Opportunity cost is a term I first came across when watching a clip from a lecture given by a sport scientist, Dr Mike Isratael, during which he was discussing the merits, or lack of, of certain training methods when applied to athletes. In essence, he was referring to the fact that everything you do in the gym has a cost in terms of time and energy, and therefore an athlete should not waste their time on ineffective and unproven training methods.
While it is true that some competitive athletes and fitness enthusiasts are happy to spend all their free time in the gym, productively or otherwise, the truth is that most people would prefer to keep the time spent working out to a minimum, so that they can get back to watching celebrities baking cakes. It's not something I understand, my life begins and ends in the gym, but each to their own, I guess.
That being the case, the concept of opportunity cost, has in some ways, a greater relevance to non-athletes, because 60mins of time in a sub-optimal workout may constitute a very large percentage of many people's structured exercise. For an amateur triathlete with no girlfriend, what's an extra forty five minutes when he's already doing fifteen hours a week? He's got no where else to go anyway. However, for most people, getting to the gym for three hours a week is often a stretch, so we need to know that we are making those sessions count
The major problem we have is how do we know how best to spend our time? If you've read this far, you must have at least a casual interest in health and fitness, which means you must have been bombarded with conflicting information from leading experts and gyms about how best to workout.
If you are now expecting some kind of revelation about the latest Hollywood celebrity backed time efficient super workout that is all things to all people, I'm afraid I'll have to disappoint you. However, there are two things that you can do to make sure that you are getting value for your time
The truth is that there is no such thing as a class or workout that truly provides everything, despite claims made to the contrary. There will always be a compromise. Your body will adapt to the specific training that it has been exposed to. You may find that certain methods tick more than one box. For example, a structured and individualised gym programme geared up to improving your strength will likely improve your physique and health as byproducts, but is not going to make you a better dancer. If you wear your hoodie and headphones whilst hogging the bench press, it is unlikely that you will get any social interaction either. Going to Zumba will help burn a few calories and get the heart rate up and can be fun, but will not make you much stronger. Yoga will help with stress management, but is not optimal for improving your aerobic capacity.
I'll finish with a word of warning, there are lots of classes and methods that will promise you everything, crossfit, circuit training and all the bootcamp classes for example, but the truth is that while they will improve several aspects of fitness at once, each aspect is being compromised relative to if it was trained in isolation. That might well be a compromise that you are happy to make, but just do so in the understanding that you can't successfully ride a horse with just one ass.
If you spend any amount of time on social media, specifically with regards to following health and fitness gurus, it cannot have escaped your attention that when it comes to nutrition and exercise, many things are labelled as being natural or unnatural. Typically when these terms are kicked around, they invariably mean good or bad respectively. The positive sounding word "natural" gives anything thus labelled a kind of "halo" and is automatically assumed to be a good thing, where as the negative connotations of the word "unnatural" mean that whenever we apply it to something, it sounds sinister and unwanted in our diets and exercise routines.
This has given rise to nutrition and exercise programs that are supposedly more in tune with the way we have evolved, such as the paleo diet and primal movement style workouts. On the face of it, this method of deciding what we should or shouldn't do seems reasonable enough. A blackberry picked in a wild forest in late summer is more natural and likely to be better for you than a blackberry flavoured ice cream. One may also argue that performing a squat is more natural and therefore superior in many ways than a leg extension machine in the gym. So far, so good, natural wins. However, this overly simplistic method has two major flaws. The first problem is with how we define what is natural and what is not. The second is the assumption that natural equals good, and unnatural, bad, regardless of context, which is, if we are to be honest with ourselves, ridiculous.
Flaw Number One: Defining Natural
To explain the problem with the first flaw, deciding what is natural and what isn't, you have to realise that until someone invents a time machine, we can't really be 100% certain what our ancestors were up to, and even if we did, it's unlikely that early humans were doing and eating the same things in Sub -Saharan Africa, as they would've been in Central or Northern Europe. As it is now, we can look across the globe and see huge variations in diet and lifestyles in indigenous populations, so natural becomes a hugely broad and nebulous term. So broad, in fact, as to render it fairly useless when informing our decision making process. It's also worth remembering that foods that we eat now, even organic fruits and veggies, simply wouldn't have been available even a few hundred years ago. Modern farming methods and selective breeding techniques have changed foods beyond all recognition, as have the ability to store and transport them. I doubt very much that even our great grandparents would have been able to recognise many of the things we see on the shelves in Waitrose these days.
That said, we would still say that unprocessed food is generally better than heavily processed food for providing nutrients, but it still begs the question, at what point does a natural food become unnatural? How much processing do you do before something becomes unnatural? This is one of the problems we face when it comes to food packaging and labeling. How many times have you seen what seems like a heavily processed food in a supermarket that tries to redeem itself by boasting that it has natural fruit flavours? Does that natural claim making it better somehow? Almost certainly not. While it may be wise to have a diet rich in minimally processed food to maximise both the nutritional value of the food and satiety that it provides, simply looking at things as natural or otherwise doesn't necessarily help.
The same problem holds true for exercise. We might agree that a full squat is a natural movement pattern, but if I then stick a factory made barbell on your back with a bunch of exquisitely machined plates, totaling twice your body weight, has that movement become unnatural? This debate is not as absurd as it may appear, my view is that it seems unlikely that a caveman would have engaged in a great deal of heavy lifting. Maybe the odd carcass drag or carry, possibly throwing things and a spot of building from time to time, but repeatedly squatting huge weights with predetermined rest periods to elicit quadricep hypertrophy? I doubt it, and that brings me neatly into the second problem...
Flaw Two: The Assumption That Natural Equals Good
So does the natural, or otherwise, status of a food or exercise make it good or bad? In the above squatting example, let's assume that overloading a squat is unnatural, does that make it bad? The answer is a pretty resounding and obvious no in most cases. Developing strength and hypertophy by using progressive overload is not just desirable, but absolutely necessary for many reasons, not just for improving our aesthetics, but our health also. Going back to the much maligned leg extension, an unnatural movement if ever there was one, there has been a study done in which subjects performed a routine of just leg extensions and hamstring curls. The participants were elderly subjects, and their ability to stand and sit repeatedly improved dramatically over the course of the 12 week programme, as did their balance, certainly not outcomes that we would expect from performing such unnatural movements as defined by many fitness professionals. It is possible that a different training protocol would have delivered more impressive results, but still, it goes to show that unnatural is not necessarily bad.
