Ideas for managing the “weight gain gap”

So we’re in the thick of the holiday season, where you’ve purchased everything you’re going to make for Thanksgiving and cannot wait to push it down your neck. I get it! I spent yesterday going to 4 stores just to get the ingredients for a (totally incredible) spice blend that will go on our roasted sweet potatoes & squash.

But this is also the time of year where we actually gain the weight that contributes to eventual obesity. A study back in 2000 showed that people gained 1-2 pounds of weight between November and January, and had not lost the weight by summer the following year.  A recent analysis of studies confirmed this result.

Given the above, I’m not going to give you a complicated diet that deprives you of the culinary joys of the season. Rather, like so much of what I’ve come to love, we’re going to focus on mindset and process. Two big ideas here:

1) Make sure your habits have the right mindset

We “know” what a good diet looks like: meat, veggies, fruits, nuts & seeds, good quality fats. They’re eaten to satiety, but not to the point of being stuffed. Repeat until you become a really attractive corpse. But during this time of year, we’re going to be faced with challenges and how we adapt to them is going to determine where we stand come January. Take a page from good coaching and change how you think about the challenge.

Instead of thinking of your diet and exercise as something to be “performed” this time of year, try to maintain a mastery orientation, which goes like this:

-Task Evolving
-Effort & Process
-Improvement (Intrinsic)
-Self-Reference Comparisons

Did you do better at today’s party than the party last week? That’s improvement! Do you feel more in control of your eating than you did last year (as opposed to what you imagine someone else doing)? That’s a self-reference comparison.

But you also need your behaviors to be adaptive. In other words, if you have to only eat a very narrow way, you’re fragile and are likely to throw caution to the wind when you can’t eat just so. We’re great at all or nothing in America and that gets us into trouble. Instead, adaptive behaviors share the following traits:

-Intrinsic motivation
-Adherence when faced with failure
-Effort and ability lead to success

You can’t control the outcome of any process, but you can keep up behaviors that narrow the possible outcomes. Will keeping up with 80% of your workout and only having 1 slice of cake result in less to no holiday weight gain? It’s certainly more likely than no training and cake de jour.

2. Give yourself permission to fail

Notice that in the trait component above, there’s “adherence when faced with failure.” Things aren’t going to go as planned, and that’s OK, as long as you know how to deal with it. That starts with expecting things to not work out perfectly. If you give yourself permission to fail, you’re more likely to get back up, stick to the process, and succeed in the long term.

A great example of this is from a study that aimed to look at how much weight a group of dieters would gain back when instructed to take a diet break. That is, they had lost some amount of weight on a prescribed diet and were instructed to stop their diet, with the explicit goal of causing a relapse. The thing is that since the break was prescribed (e.g. The dieters had permission to not diet), the result was that there was very little weight gain and that when the dieters went back to the assigned diet, they lost even more weight.

So if you use the mindset of “Things aren’t going to be perfect and that’s OK” with the strategies in number 1 above, you have a way to enjoy some cake and not leave it on your waist through summer and beyond.

And if there’s one final tip I can give, it’s to ditch the scale and use a specific pair of clothes as a metric for weight gain, or a notch on your belt. Weight will fluctuate due to salt, water,carbs, and total food volume, but circumference abides and is unchanging.

Some people “get it” and some people don’t.

I’m going to try blogging once per week, to any length, about things I’ve been thinking about, or about what I’ve been reading as long as it pertains to exercise science in some capacity.

I’ve noticed that across the blogosphere, there seems to be a binary state of affairs regarding diet and exercise: you either “get” diet, or you “get” exercise, with perpetual tweaking, fretting, or obsessing about the other. For example, my weight has stayed within a 3 pound window for the past 6 years. I don’t fret about calories, portions, or “being as paleo as possible.” I eat real food, from a variety of plant and animal sources, and enjoy indulgences periodically. I fast 16-18 hours a day, sometimes more, sometimes less. But I never, ever worry about it. I’m not fretting over if tiger nuts existed before the timeframe maintained by some as the spillover point from a higher-fat hunter/gatherer existence to that of a higher carbohydrate agrarian existence. I’m not worrying about if 151 grams of carbs are going to make me fat, nor if since today I ate all meat or all plants is going to impact my health long-term in any way. I abide, man.

