Thursday, September 29, 2011

Psychology and fitness - (3 famous psychology papers and what they say about the fitness world)

For about 4 years I shared a house with a bunch of psychologists. Over the course of that time by process of osmosis (or maybe more accurately by process of talking crap over bottles of red wine) I developed a keen interest in the field and in the fascinating research that has been done over the years. There are certain key studies that will be familiar to any psychology undergrad and indeed to much of the lay population. I recently started thinking about the implications of these studies for the health and fitness world, and what they might tell us about our behaviors.
My "academic" education is pretty limited, I don't have a degree or masters. But I read, I question, and I research. Here's my spin on things.

Stanley Milgram on authority-
Milgram carried out one of the most notorious experiments in the field of human behaviour. The experiment involved members of the public asking an unseen person in another room a list of questions. Unbeknownst to them, the answerer was in fact an actor. Every time the answerer seemingly got a question wrong the questioner was told to press a button which gave them an electric shock.
The machine which delivered this shock had many buttons , each corresponding to a different strength of electric shock. They went from mild shock, through to severe, all the way to an ominous button marked "xxx". As the experiment progressed and the answerer continued to make mistakes the questioner was told by a person in a white coat with a clip board to administer stronger shocks. Despite the actors obvious distress and audible screams, most participants continued to dutifully press the buttons. At a predetermined point the actors suddenly went silent, neither answering questions nor screaming. Even at this point , 65% of participants continued to administer electric shocks to the (now presumably dead) person in the next room. All because a person in authority told them to.

In fitness we see this behaviour in the phenomenon of guru following. Once a person is positioned as an expert and has amassed a group of followers, they can then simply make statements and have a large section of the industry take them at their word. Aerobics make you fat, spinal flexion/machine based training/aspartame is the devil, this or that gives you cancer, whatever. Statements can simply be thrown out there with little or no regard for actual evidence and quickly become dogma, repeated so many times they become received wisdom. Never questioned, merely accepted.
I'm not concerned here with wether these individual statements are true, more with the eagerness of many to simply "be told" rather than think and explore and research for themselves. Perhaps it's intellectual laziness, or perhaps obedience to authority is hard wired into human behaviour and trainers are no different.

BF Skinner and the superstitious pigeons-
Skinner and his team observed a group of pigeons through a glass window. At random intervals food was dropped into the pigeons enclosure. Occasionally the food would coincide with the pigeon performing a particular action, spinning round in a circle or bobbing its head in a certain way. What the researchers noticed was that the pigeon would then continue to perform that action, presumably believing that it had actually caused the food to drop in. In effect, they had observed the development of superstition in pigeons. Similar research was later carried out on groups of children and the same thing occurred.
We see this all the time in the health and fitness world, particularly in the area of supplementation. Many will swear by echinacea for example, because they took some and a few days later their cold was gone. But what happens to a cold if you take absolutely nothing? After a few days, it's gone.
I'm not anti supplement at all, some work. And to be honest I'm not that bothered about people buying totally unproven supplements or homeopathic remedies, it's their money and I'm happy to see it as a self selecting tax on people who ignore statistics. My concern is that it seems to feed into a larger trend of completely disregarding science in favour of personal experience. So we have trainers recommending a supplement because it "worked for them" when the research has never shown it to be any more effective than placebo, while simultaneously criticising the medical industry and claiming research can "prove anything".
(Post hoc ergo propter hoc is a Latin phrase meaning "after, therefore because of," a logical fallacy that fits nicely here. And no I don't speak Latin, it was the title of an episode of The West Wing)

This trend is troubling, and I have a nagging fear about waking up one day and finding myself part of the alternative medicine industry. Perhaps we're already there?

This is not to say that personal experience is unimportant. It's absolutely vital. Certainly with things like exercise selection, nutrition approaches or techniques to increase client compliance there are many ways to skin a cat, and using approaches that have worked for you is perfectly valid and sensible. Personal Training is an art as well as a science. But if a trainer is prepared to make hard, scientific recommendations about supplements causing a specific response, then I feel these recommendations should be backed up with hard, scientific evidence, not superstition.