On the flip side, running must surely be considered one of the most natural things a human being can do. Daniel Lieberman, paleoanthropologist and professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University certainly believes so, and posits that many of our adaptations, standing upright, big, strong glutes, possession of a nuchal ligament and lack of body hair, were specifically advantageous for distance running. If running is so natural, is it therefore good? The answer is complex, as it can be beneficial, but for some, this natural activity can result in pain and injury. For the record, I run, and am not for one moment suggesting it's bad, I'm simply attempting to highlight the importance of context when judging an activity.
The same goes for food. Many people have a bug up their arse about the unnatural use of pesticides, but I would argue that that an imagined bug is preferable to a real, naturally occurring one. Again, we can thank many unnatural, man made products for keeping us free from perfectly natural yet unpleasant illnesses and parasites. Some people say that vaccines are unnatural and whilst that may be true, they are surely preferable to living in a world of polio and small pox.
There are a great many naturally occurring things in this world that are good for you, but there are also a great many that will cause you harm, which works exactly the same for unnatural things as well. I could list a whole bunch of unnatural things that can be beneficial, and others that cause harm, and do the same for naturally occurring plants and movements, and in the end we would see that the natural vs unnatural categorisation is pointless and fairly academic, with very little relevance to real world decision making.
The take home message is that each individual needs to be aware that the terms natural to always mean good, and unnatural, bad, are not correct. Things are rarely that simple, rather they are either appropriate or inappropriate, depending on context. As with many things in health and fitness, things are nuanced and there are many shades of grey. Sadly in an attempt to simplify things, many people propagate black and white "rules", resulting in unnecessary debates and arguments, as well as confusion. I sincerely hope that the tone of this blog does not come across as anti natural, or that I'm against any particular form of exercise, or against a diet that results in generally healthier eating habits, it's just that their are better ways to judge what to eat and how to exercise. So use the leg press and drink your protein shakes and ignore David Wolfe and you'll be just fine.
You used to leave your homework to the last minute, then it was coursework, now it's reports at work, and continuing the theme, you entered Tough Mudder in an alcohol fuelled display of bravado with your mates months ago, and now all of a sudden you're running out of time to prepare. Right now, you are probably trying to decide whether or not to bother training at all, after all, how much difference can you make in a matter of weeks anyway? However, if you are going to commit some time and effort to improving your performance, and frankly, more importantly, limiting your risk of a nasty injury, then read these two very simple tips, and we'll see if we can get you round in one piece.
I recently read a post on Tough Mudder's own facebook page with some workouts that are supposed to be designed to help you complete the course. I understand that bodyweight high intensity interval training is big at the moment, and may have some degree of carryover to a mud run, but I'm afraid that kind of training is simply not going to get you round. You see, when you look at the little video clips of these kind of events, whether it's Tough Mudder, Toughguy or Mens' Health Survival of the Fittest, it always looks quite exciting. Up and down obstacles, running through fire, crawling through tunnels and so on. The reality is however, somewhat different. You have to remember that each of these courses ranges from 10km (SOTF) to 12 miles (19.2km) for TM, which is just a mile shy of a half marathon. Therefore you will be spending an awful lot of time traipsing from one obstacle to another. It's at these points you'll wish you had popped into Richmond Park a couple of times instead of trying to remedy your Sunday morning fuzzy head with a bacon sandwich.
The simple truth of these obstacle course is that the obstacles themselves are not really that challenging, if they were, do you really think that thousands of people would manage to get round? People help each other out, and if absolutely necessary, you can just mince around the back of the obstacle sheepishly, no one is going to throw you out of the race. However, no one is going to drag your lazy ass around 12miles of cross country, up and down hills, that's all on you I'm afraid. So if you are hoping to get round without too much pain, my first tip is to get out and get some miles in your legs. The flip side of this is that you don't want to go crazy with your mileage and intensity in training and run yourself into the ground. Instead, start at a distance that you feel fairly comfortable with, and look to build that up by 5 to 10 mins each week between now and your race. Depending on your goals for the race, you can go up to or even beyond the race distance in training, but I would aim for getting up to at least an hours worth of running, including a few hills, or I'm afraid you might suffer towards the end of the longer races like Tough Mudder. This will also give you some idea of how you are going to pace yourself. If you are at the slightly less athletic end of the spectrum, you may want to walk up the steeper hills to save your legs for the latter parts of the race and for the obstacles. If you are new to running, I would recommend running three times a week, with a day rest between runs to allow time to recover. As you get fitter, you'll be able to run more frequently and further, without needing so much time to rest. Well conditioned runners will even have short, easy runs as recovery days. Keep things short and light in the week preceding the race and you'll be good to go.
2. Get Strong
You might think that gym time to prepare for a mud run is purely for the extremists, but actually building a good base of strength will help you build stability to help avoid injury, and upper body strength to help you pull yourself up and over the obstacles.
What you might need to do here is drop your bro split for a couple of weeks, don't worry, your chest will not wither away and disappear if you don't devote your Mondays to international chest day. Try adopting a program involving two whole body workouts, and use the rest of your training time to get outside and take care of point 1. By the way, Body Pump is not strength training.
Having been in this industry a long, long time now, I have seen some techniques and postures in the weight room that will make your toes curl, and back hurt, so I strongly advise you learn good form and have someone spot you when you are lifting, even if it is your entirely unqualified bro. When you are in the gym, focus on the big lifts that give you biggest return for your time investment, that means squats, deadlifts, cleans, bench press, chin/pull ups (or lat pull downs if you are not able to overcome gravity) and an overhead press of some kind. If you have access to some kind of crossfit style rig, you'll be able to work on the monkey bars for some specific grip strength, although if you are deadlifting without straps and doing your pull ups, you'll go some way to taking care of the forearm and upper body strength needed to pull yourself up on the obstacles.
