Archive for month: October, 2015

never big enough

There was a time in my life – up until 15 years ago, I’d say – when I was completely uninhibited. For the most part, I said what I wanted, I wore what I pleased, and I engaged in activities that brought me joy. I didn’t worry about what others thought of me.

When it came to my body, I didn’t think twice. It was merely a physical vehicle that allowed me to carry my schoolbooks, sprint on the field, and embrace my loved ones. My body was my body. I surely did not waste precious energy fretting over the size of my thighs. It was a physical manifestation of me, yes, but it did not define me.

Until it did.

Me and my brother back in the day when I didn't care about my body size, like how big my head was in comparison to the rest of my body :-)

Me and my brother back in the day when I didn’t care about my body size, like how big my head was in comparison to the rest of my body :-)

Many of you are familiar with my dark struggles with anorexia and bulimia – and if you’re not, you can read more about that here. That all started when I was 14 years old. As a young teen, I was not only dealing with the changes in my body, but I was also navigating my way through the painfully awkward time of many children’s lives that is better known as high school. That’s an incredibly impressionable age, you know; girls and boys alike start to care more and more about what the media deems to be hip and what fellow classmates are wearing, doing, and talking about.

Naturally, then, when some of my girlfriends first started discussing this formerly foreign concept of “dieting” and “needing to lose weight” and being “OMG so fat,” it piqued my curiosity. They all seem to care so much about how much they weigh… I guess I should, too. Seems logical, right?

I embarked on my first diet as a high school freshman. Whereas before, I was known for my voracious appetite, I was now surreptitiously skipping meals and pretending I was never hungry. And while the scale weight used to merely be a fun, harmless data point for me, I began to obsess over the blinking number every morning, and slowly but surely, it took control of my life. I became pals with hunger and best friends with the treadmill.

What’s heartbreaking is that to any other person, I looked like a regular, healthy teenager. But through my own eyes, all I saw were blemishes.

I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror the same way anymore, either. I became consumed with picking apart my physical flaws and finding spots that needed fixing.

I stared back at my reflection and couldn’t see me for me.

What is body dysmorphia?

As the term implies, body dysmorphia, or body dysmorphic disorder (BDD), consists of a preoccupation with one’s perceived or real physical flaws. This obsession is typically associated with an individual’s physique – flatness of the belly, size of chest, and so on – though one can also find fault with other body parts such as their hair, nose, or skin. Typically, even the slightest imperfection can cause severe emotional distress to an individual with BDD.

While it’s not uncommon for an average individual to dislike a few aspects of his or her body, BDD is characterized by intensely negative thoughts to the point where his or her life is crippled by this hang-up.

This reminds me an awful lot of TLC’s hit song, “Unpretty,” from back in the day. I’m sure some of you can relate to these sentiments.

The exact causes of BDD are unclear, though we can speculate to some of the major contributing factors.

Here in the United States, 94% of female characters on television are thinner than the average American woman (Gonzalez-Lavin & Smolak, 1995). This can be an issue because these women are frequently portrayed as happy, attractive, and successful. Unfortunately, viewing thinness as the be-all-end-all actually can contribute to high body image dissatisfaction (Stice et al., 1994).

We like to joke that once you start lifting weights, you’re never going to be big enough in your own eyes. We chuckle because, for many of us, there is an inkling of truth to that.

never big enough

But what if it gets taken to the extreme?

In a study conducted on 49 college-aged female women, 97.5% of participants reported that, following a 12-week supervised strength training program, they felt healthier and more fit; 51.2% indicated that their body image perceptions had improved (Ahmed et al., 2002). Meanwhile, 24.3% of participants – approximately one in four – reported either neutral or negative responses to their body image after training.

And within the weightlifting community, particularly amongst men, muscle dysmorphia (MD), a subcategory of BDD, is a syndrome in which individuals believe that they are of very small musculature (Choi et al., 2002). This syndrome is highly correlated with body image, and those with MD are preoccupied not only with gaining muscle but also with keeping bodyfat levels low.

Negative emotions associated with BDD include social anxiety, impaired self-esteem, and the avoidance of social events (Rumsey & Harcourt, 2004). This is no bueno.

