Why working your butt off is the best
and only way to train
by Si Hing Arthur Boyer
Admit it. You’re guilty of it just as much as I am. Or at least, we were at some point. Guilty? Of what? I’ll tell you what. Of finding the secret behind it all…that “special ingredient,” that secret formula that’s been hidden from you. The one that if you just find as soon as possible, you’ll be on your way to achieving all your goals. This secret could’ve taken any form for you: a particular program, a new diet, a certain piece of equipment—and if you got your hands on it, you were in!
Not to shoot down any of your hopes and dreams, but I’m here to tell you why “secret formulas” are, for the most part, baloney. Now this simple fact may be true of just about anything you think of. After all, is there truly a secret ingredient for living life, for being happy, for getting rich? For simplicity’s sake, and for the context of this article, I’m going to keep this topic within the realm of—I don’t know—let’s say fitness. That’s happens to be my current area of study.
Secret formulas are a cheat; they’re a means to find an easier way, or the “best” way of doing something. They’re a cheat because, as is usually the case, they’re a means to some kind of shortcut. Secret formulas are the excuse for people to not have to work hard. An excuse NOT to put in the effort which their particular goal should deserve. Well, in the world of exercise I can tell you for certain that there is no such thing as a shortcut to true fitness and excellent results.
Let’s talk about workouts. There are a lot of people who spend their time watching infomercials or scanning through books and magazines in a sad attempt to find that perfect workout that would get them “absolutely ripped!” in only 6 weeks. Likewise, I’m sure there are brilliant minds out there who spend hours upon hours trying to create that perfect workout. And sure, great products inevitably result from hours upon hours of work. If you commit a certain amount of devotion to anything you’re going to get something out of it.
That’s exactly the point. Hard work. It is like Gung Fu (Kung Fu), the meaning of which is something like a great skill achieved through hard work. Gung Fu is not merely a style of martial art, it is that. You can have Gung Fu in anything that you practice diligently. Chefs have Gung Fu in cooking. An artist can have Gung Fu in drawing or painting or creating poetry. There is no shortcut to obtaining Gung Fu. Any self-respecting and knowledgeable master would tell you the same thing.
The same is true of physical fitness. Returning to the subject of that perfect workout, let me tell you that there is no such thing. Even if there was, there is one thing you must remember: in the words of Lou Schuler, author of The New Rules of Lifting: “Everything works. Nothing works forever.”
I don’t think I’ve heard or read anyone who’s said it better. This is a very fundamental truth of the fitness world. No matter how excellent the workout you’re doing turns out to be, and maybe it really is excellent—let’s not forget that not even that will work forever. At some point in time, your body is going to adapt to the specific stimulus you’re giving it, it will have made all the adaptations it could from that particular workout and enter into what is known as a “plateau.”
This occurs much more rapidly for seasoned athletes than it does for beginners. That means essentially that your body will no longer make new changes. You’ll most likely stop getting sore, you’ll stop gaining strength and/or muscle and you’re body will make no more changes at all. Mentally, you will probably begin to feel like you’re no longer making progress. You may feel discouraged and you may feel like you’re no longer getting anywhere. You no longer feel challenged either and that excitement of setting a new personal goal—and achieving it—will have diminished.
There is a principle in exercise known as the “principle of progressive overload.” This principle can be defined as follows:
"The overload principle states that, for a training adaptation to occur, the load or stress on the system or systems of the body being trained must be greater than typically encountered. Once the system adapts to the increased stress of training, the stress is no longer atypical, and if further training adaptations are desired, the training stimulus must be increased." (Nutrient Timing, pg. 155)
Improvements are not made during your training session. Your training session merely provides the stimulus for which your body responds with an adaptation specific to that stimulus (“principle of specificity”). Basically, your body doesn’t make any changes while you’re training. All of that occurs after the training, as your body recovers, until your next workout. If anything, immediately after exercise you’re worse off physically. Several things have occurred: you’ve depleted your energy stores, you’ve caused a level of tissue damage within your muscles, even you’re immune system as been repressed. The way your body improves upon itself is by recovering and making adaptations in an attempt to keep that stress reaction from happening again. Obviously though, it does. You keep exercising to make sure it does. But it’s through that process that your body becomes stronger and more able.