If you already have a good base of strength, by that I mean you can squat at least your own body weight on a barbell, you might want to drop in some plyometrics to develop your explosive power (good for jumping over fallen runners) and stability when landing after jumping off obstacles. I wouldn't say that this is a huge priority versus improving your running and getting strong, but if you have the time and inclination to do some, they can give you an extra boost.
There are actually plenty of other things you can do that may help, improving core strength, flexibility and so on, but I've deliberately kept things simple, and focused on the two things that will make the biggest difference on the day.
One last point that I would like to make is this, have a plan. It's likely that you are doing this with team mates, I would say friends, but that might be a stretch. That being the case, you may want to discuss what you intend to do, as in do you go round as a group, or is it every man for himself? I only say this as from experience, some people just don't want to work as a team, and spend their bank holiday dragging around asthmatic wannabe crossfitters around the Hampshire countryside, while other people say that they do want to work as a team, only then to run off and sort themselves out as soon as the cannon goes off at Tough Guy 2006. And just in case you do get split up, and when I say split up, I mean leave each other to it quite deliberately, make sure you have a meeting point at the end, preferably somewhere warm that serves post workout orange coloured fizzy drinks, and I'm not talking lucozade.
Joking aside, it really is worth putting in some hours now, so that you get the most out of your mud run experience, as it can be great fun in a masochistic kind of way. If you are at Henley in May, I might see you out there!
In the fitness industry we tend to obsess (and argue) about how to achieve your goals. Each practitioner, myself included, promotes the service that they provide for obvious reasons. Some do this simply because they are running a business, and some because they genuinely believe they know the best way to attain physical perfection, whatever that may be. The problem with this is threefold. One, it's based on the assumption that we all know what your exercise, two, that you know what you want from your exercise, and three, that their particular training method is actually as effective as they say it is.
The focus of this blog is trying to figure out a solution to the second problem, which is helping you to decide why are you exercising in a bid to then help better inform your choices as to how you are going to exercise.
Why Am I Here?
This is a deep and philosophical question to be sure, but at some point most people will have raised this question internally during a spin class, triathlon (I've asked myself that question a few times) or whilst waiting to get to the squat rack at peak times in a busy commercial gym. If you can't find the answer to this question, I would suggest that you are on borrowed time before you drop out of your current plan.
This question should be the first thing that you answer, certainly before you go trawling through various options for your fitness. Why should this be? Isn't it simply a matter of finding something you enjoy and then just turning up and the results will follow? Well, yes and no. The problem we have stems from one of the foundational principles of training which is the principle of specificity. This principle simply means that you get specific adaptations to the imposed demands of the exercise, so your body will respond differently to yoga than weight training, which will both be different training responses to long distance running. There may well be crossovers. For example, contrary to popular belief, weight training increases mobility, and will also improve speed and agility
So ask yourself, what do I want from my exercise and why? Now most peoples' answer to this question is "tone up and lose weight", or "get fit", but now you have to think "what for?". This is particularly important for those who talk in general terms about getting fit. Fit for what? Fitness is ruthlessly specific, getting fit for running makes you better at running, cycling improves cycling and so forth. Do you really want to be fit for a specific purpose, or in reality, do you want to look fit, which is not necessarily the same thing as being fit. If you are primarily interested in improving your physique, you be be interested to know that running and spinning may not be the best way to go, they'll improve your cardiovascular fitness and performance in those two modes of exercise, but are unlikely to bring about significant changes beyond that.
If you are training with aesthetics in mind, I must urge a word of caution. Don't be misled by the physique of the people at the top of that particular food chain (instructors or fitness models on the advertising material etc). What I mean is that you can switch on TV on a Saturday night and watch strictly come dancing, have a quick look at the admittedly pretty hot professional dancers and think "aha, so ballroom dancing is good for your physique". What you have to realise is that these people will be dedicating 15 to hours a week every week, and probably have done since they were quite young, to their craft. It is absolutely not the same as going to a dance class three times a week. That doesn't mean that you can not get a good physique doing things you enjoy, but it might mean that you have to do more of it to get there than if you did activities that are dedicated purely to the pursuit of a better physique, such as body building. It's kind of like having two routes to get to a particular destination. One is the motorway which will get you there quickly, but is boring as hell, unless you like driving on motorways of course, and the other is a much more enjoyable drive, but will take a lot more time to get there.
There is absolutely no right or wrong with deciding what it is you want do do, or which route to take. If you are engaging in any meaningful physical activity on a regular and frequent basis you are already going to be in a better physical state than someone who does nothing, regardless of what it is, but just know that not all exercise methods are created equal, and starting off with a clear idea of what you want from your chosen activity is key to making sure you get the results you want.
Here we are, February. Dry January, or Dryanuary has been and gone, the detox is over, the mad scramble to book your favorite yoga class is already not quite as mad, and we are approaching that time when people start to return to "normal". For a number of reasons, you may already be starting to renege on some of the promises you made yourself just four weeks ago, so here are some tips to help maintain that momentum into a second month and actually achieve some tangible results.
1. Take Stock
Even if you have trained like a professional athlete, and eaten like a catwalk model who has gone off her food, you probably won't have seen the life changing results that your detox promised that you would. It is true that some people see great progress shortly after beginning a new routine, but typically we wouldn't expect most people to be radically different in such a short space of time, certainly not to the extent friends and family start to comment on your new found waistline. If you have indeed been training hard and on point with your diet, this can be demotivating. This is why I recommend measuring as many different metrics as you can, getting on the scales, using a tape measure or even better, go to a professional who can measure your body composition using a body fat monitor and/or skinfold analysis. If you are training, log your workouts. What you will (hopefully) see from these objective measurements is that you have probably made more progress than you realise, which can help reinforce the idea that what you are doing is working and if you keep at it, you will eventually get to where you want to go.
The other part of this taking stock process is revisiting the reasons why you started this process in the first place. If you didn't have a good, emotionally relevant goal, the chances are that the hassle of going to the gym and planning your food will not be worth going through if you don't have an eye on any particular prize. You either need to refocus on that goal, or find one quickly. It has to be important, something that when you shut your eyes and imagine being there, with that goal achieved, you are happy, and so feel motivated to go through the difficulties required to get there.
