New Years Resolutions? Just Say No.

We’re now well into the Western New Year and perhaps I’m a little late to the party. Well, no problem, I don’t do parties and neither should you. Parties are for children and clowns, or politicians and celebrities. You and me? For my part, I’m way happier sitting with my wife by my side, slurping a beer and munching crisps while watching a re-run of Columbo at 480p on an ultra-HD 55” TV. The stark contrast of technology and 70’s cinematography reminds me I’m alive. Now, that’s a party.  

But what about those resolutions, I hear you cry. Just like parties, resolutions are beholden to certain groups: politicians (again, they have all the fun, especially dictators; they love a resolution), special committees, and, well, I’m not sure who else. Maybe the UN. Or the WHO—you know, huge global entities that need to make resolutions. And this is a good place to ask: are you a huge global entity? Sure, it’s a hell of a moniker to insult an overweight person but no—you’re not a global entity. Nor should you use that term as I just suggested. This is a nice place; it’s not suited to bad thoughts.

The resolutions you’re thinking of might be things such as:

  • I promise not to eat chocolate more than three nights a week, or
  • I’ll abstain from alcohol for one month, or
  • I will join the gym, or
  • I’ll refrain from posting mentally deranged conspiracy theories on social media

Well, apart from the last one, I have helpful advice on the general notion of resolutions. If the last point is on your agenda, I’d suggest you book yourself into a secure padded room and eat the key; everybody is out to get you and you’re very much safer inside—away from the rest of the world.

So, what is a resolution? Ready? Ready? Look up, here comes the penny drop. A resolution is an abstraction of something somebody wants you to become involved with. A resolution, at least the concept of it, is a sales tool to make you briefly alter your life trajectory by buying into somebody else’s lifestyle scam. Instantly, you can derail my cynicism by pointing out that eating or drinking less costs nothing—in fact, it will save you money. Correct. But, and there’s always a bigger but at this time of year, people replace their vices with something else. Raise your hand if own a Nutribullet, or some form of Ninja inspired fruit pulper. Admit it. Don’t be afraid. As for point three—joining a gym—that definitely has a cost, though, at this time of year there are an abundance of offers. Why? Because they’re zeroing in on the monetary benefit of resolutions.

Are all resolutions mired in profit? No, of course not. If your resolution involves helping others without fleecing them, then your New Year change of course is noble. Taking stock of how messed up our planet has become and wishing to change it would also be a worthwhile thing to do. Go clean your local beach by picking up the plastic and associated mess so that you can then can bury it in a greenfield site in the countryside. Ouch, that was nasty of me but my cynicism runs deep. If you really want to help the planet, insist on using cardboard or other non-plastics—and still go clean the beach or river. Maybe dump all of it in the middle of a concrete metropolis. Save the green and lush countryside and forests by destroying our cities instead. This is too dark; I’ll get back to the fitness angle.

Why are fitness resolutions bad? Intrinsically, they’re not. But what so few people realise is that (just like Mothering Sunday), it’s all about making you spend money elsewhere in time. Your desire to change your behaviour shouldn’t cost you money. If it does, you’re a puppet dangling under the influence of somebody else’s hand. That can seem an unfair judgement but it’s all about timing. Why make a resolution now? Why does it take a period of relaxation and excess to make you want to change behaviour? Simple—it’s guilt. And by buying into the resolution fad at this time of year, you’re doing nothing more than following a well-worn path of socially manipulated consumerism.

Don’t do it. Take stock of your life and look beyond the past four weeks. I’ve seen the clear trends over 26 ½ years. Every single January, without fail, I see the faces of people I see for one-quarter of the year. People who return to the gym with religious zeal in January, who become more moderate in February, and then by March they’re really nothing more than whispers of people I know who I’ll see again the following January. And every year, they get larger. And greyer. It doesn’t have to be like this. You don’t need an abstracted moment in time to make decisions about where your life should be heading.

Then, what is a real resolution? Bad news—it’s nothing but another Unicorn of whatever industry is taking advantage of your current slump. There are no real resolutions. To resolve is to make an attempt to overcome a problem, or to change an attribute that requires to be ‘solved’. And it doesn’t require a window in time to make that promise to oneself—you can do it in any of twelve months of the year. A resolution is nothing but a decision to alter an outcome, or to change a metaphorical direction in life. People will say a resolution is a promise to oneself, a contract, to secure something better. Those are nothing but glorified words for something so simple as a decision. After all, the notion that a resolution holds any permanence through promise is squashed by the reality that so many fail. And if you believe your resolution is special and it fails to deliver you to happiness, then what of the feelings of failure? It is better to say no to resolutions and instead take stock of your life and how you wish it to be.

Think of what can be done to improve what you are, where you are. Put on the old thinking-hat and consider if there are realistic ways to better your situation. Does it need to involve money or can it be done through sheer will and determination? Hint—if it’s not realistic, set it aside for now. You can play with that toy later. As an example, consider my dream. I want to be a successful and published author. My current submission is failing to gain any interest from agents; what can I say, they don’t get me. But my mini-dream is easy to fulfil, I can self-publish, and I know there is an audience out there, so in that small way I will be one step closer to my dream. My super-dream is to become comfortable financially through writing alone—to be able to quit my day job. For now, that is the toy I can’t play with. But this is the reality of change; it is better to take baby-steps to make something happen and to plan for it beyond the fiction of New Year. Just ask yourself: what do I need to do to be where I want to be? And then find the very smallest thing you can do to start that journey. You don’t need a fancy resolution for that—you just need a plan, even a simple one. So go, start planning. But remember, keep it real. Stay away from those pesky Unicorns.

