Author Archives: katwhitfield

Guess it's time for my second "I hate Tracy Anderson with the fiery passion of 1,000 suns" post of 2014.  I'm a glutton for punishment I suppose.

When I saw that Tracy Anderson and Dr Oz were going to "de-bunk some popular fitness myths" I felt a strange combination of sorrow and giddiness.  This is an unlikely mix of emotion that can only really be properly encapsulated with one sentence:

"Oh my God, this is going to be the worst thing I've ever seen."

JustShittyThings

Tracy Anderson and Dr Oz - a dynamic duo topped only by Avril Lavigne and Chad Kroeger

But you know what, after watching the clip, I gotta say...it really wasn't that bad.

I mean, in just five minutes it's tough to get across any actual good information.  But nothing they said was particularly egregious.

I know, I was shocked as well.

So, let's go over exactly what was said and see if there was anything really helpful to glean from this segment.  Let's start from the top:

Dr. Oz: "You think you know the facts about getting fit?  Well you may be surprised to find that much of what you've been told is fiction.  So fitness expert Tracy Anderson is here to help de-bunk the three biggest fitness myths.

Why is it so important to tell fact from fiction for you?"

Anderson: "It's so important, we don't have a lot of time to exercise. We want people to see results, we don't want them to hurt themselves - they need to be educated."

Oh boy.  Let's just get this out of the way first...

Tracy Anderson is one of the biggest promoters of fitness myths

Whether it's having zero understanding of how the human body actually works,

...you know that my method reengineers your muscular structure through the constant flow of new workout sequences, prescribed specifically for you. These unique sequences are based on targeting the accessory muscles (the small muscle groups). Strengthening the accessory muscles while burning fat through intense cardiovascular work helps to create a tight knit group of small muscles that actually pull in the larger muscle groups...

seemingly just making shit up off the top of her head,

"We all store weight in different areas dependent on where we are muscularly weak," Tracy explains.

being under the impression that literally everything bulks women up (except her super-secret dance routines),

"...spinning creates an imbalance in the muscular system. It bulks the thigh and butt muscles. You develop mass by working these same muscles over and over."

Tracy is totally against other forms of cardio, such as running, where you repeat your movements over and over. That, she says, will bulk muscles.

or of course, the numerous times she's said not to lift anything heavier than 3 pounds,

"A woman should never lift anything heavier than 3 pounds."..."I carry my 30 pound son in my left arm...so [my right arm] sags lower than [my left arm]" The dissonance hurts...

So you want to build muscle but not look like the Terminator? Anderson suggests working accessory muscles first, avoiding bulking up the large groups. Also, never work out with weights heavier than 3 lbs.

Anderson says more things that are flat-out wrong and completely in line with common fitness myths than anything remotely close to the truth.

Let's not mention that some of Anderon's methods take an unnecessarily long time.  For example, one reporter had this to say about her "30-Day Method" plan:

On the 30-Day Method you have to do to three hours of exercise a day, which decreases to one hour on the 90-day plan.

Or her recommendation to work up to doing 100 repetitions of a single exercise - that wouldn't take a long time or anything:

Now on to toning. For each of the below, start with 10 repetitions and work up to 100.

Anyway, let's move on to the first myth Tracy Anderson and Dr Oz set out to de-bunk:

JustShittyThings2

Myth #1: Crunches are the key to flat abs

Dr. Oz: "This is why crunches don't help you get flat abs - it's all about this concept of 'spot reduction,' it doesn't work...

So if you really want to lose the fat so you can see the six-pack underneath, you gotta build up a lot of muscle, not just a little bit of muscle in your belly.  And to do that, Tracy, you say you've got a better way of doing it?"

Anderson: "Yes, I'm going to reach all of those muscles, not just the large ones, and we're going to use our whole body so we're gonna burn calories at the same time - which burns off the fat." 

This is an interesting exchange to look at in-depth.  I actually completely missed what Dr. Oz said the first time around - that one should 'build up a lot of muscle' to lose fat and see your abs.  This advice (though not the umm...best tactic for fat loss) completely flies in the face of everything Anderson promotes and suggests, so it's interesting to see how they just rolled with it.

Anderson suggesting that exercises that use more muscles at once burn more calories for your time is true enough. (For instance, doing a deadlift instead of fancy kneeling kicks for "butt toning") And burning extra calories could certainly help to get rid of the fat over your stomach eventually.  When she says "all of the muscles," she's referring to working all of your abdominal muscles, I assume.

There are a lot of exercises that do that.  Walking, squatting, deadlifting...etc.  But the exercise she demonstrates does as well.  It's a perfectly fine exercise, I suppose, but it's not likely to help you out a significant amount more than crunches to reveal dem abs.

JustShittyThings3

"I can't copyright a plank, so I added this little leg kick."

 Dr. Oz: "So you build those core muscles up...with all those core muscles getting strong you have a better metabolic furnace burning through calories to get rid of that fat."

It's technically true that muscle requires more calories to sustain itself than fat, though the difference is pathetically small.  Regardless, two things with that:

  1. Anderson doesn't advocate building muscle
  2. Simply doing that exercise won't be enough to build significant muscle mass

As well, counting on building muscle to be your saving grace in fat loss is probably not the way to go about achieving your goals.  If you've got a significant layer of fat covering those abs, your best bet will be to eat at a caloric deficit (which generally won't allow you to build much muscle anyway) to get rid of it.

Myth #2: The more you sweat, the more calories you burn

Dr Oz: "The amount you perspire is not at all correlated to the amount of calories you burn...you could sit in a sauna...and you're perfectly still burning no calories at all, sweating away.  So it clearly doesn't work.  In order to burn more calories you have to elevate your heart rate." 

I don't have too much to comment on here.  This is generally correct.  Sweating more does not equal burning more calories.  You might just be in a sauna, like Oz suggested, or you may be trying to squat in a garage gym with no AC in the middle of a North Carolina summer and have a hard time keeping the bar on your back because it's so sweaty and you nearly pass out.  I dunno.

As far as needing to elevate your heart rate to burn more calories, I'm gonna admit that I'm not 100% on how true that is.  After all, you could go through a weightlifting session picking up heavy weights for few reps at a time not get your heart rate up that much while still burning a significant number of calories.

Anyway, they go on to do some cardio to elevate the heart rate.  Yay.

Myth #3: Stretching before a workout warms up the muscles

Dr. Oz: "Truth is you can actually injure muscles if you stretch before you warm up a little bit."

I've read many studies on the efficacy of static stretching before warming-up, but none mentioned static stretching actively injuring the muscles - just that they didn't prevent injury from happening too well.  I may be missing studies on this, however. (1, 2, 3)

Anderson: "Absolutely, it's about warming up, it's about connecting your brain to your muscles, getting focused, getting ready to burn calories, build muscle..."

Woah woah woah.  Is this segment a foreshadow to Anderson's impending endorsement of building muscle for women?  Considering that she just released her exercise routine for men to make them "skinny ripped" panthers, as opposed to big, bulky, overdeveloped bison, it seems unlikely.  But then again, strength training for women is catching on...

In any case, I've got nothing against a good warm-up that gets your mind right to do some awesome stuff in the gym. (or do 30 minutes of glorified arm circles, whichever)

"Range of Motion"

"Range of Motion"

In the segment, Anderson says the warm-up sequence she's demonstrating will work on your range of motion, however I could think of quite a few better ways to do so than doing a slight knee bend with a backwards-to-overhead arm reach. Could try something like:

  1. Spiderman Lunge x 10
  2. Bodyweight Squat x 10
  3. Laying Windmill x 8 each side
  4. Downward Dog to Plank x 10

But, whatever, not a really big deal.

Conclusion

We end with a product promotion and that's the end of it.  Seriously, that's all.  Nothing that makes me want to rage and claw my eyes out or facepalm.  It's not a segment I'd be particularly proud of, but it's not one that would make me want to hide under my bed in shame for the rest of my life, I suppose.

And that's the most positive endorsement you'll likely ever hear me say about Anderson.

2 Comments

Summer abounds with month-long challenges: the 30 Day Squat Challenge, 30 Day Plank Challenge, 30 Day Body Transformation Challenge...it goes on.

This was the only picture I could find of a not half-naked butt.

Hell there's an entire website devoted to 30 Day Challenges.  I want to take a moment to talk about these challenges, and why they're so popular.

See if this sounds familiar:

What we WANT to happen after 30 days...

