Extreme Physiques Often Belong to The Least Qualified Fitness Professionals (And The Question No Guru Can Answer)
Look around the world of fitness and bodybuilding. Most of what you'll see are drug addicts with severe chemical dependency and clinical mental disorders. Watch the documentary "Bigger, Faster, Stronger," and peruse the headlines about Rich Piana, Dallas McCarver and Andreas Munzer. A fat free mass index of 25-27 is about the upper human limit without A LOT of drugs. Very fit individuals tend to just scrape into the edge of 23-25 of FFMI; and that's generally still at a cost to their personal lives and wellbeing. This is no preachy moralistic observation. It's reality. Also, I think that for short periods of time there is a strong case to be made for pushing the limits of physiology and even various interventions, including drug therapies. Ultimately, informed adults are entitled to do with themselves what they wish. However, when we're talking about real health and fitness, there is an inverse correlation with "incredible physiques". When we look at happiness indices and the longest-lived, healthiest people on Earth (e.g. - Blue Zones), assuredly people can get pretty lean; but they NEVER carry excessive mass. Therefore, it's questionable that any emotionally-stable expert on health and fitness would deign to risk health with superhuman musculature or persistent extreme leanness.
"Business must be booming, right!?," asked one of my employees when he saw a good friend of mine in between two bodybuilding shows (which were 3 weeks apart). My buddy retorted, "no, actually; it's never been worse - my entire focus is on my own program, meal prep, workouts, supplements, sleep, etc.". It was a deafening gunshot which has stuck with me to this day. The implied belief of the first sentiment was that there's no better way to obtain and keep clients than being photo-ready or show-ready. In fact, the major implication we all think (incorrectly) is that superhuman body composition MUST mean that person has the BEST knowledge applicable to fitness. My buddy's retort, of course, brings us back to the reality that the most impressive physique is developed with a very selfish and obsessive mentality. By definition, no one can be entirely self-consumed without at the same time being the worst mentor, coach, or trainer for others. Beyond that, extreme "success" comes at extreme cost elsewhere in someone's character.
Olympic coaches are FORMER World or Olympic competitors. You don't really see a guy hop off the pommel horse and then don the head coach name-tag and lanyard. How many of the greatest football coaches are out on the field, in pads and jersey, running plays in between directives? Past experience is helpful. There's no doubt. However, physiology and biology as subjects exist entirely independent of individual opinions. Either a method works or it doesn't.
An elite athlete succeeds IN SPITE OF (not BECAUSE OF) bad methodology, oftentimes through sheer stubbornness. That has no application for regular people. An electron behaves the way physics dictates, regardless of expert consensus. Fat tissue is depleted by objective laws, not personal perspective. We have to get away from anecdote and opinions and advice.
I recall a training video of Ronnie Coleman talking about working his "low back." This "low back" exercise to which he referred was a kneeling, supported, one-arm dumbbell row with momentum while a massive weight-belt cinched his spine into complete immobility. Categorically, he was not working his low back. It is inarguable. This is not debatable. We can get into semantics, word choice, muscle activation, fascia theory, stabilizing, core-initiation, isometrics, and on and on. But the fact remains, shoulder retraction and extension isn't primarily mobilized by the lumbar spinal erectors or quadratus lumborum. Any load which might be borne by the lower portion of the latissimus dorsi or trapezius was being strategically removed by the manner in which the exercise was performed. One of the greatest physiques in bodybuilding history was built without a remotely proper understanding of Exercise Science. Results often come IN SPITE of someone's faulty thinking or methodology, not BECAUSE of it.
