Don’t believe the hype

Although our bodies that have evolved over centuries, it seems that we need a new and groundbreakingly different fitness regime about once every few months.

I understand; variety is the spice of life and with physical fitness being a vital part of life, it makes sense to keep your training routine fun and varied. I’m as susceptible to new fitness kit as anyone – and I’m especially loving the new trend for bright, bold patterns – but I’m no fan of jumping from one workout format to another with no purpose or preparation.

Call me boring, but I don’t like to waste my time or my energy. Practicing an exercise over and over again helps the muscles involved get stronger, making for a more efficient movement (think squats: stronger lower body and core through multiple repetitions equals less wobbly knees and saggy backs, equals less wasted energy, allowing you to lift heavier, burning more calories and making muscles stronger – safely); but just as importantly, getting better at it teaches you to feel the difference between poor form and good form – you become better at exercising on your own, and it builds confidence in the exercise and in your abilities.

The fact is that there is a huge amount of pressure on personal trainers. If you’re surrounded with people leaping and jumping and skipping all over the place, and your client is struggling to master a squat or a press-up, it is tempting to give them new exercises to keep them from thinking you have nothing up your sleeve. Beyond that, there is increasing pressure to have “a system”, “the answer”, “a method”. Teaching clients the basics, building on those, and gradually increasing intensity are not exciting enough.

Luckily for some, success is usually about being in the right place at the right time, with the right people. The right image and the right persona are almost equally vital, and an idea that is at least moving in the right direction is just a bonus.

The problem is that, well, as they have the right image and the right persona, it’s often very hard to see past that in order to actually evaluate the idea objectively. I get asked all the time what I think about this or that exercise class or programme. I think the fact is, if you’re not sure whether it’s worth it, it’s not going to be; either it is just too much of a gimmick, or you’re clearly not confident in it. However, here are my thoughts on some of the main trends floating around these days.

CrossFit – this needs a whole post of its own, really. Don’t get me wrong, Olympic lifting is great. Bodyweight and compound exercises are wonderful. Time-based goals are devastatingly effective. But CrossFit has become a victim of its own popularity; it’s gotten too big, too fast, and has become attractive to people who want to do it because it’s trendy. Those people tend not to have much experience with exercise before, much less technique-sensitive lifts like Olympic lifts. Make them do as many as they can in a short space of time, comparing themselves with ex-college athletes who have drilled the techniques for hours and hours and hours, and you’re just asking for trouble. Do CrossFit because you love Olympic lifting and you need a challenge beyond what you’re already doing, not because it’s what everyone else who is fit and athletic is doing it.

High-Intensity (Interval) Training – like CrossFit, the idea is good. Perform as much of an exercise as you can in a short space of time, recover, repeat. PBs will be achieved regularly, and you have a prescription to spend less time in the gym. Unfortunately, that format attracts people who don’t want to prioritise time getting fit, and people who use exercise towards an end goal rather than for its own sake; so technique is usually paid little attention to, injuries occur, and plateaus are hit.

Boxing/Kickboxing/Thai boxing/MMA – I should be the last person to reject the growing trend of boxing and martial arts for fitness, but as with everything else, they require technique to be effective. Technique requires drilling – hours of it. Hours of drilling requires passion and dedication. So people boxing for fitness (whether on pads with an instructor or on a bag or in a class) rarely achieve the most efficient technique, and as with lifting, wasted energy through improper form prevents the appropriate muscles from getting strengthened and conditioned, halting progress and eventually dampening enthusiasm. I’d recommend spending the time and money learning a good range of dumbbell, barbell and bodyweight exercises, building explosivity into them, and eventually make circuits; the benefits will be far greater and more transferable, with none of the risks.

Pilates – Pilates is great. Reformer classes are great; my core has never been worked so hard. But it’s so easy to cheat – our bodies are designed to get from A to B with as little effort as possible. Using your legs is going to hurt less than using all your core, for example, so it’s only natural that when it gets tough, form is going to suffer. If you’re into pilates, invest in some 1:1 sessions instead. If you’re not, stick to easier-to-monitor exercises such as guided weights machines in the gym.

Functional Training – I don’t know how people got this so wrong. Functional training should be any sort of training which directly applies to the individual’s daily life or sporting requirements. Instead, we now have office workers flipping tyres, swinging battling ropes, and performing burpees at high-intensity intervals. Those are all fine for getting fit, but don’t call it functional fitness. When is training smart going to be back in fashion?

I’m barely skimming the surface here, but Ben and I are planning on recording some podcasts with our friend Tom, regularly reviewing and evaluating the biggest mainstream fitness trends, so we’ll go into far more on this topic!

The argument for letting the plethora of classes and routines and styles and formats expand exponentially is that it allows more people to find something they enjoy. From what I’ve seen, the effect is the opposite; more people will take something up only to be taught badly, injure themselves, or get bored, before deciding they have an excuse to give up on exercise and being fit. And that’s not cool.

If people have nothing else to flit to, and if the health and fitness industry is conducive to sticking to one thing to build up slowly and get better at it, developing a passion and making it a lifestyle, I think we’ll all be better off in the long run. We might not be ripped or fit the magazine-cover cookie cutter, but we might be fit, strong, healthy, and happy.

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