Sunday, December 20, 2015

Nutrition: Stop making it so complicated.

Paleo, keto, LCHF, vegan, vegetarian, carb back loading, if it fits your macros, fruitarian, banting, intermittent 5:2 fasting, vegan-paleo (surely not, these people must die of starvation pretty quick), low fat, dukan, gluten free, dairy free, taste free, just eat grapefruits. Confused, you will be.

Once upon a time nutrition was easy. There was a food pyramid and government advice of a balance diet, and it didn't work. People got fat, adult onset diabetes went through the roof and everyone was happy because we didn't know any different.

Failure on a plate: The food pyramid has now been replaced by the Eatwell plate in the UK. Notice how sugar and fat get the same segment. Good luck finding the research to support this. Source: NHS

Due to the media and the diet industry, and in no small part the fitness industry the general public are confused. It's easy to think that the average client knows all these different diets, knows what they mean and is going to follow your advice exactly. However, it is shocking how little the average person knows, or wants to or probably more accurately is willing to implement and change.

Your average client probably wants some weightloss, wants to get a bit more energy and feel better. They are probably not stepping on stage any time soon or trying to get contest ready. You may have your favourite nutrition approach, or the one that worked for you but it doesn't mean it is going to work for them.

And while as an industry we argue and squabble over minutiae in comment threads and who is right and wrong the public are generally getting fatter and sicker. Meanwhile some fella in France is eating a cake for breakfast and laughing in your paleo-face.

Almond croissant: French Paleo. Source: essential

Case in point: I have had people approach me for weight-loss advice who are eating 5 bowls of coco pops a day, drinking 30 glasses of juice and munching through 5 bags of crisps before lunch and want me to write them a nutrition plan. Now of course, most right minded people can probably figure out that eating 5 bowls of coco pops and drinking 30 glasses of juice a day is not that good for you. Except this person either hadn't or was in denial. (Of course, somewhere there is a carb back loader chomping through 1kg of Haribo and thinks 5 bowls of cereal sounds reasonable after a leg workout).

I can write the perfect plan for the above client right now, and it won't work. It would be too strict, too much of a change, they won't do it, even I wouldn't follow it so why would I expect someone else to. In reality this person needs to make gradual changes, behavioural changes. Whether they sub-consciously know that their diet is terrible or not is difficult to say. And even if they really knew nothing a quick google search or even some deep intuition would tell them that vegetables are quite good for you and replacing at least 10 glasses of fruit juice with some water or a couple of pieces of fruit would probably be a good idea.

Most people are not going to start tracking their macros on an app or start weighting their food. In fact, some recent research shows that people who use tracking apps like My Fitness Pal are more likely to cancel their gym membership than those who don't. Now the study didn't factor in age, as in younger people are more likely to use apps and younger people also happen to be more likely to cancel gym memberships than older people.

Extreme advice and preaching appeals to a minority. Your approach needs to be flexible, taking into account what that person realistically is going to change, do and achieve. Don't get too wedded to one approach, for example, deciding  everyone has to be paleo meat eater and then one of your clients is a vegetarian. You can tell them to not be a vegetarian but that is not going to work and is not necessary. Alcohol is a another big sticking point for a lot of people, if someone is drinking half a bottle of wine a night (which I see on a regular basis) telling them to not drink at all and sign up to the 12 steps is not going to work, they need a different strategy.

And as a trainer don't be afraid to admit that certain things are beyond what you can do in a 60 minute   training session. People lie, they tell you they have the perfect diet, they eat 800kcals a day, except they aren't losing weight, and they get defensive and they don't want to be judged. And much more so than when you talk about their exercise habits. You start get in depth and personal about what people eat, and drink and their relationship to food and happiness (and sorry to stereotype but especially with women) then you can hit a psychological hot spot and before you know it they are shutting down. I've lost count of the number of people who have told me their diet is fine, almost perfect, all they need to do is exercise, right?

Some things may be beyond your skill set, you may need to refer out. This person may need a nutritionist, and needs to start working on behavioural change. If it is not your area of expertise don't pretend it is, even if you personally managed to get beach ready and post some good photos on instagram.

The fact is there are populations all over the world living long healthy lives eating a variety of diets from Mediterranean, to vegetarian based, fish based, some eating more vegetables, some more fruit, some more meat or nuts. The commonalities are generally obvious - more fresh natural foods, less processed shit. Unless you're French, then you can keep living the paradox.

We need to stop confusing the public, the most powerful changes most people can make to affect their health are normally the simplest. The basics are generally obvious, and a flame war on the internet is not changing the lipid profile or BMI or diabetes risk of anyone sitting in a doctors surgery right now.

Focus on changing one thing at a time, keep it simple. Be honest, be flexible. What else can you do.

(Note: I wrote this while eating a pain au raisin and I'm fine with that).

Of course any carb that Nigella makes is perfectly fine.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

How to stick to exercise. Is making it fun enough?

I was covering a class the other day, one of the exercises I gave was press-ups. I demonstrated full range press ups and even gave three quarter press ups as an alternative. One lady however, was doing box press ups, half range of movement.

And at first I thought, how can you still be doing poor box press ups after years of coming to classes? In the same class were people who couldn't hold a plank, were doing half range squats or avoiding lunges because of knee issues, complaining of back pain doing press ups or bent over rows or planks. I had to give one lady bird dogs, as that was all she could manage, and another lady alternatives to press ups because of tendonitis, as she couldn't support herself on her hands.

And then I thought, why have you all come to a general exercise class? You all need to get referred out and get all your poor movement patterns and injuries sorted out. Why don't you book in for a tailored one to one program in the gym, rather than going to a general class, why don't you go to an osteopath or physical therapist?

But then I thought, hang on these people have actually made the effort to come to a class. In some cases they have been coming for years, they may not seem to be getting any stronger or changing shape but they are still coming. They have formed the exercise habit. They are in the minority.

Of all the people who join gyms, up to 20% never attend. That's right, they join and then never come back, not even for their gym orientation. Don't forget, that only 12% of the population join a gym, or health club, and of those 2 out of 10 never come back. And after 48 months about 90% of people have left. It's actually a surprise that there is anyone in our gyms and clubs!

