empowered, and when the pile of books and workout gear starts to bug you. The only fitness product that truly works is the one that you already own: your body. Believe in it, give it a chance to succeed, learn from its mistakes, and it will get you far. Don’t make promises; make progress.

11 Reasons You’re Not Making Gains in the Gym

This article, in all its clickbaity glory, first appeared on Puckermob.

So you have a gym routine and you’re making it happen. Hard. You’re up in that piece 4, 5, 6 times a week. Everyone there knows your face, and they know you’re as serious as a heart attack. You never go anything less than H.A.M. on any one exercise. Maybe you’ve even seen some results, and you’re well on your way to becoming a swoldier, sickbrah, or straight-up beast monster.

Assuming your cardio is on point (which it better be if rapid muscular definition is what you seek), there’s no reason you’re not tearing shirt sleeves on the daily by now. But you’re not.

I’m willing to bet 5 lbs of quality gains that at least one of the following reasons is to blame.

Now before I go through the list, keep in mind the following truth: muscle takes time to grow. The massive dudes and gals you see on the cover of muscle magazines work LONG hours and MANY years to look like that. And many of them have help, if you know what I mean.

Just sayin.

Regardless, it takes a long time to healthily damage muscle tissue and have it regenerate with more of itself. It just does. Accept it.

Now, without further ado, here are the 11 reasons you’re not making gains in the gym.

1) Not enough sleep

Sleep is when most of your muscular regeneration occurs. If you are busting your ass at the gym, but also have to study for finals that night or write a 10-page paper, or you have to work a job early the next morning, there’s a good chance your hard work in the gym is being squandered.

Learn to make time specifically for sleep. You wouldn’t skip squats on Leg Day (I hope! assuming you’re able to do them). So don’t sacrifice sleep either. It is arguably the most important thing for your goals, aside from training and nutrition.

2) Too much bodyfat

Now, don’t overthink this one. The fact is, you may have made muscular gains, but they are simply not as visible as they might be if you had less bodyfat.

This is the problem with training purely for aesthetic reasons: sports-oriented exercisers train to gain muscle; aesthetic-oriented exercisers train to gain visible muscle. Muscular gain in a sport is generally considered an improvement no matter how visible it is. But if you just want to look swole and shredded, the improvements you definitely and deservedly made don’t seem as significant if they are not visible.

So, you can either adjust your priorities to be less aesthetic-oriented (lol, although it’s a good idea), or increase your level of aerobic exercise and/or reduce your caloric intake (see #6). Doing so will start to attack the fat so the muscular gains are more visible.

3) Wrong rep ranges

Most of us start out doing three sets of ten repetitions in the gym. This is good. Between 6 and 12 reps is a great rep range for muscle growth (also known as hypertrophy), based on what we know.

However, it’s good to change things up every once in a while. The higher the amount of repeitions, the more you’ll be building muscular endurance, which is probably not what you’re looking for, although this does allow weight-training to serve as aerobic exercise (see #2)

The lower the amount of repetitions, the more you’ll be training for Strength increases, rather than hypertrophy. If your progress with lifting has stalled, maybe it’s time to train for strength for a while. Try 4 sets of 5 reps for a month or two, and then come back to the 6-12 range in a month or two, or six.

4) Too much isolation

There’s a good chance you’re not at a point of training where you need to be working on “bringing up” your soleus, pectoralis minor, teres major, or serratus muscle. Compound movements (meaning multi-muscle) like squat, deadlift, bench press, pullup, overhead press, bent-over row, and plank, and variations on them, are far better at building muscle because the larger muscle groups (chest, back, legs, and all three deltoids) are able to lift heavier loads than the small muscle groups (biceps, triceps, individual deltoids, calves, or any other smaller muscle). Therefore, compound movements are able to build more muscle in a shorter amount of time.

Later, when you’ve built a sturdy foundation of muscle through compound movements, THEN you’ve earned the right to spend time on isolation movements, to “bring up” that lagging rear deltoid, pesky long tricep head, or stubborn vastus medialis. (google it).

5) Overtraining

Recovery is essential. If you constantly are sore when you work out, you’re not giving your muscles time to regenerate before training them again. This will, naturally, inhibit growth, not to mention other things: sleep quality, appetite, hormone production, and general energy levels. Rule of thumb: give each muscle group 72 hours to recover before training it again.

