We’re convinced that the key to success at the gym requires long hours, but is that really the case?
I recently watched a documentary called The Magic Pill by director, Rob Tate. In it, he highlights several cases where a change of diet is used to overcome illnesses such as autism, cancer, diabetes, and heart disease.
The movie has gotten its fair share of criticism for being part of the rash of trendy food documentaries that are scaring people into thinking that a particular diet is better than all the others. I don't condone these movies and see them for what they're worth: advertising for warring food companies. In my mind, the key is developing some critical thinking skills that allow us to parse the true from the false.
Because buried in all the propoganda and counterpropoganda is some truth:
Food is medicine.
The body uses food to fuel everything it does and the quality of the food is critical to the performance of the body. It's not unlike a car depending on high quality gasoline.
The body is capable of adjusting to whatever the environment sends its way. If a sugar-laden soft drink enters the body, it does one thing; if a steak shows up, it does something different. If a virus makes its way into the body, it reacts one way; and if ragweed pollen shows up, it responds differently.
This is all the result of the body's desire to achieve homeostasis. Life can only persist under the right conditions and all living organisms have mechanisms to regulate the conditions and keep them alive. So even though the environment is constantly changing, the body senses the changes and tries to adjust all of its processes to keep things the same.
So any condition where the body changes, like weight gain or illness, is a sign that the body is trying to respond to some bad input.
So why is it that people believe that fitness is the key to meaningful weight loss?
If you feed a car bad gas and clog up the fuel injectors, do you fix it by running it harder? Of course not.
But for the past 50 years or so, humans have been convinced that exercise is the key to losing weight. That somehow, muscle is the solution to the poor quality of our food supply. Because adding high-performance tires and taking a cross-country road trip will clean out those clogged fuel injectors, right??
There are a lot of great benefits to working out. You can get stronger to do all the things that you need to do in your daily life. By working with a movement expert, you can learn how to move properly to minimize damage to the joints. You can increase your stamina so that you can continue to do the things you love for longer periods of time. You can improve the aesthetics of your body by building up muscle in specific areas. There are even emotional benefits that come from pushing yourself physically.
But the musculoskeletal system is not directly responsible for managing weight gain/loss, so using fitness as the primary means of losing weight is a waste of time.
Any experienced, certified personal trainer will tell you: "Abs are made in the kitchen" or "You can't out-exercise a bad diet". We've known this for as long as human beings have walked the Earth.
This is not to say that fitness plays zero part in weight loss. After all, the muscles use energy that comes from food. But the part that they play is so infinitesimally small compared to proper nutrition that the biggest sustainable gains are almost entirely from changing what & how you eat. I work out because I enjoy improving my strength, endurance, movement, and the emotional benefits; not because it's going to help me lose weight.
So if food is the key to weight manipulation, is it so far-fetched to think that the body, in its search for homeostasis, could also change other aspects of itself in response to the things it ingests? Not at all.
It's no surprise that the rise in obesity and incidences of diabetes, heart disease, etc. have all taken place in the last 50 years where our focus on fitness has caused us to take our eye off the ball that really matters: our food.
Back in college, in the middle of studying for one particularly rough round of finals, one of my friends told the rest of our study group that he would normally go to the driving range to release some stress. Since we were all very stressed out, we decided to take a break and visited the local driving range together.
I consider myself an athletic guy, since I’ve played all sorts of sports and athletic endeavors (including baseball, which is relevant to this story), so I picked up a club and started whacking away at the ball. Often, I made contact (thanks to being blessed with fair hand-eye coordination) and the ball would go sailing. Where did it go? At the time, I didn’t care and it wasn’t the point. It was just fun to smack the little white ball.
And so began my first golfing experience...
Fast forward a few years.
I got invited to play an actual round of golf by some members of my team at one of my first managerial jobs. One of the guys lent me his spare golf club set and they gave me a quick explanation of the rules. My first game was nothing spectacular. I spent a lot of time chasing that little white ball back and forth, under trees, in the sand, on the cart paths, behind bushes. I was told I could stop counting when I got to double bogey.
And so began my golfing career.
Fast forward several more years.
I’ve played in a lot of work tournaments and spontaneous games with friends or colleagues. They invariably go the same way. I try to have fun but I have what most people call a tremendous slice.
For those of you non-golfers, a slice means that when I make contact with the ball, it takes off like it’s going to go straight and then makes a hard right turn. The ball usually ends up somewhere that it shouldn’t and I spend much of my time trying to get back in the vicinity of the rest of the people with whom I’m playing. By the end of 18 holes, I’m frustrated and swearing that I will never play again. As a result, I haven’t been terribly passionate about it and rarely play more than once or twice a year.