So does it matter that these women weren't doing the best exercise program, or that some of their technique was poor, or in my opinion they needed to work on their mobility and strength? After all, they were showing up and doing something on a regular basis. To them smart goals, and the latest exercise science were irrelevant. I guess, they continued to attend because they enjoyed it.

What is fun?

There is a big push to make exercise fun now in the industry. As members who are having fun stay longer. I will examine this later, and explore if it is really true. Plus, there is the crucial question of what is fun.

I read a blog this week, where the author berated this idea. You can read it here . (Note: I don't know this person or their background). On many points, you could say I agree, the industry is full of chancers and pretty much un-regulated on the internet. However, I am that guy who has all the level 4 qualifications and deals with the special populations everyday. BUT, I don't see it as much of a problem that people are following programs off the internet or ones they bought via online advertising.

Because, if people are doing this, it is because we failed as an industry to offer the product that people wanted. And we can moan about that, but we are to blame as well.

Does it matter if people are actually doing something. They are adults. It is highly unlikely that the middle aged woman with high blood pressure is going to buy a 12 week bikini body program off of someone on Instagram, it's just not the market. No more than the obese guy with diabetes is going to join a Crossfit gym, statistically, he isn't joining any gym, and when he does, he probably wont go back.

Yes, the workout put together by some unqualified person on the internet may not be the best or logical, but I've seen classes designed by so called master trainers that made no sense and were completely illogical. As these people hadn't really full grasped the fundamentals either. (Of course, by default, I have to believe what I design and write is better and makes sense).

I spoke to someone recently, who had bought a 12 week program via a trainer on Instagram. The reasons were clear 1) A 12 week program cost the same as a one to one training session 2) She had a session with the trainer, but felt the trainer hadn't really listened to her needs and had written a program that was more about what the trainer liked. 3) The sense of community, people sharing photos and progress online.

So the three things are:
1) Price
2) Listen, product to fit the clients needs
3) Community and support.

This person had no big goals, wasn't looking to step on stage or run a marathon. But she like training, she liked the process, she enjoyed working out, it was fun. And it was challenging and structured.

But what is fun for one person may not be fun for another. As an industry, we have decided that fun needs to be infantile. We have decided, that the mythical client who is put off by the gym and classes is a middle aged woman who likes Zumba. It could be, but it may not be.

Some peoples idea of fun is Zumba, for some, dancing in public is a nightmare (most men). Some people enjoy lifting weights, or doing a crossfit WOD, or running a 100 miles (okay maybe not fun, but satisfying and we will come to that later). There is no universal fun activity. Everyone is different. And there's the rub, you can't be all things to all people.

This is a route to creating a mediocre product for mediocre people.

Mindfulness and Satisfying.

There is something that makes people stick with exercise, and it is satisfaction. The more satisfying exercise is, the more people enjoy it. This is subtlety different from just being fun. But, how can you make exercise more satisfying and more enjoyable? Make it mindful. This article here , in the NY Times, gives a run down of the most recent research. Being more mindful with the exercise, makes you more satisfied with it. But, the habit of exercise has to come before mindfulness.

Mindfulness, means being in the present moment, fully experiencing the activity at hand, and accepting how you feel, moment to moment. (See the work of John Kabat Zinn for more information on mindfulness).

We have built our facilities to be anti mindful.

A True Story.

The other day a lady came to the gym, and due to a technical fault none of the TVs on the treadmills were working. At which point, she said she was going home as she couldn't work out with the television. Despite, the fact that she had already made the trip to the gym, and other equipment still had TV's working, she was going to leave and not workout. She was looking for distraction, the antithesis of mindfulness. For her, exercise without watching Eastenders was intolerable. Of course, she could have watched Danny Dyers haikus and would have got some mindfulness at the same time. (see video below, if you don't live in the UK, you have no idea who Danny Dyer is or what Eastenders is!).

Of course, I will point out that she was still coming to the gym, more than most.

I've known someone cancel their gym membership because they could never watch BBC 24 hour news on the equipment, yep, that was how mindful they were.

We have sold our facilities and products on the premise of distraction. We are saying to the public, we know you wont enjoy this, so why not watch TV or play sudoku. Rather than saying exercise can be enjoyable, satisfying and mindful. BUT, we have to realise that everyones definition of fun and enjoyable differs. There are some commonalities, but people are all individuals and different. What we do know is that certain types of activity promote flow.


The concept of flow was developed by  Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (professor of psychology and management) with a name that's impossible to pronounce. Whole books have been written on flow, but in short it is:

"In positive psychology, flow, also known as zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity" see here

The type of activity where hours seem like minutes. The activity has to be high skill and high challenge to induce flow. In leisure time, the highest flow activities tend to be games, sports and hobbies. Something like watching TV is low skill and low challenge so doesn't really produce flow, but could be a mixture of relaxation, boredom and apathy depending on what you are watching. (Csikszentmihalyi, 1997).

In the context of gyms and fitness, we could consider things like Olympic weightlifting, gymnastic type moves, rock climbing high challenge and high activities likely to produce flow.

Cruising on a cross trainer watching Pointless on the attached TV is low skill and low challenge and more likely to produce boredom and apathy, the opposite of flow and satisfaction and more likely to result in the person never coming back.

And classes...

There is the idea that people come to classes because they want to get told what to do, there is no coaching, there is instructing. You get told what to do and you don't have to think. BUT maybe there is some flow going on here. Yes, something like Yoga has always been considered mindful. However, could the person in Zumba or body attack also be in flow? They are learning new moves and routine, they are being challenged,  their heart rate is up, add in some music and a social atmosphere (socialising can be a flow activity for certain types of personality) and boom you've got a whole room full of people in a flow state; an hour has passed in what seem like minutes, all their worries forgotten and they have booked in for next week.

Yes, these people may not be competing in a complex crossfit WOD, but for them the activity was satisfying and challenging enough.

