The Angry Trainer
by Tony Gentilcore
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I'm Pissed Off
In a society where we're led to believe that eating under 1000 calories per day will lead to the best weight loss, or where "working out" for only 20 minutes three times per week will result in a body resembling a fitness model's, or where Ben Affleck is considered to be a good actor, it's no wonder people aren't making the progress they'd hoped for. And that pisses me off.
Day in and day out, people start a diet or head to the gym on a mission to get a lean, strong, and healthy looking body. More often than not, their efforts are sabotaged by false information from mainstream magazines, books, television shows, infomercials, and "experts" in the fitness industry.
People are very eager to follow training/nutritional advice from the most obscure and random sources. As a result, many end up fatter, slower, weaker, and unfortunately, hurt. I'm not a know-it-all, but I have a fair idea of what works and what doesn't.
I built my body with weights, but I'm shilling for this shitty contraption maker anyway so I can afford only the best conditioner for my ponytail.
Below are a few of the more bizarre and downright absurd things that I hear on a daily basis, either in the popular media, around the gym, or as recommended by clueless personal trainers to their even more clueless clients. To prevent me from climbing a clock tower with a rifle, please allow me to vent a little about each as I offer up some better alternatives.
Absurdity #1: "Avoid carbohydrates at all costs. They're evil and will make you fat." [Excerpt from any number of top selling diet books]
Listen, the diet industry goes in cycles. In the 80s and 90s, experts spouted off about the dangers of dietary fat and advocated diets higher in carbohydrates. The premise was stupidly simple, but mostly just stupid: if you don't eat fat, you won't get fat. Hello obesity epidemic and endless Anna Nicole Smith jokes!
Now all those same experts are advocating diets low in carbs, saying that most carbohydrates should be avoided at all costs. Right, it's the fruit making us fat! It couldn't possibly be the fact that we as a society are too lazy to walk up a flight of stairs or that we spend the majority of our day in front of a television! Nor could it be the fact that we stuff our faces with food any chance we get.
Think about it. Just about every major holiday revolves around a huge feast: Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays, anniversaries, 4th of July, the Super Bowl, and National Steak and BJ Day just to name a few. People will take any and every opportunity to eat like shit. And not just a little shit, but mountains of shit. An entire Pikes Peak of shit. Plus dessert.
Now, carbohydrates do play a part in the battle against the bulge, and they do have something to do with the increased incidence of type II diabetes among adults and children. But it really comes down to people not exercising enough and overeating in general.
However, I'm a firm believer that the types of carbohydrates you ingest and the times during the day when you eat them can make all the difference in the world. Here's the Cliffs Notes version of what's good and what's bad:
Good: 100% rolled oats, various fruits and vegetables, whole grain breads, sweet potatoes/yams, brown rice, whole grain cereals (Fiber One, Bran Flakes, Shredded Wheat), and whole grain pasta (wheat, spinach, etc.).
Hey, Atkins freak, these ain't bad for you, even in the "induction" phase!
Bad: White bread, bagels, high sugar foods, baked goods, pizza, fruit juice, soda, cereal bars, canned fruit, anything made with high-fructose corn syrup, and pretty much every other carbohydrate source that makes up the typical American diet.
Tsk, tsk, tsk.
Eating a cup of oatmeal for breakfast isn't the same as eating a cinnamon-raisin bagel from your local bakery. Most bagels you buy from a bakery yield around 500 calories of highly processed white flour with little to no fiber and will raise your insulin levels sky high.
One cup of oatmeal yields 300 calories with eight grams of protein and ten grams of fiber, both of which will slow down gastric emptying and control blood-glucose levels. Not to mention, one cup of oatmeal is going to fill you up and satiate you for much longer than the bagel ever would — a great thing to consider, especially for those individuals who are prone to overeating later on in the day.
Okay, so a bagel may taste better than a bowl of oatmeal. Fine, keep your fat ass then. Die young. Never see a member of the opposite sex naked outside the Internet and HBO. Cry yourself to sleep at night, tubby. Hope that tasty bagel and similar foods are worth it to you!
