Let’s clarify some of those more popular misconceptions about training once and for all, and, in particular, bury two of the most overused false clichés that seep into the world of sports training and fitness: “No pain, no gain” and “Don’t fix it if it isn’t broken”.
Early in my life was when I became intrigued with developing muscles and performing well in sports. It made me concerned though that despite hearing all these benefits of exercise and good nutrition, many of the athletes and fitness enthusiasts I’d see working out just didn’t appear, in my opinion, to make much headway in achieving their performance or appearance goals. In fact, many of these individuals performed on the same level and looked the same every time I seen them. This lack of results, considering the intense amount of effort being applied, perpetuated a curiosity on my part as to why this phenomena was occurring. I was always taught that hard work produces great results; but my belief in those words of wisdom became less and less confidant as my observations increased.
“No pain, no gain”– I was bombarded with this phrase growing up as an athlete. Aside from experiencing much of it myself (pain, that is), I’ve also witnessed a lot of pain by want-to-be athletes and fitness buffs who never seemed to see much of the gain. But, I have found many ways to make the “gain”, and can now say, avoid the “pain” as well. I’m elated to hear new phrases popping up like, “It’s not what you do but how you do it that counts”, or “Quality is better than quantity”. I guess it’s true that wisdom is bound to prevail with time; and the tribulations of athletes past have laid the foundation for the success-producing routines of today.
Stubborn Results? It’s an Imbalance
Exercising, in and of itself, does not, nor will it ever, produce optimum results, unless adequate recuperation periods exist between training sessions.
Recuperation periods must contain various components to replete the nutrients and hormones depleted with exercise, and allow the body to re-establish proper psychophysiological functions. These include alertness, enthusiasm, and concentration; and the proficiency of the endocrine, nervous, muscular, cardiovascular and respiratory systems. If any of these systems remain in a state of reparation during training– not yet fully recovered from previous efforts– subsequent sessions will result in inferior performances when compared to one’s potential.
Those who are failing to accomplish their goals, whether it’s training to become a great athlete or exercising for fitness, are those who lack training balance. The only way to achieve a balanced status in training is to cycle a variety of principles which effectively stresses psychophysiological energies.
This is a scientific approach to training that transforms lackluster skills into supreme attributes.
Cycling then is the term athletes and coaches refer to when talking about the methods which properly channel energies toward goal fulfillment. Cycling is comprised of a menu of activities and methodologies (i.e., exercise routines, training programs, nutritional regimes, rehabilitation services, etc.) which are applied sequentially and/or simultaneously, each having their own specific time periods of application. When the athlete has completed each of these individual phases, he or she transitions to other routines and targets their performances for peak abilities during times of competition. After competition, athletes undergo a re-adaptation period which completes the final phase of their peaking cycle, exiting them from one phase and transitioning them into another.
Play by the Rules
Knowing that athletes stick to a very scientific set of rules for performance enhancement, fitness enthusiasts can also benefit from these principles with personalized modifications. The conclusions I’ve drawn from my observations and research indicate that those who fail to reach goal fulfillment are those who unintelligently and haphazardly pursue their activities. Not understanding, or willing to try cycling, may resign many to mediocrity and/or failure, never peaking themselves for maximum output.
On that note, let me identify some of the basic training differences between athletes and fitness enthusiasts. I will define athletes as those who are committed to regular competition in one or more sports for some sort of profit or achievement; and fitness enthusiasts, which includes the recreational or weekend athlete, as those who exercise or play sports for fun, for the benefits of health and looking good, and for living longer more productive lives.
Athlete or Fitness Enthusiast: Which are you?
Of the two categories, in which do you fall? If you’re an athlete, you have to define what level you are on currently, then determine what level you aspire to achieve. Training and nutrition protocols must then be designed to groom yourself for higher levels of conditioning which will enable you to surpass the accomplishments of those whom you’ll compete against.