In conclusion.
  • The members and clients you should focus on are the ones in your facility.
  • 20% of people who join aren't coming back, you could spend all your time chasing them down or focus on the people already in the building.
  • Pareto's law, 80% of your income comes from 20% of your customers. Focus on them. Tailor products to them.
  • Find out what your customers enjoy, what is satisfying and what produces flow for them.
  • This has to also match your values. Be authentic. If for you flow is kettlebells and olympic weightlifting, then you are more likely to be able to sell this. However, don't dismiss the fact that for some people its an LBT class.
  • Machines with TV screens are pretty much anti flow, anti mindful and are not what you want to sell yourself on.
  • I've said it before, there are no special populations anymore, the general population is the special population. Nearly everyone entering your facility will have an injury, ache, niggle or medical problem. Decide how you are going to deal with this. Bear this in mind if you are selling yourself on high intensity fitness. Know your proposition.
  • There is no universal idea if what is fun, find your niche and build it.
  • To beat the people selling programs on Instagram or facebook, you have to provide a better a product. Listen to your customers. Why aren't you selling yourself this way too?
Fun doesn't have to be infantile and it doesn't mean easy either. Sometimes, we have to take things seriously, but sometimes we can have fun, makes something satisfying and educate people at the same time as making them feel better about themselves.

"Matters of great concern should be treated lightly." Master lttei commented, "Matters of small concern should be treated seriously." - Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure.

Csikszentmihalyi (1997) Finding Flow. The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life. Basic Books

The Retention People. 10,000 study

EDX online MOOC course, University of Berkeley. The Science of Happiness.

Danny Dyer words of wisdom.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Do you need a program? Why do you want to fail?

Four examples of people who obviously aren't following any type of program.

Example 1: Guy walks into the gym, the very first thing he goes on is the pec dec, then followed by something random like the calf raise. Note: this guy does not look like Dorian Yates.

Example 2: Guy walks into the gym, goes over to the free-weights, picks up a pair of 50kg dumbbells with no warm up and does a set of dumbbell bench press. He does this every single time he comes into the gym. He has found something he is good at and is sticking with it.

Example 3: Woman walks into the gym, goes on the cross trainer for 40 minutes and then does every variation of crunch known to woman kind.

Example 4: Guy walks into the gym, goes over to the free-weights, stands as close as he can to the rack and then does a super fast set of alternating partial range bicep curls to warm up, followed by declines press on the smith machine.

None of these routines can be found in a magazine, or fitness website or fitness book. None of these routines were written or designed by a professional.

In a  recent survey in the gym where I work over 90% of people were not following a program. They gave all sorts of answers such as 'I freestyle it', 'I have a routine I like to do', 'I kind of do my own thing'. All code for I am making this stuff up and have no idea what I'm doing. Strangely, the people most likely to be free-styling were the beginners and neophytes, the people most likely to be following a routine written by themselves or more likely a coach were the most advanced.

So why don't people follow programs? Do they need one? Do they subconsciously want to fail? And should you be doing intuitive training if you have no idea what you are doing?

Do beginners need a program?

Firstly, the most important thing is to show up (I think Dan John said that). By actually showing up at the gym you are already way ahead of most of the population. Well done.

Next up, what to do in the gym. You would think that considering the vast amount of programs on the internet and fitness apps available, people would be following these? Right? Wrong. Most beginners are not following any program.

So you would think they would take advantage of the offer of a free program? No, offer someone three free appointments and a free program and most people never make it past turning up for appointment one. After session one, they figure they are good to go, they know how to start the machine and watch E4, so let the results based training begin. Although, if someone is actually paying for a program, they do actually turn up and take notice. There is a lesson there.

I think the first issue is comfort zone. People don't like being uncomfortable. For most of them, just coming into the gym is uncomfortable, you start asking them about their goals and their plan and they get decidedly shifty. They want to keep their head down. They have already decided what they are going to do. You tell them in the most polite way possible that their plan of coming to the gym twice a week and doing a bit of cardio while not changing their diet will result in zero weight-loss, and one and a half stone is not shifting with this approach, and they don't like it.

Cross trainer. The fitness industry nemesis. The anti-program machine?

Hard work doesn't sound like what they signed up for. They want to be taken to the edge of their comfort zone so they can justify the tub of Ben and Jerry's but they don't want to actually go much further and get results.

Expertly drawn picture of why the no program strategy doesn't work for beginners.

A real conversation between one of my colleagues and a new member

Trainer: I can offer you a movement screen, write an individual program, get you booked in for three appointments with us, at no extra cost.
Client: No, I just want to use the cross trainer and a few machines
Trainer: I can show you how to press quickstart, but I don't want you to think in three months time that you didn't achieve anything or get results
Clients: I'll do my own thing for a month, then if it doesn't work I will come and see you.

Good luck to her, but it wont work.

Hardly anyone thinks they can teach themselves to drive or ski with absolutely no help. A few could probably do it after watching some youtube videos. But most couldn't, they seek expert help, because if nothing else it's quicker. But with fitness, they aren't doing this, they are free-styling it, not even turning to the internet. You learned to walk intuitively, but you are not going to grasp a sumo deadlift or kettlebell swing intuitively, so you will avoid them or do them really badly.

Beginners don't need an individual program. Bu they do need a program. And a program that is progressive, if you are still lifting the 1kg dumbbells in 6 weeks time, there was no improvement. The program can be simple, more simple than people think they need: walk everyday, body-weight squats, body-weight step ups, glute bridges etc but with good technique and a progression!

There is no place for intuitive training with the absolute beginner, how can you make intuitive choices about exercises you are not even aware of?

The beginner needs to be guided with exact reps and sets and time, because they have no frame of reference to make an informed decision.

Who needs a program?

Beyond the beginner there are a range of programs available. I have personally followed programs off of t-nation, and by Eric Cressey, Bret Contreras and Brad Schoenfeld. They were all good and gave me some structure. Though I doubt any of them would have been useful if I didn't know how to squat, deadlift, press etc.

I have also followed programs written by myself and others. (My running training is a different matter, as I will explain).

You don't need a program, but you do need a plan!

