This past year, I've spent markedly more time “unlearning” what I thought I “knew” while also finding out how little I know at the same time. Confused? Me, too.
My first article series on elitefts™ was titled “It's Not That Complicated.” At the time, it reflected my observations on what I perceived as the information overload within the fitness field and the propensity to complicate unnecessarily. While it was certainly popular, I ended up feeling that I’d inadvertently contributed to an overreaction of training, going from “not that complicated” to “stupid simple,” which is an equally poor mentality.
At the same time, during this year, I found myself at an intersecting crossroads. I was frequently finding myself deep in study on nutrition, bodybuilding pharmacology and human biology relative to the training process. While this was happening, I was tossing aside much material that I’d read the past few years and going back to books and articles that I'd read five years ago but hadn’t really grasped until now. Concepts that I had read about and dismissed as being fluff were suddenly filling in the gaps on subjects that I thought I had a handle on. I misunderstood much more than I realized.
Concurrently, my own training due to travel had greatly changed. My training with clients hadn’t become “simpler” in its design but far more effective, and my outlook had began further out than it was already. I began planning out my training cycle starting at age 30 (in 2019) and working backward, something I hadn't done previously. I decided to take this view and really apply it to myself.
Why share all this? Because I don’t have much truly “figured out.” I have very little actually. The more I've learned and experienced, the more my opinions, insights and paradigms have shifted. I've done my best to be a constant student, but in my quest to distill simplicity, I neglected the nuances of complexity. In studying complexity, I can easily lose the simple directive of what I'm looking for in the first place.
Despite that, I can say with the most general confidence that I've always done the best I can with the clients I have. And more often than not, they are largely pleased with both the process and the outcome. That said, I've also come up short a lot in ways that I hadn’t anticipated
I thought I taught you this...
During my time overseas, I was in constant contact with my clients back in the United States. Because I'm friends with all of them, I stayed appraised of their training and talked with them almost daily. I had little fear of them falling off the proverbial wagon. (I actually hate that phrase now that I think about it. Wagons aren't comfortable at all and how one accidentally falls off is a question in and of itself. That would require an odd combination of awkwardness and obliviousness. But I digress...)
One client in particular though, my youngest one, really struggled with my absence. Training, diet and general lifestyle changes were all struggles. This surprised me, but in the course of speaking with her, I realized where I had utterly screwed up. We had trained together a lot. I had shown her how to lift, and she had become fairly strong within a relatively short time. I had given her some sense of how to have a filter for information, but I hadn’t really taught her anything. I just told her and assumed she knew/understood.
The perfect example of this was embodied in the following:
“Your body weight is relative to your calorie intake. If you eat less than you need, you lose weight. If you eat as much you need, you stay the same weight. If you eat more, you gain weight.”
Simple, right? It's basic thermodynamics after all. But it isn't that simple. Our expectation is that it's simple because we have the required background knowledge that provides a framework to make it a “simple” statement.
Consider something like the following:
“You have three basic macronutrients: proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Protein and fat are essential for your health and your body uses carbs for energy.”
Again, this is common stuff. I probably just mistakenly plagiarized about a dozen nutrition books without realizing it. Is it simple though? Not in the slightest. Most clients/students have little real understanding of the above. They don’t truly understand it, and if they think they do, it's likely because a comparative analogy of some sort was made that leads to grasping it as a concept but not comprehending it on a technical level.
Lets break down each of these word by word to fully comprehend the prerequisite knowledge they require for “understanding.”
Your body weight is relative to your calorie intake. OK, now this assumes a bunch of things.
- It assumes they know that there is a mathematically determinable relationship between body weight and calorie consumption (relative).
- It assumes they even understand what calories are to begin with (most people don’t; it's just a word they “know”).
- It assumes they know how calorie needs are determined (how many clients intimately know how to use metabolic rate calculators?).
And that’s just the first sentence. Now we have the second half.
If you eat less than you need, you lose weight. If you eat as much you need, you stay the same weight. If you eat more, you gain weight.
- How much do they need? They don’t really know, remember? So they don’t know what their calorie intake is or how this is even determined to begin with (so now we're getting into body composition and metabolic expenditure/basal metabolic rate versus active metabolic rate).
- The word calorie is just a word. That means that they don’t know how caloric values are determined (how many clients are familiar with calorie bomb meters?).