But exercise? I wake up in the morning and my brain lights up, trying to find the way to turn myself into an ultra marathoning, knife-throwing, hand balancing, 6’3″ quasi gymnast, all while being joint-friendly, and on as few workouts a week as possible. I rationally understand that it’s an emotional thing, driven by the fact that I never became the hulking superhero of my childhood comic book fantasies, no matter how much food I shoved down my neck, how many “pro hormones” I took (I love that you were injecting it and could still lie to yourself that it wasn’t a steroid), or how heavy I lifted. I excelled in basketball and the high jump for a reason, and it wasn’t because I had the genes to be the Hulk. Spiderman is still an ectomorph, even with the proportionate strength of a spider. The genes abide, no matter how much I think I can hack the system. Certainly there are better ways but diminishing returns happen quickly.

I will tell you that it’s getting better. I’ll get closer to the zen I have for nutrition, largely because I have no choice given my boys and other changes in my life. By getting rid of the Paradox of Choice, I can focus my efforts on the things that count.

The Value Of Abbreviated Training

Long time, no talk. Hope you all have been well. Briefly, an abbreviated post (see what I did there?).

Sarah and I recently had our second child and I cannot begin to tell you the value that I now derive from that which I have been a proponent of for 16+ years. Rationally, I understood the value of brief, basic work, and have more or less adhered to this type of training over my career. Now, with 2 children at or under 2 years, I find even more value. Knowing that I can get a great strength workout in 12 minutes (full Body By Science-type) or less (using the ARX) is not just appealing but also essential. While I might like to train more, the truth is that I’ve been more or less the same weight and body fat percentage for 5+ years now. If I can maintain the leanness and muscle on such a small amount of training, why do it more?

But I have been adding 1 other “session” per week: a running workout. This is also low volume, typically mile or half mile repeats,with the odd time trial, in preparation of a 5k race, something I’ve never done. Again, this is done in less than 25 minutes (including rest intervals). I’m using the structure of Aaron Olsen’s Low Mileage Running, but only his first key workouts. We’ll see how I do.

You might notice this is akin to how Clarence Bass has returned to training: high effort, but modest volume. Don’t misunderstand: my day is filled with lots of physical activity, hours and hours of it, but formal intense exercise is short and brief. It works for me, and is even more valuable than I had ever understood.

Questions & Answers: Generalism & Modality Combination

Just received this question:


Great article. How might a workout look if you’re combining modalities and only have a few days a week to train? I have a job and a kid; I can’t wander the world looking for new ways to move just because!

-Tyler Skanner, Austin, TX

Thanks Tyler,

So here’s a workout I did earlier this week that attempts to bridge some modalities into a comprehensive “General Generalist” routine:

  • The main thrust of my workout was ring training akin to the sample program provided by GMB here.
  • In addition, I was performing trap bar deadlift, which I actually started the routine with while I warmed up my shoulders and did handstand work (I always start with handstands).
  • So after the handstands, deadlifts, and light ring work, I moved into the main exercises. Between sets I performed Movnat combos similar to those found at these links:
  • At the end of the workout, I went for a long walk just because.
  • Later that evening, I did a pre-bed movement flow that touches on some play elements and shoulder/back stretching elements like down dog, cat/camel, and super pigeon.

On my “non-training” days, I usually end up playing with my son in the backyard, so lots of long jumps, cartwheels, and body levers. In addition, I’ll break out the slackline and carry him on that.

Note that in the “added” combo work between work sets, the focus is always on quality. There’s a rough number guide, but it’s mostly about keeping it pretty, being efficient, moving with grace…those are the goals.

What is a “generalist” anyway?

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”— Robert Heinlein

That quote has been kicking around for ages and is often used as a description for why human beings shouldn’t aspire, as a course of action, to specialize if one’s goal is to become a fully-functioning human animal on as many ecological levels as possible. Our great uniqueness, if we have it beyond the ability to sweat & run (and opposable thumbs), is our ability to combine many mediocrities into an advantage based on the context in which the action takes place. Our big brains create complex motor patterns better than any other creature, can adopt them quickly though not perfectly.

Let’s step back: who wants to be mediocre? Well let’s define it (via Webster’s):


adjective \ˌmē-dē-ˈō-kər\

: not very good

:  of moderate or low quality, value, ability, or performance :  ordinary, so-so
Alright that still doesn’t seem like it’s making my case, right? Mediocre, by definition, is comparative within a specific domain. Specialists compared against one another or laypersons. But if you compare the skills against a general population, suddenly it’s pretty good. Like a 30 second handstand is nothing compared to what Yuri Marmarstein can do, but compared to the general population, you are a superior human being in this domain.
The best part about that? You can possess a broad spate of mediocrity in many many arenas that makes you look like Heinlein’s definition of the “Competent Man” shown at the start of this post. So how long would that take per skill set?
According to Josh Kaufman, that’s about 20 hours of deliberate practice:

So that’s about getting to the top of the initial steep curve of a skill. That’s where most people want to be; if they say they want to learn how to juggle, they don’t usually mean chainsaws on a unicycle while on fire. They mean 3 tennis balls for more that a few tosses. That’s the broad spectrum competency we’re talking about here. It’s really about the essentials.