If you’re a fitness enthusiast, you must define what fitness means to you personally. Definitions of fitness vary widely between individuals. Objectives can also vary depending on any one or number of characteristics which make you look and feel fit. As examples; your idea of being in shape might be obtaining low levels of body fat, playing your favorite game like golf or tennis better, healing a nagging back injury, re-establishing your declining health, competing in an occasional competition like a 10K run or a racquetball tournament, or just being able to enjoy a more fulfilled sexual relationship with your loved one.
After these preliminary assessments are completed, after you know exactly how you measure up, and after you determine what you want to become, I still think more detailed evaluations should follow. I propose three basic areas be evaluated at the beginning of any training program and periodically throughout to measure progress. They are Appearance, Performance and, Status of Health.
Appearance is an exterior body analysis. Although most people think they are their own best judge, having an evaluation by a fitness professional has its advantages. A fitness professional assesses your body from a structural point of view, and takes into account proper muscular balancing and skeletal alignment, while noting any fat depositions. Professional evaluations are more holistic, whereas your own personal ideals might be motivated by cosmetic reasons only.
Visual observations are basically used to analyze overall body symmetry and proportions scribing ones personal silhouette. Artistic improvements modify these images outlining your ideal body shape. Circumference readings are also taken to measure the girth of each area of the body (i.e., arms, chest, shoulders, hips, waist, thighs, etc.). These measurements are important progress indicators for those wanting to either lose or gain inches around any body area.
Appearance assessments are necessary for both athletes and fitness enthusiasts. However, being more cosmetically oriented, fitness enthusiasts might be more interested in this area, and use appearance improvements as the prime indicators of progress.
Performance tests are designed to assess muscular and joint flexibility, contractile strength, stamina, balance and coordination. Body weight and percentages of body fat are also recorded. The results of performance tests are essential ingredients used to comprise the training routines for both the athlete and fitness enthusiast, with performance results being particularly important to the athlete. In fact, routines cannot be effectively designed until an accurate account of strengths, weaknesses, imbalances, and injuries is recorded and updated.
Status of Health is ideally performed with BioMarker studies. These studies provide complete biological and metabolic assays. Nutritional and hormonal deficiencies can be identified, and followed with a prescription for replacement therapies. Heart rate and blood pressure readings can indicate a variety of physiological functions. Your estimated biological age, which often times varies from your actual chronological existence age, can be revealed with the more sophisticated BioMarker tests now available within various life extension organizations. BioMarker studies are an important barometer of overall health, and everybody should consider being regularly tested, even those not interested in fitness performance. *
Intense long-duration training periods should be avoided until all three evaluations are conducted, with Status of Health being the most important.
When all three of these assessments are completed, and understood, the athlete and fitness enthusiast can now be given the green light to pursue a progressive regime of activity. The results of the tests make it possible to design a balanced, goal-oriented training and nutritional program that’s tailored to each individual.
Athlete vs. Fitness Enthusiast: Similarities & Differences
Let’s now identify some of the similarities and differences between an athlete and a fitness enthusiast, and do so within specific areas:
Age & Growth
The Athlete: While competing, most athletes are still in their growth stage. During this maturation period, athletes can submit to some extremely demanding protocols. When an athlete reaches his or her potential, it’s wise to adjust training load and shift the emphasis from growth to perfecting skills. Also most athletes start at a young age when psychoneurological motor skills are developing and energy is in abundance. When recruited at the right age, athletes can literally be molded into their events as they mature.
The Fitness Enthusiast: Most fitness buffs are well past their days of glory. Fitness is now enacted for reasons other than to win a gold medal. Understanding that much of their anatomy has matured, training emphasis should not anticipate unrealistic expectations. Routines must be designed to make allowances for structural components and underlying illnesses and/or injuries; like those old football injuries, they might return. Realistic goal setting is crucial, and most qualified health professionals can help you establish an ideal body weight, percentages of body fat, and performance skills, clarifying your own personal expectations.
The Athlete: Coaches, trainers and doctors are often on-hand to evaluate athletes, design their routines, and supervise their training. The experience of these authorities enables athletes to confidantly pursue their athletic careers with success-proven methodologies.
The Fitness Enthusiast: The “lone trainer”, that’s what I call them, because they’re out there all alone. Most fitness enthusiasts are self-taught and lack that day-to-day supervision of trained professionals. This is one major reason why trial-and error systems are so prevalent. Confidance is blemished with speculation and impatience.