2. Embrace the Grind
No, I'm not talking about the rather excellent coffee shop in Putney, I'm talking about the reality of gym life. In January, you might have been either new to exercise, or returning to it after an eleven month hiatus, or you decided to try something new, like a Ricky Martin special Zumba class, or Crossfit. Initially, the buzz of trying something new will have got you through those first few workouts, but already, what was an amazing workout, is now just plain hard, and Ricky Martin only had two good songs, and it is possible to hear them too often.
This is where we inevitably enter the grind. Anyone who has had the misfortune of traning with me knows that I try to put a positive spin on training and diet, but I'm afraid that the reality is that one of the big differences between those who really achieve their goals, and those who don't, is whether or not you can persevere with a programme long enough for you to see results. The truth is that all those pictures on Instgram and videos on Facebook of people looking awesome lifting weights or performing ludicrous feats of flexibility in their yoga poses, have been doing it for a long time, repeating the lifts and poses, again and again. It is inevitable that at some stage progress will stall, and you feel like you are not getting anywhere, and you question why you are bothering. This is where it's good to have that long term goal, or vision that can really help pull you through. It might sound like some psychological claptrap, but if you really have a vision in your mind of where you want to go then you are more likely to persevere and get to the gym instead of skipping workouts. The other thing that really makes a difference here is the genuine belief that every workout counts, and taking pleasure in the fact that every squat, every burpee, every deadlift is moving you forward. If you have been fit and strong in the past, this is fairly easy, because you've travelled this road before, if not, you just have to trust in the process, and take a leap of faith. Commit to the process long enough, and you'll get there, everyone does if they work hard enough and long enough.
This is where embracing the grind really comes in. Try to buy into the idea that going through the process of suffering, repeatedly is actually a good thing. If you can transition from thinking that pain and suffering are things to be avoided, into someone who actively seeks hard work in the gym, than that new found masochism will help you get the results you wanted to achieve in January. A perverse pleasure in getting up early and suffering in the gym before work, or squeezing out one more rep when your legs tell you they're done, is an integral part if the mindset of the fit. This also goes for diet, if you can derive some instant gratification from not eating croissants, or avoiding the biscuits, it will help get you over the feeling of missing out.
3. Treat your health and fitness like everything else in your life
If a friend asks you if you are free on Wednesday for a drink what is the first thing you do? Check your diary, right? Nothing in there? We're good to go, scribble it in, or put in your calendar, and now you are busy that evening. The same goes for work and family commitments, the only thing that doesn't go in are your gym sessions. If you have been training for long enough, this is unnecessary, because your sessions are so much part of your life already, that things already work around your routine. For everyone else though, highly recommend diarising your workouts, and forcing your social commitments to work around them as much as is humanly possible. The same goes for trips to the supermarket, to ensure you are eating food that you have planned to eat, rather than food you eat on the run which is almost always worse for your health and physique. If you are serious about achieving your goals, ring fencing your workouts in this manner is crucial in the relatively early stages until your training truly becomes habitual, especially this time of year, because temptation is low in January, but now everyone has been paid and is crawling out of the woodwork, and feeling hungry and thirsty. It is very easy to get dragged back into old habits without a real conscious effort
On behalf of all the fitness industry, I'd like to start by saying welcome to our world to all the January newcomers, and welcome back to those returning from a Christmas related hiatus.
A lot of people hate January, apparently it is supposed to be one of the most depressing months, but I don't buy that at all. I thinks it's great, the days are going to start getting longer, we are starting to point back towards the sun and it's a natural time to reassess the previous year and look forward to next one. An inevitable part of that looking forward is the process of setting a new years resolution, and sadly, many of these resolutions are doomed to failure. This is quite graphically illustrated in the fitness industry, where gym membership sales go through the roof and everyone is trying to get fit, lose weight and tone up. Of course, as we all know, by the end of March, as many as 70% of these memberships will have been cancelled already. That means that statistically speaking, if you are going to join the gym this month, it is more likely that you will no longer be exercising in March, than you will be realising your resolution to get fit.
So what can you do to ensure that you are going to be in the 30%? I've listed a three things that could upset your resolutions, and what you can do about each one to make sure this year, those resolutions stick.
1. The January gym is the worst
Joining a gym can be a difficult process at the best of times, there is that crippling fear of not knowing what you are doing, and even worse, it being abundantly clear to everyone else that you don't know what you are doing. This is made far worse in January, because the gym is ridiculously busy, and the hardcore gym rats are going out of their way to make you feel uncomfortable, because, well, frankly, they just don't want you there. There are only two machines you can remember how to use, and they are always busy, so after much standing around, or watching Narcos whilst absent mindedly turning over your legs on the bike, you wander off home, and after two or three weeks without making any real headway, you start your annual backsliding, and regressing to watching Narcos at home, and before long, you are sending the shameful email to cancel your membership, hoping desperately that you won't actually have to talk to a real human being to explain your abject failure.
This actually is a tough one to fix, after all, even the regulars struggle to enjoy the gym in January, it is a difficult and stressful place, but look on the brightside, if you do persevere, this won't last long, the crowd will thin out, and the situation will improve.
Obviously as a personal trainer, I am going to give this next piece of advice, but if you are serious about your fitness, get a personal trainer for a few sessions. Get them to show how to get the best out of the gym at busy times, and write you a programme that you can follow. It never ceases to amaze me that people are more than happy to spend several hundreds of pounds on a handbag, up to a hundred pounds on a night out, but won't drop a few hundred on some personal traning sessions when they start out. It's kinda like someone starting to drive, and saying, "no, I don't need lessons, I've seen my mate drive and read an article in Grazia about it, so I'm good to go" and then wondering why they keep failing their test. This will not only help get you a programme that will actually get you results, but it will also give you more confidence and purpose in the gym.
Going to classes is another option, but as Dom Mazzetti once said, "the problem with classes is that they're like riding a bus, everyone is going in the same direction, and you're not the one driving". Still, you are going to get your workout done in an hour, without hanging around waiting for kit while getting the evil eye from the lycra clad fit bitches.