Listen: I love Ronnie Coleman. You can learn a lot about mindset and work ethic from a guy like that. He got a lot of things right about intensity and discipline. But he's also a survivor. He survived bad methodology. In the same way that the people alive today talking about how they didn't need bike helmets or seatbelts are the ones who survived to tell us as much. Survivors survived. They didn't succeed BECAUSE of the low-benefit risky behaviors. There's a whole can of worms to be opened about athletic outcomes due to artificial selection, not training method at all. Sometimes we just happen to select people who are inherently a better fit for a vocation. It's an absolute fallacy to draw takeaways from their training to apply toward others. When was the last time you saw a better-trained, harder-working, more genetically-gifted, superior-focused and better-hustling basketball team of 5'5" average height dominate a lesser team of 6'8" average height? In physical activities, many outcomes don't rely on method as much as skeletal frame, muscle fiber type, and a whole litany of uncontrollable factors which cannot be applied to others.
On the opposite side of the equation, several employees of mine claimed that their most impressive Exercise Science professor was a dumpy (their words, not mine), elderly, out-of-shape woman who couldn't even walk. Her knowledge was replete. Her appearance and the fact that she was in a wheelchair didn't have any bearing on her ability to coach others. Possibly, it made her that much better. She was brilliant to the point wherein she astounded students obtaining postgraduate degrees in physiology. But sadly, we all know how she'd stack up against vapid ignoramuses if she opened an Instagram account focusing on fitness.
Especially when it comes to physical fitness, it's really difficult for the onlooker to separate expertise from the visual presentation of the expert. That underlying assumption which most of us carry, however, is a logical fallacy. The weight of an argument stands upon itself. It is entirely immaterial who the person is who's saying the argument. This is a really sneaky logical fallacy. But it's everywhere.
That's just the beginning. We have the added pleasure of situational differences further obscuring our ability to determine precisely who is worth our consideration.
In a way, this haunts me, as it should all fitness professionals. The greatest impact I believe I ever made on clients, peers and employees was at some of my most out-of-shape stages. Crushing defeats and the experience of malcontent with my own health and fitness has repeatedly made me far superior to my former self as a coach and businessperson. Was I really a better fitness professional at 4% bodyfat than when I struggled with Lyme disease at 20% bodyfat? I don't think so. I mean, I KNOW I was best when I wasn’t obsessed with my own program.
Sales can be a bad way to measure impact; but it is A way; and, from a certain point of view, the most financially secure I ever am is when all of my focus is on others. When I had over $60,000 in personal productivity in a single month, I was working 7 days a week. I didn't plan any of my own meals then. When I first went independent in 2013, I made close to $40,000 in the first week. I wasn't even working out, let alone "hitting macros." I didn't even have a social media account until years after these periods.
People care about how you manage your fitness UP TO A POINT. Beyond that, you are being selfish. I'm not saying it as a moral judgement. I mean it in the literal sense. This isn't to diminish the importance of inspiration and motivation. Some coaches excel at inspiration and motivation. Incredible physiques and visual presentation does inspire. But here's food for thought: how would you be the best possible coach for a blind person with muscular dystrophy? For years I've asked this of my mentees. Silence is the usual retort. At workshops with the biggest name gurus I get the same response. Cluelessness. And this is a significant problem, because the deepest and most important points of coaching have to be done without a monkey-see-monkey-do mentality. If a client who is already overstressed, exhausted and objects to drug use enlists the help of a trainer who has always had ample sleep and recovery, great genetics and excessive drug use, do you really think that's the best fit?
Underneath the surface is where health resides, physically and mentally. The mere fact that we obsess about external representations of body composition is concerning. Everyone knows unhealthy people who are muscular and lean. A vast portion of my clients hire me because they are trainers/coaches/medical professionals who are suffering inside. Some have businesses built on their exterior look. But they're depressed. They're at an increased risk of all cause mortality. But they purport to be the pinnacle of health and fitness. Some are addicted to purging via hours of exercise in a manner that is neither healthy nor applicable to the regular populace. Others are addicted to anabolics and stimulants. It's unclear whether they even know how to gain mass without drugs. These "experts" all have the same nonsense methodology: raise volume; raise intensity; cycle carbs. This CANNOT work for most people, because most people are already depleted in all the wrong ways. More depletion will not make healthy an unhealthy person who is over-depleted. That's why most of the "experts" out there can only pull it off with excessive amounts of time which aren't realistic for others, or with piles of drugs.
