Some people make it look so easy. When they run, they tend to glide effortlessly and without loss of breath. Others can perform contortionist-like stunts that would make the rest of us cry. And we all have that friend who looks lean and strong despite not paying much attention to diet or exercise.
So what gives? Aren’t we all cut from the same cloth, and isn’t it just a matter of time and effort before we’re all fast, flexible, lean and beautiful?
Well, not really.
As we approach the almighty new year and the apex of physical scrutiny and self-awareness that comes with it, it’s good to know that if you don’t become an elite athlete, science has your back.
Take Gene Epstein’s piece for National Geographic, which not only chronicles a genetic anomaly that produced a superior endurance skier, but cites a telling piece of research which revealed that subjects undergoing identical training protocols had huge variations in physical response (in this case it was “VO2 max” – or maximal oxygen uptake – which in some folks improved as much as 50 percent over the course of the training, while others showed little or no improvement at all).
If we push those findings a step further, what it means is that if you plan to pursue some athletic venture in the new year, you may or may not improve in exactly the way you want or the way that others around you do (and social media is great at fanning that flame). And that goes for other elements too.
Taking into account that we have genetic factors that may make us better runners, or help us more easily increase muscle mass, there’s also the issue of structure. Sure, we’re essentially made of the same stuff (bones, muscle, ligaments, tendons and such) but how all those elements are put together varies from person to person, and chances are my shoulder joint is not exactly like yours and for various reasons (misshaped humeral head, tendon thickening, ligament damage, muscle weakness) may not move exactly the same way as yours either.
Which brings us to things like yoga, where flexibility and mobility are king, but where some people may never master the flying donkey pose or the Van Damme splits. That’s not to say we shouldn’t practice elements of mobility and stability, and that we can’t improve upon them, but not everyone will have the structure that facilitates easily curling up into a pretzel the way so many yogis can.
Further, we want to ensure that in those pursuits we’re not doing any damage in the process, a point taken up by William Broad in his recent piece for the New York Times. In it, he explores hip issues in particular and their connection with repetitious, extreme leg motions. For some (perhaps most), those movements may prove beneficial, but for others, perhaps due to structural or other issues, they may prove troublesome.
Point being, whatever physical endeavor you decide to take on in the new year, don’t panic if things don’t go as smoothly and progressively as you want. There are a lot of elements to health and wellness, and a lot of activities and things you can do to improve your fitness level and your life. If running a marathon or mastering a headstand isn’t for you, then try something else, work on your weaknesses, and find your nirvana elsewhere.
And if you need help on where to start or what to do, then read on. I touched base with a couple of experts on the topic and asked them a few questions about just that.
Lucas Law is a personal trainer and corrective exercise specialist based out of San Antonio. Deb Froehlich is a certified strength and conditioning specialist with a masters in exercise science. They’re both good people and experienced trainers with some great advice and insight. Here’s what they had to say.
So what’s the biggest mistake people make when starting a wellness program?
LL: I think there are a couple, like doing too much too soon in terms of volume and frequency, not allowing the appropriate amount of time to build up their abilities, and exercising or dieting at the expense of their social or family life. Most people also adopt short term strategies for long term issues. That’s a big one.
DF: On the execution side, they try to change too many behaviors all at the same time. For true long-term success they need to focus on getting their mind right as well. If you don’t have self respect and self love you’ll never get to the root of your issues and have the desire to want to make permanent changes.
And what’s the biggest mistake they make when stepping into a gym or weight room?
DF: They go a little crazy and use every piece of equipment under the sun, or run an hour on the treadmill and get themselves so sore (from that initial workout) that they can’t move the next day, or worse, get hurt and never return.
LL: Focusing on too many exercises instead of a few solid well thought out movements. Most people are better off doing pushups, single leg squats and some corrective work than doing a complex magazine workout. Four key movements are probably better than 16. Think quality over quantity.
Is there a specific balance or ratio of cardio vs. strength vs. mobility and other skills they should focus on?
LL: I think you need a goal first. People get too caught up in philosophies and dogma whereas if you have a clearly defined goal, then you can adjust those elements of your program to get the results you want. Overall, though, most people spend too much time and energy on cardio for weight loss as opposed to focusing on the real culprit – the kitchen! Cardio works better as a tool to maintain one’s physique as opposed to a means to get there.
DF: I think it all depends on the individual’s goals and/or the sport they’re training for. Their program should be designed specific to the sport. But for general fitness, we all could stand to do more mobility exercises in addition to following the standard guidelines of at least three days a week of cardio type activity, along with two days of strength training.
What are some of the common errors you see in the gym or that folks do that drive you crazy?
DF: For me, it’s seeing people doing the same things over and over and over again, and expecting to get different results!
LL: I’d say it’s being dedicated to a particular exercise or routine regardless of ability. And that usually happens when somebody chooses something because they heard or read about it somewhere. But if they can’t do it correctly, they create bad muscle recruitment, bad motor patterns, and put undue stress on their joints – and those can be precursors to injury. You’re better off choosing movements you can actually execute correctly and exercises that will strengthen your weaknesses.
Is there a basic program or guidelines you pass along to new exercisers, with regard to frequency, duration, and movement patterns?
LL: Their program should have a balance of resistance training, some cardio, and corrective work, with the understanding that [for most people’s goals] diet will play a significant factor in their success. It’s also important to choose a program that you can maintain and that doesn’t create social anxiety or dilemmas. You should be able to go to dinner with your family or friends and not have it be an issue.
DF: I say learn the basic movement patterns: pushing, pulling, squatting, lunging and rotating. And learn to handle your own body weight.
What seems to be the biggest hurdle for folks wanting to meet their fitness goals?
DF: Adherence – a large percentage of people simply quit their programs after only a few weeks, or even less time.
LL: People imagine that it takes so much work, effort, and restriction to achieve their goals, when the reality is that a little bit goes a long way if you do it for a sustained period of time.
Is there a secret to keeping folks consistent?
LL: I think it’s key to base your exercise and diet program around the things that are important in your life, as opposed to changing the things that are important in your life to accommodate your workouts and eating patterns.
DF: I suggest people start with perhaps just one activity, and enlist an accountability partner. That can come in the form of a workout buddy, coach, trainer or group environment. Social support is huge when it comes to adherence and consistency.
What’s the biggest fitness myth you’d like to see busted?
DF: That you need to do a million crunches to get six pack abs.
LL: For me, one of the biggest myths is that there’s only one right way to diet. But the reality is, they all work, so you should find the dieting tactics that best fit your circumstances and your personal likes and dislikes.
Do you have a fitness philosophy, and if so, what is it?
LL: There are no real rules about fitness and dieting, just a few simple scientific principles that can be adjusted to fit your life and your goals.
DF: Health and fitness doesn’t have to be rocket science. Gradual, simple changes can produce long lasting results.
Tom Trevino is a writer and wellness coach based out of San Antonio. His weekly column covers anything and everything related to health and wellness. He holds a B.A. from the University of Texas at San Antonio, with certification and training from the Cooper Institute. He has a fondness for dogs, NPR, the New York Times, and anything on two wheels. When he’s not writing, training, or cooking, you can find him wandering the aisles of Central Market.