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Exercise in Futility

The Consequence of Doing the Wrong Exercise to Reach Your Goal

Imagine that you want to arrive at a certain geographic destination, but you’re not certain of the route to take.  Although you know the general direction, you have no clue as to which roads would get you there.  So you buy a GPS, but you need to program it, before it can lead you to your destination.  You need to establish – specifically – your goal (the exact address) before that GPS can help you.  If you don’t know your destination, or you enter the wrong address, that GPS – no matter how good it is – will lead you astray.  That’s true about exercise as well.  Each exercise you do leads your body in a particular direction.  Do the right exercise, and it leads you in the direction of your goal.  But – do the wrong exercise, and you end up… somewhere… but no where near your intended goal.

For example, the other day I was in the gym, and I saw a person standing on a ball with one leg, while pressing a single dumbbell over her head.  Another observer came up to her and asked her, “…is that a core exercise?” – to which the woman responded, “yes”.  The observer then asked, “…is that a good one?” – to which the woman responded, “oh, yes!”.  And the observer seemed impressed.

This caused me to ask myself several questions.  First, how did the woman standing on the ball KNOW that this was “a good one”?  She said it with such conviction, yet she clearly did not have the appearance of someone who had spent much time in a gym, doing any kind of exercise at all.  And why did the observer ask that particular question?

Did the woman standing on the ball have any sort of reference or comparison between the result of this exercise, and the result of another exercise she had done before?  It’s doubtful.  Yet here she was “recommending” this exercise to someone, without even knowing if it produced any result at all, let alone her particular desired result.

Which brought me to my next question: what was her desired result (i.e., her goal)?  Although I didn’t ask her, I’ve been in the business long enough to know (35 years) that people generally do not clearly know what they want.  They think they know, but their goals are generally very broad, ambiguous, and often unrealistic.

When asked what their goal is, people (in the fitness arena) will often say things like, to be more fitto get rid of my flabto feel betterto lose weightto tone the back of my arms or…to look like you.  So it’s relatively safe to assume that this woman, who – as I said before – was clearly not very fit, probably had one of these goals in mind.  Yet, this particular exercise that she was doing – i.e., standing on a BOSU Ball (1/2 ball) with one foot, while pressing a single dumbbell over her head – was probably one of the least likely to produce any of those results.  Nevertheless, she was spending time and energy doing it, and she was recommending it – enthusiastically.

The observer – in the meantime – asked about “core” because she’s been sold that idea by marketers.  What she needed – based on her appearance – was basic exercise: brisk walking (on a slightly inclined treadmill or outdoors), plus basic resistance movements like squats and rowing for the large (metabolically active) muscle groups; yet here she was asking the kind of question one might ask if they were preparing for particular sport.

How does this happen?

That’s the million dollar question.  How – or maybe WHY – are so many people doing exercises that will not help them achieve their goals?  There are three reasons.

1. People do not know have a SPECIFIC goal, or they have an UN-REALISTIC goal

2. People do not know WHICH exercises produce which results

3. Marketers’ want to constantly sell consumers “NEW” methods and new equipment – and this leads people astray

The average person does not understand how the body works, in terms of what produces fat loss, how fat comes off the body, how muscle is developed, and the various kinds of physical adaptations that result from different exercises and activities.  Obviously, this stuff is fairly complicated.

Consumers are thus easily mislead.  Marketers tell them (by way of advertisements, commercials, magazine articles, infomercials, etc.) that they can “have it all” – leanness, muscular development, agility, speed, balance, optimum health, power and endurance, sexual prowess and inner peace, if they just do “these simple exercises”.

Think I’m kidding?  Here are the headlines on one cover, of just ONE recent magazine (verbatim, including punctuation):

Amazing New Plan – Lose Your Gut !

Sculpt Your Whole Body in 10 Minutes a Day !

Look Better – Instantly !  (Leaner, Taller, Fitter)

The Easy Way to Hard Abs !

The Sex of Your Dreams (& Hers) !

125 Perfect Muscle Foods

Read This, Be Happy !


Honestly – do we really think it’s that easy?  Do we really believe we’ll reap all those benefits, that quickly, by following the advice of one single issue, of one single magazine?  And if this advice is so miraculous, how has it been kept secret for so long?

