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There are few morning things that have the power to absolutely dictate my mood for the day. A loss in my fantasy league, for example, will pretty much ensure that I’m scowling even on the nicest of days.
More relevant thing to you, my dear reader, is the number that I see when I step on the scale while I’m on a fat loss diet.
Fortunately the scale reading is only a number. Like all pieces of data, this number may or may not be an accurate reflection of whether or not you are losing fat.
Let’s look at problems with over relying on your scale weight and how we can better interpret said weight.
Modeling Scale Weight
Let’s say that there were a hypothetical universe where someone’s weight had no variability. In this universe, Joe has 150 lbs of lean mass and 50 lbs of fat mass. That means Joe weighs 200 lbs at 25% bodyfat.
Now let’s transport Joe to our universe. The one where the scale can be a fickle bitch. How much does Joe weigh?
Joe would probably weigh somewhere between 196 and 208. Why the difference?
One’s “scale weight” can be broken down into the following formula:
Scale weight = True weight + Weight variance (aka weight of the annoying little gremlins that mess with your weight)
True weight – The weight that you would be in our hypothetical universe above (there are ways to get close to this).
Weight variance – A value that adds or subtracts from your weight, given the conditions below. Something interesting that I’ve seen from clients is that the upper and lower limits are asymmetrical. The upper limit of one’s scale weight is about +4% of his/her true weight, whereas the lower limit seems to be about -2% of his/her scale weight. Hence, why Joe’s scale weight is 196-208.
Understanding variations in weight
There are a few things that go into the “weight variance,” namely the following three things.
- Glycogen stores. This amount depends on your current consumption of carbohydrates. For every gram of carbohydrate that your body stores via glycogen, it also stores 3 grams of water. If you are carbohydrate-depleted, you will be at the lower end of your variance. Conversely, if you consume a crapola of carbohydrates, you will be at the upper end of your variance.
- Water retention/depletion from sodium. If you suddenly consume more sodium than you are used to, you will likely retain water. Conversely, if you suddenly consume much less sodium, you will release water. Your body adjusts to the new levels accordingly via the hormone aldosterone, so don’t think that you can keep this value low just by cutting sodium out from your diet.
- Cycle bloat. Women will retain water during their cycle. For this reason, it’s best for women to only compare weight from month-to-month.
- Dehydration. This obviously comes into play, but we’re going to assume that everyone here is well hydrated.
Scale Weight Fluctuations
Why does the scale seem so erratic when you are dieting?
The foremost reason is that glycogen is a much more volatile substrate than fat. That is, fat loss occurs slowly, while glycogen levels can swing wildly.
Let’s see what happens at both ends of glycogen storage.
The high end / Full stores – i.e. bloat (often from binge eating)
What happens when people go on a binge? Typically, they will retain a ton more glycogen afterwards and see a massive increase in the scale. This is only water weight. Too often, I’ll see people defeated because they “gained all of the weight back.”
One thing that you rarely hear about water bloat is that it makes you look fatter than actual fat. Yes, that means that a person whose true weight is 190 lbs and bloats up to 195 lbs will look fatter than if his/her true weight were 197 lbs.
Try this for yourself. When you are on a diet, take weekly pictures of yourself when you adhere to your nutrition plan. After you’ve lost some weight, take pictures again after eating wildly for a day.
Find the two pictures that match up with the same weight. You’ll notice that you will look fatter in your latter pictures, even if your true weight ls lower.
If you find yourself gaining a ton of weight after a bad day of dieting, remember, this is only temporary. Your true weight hasn’t moved much; it’s still subject to the laws of thermodynamics.
(Funny story: As a test I once consumed 1,200 grams of carbohydrates in one day with only trace dietary fats. Research predicts that almost none of this turned into fat. The next day, I looked like the Michelin man and my “skin” felt hurt and bruised. Yes, my skin. Interpret this as you will.)
The low end / Carbohydrate depletion
Those who go on Paleo or ketogenic style diets usually cite the rapid loss of weight at the very start, as well as the rapid influx of weight when they cease their low-carb diet.
This isn’t due to some magical powers from copying the diet of pre-historic man. Rather, this is due to the rapid depletion and replenishment of glycogen.
Similarly, the rapid drop in weight that occurs when one starts a diet can usually be attributed to a drop in carbohydrate intake.
Lyle McDonald talks about “the whoosh effect,” in which scale weight will often lag behind true weight loss. If you haven’t read this article yet, I highly encourage you to do so. I take this one step further by showing that you can use certain measurements to determine an impending whoosh, as you’ll read later.
Clients will also often gain lean mass and/or increased glycogen capacity during a diet, especially with a mild deficit. For that reason, scale weight may remain the same even if fat loss is occurring.
Interpreting the Scale
The true secret to interpreting the scale is building a story. Most people use the scale as a final number, rather than piece together a story using relevant pieces of data. The scale number alone is useless when you need to troubleshoot.
Instead, we can create a powerful story by pairing scale readings with the following data:
- Waist measurements. This is the most powerful piece of accompanying data. That’s because waist measurements are far more useful at determining overall direction of fat loss.Take measurements at the navel, 2 inches above, and 2 inches below. Compare with last week’s measurements and assign the measurement either -1, 0, or +1 if the new measurement decreases, stays the same, or increases respectively.Now, add the numbers together to determine overall direction that fat loss/gain is occurring.
- Strength as determined by PRs. Assuming that you have reasonable programming for a deficit, PRs are a good indicator of how far you are from your caloric deficit in the natural trainee. If your strength is increasing, then you are likely increasing your weight from lean body mass as well.
- Bloat. This tells you how much variance is going into your measurements. Be keen on noticing whether or not you are holding water in key parts. This will vary from person to person, but it will be areas that seem to swell up after a binge. My face balloons in size for example, but my thighs always look the same.
Remember our hypothetical universe where scale weight is equal to “true” weight? We want to replicate this as much as possible. For this reason, you should not interpret measurements when bloat is high. Either wait for it to go away (if it’s caused by your menstrual cycle) or eat normally for a few days (if it’s from a binge).