  • Day 1: I'm so excited to start this challenge!  It's a whole new way of life - but easy to do.  I'm going to look SO HOT in my shorts this summer.
  • Day 5: I'm pretty sore, so I know it's working.  I think my legs might be looking a little firmer!  It's hard work, but I've got this.
  • Day 15: Half way through!  I feel great, these squats are getting easier and easier.  They take a bit longer now, but it's no problem.  Man my legs look great.
  • Day 25: Finish line in sight!  In addition to doing a crap ton of squats everyday, I've been eating fresh veggies every meal and drinking a shitload of water out of my fancy water bottle.  It didn't even take any thought on my part.  I feel so light!  So pure.  Much healthy.
  • Day 30: Damn, my ass is fine.  I feel great.  It was tough, but this experience was truly rewarding and absolutely worth it.  Not to mention these results will last forever and I'm never going to have to squat again.

What ACTUALLY happens after 30 Days...

  • Day 1: I'm so excited to start this challenge!  It's a whole new way of life - but easy to do.  I'm going to look SO HOT in my shorts this summer.
  • Day 3: Holy fuck my thighs are sore.  I have to spend 5 minutes strategizing how to get on and off the toilet.  My coworkers spent all day asking why I was walking funny.  How embarrassing.
  • Day 4: I can't even do 5 squats like this.  Way too sore.  Good thing it's a rest day.
  • Day 5: Legs...so stiff...gonna have to take another day off.
  • Day 6: I dream of getting in and out of chairs without sounding like an angry boar.
  • Day 8: Okay.  Feeling better.  I got this.  So I guess I'll just have to pretend this is Day 5.  I'm feeling a little discouraged so I better look at some motivational quotes to get going:
Pinterest #5

"Fuck yeah! Let's do this!"

  • Day 12: Thankfully not feeling quite as sore, though getting in and out of chairs is still a bit difficult.  My main gripe is that I haven't seen ANY changes in my legs or butt...maybe they're a bit firmer?  I just can't tell.
  • Day 15: My knees hurt.
  • Day 17: Oh God my knees hurt.
  • Day 21: Had to take a day off and put some frozen peas on my knees.  Now I'm 4 days behind.  And I haven't seen any results.  Feeling discouraged.  Time for more motivational quotes:

"Ugh, how the hell does anyone actually look like that? Whatever, just keep going I guess..."

  • Day 22: Fuck this shit, I'm done.

And this is, for many people I know, how these challenges tend to go down.  But maybe not for those of you who start out a little less sedentary.  If you were exercising regularly before braving a challenge, you may complete the challenge just fine with little soreness involved.

And if you were proficient in squatting technique beforehand, maybe you'll never end up with aching knees.  Should you still do the challenge?

Reasons to do a 30 Day Squat Challenge:

  1. To build up some lower body muscular endurance
  2. Just for the hell of it

Yep, those are really about the only reasons I could think of.  Perhaps the best explanation as to why would be by explaining why you wouldn't want to do one.

Reasons NOT to do a 30 Day Squat Challenge:

  1. To "tone" your legs or butt
    As I went over in my muscle tone post, you'll be wanting to gain muscle and lose fat to achieve the "toned" look.  This workout accomplishes neither, really.  See point #3.
  2. To get stronger in the squat
    You'll get really good at doing over 200 squats in a row on this program, but you won't get really good at squatting heavier weight.
  3. To lose weight
    This may burn a few extra calories, but it isn't significant enough to make a big difference without diet changes as well. 

At the gym, we often joke when someone is doing 10+ barbell squats, that they're doing 'cardio squats' :

That's essentially how you can think of this program.

Here are some other reasons to pass up the next 30/60/90 Day Challenge your friends or coworkers start chatting about:

  • Not a well-balanced plan
    If you're doing a push-up challenge, do you ignore your legs?  If it's a butt challenge, do you ignore your upper body? Are you supposed to do these challenges on top of a regular workout routine?
  • Only one form of progression
    These challenges tend to only get harder in one way: by increasing reps.  While that's certainly one way of doing it, how do you keep improving?  Do you move all the way up to 1,000 reps a day?
  • Where do you go next?
    After you've completed the challenge, where do you go?  Do you move on to a push-up challenge and neglect your legs for a month?  Or do you go to another lower-body program that has you restart at 25 squats?
  • Not much is accomplished
    You're not building strength.  Not gaining muscle, not burning too many calories.  So in the end, what are you trying to accomplish?

I get the appeal of these kinds of challenges, I really do.  When you're not 100% sure what to do when it comes to fitness, having a solid plan written out by someone else is a huge relief.  It can even make working out more fun!  (I should know, I've paid someone to write my own personal workout program before, and I'm a trainer!)

As well, these challenges are stupid simple, don't usually require equipment (so they can be done alone at home), and promise you the world.  Plus, you'll get a real feeling of accomplishment after just 30 days.  Making real progress on your first pull-up or losing fat can leave you waiting a lot longer than that!

Moral

If they get you off the couch, challenges are fine!  If you're simply pushing yourself and keeping up with friends, they can be a ton of fun.

Just keep in mind they won't get you too much in the way of results.  For that, you'll need to eat at a caloric deficit and engage in some sort of strength-training program!

This week I'm re-hashing a very old post from my last blog.  Sadly attitudes towards female bodybuilders (and even male bodybuilders) by many hasn't changed much since.  I'm hoping that re-surfacing this post can help others to respect rather than be revolted by bodybuilders. 

Take a look at the two pictures below:

NaturalBodybuilders

They may not be very pleasing to your eyes.  It's probably not a physique you'd ever want to have.  You may even be a little disgusted.

It's completely fine to not want to look like a bodybuilder, I'd say most people don't.  However there's a trend I notice when talking about bodybuilders with many people that I do find a little troubling -

Bodybuilders are spoken of with disdain, with disgust, as though they were somehow less human than the rest of us merely because of their chosen sport.  As though because we don't like their physique ideals something about them must be flawed.

If you do a Google search for 'female bodybuilders,' the first link is entitled "Steroids gave me a penis."  Seriously?

In truth, bodybuilders are doing what most people want to accomplish, but to a higher degree: Losing fat and gaining muscle.  They're experts at it.  Thankfully for most of us, we don't have to work half as hard as a bodybuilder must to achieve our goals.

I'm hoping that this post will serve two purposes:

  1. Lend more evidence to why merely doing strength training is not enough to 'bulk' you up.  We'll take a look at how some bodybuilders train - it's probably a bit different than your typical strength routine!  Bodybuilders would love if they could just wake up one morning HUGE from a few months of strength training!
  2. Come to respect bodybuilders for their resolve, consistency and dedication to their sport instead of being repulsed by it.

Competition Divisions

Back in the day of Arnold Schwarzenegger and crew, bodybuilding was pretty simple.  Nowadays there are several different divisions, each with their own judging criteria.  It can get a little confusing.

In general though, all of the competitions are looking for some degree of muscle size, the best muscle symmetry and proportion, as well as a certain degree of muscle definition.

The fake tans caked on so liberally that competitors' heads look photoshopped on, oil, and minimal clothing isn't just to look as strange and inhuman as possible.  It's to enhance muscle definition and make it more visible to judges.

Let's define the different types of body aesthetic competitions:

Bodybuilding

Bodybuilding competitions have simple goals: Get as much muscle and as little bodyfat as possible, while maintaining good symmetry and proportion. (As in, not having one shoulder larger than the other and not having quads that are out of proportion with your hamstrings)

There are drug-tested bodybuilding competitions (the two bodybuilders at the beginning of the post are "natural" competitors), and then there are open divisions where basically anything goes.  That's where you'll find your Jay Cutlers, Ronnie Coleman's and Iris Kyle's.

Iris Kyle looks like she cares a lot about your opinion of her body.

In addition to the spray tans, oil, etc. mentioned above, dehydration and lifting weights before going on stage (in combination with drastically low body fat percentages) are some other techniques used to help increase vascularity and get that really 'shredded' look.  Before going on stage a competitor may also take in a high amount of carbohydrates in order to make the muscles appear fuller and larger.

Physique

Female physique competitors

Very similar to bodybuilding, except competitors can get marked down for having too much muscle.  That's really the main difference.  Sort of seems like an option for women looking to be muscular and compete but still retain a more traditionally "feminine" shape - but don't quote me on that.

Fitness

A step down again in terms of muscle size, leanness, and vascularity requirements.  However competitors in this division typically have to do some kind of routine that combines aspects of strength / flexibility, so a greater degree of athleticism is required.