Interestingly, distorted body image oftentimes has little to no relation to how an individual actually looks; his or her perception of the physical self is heavily influenced by cultural ideals. Social comparison theory suggests that women judge their own appearance by comparing themselves with societal definitions of beauty as depicted by mass media (Festinger, 1954). As well, this is strongly correlated with eating disorders in women (Brown et al., 1989).

What’s “fitspo” got to do with it?

Ostensibly, the purpose of “fitspiration,” or “fitspo” – fitness inspiration – is to motivate others to pursue a healthier lifestyle. This has become a wildly popular movement in recent years; a search of the hashtag #fitspo on Instagram yields over 21.5 million (and counting!) different posts. And while the intentions may seem innocuous, most of the pictures associated with “fitspo” consist of younger women who are lean and muscular. This can be troublesome because this can lead many individuals to believe that the only way to be considered fit and healthy is to look strong and have low body fat levels.

Ah, yes, so motivational. Rah rah.

Ah, yes, so motivational. Rah rah.

There is a positive correlation between time spent on the Internet and body dissatisfaction in adult and adolescent women (Bair et al., 2012). In fact, a study on 130 female undergraduate students earlier this year found that exposure to fitspo led to more negative body image, lower state appearance self-esteem, and negative mood (Tiggemann & Zaccardo, 2015).

Surprise - this is supposed to make you feel BETTER about yourself! Or is it?

Surprise – this is supposed to make you feel BETTER about yourself! Or is it?

To an extent, attempting to manipulate our body shape and size is normal. We exercise to stay in shape, we eat well to maintain our trim figures. But BDD takes it to the extreme, and fitspo isn’t helping.

What can we do about it?

Just because we’re alive in 2015 doesn’t mean that we’ll all become victims of BDD. I argue that it’s entirely possible to be present in this world and still maintain a healthy body image. Here are some actionable steps to take.

Focus on what you do like about your physical self rather than what you don’t. Comparison is the thief of joy. We all know this. Yet it’s entirely too common to envy other people’s impossibly tiny waist, bootylicious badonkadonks, and shredded abs while completely overlooking our own assets. I can guarantee you, though, that others are looking at you and admiring your body parts (maybe your incredibly strong and muscular legs or your broad shoulders) at the exact same time.

We allow ourselves to become so narrow-minded and we see nothing but our flaws.

Can I challenge you to do something? Stand in the mirror and just find one part of yourself that you like. Start there. Yes, it may be uncomfortable, and yes, it may take you a few minutes at first, but try to focus on the positives.

Me? I like my nose. Haha. Seems petty, right? I’ve got a tiny little button nose with an even tinier nose piercing that most people don’t even notice. But it’s proportional to my face and it’s very, ah, “me”. I like that. And it’s a solid starting point.

Consider limiting your social media exposure. Based on study findings, it seems to make sense to recommend that individuals limit their exposure to social media where they may be able to view “fitspiration” images and posts. Maybe if that fitness celebrity on Instagram who regularly posts soft pornography under the guise of “fitness” stops showing up on your newsfeed, you can start to feel a little better. Unfollow, unfollow, unfollow. Bye, Felicia.

Change the way you speak to yourself. I feel painfully granola just typing this out, but how true is it that we tend to use some pretty horrible language with ourselves? The fact of the matter is, we don’t put ourselves in a position for positive growth if we’re too busy shaming ourselves and calling ourselves awful names. And how can we be expected to feel good about ourselves if we’re not being compassionate and loving?

“You’re fat, unworthy, and useless” – these thoughts have to go. Replace them with words like “strong” and “capable”. You may not believe it about yourself now, but sometimes, you have to fake it ’till you make it.

Stop expecting to be perfect. It’ll backfire. Perfection is not real and it’s elusive. This may seem counterintuitive, but there’s a lot of forward progress that can happen when you lean into your mistakes and embrace them as part of life.

 

Rather than looking a specific way, then, strive to feel a certain way. Exercising with the goal for health rather than weight loss can contribute to positive body image (Cash et al., 1994).