For me, as a relatively athletic individual with good kinaesthetic control and an engineer that is acutely aware of details, golf has been an enigma. I respect the game and acknowledge the fact that there are so many factors that affect the flight and spin of the ball. I’ve been to PGA events where I have been in awe, watching professionals who make it seem so effortless. And yet, it eludes me.
I’ve gotten advice from the hundreds of people that I’ve played with. Everyone sees how I swing and has a solution: swing slower, swing faster, open the club face, close the club face, drop the shoulder, swing level, buy different equipment, blah, blah, blah… I’ve sincerely tried every piece of advice I’ve gotten and very few have had even the slightest positive effect. It’s so bad, I have even tried accounting for my crazy slice by aiming completely away from where I want the ball to go! With each attempt I’ve made, I’ve been left even more deflated that perhaps it’s just not in me. I’m just not capable of being a good golfer.
Fast forward to the present.
Living in NC, we’re surrounded by some of the best golf courses and incredible weather. In spite of my troubles playing the game, I still enjoy walking the course and being outside, so I’ve come to accept my golf game and laugh it off.
And now, I want to share this with my wife. But I can see that as she’s starting her golf journey, she’s getting frustrated because the ball is doing all sorts of crazy things for her as well. I know I can’t help her since I can’t help myself and I don’t want her frustration to grow to the point where she resents the game.
So I did something different: I bought her an hour lesson with a golf pro. I wanted her experience to be better than mine has been.
We showed up at the driving range for her lesson and I had no clue how it was going to go. Surprisingly, in that single lesson, this pro took a look at her swing and gave her little tweaks to correct her technique in a non-threatening way. Her confidence was soaring. She was launching some perfectly straight shots and having fun! Is this what golf is supposed to be?? Have I been doing it wrong all along? Is it really within reach for everyone?
At the end of the hour, I was so impressed with her progress that I immediately purchased an hour lesson for myself. It took one swing for him to identify what the problem was. I spent a lot of my youth playing baseball; it was my favorite sport. I was locked into the various ways to swing a baseball bat and it was ingrained in my body. So when I transitioned to golf, I picked up the golf club like it was my bat and let it rip. After all, a swing is a swing, right? It turns out, not so much…
I was initiating the swing with my legs, which is a typical baseball swing. But in golf, the swing begins with the core; it’s the trunk rotation that does the brunt of the work. It’s a subtle biomechanical difference, but enough of a difference that it would send my ball flying scattershot. That hour has opened up a whole new world for me.
This past weekend, I spent my first hour at the driving range since that lesson and for the first time ever, I was hitting the ball straight more consistently than I have ever done. During the lesson, we didn't even look at the driver; but on this day, I wanted to test out my learning. I have literally never hit the driver straight more than an occasional lucky shot. But I launched 5 straight gorgeous drives in a row! I was having a blast and was looking forward to actually getting on the course as soon as possible!
So aside from being a great story in perseverance, what does this have to do with the rest of you?
Well, I’ve learned a few lessons that I want to share with you:
- A lot of people really don’t know how to swing a golf club. I have received all sorts of well-intended advice and none of it made any sort of difference in improving my game. My guess is that many of my friends started their golf experiences in much the same way I did: just hacking away. But some of them got lucky and through some unique combination of unorthodox habits, the ball just happened to go straight! So they kept doing it. Others were not so lucky. I’ve run into many folks who had similar or worse golf swings and we were all just struggling through it together; with nobody having a clue how to fix ourselves. And that's why you see so many different types of swings. The reality is that fundamentally, there's one way to swing the club properly; but there are a million ways to compensate when you don't know the fundamentals.
- A lot of people really don’t know how to do a lot of things. We, as humans, have an overarching desire to fit in and that leads us to try to fake out everyone, including ourselves. For example, as a fitness professional, I watch what goes on around me at the gym. And I see a lot of really, REALLY bad technique. It has led me to believe that, much like a golf swing, people don’t really know what they’re doing; they’ve just been told that it’s a good idea to go out and do something, so they get out there and give it a go. It's the same thing with running; there are so many variations because nobody stopped to think what the best, most efficient way to run is. Most people just go and do it. Some people get lucky and feel something good where they want it when they hit the gym or the asphalt, so they keep doing the same thing over and over. Some are not so lucky and they start to feel a twinge in their lower back, recurring shin splints, or shoulder pain. Some may soldier through the pain, not realizing that they’re doing it to themselves, until something in their body breaks.
