Doctors won’t make you healthy. Nutritionists won’t make you slim. Teachers won’t make you smart. Gurus won’t make you calm. Mentors won’t make you rich. Trainers won’t make you fit. Ultimately, you have to take responsibility.
The end of January marked my fifth month working at a commercial gym. Having had the opportunity to talk to a variety of people, I have also had the chance to discover what confuses them about exercise and nutrition.
The problem is the amount of conflicting information in the media, on social media platforms, or packaged as books and newspaper articles by so-called “experts” who have some sort of self-interested agenda.
Bombarded with contrasting messages like “Sugar addiction will kill you”, “Fat is bad”, and “Carbs are the devil”, how are you supposed to know what to do?
This article is a small collection of honest messages about training and nutrition designed to help you make sense of the madness.
1. You won’t get a six-pack doing abs exercises.
The only way to have visible abs is to reduce the amount of body fat covering them. In other words, you would need a caloric deficit for a prolonged period of time.
Moreover, the level of body fat at which abs become visible is different for everyone. Some people don’t need to lose a lot of weight; others might need to get ready for a bodybuilding competition in order to achieve a similar result. To some extent, this is down to your genetics.
There is one way to make your abs stand out a bit more even when you are not extremely lean. Like any other muscle, your abs can hypertrophy, which means they can increase in size.
This process will usually take place in a hypercaloric diet designed to gain muscle mass, alongside an appropriate training program.
However, bigger abs – and a bigger core in general – will make your waist bigger, too, which may not be aesthetically pleasing for you.
Nevertheless, unless you are fairly new to training, bodyweight exercises like crunches and sit-ups – some of the most popular among average gym-goers – are unlikely to produce enough stimulus for your muscles to grow.
If you are keen to grow your abs, try exercises that you can load and make progress on over time, such as the abs crunch machine, cable crunch, and cable wood chop.
2. You can eat whatever you want, but you have to take responsibility for your choices.
There are no special foods that you “should” eat to achieve your fitness goals. There are foods that make it easier and foods that make it harder.
For example, if you are trying to lose fat and your calorie target is 1800 calories per day, you could eat a 1200-calorie pizza, but you would need to fit your remaining meals into 600 calories. That could be doable once or twice, but eating so little most of the day for the sake of one meal could wear you down and cause you to give up on the diet, or it could force you to push through and develop an unhealthy relationship with food.
On the other hand, if you are looking to gain muscle and your calorie target is 3500 calories per day, you might struggle to eat highly nutritious, low-calorie foods at every meal without experiencing gastrointestinal discomfort and a frustrating “perma-bloat”. A 1200-calorie burger could be a huge help to reach your calorie target and avoid this host of unpleasant consequences.
Furthermore, you will not always choose your meals based on your fitness goals. Sometimes, you will have different reasons, such as:
Ideally, you would eat in a way that serves your objectives at least 80% of the time, with the remaining 20% being any of the scenarios above.
Ultimately, you are free to make any food choice you want, as long as you are honest about the reasons behind the decisions and aware of the impact this will have on your current target.
In other words, don’t say “I don’t understand why I can’t lose fat” if you choose to have takeaway five days a week or you can’t say no to thirteen slices of Karen’s birthday cake in the office.
3. You get out of it as much as you put into it.
You want to lean out, but you are only willing to exercise, not to change your diet.
You want to pack on a lot of muscle, especially in your arms, but you are only willing to work out for 45 minutes a couple of times per week.
You want to run a marathon, but you are only willing to run a 5k every now and then.
I am not saying you have to make fitness your top priority. The most successful training program is the one you will actually follow 80% of the time, so, if to you that means working out twice per week, that’s great.
However, scale down your expectations accordingly.
A client of mine put it in great words when I asked her about her fitness goal: “I used to work out for two hours five days a week and be very fit. I don’t have the time for that now, so I know I may not achieve that level of fitness again, but I want to make the best of the time I do have.”
Another advantage of having reasonable expectations is that you will see your results as a success. If you had excessively hefty goals you would see anything less than that as failure, even if you improved compared to where you used to be.
4. The best answer is “it depends”.
The truth is, we don’t know as much as we would like to know about anything that has to do with the human body, be it medicine, nutrition, exercise, or psychology.
We know enough about exercise to have come up with theories and principles that, when applied correctly, appear to produce appreciable results. However, every body is a unique body and thus responds to a different degree to the same application of said theories and principles.
For this reason, when someone says, “This is the way to achieve this goal,” ask them why. They might have a good rationale for it, so you might decide to follow their advice.
If you don’t like their method or don’t agree with their reasons for adopting it, remember that there is always at least one other way.
The bottom line is, do not trust hard and fast claims. Do further research, if you are self-coached, or look for a fitness professional that is aware of alternatives and willing to work with you to find your own.
5. The best training program is the program you are actually going to do.
Following on from Truth Number 4, another important reason to find the approach that suits you is that otherwise you are very unlikely to stick with the program.
How many free workout programs have you seen online or were you given at the gyms you joined? How many of them did you follow for longer than a couple of months?
And why was that?
Maybe you didn’t enjoy the exercises; maybe the workouts were too long or too tiring; maybe you didn’t feel confident enough with your technique and were afraid to hurt yourself. Maybe it just wasn’t a fun program for you.
Whatever the reason, this goes to show that the number one quality of a successful training program is that you keep following it. If this does not occur, although the program may adhere to all the principles of exercise science to a T, it still is not a good program for you.
Many of my clients waited for weeks before bringing up a problem with their program. Some would only do so if I realised something was off and asked them myself. When I told them they should have said something sooner, they would reply, “Well, it was your method, so I thought, this is how it is, I just need to get used to it.”
Much as I appreciate their trust in me, I would have had plenty of alternatives for them to try out if only I had known!
Do not make the same mistake and get stuck in this black-or-white mentality.
There are many ways to achieve your goals. Try them all out until you find your own!
Do you have any hard fitness truth to share?
A personal trainer who likes bodybuilding, superheroes, and bread.
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