Diets, Training Programs, Trolling, and Religion

We all see bizarre events taking place on a daily basis. Half squats are performed above parallel in running shoes and low carb/fat/protein/GMO/meat/ingredient/everything-you-can-possibly-think-of diets are promoted as the “best diet” or “healthiest diet” out there. Round back deadlifts are praised and we all know the guy who leg presses the entire stack of plates with his girlfriend on top. Good coaches, bad coaches, healthy diets, unhealthy diets, proper form, improper form, the list is endless. What do all these things have in common? They all have a different definition depending on who you ask.

This article is not about “right” and “wrong” or about “good” and “bad.” This purpose of this article is to provide some insight as to why people do things despite evidence to the contrary. I am not the type of person to make New Year’s Resolutions, but every year, at some point between January and March, I invariably come up with some sort of change I would like to make and I ultimately commit and follow through with that change. The complete shift may not happen in one calendar year but progress is usually made and continues for years to come. This year the bad habit I wanted to kick was trolling. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, trolling refers to communicating negatively about a topic that you disagree with. This could include a person, diet, exercise, political affiliation, religion, shoe size, jock strap brand, you name it.

We all put in time, effort, and energy into mastering our craft and learning what to do and what not to do. This is useful, productive, and essential to the evolution of human existence. However, one thing that happens in our perfectionistic pursuit of achievement is that we begin noticing things that we have discovered were “less than perfect” along the way. Like the superheroes we all secretly aspire to be, we want to immediately shun these things out of existence in our pursuit for justice and a better planet.

After making this informal resolution to stop trolling, I attended ASU’s 11th Annual Building Healthy Lifestyles Conference, which I also helped organized. The theme this year was “Nutrition Facts, Fads, and Fallacies.” There were several well regarded researchers in the areas of Exercise Science and Nutrition, with the topics and research falling within these areas. All except 1: Religion. Wait, what? Did you just say Religion? Well, yes I did and trust me this is not a solicitation. Dr. Alan Levinovitz, Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Religion at James Madison University and author of The Gluten Lie spoke to us about religion. His discussion was not about a particular religion, but about how nutrition and exercise beliefs closely resemble religious beliefs. As someone who published material debunking myths and was speaking at a conference of this very theme, he enlightened me with his experiences. He told a story where he read about a diet fad and could not wait to write an article to rip it apart. Following publication of his analysis, he came to learn that people actually hated it; except his followers of course. He informed the crowd that he was essentially preaching to the choir and that those who believed the myth viewed him negatively and disregarded his analysis.

If I had a penny for how many times I have observed this phenomenon I would be writing this article from Stark Tower. We all have that relative, friend, or coworker who has told us that some food, nutrient, or training program is “the best” or “the worst” for you. We typically bite our tongues, nod our heads, and continue along the way. We watch this person spend exorbitant amounts of money on products, special foods, services, etc. and nothing we say can ever change his or her opinion. Even when the diet starts affecting his or her physical state, the reasons are usually attributed to everything except the diet. The same is also observed in the gym. How many of us who have trained at commercial gyms see the same “morning crew” (or evening) on the stairclimber, with the same weight loss goal, and still weighing more or less the same. They may have even seen you, years after you ventured away from this environment, displaying the results of your hard work. This could be in the form of lifting heavier weights, losing body fat, or gaining muscle mass. Even after demonstrating that you have achieved your goals using an effective method, the most you might get is “wow that’s so great” and then they will continue with the same stair climber routine they have been following for years. We all know that nothing we say will ever change the minds of these people. The question that still remains is: Why?

