There is no “the right way.” Please enlighten us all with your supreme wisdom, famous influencers, and give me the “correct form” for ten exercises which applies inerrant to people with different limb lengths, people with limbs amputated, people with asymmetries, people with developmental growth differences.
When I first started hiring and developing hundreds of coaches nigh twenty years ago, I noticed a huge mistake, which, sadly, even some fairly advanced trainers and even noteworthy organizations still make. Namely, they believe that the thing which works for them MUST apply to EVERYONE, or at least MOST. This is one of the highest forms of ignorance on Earth, because there is no such thing as a standard human skeleton, let alone the same muscle fiber makeup, let alone the same hormonal cascades, let alone the same mindset.
Even when the untrained layperson is looking at two people of the same height and seemingly similar proportions, what the untrained eye doesn’t see is that the ratios of their bone lengths vary widely and wildly. Depressingly, this naivety is common even among experts. Last week, archaeologists unearthed a brilliant finding of a prehistoric person: https://science.sciencemag.org/content/372/6549/1424. A lot of their hypotheses rest firmly on assumptions that are untrue. The variance in skeletal builds of modern contemporary humans today is greater than all prehistoric homo predecessors theorized. Compare no further than modern babies at birth, where the variance is FIFTY TIMES. The lightest viable preemie was half of a pound: https://www.npr.org/2019/05/29/728118503/saybie-born-at-8-6-ounces-in-san-diego-is-now-the-worlds-tiniest-surviving-baby. The heaviest newborn on record was 22.5lbs: https://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/heaviest-birth.
Where I’ve seen it is in the gym for over three decades. I have a peer who is seven inches shorter than me, but I can’t reach his bar on bench press. I have a female peer who is four inches shorter than me, and her hip bone is three inches higher than mine. Again, fitness experts who INSIST there is “the right way”, please enlighten us about how we three should all perform the basic structural movement the same way. I would love to hear it. Then please elucidate us on how the three people pictured should perform those movements same as us.
And so you see: the mistake is not just a little faux pas. It isn’t just a slightly offensive lack of knowledge about anatomy. It’s an egregious and immoral failing. Insisting on “the right way” to squat or perform a kettlebell swing isn’t just wrong - it’s evil. It implies that there is something wrong with the person who isn’t built like you. It’s a sort of eugenics holdover which should’ve been eradicated decades ago.
If you’re frustrated that you aren’t “looking the right way” when you attempt an exercise, before we launch into futile stretches, foam rolling, and whatever the new catchy fad is, take a moment to check if your skeleton can even hit those angles. Absolutely, people will benefit from learning posture hacks, corrective techniques, activation strategies, and breathing-bracing. But you can’t foam roll your femur into an ideal length. You can’t activate your humerus and radius/ulna into a longer reach. There isn’t an elite sprinter on Earth with a disproportionately long torso. Do people with long torsos just need to try harder? Do they just need to Pilates their shin into a longer configuration or Yoga their spine and lungs into a shorter configuration? Please, enlighten us.
Generally, what I find is that people who have ideal builds for different athletic endeavors assume that others just need to put in more effort and “get the form right”. And that abject ignorance is hurting societal health and fitness prospects. Everyday people aren’t failing. The popular advice is failing. It’s wrong. It’s untrue. It’s immoral.
Every time I’ve met a cocksure expert who preaches monochromatic fitness recommendations, I ask them how that fits with a paraplegic, an amputee, a person with a feeding tube, etc. These are the obvious issues; and most experts don’t know what the hell to do. Then we get to the less-obvious issues, and they’re completely out of their depth. “Show me how that deadlift recommendation works for a short reach and long torso,” I’ll say. They’re clueless. “Explain to me how your power training scaffolds for a person who is 90% Type I muscle fiber makeup,” I’ll say. They have no idea. I once met a world champion running expert at a workshop who insisted on ONE specific foot strike method. I asked him, “what do you tell runners with prosthetics?” In decades of world championships, he hadn’t ever even considered this. And of course he hadn't. He's built a certain way. By the time a runner would hire him, it would only be people built a certain way. He had NO knowledge applicable to 95% of the population. He had less knowledge about running mechanics than a trainer who works with every day people.