2. Poor or non existent goal setting
Let me make this quite clear, a resolution is not a goal. It's an airey fairey idea of some kind of vague improvement, albeit well intentioned. For a resolution to become reality, first of all it needs to be framed as a goal.
Typically, when I have new clients, when I ask "what do they want to achieve?" they respond with things like "I want get fitter/tone up/lose weight", the problem is that these statements are not goals in themselves. I'm sure that you will have heard of the SMART goals acronym which I've spelt out below. This forms a checklist against which your goals should be assessed to ensure they are actually goals and not dreams.
Specific-What exactly do you want to achieve, lose weight, or be a size 10 before your wedding dress fitting? The more specific and meaningful to you, the better.
Measurable-How will we gauge progress, or lack thereof? Are we going to get the tape measure out, jump on the scales, take photos? These metrics need to be relevant to your goals, there's no good sending someone with purely aesthetic goals on a 5km time trial every month.
Achievable-Ok, we want the goals to be challenging, but if a 60 year old obese guy who has never run in his life says he wants to run a 3 hour marathon in 4 weeks, we might need to manage expectations.
Results focused-This is reiterating specific and measurable, we want know whether or not what we are doing is working, and if not, why not? It's actually ok if our initial plan isn't working, we can just tweak it, but we need to know that, and know as soon as possible to avoid unnecessary time wasting.
Time framed-Without time framing a goal, they tend to get pushed to the back of the pile of things to do. Stating that you will do something by a certain date, rather than just saying you'll do it, will drastically increase the likelihood of it being done.
Those are your SMART goals, but there are a couple of other things I think that need to be added to that list. A goal that is not written down, is just wishful thinking. Put pen to paper, type something and print it off and stick it to your fridge, put post it notes on your work station, write a contract with yourself and sign it, whatever you do, get it written down.
The second is this, and this is probably the most important thing of all, your goals MUST have emotional relevance. The achievement, or lack of, must have emotional consequence to you. Losing weight doesn't mean anything, dropping to a size 10 by the time you go on holiday, so that you have more confidence to wear what you want to wear, because it will make you feel awesome is emotional relevance. This is personal stuff, you might not even like to admit the reasons why you want to lose weight, but it is this emotional fuel that drives the fitness car. This is the feeling that you have to go to, and focus on, when the decision making gremlins appear, which they will at some point. If you don't have a real reason to do this, you'll be back on the sofa in no time.
Once you have got your goal in place, you will then need to set yourself actions, or process goals. These are the controllable behaviours that done consistently enough will get the main outcome goal to come to fruition. Again, I would get these written down, book training sessions in the diary, and make these actions your priority.
3. The all or nothing becomes nothing
"Go hard or go home", "half-ass training gets half-ass results", "commit or quit"-These are just a few of the quotes from fitness memes I've seen on social media over the last few days. The problem with these kinds of black and white statements, usually accompanied by a picture of a self obsessed narcissist working out in their underwear, is that they encourage an all or nothing approach, which often ends with nothing.
In the real world, shit happens, social events occur, work obligations get in the way, kids get sick. When this happens, do what you can. I guarantee that at some stage, you will eat a pizza, drink a bottle of wine or skip a workout in January. Is that going to help your progress? No. Does it mean you have failed? Absolutely not. The occasional bump in the road is part and parcel of being fit and healthy. Rather than aim for complete, monastic like perfection, just aim to be better.
Try setting some contingency, or what we sometimes call "if then" strategies. These are plans for when the usual roadblocks happen. For example: "if i can't get to the gym, then I'll do a bodyweight session in my living room", "if I'm travelling with work, then I'll try to book a hotel with a gym" "if I've got a late meeting and can't get to my usual Ricky Martin special Zumba class, then I'll set the alarm early and go to the gym before work". There may be times when you have to compromise, but something is always better than nothing. That does lead me to another point, depending on your goal, something is almost invariably better than nothing, so try to ignore the internet gurus that make out that not only is their training plan the best, but everything else will make you injured or result in making you fat.
Obviously, the more extreme your goals, the stricter you have to be to achieve them, but just don't give up the first time you miss a gym session, or eat a pizza.
So there we have it, three things that might derail you, and some advice to stay on track. If have any questions on this on anything else fitness related, drop me an email. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to give the stink eye to some newbies cruising instagram on my bench.
2016 is almost over, and it looks like it'll not be remembered with any great fondness by many. The deaths of Prince and David Bowie, the apparent rise is extremist politics and the Body Coach, it's just not been great. So at this late stage, it can be tempting to get into the party season, and end the year as quickly as possible and try and pick up the pieces in January and hope for a bright 2017. There is, however a slight problem with this. First of all, Brexit hasn't actually happened yet, and Donald Trump has not be sworn in as the President of the US of A, so things are not likely to improve on that score. As for beloved celebrities that we can't live without, the Queen is not getting any younger, neither is David Attenborough, so don't get too optimistic for a happy new year. With my prohecies of doom, do you really want to be carrying an extra few pounds into the new year as well?
But before I get into my tips for avoiding this holiday season weight gain, we should look at why is it important, and just how much should we worry about a pound or two of holiday weight?
First up, research suggests that the total amount of weight gained over the winter in general is not huge, despite what you may have read in the press, so you hopefully won't go up a whole dress size, however, the problem is that the weight that is gained typically then stays there. This seems to be a significant contributing factor to our expanding waist lines as we age.
So what to do about it? I like to keep things simple, so I just have 3 tips that should keep you pretty much covered:
1. Make a Choice
If you ask any trainer, nutritionist or coach what is the most important factor that underpins what happens to us physically, they'll generally say the same thing, that it all starts with the mindset. Believe it or not, whilst we are bombarded by external (and internal) stimuli, cues and influences, ultimately the decisions we make are ours. So the first decision to make, before any others is this: Do I want to really want to climb into the Christmas spirit and eat drink and be merry (and gain fat), or do I want to get, or stay lean? This is not an emotive or judgmental question, it's absolutely fine if you want to eat all the celebrations in the office, get drunk at your staff party, girlfriend's staff do, uni friend's get together, girlfrend's friends's drinks, 5 a side team's curry night, school friend's annual get together and really enjoy yourself, just like Jesus would have wanted. It's ok, it's just that there are consequences, such as gaining a small amount of fat.
