The week that was, in internet land – Volume 3

It was a busy week in the fitness world this week. There are a few more articles on training in this one than usual, so that should help keep the meatheads happy.

“Shut up Lincoln, get to the content,” right? Fine.

It Doesn’t Have to be an Exhaustive Workout – Increasing Physical Activity Just as Effective as Strength, Endurance or Combined Exercise to Lose Fat and Build Muscle – Suppversity
Every little bit helps? And you don’t need to be a gym rat to get into a less terrible shape? Truth.

Why Do Sudden Changes In Weight Happen? – Andy Morgan
All about water weight shenanigans

Dietary Tracking Continuum – The Effortless Guide to Periodizing Your Nutrition – Eric and Chris Martinez
A good run down of the different options out there for those who want choices in their obsessiveness levels. I’m a huge fan of the Semi Track for those who are interested in maintaining rather than losing or gaining.

What the hell does “toned” mean anyways? – James Fell
James Fell asks a bunch of really smart people what “toning” means. It’s good for the lulz, and is also a good commentary on how the fitness industry works, especially regarding advertising.

How To Adjust Your Diet To Successfully Bulk – Andy Morgan
If I’d had this guide a few years ago I probably wouldn’t be near the end of a four month diet.

Succeed Every Day: A Complete Guide to Habit-Forming – Greg Nuckols
We like this.

The Essentials of Hybrid Training – Alex Viada
If you want to be strong and not-slow, or fast and not-weak, check out this collection of 10 of Alex Viada’s most awesome articles to date. And check out his book if you’re super interested.

4 Reasons you’re not getting stronger – Chet Morjaria
Some troubleshooting from Chet Morjaria. I’m guilty of at least one of these.

Why healthy habits don’t work – Bryan Krahn
An insightful commentary on how the traditional approach and advice for habit forming might not be the best thing out there.

The importance of sleep quality and how to improve it –
Sleep is good. You should get more sleep and better sleep.

The Scale Scourge

Yes, The Scale Hates You


I find this happens quite often.  Basically, every damn day.  Part of the transition that I am doing (that we don’t necessarily ask you to do, or even expect it for that matter) is weigh in every morning.  Usually after my morning constitutional (fancy word for poop) and before I have breakfast.

Even if you were to weigh yourself only once a week, which is reasonable and what most plans ask of you, you will notice this trend as well.  I like to call it the “Scale Scourge”.

Let me run the scenario for you.  You bust your ass in the gym.  You feel great, pull off an extra 15 minutes of cardio a day, pump out two extra reps of whatever it is you’re working on.  Eat extremely well.  Do extra yard work.  Everything you possibly could.  You get on the scale, expecting to see good results, and nothing.  You stay exactly the same.  Or worse, you gain an extra pound or two.

You look at the scale in sheer horror and disbelief, and (if you’re like me) want to scream something like “Fuck you scale!  You’re gonna die!”.  Then go all “Hulk Smash!” on the poor piece of mechanical equipment, all because you didn’t like it.  That shit happened to me this morning.  I held back my rage and resisted the urge to Office Space the damn thing. I also did not binge on the homemade oreos I finished baking for the catering gig I am doing (go me).

Someone explained it to me as this: “Us women call that water retention.  We have an excuse for everything,”.  You know, that actually isn’t that far off sometimes from what might be going on.

Is it frustrating?  Ya damn right it is.  There is nothing more antagonizing and disheartening when you work your ass off to get into shape, than not seeing scale results.  And it happens all the fucking time.  It’s normal.  The key is to not let it stop you.  There are a few things that can be going on, and not all of them being terribly bad.

First, and the most likely culprit, is water retention.  Water retention isn’t a bad thing (in terms of weight loss anyways) at this stage in your change (those last two links are more about what I am going to discuss.  Both interesting reads).  I won’t go too in to much detail, but to sum it up, it’s basically to help your body adjust to the physical change.  The more you weigh, the higher calories and water intake you need.  When you lose weight, your body has to adjust to the loss, and the change in the amount of water you need to intake.  Well, those little fuckers (fat cells) hold on to water until you adjust.  This is why you can lose most size, but still weigh the same (water weight takes up less space than fat, so that’s how you drop some size…SCIENCE!).  This isn’t permanent, but it is frustrating to say the least.  Give it a few days and the change will be almost overnight.  Don’t worry, you’re not failing (probably not anyways).

Second, and quite commonly, you probably hit a plateau.  They are common and happen all the time.  There are warning signs that it’s happening.  Keep an eye out for them, as they can really fuck with your progress (especially #5).

I know for me its usually around weeks three and four of a routine/regimen.  A couple of things can cause it, and its an easy fix.  “What causes it?” you’re asking?  Welp, a couple of things can be the prime suspect.

