The Best Exercise in the World is…

What? You really think I’ll start the article with the answer? That’s not a very good strategy for writing. It would be the physiological equivalent of a traditional ‘Whodunnit’ when the butler pounces from the pantry and says, ‘It was me!’. You’d not be inclined to watch the rest, would you? A Scooby-Doo cartoon with old man Rivers throwing himself in front of the Mystery Machine with a sandwich board declaring his guilt. That’d be a grim cartoon; I’d probably watch it. Damn hippy teenagers and a metaphor for exuberant LSD use. You can’t disagree, Scooby-Doo is so 60’s you can practically get high just watching it. ‘Zowie’, ‘yoinks’ and whatnot.

And don’t jump to the end of the post either. You’ll not find it there. I’m going to bury it in some inexplicable paragraph. Make it so fleeting you’ll be genuinely disappointed at the mediocrity of the answer. But hopefully the journey to the truth will at least offer some entertainment.

Exercise sucks. I’ve said this before. You probably question why I work in the industry I appear to loathe. I do too. But I’m here, so let’s get on with it. Exercise is a thing best described as the means to an end. Unfortunately, for most, that end never arrives. You perish on the path of exercise fulfilment; dashed upon the rocks of rowing tedium or terminated by cycling catatonia. Exercise is boring. Consider the things in life that make you laugh and smile. A child who’s dropped their ice-cream, a cat with a lamp-shade collar stuck in a fence, a politician stuck on a zip-wire waving a union jack. That last one actually happened. Funny stuff.

Activities which are fun have one common theme—an instant reward. We eat ice-cream and chocolate cake because the taste tickles our pleasure centres. Foods with a 50/50 mix of fats and sugar send most humans into delirium (ice-cream being one such thing, accompanied by cheesecake, etc). Games that we play, competitive or otherwise, are intrinsically rewarding due to baked in evolutionary survival tactics. Physical games that require actual cardiovascular effort help to tune our bodies and increase our fitness. Technically, that in itself is a reward but more than that, the human interaction of game-play enhances social skills and, to a degree, social belonging. A game becomes fun not because of the effort involved but for the other rewards it delivers.

This is why exercise fails at being fun for most people. Granted, there are those who enjoy the repetitive nature of solitary exercise. Science would be diplomatic and say something nice. But I’m not a scientist. I am, however, a cynic, and that empowers me to be blunt. Finding pleasure in the individual pursuit of fitness is, in itself, bonkers. That’s right—bonkers. From a biological perspective, it is sheer nuttery to enjoy battering one’s body into submission. Take the marathon runner. Of note, I have nothing against those who choose to run 26 miles. Remember, this post is pure cynicism and tongue-in-cheek wickedness. You run marathons? I don’t care—either way. Running marathons is a first world excess. It used to mean something; namely, a message that the Persians were coming. Now it’s all about specialist footwear or people dressed as dinosaurs collapsing with heat exhaustion.

A marathon reduces most to rubble. You see the victims cross the line on legs not fit for purpose. Wobbly pins I’d not trust in a bowling alley. Imagine that endurance sapping feat. Take a bow, have a round of applause. Now, try running away from that bloody lion I just freed from the zoo. What’s that? Your legs are a little bit useless? Quick, here comes Tiddles, and she’s not fussed that you’re wrapped in shiny foil. To her, you’re a human Tunnock’s Tea Cake. Nom, nom, nom.

A Tunnocks Tea Cake -A very Scottish cake/biscuit thing

I’ve not lost my mind. My point is, a marathon renders the human specimen weak and vulnerable. And for what reward? One week of DOMS? A buggered back and extensive physiotherapy fees? You can see it now, can’t you? I’m right. A marathon is not fun. It’s downright dangerous. Consider also that they often occur in metropolitan cities and most of these do in fact have zoos… I’m savvy that way. Won’t catch me doing a marathon. But then, I also use a leg brace. That would likely confuse the poor lion; under my foil wrapper I’ve got proper metal parts. Nom, nom, broken incisor.

I’ve established why exercise isn’t fun. And it’s precisely why most fail to adhere to it. So, what does work? The penny should have dropped by now; you should see where I’m going with this. If you can’t, you ought to go read another blog. One about those hollow mannequins called celebrities or conspiracy theories suggesting Ireland is actually a prehistoric, fossilised Koala. It so is by the way.

Now you’ll never see it any other way – The celtic mega-Koala

If we remove the curveball of mentalists who enjoy solitary exercise, there is one stand out activity that is sure to work. Or, to better phrase it: one condition of said exercise. It has to be enjoyable. Fun is the absolute key to maintaining an ‘exercise’ habit. Performing a physical chore that gives no ‘instant’ reward is a very disappointing endeavour to undertake. Fun creates a reward for the activity and replaces the apparent lack of feedback that our biology requires. Group fitness is often the key to exercise longevity. Participating in a communal class with an energetic and motivating coach can make all the difference. Of course, there are downsides. Cliques, body-image issues and an onslaught of mirrors that allow you to see every angle of your unsavoury backend can be a spoiler for some. But, by and large, GFX (as we abbreviate ‘group fitness’ to appear cool and trendy) is a winner for many.

But what if I hate people? Don’t worry, friend, I’m with you. Let’s celebrate hostility to humanity by drinking—just not together. If you prefer solitary exercise, you’re SOL* for standard narratives for fun. That leaves a huge array of personal activity. Outdoor cycling (I suppose it’s called…cycling) will get you into nature. Or under a bus. Rock-climbing or the inferior pursuit of finding a rock-wall to climb upon (called ‘hillwalking’) are excellent for raising mood and self-regard. Walking amongst nature—a good old trek through forest and glade—can lift both spirit and heart-rate. Just be vigilant for mammals with sharp teeth and claws if you’re lucky enough to live on a continent with dangerous indigenous fauna.

If you must insist on doing gym-work, you know, stuck in an iron cavern of clanking machinery where nuisance-mongers wear colourful battle Lycra and unnecessarily insist on clapping chalk into the air, there are some key elements to note. First, and most important, understand why you’re there. The gym will one day reward you. But first it must humiliate you and poke fun at your body. If you can scramble past the initial indignity of it all, the prize will come. Set your goal: weight loss, muscle gain, do a single chin-up, run a mile, yadda, yadda, yadda. Goals are important. Grab one and note it down. Stick it on your fridge. Glare at it with prejudice on a Sunday morning. But know it. Feel thy goal.

Second, rip out the nonsense. Talk to a gym coach and ask how you can most quickly and effectively achieve your goal. If the coach is overly muscled or shredded like pulled-pork, walk away. Fitness enthusiasts don’t understand that exercise sucks. They imagine you’ll love puking up after your 50th burpee. Find the coach with the grumpiest scowl; they know the truth, it’s why they’re so unhappy. Yes, I’m talking about me. I am the truth.

Grumpy coach will tell you how to make your work-out ‘most bearable’. Not fun. Most bearable. If you can find that coach, you’re set—they will nurture your attitude and make you the gym equivalent of a cockroach. That’s a good thing. You’ll persist through thick and thin (literally) and people won’t bother you. When Cindy Squat has long since vanished after her Instagram friends abandoned her over that ‘fat-shaming’ post, you’ll still be doing your 30-minute efficiency work-out. People will nod in your general direction. You’ll hear whispers of legend. Grumpy coach’s no-nonsense routine is still working. Why? Because you told them what you didn’t like and they listened. They allowed you a modicum of ‘fun’. And that’s the key to success. Whatever you do—you have to find the fun, sometimes in the smallest things. Print a tee-shirt with ‘I’m Grumpy Because I’m Here’ on the front and laugh quietly at the enthusiasts. They won’t understand but they’re abnormal. You can hold your head high and almost enjoy yourself. You conquered the gym your way. Now who’s laughing?

SOL* – Google it. If you find a sweary word, that’s it.