Again, this isn't a knock against intelligent drug use. Before someone gets his lifestyle under control, blood pressure medication makes sense for a short period of time. People with pituitary disorders probably should take growth hormone. And there are plenty legitimate uses of steroids: birth control; recovery from injury; respiratory viruses; pain management; counter against wasting diseases; reduction of hyper immune response; getting through periods of overwhelm in life. I have clients whose lives were turned around with low dose testosterone - it amplified sleep, honed mental focus, stopped osteoporosis, reversed joint damage, and halted sarcopenia. After Lyme disease, my total pec tear and rotator cuff injury, I seriously considered for the first time in my life any substance which might promise recovery. And that was after I had demonstrated the capacity to gain 60lbs of muscle without any banned substance. So I personally understand the allure.
But for physical looks alone? And all the time? Pretty dumb. If you're going to compete in athletics against other users, sure, it's obligatory. And non-drug-users, don't fool yourselves into thinking you'll just outwork your competition. In the bodybuilding world, drug users aren't slackers. They're working harder than anybody, in part because the drugs allow them to recover and stay driven. But this is precisely the point of the article. A non-drug-user cannot replicate the program, even an approximation, of a drug user. A moderate drug users cannot replicate the program of an extreme drug user. And again, we just circle back to selection. Some people will respond because they are inherently primed to respond. Others will break. One person's "success method" is the injury-guarantee for another.
I can't tell you how many members at gyms fail out because the conventional "wisdom" is a program that a normal human being can't replicate. People are slaving away trying to obtain an unnatural body through impossible means, and they get frustrated.
Do what you want with your life. But don't think you live in a vacuum. Some of the fitness lifestyle that's marketed and popularized IS RESPONSIBLE for the fail rates among the general populace. I start clients with A MAXIMUM of two heavy training sessions per week. If they want to do something daily, I tell them to walk at a rate that breaks a sweat every morning while fasted. More is not more. For the average healthy American, even this may be past his/her limit. In fact, there's good evidence that muscular anabolism in natural athletes is amplified by depth and duration of sleep and of NON-EXERCISE hours.
Some of you will raise eyebrows, because you don't have much experience coaching. I've logged over 70,000 professional hours in the fitness industry, not including my own program and interest in studying human health since I was a child. So, I've seen firsthand people who are sedentary and need to REDUCE their activity. You wouldn't know that if you never did hormonal or metabolic testing with thousands of gym members for 20 years. But I've seen people who are past their anaerobic threshold while sitting in a chair. That is, they are performing what you and I consider an incline sprint workout while they're seated. Move more/eat less doesn't work for a lot of people. But again, if you've been a relatively lean athlete your whole life, you just don't know anything practical for the layperson until long after the first 10,000 hours of coaching regular people. This is also why I distrust high-profile athletic coaches; they simply don't have the chops or experience with making a program work for regular people. Their various ignorances are amplified by their surroundings of selection bias.
This is also why I have to laugh at self-proclaimed experts who've been working out for 20-30 years but only coached people 10-20 hours a week for that same period of time. That's just not enough volume to understand the breadth of what the human experience is in health and fitness. Even for really good peers of mine with less than 10 years of coaching 40+ hours per week, I notice enormous misses in their worldview. I mean, they will just spout outright lies as if that's the golden truth of training. I too have giant gaps in my knowledge base at 35 years of studying this and 20 years of professional expertise. I keep uncovering more layers.
That's the point. Personal experience can be great. But it does not LOGICALLY FOLLOW that a person - no matter how smart, how fit, how experienced - has THE RIGHT answer. The right answer exists in the universe independent of the people who subscribe to it.
