Play, the Brain & Neuroplasticity

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I just found a fascinating video that speaks very much to some of the things I’ve been reading lately (and have read about in the past.) It’s an interview with a man named Stephen Jepson. In his former life he was a very accomplished ceramics maker and teacher (Is that what they’re called?  Or potter?) He founded the World Pottery Institute and he even has a piece in the Smithsonian. Now his focus is Never Leave the Playground.

A grown-up at play

Jepson is in his 70s now and he literally spends his waking hours at play. He runs around, hops, crawls, juggles, rides a skateboard (and a variation thereof), elliptical bikes, and generally moves about the earth in very novel, random, playful ways. He’s not only having fun and staying fit, he’s also stimulating his brain in powerfully healthy ways according to research. More on that in a moment. Here’s the video:

Jepson says that his play improves such brain skills as cognition and memory. He seems to be very spot-on according to several things I’ve been reading.

Todd Hargrove discusses play in chapter four of A Guide to Better Movement . He suggests:

“In the contest of movement, play can be thought of as a safeguard against habitually using the same movement pattern to solve a particular motor challenge and ignoring potentially better solutions.

Thus we can look at our motivation to play as a natural incentive to experiment with new solutions, even if they don’t appear superior at first glance. We could also look at play as a way to ‘return to the drawing board’ or start over from scratch on a movement problem without preconceived notions about the right or wrong way to move.”

What this says to me is that novel, unusual movement gives us the opportunity to build a broad movement database or maybe a movement Swiss Army knife. We add to our available movement repertoire when we move in as many ways as possible in as many environments as possible: rolling on the ground, climbing, crawling, standing on different surfaces, moving at all speeds, lunging in many directions. Perhaps as a result, when confronted with a movement scenario that’s a little out of the ordinary our brain may say, “Oh, I’ve been here before. I have multiple strategies for moving safely and effectively here.”

The science of play & the brain

In his book, Hargrove references a NY Times article titled Taking Play Seriously. It states:

“For all its variety, however, there is something common to play in all its protean forms: variety itself. The essence of play is that the sequence of actions is fluid and scattered. In the words of Marc Bekoff, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Colorado, play is at its core ‘’a behavioral kaleidoscope.’”

 ‘I think of play as training for the unexpected,’ Bekoff says. ‘Behavioral flexibility and variability is adaptive; in animals it’s really important to be able to change your behavior in a changing environment.’ Play, he says, ‘leads to mental suppleness and a broader behavioral vocabulary, which in turn helps the animal achieve success in the ways that matter: group dominance, mate selection, avoiding capture and finding food.”

This flexibility and growth potential of the brain is known as neuroplasticity. Though Stephen Jepson doesn’t use that word in his interview, he’s talking all about neurplasticity as he describes the benefits to his brain and both vigorous physical activity and play. His thoughts are supported by research:

  • Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, Beneficial effects of physical exercise on neuroplasticity and cognition: “The results suggest that physical exercise may trigger processes facilitating neuroplasticity and, thereby, enhances an individual’s capacity to respond to new demands with behavioral adaptations. Indeed, some recent studies have suggested that combining physical and cognitive training might result in a mutual enhancement of both interventions.”
  • Archives of Medical Research, Physical activity, brain plasticity, and Alzheimer’s disease: “We conclude from this review that there is convincing evidence that physical activity has a consistent and robust association with brain regions implicated in age-related cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease. “
  • In Runner’s World Sweat Science column, Alex Hutchinson discusses research from the European Journal of Applied Physiology. He says, “Sure enough, the… test showed that the skill athletes had greater motor cortex plasticity than non-athlete controls, while the endurance athletes showed no change.”
  • The Importance of Play, Dr. David Whitebread, University of Cambridge: “For example, playful rats have been shown to have significantly elevated levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which is recognised to have a central role in developing and maintaining neural plasticity (or, the ability to learn). They have also demonstrated that play supports novel neural connections and changes the architectural structure of significant brain regions. Play deprived rats became more aggressive to other rats, were less able to mate successfully, and showed heightened levels of fear and uncertainty in novel environments.” (To be clear, this is a rat study but similarities have been seen in observation of humans.)

Inside my brain

All of this is enormously fascinating and inspiring to me. It has me thinking a lot about my own fitness process as well as that of my clients. I’ve been doing a little indoor rock climbing lately and that’s a completely different type of workout. I’ve also done a little bit of cross-country skiing and I hope to take a lesson and increase my skill there. I look forward to trail running and mountain biking soon. I find both activities highly engaging, and both offer endless opportunities to negotiate with gravity in myriad different ways.

I’ve discussed my recent experience with the FASTER Global course this summer (Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV). As a result, my eyes (and brain) have been opened very wide to almost infinite opportunities for innovative, play-like movement strategies.

My hope is that my clients are having some degree of fun already but now I’m thinking much more about injecting an aspect of play into our sessions. Lots to think about…

Good Words from Steve Magness at Science of Running

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“Which brings me to the point.  You can’t force things. In life or in running. You’ve got to let them come to you.”

– Steve Magness, Science of Running

I’m a big fan of Steve Magness’ work. He is both a researcher and an in-the-trenches running coach. His site the Science of Running is full of excellent information. His book (also titled The Science of Running) is a must-read for running coaches and any serious runner.

Under pressure

I greatly appreciate his latest blog post titled New Year’s Reflections and Anti-resolutions. He discusses resolutions and the high failure rate experienced by those undertaking them. He observes that a lot of us feel forced to make decisions and when that happens, we make bad decisions. When we feel cornered and pressured to accomplish or achieve something then we often don’t get the results we want. He says:

“Today, with social media, an ability to instantly compare ourselves to any of our peers, and a high premium placed on accomplishments and ‘success’, it’s hard to escape the feeling that we have to do something. We have to accomplish some goal, take some job, marry some guy or gal, all on some set time line or else we’re perceived as a failure. Society and culture put us in a place of ‘forcing’ us to do something.”

I can definitely relate to this scenario. I sometimes feel pressure when I observe the accomplishments of others in my field, or when I look at the athletic feats of men my age. It’s easy to feel like I don’t measure up, that I’m not “enough.” Later in this post I’ll give some evidence that by letting my mind wander to others’ achievements, I’m probably undermining my contentment in life.