Now, the time of day you ingest your carbohydrates will play a huge role as well. Eating a large bowl of cereal at night when you're doing nothing but listening to Paula Abdul whine on American Idol isn't the smartest thing to do. However, save that same bowl of cereal and eat it after an intense training session and those carbohydrates are going to be put to good use. Simply put, you'll "use them and not wear them."
Generally speaking, nutrient timing (in this case, carbohydrate timing) pays huge dividends in terms of how your body will metabolize and partition certain foods at specific times. Learning when these times are can make a vast difference when it comes to body composition changes.
Carbohydrates do serve a purpose and should be a part of your diet, especially if you're involved in any type of regular physical activity that includes a healthy dose of resistance training and high(er) intensity cardiovascular training (sorry, walking on a treadmill doesn't count). It's just a matter of learning the right types and optimal times to ingest them.
So please, put back the diarrhea-inducing Atkins chocolate bar and pick up an apple. You'll be okay, I promise.
Absurdity #2: "To get firm abs, just do 500 crunches per day. Better yet, buy my worthless ab gizmo, the one being demonstrated here by this lipo-sucked professional bimbo who's never even used it until today but got hired anyway because I'm nailin' her." [Taken from a variety of late night infomercials and ever so slightly embellished]
This one is easy.
1) It's your diet, stupid. I'm confronted almost every day by someone asking me what abdominal exercises they should be doing to get a six-pack. And each time I retort with "fix your diet," I hear nothing but crickets chirping.
They're dumbfounded that it could be something that "simple." Granted, it's not quite that simple, but I like to put things into perspective for them. We've all heard that in order to burn fat you have to provide some sort of caloric deficit. You can either do this by performing countless reps of crunches or by just not eating those five Oreos on your way home from work. Which sounds easier?
You can perform all the crunches and various ab exercises you want in the hopes of yielding a six-pack, but if your diet isn't in order, you'll never look forward to swimsuit season. Want to know the best abdominal exercise known to man, one that's guaranteed to yield results? It's called the "push-away method." When you're sitting at the dinner table and you feel like you've had enough to eat, simply push yourself away. Just watch out for the dog underneath the chair.
2) Doing anything over twelve reps does not build strength. You don't see many trainees in the gym performing 100 repetition sets for squats to build their strength, do you? If you're one of those people who's performing endless sets of crunches or other ab exercises to build strength, you're wasting your time.
At best, doing so will produce local muscle endurance and a mild increase in strength and lean muscle in the initial few weeks of training. After that, only your ability to perform more reps will increase, certainly not strength.
The sad fact? Someone is a millionaire for inventing this piece of crap.
Absurdity #3: "Doing sit-ups with the knees bent reduces lower back stress by inhibiting the hip flexors, plus it reduces lumbar stress."
Actually, the hip flexors (namely the psoas) are never fully inactive during any form of sit-up. Regardless, I see countless trainers having their clients do sit-ups with their knees elevated, the theory being that the psoas is realigned to reduce compressive loading on the lumbar spine.
In his book, Ultimate Back Fitness and Performance, Dr. Stuart McGill put this theory to the test and concluded that, "... the psoas did not change its line of action, nor could it, since it is attached to each vertebral body and transverse process."
Bending the knees may help reduce some of the stretch on the sciatic nerves running down the legs, but it does nothing mechanically to prevent the hip flexors from getting involved because the hip flexors don't cross the knee joint! Instead, promoting hip flexion (which has been shown to help reduce, not eliminate lumbar stress) would be the proper approach. Reverse crunches are a perfect example.
If anything, people need to focus more on strengthening their back to prevent lumbar injuries, as well as learning how to prevent excessive lumbar rotation. Do the abdominals play a key role in preventing lower back injuries? Absolutely. Especially when you consider the fact that the key role of the abs is stabilization. However, correct me if I'm wrong, but it's the erector spinae that directly supports the spine, not your abdominals.