If, however, you decide that you don't wish to gain weight, read on. I should say this, before people think that staying lean means being miserable, it doesn't, lean and fit people are not unhappy, far from it, that''s why they don't become lean and then go "hey, you know what, this is shit, I'm going to go back to being fat, it's so much more fun"
So first things first, make a choice, decide what you want over the next few weeks, a small amount of discipline and no weight gain, or no discipline and starting January bigger than you are when you are reading this blog..
2. Just Say No
As I said earlier, you are in control of your hand to mouth choices. This does mean that at some point you are going to have to say to people at work "no thank you, I don't want to eat any of your mince pies, festive brownies or celebrations". I know, it's difficult. Having a sweet tooth, and a crippling fear of offending people myself, I know how difficult this can be. Difficult, but not impossible, again, refer back to your original decision, did you want to gain weight or not? If not, then say no when offered things, if they persist, you persist, and if they won't take no for an answer, simply say "no thanks, the short term gain from not offending you and enjoying the sweets does not make it worth me getting fat, but feel free to enjoy them, I'm not stopping you." The great thing about this response, is that soon, not only will people stop offering you sweets, they'll probably stop talking to you full stop, enabling you to concentrate on cruising intagram and watching cat videos at work in peace.
3. Hit The Gym, Hard
If you are consuming some extra calories, why not put them to good use? Spend a bit more time in the weight room and use the extra nutrients to build some lean body mass. This will help to burn off those calories by the direct energy expenditure of the lifting, but will also speed up your metabolism to help you shift any of the weight you have gained when you go back to the leaner times in January.
The truth is, unless you have a modelling shoot, beach holiday or wedding in the next couple of weeks, it really is ok to enjoy Christmas and overindulge a bit. In all honesty, your current health and fitness is not likely to be defined by a couple of good or bad weeks either way, so gaining a pound or two, shouldn't be the end of the world, but you do have to consider whether or not you want face setting yourself back on any weight loss journey you might be on when January comes.
As for me, I live with the constant, but as yet unrealised fear of a sudden surprise beach trip, so I'll skip the mince pies and keep dreaming of the sun.
Reebok conducted a piece of market research involving 15,000 women from 25 different countries to assess participation and attitudes to exercise. Only 25% exercised regularly, and two thirds said they would exercise more if exercise was more fun. Personally I can't help but wonder if that is partly a (weak) excuse not to exercise, however, my personal feelings aside, that is a powerful statistic, and one that shouldn't be ignored if we want to get more people into exercise, and something for you to consider if you are thinking of beginning an exercise programme.
Some of the key questions that need answering are:
1. What makes one type of exercise fun and another less so?
It strikes me that we immediately have a problem here. What is fun to one person is not to another. Some people think Zumba is fun, whilst I would rather get kicked in the nuts than suffer an hour of incessant positivity and dancing in a studio. That said, there are some things that would generally encourage a sense of fun:
2. Do we need to change peoples' expectations of having fun during exercise?
We've all seen the leaflets and posters from the gym, and now we have the millions of instagram images as well, the ones of impossibly healthy and fit people in the gym. The most misleading thing about these images is not the six packs and thigh gaps, they are achievable, it's the big cheesy grins that I find to be too much of a stretch. It makes it look like using the x-trainer or doing squats is fun. They sell the idea that if you come to the gym, you too will have fun and laugh while doing squats. Therefore, when you join the gym start training, it hurts and you don't like it and feel like there must be something wrong with you so you stop coming.
I can't help but think that a bit of honesty wouldn't go amiss sometimes. Maybe more images of normal people actually working out would help, or maybe it would put people off, who knows? But I'm willing to bet that if people had a full handle on the facts of gym life, they would at least know that everyone suffers in the gym, and that's ok because there will be a pay off, and we are genuinely all in it together, just at different stages of our journey. Maybe then people would persevere a bit more. Maybe once they understand that you don't need to have fun to get results, they might drop their expectations of having it a little bit.
3. Do we need to make exercise more fun?
This is a good question, even if I do say so myself. If you asked a cross section of fitness enthusiasts I suspect you would end up with a continuum of responses, from the spartan extreme of "hell no! Training should be uncomfortable and you should suffer, if it was easy, everyone would do it, and I wouldn't be special anymore", all the way to the other end of the spectrum "yeah man, exercise is fun and should always be a positive and fulfilling experience, let's all hug a tree!" I tend to occupy the middle ground here, although can swing either way.
Training must be hard to get results, and the further you progress, the harder you have to work, and that does require the ability to suffer at times, there is simply no other way. That is true regardless of the mode of exercise you choose. Even if you take up a sport, there will come a time when you hit a brick wall in your progress that having fun will not get you over. Take tennis for example, it may well be fun in the beginning, but at some point your serve may need work. At this point, you will likely need to dedicate some time practicing over and over again. Fun? No. Rewarding? Yes. So to get continuing progress, at some point, you need to accept the spartan reality of exercise and training. Or you may decide that the further progress is not worth the effort, of course.
On the other hand, I've had some great sessions with friends and training partners that I've genuinely had fun, in the gym, on the track and on the bike. There is however a caveat here, whilst there may be a bit of banter, we've always known when to shut the hell up and get to work, and this can be the problem for some trainees. It's all very well having a laugh and a chat with other people, but when the time comes you do need to switch on and work. You can't laugh your way through a hard set of deadlifts, and if you can talk during a set, I'd suggest that you are not lifting heavy enough to bring about a training effect.
But I do think that we, as an industry, can make exercise more appealing and enjoyable, if not actually fun, simply by being a bit more welcoming and friendly when people walk in through our doors, reaching out a bit to the newcomers to make them feel welcome and involved, so that the inevitable pain during the workout is slightly outweighed by the positive experience around it. I think this is one area we can all learn from crossfit, this sense of community and support at the same time as having some very challenging workouts.
