At nearly every public appearance I’ve made for the last 10 years, and in virtually every nutrition-related email I’ve responded to, phone call I’ve received, and forum thread I’ve posted in, the same question pops up.
Sometimes it’s asked directly and explicitly. Other times it’s what’s between the lines. But in every case, people want to know the same thing. They want to know, quite simply:
“What Really Works?”
Finding the answer to that question is essential not only to the pursuit of 8% body fat, but to the mastery of any art or science. And people seek the answer for different reasons:
- Academic curiosity and genuine desire to learn
- Exasperation with prior failed attempts at achieving a goal
- Confusion with conflicting opinions, theories and systems
- Fear of making a mistake and doing the wrong things
- Impatience with the trial and error process
- Lack of knowledge / experience required to distinguish true from false in the field
I know, because I’ve asked myself the “what actually works” question my entire life. And at different times I’ve experienced each of those emotions and motivations.
They’re what drove me to do everything I’ve done in the nutrition world, to become an athlete, to compete and eventually win a national level bodybuilding competition, to pursue a PhD in the field, to coach, to teach and to write about nutrition—and ultimately to co-found Precision Nutrition Inc.
And my answer is not what you expect.
What the Market Research Says
Before I answer, ask yourself what kind of answer you expect from me. You know, what you’d hope to hear if we were having lunch together and you asked me, “John, what’s the one thing that will actually help my clients get lean, strong bodies that’ll live forever and turn heads at the beach?”
Well, if the market research is to be trusted, the average consumer desperately wants the answer to be one of the following:
- A new nutritional supplement that will transform one’s body without any other exercise, nutritional or lifestyle changes
- A pharmaceutical, legal or otherwise, to do the same
- A forgotten exercise, which even when performed randomly, with poor form and at low intensity, will simultaneously burn fat and build muscle while one sleeps
- A miracle food not naturally occurring in the civilized world, the absence of which in one’s diet is responsible for all manner of misfortune, from excess body fat to insufferable body odor and everything in between.
This market research is depended upon so heavily in the “health and wellness” industry that it’s actually disheartening.
Think about it: there are now some 80,000 separate nutritional supplements marketed in North America for their supposed medicinal properties; a raft of drugs used to lose weight and build muscle, some prescribed legally, some abused illegally, nearly all improperly supervised to say the least; and shelf after shelf of magazines and books singing the praises of this new exercise or that new food.
And, at the end of the day, by and large, not a whole lot of people using these things have changed their bodies. At least, not for the better.
What Actually Works
If you’ve been following my work for a while, you know that I don’t talk that way.
You see, I believe that if you’ve made it to my work, you know that all that stuff is nonsense. I also believe that you’ve come here looking for the God’s-honest truth. So here’s the truth:
Miracle cures aside, how a client trains, what they eat and what supplements they take have an enormous impact on whether or not they realize their goals—and how quickly they realize them. So you do have to know all that stuff.
However, understand that all that information is truly of secondary importance. You see, there’s one lesson above all others that, if you learn it and accept it, will completely change your client’s lives. Here’s that lesson:
“The most successful people in every endeavor tend to actively seek mentorship and support.”
Read that again, please. Those who succeed actively seek mentorship and support.
Why Mentorship and Social Support Works
People who have access to experienced mentors and are surrounded by driven peers—and who actively take advantage of those resources—are much more likely to reach their goals than those without either.
There are a host of reasons why, including:
- Rapid dissemination of wisdom
- Role modeling (at first, it’s easier to mimic than to learn)
- Social pressure
- Inclusion in something greater than oneself
- Exclusion of others / common enemy theory
- Validation and acceptance
- Constructive competition
In short, people with mentors and social support figure things out faster, make fewer mistakes, and are pushed to succeed by those around them. It’s a formula for success, especially in fitness and nutrition.
In fact, we once ran a survey of a sample of online fitness enthusiasts. We asked them a number of different questions, some of which were to ascertain their level of fitness, some of which were to test their nutritional knowledge, and some of which were to determine their access to mentorship and social support.
The results were fascinating.
Results from the Mentorship & Social Support Survey
We wanted to know how much of an impact mentorship and social support actually have on a person’s ability to reach their fat loss goals.
So we asked people to rate their happiness with their own physique on a scale from 1 to 5, like so:
- Extremely Unhappy —I’m nowhere near my goal and I doubt I can make it.
- Unhappy —I’m far from my goal but I’m willing to do something about it.
- Ambivalent —I’m working toward my goal but I’ve got a ways to go.
- Happy —I’m close to my goal and making progress.
- Extremely Happy —I’ve achieved my goal and I’m working on maintenance now.
We then looked only at the people who answered "5. Extremely Happy" in order to measure the impact of various factors on their success.
What stood out immediately was the fact that there wasn’t a significant difference in nutritional knowledge between the people who had achieved their goals (the 5’s) and the people who were still working on it (the 3’s and 4’s).
The people who achieved their goals knew their stuff (you have to, of course—success is not an accident), but so did many of the “in progress” people. In other words, you need to understand nutrition science—but it isn’t enough to get in great shape.
