The Conversation

There is this great scene in the movie Castaway. Tom Hanks has just escaped his island home. His island prison. He’s floating on a raft in the middle of the open ocean not knowing if he is going to survive. Exhaustion overtakes him and while he sleeps his volleyball, Wilson, the only friend and link to sanity he had while stranded for years falls off the raft and starts to float away. Hanks wakes up just in time to see Wilson bobbing off in the distance. He jumps off the raft and tries to save him but the raft and his friend are floating off in different directions. He’s desperately yelling for his friend to come back as he realizes that he cannot rescue Wilson and return to the raft. He must choose one or the other. He is still reaching for the ball as he swims back to his open-water home. Crying, wailing, sobbing as he climbs back on, not knowing if he is going to make it but certainly knowing he’s let his friend go. This is how I feel when I have “the conversation” with our clients. Like we’ve created this very strong bond that seems to occur when people put their trust in you and engage in real training. It almost always happens about 3 months in. This is when they slip off the raft. And I feel myself desperately reaching out for them as they drift away. Not knowing whether or not I’m going to be able to get them back. Not knowing if I am going to be able to save them while still being able to save myself.

For three months these clients have worked harder than they ever have during training, possibly than they ever have in their lives. They’ve shown up. They’ve been consistent. And they know they’ve gotten results. They’ve gotten stronger, their work capacity has improved, the things that scared them when they first showed up are things they thrive on now. It’s a short enough time period that the memories of their first week are still fresh. When they couldn’t finish the workout and when they were at the bottom of the leader board. When they couldn’t believe how out of shape they felt even though they’ve been going to this class or that personal trainer for years.

But not all aspects of their fitness goals have been realized. Maybe they still have a bit more belly fat than they’d like. Or they don’t quite have the legs of the “Dancing With The Stars” pros. They don’t have Kim Kardashian’s butt. Or they have Kim Kardashian’s butt and don’t want it. And now self-doubt has crept in. Are they doing the right thing? They mentioned it to a friend of theirs who insists they are doing the wrong thing. Rather they should be following this protocol, or going to that group class or following this celebrity’s program. Never mind what we have helped them achieve. In 3 months (3 months!) we have not made all their physical and aesthetic issues completely disappear. And now we are having the conversation. And they want answers.

And for a moment, my own self-doubt creeps in. Maybe they are right. Maybe we are doing the wrong things. Maybe we need more dance cardio. Are we doing too many barbell movements? Maybe we train too broad a spectrum of strength qualities and should stick to the high rep, low intensity circuits that are the rage in all the fitness mags.

But then I get hold of myself and slowly and steadily start swimming back to my raft, extending my hand in the hopes they come with me.

I explain to them why what we do works, what they can do to make things work better and remind them of how far they’ve come. But I never get into everything I am about to explain to you here because these are rational, evidence-based concepts and “the conversation” has nothing to do with facts. It is completely based on emotion, insecurity, misinformation, anxiety and the belief that you are not good enough. And when you are dealing with emotions there is no room for facts.

But when you are ready to hear it these are the actual things you can expect to get out of a sound training program. It’s probably not what you think because it’s not what you’ve been sold in the magazines and on Instagram and in supplement ads and on Dr. Oz but in all my years of reading, studying, learning, watching, working and training these are the things I learned to be true. What training actually does (and does not) do for you.

It’s great at building muscle. Training with weights or any other type of resistance is good at building muscle as long as you overload the system – meaning you are using progressively heavier weights, adding more repetitions, etc. so your body is forced to adapt to these demands. This is why pink dumbbell training doesn’t work for long. After a very short while there is nothing forcing your body to do anything. Even if you get tired or your muscles burn in the moment there is no long-term adaptation.

Muscles can get bigger and they can get denser and different protocols will favor one or the other but both usually happen. However muscle growth is a slow process and, unless you are a male going through puberty or you are taking anabolic steroids, it’s not going to be massively noticeable in a few months.

Conversely, training is not that efficient at directly burning fat. So if you are going to the gym in the hopes of burning extra calories in the hour that you are there your efforts are misplaced. The vast majority of your calories are going to be burned by your daily metabolic demands such as breathing, digesting, regulating body temperature and a host of other non-voluntary functions. Daily non-exercise movements such as walking, going downstairs to make coffee, fidgeting and chasing your toddler tend to add up to a larger caloric burn than, barring extreme cases, what you torch in the gym.

However, the caloric demands of non-exercise activities as well as involuntary metabolic processes are greater the more muscle mass you have. This makes perfect sense if you think about it. Muscle is very metabolically active tissue (much more so than, say, fat or bone) so getting it moving and getting it fed with blood and nutrients and hormones and the thousands of other processes your body goes through without you even thinking about it takes energy. Build muscle and you are walking around with greater fat burning potential, which is why resistance training should be at the top of your list of priorities.

Bottom line is this: to get the body you want, you have to strength train. Set aside the fact that you should want a strong, capable body because, I don’t know, you may want to actually do something. But even if your goal is a long, lean, tone or whatever other words you feel comfortable using for getting a ‘not bulky’ body, training with weights should always be included. If you are simply going to the gym because you think it’s the best way to lose weight or burn some extra calories, you are essentially wasting your time.

