For some this just might be the most important article you ever read. For me it was satisfying because it will possibly be as no bullshit as it gets. Those that liked and could relate to “The Marshmallow Test” will find a few similarities here.
Friends always come to me for nutrition and training advice and I always give them great advice, but I can never apply it to my own life! Why is that?
That’s the reader question JC from JCDFitness forwarded to a few trainers like myself, Alan Aragon and John Romaniello. I have no clue what they answered and I have actively avoided to look at JC’s site to see what they said. In either case, my answer to this was so long that I had to put it up as an article here.
Anyway, this – the fact that a lot of people know what to do but can’t apply it to themselves – is something a good deal of people are secretly dealing with right now. I’m saying “secretly” because it’s something they would be embarrassed to admit to their clients and to the people they give advice to. Coaches and other knowledgeable people simply don’t “walk the talk.” This article is directed to them.
The Coaching Paradox
I can relate to this question personally and have covered it briefly before: “How People Fail Their New Year’s Resolutions.”
In that short article I outlined a few different reasons for how experienced trainers, who by virtue of their profession should know better, rarely do to themselves what they teach others.
This is true for a lot of people who know enough to give others sound diet and training advice. But no matter how good their advice, they don’t practice it to a large degree. I’m almost inclined to state that there is no connection whatsoever between how much book knowledge someone has and how effectively they manage their own diet and training.
I’ve read hundreds of questionnaires by now, from Average Joe’s and Jane’s to paid personal trainers and other nutritional consultants. There is a very weak link between theoretical knowledge and practical application. We could call this the “coaching paradox.” Professionals are almost just as likely to be on stupid training routines and stupid diets as any other non-educated client who casually reads the bb.com forums. Interesting, or so I thought before I gradually thought more and more about this issue.
And I’ve done a whole lot of thinking about it throughout the years. I’ve seen the patterns so many times. But I’ve also noticed things that I think can explain it – personal details and behaviors that are revealed in conversations, questionnaires and in between the lines.
This question is not quite what it first appears to be. This is about a deep understanding of the self, yourself and others’ selves. Before I only covered the question on a very superficial level. I didn’t really answer the core question. The big “Why?”
This is the final piece of the puzzle, the one many will never learn. It goes way beyond nutrient timing, calories and finding the right diet. It is also about turning a weakness into a strength. Some people speak of bodyrecomposition as the Holy Grail in bodybuilding. Well, this is the true Holy Grail, and it goes beyond just training and dieting.
There is an answer to the question and there is a fix for solving the problem. I’ve fixed myself. Today I’ll tell you about the “why” – the theory I have – and the “how” – the fix that I propose to those who this article speaks to.
Why Don’t You Walk The Talk?
Personal trainers and dietitians, and other training and nutrition specialists, are definitely overrepresented among the consultation request emails I receive. I’ll be referring to these folks as coaches here, a catch-all term for anyone involved in teaching and managing others in training, nutrition, or what have you.
Put yourself in that group as well if you give advice to others on an informal non-paid basis as well. Sometimes the difference between a random forum poster and coach lies only in the fact that the latter gets paid for it. On occasion the former is actually superior.
Anyway, the reason coaches are overrepresented among my clientele might partly be due to the fact that they are interested in training and nutrition by default and therefore more likely to want a consultation. But even when taking that into account, there’s a big disconnect between what they teach and know and how they apply it all to themselves. Simply put, going by what they know, you’d expect them to not approach their own diet and training like a clueless idiot.
I’m exaggerating a bit, not everyone sucks. But the main point still stands. People who should know better by virtue of their profession and theoretical knowledge, rarely walk the talk and apply that to themselves.
This “knowledge paradox” is not unique to personal trainers and dietitians. The old saying that goes a little something like “shrinks are the craziest of them all” is not just an old wives’ tale. There are similar examples in other medical professions. It doesn’t mean that the explanations are the same all across the board.
However, with shrinks and training and coaching, the underlying reason we ended up in this profession was the need to fix ourselves at some point in the past. We become passionately interested, obsessive even, about things that can help us solve our personal problems or help us better ourselves.
And speaking of shrinks, Freud said, in reference to the professions people end up in, that we seek and yearn for that which is forbidden. He was on to something there; people who are involved in nutrition is in one sense obsessed with eating and food.
Taking it one step further, I think many of us are simply obsessed with nutrition to find out how they can enjoy foods maximally while minimizing the negative impact of overdoing it and at the same time improve their physique. I found my way of doing it my intermittent fasting. But solutions may vary.
