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Oh fitness industry, where art thou balance?

March 22, 2013

I recently read this article someone posted on Facebook about buzzwords. It’s referring to buzzwords in the corporate world, and it reminded me of something I’ve been thinking about for awhile now with the fitness industry.

Here’s a portion from the article: “…Buzzwords are employed as a cover by those who don't know what they're talking about or are too lazy to explain it properly…and they do little for the user's reputation, among thinking types at least. It may impress the sort of people who are also impressed by ageing men with toupees and shiny red sports cars, (but) it makes almost everyone else cringe – especially people who know your industry. …The key to successful communication is connecting with people … Big words and technical terms can stop that connection because people either don't understand what you're saying or perceive you as trying too hard.”

I find this so true in the Fitness industry with the constant flow of trendy words, catch phrases and fads. Have you ever heard a trainer say something along the lines of: “I’m a Certified Personal Trainer and strength and conditioning wellness coach that specializes in functional training and core stability and also prescribes corrective exercises after a doing a postural analysis and movement screening to improve my client’s mobility and muscle symmetry.”

Wow. What did he just say?? Buzzword overload! Here’s my translation: I am full of sh*#$.

While all those words are actually important aspects to fitness individually, I don’t like how they can so easily be grouped together and sound like a bunch of hot air, especially when trainers throw them into their conversations to appear smarter and more knowledgeable, without even knowing their true meaning or what context they should be used in.

I have a bit of a soft spot for the old school weightlifters, strongmen and athletes, who got awesome results long before fads and trends were as prevalent as they are today. When you look back at the oldschool guys in bodybuilding, weightlifting or any other sport you can see that all of their training methods revolved around two things: hard work and sound training principles. Here's an article that really resonated with me. It helped give me a bit more of the oldschool mentality with my training: Do it because it works. Why everything old is new again.

But the fitness industry these days would sure have you believe different. Every year, buzzwords and new fads keeping popping up to fool many people into thinking that they need this or that to reach their goals. Words like core, functional, tone, dynamic etc. are used and abused to confuse people. The fitness industry continues to make money by keeping people confused and result-less. That way it can continue to market its fads by using buzzwords and catch phrases.

Using all these “buzzwords” and training tools and being up on the latest trendy fitness fads won’t matter one tiny bit if you’re not getting results. “Results” is not necessarily a flashy and trendy buzzword, but I like the sound of it a whole lot more.  For example, there is nothing fancy or trendy about heavy barbell squats, but it is one of the most effective exercises that you can do and it actually will give you results.

Another problem I have with these fitness trends and fads is that they are so fickle. They come and go. And the pendulum swings are so extreme sometimes it can be hard to keep up with whether something is a good, bad or downright ugly according to all the many gurus, “experts” and heros in the fitness industry. Sometimes things actually start out as good bits of information or knowledge, as parts of pieces to the bigger picture. Maybe they come from some new research or from a good place; maybe it’s a new training style or some diet information that we can add to our knowledge bank and benefit from. But then instead of it helping, it ends up being taken to the extreme and turns into a fad. Then after the crazy fad era finishes, the pendulum swings to the opposite end when these fads are “exposed” and people completely disregard anything to do with them, even though they may have had served a purpose and been useful, had they not been taken to the extreme.

I am wary of being extremely “hardline” for or against some of these fitness trends. There is usually some usefulness to be had in a lot of these things. Even if it’s not useful to you, it could very well be useful to someone else, so I don’t see the point of being so blatantly for or against these things. I’ve also noticed that fads have a way of coming back around in circles. Some new evidence will pop up and again it will be "trendy".

Here are a few current fads and buzzwords, and my take on them:

Cardio, both long distance and interval (HIIT):

For years bodybuilders were eating their broccoli and plain chicken breasts and doing their steady-state cardio to prepare for competitions. And everyone was happy. No one ever really questioned the efficiency of the mind-numbing cardio since bodybuilders had been stepping on stage completely shredded (with far fewer drugs) for years.

Then, in the early 2000's, interval training exploded onto the scene and steady-state cardio was no longer en vogue. I was just starting to become interested in lifting weights and fitness at this time. During this time quite a bit of research came out showing that intervals produced equal or even better improvements in cardiovascular fitness and performance than steady-state exercise lasting several times as long.

