Competition vs Health

For every position we have an opposing position. In any sporting event there are athletes that compete and there are also individuals that play the sport for fun. This is the case in basketball, baseball, hockey, and even American football. Do you train these recreational players the same way you’d train an NBA, MLB, NHL, or NFL star? I suppose that we could and I’m sure people have but let’s put outliers and extreme cases aside and look at the question from a general standpoint. A parent of 4, who works a 9-5 desk job is not going to practice basketball for the same number of hours or even use the same methods as Lebron James for various reasons, with the most obvious being the time commitment. To add to this, since our theoretical parent is working a 9-5 he/she most likely lacks the athletic endowment to perform the same movements that King James can produce otherwise he/she would be in the NBA/WNBA. Recruiters are pretty good at snagging these folks before Corporate America gets their paws on them. The same can be said for all other sports. So why would strength training be any different?  Would we expect our hypothetical working class parent to train like Ed Coan?

Let’s begin by defining some terms. A competition is an event or a contest in which individuals or groups of individuals, or animals, perform an activity that is scored against other individuals or groups of individuals. The individual or group of individuals with the highest score wins. A competitor is an individual who performs an activity with the primary purpose of being scored and evaluated in competition. Training is physical activity performed with a longer term goal in mind, with the respective workouts designed in a way to produce that goal. This is not to be confused with exercise, which is physical activity performed for the purpose of “just doing it.” My client and buddy Karl trains for four hours in his garage, can bench press more than most can squat, and competes in Powerlifting competitions. He is a competitor and this does not mean that you need to do the same nor does it mean that I will ask you to do the same should you enlist my services. Some competitors compete because they want to win, some compete to drive their scores up for personal reasons, some do it entirely for the experience of competing. As a general rule, most competitors seek to improve over time, meaning that they must continue to train in a way that drives improvement over time. This is the main point to take away from this.

In my industry the sports that I deal with are Powerlifting, Olympic Weightlifting, Bodybuilding, and Men and Women’s Physique. Since all of these sports involve some type of resistance training it is fair to call them strength sports. All things equal, most individuals competing in these sports end up getting stronger over time. The main difference is the modalities used and rate of strength increase.

So how do we perform better at strength sports? We train more over time. We lift more weight, we perform more sets, and we add more repetitions. In short, we continue to push our bodies beyond our homeostatic set points to continue driving the desired adaptation. Powerlifters train more over time to improve 1-repetition maximum (1-RM) on their squat, bench press, and deadlift, Weightlifters do the same to add to their Snatch and Clean & Jerk, and Bodybuilders and Physique competitors do this to add more lean body mass and/or reduce their body fat lower each time they get on stage. Are you seeing the trend yet? In short, competitive individuals have to do more to do more. Initially, the more we do the bigger and stronger we get and it happens in a quick linear fashion. Mark Rippetoe refers to this as “the Novice Effect,” which states that untrained humans that are far removed from their genetic potential will adapt and improve faster than those approaching their genetic potential. Over time this linearity becomes nonlinear and we end up reaching a point of diminishing returns.

During this time a few things happen. The time commitment, level of complexity required for the desired adaptations, and, most notable, our risk of injury all increase. It starts as a low risk game of craps and over time graduates to high stakes roulette the further we go down the rabbit hole. Does this mean that competitive sports are unhealthy? The answer to the questions is: it depends. More on this later. What this does mean is that competitive sports become less healthy over time due to the increased demands that come with advancing further along on the adaptation curve. The decision to continue driving adaptation is ultimately up to the athlete. There is no right or wrong here, there are simply risks, benefits, and informed decisions. A well informed athlete knows what he/she is getting involved in and will either accept the risks or not. It is not up to anybody else to make that decision.


So what is health? This is a term that has various definitions by various organizations. For this article I’m going to go with the World Health Orgnaization’s (WHO) definition of “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” In short, we will think of health as our body’s ability to function well mentally, physically, and socially. Since I’m in the business of improving health through nutrition and physical activity, we will focus on those aspects of health in this discussion.

Now that we have established reasons that competitors train, let us discuss why non-athletic populations train and/or exercise. Physical activity is something that humans have been doing since Paleolithic times. Primitive life required physical fitness for hunting and gathering as well as long trips to visit other tribes, family, and friends. Over time humans evolved and the need for physical activity to perform daily duties declined. However, its role in our health has not changed.