It is okay to be flexible. How many times have I walked into the gym and wanted to use the rack for squats but it is in use. I could be that guy who stands there for 30 minutes waiting for the rack to become free, as he cannot deviate from his routine, or I could go and do some trap bar deadlifts or kettlebell front squats.

I have a template in my mind, but anyone who has ever worked out in a commercial gym knows you have to be flexible.

You don't need a program but you do need a structure!

So you need to have enough experience to know when to deviate from the plan, but also to know when you are kidding yourself and wimping out.

Cybernetic periodization and autoregulation. What, Cyber-men are coming?!

These days the terms intuitive training and autoregulation have become conflated. Intuitive training is essentially making it up on the day and doing what you like (no squats, bench all the way!). Autoregulation is actually way more structured, see Siff (2003: 129).

More useful for the medium to advanced exerciser is cybernetic periodization. Which sounds more complicated and Dr Who than it actually is. Siff (2003:135) defines cybernetic periodization this way

" which loading, in a given training scheme is modified regularly according to a subjective rating of perceived exertion (RPE), rating of technique (RT), objective physiological measurements and actual sporting performance."
and further more

"cybernetic programming... is a quantified extension of what may be termed intuitive training, an approach which probably is as old as the history of physical training." (Siff, 2003:297)
Note, this doesn't mean you just go into the gym and make it up. You have a plan or even a specific program. Maybe, you are meant to do 5x5 on squats on a particular weight, but you back off on the last set that day, or only do three sets, or if you are feeling strong and technique is good, put more weight on the bar.

This approach works if you know how you body responds to exercise, if you are on week one of squats and still using just the bar, then you don't have enough experience to make the decision. That's where the coach comes in.

Avoiding qualities you need to work on. 

Another reason to have a program is the tendency to avoid the things you need to work. I think it was Duncan French who said we need to work on the qualities that have been trained out of our athletes (I'm paraphrasing) and in essence this is the same for the general public. People are rounded too much, sit down all day, then come to the gym and do too much bench press or sit on a bike. They need to do the opposite of what they have become accustomed to and comfortable with and by extension reasonably good at. And not many people want to do things where they might start off looking bad, ego stops more people than anything else for asking for help and getting a program and results.

A confession.

As I stated earlier I have followed resistance training programs from a whole range of sources and got good results.

When it comes to running, its a different matter. I trained for Leadville 100 mile with no program set in stone. I didn't write my mileage down, I don't know how many miles I covered each week. Don't get me wrong, I read every source and book on run programming and ultra running that  I could from Brad Hudson to Bryon Powell and way too many more to list. And I took influence from all of them and then constructed my own plan. Call me egotistical, with my background in resistance training and rehab I thought I could construct a better plan for me than anyone else.

Also things like run 3k at tempo, then 5k at marathon pace etc just don't work for me.

Don't get me wrong, I had a plan, but in essence I was using cybernetic periodization. And also because of my work schedule I had to be flexible as to when my long runs and gym sessions were. The actual description of what I did is a whole other article. But below is a brief summary:

Monday: Rest
Tuesday: Approx 10k trail or road run depending in schedule, plus gym (dropped gym in later phase of training)
Wednesday: easy road run 30-40mins
Thursday: Hill session, anything from 8 sec sprints to 1 mile repeats
Friday: Gym
Saturday: 10-20k road run or treadmill incline
Sunday: 35-40k trail

This schedule would switch and change all the time, sometimes Saturday & Sunday would reverse, sometimes I would add in a gym session on Tuesday or Wednesday evening, sometimes I would be working weekends.

The important thing is I had bench marks to hit, 50k run by first week of June, 70-80k run by 7th July.

Sometimes I would feel good and do more hill repeats on a Thursday, sometimes I would do more work, sometimes less,sometimes faster than I thought I could, sometimes barely making it to the end, but I never missed a session.

The plan was there, the basic structure was there, and thought the thought of blowing up on Hope Pass kept me motivated to not kid myself and take days off and avoid things I needed to do (run up hills in the rain and snow).

Anton Krupicka (ultra-runner with awesome beard) has said, if he had a coach and a program, he would almost certainly get better. But mountain ultra running is about something more than that. So if you are exercising because you want to get into a flow state, or enjoy running for the sake of, and like exercise purely for stress relief and to help mindfulness, then you probably don't need a program. But most people join a gym to lose weight, tone up, increase muscle mass and all the usual reasons.

Anton Krupicka. Intuitive training is fine if you know what you're doing and you have an ultra beard . (Picture chosen by my girlfriend!)

Failure & success, it's a fine line.

Most beginners don't have a plan or structure. Sometimes they have a vague idea of a routine that they have constructed out of the ether. Okay, at least they are doing something (but please stop doing sit ups while holding onto a sandbag!)

Some have a random approach, random workouts, random conditioning. Mostly staying well within their comfort zones, and working on the qualities they already have rather than the ones they have lost. And random workouts can be fun, but you need to earn the right to do them. Learn to read and write before writing novels.

Yes, as a beginner without a coach or a program or plan you will fail.

Yes, an infinite number of monkeys given an infinite amount of time may write Supertraining. But we already have Supertraining, and we already have hundreds of programs that work and good coaches that can help, so why are you still free-styling your way to failure?

Most advanced lifters and athletes are following a program. You don't need to plan every single rep, but you do need a road map. Athletes and advanced lifters will work on things they don't like, with the help of a coach, as they know it will make them better.

You are probably less advanced than you think you are, you probably need some help to get results you actually joined the gym for in the first place. Yes, you will go out of comfort zone, and it may be hard, but a good coach and program will get you to where you want to be. Trust them, it will be worth it.


Siff M (2003) Facts & Fallacies of Fitness. 6th edition.


Sunday, January 25, 2015


"Embrace simplicity" - Laozi, Daodejing

There is a concept in psychology called the Hedonic Treadmill (also called hedonic adaptation, but here I am using treadmill, as the pun is intended). The idea that we keep having to accumulate things to be happy. We buy something, and it makes us happy for a while, but then the feeling dissipates, so we have to buy more, and its never enough. More of everything.