Anyway, back to coaching. We have now established what it takes to become a coach, generally speaking: having had, or currently dealing with, personal problems. It’s hard to find a skilled and knowledgeable coach that at some point or another was not weak and/or fat.
Generally speaking, in my experience, another truism as it pertains to the skill of the coach in fixing others – “others” is the key word here – is how many times he or she failed himself. The times you failed is directly proportional to how skilled you are as a coach. Your personal failures are for the benefit of others.
I failed consistently for a decade, in one way or another, since I was 16 and started training. It was not until ten years, in late 2007, before I finally mastered myself. Nowadays the only constraint that remains when it comes to improving my physique is ambition. I hesitate to say genetics, even though I should, but putting such limits on ourselves are dangerous. But I’m getting away and ahead from the topic.
So there’s a difference between helping others and helping yourself. Why is it then that coaches often successfully help others but fail helping themselves? After all, we are no longer talking about lack of theoretical knowledge. It’s not like you’re asking yourself how many calories you need if you are worth a damn as a coach.
Sometimes diet is a factor, of course, and in my case intermittent fasting was one of the remaining pieces of the puzzle. But I’m a bit of an oddball, an outlier for sure. Most coaches have experimented with – and failed – on dozens of various diet setups. They’ve tried everything. So why can’t they manage themselves properly? I have a theory and a solution.
Theory: The Addictive Personality Type
Much of this is based on my personal experiences with other coaches that I have coached myself. Keep in mind now that a “coach” is first and foremost someone who works professionally with training and nutrition. But it is also just about anyone who is knowledgeable enough to help others, and have done so, successfully.
Obviously, you need to apply some common sense here before you put yourself in this category. Just because you helped your 350-lb uncle lose a few pounds by telling him to go low carb doesn’t make you a “coach.” But if you know how to set up a good and effective diet for others and for yourself that might qualify.
Also, keep in mind that it doesn’t explain the coaching paradox fully. There’s also the simple fact that people are more likely to quit bad habits when an authority, such as a doctor, advises them to do so. Most people who are overweight have probably been thinking to themselves that they should probably lose weight thousands of times, but yet they don’t take action until their doctors tells them to do so. There’s a good study on this that is pretty telling but I can’t find it right now. Simply put, we don’t respect our own advice that much.
In my experience, many coaches have addictive personalities. Take a minute to actually read that so you know what I’m talking about.
They are frequently connected with substance abuse, but people with addictive personalities are also highly at risk of becoming addicted to gambling, food, exercise, work, and even relationships.
Note the bolded parts. Generally speaking, I bet most of us trainers were fat at some point. Why did we become fat? Living in modern society with its readily available and abundant supply of junk food is explanation enough. But even so, those with addictive personalities are at a much greater risk of getting fat than others.
Keep in mind that this is not an “either-or” kind of thing. We can have more or less of an addictive personality and we can be more prone to one or another kind of addiction depending on our experiences, environment, interests and personalities. Some of the things in that wiki-entry does obviously doesn’t apply across the board. “Prone to” or predisposed to does not mean “condemned to.” Humans are not automatons without free will and solely slaves to genetics and inherent traits.
On a neurobiological level, this is due to dopamine and lack thereof. We need our kicks and food delivers a nice little kick to the reward system, especially to those with addictive personalities. In the case of coaches, many replace kicks from food with kicks from exercise. Exercise and food are drugs best managed by balance and moderation, but “moderation” is a problem for the addictive personality.
It is also worth noting that in order to achieve true expertise and understanding of a topic, you need to be addicted and obsessed with it. So having an addictive personality is not a bad thing per se, but it is a double-edge sword in the sense that the obsessive tendencies can be both productive – acquiring skill and information, increasing your competence – and counterproductive (for the reasons I explained earlier).
Going by my experience with other trainers, cutting calories too hard and training too much is very common among coaches. How is it that they cannot counter this behavior in themselves with their superior knowledge, self-control, and methodological approach – the one they apply to others? There are two reasons.
Why Addictive Personalities Screw Up: Impulsiveness and Emotions
Addictive personalities are impulsive. Emotions influence their actions to a much larger degree than rational planning and knowledge. Coaches will make decision on the fly when it comes to their own diet and training; be that in terms of cutting calories too hard or going to the gym just for the hell of it. Or shall I say just for the kick of it.
When dealing with clients, emotion is not a factor in the decision making process. Emotions only rule their personal routines and actions; emotions almost always overpower rationality in the end. You might carefully plan everything in detail. But your plans goes out the window a few hours later.
