In Training the Obese Beginner: Part 3 I basically summarized everything to date to conclude that the best approach to target all of the various issues going in this population on was a combination of progressive volume higher rep weight training (to deplete muscle glycogen) along with dietary modifications (both carbohydrate and/or calorie reductions).
This would ideally be combined with progressive amounts of cardio as fitness improves to both burn of fatty acids directly and start to retool mitochondria to overcome that defect. Which is all well and good but doesn’t provide much in the way of practical guidance.
And, make no mistake, I’m going to talk about those very things in the last two parts of the series (again, remember this is all leading into a brand spanking new video at the end of this mess). Today, I want to take a slightly different approach to the topic by looking at of how not to go about training the obese beginner.
Breaking them In without Breaking Them: Part 1
As I noted in Training the Obese Beginner: Part 2 and talked about in the Beginning Weight Training series (in a different context), most beginning trainees have a low tolerance for training. And at least one goal of the initial phases of working out is (or at least should be), to get them in shape to be able to actually train.
I realize that this sounds illogical but trust me it isn’t.
Now, as most will hopefully readily accept probably the single most important facet of improving any aspect of your life (including fitness and health) is consistency. As the old joke goes “Showing up is half the battle” and the simple fact is that getting many people to simply show up in the first place is often the problem. That means getting folks into the habit of performing regular activity.
In the initial stages of training, consistency in training (or diet) is far more important than anything else. It’s about forming habits, you can worry about issues of volume, frequency, intensity later. But first and foremost you have to get people showing up on a regular basis. Because the most brilliant training program isn’t worth a damn if the person isn’t there to actually do it.
And don’t read this as one of those silly things that occasionally gets voiced “Oh, I’ll join a gym after I get into shape.” by people. I’m saying that you can’t really train someone effectively (in the sense of really training them hard enough to improve physiological qualities) initially until you get them in at least basic shape first. Well, you can, in that you can always beat the hell out of them before they are ready for it. But only if you want to hurt them and/or or make them quit.
I’d note that this isn’t specific to the obese client, it really applies to anyone new to training whether the goals are related to sports, performance or simply changing body composition. Anybody new to training needs a break-in period to get them prepared to train effectively and I’d note that all athletes go through at least a short re-break in period after returning from a layoff or their transition phase. Certainly it may only be a few weeks before the real training starts but nobody goes balls out day 1 out of the gate.
However, there are often some subtle motivational and psychological differences between the “average” obese beginner and the wannabe psycho motivated would-be athlete or bodybuilder or whatever that I think many people tend to forget about. And that’s something I want to look at briefly.
In the second case, that of a motivated individual, the psychology is often such that even if you beat up on them the first day, they’ll come back for more. They want to be there, they want to be big, they want to be strong or they want to perform at the highest levels of their sport.
This type of trainee want desperately to be in the gym getting their brains beaten in to get to their goals. So you can beat the crap out of them and they’ll come back for more. I still think it’s a bad idea to do it that way but you can usually “get away” with it without chasing them off. In many ways, they’ll probably equate getting beaten on with reaching their goal anyhow. So they keep coming back.
But that’s generally very different from the situation I’m addressing in this article series, the obese beginner who, with all likelihood not only has a low exercise tolerance but probably doesn’t really want to be exercising in the first place.I mentioned this in Part 1 but will reiterate it here: perhaps they had previous bad/failed experiences with trying to work out. Perhaps their last trainer beat the crap out of them and made them hate exercise.
But odds are that part of what put them where they are in the first place is a general dislike/disillusionment with exercise. Maybe they are just wired that they don’t enjoy it (there is at least some evidence that activity patterns are “hardwired” into the brain). Maybe they just expect it to be miserable and go into it with the wrong attitude, proving to themselves what they already believed.
Ultimately it sort of doesn’t matter what the underlying reason is; rather, my point is that this is a population that generally doesn’t want to be in the gym in first place as often as not. Basically, in contrast to the psycho who wants to be in the gym, in the typical obese beginner, you’re dealing with the diametrically opposed psychology.
And in that population, if you beat up on them the first day, odds are they won’t ever come back. Not unless you got them to pay for the big personal trainer package up front. Sometimes not even then. Even if you know you have them for the next month, beating on them out of the gate is still usually not the best approach in my opinion. Discussing this will take most of the rest of today but will set up for me to finish in the last two parts.