Whereas before, I exercised primarily to lose weight, stay small, and run away (quite literally) from body fat – which, by the way, eventually backfired in a bad way – I now workout to feel confident, relieve stress, and clear my head. Oh yeah, and to get strong as hell, of course. Because obviously.

It feels good to feel good, doesn’t it? And ultimately, that’s what we all want.

Take the emotion out of the equation. As I write this, I am currently 10 days out from stepping on stage in my next bikini competition. I’ve been dieting for a few weeks now, and this is the lightest and leanest I’ve been in years. Objectively, I know this. The numbers say so, and my friends and family echo the same sentiments. Yet when I look in the mirror, I just don’t see it.

The difference this time around, though, is that I can recognize that, precisely because I’m in the throes of contest prep, I almost necessarily have a distorted view of myself. I don’t “feel” lean per se, but I know that I am.

I couldn’t find anything to support the following statement of mine in the scientific literature, so take it with a grain of salt if you please, but here’s what I believe: it’s entirely possible to look in the mirror, recognize that you’re not seeing yourself objectively, and not internalize any thoughts you may have. The key is to be able to identify when this is happening.

A certain degree of body dysmorphia is normal and expected when losing bodyfat – particularly when you’re trying to get contest lean. So despite what others are saying, you may feel as though you still have a long ways to go. This is when it’s critical to rely on other, more tangible measures of progress, such as body circumference measurements and scale weight rather than pictures alone.

When you can take your emotions out of the equation, it becomes a whole lot easier to keep plugging along on your merry way.

My favorite quote to support this comes from my friend Coach Stevo:

View scale weight [or body measurements or your physique] with as much emotion with which you’d count the number of white cars in a parking lot.

You are not defined by your body.

 

References

Ahmed, C., Hilton, W., & Pituch, K. (2002). Relations of strength training to body image among a sample of female university students. J Strength & Cond Res, 16(4):645-8.

Bair, C.E., Kelly, N.R., Serdar, K.L., & Mazzeo, S.E. (2012). Does the Internet function like magazines? An exploration of image-focused media, eating pathology, and body dissatisfaction. Eating Behaviors, 13:398-401.

Brown, T.A., Cash, T.F., & R.J., Lewis. (1989). Body image disturbances in adolescent female binge-purgers: A brief report of the results of a national survey in the U.S.A. J Psychol Psychiatry, 30:605-13.

Cash, T.F., Novy, P.L. & Grant, J.R. (1994). Why do women exercise? Factor analysis and further validation of the reasons for exercise inventory. Percept Mot Skills, 78:155-9.

Choi, P.Y., Pope, H.G. Jr., & Olivardia, R. (2002). Muscle dysmorphia: a new syndrome in weightliftersBr J Sports Med, 36(5):375-6.

Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 7:117-40.

Gonzalez-Lavin, A., & Smolak, L. (1995). Relationships between television and eating prbolems in middle school girls. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development. 

Mabe, A.G., Forney, K.J., & Keel, P.K. (2014). Do you like my photo? Facebook use maintains eating disorder risk. Int J Eating Disorders, 47:516-23.

Rumsey, N., & Harcourt, D. (2004). Body image and disfigurement: issues and interventionsBody Image, 1(1):83-97.

Schwartz, M.B., & Brownell, K.D. (2004). Obesity and body image. Body Image, 1:43-56.

Stice, E.,M., Schupak-Neuberg, E., Shaw, H.E., & Stein, R.I. (1994). Relation of media exposure to eating disorder symptomatology: An examination of mediating mechanisms. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 103:836-40.

Tiggemann, M. & Zaccardo, M. (2015). “Exercise to be fit, not skinny”: The effect of fitspiration imagery on women’s body image. Body Image, 15:61-7.

Yamamiya, Y., Cash, T.F., Melnyk, S.E., Posavac, H.D., & Posavac, S.S. (2005). Women’s exposure to thin-and-beautiful media images: body image effects of media-ideal internalization and impact-reduction interventionsBody Image, 2(1):74-80.