This concept affects the world of fitness in two ways. Firstly, we feel we need the latest gadgets and accoutrements to make us feel better. Those new trainers, the new GPS, the new sunglasses will make us better. Of course, we know deep down that this is probably not the case, but we like buying things, it makes us happy and feel part of something; for a while.

The same happens in the gym, if only I had an Eleiko bar or my gym had a plate loaded hack squat, then I would achieve my goals. We get distracted by the frivolous and the material, we can use them as excuses and temporary hapiness.

Somewhere someone in India is doing yoga and is not concerned about having an air conditioned studio with the latest props, mirrors and mats and somewhere in Kenya someone is running around a broken down track barefoot.

Not only do we get trapped by having to have the latest things, which in most cases make absolutely no difference to our training. We are also on the hedonic treadmill of programs and nutrition.

The internet has provided an infinite amount of information and fitness programming. You can do one program for a week, then find another one the week after and then another. We are temporarily satisfied, but it's not enough, we switch programs and exercises looking for instant results

Generally, if you want to get better at running for most people, the first thing they should do is run more. If you want to get stronger, then lift more, and lift more often. But we are program hoppers and always looking for the latest fad. Of course, I could lift more and stick to the basic lifts, but surely if I do band assisted work and then add chains, and then do a complicated split routine with lots of accessory lifts it must be better than just doing the basics, right?

The same with running, there is no secret exercise that makes it easier.

Fitness is a skill and we want to take a short cut or look for the magic answer.

If you are in the gym power cleaning 70kg, having the most expensive Eleiko bar makes no difference, you are not good enough yet, you are not strong enough. If your running program consists of 2 x 20 min jogs a week, guess what? You need to run more. Compression socks, minimal shoes, hokas, maffetone formulas, crossfit endurance aren't going to make any difference. You just need to run more. It doesn't have to be complicated.

Maybe buying these will make you happy and make you a better runner. Or maybe you should just run more.

Of course, you might be that 1% who is lifting elite amounts of weight or already running 80 miles a week, in which case the small things can make a difference. But never forget Paul Anderson, Eugene Sandow, Ed Coan etc basically lifted heavy things and ate. Roger Bannister broke the 4 minute mile wearing a pair of leather plimsolls on a cinder track while training in between full time medical studies.

We want it to be complicated, because the alternative is hard to digest - hard work and repetition.

The same applies to nutrition, eat whole foods, prepare as much as you can your self, avoid overly processed things. But we want the new, the esoteric supplement will save us, the latest fad diet. I know why I'm not making gains it must be because I don't carb back load, it can't be my appalling nutrition or my lacklustre training regime.

The best of the best keep it simple. Kenyan runners don't really track mileage, but they run everyday, sometimes twice a day, and they eat ugali. No fancy micro managed diet from the latest guru.

If only you had a proper track you would be a world class runner. Oh wait? Source:

True conversation:
Runner: How do I get better at running hills?
Me: What hill training do you do now?
Runner: None
Me: Run more hills
Runner: Is there anything else I can do?
Me: Just start running up some hills.

Even some of the most elite athletes in the world have less complicated routines, nutrition plans and supplement regimes than some weekend warrior gym goers.


But simplify doesn't mean lack of structure.

It means do the basics well. Often.

Martial arts is based on repetition, sometimes mind numbing repetition. The modern western mind finds it hard to deal with. Where is the short cut, where is the hack?

New to exercise? What's the best fat loss routine? Go for a walk everyday. Do 50 body weight squats everyday.

I make a living telling people what to do. In some cases they are injured or have tried other things, or are looking to find that bit extra to win. But in most cases it is simple.

In the fitness industry we are guilty of showing someone a basic move such as a squat or deadlift and when the client doesn't grasp it, we move on, we don't spend time grooving in perfect technique. We feel the need to keep the client entertained by showing them new things or progressing them onto things they have no business doing yet as they don't have the movement capacity or fitness., But we want to show them what we know.

Yeah, I know Starting Strength is boring, and 5x5 doesn't work for you because you are special, and cross country running won't work for you... except.... but....

Simplify doesn't mean no coaching. It doesn't mean lack of quality.

I don't think all individuals know intuitively how to military press or bench press or even have good running technique.

The job of the coach is to help people shape the raw material they have. But the answer doesn't have to be complicated. Help clients identify the thing they are neglecting, the quality they need to work on.

Does everyone need a program? That's a question for next weeks blog.

In the meantime.


Move more often.

Work on the basics.

Get rid of superfluous things.

Simplify training, simplify exercise selection, simplify nutrition, simplify life.

(Yes, I'm aware that it took me over 1000 words to say keep things simple).

If you think going for a run for a total of 2 hours a week is hard try staring at a wall for 9 years. What could be simpler than sitting down. Bodhidharma Source: wikipedia.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Why Do We Cling To Fitness Frameworks? (Doing stuff that doesn't work).

Human beings are funny things, once they get an idea in their head they find it hard to let it go.

Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary people continue to do things and think things that don't make sense. Once we have invested time and effort building a framework in our minds we don't want to have to dismantle it, accept something else and try something new. This is the basis of faith.
Some people continue to think evolution is an opinion, or the earth is flat or the sun goes around the earth (see this article here).  And some people seem to think you should spend your Saturday evening watching Britain's Got Talent rather than do something more useful like drink Absinthe until your brain dissolves. Sometimes our observations seem intuitively right but are factually incorrect and not supported by the evidence.

Anyway, fitness is a fertile ground for frameworks that people refuse to let go of despite the evidence. Here are the ones I hear and see everyday, but I'm sure you could all think of a few to add to list.

No.1: Crunch your way to a six pack.

We've all heard that you can't spot reduce fat, and abs are made in the kitchen. And yet it seems to be a human reflex action to finish a workout with abs.

Something deep inside us thinks the advice must be wrong, or even if it is, it doesn't apply to us, we are different, we are a unique snowflake. And after all, it can't hurt, we've got nothing to lose. Of course, you're different, you're doing it to get a strong core, blah blah. In which case stop doing stupid sit ups and crunches while holding onto a sandbag or medicine ball, and doing planks with the spine position of a banana.