The history of physical activity and the prevention and/or management of chronic disease dates back centuries. A classic story is that of Dr. William Herbeden’s description of Angina Pectoris in 1768. For those of you who are unaware, Angina Pectoris refers to chest pain (angina (n) – pain, pectoris (n) – chest). In his paper he described instances of individuals complaining of pain in the breast, which sometimes shot into the arm. During this period he had no idea what caused it and knew even less about how to treat it. He stated that some individuals reported symptoms while walking up hill, standing up or sitting down. At the end of his paper, he shared some interesting insights on possible treatment options. Dr Herbeden’s closing paragraph is as follows:

“With respect to the treatment of this complaint, I have little or nothing to advance: Nor indeed is it to be expected we should have made much progress in the cure of a disease, which has hitherto hardly had a place or a name in medical books. Quiet and warmth, and spirtuous liquors, help restore patients who are nearly exhausted, and to dispel the effects of a fit when it does not soon go off. Opium taken at bed-time will prevent the attacks at night. I knew one who set himself a task of sawing wood for half an hour every day, and was nearly cured. In one also the disorder ceased of itself.Bleeding, vomiting, and purging, appear to me to be improper.”

Notice the bolded sentence there. Sawing wood is what is now considered moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA), which is also known to work well in both prevention and management of heart disease! With that said, it is now common knowledge that physical activity improves health. The man in the paper performed his MVPA by sawing wood. In present day, people run, lift weights, surf, cycle, hike, climb mountains, and ski. I happen to like lifting weights using barbell as do those who enlist in my services, so the remainder of this discussion will be focused on barbell training.

From a health standpoint, properly performed barbell training increases muscle mass, bone mineral density, muscular strength, balance, and coordination. Aside from the physical advantages, barbell training, as well as all physical activity modalities, improves confidence, mental well-being, quality of life, and psychosocial status. All of the aforementioned benefits do not require a high degree of specialization to achieve. A properly planned barbell training program, such as Starting Strength, will yield these benefits within 3-9 months in most untrained individuals. In short, the health benefit comes very quickly and doesn’t require much.

So let’s rewind back to our discussion of competitors. If competitors train to perform better for the purpose of improving scores and rankings in a competitive event and health focused individuals train to perform better to improve their health and quality of life, should both be trained the same? Yes and no. Yes, untrained health focused individuals should train to improve performance metrics initially. This is because they are untrained, often extremely weak, and move poorly. Since they are weak at baseline, overload events are recovered from very quickly which leads to a linear progression that last several months.

In contrast, a trained competitor has very different experience when he/she experiences an overload event and recovery from it will take much longer. This occurs because seasoned competitors have already exceeded the health benefits of his/her sport. While both are training progressively, the athlete’s progression takes much longer and is more stressful than the health focused individual’s. A seasoned competitor is also aware that he/she is risking injury every year he/she tries to achieve higher levels performance. A health focused individual is typically not interested in performing an activity at this level. He/she wants to feel good, maintain good health markers, and not have his/her life revolving around training. This demographic typically desires “short and sweet” workouts and does not think about the activity for the remainder of the day. This is not to say that athletes want to get injured. This simply means that athletes are pushing their bodies to a much higher level than nonathletes, and thus, due to the nature of being an athlete, will have an inherently higher risk of injury.

As a Registered Dietitian (RD), it would be wrong of me to exclude nutritional strategies from this discussion. Dietary strategies can also be either competitive or health focused. What a bodybuilder or physique competitor does is not necessarily what a health focused individual should do. The results that a bodybuilder or physique competitor attains should also not be the standard a health focused individual is held to. For example, the strategies that work for getting stage lean for a bodybuilding or physique show should not be used for general health purposes due to the very fact that those levels of leanness and the dieting required to achieve those levels are not sustainable from a long-term health perspective. Most bodybuilders would not claim to walk around at 4% body fat year round and there is a good reason for this. The dietary strategies used in these sports are a large component of the training. In some ways these individuals are “competitive dieters.” Therefore, the results and the strategies used to attain those results should not be standards that your health focused client/patient should follow. At the same time, negatively criticizing these competitors for their dietary strategies is no different than criticizing Lebron James for daily repetitive dynamic jumping and landing involved in professional basketball. Both are competitive sports and both involve high levels of training that will carry continuously increasing health risks the longer and individual competes in the respective sport. The epidemiology behind this goes beyond the scope of this article and epidemiological claims are not being made here. I am simply stating as a general rule, competition introduces health risk and that risk increases the longer an individual or group of individuals continue to compete.