Exercise will not make you happy

In mortal life there are some universal truths. The sky above, the ground below; though, I suppose even that can be rebuked by an astronaut (or someone flying on ridiculous ‘space’ flights laid on by egomaniacal billionaires—I’m not fussy who you imagine that to be, but there are three of them). Such fleeting rarities aside, there are truths to which the vast majority of human experience has been conditioned to accept. Most make sense, most are there to keep us in line and temper our expectations; for without realistic ambition, humanity would be chaos.

In my industry, we sell a lie every day. In fact, we sell more than one. That’s not to say we do it with malice or malcontent. No, the messages the fitness industry delivers to the masses are there to ‘align’ expectation to the upper margins of what you may one day achieve. The problem with the messages we deliver is that they miss out so much of what will hamper you, what will disappoint you, and ultimately, what may defeat you.

A conservative estimate from my own experience would be that 90%+ of all gym users attend their local torture centre for one primary purpose—to lose weight. We are told this through almost every portion of practically every media source: exercise and weight loss go hand-in-hand. This message is foisted upon the many to elicit a response of exercise compliance, but—shock horror—it’s just not true.  I’m sure you’re trying to grapple with this statement. To make it super easy, I’ll lay it out in practical thermodynamics. And, I’ve covered this before. In fact, I’ve probably hoodwinked you in an earlier article. Well, if I did, clearly, I lied. People assume if they jump on a bike, go for a 5km run, or do some weights a few times a week, they’ll see a tangible metamorphosis. However, three weekly sessions might only make use of 1000 Kcals (if you’re being enthusiastic). Across the scope of one week, I can easily consume that 1000 Kcals. If starting exercise from scratch, you might actually end up eating more food to compensate for the sudden energy demands. Post work-out ‘munchies’, if you prefer. This is the first inconvenient truth: exercise uses energy that can be replaced far too easily. If you replace what you ‘burn off’, you’ll find it very awkward to shift the blubber.

So, given exercise on its own won’t work—surely dieting will? Absolutely. However, that also falls into the realm of thermodynamics and energy conservation. If you were consuming a stable calorific intake and your weight was also stable, then a reduction in calories would facilitate weight loss. Notice, I don’t say fat loss. Dieting alone will result in the body being unscrupulous with where it finds the calories it needs. Fatty tissue, stored carbohydrates (glycogen), and protein (muscle tissue), will all be catabolised in a low-calorie environment. But hey—at least you will lose weight. For a while. Once again, practical physiologically will kick in. As your body sheds weight, the energy cost to mobilise and move around is reduced; whether it be shopping for soulless diet food or having a depressingly fatiguing work-out, you’ll be expending fewer calories. The truth is, as you get lighter, you need less food, therefore your diet becomes less effective. To lose more weight, you need to eat even less, and that’s not really something to be enthusiastic about.

If you’ve got some smarts you’ll be shouting at the screen, telling me that you need to do exercise and diet to lose weight. And yes, that is true. There are some in the scientific field, however, who rally against that approach and suggest obesity is not affected by diet or exercise. They point to hormonal imbalances and other factors that result in becoming heavily overweight. Suffice to say, I disagree and while I accept there are some cases where metabolic disorders affect weight, the vast majority of cases are bound by thermodynamic laws (energy balance is everything). My case is very simple: the prevalence of obesity is a modern condition. It can only be found in cultures with an abundance of calorific food. Obesity exists because we have the capacity to over-consume. Case in point to shock the system: There were no obese prisoners of war. It’s a grim statement to make but it validates the case for thermodynamics. As does famine, drought, and any number of horrendous human inflicted atrocities throughout the ages. There’s no way I can make this a humorous point. But it is damming evidence to argue against obesity as a purely hormonal defect. No food = death.

The above paragraph started with the obvious statement: exercise and diet will help weight loss. Mostly true. But once again, there are calorific realities: How much exercise, at what intensity, and how strict is the diet? These things matter. Cutting down on pies while walking an extra mile won’t do a great deal. Run a marathon instead and there will be fairly rapid changes but that would be a drastic step. Which conveniently leads to the opening title.

Exercise will not make you happy. If it does, I’d suggest you see a psychologist. Exercise is a tool, much as a brace helps to straighten teeth, or a bone lengthening operation will grant someone an extra inch in height. Are they fun? Perhaps for the sadistic doctor involved but for the patient, I’d imagine the answer is a resounding ‘NO’. The end result is the gain. And yes, while some will say ‘but I love exercise’, I would say to you—awesome—you’ve got it made. But to sell that as a thing; to suggest to the wider audience that it is fun becoming hot and sweaty, to experience fatigue and muscle pain, is a great mistruth. Exercise is anathema to species survival and while in nature it is used by certain animals to develop ‘skills’, this can only happen when calories allow. Exercise for its own purpose is an unnatural state of being. Games and socialising are fundamental to a human experience but the exercise part is just a tool. And those in my field, or those who read this blog and tout various solutions to their own readers need to understand that. For thousands of years we have survived, learning how to conserve resources and energy. We’re primed to store the damn stuff (calories) but in evolutionary terms, we’re loathe to use it up (it is why we put on fat so easily—it is what nature intends).   

If we want to improve ourselves, or we want to help someone else to do so, the primary focus needs to be: What will I, or they, enjoy doing? Exercise and diet are only tools—they are not solutions. The solution is more holistic and more personal. On top of all of that, you’ve also got the motivational unicorn to contend with (another story altogether – link might be broken on mobile, post from March 2021).