The Athlete: Aside from the coaching staff, athletes often train in front of spectators and certainly perform in front of an audience with referees or judges. What a way to get that adrenaline flowing. Even when the athlete is down and out mentally, the roar of the crowd can elevate them to higher performances. Combined with the fact that a trophy might be awarded, athletes have these extra incentives which motivate their drive. External stimuli, in the form of spectators and cheering audiences, plays an important role in getting one to perform harder and more often.
The Fitness Enthusiast: Now it’s the “lone performer”. The workouts of most fitness enthusiasts [and certainly not mine] are not supported by cheerleaders and encouraging fans. Motivation must come from within. You don’t get those gears into action by listening to the national anthem, but rather by plugging a heavy metal rock-n-roll cassette into your walkman. No amount of mirrors in a gym can fool you into believing the “crowds” are watching. When it comes to inspiration, the fitness enthusiast usually bears it alone.
Occupation, Fame & Fortune
The Athlete: If they’re not getting paid for it now, most athletes hope they will after they reach their goals. Knowing that athletes make a livelihood of sports, their entire days are [consciously and subconsciously] focused on their objectives. A majority of what they think, eat, drink and sleep is directed to the attainment of their goals. This conditions their minds to communicate messages throughout the body and constantly reminds them of their objectives. Making a world team, competing in the Olympics, or playing in the NFL or NBA, are incentives most athletes strive for. Along with these accomplishments are guaranteed attachments of fame and fortune. Athletes have become one of our most opportunistic societies. From modeling to acting, guest speaking to commercial endorsements, most athletes have that little voice in the back of their heads that keeps telling them that if they excel in sports their dreams will flare out beyond their wildest imaginations. The financial incentives that drive athletes alone is enough to make almost anyone take on the commitment of proper training. Sports as their occupation and livelihood forces most athletes to assume a “have to” mentality.
The Fitness Enthusiast: At this stage, exercise and sports activities should be conducted for fun; to enhance one’s looks, job performance, appearance, sense of well-being; and to extend life. There are no paychecks, no rewards, no fame, (well maybe your intimate partner might pat you on the back every so often). Fitness enthusiasts have to establish a degree of self-motivation that’s supported with other, non-monetary, incentives. The closest they might get to being a role model is being complimented at the dinner table or at the office, but they certainly won’t become societies hero’s and heroines. Because exercising is not their occupation fitness enthusiasts should abide to a “want to” attitude.
The Athlete: Most athletes have access to various testing facilities which analyze strength, flexibility, endurance, speed, body composition, and evaluate biological assays and performance abilities. These serve as essential criteria for program planning and conduct. Since athletes are monitored by these tests, energy output and reserves can be factored into each training cycle so as to avoid overtraining, thus keeping the athlete fresh and productive. Athletic skills are evaluated with sophisticated performance tests that include sprinting, vertical jumping, mobility, weight lifting, body composition, and others. When levels are recorded, training protocols are developed and adjusted as needed. Athletes also often have access to therapeutic services like massage, chiropractic, and others; and don’t forget, athletes are usually fitted with the best equipment they need to train and compete.
The Fitness Enthusiast: Fitness enthusiasts, on the other hand, haven’t easy [or affordable] access to proper evaluations. Even if they did the inconvenience of these services does not permit testing as frequently as needed. When physiological evaluations are not regularly assessed, underlying and non-visual obstacles which may be developing, when left unnoticed, inevitably hampers progression. When stagnation is experienced, oftentimes the fitness enthusiast just keeps right on training maintaining and sometimes even increasing his or her intensities instead of adjusting to their recuperation needs. This compounds the ill-state of performance, because these periods of distress are usually preceded by a mentality of “don’t fix it unless it’s broken”; it usually does just that. Additionally, recuperation from training which might include massage and other therapies is inconvenient and expensive. Instead, the fitness enthusiast hopes a beer or two, and a few aspirin, will hopefully [fingers crossed] cure all– not exactly a perfect picture of sports science. And when it’s time to change those worn out shoes you hear, “Heck, they’ve got at least another 20 miles in em”. Also not a wise decision, considering, for most activities, your entire body relies on the adequate support of your feet.