Essential vs. Complete

Here’s where things get interesting: being a generalist is really about the essentials versus the complete picture. It reminds me of an audiobook that Ken Wilber made some years ago, where he talked about Buddhism in a similar fashion:

Needleman once said that Zen was essential Buddhism, and that Tibetan Buddhism was complete Buddhism. That’s sort of what it is, Zen it goes right to the heart: Satori! This is it, satori! IF you don’t have satori, you don’t have Buddhism. But Tibetan is like the whole shebang. I mean it’s got every single aspect, vehicle, gross, subtle, causal, all sorts of practices.

And I think that’s where the wheels come off for people: they think that a generalist is broadly specialized in a lot of areas, but it’s really just knowing the essentials in a lot of areas. Aiming to be a complete human being, functionally, is not about collecting a lot of specialization, but gaining the essentials in many areas and being able to apply them efficiently.

The Age Dilemma

Finally, there seems to be some sort of base level that we regress toward over time but can maintain. Our athletic peak, depending on event, seems to be late 20’s to early 40’s (with power events earlier and distance events later). From there we seem to just drip a small loss of ability until we reach some sort of equilibrium, maintaining motor skill, assuming activity,  until we die… a sort of biomechanical, athletic headroom that squares off when we do.

Chris McDougall talks about this with regard to distance running, and it’s clearly there with regards to weight training. But it’s even there with calisthenic/bodyweight activities that seem structurally benign. Even old master hand balancers lose their ability to do incredible one handed feats…but they can still hit a really decent handstand without trouble.

So my question is as always: is what you build above baseline beneficial, or is all the work just beating on the joints and making it harder to maintain ability with age? It certainly seems that those most accomplished in their youth are significantly less able as they get much older. They could have just changed interests, or those who still “have it” just aren’t visible like they used to be.

What does “General” look like?

I know I’ve mentioned it before, but I think that if you’re looking to be a “generalist” here’s some ideas:

  • Get good at GMB’s Level 1 curriculum (they don’t pay me or anything, I just think it’s a good packaged answer to the question) OR…
  • Find a Movnat practitioner (or some other phylogentic movement skill system practitioner) OR…
  • Do some minimal level of resistance training with a lot of the movement activity mentioned above (similar to my blog post here).
  • Include some sort of hinge power patterning. Doesn’t have to be really heavy, but should be accessible. The old Okinawan women can squat off the ground at 98 years because they’ve always squatted off the ground.
  • You’re not “born to run”…but you should be able to, and should check in on that from time to time. James’ talk elaborates on that, which you can view here.
  • Lots and lots of play.

That’s my 2 cents; what do you think?

It’s True: Wood Really Is Better

I feel like I’m going all Raymond Calitri here:


“Metal is cold…ugly. Wood is warm…clean…provided by nature.”

I would have thought it crazy, but a fictional character is a great, bad action flick is right. Ryan Hurst at GMB talks about this in a podcast but wood just feels better for the sake of doing bodyweight type training. It’s also harder (when it comes to rings) to do right, so you can’t screw around and muscle your way through it. You have to abide.

“Suddenly We Were Aspiring Gymnasts.”

Craig’s comment from a couple posts ago got me thinking. First the comment:

Interesting to see your followup comments about body weight exercise and injury. After reading the previous post, I looked at the GMB site and saw a lot of gymnastic looking stuff. My first thought was how rough some of those things can be on the shoulders. Shoulders are to gymnasts as low backs are to deadlifters, an endless source of worry.

Thanks Craig. First my original follow up:

I think the GMB guys would say 2 things: 1) They’re not gymnasts, in that they’re not even approaching things that actually count as a Gymnastic move until their level 2 programs. They blend multiple disciplines.

And 2) you have to factor the fact that gymnastics is a full-time job, wrecking the shoulders is a risk because they’re the lynchpin of the movement. It’s a volume issue, not necessarily a modality issue.