- Don't underestimate the emotions of being unable to do something. As much as I enjoyed getting out on the course with friends and tried to stay positive about my swing, I dreaded the moment when I had the club in my hand, standing in front of the ball. I worried that the ball would fly off and hit someone or crash through someone's window. I worried that I would have to go digging around the woods to try to find the ball so that I could continue the game while everyone was waiting for me. But more importantly, I worried that this was something I could never do right. I imagine that a lot of people feel this about their "thing", whatever that may be.
- There are a few real “professionals” out there, who take the time to really learn their craft and share that with others. It’s not easy to correct someone who is doing something wrong. First, you have to really know what you’re talking about. Then you have to be able to recognize what they’re doing wrong. Next, you have to be able to communicate how to get them from where they are to where they need to be. Lastly, you have to be able to manage the pride, fear, and other emotions that keep people from wanting to change. These talented folks are out there in just about every field of endeavor; these people who love what they do and are willing to help others figure it out for themselves. When you run across one, pay them because they’re worth it; listen to them because they will give you the truth; apply it because it will change you for the better. And when you find someone that doesn’t help you, run away! Nothing is worse physically and emotionally than bad advice.
Lastly, this has been a 20 year journey for me and I feel like I’ve wasted those 20 years. The good news is I finally figured out what I needed to do and I can spend the next 20 years working on it. I can practice intentionally and develop better habits. But it makes me acutely aware of the fact that there are a lot of people out there, struggling to figure out their “thing”. If you’re struggling with something, suck it up and get help.
And pay attention to the clues that your body is giving you. If your knees hurt when you squat, don’t keep doing it! If your elbow hurts when you hit a backhand, don’t keep doing it! If your lower back hurts when you pick something up, don’t keep doing it! If your shins hurt when you run, don't keep doing it! Get help before you do irreparable harm physically, mentally, and emotionally.
Have you been struggling to try to figure something out on your own too? I'd love to hear about your experiences in the comments or on social media. When we open ourselves up for feedback, it's uncomfortable, it pushes us to our #unsteadystate, but we grow beyond ourselves!
Since we're entering a new year, it seemed appropriate to talk a little about health, fitness, and nutrition.
As people get ready to make their New Year's resolutions, the most common resolutions revolve around "getting healthy". The problem is that there are huge misconceptions around what exactly it means to get healthy. Most people think they need to spend hours at the gym or starving themselves on some liquid cleanse. Those misconceptions are only reinforced by the marketing of all sorts of exercise equipment, shakes & supplements, or their favorite Instagram celebrities. (In their defense, if you think you're carrying the world's best hammer in your pocket, everything looks like a nail. And as an aside, if you want to know what it's really like to be an Instagram fitness celebrity, read this enlightening and honest post.)
So since everyone wants to get healthy, we should make sure we know what that means. Most people instantly equate getting healthy with having six-pack abs; but that's not the case. In the preamble to their constitution, the World Health Organization gave us this definition:
This means good health requires more than just physical fitness. We have to address emotional and social fitness as well. I believe the fact that we as a society focus so much attention on physical well-being contributes to why we have so many emotionally unstable individuals regularly in the news.
The WHO also added that health is:
Health is a tool that allows us to live our lives. If we spend our entire lives focused on being healthy, we're going to miss out on living. I've known too many people who cannot miss a day at the gym or who get ridiculously upset when they screw up their macros at a meal. This is an unhealthy and unbalanced emotional state and it could be symptomatic of other problems. Too much of a good thing isn't necessarily better; it can be just as unhealthy as choosing a bad thing.
Let's focus on physical, because when most people try to get healthy at this time of year, they're really thinking about improving physical fitness. Here again, society has people thinking that physical fitness is about having washboard abs and muscles popping. But that's not the case.
Merriam-Webster defines "fit" as:
Being fit means that we can do the things that we need to do, without illness or infirmity.
So, being fit has nothing to do with how you look; it has more to do with your environment and your body's ability to do everything it has to do.
An offensive lineman in the NFL may be 300+ pounds and look like he has a huge gut, but he is fit for the role that he plays. He needs mass to be able to push the line of scrimmage forward and/or block the opponent. His environment dictates that he needs to be big AND strong.
So in order to improve our fitness, we first need to know what our environment requires of us.
If our environment involves climbing stairs all day and we don't want to be out of breath, we should work on improving our cardiovascular endurance and leg strength.
If our environment involves carrying heavy loads for short distances and we don't want to tire out, we should work on improving our upper body strength.
But a professional marathon runner doesn't spend a lot of time power-lifting because the excess muscle will only add more load that they have to carry as they run! Power-lifting is not necessarily going to help them achieve their goals.
This is called the theory of specificity. You need to train for the specific environment you'll be in or tasks which you'll be performing.