So what happens when the health focused individual full achieves the “Novice Effect”?” Does he/she continue training? The answer is: It depends! Some individuals start out health focused and transition into competition. Others just want an activity in their daily routine to simply provide them health benefits and nothing more. These folks eventually shift more towards exercise, only now they are using useful movements to preserve the strength and motor patterns they acquired during their linear progression. To be clear, they will still squat, press, deadlift, and bench press, with the programming being the only thing different.  There are also those who are competitive but not competitors, meaning they set goals but try to achieve them without entering a competition. Neither approach is superior to the other, it is all a subject to individual variation. The purpose of this article is to educate coaches, clients, and athletes on managing expectations. If your goal is health focused, then keep things simple, keep goals realistic to your current lifestyle, and leave the training at the gym. If your goal is to reach your genetic potential in a competitive sport, then buckle up for a long roller coaster ride!

What does marketing tell you about a coach?

A good question that I think I can answer.  Marketing is defined as the action or business of promoting and selling products or services, including market research and advertising.  Unfortunately this definition has nothing to do with ensuring delivery and or quality of the products or services.  The biggest issue that I have seen in several industries that I’m involved in is that the best provider often cannot market his/her product or service well and some of the worst providers can do an excellent job of marketing their products or services.  To compound this issue it is often the case that when a customer has a bad experience with a well marketed brand, he/she refrains from publically sharing the experience in fear of being judged by his/her peers, or worse getting blackballed by other providers for being “that problem client.” After all, who is one person to bad mouth the ever so great (insert brand name here)?  It then becomes this game of politics where people are protecting themselves with silence while others continue to get ripped off and the low quality brand  continues to thrive and build a reputation for being something it is truly far from.  This is far too common in both the health care and fitness industries.

So what’s a guy/gal to do?  Since this website is fitness related the providers I will discuss are coaches/trainers. One of the easiest ways to identify a sham coach is to look at the business’ page/social media profile (not the coach’s personal page/social media profile).  If it’s filled with videos and photos of the coach, his/her physique, or his/her lifts it’s a good indicator of what he/she is focused on.   We also want to remember that the results of one person have little merit on what is possible for the rest of us.  A business focused on customers will showcase the customer experience not its owners’ or employees’ experiences.  The less you see about the owners/employees the better.  With the exception of basic bios,  credentials, and background of course.

Now let’s say you still want to give it a go.  Then what?  The most important thing to do when engaging in any relationship is to manage expectations.  Keep this part measurable and objective so that both parties are held accountable.  Most importantly keep these realistic. If someone tells you that you’re gonna lose 50 lbs of fat and go from 400 to 500 on your squat in one month you may want to reconsider things.  Making a checklist with milestones, timeframes, and both short and long term goals keeps everyone in check.  Don’t be intimidated by a brand name or recognition.  This person works for you so do it on your terms.

The next one is obvious and it shocks me that people still do this.  If someone tells you to do something because I am a (insert profession here) that’s doesn’t tell us a whole lot about his/her rationale.  A competent professional can give you a “why” behind what’s being prescribed.  If  he/she cannot then don’t pay the bill!

Lastly, and perhaps one of the most important, is how your coach responds to something that is not working.  It’s inevitable, the human body is an unpredictable organism and sometimes our best efforts don’t pan out.  Does this mean we are horrible at our trade?  No it sometimes just means the client’s body didn’t respond.  A good coach will work with you not against you.  He/she will try things that he/she may not even like just to see if he/she can get your body to respond. Good coaches put their own dogma aside and try different things to get a response even if it means deviating from a system that they strongly believe in.   In contrast, if you feel like every roadblock is taking you back to some variation of the same strategy then please refer to the definition of insanity and DONT PAY THE BILL! 

So where does this leave us?  Does a beautiful logo, rock hard abs, a ginormous lifting total, or a 50k Instagram followers tell us anything about what someone can do for us? Hell it doesn’t even tell us what he/she can do something for his/her followers.  It just tells us that the business is well marketed and that many people like something about it.  That something is not always what it seems….

Should you “go on a diet?”

A good question we all have both asked and received.  As a Registered Dietitian (RD) I was taught to avoid the word “diet.”  I do not agree with this nor do I think terminology is the issue at hand here.  We are all on diets whether we know it or not.   The word diet is defined as the kinds of food that a person, animal, or community habitually eats. So it does not matter if you are on a controlled diet you are still on a diet!

