Monday, December 11, 2006

DF Tip #23: Look Out for Gurus!

loch nessThis morning I was reading a well-traveled blog by an exercise guru (I'll call him David), who claims that when it comes to fitness, we've got it all -- or most of it, anyway -- wrong. There are very few topics he isn't willing to take on: fitness, genetics, dental care, the movie industry, economics, the Loch Ness Monster... Okay, not that last one. But it's clear that David fancies himself something of a Renaissance man.

Much of his writing on fitness is about what NOT to do: he hates steady-state cardio activity, he doesn't like high reps or high volume weight training, he doesn't believe in veganism or vegetarianism, doesn't believe in sports drinks or post-workout glycogen replacement in general, doesn't like weight machines. He's totally down on carbs and sugar. He thinks that many weight-room warhorses -- full-range bench presses and wide-grip lat pull-downs, as well as most abdominal exercises -- are dangerous.

croIn place of these chestnuts, he advocates what I'll call Cro-Magnon Fitness (he calls it something else) -- a training system based on his conception of the activity patterns of our hunter-gatherer ancestors: heavy, fast-paced training, one-arm/one-leg movements, low reps, heavy weights, and explosive movements. He favors jumping, leaping, and throwing medicine balls, movements that he contends mimic ancient, high-intensity activities like escaping predators and taking down prey. He likes eating meat and thinks grains are the scourge of the gastrointestinal world.

David isn't short on self-esteem. He spends one entry going into detail about the reaction a female salesclerk had upon seeing him in an Armani suit she was trying to sell him (SPOILER: her reaction was positive); another on the effect that his bounteous testosterone stores have on women, and, more distressingly, on dogs.

We get it: David is a hunk of virility, and if we'd only adhere to his principles of training, if only the misguided fitness industry would listen to him, then this country, nay, the world, could be populated by men and women whose mere essence drives the opposite sex, and much of the animal kingdom, into fits of uncontrollable lust.

Let me backpedal a bit before David’s disciples, hip to the fact that I’m talking about their messiah, come to my house and expose me for the fitness-drink-swilling, carb-eating, long-distance running fitness hack that I apparently am. David does make some good points. He likes a lot of the same stuff I like in the gym. He rightly cautions against extremism and fanaticism in endurance sport. And at 6'1," 195 pounds, 8% body fat, and almost 70 years old (!), he's clearly found a system that works for him. The problem is that he takes the indisputable fact of his own success and assumes that his methods will work for... pretty much everyone. That's where he and I part ways.

mesoAnyone with even a rudimentary understanding of fitness can look at the guy and see that he isn't well suited to long-distance anything. He's a mesomorph, a thick-boned, fast-twitch muscle guy, good at short duration exercise and explosive movement (he once played pro baseball), and not much on endurance. So in a way it makes sense that he would benefit from a system of weight training that is particularly suited to that type of physique -- to wit, very high intensity, heavy weights, low volume -- and abhor the kinds of activities that don't agree with this body type -- namely, endurance sport.

But that's no reason to dismiss endurance sport activities -- and the reams of scientific data that support their benefits -- altogether. Nor does it mean there aren't scores of people out there who benefit from long-distance running, or cycling, or swimming. There are: I've known a few thousand of them personally. But David doesn't talk about them; instead, he takes a head-shaking, I-told-you-so pleasure in posting anecdotes about the rare occasion when an apparently-healthy endurance athlete dies from a heart attack while training.

David's advice on weight training is equally short-sighted. In his blog, and in interviews (which are also accessible via his website), he carefully explains how you only need to lift weights twice a week, performing one hard set per body part per week, using a carefully-worked out system of ascending weight and descending repetitions. He claims that using this system three times a week for forty minutes a session is all that is needed for optimal fitness.