All that having been said, let us return to the article title. Extreme physiques are unhealthy for most people. They're going to mean incorrect advice for others. And I’m saying all this as a person who believes that most people would benefit from hitting 5% bodyfat at least once in life. That extreme composition can come at costs which will reduce a person's internal wellness and life expectancy. Thus, I think it's a bad idea to do frequently. But in point of fact, why then would we listen to someone who willfully injures their own bodies in order to be complicit in the lie that extreme physiques represent health? I'm not saying hire a fat trainer. I'm saying, let's reinforce for the population what REAL HEALTH is. The more we support narcissism and drug users, and the more we popularize unnatural lifestyles, the more we are harming ourselves and others. Not to be too teetotaler about it, but don't you think there was some valuable reason in traditional cultures warning against the worship of images, human beauty, physical form?
As visual representations of humans abound, a society deals with greater amounts of depression, anger, and violence. Studies keep coming out which show us that constant visual stimulation correlates strongly with unhealthy thought patterns and emotions. Add to that the very people who have risen to multi-million influencer status in the past ten to fifteen years are contributing to WORSE outcomes. Look at statistics on American obesity and mortality. The outcomes have accelerated in worsening. If a person or organization claims to directly influence millions of people, that’s not a good thing. The vast number of outcomes are worse and at a quickening rate. To proclaim oneself an influencer over vast numbers in these worsening statistics is an admission of wrongdoing, not a brag. If you influence millions, and millions of people are getting unhealthier at a faster rate than before you were an influencer of millions, it’s not a big stretch of imagination to conclude you are doing wrong.
But the marketplace (ie - you) has to assume its responsibility as well. The voices of authority and influencers are worsening the world. But we are the ones who have wrongly attributed “right knowledge” to wrong people. We are consistently duped by our non-rational minds to place our attention on people who don’t actually have correct knowledge. We are drawn toward individuals who have achieved some sort of physical appearance, then listening to their advice which is totally divorced from the reality that would help most people. And we need to be incredibly careful about this, because we’ve already seen this popular propensity NOT work at all for the past 40 years; and we’ve witnessed it working increasingly worse for the past 10.
Correct knowledge is correct knowledge. Solid arguments are solid arguments. Incorrect opinions spouted off by impressive-looking people are still incorrect opinions.
Recent research affirms prior studies showing the benefit of LOWERING the weight (ie - moving WITH gravity; eccentric loading):
In this multi-team study, the participants who emphasized the slow and controlled descent of the weight got all the benefits while doing half the work (and significantly less time).
As most experienced coaches will agree, there is a decided DECREASE in outcomes for gym enthusiasts who approach sets and reps with urgency and tension-avoidance. People begin doing quick reps and trying to quickly arrive at a certain rep count, which ends up supplanting the very stimulus which makes strength training make any sense at all.
I’ve observed tens of thousands of gym-goers; and I’ve trained thousands of clients. In every single case where a person was struggling with results, struggling with joint pain/deterioration, or struggling with muscle or bone density gain/maintenance, I witnessed them execute repetitions in a hurry. “Getting it over with” becomes this theme where the descent of the movement is quick and low effort/low muscular tension/low focus.
There is a place for speed training in competitive athletes and advanced enthusiasts. But among most of the populace, a lot more benefit can be gleaned simply by raising awareness, effort, tension, loading, and program emphasis on the eccentric portion (slowly and controllably moving WITH gravity) of the lift.
Slowly lower weight (moving with gravity) with high effort and control. Fewer reps. Less time. More results.
People get in shape in 9 minutes of exercise: https://www.elev8wellness.com/.../9-minutes-of-exercise...
People with average incomes become millionaires:
Not just theory. Not just potential. Not just “could” or “can.” We have real world examples. Not even circumstantial outliers. Just people who chose to be consistent. More importantly, they chose to start.
I have met many people over the years with the most beautiful and elaborate business plans. Gorgeous business plans. Business plans which they even crafted with the help of an Ivy League MBA or mini-MBA program or a premier consulting group. And then… they never launch.
