Monday, March 23, 2015

Don't Be a Hater

I don't have all the answers. And neither do you.

The sooner you acknowledge this, the happier you'll be in your fitness journey -- and the happier the people around you will be, too! It's all about doing what works for you, and what works for you may not work for your best friend, your wife, your co-workers or that guy you see all the time at the gym.
Haters gonna hate, hate, hate...

There's No One Right Way
As I've suggested before, you should ignore anything and anyone suggesting that there's only one way to do something -- particularly when that advice comes with ridicule for anyone doing it differently. Two basic reasons:
  • The best exercise is the exercise you'll actually do. If you dread it so much that you avoid it and stay on the couch instead, it's not a good exercise.
  • Every form of exercise has benefits, and everyone's goals are different.

The Stuff Haters Hate On
Cardio: Wander into the strength-training area of the gym, particularly the free-weights section. You will find someone, and probably a lot of someones, who believe that cardio is the enemy of muscle and of fitness in general. The logic goes that when your heart rate is elevated, your body will choose to burn muscle over fat, and you'll actually become weaker. There are two problems with this theory, which I've discussed more in depth before:
  • Your body doesn't burn muscle exclusively during cardio, nor does it burn fat exclusively during resistance training.
  • It ignores the fact that the exercise itself builds muscles. For example, as a runner, I can move a lot of weight on the leg press -- more than many dedicated lifters can.
Using Weight Machines: Many hardcore weightlifters will insist that lifting free weights is the only right way to do strength training. And there is some logic to this: When you lift free weights, your body has to recruit "stabilizing" muscles -- areas around the actual muscle you're working. So you can work on stabilization while you're also gaining explosive strength. But the advantage to machines -- whether they're the Nautilus type with cables and pins, or Hammer Strength with racks for plates -- is that you can isolate a certain group of muscles. Our bodies will naturally overcompensate -- i.e., cheat -- when we're trying to overload a muscle. Having a machine that defines the plane of motion forces you to work out the right muscles and gain the improvement you're looking for. And there are certain lifts, such as leg presses, that simply require a machine. My suggestion: a mix of both, favoring whatever you're more comfortable with.

Treadmills: I've found a pretty strong correlation between runners who thump their chests in "beast mode" and runners who look down their noses at the treadmill. Don't be a baby, they say. Or they'll insist that you're not getting the same workout. It's all crap. 
Lily and I have done a few snow runs. It's not so much fun.
  • If weather conditions would make you miserable, don't run outside. I've run in as cold as 20 degrees, in snow, in rain and in heat, and I can say that there have been plenty of times when I would've preferred a nice dry, climate-controlled atmosphere. Again, if you hate it so much that you don't do it at all, it's not beneficial.
  • Safety can be an issue, too. If your work schedule precludes you from running in daylight, and you don't feel safe on your local roads, don't run outside. There's only so much that reflective gear and pepper spray can do for you.
  • You will get a good workout. Despite a litany of anecdotal evidence, studies have shown that treadmill runs are as effective as outdoor runs
  • Treadmills are great for interval training, when you want to run specific speeds for specific amounts of time. They're also helpful if you want to push the pace -- your choices are run at the speed you've set or fly off the back of the machine.

Boston Marathon winner Meb Keflezghi
Foot Strike: I believe strongly that there is such a thing as bad running form -- I'll talk about that in a sec. However, no two people are alike (except for twins), so it stands to reason that everyone's ideal running form is going to be a bit different, too. But don't tell that to mid-foot strike zealots. You may have heard about the best-selling book Born to Run. It's largely responsible for the barefoot-running craze in the past decade. The idea is that if you land on your heel -- which most of us do -- you are more susceptible to injury. But experts say that posture is far more important. In other words, you want to land with your weight above your feet, to get the best shock absorption. There's nothing wrong with mid-foot striking, but most recreational runners are going to have a tough time with a transition to a mid-foot strike, and the benefits won't be as great as advertised. Shorten up your stride and let your foot land how it's going to land.

Eating Carbs: I've written before about all those specialized diets out there. But in my experience, the anti-sugar, anti-carb crowd is the worst when it comes to proselytization. These "clean eaters" are convinced that the only means to good health is to cut out all bread and pasta, and anything with any added sugar. They'll also jump up and down about "processed foods," but good luck getting anyone to explain exactly what the specific harm is. Don't get me wrong -- I think you can succeed with a low-carb diet. But it means cutting out a lot of foods you probably like, and it means feeling like crap while you do it, especially on workout days. As I've said many times, do what works for you. If that's the way you can create a calorie deficit, cut out the carbs! Just ignore those people who have you convinced you're doing it wrong.

The One Thing You Should Hate On
Now I'm not suggesting you be that guy who goes around correcting strangers at the gym, but there is one exception to all of this: bad form. Bad form isn't doing what works for you -- at best, it's inefficient, and at worst, it's a good way to get hurt.

If you don't do the full exercise, you won't get the benefit. For example, I saw a guy at the gym the other day doing squats with enough weight to cause the bar to bow. But he wasn't even getting his quads parallel to the floor. He was missing the most beneficial part of the exercise, pushing the weight through your glutes. Another example: Have you ever seen someone on the elliptical who's simply shifting his weight from one foot to the other? He's using gravity, not his body, to do the work.

If you don't maintain the proper body position, you can hurt yourself. I saw another guy in the gym bench pressing more weight than he should have, and he was bowing his back so badly I thought it might snap. You're much better off lifting what you can and doing it right.

If you try to run too fast, your form will suffer and you will hurt yourself. As we discussed above, there's a raging debate about running form, particularly foot strike. But one thing I can guarantee: You need to keep your weight over your feet if you want to avoid injury. That's the only way to ensure that your whole body absorbs the shock of landing. And the most common way to overextend is to try to go faster than you realistically can. Sure, you'll be fine in a dead sprint for a couple hundred meters, but if you try to keep that up over miles, you'll be sorry.

So Don't Be a Hater
People have their own reasons for doing the things they do, just like you do. Chances are, there's someone at the gym or on the trail or the road who sees you and does a mental eye roll. But as long as you know you're not taking shortcuts and you're working toward your goals, you should keep doing what you do -- and you should assume that everyone else is, too.

Ever encountered a serious hater on your fitness journey? What did that person try to convince you of? Was it totally ridiculous? Or did you take it to heart? Sound off on Facebook, Twitter or in the comments section below!

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