The Most Overlooked Aspect of Health

Me – 5’4, 284 pounds.  Suspended pull-ups courtesy of the coaching of Kate Wodash Catlow at The Mindful Body Center in Austin, Texas. For extra fun the thing my feet are on is suspended by springs so you have to hold the body up with the core or very bad things happen.

I think that strength training may be the absolute most under-recommended part of health for people of size. I was at the front desk at a friend’s gym and beside me was a fat person having his first session with a personal trainer. They were talking about goals and he said “I just want to be in better shape – lift some weight, be stronger.”  The trainer replied “We’re going to focus only on cardio to get some of that weight off. We don’t want to bulk you up or put more weight on you.”  I almost bit through my tongue.

This is a huge mistake for every reason imaginable.  I would feel differently if the client said that he hated strength training or that his goal was something different but he was asking a professional and he got horrible advice. Far too often we blame mobility issues on being overweight when really it’s just as likely that we simply are under-strong – that we don’t have the strength to move our weight around.  People always ask me how I can move like I do at my size – obviously it’s not that the rules of physics don’t apply to me, there’s a bunch of dance training, there are my genetics, and there’s the fact that I’m strong enough to move my body around.  My ability to put on muscle is tied in to my genetics so your mileage may vary, of course, but there’s a far better chance of something getting strong long term than of that person losing weight.

The idea that people should do cardio at first to get weight off would be stupid, even if weight loss was possible for the vast majority of people, since additional muscle mass in theory raises basal metabolic rate and doing only cardio causes you to lose lean muscle mass as well as fat. The truth is that most people will never be able to achieve long term weight loss.  If you have a 400 pound object and your dolly will only hold 200 pounds without breaking, you don’t try to make the object lighter – you get a stronger dolly.  Considering the realities of weight loss it is super extra ridiculous for a personal trainer to purposefully not add strength to facilitate mobility in a larger body.

Similarly the idea of not wanting to “add weight” to the body with strength training seems to be based on the concept that smaller is always better if you’re fat, which is just modern mythology. I believe that fitness programs should be based around the client’s actual goals.  If you want to compete as an Olympic weightlifter your training program should be very different than if your goal is to be able to pick up your grandkid. Programs designed to just make people smaller are almost guaranteed to fail, and when they do, those clients won’t be any closer to any functional life goal. Also, strength training can be really good for people who don’t enjoy more cardiovascular-centered workouts, and weight training programs can be designed to create a cardio benefit without being anything like running or being on the elliptical or whatever.

For me being strong is about more than functionality too.  I like how I feel about myself when I’m strong.  I feel like I can trust my body and I feel more prepared to take on whatever might happen, I walk through the world differently when I feel strong.  I remember when Darryl first asked me to climb the Santa Monica Stairs for the film and though they looked daunting, I didn’t hesitate because I knew that my strength would allow me to do it.  Of course it’s not like that for everyone and I’m not saying that it should be, just suggesting that if you’ve never tried strength training you might give it a shot and see how you feel.

To be clear, strength is not an “if one person can do it anybody can” situation.  People’s genetics are different – some are built with the ability to put on more muscle, or more of certain types of muscle than others (most women do not have the genetics to become “bulky”).  And I’m not saying that my love of strength training overrides the studies that show that 30 minutes of movement a day gives you amazing health benefits.

The point that I’m trying to make is that if you are struggling with mobility, or with body confidence, and you feel like you would move better, or like your body more if you were lighter, then based on both science and hearsay you might consider putting some energy towards being stronger.

This blog is supported by its readers rather than corporate ads.  If you feel that you get value out of the blog, can afford it, and want to support my work and activism, please consider a paid subscription or a one-time contribution.  The regular e-mail subscription (available at the top right hand side of this page) is still completely free.   Thanks for reading! ~Ragen

Published in: on December 30, 2011 at 7:27 am  Comments (25)  

25 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I find it weird that a trainer would think adding muscle bulks a person up anyway. That’s been debunked a gazillion times – not everybody can put on that kind of muscle. You’d also think the trainer would want to offer a range of exercises, from core training to aerobic to flexibility. Isn’t that what personal trainers are supposed to offer? A varied program? Otherwise you can just join in an aerobics class and save your money. Sounds like a personal trainer well worth avoiding, not just because he’s a dick.

    • I’m a woman that lifts weights regularly and my body tends to “bulk up”; I have visible muscle and definition in my arms and shoulders and back.

      It’s pretty awesome, actually! My goal wasn’t to look ‘toned’ and thinner, my goal was to improve my functional strength and ability to move heavy objects. And I don’t mind having visual confirmation of my progress on that front.

