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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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, açaí, 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.