And I digress.  Along with being a dietitian I am also a human being who habitually eats.  In the last 14 years of both accumulating dietary knowledge and coaching other dieters I have learned a few things along the way.  One of the most important things I have learned is that most people should not be on a controlled diet.  Yes, that’s right with an increase in the incidence of metabolic diseases and obesity this RD says “don’t go on a diet.”  Why?  Simply because it has been my experience that behaviors have simply been a bigger issue than food quantity or quality.  Often times those who like to eat copious amounts of food simply will not follow any “diet.”

 In the last few years I have been a major advocate of flexible dieting.  I have encountered individuals that were willing to count macros, eat healthier foods, but would simply exceed their recommended intakes regardless.  This was mind boggling to me because flexibility made it far easier for myself and others to manage their body composition.  The lesson here was that the issue is not always the food itself and usually the behaviors along with the thoughts and emotions associated with them.  RDs learn this to some extent in school but there simply is no substitute for real world experience.  

So I have come up with a checklist for first time “dieters” to identify where they  are at and also to give you some ideas on what things to prioritize.

1) Do you eat breakfast? 

2) Can you voluntarily stop eating?

3) Can you stop eating when you are full?

4) Do you feel the need to eat during periods of downtime?

5) Can you eat slow?

6) Do you drink water during your meal?

There are plenty more questions I can ask but these are some basic ones.  Notice I am addressing habits and not specific food choices.  If you answered yes to question#4 or no to any of the others, your efforts will be better spent focusing on these habits than trying to follow a controlled diet that you will likely rebound off of when it either gets hard or the goal is achieved.

Ultimately controlled diets have their place and are not a “bad” thing.  Some people simply are not mentally or emotionally prepared to commit to one.  I do not claim to be a psychologist and there is certainly a place for mental health professionals depending on the severity of the case.  I will say though that it is our duty to promote good eating habits above all else.  It’s the foundation that must be laid before any layers of complexity are added into the mix.  

Body weight vs Body Composition

This morning I purchased a new Tee Shirt at Revolution Training Systems and I came to learn that I am once again a size small. When I started losing weight I was 205 lbs. and comfortably fitting in larges. After dropping to around 190 lbs. mediums felt snugger. Now as I approach 180 lbs. I’ve been told that I look “skinny” or that I’m “wasting away” as my medium sized shirts start to look baggier around the waist.
While I have lost 23 lbs. let’s put things into perspective. I pushed my weight up from 168 lbs. @ 14% body fat to 205 lbs. @ 25-27%. I am 5’9″, my wrist circumference is 6.75″, my ankle circumference is 8.5″, and my shoulder width is approximately 16″ (acromion to acromion). I don’t have a very wide nor thick skeleton. I have also been training seriously for 3 years now and have been lifting weights for 18 years.  I’d like to also point out that I went from 168 to 205 over the course of a year.  So despite the weight gain being “slow and controlled” it still resulted in fat gain nonetheless.  The likelihood of me ever being a 93 kg male @ 15% body fat or less is slim to none but that in no way means I’ll stop trying to grow.

So where does that bring us. While I have lost 23 lbs. and dropped to 182 lbs., my body fat is still 19%. Therefore in order to get down to 15% or less we are talking about 173 lbs. or less assuming all of the weight lost is body fat. To dig even further, if I’m going to take it down to 9% before massing back up, I will have to take my body weight down to 162 lbs. Now how much will I be able to lift at a lower weight? Stay tuned for the results of that experiment. The point here is that body weight is only one piece of the picture and recommending an experienced lifter to gain copious amounts of body weight simply to weigh a certain number on the scale is not always the best course of action nor does it always equate with performance benefits.
In short, I am a lightweight and I accept this. I didn’t ask for these wrists, ankles, and shoulders, I was born with them and that’s what I have to work with. I’ve intentionally gained weight 4 times in my lifetime in an effort to build muscle and it simply ends the same each and every time. With the exception of an untrained, underweight novice, you cannot offset a small skeleton with excess body fat in an effort to get bigger and stronger. It works when your skin and bones and have never touched a weight before, but if you’ve been at this for a while it’s not the best use of your resources unless you simply do not care about your health. Now this is assuming you are a drug free lifter. I cannot speak on the effects of a small framed individual taking PEDs at a high body fat percentage but logic tells me that the experience would likely be different.

Update 4/16/16:  I am now 175 lbs and I’m sittin around 16-17% body fat if I had to guesstimate.  Judging by these photos it looks like I’ve lost mostly fat weight and yet my abs are still not completely visible nor am I vascular.  My squat and deadlift have held steady and I lost a little off my bench press.   In short, the likelihood of me weighing 205 without turning into a fat sloppy mess is slim to none.