After that, use the following chart to interpret your data.
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As my most astute readers already know, I don’t think that exercise – especially cardio – in and of itself is a very viable solution to weight loss. In fact, I’d go as far as to make the argument that exercise is not necessarily for everyone just starting out with fitness.
Now, I’m probably in disagreement with 99% of the population here (which should tell you something about going against the grain, since I probably get the top 1% of results from sedentary individuals), but I’m not alone.
Yet, I’ve also met a non-trivial amount of people in the wild who claim to have lost weight with exercise – mostly cardio – and no explicit dietary intervention. (I can only name one person who claims that she dropped a considerable amount of weight from strength training alone with no dietary intervention.) These stories cannot automatically be disregarded.
Naturally, this got me thinking. Is there a certain cohort out there that successfully loses weight from exercise alone? If so, what’s different about them?
The Main Argument – Exercise Leads to Overeating
Before I move on, it’s important that I clarify two things here.
1. I am talking about the general population here. For fitness coaches who read this blog, I am talking about your clients, not you. I should hope that anyone reasonably experienced with fitness knows how to lose fat via aerobic activity.
This is important because…
2. I am talking about exercise without explicit dietary intervention. That means we’re assuming the individual does not meticulously plan their calories/macros throughout the day, then tack on an additional caloric deficit from cardio. Rather, the individual is allowed to eat ad libitum, or as much as he or she wants. Remember, no one is arguing the laws of calories here. We’re interested in what will happen to Average Joe when left to his own devices.
The underlying assumption that powers the “inefficacy of cardio” argument is that exercise leads to hunger, hunger leads to overeating, and overeating leads to negating the caloric deficit that you created in the first place.
Infamous carbohydrate-demonizer Gary Taubes has a “stump speech” (I say this intentionally because fitness factions and political factions are eerily similar) where he’s all over this argument like me at a sushi buffet. Taubes goes into his folksy propaganda about how Ma always talked about “working up your appetite” after running around the school yard.
At any rate, it’s a believable claim. Who doesn’t remember a time that exercise made them hungry? It’s certainly corroborated by the people that I see in the elliptical section of the gym day after day, without any noticeable weight loss.
But is this the reason that cardio alone does not seem to cause significant weight loss – as evidenced in this study, where it took up to 40 hours of moderate intensity aerobic exercise to lose 1 pound of weight?
Let’s look at some existing research.
The Impact of Exercise on Hunger
One study broke out participants into three groups – one that underwent high intensity cardio, one that underwent low intensity cardio, and one that did no exercise (i.e. the control group). It then asked the participants to rate their hunger, fullness, and consume food ad libitum. If exercisers truly “worked up an appetite,” then one would expect a significant responses and/or food intake above the control.
There were no differences above the control (no exercising) group for any of these variables.
Surprise surprise. Exercise did not lead to additional caloric consumption.
It’s worth noting that there was a difference between high intensity and low intensity groups when you look at the net energy balance (intake minus the amount expended), in which case high intensity exercise won out.
In almost every way you sliced it – whether looking at ad libitum food intake or measuring hunger/satiety hormones like ghrelin and polypeptide YY – exercise only seemed to help curb hunger.
Evolving Your World View – A Quick Tangent
Similar to what I encountered above, there will come a point when you cannot reconcile your current world view with new, credible information.
Everyone will face this at some point. Unfortunately, however, almost everyone will completely disregard this conflicting data in order to shield the lens by which they view the world.
World views are very personal things. They’re forged through experiences, often very personal, irrational ones that are heavily tied to your sense of self-worth. To invalidate one’s “lens” is to invalidate his or her identity.
As a personal example, I’ve helped many people who could not lose weight with exercise alone. Instead, I helped them conquer fitness instead, in a cerebral way; it’s how I’ve built my brand as a coach.
It’s easy to see how a body of credible evidence, one that directly contradicts my mental model of fitness, could send my self-esteem crumbling down. The natural reaction is to hold even more tightly and protect my existing view at all costs.
I’m going into a bit of a tangent here, but I want to note that it’s important to constantly evolve your world view by iterating your model of how things work. Not just with fitness, but with all things.
Don’t be like Gary Taubes or creationists that cling on to their beliefs at all costs. Rather, allow the way that you view the world to be malleable. Be open-minded. Be humble. Be curious.
And above all else, be brave enough to be wrong.
By automatically recoiling from contradictory information you lose the chance to sharpen the very same lens that that you were trying to protect from shattering.
If I recoiled rather than refined, I would have lost the ability to come up with a better mental model of how people react to exercise – one that separates psychology from physiology – in particular how everything changes when people measure.
The Heisenberg Rule of Exercise
There are two interesting studies that give us a hint about what’s going on.
One study was similar to the previous ones that I mentioned, but different in a very important way. As with the previous studies, participants were made to exercise.
However, this is where it differed. After their activity was over, they were then told to eat the caloric equivalent that they burned through exercise. They ended up eating 2-3 times more energy than this amount.
In another study, participants were made to exercise, and then left to their own devices with regards to food intake. Instead, they were told to keep a food journal, which was then translated into caloric values by the experimenters. On paper, it appeared that there was an overall caloric deficit throughout the group.
However, when participants’ final weights were measured, there was no evidence of weight loss.
The explanation in a nutshell is this. I call it The Heisenberg Rule of Exercise. (Ok, it only very loosely parallels Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Theorem, but I wanted to drop the name Heisenberg, OK??)
Here it is.
In your average person, the simple act of measuring exercise is what ends up sabotaging your weight loss.
If people kept their dietary habits the same and incorporated exercise, the combination of increased energy expenditure and decreased acute hunger would ostensibly create a caloric deficit suitable for weight loss.
But most people don’t think like that.
The fact that exercise and food can be translated into the same currency – calories – causes people to subconsciously place them into one giant ledger. In this ledger, calories are the currency that affords them lifestyle choices. Thirty minutes on the treadmill might translate into one Krispy Kreme, for example.
The problem here is that human beings are horrible at this skill. It’s one that can only get better after years of refinement.