The Forer Effect- The Forer effect describes our tendency to give high accuracy ratings to descriptions of our personality that are supposedly tailored to us specifically, when in fact they are vague and general.
The psychologist Bertram Forer demonstrated this by giving a personality test to his students. He then returned with what he told his students were specific analyses of their personalities, which he then asked them to rate for accuracy. The students rated them as highly accurate, at which point Forer revealed they had all been given the same reading.
You can read what he gave them if you like. Be honest about how accurately you feel it describes you, and try to imagine how you'd feel if someone gave you this following what was supposed to be a highly accurate personality test-

"You have a great need for other people to like and admire you. You have a tendency to be critical of yourself. You have a great deal of unused capacity which you have not turned to your advantage. While you have some personality weaknesses, you are generally able to compensate for them. Disciplined and self-controlled outside, you tend to be worrisome and insecure inside. At times you have serious doubts as to whether you have made the right decision or done the right thing. You prefer a certain amount of change and variety and become dissatisfied when hemmed in by restrictions and limitations. You pride yourself as an independent thinker and do not accept others' statements without satisfactory proof. You have found it unwise to be too frank in revealing yourself to others. At times you are extroverted, affable, sociable, while at other times you are introverted, wary, reserved. Some of your aspirations tend to be pretty unrealistic. Security is one of your major goals in life."

Obviously this effect is heavily relied on by psychics, astrologers and other charlatans, but is it also used (consciously or unconsciously) in the health and fitness industry? Certainly I think we see it in many "allergy tests" which purport to prescribe supplements for specific, sub-clinical ailments. So we have questions like "do you feel you could have more energy?", "do you experience mood swings?" and the like. These are so vague that almost anyone would say yes, even if you rarely experience mood swings the question causes you to think of a time that you have, making it seem all the more tailored to you. Again I'm not saying that all allergy tests are utter rubbish, just that some seem to be!

We are all guilty of falling into these cognitive traps, and bar a small group of out-and-out snake oil salesmen I believe the fitness industry is in fact full of people who genuinely want to help their clients. Being aware of these tendencies might just help us to make better choices about how we help them.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Intermittent Fasting

I'm a fan of self experimentation. When it comes to training and nutrition, I enjoy trying new and often extreme approaches out on myself. Even if they are not practical for use with our clients the act of trying new methods out on myself is one way to keep training fresh and fun. Last month I tried performing the power snatch every day. The result? My shoulders and traps grew, my snatch technique improved dramatically and I absolutely mangled my wrists.

This month it's the turn of intermittent fasting. Intermittent fasting (IF) is having a bit of a "moment" right now in the fitness industry. If I'm honest it's the type of thing I would have dismissed but enough trainers who I respect have been raving about it for me to finally crack and give it a go. I have to say so far I'm a bit of a convert.

The benefits of intermittent fasting are supposed to be increases in growth hormone and improved insulin management, both of which will help shed fat and keep it off. Are these definitely genuine, proven benefits? I don't know. I think there are a number of other benefits however.

1- it teaches you what actual hunger is. I got into training and grew up with the mentality of "you must eat 2-3 hours or your muscles will disappear." I don't still believe this and the research doesn't really support it. I do think it has an application when trying to build a lot of muscle, but for a weight loss client I think it can be counterproductive. Despite this it's a very deeply ingrained habit, in the past I would find myself ravenous just a couple of hours after a meal . The interesting thing about fasting however, was that I was not actually that hungry at all. The act of deciding not to eat and being motivated to stick to the plan seemed to help and in fact I had great energy all day. Oddly though, when I finally decided to eat at 7 in the evening I was immediately starving. The lesson? How much hunger is genuine and how much is simply a Pavlovian response?

2- it's a simple method that leaves no room for interpretation or grey areas. You just choose a period of time (generally 16-24 hours) during which you decide not to eat. Hard and fast rules are more powerful than "guidelines" when you are attacking fat loss. Guidelines can be easily twisted to suit a hungry stomach and reduced willpower, but strict rules are harder to justify breaking.