Here is more from Magness:

“Which brings me to the point.  You can’t force things. In life or in running. You’ve got to let them come to you.

In running, big breakthroughs occur when you let them happen. You’re more relaxed while still driven and focused during the race versus tense and pressing in which you are trying to force a new Personal Record.  Ask any sprint coach if people run faster relaxed versus tensed and you will find your answer to why forcing a race does not work.”

There is power in being mentally engaged in the here-and-now rather than longing for the end product. Most of us have probably experienced this when we try really hard at almost anything. From a golf swing to trying to impress a date or a boss, if we bear down too much and try to force it we rarely get the results we want.

Flow

In contrast to forcing things, we would ideally relax and perhaps just react to events. Psychology researcher Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this the “flow” state:

“These are moments in which your mind becomes entirely absorbed in the activity so that you ‘forget yourself’ and begin to act effortlessly, with a heightened sense of awareness of the here and now (athletes often describe this as ‘being in the zone’). You may be surprised to learn, however, that in recent years this experience has become the focus of much research by positive psychologists. Indeed, the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has even given it a name for an objective condition — ‘flow.'”

I’ve been fortunate enough to experience flow on the ski slopes–though not nearly as often as I’d like! Everything works. I turn effortlessly. I’m in total control. I move but I’m not aware of how it’s happening. I often feel this way when I trail run, mountain bike, lift heavy weights or when reading a great book. Life is best when I feel this “flow.”

Process, oh how I love the!

I recall conversations about training I’ve had with a friend. Much of his life is devoted to triathlon specifically and intense physical activity generally. We both love physical exertion of a sometimes extreme degree, and we both agree that we dearly love the process. Lifting weights. A track workout. A long bike ride. Learning a new exercise. We love every step towards the end goal. We love the beginning when we feel good, the middle when we’re tired and questioning why we’re doing it, and the glorious end when we feel a sense of accomplishment. In loving the process the end goal comes to us.

Magness speaks to loving the process:

“The key though is not simply thinking ‘it will all work out’ but instead acknowledging the first portion which is if you work hard at things you enjoy, love the process, then eventually things will work out. Perhaps not always in the direction you want them to, but for the most part they will.”

(Additionally, it’s during intense training that we are wholly focused on the task at hand. More on that in a moment.)

Chasing a mirage

I like Magness’s analysis of being process-focused rather than outcome-focused:

“We get caught in the rat race of trying to chase success, satisfaction, happiness, and outcomes. The reality is that this is simply an evolutionary mechanism designed to keep us engaged. Researchers have found that it’s not the actual reward that gives us the most bang for our buck in terms of the wonderful feel good hormone of Dopamine. Instead, it’s the chase that gives us the huge bump in Dopamine.

We’re designed for the process, but we focus on the outcome. It’s this nice little trick of mother nature that makes us follow through and get things done. It’s why we suffer from this nice fallacy of ‘If only I had X, I’d be happy/satisfied/whatever…’ We then chase X, feeling pretty good about ourselves as we chase it, but then are torn down by the feeling of discontentment when we finally reached our goal and while the payoff was nice, it most certainly doesn’t meet pre-conceived expectations. So we are left with the inevitable ‘so what now…’ that predictably follows.”

He says, “If I only had X, I’d be happy…” I believe a lot of us go through life this way, basing our contentment on external things: a race outcome, a flat stomach, a girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse, money, a house in a certain neighborhood… In other words, we’re looking for the perfect circumstance when everything goes right–then we’ll be happy!

In this scenario, we’re looking outside ourselves for contentment, fulfillment and happiness. We’re looking for affirmation of ourselves via things that we may not control. Interestingly, when we achieve one of these things (say hitting a PR in the deadlift, taking 2 minutes off your marathon time or making X amount of money) have we actually found happiness? Maybe…. But often we’ve simply obtained one of these things and we’re not actually any happier, so we keep looking for the next magic thing that will fulfill us.

(In my experience, by chasing happiness that we believe lives outside us, we’re really chasing a mirage. The external thing that we covet so much rarely if ever lives up to expectations.)

Happiness through focus

A 2010 study called A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind seems relevant to some of these ideas. The research was done by psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert of Harvard University. Here are some paragraphs that deserve consideration, starting with what I think is the big picture on wandering minds:

“A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind,” Killingsworth and Gilbert write. “The ability to think about what is not happening is a cognitive achievement that comes at an emotional cost.”

“Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness,” Killingsworth says. “In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged.”

When are we happiest?

Killingsworth and Gilbert found that people were happiest when making love, exercising, or engaging in conversation. They were least happy when resting, working, or using a home computer.

(Hey! Wow! Exercise!)

Finally,

“Time-lag analyses conducted by the researchers suggested that their subjects’ mind-wandering was generally the cause, not the consequence, of their unhappiness.”

What am I saying?

I believe that I’m advocating for finding activities that demand our full mental engagement. The phrase “live in the moment,” seems appropriate (even though it sounds cliche and a bit too cute for my taste–it happens to encapsulate a great concept!) There is a subtle, sublime state of mind that can’t be found by multi-tasking (possibly the ultimate non-focused happiness killer) or keeping up with the Joneses. Further, the focus on the process keeps us “in the moment.” If we can find a love for the process–rather than a fixation on the outcome–then I believe we can find a healthy dose of happiness.

What I’ve Learned: Principles of Movement & FASTER Global – Part III – Lunge and Reach

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In the previous two posts, (here and here) I discussed what I’ve learned by going through the FASTER Global coursework. (If you’re a fitness professional who wants to truly become an expert at movement, then you need to do this course. This has been the most comprehensive movement education I’ve had in nearly 20 years of working in the fitness field.)

I believe I’ve made the case for why we should train with tri-plane movement. Further I believe that I’ve illustrated why traditional gym exercises like squats and deadlifts may not be the best way to develop all-around movement skills or strength.  (For the record, I’m not saying traditional squats and deadlifts are bad. I use them in my own workouts and with my clients. To be clear, I believe that there are infinite variations that can and should be used to condition people in the most comprehensive way.)

In the previous post I showed a bunch of lunge and squat variations. Here are some more lunge variations this time with arm reaches.