You may find an excellent workout in the future that is easy AND efficient and you may see good results from it. But the truth remains—after some time, your body will get used to that workout and stop adapting and you’ll have no choice but to find yourself a new workout. That is why there is no such thing as a perfect or best workout. No matter how good it is, it can only work for so long. A good workout can only stay good within the context of a good program. That is, a program which incorporates planned and steady changes to challenge your body to keep making physical improvements.
This is also why it isn’t a good idea to spend a lot of money on a specific exercise machine. In a way, they’re rather superfluous. Or otherwise unnecessary—like adding legs to a snake. Instead of buying a Bowflex Treadclimber—go out and sprint up a hill! Instead of buying the “Ab Circle Pro” machine, do crunches! The things they come up with these days. I mean, have you seen this thing? If regular crunches bore you, at least find creative ways to train your abdominals that doesn’t require some fancy piece of equipment. You don’t need it. If that ridiculous machine was even necessary to train your abs, you’d see professional athletes using it all over the place.
Not to mention that abdominal exercises alone will NOT give you that much sought after “six pack.” You can only get that in combination with a good diet and plenty of cardio exercise, whether aerobic or anaerobic and this isn’t just me talking—that is a well-known fact. Let me repeat myself for emphasis. If you’re fitness goal was to get a six-pack (as with a lot of people), especially if you wanted to do it in as little time as possible, ab-work alone wouldn’t cut it. Get it? Cut it…as in your stomach! Sorry.
You could work your butt off doing crunches and really strengthen your abdominal muscles, but without a proper diet and cardio exercise to keep your body fat levels down, you probably wouldn’t even see those muscles.
But holistic fitness isn’t just about abs. And I’m all about holism. It’s about being fit, head-to-toe, inside and out. Overall, total fitness of body and mind requires good nutrition and a well-rounded routine. If true fitness is your wish, you can’t leave anything out.
Now, let’s talk about exercise equipment. I bring this up because I want to demonstrate how special equipment in itself doesn’t give you physical improvement, it’s your own work ethic.
There is equipment that is basic and necessary, and there is equipment that is superfluous. In my opinion, some of this necessary equipment includes the bench, the Olympic bar, dumbbells, kettle bells, a power rack, ropes, weight sleds, sandbags, and pull up bars. I’m sure there are a more, but these are some of the basics, just off the top of my head. If you had only half of this equipment, you could still achieve amazing results with hard work and discipline. Plenty of exercise programs incorporate less equipment than what I’ve listed above and yet still yield results.
Notice that most of these are “free weights,” not machines. It is important for me to point this out. There is an idea in the fitness world that free weights are more dangerous than machines. Now, if we’re going to move on, you need to throw that idea out the window right now. The only thing that could make traditional free-weight lifting dangerous is bad form, bad technique or lifting more than you’re capable of. With proper instruction and technique, there’s little risk of injury. Okay, so admittedly free-weights have a higher risk for accidents than machines, since machines do all the technique for you, but are you going to stop driving a car to work and start riding a bike for fear of getting in an accident? No. I hope not. And if you’re discouraged about weightlifting because you’re scared of dropping a dumbbell on your foot, you need to find yourself a different hobby.
Obviously, I’m kidding. Let’s face it, the risk involved with free-weight lifting isn’t as bad as some people want you to think it is. Sure, it’s riskier if you’re stupid. Life is harder when you’re stupid. Don’t be stupid! Some precautions you can take are: having a partner to spot you as you lift, have a coach to show you proper technique, never attempt a lift if you’re not 100% confident you can lift it.
