Musings

"That's A Load of...." Debunking Media "Fitness" Terms

Glance at the front of the magazines at grocery stores and you'll see a variety of "fitness" or "health" claims such as "tone," "fat-blasting," and other such nonsense as that. I find myself rolling my eyes so much that my occipital (eye) muscles are as big as a body builder's biceps. Sorry, strength coach joke.

Moving on, today I'm going to rip through debunk a few of those outrageous claims so that you too can strengthen your occipital muscles as you wait in the grocery check-out line. I can not possibly cover all the silliness out there, but I've narrowed it down to a few of the common ones (that seem to appear month after month on magazines such as "Self" or "Woman's Day"). A lot of these claims are found on women's magazines, mainly because I think we're fed more crap than the fellas, but they apply to both genders.

CLAIM: "Tone," as in "tone those jiggly arms"- First off, let me remind you that everyone's arm jiggles; that's what happens when a muscle is relaxed. The main definition of "Tone" in exercise physiology is: the normal state of elastic tension or partial contraction in resting muscles. For example, the postural are constantly contracting and relaxing to keep you upright (or slouched...stand up straight!). The fitness magazine "tone" refers to the ability to actually see the muscles' shapely form. (So really, they should say "definition" not "tone.")

In order for a muscle group to be defined, say your arms, two things must occur: 1) the muscle is big enough to be seen (so those stupid tricep kick-backs or bicep curls with 5 pound weight ain't gonna cut it when it comes to muscle growth.) and 2) there needs to be less subcutaneous (under the skin) fat. How does one accomplish bigger muscles with less body fat? Why, picking up heavy stuff and eating a vegetable and protein laden-diet! Glance through a women's magazine at those "arm toning" exercises and you tell me if you think they would actually succeed. As for eating healthy, the details look different for each person (i.e. paleo, vegan, omnivore, etc.), however it should be 90-100% REAL FOOD with minimal crap (though a Christmas cookie or two is ok.) 90% of the time.

FACT: "Tone" means: less fat, bigger muscles. 

CLAIM: "Fat-blasting" food- The media makes it seems as if these foods (and it's a new one each week!) has heavy artillery and upon entrance to the body, starts blowing up fat cells left and right.

Uh, sorry, that's not how the body works. Fat cells, once formed, don't go away. They do however change size depending on how much fat is stored in them. So, in order to reduce the amount of fat in each cell, the body needs to be in a caloric deficit. This means you need to eat LESS than what you're using up, for the basic metabolic functions, exercise, and other activities. The body will burn it's excess energy, aka stored fat, to make up for the lack of energy intake. Altering body composition is a life style change; I guarantee you that just eating a serving or two of "fat blasting" foods will NOT be enough to reverse years of bad eating habits. There is a wealth of solid (and scientific) advice out there, and there are definitely more details than I plan on elaborating in this post (maybe another time...) however it boils down to this:

Stop eating crap, eat real food, and pick up heavy things. Take note that I put the nutritional advice first. You can not out-train a crappy diet, so clean that up first! There will be a blog post later on this month regarding that whole aspect of fat-loss.

FACT: Eating a whole-foods based diet, with minimal crap, and exercising regularly OVER TIME will reduce body fat levels.

CLAIM: "Target" body part, usually for fat loss- This myth just won't die! It keeps reappearing week after week on the covers of magazines and on the interwebz. People, YOU CANNOT SPOT REDUCE!!! The body doesn't say, "Oh, I see that you are doing thousands of crunches, I should reduce the body fat I store there so you can have a flat tummy." Really, it says, "For the love of all things iron, STOP CRANKING ON THE SPINE ! It HATES that!" Targeting is about as effective as trying to grow eye-stalks.

Oh, if grunting made it so!

For "targeting trouble areas" see the above two points: an overall body fat reduction will promote definition of muscles and those "problem areas" will be not so problematic. Again, it's a life-style change, not a quick fix.

*This is not to say that isolation work has no purpose. How else are you supposed to have guns for the ladies? Some isolation work thrown in to an already compound-movement heavy (lots of multi-joint exercises such as squats, deadlifts, pushups, pull ups etc) work out can provide some extra stimulation to a muscle group that can lead to hypertrophy (growth).

FACT: Compound movements should be the bulk of you training program. That combined with a diet of whole foods will reduce body fat levels and thus reducing the need to "target" certain areas. (anyone picking up on a theme?)