It helps you move better. We tend to look at the squat as the benchmark measure of movement capability. It’s a critical action that is involved in so many other movements, athletics and life tasks that we’ve placed a high priority on it. Not to say that things such as rotation, locomotion and a whole other host of movements aren’t just as important, they are, but in our setting the squat is something we return to on a weekly basis and it’s easy for us to see progress. I’d argue to say that as a facility we are on the way upper end of the scale in terms of helping people improve their squat. This has not come without a lot of work by our members. Between breathing drills, activations, squatting multiple times per week (whether it’s goblet, back or front) and countless lectures on upper body stiffness and back engagement, balance of weight in the feet and walk-out set up we have placed a lot of effort on getting people squatting and generally moving a lot better. The squat is simply one easy to pinpoint example. And while this does not seem as exciting as having Brad-Pitt-in-Fight-Club-abs, it plays a huge role in, I don’t know, everything you do for the rest of your life. You should appreciate moving well now. You will definitely appreciate moving well later. Don’t be short sighted.

It’s excellent at improving a lot of health factors. Things such as bone density, critical blood markers, hormonal levels and hundreds of other health and wellness factors are improved by training regularly. This is such a massive topic that to start detailing it would lead to the world’s longest blog post, but if you are someone who values your health, training is enormously beneficial. Is there a downside? Yes. Injuries can occur from poor movement patterns, overuse or bad programming. And sometimes accidents can simply happen. Cortisol, the hormone influenced by stress increases greatly after training (training is a stressor, after all) as well as oxidation from muscle breakdown will occur with higher volume training. But these things are mitigated nicely when you follow proper recovery protocols – you know, the complicated stuff like eating and sleeping. Overall, when it comes to risk-reward you are much better off training than not.

You will improve your energy systems. Your aerobic, anaerobic, lactic and alactic systems will all improve if you train them. What this means in oversimplified terms is that you ability to produce a result, whether it’s in a short burst or longer bout, and the way your body handles the subsequent change in body chemistry that occurs from your effort will improve. See, I tried not to be too science-y there and it still got confusing. Okay, maybe examples will help. Things such as dodging a bus as you cross the street, jumping over a puddle, being able to parasail with your teenage son while you are vacationing in Aruba, participating in your company’s 5k and making it down to the bottom of a ski run will all improve when you follow a training program that includes a variety of energy system training throughout a period of time. Even if you do not train those specific tasks, your body will be better suited to handle them than if you didn’t train at all (though specifically training those tasks – like doing several runs before the 5k – will yield the best results).

It will improve your confidence. This is true both in and out of the gym. Certainly as you get better at deadlifting your confidence each time you step up to the bar will get higher. But maybe more importantly, when you are able to achieve things in the gym your confidence in being able to do things outside of it also improve. Do I have a study on this? No. I’m not even sure how you would organize one. But time and time again I have seen people who train regularly thrive in situations where others wilt. Where they themselves would have wilted if faced with the same situation before they started training. The gym is a nice controlled environment where you can see very measurable and objective improvement as long as you record and manage it. Success in these tasks easily carries over to the seemingly unrelated. There has been some research on hormones such as dopamine, adrenaline and a host of others and the role training has on improving them, but, again, that is a huge topic for another blog post written by someone much smarter than me.

OK, so we mostly detailed what training will do of you, but if we are having the conversation I feel it’s nearly if not more important to include what training will not do for you. Here is a short-list of things most people should not expect from training: It will not spot reduce fat off your problem areas. It will not give you the body of this model or that celebrity who has completely different genetic propensity and parents from you. It will not solve problems in other areas of your life if you find yourself hiding in the gym and not addressing those problems. It will not grow your hair back (believe me, I’ve tried) though I do believe that, right now, it is the closest thing we have to the fountain of youth. It will not, in 12 weeks or any other arbitrary time period, solve all the fitness problems that face your body after a lifetime of sitting, drinking, smoking, donuts and the host of other things we as humans tend to do to ourselves. Can you see improvements in 3 months? You’re darn tootin’. But it’s called ‘training’ not ‘miracles’ and the goal should be to improve a number of factors that enrich your life. How you look in a bikini is only one of them.

There’s another great scene in Castaway. Where Tom Hanks is awoken from sleep to realize the FedEx plane he is on is about to crash in the ocean. If you’ve seen the movie I’m sure you remember it. After the plane hits the water and explodes into pieces we see Tom floating away on a lifeboat. Ultimately, we learn that no one else survived. This can be you. You can be Tom Hanks. You can survive the burning wreckage that is fitness-media bullshit. You can engage in a real, progressive training program that actually gets you where you want to go. And just like Hanks, I am sure you will feel like you are all alone on a deserted island as your friends sweat away, hopping from class to class but ultimately getting nowhere. But eventually, and it won’t be easy, you will find dry land. And crab legs and cheering crowds and Helen Hunt and that hot country chick in the truck who paints wings on boxes will all be waiting for you.

But, until then, I guess we’ll keep talking.