Failure is always an option

If you’re a little nerdy, you’ll attribute this phrase to Mythbuster’s Adam Savage. I’m unable to verify his exercise credentials, nor would I assume to do so. And though his words had a different arena from that of which I intend to delve, the sentiment remains. Failure, in physical exercise, is always an option.

Having worked in gyms for 25 years, I’ve seen the standard model of exercise intensity, namely, moderate. There’s nothing wrong with that, at least, that’s how we encourage people to do something less enjoyable that washing dishes. The truth is, moderate sucks. In fact, in practically every arena, from politics to astrophysics, a moderate approach implies lack of effort and often mediocrity. Why should your body be any different?

To fail is to be a loser. That’s the mantra obsessive life-coaches end up selling. They’ll use quotes similar to ‘failure is an option – but you can choose to succeed’, which I personally find as meaningless as telling someone, ‘nothing’s impossible.’ Nothing’s impossible? Really. Hmm, last time I tried, I couldn’t make a calorie free pizza. Or change the body-shape of a 5’ humanoid sphere into a 6’ beanpole. I’m afraid to say, some things are impossible and success isn’t always a choice. But I digress; Failure is ALWAYS an option.

Failure has a bad rap. It’s a word synonymous with, well, ‘failure’. You know what I mean, it’s such a foundation word—everyone knows it, it’s taught from such an early age:

‘Young Billy, if you fail math, you’ll never be an astronaut!’

‘Little Samantha, if you fail physics, you’ll never be an engineer!’

‘Donald, if you fail to grasp emotional intelligence, you’ll never be…’ – scrub that one…

Anyway – you get the point. Aversion to failure actually implies a lack of effort. In any given task, reaching failure means you’ve likely tried all available avenues. In which case, you’ll adapt, or you’ll learn. Often a slap on the head from a loving teacher can knock a new idea into the brain box. Of course, that approach stopped a long time ago when it became unfashionable to hit children. Good thing to. I didn’t like getting hit in school… 

In exercise, failure is a moment of adaptation. In truth, it’s very difficult to achieve. Our bodies are machines that require fuel to perform any task. Reaching failure is tough. Our brain chomps through sugar at a crazy rate and our bodies will metabolise carbs (for sugars), fats and protein for any manual effort. There’s a hierarchy of sensation aligned to whatever physical work you’re doing. Different intensities use different fuels in different ways.

Low level effort (such as a stroll, or even typing) uses a large proportion of fat as the energy source. As our bodies are reasonably efficient at low level work, we don’t use many calories doing easy things. Therefore, we can do them for long time periods, without discomfort. Realistically, failure is not something you experience at this level. I can’t recall falling from my chair, clutching fingers and moaning about how extreme typing has caused cramp and stress fractures. Never needed an electrolyte intake and a protein bar after typing for seven hours. Just beer. Writer’s reward.

Medium level effort (a jog, or an aerobic workout) begins to use more stored sugars at a higher burn rate. This is the de facto level of exercise for 99% of people. Whether you wear lose joggers and baggy tees, or painted on Lycra and a brand-new wax, you’re probably in this category. Yeah, on that Lycra statement—don’t be fooled by apparel. Fashion is not an indicator of effort, experience, or ability. Lycra alone isn’t a crime but Lycra plus immaculate make-up usually implies low effort. This may sound sexist but it’s an observation. Similarly, guys who wear tight cycling shorts to the gym, often don’t own bikes. I wish they did, so they’d take away those obscene banana hammocks.

High level effort is all about sugars, and in extreme cases, body resources such as creatine. A rapid burst of power (100m sprint, 5 reps at maximum effort) will tank your creatine phosphate (CP) reserves. Rest for a few minutes you can go again. Slightly lower duration, or effort will be a carb fest. A whole bunch of calories will be expended but the work load isn’t sustainable. Failure is often an option here.

With a brief fashion and physiology lesson fresh in the mind, it’s simple to discuss failure. At moderate intensity, failure is hard to achieve. It hurts like hell. This is the domain of the well-known term, the ‘burn’. It’s real and it sucks. A mixture of fuel shortage, a build-up of exercise by-products (lactic acid) and lowering work efficiency make the ‘burn’ a hellish experience. Taken to extremes, you’ll suffer wobbly legs, nausea, and in some cases, you will be physically sick.  Yummy! That sounds super-awesome. It’s not. It’s awful. Yet, if you want to be the best at some sort of moderate time frame event this is how you’ll train. Now bear in mind this is also where most exercisers tend to gravitate and you’ll understand why people avoid failure. Frankly, if you puke all over the treadmill, I’ll personally send my minions to throw you out the gym. I jest. They’ll just clean your carrots and oatmeal with a congealing gel and call me an asshole boss. Hey, I’ve cleaned poop from a guide dog’s mess—I’ve done my tour of duty.

So, if I said ‘failure is always an option’ but paint it in such a poor light, what’s the point? Ah young Padwan, you forgot about the high-level, short-burst duration intensity. This is where failure works best. This is where glory is found in gritted teeth and high-pitched squeaks. This is actually where we should all train if health is your goal.

Before going any further, it would be wise to add an advisory. In all seriousness, pushing to failure in exercise carries risks to those with certain health conditions. Apathy, lethargy, and low motivation are all…. No wait. I was reading from the Fascist Gym Instructor’s Handbook. Let me get my stethoscope. So, here we are: heart conditions, unstable angina, respiratory problems, and certain joint problems, among other things will not play well with exercising to failure. In short, don’t try it unless you know you are medically sound.

Press-ups. Or push-ups. Whatever. This ‘Failure’ post came from humble beginnings. I was on holiday and thought I’d get back into the press-up regime. Every couple of nights, I’d do a whole bunch until failure. First couple nights I didn’t count. Then, I did. I pushed until about 99% effort to get 52. In my younger years, I’d reached 100—proper ones, arms passing 90 degrees, ankles, hips, and shoulders in a straight line. Regardless, 52 isn’t a huge number but it’s a good start. To make sure I was pooped, I tried more after five seconds. Managed two. I’d say I reached failure. Now here’s the golden moment; when you realise how effective certain things are. I stopped doing them for over a week, after doing them for only one week. When I tried again, I did 60, then 65 to actual failure. To be clear: I worked out ‘close to failure’ on press-ups for about four sessions. Stopped doing them for 7-9 days. Tried again, managed over 60.

What happened to get such an improvement? Simple, I trained to failure. This is how systems work. Your body works within tolerances, as though a finely tuned pedal-bin. Use it within those tolerances and it’ll give you years of carefree enjoyment. Don’t use it (be sedentary) and it’ll seize up. But if you use it all the time, things change. In the pedal-bin analogy, you’ll probably want to get a bigger bin (or eat less). But the body is a wonderful and adaptable thing. When the body is pushed to its limits, it releases hormones. These remodelling chemicals promote growth in active tissues. In effect, the system gets a message that its not robust enough, so to adapt to the immediate stresses, it rebuilds. Without those stresses—that push toward failure—it wouldn’t need to change (that mediocre level).

But what about puking? Short term high-intensity work tends to fail on mechanical grounds. Muscle fibre recruitment maxes out and the system can’t give any more. It takes grunt and a whole world of focus but it’s much less painful than the burn. Mental effort to summon your ‘maximum’ strength isn’t easy. I’d argue that compared to the ‘burn’ it is much more pleasant. Not all things suit failure. Pressing a heavy weight above your head until it collapses on you is exercise Darwinism. But you can train close to failure. It takes experience but learning your body’s limits allows you to push it close. The rewards are high. The pukiness, low.

Wait, you say, I can’t even do a single press-up. Excellent. Try one. Push as hard as you can. Create an air gap between your body and the ground, try, try, try. When you realise you still can’t move, it doesn’t matter—that was failure. You tried (really hard, with all your red-faced effort), you failed. That is good. Better if you accidentally vented some ass-gas. That’s a trumpet of noble effort. Try again tomorrow, the next day. Slowly, that push will rise higher. Your body will adapt.

Failure is always an option.

