You’re not still using these fitness phrases, are you?

2. You_re not still using these fitness phrases, are you_ (770x409p)

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Key Points:

  1. Many common fitness phrases contain implicit assumptions that make it less likely the people who use them will achieve their goals.

  2. For example, most people think, “toning up” implies exercise, but the result they want depends almost entirely on nutritional changes.

  3. Precision of language can make us less likely to set arbitrary goals that wouldn’t make us happy even if we achieved them.

Estimated reading time: 8-16 minutes

Last January, I wrote an article entitled, “How can we avoid giving up on our goals?” It aimed to encourage us to think deeply about why we pursue the things we want, and to focus on the small daily actions we can take to make it more likely we’ll reach them. This is important because fully 64% of New Year’s resolutions are already abandoned by February 1st. Truly understanding why we want what we want can help us avoid adding to this statistic.

Today’s piece is related in that it examines fitness words and phrases people commonly misuse when setting their goals. Part of the reason I’ve chosen these terms is that they can lead to actions that actively interfere with achieving the very goals set by people who use them.

We’ll examine:

  • What people think they mean when they use these terms/why they use them
  • What these terms actually mean
  • What to say or focus on instead

I realize that some of the distinctions or suggestions I make may come across as nit-picky. This isn’t my intention, so please give me the benefit of the doubt. I’m mostly being lighthearted, here!

That said, I truly believe precision with language is important, especially when used in the pursuit of goals. So let’s dive in, shall we?

First up, a classic. “Lose weight.”

This might be the single most common fitness goal. I could probably dedicate 5,000 words to unpacking why people desire this, exploring everything from societal pressures to childhood trauma. But instead, let me rip the band-aid off. Many of us seem to subconsciously believe that we’d be happier if the scale said a different (usually lower) number. Well, I can promise you that’s not true. At best, any increase in life satisfaction would be temporary. Even ignoring the reality that most people who lose weight gain it all back (or more) within a year, focusing on losing weight misses the point.

What most people mean when they say this is that they want to lose body fat, because the type of weight lost does matter. Losing muscle can lead to decreased strength, energy, and physical capabilities, while losing water weight or stored glycogen in muscle tissue won’t even last a week. So, when you say or hear “weight loss,” think “fat loss.” And this is a fine area to focus.

While no single metric exists to assess or predict someone’s health, I believe body fat percentage is the best one we’ve got. Research from the excellent publication Stronger By Science found that the ratio of strength relative to body weight peaks within a certain body fat range. In my opinion, it’s not much of a stretch to conclude that if the body’s strength relative to its weight is optimized, it’s functioning well overall.

If you’re curious about the specifics of this ratio, it’s 18-23% body fat for women and 10-15% body fat for men. Supporting the idea that the body functions best within these ranges, we also know that metabolic health markers tend to worsen if you stray too far above or below.

But we also need to focus on the “losing” aspect of this phrase. Instead of simply losing weight (or as you know now-body fat), focus on maintaining this loss. Hardly anyone sets “maintenance” as a goal, but doing so will help you avoid fast, risky methods designed purely to make the scale temporarily display a lower number.

And just to be clear, this number is merely a data point. It does not define your worth as a person and often serves as a poor proxy for overall health. Besides, focusing purely on the number encourages methods that are too unsustainable. I emphasized the word “too,” because any attempt to reduce one’s weight or body fat levels requires some unsustainability…or no change would occur. The problem is that most people focus on the “losing” part without any thought for what comes afterwards.

That’s why most weight loss tends to be temporary, because people introduce too much unsustainability. Research out of the Performance and Physique Enhancement Lab at the University of South Florida has clearly demonstrated that slow to moderate weight loss is best for reducing body fat. This institution recommends losing only 0.5% of body weight per week, and no more than 1%.

This means a 200 pound person would lose a maximum of two pounds per week, but ideally only one. And to be sure, saying, “I lost eight pounds in eight weeks!” isn’t going to earn you the cover story of any magazine, but it does two key things. First, it ensures that the vast majority of weight you lose will be body fat. Second, it makes quickly gaining all the weight back far less likely.

So to summarize, remember the following. If “I want to lose weight,” is your goal, replace it with, “I want to maintain a lower body fat percentage.”

Next, and highly related, “Clean eating.”