      • I’m also a “bulky” woman when I lift weights (Thanks Viking ancestors!!!). I have always loved weight training, always loved the way it feels to USE my body the way that nature seems to have designed it. I’m built for comfort and torque, not for speed baby. :)
        Visual confirmation is awesome! Especially when you can invite people to The Gun Show, lol.

      • Another woman who adds bulk here. From what I’ve seen of other women doing strength training (of whatever sort), I do think I’m the exception rather than the rule on that, though. I tend to see more women who don’t add muscle bulk compared to those of us who do.

  2. I would think that strength training could burn fat and add muscle at the same time. Does it not?

    • That depends on a lot of different factors, and any weight loss is not likely to be permanent although muscle strength gained is – that’s why I focus on the functional aspects.

      ~Ragen

  3. This is just a nitpick about your title, not your general point– the most neglected aspect of health may actually be maintaining social relationships.

    I’ve been reading _The Longevity Project_– it’s about the results of an 80 year study of the lives of a large group of bright children, and the conclusion is that the two biggest predictors of longevity are conscientiousness and maintaining social relationships. As it says in the book “Marathonlessness isn’t a disease”.

    The study has its limits, if only because the world is somewhat different now and not everyone starts out as a bright child, but it does suggest that the current high emphasis on food and exercise is misplaced.

    • I thought it was going to be about emotional health too.

      I will look up the Longevity Project; what do they mean by “conscientiousness”? (I’m wondering if that’s something like the finding that people who take vitamins tend to be in better health, even when the vitamins have not clinically been shown to boost health if you don’t have a deficiency. Michael Pollan summed that up as something like “Be the sort of person who WOULD take vitamins.”)

      That said, I have been neglecting strength-training & I really appreciate this post. I don’t have a gym/trainer budget but I know I could be doing some pushups-from-the-knees.

      • I don’t think they have a formal definition in the book, but conscientiousness includes being thrifty, persistent, detail oriented, and dependable.

        They found that conscientious people tended to live longer because they took better care of themselves, were less likely to get ill for as yet unexplained reasons, and being conscientious led people into healthier situations and relationships.

    • I loved the post but I thought it would be about friendships when I first clicked on it —
      I agree though strength training has been some of my favorite aspects of exercise I just thought I was guilty of liking it too much because I should be doing cardio instead…

  4. You don’t eat less to build muscle. Muscle is active tissue and uses a lot of energy, and the brain is also an energy hog. But the brain controls everything so if you eat less, your brain will tell your body to break down muscle to conserve energy. If you want to build muscle, you might even need to increase your food intake. But first, switch up the weights and cardio without making any dietary changes and see what happens. Then take it from there.

    • She said she was adding food – or protein anyway – since she did NOT believe that “eat less, exercise more” was good advice.

    • Do you have any idea when I should be able to see an in increase in muscle?
      My trainer suggested to measure the ratio every month, but that seemed a bit fast to me.

      I think my earlier post got deleted, because I used the word diet for they way I eat. By diet I did not mean slimming diet. I’m not looking to loose weight.

  5. I think this sounds like a fabulous idea! I am trying to be healthier this year, and to focus on healthy activity, instead of trying to diet (again). I really like the idea of strength training, but have never really done it before. Any suggestions for where/how to start? Or some beginners resources for someone who cannot afford a gym membership? Thanks!

  6. I have actually gotten smaller doing strength training, not bigger and it took me a lot less time than it would if I had been doing cardio only. Not good at sticking with it though but I need to if for no other reason that it makes it easier for me to do certain day to day tasks that can get difficult for me when I’m not doing those kinds of exercises.

  7. Thanks for stating what should be obvious in a really nice way.
    Don’t get me started on the ick factor of that trainer.

    I just recently had an epiphany on my own workouts about neglecting strength training. I’m a swimmer, and had gotten too focused on speed and distance. Couldn’t figure out why my knees felt so crappy on long hikes. Uh, strength and conditioning, anyone?

    It was actually kind of emotional for me to give up 1/3 of my distance and spend 20 minutes on strength training. Which in the water makes me look like the crazy weird fat floaty lady. Versus the crazy weird fat fast lady. Didn’t realize I cared. Interesting to find out about myself.

    Thanks for reinforcing this!

  8. I haaaate cardio. I have never seen the point in hamstering on a treadmill or elliptical, and as much as I adore my marathoning friends for their commitment, it’s just not my thing. I get my cardio through dance, but if I’m straight up exercising and not just having fun, I hit the weights. I can see my progress so much more easily when I have to switch to a heavier weight than if I have to set the treadmill to a faster setting. (And let me be clear: I think weights are a lot of fun.)