Lunging and reaching

While lunging, we can drive motion from the upper body by reaching up, down, across, overhead, etc. We can reach with one or both arms. The way in which the trainee steps drives motion from the upper body up through the rest of the body. As he or she reaches, motion is driven down through the body toward the ground. The reaching affects balance and creates a wide range of slightly different body positions which look a lot like any number of athletic activities, for example, look at the baseball pitcher and basketball players.

Lower body motion plus upper body motion.

Saggital plane anterior lunge with same-side posterior arm reach… Or something like that. Lots of stuff happening.

Kobe executes a type of lunge and reach down.

Kobe executes a type of lunge and reach down.

Resistance can be added to these in numerous ways: weight vest, dumbbell(s), sandbags, kettlebells, etc. Cables or tubing positioned at any number of angles can speed up or slow down the lunge.

Remember though, if someone can’t control these exercises then he or she should be regressed to something that is controllable, safe and manageable.

Here are a few examples of lunges combined with reaches in various directions. I’ve shown an anterior lunge and a lateral lunge but we could add any of these reaches to any type of lunge. The combinations are nearly infinite.

Next we can progress to jumps and hops, all done in any number of directions, all with feet and arms in any number of positions. I’ll show some of those in the next post.

What I’ve Learned: Principles of Movement & FASTER Global – Part II

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From gym work to “real life.”

Athletic endeavors and typical daily movements are rarely symmetrical. We’re often stepping from one foot to the other in any of several directions, swiveling and/or bending our bodies, reaching, moving with a load on one side of our body–all potentially at the same time. If we think of the SAID Principle (discussed very thoroughly here by Todd Hargrove of Better Movement) then it stands to reason that some of our training ought to resemble our chosen athletic or leisure activity, both in movement pattern and energy system usage.

A squat by any other name…sss1

Skiing-in-France-HD-Wallpaper-1280x800-3A lot of conventional exercises–squats and
deadlifts for instance–keep the feet planted against the ground in a symmetrical stance. Fine, but how much should we expect those exercises to translate to something like skiing? Yes skiing uses two legs and it sort of looks like a squat but there’s a lot more going on during a ski turn than just moving the body down and up.

We could say something similar about basketball where there’s a lot of jumping,

how-to-deadliftlanding and movement into positions which look a good bit like a deadlift–but clearly doesn’t look like the standard deadlift.

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Here’s a very interesting video on how to take a squat and add some flavor to it:

These are the types of movements that more closely resemble many sports and recreational activities. These can be used as part of a warm-up for a workout or they can be used as the workout itself.

Ground reaction forces

At some point we need to consider ground reaction forces. A foot or feet hitting the ground creates a whole different set of circumstances compared to planted feet. Enter the lunge.

A lunge creates a ground reaction force (GRF) as the foot hits the ground. A series of events should ideally take place in a certain sequence at the following joints: mid-tarsal joint, subtalar joint, talocrural joint, knee, hip and on up through the spine and even out to the shoulders and beyond!

(BTW, a lunge can be any distance or depth. If someone can’t lunge far and deep then it’s completely appropriate to simply take a step. I often ask my clients to go as far and/or deep as they can only so long as they can maintain control of the movement.)

There are a lot of variations on the lunge. We can step in any number of directions. Our world is a three-dimensional place so we can step forward or backwards, side to side, or in a circular or twisting type of motion.The purpose in doing this is to allow us to experience a wide range of joint angles and different ground impact scenarios. We can see if an athlete is able to move into his or her sport position. We might be able to expose a movement pattern that is unstable and which the athlete may want to improve for performance and safety.

Lunges for all occasions

Here are a collection of lunges done in an assortment of directions. Each type of lunge creates a different reaction throughout the limbs and joints.

Not pictured are lunges in which the trainee steps up or down off of a step. Any of these lunges can be done in this way. It’s a good way train for something like a hike (if for some reason a hike can’t be undertaken) or to simply add variety and new skills to the workout. Next you’ll see lunging in conjunction with reaching.

 

Tracking Weaknesses: An Efficient Way to Monitor Progress (or Lack Thereof)

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I’ve been deeply immersed the FASTER Global curriculum over the past several months.  Efficiency (getting to your movement, physique and performance goals as fast as possible) is the key focus of FASTER.  To this point I was given a great idea by my FASTER instructor Mike Terborg. I became of what seems to be a very useful and efficient way to monitor whether or not you’re doing what you need to be doing to achieve your goals.

Self-monitoring

Most of us know that if we want to lose weight then we need to do things like eat differently, exercise more and sleep more. Research (here, here and here) has shown that self-monitoring of metrics such as body weight, physical activity and food consumption is a significant component of weight loss. By tracking these things we become mindful and more aware of our habits which is exactly what we must do if we want to change our behavior. If we don’t track some data then a) we won’t know if we’re making progress and b) we’re less likely to focus on the necessities.

Track only what’s needed.

A lot of us have experience tracking all of our food, every mile we run/bike, every weight lifted on every exercise etc. This can become tedious and I know that in my experience I end up with a bunch of information that I never use. I don’t meet many people who are in love with tracking their activity. (Some people do enjoy the meticulous tracking of data. I wish I did.)

With a mind toward efficiency, maybe we don’t need to track everything. Maybe we can track and focus on only the things we need to improve–our weaknesses. Here are some examples:

  • One client of mine likes to drink a few beers. She started using a Google calendar to track a) the days on which she drinks and b) what quantity she drank.  She shared that calendar with me so we can both be mindful of what’s going on. Fantastic!
  • If you eat well and work out consistently but you typically go to bed too late (1 a.m. let’s say) and don’t sleep enough then track every night of the week you get to bed by say midnight or 11 pm.
  • If you binge on sweets several nights a week then track every night that you don’t binge. You should be able to answer the question, “How many times did I eat sweets this week?”
  • If you exercise sporadically then think of tracking every day that you do something called “exercise.” If you’re a beginner then you will see fairly impressive benefits from simply starting to exercise regularly, no matter if it’s weights, cardio, (if you delineate exercise according to those terms) or whatever.
  • Maybe you’re an aggressive go-getter, and you’re not resting and recovering enough. You’re overtrained perhaps. Maybe you need a couple of dedicated rest days. Now you might actually track the days that you don’t work out. Or maybe you track every day that you take a nap.

It’s all about awareness.