6) Not enough calories

This one is simple. In order to build muscle, you must be in a caloric surplus. It doesn’t have to be a 2000-calories surplus, but ANY surplus really. This means you must track your calories to make sure you’re getting enough calories. How do you know how many calories you need, you ask? Use a Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) calculator like this one to find out how many calories you need to lose, maintain, or gain weight, and adjust from there.

A wise bodybuilder once said, “I’d rather miss a full day of workouts than one meal.” That’s right; he said “workouts,” meaning he works out more than once a day. Do NOT use this as an excuse to miss workouts of course; just use it as an indicator of how important meals are, and how much of a lifestyle “making gains” can become. Which leads me to:

7) Shit diet and crap lifestyle

The importance of protein is often overstated in articles like this, while getting high-quality calories throughout your macronutrient intake (protein, carbohydrates, and fats) is often overlooked. If you eat processed high-calorie, nutrient-deficient foods, you will likely gain unwanted weight and feel like crap all the time.

Focus on nutrient-dense foods: lean or plant-based proteins, leafy greens, colorful veggies, whole grains, sweet fruits, healthy fats, and starchy carbs full of vitamins and fiber like red sweet potatoes.

Make this focus part of a change in your lifestyle: from only caring about gains, to caring about being the best, strongest, and healthiest version of yourself possible. Get good sleep, drink lots of water, deal productively with stress, and learn to overcome fears. Sound simple, right? One step at a time.

If gains are super-important to you, you might have to sacrifice other things in your life, like staying up late, partying, not caring about what you eat, et cetera. If you realize gains are not THAT important to you, that’s fine. Just focus on being healthy then, and put your energy into things that really matter to you.

8) Too much alcohol

This also ties into lifestyle. Alcohol has been shown to inhibit muscle regeneration and the production of hormones including testosterone. The research has not been conclusive, but highly suggests a link, especially when it comes to habitual or binge intake. The very good website Breaking Muscle discusses this in greater depth here.

Additionally, alcohol=calories, and these calories might be holding you back (see #2 again). I get it, we want to get jacked during the day and then party at night and enjoy our “aesthetic lifestyles.” I hear you. But you have to decide what your ultimate priority is: fitting in with those around you, or getting the best results you can get. If complete alcohol abstinence is too much for you to even contemplate, make moderation the key.

9) Poor form

If your movements are bad, your results will be bad. How are you supposed to build size in your quads by squatting if all the weight is on your toes? How are you supposed to build your chest by bench pressing if your arms are all flared out and your delts and back muscles are doing all the work? You can’t. So, research better form or have a trainer or experienced lifter (one who’s not snarled with injuries) show you how it’s done.

Additionally, poor form is a recipe for an injury (see #10, duh).

10) You have pain

Does your back hurt doing deadlifts? Do your knees hurt doing squats? Do your shoulders hurt doing rowing movements? THIS IS NOT OKAY. Don’t try to “power through” pain; it will only get worse and eventually lead to a real injury.

See a doctor if you can, get some scans and tests done. Meanwhile, research avoiding specific pains by altering your form, and possibly changing or removing exercise movements that simply don’t agree with your body. There are so many types of squats and deadlifts and pressing movements to choose from, there’s bound to be something you can work with.

And last, but certainly not least:

11) Impatience and Inconsistency

As I said earlier, muscle growth takes time. If you get impatient and are inconsistent with your training, or gosh forbid, give up because it’s too hard, you won’t see any gains and the gains you ‘ve made will likely suffer for it. Stand above and beyond the poseurs who just want instant gratification without having to work for it. If you want to look a certain way, feel a certain way, you must decide to take the time and put in the work, and DO IT, and then your goals will be within reach.

And there you have it. The eleven reasons you’re not making gains. I hope you’ve been able to identify the cause of your perceived lack of progress, and can now start to correct it. Now go lift!

Why Compound Movements?

A few people (all in real life, kinda ironically) have asked me about my Facebook post, which went something like this:

MUSCLE: Compound movements
STRENGTH: Compound movements
WEIGHT LOSS: Compound movements
TONING: Compound movements
ABS: Compound movements
BUTT: Compound movements

Eat, sleep, hydrate, de-stress, express

So what is this supposed to mean? Do I see compound movement as some kind of panacea, to cure the common cold, end world hunger, and even makes julienne fries?

Nah. But it is something special.

