Conventional Fitness Wisdom - a conflict in terms?!?!?

by Phil Kaplan

WARNING: This article will be lengthy, and it might make you think.. Read it when you have some time. It will include my description of a lunch with a Personal Trainer in Las Vegas, my conversation with a woman who I know is about to achieve the fitness result she's been striving for, and a description of my brand new 21-Day Journey to Excellence. These will all come together to reveal the flaws in conventional fitness and weight loss "wisdom."

You've been warned. Read at your own risk . . . only if you're willing to re-think many of the fitness and weight loss ideas you believed to be absolutes.

PART 1: The coach and the trainer

I've had the opportunity to connect with a number of high school and collegiate strength coaches, and while I'm aware there are many great coaches, there are others who are stuck in unfounded convention, believing things to be law simply because historically others held the same beliefs. You'd think that with the sophistication of professional sports, coaches at the professional level would all be experts in improving athletic performance, but on a recent Sunday, sitting at a restaurant in Las Vegas, I learned that even at the pro levels some coaches are crippled by primitive beliefs.

I'll discuss the Las Vegas lunch in a moment, but allow me to first point out that "convention" is perhaps a plague that's facilitating that snowballing decline of American health and well being. Statistics are growing increasingly alarming, and solutions are so elusive it's no wonder so many throw in the proverbial towel. People reach a point where they're willing to have gastric bypass surgery, to ignore the warnings on stimulant weight loss products, and where they're willing to purchase controlled drugs from laboratories cranking out who-knows-what because some web sites promise discount weight loss drugs. These are acts of desperation, and desperation is the by-product of learned helplessness. The saddest part of all is, nobody is helpless, at least not unless they choose to be. With the right technology of change, anybody, and I mean anybody, can bring about gradual and ongoing physical improvement.

OK, back to Vegas. I was at the IDEA World Conference, invited to speak to fitness professionals about changing the existing paradigm, about shifting to an approach where fitness centers educate and empower rather than simply sell memberships. I received an e-mail from an accomplished Personal Trainer who had run into an ethical issue and he asked if we could meet.

When he arrived for lunch, the Personal Trainer, I'll call him Barry, held in his hand the "training manual" for a professional team. Barry was confused, frustrated, and furious, and I don't blame him. A professional athlete, a member of the team for which the manual was created, came to Barry in the off-season with expressed hopes of improving agility and power. This pro athlete was determined to have his best season ever the following year, as a contract negotiation was impending. Barry began showing me through the manual and I was shocked. With Barry's permission, I'll reprint some of the chapter headings (I promised not to name names so please don't ask me the name of the team or of the athlete).

According to the manual . . .

  • Aerobic Exercise Burns Fat, Weight Training Builds Muscle
  • Muscles Need at Least 48 Hours to Recuperate
  • 8 - 12 reps for cutting, Max-out for building
  • You Have to Stick to the Program - No Matter What
  • You Have to Give it 12 Weeks Before You See Results
  • All Calories Are Created Equal - Cut Calories to Lose Weight
  • Do Your Aerobic Exercise First to Warm up the Body
  • Never Exercise on an Empty Stomach
  • Don't Eat at Night if you Want to Lose Weight

The lunch was pleasant but after the chicken breasts were devoured Barry let loose.

"How am I supposed to deal with this? I know what this athlete needs. He needs to train differently. He needs to train explosively using movements that will translate to performance. He needs to eat differently, he needs to challenge his body in new ways, and he needs to begin moving toward his true potential. The problem is, I'm just his trainer. This manual is provided by him team, and if I contradict the strength coaches I'm afraid I'll lose him as a client."

My turn.

"Barry, you have to first adapt a mindset shift of your own. When you say you're "just" his trainer, you're making light of your responsibility. This athlete came to you as a client and is investing in your expertise. You weren't hired by the coach, nor were you hired by the team. Your obligation should be to deliver the results your client is looking for. You don't have a conflict. You have an obligation. He wants to be more agile and more powerful and you know how to get him there. Your challenge isn't a moral one. Your challenge simply lies in getting this athlete to buy-in to something he'll perceive as unconventional. If he wants to excel, and he put his trust in you, the only problem you'll have is how to prevent the rest of the team, and ultimately the rest of the league, from beating a path to your door."


Part 2: The Airplane Ride Home

On the airplane home from Vegas I was entering the manual chapter headings into my laptop and the woman sitting next to me was pretending not to peek as she subtly examined every word I typed.

"Are you some kind of exercise guy?" she asked.

