Does your personal trainer teach you how to exercise or how to move?

Happy Friday Everyone! I thought I’d share a video from two of the top fitness pros in the business. It’s a sort of mini workshop on eccentric training of the muscles, diaphragmatic breathing and the neuromuscular network of myofascial anatomical “chains”. Sounds complicated but in short, they explain what is at the core of what I call, “movement training”.



It has been my experience and observation that once we learn how to walk, we start to forget concepts such as leverage and functional stability for the sake of taking short cuts in our daily activities. This is why every child fully squats when they want to reach the ground while nearly every adult will bend down from the hips instead (so as to not lower the center of gravity and have to burn all those calories raising it after the task is complete). As we become more distracted in our daily movements, we place strain on the wrong muscles and ligaments. This manifests in the form of chronic aches and sometimes acute injury.

It’s very important to remember how to move properly. I don’t often see this emphasis on foundational Kinesiological lessons outside of the Physical Medicine area. The fitness industry is almost 100% focused on burning calories and teaching people how to perform specific exercises. This makes good exercisers but it seldom produces good movers. This video briefly demonstrates and explains how not only proper form but body awareness and breath serve to improve our function and performance as Professional Human Beings.

Why does my personal trainer tell me to exercise less?

Pacific Ocean (Nov. 10, 2004) - Machinist Mate...

Image via Wikipedia

The exercise and health equation is pretty simple. “A” increases with “B” right? Wrong.

Exercise is medicine. I don’t say this in a cutesy way either. Exercise, just like any pill you can pop, initiates a number of chemical reactions within your body. It must be carefully applied so as to elicit the desired effect while minimizing any negative side effects.

Believe it or not, there is a time when exercise can be toxic for you. As my great human physiology professor often reminded us, “The dose makes the poison.”  His most shocking example of this truth is when he would relate how endurance runners sometimes perish by drinking too much water after a race. (see hyponatremia)

Before I go any further, please let it be known that this will not be another cardio-bashing blog post.  There are enough of those out there in the blogosphere.  My purpose is only to attempt to pre-emptively justify why, after just receiving your payment for personal training, your personal trainer may now be telling you to stay out of the gym.

When I first attempt to explain this concept to my clients, they often ask me why I bothered studying exercise for so long if I’m telling them it is bad for them.  In order to answer this, allow me to give some quick background on what a degree in Kinesiology entails.

My formal education has been full of studying athletes, seniors, stroke victims and cadavers in applied settings as well as exercise physiology labs.  All of this after basically completing a pre-med track of courses.  I’ve studied how the body responds to exercise in all conceivable environmental variations.  Aside from all the anatomy, biochemistry and physiology, I have ultimately learned that exercise is nothing more than self-induced stress.  Your hypothalamus and limbic system can not tell the difference between running in the park and getting yelled at by your boss.

Stress is stress is stress is stress….

The end result of too much stress is as varied as the possible sources.  Every living being utilizes the awesome force of adaptation.  Central to that force is the concept of hormesis: (as described at

Hormesis is a biological phenomenon whereby a beneficial effect (improved health, stress tolerance, growth or longevity) results from exposure to low doses of an agent that is otherwise toxic or lethal when given at higher doses.

We realize that stressors can serve a purpose however when we fail to account for all possible stressors, we find ourselves writing checks our body can’t cash.  Be it physical stress, chemical stress, emotional stress or financial stress, your body knows not the difference.  The “stress pathway” within you is very complex and deserves its own post (soon to be linked here).

Exercise is only a stress-reducer when the one exercising is perfectly healthy and free from chronic stress in the first place.

The point is that it is most likely the case that you hired a personal trainer because you don’t feel and/or look as healthy as you would like to.  This current state of dissatisfaction was not brought on by a sudden case of the “lazies”.  It is probably closer to the truth that you have packed on some pounds due to an overload of stress in one form or another.

My Golden Rule of Wellness

I  hesitate to declare a rule of Wellness “Golden” this early in my life but I feel that even through my continuing exploration of all things in wellness and human performance, I will not have to revise the following statement.  The single characteristic all humans operating at an optimal level of health and performance share is that they are honest with their bodies.  The first truth they allow themselves to believe is that they are infinitely unique in mind, soul AND BODY.  We all know we each possess a unique personality and spirituality yet we relinquish our authority when it comes to our biology.  We let others tell us what healthy is rather than experiencing it for ourselves.  Every major traditional system of medicine has respected the biochemical individuality of the patient despite having the technology necessary to articulate this principle in full.  Our ability to break down everything to it’s biochemical pathway has left us with an inability to see the forrest for the trees.

To thrive is to realize that our physical bodies are but an intermediary to a causal universe.  The world around us is always striving for homeostasis or balance.  Our bodies do the same; we just have to listen to them.  In order to acheive true wellness, we must learn to take every sub-clinical symptom (those idiopathic nagging headaches, bouts of brain fog, fatigue, gas, joint pain, etc) and use it as a means to discovering our own personal triggers.