We’ve all seen headlines like that.  Many people SAY they don’t really believe them, but there they are, in the gym, doing the often-bizarre exercises recommended in those articles (…like standing on a ball, with one leg, while pressing a single dumbbell over their head).  They’re doing exercises that might make sense for the improvement of specific sports-related goals, but they are not getting any closer to their own, personal goal, as vaguely defined as it may be.  We need to be more skeptical about what we read and what we’re “sold” – and we need to be more well informed.  But more importantly, we need to be clear about our goal.

Identify your goal clearly and realistically.

It’s not as easy as it sounds.  We need to consider the following criteria:

1. Feasibility

2. Usefulness / Practicality

3. Proof / Efficacy

Your goal should be feasible.

Whether your fitness goal is to change your appearance in a particular way, or to improve your function, it should be something that is “do-able”.

When is a goal NOT realistic?  If you don’t have the right knowledge (or guidance) of how to train, or you don’t have the right equipment, or you don’t have the required discipline, or you simply don’t have sufficient time to devote to it (due to other obligations), then it’s likely that your goal is unrealistic.  These are the “tools” required for reaching your goal; you’re doomed to failure without them.

Also, if your goal is to reach a high level of physical development or extreme athletic performance, genetics will play a major role.  It’s unrealistic to expect to a very high level of physical excellence without having the benefit of good genetics – no matter hard you work.  Some “bad” genetics can be addressed with the help of a qualified endocrinologist (or other health care professional knowledgeable in matters of metabolism) – assuming it’s biochemical.  But issues related to muscle fiber type, bone structure, muscle shape and insertions, etc., cannot be altered.

And lastly, when you are pursuing more than one goal, and those goals conflict with each other – like trying to achieve maximum endurance AND maximum power AND maximum muscular development AND maximum leanness, simultaneously –  it’s unrealistic to expect optimum success in each category.

Case in point: Paddy Doyle (see photo below).  For those who don’t know this amazing Irishman, he holds 200 European and World Records in a variety of athletic events (including having done 2,521 one-armed push-ups in one hour).  Some consider him “The Fittest Man in the World”, but that depends – of course – on one’s definition of “FIT”.  No doubt he’s very strong and very enduring, and he’s obviously very “tough”, mentally speaking.  But if you didn’t recognize him, and you saw him walking down the street, you would likely be unimpressed.  He doesn’t look like someone who is remarkably strong, and he’s not super lean.  He is also – possibly – no more “healthy” (maybe not even “as healthy”) as someone who exercises regularly, but doesn’t hold any world records.  (For a complete list of Paddy Doyle’s incredible records, go here: )

The moral of this story is that being super healthy, very muscular, and extremely strong – each requires a different type of training.  It’s unrealistic to think that one type of training will achieve all three of those goals, maximally.  This leads us to the next criteria:

Your goal should be useful or practical.

This may be getting a little philosophical, but – theoretically – you should want to achieve something that has value to you, and that “value” is usually linked to something practical.  The three areas that are most influenced by “exercise” are health, appearance and function.  How much value a person places on each of these is an individual matter, but the amount of “value” one has for a goal, leads to motivation, and motivation is key to achievement.

Certainly, it’s practical to improve one’s health.  Few people would argue with being maximally healthy.  Appearance goals, however, start to get a little more ambiguous (hard to define).  There are many different interpretations of what constitutes “a good look”, but – clearly – many people place a high value on their appearance.  Of course, there are those who would argue that it doesn’t matter how one looks; it only matters what one can do.  But, no matter how you regard it, the way you look DOES affect many aspects of your life – whether you like it or not.

The final category is “function”, and here we have perhaps the most ambiguity, in terms of what constitutes “good function”.  To some, it means playing their sport better.  To others, it means rehabilitating an injury.  Still others are compelled to pursue what I call “strong man tricks” – i.e., the ability to demonstrate unusual physical prowess, like doing handstand pushups, one-arm pushups, a certain number of pull-ups, perhaps even one-arm pull-ups, rope climb without the use of legs, etc.  Others like the idea of being “fit for whatever they might suddenly want to do”, be it surfing, boxing, mixed martial arts, etc.  And finally, there are those who pursue theoretical ideas about function – obsessively; they spend hours working on “balance” and “core”, with no real application in mind.  They just think it’s “essential”.  They never seem to need any proof that it’s really working (and therefore, worth doing), and they are apparently willing to trade away noticeable improvements in terms of their appearance.