Even if you do develop this skill, the act of translating your exercise into calories may persuade you to make food choices that you might not have made. (This is why it’s best to build exercise into one’s caloric multiplier.)
Sure, physiologically, exercise may not increase one’s caloric consumption. But psychologically, we can see how this is feasible. And in the domain of fitness, when physiology and psychology go head-to-head, psychology will always win out.
My own personal experience as a coach seems to support this model. Those who lose weight from cardio alone almost seem to stumble upon it by accident, like finding a twenty-dollar bill in your pocket. They enjoyed a sport or an activity and reaped the benefits of weight loss.
Conversely, it seems like I’m always encountering someone who “cannot manage to lose weight” only to find out that he or she takes the elliptical calorie readings at face value and goes to Starbucks some time after the gym.
I cannot be fully sure if these personas are entirely exaggerated in my own head. They might be. But they are consistent with the model above.
If you do cardio, incorporate it into your regimen. Don’t translate it into calories or currency. Rather, enjoy it as part of the overall process in your fitness journey.
Need more help? Train with Dick or contact him at richard at fitocracy.com.
I’ve always considered myself a good coach.
I don’t think that’s too cocky of a statement, because, honestly, it’s not because there’s anything really special about me as a person.
It just so happens that my particular set of circumstances have helped to create a rare world view and coaching skill set – being a former-fat-kid and a present-day entrepreneur who works 80+ hour weeks. Both of these experiences carry a lot of weight when your clientele mainly consists of normal people who want to make ridiculous transformations.
All that being said, 2013 is, by far, the year that I learned the most as a coach due to one sheer reason – client volume.
I normally take about 3 one-on-one clients at a time leading to less than 10 per year. This year, however, I coached a lot of people via group training. These groups ranged anywhere from 30 people per class (Minimum Viable Fitness) to as many as 80 people per class (Weight Loss Made Simple).
Group coaching doesn’t have the same level of personal touch and attention that one-on-one coaching has (but it’s still amazing value… arguably better) but it exposed me to mountains more data than I’ve ever seen before. It would’ve taken much more time to collect this level of insight at my former pace.
All in all, I ended up coaching a little more than 200 trainees running the gamut on amount of handholding and length of coaching time; most folks had very little hand holding for 8 weeks or less, while others (one-on-one clients) trained with me for a year with near-daily interaction.
Anyway, I decided to take down the biggest insights in hopes that they’ll help others interested in coaching insights. To keep you from boredom, I’ll break this up into three posts. Part I (this post) outlines calories/protein. Part II outlines notes on exercise habits and results. Part III outlines insights on psychology and motivation.
- Most obese trainees had one glaring thing in common – When looking at food logs of obese people (those who need to lose over 30% of their body weight) who are asked to change their eating habits as little as possible, there’s one glaring pattern. A ridiculously, abysmally, infinitesimally low percentage of their calories came from protein. I’m talking about less than 10% of their calories, 5% on some days.We’re talking about a 350-pound individual reporting 3000-4000 Calories/day with maybe 60g coming from protein! I’m not even sure what you’d need to eat to get that low.It’s important to be hesitant in labeling causation with observational data, but a few other things tell me that a large chunk is causation. (See my next point.)
- Aggressive deficit + high protein FTW – In obese beginners, the act of simultaneously prescribing a super aggressive caloric deficit (7000-8000 Calories/week) and doubling or tripling one’s protein intake made most clients fuller and even more energetic. Previously, I’d been weary about such aggressive initial caloric deficits.
I suspect that for people who are on their last leg in terms of giving up on fitness altogether, going aggressive may be a novel approach. There is nothing more motivating than losing 5 lbs in your first week, while you’re constantly stuffing your face.
- Maintenance calories can be much lower than I thought – I used to follow Lyle’s basic rule-of-thumb philosophy of caloric maintenance being roughly 12-13x bodyweight for women and 13-14x bodyweight for men.This only holds true for relatively lean individuals. There were certainly some obese folk whose maintenance seemed closer to 9-10x body weight in calories, meaning they had to go as low as 7-8x. (And again, many were still pleasantly full.)My hypothesis on why their maintenance is so low is quite simple. Obviously, you’d expect a low RMR due to relatively low levels of lean mass. However, it’s also important to keep in mind that for correlational reasons, obese folk usually aren’t exercising. The “boost” in calories burned due to their sheer weight isn’t being realized.Now, it’s possible that there was binge eating and such that did not make the ledger. Actually, I’m sure of it. But for someone who was used to relatively lean clientele (7-25% bodyfat in men) it was still astonishing how low caloric maintenance seemed to be.
- There’s some sort of limit to how much protein beginners, especially women, can take – Not sure if this is purely psychological, but beginners will just not be able to eat past a certain amount of protein. That amount is gender-dependent.Specifically, pound-for-pound, women will just not be eat more than 150g of protein/day. That’s an absolute number. In other words, even a 250-pound woman will struggle eating more than that.Use the ridiculous satiety of protein to your advantage, but also be mindful that when clients feel they miss their mark by a high amount, they begin to get demotivated. (I talk about that in the psychology/motivations section.)
- Only advanced clients can tell if they’re losing fat based on diet – Clients – even experienced dieters – are very poor at gauging whether or not they are making progress based on their food intake. Specifically, clients who aren’t used to proper dieting will fight you tooth and nail and claim that there is no way that they’re making progress while eating this much. If you’re certain about your calculations, have them put a little bit of trust in you and quell their inner doubts until they see results.
I don’t want this to get too lengthy even if I still have a ton more notes around protein/calories so I’ll leave it at this for now.
This post was originally made on schwarzenegger.com. I’ve reposted it here so that my followers can read it.
In the three years since starting Fitocracy, I’ve personally interacted with tens of thousands of people attempting to transform themselves.
Many succeeded, but many have failed. For those who failed, it wasn’t for a lack of trying or initial motivation. After all, many did attempt to emulate the same iron willpower and work ethic that they saw in Arnold.
Thankfully I’ve also seen many success stories, many of which are in Arnold’s 1% Challenge group, whose members just last week hit a cumulative one million workouts.