Yet walk into most gyms and you'll see the majority of trainees performing various crunches in order to "strengthen their lower back." Needless to say, if you're consciously making an effort to incorporate movements such as deadlifts, squats, standing presses, bentover rows, and full range back extensions, you will not only strengthen your back, but get more than enough abdominal strength as well.
Absurdity #4: "In order to lose a pound of fat, subtract 500 calories from your current diet per day for a week."
The premise is simple. One pound of fat equates to approximately a 3500 calorie surplus. If someone were to subtract 500 kcals from their diet per day for a week (500 kcals x 7 days per week), they would elicit a 3500 calorie deficit for the week and shed a pound of fat.
Does this approach work? Yes. Does it work in the long-term? No. The main problem with this approach is that people take it too far. They subtract 500 kcals from their diet and will make decent progress, and then all of a sudden nothing happens. They go into panic mode and restrict calories even further, lose a tiny bit more, and then hit another plateau. And the vicious cycle continues. Before you know it, you have people taking in sub-1000 calories daily in the hopes of burning more body fat.
Your body is smarter than you. It doesn't realize that when you restrict calories you're doing so to look good nekid. It views the caloric deficit as going into "starvation mode" and it'll take precautions to preserve energy by reducing many of the hormones involved with metabolic rate (T3, T4, leptin, gherlin, etc.).
As a result, the bulk of calories coming in will be stored and used for life sustaining functions such as heart rate, breathing, and CNS activity. The last thing on the "to do" checklist for the body is burning fat. On the contrary, it'll try to keep as much body fat as possible to preserve energy.
Instead of using the cookie cutter approach of subtracting 500 kcals per day that most tend to advocate, people should just try to subtract 10-20% from their maintenance caloric intake. This way, larger individuals take a bigger "hit" than smaller individuals as far as cutting calories is concerned. For instance, take a 200 pound male and compare that to a 110 pound female:
Maintenance caloric intake for 200 pound male = 3000 kcals per day
Maintenance caloric intake for 110 pound female = 1650 kcals per day
* For simplicity sake, I used total body weight x 15.
Subtract 500 calories from each and you get the following:
200 Pound Male = 2500 kcals. Still quite a bit a food and definitely "doable." Take it a step further and subtract another 500 calories (which most people will inevitably do anyway), and you have 2000 kcals per day.
He'll probably be hungry, but certainly not causing too much damage as far as his metabolism is concerned. And as long as he's getting sufficient protein and still training with some intensity, he shouldn't have to worry about losing much, if any, lean muscle mass.
110 Pound Female = 1150 kcals. This is a 30% drop compared to only 17% for the male above. Not a lot of food by any means. Subtract 500 more and she'll be taking in 650 to 800 kcals per day, which is breakfast for most people.
I see this a lot when I analyze the diets of female clients. It never ceases to amaze me how they're able to survive on such low caloric intakes for such long periods of time. Metabolic rate is going to plummet, lean muscle mass will be broken down/lost, she'll probably feel like crap all the time (like we men need another reason to dodge a woman's wrath), and she'll be frustrated when she still can't drop body fat.
So you can see why this approach just isn't conducive for most people and how it places "smaller" individuals at a disadvantage. Now let's look at my preferred approach:
200 Pound Male: Subtract 20% from maintenance of 3000 kcals = 2400 (deficit of 600 kcals)
110 Pound Female: Subtract 20% from maintenance of 1650 kcals = 1350 (deficit of 300 kcals)
As you can see, the male takes a much larger chunk (double actually) out of his caloric intake than the female, which makes sense because he's basically double her size. With this approach, smaller individuals aren't "punished" and take less of a hit as far as subtracting total calories is concerned.
Factor in caloric expenditure through training and/or NEPA (Non-Exercise Physical Activity) and you'll soon realize that you don't necessarily need to provide a huge deficit through restriction of food alone. Subtracting 10-20% off of maintenance is usually more than enough to get the process started.