CLAIM: This is an actual quote from a celebrity trainer, who is a disgrace to our industry:

"Oftentimes, heavy weights can tear the muscle fiber causing it to bulk, but using a lighter weight for a longer duration and allowing your body to move in many different ways to target all of the muscles will lengthen them without tearing."

-Tracy Anderson

Multiple other coaches and trainers have ripped into this (and other nonsensical claims that spew forth from her mouth). Sadly, she is not the ONLY trainer out there who thinks this is true, she just happens to profess this poop where more people can read it. I'm not going to touch the first half of that statement except to say, uh, that's the method by which the body grows stronger...by tearing and repair muscles. Oi!

The phrase "lengthening muscles" is also found, unfortunately, in other fitness "experts" mouths and in their writings. It is physiologically impossible to lengthen a muscle without breaking the bones and extending them or altering the attachment points of the muscle. Yes, the muscles lengthen and shorten during normal movements, however, the actual length of the muscle doesn't change. Got a problem with that? Take it up with your parents, they passed the genes along.

I think that term is really just "tone" said in a different way. Ultimately, the phrase is intended to indicate "definition" just like the word "tone." If a trainer says/writes that claim, it's a pretty solid indication that the trainer/coach has absolutely NO idea how physiology works and therefore you should turn and flee. I'd also like to note her splendid use of the buzzword, "target."

FACT: "Lengthening" a muscle is impossible, and the intended implication is "definition" which is attained via the methods described ad nauseam above. 

Now, my SAPT readers, you are armed with the knowledge to see through the baloney that fitness magazines and products proudly display and you have the ability to recall the truth: a great, healthy body is created by... do I really need to say it again? Don't allow the stupidity of the outrageous claims dissuade you from thinking that anything but consistent hard work (both in the kitchen and in the gym) will accomplish your performance and/or physique goals.

Maximize Each Workout: 3 Practical Tips on Mindset

The mindset associated with any training plan is really what makes the difference in achieving your goals. Sets, reps, exotic exercise selection, equipment, etc. doesn't make a drop of difference if you are only 60% engaged, focused, and mentally committed. Here are 3 practical tips to get you in the zone - and keep you there - for your next workout session:

 

  • Music: I think everybody knows about this one, but it bears repeating. Music is so powerful because it has the ability to change your mindset and push you in the direction you want to go or need to be for a great training session.
  • Environment: Make sure your training environment is conducive to you achieving (and be able to focus on achieving) your goals. Constantly getting stopped by other gym members to chat? Always feeling ashamed of making any noise whatsoever? Tired of being harassed for breaking out chalk? Well, all these are signs that you may need to reconsider your training environment and get into one that supports your focus and goals.
Planet Fitness Lunk Alarm

Alright, you've got at least two of three tips that you can implement TODAY to get your training dialed up and instantly more productive.

Lessons of the Jaw: A Few Thoughts on the Body's Intradependence

As you read this, I'm either in surgery or in the recovery room. For those who don't know, I am having lower jaw surgery to correct a severe over (also called "open bite") and cross bite. That being said, blogging might be a bit spotty (more so than usual) over the next couple weeks, but I'm going to do my best. Seeing as this surgery has been on the forefront of my mind for quite a while, I thought I'd share a bit of the physiology connections I've learned over the past year or so. It's actually pretty interesting how dependent the body is on it's collective parts. So dependent that something up in my face affects the rest of my body rather dramatically.  We'll do bullet points because I really like them.

Lesson 1: Pain is sneaky. Sometimes the origin and/or cause is not where you think.

I've known I would need this corrective surgery at some point for quite a while now. About 3 years ago, I experienced severe and prolonged pain in my tempromandibular joint (TMJ), the hinge joint of your jaw that connects the lower to the upper. I didn't have the means to have surgery at the time and the pain receded a bit, so I put it on the back burner. Just over a year ago, I started having migraine/severe headaches in the front of my head that would last for days, even weeks. Medications didn't help. Then I started to have shoulder pain on my right side. This made me think something else was going on since I knew I wasn't doing anything that would aggravate my shoulder.

I popped over to this site and discovered that a tight sternocledomastoid can cause both pain in the head and shoulder. Sure enough, I had knots the size of marbles all along these muscles. Guess what? The SCM connects right up behind the ear, near the TMJ, thus a misaligned jaw (being used for thousands of reps per day) will definitely cause some tension in the poor ol' SCM.