Two people of the EXACT same height do not have the EXACT same anthropometry. They don’t. Multiply by about 206 bones (again, I say “about,” because not everyone has 206 bones!). That’s to say nothing of the SHAPE of joint spaces. Multiply by 7 billion people. And that isn’t even touching on the variances in muscle insertion points, muscle biopsy, hormonal differences, and psychology.
Please. Please. Please. Stop telling people “The Right Way” to exercise.
I like to remember the Taoist parable about the farmer whose prized horse runs away. His neighbors exclaim, “what terrible fortune you have!” The farmer replies, “maybe.”
The next day, the horse returns to its pen, leading fifteen wild stallions in its course. “What great fortune you have!” The farmer replies, “maybe.”
The farmer’s son the next day is severely injured while taming one.
“What terrible fortune you have!”
The military comes to conscript all able-bodied young men into war the following day; and the son, therefore, cannot go.
“What great fortune you have!”
I had a week like that last week. Perhaps, this year could be viewed likewise. In fact, life, in every dark moment, has a teachable component as we go into the next. Inherently “bad” things may turn out beautiful. Inherently “good” things may truly be terrible fortune.
Pause. Breath. Suspend judgment. Delay reaction. Check yourself on overreaction. We cannot get to tomorrow until tomorrow. And we don’t know what will come of the reverberations from bad news or good news. We cannot know how the ripples in a pond will grow based on how pretty or ugly the stone is. The features of the stone will not predict for us the way the water reacts.
I like to remember the Taoist parable.
“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”
― Theodore Roosevelt
Client: Oh man; this past week was tough.
Me: Are you a quitter?
Client: What? No!
Me: Then nothing changes.
The frequency and severity of difficulty changes nothing for people who don’t quit. Bad news? If you aren’t a quitter, nothing changes. Good news? If you aren’t a quitter, nothing changes. Devastating circumstances? If you aren’t a quitter, nothing changes. Stressful environment? If you aren’t a quitter, nothing changes.
In 2018, researchers found that learning a new skill is better at coping with stress than vacation: https://hbr.org/.../to-cope-with-stress-try-learning.... People tend to think they need to escape or buckle down when faced with challenges. But ADDING learning when already “overspent” appears to have better outcomes.
That is, when you sense you’re on the verge of crushing defeat or at the apex of despair, you don’t need to quit every time. You don’t need to run away. And you don’t have to fight either. You can simply take a breath and learn. Learn. And keep going.
There is only one single trait which predicts success: not quitting: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/.../141015-angela.... Researchers have slaved for this answer. IQ cannot predict success. Resources can’t. Socioeconomic status cannot. Advantage and privilege cannot. Raise chances? Sure. But not predict. And the reason why is because a quitter can have every possible beneficial trait and still throw it all away. He’s a quitter after all. It won’t matter if he’s a genius billionaire trust fund baby.
So once you’ve determined you’re not a quitter, what does challenge change? You weren’t going to quit anyway. What does the pain of the news change? What does a newly found disadvantage change?
Are you going to quit?
Then nothing changes. Learn. And keep moving.
A buddy of mine used to say this daily. For years. Seriously. Every day. Not hyperbole. I agreed they are awesome. I agree we should work hard at kindness to all people, especially those who we may not at first think are much like us. But I wasn’t catching my buddy’s wisdom for a while. In the pursuit of health and fitness, a spirit of love is superior to hate, criticism, and ambivalence. In the pursuit of wellness, a spirit of love for others is superior to all the trackers, the food logging, the workout programs. It’s not just a flippant or strictly religious sentiment; studies actually show that expressing care for people outside of your kin group may help you live longer: https://www.sciencedirect.com/.../pii/S1090513816300721.... Over time I came to agree that my buddy was on to something with his specific word choice. In life, we must relent to our repeated experiences; and my repeated experiences demand from me the belief that gay people and minorities are the best.