While we will never really know the exact mechanism, there is one explanation that makes sense to me. Dr. Robert Cialdini, social psychologist and Professor Emeritus at Arizona State University, calls this the “Principle of Consistency.” This principle states that we as people develop a habit and need to be consistent in the things that we do. As a result, we develop the habit of being automatically consistent even in situations where it does not suit our best interests. Once we make up our minds about issues, decisions, and beliefs, stubborn consistency kicks in and allows us the luxury of no longer having to think about them. We no longer have to disassemble and organize these things in order to identify relevant facts. We simply just need to be consistent with our earlier decision. This is an efficient and convenient “shortcut” to process human thought. We surely don’t want to have to spend an hour trying to figure out if using a toilet is the best way to “go the bathroom” or worse if we should even go to the bathroom. However, this can become a problem when we find ourselves following ineffective programs for several years despite the lack of results.
In his book, Influence: Science and Practice, Dr. Cialdini tells of a story where he attended a Transcendental Meditation seminar in which two young men presented on the benefits of Transcendental Meditation. They made claims that Transcendental Meditation would provide benefits that ranged from “inner peace” to the ability to fly and pass through walls. He attended this seminar along with an academic colleague to observe the tactics used to sell these ideas, or in his terminology, obtain compliance. During the lecture, his colleague became restless and annoyed. During the Q&A session he raised his hand and proceeded to provide a logical explanation as to why everything that was said was complete and utter BS. The speakers, unable to defend themselves, acknowledged his points and simply responded that further study was needed.
The most interesting part of this story occurred after the event. Dr. Cialdini and his colleague observed the attendees lining up to make payments for admission into the program. Baffled, they thought that perhaps his colleague’s points were too complex for the audience to understand. However, shortly after, two attendees approached them and asked them why they attended the seminar. They gave an honest explanation and then asked the two attendees what their reasoning was. To their surprise, the attendees explained that they initially had no intention of spending money because they were broke. However, when Dr. Cialidini’s colleague made his arguments they stated that they were afraid that they would go home, think about his arguments, and never buy admission into the Transcendental Meditation program! This sounds illogical and crazy but the need to be consistent with their past beliefs and decisions triumphed over any logical explanation that challenged them.
So where does leave us in an industry full of misinformation? Do we just stop sharing our knowledge with the world because nobody is going to believe us? On the contrary, we continue to share our knowledge with the world just as I have here. This brings me back to Dr. Levinovitz’s presentation back in March. The closing statement really hit home and further fueled my own commitment, and yes, need for consistency, to stop trolling those I disagree with. “Do not try to convince people to change their minds, rather share information and leave it up them to decide what they want to do with it.”

The Role of Strength In Bodybuilding

It’s June 1st, you’re an 18 year old male, and just graduated high school.  You are no longer participating in competitive endurance sports and have experienced off season weight gain in the past.  The difference this time is that there will not be another season.  This is because you are not athletically gifted and still perform at a mediocre level despite the years of hard work you’ve put in.  You do, however, possess a passion and love for physical activity.  You know that you need to do something to “stay in shape,” “be healthy,” or “look good naked.”  So you pop open a copy of Men’s Fitness or check out bodybuilding.com to see what needs to be done to achieve these things.  You look at the cover of Muscular Development and decide that those guys are “too big” or “too freakish” and you’d be completely satisfied looking more like the a fitness model.

So one of the first things you learn about bodybuilders is that they don’t concern themselves with the amount of weight lifted and focus more on the number of reps completed and the number of sets and exercises per muscle group.  They train muscle groups because their focus is on aesthetics.  You even read that bodybuilders are weaker than powerlifters despite having much larger muscles.   Upon looking in the mirror or taking photos you come to the conclusion that although you don’t want to look like a bodybuilder, these fitness models still have larger muscles than you do, weigh more than you do, and are leaner than your are. It’s only logical that you need to build muscle so therefore you should train like someone whose focus is to build muscle.  After all your buddy with the 17″ arms trains like a bodybuilder and he looks good.  Once this realization sets in,you select a program that is composed of both single and multi joint (hopefully) exercises and keep the repetitions between 8 and 12 repetitions.

This is where things get interesting.  For the sake of this discussion, lets assume our case study above is 5’9″ 160 lbs and 17% body fat.  He is a former high school runner with average performance metrics and has a standing vertical jump of 24.”  Based on this data, he has somewhere around 130-135 lbs of lean body mass at baseline.  It’s unlikely that he will ever be a 200 lb, 9% body fat lifter despite what he may have read on the internet.  In short, the more muscle you start out with the more you will likely finish with.

So our hypothetical case study isn’t very big, isn’t very explosive, and isn’t very lean.  Now let’s talk about strength.  This fellow is going to start his workouts doing 8s and 10s having never lifted weights before.  Since the topic is strength lets put the isolation work aside and discuss what happens with the big lifts.  For the sake of illustration and keeping my bro card intact we’ll use the bench press as an example.   This young man starts out bench pressing the bar for 10 and since he is a novice and can progress very rapidly (“The Novice Effect” or “Newbe Gainz”) and in 6 months he may be benching 95 x 10 for 3 or 4 sets (hell let’s be optimistic and say he’s benching 115).  His squat may be 135 x 10 and his deadlift might be the same or higher.  Eventually this young man hits a wall and “orbits” a 95-115 lb bench for reps.  He continues doing his isolation work on top of the compounds and realizes his body isn’t changing much beyond the first couple months.  So he program hops for years on end with no real visible change in his physique or his strength.  He tries different diets and always ends up getting fat with no real change in the appearance of his muscles.  He’s skinny fat whether he weighs 195 or 165.