Lesson 2: The suboccipital muscles are really, really important.

I also had pain in the base of my skull on a regular basis, thanks to irritated suboccipital muscles. I trolled around to find some information and perhaps home treatment to help manage the pain symptoms. I came across fellow strength coach, Patrick Ward's post hereReadit, seriously, it applies to everyone. It'll blow your mind how important those little muscles are to your overall health.  Patrick Ward goes into the implications of tight suboccipitals and their effect down the stream, such as posture in general and neural control over postural muscles. I found it interesting that "voluntary trunk control" was one of the muscle functions affected. Guess what? I struggle with bracing my right side. I know that sounds weird, but I can not get as "tight" on the right side without really thinking about it. Might be why I have a collapsed disc to the right side?...

Lesson 3: It's seriously all connected.

Then I came across this paper (you don't have to read the whole thing unless you're super-into-science and research papers) that linked symptoms of TMJ dysfunction and jaw pain with the suboccipital muscles. Check out pages 13 (yup, I have all those symptoms, including impaired vision) I should also note that I've suffered from vertigo since I was 13, so perhaps, once my jaw/bite is corrected and those muscles are no longer strained, I might see a decrease in symptoms.  Page 15 which connects hypertonic (too tight) neck muscles with TMJ muscles dysfunction and pain, and 17 describing short cervical muscles and posture and how they research has found correlations... craziness. Upper cross syndrome, a posture <--- description used by those in the health field, is either a creator of tight neck muscles or the result of tight suboccipitals. It's a bit of chicken-egg questions, but either way, they tend to coexist. So, if you have a hunched posture, try massaging the base of your skull, that might help loosen some things up!

Lesson 4: Pain eventually conquers proprioception

We recently had an in-service where we learned about the neuromuscular implications of injuries in regards to training athletes. The main point I retained was, if muscle tissue is acutely damaged, such as a sprain, or chronically irritated, such as repeated spraining of said ankle, the muscle spindles, which reside in the tendons, will no longer respond accordingly, much like Ariel responding to her father's command to stay away from land... Poorly.

Muscle spindles are proprioceptive organs that control the stretch-reflex, for example when the doctor taps your knee and your leg kicks forward a bit, the muscle spindles are rapidly stretched (when the mallet hits your patella tendon) and they respond by sending a signal to your brain to flex the quads (thus, pulling your knee into a bit of extension).

So, damaged muscle tissue, specifically the muscle spindles and especially chronically damaged tissue ("damaged" doesn't necessarily mean an acute injury, but a chronic posture, like your shoulders slumping and your neck protruding forward as you peer at the computer screen) tend to lose their ability to provide valuable feedback to the body in the form of proprioception (where your body is in space i.e. balance). Instead, pain signals are sent. This is bad on two fronts: 1) it hurts 2) lack of proprioception means loss of muscular control, be it voluntary or involuntary.

I don't know too much on how to restore muscle spindles and transfer them back to being proprioceptive and not pain oriented, but I do know that a) removing the irritaing stimulus (in my case, setting my jaw in the correct alignment) b) improving tissue quality through manual therapy (professional or at home) and c) retraining the muscles to move how they should (i.e. standing up straight instead of slouching, or going back to the ankle example, walking without a limp or favoring the ankle).

Lesson 5: Implications for training.

Another random fact, there's a correlation with a cross bite and scapular winging (the shoulder blade sticking up instead of laying flat on the rib cage). Winging impairs overhead movement, messes up the rhythm of the humerus and shoulder girdle and makes picking and lifting heavy things a bit problematic. I've done just about every exercise under the sun to fix my wing, to no avail... maybe surgery?

Anyway, as a coach, just by looking at my own situation helps me work with our athletes here at SAPT. If at first the basic, usual cues don't fix a problem, like "pulling yourself to the floor" during a push up to fix a winging scapula or "crack a walnut" to prevent knee pain during the squat, then, maybe there's an underlying issue that demands a different approach. Maybe some dedicated soft tissue work is in order to correct a nagging pain or it might be severe enough to refer out to a physical therapist or doctor. Whatever the case, if after working with an athlete diligently doesn't solve the problem, probably time to delve a bit deeper. (and check their bite! Kidding.)