First of all, what is a compound movement? “Compound” generally refers to any exercise that involves the movement of more than one muscle, and/or the movement of more than one joint. Single-muscle movements, by contrast, are referred to as isolation movements.

Why would I prescribe compound movements for pretty much every goal, and for pretty much every body? Well, first I should mention that I wouldn’t tell a person with a back injury to start deadlifting or a lady in her seventies to squat her bodyweight right off the bat. My recommendations are always based on the client’s fitness goals, and that includes starting where their current fitness level demands. However, in general, I would use regressions of these movements and work the client up to the point where they work best.

On the surface, weightlifting seems to accomplish only one thing: building muscle. But the act of building muscle can accomplish many other things: increase metabolism (by increasing the Basal Metabolic Rate, or BMR), build core strength and improve posture, burn bodyfat and reduce its appearance, heighten endurance, build mental toughness, reduce the appearance of wrinkles, and other concrete benefits. And compound movements such as the squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, pullup, bent-over row, plank, lunge, and tricep dip, and all of their myriad variations, are the most effective and efficient way to build muscle.

I should note here that I appreciate the field of exercise known as “functional movement,” which generally refers to exercises that are either a) “functional” meaning useful, in that they are supposed to mimic everyday movements such as picking up a suitcase or reaching high overhead, or b) “functional” meaning involving more physical functions, and generally are combinations of two or more exercise. Why? Because they are fun and helpful to a lot of people! Really, whatever gets results is what counts! There is no absolute right way. Besides, functional training includes lots of compound movements anyhow.

What are the strength benefits of compound movements? Exercising the larger muscle groups, and the involvement of more muscles in a compound movement, results in greater muscle fiber recruitment and a greater level of healthy muscle tearing, which leads to the growth of more muscle. Whether for strength or aesthetics, more muscle is what we want.

This is not to say that we always want to recruit every muscle in our body in every lift (except as a technique practiced by powerlifters). Rather, being able to execute effective compound movements leads to more effective overall growth in each muscle group—chest, back, legs, arms, and shoulders—because of that higher muscle fiber recruitment. Isolation movements, by definition, involve fewer muscles, and so create less muscle growth. So promoting the use of compound movements means emphasizing working the large muscle groups over the smaller ones.

Are isolation movements useless then, and should we never work smaller muscles like the biceps, calves, and individual deltoids? Hell no! For the purpose of corrective exercise, when one muscle is compensating for the weakness of another in a specific movement, it is extremely helpful to be able to isolate that particular weak muscle for the purpose of strengthening it so that it “pulls it weight.”

Also, for the task of “bodybuilding,” which has aesthetics as its main goal, isolation movements can play a great part. Let’s say, like me, you are a tall guy and you’ve been working your arms just fine—your pullup and bench press aren’t suffering at all—but doing only compound movements isn’t hitting your forearms with enough stimulation to make them grow proportional to the rest of your arms. Doing some dedicated forearm work using isolation movements makes perfect sense.

Also, in order to obtain proportionality, it is necessary to hit the muscle from many different angles in one sitting, hence this is another important use of isolation movements in the context of bodybuilding. Rather than doing five types of squat in one leg workout, which would be inefficient, a bodybuilder might finish his or her allowance of squats and then proceed to perform various isolation movements in order to target each individual muscle of the quadriceps (front of thigh) to make sure that every molecule of muscle fiber has been stimulated and placed in the conditions for maximal growth. This makes a lot of sense too.

Lastly, let’s say you’re working on your deep squat, but you have trouble standing back up. Maybe a little direct glute or hamstring work would help you get through that sticking point. You’re closing a gap in the movement pattern.

However, with regard to the average person trying to grow some muscle and get healthier, it is important not to over-burden the lower back by subjecting it to endless loading such as occurs in conventional deadlifts and squats. Ideally, we would all build strong enough cores, cultivate supreme balance, and reach the height of joint health such that we could bombard our spines with heavy loads day in and day out. And this is an excellent fitness goal, only achievable by….you guessed it: daily compound movements in an extremely regimented fashion! And that is essentially what powerlifters and Olympic weightlifters do, less concerned with aesthetics and more with performance.

For most of us, isolation movements should serve to round out a compound movement-centered exercise program, so that the desired muscles receive adequate stimulation to correct imbalances and achieve growth, and your body and health develop holistically, rather than as a set of disconnected components that don’t interrelate to each other.