Besides activating more muscle fibers and therefore providing a better stimulus for strength, power and muscle growth, free weight exercises are also the best way to improve upon functional strength. Jeffery M McBride, PhD, CSCS, and author of an article entitled "Machine Versus Free Weights" for the National Strength and Conditioning Association wrote:
"…[F]ree weight lifting better simulates real-life movement patterns. For example, lifting a suitcase or bag of groceries is basically the same as lifting a dumbbell or barbell from the floor of a weight room.
…Machine exercises are less like real life activities in that they supply resistance in a more controlled and coordinated fashion."
Although he does mention that machines have their advantages, in the end of his article he concludes that when it comes to improving physical strength “for fitness and quality of life, free weights most likely have the advantage.”
In Wikipedia, functional training is defined as, “a classification of exercise which involves training the body for the activities performed in daily life.” This mean training with exercises that most closely mimic the movement patterns of your body in real, any life-situation.
Similarly, most (but not all) exercise machines do not provide functional movements that mimic movement patterns found in everyday life. The machines take out a great deal of effort by restricting your range of motion and causing less muscle fibers to be stimulated. They are, to me, a prime example of letting something else do the work for you. And that’s exactly what they do.
That’s why bodybuilders can lift x-times more weight on a machine than they can with traditional exercises. Bodybuilders tend to be very fond of machines because, for them, more weight = bigger muscles.
But you’re not a bodybuilder, you’re an athlete or a martial artist. All those little stabilizing muscle fibers that come into play when you’re doing a traditional squat with a barbell don’t come into play if you’re using a squat machine, or worse, a leg press machine. The leg press machine doesn’t even adequately simulate the movement of a squat. In The New Rules of Lifting, Schuler and coauthor Alwyn Cosgrove listed the leg press machine under “Exercises we hate #1.” The reasons? I’ve summarized them as follows:
1. Completely nonfunctional. Not many movements in real life in which you use your legs to push something while your back is anchored.
2. Dangerous. Once your back comes off the pad, you’re lower back is in jeopardy.
3. “It’s too damned easy.” (Schuler) You probably couldn’t squat nearly as much weight as you can leg press.
4. Most people hold their breath when lowering the weight on this machine, which causes a dramatic spike in blood pressure.
Now lets consider a study which compared functional and nonfunctional workouts.
In 2007 the American Council on Exercise sponsored a research study conducted by Porcari and Denise Milton, M.S., and a team of exercise scientists at the University of Wisconsin. They recruited 24 males and females between the ages of 58 and 78 and randomly assigned them into two separate groups. One, the control group, was assigned a traditional exercise program. The other group, the experimental group, was assigned a program which consisted specifically of functional exercises; that is, exercises which most closely resembled activities of daily living (also called ADL, by the Council). At the end of the 4 week program, the results showed that the experimental group, which underwent functional exercise training showed greater improvements in physical fitness than the control group:
The researchers concluded that the functional fitness program was superior to conventional exercise for improving the subjects’ abilities to complete most ADL….
….What makes these findings even more significant is that researchers weren’t simply starting with totally inactive subjects and seeing big benefits—all subjects in the study were already regular exercisers….
….Obviously the take-home message here is: Functional fitness really works. Even the simplest exercise regimen, like the one employed by our researchers using inexpensive equipment like sand-filled plastic jugs, is effective enough for older adults to reap significant benefits in less than a month…. (Function Follows Fitness, by Mark Anders)
My conclusion would be that most machines and machine exercises are unnecessary. So that complicated fancy new machine you saw on that infomercial the other night—forget about it. Personally, I like to keep in mind the “KISS” principle: keep it simple, stupid.
Don’t ignore the simple truth. There is absolutely no such thing as a shortcut to true and excellent fitness.
If you’re willing to improve yourself physically, mentally or otherwise, you should be willing to put in the work necessary to achieve that. This means that no special ingredient will do the work for you, just like no good machine will. A good machine is one that still leaves most of the work to be done by you—and even then I still don’t think most of them are necessary. The road to true fitness, or, let me broaden the scope a little bit—the road to true Gung Fu—is diligence. So please, don’t waste any more of your own time trying to figure out what the big secret is; that is, what new piece of equipment will thrust your body into the physique you’ve always wanted, or that new workout you read about in that fitness magazine that will add an inch to your biceps in 2 weeks. Remember: everything works, but nothing works forever. Especially if you’re new to training, just about anything you try will work for you, because your body’s not used to it.