Weight Loss Shortcuts – A Harsh Truth

Let me spoil the moment. There are none. I figured a rolling intro about what you can and can’t do would be unfair. At the end of the post the message would be the same—there are no short cuts to losing weight. Well, of course, there are; however, those would be dependent on what I mean by weight. An arm weighs a fair few pounds. A leg even more. That old saying, ‘an arm and a leg’—well, that would be a shortcut. Not very practical. Not very good at all.

So, to explain why there is no shortcut, you need to understand the basic facts. One pound of fat (a very small volume of blubber) contains approximately 3700kcal. Your mileage may vary on that amount depending where you read, but that’s closer to what I learned at University. One pound—3700kcal. Got that number logged in the jogger’s noggin’? Good, because, as Hudson says so eloquently in Aliens, ‘stop your grinnin’ and drop your linen.’ Running a marathon—a 26 mile slog—will consume roughly 2700kcal for your average 11-12 stone (154-168lbs, or 70-76Kg) runner. That leaves spare change on that 3700kcal. Now imagine the feeling. You’ve completed the challenge you pestered all your friends about; and, pestered further for sponsorship to raise money for that puppy shelter. What do you do? You celebrate. A great meal, cake, lots of cake, and maybe some fizz, or beer, or wine (or all of them). In your moment of celebratory glory, you shovel 3000kcal of joy down your throat. And, let’s be honest—you deserve it. I mean, it’s madness, running on a road for 26 miles. Sheer madness. You need something to make it feel worth your while.

Given the marathon example for calorie burn, you see that one measly pound of fat supplies all the energy you need to run one event, with change to walk home afterwards. If you understand physiology, you’ll be shouting at me about energy debt (EPOC – excess post-exercise oxygen consumption) but I’ll get to that. In the meantime, consider the lard family. There are 14 pounds in a (UK) stone. Fourteen marathons+ of energy in one stone of bodyfat. Working in gyms for 25 years, I’m used to hearing the plea, ‘I need to lose a stone in four weeks’. One stone of that useless (it’s not actually, but let’s pretend it is) button-popping soft body armour contains about 52,000kcal. Let’s look at that. 52,000kcal in one stone. Four weeks = 28 days. Divide them. Go on. Be afraid. It amounts to a daily kcal count of 1850 (rounded, no pun intended). To lose one stone in four weeks, you need to dump 1850kcal per day. Yikes.

Can it be done? Yes, but it’s extreme. Without considering EPOC (I said I’d explain later), you’d need to run 19 marathons in four weeks to burn 52,000kcal. One stone, four weeks… 19 marathons. Go back and read the title of this post. It’s right there. So, you’re depressed, I get it. I’ve got a lockdown belly. Probably have an extra 7 pounds of blubber around my waist. I’ve got a bad leg so cardio’s out for me. I’ll need to watch my intake to work on that. Do some mind-numbingly boring resistance training. Maybe buy some heavy cans of beer. Lifting a heavy bag, laden with beer, is still resistance work. I’ll get it where I can find it. Leave me be.

Now, in truth, I wouldn’t recommend people try to aim so high as one stone in four weeks. Our industry tends to recommend 1-2 pounds per week. A more manageable 3700-7400kcal/week, or 530-1050kcal/day. How can you drop 530 kcal from your diet, every day? Want a picture to help?

Isn’t it fun learning how bad things are?

The easiest way to do this is to lower your intake AND start doing more activity. Altering your diet will bring faster results but long term you need to make sure you do it right. Dieting is a bad word. It’s very much like exercise in that respect. Neither of them is fun and I assure you, people who go on about either need to find a more pressing concern. If you want free advice—drop 250kcal from your daily intake, or in food friendly language, something as trivial as a few less biscuits a day. Look at the pictures above… they have meaning. You can Google other munchables, and there are plenty of websites that can match calories to foods.

What about activity? Yawn. Well, if you manage to drop 250kcal from not chowing down on that packet of crisps you definitely didn’t need, you can burn off 250kcal in about 30-40 minutes of moderate activity. And that’s over the whole day. You don’t need to rack those hours in at the gym. Four, ten-minute bouts would do. A brisk walk to buy your beer. A brisk walk back. Or, don’t buy that beer (heresy!!!). Housework, a spot of gardening, chores, or if you do have a fetish for Lycra and sweaty pavilions of pain; sure, go to the gym.

Simple choices make the most difference and you don’t need to brag to (or bore) your friends about your new gym routine. Just one piece of advice—don’t do things you would never normally do; you’ll probably fail. If you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it. Imagine Nike’s evil twin’s plan for marketing: Just Don’t Do It! Make it simple, make it achievable. Don’t commit to failure.

Now, I said I’d mention EPOC. Very basically, when you burst into a high energy mode, your body lags behind with the energy delivery system. Ever wonder why when you stop running, you pant for ages afterwards? Energy debt. So, when you perform a long duration, moderate to high intensity activity, your body keeps ticking at a higher rate long after you stop. EPOC: excess post-exercise oxygen consumption. The harder you push, the higher the debt. It’s the theory behind HIIT training. But HIIT classes only work if you actually train at a very high intensity. If you book two classes back to back—you’re doing it very wrong indeed. Go home instead and climb the stairs for 30 minutes, you’ll get a work-out and keep the Chihuahua company.

It’s good to remember that the above number: 500kcal/day deficit (less food, more activity) will drop ONE pound of fat per week. Double the effort to make it two pounds. That’s still seven weeks to lose a stone. You want to lose two stone? You need a long-term game plan. Or, at least, you need to commit to that change. Shortcuts are for losers. I mean it. You can’t treat your body as though it’s a trash bin and then hope to fix it because you need to slide into that dress, or wear that tuxedo. Does anyone actually wear a tuxedo?

The best way to avoid taking shortcuts, is to avoid getting into that position in the first place. There are no quick fixes if your goal is to lose some weight. The silver lining is that when you get there, you know you can do it, so you can do it again. Though, that’s not encouragement to go on a yo-yo binge & diet plan. And running twenty marathons a month is also a bad suggestion. Common sense, long term thinking and you’ll be good in no time, I mean, months from now.

I’m Glad I’m Not Eighteen

In 1992, an excellent year for heavy-metal, techno and alternative rock, I can’t recall being happy. Not really, not like I am now. Back then, I had two working legs, an awesome head of hair, and dressed like a plaid warrior straight out of Seattle (even though I came from a nowhere, wannabe town that served as a sleeping bag for a proper city with a real identity). I’m happy now. I lost that beautiful head of hair—a mane so lustrous I could defeat dragons and dandruff with it. I’m mostly bald, a head reminiscent of an awkward potato. Still, no more hair wax, no more follicle anxiety. I was fit as a fiddle. I could run forever, jump over houses, and climb mountains. I was immortal. Now, I’m quite sure I’m not. I have a leg-brace. I’ve had a hernia. Pretty sure I have another. I’m still happier inhabiting this shell of youth. You’re probably sad reading this (I know my mum is). Well buck up, bucko—I’m not sad. I grew old. I grew up, mostly.

Happy perspective time. I’m 46, going on 3000. I can still bench more than most eighteen-year-olds. I’m more agile on three limbs than most are on four. I could do a plank until gravity gave up—for the record, planks are useless. I imagine the plank was devised by a failed personal trainer with an undiagnosed psychosis and a hatred for people with back pain. If you love planking: stop it now. It’s pointless. It’s the exercise equivalent of belly button fluff. A comedy distraction at bedtime. It’s always grey-blue, why? So, I’m not bummed I lost my hair, my leg, my abdominal resilience. No, not at all. I’m over all that. It’s 2020, and I’m not eighteen. I couldn’t be happier.

Why? Because when I found fitness, social media wasn’t even born.

I have this blog as a means to an end. And mark my words, one day I will meet that end. That sounds terminal. Suppose I didn’t mean it to sound like that. Let me rephrase. One day, my awesomeness will work out for me. Yeah, that’s better. But social media—that’s a bum rush. If I was eighteen now, surrounded by Instagram, Facebook, Tik-Tok, and god knows what else there is to inflict trauma on a young mind, I’d never make it past twenty. And yeah, I know, a lot of people will come in screaming to defend the great value of social media. How it connects you. How it makes you feel relevant in a huge world. Yet at every new turn, it appears to be all-consuming in the lives of younger (and older) people. A digital zombification of reality. Social media isn’t your friend—it’s a brain-melting industry.