Figure

Like the Fitness division, minus the routine.

Bikini

Bikini Competitors

I'll admit, I'm not sure what exactly judges look for in this division, because the only judging criteria from the NPC (National Physique Committee) website are:

  • Balance and Shape
  • Overall physical appearance including complexion, skin tone, poise and overall presentation.

So, perhaps a step down from figure.  Judging by the pictures of most bikini competitors, that's accurate: fairly lean, not much muscle definition.

Note: I thought Scott Abel's take on 'watering-down' bodybuilding competitions was interesting.  There is a lot of talk about the dangers of deciding to compete in figure and bikini competitions going on lately.  Take a few minutes to listen to this podcast starting at 12:48.

Bodybuilding Exercise Routines

Bodybuilders spend a lot of time in the gym.  The stereotypical "bodybuilding split" workout typically involves 4-5 days a week and tons of volume. (Competitors on drugs can recover faster and thus do more work) That takes quite a chunk of time each week.  To give you an idea, here's a sample day from competitor Josh McMillan:

*2 warm up sets of 15 reps, seated dumbbell curls, then:

  1. INCLINE SEATED DBELL CURLS (SUPINATED)-
    4 sets of 6 reps (slow deceleration), then 6 hammers.
  2. BARBELL REVERSE CURLS (to forehead)-
    3 sets of 12 reps (3 second decel)
  3. HIGH PULLEY MACHINE CURLS-
    3 sets to failure (around 15-20 rep range)
    *2 warm up sets of tricep push downs
  4. TRICEP ROPE PUSHDOWNS-
    4 sets of 12 reps w/flex
  5. ONE ARM REVERSE TRICEP PUSHDOWNS
    3 sets of 10 reps
  6. BENCH DIPS-
    3 sets to failure
  7. MACHINE SHRUGS-
    4 sets to failure

A bit more work than most put in on a typical day - done 4 or 5 times per week.  Doing exercises to failure is not pleasant.  It burns.  Your body begs you to stop but you must have the mental fortitude to push through it anyway.  Rinse, repeat again the next day.

This doesn't count the cardio that many competitors put in.  It varies from competitor to competitor, and you'll find many arguments for and against excessive cardio.  But at the end of the day most will do some form of cardio in the weeks leading up to a competition.

I got to interview Staci, a natural female bodybuilder in the 118-132lb weight group.  She gave me a general idea of how much time she spent in the gym and how much cardio she also did on top of regular training:

"During off season, I am in the gym for 1 hour a day for weight training 4 days a week and cardio will take up 2 of those other days, with 1 day full rest. When I am cutting for competition, I am in the gym in the morning for HITT (High Intensity Interval Training) before breakfast and for another hour later in the day for weights. I will do this for 4 days, and depending on energy levels, I will put in a few more cardio sessions the other 3 days as well."

Now bear in mind, this is just a sample.  Bodybuilding requires you to take note of whether or not an exercise is working for you, whether or not you should consider a different angle on the bench when you're doing incline bench press, whether or not you should widen or narrow your grip, are you making sure to target both your soleus and your gastrocnemius on calf day?

Bodybuilders need to have a good, basic understanding of human anatomy to be successful.  How can you make a muscle bigger when you don't know it exists?  How can you make sure a muscle is activating unless you know what its function is and what bone it attaches to? (You could always read blog posts, I guess!)

So if one needs to have a broad knowledge base in anatomy and physiology (or hire someone who does) to be successful in bodybuilding, where did this stereotype come from?

Bodybuilding Diets 

Dieting for a show can get pretty grueling - not to mention boring.  Ask any competitor.

If you think that your diet is restrictive, try a bodybuilder's who is preparing for competition.  Men strive to reach levels of 3-8% bodyfat, women around 9-15%.  For reference, average bodyfat percentage for men is 18-25% and for women is 25-31%.  How do you have to eat to get to these numbers?  I asked my friend Charlie, and he had this to say about dieting for competition:

"The diet is the tough part. Lifting is fun, being hungry for 12-16 weeks is not. Diet for competition is usually a low carb diet... total calories 1700-2000. The target is no more than 2lbs of weight lost a week, anything more your losing muscle. Off season diet is 3500-4000 calories a day with protein being about the same, but way more carbs...

Three weeks out from the show I wanted to quit. I was grumpy, tired, hungry, and wondered was it all worth it. I didn't quit, because I knew I would beat myself up if I did. The diet messes with your mind. You question everything your doing and wonder if you're screwing up. This is why I think a coach is the most important thing you can have. Someone to talk you off the ledge, to have a sane mind that can hold you to the plan and can gauge your progress and make adjustments without sabotaging everything."

In the weeks leading up to the show, all food is logged.  How many ounces of chicken, exactly how many almonds, how many grams of plain oats?  Exact calories and macronutrient levels must be measured.  There can be no cheating involved - you bring your food to work, to restraunts, to birthday parties and holidays.  Research the correct supplements (legal or not, depending on your division), take them at the exact right times according to your training each day.  Any deviation might mean the different between first and last place.

And then there's the post-competition diet.  You don't want to completely de-rail for a month (though many do) and get fat, since it's just that much more weight you'll have to lose before the next show.  But to gain muscle, you do have to eat at a caloric surplus.  It's a fine balance between eating enough to gain muscle and support your workouts, but not so much you gain 50 pounds of fat.

Staci had this to say about switching between phases:

"The main difference between off season eating and pre-contest diet is the amount of calories. When I am bulking, I aim for about 2500 to 3000 cals a day. When cutting, I am looking at around 1400 to 1000 cals, depending on the workout for the day. Macros will move up or down, obviously but keep protein very very high...

The transition can be grueling. The key is to not reduce the amounts to quickly, as you will almost go in to shock psychologically and mentally. Obviously your body is use to taking in so much, and when it is not receiving, it will come back to bite you...[[One time]] I cut my cals too quickly and had a difficult time functioning, as far as speech, cognitive and emotionally. It was an eye opener to see just how much this affects you."

Now obviously if you found female bodybuilders less than easy on the eyes before this post, nothing above will have changed that.

But how about we show these ladies (and gents) a little respect for the tremendous amount of work they do and do away with comments like these:

FemaleBodybuilders

How about we stop being "afraid" of getting too "bulky" as though that's a bad thing or the only reason to lift weights?  Again, bodybuilders would LOVE it if it were that easy.  Hopefully we can see now that's not the case.

Even in light of all this, the physique of a bodybuilder will probably be continually unappealing.  And that's okay.  Take a look at this video of a young female bodybuilder:

Chances are good she doesn't care if you think she's too manly looking, or that some random dude on the internet wouldn't have sex with her.  But I just want you to look at the confidence she exudes while on stage.  Just from her body language you can see the hard work she put in, the dedication, and you can tell she knows she's amazing.

Even if you don't want to look like her, we should respect her for her resolve.  We should respect her for having the guts to even decide to prepare to get up on that stage.  We should respect her for the respect she has for herself.

That's something that we should all strive for, no matter in what manner.

So you want Michelle Obama arms?

Let's Move! ...over to the weight room to work on them gunzz

Or maybe you'd prefer Heidi Klum's legs.

Whatever example you use, you just want an overall 'toned' body.

While their hard work is inspiring and admirable, you're not really looking for the kind of 'bulk' like female bodybuilders have.

The amazing Alex "Delts" O'Hanlon. Can you see where she got the nickname? (Delts = Shoulder muscles)

So it stands to reason that you need to work out differently, right?  Bodybuilders lift weights to get their physique, so you probably need to do something else.  What are the kinds of workouts that offer you the toned look you want?

It could be Pure Barre, whose entire business model is hinged on promising you the "long, lean look."

Or maybe you head over to the Health & Fitness board on Pinterest until you find a workout that claims to tighten, tone or firm the body part you find lacking. (You won't have to scroll for very long!)

Or hey, why not all three at once?!

Or hey, why not all three at once?!

In the end, what do you get?  Usually some assortment of 4-8 light bodyweight exercises that target a particular area for 15-25 reps each.  Maybe you'll do the circuit 3-5 times.

So, would workouts like these actually work?  To figure that out, we need to know exactly what muscle tone is.

Muscle tone is * comprised of two parts:

*(in the traditional sense, though the way we use it is actually a misuse of the physiological definition of the term.  No need to worry about that here, though)

What Muscle Tone IS

1) Having muscle!

