Just before going to bed last night I came across an article that upset me. I decided to wake up early this morning and write a response, something that I’ve never done before.
Becca Borawski is a writer and editor that I respect at Breaking Muscle. I like the site (we featured two articles from it in our most recent “best articles” installment) but feel that she was off point in her article entitled “Just Stop – And 8 Other Things Your Trainer Wishes to Tell You”. (I don’t want to link to the article, so you’ll have to Google it.)
While she voiced legitimate concerns, many of them that a lot of trainers deal with in trying to help clients, the tone of her article was admittedly “Tough Love Becca”. Instead of getting into the root of the problems, she continually tells the reader to “quit making excuses”.
I don’t know Becca as a coach, just a writer. The article that she published will get a lot of head-nods from people that agree with her but I worry about the damage that it has the potential to do from those who she will never hear from. A problem with writing online is that it’s easy to get blinded by the head-nodders. The comments of the article are almost all positive but then you see one that voiced the bigger problem Becca’s article is feeding:
“all this time I thought I was being proud of my hard work and you were just shaking a disdainful finger at me. I feel stupid now.” – Katrina Costedio
People already entrenched in fitness will agree with this article (this is easy to see from the avatars of the people commenting thanking Becca for the article) but the biggest stopping point from people starting an exercise program is not that they don’t want to get fit, or feel good, or have more energy; it’s rarely even financial when you break it down. The biggest stopping point is the feeling of inadequacy, discomfort, mistrust, or a lack of self-efficacy (the belief that one can actually achieve). Many of these things could be overcome by helping people understand that the questions they often ask don’t stem from stupidity or laziness, they come from a mis-understanding.
With the above in mind, I want to help you understand the 8 points that Becca lays out in her article in attempt to all grow together.
1. Understand Why You Don’t Like Vegetables
Eating is often emotional. Vegetables don’t satisfy when somebody has a craving for junk food because the dopamine (the feel good hormone) doesn’t get released. Dopamine also gets released when somebody feels like they are receiving social support. Tough love is the opposite response if you want somebody to make behavioral change.
When Becca says, “have you seriously tried every vegetable on the planet and you hate them all?” the answer is obviously no, but she is asking the wrong question and further putting him or her down by telling the reader to, “practice eating like an adult”. This hurts self-esteem and will have the reader searching for a way to feel better and the result is often compensatory habits like bad food choices to get a fix of the feel-good hormone.
Reward mechanisms (primarily dopamine) starts to fire before in anticipation to a stimulus and once removed, the firing rate starts to decrease. The result is feeling worse and looking for places to get a fix. It’s a scarily similar response (albeit smaller) to that of illegal opiates like heroin. So the right question to ask is “how can I make you feel good, appreciated, and supported in other ways so that you’re not running to eat junk food?”(1)
2. Understand Why You Don’t Feel Like You Have Time
I agree with Becca where she says that if fitness isn’t a priority, then there’s nothing a trainer can do. But if fitness is a priority, understand how procrastination works and take the appropriate steps to beat it.
I’ve said before that procrastination is opportunities natural assassin. It stops us from doing what we really want to do because, and especially when it comes to fitness goals, results come slowly and it takes time. Telling people to trust the process won’t cut it. Instead of working out for months to hopefully, one-day, hit a goal, time is spent doing everyday tasks that have an immediate reward associated with them because, even though it’s not what we really want to be doing, it feels better.
Understand that the time objection masks what is really going on: procrastination. And in order to beat procrastination there must be immediate reward mechanisms built into every difficult until the activity becomes its’ own reward. (2)
Here are some examples off the top of my head:
- Have a friend that you send a text message to when you’re done a workout that will message you back and say “hell yeah!”
- Put a stick on a piece of paper and every 10 that you get go for a massage
- Use Fitocracy — a workout tracker where you get points for every rep of every exercise — and watch yourself level up with the option to share your workout on social networks.