I continue to believe that awareness is maybe the most powerful concept to anyone wanting to lose weight, get in shape and increase performance. The purpose of tracking (some of) what you’re doing is to contribute to your awareness. Monitoring some part of your activity is essential to see if you’re doing what you should be doing.

At the same time, it’s a good idea to be efficient and monitor only what’s needed. Too much information is… well… too much. It takes away from something else that’s important. Rather than monitor your strengths think of monitoring only your weaknesses.

Motivation vs. Willpower

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I mentioned in the last post that I was reading and enjoying Matt Fitzgerald’s Diet Cults. Chapter five of his book contains some information that I found very thought provoking. This chapter discusses the process and details of those who’ve successfully maintained weight-loss. The National Weight Control Registry observed several key behaviors in those who lost weight and kept it off.

  • Weighing: If weight-loss is your goal then looking at a scale will tell you if it’s happening.
  • Monotonous eating: Eating very similar meals repeatedly makes it easy to track caloric intake. Further successful weight-losers to vary their eating less during the weekends and holidays. (“Monotonous” may imply boring. I don’t believe it has to be that way.)
  • Exercise: What we eat (and don’t eat) is absolutely vital for weight-loss. It seems that exercise is absolutely vital for maintaining weight-loss

(Interestingly, subjects do report eating healthier eating as part of the weight-loss process, no specific diet was identified as being best.)

More important than habits is the motivation that underlies these habits. Motivation is different from willpower.  Fitzgerald suggests that motivation activates will power, sort of like computer software (motivation) activates the hardware (willpower). He says that “evidence suggests that most people have all the willpower they need to lose weight and that what separates the successful losers from the failures is motivation.

The NWCR study found that 90% of members reported having failed in previous weight loss attempts. In other words, these people failed a lot. It seems the people who succeeded kept on trying due to motivation. This got me thinking about my own views on willpower vs. motivation.

It seems that we often talk about willpower as a negative thing. We criticize ourselves because we don’t have enough of it and we wind up eating a bunch of cake. Or else we see overweight people, drug addicts or smokers and we say they don’t have the willpower to lose weight or quit. The word willpower mostly seems to come up when there’s something negative drawing us towards it and we know we’ll succumb to this evil thing, and then we’ll hate ourselves afterward. The practice of willpower seems a cold, Spartan type of undertaking.

In contrast, something that motivates us is a positive thing that we want. It’s something that makes us look past the temptations, triggers and roadblocks to our success. We may not be perfect in our eating and exercise habits but the motivating factor makes us keep trying. I think in a lot of cases motivation actually makes us want to undertake the healthy behaviors that lead us to our goals. As noted in Diet Cults, it’s motivation that makes for successful willpower.

Not that everything about our motivation is positive. Fear may be a great motivator. For instance, a doctor says, “If you don’t lose weight you’ll have a heart attack in five years.” For a lot of people, that may be the type of revelation that motivates them to lose weight. A similar scenario may play out if we lose a loved one to a preventable illness like diabetes.

Maybe shame motivates us. I recall a client who stepped on a scale, saw the numbers and said, “That’s it!  I can’t do this anymore. I HAVE GOT TO LOSE WEIGHT.”  And he did.

Money is one of the best, most popular motivators out there. Look at participants on the Biggest Loser. They go through an especially ugly hell to win fame and fortune. (I’ve seen all of about 3 minutes of that show. It scared me.)

I was speaking to a very wise friend about all of this and he said that inherent in this motivation to change is a genuine belief that a change for the better is possible. Beyond the fear mentioned above, we must see and believe in a better life for ourselves. A living belief in a better future sustains motivation. Without this belief motivation withers and dies.

From what I know, motivation must come from within. I’m not sure how to impose motivation on someone. I think perhaps I can draw motivation out of a client by asking the right questions. This is a challenging prospect! This involves a developing a fairly intimate relationship with a client and asking some nuanced, sensitive questions. This has given me a lot to think about.

What motivates you in your fitness endeavors? Surely something must motivate you to wake up early or carve out time in your busy day to grunt, groan, sweat and lift heavy objects. Most of you aren’t pro athletes or models. So why do you do it? I’d like to know. What makes you keep on keeping on?

Thoughts on “Diet Cults”

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I’m about to finish Matt Fitzgerald’s Diet Cults and I’m enjoying it a lot. He discusses the extent to which we identify ourselves by how we eat. Many of us proudly and loudly claim the label of Paleo, Vegan, Raw Food, High-Protein, Low-carb and similar type things. Food gurus try to convince us that there is as Fitzgerald calls it The One True Way to eat, a way that guarantees long life and good health. The various diet gurus tell us that the One True Way exists, but science tells us something different.

(I’ve noticed that there aren’t many other products or practices that incite such near-religious devotion. We don’t identify ourselves by the color of our car, the material our shoes are made out of or what type of carpet we have in our house. Dietary habits however are a major part of our identity. Fitzgerald goes into some history and possible reasons why.)

Mainly what we learn is that humans seem to be very flexible in our ability to not just live but thrive on all sorts of different eating patterns. Diet cults however tend to rigidly forbid various foods (grains, gluten, dairy, animal flesh, alcohol, even cooked foods are a few examples) with the threat that you will surely fall ill and possibly die from any number of ugly conditions.

Here are a few other interesting points I’ve gotten from the book:

  • Motivation (different from willpower) is far more predictive of long-term weight loss than any type of diet or eating pattern. Here’s the study from the National Weight Control Registry.
  • Fitzgerald profiles various individuals who have lost weight and improved or maintained their health on all sorts of diets: Paleo, raw food, Weight Watchers, high-protein are a few examples. He even discusses researchers who maintained very good health while eating nothing but white potatoes for a month! The point? There doesn’t seem to be any One True Way to eat.
  • He discusses chocolate, wine and coffee, three things that are often demonized and forbidden in various diets.  (Our paleo ancestors definitely didn’t even have them.) Yet there is evidence that they can confer good health on us when consumed in reasonable amounts. I like that he brings up the joy and pleasure we often have when consuming them. Spiritual health is something to consider alongside the strictly “physical” health components of our eating habits.
  • He provides a very interesting discussion on autoimmune issues, GI tract issues, gluten (and the fear of gluten), trauma and stress.  Specifically what I found most interesting were the studies on trauma, stress and autoimmune diseases. (Celiac disease is one of many autoimmune diseases.) A study from King’s College London “concluded that more than one in ten cases of low-grade systemic inflammation in adults may be attributable to childhood trauma. And there’s more. A study by the Centers of Disease Control found this:

“Four years later, Shanta Dube and her colleagues at the Centers for Disease Control went a step further. They gathered information about “adverse childhood experiences” from more than 15,000 adults. The categories of adverse childhood experiences were physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; witnessing domestic violence; and growing up with household substance abuse, mental illness, parental divorce, and/or an incarcerated household member. These data were used to create cumulative childhood stress scores for each subject. Dube and her colleagues then collected information from the subjects on hospitalizations for twenty-one selected autoimmune diseases in three categories. When the researchers crunched the numbers, they discovered that subjects were between 70 and 100 percent more likely to have developed an autoimmune disease than were subjects who had suffered no adverse childhood experiences.

  • The point? Food isn’t the only cause for our illnesses. Our emotions and the stress of modern living seems to have a very powerful influence on whether or not we’re “sick.” Thus, going on some sort of absolutist diet may have no effect whatsoever on such things.

So there are a few thoughts. Fitzgerald doesn’t give us license to eat all the garbage that we want but rather he illustrates that we can very comfortably attain excellent health through a wide variety of foods. (In my view, giving a damn at all about what you eat is probably the vast majority of what will get you where you want to be. Thinking about your food is a great starting place.) If you’re confused about all the mixed nutritional messages around you and some of the wild claims made by diet gurus then Diet Cults may deliver much welcome information.

Breaking Plateaus: the MilitaryPress

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I’m a big fan of the military press (aka the press, the standing press, the overhead press). I like putting the weight overhead. It’s a challenging total-body exercise that in my mind probably delivers more useful strength and skill than something like a bench press. I’d like to press 200 lbs. which is my body weight. For that reason, I tend to lift heavy and I typically don’t go above five reps per set. My progress stalled for a while so I went on the hunt for ways to move it along. This led me to read up on all kinds of interesting ways to break through plateaus.  (Admittedly, a torn ACL didn’t help my pressing. My press was slowing down though prior to the tear.)

To get stronger we generally need to add weight to whatever it is that we’re lifting. This is the simplest, most obvious way to get stronger. It’s inevitable though that at some point our progress will slow and we’ll have to find other ways to move forward in our strength training. Here are a few methods I’ve used to improve my press:

  • Weight: A lot of people tend to lift in the same rep range. I often see people in commercial gyms lifting in the 10-15 rep neighborhood. A good way to make progress is to add weight and move down in reps. The 5-rep and below range is good for getting stronger. In contrast, if we’ve been lifting in the low-rep range, there might be a benefit to reducing weight and adding reps.
  • Speed: We can subtract weight and move faster. To get fast we need to move fast. If we reduce the weight (40%-60% of your 1-rep max) and move very fast then we get a very different type of powerful stimulus to the muscles. I’ll talk about this more below.
  • Different exercises and movement patterns: If progress stalls on the barbell military press then we might want to switch to an incline barbell press, or a dumbbell military press, or a seated military press, or a behind-the-neck press. You see my point? Choosing an exercise that’s the “same but different” can help us make progress in our main lift.
  • Bring up weak points: I’m not much of a fan of bodybuilding-type training in which individual muscles are emphasized. That’s not to say there isn’t a place for this approach. If we look at the particular muscles involved in a given lift then we might use exercises to isolate those muscles and make them stronger and/or add mass. For instance, we could use tricep extensions in order to strengthen that piece of our press. Similarly, we might look at supporting musculature–the upper back for instance–and target those muscles to a stronger foundation from which to press.

Here’s some more on my experience with dynamic effort, “same but different” and some bodybuilding work.

Dynamic Effort

Speed and strength live in the same house. They are very close acquaintances. They have a lot of physiological similarities. Training one tends to help the other. Fast twitch muscle fibers are our strong and fast fibers. They should be trained with heavy weights as well as high velocities.

As we add weight to the bar, the bar slows down. We create more force but we don’t create speed. If we want to train speed then we need to lighten the load considerably and move a lot faster. The Westside Conjugate Method addresses both strength and speed during the week. Max Effort (ME) day has lifters lifting very heavy weights and generating a lot of force but at a slow velocity. Dynamic Effort (DE) day has the lifter using much lighter loads moved at a high velocity. This creates explosion.

Incorporating a dynamic effort day into your lifting may help you break through any current plateaus you may be experiencing. If you’ve never employed the DE method, then you probably have a nice well of untapped potential and you’ll likely see impressive results fairly quickly.

I’ve from pressing 135 lbs. for 2 reps to 145 lbs. for 3 reps in about four weeks since incorporating the DE method. Cool! As advocated by Louie, the DE day came 72 hours after the ME day. I typically did 10 sets of 2 reps, adding 5 lbs. each week.

At no time did I become anything like exhausted by the DE work.  That isn’t the point. Speed is the point. If you get tired then you’ll slow down. Don’t expect to experience a typical workout feeling with DE work.

Louie wrote an article titled Westside Military Press Training for Mike Mahler’s Aggressive Strength site. Here are the tips:

  • Do the seated press with dumbbells. Choose three weights for example 100 lbs, 75 lbs, and 50 lbs. Work on setting a repetition record with one dumbbell weight. the reps should range from 10 to 25 reps.
  • Do dumbbell extensions or barbell extensions for special work along with rear, side and front raises.
  • Do barbell pressing in the following manner. Ten sets of three reps in a three- week wave. 70% the 1st week 75% the second week and 80% the third week. Pendulum back to 70% and start over. Second day 72 hours later do max effort work.
  • Use chains on the bar or JUMPSTRETCH bands to accommodate resistance. (Editor’s note: Usually as the bar gets close to lockout you will naturally slow the bar down. The bands keep the resistance on all the way to the end).
  • Work up to new PR in the incline press.
  • Do rack lockout work on the high pin where 10%-15% highest weight can be done.

Developing the Overhead Press is another good article on Mahler’s site. If you like to press then read it!

The Conjugate System can get a little complicated and hard to understand. For a very good and concise explanation of the system, check out Jordan Syatt’s article The Westside Conjugate System: A User’s Guide.