Another use for isolation movements may arise when, after working with compound movements for a while, you find that your progress in a particular movement is starting to “plateau.” Excluding the possibility (and likelihood) that form is the problem, it’s possible that a smaller muscle involved in that lift is lagging, even while the bigger muscle is excelling. For instance, the triceps are involved in bench pressing, even though it is predominantly an exercise of the chest. If your bench press just suddenly refuses to respond one day, maybe your triceps would benefit from some special attention. (But before you hit the triceps pushdown, there’s a compound movement for that! Dips! Or close-grip bench press!)

Or if you just can’t seem to overhead squat without hyperextending your lower back, perhaps some isolated core/ab work would help (like the plank, another compound movement, for example!)

Or perhaps your back is growing but your arms are in a rut. One answer would be bicep curls—a fine isolation movement—to spur arm growth. Another answer—a compound answer!—might be to perform weighted supinated pullups (also known as chinups) instead of regular pullups.

As I’ve indicated, altering the particulars of a compound movement will generally help to address issues of plateaus while allowing you to maximize muscle recruitment and maintain overall progress in that lift, whereas using isolation movement usually engenders a reduction of muscle recruitment, and, theoretically, time wasted that you could be spending on more productive, more badass compound lifts!

But all kidding aside, no time spent exercising is truly time wasted if there is a concrete goal in mind. When it comes to better health, more lean body mass, higher metabolism, and the other benefits I mentioned above, any resistance training program should be built around compound movements.

So, what are the weight loss and toning benefits of compound movements? As a medium-term strategy for weight-loss, and in conjunction with a healthy diet, compound movements come out far ahead of isolation movements. Working larger muscle groups, and more muscles in general, burns more calories while training. Additionally, calories continue to be burned after training as the muscles repair themselves, and even MORE caloric expenditure is occurring thereafter due to the increased Basal Metabolic Rate that comes with higher percentage of lean body mass.

With proper instruction and well-grasped form, compound movements can be employed to perform fast-paced, cardio-like exercise (for example, bodyweight squats for one minute, followed by pushups for one minute), which accomplishes greater caloric burn in a shorter amount of time than the same amount of solid-state cardio like running or rowing.

Now, do compound movements build the abs? Yes, but more specifically, they build core strength. Movements that involve holding a weight steady with your upper body require (and help to create) a strong core. Isometric contraction of the core is necessary to perform the movements safely; for example, when squatting, if your core wasn’t engaged, keeping you upright and strong, you’d fall forward! A lot of plateaus and injuries occur because of poor core strength during compound movements.

Performing endless crunches, as an isolation exercise, may possess the benefits of isolation that I describe above. But they rarely help to build true functional core strength. Rather, core strength is built most effectively when isometric contractions of the core musculature are integrated into compound exercises to prevent unwanted movement. Put in plain English, “bracing” the core while performing a squat or a deadlift helps protect the lower back during that movement, which is a skill that extend into everyday functional movements. Here is a short video demonstrating proper breathing technique.

Speaking of the core, compound movements like the deadlift, squat, and lunge are ideal for building the glutes, which is not usually considered a core muscle. But trust me, it is one. It keeps you strong and stable doing these exercises and gets you out of that low position….that is, if you are able to fire your glutes correctly.

Having a strong butt is so important in getting the most out of these movements that the aesthetic improvements should be seen as a bonus. Because so many of us are sitting all day at work and then at home in front of Netflix (nothing inherently wrong with that; just stating a fact), our butt muscles get weak and basically useless. Our hamstrings get tight, limiting our hip mobility. As a result, getting up out of chairs without using our arms, or “lifting with our legs,” becomes much more difficult. This sets us up for back injuries of all kinds.

So, the fact that they help build strong glutes is yet another reason to do compound movements. (If you’d like to start safely building your glutes, do an internet search for “glute bridge exercise” and go from there.)

So these are just a few of the reasons I’m so fond of compound movements. And I should point out one important thing: women shouldn’t worry about getting “bulky” from doing them. It’s generally impossible for women to naturally gain “mannish” levels of muscles for the simple reason that they lack the necessary levels of testosterone. Plus, I’ve never heard of anyone of any gender getting “bulky” by accident.

So, start building your exercise routines around compound movements, and start seeing the meaning of “results.”

The Three Criteria of Whether Something is “Good For You”

Instant gratification is a powerful expectation. Once we become accustomed to it, it can define the value of something, just by giving us that initial, endorphin-filled feeling of “now I have it!”