What is today’s lesson? The fitness industry likes to massage the harder truths. Most ‘life’ or gym coaches think you’re just like them, when the last thing you want is to run a marathon or eat Gwang-Gwang berries (not a real thing – don’t bother with Google). People are unique and exercise isn’t fun. Diets suck and so does preaching.

Go have fun. When we stop fussing over perfection, we’ll all be so much happier.

Time to call it a day?

Not the blog; at least, not yet. I’m talking about lifting heavy. Those big presses and pulls that draw blood and sweat from every pore. Isolation work that burns with infernal intensity. And even if you don’t train that hard, there is still a point in life when you just have to accept the harsh reality—one day you have to go light.

Now, to be clear, growing old does not mean giving up. It doesn’t mean you can’t be strong. But there are changes in our body as we age that require some reflection. As I approach my fifties, to me, that change is how long it takes to recover from injury. Not serious damage but those little niggles that prey on your tendons and joints. That insignificant twang when you were eighteen years old becomes a cacophony of pulled tendons, a resounding chorus repeating for months on end. It’s as though every injury from the past thirty years developed a photographic memory; each bundle of abused fibres suddenly recalling what it was you did wrong with a bicep curl in 1995. Oh, the folly of youth to think we were indestructible. We might forget that we never warmed up properly, or that we trained too frequently, but one day your accumulated exercise foibles will come back to haunt you. And once Scrooge, the ghost of exercise past, drags his chains around your creaking joints, there can be no happy ending to your tale of glory.

Damn, is it really that grim? No, of course it isn’t but this is my blog and I like drama. Though, it is still a pertinent point that as we age, we need to consider the structural integrity of our bodies. No matter how careful we are with our physical endeavours, there are consequences to every lift, pull, skip and jump we do. Our articulated joints have a covering of cartilage which reacts well to moderate exercise. This self-healing surface can absorb and protect us from physical stresses. Consider when we jump from a height to the ground, such as when we were children and those things were just plain fun. Or, as adults, when we drink a little too much and think we’re kids again. Jumping from shed roofs while being filmed by a giggling accomplice, the result being a hit on social media as you writhe in pain afterwards. You get the point. Heavy, infrequent impacts are diminished by our cartilage. But what about heavy, frequent impacts?

We are not jackhammers. I’d say ‘pneumatic drill’ but jackhammer is a far cooler word to use. Say it; jackhammer. Ooh! I’m pretty sure there’s a crappy pulp-fiction detective with that name out there. But anyway, we’re not one of those. Machines are designed and purposed for repetitive action and even then, those machines will also wear out. Unlike machines, our parts are not so easily replaced, and when they are, they’re never as good as the real thing. The cyberpunk future is not yet here—the metal joints they drill into your bones in surgery are not cool. You are not Johnny Silverhand. Or Cable. And if you don’t know who they are, go and Google. Yeah, you’ll never be as awesome as them.

All those repetitive impacts, delivered without proper attention to technique or recovery, pile up a multitude of problems for later life. Ageing itself begins to break down those protective articular surfaces, and what we do in youth, is compounded on top. To sum it up: the harder you train, the greater your pensioner pain.

So, you’re approaching fifty and want to know how to stop the damage. Not just to cartilage but also your tendons and muscle. Can you turn back the clock? No. Go back and read the last paragraph, it should make it clear. If you’re like me, it’s too late. That’s exactly why at a point in time you have to reconsider how you train. You’ve put in all those hours; you made the grade and lifted the weight of a small brown bear. But now the bear’s nibbling your shoulder joints. It’s clawing at your tendons. It’s time to put the bear down. Besides, who the hell lifts bears? Actually, isn’t there a religious cult that does that? I think they’re Scottish – the Press-bear-tarians. I may have lost you on that one. I apologise.

Dropping the weight and lifting something lighter is, for many men and women, the equivalent of that moment in a Hollywood starlet’s life when the phone stops ringing. One wrinkle too many and the jobs dry up, just like your skin. Relegated to playing support roles or alcoholic mothers-in-law—be in no doubt—the glamour days are over. It’s hard to take. Most gym nuts will refuse to accept the truth and keep going heavy. I’ve seen the damage that does. A woman who trained far too hard in her forties, who one day ripped a tendon trying to pick up an ankle strap that had ‘Velcroed’ itself to the gym carpet. All because time had caught up with her arduous days of lifting super-heavy weights. It’s a terrible dawning of realisation: when Velcro is stronger than your connective tissue.  

So, if I lift lighter will I shrink? Yes. To an extent you will. But you’ll not look feeble. I think that’s a fear all lifters have. You have to rationalise what it is you’re trying to achieve, namely, longevity. Sure, you looked beefy as hell in your twenties, all rippling like a skin-coloured tide. Your thirties were spent being well-above average, lording it over your age-peers even as your hair was thinning. Up and into your forties you were still something special. But what do you want to be in your fifties or sixties? How about on crutches, or in a wheelchair? You only have one body with a sub-standard selection of replacement parts. If you want to enjoy the next thirty years, it’s time to have a heart-to-heart with your ego. And to be utterly blunt; steroid abusing pensioners look ridiculous.

You don’t have to give up too much size. Or strength, for that matter. You can lift lighter weights with a slower cadence. Instead of grunting a 1:1 up/down ratio, you can try the oppressively difficult 2:1:4. Pioneered by the guys that brought you Nautilus in the eighties, training that accentuates the eccentric phase of a lift is beneficial to strength but restricts the load you can move. And for those that don’t know about resistance training, basically, it means go slow on each lift. What was once a 100Kg bench press will become a 60Kg load. And it’ll feel harder to boot.