Now, here‘s the part where I backtrack and try to clarify a little bit.
There’s nothing wrong with keeping up with the latest information and innovative studies, but, I am saying “be wary.” Be wary of those who hint at shortcuts, or an easier and faster method. Because for the long haul, it really does just come down to long and hard work over a long period of time. It’s quite simple.
Scrub any attempt to find a shortcut! In the end, the only thing that makes a workout work is you. Lou Schuler points out in his book that you can get better results working your butt off on a bad program than lounging through an excellent one.
So the key ingredient here is really just how hard you’re willing to work. That’s why you don’t need to go wasting your money on a glamorized piece of equipment.
I stumbled across an article online at MSNBC.com’s “Get Fit Guide” entitled “Shape-up Solution or Scam?” where the author, Jane Weaver, quoted Cedric Bryant, the chief exercise physiologist and vice president of the American Council on Exercise: “People fall for the notion of effortless exercise or getting dramatic results in a quick time.” From a martial artist’s point of view, that would be like paying $2,000 for a “Guaranteed Black Belt Program” in which you’d be guaranteed a black belt in Karate in two years—guaranteed.
*Cough* bulls**t! *cough-cough*.
In her article, Jane Weaver makes a few excellent points I want to share with you:
[W]hen a product’s advertising says you can get astonishing results without a lot of hard work, don’t fall for it, says the Federal Trade Commission, the government agency which monitors advertising for false claims.… It’s not just fitness gadgets that don’t work. There are scores of overblown dieting or weight-loss programs. The FTC found that over half of all weight loss ads contained false or unsupported claims.
An article appeared in ACE FitnessMatters, the American Council of Exercise’s official magazine saying:
“Manufacturers of equipment sold through infomercials have often used questionable tactics to persuade consumers to buy their products.”
A common trick is to try to make you doubt certain traditional methods of exercise, the Council says, or making them seem too difficult and ineffective.
Returning to the subject of nutrition and dieting, looking for a shortcut is never a wise idea—especially with nutritional supplements, like anabolic steroids. Susan Kleiner, PhD, RD and author of Power Eating, an excellent book on nutrition and supplementation, has this to say:
"Looking for a shortcut, athletes and exercisers spend time and money on supplements that don’t work while delaying the use of proven methods—good nutrition and intense training—to support their goals. Even worse, some supplements can be harmful and even deadly." (pg. 154)
So don’t buy the hoopla—there’s no way around hard work to achieve true Gung Fu. Mark Twight, founder of Gym Jones (the gym made famous by training the actors of the movie 300) is surely an advocate of this. He knows that shortcuts don’t exist. All one has to do is see the front page of his web site to get an idea on his attitude towards training. In fact, in an article entitled “Hard Work”, he takes an excerpt from John Jesse's “Wrestling Physical Conditioning Encyclopedia,” published by The Athletic Press, Pasadena, CA, in 1974 that goes as follows:
"The writer would like to conclude with a personal message to wrestlers and coaches alike. It is taken from a talk given in 1964 to coaches at the National Collegiate Track Clinic and quoted many times by authorities throughout the world, There is no shortcut to strength development, as there is none for the development of skill, agility or endurance in an athlete. No amount of fancy gimmicks or equipment or adoption of alleged time-saving ‘fads' will substitute for a long term program of hard work, that is required to develop the quality of strength needed by an athlete for optimum performance in his specialty. Greater progress in track and field during the past 15 years has been the result of harder work by the athletes, not by resorting to shortcuts and less work."
I would like to conclude this article with some words of wisdom from Po, the main character in the movie “Kung Fu Panda” (I loved that movie): “There is no secret ingredient!”