I was thinking about this the other day in connection with my last post about Cheat Days, but also because I had been browsing the magazine rack at the grocery store and saw Adam Levine on the cover of Men’s Health and got irritated that the feature article was about torching fat. The fitness industry, like many groups and professional spheres, has a pretty steep selection and confirmation bias. Which normally wouldn’t be a big deal except that in fitness, this bias will keep people who need the most help from getting it. Let’s walk through what I mean.
This post is something of a follow-up to that critique I wrote a few days ago about the woman doing her “Everyone is looking at me” art exhibit. But it’s also more than that and it deserves it’s own topic I think. What made me think to write this was reading elsewhere in the aether a post by a guy who thinks he is really, really ugly. The premise of the discussion was that the guy was feeling discouraged about his looks and was asking the forum whether he should even bother working out because he felt like his face was so busted. That is, what good was getting a great body if his face was ugly and there would be no changing it?
I’ll assume the guy was being mostly serious – sometimes people pull the “Why I so uggerz” card as a way of fishing for compliments – and that he really is obsessed about how his face looks. Now I’ll go ahead and say the guy isn’t a GQ model or anything (which is why I think he probably wasn’t fishing) but he isn’t hideous. In fact, he isn’t remarkable looking in general. But he wrote out a long list of perceived flaws in his face that apparently really haunt him: the angle of his ears, the wrinkles on his cheeks (he’s in his 20s, by the by), 2 pores on his forehead, the slight ovoid shape to his cranium… Very meticulous. But again, the guy actually looked unremarkable to me.
There is this tendency, though, when we are being critical of ourselves to magnify things way, way out of proportion. This is a problem with former fat kids, of course, but is also a problem with anybody who has any kind of body image issue.
I grew up hating myself, hating how I looked, how I felt, and how I felt people thought I looked. It was so bad that for a long time I was immune to compliments. I thought people were lying or joking or just didn’t get me… because I thought of myself as fat and ugly. As a guy who grew up hating himself for how he looked, let me say this about self-criticism.
1) Never describe to people what you think is wrong with you. If you’re self-conscious about something, that thing may be big or it may be small but to you it feels like a head wound or a third eye. Other people, though, are probably not looking at it. They usually don’t notice until you point it out. And yet, when you do point it out, it becomes a thing that people notice. Because you brought it up!
2) No one notices your “flaws” nearly as much as you do. The human eye tends to generalize how people look, so unless you’re a circus freak or a beautiful demigod, most people average out what you look like. I have a lot if things I don’t like about how I look (I won’t say them as per rule 1), but I’ve literally had no one notice those things in me. I have a scar that I used to be self-conscious about and I think only one person has ever even noticed I had it… but to me it felt like everyone was looking and wondering “what the hell is that??” But no one is looking.
3) Don’t obsess over what you can’t change: obsess over what you can. The things you can’t change are the things you need to embrace: own them and wear them like armor. I can’t be “skinny”… I can only be huge. So I’ve embraced being huge. I’ll be huge on my own terms and in my own way, but my size is what it is. Even if this guy’s face were ugly, it would be a footnote if he embraced it (especially in the context of body building). How many people think Vin Diesel has a pretty face? Exactly zero. But it doesn’t matter because he has charisma that partially comes from just being confident.
Finally, and this doesn’t need to be a rule necessarily, just a reminder from the previous post… No one is looking. The thing about self-criticism is that it’s actually a curious species of narcissism. We believe that EVERYONE IS LOOKING AT THE THING I THINK IS IMPORTANT!!1! But that’s the opposite of the truth. No one is looking at you, guys. For the most part, no one cares. And once you stop focusing so intently on the minutia of how you look, you’ll begin noticing that no one saw your flaws the way you did.
I was talking recently to a friend of mine who wanted some advice about supplements to take. Actually, about 4 friends asked me in the span of a couple days the same kind of question about supplementation. So while I do want to talk some more about supplementation and specifically what I do and why – and some of the science behind it – but first a kind of general overview of how I’ve come to see fitness in general: from supplementation to weight training to eating and everything surrounding those. In short: the body craves variety.
My friends’ questions usually had something to do with them being dissatisfied with their current supplements – in most cases a pre-workout – and they wanted advice about what to change to. When I get this kind of question, my answer is usually that what you change to is not as important as that you change to something. The idea behind the question is that they must be using the wrong product or an inferior product. Well that could be true – there’s nothing to say that all pre-workout supplements are always effective for everyone or are even very good as a rule – but sometimes they just need to change products.
The secret of the body is that it is very efficient at not doing much work. The scientific description of this is “the body is always moving toward equilibrium” but that’s a fancy way of saying that the body gets bored and stops changing. This is true for a wide range of stimuli.