Fairly early in my career I met with a couple where they asked me something rather jarring, “are people ‘ok’ at this gym with a gay couple?” “‘Ok’?,” I replied. “No; they’re not... JUST ‘ok’, they’ll LOVE you.”
Think about that. Think about having to wonder if you can safely enter a new space in a free country based on who you’re attracted to. Think about that in your own country. I mean, I’ve travelled to countries where I maybe needed to think about if public display of affection with my wife was going to be a cultural faux pas. But think about in YOUR OWN COUNTRY worrying about if people can just leave you alone.
That aside, the reality is that there is a disproportionately superior track record of support and reliability for me from people not like me. Percentage-wise, it’s actually pretty crazy how many regular members, how many clients, and how many staff were coming from a dramatically different world of experiences than mine. In a moment of reflection one day in 2006, I realized I had 25 direct employees, and only one of them was a young, straight, white male... and he’s deaf.
Hindsight is clear. I wouldn’t be where I am today without all of the awesome people who supported me. But there is a special accolade that needs to go to minorities and gay people. Their unending support for me, for my teams, and for my dreams is totally unrivaled. And sadly, whenever it came down to critical junctures in my businesses or career, there is a starkly clear demographic break.
That is, in 20 years of this profession, only one person ever bounced a payment. He was one of the most connected people in my network, by the way. I’ll let you guess his demographics. Only two people ever asked for refunds in all that time. Neither was my client, but that of an employee or contractor. Both were male, straight, white; and I’ll let you guess about their ideological/political leanings. I could increasingly predict which people were most likely to be unreliable in payment, no show, disappear without communication, and be generally cagey by how much like me they might appear to be.
I don’t know why, but in the case of my entire professional experience, minorities, gay people, and those with political beliefs way on the other side of the spectrum were just more supportive of business and me. An irony to be sure, all of the big talkers about “support small business” were among the very few people who just sort of evaporated last year. When it came to putting their money where their mouth was, only a mouth remained when shutdowns hit. Our business grew and we weren’t crushed by the pandemic, thankfully. But that thanks can only go to a few people who may seem to be a lot like me on the surface.
Marginalized people have taught me a lot. People who may appear to be a lot unlike you have a treasure trove of grace and education to gift you, if you’re willing to accept. As you grow, you find the differences smaller and smaller. And perhaps you too can be the best. For yourself. For health. For others.
On the right: heart attack and died at age 43.
But then we have what’s on the left: I took my mom out for lunch last week about twenty miles south of Myrtle Beach; and afterward we walked out onto the pier, popped up a table umbrella, and painted those paintings together along the inlet. We painted, side by side, in the rain. It was beautiful. THAT was health and fitness. That trip - with my family, time together, enjoying the ocean, catching sea creatures, parasailing, helicopter tours, and making memories - was palpable, undeniable health and fitness.
Listen. I get it. I live the fitness industry. But shredded abs and insta is NOT health and fitness. Admirable? Sometimes.
My grandma, despite all her faults, figured out stress management to a degree that she was still kicking everyone’s ass at Scrabble until around age 90. No abs. My dad, despite his faults and a lot of untoward food choices, figured out peace in his heart to a degree that he lived a long and fulfilled life. No Insta.
We may want to think that quarterly the handful of ER visits and untimely demises of young fitness personalities and bodybuilders is an outlier set of events. But it isn’t. It’s a flag. Those are just the ones who paid the ultimate price, so we couldn’t equivocate anymore. Hell, I like Franco. But even he bit the dust at 78, which for a Sardinian who was paying EXTRA attention to health is ridiculously young. Like. RIDICulously. The fat slobs who try to die young in Sardinia AVERAGE 83 years for life expectancy.
And nobody is about to hop on here and even pretend like the mental health epidemic is better INSIDE the industry than outside of it. Lift some weights. Move. Eat like a grownup. But, man: LIVE LIFE! When I had Lyme disease, I literally couldn’t lie down without pain. Forget about stand or walk or exercise. It brought me back to writing music again. I picked up the 8 string guitar. That brought me back to life. THAT was health and fitness. Being with my kids all day three days per week and seeing them all seven every week, THAT is health. Being a unidimensional cartoon is not health even if it’s hidden inside pretend “fitness.”