I have met many more people over the years with the most beautiful and elaborate fitness plans. Gorgeous fitness plans. Fitness plans which they purchased from a trendy app or influencer online program, or even drafted with the help of a genuine professional. And then… they never launch.
Every wonderful success story you ever heard had a messy and imperfect start. But… it had a start.
Not after the holidays, on Monday, on the first of the year, when it’s convenient, when everything is lined up, when the time is right, when the beach trip is around the corner. Forget about motivation and inspiration. Forget about the perfect plan. Forget about the right equipment. Forget about the ideal tools, the optimal environment, the supreme season. Forget everything except this:
The language you say you want to learn.
The instrument you say you want to learn.
The step you say you want to take.
The healthy behavior you say you want.
The business you want to launch.
The person you want to support.
The endings we want contain beginnings we choose to avoid. The best start was 5, 10, 20 years ago. The second best is right now.
According to yet another study:
It can be difficult to balance productive pro-inflammatory cascades against anti-inflammatory cascades. Neither inflammation nor lack of inflammation is good or bad. They both must coexist in a give-and-take.
Lengthy periods of psychological distress or physical stress express too long of anti-inflammatory cascades. It’s well-documented that long bouts of either will damage people. We KNOW that lengthy exercise sessions RAISE risk of upper respiratory infections due to suppression of immune function: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2803113/.
That is, it’s TOO MUCH anti-inflammation. As such, chronic endurance exercisers can expect to have needlessly accelerated deterioration of long-term joint integrity and health prospects.
Again, this is why moderate or short duration exercise and intense strength training is superior to all other exercise modalities, and not by a small degree.
For persistent long-term use of anti-inflammatory drugs, we expect excessive wearing down of tissue. These findings may be surprising to people unfamiliar with how cell repair works. But growth, building, rebuilding, recovery, and healing are all inflammatory functions in biology and human health. Repair is INFLAMMATORY.
According to every single poll and data collection on the topic since 2010, average screen times globally are at or beyond 7 hours per day, and rising.
Somehow, despite that reality, the common question in the ether is, “how do you find the time to exercise?” Whut?! And really, you could replace the word “exercise” in that question with anything productive, and it wouldn’t get a single head to turn.
Why isn’t the opposite a more common question?
I had clients with zero equipment in-home absolutely skyrocket in their fitness during 2020 and 2021. The one guy had NO WEIGHTS all that time; and we still progressed his capability such that now (in person) he’s repping out 200lb squats and deadlifts. Pretty good for a guy in his 70s who’d had aortic valve replacement and quadruple bypass decades ago. Just tiny invested minutes of movement, targeted, with progressions, results in amazing outcomes.
We have to change the conversation on two fronts.
First, people only need to be consistent. They don’t need endless hours and piles of equipment. Frankly, the biggest fitness equipment and tracking tech junkies I know have some of the worst results.
Second, YOU DO HAVE TIME.
Most heart attacks occur in people with normal or low cholesterol: https://www.uclahealth.org/.../most-heart-attack-patients...
Cholesterol, like oxygen, is the body’s necessary defense against stressors. During peak stress, most people take more breaths. During peak stress, most livers shuttle more cholesterol into the bloodstream.
The difference, of course, is cellular function and life can exist in the total absence of oxygen. Anaerobic (oxygenless) energy and cell metabolism is a real thing. In fact, scientists insist that the origin of life on earth could have only started WITHOUT oxygen: https://www.nature.com/articles/nature06587.
Meanwhile, none of life can be explained without cholesterol. Every cell membrane requires it. Every brain function. Every heart beat. Every nerve twitch. If you have to repair more cell membranes and if you are subject to more metabolic demands, we’d hope and pray your body would produce more cholesterol to try to meet the demands, in EXACTLY the same way that we’d expect a stressed person to try to shuttle more oxygen through the body.