One of the most common things we get asked in the fitness industry is 'I want to work on my stomach', 'I want to lose the fat on my stomach'. And you can explain that you can't spot reduce fat, and nutrition is the key, and spend an entire workout doing total body movements, but someone will still say at the end 'can you show me some ab exercises?'.

The very people who tell me they don't want to bulk up or lift weights, have no problem doing crunches until their abs burn. If I told them to do one hundred bicep curls until their biceps were burning they would look at me like I had gone insane, but abs are different of course.

For extra bonus points do some side bends while holding a dumbbell, as this will make your waist smaller, unlike all other exercises involving weights, which will obviously make you bigger.

Or you could be one of those guys who wants to build up his abs for some reason, in which case stop doing a 2 inch crunch (Stuart McGill is crying somewhere) and load up with some heavy weights.

Yes, and even I am afflicted by the core framework, how many times have I ended a personal training session with some core work for no apparent reason or to appease the client. And why do we all do core at the end?

I take it back, sit ups obviously work. Source: Bella Falconi

No.2: Fitness = cardio.

To the general public fitness = cardio. 'I wanna improve my fitness... so I wanna start with some cardio and get my fitness up... then I will move on and lift some weights .... I need to to improve my cardio before I can go to a class'.

There are several frameworks here. Firstly, the idea that cardiovascular fitness is the only type of fitness. Sports scientists are somewhat to blame for this, as they spent years measuring VO2 max, and max heart rates and heart rate zones. It was easy to measure in a lab. And then organisations like the ACSM and Cooper Institute originally only really talked about cardio fitness as being important.

The misconceptions are numerous. Firstly, that other measures of fitness like strength or power are somehow less important than the ability to watch Eastenders while being able to talk in short sentences walking on a treadmill.

Secondly, that only cardio machines are cardio. Your body doesn't know if you got your heart rate up on a cross trainer or by doing burpees or a conditioning circuit or high rep squats. Of course, one of these options is easier and doesn't involve straying too far from your comfort zone.

Thirdly, cardio is how you lose weight. It isn't. You tell people that if they got their nutrition right then they would lose weight, the steady state cardio they are doing twice a week for 20 minutes is making no difference. They will nod their head, do the 20 minutes and then go home and drink a litre of Zinfandel.

Of course, any exercise is better than none, and I don't want to come across as a curmudgeon. But if people are really as time poor as we are all led to believe, and can't commit to the gym, how come they can do an hour of cardio or three classes in a row. Surely, they would want to do the thing that is proven to work and be the most time efficient? But they don't, the steady state cardio framework is too strong.

Of course, you may be training to run a marathon or just really like cardio, that's fine, but don't think its the best way to lose weight or the only measure of fitness.

Camille Leblanc works on her cardio fitness. Source: about a million crossfit sites

No.3: Cardio before weights.

Related to number 2, tell people they can do strength training before weights and they will look at you like you just said you can eat dessert before the main meal. It doesn't make sense to them. Tell them they don't have to warm up on a piece of cardio equipment or the 10 second static stretch they are doing after their cardio warm up is pointless and they will look at you like you just told them Hershey bars are better than Dairy Milk (sorry my American friends but if you are going to eat chocolate life's too short to waste on a Hershey bar).

No.4: High fat.

The low fat mantra is so ingrained in people that they find it hard to let it go. Tell them that some fats are healthy for you and they can accept that just about. Tell them that they can lose weight by reducing carbs and increasing fat and protein and the fat phobia paranoia kicks in. You just told them to reduce carbs and all they heard was zero carb.

Or women especially will suddenly transform this advice into 'yes I must avoid carbs, and even though I have been told to eat more fat, that must be wrong, so I will be low fat as well', Combined with the fact that they think lentil soup is a high protein option and before you know it someone is eating 800kcals a day, feels terrible, looks skinny fat and ends up smashing a tub of Ben & Jerry's as their body goes into starvation mode. 'Yeah low carb, high protein didn't work for me'.

Tell someone they can eat a full fat Greek yoghurt and you can almost see the cold sweat on their faces. And when they are shopping the low fat framework is too strong, their trembling hand will reach for the 0% fat yoghurt, after all why would they make it 0% fat if it wasn't good for you?

Before I have a million comments from people saying where is the research, low fat worked for me, what do you think of banting? I think that 99.9% of people would benefit from eating a Mediterranean style diet, eating less processed stuff, and following the 90/10 rule, eat this way 90% of the time, and 10% of the time eat what you want. Unless you are getting ready to step on stage, which is different to most people, who want to lose a half a stone and look a bit more toned.

No.5: Interval training.

If you are training for a 5k or 10k or marathon every running magazine and book since Ron Hill first put his tracksters on will mention doing some interval training or fartlek.

And yet, nearly every recreational runner avoids this stuff. They go out and run the same 3 mile or 5 mile steady run every time. Again they have fallen foul to the framework of 'I need to get fitter before I do that stuff'. NO, that stuff will make you fitter!

It could be a time issue, there is this perception that if you can only run 3 times a week then just do the steady stuff. Once again, you are different, intervals and fartlek won't work for you, you just need to get the distance in, right? WRONG. It works. It doesn't have to be a big part of your training, but it needs to be part of it

The other issue is ego. Most people run on the road, and if your are doing fartlek or intervals, at some point you are going to be either walking or jogging very slow. In which case all the other runners are going to judge you as they run past on their steady 4 mile run. How dare you be wearing a hi vis running vest and be walking. I don't think I've ever seen anyone doing interval or fartlek on the road outside of a running club environment.

Of course, the last reason is interval training and fartlek is hard. You are literally pushing out of your comfort zone. 'But I'm training for an ultra?' Answer:You still need to do intervals and hill sprints at some point in your training. 'But I'm doing the race for life 5k and need to get my fitness up?' Answer: See no.2 and no.3 - you need to lose weight and strengthen up doing squats and other compound exercise before running long distances.

No.6: What you working on today?

Walk into most gyms and ask any random guy what they are doing today or what they are working on and they will say something like 'chest & arms' or ' a bit of back and biceps' or rarely 'legs'.