In 2013 a lot of scientists and authors took to completely dismantling the anti-science recommendations of the American Heart Association: https://centerforhealthjournalism.org/2013/11/28/american-heart-association-protecting-industry-not-patients-barbara-roberts-md-and-martha. This excoriating article details just some of the known millions of dollars with which pharmaceutical companies purchased the American Heart Association's new guidelines. We will never know the full extent of the extortion involved. Simply the grift proven at the time was enough to permanently remove all credibility from anything the AHA ever says again.
Scathing rebukes abounded, not just this absolutely devastating expose above. The AHA proponents who were pressuring all of us to take statins, it turns out, have severe conflicts of interest. The revised AHA guidelines were a marketing campaign for its donors, having no connection to any legitimate biochemistry or science.
And it missed the point anyway.
What IS heart disease?
Atherosclerotic plaque development.
And what is that?
It is fibrous tissue buildup and calcium deposits: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/2035445/.
Statins exert ZERO impact on this. None. There exists not even one study contending this fact. Not even a hoodwinking underhanded one like the liars at the AHA love to feed us.
And why would the body develop excess fibrous buildup and calcified tissue in the circulatory system?
The answer is NOT cholesterol. We actually know this with complete assurance. By definition, the development of untoward growth (ie - fibrous buildup and calcification) IS an inflammatory response. In fact, researchers have proven that we can incite plaque formation with immune triggering ALONE, “even in the absence of traditional risk factors”: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22895665/. It is very important that you understand the prior sentences and references. If unclear, reread them. None of this is contentious opinion. This is the KNOWN science.
Thus, what we factually know is that heart disease is created solely or primarily by inflammatory response, without the alleged cholesterol risk factors, that statins do not affect this, that statins raise other risks (ie - organ damage and dementia), and that the foremost proponents of statins are in the pocket of those selling them. There is nothing of opinion or controversy in the prior sentence. It’s not a position. This is just what is inarguably known.
The lipid hypothesis was floated in the 1800s, gained steam in the 1950s, but was always wrapped up in muddy thinking that ignored the persistent elevated blood pressure and chronic cigarette smoking of study participants. Post hoc, observers noticed that many of those high BP smokers ALSO had elevations in cholesterol. But subsequent analyses have failed to confirm the lipid hypothesis, repeatedly, namely failing to show any way that the inherently healthy lipoproteins which our bodies need (aka - cholesterol) play any mechanism in the formation of the fibrous calcified plaques which we call heart disease: https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/6/6/e010401.short.... Cult followers of the cholesterol religion hated this paper and any like it. And I don’t care for it a ton either, because it is still looking at statistical epidemiological associations. And we don’t need those. At all. We understand the working mechanism of heart disease. We do. We KNOW how to make plaques in the near-absence of cholesterol. We KNOW that no amount of cholesterol produce plaques in the absence of inflammatory factors. Distracting correlations aren’t real science, especially once the mechanisms are known. And we KNOW fibrous calcification IS heart disease. Arguing over peripheral correlations is ridiculously anti-modern and anti-science.
Many people with high cholesterol live longer. Many people with low cholesterol die younger. Not opinion. Statins are still unproven for benefit, but proven for organ damage. Not opinion. No ideology is present in these statements.
So why are we still operating off a repeatedly failed hypothesis from the 1800s? Because the American Heart Association authors are deep in the pockets of those selling the “cure.” Also, not opinion.
I can remember my grandmother beginning to opt out of more demanding hikes and beach visits as she approached her 90s. I now know 20-somethings and 30-somethings (in fact, I’ve even seen peers of my young children) who have to do the same. Low physical fitness and capacity doesn’t NET you a decrease in effort. It NETS you an increase in effort to do basic living, such that you keep living less and a smaller and smaller existence with increasing restrictions.