You could also diversify your exercise portfolio. Go mad and try Yoga. By all accounts it’s an excellent system. In truth, I know it to be true but it’s not for me. And I know, if you’re used to lifting anything remotely heavy, something as ‘airy’ as Yoga might be a stretch too far, no pun intended. So just lift light and slow, okay? You can try Yoga in your next reincarnation.

And if you’re young and haven’t yet reached the decrepitude of a 47-year-old former exercise enthusiast, what should you do? Ignore me, of course. You’re young, you’re indestructible—you don’t even make a noise when you bend over to tie your shoe-laces. Just make sure you come back here in twenty-five years so I can say, ‘I told you so.’ Because I will—it’s one of the pleasures of growing old; chastising others for repeating the same mistakes we made. By then perhaps I can be Johnny Silverhand. Who? What do you mean, who? Good grief, I give up.

How to Succeed in Your Fitness Journey to Becoming the Body Beautiful

It’s very probable you’ve already read a dozen such blog posts as this. Go on, open another browser tab and look at some new shoes. You’re already bored of what I’m about to say. Except you can’t possibly know what I’m about to say because I’m unhinged. I’m the Martin Riggs of fitness. You might need to Google ‘Lethal Weapon’. And you’ll want to skip Mr Gibson’s less than savoury historical remarks. I digress. Yeah, I’m a Kosher Riggs. When he was lovable.

Where was I? Oh yeah—this isn’t another motivational blog post with the bog-standard rules about getting fit and how to do it in 5 reps. Nope. I can’t lie to you about all that nonsense. Getting fit isn’t a bloody soundbite—it’s a mission. And it’s not easy; if it was, everybody would be in good shape and I wouldn’t feel the pressing urgency to write more blog drivel. But I am, so lace up your gutties* and stare with utter disdain at those bronzed Instagram airheads. It’s time for a ride.

*Gutties (noun): Scottish slang for sneakers or training shoes

To quote Chuck Palahniuk, “You are not a unique and beautiful snowflake”. Well, if you are, you probably suffer from a genetic birth disorder or life has otherwise altered your capacity for activity. I can say that without fear of reprisal—I have my nerve damage and use a leg brace. I’m still not unique, though. Mobility impaired, but otherwise I still have goals. And all humans have the same initial propensity to achieve those goals. So, what is it that makes it so damn hard to be just like Dwayne Johnson or every other body beautiful icon?

Time. “Time is the fire in which we burn” (Delmore Schwartz, though, more famously used in a Star Trek TNG movie). Today’s a day of stealing quotes. To achieve an incredible physique takes time. We’re not simply talking years of toil. It’s the hours per day, days per week. If you want the physical appearance of a demi-god, you better hope you can work out for 2-3 hours a day, 4-6 days a week. The exquisitely honed forms you see on the big screen, or more likely these days, on your own streaming device, are a product of fantasy. Fantasy and investment. I have nothing against Dwayne Johnson. In fact, I hope he reads this, learns I have a book in the works and wants to play the title character. He’d actually work. Dwayne, or Jason Momoa. Henry Cavill would be great but he’s white. Damn shame, Cavill’s a PC geek like me that does weights. But the lead role is dark-skinned. Come on guys, email me…. Anyway, what Hollywood provides to us as perfect body image is practically unobtainable for the average Joe and Jane. You have a 9-5 job, maybe kids. A small yappy dog that needs walking. You need to fit in your online gaming/gambling/shopping addiction. In short—time is of the essence. Let’s not forget, most folks don’t have a home gym. Even if you do, it’s probably not fit for purpose. Nor will it give you the scope of activity to make you worthy of your seat on Mount Olympus. That means going to a gym. Good god, the thought of it… A public gym. The fact that most celebs that look awesome train for hours a day means time is the first barrier to your own success. So, how do us mere mortals achieve our goals?

Get Realistic. Get used to being a homogenous humanoid flesh sack. You need to look at the life you have now and decide what time you can sacrifice to the gods to allow you to focus on your physique. If you can only offer one hour a day, three days a week, you’ll need to rein in those aspirations. Or, take a lot of steroids. DON’T DO THAT! In fairness, even pro-bodybuilders (who absolutely do use anabolic drugs) train for 2-3 hours per day, 4-6 days per week. And they train hard. If you don’t feel comfortable with the idea of vomiting after each workout, you’ll never be a proper bodybuilder. It’s incredibly icky. So, you need to be realistic about what you can achieve. Even if you don’t desire the build of a condom stuffed with walnuts and you decide upon a simple six-pack, you’re in for a shock. ALL muscular stereotypical templates require huge sacrifice. So, you ask, what can I achieve?

Athleticism. To weigh as much as a normal man or woman and look ‘fit’ is the pinnacle of fitness aesthetics. To be a man-mountain requires a hefty weight penalty. If you and Dwayne had to cross a rickety wooden bridge, I’d make him go second. Though, of course, that would prove awkward unless he wanted to wrestle and you brought a gun. Point is, being light and looking good is achievable. Imagine not having to turn sideways to walk through a narrow doorway. See? There are benefits to not being built like a brick shithouse. Making your ideal physique an achievable goal is the first step on your fitness journey. Dreams are wonderful things but you need to understand they are only dreams. So very few of us get what we want. But, if you can focus on something you can actually achieve, when you get there, you’ll feel on top of the world. But… it still requires graft.

Effort. You’ve scheduled your training time. You can do 4 hours a week. Guess what? Yup, those four hours must count. You want to look amazing? You’ll need to work out until you feel so far from amazing it hurts. If you wanted a health outcome, that’s great. It’s so easy to be healthy you practically only need to walk at a brisk pace for 30 minutes a day. Whoop! Bronze star for you. Healthy and looking ‘okay’? All you need is mediocre effort with some push ups, squats and what-not thrown in. Silver star for you. If you wish to achieve the Gold award, you need to put in some top-level effort. Again, people who look good, no matter how odious they are, train hard. If you can only train for four hours a week and you want maximum return on your investment, you need to train near maximum as well. But what is maximal effort?

