Everything Works (until it doesn't)
by Steven M. Ledbetter
6 minute read
Have you ever gone to a bookstore and looked at how many diet books there are? Have you every wondered why there are so many different exercise programs on the internet? Or why every trainer is an expert in [latest fad workout, body part, etc.]? Well at great risk to my physical well being, I am about the let you know the secret to training, and improving your body for the rest of your life. If I don’t post next week, you’ll know why.
The Most Closely Guarded Secret in the Fitness Industry
When I first started training, it all seemed very complicated. Sets, reps, one leg, two legs, bodyweight, cardio… ahhh! There was a sea of choices that I needed to navigate. How would I know what to do?! Well, as I got more immersed in the science (thanks to people like Alan Aragon, Bret Contreras, Nick Tumminello, Brad Pilon, Dr. John Berardi, Eric Cressey, Leigh Peele, Jonathan Fass, and even Kevin Larrabee) and the art of training (Dan John, Mike Boyle, Mark Reifkind, and Pavel), I began to slowly realize something that Dan John had of course learned decades ago: Everything works (until it doesn’t).
Every diet, as long as it is eating less calories than you use, works. You will lose weight; the number on the scale will go down. Until it doesn’t anymore.
Every strength training program, as long as it involves CPR, works. You will lift heavier weights; the number will go up. Until it doesn’t anymore.
You Are Not the Marble. You Are the Chisel.
**One of the things you have to understand for this to make sense is that you are not a block of marble waiting for some brilliant trainer to come along and sculpt into a perfect hottie. Only you can make you. Your body simply responds to the stresses you place on it. Whether it’s lifting heavy weights or running really fast, your body reacts to the stress of consistent training with neurological and physiological changes. You need consistency so the body knows it’s not temporary, intensity so it knows you mean business, and recovery so it has time to change. But this process is not passive and you are not a block of marble; you are the chisel and the stress is the hammer.
Surely, no stress is a stressful as new stress. New diets, new exercises, new programs, all seem to have an immediate impact on the body because they place our body on high alert. After 2-3 weeks of consistent exposure, we see big improvements on new programs and tell the world about our awesome new diet, program, trainer, etc. But in time, our bodies adjust. In 6-8 weeks we just get used to things. We burn less calories doing movements we are more efficient at. We recruit less muscle fiber into lifts that we are more proficient in. Our brain lowers our NEAT to match the new caloric input. The rate of improvement begins to drop. After 12 weeks or so, no matter how well designed the program is, our bodies usually stop changing. And banging away at things harder won’t change much because by now the chisel is dull and needs resharpening.
Know What is Working
The key to understanding how to sharpen the chisel again is knowing what was working in the first place. Before you go off and try every workout program and fad diet under the sun, it’s important to have a baseline from which to work. You have to be aware of what you are eating and what you are doing. You have to know that you are burning about 2000kcal a day to intelligently play around with numbers in your diet. You have to know what set and rep schemes worked best for you at certain times in your life. You have to know how much sleep you are getting. You have to know your tool well before you go about changing it. So here are some tips for understanding what is working and why before you go off and change everything willy-nilly:
Keep a training journal. I have a blog so I can monitor all my activity. No you can’t see it.
Keep a food journal. This doesn’t have to be complicated. I use the same blog and just post a little :) or :( if I was compliant to the particular plan I am on at the time. Some of my clients take pictures of all the food they eat with their phone.
Pick a few skill measurements and do them a few times a year. I like the front squat, the deadlift, the one-arm overhead press, pull-ups, and the RKC snatch test. Every movement is represented, as well as my conditioning and I don’t need a spotter or a lot of equipment.
Weigh in, but not too often. Dust your scale off every 2-4 weeks. That’s about how long it takes to really lose fat or put on muscle. Any more than that will just freak you out.
Take pictures. Every 2-3 weeks take craigslist-style mirror shots of yourself from a few different angles. The scale is not the only thing that matters. In fact, for most people half-naked pictures matter a lot more.
Recognise that it’s all related. Training, diet, sleep, and life all interact. So keep tabs on how these things affect each other in your journals. Were you traveling a lot during that time? Just had a baby? Drinking more alcohol? Write it down and remember to make a not of it when you are assessing a program.
Now Change Something
Now that you kind of know what works for you, change something. Honestly, it doesn’t have to be drastic. Subtle changes to a nutrition plan or a workout program can keep the results coming. If you were doing sets of 20 swings, try 25. If you were back squatting, try front squatting. If you were eating 150g of protein, try 175g. Or 125g. But whatever you change, keep at it for 2-3 weeks. Now look at your body shots. Are they hotter? Did the number on the scale change? Are you moving bigger weights? These little changes can add up to having a major impact on your body, but only if you give it time. If you have tried monkeying around with something a few times and it’s still not working, try making a more drastic change. Switch from kettlebells to barbells. Stop drinking for a month. Hell, go vegan, just don’t tell me about it. But whatever you change, make sure to keep as much as possible the same. Just like you learned in 8th grade science class, sticking to one variable is the only way to know whether or not something worked.