General (non-specific) training, or functional training, can be good if you're just looking to improve general fitness. But, if, for instance, your environment doesn't require you to throw a 20 lb ball at a wall every day, you should talk to a professional to find out whether it's worth doing that particular exercise. Will it help you move in the direction of your goals or will it create obstacles for you? And if your trainer doesn't talk to you about your particular needs, find another trainer!
But what about losing weight? A lot of people resolve to lose weight. Well, the dirty little secret is that, by far, the biggest factor in losing weight is nutrition. You may have heard people say "abs are made in the kitchen" or "you can't out-exercise a bad diet". It's well-known and proven that this is the case. You can spend hours at the gym every day but it will make no difference if you're eating a diet that stores fat.
Ever notice that more people are hitting the gym than ever before? There are people going to big box gyms; they're going to boutique studios; they go to athletic/sports-based gyms; they go to yoga studios; they even use workouts at home on YouTube and other platforms. Yet for all the hours of daily exercise people are doing, we are told that the obesity rate continues to rise undeterred. Physical activity is, therefore, more than likely not the root cause; nutrition is the culprit.
Exercise can help accelerate fat loss, but the key is what you ingest, so in many cases, it's better to get the nutrition under control before stepping foot in a gym. When trying to solve a problem, the best strategy is approaching it one factor at a time so you understand how each factor contributes to the problem. The thing no one will tell you is that it's even possible to reach all your weight loss goals without ever lifting a dumbbell or jumping on a treadmill.
So if your goals revolve around weight loss and you want to make the biggest impact on your resolutions this year, consider skipping the gym. Use the time you would be at the gym developing some better habits regarding meals. Talk to a nutritionist/dietitian. Invest the time into meal planning. And once the numbers are consistently heading in the right direction, layer in some exercise to help accelerate the process.
Agree? Agree to disagree? Questioning the status quo is necessary to advancing a better understanding of things. Find your unsteady state and join the conversation.
(1) - Constitution of WHO: principles, World Health Organization, 1946, http://www.who.int/about/mission/en/
(2) - Health Promotion Glossary, World Health Organization, 1998, http://www.who.int/healthpromotion/about/HPR%20Glossary%201998.pdf
"Doing something is better than nothing."
I hear that all the time. You've probably heard it too. Heck, you've probably thought or said it. It's the mantra that most people use to get themselves to hit the gym.
But is it really better to just do something?
As a fitness professional and an engineer, I can say that I've seen a lot of weird stuff going on at the gym. The most basic movements are the squat and the push-up. Yet, relatively few people know how to squat; their chest drops, knees buckle, or the weight is on the balls of their feet. Similarly, there are people who just don't know how to do a push-up correctly.
"But wait a minute, what's the big deal? At least these people are moving. And after all, doing something is better than nothing."
To some extent, that's correct. Many, many people perform unsafe technique at the gym and walk away, seemingly with no adverse effects, so it must be ok, right? Not necessarily.
The human body has an amazing ability to adapt to stress. When it is put in a bad situation, it will leverage every available resource to allow you to proceed. Someone takes up running as a hobby and not knowing better, starts running with their knees caving inwards. Over time, the habitual act of running this way creates a chain reaction of autonomic adjustments and adaptations. The feet begin to pronate. The hips tilt posteriorly and the upper body leans forward. Each of these things on its own isn't necessarily an issue, but over time, the combination of all the adaptations could lead to debilitating, chronic pain later in life. If this person knew that 20 years from now, they'd be experiencing pain as a result of the way they worked out, do you think they'd believe that "doing something is better than nothing"? Would you?
We live inside these human bodies all day, every day, so we take them for granted. They didn't come with an instruction manual, so we just do what we do without really thinking about whether we're doing the right things. After all, everyone is out there running and jumping, so we should be able to do it too.
That's why the world-famous marketing slogan, "Just do it," resonated with so many people. We shouldn't make any excuses. Just get out there and get in the game.
The problem is just doing it can be worse for us than not doing it at all, if we don't do it correctly.
So rather than just work out or exercise, I believe we should work out purposefully. What exactly does that mean? It means that before you get started, you should take the time to answer 2 questions:
- Why am I doing this?
- Is what I'm doing getting me closer to my goal?
So for example, if I'm interested in developing stronger legs, I should probably work on squatting rather than bicep curls. If I want a strong core, I should probably do some planks or hovers. This one is kind of a no-brainer and a lot of people try to do this...