3- you remove a significant amount of calories from your week in the simplest way imaginable. Calories are always going to be part of the picture. They may be less important than food quality, macronutrients ratios and other factors, but they are always going to be one leg of the fat loss chair. Even if all the claims about hormonal benefits turn out to be false or greatly exaggerated the simple act of removing a chunk of calories from your week in one move will without fail produce significant changes.

If you want to try it out here's what I suggest.

- Don't put too much pressure on yourself to go a full 24 hours. The first time I tried it I said I'd go till lunch time and assess from there. As it turned out I felt great and ended up not eating till the evening. The point is this shouldn't be about suffering through or punishing yourself. It's simply choosing not to eat for a slightly longer period of time once a week.

- go dinner to dinner. Maybe it's just a personal preference, but I think eating as normal the day before a fast is easier than going lunch to lunch or breakfast to breakfast and going to bed hungry.

- If you're quite overweight or a beginner to exercise, this approach is probably using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut. I would also be very wary of using it with any client with a history of disordered eating (In fact, I haven't used this with clients at all yet, just myself)

- when you break your fast, don't over compensate. Just go back to eating as normal.

Anyway those are my thoughts. If you want to learn more about intermittent fasting , do a search for Brad Pilon and his book "Eat Stop Eat".

Now, to decide on next month's experiment .

Zack Cahill

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Alcohol And Training - Can You Drink And Make Progress?

Alcohol is a deeply ingrained part of British life , and a real point of struggle for many of our clients. Now, your bog standard fitness blog will tackle this issue with something as useful and insightful as "drinking is bad , mmkay?"

Or " it's a simple choice between being fat and unhealthy, or not drinking"

But in truth, it's not. For many it's a choice between socialising with their friends or not (the glib, pious personal trainer answer to this would be "get new friends")

For others it's a choice between progressing their career or not
(ask any city professional where the best networking gets done and the most strategic relationships are solidified and they'll tell you it's over drinks)

Booze is a social lubricant, a rapport building shortcut, and the linchpin of just about any social occasion. So as trainers are we living in the real world when we tell our clients not to drink? I don't think so.

I've been doing this a while, I know a lot of personal trainers and most of them drink, some drink heavily.

Now, they also train every day, are generally young, eat well and lead fairly low stress lives all of which tips the balance in their favour. But the fact remains that when you get a load of fitness people together at the various events we attend its usually as anarchic as any office piss-up. So the standard fitness industry advice to avoid alcohol is quite hypocritical.

Never the less , It's an unavoidable fact that excess alcohol consumption is unhealthy, slows weight loss and at extremes can be very destructive.

I grew up in Ireland, which is effectively the international school for binge drinking so this is a subject I know a little about. So do I think people need to cut out alcohol to get in great shape? No.

The negative effects of non- ridiculous alcohol consumption have, in my humble opinion, been overstated in the fitness world.

I've done 8 weeks totally booze free, and honestly I can't say that it was worth it.

That's my subjective opinion. But when we look at the research it seems to back me up. The oft touted testosterone sapping effects for example , are in reality so minimal as to be insignificant unless you are drinking quite heavily or drinking every day. (One study showed a 6.8% drop in testosterone following 3 weeks of drinking 3 beers a day every day. I don't advocate drinking every day. Another showed a more significant reduction for 16 hours only after the equivalent of 10 beers. Granted, in Ireland that would be known as "Sunday afternoon", but for most people thats still a fair amount of booze)

There is even some research to suggest that moderate drinking can improve insulin sensitivity (But what's moderate? That's another story. By the way if you want references I can put them in the comment section, I'm doing some mind numbing cardio as I write this and can't be bothered to dig it out. So instead you get me brain-dumping. Nice!)

The main issue with alcohol is that it interferes with the liver in a way that causes other calories consumed to be more readily stored as fat. This is compounded with the fact that we tend to make more indulgent good choices when we drink. It's been my gut feeling for years that stupid food choices while drinking and on the following day have a greater impact on the waistline than the alcohol itself.