In my industry, one from which I feel more and more alienated, the perversion of social media culture has destroyed what it is to understand health and fitness. When I was fourteen years-old, something other than social media changed my life. One single man influenced me. He gave no speech. Promoted no product, at least, of which I was aware. Better yet—he was an adopted Canadian (I have a soft spot for that country). He was Ben Johnson. Before Lance Armstrong, he was the most famous drug cheat of all time. But before I knew that, he was my hero. I wanted to be just like him. Problem was, I was a skinny white kid. I figured I could work on the muscles—in truth the skin colour meant nothing. He was simply my hero. To some extent, he still has to be. I was mesmerised by his build, his performance. How he destroyed Carl Lewis and the rest. Ben wasn’t clean, but then, that race is considered the dirtiest 100m in Olympic history. You can Google it; I’m wary of lawyers.

This is a difficult point to make. My hero is a cheat. But I know that. I know his performance wasn’t all natural. I mean, I sort of knew. There were rumours. His build, his crazed, bloodshot/yellow eyes. He was practically leaking dope all over the tracks. The reality is, Ben Johnson is responsible for me getting a weight bench. He’s why, thirty-two years later, I’m still doing it. I’ve progressed from a folding bench, to a smith, a power rack, and finally, a lever gym. The current set-up helps with a bad back and crumbling wrists. I’ve been benching since I was 16 years-old. I am permitted to fall apart.

I lifted weights because of a dream. And I educated myself with books. There was no internet in 1988. Not unless you were a spy, or a covert nuclear specialist. And I wasn’t. What was learned was scientific. What was practiced was proper technique. It was as it was meant to be. What we have now is different. I’ve seen it; heard it from gym members. I see them doing something ‘unusual’ and ask what’s up. It’s my job to guide people down the righteous path of technique. Oftentimes, I need to suggest something other than the weird thing they’re doing. I inject some humour, if that fails, I appeal to reason. But sometimes, at some point, they’ll flash up their phone and say they’re following Handsome Anger-Chuck. He’s an Insta dude, huge and rippled like a mars bar balloon. He’s also clearly, to my educated eye, on drugs. But the gym member doesn’t think so. They flash up another influencer, or some half-wit personal trainer, called Sheila Sugarcheeks. She’s just as bad as Handsome. Both, demented caricatures of what you could achieve using natural methods. I’m not impressed by Sheila. I say so. Another scroll and another nightmare from shadowy fitness hell is staring out from the screen. Not one of these people is real. They never got that shape from their anaemic routine (the secrets of which you can buy, obviously). They’re social media billboards, glossy myths of what you can never be. And the awful part is, no matter what I do, I cannot influence the gym member. They’re sucked into that social media vortex of scroll and believe. Look, here’s Handsome Anger-Chuck squatting a whale. Wonder at Sheila Sugarcheeks deadlifting in a bikini. No, god no. Please, save me.

But that’s the reality of fitness and social media today. Most people are too lazy to research anything. They fall into the rut of believing what that false prophet of fitness says. Never once do they question why their workouts don’t appear to work. Tragically, I’ve seen what happens when the easily influenced follow the influencer. I’ve had those drug discussions. And even when it never gets that far, that intense, I see the heartbreak of failure. The petite woman who questions why she can’t look just like Sheila (who happens to be a six-foot-tall Amazonian). The guy at fifty-five who also questions why he can’t look like Sheila. I suggest other routes for him. But you see the deal? They want to be what they can’t because these personalities promise a lie.

When I was young, Ben Johnson shattered some of my dreams. But I knew what I could do, how far I could go. My idol was broken but that was okay. It meant I knew what was realistic, how I’d never be like him. You don’t get that brutal honesty on social media. Not from those that promote themselves as impossible figurines of heavenly perfection. Nifty AI filters distort things even more, lighting tricks and devious angles push the limits of preening PR. Fitness is a maze of misinformation, marketing and media celebrity. The truth, the reality, is hard to find.

For the younger generation, social media is everywhere. Fear of missing out (FOMO) is a real thing. You need to follow Sheila, or Handsome, otherwise you’re a loo-hoo-ser. Peer pressure and the constant need to be seen to be perfect is poison. That’s if you follow social media personalities and hang on their words.  I don’t. I’m too old for fashion, too past it for social media gurus. I’m happy now. Looking back, I see I got the best years of fitness. Before social media turned healthy bodies into unhealthy profits. I was influenced long before that circus came to town; learned my truths from my hero cheat. This is for you. Thanks Ben.

I didn’t get fatter; the world got easier

I was born in 1974. I remember having to walk to the television to change channels. Thankfully, someone invented the remote control. It served to protect the carpet from unnecessary wear. People shouldn’t scuff flooring with trivial jaunts to the TV screen. Come to think of it, I remember three channels, before Channel 4 was launched. Those were dark days. Grim days, some might say. Long before Channel 5 brought us the awfulness of low IQ TV planning. This is the UK, by the way. If you’re not from here, you’re lucky, you may have missed our entertainment drought. It was brutal. Now we have channels for everything. We went from not enough to ‘please, no more.’

And that’s just TV automation—the remote control. I knew cars before power-steering was a commonplace thing. Nowadays, you can waste rubber by turning the wheel in a stationary car. Glides like a pony on ice; namely, without friction but at great cost to the tyre. Picture the pony, poor sod. A bad thing. But in the old days, before servo-assisted wizardry was implemented, good luck trying to turn the wheel in a stationary car. That was a work out. Even in motion, a manually yanked steering wheel was a wrestle. No gentle fingers on the rim, one hand on a thermos, the other steering with an effete pinkie. No, it was as though taming a malevolent python on speed. A thick, PVC-encased wheel (leather, if you were rich) that was determined to end your life. A car without power-steering was hell, at least, that ‘s how I recall it to be.

Before the internet, there was a period known as the dark ages. This was when truth was found in books. A time in life when to learn something new, you had to walk to a place they called a library, and speak with a strange creature known as the librarian. Usually half-woman, half-ghost, these ethereal beasts would stamp the sign of the book-demon into the jacket and send you on your way. Often, they would say, ‘Bring it back in two weeks, or your soul is mine.’ At least, I think they said that. Point being, if I needed to know how to plumb a cistern, my phone couldn’t help. Because back then… there were no phones. Well, they had phones, just not proper ones as we have today. Old phones were designed by the ancestors of exercise manufacturers. Digit Gyms, they were. Bleak memories: trying not to break a finger as you toiled and spun a wheel around a dial. It took about a thousand turns to contact anyone. Plus, the phone weighed as much as an encyclopaedia. Tough, manual work just to phone a friend. Just to say, you could fix their loo.

Right now, I’m using a mechanical keyboard, crumbs and dust littered under the caps. I remember using an actual mechanical typewriter. Only briefly mind, before I bought a word-processor for Uni work. Those old devices required TLC and patience. The keys themselves were more akin to lever-gyms. One mighty push was required to launch a letter embossed on a small iron block into a wall of paper. It was a satisfying sound, a pleasant sensation. But again, just as everything else back then, it took more effort than what is required from us today.

And that is the point of this random carnival of 80’s memorabilia. Let’s take the television remote as an example. To change channels required you to stand up from your chair, or sofa, or perhaps even roll out of bed. To stand from sitting is basically a squat. That right there is what annoying gym folks call exercise. Yup, exercise, a bad word to some. One half-rep of one bodyweight squat. Whoop! Now you pace one step or two, maybe five if you’re wealthy and have a large house. But then, if you’re rich, you might ask the butler to change channels. Imagine, a biomechanical human remote control. A sort of cybernetic stone age. I digress. So, you’ve dragged your ass to the TV, pressed the buttons. Now what? You reverse that motion. That means a controlled descent onto the cushion where your bum-print is still visible. That’s what we gym commandants call the ‘eccentric’ phase of the squat. Pre-remote (or sans butler), channel surfing required one squat. Change channels 10 times a day, 365 days a year—count it—that’s 3650 squats. Think about it. That’s over 70 sets of 50 squats. Make that a 3-set portion per day and that’s 23 squat sessions per year. You see where this is going?