Despite the explosion of Olympic lifting, power lifting and crossfit style training, most guys in the free-weight area are following a classic body part split. Their training will be based on Arnie's Encyclopedia or Muscle & Fitness circa 1994. Despite the fact that most of them are not stepping on stage ever, and will even tell you 'I don't want to get too big'. Hardly anyone is going to say power day, or strength day, or plyometrics/ explosiveness.

The body part framework still pervades gym culture, even when trainers are designing fat loss workouts. Basically making their clients train like they train.

No.7: I want to do this class/ activity because...

Once someone has an idea in their mind it is very hard to change, and they will generally ignore your advice anyway. For example, I hear people say all the time that they want to do Pilates or Yoga to flatten their stomach, or help them lose weight on their stomach or legs or help with back pain or think it will be easier on their knees than gym work. If you tell them, that they will lose zero weight from doing Pilates, the calorie burn is minimal, that of course, it will help with posture and work some muscles but is not designed for back pain, or that yoga is hard. It will make absolutely no difference to them, they have already decided that they are doing the class, that yoga will be better for their knees than squats or they will get longer muscles.

Bonus: protein shake after workout.

I must drink this shake within 10 seconds of finishing my workout, preferably while talking a selfie in the changing room while I am still pumped. Adding the hashtags #pumped #anabolic #shredded #postworkout on instagram actually makes the shake even more effective.

This framework is deeply embedded in male lifters. Yeah, I've read the research, but I'm still drinking the shake with 20 minutes just in case.

Every second that passes you are literally shrinking unless you drink this post workout.

What's to be done.

Logic and science are one thing. But faith is another. The human brain seems hardwired to work on faith to a certain extent. Without getting into a religious discussion, people do and believe in things that they have no direct evidence or experience of. But unlike religion, fitness and research is not attempting to answer unanswerable questions about the afterlife. The body of evidence and research relating to fitness, weight loss, various training methods is quite large, and the general trends all point in the same direction.

And yet, people still like to cling to their frameworks. Blame the media, blame dogma, blame inflexible thinking, blame our culture looking for easy answers. Whatever, I don't know. I'm off to do some crunches.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Induction, Program, Leave, Repeat.

It's that time of year again, when thousands of people join gyms, and in a few months, most if not all of them would have left. That's why the fitness industry market penetration stands at about 12%, overall the number of people using health clubs and leisure centres' and PT studios is not really going up.


Churn is an oft used term in the fitness industry. It refers to the fact that most people have been members of a gym before. They will join the gym, leave, possibly go and join another gym, leave, come back and join the original gym again, and so on. The fitness industry is churning members, clubs are merely swapping members.

The main reason is most clubs offer the same product, there is no differentiation.

And one of the biggest failings of the industry is the induction (sometimes called orientation) process. That initial appointment or series of appointments where the fitness instructor initiates you into the 'secrets' of the gym.

Clubs and gyms make a big point of saying you get 2 or 3 or 5 or 3 months of appointments with them, and free personal training, and it's always included in your membership. Always individual to your needs. Nearly always includes an 'assessment' and free program. What's not to like? The problem is most of this is not true.

The induction process is a failure. This could could be because the industry has adopted the same process, which is tired, boring and unimaginative? The fitness instructors delivering it could be under-skilled or lazy? But, I am going to put it out there, the public are to blame as well, with their low expectations, low adherence levels, and unwillingness to break out of their comfort zones. They end up getting the product they deserve. It all becomes a vicious cycle.

Museum tour.

Once you've had the museum tour of the club, 'this is a treadmill', 'this is a leg extension', 'this is a sauna you're never going to use' it's time to join and get booked in for the induction.

The tour has set up an expectation of what the induction will consist of (all the shiny machines with TV's attached) and the members previous experience has also set up an expectation (I've had an induction before, I've joined the gym to use the same machines I used at another gym, even though I didn't get any results, these machines must somehow be different, after all they are connected to the internet. Of course, the definition of insanity is expecting different results while continuing to do the same thing).

The public have an expectation of what a gym should consist of. I think this is because the current generation of exercisers first joined a gym sometime in late 1990's, early 2000's. This is when big box gyms were on the rise, these chains all had plenty of CV machines, some resistance machines and not much else. This is what the public think a gym and fitness is. The fact that this was an aberration, that for most of history gyms didn't look like this, fitness didn't look like this, is lost, people only know what they've seen and what they've experienced.

And the fitness renaissance that has happened in the last 5 years or so, with an upsurge of freeweights, kettlebells and bodyweight has been mostly ignored by the general public. For example, I still get asked 'where is the adductor machine you sit on, I used to like that'.

When all these new fangled treadmills and machines first came out, maybe you needed someone to show you how to use them, but not now. If you can turn on your TV and walk down the street, you can probably use a treadmill.

How do I start this machine? Good news, It's got a TV, I'm bound to lose weight now.

Low skill, high skill.

When it comes to the actual induction, the vicious cycle begins. Back in the 1990's, gyms and golf clubs and hotel gyms could employ low skilled instructors, because showing someone a few machines was an easy minimum wage job.

Except, now many instructors, trainers, coaches have a decent skill level, and know how to demonstrate squats, deadlifts,and kettlebells (of course, there is some variability here). But this takes time.

On the other side is the new member. They have certain expectations and a perceived wisdom of what will get results. It must be all the machines, that's what I'm paying for?

Back to the instructor, they are back to back with appointments, as its January, and the member has just uttered the dreaded sentence 'I just wanna lost weight and tone up, and don't want to get bulky'. Plus they've just mentioned a back injury and knee injury, which they've had some 'physio' for but now they want your advice on what to do for this, will the x-trainer help or make it worse?! And they can only train twice a week.

And times ticking, the instructor has 45 minutes left. There is no assessment, there is no movement screening, because 1) They may not know how to do one 2) The member expects to get on and do some cardio pretty soon, because after all that's how you lose weight?! 3) The instructor is going to stick to the tried and tested machines they know they can show people quickly in 45 minutes. Because the instructor may already be thinking that this person is going to drop out, if I show them how to squat, when they come in by themselves they are going to stay in their comfort zone and go on the x-trainer again, and I will be inducting someone else so wont have time to help them.