When people are panting, we don’t think we’ll help by taping their noses and mouths shut. We have them lie down. We ADD oxygen. When a person is getting hundreds of scabs all the time, we don’t put them on blood thinners to reduce the scabs. We try to get them to take fewer falls and injuries. But when an overstressed person is making more cholesterol, there is a tendency to only focus on that one symptom instead of the cause, the problem, or the risk.
A 21 day fast results in INCREASED blood cholesterol temporarily: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/7569738/ . Why? We added a stressor. The body SHOULD respond by raising cholesterol. The role of cholesterol is to help you live. This is definitive. Eating dietary cholesterol doesn’t do anything with regard to cardiovascular disease risk: https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/10/6/780. There is no mechanism in biology to turn dietary cholesterol into risk.
Removing all food RAISES blood cholesterol temporarily. Every one of the 38 trillion cells in a human body is made from cholesterol. You only have 4 million cells in your bloodstream. 38 trillion cells made of cholesterol versus 4 million cells in the bloodstream. Trillions versus millions. 200 pounds of body versus 10 pounds of blood. Pounds versus ounces.
They: I really want to see definition in my arms.
Me: do you know how many grams of protein you have per day?
They: I’ve lost weight but don’t seem to be getting leaner.
Me: do you know how many grams of protein you have per day?
They: I can’t seem to lose weight.
Me: do you know your macros?
They: I want to make sure I have strength in my legs as I age.
Me: do you know how many grams of protein you have per day?
They: it doesn’t seem like I recover as well as I age.
Me: even surgical patients recover faster with increased protein ( https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28468890/) - do you know how many grams you’re having per day?
They: my hormones are all over the place.
Me: you synthesize all hormones from dietary fat (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4763493/ ) - do you know how many grams of each fatty acid type you’re getting?
And the list could literally go on forever. Aging. Sleep. Muscle cramps. Focus. Energy. Depression. Anxiety. Fertility. Learning comprehension. You name it.
“Eat less; move more” does not cover any of these. Eating less doesn't get you enough protein and fat if you were already too low on the intake of both. And that's just macros. If we consider micronutrients, there is a whole world of opportunity there as well. Choline is critical for brain function and a laundry list of metabolic functions. The average American is already deficient in choline. If you eat less food, you will get even less choline. And many people trying to clean up their diets nowadays place emphasis on a plant-based diet (which is nearly devoid in choline and other critical nutrients).
Whatever the goal, know your food. Know your macros. Know the nutrients.
“This shouldn’t be that difficult,” or “I can’t believe how much more work I have to put in to get the same outcome as so-and-so” are sentiments we hear a lot as coaches. But, unfortunately, there is universal human bias based on our own experiential perception that misleads us into thinking we’re doing FAR MORE than we actually are: https://www.thecut.com/.../why-everyone-thinks-theyre...
The average screen time for Americans is over 7 hours per day every day: https://www.comparitech.com/tv-streaming/screen-time-statistics/. Is that because we work so hard? Is the 3 hours of TV watching average per day because we work so hard? We don't work that hard. The 2 billion people who have to walk up to 10 miles per day to find potable water work hard. And, actually, many of them aren't deluded into thinking they work TOO hard. That walk is precisely what it takes to keep them alive. It's simply what it takes. You walk to the faucet. I walk to the faucet. We average over 7 hours of screen time per day. There is no measure by which we can seriously claim to work THAT hard. We don't.
As coaches, we run into this a lot with clients, and even peers. And there are genuine inequities that exist. That’s real. But certain accomplishments simply take what they take. And that has nothing to do with your opinion of the situation or your personal perception.
Body composition change has no “should” or “shouldn’t”. It’s precisely as hard as it is. Your opinion does not change the laws of physics. At some point you will indeed have to expend more energy than you bring in on a consistent basis. It doesn’t matter how hard you think you’re working. This is a physical law.
I’ve encountered friends and peers who are bragging about their hard work, but who’ve never once in their lives spent less money than they make. Opinion is meaningless. It’s a physical law. The NET outcome doesn’t work.
