My Personal Trainer

My God, she is trying to kill me.

I was somewhere in the middle of racing between minute-long shuttle runs and weighted lunges, separated by just enough rest to start feeling nauseous before sprinting again. I felt cold. I really thought this was the end. Five rounds? Six? When would the hour end?

I would never make an athlete do this…

I’ve been designing, testing, and analyzing training programs for more than twenty years. I’ve made my living as a trainer for more than half that time. And although I spend a lot of time messing around with training, my own training often isn’t that great. In fact, this spring I was finding myself doing all the things I hate seeing my clients do: skipping workouts, shortening workouts, using too-light weights, eating after dinner, and generally dumbing-down every facet of my fitness. I was beginning to pay for it, too. My strength was waning, my weight was going up.

What the hell is she thinking?

I’ve designed my own workouts forever. I usually don’t have a hard time training; I like it and I like the  results. But this spring, the balance in my life tilted too far to one side. My wife, Ellen, and I welcomed a new baby in April, and things at our business are busier than ever. Even though there is a gym really close to my office, I wasn’t using it. On top of that, I wasn’t sleeping as well and energy to make good nutritional choices was strained. My first inclination was to let it slide, to get back in shape in the fall. But then I remembered an article written for personal trainers where the author asked four basic questions:

  • Do you think a good fitness professional is a valuable investment?
  • Do you think a good fitness professional can get someone to their goals faster than they can get there on their own?
  • Are you personally in the greatest physical condition of your life right now?
  • Are you ecstatic with your own strength levels and conditioning?

He followed these questions with this:

“I bet that 80-90% of those who answered will say – yes, yes, no, no.

So – extrapolating from that – what is YOUR trainer’s name? Why did you hire him or her? I bet most trainers don’t even have training partners – never mind a coach to help them with programming and getting to the next level.”

I needed help. I needed someone who would not listen to my whining, someone who would not listen to my analysis of how hard the work was.

This isn’t training. This is crazy.

I hired Jagoe Reid. Spending 45 minutes “working out” is not the same as training, and I knew it. I asked Jagoe for two things: accountability and intensity. I can work hard sometimes, but not all the time. As I get older and busier and (honestly) lazier, I need quality training more than ever.

Our first session was harder than I had expected, but I stayed upright. I remember thinking that she must be trying to prove something. I remember thinking that she was diabolically insane. I gave Jagoe her first job as a strength coach and this is the thanks I get? I thought back to the scene at the end of Star Wars with Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader:

Darth Vader: I’ve been waiting for you, Obi-Wan. We meet again, at last. The circle is now complete. When I left you, I was but the learner; now I am the master.
Obi-Wan: Only a master of evil, Darth.

It wasn’t clear to me during the session whether this was going to be a good arrangement or not. In my mind, I started into all the rationalizations that usually crop up when the going gets tough. But, as tough times do, the session finally did come to an end. I was drenched with sweat, exhausted, and not looking forward to the long flight of stairs back up to my office. I was relieved and proud…just the way we should feel after a hard effort.

As the weeks passed, the training progressed and so did I. A month or more into it now, I am stronger, lighter, and feeling positive about things again. She makes me do all the things I should do. She looks for the weak links. She makes me explain why the scale isn’t budging.

I used to think I was the last person in the world that would need a coach. Now, I can’t see myself without one.


The Long Haul

The average lifespan of an American adult is currently 78.3 years. That means if you’re over 39 years and one month old, you’re on the home stretch.

If you’re like me, you like this place called Earth. An if you like the place and the people in it, you’d better start taking the best care of yourself that you can. If you do everything right, there’s every chance you’ll blow right past 78.3 and keep on running into your nineties.

I was planning on writing a whole article on the importance of taking care of yourself, but I found a better article on the subject than I could write. Famed strength coach Mike Boyle put it like this:

“Imagine you are sixteen years old and your parents give you your first car. They also give you simple instructions. There is one small hitch, you only get one car, you can never get another. Never. No trade-ins, no trade-ups. Nothing.