Coincidentally, the goal of “eating clean” usually takes the form of “I want to lose weight,” and boy this one gets my goat. Why? Well, what’s the opposite of “eating clean?” Eating “dirty” of course. This means the phrase “clean eating” can be used either to judge others or shame ourselves. That’s troubling enough, but I’d prefer to focus more on the effects using this phrase can have on one’s own self-perception. Or sometimes, self-deception.

When someone learns I work as a personal trainer, fitness and nutrition often arise as topics of conversation. And I can’t tell you how many times one of the first things out of a person’s mouth is a version of, “I eat really clean.” I have to fight the urge to go into lecture mode every time I hear it.

The troublesome nature of this phrase rests on its tendency to make people lie to themselves about their habits to a degree that can interfere with their goals. In one of my favorite pieces I’ve written, Is it better to be lucky than (a) good (person)?, I discuss how rigidly believing oneself to be a “good person” comes with some serious pitfalls. The stronger this belief, the more likely we are to diminish, justify, or outright deny the occasions when we harm others. Since we inevitably will hurt others, we need to learn how to compassionately repair the damage. This is impossible if we can’t accept the reality of our actions because they clash with our self-perception.

“Eating clean” can function as a similar trap. When we label ourselves as “clean eaters,” we may overlook the times we didn’t, then grow frustrated or angry when we don’t reach our goals. Instead, we need to learn not to blame ourselves or throw in the towel after an indulgence, and just get right back on track. Besides, “eating clean” is pretty arbitrary, anyway. Here’s an example.

Last year, I stayed with two very dear friends for a long weekend. One of them told me that they take great pains to “eat clean.” And for the most part, they were exactly right! On the first full day I spent with them, they spoiled me with homemade oatmeal, fresh fruit, organic honey, and raw milk for breakfast. For lunch, we ate lean beef, brown rice, and veggies mixed in a delicious balsamic vinaigrette. They purchased all of the ingredients from a local farmers’ market, and each meal was delicious, filling, and wholesome.

But for dinner, we ordered pizza, wings with ranch dipping sauce, and cheesecake. Let me be incredibly clear. There is nothing wrong with these dinner choices! Treating yourself with friends is an important part of life, and we thoroughly enjoyed the meal. But, not too many people would consider that dinner “eating clean.” And while we all ate modest portion sizes, it would have been extremely easy for the caloric intake from dinner to push the three of us into a hefty caloric surplus, despite “eating clean” for most of the day.

I imagine many people can relate to this experience. Hardly anybody wants to think of themselves as “eating dirty,” so many of us reflexively say we do the opposite. But how often do you have to “eat clean” for this to be “true?” Every single day? All except one meal each day? Six days a week? One “cheat day” per month? It’s way too subjective.

So, just don’t use this term. And in this case, there’s no substitute phrase. The best thing to do is simply to avoid labeling your eating style.

Finally, let’s look at, “get big,” “tone up,” and “bulky.”

All three phrases mean, “I’m not happy with the way I look right now,” but they have different implications. However, they share the issue of too little specificity and too much pointless subjectivity. And ill-defined, arbitrary goals almost inevitably fail. Let’s dive a bit deeper.

“Get big.”

Most commonly (but not always) uttered by men, “Get big” means wanting to add large amounts of muscle mass. However, this is so nebulous and non-specific that it should barely count as a goal. It’s like if someone says, “I want to get rich.” You can almost guarantee they won’t. They have no idea what that means to them or where to even begin.

But, if someone says something like, “I want to save $20,000 this year,” or, “I want to gain ten pounds of muscle in the next twelve months,” we can work with that. These involve specific steps around which we can build a plan and assess one’s adherence. But on its own, “I want to get big,” won’t cut it. It’s asking for unfocused workouts that someone gives up on after a few weeks because they have no idea how well they’re progressing or what success even looks like.

“I don’t want to get bulky.”

In contrast to “get big” this phrase is more typical of women worried that they’re going to add too much muscle to conform to the societal ideal of “feminine.” Men occasionally say this, too. But regardless of who utters it, a fear of “getting bulky” can lead people to avoid pushing themselves to train with the intensity that will help them move closer to their goals. So, to anyone worried about this, let me set your mind at ease. At the risk of sounding condescending, if you use this phrase, you probably don’t have enough fitness expertise to “get bulky” even if that’s what you wanted!

