Realistic Expectations

Have your mind right, the rest will follow

When people start weight training, they come in with a lot of pre-conceived notions. For the average raw newbie with the common if ill-defined motivation of “looking better”, most of these notions can be anticipated.

For men, they want a 6-pack set of abs. Women need to tone up the legs and firm up the butt.

Neither the average man or woman wants to get “too bulky, like the guys/girls in the magazines”.

In logic, it’s generally considered that if you start with a false premise, you will invariably end up with a false conclusion. If you’re in the gym busting ass and watching your diet like a hawk week in, week out, under the wrong idea, you’re probably not ending up where you want to be. A false premise has created the expectation of an outcome that doesn’t follow from what you’re doing.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m completely aware that the subjects of exercise and nutrition can get complex at times. Your job, be you beginning gym rat trying to figure things out or trainer trying to figure things out for people, is to reduce that complexity down to simple terms. It can seem like a daunting task.

The very fortunate reality of the matter is that, at the end of the day, it’s not that hard. While you’re being actively discouraged from learning and improving on your own by a fitness industry that needs your ignorance in order to profit, you can still make headway in this area.

Then we have the other side of the matter: how realistic is any given goal for you? As a newbie starting out, are you even asking the right questions? If your knowledge base is fundamentally skewed, how can you be?

As an example, the 30-something male that comes to a trainer and immediately declares “I don’t want to get too big, just get in shape” is already operating on a flawed assumption.

Reality: If you have everything in order, you will still be lucky to gain 1 lb of muscle per week, as a male. Female, consider yourself lucky to get half of that. The longer you train and the more you add, the harder this will become, with the outcome being that getting “too big” is a non-sequitur. It doesn’t happen.

This is to say nothing of the fact that once you start exercising and see the changes made, what you considered “too big” once upon a time suddenly might not be so. The world on the other side of the looking glass is a very different place. Paradigms change as you change.

Two of the things I always stress to people are the concepts of reduction and of simplicity or parsimony. Reduction simply means boiling complex matters down to their simplest parts, while parsimony relates to finding the simplest cause that explains any given thing.

With regards to strength training and diet, I attempted to do this somewhat in the parts I and II respectively of the Developing the Body series, at least with the important and most common principles.

What people don’t seem to realize is that, from those starting points, anything that fits within them will provide you with results. Read that again if you need to, because it’s important. There are no magical programs or magical diets.

The fact that people see programs and diets as separate, unique things is due to a fitness industry that profits from your ignorance. If each guru has a name-brand program and/or diet to his name, then he can attribute his successes to that name. It’s marketability. If there’s a pre-packaged “thing” to sell, people will make the connection and the guru will make money.

Reality: To take an out of shape person and get them into average shape is not hard. Virtually any activity that gets this person off the couch, away from the junk food, and into the gym will do it.

That said, from where I sit it can be hard to understand what people go through when trying to evaluate training plans and diets. I’ve already had the revelation; I understand that it’s all about someone’s interpretation of basic principles and that the foundation is the same despite the different shapes of the house.

It’s not a matter of knowledge per se; it’s a matter of outlook. Don’t think of programs as rigid, locked things. They’re not. Any time you look at a program someones written, try not to think of it as a unique “thing”. Think of it as a combination of ideas. Why is it organized the way it is? Why is exercise X here? And so on. Ultimately you can do this for any program, and interestingly enough a lot of it will be arbitrary and simply a matter of preference, rather than any actual necessity.

Strength training and diet can both be summed up quite easily, in terms of principles:

Strength training: Progressive overload of muscles (add weight to the bar or do more work when possible) with a frequency of 2-3 times per week, working in a range of 60% to 80% of 1RM (or your 5 and 10RM) and making sure to target all the major muscle groups.

Diet: Eat less than your body needs to fuel its activity while ensuring that you get sufficient protein (at least 1g/lb) and essential fats (roughly 5-10g of omega-3 fats), while incorporating strategies of refeeding and periodic diet breaks as (or if) needed to prevent negative metabolic consequences.

As you can imagine, those guidelines leave open a LOT of room for individual interpretation, as well as “unique” combinations. Start to make more sense now as to why “it doesn’t matter” or “it depends” become such common responses to specific questions?

This is also the source of all the “unique” training programs out there. Anybody can write up a program or diet that falls within those guidelines, test it on a few people with success, then claim it’s the best thing ever made. It will work, sure. But so will anything else within the guidelines.

There are some differences in specialization, definitely, when it comes to both, as there are some mutually-exclusive goals that have to be taken into consideration. But this is a non-issue to just about everyone that is starting out, and in actuality, to just about anyone with experience unless you’re training for a particular event. Training for physique and basic strength is not a complicated matter.