Yes, most 'toning' workouts miss this point, but 'muscle tone' actually requires that you have some muscle.  If you barely have any, it's not going to really show through even a small amount of body fat.  I collected a few pictures for you to see what I mean:

MuscleTone1

All three of these girls are pretty lean and we go from one end of the spectrum (very little muscle) to the other (a lot of muscle).

So, if you're already fairly thin but still don't have the kind of muscle tone you'd like, (often referred to as being "skinny fat") then you need to build some muscle.

If image #2 is around the kind of look you have in mind, you're in luck.  It's going to be much easier for you to put on the bit of muscle it takes to get there than it would be to get to picture #3.

If you want some poppin' guns like the lovely lady in picture #3, you've got a lot of work ahead of you!

2) Having low enough body fat to see said muscles

If you're on the larger side and want to increase your muscle tone, you could certainly do that by building more muscle.  But if you're cool with the amount of muscle you have now and just want to, as they say, "tone up," then you'll need to lose some body fat.

Let's take a look at this through another visual, this time from  yours truly:

MuscleTone2

I didn't gain any muscle between those two pictures.  (In fact I would say I probably lost a fair amount.)  But I did lose about 20 pounds.  As you can see, it made a difference.  My muscles look more defined and a bit firmer just because I lost a bit of the fat that cushions them.

What Muscle Tone Is NOT

1) Building 'long and lean' muscle as opposed to 'bulky' muscle

Having 'toned' muscles doesn't mean building long & lean muscle, as opposed to bulky muscle.

Muscle is muscle.  It all looks the same.  Some reasons you might feel like you have 'bulky' muscle:

  • You have body fat that you may be confusing for muscle
  • You've got short, stocky limbs.  Draw of the cards, I'm afraid!
  • You have some muscle but also very low body fat, making said muscle appear more vascular and 'ripped' than you'd like. (see below for an example)
The same Alex O'Hanlon from above.  The only difference between picture #1 and #2 is 9 weeks and a bit of body fat.  What a difference!

The same Alex O'Hanlon from above. The only difference between picture #1 and #2 is 9 weeks and a bit of body fat. What a difference!

2) Something you can achieve with a couple of 'toning' workouts per week for a month

Losing fat and/or gaining muscle is a slow process.  The kinds of workouts in most DVDs or in magazines are not going to build very much muscle, especially if you're not a beginner.

The best they'll do is help you burn a few calories so you can lose some fat and help you preserve some muscle.  (Note: I am NOT trying to dissuade you from doing these kinds of workouts if you enjoy them. They definitely serve a purpose. By themselves, however, they may not get you the kind of results you're looking for) 

In any case, it's going to take more than a month of dedication, or a 60-day challenge, or whatever short-term results advertised.  As they say, it's a lifestyle change.

Your best bet is to train with actually challenging weights, doing total-body movements such as squats, push-ups, deadlifts, etc.

Moral:

So, in sum, the kind of workouts you'd do for increasing muscle tone involve what you'd generally think of for building muscle.  

Whether that's challenging bodyweight exercises like chin-ups, push-ups or dips; or adding some actual weight to a bench press or squat, you need something that is going to stimulate and challenge said muscles.  25 donkey kicks or a 30-day squat challenge won't cut it.

Muscle is good.  Even if you didn't lose a pound of fat, adding some muscle can help you appear more 'toned' if that's what you're going for.

But even if you already have a ton of muscle like the unbelievably strong Holly Mangold, if there is too much body fat surrounding it you won't see it.  (Though if you could clean & jerk over 300 pounds I doubt you'd care too much)

2 Comments

There's an old adage of the internet: Never read the comments section.

Most of the time this is good advice.  If you get easily frustrated at misinformed opinions, have a hard time controlling what you say to internet strangers, or just want to save yourself the pain of a dozen facepalms, then yeah, comments may not be for you.

(From The Oatmeal)

(From The Oatmeal)

But I almost never follow this rule.

Before I write about a certain topic, I try to do a fair amount of research on it.  This leads me to some heated discussions at times.

There are battles being waged in blog posts and news articles around the net.  Some of them still rage on, some of them are now just smoldering ruins of harsh words and hurt egos with no real victor.

Some common weapons used by these fierce internet warriors are ad hominems and appeals to authority, among other masterful forms of name-calling and condescension.

This is how I imagine flame wars.

This is how I imagine flame wars.

We can do better than that.

The internet is a fantastic medium to have a debate on a particular topic:

1) With in-person debates, if you take time to gather your thoughts and make a smart rebuttal, it can seem like you don't have a retort at all.  You look bad.  Try to fill it in with meaningless fluff, and someone, somewhere will call you out on it.  Lose-lose.

With internet debates, however, you not only have your opponent's arguments in front of your face, verbatim, but you have time to gather your thoughts and articulate them in an organized manner.

2) I remember in the last presidential debates, Obama and Romney were debating about oil costs.  It went something like:

Obama: Costs are down from four years ago.
Romney: Actually, they aren't.  They're up <some specific number> percentage!
Obama: No, your information is out-dated.
Romney: No it's not.
Obama: Yes it is.

What could the listener have possibly learned from that?  When you don't have proof in hand, there's no amount of words that can thoroughly de-bunk your opponent in the heat of the moment.

True, you could fact check after the debate, but most viewers aren't going to do that.  With the glory of the internet, you can link to your sources right in your argument!  How fantastic!

3) If a certain piece of information isn't known between the two debating, others can chime in to help fill gaps on knowledge so the debate can continue.Because no one is literally talking over eachother (you can just skip to the comments you want to read), things are much less confusing.

Sadly many of us don't take advantage of this.  I'm not innocent - there have been plenty of times I just had such a witty response to a stupid comment that I couldn't wait to hit the submit button.  I've regretted it everytime.  The only purpose such a comment serves is to make the commenter feel smart.

If you couldn't tell, I feel that internet debates could be a great tool for change.  If you agree, here are 4 things to keep in mind when engaging in yet another discussion on GMOs or the latest T-nation 'cardio makes you fat' article:

1) When you engage in debate, your goal is NOT to convince the person you are debating

During an argument you've probably told yourself "what's the point, he'll never change his mind."  And it's true.  How many times have you engaged in a debate and had your opponent conceded defeat?  It's been known to happen, but it's only like 5% of the time, via a statistic I just made up.

When it's become clear that your debate is a stalemate, comments like "We'll just have to agree to disagree," or this show up:

InternetDebates2

A message like the above also makes you seem like an asshole, which is rather unhelpful.

Approach your arguments with the knowledge that you're not going to win.  Your objective is to educate and persuade the audience.  Trust me, there is always an audience of lurkers who you will never speak to.  You'll probably never know they exist at all unless they post something about getting out popcorn for the impending argument.

I spent 6 years just reading about exercise and nutrition before I ever made a single comment or assertion on any message board.  We're out there.

So even when you know the person you debate isn't going to address the studies you cited or refute solid arguments you gave, keep pushing them to do so.  When they resort to name-calling, anecdotes, conjecture, and excessive obscenity, remain level-headed and positive.  This way you avoid alienating anyone who may be listening.

Keep responding as long as you can do this for the benefit of your audience.  You're giving them ammunition to try out on their own in any debates they do choose to engage in.  And if anything, you're teaching everyone what an argument should actually look like.

2) Yes, it is your job to educate people

If you care about a subject (say, de-bunking the myth that red meat is inherently bad for you), then when someone says "but what about The China Study?" for the umpteenth time, it is your duty to answer them.

You don't have to write out a unique answer for every comment, but at least be prepared to give out appropriate resources for commonly asked questions. ("I watched this documentary Forks over Knives and it said...")

Having FAQs if you have a website on a controversial topic is helpful, but dismissing people's questions with a derisive "Read the fucking FAQ" is not.  Simply stating that there are resources out there is equally unhelpful.  Make it EASY for the person you're debating (well, more importantly for the people reading along) to see how you came to your conclusions.

InternetDebates1

What books exactly? What number of press releases are appropriate?

I know it can be very frustrating to answer the same questions over and over (spot-reduction and "toning" anyone?), but while they are old news to you, they are brand new to the person who is asking.  They're not idiots and they're not being willfully ignorant.  If you turn away someone who is actively seeking to expand their knowledge, you are not representing your cause very well.

3) Always go back to the science

Reuters put out an article recently about the number of people who believe in medical conspiracy theories.  While these kinds of stories are probably old news to many of my readers, as the article states there are plenty of people who still believe in them.