I thought about making new business cards that read, "Phil Kaplan, some kind of exercise guy." I smiled, nodded and the barrage of questions began. Finally she asked if she could have a copy of the program I was writing. I explained that it wasn't a program, but that I was about to write an article explaining why these conventional beliefs were actually myths and her jaw dropped.

"How could those be myths? That's what they teach at my gym."

The conversation took a new turn.

Do you go to the gym regularly?


What results were you looking for when you enrolled?

I wanted to lose weight . . . like 20 pounds or so. I'm not fat, I'm just a little chunky.

Are you less . . . ummm . . . "chunky" than you were when you enrolled?

(Hesitation) I think so. Maybe. My husband says he sees a difference.

So what results have you seen?

Well, I think maybe I lost a couple of pounds.

Did you get the results you were looking for when you enrolled?

No, but nobody does.

Suppose I told you I had a program that asked you to work the same muscles every day, but the workout sessions were less than 20 minutes long, and suppose I told you that this program would have you consuming more food than most people eat, and suppose I told you you were not only allowed to cheat, you were encouraged to cheat, and to top it off, suppose I told you I would absolutely guarantee results. Would you have interest, or would you think I'm out of my mind?

(Hesitation) I'd have interest (That didn't mean she thought I was sane. She clevely ignored the second half of my question).

We continued to chat, I continued to type, and as the plane touched down onto the runway at West Palm Beach International Airport, I decided I'd write this article, outlining some of the points that make my new 21-Day Journey to Excellence effective, dedicated to her. Luisa, this article's for you. I can't wait to hear of the changes you bring about by throwing convention to the wind and turning exercise into productive, result-oriented play.


Part 3 - Convention Shattered

Aerobic Exercise Burns Fat, Weight Training Builds Muscle - this is a long-held belief. It is inaccurate at best. It might be better rephrased as, "if all of the other vital elements of the necessary synergy are in place, you very well might burn fat during your aerobic exercise sessions, and it's possible some of that fat may come from adipose stores. It's also possible that the weight training stimulus, assuming intensity and frequency are sufficient, may ask the body to take ingested protein and synthesize new muscle tissue." OK, maybe that sounds a bit complex, but the belief that "aerobic exercise burns fat" is flawed.

Any time you're in an aerobic state, which means any time you meet oxygen demand (like, right now) your body is capable of burning fat as fuel, but it also has the ability to burn glucose, and in most physiological states glucose is more accessible. Aerobic exercise is a piece of the puzzle, but if you rely on it for your fat burning you'll wind up disappointed.

The "weight training builds muscle" part of the statement infers that the act of lifting weights is a direct precursor to muscle development. Weight training is simply the stimulus. Other factors must be in place. You must have adequate nutrient intake and adequate recovery for the stimulus to result in muscle gains.

The statement further infers that if you want fat loss, weight training isn't important, and nothing could be further from the truth. Weight training is not only the stimulus for building muscle, it's also the stimulus for maintaining muscle. As we age, unless we intervene, metabolisms slow at the rate of 2% - 3% per decade. Maintaining muscle is a key to maintaining metabolism with chronological advancement. In other words, neglect weight training and keeping the body efficient at maintaining desired body composition becomes an ever-increasing challenge.

Muscles Need at Least 48 Hours to Recuperate (or you Catabolize Muscle Tissue) - in most gyms you'll hear this conversation with extreme regularity.

What are you training today?

Back and biceps.

Oh, I did those yesterday, I'm doing chest and quads.

There's this idea circulating in conventional circles that you can't exercise the same muscles two days in a row. Next time you see a muscular construction worker, ask him whether he gives his deltoids 48 hours to recuperate. If he's lifting cement blocks every day, the answer is, no! Yet his muscles are well developed. Look at track and field athletes who sprint for speed. They train on the track daily, working the glutes, the quads, and virtually all of the muscles of the body, and their legs develop impressive muscle. If you are going to subject yourself to a conventional "sets and reps" workout, where you're pushing against resistance every day, unless you're extremely well conditioned, any level of intensity will leave you overtrained . . .but nobody's suggesting conventional workouts. Remember, convention is failing most people. Think of the frustration Barry the trainer expressed when he felt he had to decide between sticking to the "conventional" regimen this athlete was used to, or breaking the mold and facilitating results. I assure you, you can work the same muscles every day and see a very impressive payoff.

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8 - 12 reps for cutting, Max-out for building - "cutting?" That suggests getting extremely defined, where muscle striations are visible through the skin. The idea that some set amount of repetitions burns cuts into muscles suggests a complete ignorance of physiology. Definition is the result of well-developed muscle and low bodyfat. You can't "burn" cuts into muscle by performing a given number of repetitions.