Failure. I’ve not quoted someone for quite some time. Let’s quote Mythbusters. Particularly Adam Savage.

Failure is always an option.

But more, in application of effort in exercise, failure is everything. Now, I’m not suggesting you die on a treadmill or burst into flames on a rowing machine. That’s not failure—that’s voodoo. But to push your body until it cannot complete a set of 10 reps… that my friend, is failure. And it means you have pushed the system beyond its energy or strength threshold. What does that mean? Apart from being really sore for a day or two, it means you pushed the limits to the point your physiological feedback mechanisms will try to compensate. Whaaaaat? Yeah, it’s a bit technical. However, in brief, when you ask your body to perform beyond its limits, biological mechanisms will be put into play that will try and adapt to the new stress. The way your body adapts to physical stress is to become ‘fitter’ for that purpose. You become stronger, or develop more endurance, depending upon the training stimulus. Sounds awesome. But there is one massive caveat.

Fuel and nutrition. If you don’t know already, athletes and bodybuilders have the most boring and dull diets. Body fat and muscle mass are intrinsically tied to the stuff you cram into your mouth. You don’t need any supplements to look good. I mean, that’s a separate article and by god that industry is the devil. Stay well away from it. But you do need to eat well. A diet rich in lean meat and starchy carbohydrates is essential. More, you‘ll need to dispense with the pleasures of cheesecake and pizza unless your calorie expenditure is higher than the GDP of a small nation. In short, if you want to look really good, your diet needs to become really strict. As in, awful and dull strict. I also need to address the vegans among us. A vegan diet is incredibly beneficial if done well but it is a challenge. Anyone who says otherwise is a stooge. But if you choose that path (and I absolutely praise you for it) please do your research. Now, you train hard and your diet is good. What next?

Patience. We’re not building Lego here. The only things that grow fast are plants, fungi, and national debt. They say Rome wasn’t built in a day. Of course it wasn’t—that’s a stupid expression. My garden fence wasn’t even built in one day. Idiots. Not my contractors, the philosopher that came up with the Rome example. A city, in one day? That’s just lame. Patience is required. I’ve mentioned calorie burn rate in previous posts. I’ll not repeat them here. Yeah—go trawl through my blog. I took the time to write it, you can take the time to find it. The penultimate challenge is being patient. Building muscle takes time. Burning fat takes time. Fine tuning your diet to get that balance takes time. In short, ironically, it takes a long time. And the farther you are from your goal, the more patience you’ll require to get there. It will be worth it. Yet, there’s a niggle bothering you. I said patience is the penultimate challenge. As Yoda said: There is another.

Relapse. It will happen. You’ll see gains for a while and then they’ll stop. You’ll question your approach. You’ll doubt your application, your desire. You’ll say, “Ah, screw this!” and then plunge head first into a pizza laden with so many toppings the delivery guy pulled a groin strain delivering it. Pizza first, then a cheesecake, fifteen beers and a night in the garden arguing with squirrels and fighting sparrows. Never fight sparrows, their sheer numbers will overwhelm you. And the squirrels will steal your smartphone and take candid pics and send them to your mum. That’s the worst part of relapse—we’ve all been there. Your geographic location may require a change of animal voyeur. I pity those with bears for neighbours. Or raccoons. Or skunks. I saw a Skunk while on vacation in downtown Vancouver once. Truly weird.

But don’t worry. Relapse is normal. In fact, as a fitness professional with 26 years-experience, I can say that if you don’t relapse, you’re a liar. It’s human nature to question the futility of endeavour. But it’s also human nature to overcome that doubt. I mean, look at you now, you’ve read almost 1800 words of drivel posted by a guy you don’t even know. By the gods, you must have some crazy mental stamina. I know you will succeed.

Ultimately, the key to achieving fitness success is to understand the challenges you face and to ensure your aspirations are practical. Set yourself a realistic goal. Set aside a few hours a week to work on that goal. Forgive yourself your slips and relapses and climb straight back on that unruly steed. You’ll get there in the end; you’ll ride onto the savannah of success. And in that amber sunset, with the hot breeze on your face, Dwayne might even be there too. He’ll pat you on the back. Say how well you’ve done. And you’ll both stare into the sunset. Just don’t look at his arms. Or his shoulders. Remember, you achieved your goal. But you’ll never be Dwayne.

Motivation – A Unicorn of the Fitness Industry

A unicorn is a mythical creature. The magical horse with a single horn upon its nose. It is also a term for something that isn’t real. Or more accurately, a word used to describe something which is either notoriously hard to achieve, or impossible given the underlying conditions. For example, clean fusion power is the current unicorn of the green energy revolution. It will one day happen if enough resources are thrown at it. But for now, it’s prancing around a lush meadow where buttercup flowers are made of gold and every blade of grass is an emerald. The proverbial unicorn.

The fitness industry has many unicorns. There are myths and truths, lies and facts. Grazing among those situations are many, many horned ponies. Too many to name. I can try a few. There’s Fatamina: she’s a beauty. Used to be a size 24 but after chomping on some magical pill, she lost all her horsey fat. Can you see her? Focus…. And pooft! Fatamina is gone. A myth. There’s Protalas. He’s a big buff man unicorn. Barely has to trot to develop those big thigh muscles. Rippling skin as though an avalanche falling down the flank. Protalas chomps some artificially sweetened powder that promises to make him muscular and strong. Can you see Protalas? Focus…. And pooft! He’s joined Fatamina. He’s not real either. A myth.