Effectively you’re making the inverse association that people make regarding Michael Phelps, swimming, and leanness. Neither are accurate.

I wanted to expand on that point a bit. First, GMB will tell you that they aren’t gymnasts. Sure they’re gymnast inspired, but they combine yoga, calisthenics, and low level gymnastics stuff into their programs. You can learn to do some pretty cool stuff, especially compared to just squatting a bunch of weight to impress gym junkies (if that’s your thing, cool).

But this speaks to a larger point: namely that the moves themselves are inherently dangerous. Some of them have the potential to be more problematic than the others, certainly. This is the cost/benefit analysis that you make when doing anything. For example I want the skill of a bent arm stand, so I accept the increased risk of, say, busting my face compared to a standing press.

It’s also worth noting that the reason gymnasts shoulders are an endless source of worry precisely because of the volume they work with. Twenty plus hours a week of skill work on top of strength work would ruin most shoulders. Further, they’ve proven they can tolerate the volume if they’re at the Collegiate/Olympic level. The problem wasn’t the mere presence of a “gymnastic move” but the volume of its use. The GMB programs might be 3 hours a week, tops, of moves that also include things that aren’t gymnastic in difficulty, again like yoga. As noted, it’s the inverse of people thinking that merely swimming will make them lean like Michael Phelps, not the fact that he’s swimming 8 hours a day at peak training.

But if I’m looking at the industry as a whole, there’s an element of at least including some amount of bodyweight training in routines, both because it’s damn fun, and it’s user friendly/cost effective. The title of this post is from Chris over at Conditioning Research when talking about Coach Sommer’s first articles and how “everyone” became “aspiring gymnasts.” Maybe not, but at least a few cool moves spice up the routine and gain some fun skills.

A Little Bad News/Good News

Remember how in my talk “Resistance Training, Brain Structure, and Brain Function,” I talked about how much of the evidence I was presenting was from my graduate research? I had submitted that paper for publication and was waiting to hear back.

Bad news: My paper was rejected!

Good news: It was rejected because not long prior to my submission, a very similar paper was published covering the very same subject. It’s super-thorough, diving deeper into many of, though not all of, the things I covered in my paper.

So 5 Taiwanese PhD’s versus me in a paper writing contest? I’d bet on them too!

So go here and click the “download now” link to read the whole thing.

More Questions: Supplements and movement

Got another question, and another answer!

Fantastic. I’m considering doing equipment free bodyweight training and being active instead of those draining infrequent sessions. Everybody has 45 minutes a day for “activity”. You don’t mention supplements. I became kind of mentally dependent on creatine 5g/day and would like to drop it, the fear of missing out is there although there is not much evidence it “works” for me. Anyway, you found a nice balance. Is it 3 workouts plus 6 “moving” or 3 plus 3 equals 6?

Thanks Ondřej! Really quickly: just because I’ve switched to bodyweight training in my own life does NOT mean that I don’t see value in HIT or infrequent/intense workouts. They’re great: wonderful for creating stimuli that results in health outcomes. If your goal is skill-based, you’ll need more practice, period. I’ve previously discussed how to combine HIT & movement skill work if you’d like to do such a thing here and here.


As far as supplements, I take a probiotic and fish oil sporadically. If I was to wager it would be 4 to 5 days per week. Again, no worry about missing out, though I know EXACTLY where you are coming from! Why those supplements? They’re what I recommend all of my clients take, if not daily, on a regular basis.

The only “supplement” I take daily is MCT/C8 oil in the morning with my coffee. I’ve never tested my blood ketones, so I don’t have a “target range” for anything. This is based on what Paul Jaminet has noted for raising HDL, though my HDL last time was 79, so I don’t really need it for that either.

That said there is certainly a cognitive effect after having been away from the MCT’s for a while that quickly becomes the norm. I use it “daily” roughly 60% of the year, if I was to estimate.


So in regards to my schedule, I tend to to “3+3” days per week. There have been days that I can manage, through the grace of whatever deity you’re currently praying to, to get a morning “workout” and an afternoon “movement” session, but they’re exceedingly rare. Instead what tends to happen is I rip out a morning “handstand” session between clients and then do my “workout” at home. Normally the handstands are the warmup for the workout but you’ve got to be flexible.

I don’t find that the movement sessions, if planned right, impede progress. If anything, the movement feels good in the face of any soreness I may have from my workout. This is also on top of any minor “movement goals” I have like “hang 7 minutes a day” or “backbend 5 minutes a day” that I can just shove into my training day.