If you look around the group and its success stories, you won’t see many folks who would call themselves athletic. If anything, you’ll find a scrappy, try-hard, bunch of geeks, moms, and Average Joe’s, who’ve found their spark.
And so, I’ve become obsessed with analyzing characteristics of those who have succeeded in these life-altering metamorphoses, in particular becoming strong. (Or ripped, jacked, shredded, if you prefer those words.)
When I was younger, Arnold’s physique was my definition of strength. I thought that the only path to such transformation was with an indomitable iron will that would motivate me past any level of pain and blast through set after set of lactic-acid-inducing torture.
Yet what I found out was that these transformations always had another side to them. This other side contained softer characteristics not usually associated with strength: humility, self-compassion, and mindfulness.
Still, these transformations were very real and just as good as any.
I quickly learned that the qualities that make certain people achieve great strength are very different than what most people imagine.
(Pictured above, user DrivenDisciplin, exhibits these characteristics)
They show humility
I’ve come to find that beginners attempting to lose weight can be bucketed into two groups: those who attempt to “will” their way into success by sheer “eating less and moving more,” and those who approach weight loss with a bit more curiosity and humility.
If I only had one piece of information to predict someone’s success, it would be knowing which bucket someone falls into.
Those who rely only on sheer willpower are headed for failure. You see, willpower is a finite resource. Ironically, dieting seems to reduce the amount of willpower we have, while an increase in hunger simultaneously increases the required willpower to keep going.
On the contrary, those who show humility tend to be curious and understanding of their limitations, without being hindered by their ego. They research the basic tenets of dieting, establish a positive feedback loop that doesn’t rely on willpower, and are open to information, even if it flies in the face of preconceived notions – such as the myth of breakfast or small meals.
The Fitocracy user pictured above, DrivelDisciplin, credits his transformation to having an open mind.
“Many go into the gym with a chip on their shoulder convinced that their way is the only way and refuse to deviate from this path. I always have an open mind, read everything I can about training, and never think I know too much to take advice,” he says.
They show self-compassion
What are the typical reactions from someone who messes up on their diet? Hate. Self-loathing. Guilt.
For those looking to make a transformation it’s not hard to imagine decades, or even a lifetime of of slipping up, followed by these feelings.
These feelings, however, create a self-fulfilling prophecy. A trap. By reacting in this way, you can get blinded to the fact that perhaps you cannot just “will” your way to success on just any program. Oftentimes, adjustments to one’s training, diet, or mentality need to be made, especially to account for life.
Being hard on yourself will only make you suffer through the exact same attempts over and over again – usually with the same outcome.
As it turns out, research suggests that self-compassion may be the solution to this trap – not just with fitness, but with everything in life.
Now, you might think that self-compassion means that you’re just going to “let yourself off the hook.” On the contrary, research shows that self-compassion actually gives one the sense that improvement is possible; those who exhibit self-compassion are less likely to avoid the same mistake again.
Time and time again, I’ve found that those who make successful transformations tend to be self-compassionate. They forgive themselves for their past failures so that they can try again.
For example, I once had a client who strayed from her diet every time she traveled. Feeling guilty because she “was unable to show discipline,” she would binge for days after she came back (or try to compensate with too much cardio, which eventually triggered a binge).
Instead, I encouraged her to forgive herself for those mistakes, explaining to her that the thought patterns and triggers of traveling inevitably created an environment in which slipping up was inevitable (or at least, made self-control extremely costly).
After forgiving herself, she no longer attempts to “will” her way through dieting while she travels and instead, just takes a break from dieting. Just as research predicts, she actually gets right back on her diet.
They are mindful
I have a friend who started training five years ago. In that amount of time, he’s read everything that he can on fitness – probably more so than I have in that time span – yet hasn’t made much progress.
I had the fortune (or misfortune) of training with him the other day while he was in town. He proceeded to take his first set of bench way past the point of failure. On his next set, he was upset that his performance was suffering. (As his spotter, I was pretty much doing bicep curls.) He proceeded to repeat the same weight, taking each deteriorating set further past failure, all while expecting a different outcome.
Upon leaving the gym, I thought to myself, “How can someone who geeks out about fitness that much be so thick?”
It suddenly hit me. For all of the information that he reads, he was just never mindful about fitness. In this case, he never thought about the connection between performance and taking set after set to failure.
Knowledge doesn’t always translate into wisdom. You need to be mindful in order to make that leap.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Dante Trudel, the creator of the infamous training program,Doggcrapp. Now, I wouldn’t be surprised if Dante has never voluntarily read a research paper on fitness in his life, yet he is one of the wisest, most mindful people in fitness, which has helped him create elite physiques.
Mindful people are able to accumulate wisdom efficiently. They quickly sort out what impacts them and why, and then use that information to keep their progress moving forward. Mindfulness and humility also go hand in hand; you cannot be mindful if you’re sure that you know all of the answers.
So, what is strength?
I used to think that people who are strong are simply those who spent more time at the gym or displayed more willpower. The reality, however, is that different people need different characteristics for their own personal transformation.
An athlete with elite genetics, for example, might simply need to develop dedication and consistency. For someone like that, almost anything will work as long as he puts in enough time and dedication. But a former fat kid like myself could not have been successful without developing mindfulness and self-compassion.
And that’s the beautiful thing about strength; it’s a manifestation of one’s inner qualities, each person needing their own special combination to translate those qualities into something visible and powerful.
An individual’s strength is a story about their personal growth.
And many times, that story isn’t about the harder qualities like pushing through pain. Instead, it’s often a reflection of mindfulness, openness to new experiences, self-compassion, and the ability to forgive yourself for being human.
The Fitness Summit vs. The Broken Industry
I just came back from The Fitness Summit in Kansas City. For those of you who don’t know, it’s a yearly summit that takes place in Kansas City featuring lectures from the world’s best fitness folks, such as Eric Cressey, Alan Aragon, and Mike Nelson. These lecturers showed incredible insight in the realm of exercise and nutrition by combining science and their extensive real-world experience.
I was going to use this post-summit blog post in order to go through the highlights, but I have a much more important message in mind.
