Two Minds and a Flame War

I’m fascinated by the human mind. The mind, such as there is a thing we can refer to with that word, is where all the interesting things about humankind go on. It’s also poorly understood, even by the legions of bright people who have studied and reflected upon it for thousands of years.

Vagueness aside, you’ll notice that we’ve got a Pretty Good intuitive grasp of thoughts and sensations, such that we can communicate reasonably well most of the time. The fact that you can read my words and (hopefully) understand what I want to convey attests to that. Sometimes, Pretty Good is good enough.

Knowing how people operate is a crucial skill in any instance that involves other people. Case in point, fitness training and nutrition. These fields are applied science, and on paper at least we should be able to craft perfect workout programs and diets — at least, you’d think that according to much of the internet.

Often, though — likely more than not — these perfection-seeking schemes fail. Why can’t people just do what we know is right? Why do all these pig-headed people disagree with my perfectly-designed workout? Why do people not eat according to these scientifically-derived principles that ensure success?

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A Calorie Isn’t a Calorie(?)

Ever since Nicholas Clement defined the calorie as a unit of heat back in the 19th century, we’ve used it as a measure for the energy available to our bodies in the food we eat. The so-called “kilogram calorie” (or kilocalorie), which you see on nutritional labels, equates to the energy needed to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water by one degree Celsius.

These capital-C Calories serve as an approximation for the amount of energy we take in from our food, as well as the amount of energy we expend over the course of our day, through a combination of essential life-processes and any additional physical or mental activity we add on top of the baseline.

Later on in the 19th century, chemist Wilbur Atwater used oxidation reactions to test the energy content of various nutrients, inclusive of corrections for rates of digestion and the production of urea. Atwater’s values, roughly 4 calories per gram for protein and carbs and 9 kcals/gram for fats, remain in use today.

Lately, however, there’s been a trend towards rejecting this model. Not only are calories thought to be insufficient — or outright irrelevant — in explaining the continuing rise in obesity, but the deeper reason is that “a calorie isn’t a calorie”.

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A Systems View of Exercise

This article began to take shape after reading another well-intended internet complaint about how mock-quote “science” has no relevance to practical get-in-the-gym exercise.

As pro-science as I am, I have to admit there’s a lot of truth to that point of view. You don’t have to look much further than the papers passed around the strength and fitness blogs and Facebook updates to see why. While there’s occasionally interesting stuff turning up, there’s also a lot of crap. By crap I mean papers looking at how Molecular Signal X jiggled in hungover college students when exposed to a lab trial resembling no workout you will ever do.

While I personally find a lot of the biochem research interesting, there’s no shame in admitting that it’s exactly that: a personal interest. I don’t think that material has any relevance at all to doing things at the gym, at least not in the way most folks seem to expect.

Still, there’s something not quite right about the blanket anti-science, anti-intellectual perspective that characterizes some corners of the strength and fitness field. The stereotypical Bro, the musclehead who believes the pseudo-science in supplement ads but turns hostile toward any attempt at debunking it, isn’t our ideal role model. There’s rejecting the irrelevant, on the one hand, and then there’s needless hostility towards intellectual curiosity.

The former I can get behind. The latter, that’s just typical internet posturing — or, at best, an over-reaction to bad science — and in either case an attitude best ignored. The problem is, it’s not always clear which is which, or why there’s a difference at all.

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Brain States & Willpower

Now that we’ve officially flipped into another new year, activity at the gym — and in the kitchen — is about to boil over into that first-quarter frenzy of new goals, new resolutions, and the hard determination that only the buzz of the holiday season can kindle. For the starry-eyed masses recently-committed to laying down the cigarettes and twinkies and getting some exercise, the new year is a time of optimism: they have dreams of better health and better bodies.

For the old gym hermits, it’s time to fortify the defenses, shore up the walls, and hunker down until late February. Not because we resent the influx of greenhorns. I’ve waffled on this over the years but in my mellowing-out I’ve had to admit that the January rush makes me happy for what it is. Sure it can be irritating to see all the chuckleheaded tomfoolery going on when you just want to squat, but let’s keep it in perspective: at least they’re trying.

The Serious and Dedicated know that, year after year, the Resolutioner rush inevitably fizzles out by late February, March at the latest, as that post-holiday enthusiasm gives way to the hard truth about reality. It’s hard work. Changes aren’t immediate and to call gratification, such as it is, delayed is an understatement. Those of you with “the bug”, who enjoy lifting and intense cardio for what it is, have to realize that, like coffee, it’s often an acquired taste.

The average Resolutioner doesn’t get that, and without any guidance or mentoring, the odds are stacked heavily against them ever figuring it out. Take a look at all the fresh faces you see on the second week of January, and compare that to how many are still there in August.

