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.