So then steadystate cardio went out of fashion (which was kind of a good thing as it WAS being overused by pretty much every woman in the world, and it still in some cases) and in came the “miracle working” interval training. Then that was taken a bit to the extreme, and people began to realise that they didn’t need to do that much cardio. And that if they just lifted some heavy shit and ate properly, they could get the body they wanted without doing any cardio!! This was sweeeeeet news for the people who really hated cardio; they were so happy to learn that they can build the body they wanted very effectively without doing any of that heart racing, blood pumping, crazy cardio.

But the anti-cardio club have also now become extremely outspoken and it seems to me that the trend is swinging to the far opposite extreme with people disregarding all forms of cardio. The thing is, cardio is NOT the enemy. It’s just another training method, another training tool you have available, another form of exercise, and it still has it’s place and there ARE good reasons to do cardio. I have always said that I think people who never do any form of cardio would probably benefit from occasionally adding in a bit of heart pumping cardio to their training routine. Long distance cardio is definitely not the most effective way to lose body fat but that doesn’t mean it’s bad to do it, or that there is no use for it at all.

As far as interval training and HIIT, it’s also gotten its share of flack recently as well (high cortisol scares and what have you), but again, used in proper context and with the right balance of diet and training, HIIT is an AMAZING TOOL, both for trainers to use with clients and for anyone looking to increase their fitness and up their conditioning.

I think some people need to broaden their horizons. Cardio is not automatically evil. That is a very narrow minded way to look at it. HIIT can be really good for you. And now everyone is going on about doing hill sprints these days being the be all and end all of cardio (the current TREND!) and while they are great for you and I love them, they aren’t necessarily the only type of cardio you should be doing.  Why would someone only ever do hill sprints? You don’t only ever do deadlifts? Sometimes it’s good to think outside of the box. Or at least understand the reasons for doing what you are doing.

Functional Training/compound vs isolation/machines vs free weights

I would define functional training as exercises that improve strength and efficiency while performing movements directly related to activities of daily living or sport movements.  This form of training first became “trendy” when trainers started copying the sports coaches who use functional training on their athletes in order to allow them to strengthen their muscles while performing movements and exercises directly related to the movements they perform in their sport.

Functional training is awesome. It brought in a whole new angle to weight training. It encouraged people to stop sitting down on fitness machines all the time, working only their isolated muscles, and instead they started filling up the majority of their training sessions with free weights; working their core and stabilizer muscles with big compound movements while standing etc. This new type of training appealed to the masses and gave trainers a new selling point. It’s a good trend. It’s a healthy way to train; it’s so good for the body and posture and gives you the biggest bang for your bucks as far as muscle growth and strength development.

But I think some of the proponents of functional training have gone too far. The Paul Chek extremists are a little bit annoying, in my opinion. As much as I love functional training, bodybuilding and isolation work still has its place. So do machines. And you don’t have to be ashamed of doing accessory work or bicep curls. They still have their place in weight training programs within reason.

 “Core Stability”

The “core stability” fad started almost a decade ago, with every trainer under the sun putting their clients and athletes on stability balls and bosus while doing endless rotational work and plank holds.

The downside of this extreme was that the basic training like squats and deadlifts and good old fashioned barbell training (which really should make up the base of someone’s training) went out the window in exchange for people spending hours a week training the core.

Then the "Just do heavy squats and deadlifts" guys took over again and everyone started belittling exclusive core training to the extent that people became ashamed to even be seen using an exercise ball.

I feel that core stability work is something that a lot of people are now lacking in their training (we’ve gone to the opposite extreme yet again!). While it was very often overdone in the past, I still feel that adding a Pilates class or a little bit of core work to most people’s programs, once or twice a week, would be a very beneficial thing for the majority of people who lift weights.


CrossFit hasn’t been around for very long. It was born a few years ago, took off as a fad, and while it benefited some people, other people abused it, used it poorly or without even understanding the ideas behind it, and although it is still very popular, at the same time now it has now become extremely controversial and has been given a bad name, especially in some fitness circles (especially the bodybuilding community and other “sports specific” circles).

Welcome to the dark side of fitness fads, CrossFit.

I do understand the criticism of it. Some of the things people do in the name of “CrossFit” is a bit of a joke. But then on the other hand, CrossFit is very often misunderstood. People look at it and wonder what the hell is going on and why are all these aspects of strength and fitness being squashed together? But what they often don’t realize that from a programming point of view, the whole concept of CrossFit training, has been around forever.

CrossFit type of training is not a new phenomenon. Anyone who has knows much about programming and periodization has probably heard of concurrent training. Even though there will always be an interference effect to some extent on muscle and strength development (when strength and endurance are trained concurrently) the degree of interference can be adjusted by using different training protocols and the interference effect can be minimized. Sports that require amounts of maximal aerobic and anaerobic capacities as well as high levels of maximum strength and muscle power (i.e. rowing and canoeing) have been around for a lot longer than CrossFit, and coaches have used a type of concurrent training with those athletes.