- If they don't understand what calories really are, will they understand how the body metabolizes calories for energy (we’re assuming they know basic human biology in regards to nutrition, digestion and energetic processes in cells).
- They don't really know anything about nutrition, digestion and metabolism in general (I guarantee that 99 percent of clients don't have any clue what ATP is).
So if you “know” all the above, then absolutely it’s a simple concept. If you don’t? It's just a vague sound bite that teaches you nothing other than reducing the human body down to a car that needs gas. Most people haven’t got a clue as to how their cars work either. They just fill it up when the needle reaches E on the fuel gauge. Humans don’t have a fuel gauge.
So are you prepared to teach all that? Because the blasé statement won be very helpful otherwise.
We'll look at the second statement now, which again is touted as being simple and easy to understand. It is: "You have three basic macronutrients: proteins, carbohydrates and fats. Protein and fat are essential for your health and your body uses carbs for energy.”
You have three basic macronutrients...
- This assumes that they understand the nutritional difference between macro and micronutrients and the denotative relationship between the term macro and micro.
- This assumes that they know what a nutrient is.
...proteins, carbohydrates, and fats.
- Ask a client to name all 22 essential amino acids or draw a protein molecule or tell you what protein is used for. Ask your client to give you the textbook definition of protein or tell you what a molecule is.
- What is a carbohydrate? Sugar, right? What’s sugar? How is it different from protein? What does the carb part of the word stand for? What about hydrate? Do they know what oxygen, hydrogen and carbon are? A picture maybe?
- So they know what fatty acids are then? Fat is stored energy, right? Why is it stored? How is it stored? What does a fat molecule look like? Everyone knows what a carboxylic acid is, right? Do we know why we need those?
Protein and fat are essential for your health and your body uses carbs for energy.
- At this point, we have something like twenty interrelated concepts that all need to be “known” for this to be fully comprehended, so I'm not going to bother.
But you're making it more complicated than it really is!
No I'm not. Why is the general public so gullible? Why are people so easily swayed by detoxes, diets and marketing? Why does food babe have an audience? Why can I spit out science jargon to an audience and get them to believe everything I say? How many trainers feel confident in their understanding of nutrition? Why do nutrition and diet gurus pop up constantly? Why do supposedly smart trainers do dumb things? Why does the industry hop on a bandwagon every time a new trend starts?
If trainers understood all the points above (or were educated in actual human biology) and made an effort to teach them to clients, would we really be dealing with so much blatant stupidity on a daily basis? Would we continuously be outraged by the proliferation of media gurus? Probably not.
I find it telling that the industry collectively gets outraged by bullshit, but we never have a counter of our own. People don’t know what they don’t know, yet the fitness field gets eternally pissed off that the general public believes dumb things, as if they “know” what we supposedly “know.” This means we're either very bad at teaching or we don’t know much to begin with. Or both.
As such, it’s a complicated subject (and credit to Joy Victoria for her recent shared insight on this). So all this then requires a lot of learning on our part before we even get to the teaching aspect of it.
My own “knowledge” is a double-edged sword. What I think I know is ultimately never more than a demarcation of what I don’t, and the unknown is far greater than my knowledge will ever be (credit to Amir Siddiqui of Symmetry Gym in Dubai for this).
The pursuit of this is broad, shallow, intensive, extensive and infinite. It's every direction and as soon as it gets simple, it gets complicated again. I'll always be playing catch up to keep my knowledge slightly ahead of my ignorance. Where does that leave the clients I care for? I learn so I can teach, and I teach them with the mindset that they can do the same. Like me, they are always students in my eyes and my heart. And my overreaching lesson in all this?
What the client “heard” and what she learned are two different things. Just because the client can go through the motions of performance and adherence doesn't in any way guarantee that she knows how or why. So learn the difference as best you can and teach to the extent of that which you know. And if you don’t, make an attempt to learn. (It only took me five years to figure that out.) I hope this helps everyone reading this be quicker about it than I was.
The knowledge that cals in > out is enough info for one to lose or gain weight, ignoring potential health issues. Not ideal obviously, but for someone massively overweight I'd argue this is "enough" knowledge to start with.
Is knowledge that we need certain amounts of fat/protein/fibre and sufficient micronutrients not enough for a best shot at optimum health?
I'm not a personal trainer/nutritionalist/anything though so maybe i have no place to talk, but i'd imagine different clients will respond to different levels of education.