Most beneficial practices for health and fitness actually take far less effort than the deleterious ones. I have experimented with a variety of fasting methods for the past 30 years, all of which take less time and decision-making budget than standard American eating or dieting. I used to skip school lunches and pocket the money. I used to visit amusement parks and simply drink water all day.
The Spring and Summer of 2018 I experimented with an exercise program which took up no more than 27 minutes per week. In the attached photo from 2018, keep in mind the ONLY exercise I had done for months was a set of pull-ups in between appointments on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. TOTAL. I’d average 12 sets each one of those days, each set lasting no more than 45 seconds. That was it. Granted, they were all about 30 reps; so I was logging around 360 pull-ups each of those days, over a thousand per week. Still, though, the total training time was 27 minutes per week.
The idea that being healthy and fit takes more time, effort, and money is demonstrably untrue. Active self-sabotage or “apathetic” go-with-the-flow takes far more energy, both on the front end (quantifiable daily practices) and the backend (palpable health consequences). The “effort” people reference is a delusion. The effort to be healthy and fit is provably same or less. What they mean is “unfamiliar.”
I can and I do regularly walk people through how to spend less time and money on productive foods than unproductive foods. Precision Nutrition was circulating an infographic several years ago to this effect. That’s just the simple direct transactional analysis.
But when we get into ripple effect, it’s not even close. The time, money, and energy people spend on recreation which worsens them is 10 times greater than what people who improve health prospects spend.
The fitness industry as a global whole commands billions of dollars. That’s true. About 81 billion at last check. That’s everything combined. Meanwhile, the number one fast food chain? 125 billion by itself. Tobacco company revenue in 2018? 125 billion. The electronic gaming market? 137 billion. Pharma? TRILLIONS. Even the porn industry is over 100 billion, dwarfing the measly 81 billion of fitness industry revenue. Cybercrime and Dark Web? TRILLIONS.
It’s pretty plain to see that humans don’t have an effort problem. We are putting in plenty of effort. We have a familiarity and belief problem. We believe that we aren’t putting lots of effort into worsening. It’s become so familiar to collaborate with deterioration that we don’t even acknowledge the hard work we put into getting worse. Improvement might be a few minute commitment a few days per week. Worsening is a 24 hour-a-day job.
The effort at change, therefore, must be placed on calling out your false narratives and delusions. People will tell me they “couldn’t” make a healthy choice at a work event or party. Really? There were no proteins, no veggies, and no water? Even if so, I’m not totally shocked. But remember: you could just NOT EAT.
It may be unfamiliar. But it takes LESS effort to do good. It takes less effort to withhold oneself from sabotage. It takes less effort to be healthy and fit once we let go of our made-up stories.
We can start by putting less effort into maintaining our delusion that it takes more effort.
Researchers are further uncovering that visceral fat (midsection among organs) is the only body fat storage inherently problematic: https://newsroom.heart.org/.../more-belly-weight....
To be clear, some insulating fat under the skin doesn’t have a theorized mechanism for raising health risk nor an epidemiological statistical connection to increased health risk. In fact, what we do know is that UNDERweight people have higher cardiovascular health risk (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29981771/), more issues with infertility (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32289345/), and cognitive decline (https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26294005/).
Why would this be?
All of the hormones which keep us alive and let us thrive are derived from or regulated by fats. Too high is an obvious problem. But we tend not to think about how too low must likewise be a coequal or greater problem.
And, to be fair, underweight BMI is not prevalent in the industrialized countries.
But what’s so special about visceral midsection fat versus subcutaneous fat?
Again, we tend not to think about how internal organs require a certain amount of space, a balance of pressures, blood flow, and alignment. As the body aggregates fat storage around organs, these functions are impeded. There is literally pressure squeezing on the lungs, the kidneys, the liver, and so on.