Absurdity #5: "Machines are safer than free-weights." [According to 90% of personal trainers and 100% of people whose business it is to sell gyms machines]
Some of the exercises I see trainers have their clients perform amaze me. And by "amaze me" I mean "make me want to gouge my eyes out with a David Hasselhoff action figure."
I often question where some trainers get their information or whether or not they actually have any concept of functional anatomy and took the time to evaluate their client for musculoskeletal imbalances and/or weaknesses. Then I wonder if they can even pronounce "musculoskeletal imbalances." Or "client."
I've been in some gyms where I see trainers use nothing but machines with their clients under the assumption that doing so is safer. Listen, any movement or exercise can be dangerous if done with improper form and with a load you can't handle, regardless of whether or not you're using a machine or free-weights. And I also think that every exercise has its place.
However, it's rather presumptuous, not to mention foolish, to proclaim that machines are inherently safer than their free-weight/compound counterparts. That being said, below are some of the more popular machines and movements that trainees use along with what I feel are better alternatives.
1. Bench Dips
This movement targets the triceps and is often recommended to take the place of regular dips. I see this exercise being done almost on a daily basis. Unfortunately, performing this movement maximally internally rotates the humerus, which drastically decreases the subacromial space which can lead to impingement syndrome. (Translation: You'll get an ouchie.) Not a good scenario, especially for those prone to shoulder injuries.
Better Alternative: Board Presses
Ask any powerlifter what movement builds massive triceps and he'll more than likely respond with, "Boy, you need to eat!" But then he'll proceed to do a 500 pound five-board press for reps.
Board presses are great in that they allow you to train your lockout and "feel" what it's like to hold a lot of weight. They don't put nearly as much stress on the glenohumeral joint and they build massive triceps.
2. Hip Abductor/Adductor Machines
Why anyone would want to train stabilizing muscles in a fixed line of motion is beyond me. Training adduction or abduction alone ignores several key roles of muscles. Very few muscles have only one function, so it's silly to force them into a single plane of motion.
In short, the machines don't work very well and can lead to injury. If you're female, they're only good for aggressive hoo-ha display. If you're male and use these machines, well then, you know all the words and hand motions to "YMCA," don't you?
Well, I guess there is ONE good use.
Better Alternative: Unilateral Work
Developing single leg (unilateral) strength would be ideal here. It's important to take into account that single-leg strength is highly specific and can't be developed through bilateral exercises alone (squats, deadlifts). The actions of the pelvic stabilizers are different in a single-leg stance compared to a double-leg stance. Unilateral work will automatically force you to recruit both your hip adductors and hip abductors simultaneously, which will not only have a huge carryover to athletic events, but will also go a long ways in preventing many nagging injuries.
Developing single leg strength will also help you learn to stabilize in the frontal and transverse planes, which will yield increased kinesthetic awareness and proprioception. For a great rundown of the importance of lower body unilateral work and the various movements you can implement into your training, read Single Leg Supplements.
3. Leg Curls
When it comes to the posterior chain (more specifically hamstring/glute) development, many trainees and trainers are missing the boat entirely. When you look at the function of the hamstrings, they serve two main purposes: knee flexion and hip extension.
Clearly, when you watch most people train, the majority of their hamstring work entails knee flexion (leg curls). List for me one sport or single event that you do in everyday life that requires you to curl a weight up to your butt in a prone position? Training your hamstrings predominantly through knee-flexion trains them in a "non-functional" manner and isn't a great use of training efficiency, especially for athletes.
Better Alternative: Deadlift Variations
As far as running, jumping, and 99.9% of athletic events are concerned, your hamstrings and glutes serve primarily as hip extensors and should be trained as such. Additionally, you should try to train straight-leg hip extension, as well as bent-leg hip extension (since the hamstrings cross both the hip and the knee joints).