Ask yourself how would you maintain that car? My guess is you would be meticulous. Frequent oil changes, proper fuel, etc. Now imagine if your parents also told you that none of the replacement parts for this car would ever work as well as the original parts. Not only that, the replacement parts would be expensive to install and cause you to have decreased use of your car for the rest of the cars useful life? In other words, the car would continue to run but, not at the same speed and with the efficiency you were used to.

Wow, now would we ever put a lot of time and effort into maintenance if that were the case.

After reading the above example ask yourself another question. Why is the human body different? Why do we act as if we don’t care about the one body we were given. Same deal. You only get one body. No returns or trade-ins. Sure, we can replace parts but boy it’s a lot of work and it hurts. Besides, the stuff they put in never works as well as the original “factory” parts. The replacement knee or hip doesn’t give you the same feel and performance as the original part.

Think about it. One body. You determine the mileage? You set the maintenance plan?

No refunds, no warranties, no do-overs?

How about this perspective? One of my clients is a very successful businessman. He often is asked to speak to various groups. One thing he tells every group is that you are going to spend time and money on your health. The truth is the process can be a proactive one or a reactive one. Money spent on your health can take the form of a personal trainer, massage therapist and a gym membership or, it can be money spent on cardiologists, anesthesiologists, and plastic surgeons. Either way, you will spend money.

Same goes for time. You can go to the gym or, to the doctors office. It’s up to you. Either way, you will spend time. Some people say things like “I hate to work out”. Try sitting in the emergency room for a few hours and then get back to me. Working out may not seem so bad. Much like a car, a little preventative maintenance can go a long way. However, in so many ways the body is better than a car. With some good hard work you can turn back the odometer on the body. I wrote an article a while back that discussed a study done by McMaster University which showed that muscle tissue of older subjects actually changed at the cellular level and looked more like the younger control subjects after strength training.

Do me a favor, spend some time on preventative maintenance, it beats the heck out of the alternative. Just remember, you will spend both time and money.”

Please check out more from Mike Boyle.


Let me guess…today’s workout plan is to do about 30 minutes of “cardio” and then some
“toning” exercises like crunches and dumbbell kickbacks at the end. It’s the same workout you’ve done, more-or-less, since high school. And now, just like then, you’re struggling to see results. Are you surprised?

Some athletes grow out of the no-results plan and into intervals, total-body exercises and integrated core movements. Although these workouts are undeniably effective, some of us still get fed-up with the same old weightlifting plan. If you’re feeling a bit bored with your workout or are experiencing a plateau in your  performance, some good old-fashioned strongman training might be just the key.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s a very popular form of entertainment was the strongman show. In these shows, famed muscle-men performed a variety of feats of strength from basic weightlifting to hefting animals, to bending steel. These guys didn’t typically have gym memberships; they were more likely to train at home or on the farm with whichever various awkward and heavy objects they had on hand.

Not only did they get ungodly strong, their work capacities were through the roof. For a little variety and a lot of work, saddle up for one of the following exercises:

  • Farmer’s Walk. Grab a pair of really heavy dumbbells or kettlebells, and walk. Try to start with a weight that totals about 75% of your bodyweight, walking for 60-90 seconds. Great core and grip strengthening, and a real conditioning effect.
  • Sled Push or Pull. Load up a weight sled with about your own bodyweight. Push it 150-200 feet, then pull it back using a harness system. If you lack a sled, try a heavy wheelbarrow, or even try pushing your car for a few blocks!
  • Sandbags. You’ve seen them sitting in the corner of the gym, but what to do with them? Pick one up and hug it to your chest. Now, walk up and down the stairs with it a few times. You could also pick up a heavy one, press it overhead, and then put it down on the ground. Repeat until sundown. One of our favorites is the Zercher; pick up a bag and cradle it in the crooks of your arms, then start squatting. 15-20 reps should be sufficient to remind you how weak your abs are.
  • Tire Flipping. Get a big tractor tire (easier to find than you might think) and lay it on the ground. Get your hands underneath one side of it and flip it over. If you’ve got space, just keep flipping. If you’re limited on space, just move around the tire and flip it back the other way. Our favorite is to avoid counting reps and do it for time instead: one minute work, one minute rest. Try to go for five rounds.
  • Get-Up. The Turkish Get-Up is a classic strongman exercise, and it’s one that every athlete should be doing. The general idea is simple. Lie down on the ground and pick up a weight in one hand. Holding it with a locked elbow straight overhead, get-up into a standing position. Reverse the move and repeat with the other side. Although this is probably best as a kettlebell exercise, you can use just about anything; barbells, sandbags, dumbbells, or even very small people.