These last two years with Fitocracy have given my partner Brian and I an amazing look at the fitness industry – perhaps one of the most holistic. We’ve been able to observe the way people approach exercise, the obesity problem, and the state of the fitness industry.
This industry is incredibly broken. It’s been unable to help a majority of people live healthier lives.
The dichotomy between The Fitness Summit’s awesomeness and the industry’s brokenness made me ponder. During the plane ride back and into the next day I racked my brains, creating a brain dump of two years worth of insight around fitness failure.
I wrote all my thoughts down, categorized, sorted, and categorized again. When I finished, I was shocked by what I saw – with half a page, I could list the phenomena that account for almost every “failed” fitness persona.
Why The Industry is Broken
There are a few things at play that make “failure” the norm in fitness. I’ll categorize them here and then discuss.
1. The Exercise Perception Paradox
People are horrible judges of exercise and diet efficacy. Basically, “killing yourself at the gym” yields no additional benefit.
What you feel is a lie
Cardio: Vomit-inducing workouts that make you feel like death are no better for weight loss than less intense workouts.
Strength training: Going to failure to the point of pain and discomfort will not lead to a better workout. Doing a set of bicep curls to failure on a set, then hitting rep after rep past failure will hurt overall muscle hypertrophy, not help.
By itself, this wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, except that…
People assume that more pain means a better workout
This tends to be propagated by media and “pain” culture, probably because of the likes of The Biggest Loser. It’s natural; everyone wants to feel “hardcore.”
If that isn’t the worst part, your body lies too…
Your body is a scumbag
Your body gives you the illusion of long-term success via short-term cues that feel exactly the same as long-term results.
Here are two examples.
“The pump” – Muscles temporarily swell after a workout. This doesn’t necessarily mean the muscle has been set up for long-term growth.
“The whoosh effect” – An initial weight loss drop is usually seen at the start of a diet. (can be especially visible after crash dieting or low-carb dieting) This weight is “water weight” (namely, the water that accompanies a loss of glycogen) and doesn’t necessarily predict long term diet success.
And what happens when you engage in brutal, painful exercise that doesn’t necessarily improve your fitness?
2. The illusion of Difficulty
People expend great amount of resources (willpower, money, time) with very little to show. They then, wrongly, conclude that fitness is extremely difficult.
The assumption that fitness failures stem from lack of willpower
People will often assume that fitness success relies purely on willpower. In reality, willpower is a finite resource and will never lead to success by itself; you need to create a positive feedback loop. I discuss this at length here.
There is no amount of willpower will make you run every morning if you hate running.
The assumption that external forces will forever prevent one from getting fit
The excuses of “poor genetics” and “not enough time” are often blamed for fitness failures. More often than not, this conclusion stems from failing a fitness program that was set up for failure.
This is the assumption that the solution to fitness can be reduced to something extremely simple – such as the popular recommendation to “eat less, move more” or “carbohydrates cause obesity” – and that everyone should attain it.
Telling an obese person to “eat less, move more” is like telling a depressed person to “stop being so sad.”
When one takes a reductionist point of view, they lack the perspective that would otherwise cause them to acquire knowledge and improve. If their plan fails (“eat less, move more always does”) it leads to a downward spiral of self-image. After all, how could they have failed something so simple?
4. The Chase for the Fitness Holy Grail
This is the assumption that you will somehow finally make the fitness leap by keeping a list of tips or finding the one special “trick” that you’ve been missing all along.
These people are often burned out from previous fitness failures and are now turning towards “secrets,” “tips,” “tricks,” “hacks,” “this one weird rule,” etc.
Ever wonder why articles along the lines of “The Secret to Fitness is this One Weird Tip” are so numerous? It’s because people click on them. (You’ll be happy to know that I opted against naming this article “The 7 Reasons The Fitness Industry is Broken.”)
Those who fall victim to this fallacy assume that simply executing enough tips or secrets will lead to success, because “everything adds up.” This is not true.
5. Trigger Happy Evangelists
When things do seem to work, there is a knee-jerk desire for people to become strong advocates. Observe the following conversation of someone who falls victim to the exercise perception paradox.
“Oh man, p90x was dope. I was so pumped and sore after my first workout. You should try it for your weight loss.”
People want to tell everyone about a program that seems to work – it may not actually work in the long run. This is why some of the worst programs have the highest virality.
6. Infallibility of Authority Figures
The near-universal inclination to believe a “health expert” like Dr. Oz, an athlete like Reggie Bush, or anyone with “Dr.” in front of their name, even if the PhD is unrelated.
In reality, most medical doctors actually know very little about nutrition, athletes who hit the genetic lottery can do nearly anything to get fit, and someone with a PhD in physics has no business claiming that it relates to exercise or nutritional science.
7. Incentivized Failure
This is the most nefarious one of all.
Trainers, programs, and products are incentivized to produce short-term perception of effectiveness, not long-term outcome. Whether it’s the gym that wants you to sign up in January and never return (that’s how they stay in business), the trainer who tricks you into grueling sessions to “fool” you into thinking he’s giving you a great workout, or the app that only gets paid when you miss the gym, almost the entire industry is designed to see you fail in the long run.
The easiest way to take your money in the short term is to make you fail in the long term. The misalignment of incentives is the epitome of the broken industry.
Examples in Action
Let’s take a look at a few examples.