The Athlete: Cycling is the manner in which the athlete expends and replenishes their energies. No one, not even the best athletes, can maintain peak condition without a balanced cyclic regimen that incorporates adequate Preparatory periods, Contest (or specific application) periods, followed by Re-Adaptation (or recovery) periods (refer to chart). I call this the P.A.R. formula of training (Preparation, Application, & Recuperation). If athletes do not get themselves up to P.A.R. they simply will never reach their truest potential. During training cycles, the intensities of activities are intended to take the athlete to competition status. Percentages fluctuate between 40% to 100% of best efforts. Applying varying percentages in training, conditions the athlete for all intensities, or levels of performance, instead of trying to train 100% all of the time. No one is capable of maintaining a 100% energy output during training on a year-round basis. This is simply an overload on the body which ultimately breaks down and lowers performance. Cycling plays an instrumental role for the competitive athlete’s career, allowing peaks in performance to be accurately timed so they are exhibited during competitions.
The Fitness Enthusiast: Since most of them have no valid scientific methods for training, fitness enthusiasts often times approach training at one intensity [or percentage]. The goal for the fitness enthusiast is that each and every workout matches previous best recordings. This creates a tail-chasing scenario that prevents proper intensity adjustments needed for energy output and energy reservations. If the workout at hand isn’t being conducted up to the levels of previous “best” days, fitness enthusiasts push themselves even harder and, ironically, further away from improvements. If the body is still recuperating from a previous workout , forcing it to output 100% again, when a 75% effort would be better, the body is robbed of that extra 25% energy that should be allocated for recuperation. Knowing that this is the case, I’ve witnessed many fitness enthusiasts who get frustrated trying to match their best recordings session after session. Being the good guy that I am I just hand them a shovel, because the energy they’re expending may as well go toward digging their own grave, as that’s where they’re heading anyway –just kidding. By simply adjusting workout intensity so as to allow the body to output what it’s capable of for each and every workout, fitness enthusiasts will experience year-round progression. Athletes down cycle, reducing training intensities and percentages. These reductions are timed so as to minimize recuperation time. These systematic recuperation allowances, by way of down cycling, are installed on a mandatory basis into the training routines of athletes. This way the athlete stays progressive instead of hitting the wall. Fitness enthusiasts (on the whole) down cycle only when their bodies have thrown in the towel and are totally burnt out. Their recuperation then holds hostage all of the bodies reserves. The “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it” slogan has no real place in training. My advice is to reduce workout intensity with this simple formula: Every third workout a 20% reduction in workout intensity should be enforced in comparison to the previous two sessions. Activities should also change for this third workout session. For instance; if you’re a runner, on days one and two run as hard as you wish, but on day three include more flexibility movements, some light weight training, run at 80% (speed and time), then treat yourself to some therapy like wading in a swimming pool, getting a massage, taking a sauna, etc..
The Athlete: Competition stress can be enormous. With all the components that drive an athlete, combined with the need to excel, stress can make or break the competitor. Competition stress is, of course, managed a lot better by some. The ability to control stress might be a genetic psychological gift, or, might just be a result of self-applied conditioning of the attitude and nerves. Competition stress depletes the hormonal and immune systems which can plummet the skills [and health] of any level athlete.
The Fitness Enthusiast: If they don’t exercise, so what. They can make it up some other time. And if they say they’re going to run five miles, and actually end up doing only three, so what again. Remember, fitness enthusiasts should be in this for the fun and must remember to eliminate any pressure or stress relative to that “have to” attitude, and replace it with that “want to” attitude; pace yourself, just don’t use what I’ve just said to get too lazy now.
The Athlete: Years, decades, even lifetimes are dedicated to sports by many athletes. Even after competition days are long gone, staying in shape is a natural thing for many former athletes. Discipline, knowledge, nutrition, and knowing how to rest become embedded into the biochemical makeup of the athlete as their lives revolve around their events. Most athletes live every single moment with some correlation to their sport. Most athletes, even in off seasons, train and prepare [in some way] for physical enhancement.
