Posted on 19 May 2009 14:55
By Eric Troy
Labels are for boxes. In the case of strength and conditioning they usually decorate our excuse box.
I have never heard a trainee pin a label on themselves when it wasn’t the preamble for an excuse of some kind. But labels are also multi-taskers. They can provide a sense of identity in a homogenized world or serve simply as a “credential”.
Quite frankly, labels are the province of the weak minded.
Instead of continuing to discuss, in vague philosophical terms, the impact that labels have on our goals I will go into some of the most common labels used by the strength and conditioning community today, and what they really mean. The biggest one I will save for last since I consider it the grandaddy of all fitness labels.
Labels and Self-Handicapping
Labels, for many, can be a form of self-handicapping. This is the tendency to seek or create performance inhibitory factors so that a ready explanation exists for failure. This is done to mitigate any negative perceptions from others that might occur should failure occur. Labels usually involve some type of ideological doctrine or set of rules and attributes. Some of the labels discussed below place some specific limits on performance or outcome while having the advantage of seeming out of the trainee's control. While self-handicapping can sometimes involve the deliberate creation of such obstacles to performance, this type of self-handicapping would be considered self-reported self-handicapping. It provides a handy excuse for failure while not necessarily reflecting on the ability or motivational drive of the individual. Why would a trainee want to do this? Because he or she has doubts about their ability to perform or succeed in their goals, and wants to be able to have this failure attributed to some mitigating factor(s), rather than to themselves.
The Labels: In no particular order:
“I am not able to give any concrete rationale for my training. Many of the things I say are born of ignorance or misunderstanding. My training is a hodge-podge of whatever seems cool. I call myself unconventional because it is a handy smokescreen for all these things and because it makes those who disagree with me seem conventional and no one wants to be seen as conventional, do they?”
Ectomorph Type 1
“I think I am eating all the time but in truth I barely eat at all and don’t even get in 1200 calories on some days. It is easier for me to assume that my inability to gain muscle is genetically fated and based on “body type” instead of being entirely in my control. If you ask for a food journal I will pad it to make it seem as if I am eating more because I simply don’t want to believe that my results are of my own making.”
Ectomorph Type 2
“I was a skinny guy who under-ate and trained primarily with endurance for years. So I called myself an ectomorph. After starting to eat and using resistance training I gained 50 pounds and no longer resemble an ectomorph. However, I still call myself one so that I can look as if I am all that for “overcoming my genetics”. So buy my new e-book to learn the secrets (or, buy these supplements from my company).”
“I eat too much and exercise too little. I take too many shortcuts which usually leave me worse off than when I began.”
“I look big and muscular but I am in terrible shape and can’t walk upstairs without huffing and puffing. I refuse to give up the beer and potato chips and will probably have a heart attack when I’m 50 despite my very nice bench press numbers. Unlike the endomorph I don’t try to eat less. I overeat and brag about it because it makes me Hardcore!”
“I go to extreme measures to look like I’m a badass. I’m impatient and want to look like a badass sooner rather than later. At no point in my life will I ever BE a badass because I lack the hard working mentality that true badasses possess. I’m all talk and no walk because my goals are focused on what others think about me. I likely have anxiety issues and suffer from some type of body dismorphic syndrome.”
This is a biggy. Better writers than I have been over and over this and yet it is still the most popular label around. And the biggest excuse.
I have to blame Stuart McRobert, to some extent, for this. In Beyond Brawn McRobert starts out on the right track in pointing out that ‘hardgainers’ are the normal ones. But then he goes into a well-meaning but miscalculated analysis of gainingness which, for all its good intentions, just serves to cement the hardgainer label and thus legitimize the excuse. The last thing most trainees need is a set of suggested figures governing their potential.
It is folly to try to classify populations in terms of gainingness. The preconceived notions and assumptions that these classifications bring on are a first step toward the excuse making machine. The last thing your body wants to do is grow a lot of expensive muscle tissue. Finding it difficult is normal and thus the term hardgainer should simply be abandoned. McRobert's classifications are not really very different, in effect, than the somatotyping terms discussed above. Without the esthetic nature of bodybuilding, such a thought process would never be employed.
Muscle gaining seems to cause very intelligent people to ignore their own common sense. Compare an easygainer with someone capable of running a 4 minute mile. I would submit that it is not normal to be able to do this and very few people will ever do it. Yet, we do not classify every one else on a scale based on how difficult it would be for them to run a 4 minute mile! It would be ridiculous to compare the population at large to an elite group of middle distance runners. And even within the running population, you simply train and compete in the races you are suited for.
“I’m a trainer therefore everything I do must be perfect. After all, they don’t just let anyone become trainers do they? I must mention that I’m a trainer at least 5 times in any conversation and I use the word client as many times if not more.”
Note to trainers: If this isn’t you then you darn well know it isn’t. So, instead of getting offended why not apply yourself to calling out the bull in the industry. The truth is that most anyone can get a training certificate, get hired by a commercial gym and boast “many clients”. These people can then use an inappropriate “appeal to authority” argument.
