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.

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