So be wary of comparisons focusing on hyperbole and egocentric bias. Certain outcomes require what they require. And our opinion or perception can get in the way.
An estimated 95% of Mongolians are genetically lactose intolerant WHILE dairy comprises up to half their diet: https://www.popsci.com/.../lactose-intolerance.../...
In genetic testing of human remains from archaeological digs, we find that humans lacked the gene to digest milk sugar for at least 4,000 years of dairy consumption.
Bacteria and the microbiome make possible outcomes many would’ve loved to pin on heredity and DNA.
And this is not an isolated event.
Massive datasets prove that SPOUSES have more similar lifespan and mortality than FAMILY members: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30401766/
And scientists have proven that certain traits persist in subsequent generations even AFTER the gene is no longer present in subsequent generations: https://www.cell.com/cell/pdf/S0092-8674(19)31374-1.pdf
The complexity of life is far too vast to blame on simplistic genetics fatalism. Not even mostly. That is now an archaic and disproven worldview. And in kind, we need to reject the implications of that faulty outdated worldview.
I used to be a big advocate for periodization which landed on strategic targeted overtraining just prior to big trips. There is a good case to make for it. The rest period is part of the plan, a necessary requirement, in fact. And it leaves the traveler without any pressure but to simple BE, simply have fun, simply holiday. There’s no searching for adequate training facilities, which you’re simply not going to find anyway when going to non-touristy, remote, uncrowded locales. However, there’s a psychological disadvantage with large fluctuations in programming. So I started leaning toward the opposite.
There’s no “momentum” to regain if you keep close to your productive ratios ALL THE TIME. If you know that three days per week normally maintains, then that’s still true while traveling. If you know it takes five or six days per week to see good progress, that’s still true when traveling.
And then there’s just sheer honesty. If you’re subtracting your 50-90 hours of work, commutes, meetings, picking up and dropping off kids for school, sports, activities, etc., why wouldn’t you be able to fit in some hours of training? In this most recent adventure, I was finding myself almost embarrassed by the magnitude of free time, even after sleeping in, even after workouts, even after day trips and beaches. I ended up doing A LOT of checkins and follow-ups with people, former clients, etc. I can now envision realistically living there for a significant portion of the year and taking appointments and STILL feeling under-busied.
I generally followed the model of strategic overtraining leading up to many many trips from 2004 to 2012. Likewise, I often advocated for it for clients, especially for trips shorter than two weeks. The middle spectrum of strength (as defined by exercise science) doesn't wane much in a week. If you were overtraining beforehand, you may discover you're strongER after a rest week. Peak max strength will fall only a little in two weeks of detraining/no training. And peak cardiovascular capacity basically evaporates in two to three weeks of reduced athletic programming (the good news is that it can be regained pretty quickly). But from a pragmatic standpoint, average people aren't actually going to achieve athletic overtraining anyway. So this methodology can end up being a moot point for most.
On average, people are so incredibly weak, detrained, and inactive to begin, I increasingly prefer to somehow keep the ball rolling with their program while they travel. I will not even entertain the ridiculous notion that people need to "take a break" from taking care of themselves. I have heard this idiotic proclamation from a lot of really weak, really unfit, really undisciplined people over the years. They were already taking a vacation from self-care before they took a vacation. They don't need to take an ever bigger and more irresponsible break from it.
Domestically, it's pretty easy to use the hotel gym, in-home gyms at AirBnBs, or short trips to a local gym. Internationally, it's just harder. I know it firsthand. Putting aside the fact that you're managing major changes in time zones and circadian rhythm, a lot of the world (especially in the past) didn't have what we think of as training facilities. When you go to remote regions, there are none. And that's usually fine, in that you might be doing some hardcore trekking, hiking, and really physically-demanding days. But don't delude yourself. This is just basic caretaking of health and fitness. None of it will maintain or improve your best lifts. If you do a lot of hyper-touristy urban travel with really cushy hotels, there's no excuse. You can and should do some lifting. Even in Egypt in 2009, we stayed at a high-end hotel which dedicated an entire floor to a full gym reminiscent of a Gold's or Equinox or Lifetime. However, as a student living in Greece in 2003, I never even saw such a thing. That spring and summer, I covered 26 cities, countless towns and sites, and over 14 different islands; and I don't recall passing a single gym as we think of them in America.