  1. You have simply become used to the workout you’re doing.  It’s a matter of changing up the routine you find yourself in.
  2. If you’re a guy, then you’re probably doing it wrong.  No, not that.  Working out dummy.  Most guys tend to focus on the muscles groups that are good to work out, but aren’t as important as others.  Biceps, chest, abs, those ones.  Adding a good back routine, as well as making sure YOU DON’T FUCKING SKIP LEG DAY, you should push through.  Your back and legs are your two biggest muscle groups, and help with your ability to do literally everything else.  Your back especially.  Your back has a lot of muscles in it, and since muscles burn more energy, ie fat and calories, see where I’m going here? (Also, friends don’t let friends skip leg day.  Do the exercises.  Trust me, you’ll thank me later.)  You can still do the other muscle groups, just rotate the days you exercise the groups.  Doing the same 5 things over and over doesn’t do any good.
  3. You’re doing too much.  This one always confuses most people at first, but it’s true.  I know it is, I’ve experienced it first hand, and still do.  Take a few days off.  Your body needs time to rest and heal from everything, and in the long run you’ll be all the better.  That doesn’t mean let your diet go to absolute shit, just rest up.

There are more than that, but those are the most common.  Keep eating well during the days off that you take, as letting your diet go to shit just defeats the purpose of everything.  Revamp what it is you’re doing.  Example: change up the order in which you do your sets.  Work compound muscle moves first, then singles, and back.  The key is to keep your brain guessing, and to also keep you interested in your exercises.
If you’ve tried all of the above fixes, and nothing is working, then that brings me to my last point: See your doctor. There are times when it actually is a health issue that your doctor needs to help you with.  There are many things they can be, and we are not suited to diagnose that or fix it.  Remember, I’m not a doctor, I’ve just been through this shit before.

The hardest part of weight loss

Pop quiz: what’s the hardest thing to do when it comes to losing weight?

Answer: keeping it off.

This is something that not a lot of people talk about, but it’s really true. Losing weight is actually pretty easy, especially compared to keeping it off. To lose it you just need to eat less than you burn, and be willing to be a little uncomfortable for a while.

But to maintain that loss requires much more significant changes. You have to change your eating habits, as the habits that got you fat aren’t going to keep you lean in the long term. For some people this might be a small change, for some it might require literally restructuring their entire life.

Unfortunately, just like pretty much everything else in life, there is no magic bullet for this one. You can’t just spend some money, or take some pill, or eat or cut out some specific food. The only magic bullet is hard work and dedication… the clever readers will be starting to see a trend here.

Thankfully, research1 has been done on this. Science to the rescue! This paper studied about 4000 people on the American National Weight Control Registry – a list of people who had managed to lose a significant amount of weight, and keep it off. And while this is just observational/correlational research, it’s about as good as is realistically possible to get on this subject.

So what did they find? There were a few commonalities in all of the people who managed to lose and keep off a significant amount of weight. The first is physical activity, with people reporting an average of an hour per day of moderate activity, an example of which given in the study is brisk walking. So maybe you should get a god [this typo amuses me, I’m leaving it] and take it for a walk every day for an hour or so. Hell, if you have a significant other, you can drag them with you and maybe actually have a real conversation with them for once.

The second important commonality they found was eating a low calorie diet, combined with tracking food intake and weight. If you have a good idea how much food you are putting into your body, and you know what your weight is doing, you can do something about it before you are “suddenly” 20lb heavier and have no idea how you got there. Here is where a combination of a food log and a weight tracker with trendlines is useful – you have an amazing piece of technology in your pocket masquerading as a telephone, and you should make use of it for more than playing candy crush.

Regarding food, they also found that people who were successful in maintaining weight loss ate at restaurants an average of 2.5 meals per week, and 0.74 meals per week in fast food joints. So heavy McDonalds consumption != continued weight loss. Shocking, innit?

The bad news is that roughly 80% of people who lose more than 10% of their body mass will gain much or all of it back, or possibly even end up heavier than they started. The good news is that it gets easier as time goes on, with those who manage to keep the weight off for 2 years being significantly more likely to keep it off.

The good news is that armed with this information, you are much more likely than the average person to actually succeed. I was one of those people who lost a bunch of weight and then gained most of it back, partially because I didn’t make any of the changes that would have set me up for success. But now I am informed and know what I did wrong, and now I have no one to blame but myself if I fail. Just like you.

So go forth, get less fat, and be awesome. It’s worth it.

  1. Klem, Mary L., et al. “A descriptive study of individuals successful at long-term maintenance of substantial weight loss.” The American journal of clinical nutrition 66.2 (1997): 239-246.

The best plan is the one you will stick to

There are lots of options out there for how to organize your nutrition and exercise plan. If you want to gain muscle mass your plan will look a lot different than if you want to maximize your fat loss.

And like so many things in life, everyone you talk to has an opinion about this one. Everyone is an expert. Atkins, the Zone, the Ornish diet, <$CurrentFadDiet>, whatever. And they all have advantages and disadvantages. Mostly you should probably be wary of the ones that demonize a specific food or macronutrient. Carbs aren’t going to kill you, neither is fat, and as we’ve covered before, protein is absolutely essential.