“I work in a gym” makes you an expert on fitness, in my opinion, the same way that working at Home Depot makes you an expert on home improvement.
Yes, I do believe that this has become nothing more than a label for many trainees. The reasons for this are just too many to go into but one big culprit is, again, the gym trainer. Bodybuilding programs are handed out to anyone and everyone entering a gym by any unqualified trainer who is able to push the print button on a computer. This label has been so abused that a severe backlash toward strength training has come about and once again we go to extremes and spawn yet more labels such as powerbuilder.
The next label I want to discuss has such a huge impact it is, in this article, the argument within the argument…a central motivation for writing this article in the first place.
Now, we don’t always label ourselves. Sometimes labels are forced upon us by others. In fact that is usually the first thing a trainer or casual advice giver will do: Find a convenient label to attach. This enables them to put us in a handy little box so that they can give out handy, generic advice.
Many times, a trainee’s goals will be rejected for not being specific enough. You must be a bodybuilder for instance, rather than a person who wants to use resistance training to get in shape or look better in a bathing suit.
This leads me to the biggest and potentially most damaging fitness label of all. The Grandaddy Fitness Label
ATHLETE - The Grandaddy Fitness Label
My guess is up until now most of you were with me. You’ve heard much of it before and you agree with most of it. Perhaps some of you were even nodding your head and saying, “Preach on, brother.’’ But now I’ve gone and lost you. Athlete? That’s a good one! Everyone should train like an athlete. It’s positive.
Labels rarely, if at all, have a positive effect on a person; at least in the long term. And the athlete label may have the most negative effect of them all because it is being shoved down the throat of everyone entering a fitness ‘journey’ regardless of their needs or wishes. They are not choosing.
So many of these labels can be a natural part of the evolution of our training. We adopt and discard labels many times as we grow and discover ourselves. Ultimately to discard labels altogether…if things go like they should. But the word athlete is much harder to shed.
Why is that a bad thing?
Let’s start with a fictional case study (ok maybe it’s not so fictional; maybe it’s a trainee of mine).
A 37 year old male. Occupation: housepainter; self employed. Married with 2 children and a mortgage.
Has never worked out regularly nor does he at present. Was never engaged in athletics.
He works hard on a daily basis. Often very strenuous physical labor or hours spent in unhealthy contorted positions. He is mildly overweight, carrying most of his fat in the abdominal region. But he is muscular and strongly built. On weekends he usually works on projects around the house. He very seldom has time to relax at all.
His diet is unregulated and he is not aware of how much he takes in. Lunchtime, especially, is a problem with up to 2500 calories or more consumed; much of them empty calories.
Although adapted to and able to withstand the rigors of his profession (for now) he is exhausted much of the time and experiences lower back and knee pain daily.
Due to the demands of family life and tough economic times he is under a great deal of stress.
After much thought, he has concluded that he needs to start controlling his diet and exercising to become more physically fit in an all-around functional way. His two primary goals are to lose some of the excess fat and feel better (and hopefully relieve some stress). He wants to improve his health.
Sounds like a good idea to me. Hopefully, he can find a trainer who can help him achieve those goals in a way that fits his needs and lifestyle. I have my doubts, though.
This hardworking family man would be labeled a “couch potato” by many 20 something would-be trainers and 40 something expert coaches alike. That is ridiculous enough. Now imagine that we tell him he needs to train like an athlete and think like an athlete in order to achieve his goals.
Inherent in the athlete label is the idea that to “work out” or “exercise” is not enough. We must “train”. Is this distinction really that important?
The assumption that everyone needs to train rather than exercise is so fraught with problems I have to wonder how it can be so widespread. If I had to guess, I’d say it comes about as a result of many false assumptions about athletes.
First of all, athletes, by virtue of being involved in athletics are not given a private thought fairy. They are as prone to disordered and illogical thought as anyone and many athletes can display worse attitudes than the average gym rat. They may have more experience training and do so in a disciplined way but this does not always entail a healthy thought process…quite the opposite, many times.
Clearly, ‘think like an athlete’ is an empty command. We do not know how other people think. Therefore we cannot be commanded to think as they do. We must learn to think for ourselves.
Many athletes are young and immature. Our 37 year old house painter, quite likely, has a bit more wisdom and life experience than our proverbial athlete.
An athletes training is based on the needs of his/her sport and the competitive season. Far from making training more efficient it is an obstacle that must be overcome. Far more thought goes into the training of an athlete and the needs of the competitor than is necessary for the non-competitor. Telling a non-competitor to train as if he is a competitor “looks good on paper” but it actually creates artificial barriers and thus inefficient training and unneeded stress.
And what of stress?
Well, exercise is good for our psychological health. Men or women, young or old: Exercise will improve your mental state. Exercise can help reduce anxiety, and depression. Can help regulate mood and improve self-esteem. The list of psychological benefits alone goes on and on. It can even reduce neurotic behaviors! (1) Notice, however, I said exercise. I didn’t say training. I didn’t say bodybuilding. And as much as I love it, I didn’t even say strength training (which clearly is a VERY good thing).