  9. I think flexibility and coordination- particularly the latter- are more overlooked than strength, honestly. Most fat people of my acquaintance are so afraid of moving they have no idea they have a core, much less how to center themselves and originate movement from it.

    In my experience, which includes a fair amount of time as a gym rat and hanging out with lots of marathoners and triathletes, people think of aerobics first, strength second, and perhaps when pushed will acknowledge flexibility as a distant third, adding it to their routines in a way similar to how they put vegetables on their plates. If I mention coordination as a fourth factor in fitness, I am met with blank stares.

    • Hm, I suggest to some male friends on occasion, when they complain how their back/shoulders/whatever hurts, that maybe they should try yoga, as bike riding is only cardio, and they should do some muscle and flexibility work, but they won’t hear it. Very odd. I hadn’t really thought of coordination, but I do mention balance, as one of said friend’s dad can hike much faster and farther than me, but can hardly balance enough to get into a kayak. I hardly like yoga, but do it because I like how it makes me feel, though I mostly do strength training and cardio anyway.

  10. Thanks for this post. I completely agree that weight training is so often overlooked– especially by women, and especially by those deemed “overweight”– and very often because of the fear of adding even more “bulk.” It is so sad to me that this is one of the main “attributes” (or lack thereof) ascribed to weight lifting, as I can speak from personal experience to the fact that weight training offers instead a myriad of benefits.

    Very interesting, too, is the fact that I have found that my body–and, both independently and subsequently, my mental health– responds MUCH better to weight training than it does to regular high-intensity cardio. Where intense cardio leaves me feeling drained, headachy, foggy, and irritable (even though I am well-fueled before and after workouts), weight training never fails to leave me uplifted, energized, and empowered. My body feels (and, whether it matters or not, looks) better when I weight train more often than I do cardio… just another example of the fact that One Size Fits All (“high-intensity cardio is always good for you!”) doesn’t apply even to traditionally “healthful” behaviors

  11. Personal trainers are nuts…. I should know, because I am one ;)

    In an attempt to – I don’t even know what! – we tend to be woefully inconsistent and platitude heavy. Something my brother said the other day, very astutely, is that you can see people’s self-loathing in the way they train. I know a number of trainers who think they need to hit it hard every time, who push themselves and their clients way past the point of fatigue, way past the point of doing anything actually useful or enjoyable, or anything that involves any kind of education, body awareness, or specificity, and you see the craziest exercise programs out there, all over the place. The first priority really should be doing something the client finds enjoyable and satisfying, because there’s really no other way to ensure any kind of training longevity (IMO).

  12. I have found that many personal trainers are not very well informed. You have to remember that in many places there aren’t very rigorous standards to become a trainer. How weight training will affected a person is so variable. Personally, I get really lean when I do lots of weights, far more so than when I just do cardio so this guy’s logic would make no sense for me. You’re really better off doing some research on your own before engaging a trainer so you can tell if they are a good trainer or not.

  13. So if you have a 400 pound object and your dolly will only hold 200 pounds without breaking, you don’t try to make the object lighter – you get a stronger dolly.

    This is interesting, it compliments the mental aspect too. If you are fat and people think that’s a problem, weakening your mind would hardly be any kind of answer, on the contrary, you need to strengthen it.

    Using this as an excuse to cultivate more self respect than an average person would. And if the mainstream is against that, then use that to acquire more independence from the mainstream, and so on.

    So cultivate more strength to move yourself, a better mindset to think for yourself and better posture to carry yourself, then allow your detractors to rave on senselessly.

  14. I couldn’t agree with this post more if I tried. Strength training makes life easier and even safer. It can help strengthen bone and fight osteoporosis as women get older, and it puts on lean muscle, which is good for everyone’s health. Plus, it’s so rewarding – you get the constant feedback of being able to increase weights, or reps, or time, or whatever it is (depending on what kind of training you’re doing).

  15. i do not lose weight, fat, anything doing just cardio. i don’t lose “pounds” doing weights, but my goodness, i look and feel better. even with the added “bulk” my clothes fit better, my posture’s better and i just feel so much more confident. i like being strong, it makes almost everything else easier to do – from hiking, walking the dog, the elliptical (ick), yoga, cleaning the house everything. and when i’m strong, i’m much more willing to exercise. i stopped with the strength training this past year, and it wasn’t worth it. the confidence from feeling strong is worth spending time at the gym (i do NOT like working out).

    on a side note, my friend had some jerk trainer at a big gym tell her she had some crazy bmi, which we figured would mean she was 80% fat. i’m not sure that’s even possible.


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