Yes, “bulky” is highly subjective. But achieving the levels of muscle mass necessary to appear that way requires years of extremely intense training paired with time-consuming and life-altering nutritional optimizations that most people will simply never pursue. So, if you don’t go out of your way to meticulously track your macros, don’t eat tons of protein with each meal, aren’t using steroids, and don’t lift weights at least four times per week, you will not get bulky.

But also, for anyone worried about this, it helps to examine your overall dissatisfaction with what you see in the mirror. A change in physical appearance likely won’t improve whatever is truly bothering you. For example, I once worked with a guy who, in the span of about six months, went from worrying he was too skinny to worrying that he was getting too big. I reminded him that it’s extremely difficult to be both of those things within such a short time period. He laughed in agreement then started to more deeply explore what he wanted and why, which led him to some powerful mindset shifts. Such an examination can lead to developing a sense of satisfaction that is not dependent on our looks. What a gift, huh? But in the end, “getting bulky” is an unfounded fear, so we can let this phrase finally rest in peace.

“I want to tone up.”

To bring today’s piece full circle, what this phrase really means is, “I want to reduce my overall body fat percentage.” But, decreasing one’s level of body fat primarily relies on nutritional changes. However, when most people say, “toning,” they think of exercise. Want to get rid of flabby underarms? Work out those triceps! Want a more defined midsection? Start doing hundreds of crunches per day!

But…all of that is simply wrong.

As much as we wish it were possible, you cannot “spot reduce” body fat. From the body’s perspective, fat loss is global, and we can’t predict in which areas fat cells will shrink first. Certainly, targeting specific areas with exercise will indeed make the associated muscles stronger and possibly bigger. This holds the potential to “improve” their appearance, but none of the work will yield visible results unless it’s accompanied by a lower body fat percentage. Here’s an example.

In the comparison pictures on pages 3, 7, and 10 of my Fast Food Fat Loss guide, I look noticeably more muscular in all of the “after” shots. However, I had actually lost about two or three pounds of muscle mass compared to the “before” photos. But, since I’d also lost about 12-15 pounds of fat mass, decreasing my overall body fat levels from 15% to 9%, I appeared more muscular.

My experience mirrors a saying within the fitness world, “The quickest way to gain ten pounds of muscle is to lose ten pounds of fat.” While this isn’t literally true, it certainly seems to work that way from an appearance standpoint. So, if your goal is to “tone up,” please do not stop working out. But equally, realize that nutritional changes are going to lead to the aesthetic differences that you’re seeking.

Wrapping Up

In the end, I hope this piece provides some clarity about the importance of precise language when setting goals. For example, if you’re trying to “lose weight,” but only worry about what the scale says, you’ll likely be disappointed. And if you want to “tone up,” but focus entirely on workouts over nutrition, you’ll definitely be disappointed. Finally, saying that you “eat clean,” will make you more likely to deny the times you don’t, leading to frustration as you wonder why you haven’t reached your goals.

To summarize all of this succinctly:

  • Instead of, “I want to lose weight,” or, “I want to tone up,” say, “I want to maintain a lower body fat percentage.”
  • Instead of, “I eat clean,” don’t label your nutritional choices at all.
  • Instead of, “I want to get big,” decide how much muscle mass you want to add and where on the body you want to focus. Then, ask a qualified coach if your goals are realistic, how long they’ll take, and what to do to reach them.
  • And as for “I don’t want to get bulky,” it doesn’t need a substitute. You don’t have to worry about that at all!

And as a bonus, always ask yourself why you want to pursue whatever goals you set by relentlessly questioning the beliefs that tell you, “I’ll be happier when…” Along those lines, I recently read a great quote from Mike Doehla, founder of Stronger U Nutrition. To paraphrase:

“I’ve been in circles with people who make a lot of money, and it sucks to see them still chasing it when they don’t need any more. They might eventually realize financial success was never truly what they wanted, but that’s kind of like having six-pack abs. People need to get it for themselves to see that it’s not the answer.”

So in the end, combine some self-examination with precision of language around your goals, and you’re less likely to fall into the trap of pursuing something that won’t help you achieve what you actually want. But even if you do make that mistake, don’t worry too much. It’s simply part of the journey. May this knowledge help you in all your 2024 fitness pursuits!

Before you go, I’d love to hear from you. Do you still use any of these phrases, or have you already abandoned them? Can you think of any other common ones I should address? Reply to this email and let me know!


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