No one can can judge the values of another.  “One man’s meat is another man’s poison”…”to each, his own”.  However, the thing to note here is this: each of the above three categories requires different kinds of exercise.  One cannot achieve optimum health, optimum muscularity and optimum athletic ability, with the same exercise program.  Certainly, one could do all three kinds of exercise.  However, that would not only require much more time, but many of those training methods conflict with each other, and each area would therefore be compromised.  You would end up with less than optimum results in each category – despite all the effort.

My advice for most people (non-bodybuilders) would be to pick your goal on the basis of what is MOST practical to you.  As just one example, you could choose to achieve a reasonable level of each – i.e., relatively good health, a fairly lean and muscular look, and adequate strength / endurance to handle the activities you ACTUALLY do – while avoiding the risk of injury.  As another example, you could devote your training effort toward maximally improving your sports performance – never mind how you look.

Personally, what I find foolish is when people prioritize the kind of exercise that is most conducive to “strong man tricks”, and are then frustrated because they have not developed the kind of physique they had hoped for.  This is especially ironic when the benefit of this heightened physical prowess is rarely required in their day-to-day activities.  In other words, although a person likes the idea of being able to do 30 single-arm, pull-ups, the only time they can enjoy that benefit is when they’re actually doing 30 single-arm, chin-ups, in front of an audience (hopefully) at the gym.  That isn’t very practical, in my opinion.

The outcome of your goal should be measurable.

Whatever your goal, you should be able to KNOW whether or not your efforts are productive.  It’s not good enough to say that your exercises are THEORETICALLY improving something.  You should have the attitude that says, “I need to see or demonstrate a noticeable difference”.  If a trainer says “…this exercise is good for such-and-such”, you should be skeptical.  You should ask, “…where’s the proof that those who do this exercise, have that particular improvement?”  For example, if someone says, “…this exercise is good for the core”, you should ask, “…how do we know?”.  How is that demonstrated?  What is the distinct advantage of that, in absolute terms?

If an exercise is believed to be good for a particular body part (or a particular function), we should be able to see clear examples of people WITH that benefit, who do that particular exercise.  We should also see clear examples of people WITHOUT that benefit, because they typically don’t do that particular exercise.  This is a fact.  It’s reasonable for you to want this kind of proof that an exercise bestows a particular benefit, before you invest your time and effort doing that exercise.

The Wrap Up

Too many people are doing exercises that DO NOTHING noticeable, either to their appearance or to their function – because they are not matching their goal with the right exercises.  Of course, most exercises are better than just sitting on the couch, because they burn calories (although some not as much as others), but isn’t it better to do the exercises that produce the most amount of noticeable benefit, and that it’s in sync with your goal?  Why bother with exercises that produce a tiny little benefit, that you’ll hardly even notice, or will produce a benefit that you don’t need, or will work in opposition to your goal?

Whenever someone says, “…this is a good exercise”, you should always ask two questions: “for what goal?” and “where’s the proof?”.  All exercises are goal specific; they work for some goals, and not for others.  Any exercise worth your time and effort SHOULD produce a noticeable benefit.  If you’ve been doing an exercise that does not produce a noticeable improvement, it’s reasonable to assume that it’s either not a good exercise, or at least not a good one for your particular goal.

Be clear about what your goal is, and what it’s NOT.  You can’t have it all, so choose wisely.  Consider your available time, your ability to be consistent, the usefulness (i.e. value) of your goal, and the evidence of what works and what doesn’t – for your particular goal.

If your goal is to gain muscle and lose fat  – as is the case with most bodybuilders and the majority of Iron Man Magazine readers – don’t get sidetracked doing balance exercises (for example).  Unless you fall down often, or otherwise require exceptional balance for a specific sport, you don’t need dedicated “balance” exercise, and it will compromise your progress toward your primary goal of gaining muscle and losing fat (note: people’s balance still improves significantly with regular exercise).  Kettle Bell training is also not the best type of exercise for bodybuilding results (note: an article on Kettle Bell training is forthcoming).  Stay focused on your goal, stay on course with the proper exercises for your goal, and you will maximize the odds of reaching your mark.

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