Other ways to train speed (either lower or upper body) include the following:

  • jumping
  • medicine ball throws
  • plyometric pushups
  • power pull-ups: Do these explosively for 1-3 reps.

Same but different

I’ve varied the way I press–but I’ve kept pressing. In the book Easy Strength, Pavel Tsatsouline talkes about the “same but different” concept. With this concept, we take the main lift we’re working on–the press–and find some way to change it just a little. We offer a little variety to the nervous system, we learn a slightly new skill, and we can improve our main lift.

A similar process is proposed by Bill Starr in the book the Strongest Shall Survive. This system employs a heavy/light/medium approach to lifting where the exercises are changed slightly between each workout. For example, the back squat is used on the heavy and medium days and the front squat is used on the light day. Presses alternate from the bench press to the military press to the behind-the-neck press. Read the book to learn more.

In my case, I’ve incorporated the standing behind-the-neck press as well as seated dumbbell or kettlebell presses in which I sit on the floor with my legs straight out in front. I do these for reps.
Here are some examples “same but different” changes we could incorporate into our press routine

  • military press to behind-the-neck press to incline press
  • standing press to seated press
  • handstand or incline pushups
  • dumbbells and/or kettlebells in place of the barbell

Other things

I’ve also incorporated back-off sets after my heavy pressing days. I reduce the weight considerably and press for 10-12 reps. I expect this to help build some mass.

I’ve used dumbbell rear delt flyes to help build my upper back. I do these for 8-15 reps typically and I vary the weight each workout. This is the type of bodybuilding isolation work that I haven’t done in years.

 Finally

I’ve just scratched the surface with this stuff so I anticipate continued progress. As my ACL heals I expect progress to accelerate quite a bit. This has been a very interesting process. I’ve enjoyed learning about and applying these concepts, particularly the dynamic effort work. I just recently started a little bit of jumping. I expect this to help my squat and deadlift. I plan to keep a speed day as part of my workout plans.

Coaching Movement: Internal vs. External Cues

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I recently listened to an interview with Todd Hargrove of BetterMovement.org at the Well Rounded Athlete.   At about 21:30 in the interview, Todd discusses the idea of internal cues vs external cues as they pertain to learning new movement skills. I found it to be a fascinating concept and one that pertains very strongly to my current study of the FASTER Global curriculum.

What are internal and external cues?

  • Internal cue: The athlete focuses on his/her body parts and how they move.
  • External cue: The athlete focuses on affecting something in his/her environment. He/she focuses on the outcome of his/her movement.

Below are some examples of internal and external cues from an NSCA article titled What We Say Matters, Part I.

(What We Say Matters, Part II is also very interesting. I won’t discuss the whole thing but it goes into feedback frequency, or how much information coaches should give athletes while they’re learning a new skill. Turns out a good bit less feedback is better than giving feedback 100% of the time. Coaches and trainers should definitely read it. On to the internal/external cues.)

Table 1provides examples of internal versus external focus cues for different movements and note that analogies can be considered external cues.

Internal Cue External Cue
Sprinting: Acceleration
  • Extend your hip (knee)
  • Activate your quad (glute)
  • Stomach tight
  • Drive the ground away
  • Explode off the ground
  • Brace up
Change of Direction
  • Hips down
  • Feet wide
  • Drive through big toe
  • Roof over head
  • Train tracks or wide base
  • Push the ground away
Jumping
  • Explode through hips
  • Snap through ankles
  • Drive hips through head
  • Touch the sky
  • Snap the ground away
  • Drive belt buckle up
Olympic Lifting: Snatch
  • Drive feet through ground
  • Drive chest to ceiling
  • Snap hips through the bar
  • Drive feet through ground
  • Drive chest to ceiling
  • Snap hips through the bar
  • Push the ground away
  • Drive/jump vertical
  • Snap bar to ceiling
  • Snap and drop under bar

Which is best?  Internal or External? 

The article cites research that demonstrates internal cues to be more effective than external cues. More evidence comes in an article from Strength and Conditioning Research (a great resource) titled How Much Difference Do External Cues Make? The following studies are cited and they’re summarized:

  • Marchant (2009) – the researchers found that an external attentional focus led to greater force and torque during isokinetic elbow flexion movements while simultaneously decreasing muscle activation as measured by EMG.
  • Porter (2010– the researchers found that directing attention toward jumping as far past the starting line as possible had a much greater effect at increasing broad jump distance compared to focusing attention on extending the knees as fast as possible.
  • Wulf (2010– the researchers found that an external focus led to increased jump height with simultaneously lower EMG activity compared to an internal focus of attention.
  • Wu (2012– the researchers found that an external attentional focus let to increased broad jump distances despite not affecting peak force production compared to an internal attentional focus.
  • Makaruk (2012– the researchers found that 9 weeks of plyometric training with an external focus led to greater standing long jump and countermovement jump (but not drop jump) performance compared to training with an internal focus.
  • Porter (2012– the researchers found that an external focus far away from the body led to greater results than an internal focus or an external focus near the body in terms of standing long jump performance.

“So in general, the main factor that is associated with external focus is an increase in performance. Also, there may be a tendency for reduced EMG activity at the same time. This is interesting, as it may be a mirror image of what happens with internal focus.”

The reference to reduced EMG means that with an external focus, more muscles are actually relaxed during the movement. The benefit to that is that the muscles acting in opposition to the movement are more relaxed, thus allowing for better movement. If too many muscles are contracted then we may move slow.

How does an external rather than internal focus result in superior outcomes? The NSCA article cites work by Dr. Gabrielle Wulf, Director, Motor Performance and Learning Laboratory at UNLV:

“Wulf et al. (17) defined the hypothesis, stating that focusing on body movements (i.e. internal) increases consciousness and ‘constrains the motor system by interfering with automatic motor control process that would ‘normally’ regulate the movement,’ and therefore by focusing on the movement outcome (i.e., external) allows the ‘motor system to more naturally self-organize, unconstrained by the interference caused by conscious control attempts.’” 

From other research by Wulf in another article:

“Wulf et al. (2001) explained this benefit of an external focus of attention by postulating the ‘constrained action hypothesis’. According to this view, individuals who utilize an internal focus constrain or ‘freeze”’their motor system by consciously attempting to control it. This also seems to occur when individuals are not given attentional focus instructions (2). In contrast, an external focus promotes the use of more automatic control processes, thereby enhancing performance and learning (3,5).”