The hard part is answering the second question. It requires us to really listen to our bodies for feedback. If I'm working on squats to build stronger legs, but I'm feeling discomfort in my knees, clearly something is wrong. I shouldn't just push through and hope it goes away. Perhaps some minor changes to the technique will help reduce the stress in the joints and focus the work on the muscles of the legs. Perhaps some myofascial release will restore mobility. There could be any number of issues, but without getting professional assistance, you'll never know.
Another perfect example is the sit-up. Growing up, sit-ups were the surefire way to six-pack abs! Everyone did them even though we really weren't feeling the abs as much as the hip flexors and even though our back was always sore afterwards. Now, research has shown that sit-ups do focus on the hip flexors and take your back out of neutral alignment, so nobody does them anymore.
Far too often, because we've been convinced to "just do it", we push through the obvious signs our bodies are sending us and we create poor habits that create long-term issues.
Our bodies really do know the answers and they try to tell us all the time, but we just have to do a better job of listening. And it all begins with exercising purposefully.
Every rep of every exercise of every workout will either move you closer to your goal or closer to injury.
Which direction do you choose? Join the conversation. Tag #unsteadystate to let us know what you think and feel free to share.
I'm starting to believe that people aren't always interested in finding new information or the truth, as much as they are looking for validation of what they're thinking. I've been coming across instances of this more routinely over the past couple of months and I'm starting to think that the internet just facilitates this thanks to a glut of information. At any given moment, you can find something that will say exactly what you want to hear. The latest is an article making the rounds in fitness circles. It was a discussion on how the length of the femur affects the mechanics of a person's squat.
Purely on face value, it was an interesting read, but nothing revolutionary. What piqued my interest was the response that it was getting. I saw fitness professionals and group fitness instructors jumping on the bandwagon, expressing how this explained why they could not keep their chests up while they squat or why they should be careful not to coach everyone the same way.
The premise behind the article is that fluctuations in the length of the femur is one of many factors that may affect your squat mechanics. Things like heel elevation, ankle flexibility, and torso length will also play a role. However, it appears that since the title mentions femur length, this is the chief factor that everyone latched onto.
As a fitness professional and mechanical engineer, I call foul!
Especially on those folks who are criticizing the fact that in BODYPUMP®, we coach everyone to do the squat the same way.
[Disclaimer: I'm not speaking for LES MILLS® here. I am speaking as a mechanical engineer who happens to know a bit about moving parts. These are solely my opinions and do not reflect the opinions of the company.]
I understand what the author of the piece intended to say and the basis for his premise is true.
But here's the thing: as much as we'd like to believe the contrary, we are all much more similar than we are different.
Want some proof? Ever seen a toddler squat?
Toddlers come in all shapes & sizes and I have yet to meet one who can't squat. They're small, you say, so it's a small difference in femur size from one toddler to the next. Sure, but if you look at a 1" difference at their size and scale up 3 times to our size, that would equate to a 3" difference in femur length.
In the videos accompanying the article, they demonstrate that there's a femur length beyond which the body will be hard-pressed to maintain an upright torso. He slid the little mechanism around to demonstrate this, but he explained that he was "exaggerating" to make a point. It was easily 2-3" of additional length on the little mannequin, which would probably be proportional to 6-9" of difference on a full-size human. It would be a statistically small percentage of the population that would have a 9" variation from average.
(And for each person with a 9" longer femur, there should be someone with a 9" shorter femur who is complaining that it's too easy to keep their chest upright in squats. To date, I have never run across one of these people.)
Keep in mind, too, that if we're talking about BODYPUMP®, we're not even talking about full-range squats; we coach partial range squats geared to minimize the risk to the general population. Femur length plays much less of a role when we're talking about a 90° squat.
So if our femur length isn't as big a factor and we all start out knowing how to squat properly as toddlers, why do we see so many difficulties in adults? The reality is we "forgot" how to squat properly and years of neglect/abuse have impacted our mobility. Flexibility, improper length/tension relationships, and lack of core strength create mechanical obstacles. And years of laziness has told us it's so much easier to just tip from the hip to pick something up rather than squat, so we lose proprioception. It's the old adage:
If you don't use it, you lose it.
And then along comes an "expert" who intimates that our (or our participants') inability to squat is a result of the length of our bones...
So we jump all over it. Because having an excuse to not do something is easier than finding a reason why we can.
- Get in front of a camera. Film yourself and try to figure out why your body moves the way it does.
- Understand the reasons why we coach the way we do and mimic those things in your own body. If you can't, really try to figure out why it is; don't just accept the first thing you see, hear, or read on the internet!
When push comes to shove, our bodies are essentially the same. What we do with them over the years and how they respond to that activity/inactivity is where the differences begin to appear.
Unsteady state means questioning, learning, and growing. Join the conversation using #unsteadystate or reach out to me directly!