Sure, emotions can be resisted, sometimes for days or weeks, but they will win eventually. Perhaps your weight has stalled, or so you think. The number on the scale isn’t going down after all. You want to speed up your results a bit. Who knows, maybe something great will come out of it. But it rarely does. Instead you end up shooting yourself in the foot. And then you lose strength and muscle, go on a binge, regain weight, try a new brilliant and carefully planned diet that you end up breaking again. And so the destructive circle goes.
I’ve seen this particular pattern in many. It’s so predictable that I almost assume this by default when I deal with another coach and my assumption is almost always correct. The pattern is more common among women than men.
Why Addictive Personalities Screw Up: Addiction
Addictive personalities are addicted to something and coaches are addicted to training and dieting, one or the other, or both. Often both.
By “addicted to dieting” I mean the behavior that goes with it; planning meals, planning diet, reading about foods, reading about various diets, thinking about various diets, thinking about various food combinations, and so forth. They are also addicted to information, diet-related information specifically.
This behavior is encouraged and “justified” by their environment – they work with diet and training after all. Who do you think is more likely to get clean: a crack addict that attempts to quit while living in a crack house, or a crack addict that attempts to quit in a neutral environment? Just an extreme example to illustrate my point. Also, do not think of environment in purely physical terms, such as the gym; fitness forums and blogs are part of it too, probably to a much larger degree than gyms per se.
This behavior is not only self-maintaining via environmental influences but also at a neurobiological level; dieting strengthens addictive behaviors and increases the kick you get out of training, cardio and food.
The Theory: Summary
People who are knowledgeable enough to help others often fail in applying what they know to themselves. This may be due to their addictive personality type. The reason they fail can be explained by inherent traits such as impulsivity and a predisposition to addictive behaviors. Training and food are addictions.
Addictions are maintained by external and internal influences. Trainers who work in gyms and people who read nutrition forums and blogs are exposed to environments – external factors – that encourage diet-related behaviors; cardio, training, meal planning, etc. This behavior is maintained and augmented further at a neurobiological level (internal factors).
There is a quick fix, of course, but it might only work in the short-term: hire a coach (and no, I am still not taking new clients).
Hiring a coach works because it completely removes the excitement addictive personalities feel by searching and thinking about diet-related information. They know what to do; there are no longer multiple alternatives and different outcomes that need to be speculated, analyzed and tried.
The road ahead is already determined by someone else. This mental switch – the one that happens when you are removed from the decision-making process – is very powerful, especially if the plan is very detailed and leaves little room for personal interpretation. Mine are set up that way; there’s flexibility but even flexibility has constraints and clear rules. I think this is very important.
Fixing yourself in the long-term should be your ultimate goal. In order to fix yourself you must first amend your impulsiveness. This is key.
Also keep in mind that there are probably some people reading this that have a true disorder, be that orthorexia, bulimia, or whatever else. They need professional help and therapy. The information here obviously does not apply to them and it may also not apply to others. I will simply tell you how I have fixed myself and a limited number of other coaches that had these problems. But then again, it’s not like you have anything to lose by trying it.
Anyway, the first step in solving the “coaching paradox” is realizing that you probably have an addictive personality, and that your addictive personality is a problem when it comes to managing your own training and diet.
A Personal Example
You are likely doing one or all of the following things different than what you advise others to do: more training and cardio, eating less calories, less structure (making decisions on the fly, deviating from your plan, etc.). I’ll give you a personal example.
In early 2007, as I started working online with a gradually growing clientele, I started to seriously question my own behavior in terms of sometimes not doing what I ordered my clients to do. I hate whatever is fake and I would have a hard time taking myself seriously if this continued. I was set on being true to the ideals I represented when it came to diet and training.
Another reason was that I got to see in hard numbers how well it worked for my clients, a few who were at the same level as me in terms of physical advancement (i.e., I obviously compared myself to advanced clients and not intermediates or beginners).
Specifically, where I deviated was in terms of diet. Early 2007 I was set on getting as lean as possible while maintaining the muscle mass I gained during the IF bulk in the Fall. There was a calorie and carb-cycling scheme – that I describe in the Leangains Guide – that I used on clients. Personally however, I applied this to myself loosely. I would often just eat whatever I felt like eating for the moment and I would often completely ignore the cycling scheme; I just wanted to lose body fat as fast as possible.
Now obviously, I wasn’t being a complete moron about this, but I would often just cut calories – especially fat and carbs – whenever I could, such as when I found myself busy and I only had time to eat twice during the 8-hour feeding period.