Sally, the 26-year-old woman with low self esteem, who’s never been able to lose weight:
- Believes she just needs to “eat less, move more” (3)
- Attends her gym’s grueling cardio classes (1)
- Gets incredibly hungry, binge eats, then blames constant lack of willpower (2)
Peter, the tech entrepreneur who hears about a magical diet called Paleo:
- Hears that it’s actually carbohydrates that make people fat (3)
- Due to being highly insulin sensitive, Peter responds poorly to the diet but mistakes this for being hardcore (1)
- Never sustains the diet, then blames constant lack of willpower (2)
Tim, the sports nut who constantly buys Terrell Owens equipment and never loses weight:
- Buys Terrell Owen’s “resistance band” program (6)
- Feels a pump and immediately tells others about it (1, 5)
- Doesn’t actually see progress, loses interest. Feels like he’ll never have enough time for fitness (2)
Jackie, the midwestern soccer mom and Dr. Oz fan:
- Believes everything that Dr. Oz says (6)
- Buys Acai Berry, which she heard about from Dr. Oz, from the drug store (7)
- Doesn’t see progress and gives up due to her bad genetics (2)
Joe, the overweight, 45-year-old father of three:
- Hears about Crossfit from a vocal friend (5)
- Has a grueling workout, tells his friends (1)
- Doesn’t lose weight, gives up on exercise because he assumes he’ll “never have the time” (2)
- Only partakes fitness “hacks” (perpetually 4)
These seven items somehow describe the failed fitness lifecycles of almost every “persona” that I’ve seen.
In many of these examples, the individual is the first point of failure. I wrote about this in my previous post – the lack of humility, compassion, and curiosity is usually to blame at the individual level.
But failure across the person’s entire life cycle, and the industry overall, requires more players than just one. Otherwise, the fitness industry wouldn’t be so broken.
I usually think that industry negativity should be kept to a minimum, but here’s why these people need to be called out: transparency is the only way to fix the problem of fixing the industry.
And fixing the industry is one of the main missions of Fitocracy. (You can already see how on the site, but exact details probably belong in a future post.)
Reasons 1 through 6 set the stage for a market full of vulnerable pockets, but two types of people are systematically perpetuating a cycle of fitness failures:
1. People who appeal to their status as an “authority,” despite knowing little about fitness. They’ll often use the “Dr.” in front of their name as a pure marketing tool.
These people are charlatans; their PhDs or MDs are unrelated, except to help them sell you their products.
2. Creators of products and services that optimize for short-term monetization while masquerading as purchases designed to change your life.
These are the people perpetuating the cycle of fitness failure. They make people think that failure is the norm.
How You Can Help Fix the Industry
Now, back to the Fitness Summit.
A friend of mine posted that the Summit gives her “hope” for fitness. Despite my rant above, I tend to agree.
For example, I had a great conversation with the guys at Examine.com. Arguably, there’s no part of fitness that’s more broken than the supplement industry, and they’re passionate about bringing transparency to this space.
There are good guys (and gals!) in the industry. They are open-minded, espouse evidenced-based fitness, and aren’t in the industry to sell you something.
Unfortunately, people like Alan Aragon tends to garner less household brand awareness than someone like Tony Horton.
You can change that by finding people who are committed to ethics and help them achieve awareness by reading and sharing their work. By making people aware of these issues and their culprits, people will have a better chance against falling victim.
We’re doing our part to change the industry with Fitocracy.
In the meantime, make sure to throw that shake weight in the garbage.
I’m the co-founder of a startup. Unfortunately, as all entrepreneurs know, this means that there is very little stability in my day-to-day life. I’ll often not know where or when my next meal will be or when I’ll have time to go to the gym. Or sleep. Or shower. (You get the point.)
I should also mention that my startup, Fitocracy, is a fitness startup, and its 1.2 million members look to me to tell them what is “healthy.”
The word “healthy” is emotional for me, as I’ve dealt with it for as long as I can remember. My parents are doctors, and growing up, they always instructed me on what foods or activities were “healthy” or “unhealthy.”
As much as I could, I did my best to do healthy activities, like running, despite hating many of them. I didn’t always make healthy choices, but I figured that I would just make it a point to do as many as I can. After all, “it all adds up,” right?
Unfortunately, by the time I was 16, I topped the scales at 220 lbs and most definitely wasn’t healthy.
Let’s go back to present day Dick Talens, the one with the hectic startup life. I don’t miss a beat when it comes to exercise and my original struggles with weight are completely gone. I also coach people – people with incredibly busy lives – on how to get fit, with some clients losing the equivalent weight of half a person.
I am often asked what’s the difference in mindset that separates old Dick from new Dick.
It took me nearly a decade to figure out, but I’ve distilled it to one core concept: Nothing is healthy or unhealthy. In fact, when it comes to exercise and nutrition, it would be better if those words didn’t exist.
The only way to judge something’s “healthiness” is in a holistic context. A food or activity that is unhealthy in isolation may be healthy in the large scheme of things.
For example, I would bet that there is no nutritionist in the world who would call Oreos a “healthy” food. But what if eating a few Oreos increases a particular dieter’s adherence and chance of success? After all, that dieter may feel less deprived.
Does that make Oreos healthy?
Similarly, everyone believes that cardio is a “healthy” activity. No one would call cardio, in isolation, unhealthy. Yet, for those who do not enjoy it, it is time consuming, increases hunger, and is ineffective at fat loss, yet it’s the first avenue many people turn to in their efforts to lose weight.
If these factors decrease your chance of fitness success, does that make cardio unhealthy?
Let’s look at this another way. As an entrepreneur, the goal behind every decision that I make is to improve my startup’s chance of success. Yet, every decision is made with all facets of the startup in mind – limited time, budget and focus, to name a few.
If your company is desperately in need of another software developer, you wouldn’t hire a social media person if it puts you past budget, would you?
Similarly, everything that you do around fitness is constrained by limited time, energy, and willpower. For many, using these up on cardio, instead of focusing on diet or higher ROI exercise, is akin to saying “yes” to the question above. (This is the concept behind my project, Minimum Viable Fitness.)
If you want to stick to fitness, you must avoid using up your resources on unnecessary things.
That’s why labeling things as “healthy” and then trying to maximize your “healthiness tally” doesn’t work. It ignores the fact that everything is interconnected – that you have constraints and that every decision impacts another.
Many times, these constraints are physiological in nature and many “healthy” programs will doom entrepreneurs from the start.
Let’s look at two fitness protocols that have been popular in the entrepreneur community: CrossFit training in combination with the Paleo diet, both of which may be fine in isolation.
Combining CrossFit and Paleo, as its executed by many people (which commonly includes pushing past injury, glorifying vomit-inducing workouts, and heavily restricting carbohydrates) is often reprimanded for skyrocketing cortisol (stress hormone) and plummeting testosterone. In addition, that amount of aerobic exercise may increase hunger and decrease metabolism, due to disproportionately lowering the hormone leptin.