But then we looked at the response to this question:
“Have you ever had regular mentorship from someone who was in the exact shape you wanted to be in?"
[In this context, regular mentorship is defined as constructive and impartial feedback and direction, on a near-daily basis, for a continuous period of at least 3 months.]
77% of the 5’s said “Yes” (37 out of 48); only 17% of the 3’s and 4’s could say the same.
That’s a remarkable difference. Think about what that means for a second: you need to know a lot about exercise and nutrition, that’s true; but most of all, you need to find someone who’s where you want to be, and lean on them for help.
So here’s the lesson. If your clients have a good role model in their social circle right now, someone who has already done what they want to do, and someone who can mentor them to success, encourage them to make the absolute most of it!
If, however, they don’t already have a mentor like that, HELP THEM FIND ONE IMMEDIATELY.
What Mentorship Has Meant to Me Personally
I can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt that the mentorship and support I’ve received in my career is what has made all the difference.
When I was training as a bodybuilder, I was more or less scuffling along until I met a guy named Craig. Craig owned the gym I trained at, and seeing how much effort I was putting in—and how little progress I was making—he pulled me aside and invited me to train with him and his buddies, all of whom were significantly stronger than me, and all of whom trained exclusively at 5AM every morning.
Over the next two years, Craig taught me exactly how to train, exactly how to eat, and most of all, how to prepare myself mentally for all the obstacles that would inevitably come my way: managing my time, managing people’s changing perceptions of me, managing their subtle and not-so-subtle attempts to sabotage my progress in order to validate their own lifestyle choices (if you’ve ever had a family member or friend comment negatively on your diet and training, you know what I’m talking about here).
Within about a year and a half, I was on-stage, winning the Mr. Jr. USA competition, and he was the first guy I thanked.
Craig showed me “the way” much faster than I would have ever learned it on my own—if I would have ever learned on my own at all. In fact, without his help I would probably still be back scuffling around in the gym, and certainly wouldn’t have had a career in the nutrition field.
In fact, I’ve been fortunate to have great mentors and great social support my whole life: I got my PhD working under the great sport nutrition pioneer, Dr. Peter Lemon, working with some of the brightest nutrition researchers in the world along the way. I’ve worked with some of the top strength coaches, skill coaches, therapists, physicians, surgeons, chiros, you name it.
I’ve been very, VERY lucky to have access to the top people in the field, and without them, I wouldn’t be doing the work I am today. So I’m immensely grateful for that, and I’m acutely aware of the impact all those people have had on my life.
But when I started doing online coaching years ago, the email started pouring in almost immediately from around the globe. And from the questions people were asking, and more importantly, the tone they were using, it became apparent to me that my experience was not the norm at all...
Unfortunately, Most People Find Neither Mentorship Nor Support in the World Around Them.
For whatever reason, most people don’t find good mentorship and support in their local area. Nearly every day, I get hundreds of emails from people covering topics that, only 10 or 20 years ago, would have been answered by guys like Craig at the local gym.
But these days, it seems to me that:
- Although there are many more fitness professionals in business these days, the general level of knowledge and commitment has actually decreased
- In the highly competitive world of personal training, many fitness professionals are forced to become salespeople instead of mentors
- Gym members are much more insular and much less willing to offer help
Folks, that’s a problem. But it’s one that we, as leading fitness professionals can fix.
By providing supportive environments, rich with potential mentors, we can change the personal training experience from a frustrating one to a highly productive one.
Creating Your Own Social Support Environment
To create supportive environments, I recommend starting with celebrations of client success. Once milestones are set and reached (discussed in Becoming an Effective Fitness Coach, Part 1 ), they should be celebrated. If a client has been struggling with adherence and finally achieves 80%, celebrate. If a client loses a certain pre-established amount of body fat, celebrate.
These celebrations can come in the form of written praise (email, award certificate, post card, greeting card, etc.), tangible rewards (gift certificate, free training sessions, something exercise/nutrition specific, or special t-shirt you give to high-achieving clients) or public recognition (milestone board posted at the gym, making them a mentor of your newer clients, posting about their success in a newsletter, calling them up at client-only gatherings). Whatever you do, make a big deal out of client successes.
Another great way to create mentorship and support is to create social support events. You can do this by scheduling social activities (healthy dinners, cocktail parties), and physical activity events (sports days, physical challenges, group workouts) for your clients.
By drawing together a strong network of individuals working toward common goals, your clients can get to know one another and, in doing so, forge relationships. This may lead to these clients exercising together, sharing recipes, sharing eating tips, and providing encouragement and motivation. This external support can go a long way toward keeping your clients surrounded by positive influences while eliminating some of the social burden placed on them. Further, the natural leaders (mentors) will rise to the surface and mentorship relationships will blossom.
Not only is this good for your clients. It’s good for you, too. With you as the center of these social support activities, you’re guaranteed better results as well as repeat business and referrals. Everyone wins.
Tune in to part 3 where we’ll discuss the exercise myth and what you can do about it.