When it comes to fitness and nutrition, though, this “instinct” can hold us back. There are no quick fixes to becoming healthy, losing weight, or gaining muscle.

Every week, another product appears on the market whose claims of being “what you need” to reach your goals sweeps the nutrition field: apple cider vinegar, coconut oil, kale, açaĂ­, goji berries, garcinia cambogia, white grapefruit, paleo and other low-carb diets, et cetera.

But none of these products or routes is “THE” answer. The actual answer is not to make one or two or three changes while keeping everything else the same. It is, instead, to transition into a healthy lifestyle wherein your health and longevity play a key role in your decision-making. The questions of “is this [food or activity] healthy?” and “will this [food or activity] positively contribute to my health and fitness goals?” should constitute a significant portion of your daily conscious thinking, and active measures to accomplish these ends should constitute a significant part of your daily conscious action.

This is, of course, dependent on having fitness goals. So you must be empowered to think knowledgeably in order to set them, and to act confidently on that knowledge in order to meet them.

This transition is easier for some people than it is for other people. It has a lot to do with your current level of health, your day-to-day schedule, your mentalities, your upbringing, and your relationship (or lack thereof) with physical exercise. Just changing from little or no conscious thought about fitness to some conscious thought about it is a challenge for many people, never mind reaching the point where it is regularly considered and acted upon on a daily basis.

Part of the reason for this is the perceived “learning curve.” All of our lives, we are told to become educated in our field of study and profession in order to get ahead in those fields. But rarely are we told to, “educate yourself on maintaining good cardiorespiratory health!” “Learn about retaining insulin sensitivity!” “Develop a firm grasp on how antioxidants CAN EXTEND YOUR LIFE AND FIGHT DISEASE!”

Gym class is of little help. Now, I’m not trying to blame Phys Ed. teachers here, but gym class should be about more than either learning how to play floor hockey, or learning how to get out of playing floor hockey. It should be about learning why floor hockey or any other physical activity is important to your life, and if you don’t like floor hockey, here’s a bazillion other options to choose from.

Similarly, we aren’t told much about the value of nutrient-dense food over nutrient-deficient food, at least not before college. The roles of protein, carbohydrates, fats, and fiber are barely understood by the general populace. Rarely do we hear about the law of thermogenics in relation to health: “if calorie intake exceeds calorie expenditure, you will gain weight. If caloric expenditure exceeds caloric intake, you will lose weight.” How many times did you hear about how awful heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and hypertension are, without being told how to prevent them besides “eat your vegetables”?

Like I said, different people learned about these subjects differently, so maybe you learned about them just fine, and maybe you are doing just fine with your fitness level right now (I hope). But many people’s understanding of them is deficient; even if they are excellent at building a house, balancing a budget, writing a novel, or raising a child, staying and feeling healthy is something they just can’t seem to nail down.

There are so many voices in the media and everywhere telling us to do a million different things in order to “get fit.” Healthy, “fit” people seem to have mastered these million things, while everyone else is still struggling. Those who were brought up to have a positive relationship to physical exercise have an advantage, and everyone else has a disadvantage. In neither case, of being “born into” healthy habits or overcoming unhealthy ones and embracing a healthy lifestyle, does it occur overnight. And keep in mind, you can’t always tell how healthy a person is by looking at them.

The “secret” that many successfully healthy people have learned is what I am right about to share with you. The three criteria for knowing whether something—a food or an activity—is good for you, are the following:

1. Does it fall within my health restrictions, if any, caused by a medical condition such as lactose-intolerance, Celiac’s disease, Crohn’s disease, or high cholesterol? If so, do not eat it.

2. Is it aligned with my sense of ethics? You should not eat anything that you don’t approve of, ethically. Avoiding moral compromises helps to reinforce feelings of self-control, discipline, and long-term thinking, and produce an “eating to live” mentality, rather than a “living to eat” mentality.

3. Does it fit my fitness goals? If you want to run marathons, you will need carbohydrates in your diet. If you want that “dry, shredded look,” carbs are a no-no. The health value of any food is almost completely dependent on what you are trying to achieve. Of course, reaching your daily intake goal for fats could be achieved by eating bacon, or by eating avocado, and I would be hard-pressed not to say that one is healthier than the other, especially if one of your fitness goals is longevity.