So without getting overly scientific here, lets look at the fact that hes benching less than 135 for reps after several years of “lifting weights.” Yes, these guys exist.  Now for those of you who aren’t aware there was a friendly competition between Tom Platz and Fred Hatfield back in the 80s.  Tom was known for having the biggest wheels in bodybuilding due to his impressive leg development and Fred was known for being the first man to squat 1000 lbs.  In this competition Tom’s 1-repetition maximum was 765 lbs and Fred’s was 855 lbs.  After this, a 525 lb AMRAP (as many reps as possible) followed where Tom completed 23 repetitions and Fred completed 11 repetitions.  The conclusion was obvious: the bodybuilder had more muscular endurance and the powerlifter had more maximal strength.  Whats the problem here though?  THEY BOTH SQUATTED OVER 700 LBS FOR A MAX AND REPPED OUT 525 LBS FOR >10 REPS!!!!!!!  Its safe to say they are both strong men and I’ll extend that statement by saying that they are far stronger than the vast majority of the male species.  Can you say the same for yourself?  The vast majority of individuals reading these articles for help fit the demographic of my hypothetical case study and this information simply does not apply to them.

Now what do we do with this information?  Well we all know a guy who walks in the gym and benches 225 or more for several reps or squats and deadlifts 300-400 lbs with minimal training experience.  He may very well be from Eastern Europe and have delts the size of grapefruits.  He may very well benefit from training like a bodybuilder because he is strong to begin with.  In fact, I was having a discussion about this very topic with one of the gym owners at my gym a few months back.  He stated that he benefited from training in the hypertrophy range when he started out.  I followed up his statement by asking what his first deadlift was.  His response:  365 for reps.   Get the idea?

The rest of us humans who have experienced struggling to lift the empty bar need to add a step into the process.  That step is called getting stronger.   Instead of pluggin away at 95 lb sets of 10, doing your 5s and adding a little weight to the bar every time will go a lot further at this stage.  Size will accompany the strength initially because of “The Novice Effect.”  The Novice Effect is a phrase used by Mark Rippetoe that refers to the process in which an untrained human grows both larger and stronger muscles rapidly by simply introducing a training stimulus and progressively overloading.  Following a simple linear progression comprised of Squats, Overhead Press, Deadlifts, Bench Press, and Power Cleans will accomplish this efficiently.  The specifics of this is outlined in the book Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training 3rd Edition.  If you want to know the full details of how to perform and program these lifts, buy a copy and read it like the rest of us.

As a Starting Strength Coach, this is where I start the vast majority of my lifters and it seems to work well to provide a foundation of strength so they can get more out of their sport, activities of daily life, or whatever it is they need the strength for. For our purposes, this strength is to be used for bodybuilding. Now let’s go back to our hypothetical lifter and use his bench press as an example.  He is currently benching 110 x 10 for 3 sets.  He comes to see me and I determine his best set of 5 is 130.  Would you argue that pushing his 130 x 5 to 225 x 5 would not result in a visible change?   This result is not unusual provided the lifter eats, sleeps, and microloads his bench press.  For the sake of argument let’s say his pecs don’t grow (which is highly unlikely) and he needs more specialized work.  He can now produce 225 lbs of force when he performs a barbell bench press.  Its safe to say he can probably lift more than he previously could on dumbbell flyes, dumbbell bench presses, and cable and machine exercises.  He can also probably bench press 185 for 3 sets of 10 instead of 130 lbs.   Let’s also acknowledge that this young man is now squatting and deadlifting 300-400 lbs for sets of 5, meaning he can rep out a bit more than 135 for reps now.

Where does this leave us now?  Layne Norton once said “I never saw a guy who can squat 500 for reps with skinny legs.”  In short, those born in the Marvel Universe can dive right into bodybuilding specific work and benefit early on.  The rest of us humans that can barely move the empty bar on the first day are better served getting stronger first. In other words, bodybuilding works better when you are strong. So pick up a bar,  do your 5s, add weight, and repeat :).