3. Understand That Food Journals Don’t Work
This is the only anecdotal part of the article, but food journals rarely work. What does work is asking a client to write down what he or she eats for 3 days (2 during the week and 1 weekend day) and bringing it in to the gym. Ask the client to rank all changes that he or she wants to make in order and ask that one task is chosen for the week.
Agree (as long as the choice isn’t way off which it almost never will be), rip off the piece of paper, and ask that they keep it in their pocket all day for the week. Now the client has ownership over the choice and the crumpled piece of paper in his or her pocket is a reminder.
Metabolism is misunderstood and to explain it would take a book, not a section of an article. Understand that metabolism is one of those buzz words thrown around in the fitness industry used to sell a whole bunch of pills, powders, potions, and magic bullet solutions based off of fear — fear of the unknown. A “slow metabolism” could be loosely translated to, “I don’t know what the hell is going on” and lumped in with the words functional, muscle confusion, and adrenal fatigue in the “buzz words whose meanings have been bastardized so much that they can be thrown out” category. A slow metabolism is often the term that describes what happens with the combination of related factors such as stress and poor food choices.
I agree with Becca when she says that it’s important to “start loving what you got” but that’s easier said than done and, even then, how we view ourselves is largely a measure of how we perceive the World sees us. Tough love isn’t the answer, support and understanding is.
4. Understand Why People Think Too Much is Cool
This point seems to be the opposite of what the rest of Becca’s article is about but I’ll address it anyway because I believe that it represents a larger problem: the need to show off.
Hearing somebody brag is a great way to figure out what they are insecure about. When somebody is insecure about being perceived a certain way, it’s not a good idea to 1) disagree: that will lead to cognitive dissonance hurting the relationship and associated trust and 2) put them down: Confidence is probably the underlying issue to begin with.
Did you know that perceived social support in the form of “likes” on Facebook leads to a reduction of smoking, nicotine addiction, and over-eating? (3, 4, 5) People who share more online rank lower on a scale of emotional stability.(6) People don’t share stuff that they think make them look bad online, they share the stuff that they need reassurance for the same as they brag about the stuff that they need reassurance for. Maybe something bigger is at play here and the person is reaching out for help and support?
Understand that bragging is done as a cry for help and support, not tough love.
5. Understand Why People Ask About Abs
There’s another concept I’d like to introduce called cognitive ease that states that the easier something is for our brains to process, the more legitimate we consider it to be. Our brains cannot possibly process all of the information that comes in so it works off of pre-existing associative connections (it relates something new to something it believes that it already understands).
If a reader has seen 1,000 articles and advertisements teaching how to do a crunch, it’s going to take a lot to reverse that. Crunching has become cemented as the way to get abs in a lot of peoples minds. If he or she has explicit trust in you and you say that the crunch is bad you may have an effect. Usually that isn’t the case so instead, you’ve got to show them outside of using analogies of three populations that they probably didn’t come to you to be like: sumo wrestlers, strongmen, and the homeless.
Understand that there is always a deeper reason why somebody comes to the gym. A 5lbs weight loss isn’t the goal, the reason behind losing 5 lbs is. If somebody says that they want abs, abs aren’t the goal — the perceived benefits that the abs will help them get is the goal: having more confidence, getting laid, etc.
The first step is to ask why 3 times and understand the benefits behind why a person has asked you a question. Abs are a feature, getting laid is a benefit. Benefits are emotional and drive action.
The second step is to teach what abs are and aren’t. Crunching isn’t evil, Bret Contreras and Brad Schoenfeld showed that unequivocally (7). It has a time and place. Next, it must be understood that abs primary job is to stabilize and to prove this to a client, have them stand straight, bend forward then backwards (if no injuries are present), and ask the client which motion has them feeling their abs most. Somatic responses are more memorable and it will be easier to have the client understand the importance of stability when they are “lifting some heavy stuff”. This ignores the dangerous implications of telling a reader with no sense of stability to go out and lift heavy while making them feel insecure about asking questions.