But maybe, for whatever reason, CrossFit and Paleo was what finally worked for you. Perhaps it was finally a “healthy” program that you can stick to.
That only illustrates my point. Nothing is healthy or unhealthy in isolation. Everything depends on context.
The popular phrase “it all adds up” doesn’t hold true for health. You cannot tally units of healthiness any more than you can tally Starks and Lannisters.
To generalize something’s “healthiness” is to ignore context. It’s like making a business decision that doesn’t take your startup’s budget, talent, time, and manpower into account.
Luckily there is a difference between startups and fitness – most startups fail.
Everyone, however, can succeed at fitness.
“Why are you making me eat so much food? Aren’t I trying to lose weight?”
That’s essentially the question that someone asked in my Minimum Viable Fitness training group. More specifically, he felt silly stuffing his face every day with ice cream and the like on a program focused on fat loss. He wanted to know if he could just have minimum numbers of fat, protein, and carbohydrates, then eat until satiety.
Here’s my candid response to him. I apologize for typos and whatnot… I did not intend on turning this into a blog post.
I’ll explain my reasoning as to why I’m grinning maniacally while everyone has tummy aches from feeling too full. Please read in full.
So first, it’s important to separate physiological from psychological reasoning… (In reality, you can never truly separate the two as it relates to fitness, but it helps for explanatory purposes)
First, the physiological perspective:
1. What I am trying to is get everyone to do is build muscle while on a caloric deficit. Doing so is particularly challenging, given that dieting in order to lose fat (i.e. creating a caloric deficit) generally puts your body in a catabolic state, while adding muscle requires an anabolic environment.
The only way to guarantee the constant progression of muscle is to tightly control your weekly caloric deficit, and there’s a very fine line… “simultaneously losing fat and building muscle” is one of the hardest things to do in all of fitness. (luckily, most of you are new to training and that gives you an advantage for now.) A difference of 1000 calories throughout the week (<40g carbs/day) may determine whether or not you’re actually putting on muscle while you diet. For 99% of you, your macros are optimized so that you’re at the perfect rate of simultaneously building muscle and losing fat.
2. Losing some weight/fat, is in fact, incredibly easy. Anyone can go on a juice fast and lose 5 lbs. The difficult part is getting to your goals and then keeping that fat off. That’s because as you diet and lose weight, your metabolism tends to down regulate slightly… proportional to your new weight, lean mass, and caloric (especially carbohydrate) intake.
Everyone here will stall out on the way to reaching their goals. The only way to break that stall is to decrease the amount of food that you’re consuming. If you don’t start out a diet with a high intake of food, then you have nowhere to go… you’ll essentially be nearing your ceiling (or floor, I guess) by week 8. If you start with a high food intake (as high as possible to still lose 1-2 lbs/week, in fact), you’ll have plenty of room for macronutrient adjustments as you go on.
From a psychological perspective:
There are certain things that our bodies (and brains) are very good at “sensing” right from the get go since birth. Here are two example: 1. whether a body part is injured and 2. whether or not a weight is heavy. These are not skills, so much as they are instinctual… they were probably required for human survival at some point. Trying to go toe-to-toe with that jaguar despite having a broken foot or not realizing that boulder that you’re trying to lift is too heavy was probably a death sentence for early man. For things like these, you should certainly listen to your body. It will tell you a lot
Then there are things, for various reasons, that people are not very good at sensing – the amount of “hunger” you should be feeling when you lose weight, the ROI of a particular training session, etc. These are highly specialized skills that *can* be developed, but for the most part, people suck at them… sometimes for a very long time. Sometimes, they are skills that you will never improve because of the complex, ever-changing systems involved. Stock picking is an example of one of these skills; an individual can never actually improve in this ability.
For the things above, people tend to take heuristics that are familiar to them and couple them with a goal. “Oh I need to lose weight? I must need to feel hungry. Oh, I feel hungry? I must be losing weight.” “Oh I want to get strong and be in great shape? I need to sweat my ass off at the gym. Oh, I’m sweating profusely? I must be getting in a great workout.” This coupling is literally one that is ingrained… hardwired… literally, I suspect, down to the neurons firing in your brain.
What I am trying to get you to do is decouple “senses” from “predicted outcome” so that you disassociate how you feel and whether it’s a marker for success.
When you are feeling full every day and see the scale go down 1-2 lbs/week, you begin to think very differently about fitness… just like when you feel like you didn’t sweat enough at the gym, but after a few weeks, become stronger and fitter than you’ve ever been before. The activities above literally act as a mental training of sorts, just as important – and arguably more challenging – as the physical one.
Now, I know you weren’t intending on feeling hungry and mentioned just eating those macros to satiety… but I suspect that there’s a very big difference, with regards to this “mental training,” when you’re losing 1-2 lbs/week and feel just-satiated vs. feeling stuffed.
When I talk about the “rewiring of the brain” I am not just using a metaphor. I suspect that there are actual neurons being formed, just because I now have a very good sense of what “feelings” should lead to what “outcomes.” But the only way to build those up is to disassociate the ones you had before.
Why do some people succeed at fitness while others fail miserably? If there were ever a subject I could be called “obsessed” with, this would be it.
This subject pains me greatly; it pains me, because if people simply internalized the things I’m about to say, obesity would cease to be an epidemic.
Yet even the smartest people think about fitness in the wrong way. They’ll often reduce fitness down to “eating less and moving more.”
As an example, I’ll often see the smartest tech minds in Silicon Valley become enamored by the latest fitness gadget. These same people constantly struggle to get fit, as evidenced by the tweets from these very same devices. (This also leads me to believe that there is no correlation between fitness IQ and actual IQ, but that’s a different subject altogether.)
You see, the biggest myth in all of fitness and nutrition is that people fail because they’re lazy about exercise… that they fail because they didn’t have the willpower to “eat less, move more.”
Skinny people love to tell this to fat people, and fat people love to beat themselves up about it when they fail. I should know this very well. I’ve been on both sides before.