I'm sure many of my clients would love to be in and out of the gym in thirty-five minutes, just twice a week. I'm sure many of them would prefer not to do the three or four grueling sets of squats or deadlifts or chinups that leave many of them sore for days afterwards. And I'd be happy to prescribe such a workout regimen if I believed for a minute that it would be effective.

If only. In practice, the truth is that almost everyone needs more stimulation than David recommends. In my experience, this manner of weight training leads to a particularly precarious combination of under- and over-training: the muscles aren't trained with enough volume or frequency to stimulate growth, but during workouts themselves, the tissues are subjected to such extreme stress that the trained muscles wind up either injured, or at the very least, more vulnerable to injury outside the gym, so a trainee will wind up wrenching their back tying their shoes or doing some equally innocuous physical activity.

Moreover, David's revolutionary ideas have already been advanced, touted, and largely relegated to footnote status in most fitness circles, for many of the same reasons I go into above, starting as long as three decades ago. Arthur Jones, the entrepreneur behind the Nautilus craze, and the late bodybuilding champion Mike Mentzer both advocated similar training systems back in the 80’s. Today, there's a good-natured kook on the Internet who calls this training system -- I kid you not -- the "Doggcrapp" method.

It's not that what they say is worthless. Like any other training technique, heavy, high intensity training has its place. But just because this training system has proved useful for a handful of high-profile athletes does NOT mean that all other training systems -- which have been tried and tested and proven effective by athletes and workaday exercisers everywhere -- are useless and should be thrown out.

crewIf I've learned nothing else in my years as a trainer and athlete, it's that you can't use a cookie cutter to create fitness programs. As ever, it's different strokes for different folks. Sure, David gestures vaguely at the notion of variety in training, but only within the strict parameters of his very limiting recommendations. Maybe some of what's worked for him will work for you, too. But what's misleading about his points, and what I caution all twelve of my readers against, is the one-sidedness of it. He sternly steers us away from one type of fanaticism while slyly advocating another: no machines! No endurance activity! No grains! In pointing out the dangers of overdoing aerobic activity, he effectively makes the point that not all exercise modalities are for everyone -- but then immediately contradicts his own well-taken point by trying to sell us on his own ONE TRUE WAY to fitness. As I've said many times before, there are simply too many bodies out there, and too many useful, effective, and, frankly, really fun ways of exercising, for one system to work optimally for everyone, forever.

loch nessAnother word of caution while I'm on it. The systems that fitness gurus advance are, inevitably, a repackaged form of something others have been doing for a long time. Functional training is a souped-up version of the calisthenics we all did in gym class. Balance training is something that circus performers did centuries ago. Spinning classes? Boxing? Tae Bo? Kettleballs, for the love of Pete? There's value in all these things, but let's not pretend that no one ever thought of them before. These guys might have gone sailing in the Atlantic, and maybe they'll come back with a story or two, but that doesn't make them Columbus.

alaskaThe lesson here is that there's very little that's new under the sun: you've just got to keep searching till you find the thing that's right for YOUR body and YOUR goals, right now. That's why one of my main principles -- in as far as I can say I have any principles -- is to keep exploring, keep challenging yourself, keep expanding your physical repertoire. Sure, go ahead and take up David's principles for awhile. See how they work for you. Then ignore it all and join a crew club for a year. Then do spinning classes. Cycle Alaska. Then take up competitive power lifting.

The body is too complex and fascinating an organism, too inherently curious and adaptable to stay satisfied with one exercise modality for long. Explore long enough and eventually, you'll become something akin to a guru of your own physiology. Maybe you'll stumble on a series of long-forgotten exercises that you become convinced is by far the best and most effective system in existence, and why has no one thought of it before?

At that point, you might feel inclined to start your own blog about how you've discovered the ONE TRUE WAY to get fit and tell everyone about it. All I'll say is if you do, keep your dukes up.

Have a great week,
Andrew

1 comment:

jay said...

Can I name names?

I think it is "Evolutionary fitness"!! by _ _ T _ _ _ _ _ _ Y