I covered the eating right topic above so won’t go over that again.
6. Understand That Finding Somebodies Special Something is More Important Then Telling Them That They Aren’t Special
Always stay positive. I understand the point that Becca was making when she said that “the vast majority of us are nothing special in the athletic department” and agree. Where I don’t agree is telling a person that they suck.
A major component of self-efficacy is mastery experience. We like doing things that we think we do well. Reinforce positive actions with great compliments, just make sure to pick and choose your battles.
7. Understand the Psychological Stages of Change Model
To quote Mark Young from a previous PTDC article, “According to the Transtheoretical model of behavioral change, we go from precontemplative (not thinking about it) to contemplative (thinking about it) to preparation (getting ready to do it), action (doing it), and finally maintenance (still doing it).”
Understand that some readers just aren’t ready for intense exercise yet and the job of the writer (and a trainer) is to help them progress through the stages as quickly as possible and, once they get there, empowering them to stay in the action phase.
Depending on the existing level of adherence, a trainer should take the clients likes and dislikes into consideration when designing a program. After all, the best program in the World pales in comparison to the one that a client will actually do.
8. Understand that the Question Being Asked is Rarely the Real Question
Most people are terrible at asking questions and this doubles for anything related to fitness because of how many lies and manipulative practices the industry is rife with. If somebody asks a question about achieving a goal and you respond with the steps to achieving that goal, you’ve done them a disservice.
I’ve been outspoken before about how strongly I’m opposed to goal-setting in the conventional sense. 10lbs weight loss or muscle gain is not a goal, running a 5km charity run is not a goal, and getting a 17 as an abstract measure on a test that a client didn’t know existed until you told them it was important is not a goal — these are all features — features that either a trainer or client has been led to believe is the primary focus.
But they aren’t the focus. The deeper emotional reasons behind the question or goal is the focus.
If a client comes in and wants to lose 10lbs, don’t start telling them what to eat or that they need to sleep more, stress less, and exercise. Ask them why. Then ask them why again two more times (or enough until your satisfied). Does losing 10lbs mean that the client will have more confidence at the dinner table with his or her in-laws in the hopes that they will stop making snide remarks whenever he or she reaches for a second helping? Or does gaining 10lbs of muscle meaning that he will have enough confidence to ask out his best friend who he has been in love with for the past 5 years.
There are no cookie-cutter questions and there are no cookie-cutter answers. So please don’t stop, understand.
(1) The Monkey Felt: Schultz et al., “Predictive Reward Signal”; Hollderman and Schulz, “Dopamine Neurons.”
(2) Harry F. Harlow, Margaret Kuenne Harlow, and Donald R. Meyer, “Learning Motivated by a Manipulation Drive,” Journal of Experimental Psychology 40 (1950): 231.
(3) Andrade, Eduardo B. (2005), “Behavioral Consequences of Affect: Combining Evaluative and Regulatory Mechanisms,” Journal of Consumer Research, 32 (December), 355-62.
(4) Gross, James J. and Ross A. Thompson. (2007), “Emotion Regulation: Conceptual Foundations”, in Handbook of Emotion Regulation, ed. James J. Gross, New York, NY: Guilford Press, 3-26.
(5) Berger, Jonah A. and Buechel, Eva, Facebook Therapy? Why Do People Share Self-Relevant Content Online? (February 29, 2012). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2013148
(6) Labroo, Aparna A. and Anirban Mukhopadhyay (2009), “Lay Theories of Emotion Transience and the Search for Happiness: A Fresh Perspective on Affect Regulation,” Journal of Consumer Research, 36 (August), 242-54.
(7) Contreras, B., Schoenfeld, B. (2011). To Crunch or Not to Crunch: An Evidence-Based Examination of Spinal Flexion Exercises, Their Potential Risks, and Their Applicability to Program Design. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 33, 8-28.