The only way to succeed at fitness
At a high level, there’s only one way to succeed at fitness. All fitness successes and failures can be explained using the following framework.
The only way to succeed at fitness is to create positive feedback loop.
In laymen’s terms, that means engaging in fitness‐related activities, and then seeing enough results to motivate you to keep going.
When you decide to start any fitness regimen, there is a certain amount of friction or “pains” working against you – the pain of giving up your favorite foods, taking time to exercise, giving up alcohol, being constantly hungry, etc.
After some time has passed, you will have to determine (consciously or subconsciously) if the results are worth continuing. One week into a fitness regimen, you might ask yourself a few questions:
Did I lose enough weight? Do I look better in the mirror? Do I feel healthier and more energized?
If the rewards outweigh the pain, then the feedback loop is renewed. The strength of your feedback loop can be summed up below:
Strength of Fitness Feedback Loop = Fitness Reward - Fitness Pain
Creating this feedback loop is the only way to succeed in fitness. It’s the same way that a business must become profitable to exist. You must create this feedback loop to stick to a healthy lifestyle. There is no alternative.
If you’ve always struggled with maintaining a fitness regimen, it doesn’t mean that you’re a pathetic, weak willed individual. It means there was a breakdown somewhere in creating this feedback loop: the pain of dieting was too high, you did not accumulate enough reward, or funny enough, or you didn’t measure your progress.
But what about willpower?
Notice I made no mention about willpower. That’s because willpower only plays a small part of success – a very small part.
Willpower will help you make the decision to start a program, and it will help you keep going if you don’t see results at the start.
Willpower will not bring you success.
That’s because willpower is a finite resource. No amount of willpower alone will make you get up every morning to run if you hate running.
In order to do this, you need to see results – whether it’s weight loss, a further distance, whatever. You might even learn to love running, but first you need to create this feedback loop. You need a self-perpetuating motivation machine that says, “I put healthy choices in, and I get results out.”
It pains me to see people who want to lose weight, then do things meaningless things like cut back on sodium, increase their water intake, or make it a point to “run every morning.”
Sure, they may sound like healthy activities, but many times the opposite is true.
As a formerly obese kid who once tried running to lose weight, I can tell you that having your fat bounce up and down whilst gasping for air and bathing in your own sweat is not fun. Oh yeah, cardio alone is also ineffective at weight loss. Tack on a diet of only low-sodium foods (which doesn’t really do anything by the way) and you have a whole lot of pain and not much reward.
Activities, painful activities, that don’t yield a return are cruft. Yes, cruft. The act of reducing sodium, eating “organic”, and “moving a little bit every day” (just for the sake of it) actually prevent you from creating a healthy lifestyle.
Hate running? Then don’t run. Don’t like giving up pizza? Then figure out a way to fit it into your diet. Don’t like salads? Then don’t eat them.
The Biggest Loser’s big fat lie
This feedback loop is the only thing that matters in creating fitness success, and it’s the reason that shows like “The Biggest Loser” actually hurt the fight against obesity.
You see, The Biggest Loser gives people the perception that exercising until you vomit, starving yourself, and being hardcore are all necessary means to fitness success.
But this leads to an unsustainable feedback loop. An enormous amount of fitness pain is inflicted, when only a fraction of that amount is needed to lose weight. Maybe that’s why 85-90 percent of participants regain their original weight, as explained in this eye-opening piece by my friend, Dr. Yoni Freedhoff.
So what would be more successful for weight loss? The most painless, most effective thing possible. A 450 lb individual can lose a tremendous amount of weight eating 3,000 calories a day – that’s a whole rotisserie chicken and some chipotle afterwards.
Want someone to stick to fitness in the long run? Make them lose weight while still stuffing their face. Sadly, most obese people don’t know that this is possible, in part because The Biggest Loser is on TV.
Why fitness dogma is stupid
This feedback loop also explains why it’s silly, even harmful, to force your own fitness or nutritional ideologies to others. (Did you hear the joke about how you know if someone does CrossFit or Paleo?)
Similarly, too many people treat fitness like religion and try to push their own preferences on to other people. Perhaps the Paleo diet worked very well for you. That doesn’t mean that it will work for someone who feels horrible on low carbs or absolutely loves bread.
If you find a diet that works for you, congratulations! Sure, you might want to recommend this diet to your friends, but don’t turn it into nutritional dogma. And definitely do not backwards-rationalize your diet’s “optimality” by seeking out supporting science. (Note: I’m not bashing Paleo. It’s a very simple, effective diet and has changed many lives. It’s dogma and the misuse of science that I take issue with.)
A better use of your time would be to be thankful that you’ve found a good strategy and move on with your life.
Saying that there is one way to eat is the same thing as saying that everyone has the same preferences. That people are all the same. They’re not, and that’s why everyone’s feedback loop is different.
Are people responsible?
At this point, I know what some people are thinking. “Well, fuck, Dick. If you’re so smart and it’s not about willpower, I guess no one is at fault for being fat then, huh?”
On the contrary. If there’s one thing I’ve seen in my decade of talking to thousands of people between forums, clients, Fitocracy, and real life, it’s that people are responsible for their own failures. Most times, it is their fault.
But it’s not for the reasons that most people think.
Most don’t fail because they didn’t eat less or move more. They failed because they could not see beyond the oversimplification of “eat less, move more.” Many times, this is a problem of hubris.
In that very same vein, they failed to be curious, introspective, and mindful. These people also beat themselves up for all of their past failures, not realizing those plans had them doomed for the start.
The Biggest Loser will have you believe that fitness success is about being tough, being hardcore – dangerously hardcore. In fact, it’s about the exact opposite.
Fitness success is about humility – realizing you cannot reduce one of the world’s most challenging problems to “eat less, move more,” and then seeking out the knowledge to improve yourself. Success also requires compassion – forgiving yourself for past failures so that you can try again.
Those things are the exact opposite of being “hardcore”.
That’s the ultimate irony. It’s why people are ultimately responsible for their failures – not because they failed to shrink their waist, but because they failed to expand their horizons.
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