What can you do when someone believes in 'conspiracy theories'?  Are they beyond saving?

Well, if someone believes that herbal supplements are the best way to treat cancer, calling their belief a 'conspiracy theory' right off the bat is probably not the best place to start.  They obviously don't see it that way.

In a similar vein, what good does it do to tell someone "The FDA cleared it" when debating GMO's if they already distrust the government and think they're in bed with Monsanto?

If someone has had bad experiences with doctors their whole life, will the argument of "The AMA stands behind it" help in a conversation about vaccines?

Regardless of how much sense it can make to call upon these arguments, for some people they will fall on deaf ears.  In this case you must always fall back on the scientific studies that the FDA or AMA based their judgments off of.

"But Kat," you say, "the studies probably won't mean anything to them.  Many of these studies are not lay-person friendly."

That's absolutely true.  Not being able to comprehend studies is a huge issue in these kinds of arguments and why it's so important that everyone gets a basic understanding in how they work.  (Even then it's not enough to say you'll be able to understand as well as someone who actually works in the field) Unfortunately that's another topic for another day.

Sometimes you are just going to have to let someone go when they fall back on arguments that are impossible to refute. ("All of these studies are secretly funded by Monsanto", "there is literally nothing you could say to change my mind", etc.) The best you can hope for is that your audience doesn't feel the same way.

4) Be humble.

You (usually) never know when someone will come out with a new study that blows your beliefs out of the water.  They may even confirm the opposite and you'll have an awful lot of apologizing to do.  (If you wonder why researchers seem to just refuse to say things in certain and clear-cut terms, that's why.)

Got any other suggestions?  Think I'm crazy and that humanity is inevitably doomed?  Wonder if I've ever seen Idiocracy? (yes) Let me know!

(taken from wikipedia)

"A lie, Mr. Mulder, is most convincingly hidden between two truths."

-Deep Throat, The X-files

It's Sunday morning and you're awoken by sunlight streaming through your shades.  Groggily, you reach over for your phone to check the time.

...

Revision: it's Sunday afternoon.  You had a pretty hard night - even if you didn't remember exactly how much you drank, your inability to stand up without stumbling would have reminded you.  That's what happens when it's nickel shot night at O'Halligan's.

Your head is killing you and walking is proving quite difficult.  Do you:

  • A) Find the nearest Waffle House, stat
  • B) Take some advil and settle in to watch The Princess Bride for the millionth time
  • C) Salt the shit out of two scrambled eggs and wash it down with a Diet Coke (that was my tactic, anyway)
  • D) Grab some Vitamin Water then go about your day bright-eyed and bushy-tailed

Haha, Amish people!  That's so random and edgy Vitamin Water, you totally get me.

Well, this commercial would lead you to believe that 'D' is the best option.  Here are the claims made in this commercial.  The first two are stated explicitly, while the last is implicit - meaning they never actually say this, but it is glaringly obvious from the commercial.

  1. Vitamin Water Revive has B vitamins and potassium
  2. Vitamin Water Revive will re-hydrate you
  3. Vitamin Water Revive will relieve hangovers

Let's look at these claims more in-depth:

Vitamin Water Revive has B Vitamins and Potassium

VitaminWaterConfused

By 120 I mean 125.  If you know the reason behind the differences here, let me know!

This is true.  It DOES have these things.  However, in trying to find exactly how much, I came across some confusion in the actual nutrition label on Vitamin Water and what their website says.  It's possible this nutrition label information is out of date.

However, you shouldn't stop questioning there.  The next question you need to ask is:

Why does it matter that this product has B vitamins and potassium?

In the context of normal day-to-day life, it doesn't matter.  If you're not vegetarian, you're likely not deficient in any B vitamins.  If you're not competing or training in endurance sports or suffering from diarrhea, you're likely not deficient in potassium.  These are rare conditions.

So, if you're suffering from a hangover, does that change things?  We'll go over that in our last point.

Vitamin Water will re-hydrate you

Well, the first ingredient in Vitamin Water is - you guessed it - water.  (Right before the second ingredient - sugar.  Mmmm it's like hydration candy, delicious!)

Delicious hydration candy. Just look at all dat sugar. (taken from brobility.com)

So yeah, if you're dehydrated, Vitamin Water can help re-hydrate you.  So could tap water, or diet coke, or Gatorade, or tea, or broth...you get the idea.

Vitamin Water will relieve hangovers

Well, this is where we're getting into bullshit territory.  You would think that given humanity's long history of enjoying getting hammered, we'd understand hangovers better. Unfortunately, we don't have a strong grasp on exactly why they happen.

Home remedies abound however, usually consisting of some kind of salty food and water to 're-hydrate' you.  We all know that dehydration is the real cause of hangovers, right?

Well, it doesn't seem to be that easy.  Many hangover cures have been tried and found wanting.  (1, 2, 3) Dehydration only seems to account for a small fraction of symptoms, such as dry mouth.

But, that's not really my point.  This isn't an article about hangover cures.

My point was to draw your attention to one of many health and fitness marketing tactics: hiding the bullshit between some non-bullshit.  You can find examples all over the place.  Often you'll see this in nutrition products or supplements:

But you can also find it in different fitness routines:

SpotTheBullshit

I encourage you to go to the full website for hilarious explanations of the benefits of various yoga poses.

In this case you have one realistic claim and two bullshit ones.  A warm muscle is easier to stretch (4), detoxification is bullshit, and it's doubtful that a hot environment would increase cardiovascular benefits. (5 - an ACE sponsored study that I couldn't find in any database so take it with a grain of salt.  Here's a different study showing benefits of training in heat...but it's with cyclists, who undoubtedly have a much different adaptation to their training the hot yogis.)

Or in fitness products, like the Sketcher's "Shape Up" shoes (I encourage you to watch this video and look for the numerous questionable promises), which claim to:

  1. Maximize calorie burn
  2. Improve circulation
  3. Strengthen muscles

While Shape-Ups (or literally any other footwear...or just your bare feet) could improve circulation and strengthen muscles - due to the fact that you are exercising while wearing them - they do not significantly change the amount of calories you burn performing a particular exercise.  But it's easy to glance over that when you're watching an entire infomercial, isn't it?

Moral

Beware of the many claims put forth in advertisements and promotions of health and fitness products.  It may be true that a protein powder helps build lean muscle and keep you full, but it probably doesn't keep your blood sugar levels steady or promote alert thinking while somehow at the same time reducing anxiety.

Take every claim one at a time.  Many times the real benefits are just the benefits you'd get from eating any kind of food, or doing any kind of exercise, then with your defenses lowered they hit you with a bogus, too-good-to-be-true claim.  More than likely you'll take it.

Trust no advertisement.  That should have been Deep Throat's advice in the X-files.  Perhaps not as pertinent to Mulder, though.

 

It seems there are quite the multitude of factors that cause all of our health woes.  Tell me if you've heard of any of the following being the "real" cause of anything from heart disease to chronic fatigue:

EVERYTHING CAUSES EVERYTHING!

EVERYTHING CAUSES EVERYTHING!

  • Lack of sleep
  • Too much stress
  • Too much fat in the diet
  • Too little fat in the diet
  • Too much of the wrong fats
  • The wrong ratio of one particular kind of fat to another kind of fat
  • Overuse of antibiotics
  • Destruction of the gut microbiome
  • Inflammation

We're going to focus on the last one.  It's a popular buzzword that's been going around recently - purported to be the real cause behind things like heart attacks, autoimmune disorders, and apparently difficulty in weight loss.

According to JJ Virgin inflammation is one of the big drawbacks of eating foods you are intolerant to.  But just how true is that?  Before we can figure that out, we need to know what, exactly inflammation refers to.

What Is Inflammation?

Inflammation is part of our immune system's response to threats.  Traditionally, we think of inflammation in terms of what we can see:  a big red bump from a mosquito bite, breaking out in hives after eating peanuts, a swollen, purple ankle after you've twisted it, or an inability to put on shoes or even walk when you get an infected toenail.  These are cases of acute inflammation.

Acute Inflammation = A response to one particular event, such as a bug bite or eating a food you're allergic to.  Relative to chronic inflammation, symptoms of acute inflammation occur quickly and are resolved quicker.  

Ever wondered why the body would do something so annoying and sometimes painful to you?  I mean, hell, if it wasn't enough that you got punched in the face, you had to go and swell up like a balloon so that you can't even see out of that eye.  What gives?