The Fitness Enthusiast: When they punch out at years end fitness enthusiasts register far less time exercising and sticking to sound nutritional plans when compared to the athlete. Judging both physiques and performance accomplishments makes that obvious. Fitness enthusiasts make “resolutions”, and then drop completely away from their aspirations as interferences and distractions (i.e., money, travel, holidays, etc.) get in their way. Unfortunately, sometimes the only real cycle the fitness enthusiast performs, is one were they commit to getting in shape, commence the plan, then lose interest, get distracted, and end up burnt out. This creates significant gaps in training. And the fact that bingeing is often sneaked into these lax periods, compounds the problem making much more difficult to get back into shape each time the fitness enthusiast decides to give “it” another “go”.
The Athlete: Since their lives are dedicated to sports, most athletes are given the luxury of having all day to concentrate on their training, and fulfill their P.A.R. needs. And even though we hear of athletes spending 6-8 hours each day working out, portions of that time are often divided on other tasks like anatomical and sports specific education, psychological training, physical therapy, physiological evaluations, etc.. Athletes perform all three P.A.R. components at times which are most effective; they have the options of choosing the times of the day best suited for output and reserves.
The Fitness Enthusiast: Apply, apply, apply. Since there’s a limited amount of time that’s available for exercise application, preparation and recuperation activities are brushed over or ignored totally. Most fitness enthusiasts plunge into the application of their workouts ignoring the other two essential components of the 3-part success formula. This creates imbalances leading to stagnation, regression, injury and burn out.
Additionally, workout periods are conducted during times that permit, not times that are ideal. Squeezing in a workout during a lunch hour, or trying to perform some exercises between other chores, might be beneficial but not ideal.
The Athlete: Athletes traditionally train then eagerly look forward to eating. Their eating and nutritional programs are designed to refuel their anatomical engines and repair the tissues broken down during training. Athletes are performance oriented. They realize optimum performance is attained through wise and methodical training efforts that are fueled by nutrition. Training is not anabolic or growth producing. Actually, training is catabolic, or destructive, as it breaks down the tissues. It’s only during the recuperation periods that the body grows and repairs itself. So therefore, optimum nutrition rebuilds the body progressively after tissue damage. Consequently, optimum nutrition, makes the body stronger which enables it to endure more tissue damaging training. These catabolic/anabolic, or breakdown and build-up cycles, rely on nutrition for year-round support and help the athlete reach peak development. Nutritional supplementation is a complex science. Athletes are taking advantage of the barrage of supplements available today, to make up their high-calorie nutrient-dense eating regimens. One of the great things we can learn from the athlete, is that THEY KNOW what works and what’s bogus, and they also know what to take and when to take it. I’m a firm believer in, “It’s not so much what you eat but when you eat it that counts”. Adaptogenic substances like velvet deer antler; ergogenic aids like creatine, inosine, vanadyl sulfate, and chromium picolinate; protein substitutes like branch-chain amino acids, arginine, ornithine, and various powdered drinks; and free-radical fighting antioxidants high in vitamin C, comprise the arsenal of supplements athletes consume to stay healthy and progress athletically; and knowing when to take them is as important as taking them at all.
The Fitness Enthusiast: Fitness enthusiasts, on the other hand, exercise then deprive their nutritional replenishment as they are “appearance oriented”. Anorexic tendencies from slight to extreme are propagated by the obsession of obtaining and maintaining low levels of body fat. Fitness enthusiasts often never replete themselves of the nutrition they need for exercise, and starve their bodies of essential calories. Although nutrition intrigues them, often times fitness enthusiasts haven’t a clue as to what to take and when to take it. It’s easy to pick up a magazine one month, read an article about some magic pill, run out an buy it, consume it like a madman for a few weeks, then switch to another substance before the original bottle is empty just because another article shifted your thinking. Nutrition only works its magic when consistently followed, and the good news is the results get better with time. The adaptogens and ergogenics substances I mentioned above might take 3-6 months for them to display their health-promoting physique-altering benefits.