Everyone knows that exercise is good for you. Here's the rub - you have to do it right to get real results and major benefits. What do I mean by "right"? I mean that there's a huge difference between the results you achieve from exercise programs designed and guided by scientists of movement and your outcomes from logging hours on the elliptical machine.
Why? I'll sum it in five hard-and-fast, unquestionable truths about what REALLY works...
Exercise is not magic, it is science
The human body is an amazing machine. It actually adapts to the activities that it is forced to undergo. Imagine if your car grew monster truck wheels from driving on dirt roads. When we lift things that are heavy, our bodies change to become stronger. When we run hard, our bodies change to become faster. It's impossible to request these changes politely. Our bodies adapt only when they MUST. That means in order to see your abs, you have to live a lifestyle that requires you to have strong abs and minimal bodyfat. Sound tough? The good news is that because this process is scientific, we are guaranteed to win 1,000 times out of 1,000 if we provide the right inputs. Exercise is not magic, it is science. Our species has calculated the mass of Jupiter, among other feats, and scientists of the body are darn good at helping you change your body. A Good Program + Effort + Consistency = Progress. GUARANTEED.
Training needs to be hard. Always.
This is one of the most commonly misunderstood (and exploited) truths about fitness. Exercise is not cumulative, it is dose dependent. I'll explain (the below is in no way an endorsement of ritualistic sunbathing, however!):
Say I want to get a suntan. I decide to sit outside for 30 minutes a day for 15 minutes on each side in pursuit of said suntan. I do this every day and at the end of one week, I have a golden glow to my skin. It looks great, and so I decide to continue to deepen my tan. I do my 30 minutes a day for 6 months. What color is my skin at the end of 6 months?
The correct answer is THE SAME COLOR IT WAS AFTER ONE WEEK. What? But I've been doing it for 6 months? How does this make sense? It all comes down to adaptation. When we do something stressful, it hurts our bodies. Some stresses are not good for us and some are. In the tanning example, the sun cooks my skin. My body responds to this stress by creating an adaptation to avoid any further stress. This is why my skin gets darker. After my one week of tanning, my skin has adapted to 30 minutes of stress from the sun. If I want my skin to become darker, I need to stay outside longer. If I continue my 30 minute dose, I will stay the same color forever, because my body has already made the adaptation.
What does this have to do with exercise? In order to improve our bodies we must improve what we do with them. In order to improve our fitness we must do more than we did last time. That means that an exercise should always be hard. Always. If it is not hard, then that means you are not stressing (the good kind of stress!) your body in order to sufficiently cause an adaptation. Your body does not care if you want sexy abs, it merely responds to the stimulus you provide. Gives new meaning to the phrase "I'm SO stressed out!", doesn't it?
Lift heavy weights
Everyone must lift heavy weights. Everyone. Your body does not turn on an entire muscle unless it must. If I pick up a pencil, my body will turn on the minimum number of muscle fibers to get the job done. In order to turn on more fibers, I must lift something that REQUIRES my body to turn on more muscle, like say, a really heavy pencil. If a muscle fiber does not squeeze then it is not stressed and it does not adapt. In order to stress maximum numbers of muscle fibers, we have to lift heavy weights. Now that term "heavy" is relative. Heavy for your parents and grandparents may not be heavy for you. But in order to stimulate adaptation it must be heavy enough to cause a stress. That means it has to be hard (remember Truth #2?). If you are doing a work set of 10 in the gym, it should be with a weight you couldn't do for 12 if your life depended on it. This not only strengthens the muscle, but the bones as well (another reason why grandma needs to lift), in addition to speeding the metabolism even after exercise is over. Lifting light weights gets you bupkis.
Sidenote for the ladies: Lifting weights will not get you big. I bet my career on it. The hormone that has the most to do with muscle building is testosterone, and you simply don't have enough of it to become "manly". The average man has 15 to 20 times more testosterone naturally than the average woman. The females who look like men are injecting testosterone. Don't inject testosterone, lift weights...look great in a bikini.
Don't use machines. Seriously.
All human movements involve two components: strength and stability. If we can't do something like pick up a child or bend down and touch our toes, that means we are lacking one or both of these components. "Free weights" like barbells and dumbbells require both, the same way that moving does in the real world. Machines keep us in a specific guided path, and thus eliminate the need to stabilize. That takes the stabilizing muscles out of the equation and they don't develop. Now I don't know about you, but spending lots of time and effort getting better at things I will never do again doesn't sound smart. Machines were popularized at gyms decades ago because they require minimal supervision (which is much cheaper for a gym owner). Using free weights - with expert supervision - is what will get you to your goals. For example, the 5 best exercises ever - Squat, Bench Press, Deadlift, Overhead Press, Pull Up - are done without machines and are scalable in difficulty for everyone. If you work with a trainer and these exercises don't sound familiar to you, come see us at True Fitness and Nutrition as soon as possible!
You can't outwork bad nutrition.
We are constantly told about calories in versus calories out. According to this logic, if we burn it off, we can eat whatever we want, right? No. Foods that are high in carbohydrates and fat, especially if they're processed foods, not only increase the 'energy in' portion of the equation, but also wreak havoc on our metabolic processes. Here is an easy way to think about it. The number of calories we eat dictates our body weight. The kind of calories we eat dictates what we look like at that body weight. Every single meal we have from now until death should include a complete protein, and a vegetable. In terms of how we look and feel, nutrition is more important than exercise, and it really isn't even that close of a competition. If you want to look fantastic, it all starts with what's on your plate. Optimize your work in the gym with smart decisions in the kitchen.
The Truth Will Set You Free
Exercise is not easy. It's hard and it should be - because it has to be. But working with someone who cares about your goals AND understands the science behind getting you the most out of every cent and second you invest makes it a lot easier.
Elliott White, Certified Personal Trainer, True Fitness and Nutrition
About the author:
Elliott White has had a passion for fitness since growing up as an athlete in Northern Virginia. First a Strength Coach at the collegiate level with James Madison University, he went on to help create the Strength and Conditioning Department at the University of South Alabama. Elliott then trained athletes in the Toronto Blue Jays organization before returning to Northern Virginia as the Personal Training Director for Fitness First in Tysons Corner. Elliott has been working independently in McLean for the past three years, joining forces with Kim to launch True Fitness and Nutrition in 2013. Elliott lives in Falls Church with his beautiful wife Jenn, dog Buffy, and two pet rabbits, LaFeet and Athena. He loves lifting weights, reading books, and lifting weights.
I've been in this business for a long time, and every body I come across moves a little bit differently. However the basic principles of fitness and science apply to every one of us. There is a right way to move and maximize performance and minimize injuries. There is a scientific way to progress in strength and body composition. An effective transformation requires three things: an effective program, effort, and consistency. My job is to provide the program. When it is combined with the effort and consistency of my clients, it works 1,000 times out of 1,000. I'd love to show you.