But that’s nothing. Walking is the big game-changer. In the nineties, I walked to work. 30 mins there, 30 back. One hour. Five days per week. In calorie terms, that’s 250 kcal/day. Add a 48-week year, and we’ve got 60,000 kcals/year. Or 16 pounds of fat. Now, imagine driving to work. No more walkies for Mr Fit. Time is precious, so we decide to sit on our bums for twenty more minutes and drive instead. In one year, you’ll pile on one stone of weight, all things considered. And that’s just the walk to and from work. Cars are ubiquitous these days, it’s normal to own one. And when you do, you drive it—everywhere. Why else own one tonne of shiny steel? Personally, I view the car as a mini-karaoke bar on wheels, without the booze, of course… officer.

What am I saying? Clearly, the correlation is between driving and getting fat. It’s called a spare tyre for a reason. The diminished reliance on walking is fundamentally linked to our downfall in the battle against weight gain. Those gym fiends (yes fiends, as in monsters, not friends) will tell you to train your way to a better shape. But it’s not true. Why? Because what you’ll do is drive to the gym, return home, and sit on your backside, making the erroneous assumption 45 mins of gym twice a week will work. Nope. It doesn’t. I’ve seen it so many times.

We used to be slaves to a domain of manual effort. But technology came along and saved us. Emancipated from the hellish shackles of ‘a smidgeon of effort’, we embraced the late 20th century ideal of ‘everything at your fingertips’. If I think back, I recall accompanying my mother to do the grocery/food shop. She had one of those weird, ’granny’ bags—a tartan-esque suitcase on wheels. But that was replaced, eventually, by the mini-karaoke bar on wheels, and now, in the days of automated Armageddon, you can arrange for unseen hands in a warehouse to pack your weekly shop and even get someone to deliver it to your doorstep in a diesel belching van. Wait—you have the gall to complain your plums are bruised? Really?

The reduction of manual labour, the reliance on automation, the lure of convenience: all of these things have conspired to make life too easy. We’re told by slick marketing to over-consume (I know I do). But in reality, food doesn’t make you fat; energy imbalance does. And in a world of zero effort, where I don’t even have to touch my phone to get it to answer me, our odds aren’t great in the war against apathy. There is, of course, an easy answer. Get up, go for a walk. Lots of walks. Forrest Gump your life away. Give it a shot, just as soon as you’ve ordered your pizza through Alexa.

Weight Loss for Cynics

This post is longer than normal. And more serious, while still being cynical. Be warned, humour drought ahead.

There are two types of people in the world: Healthy cynics, and everyone else. To be cynical isn’t a bad thing. It’s a suspicion radar, a ‘ping’ that tells you to check something out. But you have to be careful. Cynicism works on a scale of human stupidity. Gullibility lies at one end; extreme paranoia at the other. I’m centre-right, only trusting what I can investigate, or what is clear common sense. Of note, Flat-earthers don’t belong on this scale. That’s another trip altogether, beyond paranoia and conspiracy. We’re not going there. But for reference, this is the family bubble:

Gullibubbles on the left, Cynispheres on the right.

The weight-loss industry relies on an individual’s gullibility. It doesn’t work well on cynics. Cynics tend to question things, read the instructions and discover the nonsense in the PR blurb. To illustrate, there is an incredible piece of marketing magic, universally used by slimming and diet products. It is this one single line (and to be fair, it is genius):

This product will only aid weight-loss as part of a calorie-controlled diet

What that actually means is:

This will only work if you change everything else as well

It wouldn’t work in car safety:

Keeps your family safe from accidents—as long as you don’t crash

Or for arms dealers:

This armoured vest will keep you safe—as long as nobody shoots you

Be a cynic. Read the labels. There’s also another word that is heavily involved in the marketing of any weight-loss or health supplement. One tiny word: May. As in:

This product may help you…  <and really, once they have said, ‘may’, you can insert any bunch of crap right here>

I mean, we can add the two monolithic quantifiers together and you’ll see how ridiculous the concept is:

This product may aid weight-loss if you are on a calorie-controlled diet

Well, pass me that burger Sherlock, hold the poop.

The industry relies on maintaining some semblance of mystery about weight-loss. It absolutely tries to bamboozle you with science. Except, as someone who studied Sports Science at University, and has spent 25 years in the fitness biz, I can tell you this: it’s all crap. What follows is known by everyone. My ageing Chinchilla understands it. My coffee cup knows it. It’s such a basic premise, the industry needs to polish it to make it sexy. But it’s not. It’s dull. And it’s a fact:

Consume fewer calories; expend more energy, and weight loss will follow

There are caveats to that statement but the basis is valid. So, if you had a stable but hefty weight issue, (i.e. not gaining pounds) all you need to do is obey the above rule. If you were getting heavier, you may need to cut even more calories, or do more activity, but the fact remains.

Instead of giving you the truth, the industry relies on pseudo-science. Pseudo-science is a special branch of science in the same way that astrology sounds like astronomy. In other words, it’s not science at all. PR companies will use terms they have often coined themselves, or they’ll float actual science but wrap it up in a shell of shiny nonsense. They need to do this because it makes it sound more legitimate. I mean, if you look at the logic of it all (or lack thereof), what the weight-loss industry is trying to do is sell you their calories, when all you need to do is cut down. Weight-loss should save you money, not cost more!

But that’s where the cynicism works, or more, it doesn’t for them. They need a gullible audience. And they can use special tactics to make you a little more susceptible to their marketing ploy. This is the sinister side of things, where you are socially manipulated to loathe yourself for having a spare tyre. Well, it used to work that way. Nowadays, social media fills that role. A whole host of awful people will gladly prance about to make you feel inferior. Shiny, plastic, vacuous personalities exist to make you question your own body image. It’s a trade-off for the ages: what was once done by weight-loss pros is now performed by social media bandits, all of them after your cash. And once you stare at that small phone screen and see buns of steel and glorious abs, you might cry a little into your chocolate fudge lasagne. So, you promise to be a better person and lose some weight. You turn to the industry, and it welcomes you with open arms. Nutrition companies will sell you expensive Bam-Bam Nuggets, filled with protein and despair. Online Personal Trainers will take your cash and give you a diet & exercise plan that they’ll say is personalised to you. Hint—if an online PT doesn’t communicate personally with email – there’s nothing personal about it. Regardless, nobody will tell you the truth. None of them care to educate you. Because they know that when you learn how to lose weight, their industry is finished.

So, how do you lose weight? Well, for only 50 bucks… Kidding! I’ll lay it out right now, right here. Professional advice without any sugar-coating or a plastic wrapper. This is weight-loss for a 21st century cynic. And, of course, none of it’s easy.

  1. Stop snacking. You’re a human being, not a cow—you don’t need to graze.
  2. Learn to appreciate hunger. Constant eating is bad for our bodies. Fasting is good.
  3. Become a Fibre fan. Eat more plant-based foods that require some effort. That’s why we have molars—to grind food into a more digestible pulp. Fibre also works wonders inside of you.
  4. Eat slowly, take your time. Your body has got a terrible ‘tank full’ gauge. If you shovel food, you’ll fail. You’ll feel fuller, if you eat slower. Drink water with a meal to amplify the boredom.
  5. Cut down on:
    • Sugar. Look at the food label. If a product has more than 10g of sugars per 100g, put it down. Sugar is nasty. Tastes awesome. It’s the crack-cocaine of the food world. You should feel guilty for splurging on the white stuff. Cut it out. Every time you eat sugar, a Unicorn dies.
    • Fat. If it sizzles and drips, it’s fat (or possibly plastic, and you should NOT eat that). Full of calories. When you eat fat, a cute Amazonian species goes ‘pooft!’. Actually, if you eat Brazilian beef (most animal fats come in meat form), you’re probably displacing animals and indigenous people.
    • Dairy. Cheese is basically just fat and protein. If you want to be weaned off it, think of it as though a cow pooped a solid block of milk. Milk Poo. The white dung.
    • Booze. My personal failing. I like beer. But booze is liquid food. Not very nutritious food. But, if you want very unhealthy advice, which if you follow, you’re a fool, and you can’t sue me—if you know you’re going to have some cans, reduce your calories elsewhere.