Have you ever noticed that as you sit wherever you are sitting reading this that you aren’t “hearing” every sound that goes on around you? You may only hear the humm of your computer or the click of your mouse. But if you stop you can probably pick out the whirr of appliances, the subtle buzz of light bulbs, the creak of the building, your own breathing and heartbeat. All these stimuli get filtered out, though, and you only really register unusual sounds. For a long list of sensations, the body has a way of pushing them to the background and only responding to the new.
Now my friends all were using different kinds of pre-workout supplements (a pre-workout, for those who don’t know, is basically a stimulant to give you more energy to work out, though some of them have other effects as well) but in most cases they had been using them for a few months. After a while, though, the body can get used to a regular diet of supplements like these. They lose their effectiveness as the body begins to expect, then ignore, the stimulant. Any of you coffee drinkers may recognize this from your daily coffee. It’s always best the first time! So when people ask about a pre-workout supplement I’ll give my own recommendation (I have favorites for reasons I’ll discuss elsewhere) but also say that they can’t really go too wrong by just switching. They’ve become immune to the effect and need to cycle to something else.
This is just like what I said about weight lifting. In order to be growing, you have to have variety at every level. People lifting weights will hit a plateau usually because they have been doing the same thing for too long. The body gets used to it, expects it, then ignores it. It’s why I always change what I’m doing in some way every 6-8 weeks. Longer than that and the body just stops working.
So if you find yourself sitting in place but working incredibly hard – be it with supplements or with weight training or even with eating – you may ask yourself how long you have been doing things the same way. Usually if you’ve been at it more than 2 months, then your body has adapted. Changing – almost in any direction, honestly – will jar the body out of its stasis and get it growing again.
So as much as I repeat truisms that I’ve learned about the fitness industry, I find that I never quite get them into my head completely. Which is why they bear repeating and why this whole thing is an ongoing process. Case in point today: the idea of a “cheat” day as a harmless – and sometimes helpful! – mechanism in a diet regime.
A friend of mine linked me this article yesterday from the Daily Mail: Obese woman’s revealing photography project exposes the cruel and judgmental stares she attracts from people on the street. The article is about an artist, Haley Morris-Cafiero who goes around taking pictures of herself in order to document people looking at her in the background. The premise here being that, because she’s overweight, people are being “cruel” to her behind her back by, apparently, giving her judgmental stares. While the article and her website where you can view the whole project are meant to reveal something about our wider culture and the insidious presence of fat-shaming, I was actually struck by what the whole thing said about the woman herself and how much of what we think about other people is actually a reflection of what we think of ourselves.
A friend and former student of mine was asking me a question today that dovetails with something I’ve been thinking about for a while. He contacted me through facebook and told me that he had strained his neck doing lat pulldowns and wanted to know 1) how he had done that and 2) how he could avoid doing that in the future. Basically I suggested that he was probably doing the exercise wrong, but wrong for reasons that he (and most people) aren’t aware of.
When someone is doing an exercise incorrectly, there are only a few reasons why that might be the case. The first is that they simply don’t know how the exercise is done. For some motions, like Deadlift or Squat, this can be both an easy mistake and a very dangerous one. The form for both of these motions is deceptively specific, as it should be, since failing to do this motion correctly can lead to serious and long term lower back injuries. The second (though not necessarily mutually exclusive) reason is that the wrong way of doing it is just easier and lets you do more weight and feel like you’re doing something impressive. But the reason it is easier – and the reason that way is wrong – may be surprising. And it ties in with how my friend hurt his neck.
I told him, “If you strained your neck, you may have been using too much weight. When you strain a muscle that doesn’t seem to be used for a given motion, it means that your body is recruiting secondary muscles to get through that motion (because the primary ones aren’t up to the job). It’s gonna hurt for a minute, but it’ll get better in a week or so. In the future, watch your weight and make sure your form is flawless. If you have good form in a motion, then your body can’t recruit other muscles (and if you can’t do a motion with good form, lighten the weight!)”
So let’s look at three different exercises that a lot of people are doing wrong and why they’re wrong.
Let’s talk a minute about what I was doing during college. I may have mentioned before that in high school I made some decent progress in weight loss through one method or another. I dropped perhaps 70 pounds during my sophomore and senior years of high school. Pretty impressive, right? Well for various reasons that discipline collapsed the moment I started college… my attitude changed somewhere in there, and naturally my results changed. But it wasn’t just my attitude about pursuing fitness that changed, it was my attitude about myself entirely. I saw myself completely differently… and that seeing myself differently let me really balloon up to epic proportions.