In all honesty, there are enough options available to people that incorporate fun into exercise already, so that saying exercise is not enough fun is a pretty lame excuse. Certainly in London there really is a fitness option for every individual, fun or spartan, cheap or expensive, indoors or out, social or individual. If you are claiming that you don't exercise because it's not fun enough for you, I suggest you look harder, or just get on with it anyway, as being unfit doesn't sound like much fun to me.
4. Does fun make exercise less effective?
It depends. An exercise plan that you don't stick to is very ineffective indeed, therefore if you really must have fun when exercising, or you just won't do it, then no, fun doesn't make exercise less effective, in fact the reverse is true. However, as I said before, there comes a point at which exercise gets hard, and is not fun anymore, and an expectation of enjoyment can limit progress for sure. An ability to grind at some stage is necessary if you want to continue moving forward.
I guess at this point, it's easy to get into yes or no, black or white, but the reality is that it really depends on what you are exercising for, and what is important to you. Do you want to train for a six pack, be the best you can be, or just about be healthy and not be embarrassed when you take your clothes off? If it's the first, you have to accept that it will be hard, and fun needs to take a back seat at times, if it's the latter, then sure, you can have your gluten free cake and eat it. You can pick activities that you enjoy that keep you fit and healthy, just remember that your choices may not bring you a six pack.
In reality, it is all about matching up your goals and expectations of your outcomes with what you are prepared to do to get them and what you want from the process itself.
The fitness world is constantly evolving, sometimes for good, sometimes for the sake of it. There are several driving forces behind the changes. For one, we have updates coming from labs and universities across the world improving the knowledge of exercise and nutrition science. This is a generally a good thing, if the science is well interpreted and used appropriately we move towards a more informed and scientific approach to what we do. The next factor is the need to keep trainees engaged and interested in exercise. This often leads to the more faddish diet and exercise fashions that ultimately rise and fall. On the extreme end of this we have the uber trendy diets and classes which attract the slebs like flies on shit. This fulfills a need for some people to be seen in the right place and with the right gear as much as it does a need to keep fit, but like high fashion, there is often a trickle down effect, so is worth keeping an eye out for even if you aren't in Made in Chelsea.
The third driver, and this as a fitness consumer should worry you most, is the need of your fitness provider, whether that's a personal trainer or gym, to differentiate themselves by staying up with, or ahead of, current trends. On the face of it, that should be a good thing, but unfortunately what it actually means is your fitness advisor goes to a fitness (wild west frontier snake oil sales) conference, gets sold on some completely unsubstantiated piece of kit/supplement/training programme, and then comes and sells it on to you. Cue several months of flailing away using multicoloured plastic straps, balance training kit that belongs in a rehab setting, while you could be getting a well planned program that has progressive overload, that gets you stronger, more athletic and improves your body composition.
I should point out at this point that I'm always looking for ways to improve the service I provide, and I do integrate devices such as the ViPR and TRX, where appropriate, but too often I see trainers completely abandon regular weight training, which we know works, for something that looks cool and might not. By the way, they do this experimentation with your training, but you can bet your ass after your session involving some circus tricks and gadgetry, they go straight ahead and do some heavy barbell back squats for themselves.
So what trends can I see on the horizon? I'll start with group fitness, as I used to teach a circuit class and a couple of indoor cycling classes so therefore I consider myself an authority on the studio.
1. Group Fitness
The one thing I can pretty much guarantee with group fitness will be more of what I like to call the "Planet of the Apes" principle. The original Planet of the Apes, starring Charlton Heston, was released in 1968, only to be remade with Mark Wahlberg cast in the lead in 2001. This paved the way for a bunch of other remakes, including Clash of the Titans and Superman. And so it is with group fitness, classes are rehashed, only we don't have the decency to keep the same names so that you know what you are getting. For example, circuit training became bootcamp, which in turn became known as metcon, and is now masquerading as HIIT. Even Tabata classes are done as circuits, just using the 4 x 20 second work periods with 10 second rest timing structure.
If there is to be something new in the world of group fitness I think we'll see more strongman style training, involving loaded carries, pushing and pulling sleds, flipping things, and throwing heavy objects around. One name to look out for is City Strongman. My hunch is that they could be the next big players in this market, in the same way British Military Fitness did with the park based bootcamps. Don't be fooled into thinking this is only for big strong guys, and women who look like big strong guys, it's not. It's a great way of crossing the boundaries between strength and conditioning, and if appropriately scaled for each individual is a great way to train for most goals. Also, it's extremely therapeutic, smashing things, pushing them over and dragging heavy shit around is actually quite good fun.
Outside of this, expect a continuation of the dominance of some of the programmes currently available in the studio, Les Mills (Body Pump, Body Balance, RPM etc) and Zumba, as both instructors and members alike lack imagination and so will continue with the tired and true formats.
In all honesty, I can only guess at what some fitness instructor/inventor is about to pull out of their arse and inflict on the world. If I did know, I would be the one inventing it, in the hope that I can mince around the globe going to fitness conferences and appearing on late night infomercials instead of actually trying to work with real people to get results. But I don't, so I'll speculate instead. Suffice to say there will be something new, promising outlandish results in amazingly short time frames that will probably have a small use, without being anywhere near as effective as claimed (eg power plates, remember them? "Get 60mins of training in 10mins").
That said, there are a few bits of equipment that are already available, just not that commonplace yet, that I think we'll see more of over the next few months. Due, in my opinion, to the rise of Crossfit, weight training has moved towards the mainstream of fitness consciousness. Deadlifts, squats and olympic lifting is moving out of the dusty sports and powerlifting gyms and into commercial gyms as people start to realise the benefits to be had, including improved athleticism, physique and health. This is very much in line with what I wrote earlier with regards to the stongman training. Therefore the kinds of things we'll start to see more of are barbells, trap-bars, strongman equipment (push/pull sleds, farmers walk bars, tires etc).