These are just a few things that will help. You need to work on all of them to succeed. Doing one or two should have an impact but follow them all and your chances are far greater. In fact, technically, if you do all of the above in good faith—I guarantee you’ll succeed. If you don’t, you’re not being honest with yourself.

There are a few more radical things you can do. I’ll call them the Nuclear Options. These are big red reset buttons that will require substantial life changes (and further guidance).

The Exercise Tactic. Eat what you want but exercise as if your life depended on it. Because it will. One hour of hard graft for your average Joe will expend about 750 calories (very rough guide). That will get trashed by a single Big-Mac meal. Or one-and-a-half choc-chip muffins.  You want to eat Snickers all week? Then run a marathon every day. (See what I did there?).

Calorie Arithmetic. Tedious, but methodical. Count your calorie intake—all of it! You’re liable to fail, because you’ll not remember ‘that small wafer’. Even though you ate fifteen of them. You need to count everything. But there are Apps that can help you. For average Joe, consume <1800 kcals/day. For average Jane, drop to 1500 kcal/day. AND, be active.

Learn to Cook. Seriously, it’s a manual task, so you’ll burn calories while you prep your own dinner. You’ll also find the goodness in raw ingredients and learn that plastic packaging doesn’t grow in the ground. Who’d have thought it? Potatoes aren’t cuboids. And Bechamel isn’t in Lord of the Rings.

Become Vegan. It’s very difficult to be a true vegan and be fat. Or have friends. Kidding!!! But seriously, as drastic as this is, it’ll work, but it needs serious commitment to succeed. Veganism is more than a dietary choice for many. Kudos to them for that.

Now, of course, I never said it was easy. That’s why you’re probably already looking at some weight-loss chocolate bars. Hey, guess what—it won’t work. Fads don’t work. If all you can do is remember the simple equation, you’ll have a head start. And you can save your hard-earned cash. Remember:

Consume fewer calories; expend more energy.

Prove the cynic in me wrong.

Combat and Hollywood: Part Two

Guns don’t kill people, scriptwriters do…

But only when it suits the narrative. I suppose, to preface a light-hearted post, I should start with an unequivocal statement: The purpose of a gun is to kill. Whether or not it is used to do so, does not matter. A gun, like the atom bomb, is a weapon with a purpose. Said purpose: cessation of life. Let’s not quibble. I had an online discussion with someone (an American) who said guns were deterrents. They’re not. Deterrents, in the classical sense, don’t work. Nukes work. But only because (a) they’re wielded by governments who understand the consequences, and (b) they’re a tad more murderous than a 9mm Glock. And consider this: if a terrorist organisation ever gets its tiny creepy hands on a nuke, the deterrent argument will become moot. Just watch, or don’t. I will win the debate, right before I’m welded to my PVC chair. Enough depression, let’s get on with the fun stuff. But first, a beautiful unicorn to make you feel better…   

If this doesn’t reset your happy trigger, nothing will.

But guns do kill people, you say. I know so because I’ve seen it on TV, or that film with the guy that shoots folks till they’re dead. Well, I reply, go back and watch that show. Now, I freely admit I am not the first person to make an issue out of this, and I won’t be the last. But I want to tackle it with the derision and ridicule it deserves. Though, I need a copyright-free example to do it. Time to create a hero. World, meet Lexi Bamharder; a cop whose attitude is as bad as her taste in men. You know the stereotype. She’s mysteriously attracted to high-strung men on the verge of divorce. They’re always going to leave their wives, they’ve promised. But Lexi always gets stung. It’s driven her to drinking neat bourbon at a bar with no other patrons apart from the old guy, we’ll call him… Old Guy. And it’s a weird set-up. She never pays, Old Guy’s always there, and the bartender has a shotgun and a heart of gold. How the place turns a profit, only methanol Jesus knows.

That Old Guy. Every bar needs one. (The Wedding Singer, 1998, New Line Cinema)

But Lexi knows. It’s run by crooks and the bar guy’s let slip they have his family. Oh noes! Again. Lucky for us, Detective Bamharder knows where to go. She finishes her bourbon (her fifth) and jumps in her car. Normally we could dissect the inherent sexism of what car she drives, however, that’s not important. Lexi’s just downed five bourbons and she’s ignition deep in engine rumble. Someone call a cop. No, wait, she is a frickin’ cop. The hero of the story. What the hell? Hollywood blows, really. Anyway, back on track, unlike Lexi, who’d be sucking dashboard in a ditch in real life.

Lexi evades every cop in a city of ten million people, her erratic driving never having once gotten her pulled over. Did I mention—she’s white? We could change that and the film would end here. That’s another story, one I’m not qualified, or brave enough, to write. But cut to the…erm chase. She’s pulled over at the Casino. The lieutenant of the Mascarpone crime family is inside: Toblerone Sureshot. Yup, he’s deadly with a hand-cannon. His favoured weapon is the Desert Eagle. Just like his name, it’s slightly triangular. He’s also not a moron. His hired guns are notorious. Earlier on you’ve seen them shoot a top lawyer in a drive by. One shot, straight through the temple. At twenty yards. But things are about to change. The scriptwriters haven’t got a clue how to make this work. In a panic they revert to type. Guns no longer kill people, stupidity does…

Her car is now clearly parked in the Casino grounds. Somehow Lexi makes it to an unguarded fire escape. Climbing inside, she pulls out her piece. Definitely not a revolver—that’s a man cannon. Bamharder owns a svelte automatic. It smells of peaches and cream. Probably. Inching down the corridor, she confronts her first two villains. They open fire, just pistols for now. Take note, Lexi’s in a corridor. That’s a geometric space with a field of view as wide as a cow. Not, notably, the proverbial barn door. Bad guys 1 & 2 fire off several rounds each. Fortune smiles on Lexi as the FX guys have already popped exploding caps into enough woodwork to carpet a forest. Besides, she’s skilled in leaning slightly into a closed door. I mean, we can see her, Hollywood insisted she has a large bust. She’s totally visible. But those bullets just don’t work. Lexi’s turn; Bam! Bam! She always ‘bams’ harder.

Doors. Incredibly good at mesmerising bullets. (The Way of the Gun, 2000, Artisan Entertainment)

Next up, the casino floor. No more pistols. SMG’s abound. Possibly some machine pistols. Maybe a rifle or two. There are a dozen guys. All hired because they presumably have experience in killing people. But today’s not their day. As bullets drop like shiny metal rain, Lexi moves from bandit to bandit. For sure, one round will hit the jackpot and you can giggle as the cash pours out. It’s actually a metaphor for Hollywood. Shoot enough crap and one day it’ll make money. To hell with art. On the balcony she’s getting flanked. One goon leans over, stops, gives Lexi enough time to look, puff her glossy (non-alcoholic) hair from her face and squeeze off two rounds. Rather than obey physics and crumple in a heap, where he could have waited for medical assistance, he takes great pains to vault over the railing. A four-foot railing. A six-foot man. How does that work? Even when I’m not being shot by a drunken cop, I know which side of a railing to fall on. Seriously, where’s he going? What’s out of camera view? A pool of morphine? Maybe he saw Willy Wonka’s last golden ticket.