So, how can we minimise the negative effects of alcohol while still enjoying the odd drink?

A few caveats. Binge drinking is unhealthy. Alcohol can be a very destructive and dangerous drug. It has messed up lives and had ill effects on millions of families including my own. It can also cause you to sleep with ugly people. I'm not saying you should drink as much as you like and there won't be consequences. But you're probably going to so here's my suggestions.

1- keep it to once a week.

2- on the day you are going to drink, consume as little fat and carbohydrates as possible. Stick to protein sources like chicken and to green veg.

3- alternate alcoholic drinks with sparkling water. The bubbles slow you down more than still water would.

4- don't make stupid food choices the next day, get right back on track with eating proper food and keep it lower carb.

5- stick to low sugar drinks. Dry white wines or spirits. If you're having mixers make them sugar free. I'll probably get kicked out of the trainer club for advocating "aspartame laden diet drinks" but in this specific circumstance I'd rather a bit of sweetener than the sugar.

6- don't take this as carte Blanche to drink as much as you like. No matter what way you look at it , 8 hour drinking binges aren't healthy. Don't do it and think it won't have consequences. You're an adult. Understand the consequences and make your mind up.

Monday, September 12, 2011

How To Learn The Power Clean

Opinions about the olympic lifts are quite polarised within the strength training world. Some believe they are far too complex to justify teaching to anyone who doesn't actually want to become an olympic lifter, and that you can get all of the benefits of the lifts using jumps and medicine ball work without the teaching process.

Others believe the olympic lifts are the greatest form of exercise and that everyone should build their training around them.

As usual, fence-sitter that I am I come down somewhere in the middle, though to be honest as time goes by I find myself including them more and more.

Yes they are quite technical in nature, and should not be included straight away unless the client already has a very nice front squat and is reasonably well structurally balanced. But I believe the benefits of including them in a program far outweigh the time it may take to master them. We should be in this training game for life anyway so what's the rush?

In the video below I run through the sequence I use to teach the lifts to beginners. I stole this method from Glenn Pendlay, a well known American weightlifting coach.

One nice thing about the video is that Sam who demonstrates the method does not use power cleans in his own training so you are seeing him make the typical mistakes that I see beginners make all the time, and see me try and correct them. An 8 minute video isn't quit enough time to nail the lifts but Sam gives it a good go, and hopefully you find it useful!

If you want to learn hands on how to apply these training techniques and put them into an intelligent strength training program, I'm holding a one day seminar on Saturday the 24th of September.As mentioned in the vid, I'm running it alongside Jay Benedetti

We're calling it MASS- the Muscle And Strength Seminar (nice acronym eh?) and its £97 to take part. We'll be training you and providing food so its very much a learn by doing day. Drop me a line on to book. Theres about 4 spaces left.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Back To School Leg Workout

We're experiencing quite an influx of new clients this month. September is always quite a busy time for new inquiries . Perhaps we are still in the mindset of "new academic year, new me!"

Maybe people are returning to work having done some travelling, during which they realised "hey it's not about slaving away in the rat race! I'm gonna start a new chapter! get in shape, learn tango and start working towards opening that basket weaving retreat in Goa"

Or maybe people are just feeling fat after their holidays.

Regardless, here's a little leg smashing finisher I've been using with a lot of clients lately. This is for the client who has gone through our 3 month introductory process and can therefore perform the fundamental lifts (squat, deadlift, press, Olympic lifts) reasonably well, and can therefore start doing the sexy (or horrible depending on your point of view) stuff. This builds work capacity and burns fat. Bosh.

The Leg Smasher
with no rest perform-
2 lengths pushing the prowler
2 lengths walking lunge with 16kg kettlebell
2 lengths prowler
10 kettlebell squats
2 lengths prowler
20 kettlebell swings
2 lengths prowler
20 bodyweight squats

Rest 2 minutes, repeat.

Not easy.