As far as "building," while it is true that greater resistance is more likely to stimulate fast-twitch muscle fiber, the fiber most responsive to growth, "maxing-out" with any regularity is certain to put undue wear and tear on connective tissue. It is also likely to impede recuperation and lead to stagnation and/or injury. This "take-it-to-the-max" approach to strength building may be good for the athlete ego in the short term, but it is in all likelihood a major contributor to the widespread low back, knee, elbow, and shoulder pain far-too-many former athletes attempt to battle.

You Have to Stick to the Program - No Matter What - This may apply to androids and computers, but people? I suggest you strive for perfection, but be thrilled by excellence, or even by a step toward excellence. The idea that you must follow a regimen perfectly dismisses the recognition that as humans we have impulses, desires, moods, and hormonally directed thoughts, and if every time we indulge in an action that may fall outside of the realm of perfection, we've "blown" the program, few will ever find any program effective.

You Have to Give it 12 Weeks Before You See Results - this may be based on conventional thinking, but conventional thinking in this regard ignores "evidence." People who hold a vision of a physical outcome use the mirror as a gauge, and the mirror fails to show radical change from day to day. Out of this limitation in the immediate responsiveness of the mirror, the thought process that says, "just wait . . . give it 12 weeks" came to pass. The reality is, when you apply a sound technology of change, you can see results in days . . . you just have to know what to look for!

All Calories Are Created Equal - Cut Calories to Lose Weight - Cutting calories below the body's metabolic need will result in weight loss and that weight loss will bring with it metabolic slowdown due to alterations in lean body mass and endocrine function. All calories are absolutely NOT created equal.

Think of this question as an extreme example to illustrate the point. If you were to consume, for an entire year, 2500 calories per day made up of solely peanut butter cups and whipped cream, would your body look and feel the same as it would if you were to consume 2500 calories per day from a nutritionally balanced combination of natural foods?

Some foods are more "thermic" than others, which means some foods will cause your body to burn more calories in the act of digestion. Resting a weight loss program upon a focus on caloric intake is a part of the reason the diet industry is so successful. People keep returning to diets because each diet leaves them with yet a greater weight loss challenge.

Do Your Aerobic Exercise First to Warm up the Body - it's true that "warming up" by increasing blood flow has a solid foundation in exercise practice, but if the goal is muscle gain or fat loss, doing an intense aerobic session prior to doing resistance exercise may actually leave you in a state where the body wants to cannibalize muscle and cling to fat!

Never Exercise on an Empty Stomach - The food you ingest today can be your fuel for tomorrow, so if you "fuel up" with frequent nutrient dense meals, the muscles and the liver hold enough glycogen to handle an early morning workout before any new food requires the digestive tract to compete with the muscular system for blood flow. I'd even say there is a slight metabolic advantage for some to exercising on an empty stomach upon waking.

Don't Eat at Night if you Want to Lose Weight - remember, supportive meals are "thermic" and aside from providing amino acids for the body to synthesize new tissue while you sleep, this evening's meal will ask you body to "work" digesting while you sleep. Going long periods of time without food (i.e. from 5 PM until breakfast time) can cause metabolism to slow and can lead to blood sugar irregularities optimizing the hormonal environment for fat storage.

Part 4: The Realities Inherent in The 21-Day Journey to Excellence

Interestingly, it wasn't until I started challenging convention that I started really developing an enviable track record in bringing about consistent physical change. It stands to reason that if we're in a society where more than 60% of our population falls under the heading of overweight, convention isn't working, so today I find it odd that so many are so tightly bound to outdated and flawed ideas. My most recent program takes people through 21 days. There isn't any magic in the number, but there is magic in the process. By integrating ideas and methodologies that work to increase protein synthesis, enhance recuperative ability, optimize the efficiency of the heart and lungs, increase performance output, and increase to boost metabolism and mobilize fat, I've created a "system" that can help anyone find the path to improvement.