2013 in Puerto Vallarta was the first time I decided to do overt lifting each day of an international trip. I found it grounding. In fact, it was such an effortless return that I realized I should be more advocating for this approach for average people. In the decade of coaching beforehand, I'd already seen thousands of examples of clients and members who had a really difficult time regaining traction and positive momentum after trips. Mindset is king. We all know it. Thus, is it ever a good idea to purposely NOT tend to your fitness? Especially when you're going to create a hardER mental fight upon return?
I’ve played with a lot of different ratios, and came to like this most recent experiment most:
I approached the trip in thirds, ensuring each third had its fitness curation. In the first third, I lifted the day before and the day of the flight with the intent to just forget about it the first week (or you could simply think about it as the first third of your trip) while visiting fam, hitting beaches, dragging bags and getting settled in. The second week/middle 8 days (central third) we stayed in a more urban area, where I was able to lift every day at a gym with A LOT of equipment only 6 blocks away (some footage here: https://www.instagram.com/p/Ci21XT7uudy/?igshid=NmNmNjAwNzg=). We often swam twice in a day. You walk everywhere, and not short distances. The third week (or third third) we chartered a boat for pretty lengthy snorkeling, and the hikes were more significant. There did exist one gym about 15 miles south of where we stayed four days of the last week. In a lengthier stay, I would've added it each morning. But this is also where travel experience and intelligent budgeting of your energy comes into play. The two days afterward were both going to be pretty heavy-duty travel days, long drives, transporting bags, etc. All in all, out of 23 days, legit lifting occurred 10 days, moderate to high activity was the norm for 19 days, and low or modest maybe 4. The overall ratio was slightly less than my norm, but the FEEL was like a 90% reduction in busyness and 99% reduction in urgency. It felt SLOW.
Upon return I was really ready to get down to business. No mental reset. No rebuilding. No delay in picking up heavy where I “left off”. I was immediately able to sprint and lift at my prior-to-traveling max capacity. I liked this format a lot, as it never felt like pushing, it never felt hurried, it never felt rushed.
It’s not THE answer. But after coaching thousands of people for two decades, I liked this format best. Now, keep in mind that this was an international trip with two young kids (but they are incredible travelers). For people with younger kids, more kids, less-experienced, and a shorter or more hurried trip, or a longer sequence of flights/commutes, I realize it can be a logistical squeeze.
I've coached it all. I've experimented with difference approaches. I've personally experienced a lot. So I'll leave it at the idea of referencing your known training ratios, minding pace, and approaching with the framework of thirds.
A lot of strength can be maintained at one to two targeted training sessions per week. Most progress occurs after this. Which do you want? Maintenance or progress? Progress may not be logistically sensible when thinking about the second consideration: pace. After you answer the frequency per week ratio question for yourself, take into account how to maintain a calm pace.
If you can keep a calm pace, sky is the limit. There's no excuse not to add activity and actual training. If you can't keep a calm pace, then don't force additions. Returning to the first consideration, maintenance may be all that's attainable.
Understand that your body and mind are going to naturally oscillate through three periods when traveling anyway; so you might as well consider this for your planning and execution. There will be transition TO vacation. There will be IN vacation. There will be transition FROM vacation. You could think of it as settling in, settled, and settling out.
With all of that in mind, you can discover your perfect amount of exercise on vacation. It's not none. It's not all. It's productive while not overwhelming. It's part of the resilience-building. It's complementary, not inconvenient. It keeps your discipline toward who you want to become. It ensures you don't have to "start over".