Remember that results are always going to be the metric of success. So how do you define results?

Is it the guru touting his magical training and diet, complete with success stories and picture testimonials? Perhaps.

From earlier, I stated that to ask the right questions, you have to come from the right mindset. The question to ask here is not “will it work?”, but rather “how will it work in relation to other approaches?”

I’ll say it again: taking a person from out of shape to average condition is far, far more a matter of psychology than it is physiology. Overcoming the person’s notions of the fitness world and making him/her understand that hard work and long-lasting changes to their lifestyle is a much more important than any specific training or diet plan. Anybody that says otherwise has something to sell you.

The real instances where training and diet application become important are when taking someone from average to good, and from good to great.

So if you’re a relative newbie just interested in “toning up” (which means adding a little muscle mass, in proportion, and dropping body fat so that it shows), well, you’re easy to train.

How to you quantify results then? If you take someone that’s already at a fairly advanced level of training, ie not a beginner, then improve them by a good margin, that’s a good place to start.

This doesn’t mean that you work with someone for two months then take success for his/her showing, by the way.

All of this in a roundabout way brings me back to my original reason for writing this.

There are a ton of people that see professional level athletes of all types and simply assume that, if only they had the coach’s secrets, or did what that athlete did, they’d somehow be equivalent to that athlete.

This occurs in all sports, but it’s especially common in the appearance-dominated competitions of bodybuilding and women’s figure competitions. However, in any sport, this is a fundamentally flawed viewpoint.

Coaching can be thought of as taking someone’s raw talent and ability, then using various training/diet strategies as tools to guide and develop that natural ability. The coach didn’t create the ability any more than the gardener created the rose bushes that he tends to.

This is important to understand, because while it means that a coach can develop an athlete’s natural abilities, s/he cannot create what is already there.

A good example of this is the common misconception that women can shape and sculpt their bodies in order to look like the fitness models in the magazines.

Well, no, you can’t. You have two tools in your arsenal when developing your body, those being exercise and nutrition. At least assuming you choose to remain drug-free, if not then you have drugs too. How your body actually responds to those tools (including drugs) and ends up looking, well, that’s up to your genes. You can’t override them no matter how much you might love to.

Irrespective of the drug issue even, how often do you see girls that are just naturally slim and muscular? How often do you actually see someone turn themselves from a different body type into that?

This doesn’t exclude someone going from obese to tiny, by the way. Obesity has nothing to do with skeletal structures, muscular proportions and insertions, responses to training, things like that. I’m sure most everyone can think of a girl that was once overweight but dieted down and is now gorgeous; that’s not what I’m talking about. The fact that she ended up gorgeous means that she already had “hot chick” in her genes, and just got fat. Once she dieted it off, the “hot chick” was the inevitable end result.

So the question remains: who have you actually seen fundamentally change body proportion, responses to training, et al, to that degree? Even drugs, quasi-magical though they can be, can only do so much as compared to genetics when it comes to body shape. Really this is why the idea of “bringing up parts” in bodybuilding is really of limited utility; the only time it will work is if a part was truly lagging to begin with. The only time it will overdevelop is if it’s genetically inclined to do so. Not a lot you’re going to do to “shape” the body.

Again, if you have valid proof of this (that accounts for the genetic factors and matters of imbalanced training!) I’ll be glad to entertain it. Like it or not, how you look is how you look.

Following from this, why would you assume that a person training such a genetically-endowed individual could produce the same in you?

This isn’t to dash your hopes. Individual genetics can take one a long way, and for most of those that come in “wanting to get in shape but not get too bulky”, that will be more than enough. It’s when you carry those unrealistic expectations that you become let down.

Women, you aren’t going to look like the girl in the magazine. Men, chances are you’re not going to end up looking like the IFBB pro. You can, however, look great with what you’re given. There’s no shame in not being world-class.

Enough ranting for now. However, I will leave you with a few things to think about:

1) Would you consider that someone coaching world-class sprinters, marathoners, or shotputters could make you into a world-class sprinter, marathoner, or shotputter? If the answer is no, then why would you expect the same from someone coaching world-class physique competitors?

2) Would you consider that someone competing at the world level in a given sport is training and eating the way you should be? Would you consider it realistic to expect that doing what the top do is what’s right for you as well?

3) Are you asking the right questions? If a coach produces results in a given group of people, is it because of the reasons you expect (ie training and diet) or reasons you’re not considering?

I write more by email than I do by blog.

Get on the mailing list and it's like having me write a nice letter to you.

Go check your email for a confirmation message.

Something went wrong.