It’s easy to snicker and shake your head in judgment. It’s even easier, if you’re like pretty much everyone I’ve ever met in the fitness or strength community, to write these people off as lazy, unmotivated, weak, and other assorted insults continuing on down the spectrum of disdain.

A depressingly large number of people abandon exercise programs, and diets, and plans to quit smoking, and most anything else you can name. Why is this? Are people really just lazy and weak-willed? Are they just stupid and in need of your brilliant workout and diet plan?

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My Favorite Books from 2011

I read a lot. Have I mentioned that? This year I managed to put back more than a few books, and now that we’re winding up 2011 I want to give a nod to those that really stuck out to me (a list which, in the interest of brevity, only covers books published in 2011) as an informal sequel to my recent post about learning new things.

As I say on my Goodreads profile, I only tend to read books that I have a good idea I’m going to like in the first place, and those I approach from an optimistically bright outlook such that I’m probably going to find something interesting, thought-provoking, and just entertaining enough to rate well. The presence of a book on this list does not serve as an endorsement of every statement or argument made within said book. It only means that I found something of value in reading it.

There’s virtually nothing fitness-related here, as I don’t really care for most of those books, although at least some of the nonfiction will be (indirectly) of interest to any exercise buff. I’m also including fiction along with the nonfiction because, well, I just want to.

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Outside Context Problem

I rank Iain M. Banks as one of my favorite authors. Banks’ Culture series was one of my first exposures to so-called “literary science fiction”, which uses the backdrop of science and technology but also focuses on interesting characters and quality prose not always associated with “sci-fi”.

The Culture books deal with the eponymous anarchistic super-civilization, run by intelligent machines (called Minds) and inhabited by mostly care-free citizens. With boredom as an eternal problem in utopia, the Culture eschews the Prime Directive in favor of a more hands-on approach to civilization-building. The books handle all the questions of morality and dramatic hijinks that ensue from said policies.

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Knowing Stuff [How to Learn a New Subject]

A question I’ve been asked a lot, and never really sat down to answer, is how I go about learning new things.

Before going there, I want to tackle the whole “smart” matter. I think that, firstly, “smart” — or “knowing lots of stuff” — has more to do with the amount of time you’re willing to spend grappling with difficult concepts than anything else. If you aren’t almost compulsively interested in knowing about some subject matter, then you aren’t going to know much about it. You’ll spend lots of time on things that do interest you, and therefore know a lot more about them. Pretty easy there.

Intelligence certainly plays a part but I really don’t like that kind of deterministic explanation. Although there’s a measurable component to specific kinds of abstract intelligence, I also think that many people underestimate what they could learn if they just applied themselves. For whatever reasons learning stuff for the sake of learning stuff isn’t a huge priority for people, but that’s all getting into discussions for another time.

The other issue relates to meta-cognition (how you think about how you think) and that’s off in another zone of its own. Let if suffice to say that there needs to be a degree of introspection and self-awareness going into any learning process, because knowledge isn’t about rote memorization and regurgitation of facts. You have to be able to think, and most importantly of all, to step away from the details of the problem to more generalized and universal principles. These are not traits always valued in higher education, thus explaining the “dumb PhD” phenomenon.

The framework of knowledge matters as much as the contents.

All I can tell you is that a. I get a warm glowy feeling of satisfaction when I read topics of science and philosophy and b. that drives me to read a whole lot of things in those subject areas which c. leads to a self-sustaining feedback loop.

The rest of this article outlines the rough steps I go through in learning about things that interest me and give me the warm glowy feeling of satisfaction. I’ll warn you up front, I treat my autodidactery seriously, so if you’ve got a ScienceTM allergy or a real smug contempt for Knowing Stuff, you’ll want to skip this one.

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Brogram Design 101

The last few months, during my yearly layoff from hard training (I’d rather spend my free time at the pub during New Zealand’s nice summer weather, and “yearly layoff” sounds nicer than “lazy slug”), I’ve been gravitating towards less demanding, more fun kinds of lifting.

Regular readers will know of my love for autoregulated daily training, but I’ve discovered that I really only care for this during the winter months. For whatever reason, I find myself uninterested during the summer. That reason is beer and sunshine.

Instead, I prefer a more unstructured and unfocused approach, which you might call “screwing around”.

The last few weeks, I’ve been messaging back and forth with JC Deen about good old fashioned Bro-training. You know the stuff: body-part splits. Having an arms day. Pumping the hell out of everything to get that hurt-so-good burn.

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A Fresh Start

Back in early 2007, when I first decided to start a website, I had a mission in mind: to parody, satirize, and criticize the Fitness Industry. For those of you that aren’t aware, even the “Amped Training” brand name was meant as a riff on the hype-filled ad-copy used to sell supplements and diets and … Read more