These are very simple and very effective movements. Chances are, you’ll find something you like, and chances are even better that it’ll improve your fitness. I guarantee  that two Get-Ups per workout is more valuable than a hundred-thousand dumbbell kickbacks.

You Can Do It

I remember being fascinated by oil tankers as a young boy. I couldn’t believe how huge they were and how much oil they could carry, but I was especially amazed by how long it took them to change speed or direction. It was my first lesson in inertia, and it stuck with me.

When it comes to habits, adults are a lot like oil tankers. Making small and subtle changes isn’t too bad, like switching from Pepsi to Coke. But when it comes to making a big change in direction, well…it takes some serious effort.

Up to 90 percent of our daily activities are based on habit. Think about it—you get up, brush your teeth, get your pants out of the bottom drawer, start the car, drive the normal route to work, and then probably do generally the same thing in reverse at the end of the day.

We tend to automatically associate the word habit with bad habits. It’s true that bad habits are the ones we feel we need to change, but getting rid of them rarely works. What usually works is exchanging them for good ones.

You’ve probably tried changing some habits from time to time, and found the task to be a challenge. More often then not, the change doesn’t stick. So how does one make a big change and stay with it?

Everyone likes to seem strong and decisive. We’re not. What we need is to pick a habit to change, and then set a long-term goal of what we’d like that habit to be. We then fill in short-term goals that lead us the right direction.

An example: Your bad habit is watching 3 hours of TV per day and exercising zero hours per day. For  many reasons, you’d like to get to where you watched only about an hour of TV per day and exercised at least one hour. Knowing how the vast majority of us react to just jumping in with both feet (poorly), a plan might look like this:

Week 1: 2.5h TV, 15 min exercise

Week 2: 2.0h TV, 20 min exercise

Week 3: 1.5h TV, 30 min exercise

Week 4 1.0h TV, 40 min exercise

You get the idea. By building a template for your behavior, you can keep yourself somewhat on track toward the long-term goal.

A second, and probably more important strategy is to let yourself be a human being. A common set of attributes can be seen in most people who fail to accomplish goals: perfectionism and ambition. That’s right, the better you want to do the job, and the more audacious your goal, the more likely you are to fail. Upon failure, perfectionists don’t set a more reasonable goal, they generally set a similarly audacious goal in a different area, only to (likely) fail again.

Because you’re human, you’re going to mess up and eat poorly, or miss a training day, or get sick, or whatever. Don’t worry about it. Stay with the plan. Find a way forward rather than throwing in the towel.

Hold onto the idea of a 90% effort. If your goal is to lose 20 pounds and you don’t quite make it, consider the effort a success if you made it most of the way. Set a new goal, build a new set of short-term goals to mark your progress, and try again.

Failure to reach goals is a hallmark of almost all successful people. Remember, improvement is hard, quitting is easy, and even making a slight change in course  is huge. You can do it.

A Food Manifesto for the Future – from the New York Times


Mark BittmanMark Bittman on food and all things related.

For decades, Americans believed that we had the world’s healthiest and safest diet. We worried little about this diet’s effect on the environment or on the lives of the animals (or even the workers) it relies upon. Nor did we worry about its ability to endure — that is, its sustainability.