 

 

Pondering the meaning of life in between sets of squats. (Photo by Natalie Minh)

You’ve all seen them before: that one gym regular – Average Joe, we’ll call him – with a big ego who stomps his way under an Olympic barbell loaded with plates on plates on plates. He’ll huff, he’ll puff, and then he’ll squeak out a little curtsy before making his way make up and dramatically racking the bar on the pins. “Yeah, 400lbs,” he’ll grunt as he beats his chest. “Man, can you believe that last year I was only squatting 135?”

You know just as well as any other onlooker, however, that he traveled all of six inches. And that over time, his range of motion has gotten increasingly shorter, rest between sets longer, and ego exponentially larger. So does that even count? Do you give it to Average Joe?

Let’s wipe the slate clean and start over. Average Joe could learn a lesson or two here.

Could this beefy looking guy actually be skimping on his leg workouts? Mayhaps! (Sidenote: That's my husband and I'm totally poking fun at him.)

Could this beefy looking guy actually be skimping on his leg workouts? Mayhaps! (Sidenote: That’s my husband and I’m totally poking fun at him.)

Traditionally, we think of progressive overload as simply adding more weight onto the bar. That’s very straightforward and, if that’s the only way you make improvements in the gym, you’ll probably end up doing pretty well with your fitness endeavors.

But there are many ways to get better in the gym beyond striving to increase absolute poundages.

Progressive overload, simply defined, refers to the ability to do more over time. And while this may seem straightforward, gauging true progressive overload is a lot like the scientific method: keeping all other training variables constant, you change only one thing. If you are able to make an improvement in the gym while controlling all other variables, then you can say that you have truly progressed. After all, if you change two or more factors in a given environment, how can you tell if you’ve really made progress? There would be one too many confounding factors to be able to come to a decisive conclusion.

Below I’ll go over the different angles with which progressive overload can be approached.

Load

If you’re a complete beginner to strength training and have been sedentary for a long time, I’d recommend starting out with just bodyweight or a very light load for the basic movement patterns. If you’re simply trying out a movement for the first time but you’re otherwise experienced in the weight room, it’s still a good idea to experiment with a couple of light sets.

Whatever your starting point, there’s going to come a time – sooner rather than later – when you’re going to want to slide some more plates onto the bar, grab a heavier kettlebell, or bump up the dumbbells by 5lbs. In order for the body to adapt, you must continue to push the boundaries and place the muscles under additional stress. This is known as increasing mechanical tension, and it’s critical for long-term gains in strength and muscularity.

Here’s a video of me hip thrusting 265lbs for 2 reps at 108lbs bodyweight back in May 2015. The first time I ever did hip thrusts was in March of 2012 and I could only do 65lbs at the time.

How do you know when you’re ready for more? When you can complete the set within the prescribed rep range with ease. In other words, if you feel like you could have rocked out five more reps with solid form, that’s a good sign you can handle a little extra weight.

Alternatively, you’re also progressing if you’re lifting the same amount of absolute weight but with less bodyweight. Your relative strength, in this case, is said to have improved. If you lose weight while maintaining strength, then this, too, is considered a form of progressive overload.

Regardless of what your fitness goal is – be it fat loss, strength, maintenance, or muscular endurance – you should be always striving to get stronger in this aspect. Remember, though, that the quality of the movement (meaning your form) should never be compromised for the sake of quantity. Get your form right before allowing yourself to move up in weight.

Volume

Manipulating volume in the gym can mean many things. The most simple interpretation is to change the numbers of sets and reps of an exercise performed. If a weight is feeling light, for example, you may want to get in one or two extra reps depending on the rep range you’ve been prescribed. In this regard, you can progress by increasing the volume of a set or training session by getting in more reps while keeping the weight, rest, and tempo fixed.

Another way to switch up the volume is by the frequency with which you train. If you’re a beginner who’s been lifting two days a week for a couple of months, perhaps you’re ready to bump that up to three or four days a week now. If your focus is on hypertrophy of a specific body part, it’ll definitely be a good idea to start training said area more than just once a week.

Related to volume is a concept called time under tension (TUT), which is great because it creates mechanical stress, one of the mechanisms for hypertrophy as defined by Brad Schoenfeld. TUT typically refers to the duration of a given set. In order to increase TUT, then, you can simply execute more repetitions in a set or even perform more sets overall.