Reducing excess stress is a very good thing. In fact, as a goal in itself it is just as worthwhile as reducing fat, building muscle, etc. Stress is not always bad. In fact, we need a bit of it to survive but too much stress, to put it bluntly, kills (2).
What is stress?
Stress is any imbalance between demands placed on an individual and that individuals ability to respond to that demand. Those demands can be physical or psychological. The body seeks equilibrium or homeostasis. Stress disrupts this equilibrium.
Acute stress, which results from exercising appropriately, disappears quickly and tends to improve our health and fitness. This type of “good” stress is termed eustress as long as it is not repeated chronically and at a level we cannot recover from (i.e. return to homeostasis). But when stress becomes chronic it very quickly ceases to be a positive, adaptive force, and becomes our worst enemy. This is distress. (2,3)
Imagine you are very out of shape and stressed out. Now, as a trainer, I tell you that you must dedicate your life to training. You must become a slave to your body and train as if you are getting ready for the Olympics. Now how do you feel? Less stressed? I think not. Is this a positive way to begin a health and fitness regimen?
My job is to motivate you to become fitter. I want to arouse you in a positive way. Instead I’ve just dumped a big load of cognitive anxiety on you. You’re worried about these huge demands I’ve just placed on your lifestyle. Not to mention the intimidation factor.
According to a recent survey conducted by the American Council on Exercise (ACE), GYM INTIMIDATION was a very big factor in keeping people out of the gym. They believe that they must be in shape before they go into the gym or risk being looked down upon by the “in-shape” gym goers. Now, I’ve one upped you. I’ve told you that you must be an athlete!
Instead of introducing a positive and motivating force I have created a chronic and overriding mental DISTRESS to be followed, obviously, by inappropriate physical distress. The body reacts to all these stressors in a similar way. And since I have introduced chronic distress I have endangered your health rather than improved it. Guess what? I can get away with it because the effects in the long term of these unhealthy habits will never be traced to me. If I don’t acutely injure you…I can pretty much get away with most things.
All this by starting with a simple little word: Athlete. A group which is under a great deal of cognitive stress to go along with the physiological demands of their training. Among the many problems faced by the athlete community are performance anxiety; past and present injury and accompanying distress; pain; fear of disapproval and comparisons to other athletes. Eating disorders are prevalent. And substance abuse is common. Need I go on? (3)(4)
What has any of this to do with a trainee who just wants to get in shape and improve his/her health? (3).
I’ll venture a guess as to where the athlete label comes from. I think that the word athlete is mistakenly used to mean a “champion mindset”. Champion is a very different concept. All athletes are not champions. Quite frankly, many athletes cease to be athletes at all once they are no longer able to compete. So where is the champion?
Right now there are many past athletes spending countless hours on a treadmill and doing little else except perhaps the occasional bicep curl. The athlete becomes a cardio bunny. Without the outside motivator of competition or monetary gain there is simply nothing to drive them to excel in a physical sense. This is NOT a criticism of athletes. It may well be that our athlete has become severely depressed due to the sudden end to a promising career. This is all too often the case (4). I am simply making a case, therefore, for the emptiness of the word athlete as a motivating concept for everyone.
The champion, on the other hand, will always think and behave as a champion. Put him on a desert island, without any outside motivation, and he will continue to act as a champion, albeit with different goals and needs. This mindset is prevalent in MANY great individuals regardless of their physical well-being. MY friend Joe Weir recently brought up Stephen Hawking as the example of a champion. I rest my case.
We must be careful not to force our values on others. To me it is training. To you it may be just exercise. It doesn’t matter what we call it. Only the results matter.
Striving to improve our bodies will go a long ways toward improving our mind and spirit. In pushing ourselves and our limits we learn more about ourselves as individuals and this branches outwards toward all aspects of our lives. But labels have no place in this journey.
The mistake we make with labels is that we think they describe us and others. They do not. They categorize us. It’s bad enough to categorize others, but when we do it to ourselves we simply put blinders on and ignore the possibilities in ourselves. Labels cause us to proceed in a fixed direction even when multiple directions are available. This is not self-knowledge, but the antithesis of it.
1. Marcardle, William D.; Katch, Frank I.; Katch, Victor L. Exercise Physiology: Energy, Nutrition, and Human Performance.4th ed. Baltimore: Williams & Wilkins, 1996.
2. Nieman, David C. Exercise Testing and Prescription: A Health Related Approach. 4th ed. Mountain View, CA.: Mayfield, 1999.
3. Baechle, Thomas R.; Earle, Roger W. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. 2nd ed. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishers, 2000.
4. Taylor, Jim; Wilson, Gregory S.; Applying Sport Psychology. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics Publishers, 2005.
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Last updated 23 Feb 2015 18:30