But hey, it looks hardcore. (Taken from superostrich.net)

Here's what each of the symptoms do:

  • Heat - Caused by increased blood flow to the area.  Blood delivers all of the tools your body needs to repair the damage at the site or fight off invaders.
  • Redness - Same as heat, caused by increased blood flow to the area.
  • Swelling - Increased blood flow to the area results in an increase in blood plasma.  Blood plasma is mostly water, and its job is to help fight infection (helpful for say, a bug bite) and form clots (helpful for a wound), among other repair tasks.
  • Pain - Irritation of the surrounding tissue from whatever injury you sustained, pressure from swelling, and an increase in nerve sensitivity can all lead to a painful inflammation experience.

Note that these are all good things in terms of helping your body repair itself or fight off infection!  You want these things to happen so that your blood clots, preventing you from bleeding to death, or for antibodies to arrive at the site of infection, preventing it from spreading.

So if inflammation is good, why is it being cast in such a negative light?

Enter "Chronic Inflammation"

You probably know someone with some type of chronic inflammation.  Here are some more well-known disorders:

...Among other autoimmune disorders.

It may be that even if you live the worst kind of lifestyle (smoking, sleeping 5 or less hours a night, high stress, no fruit or vegetables, no exercise, over-eating, etc, etc), you'd never increase your chances of developing these conditions without a genetic pre-disposition.  It's hard to say.

What about something like heart disease, however, which is the leading cause of death in the United States?  If you've been keeping up-to-date with your news headlines, you may have seen that inflammation has replaced cholesterol levels as the secret cause of heart disease.

The idea goes something like this:

  1. Your arterial walls get injured somehow
  2. Immune response and inflammation come to the rescue to repair it
  3. Sometimes the cells that promote clotting (usually a good thing, like we described above) can get gummed up, and then other things can get all gummed up with them, forming plaque.
  4. If this happens enough you can completely clog your artery, or parts of the plaque can break off and completely clog up a smaller blood vessel down the road.

So how do you prevent your arteries from getting injured in the first place?  Don't have high blood pressure.  Try not to be stressed.  Don't get stabbed around the area.

Unfortunately knowing you have high blood pressure can be pretty stressful (as would getting stabbed, presumably).  On top of that, being overweight or obese can increase your chances of having high blood pressure - and being overweight is pretty stressful too.  It's a bit of a vicious cycle.

So what if you're suffering from a multitude of symptoms - aching joints, abdominal cramping or bowel issues, and on top of that you just can't seem to lose the extra weight around your middle.  Is it an issue with chronic inflammation?

Maybe.

Maybe not.

I know, isn't the ambiguity insufferable? 

From Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal

Just keep in mind, this area of research is relatively new, so not a lot of certain conclusions have been made.  This doesn't stop quite the multitude of websites from making extremely certain statements, however.

However, there don't seem to be any definite links between chronic inflammation and having a difficult time losing weight, unless you have a condition like Hashimoto's.  In fact, fat cells produce inflammatory substances.

Does food intolerance cause chronic inflammation?

Eating a food you're allergic to does cause an immune response, which would result in some inflammation.  Ever seen someone's swell up after eating peanuts?  Not pleasant, potentially life-threatening!

But what about just an intolerance?  If you have lactose-intolerance, here's what happens when you try to eat some dairy (as we went over in detail in my Food Intolerance posts):

  1. Ingest lactose-containing food.
  2. Your body lacks the enzymes to break down lactose
  3. Lactose arrives at the large intestine un-digested
  4. Bacteria ferments lactose, causing gas and bloating
  5. Diarrhea typically follows due to you having only partially digested your lactose.

None of these steps involve the immune response, thus it would stand to reason eating something you're 'intolerant' to would not cause chronic inflammation.

"But Kat," you say, "I read something about leaky gut one time.  Something like food gets into my bloodstream.  That sounds bad." 

As I went over in Part I of my food Intolerance posts, there is spotty evidence that food intolerance causes "leaky gut."  Is it possible that intolerance causes chronic inflammation due to leaky gut?  

Maybe.

Maybe not.

Isn't science fun??

In any case, if you fear that you are intolerant to a specific food, you'd likely want to avoid it simply due to the fact that it causes uncomfortable gas and bloating.  And if you're really afraid that you suffer from chronic inflammation - go see a doctor.

That's the most responsible advice that anyone can give you.

Stay tuned for Part II next week, where I'll go over the specifics of what JJ Virgin says about inflammation, its causes, and its cures.

As always, if you have any thoughts or information to add, please share them below!

This is a fairly long, comprehensive guide to picking out a trainer.  It's over 2,000 words - but worth a read if you're considering getting a little help on your fitness journey.  Bookmark it and save it for when you're investigating a trainer or facility.

In many online fitness groups I'm a part of, the question of how to pick a personal trainer and how to go about doing so comes up a lot.  And sadly, as I'm sure many of my readers know, trying to figure out if someone is a good trainer or not is about as easy as figuring out if you're getting ripped off at the mechanic.  (...it's not just me who is always paranoid about that, is it?)

PersonalTrainerMistakes

Immediate red flags: 1) Checking self out in mirror during session. 2) Gratuitous use of Bosu Balls. 3) Being Tracy Anderson

But, today I want to use my industry know-how for good, and provide you with a comprehensive guide that you can use immediately.  So bring up the website of that trainer you're looking at and let's figure out if they're worth the investment.

When should I hire a personal trainer?

This is a question I don't think enough fitness-hopefuls ask themselves. It's not that there isn't all the information you could ever want to know about how to squat properly or eat right for free online.  Because it's there.  It's all at your fingertips.

But slashing through all of it and figuring out what exactly applies to you and what you need to do with that information - if anything - is going to take a damn long time and no small amount of effort.  And what are you supposed to Google first? "How to get fit"?  "How to lose weight"?  Because there are literally more than half a billion webpages looking to tell you how.

So, with all that in mind, is it still necessary to drop some big bucks on a trainer?  Here are some usual indications it may be worth your time:

  • You have absolutely no idea where to start.  Do you really need a gym membership?  Do you have to run?  You hate running.  Do those exercise DVDs work or not?  What's your first step?
  • You have a general idea of what you want to do.  You've got a strength routine, and you want to make sure that your form is correct.  (Good idea!)
  • You've been cleared to exercise by your doctor or physical therapist following an injury or procedure, but you want to make sure you don't hurt yourself again with bad form or incorrect exercises.
  • You have a specific condition such as high blood pressure, cardiac disease or diabetes and want to work out safely.  (For these, you may need to see a specialist.  Ask your doctor if you're clear to exercise or if there is a specialist facility he'd recommend instead)
  • You need accountability until exercise becomes a habit.  You want the comfort and stability of having exercise be an appointment in your schedule until you feel you'll definitely keep up with it on your own.
  • You want someone else to structure your workouts so you don't have to think about it.  (I've hired online trainers to write my workouts for me before for this very reason, and I'm a trainer myself!)
  • You want a small-group environment to push you, but don't want to be lost in the crowd like at a Zumba or spin class.

Finding a personal trainer that fits your needs

So, for whatever reason, you've decided you'd like to hire a trainer.  How do you begin to try and find one in your area or online? Essentially you have two options:

  1. Are you already a member of a gym?  If so, you may want to start your search there.  As with anything, you'll want to be cautious and not impulsively hire the first person you see.  Possibly ask to see the manager, tell them your goals and ask them to match you with a trainer.  From there, move on to the next section to see if they're a good fit.
  2. If you don't belong to a gym, decide if you want to do in-home training or travel to a facility.  Bear in mind, in-home training is typically going to cost a lot more.  To find trainers outside of the typical gym setting, use:

Google (Personal Trainers + Your Area.  Alternatively, you could search for online personal trainers) 

Thumbtack

Craigslist (typically under the 'beauty' services section)

:(

🙁

If you have specific goals, you can refine your search a bit.  I am a bit biased towards strength training, if you couldn't tell already.  So if I was to offer advice to someone looking to learn how to use free weights, I'd try something a little unorthodox:

  • Search for a facility with "Barbell" or "Strength & Conditioning" in the name.
  • Search for local strength events in your area - powerlifting competitions, Olympic lifting seminars, strongman competitions, etc.  Find whoever is running those events and ask them if they know of any good trainers for your needs.
  • If you want a coach for triathalons or endurance events, do something similar to the above.

Of course these strategies don't guarantee success, but you'll find somebody who walks the walk, as well as talks the talk.  That's one important component of a trainer - the others we'll go over a little further down.

