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.