In a similar vein as with the equipment, I can't foresee the next fad diet, but I know it's coming, I can just feel it. Someone out there is cooking up (pun intended) a diet based on the cherry picking of the science to support its claims. Once the nutritional science community has mobilised and explained that the only thing magical about this diet is that it restricts the calories by demonising a food or nutrient, it will have already sold millions of copies and be busy gathering dust on peoples' shelves, having only ever had the first two chapters read.
Maybe someone will write a book that actually helps people with their nutritional challenges, such as coping with your children's leftovers without eating them yourself, how to say no to alcohol without people thinking you are pregnant and how to not buy chocolate buttons and/or wine at the end of a hard day, which becomes a habit, which becomes a routine which becomes a borderline addiction.
I'll wrap up by saying this, whatever your reasons for embarking on a fitness journey, if you know your desired destination, we'll already have a route to take you there. In all my years of being a fitness satnav, I have very rarely been unable to point people in the right direction, it's just that sometimes people don't want to take the route suggested. I hope that through improvements in exercise and nutritional science we can refine our approach, and that these improvements make it through to the service providers and through to you to help you find the quickest route. However, if you are waiting for a magic teleportation device or shortcut, I suggest that you don't hold your breath.
In the meantime, I'm heading back on to the gym floor to resume my role as fitness sherpa to guide someone up their training Everest.
Before I start this blog, I'll ask a quick question, have you ever noticed how the people who are in the best shape, the fittest, strongest and leanest, never seem to use these kinds of fast track solutions? So what gives? Can these short term strategies lead to long term results? Or are they a just a way of promising the holy grail of fitness which is big results in return for minimum effort but in reality they come up short?
As a trainer I should be happy to see people trying to make an effort, right? I mean, what's the worse that can happen if you try something, albeit unsustainable, for a couple of weeks or months? Well, there are two potential issues. I'll start with the physiological problem first.
1. What happens to your metabolism when you diet
During a consultation a client once expressed his intention to “reset his metabolism” by following a juice diet that he had seen on the internet for a period of two weeks. The theory being that he would lose a couple of kilos over that period and “kick start” his fat loss. The only problem being that that is not how the metabolism works, sadly dieting has the opposite effect on your metabolism.
Repeated dieting makes you fatter, and the effect appears to be dose dependant. In other words, the more often that you diet, the fatter you will end up. This effect is independent of genetics and is referred to as "dieting-induced weight gain". This appears to be as a result of several factors, but essentially the calorie deficit triggers some metabolic adaptations, sometimes referred to as metabolic damage, which effectively decreases the amount of calories you expend at rest and increases your body's ability to preferentially store calories as fat when they do arrive. This, frankly, is an awesome evolutionary adaptation if you need to survive harsh winters or periods of low food availability. Just think, one year you nearly starve to death over winter, so next year, your body saves energy as fat ready for the next one. Not quite so great if you crash dieted for your friends wedding this year to fit in the hideous bridesmaid's dress, and next year you are getting married in August in a strapless number and want to shift that stubborn upperback fat. Therefore if you are embarking on some kind of diet, it wants to be either a long term sustainable change, or at the very least, be aware that a short term strategy may have long term consequences. In other words, think before you diet.
So what about detox/cleanse diets? Maybe you are doing it for the health benefits rather than the weight loss. That's a good thing to work towards, good health is a fantastic thing to have, after all, whenever someone says, "at least you've got your health" when your life is going down the pan, imagine how bad it would be if you didn't even have that? So do these diets actually resolve your bodies toxic build up?
First of all, a quick digression about toxicity. Anything can be toxic at the right dose. Too much water can kill, and has done, so simply saying something is toxic requires a bit more context. In other words, there are many things in our diets that are toxic at the right dose, but safe or even beneficial below that. An example of the overuse of the word toxic is when people put it in the sentence “sugar is toxic”. It’s not, unless over a certain dose. I’m not recommending high levels of sugar as being healthy, but to suggest the odd sugary treat can’t be part of a healthy diet is frankly both alarmist and ignorant.
To return to the question of detox diets and their efficacy, I'll leave you with three points which should make you think twice about starting a cleanse, particularly one which costs money. The first is this; in 2009 an investigation into 15 detox products found that not a single producer could name any of the toxins that their products were supposed to be combating when asked. The second is that the body is quite capable of detoxifying itself thank you very much. Liver, kidney, lungs, skin etc. all doing a great job without mysterious products. The third is this; any restrictive diet by it's nature can lead to deficiencies, a healthy diet should be varied and contain all the essential nutrients required for healthy function. Some of these detoxes encourage being on juices and cutting back on meat and protein in general. Protein is not bad for you, essential amino acids are just that, essential, as indeed are essential fatty acids.
Toxins are indeed real, it's just that there is no evidence to suggest that detox diets actually remove them.
2. The Wrong Mindset
If you are still not convinced by the physiological arguments, there is the behavioural issue. If you want to get results, and not in a kind of airey-fairey sort of way, then you need to get your head around the fact that hard work and consistency trumps short termism everytime. Short term goals can be great, but only in as much as they should ultimately be part of a bigger picture. If you want to lose a few pounds quickly, that's OK, but you do need to have some sort of exit strategy from your diet to prevent rebound. In the meantime, if you want to improve your diet, make changes that suit you, that you think that you can do, not for 10 days, or 4 weeks, but that you can see yourself doing in 2 years, 5 years and for the rest of your life.
Each individual and their goals are different, but if you have a few things with regards to your diet and lifestyle that need overhauling, you are probably better off setting yourself one or two achievable goals to accomplish to start with. This might be going to the gym twice a week and eating 1.5 to 2 grams of protein per kg of your body weight per day. Once these behaviours have become your new normal, then add in some more, bit by bit you will lay down some sustainable changes that will improve your health, physique and performance.
That said, it is totally understandable if you feel like you absolutely have to change your physique in a short space of time, in preparation for a wedding for example. It that situation, a piecemeal approach may not cut it, and you will need a more drastic approach to meet your goals. Please just bear in mind that severe restrictions and hardcore approaches can lead to big rebounds, so just be aware of the pact you are making with yourself.
I'm off for a quick lemon and pepper colon cleanse so I'll leave you to your protein shakes and push ups,