Where I first see this is in posture. The person will “make space” in order to breathe, by increasingly extending the low back in order to open up the abdomen and try to make room for organ function. This leads to chesty breathing which induces persistent anxiety. Combined, the risk of elevated blood pressure is nearly assured. Fatigue, likewise, must eventually ensue, as the person is perpetually doing a minor (or major) back bend and stretching the abdominal muscles and obliques. Shoulders shrug up to allocate more space. Distance between hips and rib cage continue to increase in hopes of making room for internal organ function.
This adaptation can only scale so far. Ultimately, people will find they cannot ever take deep breaths into the lower 2/3 of the lungs. Stress, allergies, and respiratory difficulty amplify. Liver and kidney function is consistently impeded. Digestive function, likewise, has a fair degree of pressure. Walking gait also devolves because the lordotic lumbar curve is magnified. Chronic discomfort and hip/low-back pain is a constant. It has nothing to do with added “weight” necessarily, and everything to do with compression and non-neutral postures.
I have found that people who make a targeted effort at dropping overall body fat will eventually remove visceral fat. To be sure, all of my clients who clock low DEXA scan body fat obtain low or even N/A visceral readings.
Weight may matter a little bit. But having piles of useless energy storage crushing internal organs is ruining health prospects, mental health, and general enjoyment of what could be an energized, joyful, and easy-breathing experience.
Yesterday will be the last day you made an excuse. After this, you will have in hand the tool to enslave willpower and subjugate excuses. Not only will you no longer make excuses and cite lack of willpower, you will completely dominate the concepts. Annihilate, if you want. They no longer play a role in what you do or don't do.
Let us tackle wellness. Do you have a plan for wellness during a worst-case scenario?
That is, what specifically WILL you do on your most overbooked stressful week? If there’s no plan for this, then there is no plan. I guarantee an excuse is forthcoming until you rectify this.
It was no different when I managed large teams. It is no different when I coach people in senior executive roles. Among my repeated review questions with clients is, “how will you do that on an ‘impossible week’?”. We agree on a next step, an action item, a process goal. Cool. It could be meal prep. It could be Blue Zones. It could be daily walks. It could be tracking. It could be three-day-per-week workouts. All of it is ripe for excuses and "loss of willpower" until you thoroughly answer the next question. How will you do that plan when you wake up late, feel like crap, global pandemic hits, you remember you have an anniversary this weekend, you pull a hamstring, power goes out, car breaks down, kids get sick, etc.? If you don’t INSTANTLY have an answer for these and more, you’re planning on NOT doing it. It’s an impotent plan. It’s a non-plan. It's a plan for excuses.
When you want to accomplish anything, plan what you would do toward that end WHILE sick, injured, in pain, overwhelmed, unsupported, traveling, broke, caring for a health-failing family member or friend, during monsoon or snowstorm, unmotivated, uninspired, anxious, depressed, negative, and so on.
999 out of 1,000 times when I hear people talk about fitness endeavors, the forthcoming week they describe is a fantasy. When reality hits, there is no more practice. Excuses reign.
The obvious remedy is to plan as if the week will be almost impossible. That way, when challenges come, no big deal. When challenges are moderate or low, you thrive. There is no such thing as a challenge-less week. Please stop planning as if such a thing existed. Stop planning for excuses.
This is critical. People who are expecting or waiting to have a fantasy perfect week will never follow-through, because there is no such thing. There will always be a holiday, a weekend, a tweaked muscle, a low energy day, a life or work issue, and so forth. Always.
If you just examine basic holidays, weekends, and important dates for the people in your immediate circle, there are only about 5 blocks of 3-5 consecutive days per year that look anything like what people describe in their goal-setting for weight loss or for New Years resolutions. Part of the reason why popular fitness franchises pitch 4-to-12 week programs is because they’re counting on your NOT planning for what life looks like 9-to-11 months out of the year.
The people I’ve known to be most successful at anything, including fitness, don’t have ONE less stressor or barrier to success than those who are least successful. Usually, they have more. THE differentiator is what they will tolerate as a pretext to excuse themselves from their practice. And that takes a hard examination of how to incorporate health and wellness endeavors into a packed calendar, a low energy week, a high stress day, an overspent lifestyle.
Once you embrace this, you will have made your last excuse.