One by one the goons fall. Lexi takes cover behind the machines, an upturned roulette table, a plastic cactus, and a clear window. Nothing hits. Not even a fleck of shrapnel. Now of course, in some films and shows they do take a hit. But is it ever serious? No. They never get popped in the eye, ear, or face, and damned if any major blood vessels get hit. Always somewhere medics call ‘sexy superficial’. Where scars look cool.

It’s nearing the end of the gunfight, Lexi ascends the stairs, her outfit pristine. Now, of note, if this was a fistfight between two women, clothes would be gone. But gunfights have their own rules, and those rules are: they’re more effective than dry-cleaning at keeping denims fresh. Because Lexi still looks hot in those jeans. Me, I’d have wet myself by now. Powering to the final door, she goes in, where Toblerone Sureshot awaits. He could shoot her as she comes in. But Sureshot doesn’t kill like that. Except he does, he’s a cold-blooded executioner that never misses. Oh dear. Today’s going to be a first. Cue obligatory speeches about morality, where we’re forced to side with a drink-driving murderer who didn’t read the Miranda Rights to a single soul. Whatever, we forget why Lexi came here, assume the family is safe in a freezer truck, eating their way through frozen falafel. In that room though, where Lexi faces Toblerone, you know what happens. The outcome was inevitable the minute she downed her bourbon. Inebriated, hard-drinking, tough cops kill. Everyone. Farewell, Sureshot, today your luck ran out, today, you were created by a scriptwriter.

Why six-packs are evil

I have nothing against being healthy. In fact, I recommend it. Being healthy will be beneficial when the world crashes and we have to chase each other for food. Apocalypse is coming and hunting tins of juicy pears will reward those with greater endurance. And people with can-openers. Ironically, when that catastrophe occurs, six-packs will be the new trend. A factor of necessity. Being lean follows disaster. The collapse of gluttonous food eco-systems will reduce our daily intake of calories. Our constant movements to avoid zombies and hunt in the next wild supermarket will expend a lot of energy. Yes, if you want a six-pack, you’ll enjoy Armageddon. It’s practically impossible to exist on hunting and foraging and be overweight. Modern consumerism and automation have given us ample time to forget what a six-pack is. A six-pack is as natural as a sunrise. But we’ve smothered it in clouds of donuts, sugar, fats and plain old excess. The coming of the new zombie dawn will cure you.

I’ll get the boring physiology out of the way first. The abdominal wall (Abdominus Rectus) is banded and sectioned in basic appearance. We all have a six-pack. It’s just hidden. Flesh and bodyfat hide the physical structure. Any horror film where flesh is stripped from the body will gladly oblige your interest. Or this picture:

Beneath the skin, we’re all the same.

So, why is it evil? Well, it’s not. That’s just a dramatic title. But the pursuit of a six-pack is a path I’d not advocate. The principles are sound and extremely easy to understand. And, in fairness, it’s almost impossible not to get one, if you actually do the work. But that’s the catch. The effort and sacrifice required to achieve that narcissistic dream is phenomenal. The problem is that our bodies want to store fat. Just enough to keep as a reserve. And the level of body-fat required to reveal a six-pack is somewhere between very low and ‘hey, Barney, this guy’s dead’.

Someone went too far

There is a select group who may exhibit such torturously miniscule levels of fat—athletes. Specifically, athletes whose events/sports require a ludicrous performance to weight ratio. It’s unlikely you’ll ever see a sixteen stone high jumper (unless they’re twelve feet tall). Similarly, a sprinter needs explosive power to leave the blocks and gravity will gladly prove it loves a tubby load.

Why is it then, that in media, we gravitate to award plaudits to those with six-packs? And not the team who’s about to create a Coronavirus vaccine? Why are we obsessed with that level of body dysmorphia? Well, one guess. Marketing. Hollywood isn’t so bad these days in terms of throwing glistening bodies in your face. Unless, of course you watch some Michael Bay films. But really, it’s all down to a manufactured fascination, thrown onto our screens by serial frauds and those who wish to capitalise on your awful physical condition. For example, the report: Global Weight Management Market Report 2019: Industry Trends, Share, Size, Growth, Opportunity and Forecasts, 2011-2018 & 2019-2024, suggests the global worth of the weight management industry will be worth almost $270 billion by 2024. In comparison, analysts at Zion Market Research expect the global fast-food market share to exceed $690 billion in 2022. To put it in plain potatoes: for every $5 we spend on take-out we don’t need, we spend another $2 trying to perform damage limitation. Pure sadism.

Probably 1,000+ calories. Farewell my sweet six-pack

And that’s why six-packs are evil. You are the innocent victim in a war soon to be worth almost one trillion dollars. One side wants you to eat more (bad for six-packs), and the other side also wants you to eat more (of their awful low-calorie products). Stuck in the middle is exercise (globally worth about $75 billion). Now, admittedly, these are just numbers, but the market weight behind them mean you’re exposed to heinous amounts of misinformation and sugar-coating of the truths.

So, what is the truth? If you want a six-pack, prepare to lose friends because all you’ll do is talk about your new exercise routines and your diet of dang-dang berries and hummingbird milk. You’ll also start following several braindead Instagram ‘personalities’ (I choked just typing that). Chad Flexpec* and Anna Bolic* will grace your mobile screens with so much saturated flesh lunacy you’ll wish you could only see in black and white. But you’ll stick to your guns and cry into your Nepalese Goat wheat cereal as your last friend Ubers off to the pub. You’ll look in the mirror and think some phantom’s haunting your bathroom—but it’s you, because your face has collapsed. Everybody says you look great but you wonder why they’re always grimacing. Only your mum will tell you the truth. You look awful, she’ll say. And she’s right. But still, you soldier on, through bad moods and cravings. And you’ll get there. When all your real friends are out having fun, and your mother’s trying to have you institutionalised, you’ll see it. The six-pack. The product of vanity; the bottom of the barrel. But where do you go from here? You know where. To find your friends, apologise, and start being a good human being again.

* Once again, these people are figments, created for comedy effect. If they’re real, they shouldn’t be. And I’m sorry.

Combat and Hollywood: Part One

One at a time please (the enigma of group combat)

True, there are rare occasions where carnage ensues in a grand melee. But there is an unspoken rule of film etiquette that all ‘barnies’ are settled with decorum and civility. In essence, this is an extension of Lazy Writing.

Picture the scene. No, don’t bother. Pictures misrepresent the emotional and tumultuous aspect of a brawler’s mind. As Atticus Finch said, you’ve got to wear someone’s shoes to get a feeling for who they are. So, step into the shoes of the antagonist, one of twelve. They’ve encircled the hero. Let’s call him (or her, or them) Jackson Hammerstrike, the meanest PI in Sewer City. Jackson’s a legend. All the crime bosses know of their antics. (Strangely, none had thought to assassinate them with a sniper rifle, or a car bomb, or poison). Anyway, Jackson’s the centre dot of a clockface and every hour mark is a leering psycho waiting to rip out some guts. You know the ensemble. There’s the big bald guy, built like a Bentley, IQ of an Oxo cube. There’s almost definitely a token oriental. There shouldn’t be. That guy from Kyoto should be a maniac on Nintendo, not knives. Give us a break Hollywood. There’s maybe a chick. One of two moulds. Horrifically stereotyped; manly and butch, or super-sexy and oozing duvet appeal. And you know at some point hers and Jackson’s eyes will meet in a pointless moment of ‘will they, won’t they?’ – NO! They won’t. He’s going to kill her; Jackson’s a problem drinker and unadulterated mass-murderer. But it’s fine, It’s Hollywood.

John Wick gets a free ride; don’t diss Keanu – They killed his dog, man! (John Wick, Summit Entertainment, 2014)

I’ll fast forward. It’s necessary to point out the absolute nonsense of the scene. In the next five minutes of (admittedly comical) fight choreography, someone will throw something at the hero. Hell, it might stick. A hefty pole will be wielded. Again, it will likely make a comedy ‘boing’ sound as it hits Jackson. But Jackson won’t stay down. Ding, ding, round two. Point is, none of these actions will happen until an obscene amount of fist-waving and foot-flailing has taken place. You know the sounds. Go get a steak from the freezer. Defrost it, half way. Start punching it. That’s a good noise right there. That’s knuckles humping face meat. Of course, you won’t hear Jackson scream as the metacarpals shatter under the relentless grind of baddie beating.