When it comes down to it when you look at some of the top CrossFitters, it’s amazing to see the amount of strength, power and endurance they have simultaneously achieved through proper training. That’s proof right there that you can make gains in all of these different areas at the same time, by using a method of concurrent training.

Of course CrossFitters realise that they could change their programming up to become more advanced in a particular thing. But they don’t want to specialise. Sometimes I wonder when people will finally realize and understand this simple point? No specialisation, no problemo. People are often like, yeah well you won’t be VERY GREAT at any one thing. No shit. That’s the point. The whole idea of CrossFit is to get as good as possible at all the different elements of strength and conditioning combined. The goal is to gain maximal results in each one of these things at the same time. Why not get a good base in everything if you have the time, desire and genetics for it? It's hard work and takes a lot more effort than people realise, but obviously some people want to train like that.

(In any case, I hate to admit it, but most of the population tries really hard to specialise and they still aren’t that GREAT at whatever they are specialising in... so it's kind of a silly argument sometimes.)

Of course CrossFit isn’t for everyone. It has its flaws just like anything; it has its cringe-worthy moments, and it’s misrepresented by a lot of people. But it has been severely criticized and misunderstood and the unnecessary negativity associated with it is what makes me sad, because some people absolutely enjoy it. I think if more people bothered to dig a bit deeper, leave their dogma at the door, and try to understand what is going on and what these CrossFitters are actually trying to achieve, they might understand it better, respect it a little more, and not just label it as another stupid fad.

“Clean eating” vs counting calories and macros:

Here’s another one! The never ending debate between food choices/clean eating vs calorie counting. For a few years, around the time when I first got into the fitness industry and started my career as a personal trainer, everyone was all about clean eating for fitness, fat loss and muscle building.  Then the crazy trends turned to Paleo and low carb, high fat diets. And now it seems counting calories and IIFYM is a bit more in fashion.

I have found that with both of these extremes, as with all the other “fads” and diets, there are a lot of very vocal zealots.

Personally I think there should be a balance between making proper food choices AND counting calories or at least being aware of calories and macros. I also think it's silly to use "if it fits your macros" as an excuse to eat junk food all day every day, as long as you stick to your allotted calories, unless of course you don't care about your health. Junk is still junk even if it fits your macros. I did a post on the topic here, so I won’t get into it too much here as well.

All I can say is, oh for the day when common sense will reign supreme.

Personal trainers vs strength coaches

I read this article a few months back, and I found it spot on. I appreciated the honestly and the candidness of the author.

Calling oneself a “strength coach” instead of personal trainer is another one of those things that’s in fashion at the moment. I have to laugh when I see it and hear it. To be called a plain ol' personal trainer is just not as fashionable as being referred to as a "strength coach". But it's all a little pretentious in my opinion. Unless someone is actually working with athletes and has their strength and conditioning certification, they aren't really a S&C coach. Here's a portion from the article I linked above:

"For some reason it’s become a point of pride to call oneself “strength coach” instead of personal trainer...Calling yourself a coach may be a great way to pump up your ego to the internet abyss but it isn’t going to sell clients on your services. Your job is to help people look the way they want and achieve the lifestyle they deserve..."

So there you have it, my take on fitness buzzwords as well as fitness trends that come in and out of fashion. The way I see it is, everything has its faults, flaws and extremists, but most of these things also have a big element of usefulness and can be extremely helpful training tools. Don't completely throw something out, just because everyone is disregarding it as a "fitness fad" or a trend. Think for yourself, be openminded, do your own research, make up your own mind about these things. Don't just form your opinions based on what the going trends are and what the most outspoken public opinions are.

Also I think it’s important to remember that everyone is not the same. Not everyone wants to train the same, enjoys the same type of training or has the same goals.  Not everyone wants “optimum” this or “optimum” that. Sometimes people do things just because they enjoy doing them and are happy with the results they are getting, even if there might be quicker or more efficient ways to get those results. If doing something you enjoy will make you stick to it longer, then you’ll benefit more from it than you would from doing something maybe more "optimum" but that you won’t be consistent with. Besides, life would be so boring if we were all the same and all trained the same.  I read a good article here on fitness bullies. It kind of goes along with everything I’ve written about today.

What do you think? What’s your take on fitness fads and buzzwords? And the extremes and lack of balance in the fitness industry?



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