For example, I would often work in front of the computer and sometimes I found myself fasting for 18-20 hours. This only allowed two and sometimes only one meal, which resulted that my calorie intake being about 30-40% lower than what I had planned for myself (i.e., what I would advise others). And though I told myself I did this because I didn’t have time to eat, I truly just did it to lose fat faster.
This pattern sometimes persisted for a few days with the result being strength loss. Nothing gets me as pissed off as strength loss, so I often binged out of pure frustration. This would get my strength back but I would also be back where I started. Very frustrating – but I was quick in taking action to amend this.
Practice: Step One
The reason I stumbled over the solution might be a result of me being used to reflecting on problems a bit more than others, or it might simply be because I saw the results of my clients, or both of these reasons. I am also fairly proactive in the sense that if I don’t like anything, I change it, even if that means taking radical measures, completely switching strategy and abandoning my old plans. People have a tendency to not do this; and that too is an interesting psychological phenomenon that goes for plan making and commitments in general. (What’s it called now…it’s a psychological concept/term – stay tuned, I’ll add the link later, I have brain freeze at the moment).
If you manage others but can’t manage yourself, here is the first step: Start treating yourself exactly as a client. I mean that in the most concrete way possible. For example, I made my diet and training routine in the very same excel sheet I used with clients, used the exact same guidelines, named the document “Martin Berkhan” and put it in the folder named “Clients.”
These details may seem trivial but they are key. They will make or break this fix. Place yourself in the exact same management system as that of your clients. For some reason, there’s a certain kind of detachment from yourself happening on a deep psychological level that is very powerful.
Now, of course, all this assumes that you actually know your stuff. But again, this the situation that the question the reader email from JC assumes. Well, I guess “advice” can mean many things and advice can be more or less detailed, but I have coached a lot of people that knew very well how many calories they needed and so forth, so I’m thinking more about them than the guy who thinks he’s a diet expert because he helped his 350-lb uncle to lose weight.
Practice: Step Two
The second step is removing, or limiting, the external factors. But this either will come by itself or not be needed in the sense you are thinking.
Let me put it this way: Due to your personality, you will always be addicted to something. You need an obsession but you must direct it into something different than training and dieting after step one. You know what works now – and it will work because you are not so damn different and special compared to your clients – assuming that do unto yourself what you do unto your clients. You will therefore no longer need to direct much attention in considering and trying various new diets and training routines.
But in order to prevent that this tendency resurfaces, you must direct your attention, obsession plainly speaking, into something else. A hobby. Preferably something productive or at least something you enjoy doing. Something you can lose hours doing.
Most people, especially those that do not work with coaching for a living, would be better off finding something outside the realm of diet and training. Here’s where the similarities to “The Marshmallow Test” comes in. A lot of time available for training and researching diets does not translate into better results and will beyond a certain point be counterproductive. You’re a goddamn fool if you believe otherwise.
Now, as for where and into what you like to direct your time into will be highly variable and completely dependent on your personal preferences and interests. I actually like reading PubMed papers just for fun but I am aware that the information will be only for informational purposes (often) and practical purposes (rarely). I’m not into the mindset that I’m looking for ways to “optimize” my diets or the Leangains protocols. Those already work perfectly as they are right now.
However, I also have one completely different topic that will capture my attention at any given time-period. Right now I am completely gung-ho about Starcraft 2 and everything about it. I’ll read hours of threads at the TeamLiquid forum when I can. Starcraft 2 is a deep strategy game; very complex, though obviously video games will seem superficial to most people without knowing anything about them.
But I find the debates on strategy and race imbalances fascinating. It’s funny how hotly debated some issues are – and you’ll find many similarities with the fitness and diet community. For example, just like the “low carb/metabolic advantage” discussion stirs up a lot of emotions, similar strong and polarizing opinions are seen in the threads that deal with questions related to whether the match-ups between races are imbalanced (there are three races to choose from in the game – some people think Terran vs Zerg is “imbalanced” right now, some don’t, etc.).
I’ll also watch YouTube-videos of programmers playing for hours. And I finally understand why you’ll have sports fans that rarely practice the sport themselves being the most hardcore sports fans out there… I rarely find time to play, but I’m crazy for watching others play 😀
Oops, I geeked out a bit there but the point is that I always have something completely unrelated to fitness and training that can capture my attention for hours – and so should you, especially when you don’t work with this for a living.
Don’t geek out by posting about your diet and how you could “optimize” it if it’s already perfect, that’s just fueling your obsession beyond a point where it will be counterproductive if you already know the answers. Attempting to fix something that works well will break it in 99 cases out of a 100.