So many unicorns. The only one I trust used to be awesome but now drinks booze every day and curses at media commercials for interactive thousand-dollar stay-at-home cycle experiences (they sure saw you coming, he whinnys). That’s Alcohorn. He’s my favourite. He’s also got donuts sliding down his magical nose pillar. He’s cuddly too, not like Fatamina or Protalas. Alcohorn is real. You’d better believe it.

Among this magical equine fantasy is the strangest unicorn you’ll ever see. This animal is tangible; almost within your reach. It doesn’t have a name. It told me so. What it is called is not what it is. A tricky concept. We call it ‘motivation’. I don’t believe there is such a thing. Not a real, physical thing. Motivation is a state in flux. One moment it’s there, the next, it’s gone. A candle in the wind. As Dean Lerner once said, ‘unreliable.’

Motivation, as many psychologists will try to convince you, is a very real thing. But then, as Temperance Brennan (Bones) would argue, psychology isn’t a science. I’ll sit on the fence. Yeah, it’s not real either. It’s a state of undecided commitment. For my argument, I’ll straddle both sides. To consider motivation as a real thing is to give it substance. So, what is the actual substance of motivation?

Simple. It is desire. To crave something enough to suffer a basal drive toward fulfilment. Can desire motivate you? Yes, you say. Finish the blog post and go get a beer. Not so fast, Alcohorn. My point regarding motivation as a concept is that it isn’t real. If desire is the motivation, then desire will push you to your goal. Stay with me here. If I don’t desire an outcome, does that mean I lack motivation? No. It means I have little interest in something. No amount of motivation will make me want it more. I need to desire it first.

That is the foundation step in understanding the unicorn of motivation. You cannot grasp it until you have a desire, or a profound need of something. Motivation is a shell company set up by your own basic instincts. The real currency lies in the truth of fulfilment. And that is a harsh truth. If you expect an outcome will do little for your sense of purpose or personal enrichment, there will be no fulfilment. More, and this is the next step; if there is a cost to that sense of fulfilment, the outcome must outweigh the cost of achieving it.

I desire a six-pack (I had one once). I understand the cost of achieving it. More exercise. Less beer. Being hungry more often. As a partially disabled individual, the exercise part is more laborious. I fully comprehend the cost of achieving a six-pack. What is the equation of desire here?  

The mathematics is without doubt. That, to me, is a difficult sum to justify. Sadness is not worth such sacrifice. And this is precisely why ‘motivation’ requires a grilling under intense scrutiny. There is no such thing as motivation; it is an abstract. A play of words used as a vague alternative for a very basic fundamental truth:

If the desired outcome has an acceptable cost, you will reach for that goal.

Me, just now…

People have bottled that notion and called it motivation. It is used as a whip to spur you on, or as a noose through which to place your own head. Motivation is a hybrid abstract of desire and cost. Nothing more. But by giving it a name and using it in swanky presentations, the fitness industry has tried to sell it as a problem to overcome. How many times have you been smashed in the lazy face with the ad slogan: DO YOU LACK MOTIVATION? It’s used to make you feel guilty. To make you feel less worthy. Really, there is only one way to deal the unicorn of motivation. Destroy it and start over.

Ladies and gentlemen and all the glorious in-betweens, I give you a new concept in fitness. I call it…

I call it choice because that is exactly what it has to be. Specifically, your choice. No Lycra festooned ass-hat is going to be able to extract motivation from your sweaty pores. No. They won’t. And worse, they’ll actually charge you for that grievous insult. The harsh truth (I know, I have many) is that until you decide to make a choice, your fitness journey can’t begin. Your choice. Not the choice that is thrown over you as though a kidnapper’s hood. Not a whimsical flowery mantra uttered by Mr or Mrs Fitness Pants. Only you can decide when to make that choice. Whatever choice that is. Until you do, that thing they call motivation is nothing but a phantom.

But they try, don’t they. Commercial after commercial, the message is dropped upon you; hot sticky guilt napalm because you’re not doing enough. Run, tubby run. You’ll never escape. But you can stand and face it. You can realise motivation, as used to denigrate your life decisions and judge your wardrobe choices, is just another fitness unicorn. Created in a magic field of desperation and greed. Some equine fantasy wizard with a marketing degree made this beast just for you. I ask again: Do you lack motivation?

Or… have you simply not chosen what you want to do yet? Because when you do sit down and think, “Yeah, I’m going to try that,” you create your own pony of reality. Not some mythical beast. You make your own rational decision and you get to ride it. Yes, you can actually ride your own choices. Because once you make them – you own them. Sometimes you’ll fall from that ride. Someone might say your motivation wobbled. It didn’t. Your desire to succeed was outgunned by some other factor. It’s not motivation you lack. Life just made the choice more difficult to maintain.

And when you do get knocked off that horse, I’m pretty sure someone will try and stick a traffic cone on its head. They’ll pretend it was motivation. It wasn’t. It was a choice you made. A choice you have the power to make again. A choice only you can decide upon. Get on, get off, makes no odds to me. But it should to you. It’s all about you and nobody else. Now go. Go create your own mythical beast. Give it a name. And when the time comes to ride that wonderful creature, someone will ask: What motivated you to do that? You’ll smile, look to the skies and say: Motivate? No, I just wanted to do it, you know, just because… You’ll dig in your heels and your magical mount will spread its wings and take you to the heavens.

Yeah, I know. That’s not a unicorn. But if you aim high enough you need a Pegasus. Well done you. Clippety-clop and swoosh, you’re off!