In general, I think it’s fair to say that most who become personal trainers tend to come from the motivated psycho athlete population; if they didn’t have that drive they wouldn’t have become trainers. This isn’t universal of course but I daresay it’s more common than not. And what I find is that the psycho motivated hard head often has no understanding, much less appreciation, of the psychology of someone coming from the obese beginner population; they were never there themselves and can’t understand someone who is.
Breaking them In without Breaking Them: Part 2
Now I know that some trainers operate this way, bringing their clients in, beating them up, and that some of them seem to make it work (Crossfit sure seems to be doing ok despite regularly injuring it’s members). I once asked a trainer I knew “So how do you keep them coming back if you make them too sore to move on day 1?”
His answer, in a deep Scottish Brogue was “Oh, we get the money upfront, it doesn’t matter what we do; they’ve paid enough that we know they’ll come back.” It’s really no wonder he has to steal other people’s work, he doesn’t have a clue about how to actually train someone.
In any case, my goal in training that second population, the non-motivated beginner trainee (obese or not) was always this: I wanted to break them into training without breaking them, to make them realize that exercise didn’t have to be miserable and exhausting and soreness inducing, so that I’d keep them coming back consistently.
As noted above, that’s more important than anything else in the initial stages: keep them coming back consistently enough so that exercise becomes a habit. Consistently enough so that they’d start to see/feel some of the benefits (or see changes in body composition) at which point I’d usually have them hooked. Since that typically took anywhere from 3-6 weeks (depending on what you’re talking about/looking at) that meant ensuring that they were consistent over at least that time frame.
By taking a longer view, focusing on only that consistency, it meant that , over time, gradually increase the workload and move them to higher levels of fitness without ever feeling like they were really being beaten up. And I did it while getting them into good exercise habits by doing my best to ensure that they came back long enough to start realizing benefits and actually wanting to be there.
Towards that goal, every workout was meant to be a little bit of an improvement over the last one (so that they got positive reinforcement and felt successful in what they were trying to do) without ever really breaking them. By the time they reached a fairly high level of output and work performance, they had never really felt the increases because they were so gradual. It just sort of snuck up on them.
To be honest, I wasn’t aware of any of the science or research that I’m going to bore you with below; that’s just what made sense to me. Either I was just lucky, or somewhat intuitive, or simply didn’t have my head completely up my ass when it came to thinking about this stuff. But I didn’t see the logic of beating the crap out of a rank beginner and making them so unhappy that odds are they wouldn’t come back.
Basically, and this can be tough, you have to take the long view on certain things. Because while beating up on them in the short-term may accomplish some things (some good, some bad; mostly bad in my opinion), the long-term results are at risk.
The Biggest Loser is a good example, to harp on that point. What happens when someone who has lost a ton of weight with 4+ hours of training per day and a massively restrictive diet gets in a situation where that’s not feasible? They have no idea where to go because the only approach they know is one that is simply unrealistic in the long-term for most folks.
Again, there are always exceptions to this, I’m speaking here in generalities. There are a time and a place for extreme approaches out the gate (as I discussed in Is Rapid Fat Loss Right for You, some data suggests that faster initial weight loss leads to better long-term maintenance but that’s diet, not exercise and it’s predicated on knowing how to move to maintenance afterwards). And, generally speaking, my feeling is that it’s better to take somewhat of the long view, especially with regards the exercise program to give a better chance of long-term adherence.
Because, if instead of beating the crap out of them on day 1 and every day following, instead, you take the long-view and build up progressively and keep them coming back consistently without ever feeling like it’s miserable or terrible, the odds of getting them into good habits goes up. And that leads me into my last irrelevant tangent for the series (famous last words).
Ok, that dead horse has been beaten, now it’s time to really bore the hell out of you.
Affect, Self-Paced Exercise and Self-determination Theory: Part 1
Affect is a psychological term, think of it very simplistically as how you feel either during or after an activity (I’m sure at least one reader with a psych background will take issue with this extremely broad definition; I can live with it). So if you watch a sad movie and come out of it sad, that might be termed a negative affect.
If you watch a Will Ferrell movie and come out of it laughing and happy, well, two things: First that’s a positive affect, you felt better afterwards. Second, you have terrible taste in movies and no sense of real comedy because that guy is about as funny as a heart attack. But I digress.