Winning the race to physical greatness is the result of pursuing a process of small steps, unconvention steps, steps that become increasingly easier even as challenges and workloads may be greater. Here are some of the ideas that challenge convention, yet stand as cornerstones of my program:

Rather than thinking of aerobic exercise as "fat loss exercise," we treat aerobic exercise as a modality for improving oxygen delivery, cellular transport, and blood flow . . . and fat loss is a welcome side effect. Since nutrients are carried to the cells, and waste products (including mobilized fatty acids) are carried from the cells via the bloodstream, moderate aerobic exercise makes the machine work more efficiently. The 21-Day Journey asks you to think, not of the treadmill burning fat, but of the body being able to release fat virtually all day long . . . anytime you're meeting oxygen demand. The exercise regimen serves to stimulate change, and the body experiences that change while you sleep, drive, think, and relax. This understanding of foundational physiological principles allows you to find clear benefit from moderate, short duration, aerobic exercise strategicallly performed after muscle glycogen stores are depleted. While you are capable of burning fat all day long, and you shouldn't think of aerobic exercise as "fat burning" exercise, this strategy, as a welcome side-effect, increases the body's willingness to offer up stored fat as fuel during an aerobic exercise session

It's OK to fall - NOBODY is expected to stick to the program 100% - I teach people that deviations from the plan are a part of human nature, and we have to embrace those elements of personality that allow us to separate ourselves from machines, to enjoy extreme pleasure, and to step away from regimentation at times to find great emotional payoff in being the least bit naughty. If you adopt the right mindset, that it's simply about doing better than you used to do, and that there's room to mess up without "blowing it." You never feel as if you've "fallen off" the program.

You'll notice "results" in 3 days, "see" results in 21 days - 3 days after applying the exercise regimen and the supportive eating stragegy you'll find your energy increases and stabilizes. That's clear evidence that blood sugar is becoming stable (as opposed to the blood sugar roller coaster most Americans are on). Energy and blood sugar levels are linked. Thus, energy and fat release are linked. When blood sugar levels become stable, the pancreas begins consistent output of the hormone glucagon, a hormone that allows stored fat to leave the cell and enter the bloodstream. That means 3 days after you begin you have evidence that "it's working." After 21 days, if fat loss is a goal, I guarantee you'll see clothes fitting differently, the scale will become your friend, and a comparative "after" photo will be indisputably different than a pre-program pic.

It is OK, at times, even desirable, to work the same muscles two days in a row - remember, the body responds to "a new stimulus," and if convention says to divide the body up into parts, I say it's time to treat the body as a whole, as an incredible mechanism that allows muscular systems to integrate, coordinate, and act in harmony. In the 21-Day Journey you begin with six (6) functional movements, six movements that when put together accomplish the muscle stimulation you'd get from working your way through every machine in a 15-machine "circuit." By working the muscles in a similar manner on simultaneous days you develop new biomotor habits, and what once seemed a no-no becomes a key to new improvement.

As long as you provide a new stimulus, exercise sessions can be only 15 minutes long - there's no reason to perform excessive exercise. In fact, exercising beyond the body's proven ability to recuperate adds to stress levels, can cause the adrenals to crank out excesses of cortisol, the stress hormone, and can do more harm than good. When people realize, along the way, that exercise sessions can be modest in duration, their sense of potential skyrockets and the results are soon to follow.

You don't starve . . . you never starve - the 21-Day Journey emphasizes the importance of supportive eating, of fueling the body, supplying adequate nutrients for the development of new healthy cells, and for eating in a manner that makes the body more efficient at burning through calories. Nutritionally, by avoiding the starvation associated with diets, you literally stoke the furnace and kick metabolism into high gear.

You cheat . . . in fact, it's a responsibility!!! - The "Cheat Day" is not about permission as much as it's about balance. While conventional diets make a point of telling what you can't have, cravings, social situations, and exposure to less supportive offerings lead far too many to abandon their regimented diet and exercise programs. When you allow for a periodic "Cheat Day," you find it effortless to pass up foods knowing you'll be able to indulge without guilt in a day or two. Over time, when you are allowed the indulgences, they become less important, and you begin to create clear distinctions between how you feel when you eat supportively and how you feel when you "cheat." The ability to cheat without guilt makes adherence simple.

You don't need anything - despite what advertisers say - You don't need any equipment at all as you can perform exercises that use your own bodyweight to provide resistive challenge and any locomotion, walking, jogging, or even moving forward against water resistance can bring about an aerobic training effect. Ideally people following my 21-Day Journey to Excellence will utilize a stability ball, a medicine ball, a light pair of dumbbells, and some elastic tubing. They aren't "needs," simply options, and affordable options at that.

Any result-oriented program is going to rely upon a synergistic combination of the three vital elements - I've learned that the foundation of "what works" is the synergistic application of three elements, and if any one of the three is missing results will be elusive. My programs all educate people in the vital combination of the right nutrition, moderate aerobic exercise, and a concern for muscle.

Conclusion: Follow convention and wind up just like everyone else.

That probably isn't a place you want to be when you look at the statistical decline in the health of our population. Break the rules a bit, open your mind to some new ideas, and through application of some now-proven strategies you'll find the path to physical greatness is shorter than you might have expected!

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