What Can You Expect?
What can you expect once you have implemented these steps? I did everything the same as I would with a client and at the end of 2007, I reached the final goal I set out to achieve ever since I started training. I talked about it here: “The Secret Benefit of Being Lean.”
What was different this time compared to others was that I resisted to try to speed things up or do something stupid. I wouldn’t suggest that to a client now would I? No. So I didn’t do it to myself either.
Getting that lean was the easiest diet I ever experienced. It was only testing in terms of patience; but even though the diet was easy, I longed for it to be over so I could try something, anything, else. It was a waiting game, but not a fight against hunger. Many clients have told me the same. If they don’t tell it to me straight, I notice it when discussing what to do after the diet.
Sure, I got the usual neurotic thoughts once in a while. More frequently towards the end. Most do. “Am I really losing now or have I stalled?”, etc. Water retention tends to screw with your head and you’ll sometimes see that your weight isn’t moving for 10-14 days. That’s when people are very likely to do something stupid. That’s when it becomes very hard to resist cutting calories and adding extra cardio. So most people, including coaches, do that and it backfires.
They lose strength or just get ravenous, whatever, something happens and they break their diet, binge for a day or two, attempt to get back to where they were by doing another stupid thing once again, and then they are stuck doing that. Or they just give up. It’s like domino bricks falling one after another after a tiny little wind dust moved the first piece. It gets a lot easier when you have someone else, a coach, giving you orders, of course.
What Happens Next?
So, now you have the solution. My solution, mind you. But my solutions tend to be better, more accurate, tested, and more thought out than any random strategy. Treat yourself exactly as you would treat a client. The key difference between failing and succeeding will be concrete and very specific application of that advice. Don’t just tell yourself that you’ll do this. You’ll soon forget it and be back where you started.
Do it precisely like with a client. Do a file for yourself, think of yourself in the third person. Make sure that it is identical to that of a client and put this file among the rest of your clients. No vagueness. Concreteness and specificity will make or break this process.
Am I being redundant? Maybe, but that’s because this is the most important aspect of the fix. The one that will take you from making stupid mistakes to walking the talk and reach your full potential. The potential that can be unlocked if you actually start applying all your book knowledge and theory to physical actions.
Now obviously, this won’t work for everyone. For some, it will be an issue of simply not knowing how to do the basics, figuring out calorie requirements, and so forth. If that’s the case, then all this stuff might come into play at a later stage in your training career. So if you’ve made it this far and felt that these things flew over your head, or that you could not relate to it, that is probably a good sign. For you it might just simply be a matter of educating yourself enough to reach your goal. (I would like to say “that’s the easier part” but that would be a lie considering all the confusing and overabundance of information out there.)
For some of you, this advice might just be what solves your diet and training issues once and for all. It might get you to your ultimate goal, like it did for me, or it might just dramatically alter the way you approach these things. In either case, you’ll be better off in the end.
Now, keep in mind that it’s not like you stop reflecting on your diet and thinking about your next meal every so often. It just doesn’t receive the same attention as before. It just “happens” so to speak. And once you have that mindset, you can maintain your physical condition for however long you wish. No more yoyo-behavior.
As a side-note, I think theoretical information and discussion is a very real obstacle in pulling things off in practice. That’s why I never, or very rarely, entertain clients with information that will lead to them getting ideas of their own about how things might potential work – be improved, if you will. I often given yes or no type of answers; and this is for the benefit of them.
Similarly, I leave no things up for interpretation or second-guessing when it comes to what it is that they are supposed to do. This is key. You need to handle yourself that way as well if you’re a coach – at least in the beginning.
Eventually, having put yourself in such a management system will allow you to be much more flexible and maintain your goal – in particular I am referring to maintaining low body fat – in the long-term.
I hope those that could relate to what I discussed here will seriously consider what I propose as a way to fix themselves. Let me know in comments whether it resonated with you. I am genuinely curious to hear your thoughts on this.
Now I’m off to see what the other coaches said in response to JC’s question. Can’t wait to see if their experiences and insights reflect mine.
P.S. This was not the “topic I haven’t seen covered anywhere else outside the deepest pits of PubMed” article I alluded to in the last post. That will have to wait. This article was more important.
P.P.S. It was pretty cool to see that more than a few Starcraft 2 fanatics were familiar with Leangains. Seems they couldn’t believe it was actually me when I showed up on their forum 😀 What can I say, I’m a closet nerd…Take note of this important equation in the post I linked: “Personal preferences = better adherence = better adherence > potential physiological benefits, etc.”