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.

Why Fad Diets Usually Fail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whew. Almost went off on a rant there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3) Improve the whole by improving its parts.

Now go forth and modify!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.