That didn’t mean all was well. And we’ve come to recognize that our diet is unhealthful and unsafe. Many food production workers labor in difficult, even deplorable, conditions, and animals are produced as if they were widgets. It would be hard to devise a more wasteful, damaging, unsustainable system.

Here are some ideas — frequently discussed, but sadly not yet implemented — that would make the growing, preparation and consumption of food healthier, saner, more productive, less damaging and more enduring. In no particular order:
  • End government subsidies to processed food. We grow more corn for livestock and cars than for humans, and it’s subsidized by more than $3 billion annually; most of it is processed beyond recognition. The story is similar for other crops, including soy: 98 percent of soybean meal becomes livestock feed, while most soybean oil is used in processed foods. Meanwhile, the marketers of the junk food made from these crops receive tax write-offs for the costs of promoting their wares. Total agricultural subsidies in 2009 were around $16 billion, which would pay for a great many of the ideas that follow.
  • Begin subsidies to those who produce and sell actual food for direct consumption. Small farmers and their employees need to make living wages. Markets — from super- to farmers’ — should be supported when they open in so-called food deserts and when they focus on real food rather than junk food. And, of course, we should immediately increase subsidies for school lunches so we can feed our youth more real food.
  • Break up the U.S. Department of Agriculture and empower the Food and Drug Administration. Currently, the U.S.D.A. counts among its missions both expanding markets for agricultural products (like corn and soy!) and providing nutrition education. These goals are at odds with each other; you can’t sell garbage while telling people not to eat it, and we need an agency devoted to encouraging sane eating. Meanwhile, the F.D.A. must be given expanded powers to ensure the safety of our food supply. (Food-related deaths are far more common than those resulting from terrorism, yet the F.D.A.’s budget is about one-fifteenth that of Homeland Security.)
  • Outlaw concentrated animal feeding operations and encourage the development of sustainable animal husbandry. The concentrated system degrades the environment, directly and indirectly, while torturing animals and producing tainted meat, poultry, eggs, and, more recently, fish. Sustainable methods of producing meat for consumption exist. At the same time, we must educate and encourage Americans to eat differently. It’s difficult to find a principled nutrition and health expert who doesn’t believe that a largely plant-based diet is the way to promote health and attack chronic diseases, which are now bigger killers, worldwide, than communicable ones. Furthermore, plant-based diets ease environmental stress, including global warming.
  • Encourage and subsidize home cooking. (Someday soon, I’ll write about my idea for a new Civilian Cooking Corps.) When people cook their own food, they make better choices. When families eat together, they’re more stable. We should provide food education for children (a new form of home ec, anyone?), cooking classes for anyone who wants them and even cooking assistance for those unable to cook for themselves.
  • Tax the marketing and sale of unhealthful foods. Another budget booster. This isn’t nanny-state paternalism but an accepted role of government: public health. If you support seat-belt, tobacco and alcohol laws, sewer systems and traffic lights, you should support legislation curbing the relentless marketing of soda and other foods that are hazardous to our health — including the sacred cheeseburger and fries.
  • Reduce waste and encourage recycling. The environmental stress incurred by unabsorbed fertilizer cannot be overestimated, and has caused, for example, a 6,000-square-mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that is probably more damaging than the BP oil spill. And some estimates indicate that we waste half the food that’s grown. A careful look at ways to reduce waste and promote recycling is in order.
  • Mandate truth in labeling. Nearly everything labeled “healthy” or “natural” is not. It’s probably too much to ask that “vitamin water” be called “sugar water with vitamins,” but that’s precisely what real truth in labeling would mean.
  • Reinvest in research geared toward leading a global movement in sustainable agriculture, combining technology and tradition to create a new and meaningful Green Revolution.

I’ll expand on these issues (and more) in the future, but the essential message is this: food and everything surrounding it is a crucial matter of personal and public health, of national and global security. At stake is not only the health of humans but that of the earth.