What the hell are all these acronyms?*

*I am writing this from the perspective of someone in the United States.  The following may not apply to all countries.

There are roughly a billion certifications one could get to be technically considered a personal trainer.  There is no national certifying body - becoming a certified trainer with impressive-looking credentials isn't half as difficult as it is to become a doctor, or taxi driver.

"They said stability training was important during my certification course..." (Always looking for an excuse to post this photo.)

To be clear, a trainer is not in any way required by any sort of regulation to actually be certified.  Most gyms will require some type of certification, but you may find a contractor who either isn't certified or let their certification expire. (Not necessarily a bad thing) But, if you're wondering what some of the more 'reputable' certifications are, here is a short list:

  • ACSM - American College of Sports Medicine
  • NSCA - National Strength & Conditioning Association
  • ACE - American Council on Exercise
  • NASM - National Academy of Sports Medicine (yours truly has these four letters on her business card)
  • AFAA - Aerobics and Fitness Association of America
  • ISSA - International Sport Science Association

And there are many others.  The ACE website has a handy table comparing the features of many different popular certifications.  Here's are some other letters you might see:

  • CSCS - Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist, a specialty certification from the NSCA.  Generally considered one of the better certifications to get, but I've seen terrible trainers with one and good trainers without, so take it with a grain of salt.
  • IFBB - International Federation of Bodybuilding.  Some trainers will tout that they have competed in an IFBB competition. (Basically saying they compete in bodybuilding or figure competitions)  Some may have an "IFBB pro card", which is pretty difficult to obtain.
  • ATC / LAT - Certified Athletic Trainer / Licensed Athletic Trainer.  I've known many athletic trainers who have gone on to become personal trainers.  Athletic trainers are trained in helping athletes rehabilitate injuries or prevent them from happening, among a myriad of other tasks.  If you see a trainer with this certification, they may know a bit more about anatomy and rehab than your typical trainer.

And a few additional fancy-looking words:

(I know, it's bad to hate on Crossfit, I just really really wanted to show those two videos)

Which personal training certification is the best?

There's no good answer to that question - there really isn't one.  No certification prepares a trainer completely.  I can say personally, my NASM certification (considered one of the higher-quality certifications) took minimal effort to pass, and encompasses maybe 1% of the things I do on a daily basis.

A certification I suppose shows a dedication to the craft.  They are a significant financial investment to obtain, even more so keep up with your continuing education credits.  Most private facilities require one on top of a degree in the field.

Regarding a degree in the field, I can also say personally my Bachelor's in Exercise and Sport Science in no way prepared me fully to be a trainer.  Contrary to what you would think, the degree covered very little about ACTUAL exercises or training.  While I can't speak for every school's program, I learned mostly about anatomy, physiology and biomechanics.  All of which are important, to be sure.  I value my knowledge in those areas.  But you're not taught how to coach a squat or what a lat pull-down is or how to regress a push-up.

So if certifications are meaningless, how can you tell if your trainer knows what they're talking about?  Glad you asked!

Schedule a Consultation

Most trainers, online or off, will have some sort of free consultation to get to know you a bit more before recommending a package.  While technically I'm supposed to let you, the potential client, do all the talking, you're going to want to use this time to interview your potential trainer!

"Please don't hurt me." (taken from nvmefitness.com)

In my entire career as a personal trainer, I have only ever had ONE client ask me questions about my credentials and why I would be qualified to train her.  It really ought to be more.

If I was looking hire a mechanic or a graphic designer, I would have no idea what kinds of questions to ask.  But I do know what I would ask a personal trainer.  For clients who have moved to other areas of the country, I've called up their potential new trainer and asked them some of these questions myself:

    1. Why are you qualified to be a trainer?
      If your potential new trainer isn't confident enough in their own abilities to answer this question, why should you be?  Ideally your trainer takes enough pride in their job to be able to rack off reasons why they're good at it.
    2. How did you get into personal training?
      This is a good opportunity to see how enthused your potential hire is about their job.  Do they answer with a dull "oh...well, I was an athlete in high school so...." or with a, "I loved the confidence I got from learning how to master my own body.  It changed my life and I've used that knowledge to help change the lives of my clients...it's a very rewarding experience"?  Get a sense for your trainer's real motivations.
    3. What's your training philosophy?
      There isn't a right or wrong answer to this question.  You'll just want to figure out if your trainer's style matches with your goals.  If you want to be a monster powerlifter, would you hire a trainer believes that distance running is the key to a clear head and happy life, or vice versa?
    4. How do you train yourself?
      If you're training for something specific, you'll want a trainer who has personal experience with that.  Want to get good a weightlifting?  Find a trainer who trains for powerlifting, bodybuilding, strongman, olympic lifting or just loves to hit the iron for fun.  Want to run triathalons?  Find a trainer who knows how to bike, swim and run well themselves.  They need to walk the walk, not just talk the talk!
    5. What is your biggest strength and biggest weakness as a trainer?
      This is a fun surprise question!  A trainer who takes their profession seriously will already know the answer to these questions, while a trainer who is just going through the motions will never have critically thought about how they can continue learning and progressing.
    6. I have <insert injury, medical condition, random condition here>.  What kind of exercises would you avoid having me do?  What kinds of exercises would you emphasize?
      Another great question to ask ahead of time.  You don't even have to know what the correct answers to this are to get a sense of if your trainer knows what they're talking about.  Turn on that BS detector and see if they're just rambling or if they're precisely answering your question.  Another acceptable answer is "I don't know, but I'm going to find out for you."
    7. If I can't do a squat/push-up/deadlift properly, how would you regress it so I could?
      Same as above.  Any trainer worth their salt should be able to answer this question.
    8. Do you have any current or past clients that I can talk to?
      One of the best things you can do to get an idea of what it will be like to work with your potential trainer.  Preferably ask for someone who worked with them for 6+ months.  Ask about attitude, results, injuries, enjoyment of sessions, etc.

Notice that this doesn't touch much on paper credentials.  This is all about if they practice what they preach, can answer questions with certainty and if they're confident enough in their abilities to let you speak to past clients.

So far, so good.  Your trainer has answered these questions to your satisfaction.  Even if you're not sure if they answered them correctly, you'll get a much better idea of their personality, background, and professionalism.

You pick a package, lay down that credit card info and get started on your quest to a bangin' body, 5 billion pound squat, being able to touch your toes, or whatever your goal is.  What's next?

After You Pick a Personal Trainer

Personal trainers never stop assessing and evaluating their clients.  Sure, there's usually an initial assessment to see if you can squeeze your butt cheeks together, but it doesn't end there.  Every session we're looking to see if your back stays relatively flat even as we keep adding the weight onto that deadlift, or if your ankle mobility is improving, or how you're handling the latest exercise we just threw at you.

In a similar vein, you should never stop evaluating your trainer.  Don't think that once you've bought a package you're committed to that trainer forever.  Ask yourself these questions during your sessions:

  1. Is my trainer attentive to my form during exercises?
  2. Does my trainer really listen to my questions and concerns?  Do they address them to my satisfaction?
  3. Do I ever feel brushed off, or not taken seriously?
  4. If I am unable to perform a certain exercise, does my trainer have an appropriate alternative ready, or am I forced to continue with bad form?
  5. Does my trainer push me when necessary but ease up when I really need it?
  6. Is my trainer pushing supplements or unwanted dietary dogma onto me?
  7. Am I making progress and seeing results?
  8. Am I enjoying the process?
  9. Do our personalities mix well?
  10. Is their cellphone very, very far away?  (I actually don't follow this one because I use it as a clock and timer...but you get the idea)

After ALL OF THAT, if you're satisfied, it sounds like you got yourself a kick-ass trainer.  You should probably shout their name from the rooftops, write a glowing testimonial and refer friends, family and complete strangers to them.

Seriously, finding a good trainer is hard.  Save your loved ones the time and effort.  At the very least, send them this comprehensive guide so they can find one that matches their goals and personality as well!

Did I leave anything out?  Have some other points you'd like me to address?  Let me know in the comments and I'll add it in.

Just a small update - I've transferred my site from WordPress.com over to WordPress.org.  That may not sound too exciting, but it means I get to customize this site a TON more, and I get to offer some sweet new content for you all.  More on that in the next month or so, yay!

The bottom right was basically my face when I realized I could have more control over the appearance and function of my website, yaaaaayyyy!

The bottom right was basically my face when I realized I could have more control over the appearance and function of my website, yaaaaayyyy!