Needless to say, there are many options to choose from, but some of my favorites are deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, supine leg curls into hip extension (on Swiss ball), one-legged back extension, and one-legged Romanian deadlift:
4. Back Extension
The lumbar discs are most commonly damaged or injured during spinal flexion movements. As Dr. McGill has pointed out on several occasions, "Spinal injury during occupational and athletic endeavors involve cumulative trauma from repetitive magnitude loads. Injury is a result of accumulated trauma produced either by repeated application of a relatively low load or the application of a sustained load for a long duration."
This is never more apparent than when you walk into an office building and observe employees in front of their computers with slouched shoulders and rounded backs. Breaking these aberrant motor patterns is crucial as far as correcting your posture is concerned, as well as helping to prevent future lumbar spine issues. You can spend an hour in the gym fixing things, only to screw it all up with the other 23 hours in the day.
First and foremost, you must be more cognizant of your posture during the day. I generally see a lot of clients who work in an office setting and as a result have very kyphotic postures. Outside of telling them to keep their chest up, scapula back, and performing various corrective static stretches throughout the day, one great exercise I have them perform is a simple thoracic extension movement on a foam roller:
I can't stress enough how crucial it is that people be more aware of their everyday posture. Remember, more often than not, it's cumulative spinal flexion that results in horrible posture and back pain. Taking precautions to break many of those motor patterns you've developed over the years should be your first step in correcting posture and preventing back pain in general.
That being said, I still see numerous trainers put their clients on a back extension machine. What a novel idea. Let's take a person with a history of lower back pain and put them on a machine where they'll engage in not only repetitive flexion, but loaded flexion and place a ton of compressive force on their spine! Every time I see someone using this machine, whether they have a history of back problems or not, I just shake my head.
Better Alternative: Integrated Rehabilitation
I'd rather see people use an integrated "rehabilitation" program that emphasizes trunk stabilization through exercises with a neutral spine while stressing mobility in the hips and knees. Furthermore, focusing more on gluteal activation will go a long way in terms of helping to alleviate lower back pain, as a lot of the recent research has stressed that people "forget" how to use their glutes.
The following are some great suggestions that I picked up from physical therapist Michael Hope that undoubtedly meet all these criteria:
1. Prone Bridge
Key points to remember: brace abs, squeeze glutes (keep a posterior pelvic tilt), and prevent your hips from sinking too much.
2. Side Bridge
Key points: Again, brace the abdominals, squeeze your glutes, and don't let your hips sink too much.
3. Bridge with Rotation: Although it doesn't look it, this is a rather advanced movement. There should be no rotation of the hips at all and the spine should stay neutral the entire time.
Master this progression for bridging, then perform cable woodchops.
Quadruped Position (Birddog)
To get into this position, simply get down on your hands and knees (hands directly below shoulders and knees directly below hips). Brace the abdominals, squeeze your glutes, and maintain a neutral spine.
1. Leg Only
2. Arm and Leg
3. Arm and Leg (No Touchdown): Same as above, except neither the arm nor leg will touch the ground.
This is a great exercise for teaching someone how to prevent excessive lumbar rotation while keeping a neutral spine.
1. Push-up (wide stance)
2. Push-up (close stance): Same as above, except the stance is narrower.
3. Hands/Feet In Line: Same as above, except hands and feet are in line.
These are just a few simple progressions you can take to help alleviate or even prevent lumbar spine pain. All are better alternatives than a back extension machine!
And I'm Spent
That was just the tip of the iceberg. The fitness industry is full of smoke and mirrors, and as a result, many people are often left with less than optimal results. Hopefully I was able to shed some light on some of the more absurd things I've come across in the mainstream media, as well as debunk some of the ridiculous things I hear coming out of the mouths of many of the so-called "experts."
These are just my opinions and I certainly don't expect everyone to agree with me. But I'm sticking to my guns when it comes to Ben Affleck.
About the Author
Tony Gentilcore is a certified personal trainer through the NSCA located in Southwestern Connecticut. His expertise lies in body recomposition and nutrition as well as educating his clients on the best and most efficient ways to obtain their goals. He can be contacted at [email protected].
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