In the beginning trainee (and whether this is specific to the obese trainee or not is not relevant here), generating a positive affect from exercise is important, at least assuming you want them to continue doing it. Because as a generality, people don’t tend to continue things that make them feel bad.
And if the first day out of the gate, a trainee comes out of exercise feeling miserable, exhausted, like a failure and wakes up the next day too sore to move, that’s going to generate a negative affect; both during and after the training session. Basically they will have a negative emotional/psychological response to what they are trying to change in their life. In general, that is not consistent with generating long-term adherence.
To beat this dead horse down, if I make you do something every other day that does nothing but make you feel miserable (on either a psychological or physiological level), do you consider yourself likely to continue doing it? Probably not.
Of course, there are exceptions; that odd subculture of folks who equate pain and suffering with positive outcomes. They are usually called athletes. Or masochists. Not that there is really a difference. But that’s doesn’t apply to the majority of whom I’m talking about. Or the majority of mentally balanced individuals (which top athletes never are).
I bring this up as what I see far too many trainers do (and some trainees do in fact ask for this) is bring their beginner clients (obese or not) in and just beat the piss out of them on the first day. Watch any first episode of the Biggest Loser for an example, or just watch the gym and see what the trainers often do with clients on the first day.
There are usually a few things going on here that I think drive this type of mentality.
The first is that the trainer has forgotten what it was like to be a beginner. I see too many trainers assume that what they are doing now (10+ years into their own training) is what everyone should do. Basically they know how to train themselves but have forgotten how to train a rank beginner. My old speed skating coach told me once that he always loved having new beginner skaters (many coaches will only work with established elites) as it forced him to revisit the fundamentals of training and skating. There is a lesson there.
Even there, as I mentioned above, even as beginners they probably started out in the psycho motivated camp I mentioned above; they didn’t mind being beaten up as they wanted to be there and be big or buff. They don’t understand what someone who doesn’t have the drive is going through even being in the gym in the first place. They’ve never been overweight (a point I’ll come back to in a later part) or self-conscious about exercise so they can’t understand why anybody else would be.
A second issue is that trainers often have this underlying need to “strut their stuff” really show the trainee that they know what they are doing. That means putting them through their paces and beating the tar out of them to show them how good they are. No. Bad trainer. Bad. No protein cookie for you.
You can show them how good you are AFTER you get them into a consistent routine. Day 1 is not the time. Neither is Day 3 or even Week 3. Beginners don’t need anything but the simplest stuff to get moving anyhow. There’s just no point to putting them through complex high-volume or high-intensity training out of the gate. It’s not necessary and is likely to have a negative rather than positive effect for most.
Of course, as noted, some clients want this and ask to be put through the grinder assuming that more is better and harder is better (thank you Puritan work ethic). And trainers, who usually don’t know better, are often happy to oblige, feeling that they should give the customer what they want.
But part of being a trainer in my opinion is education and knowing what’s right or wrong for the trainee (this goes for coaches too, athletes usually don’t know what they need; if they did they wouldn’t need the coach and it’s his job to tell the athlete when to shut up and listen). If that means educating them to do less (at least initially) rather than more, that’s what they should do. Not pander to the client’s (confused) belief about what they should be doing.
Ok, where am I going with this?
Affect, Self-Paced Exercise and Self-determination Theory: Part 2
So let’s assume for a second that the goal of exercise is to generate a positive affect, working from the assumption that this will give the greatest likelihood of keeping the person coming back and getting into a consistent routine. Which is not only fairly common sensical but supported by the research. How do we do that?
Research on exercise (mostly aerobic) has found that certain types of activity are more likely to generate a positive affect in beginners/the obese than others. I’d note that some other, really complex studies, find that differences in brain function suggest individual differences in how people’s affect change with different types of training but that’s far more complex than I have space to get into here.
In one specific study, exercise below, at or above the ventilatory threshold (VT, essentially the same as the lactate threshold, a bunch of other stuff as discussed in Predictors of Endurance Training Performance, just think of it as the highest intensity you can maintain for about an hour) were examined for its impact on affect after the training.
The study found this:
- Exercise below the VT was associated with a positive affect; that is most people came out of it feeling good about it.
- Exercise at the VT had the most variable response, some positive affect some negative affect.
- Exercise above the VT generated negative affect, most people finished feeling bad about it.