Myths of Fitness and Why They’re Not So Simple.

(A blog post side-tracked by disability)

Let me smack you in the face with a harsh truth. You are not special. You are not (to steal from Chuck Palahniuk) a unique and beautiful snowflake. Okay, perhaps you are. Your mind is most definitely unique. It may be a beautiful snowflake. But psychology aside, when it comes to your body, you’re just like me. Your muscles, your internal organs; the systems that toil away whilst you slumber—they are as common as we are human. Our bodies are vessels. Carriers of DNA. There are no snowflakes here, just a production line of evolution, physiology 101. What makes you different is the driver behind the wheel. The mind behind the machine. My point? With enough plastic surgery we can all look the same. The body is a physical device. A machine to mould. The mind is an exquisite work of art. A fingerprint of psychological identity. Nourished by education, environment, and choice, the mind—what is essentially you—is a different beast from the body.

This lack of physical uniqueness is important. Congenital and accidental defects excepted—we are all the same. To a great degree this is true. You may raise a hand to object. Or a stump. Perhaps you don’t have arms at all. This is important. Life isn’t equal, or fair. But stripping away that difference you still have a heart. Lungs. A brain that encompasses freewill. The physical determinant of life is the same for all humans. We require fuel, we require nourishment. To remain healthy, to grow, we require physical stimulus. No matter the shell, the physiology is the same. We are the same. Except we aren’t.

Revelation. This post was intended to be about exercise myths. But scribbling through the second paragraph the hypocrisy of the initial title (Monster Myths of Fitness) became apparent. Hand on cold heart, I do have a ‘get out of jail free card’. I’m disabled. A weight-lifting ‘accident’ in my teens damaged nerves in my spinal column. My left leg is now a pitiful reminder of outrageous misfortune. A bicep curl gone wrong. Yes, that’s what damaged my nerves. Easy as that. To walk distance, I require a brace. Fastidious with my study and research I found one that works well. As expensive as it is effective, I can walk for miles; just as long as 80% of my left leg is encased in aluminium, plastic and wonderful German engineering.

For the record, this isn’t a sympathy post. I’m awesome. I’m still more active than most Glaswegian men in their late forties. I can bench more than I weigh. My leg press? Not so good. Oh, you sneaky devil. You got me there. I’m far less awesome if you factor in my mobility. But that’s the point. Fitness myths often make a generic assumption: we are all equal. I tell you—we’re not. Nothing close. There are fitness truths, and there are individual differences. It is those differences that we can choose to define us, for better or for worse.

To highlight the issue, take a common ‘fact’ as an example. Walking one mile burns the same calories as running one mile. Nope. False. Time is a factor. If you amble for one mile, your energy expenditure is constant. Tame, almost. If you sprint flat out, as though a T-Rex was on your tail, you’d add in an extra factor. EPOC. Excess Post Oxygen Consumption. A debt to your energy production system. It’s what HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) is based on. Basically, if you exercise at 100% intensity, or close to it, your body has an energy ‘lag’. Working at the extreme end of intensity requires huge amounts of energy. Your heart rate will be high (90%+ of its maximum). This isn’t sustainable—it’s why HIIT contains that word ‘interval’. Once that rapid mile is complete, there is a period of extended, elevated heart rate. A period of increased metabolism. One mile is not one mile. Effort is the multiplier. But there’s another disregarded factor. Disability. How much effort to travel a mile on one good leg? (I tell you, a lot). What about a person on crutches? A wheelchair user? Have you used an arm ergometer (an arm-cycle)? One bipedal mile is not the same as one pushing yourself along on wheels. Then again, downhill, the wheelchair wins. Swings and roundabouts. Poor choice of phrase, those things are never wheelchair friendly.  

Disability, accidental or genetic, is a spanner in the cosy world of exercise and activity, both myth and reality. The mainstream doesn’t cater to it. Media personalities are uncomfortable with it (it’s not a big market—harsh truth). The best a disabled athlete or exerciser can hope for is a condescending interview from an able-bodied numbskull. Didn’t you do well, they say. It’s as though the person is nothing but a comical seal balancing a ball on their nose. An item of amusement to forget when the ‘real’ athletes arrive.

In the ongoing pandemic, with lockdowns and various forms of societal restriction, social media is buzzing with media personalities prancing and dancing on two legs. Great skippy, go for it. I won’t name individuals because they’ll likely sue, not that this blog gets that many hits. But you know them. People I imagine would make a hollow sound if you blew into their ears. Nothing but air into an empty bottle. Stare deep into that lughole and you’ll probably be able to see the other side of the gym. Yeah, him, or her—those wonderfully shallow energetic bunnies. Very few—the noble few—cater to a more diverse audience other than the standard bipedal human. Kudos to them. But that’s not the road to glamour and fame. The Oscars of the fitness world isn’t a flat red carpet. It’s an assault course of hurdles and barriers, spike traps and rope climbs. Try pushing a wheelchair through that. Those less fortunate, those interesting side-projects of bastard chance and accidental circumstance are left to their own devices. Walk on Mr & Mrs Perfect, I’ll grab the wheels.

As an able-bodied reader, you might feel uncomfortable with this. You shouldn’t. It’s natural to represent the majority. It’s certainly business to do so. Besides, Johnny ‘no legs’ doesn’t want your sympathy. He wants you to look at him. As simple as that. See him. Not pity him. A disability isn’t a curse. A challenge, yes. But then, so is being stupid and many able-bodied people suffer from that malaise. I’d argue that idiocy is humanity’s greatest disability. Not something as mundane as a physical impairment.