Fat is Energy; Energy is not Fat

For far too long, we have thought of weight gain in terms of sloth and gluttony.  Ask your MD why you are overweight and they’ll tell you that your intake of calories must be greater than your level of physical activity.  It’s simple Newtonian Physics as far as most obesity authorities are concerned.  Thankfully, there are some prominent researchers who actually get it.

Fat is a symptom, not a cause of chronic disease.  Gaining weight is the body’s way of preparing for drastic conditions.  This change is brought on by real stressors perceived by our glands and organs.  If we are honest with our bodies, we will notice this change and truly ask ourselves what factors may be contributing to the problem.  Going straight to, “I need to eat less and exercise more” is an irresponsible knee-jerk reaction that will only pile more stress upon all the stress that got you fat in the first place.  Be honest with your body.  Pay it the respect it deserves by fully and truthfully investigating any and all causes of stress and imbalance in your life.  Do not be afraid to start slow.  Becoming a Mover takes time.

Exercise for the Brain

Plato was given his nickname by his wrestling coach due to his broad shoulders. (Platon = broad)

“In order for man to succeed in life, God provided him with two means, education and physical activity.  Not separately, one for the soul and the other for the body, but for the two together.  With these two means, man can attain perfection.”


Apparently even those iconic Ancient Greeks needed to be reminded to get to the gym from time to time.  As I stated in my blog post on the recent USDA/NHS Dietary Guidelines for Americans,  we seem to be an extremely health conscious people; we just seem to have the (potato) chips stacked against us when it comes to the quality of food and information made available to us by the one-size-fits-all establishments.  We depend on the allied health authorities such as the AMA, USDA, ACSM, and ACE to not only inform us of the proper way to exercise but also to continually give us evidence based reasons to exercise.  It is useless to know how to do something effectively if you have no good reason for doing it in the first place. For better or for worse, the inspirational message from both our governmental and health authorities as well as the commercial fitness industry is any one or combination of the following; “Get fit to get healthy, live longer, have more sex, look great, or get up off the floor”  Though these threats to our safety and appeal to our primal urges seem powerful enough to get us active, they are not good sources of permanent and meaningful behavior change motivation.  All of these factors deal largely with the physical body.

What Gets Measured….

A healthy conceptualization of exercise is one that sees the adaptation of the physiology and physique of the body merely as side effects of a life in motion.  Exercise should be seen as a medicine for the entire being, not just your buns and thighs.  It is no surprise, however, that these objective indicators are the focus of both our esthetic and health goals.  They are measurable.

More than a Runners High

Dr. John Ratey is a practicing Clinical psychiatrist and Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, who is working to quantify this mind/body connection.  He successfully prescribes exercise for everything from ADHD, mood disorder, addiction, menopause and Alzheimer’s.  His therapy is based off the latest in  medical research that links the physiological benefits of exercise to real psychological improvement. He articulates this mission in his latest book, Spark:

“What I aim to do here is to deliver in plain English the inspiring science connecting exercise and the brain…  I want to cement the idea that exercise has a profound impact on cognitive abilities and mental health.  It is simply one of the best treatments we have for most psychiatric problems.”

When people think of the effect of exercise on one’s mood, they often think of the transient rush of endorphins known as “runners high”.  Dr. Ratey maps out exactly how in addition to these feel-good chemicals running through the movers blood, there is also a great increase in utilization of proteins like IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor) , BDNF (brain derived neurotropic factor) and VEGF (vaso-endothelial growth factor) for lasting positive effect.  Although these hormones are always present, Dr. Ratey explains how exercise effectively blasts these through the blood/brain barrier and causes psycological adaptation; just like exercise causes muscular adaptation.  The suggestion is that the primary objective of animal movement is to “work-out” the brain and improve functions of learning, reasoning and emotional affinity.

This is a very interesting concept when you think of it on an evolutionary level.  There was a period of time when all living species only had a sophisticated spinal cord.  Why did mother nature, through natural selection, decide to develop that mass of nerves rather than give the organism legs, or fangs, or something else a little more useful?  NYU neurophysiologist Rodolfo Llinas asserts that only a mobile creature needs a brain.  In his book, I of the Vortex: From Neurons to Self, he tells the story of a sea squirt that starts life mobile then, once it roots itself in some coral, eats its own brain.  Llinas interprets from this that, “That which we call thinking is the evolutionary internalization of movement.”

A New Conclusion

When it comes to exercise, the end is not as important as the means.  You can move your body for whichever reason it is that suits you.  As a rule, I usually counter all health advice by saying that no one thing is good for everybody.  Exercise is probably the only exception.  It makes absolutely no difference your reasoning for starting an exercise program as to how your health will improve.  Once started, however, the adherence to the program does suffer as those superficial motivators either become less important or the initial goal is achieved.  When done properly, exercise changes the psychology of the person so much so that you actually want to work out.  Realizing that our main purpose for having the ability to move is to nourish the brain can not only be new motivation to become a mover but also may serve as a more permanent carrot at the end of your stick.  Let us hope we just don’t “over-think” ourselves with our improved cognition and snap the stick in half to get the carrot.