Another simple criterion you could consider in deciding if a food is good for you is its nutritional content. If it is rich in nutrients, it is good for you. If it isn’t, or if it is also rich in bad things like saturated fat, cholesterol, or added sugar, it is bad for you or should at least be eaten in moderation.

The majority of your foods should be nutrient-dense, whole food (unprocessed or minimally processed) options that leave as little question of their nutritional value as possible. Nutrient-dense whole foods have many benefits: they keep us feeling full longer due to higher fiber content. They give us more sustained energy because they are more vitamin-rich and their carbohydrates are broken down more slowly. Due to that increased energy, they complement our exercise routines. And, they contain more water to help us stay hydrated and reduce water retention (“water weight”).

The trick to remember, no matter how “healthy” all of your foods are, is that law of thermodynamics: “if caloric intake exceeds caloric expenditure, you will gain weight. If caloric expenditure exceeds caloric intake, you will lose weight.” So if you did nothing but “eat your vegetables” for 3000 calories a day, there’s a good chance you’d gain weight.

That’s because there is no “quick fix,” whereby “you do this and ONLY this, and all of your health worries will be solved.” No. The marketing value of such products is that, once you’ve implemented them, they free you from the burden of having to think about health and fitness, or change anything else about your life.

The truth is, health and fitness require sustained informed thought and decisionmaking, and conscious choice. In other words, it requires some thinking and some time out of your life to really make it happen. But isn’t your health worth it? Wouldn’t it feel good to know that your decisions are based on achieving a larger purpose, and the stress of “not knowing what you’re doing” can be replaced with the empowered feeling of being a nutritional badass?

Now, another question is, do these criteria reduce food and exercise to mere instruments for larger goals, alienating them from their individual pleasurable attributes? Do they demystify flavor and apply a utilitarian purpose to every macro- and micronutrient? Do they encourage every food-related decision to be considered and thought about and monitored, and thereby remove the joy of eating?

I would say no, they don’t. What they do is repurpose food to suit a greater purpose than the hunger or flavor of the moment. Hunger and flavor are indeed important, and needn’t be left behind. But the stress and destructive cycles that mindless, uninformed, or confused consumption can cause should indeed be left behind immediately. There is a very clear pleasure and reward to eating and living with your health being an end result. It is its own reward.

Plus: kale, watercress, avocado, pistachios, chickpeas, arugula, pineapple, kiwi, black beans, oatmeal with ground flaxseed and agave, baked sweet potato, and a million other things are delicious! But, like floor hockey, health is an acquired taste. All it takes is learning how to skate in a straight line, and you’re 100% closer to success than you were before.

Solutions: Positive/Creative versus Negative/Destructive

Here is a little philosophical breakdown of decision-making, and a way to look at solutions that might clarify the implications of choosing one thing over another. It might sound a little new-agey, a little hippied out, but really it has nothing to do with “energy,” “spirits,” or “the earth mother.” It’s just a way of thinking about things, and I’m still developing it.


Part of my job as a personal trainer is to help the client understand what a solution is. This is how I define a solution: an expression of a reaction to a problem that attempts to address the problem.

There are different types of solutions. One of the central premises of this article is that most bad habits are the result of stress and attempting to find solutions for stress. A chosen activity initially serves as possibly healthy or at least non-harmful outlet for stress, only to become a harmful habit that seems to be out of the client’s control.

As fitness professionals, we are trying to curb harmful behaviors that are often the result of stress, like stress-eating. In turn, our aim should be to help the client identify the root causes of stress in his life so that the stress itself, and the harmful behavior that arises from it, can be not only “dealt with” but eliminated. In order to do so, we must affirm the client’s feeling of control over his own life.

Seeing a solution as an “expression of a reaction” puts responsibility for the chosen solution solely on the client. When he’s stressed out, one possible solution is to exercise, while another is to eat something fun and unhealthy. Both are reactions to a problem (stress) in an attempt, consciously or unconsciously, to address it in some way that alleviates it. That is, there is reasoning behind it.

Seeing decision-making in this way divests it of any intrinsic “rightness” or “wrongness” and attempts, instead, to assign a logical reasoning to his reaction, whether it is a potentially harmful reaction (like overeating to deal with stress) or a beneficial one (like exercising to deal with stress). It helps him cultivate a sense of conscious decision-making and in turn empowers him to decide in what way he wants to express his reactions to stress, or indeed any other problem.

He is also able to see how a chosen solution to a short-term problem interacts with a longer-term goal, which is the first step in helping him make better decisions overall.