Ouchies (courtesy Handandwristinstitute.com)

Now, all these seasoned serial killers and professional hard-guys know the score. Jackson’s tough as a squirrel’s nuts. So, they’ve got their guy surrounded. All they need to do is advance, close the space, and BLAM! Jackson’s heroics end under a barrage of nastiness not seen since Westlife covered Manilow’s Mandy. So, they win, right? No, they don’t. Why? Because Hollywood dictates one simple mantra: Bad guys queue.        

Squirrel Nuts. Don’t be offended. Nature is beautiful, or not.

And so follows a scene of predictable, meat-slapping nonsense. Strangely, it will also mimic the abstract progression of a PC game. You know, the weakest fighter attacks first. Their mode of attack is universal: an overhand slice with a kitchen knife or a tyre iron. Jackson either catches the weapon and knocks opponent #1 out, or, sidesteps and sends them into a convenient pile of clattering objects. The scenario will dictate whether it’s an improbable display of canned beans, or a pile of scrap metal. Either way, it will be noisy.  And silly. You need some comedy to lighten up death.

We can give Hollywood plaudits for one thing. Whether Jackson is a man or a woman, their top will be ripped off. Cue rippling abs and either (A) well-defined pecs, usually clean shaven, or (B) a sports-bra Jackson bought at fifteen, now positively oozing flesh. Let’s face it, you wouldn’t date either of these narcissistic maniacs. You would? Weirdo.

Bet your bottom dollar, this shirt’s coming off. (The Transporter, Canal+, 2002)

Cue the final battle. It is Donkey Kong. This guy is the same, or a bigger version of Bentley-Oxo (let’s call them BO). Jackson throws a punch. BO grins. I imagine it’s because after so much punching, Jackson’s hand is a jelly mould of pain. Any bone they once had has turned to dust, floating in a puffy fist-sack of blood and apathy. BO grabs Jackson and throws them across the room. Choose your target: another pile of cans, or more scrap metal. Our hero recovers (do they have to?) and thus begins the five-minute boss-battle. That guy from Kyoto would kick ass here. This is console heaven, a Tekken-esque fight of supreme silliness. Toward the end, both combatants are weary. To bring in science, this is probably a lactic acid build up. After five minutes of fighting, a heart-pounding activity, the system can’t keep up with demand. Lactic builds up, limbs feel heavy. There’s no respite. Adrenaline won’t work, it’s already been spent. Only rest can solve this dilemma. Rest and carbs. But Jackson doesn’t need science. He’s a figment of some nerdy dream. He starts to slug faster and faster. Hitting BO enough times in the face to make pumpkin soup. But it’s not enough to knock him out. This is end of level bad guy. Hollywood requires stupidity. Searching for the options: a chain, a spike embedded in the ground (who risk assessed this room?), a hook on a wall—Jackson finds his mark. There’s an open electrical box that’s clearly failed its annual safety inspection. With a leaping, flying roundhouse, Jackson shows Atticus Finch what shoes are for. His size tens plough into BO’s braindead face, sending him into a lightshow that goes on long enough to imply the fuses are redundant and the place had no RCB’s installed.  

Jackson wins. Quips something cool. Hollywood rubs its hands. The main casualty (apart from your brain) is the owner of the place where the fight happened. Several dead bodies and enough health and safety breaches to bring down Jupiter. Yeah. Maybe I’ll write a real-life version of that fight. That’d be cool… and short. Chop chop, Jackson—times up.

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Bun-Buster 3000

You don’t know how it happens. But it does. Like tapping your foot to music you profess to hate. The number on the screen is rising; 55, 56, 57…. It’s bad. You’ve passed by drama, sport, even the news. If you were 16, you’d be looking for channels higher up. But behold, it arrives before your very eyes; television’s answer to psychological euthanasia. It’s QVC. Or any derivative of the theme.

Most people realise their error, flick away, or switch to Netflix, Amazon, etc. Some might seek counselling for venturing too far from 5 USA +1 (a channel so grainy you think you’ve developed cataracts).  But if you stay, you’ll see so many treats. Over decades I’ve seen too much. I really think I’ve seen the Bun-Buster 3000.

Like the Thighmaster, the Bullworker, the Spankhammer (okay, I made that one up); the Bun-Buster 3000 is an enigma. Not a toy, and in my view, inconsistent with the term ‘exercise’; nonetheless, it is paraded as a miracle worker.

On screen is a well-toned model. She, or he, is awesome. I mean, they have to look great, they use the Bun-Buster 3000, don’t they? I rarely see these things, usually I’m ambushed by them during adverts while I watch Columbo.

No sir, I never used the Bun-Buster 3000. But my wife did. (Columbo, Universal Television)

So, we watch Tina Tautbuns and Johnny Pecs* toying with the Bun-Buster 3000. What you see is the convergence of misdirection, hope, and sales. Tina and Johnny grin and grimace in ways no normal human can. They emit irritating sound-bites from their flapping mouths. Titanium white teeth reflect every studio light; it’s mesmerising. It’s pure fantasy. They’re selling you a lie.

But you know it. Don’t you? Tina’s surgically augmented and Johnny can name more steroids than you can mammals. And even if they’re natural, they don’t train with Bun-Buster 3000. They train for hours in air-conditioned gyms or expensive home-studios. Besides, the BB-3000 is nothing more than a squat assist device (a seatless office chair you stick your ass on). It can’t do abs, pecs, biceps. It’s no more effective at burning calories than standing up from any chair. In fact, it’s spring-loaded; it’s easier than using a chair. But the show flashes images of every angle of butt. You get 10 or 15 minutes of hypnotic gyrations, Tina and Johnny hi-fiving like morons. They make it look as though they’re having a good time. You could too. NOOOOOO! Wake up. I’ve worked in gyms for quarter of a century. I’ve lifted weights for over three decades. Exercise doesn’t make you smile. I wouldn’t even say it’s fun. Sport is fun. Being outdoors is fun. But these guys are in a studio, armour clad in Lycra while bouncing on a spring-loaded pillar to the tune of third-rate porn music.

Just as your senses are returning, the host pulls out the killer-weapon. The graphic. Don’t look! Before I can throw my beer at the screen, the host talks to a sponsored physician. Now they’re pointing at a 3-D animation of the gluteus maximus (what Gladiator called his twins of steel).

“See how the Bun-Buster 3000 works the gluteals?” Doc says.

“Wow,” replies the host, clearly tripping on acid. “The red zones, is that where the magic happens?”

“Sure is,” Doc says. “We can see the awesome impact the Bun-Buster is having on Tina’s Glutes.”

It’s clearly not Tina’s ass. Or Johnny’s. But they sell it as if it’s real. Rather than what it is: a cartoon sales pitch to make you think there’s science involved. But there isn’t any science, not as they explain it. The Bun-Buster 3000 is going to sit in your cupboard. If it survives that long. Truth out; I had a Bullworker. It worked, insofar as it was a metal tube with a spring inside. But it wasn’t fun, ergonomic, or helpful. The first real thing that worked was a set of dumbbells my father brought home. Then, I got a weights bench. Then, I got strong. But it didn’t happen with the Bun-Buster 3000.

The Bullworker. You can sense his fear; an accident is imminent.

I don’t want to leave you deflated. You want something to aid your fitness journey. I can help. For free. A ‘product’ you don’t even need to pack away after use. It takes up no space. And, it’s everywhere. Is it magic? No, it’s gravity. All you need is the ground. Squats, press-ups, sit-ups, planks, the list is long. You don’t need gimmicks; you need you, a planet, and a little motivation. Go get ’em tiger, I’ve got to get back to Columbo.

* For the purpose of clarity, Tina Tautbuns and Johnny Pecs are fabrications. No similarity to any persons is intended. But if they were your names, you ought to change them.