And let’s say you do 4 sets of 5 squats at 185lbs with 2 minutes rest between sets. If you manage to add 10lbs to that squat the next week but you’re resting 4 minutes between sets, can you really say that you’ve progressed? That’s hard to say because you’ve changed two different variables: load and rest. How do you know that you couldn’t have done 195lbs the week prior if you’d given yourself more rest then also? The confounding variable will make it difficult to come to any real conclusion.

To manipulate rest in order to progress, rest a little less than you usually do and attempt to perform the same set again – with the same weight and the same numbers of reps. This is know as increasing the density of the training session. If you do this successfully, then congratulations! Progressive overload has taken place.

Range of motion

If you’re doing a set of squats and you start to get tired, what are you tempted to do? Shorten the range of motion. You’ll eek out a half squat – or worse, a quarter squat – and try to pretend that that was a legitimate rep. In order words, you’ll cheat yourself of quality for the sake of quantity. Many lifters see this as a form of progressive overload in that they’re extending the set with partials. However, this grey area makes it very difficult to gauge progress.

To make a set more difficult by extending the set beyond failure, you may alternatively strip off half the weight and continue to execute full range of motion. This is referred to as a mechanical dropset, which allows you to continue banging out full range repetitions while increasing TUT and metabolic stress. This approach is that much more appealing as progress can be easily measured. As each repetition is performed for a full range of motion, when you can increase the total reps in the set, you can be sure that progressive overload has been achieved.

Coming from another angle, progressive overload for someone may mean progressing from rack pulls to conventional deadlifts after developing the mobility to reach down that low. Or perhaps it’s simply a matter of building the body awareness to now be able to safely achieve proper depth without injury. Anecdotally, the lifters who pay more attention to form and honor full range of motion seem to last longer in terms of training careers than the lifters who don’t, as they tend to keep more stress on the muscles and less on the joints and ligaments.

Granted, there’s necessarily going to be some degree of individual variation. Depending on injury history, body structure, and mobility, “full” range of motion for someone might mean only going down to a parallel squat, whereas for someone else with incredible ankle and hip mobility, an ass-to-grass approach might be more appropriate. However, rest assured knowing that if you can now full squat the same weight as you could parallel squat 6 months prior, then you’re using greater ROM, and thus, progressive overload has been achieved.

Pondering the meaning of life in between sets of squats. (Photo by Natalie Minh)

It’s fun to make progress in the gym – that much is undeniable. But there are still important notes to keep in mind.

As emphasized earlier, proper form trumps everything. There’s no sense trying to advance an exercise if you’re looking sloppy. Spend some time hammering out quality form before moving forward. I understand this may come off as a painfully obvious point, but I’d argue that the vast majority of cases of poor form you witness in commercial gyms around the country begin by violating this basic rule. Simply put, lifters compromise their form and ROM in order to fool themselves into thinking they’ve gotten stronger – and oftentimes end up hurting themselves in the process. Safety first.

Progress is by no means linear, so to expect to make the same degree of gains week after week is unrealistic. The more experienced you are, the harder it’s going to be – meaning you’ll have to input more and more work to achieve increasingly smaller gains. On top of that, there are other factors such as diet, sleep, stress, underlying injuries, and genetics that will affect the rate at which you improve.

For beginners especially, progressive overload is an entirely different animal. Oftentimes this means that the individual should first master the basic movement patterns with strictly bodyweight before even thinking about adding weight. This person may likely have to begin with the most rudimentary version of a movement, and then slowly move onto the more advanced variations as he or she gains body awareness. Once this body awareness has been achieved, however, the beginner is ripe for growing, as the term “newbie gains” has been coined to refer to the typical results a lifter sees in his or her first three to six months of engaging in proper resistance training. It’s a time for rapid progress, so make sure a proper foundation of sound technical form is laid before piling on the plates. This will pay dividends in the long run.

Forge ahead, my friends.

References

Schoenfeld, Brad. (2013). Potential mechanisms for a role of metabolic stress in hypertrophic adaptations to resistance training. Journal of Sports Medicine, 43(3):179-94.

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