To me this suggests that the external cueing allows us to tap into reflexes, reactions and movements controlled by the autonomic nervous system. I think any athlete has experienced the situation where we think too much and our performance falters. We think very hard about the individual components of what we’re trying to do and the result is we don’t ski well, we don’t drive a golf ball well, we miss an Olympic lift. In contrast, we’ve been in that “zone” where things just happen.  We don’t think, we do. Everything is coordinated and we’re barely aware of what we’re doing. It seems that the external cues are the best way to get to our ideal way of moving.

Is there a place for internal cues?

So the research tells us that external cues are superior to internal cues. Does that mean we should do away with all internal cues? That issue has been discussed in an article by Bret Contreras titled What Types of Cues Should Trainers and Coaches Provide? and an article by Sam Lahey titled the Science and Applications of Coaching Cues. They’re both in agreement that internal cues are sometimes the best way to go when coaching. As often happens, the coaches in the field have some disagreement with researchers.

Contreras does a very good job in discussing his observations of when internal cues might be superior to external cues, particularly when it comes to getting an athlete or client to feel his or her glutes.  This is from his article:

“When I train beginner clients, it takes me considerable time to get their lumbpelvic-hip complex working ideally during squats, deadlifts, back extensions, and glute bridges. In my opinion, external cueing is not ideal for improving form in the most rapid manner possible. My belief is that internal cueing will get the individual to where you want them to be in a much more efficient manner.

This applies to preventing lumbar flexion in a deadlift, preventing valgus collapse in a squat, or preventing lumbar hyperextension and anterior pelvic tilt in a back extension or hip thrust.

1) Palpating different regions of their body to make them aware of the various parts involved and what those parts are doing,

3) Having them stop approximately 3/4 the way up on a hip thrust and practicing anterior and posterior pelvic tilt so they can understand how to prevent anterior tilt from occuring,

5) Being ‘hands-on’ during their performance and manually helping place their pelvis in proper position, manually setting the core in neutral, manually pushing the hips upward to ensure full ROM is reached, and poking the glutes to make sure they’re on and the hammies to make sure they’re not overly activated, and

I don’t believe that this heavily ‘internal’ approach can be improved-upon by a purely external cueing approach.”

I tend to agree with Contreras.  I’ve often found that I need to bring awareness to one piece of the overall movement puzzle (glutes are the best example). I want clients particularly aware of glute contraction at the very top of a squat, deadlift or kettlebell swing. Contracting the glutes tightly at the top of these movements is important for keeping the pelvis and lumbar spine in good, safe position and for getting the most “oomph” into the lift. Before I teach these exercises, I want the client to know what it feels like to squeeze their glutes. I simply want them to know what the glute contracting feels like. I don’t need them to move fast or lift heavy. In this case, an internal cue seems to be the best way to go. I’m not sure of a more effective cue than saying “Squeeze your butt as tight as possible,” when I want to make someone aware of their glutes.

(Though now that I think about it, “Squeeze a quarter between your butt cheeks as tight as possible” might actually be an external cue that would work very well.)

Contreras also cites the cues “chest up” and “knees out” during the squat as simple, effective and commonly used internal cues that often work well during the squat. Again, I agree with him that phrases like this are usually effective enough that we don’t necessarily need to construct similar type phrases with an external focus.

Finally, Contreras says that he typically uses more internal cues with beginners during the initial instruction period. As the athlete gains experience and expertise, he moves on to more external cues with the idea of getting maximum performance.  That process matches what I’ve seen and experienced with my own clients and athletes.

Thoughts

The task for coaches and trainers is to use language to express to an athlete how he or she should move. We may use a description that makes perfect sense to us, yet is completely confusing to the athlete. If that’s the case then we need to pick another description of that movement. Further, a description that’s crystal clear to one athlete may make no sense at all to another. From what the research says, using these external cues is probably the best way to get our athletes and clients to move the way we want them to. We may however need several different external cues to paint the best picture in the athlete’s head. If an internal cue works best then we should use it.

What I’ve learned from reading these articles is that:

  1. Less is more. Too much coaching confuses the athlete. Fewer/simpler cues are best.
  2. Directing the athlete’s mind outward will by-and-large get the best performance out of him or her.
  3. Some degree of internal cueing may be necessary from time to time. We don’t want to throw the baby out with all the internal cueing bathwater.

I think we coaches would do well to think of several ways of describing exercises. A good time to do this is during our own workouts. How many ways can we describe moving a barbell or kettlebell? What is important during a push-up and how can we verbalize those points? What are some external cues to describe good running technique?  Or weightlifting techniques?

This whole concept of cues is another example example of that the real target with exercise is from the neck up.  The brain is the real target here, not the muscles, joints or bones.

Science, Belief, Psychology and Nonsense

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“The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.” ― Neil deGrasse Tyson

I want very much to be on the side of science. The scientific method is perhaps the most powerful and influential tool in all of human existence. A long line of dedicated scientists have blessed us with electric light, the eradication of smallpox and polio, a steady food supply, clean water, air conditioning, and every bit of computer technology ever known just to name a very few things. That said, I will admit my own confusion and I will admit adherence to various practices and ideas that don’t hold up to vigorous scrutiny. (I’m trying to do better.)

Mention the word “science” to some people and they’ll take it as a dirty word. Some don’t like the pointy-headed image of scientists telling us certain unfortunate truths (climate change is man-made for instance.) Others among us have been scared by genetically modified food (GMOs) and vaccines. This is unfortunate for a lot of reasons. Many of us walk around in needless fear for instance. More specifically, fear of vaccines has led to needless outbreaks of disease. Famously, Steve Jobs delayed rejected science-based cancer treatment for complimentary/alternative medicine (CAM.) According to his biographer, Jobs regretted this decision.

Some people think that “science” equates to “Western medicine,” or “pharmaceuticals.” Not true. There’s plenty of non-scientific practices and methods employed by modern medicine and the pill companies. In fact, good, thorough, rigorous science can expose the ineffective or dangerous aspects of medicine and drugs. In Bad Science and Bad PharmaBen Goldacre has done a great job discussing the misuse and abuse of science by both complimentary/alternative medicine and the pharmaceutical industry.