But in the meantime...

What does the transfer mean for me?

Nothing, probably.  But if you've subscribed to my blog with your wordpress.com account, you'll no longer receive email notifications of new posts.  I sincerely hope you've been enjoying the content, so if you'd still like to receive notifications, please take a second to fill in your email at the sidebar to the right, under "Keep the bullshit at bay!"

I truly appreciate everyone that reads and comments on my articles.  It means a lot, and I love getting discussion going on these topics.  I'm hoping that the transition doesn't hurt the small community here too much, so if you subscribe, thank you!

What's coming up?

More free stuff!  Seriously.  Here's what I've got in the works:

"Beginners Corner"

My website is called "Making Sense of Modern Fitness," and sometimes I don't feel like my content lives up to the name.  After I've decimated yet another fitness or diet plan, where does that leave you, the reader?  I talk constantly about what doesn't work, but you also need to know what does.

To that extent, I've got a large amount of material I'll hopefully be able to release for complete fitness and nutrition beginners by mid to late April.  Ebooks, printable guides, and all sorts of other goodies.

Facebook Page

I always seem to have little stories sitting around that I want to share my thoughts on and get discussion with you all going, but they're too short to merit a whole blog post.  To that extent, I'm working on getting myself committed to making and maintaining a facebook page.  That will probably be done by mid to late April as well!

Email Course - The Language of Evidence

This is more of a long-term project, and it's going to be awesome.  Essentially a 101 on how to go from getting all your advice from Mercola or NaturalNews to being a PubMed pro.  What counts as evidence?  Exactly why are some things considered credible evidence and why aren't others?  Why do people rudely discount my personal experiences?

As far as when this will be done, that's a good question and you can be sure I'll be too excited to keep it to myself when I do know.

Again, please take a moment to subscribe by entering you email to the sidebar on the right!  I've got a great guide coming up tomorrow about how to pick out a great personal trainer, even if you don't know much about the field, so keep a heads up for that!

Just as good as homeopathy, psychic surgery and faith healing.

While reading through one of the books I recommend at the end of the BS-Detection guide, (Bad Science by Ben Goldacre, seriously amazing read.  If you enjoy my work at all you'll love this book) I came across an interesting study on placebos.

(He even made a note saying that if you had a possible explanation for the results of this study, that you should write a blog post.  So...here we are!)

This is a good study to try and read into a little bit, even if you're not a statistician.  We may not be able to decide if their statistical analysis is any good (considering my 'C' grade in high school statistics, I'm gonna go ahead and put myself in the 'not expert' category on that one), but most of the study is in language any lay-person can understand.

Can the placebo effect improve the benefits of exercise?

Let's go over the structure of this study real quick:

What is the study trying to show?

In the first few paragraphs of this study, below the bolded abstract, the authors give us some interesting background on the surprising effects of placebos.  Their definition of 'the placebo effect' is:

The placebo effect is any effect that is not attributed to an actual pharmaceutical drug or remedy, but rather is attributed to the individual’s mind-set.

And that's a very accurate definition.  Let's expand on that a bit with an entertaining example from the wonderfully crude TV show It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

In the episode "Manhunters," two of the main characters (Dee and Charlie) are persuaded by Dee's father, Frank, that they've accidentally eaten human flesh.  Over the course of the episode, Dee and Charlie experience increasing cravings for human flesh, culminating in them kidnapping a homeless man to bring back to their apartment and eat.

Thankfully, Frank informs them in time that it was actually raccoon meat, and he was just fucking with them the whole time.

This example was just an excuse to post this youtube clip.

But Dee and Charlie feel the cravings for human flesh so intensely, they are convinced Frank is lying, and go on to attempt to eat him instead.

So, placebo effect is thinking you've eaten human flesh, causing the effect of craving human flesh, even though you only ate raccoon meat.

Where were we?  Ah, right, so the researchers were trying to determine:

...the role of the placebo effect (the moderating role of mind-set) in the relationship between exercise and health. We hypothesized that the placebo effect plays a role in the health benefits of exercise: that one’s mind-set mediates the connection between exercise and one’s health.

In other words, does simply telling people about the benefits of their current exercise increase the benefits of said exercise without changing anything else about their lives?

How did they conduct the study?

Researchers took 84 maids from 7 different hotels.  About half went into a 'control' group, and the other half were referred to as the 'informed' group.

The paper details exactly how they picked the maids and how they controlled for confounding factors like age, ethnicity, socioeconomic standing, etc.  As well, they made sure that the maids from different groups didn't talk to eachother, to ensure the placebo effect didn't spread to the 'control' group.

A control group is standard in most all experiments.  A control group basically exists as a reference for the changes made in the experiment group.

For instance, in this study, if we had no control group, we would have no way of knowing whether any changes that occurred in the experiment group had anything to do with the actual experiment changes, or changes in say, the weather, or any other natural fluctuations.

What were they measuring?

Researchers measured:

  • How much exercise the women believed they got
  • How much of their job they thought counted as 'exercise'
  • Weight, body fat percentage (via one of these), and waist-to-hip ratio
  • Blood Pressure

They measured the first two bullet points by just surveying the workers.  This would give insight into how their mind-set changed over the course of the experiment.  The second two bullet points showed actual objective data to see if those changes in mind-set actually affected their measurable health levels.

What were the differences between the 'informed' group and the 'experiment' group?

Both groups were educated on their daily recommended amount of exercise, based on the Surgeon General's recommendations; about 200 calories worth per day.  They were given handouts and posters were put up in their work lounges to remind them.

However, the 'informed' group was told that their jobs more than fulfilled said recommendations.  The 'control' group was not told this.

So basically, the only difference was that the informed group had the peace of mind and satisfaction of knowing that they were surpassing the amount of exercise recommended for them to obtain and maintain good health, while the control group did not.

What were the results?

Four weeks later, the informed group had:

  • Much higher perceived amount of regular exercise
  • Regarded their job as contributing much more towards their exercise
  • Lower systolic (the first number in blood pressure readings) blood pressure by 10 points
  • Lost an average of 2 pounds
  • Lowered waist-to-hip ratio and body fat

These changes were not seen in the control group.  In fact, they felt that their jobs counted less as exercise than before the experiment!

Ever watch Hoarders? Cleaning up that mess definitely counts as exercise.

So can the placebo effect help me to lose weight?

Possibly.  But don't get too excited about the results yet.  First of all, the body fat and weight loss results could be erroneous.  The scale they used to measure body fat is highly inaccurate and very susceptible to changes from water content in the body.  As well, many people experience weight fluctuations of 2+ pounds on a day to day basis regularly.

However, it's harder to mess up a blood pressure reading.  With an average decrease of 10 points, something was definitely going on to improve the health of the ladies in the informed group.

The researchers stated that it doesn't appear that the ladies in the study changed their dietary habits.  Nor did they report exercising more.  So, did being informed that they were doing exercise magically cause these improvements in health?

I think what's probably going on here is some combination and waterfall effect of:

  • Realizing that they're not lazy people, and healthier than they thought
  • Figuring that maybe they've got a little bit more of their shit together than they realized
  • Perhaps having a little more fun with the job, potentially increasing their physical exertion without consciously registering it
  • Decrease in stress
  • Increase in duration and quality of sleep
  • Decrease in caloric intake due to stress reduction and increase in sleep, as well as because they think of themselves as healthier, fitter people than before.

These changes wouldn't have been a conscious decision by the ladies, so they wouldn't have reported any changes in their habits.

It's a bit of a stretch, I admit.  But it seems more likely than a simple change in mindset decreasing one's waist-to-hip ratio.  Those kinds of direct physical changes don't seem to be in the realm of placebo, kind of like how placebo can't re-grow limbs or alleviate paralysis.

What's the take-home?

Realize that exercise is ANY KIND of physical exertion.  If you work a physical job like walking dogs, construction, teaching, cleaning, whatever, then you are getting exercise.  If you enjoy playing frisbee with your dog, you are getting exercise. Exercise does not have to happen in a gym or even as a conscious effort.

As well, recognize the awesome power of a positive mind-set.  Trust me, I know that this is easier said than done.  I have not in any way accomplished this yet in my own life.  But just feeling like you're just a little more in control of your life, eliminating just one source of stress, or maybe thinking of yourself as a bit of a healthier person can have huge effects on your actions and motivations.

Interested in learning more about how awesome and interesting the placebo effect is?  Pick up Bad Science by Ben Goldacre.  Seriously.  This book is amazing.