Because, if the instructor says, 'actually with your knee issues and back issues, we need to do a full movement screen, and there is no fitness solution to injury, and you should be doing these mat based exercises to begin with, and to lose weight you don't need to go anywhere near a x trainer'; they know they will mainly get a perplexed look from the client.

So the instructor ends up showing them the treadmill, bike, x trainer variations, a few resistance machines and a mat based exercise. And then books the client in for their follow up appointment.

Because showing you these takes about 30 seconds and is a low skill option for the instructor and the client; and will result in no weight loss.. And if the instructor shows you a goblet squat are you going to have faith that they are telling you the truth.

Except the adherence rate for follow up appointments is very low, most people don't make it past appointment 2, after all they are safely in their comfort zone on the x trainer failing to get any results, literally going through the motions.

Oh and a program of course.

What can also happen, is the instructor will write you an 'individual program' while walking around with you. Of course, it isn't individual or optimal, its what is easy to show you and what the instructors thinks you are going to remember.

Most clubs seem to have been using the same program card format for the last twenty years. If you use a program card, I can guess the layout right now. 1) Warm up box 2) Static Stretch section 3) Cardio section 4) Resistance section, it might even say resistance machines 5) Cool-down 6) Some more static stretches.

The programs will consist of warming up on a piece of cardio, a few stretches, 5-10mins each on a selection of cardio equipment, some resistance machines, cool-down on a piece of cardio, some stretches laying down. It will probably be a one day program. And if your lucky it will have a core exercise like a plank, or possibly a swiss ball, though they have fallen out of favor now.

However, this program format is absolutely useless, works for no one, and you will get a more intense workout walking from your car to the gym. So it is no surprise most clients will abandon this program, and then start free styling their workouts.

What should happen then - fitness is a skill.

We need to break the cycle. The exercises that work take skill, time and coaching.

The content of gyms has exploded in the last 5 years, with kettlebells, TRX, Viprs plus more barbell and cables, but most of the public don't use them or get shown them. This is a two way street.

You do the occasional client who says 'show me everything', which shows they don't really know what they are doing either, and they also need to be educated. Yes, we could spend literally weeks just showing you dumbbell exercises, and you want to see every cable exercise as well, plus Olympic weightlifting, this is going to take a bit longer than 55 minutes.

It could take an instructor an entire session to coach someone a squat, or deadlift, or kettlebell swing. You may not get any training effect in the first session. In fact in may take 4 or 5 sessions, to coach and educate the client on what is the most effective exercises for them. They may need an entire session on corrective exercise or mobility. This is why instructors loathe free PT sessions, what can you really do with someone in 55 minutes with no info, background, screening or experience of the client. Especially when the client is expecting to get out of breath, and 'smashed', as this is what fitness is to them.

Most instructors are willing to coach now, they want to coach and impart what they know.. The business's they work for need to realise this. To begin with not all clients will get this or understand this. But in the longer term they will get results. You will lose some people to your competition but others will stay and get results.

"If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses." - Henry Ford.
To paraphrase Henry Ford, if you ask the public what they want in terms of fitness, some are going to say a better x trainer or new ab machine. Something easy.

Members need to be educated and the fitness experience re-framed. They are not buying equipment or machines, they are buying coaching and results and a community experience. I'm slightly loathed to say it, but this is what Crossfit has got right.

And coaching is be better in a small group environment. Many clients end up going to classes and covering way more in one bodypump class than they would do in the gym with an instructor one to one. We need to accept that the one to one training/ induction method may not be the most optimal way of training people. Most athletes train in groups. All classes are in groups, why did the gym become a lone activity?

People don't turn up to appointments because they don't value it. You are offering them free coaching and they don't show up. They think its about equipment because that's how we sell it. We need to sell differently. We need to put coaching and our staff and results at the forefront in peoples minds.

And as for the people who have decided before they turn up that they don't like exercise or they don't like the gym. This could be because of previous experience of inductions and lack of results from the cookie cutter program and perfunctory inductions, so if you do something different you've got nothing to lose, as they were going to leave anyway. And if they don't want the new method they were already lost, the product never was for them.

And you don't need a program.

At the other end of the spectrum are the people who opt out of the induction process, either because they've had one before and attach no value to it, if someone is just going to show you how to use a treadmill again why bother. And the other group (mostly guys) who are following a program they have got from the internet or Mens' Health.

And iI'm going to put it out there again, the program is not really that important. For most people whether you do 3x10, 5x5, or 4x8, dumbbell press or barbell press is irrelevant. The heart rate zones aren't important, walk uphill, get out of breath, and for the love of all that is right, work on your strength, running form and technique before going for a jog..

What IS relevant is the execution and skill. Most people following programs have poor form, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing (these are the guys who think they can figure out how to use any machine, and end up doing leg presses on the calf machine). What they need is COACHING. They need to be taught the SKILL of training. How to structure their own training. This lasts a lifetime.

We should be coaching the movements that work - squat, press, deadlift (hinge), row (pull) - whether that be with barbells, kettlebells or dumbells or sandbag or bodyweight. But this takes time.

Bright shining lie.

And the lines between induction, instructing, coaching and personal training become blurred. The idea that we give this amount of information in an induction but if you want real training you need to do personal training becomes problematic. We may need to re-frame our products.

But also members need to re-frame there expectations and we need to help them. Only the other day, an older lady told me the gym was becoming more about young people and young guys with all its free weights and kettlebells. In her mind, cardio equipment and certain resistance machines were for old people. And don't get me wrong, many machines have their benefits. But what an indictment that someone now thinks a basic movement such as a squat or press up or a dumbbell is only for younger people.

In conclusion, we have all failed, the industry, the staff, the clients. We were all complicit in the bright shining lie, and it was fueled by equipment manufacturers.

It's time to get real, get truthful, it's time to re-frame our product. Its time to have faith in your knowledge, its time to realise the true value of your product and skill set. It's time we all got out of our fitness comfort zone. It's time to get coaching!

Otherwise next January is going to be the same as this January.