Skepticism

Skepticism is useful. This is a questioning point of view. A skeptic requires solid evidence before he or she believes something. Being skeptical means you’ve set a high bar for your beliefs. You don’t accept information at face value. Nor do you accept anecdotal evidence or information gained from an “experiment of one.” Healthy skepticism can save us money and may save our health. Here are some things that I understand about skepticism: When we hear about a “miracle cure,” “secret trick to whatever-it-is-you’re-dreaming-about,” “startling breakthrough” or “what the doctors don’t want you to know,” the skeptic in us should come to life and pay close attention to what we’re being told. It’s probably nonsense!

(BTW, skepticism doesn’t equal cynicism. Skepticism is not a negative thing. A skeptic simply asks for valid evidence to be shown.)

Correlation and Causation

Today I wore green shorts. I didn’t throw up. Green shorts prevent nausea! They protect against throwing up! I know it to be true because I was there and I witnessed it. That’s proof enough for me. “I know what works for me.”  

Does this sound familiar? Does this line of thinking make sense?

Here’s another example: Someone gets acupuncture for seasonal allergies (or any other ailment you care to think of) and some time soon after they feel better. Someone could see this as “proof” that acupuncture “works” to cure allergies. So every time this person feels their allergies come on, he or she gets acupuncture and soon the symptoms are gone. This could be fairly convincing to a lot of people that acupuncture works very well at curing an illness.

Acupuncture correlates to the resolution of the illness. But did acupuncture cause the illness to go away? Here are some things to think about: Why do we seek treatment for an illness? Typically people seek help because the symptoms are too tough to deal with. Guess what usually comes on the heels of our bad symptoms whether or not we seek treatment or not: We feel better! There’s a normal course that most illnesses take and it doesn’t usually end with us in the grave. Rather, our immune system fights off the illness and we feel fine, acupuncture or no acupunctureChiropractic adjustment or no adjustmentHomeopathy or no homeopathy. So what would we say if someone got acupuncture and they felt worse? What if someone did not receive acupuncture and he or she felt better soon anyway? All of these are possible outcomes. We might think that acupuncture doesn’t have much relationship to illness at all.

Fitness

“I consider corrective exercise to be the alternative medicine of the fitness field.”
– Coach Nick Tumminello 

That statement has given me a lot to chew on, and I am coming around to agree with him. The fitness universe abounds in various systems and methods that promise better movement and less pain. All of them are sold by people with impressive credentials who use technical and scientific-sounding terminology. I have absolutely fell under the spell of some of these systems.

Now I look back and realize that either a) I should’ve been more skeptical towards some of the claims I’ve heard or b) because I was searching desperately for a solution to my 10-year-long chronic back pain, I was ready to believe many things told to me by those who spoke with certainty–even though I tiny voice in the back of my head may have been questioning those claims.

Tumminello has written a series of posts on his blog that discusses the psychological factors that make us susceptible to faulty thinking. He’s aimed this series at the fitness community but he really discusses psychological tendencies that all humans seem to share–no matter how smart or well-informed we are. Why Smart Trainers Believe Stupid Things: Part 1 discusses bias toward positive evidence.  In Part 2 we learn how “authorities” can use jargon and inflated language to sway us. Part 3 goes into regression to the mean (discussed previously) and why it’s easy to believe a given treatment may “work” when in fact the thing the treatment was meant to fix has simply run its natural course. Psychological reasons why coaches will never stop arguing; training debates are a waste of time; and the fitness industry will never be united (long title) is very similar in tone and content to the previous articles.

These articles were very illuminating to me. If you’re a critically thinking fitness professional, they may help sharpen your thinking quite a bit.

New Thinking

As I’ve said, I’ve swallowed some nonsense and falsely ascribed amazing results to methods that simply didn’t do what I believed. The health & fitness field is perhaps more awash in phony gurus and foolish hocus pocus than almost any discipline on earth.  (Religion may take 1st place.) From medicine to food to exercise–especially corrective exercise–there are numerous minefields out there. Misinformation and half-baked nonsense is widespread on the Internet so I must be careful what to believe.

The best snake-oil salesmen blend truth with bull$hit.  (Dr. Oz comes to mind.) I need to examine each statement and claim from the person making it. I shouldn’t give the benefit of the doubt to anyone based on their credentials, popularity or status.

Rather than seek out information that confirms my beliefs, I need to look for evidence that actually disproves what I believe. (That’s a tough one!)  I should be prepared to set aside my beliefs when solid evidence contradicts those beliefs.

There are a lot of cases where making leaps in thinking leads to inaccuracies.  Nutrition is rife with this type of thing. The fat-causes-heart-disease idea seems to be in this category. A researcher may expect that A causes B–animal fat consumption causes heart disease for example–but this conclusion may be based on animal studies or educated guesses. What should happen isn’t necessarily what actually happens, yet many of our Federal dietary guidelines have been based on assumptions, not evidence.

I need to be (more) aware of my biases and my emotions. I should be aware of my herd mentality and I shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions. If a proponent of something wonderful can’t or won’t answer my questions, or uses excessively big and complex language in their explanation, I should beware.

Other non-BS resources

I’ve found some useful resources for evidence-based information. There must be many more out there. Here are a few:

  • Genetic Literacy Project: Lots of good information on GMOs.
  • Science Based Medicine: A wide range of medical information. From vaccines to chiropractic to acupuncture, nutrition, evolution, veterinary medicine and a lot more.
  • Soma Simple: This for manual therapists, physical therapists, pain management people and coaches. It’s a very high bar to cross if you want to put out your ideas. The group here demands evidence. I’ve learned a ton about pain science here and I’ve been made aware of a lot of the exercise baloney that’s out there.
  • Evidence Based Fitness: Bryan Chung does a great job of discussing and laying out the research facts on the latest fitness research.
  • Exercise Biology: Similar to Evidence Based Fitness. Anoop T. Balachandran discusses the evidence pertaining to strength training, pain, nutrition, supplements and more. His post on pain should be required reading by all trainers and coaches.
  • How to Detect Bullshit: My article wouldn’t be complete without a link to this fine piece of writing from Scott Berkun. I might need to read it several times.