This isn’t really surprising except for maybe #2. The explanation for that has to do with internal motivations and individual variance. Some people, and this has to be judged on a case by case basis, don’t feel good about an activity if they don’t feel that they actually did some work.
That is, some folks find that stuff that is too easy feels like a waste of time. For them, working closer to VT generates positive affect; for others it doesn’t. But universally working below VT generated positive affect. And universally, working above the VT was a negative. Other work, using the lactate threshold (which is effectively the same as the VT) shows the same basic response; work below is consistently met with positive affect, work at with highly variable affect, work above with negative affect.
Quick question for all of the interval freaks: where do you think intervals fall relative to VT? What type of affect do you think it will generate in an untrained beginner? Why do you think even the researchers studying this point out that “While these results are interesting, the intensities used are far beyond what a beginner can be expected to sustain?” And yes, I will come back to the interval issue in a later part in more detail.
Seriously, knock that shit off. Even highly trained athletes don’t really “enjoy” interval training; they do it because it has to be done. But it doesn’t generate a positive affect; it’s simply that the benefits are worth the suffering. For the obese beginner…well, knock that shit off.
Affect, Self-Paced Exercise and Self-determination Theory Part 3
The above topic was the topic of a monster paper (with the title “Exercise, affect, and adherence: an integrated model and a case for self-paced exercise.“) and basically argue for using self-paced exercise (that is, allowing the trainee to pick their own comfortable pace for exercise) as a way of ensuring positive affect from it. That is, rather than pushing them to do something that makes them feel miserable and generate a negative affect (impairing compliance), let them pick the pace they want to give a better chance at positive affect and longer term adherence.
Interestingly, left to their own devices, most people will pick a pace that is near but below their own individual VT/LT discussed above. Basically they tend to pick a pace that’s challenging but doesn’t generate negative affect for them. The paper makes a strong case that allowing that type of self-pacing of exercise may be better than using more traditional methods (e.g. based on heart rate or VO2 max or heart rate reserve).
This is especially true given that, in the untrained beginner, things like VT/LT can vary so much that any stock standard intensity gauge (e.g. 70% of maximum heart rate) may put them well out of an exercise intensity that will generate a positive affect.
An additional benefit of allowing beginners to self-select their exercise intensity ties into something called self-determination theory (SDT) which, very broadly, refers to the idea that people who feel as if they have some control over what they are doing and the outcome do better than those who don’t.
Basically, people do more poorly when they feel as if they are just being told what to do rather than having some input over their own program or diet or what have you (at least one recent study showed massively better results with a diet group that applied SDT).
Of course, a counter argument to this is that, left to their own devices (and you can prove this to yourself in any gym by watching folks), most people will piss around for weeks or months without ever working outside of their comfort zone which is an equally poor approach at the other extreme; they’ll “walk” on the treadmill at some irrelevant intensity and never push the pace at all and wonder why magic doesn’t happen.
You have to find a middle ground (some of which involves educating the trainee about the need for progressive overload, etc.) between “murder them” and “piss around at an irrelevant intensity”. And at least some of that goes back to education (from a trainer’s perspective) making folks understand that as they get comfortable with things, they have to start working harder.
Mind you, and I’ll come back to this in a later part of the series (there’s only two more), this is really an issue for the longer term of training, not for the very beginning stages. In the beginning stages, letting folks self-select intensity would seem to provide the best benefits and fewest negatives in terms of long-term adherence type issues. Even if it’s “too low” off the bat, if that means getting them consistently into the gym that’s fine. Every study ever shows that pretty much anything above baseline improves fitness in beginners so hard they are working just doesn’t matter.
Again, mainly here I’m talking about the initial phases of training, how to get someone who has a low tolerance for activity and likely doesn’t want/like exercise, to keep showing up and doing it. That means having them finish EVERY workout on a positive note, and feeling as if they’ve not only accomplished something, but are progressing and feel as if they have some input over the program. But you do have to strike a balance here. But it appears that, at least with aerobic training, there may be some real benefit to allowing a self-paced intensity to be used.
Resistance training is a touch more complex, mind you, since self-selection of intensity can go all kinds of different ways (usually males will try to work far too hard and women won’t work at all). There I find that trainers have to exert a touch more control over things but I’m getting ahead of myself. That’s what I’ll discuss in the last two parts of the series.