Disability and exercise are bound to a particular fitness myth. The disabled person in the gym is somehow a hero. Myth. They’re doing exactly what you do, although their path to it is harder. It doesn’t deify or canonise them. I mean, sure, give a helping hand where required but don’t fuss. And, on pain of death, don’t pat their heads and say, ‘Well done!’. Do that to a Murderball player and they’ll show you no mercy. Again, there is a fine line between staring and looking away. As numerous UK campaigns (especially for mental health) have stated—look beyond the disability. Don’t focus on the difference. See the person.

What an able-bodied person sees as an oddity, the disabled exerciser experiences as a daily task. To them it isn’t special. By way of transposition, nor should you consider it to be special. It would be impossible to mention every conceivable disability (physical and mental) but where limbs are concerned, exercise creates the same rewards. A wheelchair user will amend their form to lift a dumbbell. The stimulus and response are the same. Metabolic (or developmental) disability excepted, there are no physiological differences between able and disabled. In that respect, the challenge is comparable.

There’s one disability myth I wish to firmly reject. It’s not universal but it is one that requires focus. There is physical disability and there is mental disability. Sometimes both. However, it is wrong to assume cognitive impairment in an exerciser with a physical disability. There are conditions that manifest in ways which are socially awkward. A person with Cerebral Palsy may find it more difficult to communicate. It doesn’t make them dumb. Ditto for the wheelchair user. Even a client that requires a companion or a carer should be spared the instant tag of… well, whatever word you’re thinking of.  Again, see the person. Not the condition. Compassion isn’t required, understanding is the key.

To conclude, I ought to apologise for a less than humorous blog post. But then, laughing at disability isn’t funny. Unless, of course, it’s to mock a fitness guru being run down by a maniacal wheelchair user. Take that Billy Two-Legs.

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.

Conan’s Wheel of Pain

Untitled

(Conan the Barbarian, 20th Century Fox, 1982)

A good place to start. Arnold Schwarzenegger is an enigma. A focussed mind and an exceptional physique provided the eighties and nineties with the iconic build of Europe’s greatest export. Moving from the shadows of competitive body-building and, in time, into the spotlight of Hollywood, Arnold was (and arguably still is) the only body-builder to conquer the silver-screen. While Lou Ferrigno was on par with Arnold, he didn’t quite have the same impact.

The Wheel of Pain (from Conan the Barbarian) was a torturous device of constant manual labour. Pushed and pulled for hours upon hours, this is about the only thing I have ever seen in movies to explain a physiological response as gratuitous as Conan’s sublimely-honed build. But is it accurate?

No, of course it’s not. Conan was a slave child and the calorific effort of moving a mini-forest worth of lumber would be phenomenal. I can’t recall the movie that well but I’m pretty sure there was scant reference to adequate nutrition, let alone the vast quantities of carbs and protein (and other
things) that would be required to facilitate the build of Arnold’s Conan. But that’s Hollywood. It exists to present the audience with heroes and heroines of unobtainable perfection; be it the impossible musculature of Conan, or the sleek lines of every female superhero. And for the record, there is no logical reason for the dimorphism displayed between genders. 

And that’s a problem right there. Muscle size. No matter what the load is, whether it’s tossing a car or punching chunks out of a concrete pillar, the strength required would be equal. So, in those films where women lift the same as men, technically, the female would require the same physical attributes as the man. In other words, why are super-strength heroines always dainty little slips? It’s all about image and marketing, which in itself is about gender discrimination and inequality. Which is a shame because it would be cool to see more male heroes that look ‘normal’ (and to be fair, in the post Arnold era, strong heroes don’t need to be massive – unless your name is Dwayne). But when it does come to muscle-men, logic dictates that the same requirement should fall on the shoulders of super-strong females. But that doesn’t fit the Hollywood narrative of what a ‘woman’ should look like. If Marvel ever gets real about making a female Hulk movie (I know she’s called She-Hulk, which is woefully derivative), I hope they CGI the crap out of it and make her as big as a house with really hairy legs. But hey, that’s not going to sell…

If we want to travel further down the rabbit-hole of unnatural selection, there is another problem with obscenely athletic physiques. Food. All too often, our heroes are out and about for 25 Hollywood hours of every day. They rarely sleep, they never poop, and for certain, they don’t eat a balanced diet. Muscles don’t grow out of thin air and hope. They are real physical components derived from adequate training stimuli and created from excess calorie consumption. Carbs and protein are fundamental to fuel our body and repair cellular damage. After that, with enough hormonal stimulus, a body will slowly lay down more muscle-fibre in response to exercise-specific stress. And man, is that process slow. There is a shortcut, namely steroids and growth hormone, but for the sake of litigation, I’m not going to discuss that in this post. Yet the point stands – our heroes appear to be the fitness equivalent of cold-fusion; unlimited power with little input. But there’s the rub; would you watch a film where the awesomely handsome hero stops whatever he’s doing to crack out his 400g tub of pasta and chow down on a tin of dry tuna every two hours? And have you ever had the displeasure of smelling the buttcheek-breeze of someone on a high-protein diet? It’s just not pleasant.

So, if we consider that your average, over-sized chemically enhanced body-builder trains for 2-3 hours and can consume 5000-8000 calories (or more) each day, you can see how Hollywood has it so wrong. But why? Well, movies aren’t meant to be real. At least, not the ones with heroes whose muscles take up more space than the end credits. With mutants and comic-fantasy, Hollywood doesn’t need to obey any laws of natural physiology. And in fairness, many of us love the sheer escapism of watching something so absurd as a man-mountain warrior emerge from a hard-labour camp with one piece of prehistoric fitness kit. As I say, it’s fitness Jim, but not as we know it.