Diet is one of those things that is really individual and there is a ton of variance from person to person. I personally function better when my protein is kept quite high, and so long as I’m not training 6 days per week, I can get away with the bare minimum of carbohydrates. In fact, if I have too many carbs, especially refined ones, I get all lazy and lethargic and it’s just not a great scene. I can and will binge on them until I feel sick, then do it again the next day, even though I know it’s a bad idea.

So I tend to lean towards a higher protein lower carb style of things, and let fats fall where they may. I actually function surprisingly well (outside of the gym) on a ketogenic style diet – I don’t get any of the brain fog/adaptation issues that a lot of people do.

On the other side of the coin, some people find their energy levels crater if they don’t get enough carbs, even if they aren’t training much. I know a couple of people like this, and if you tried to get them to cut carbs out of their diet for any length of time longer than an afternoon, they might just stab you in the face.

Is there a best or optimal diet out there? Not really. The best plan is essentially the one you can stick to. If you aren’t an athlete, you can get away with pretty much anything that is reasonably not stupid so long as you cover your protein requirements and get enough carbs to support whatever your training level is.

I’m probably going to get crucified by a certain segment of the fitness world for saying this, but “Paleo” isn’t a really terrible way to start things off. I really disagree with some of the more extreme bits of it, but if you go with the general principle of trying to stick to whole real foods that are identifiable as plants or animals, you’ve got a good base. Add in some reasonable grain or starchy root vegetable choices, and you have a pretty solid nutrition plan.

If you’re one of those people who doesn’t feel deprived when sticking to a “clean” meal plan 100% of the time, congratulations! I sure as hell don’t, and neither do most people I have talked to. There are a bunch of different ways to allow yourself to have some things that aren’t “healthy” or are considered “junk,” but basically as long as you get it mostly right most of the time, you are going to keep moving towards your goal.

You might not be moving there as fast as you possibly could, but what good is perfect progress if you can only sustain it for a week at a time before losing your mind and eating an entire bakery, including the poor hipster behind the counter?

The Pareto or 80/20 rule is a good one to keep in mind here. Get it right 80% of the time, and don’t worry about the little stuff. A bunch of different strategies for doing that will be covered later on, but essentially, research[link] suggests that by being a little flexible in your plan, you will have significantly greater long-term success.

So get out there and be awesome.

What gets measured gets improved

I think it has been firmly established that the scale you step on every morning is a lying piece of crap that can’t be trusted. But if you don’t have specific measurable goals, how will you ever know if you have arrived at the place you want to be?

Having a goal weight isn’t a bad idea, though that is a number that is fairly easily manipulated and somewhat meaningless anyways. I’m personally a fan of bodyfat percentage as a reasonable metric, but it is something that is essentially impossible to measure with complete accuracy in a living breathing human. If you want to go the autopsy route, be my guest, but it’s essentially a one time thing and any further body composition changes will come in the form of decomposition.

BodPod is a not terrible method of measuring body composition, and probably the best compromise between accuracy, speed, repeatability, cost, and all that other stuff. If you are in a major centre, you probably won’t have too hard of a time finding one. If you’re not, good luck. DEXA is great, but it’s generally significantly more expensive than BodPod, and harder yet to find. Underwater weighing seems to have fallen out of favour in recent years, so again, good luck finding this as an option. BIA systems are very prone to error and are only consistent at being pretty crap from what I understand.

My personal choice of tracking measures are circumference measurements and skinfolds. For circumference measurements, both biceps, both thighs, hips, chest, and 2” above, 2” below, and at the navel is a good set of things to track. These will allow you to see where you are gaining or losing, and get a pretty good feel for if you are losing much muscle, at least once you get down to normal levels of leanness and below.

Skinfolds can be taken in a number of different ways, and you can google for them if you are really interested, but be aware that most of the formulas and standards are only really accurate on the aggregate for average populations. So if you do use skinfolds as a measurement, be aware that if you are using (for example) the Jackson-Pollack 3-point formula, and it tells you your body fat percentage is 10.38%, you can’t put too much faith in that exact number. Where skinfolds excel however, is in showing you progress over time. If your scale weight isn’t moving, and your circumference measurements are staying about the same, but your skinfolds are going down, you are probably losing a bit of fat and gaining a bit of muscle.

The combination of weight, circumference, and skinfolds allows you to get a better handle on if you are actually making progress or not. If any one of them is steadily decreasing, you are probably still doing alright and moving towards your goals.

If you find that all three measures have stalled out and aren’t changing for at least a couple of weeks, you can reasonably assume that you have stopped making real progress, and need to make some minor changes. Either add more activity, or decrease your calorie intake. An additional deficit of 200 cal/day should be more than enough to get fat loss moving again, though this will depend a lot on you and your levels of leanness. And all sorts of things that are beyond the scope of this post.

That was a good set of objective measures that you can track to keep an eye on your progress. If you want a really good subjective measure or goal, going by clothing size is a winner for a lot of people. Fitting into an old favorite pair of jeans or a dress is something you can test quite easily, and also something that many people would consider a pretty significant accomplishment. Though depending on how many squats you are doing, you might just blow that pair of jeans out at the thighs. It’s a tough problem to have, and a lot better than having to stop half way up a flight of stairs.