There are two parts of any solution: the product, and the expression. These parts form the two main categories of solutions: positive/creative and negative/destructive.

THE PRODUCT

The solution’s product is what the solution is intended to accomplish. The product is either positive or negative.

Positive: intended to produce SOMETHING; a concrete material result.

Negative: intended to GET RID of something; a deliberate absence of concrete material result.

THE EXPRESSION

The solution’s expression determines the manner in which the solution is implemented and reflects the way in which problems are viewed. The expression of the solution is either creative or destructive.

Creative expression: the active use of creative thinking to produce ways of dealing with the problem that further or maintain bigger-picture goals. Problems represent potential creative outlets. Dependent on a knowledge of alternatives.

Destructive expression:  the passive reliance on habits which operate at the expense of bigger picture goals. Problems remove the capacity for creative thinking. Occurs when there seems to be no clear alternative.

Now, a note about all this: there is no value judgment implied by my use of the words “negative” and “destructive.” The terms are meant as purely descriptive. When a person removes unhealthy food from his house, that is a negative solution in that it is intended to produce the absence of something, but it is certainly not a bad one. The positive solution would be to obtain healthy food, which is the next step he should take.

Similarly, consuming low-quality proteins or sugars to recover from a workout could be described as destructive because doing so may not be in line with nutrition goals, even though the net effect of doing so may very well be beneficial, psychologically if not physically. The creative expression would have been to consume adequate protein throughout the day so that post-workout recovery is not necessary, or to seek out healthier, better alternative protein and carb sources. Again, this is the next step in the client’s progress.

In our complex lives, of course some negative and destructive solutions may be necessary and are okay. If a person thinks too much about what the perfect decision is, it’s easy to become paralyzed by fear of making the wrong choice. As in the two examples above, if a certain action helps the client progress ultimately, or stay the course, there is no need to be pessimistic and dismissive of these beneficial solutions.

Just the opposite: the negative/destructive solutions usually come first (“I’m not going to eat any candy today,” which is a negative solution), and the positive/creative solutions come later, when the client is actually becoming accustomed to a healthy lifestyle (“I’m going to eat fruit to deal with my sugar cravings,” which is a positive solution).

Essentially, this way of thinking about solutions is a tool for trainers, clients and people in general. It is not meant to serve as a strict be-all end-all perspective on the subject. Rather, it can help clarify the impact of our decision-making on our health and hone the skill of being solution-oriented.

So What Does This Mean To The Trainer?

It is the trainer’s job to provide the client with a knowledge of alternative means of dealing with problems. For example,

-Sugar craving? Your body wants sugar, so eat fruit!

-No motivation? It’s not the quality of your character! It’s the quality of your SLEEP! Get better sleep! And eat nutrient-rich food, not insulin-spiking empty calories!

-No time to exercise? Identify habits/routines that don’t help you (stopping at Starbucks in the morning, TV-watching, staring into space during lunch hour, and the like), and spend that time doing something that WILL help you!

-Don’t like broccoli? Let’s try cooking it differently! Or try a different green veggie!

Oddly enough, these alternatives are not common knowledge. They are generally not divined by extreme concentration, nor are they automatically understood by “good” people while “bad” people remain ignorant of them. They are simply learned and taught, like any other technique, and this is where the trainer comes in. Learning such simple alternatives allows the client to view a problem as a creative outlet, instead of relying on habits in the face of adversity, habits which can create more adversity by taking away his sense of control.

Stress and poor self-esteem are both caused by feelings of having no control, or helplessness. In order to reverse their effect, the client must be made to feel that he is not ruled by habits; rather, his decisions are his own and his life is under his control, if not all of it then at least aspects of it. It must be allowed to start somewhere, and that “somewhere” can be his habits.

Recognizing that stress-eating, or any other harmful habit, is a rational reaction to stress—and does indeed seem to help in the short-term, otherwise why do it?—is the first step towards cultivating the client’s understanding that he is in control, that the stress-eating is a habit that he continues to decide to engage in. His body is registering a strain, and he doing something in order to ease that strain. Makes sense to me.

The next step is identifying alternative solutions that replace his feelings of helplessness with feelings of empowerment, and that award him with results, both physical (like weight loss) and psychological (like feeling good about himself). This holistically ties the impact of his decision-making and his lifestyle to his overall physical health, which should be the goal of any fitness professional.

Thank you for reading!