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Becoming an Effective Fitness Coach, Part 3: The Exercise Myth

I recently had an “a-ha” moment that I’ve simply got to share with you. And here it is…exercise doesn’t work.

Now that might sound shocking coming from a guy with big biceps and 8% body fat; from a guy that recommends lots of exercise, at least 5 hours per week. So if this all seems incongruent, I guess I should qualify the statement above. I guess I should have probably said:  Exercise, ALONE, doesn’t work.

My coming to this realization wasn’t an easy process. I’ve been working with clients for over 15 years now and although I always knew that diet was an important part of the training equation, I also always harbored some subconscious notion that if I worked my clients hard enough, their lack of dietary effort would be overcome by my super-effective training programs.

Sure, I wanted them to eat well. But if they didn’t (more like, wouldn’t), somewhere deep inside it seemed OK. I figured in the battle of training versus diet, training would win. Now, I never said this aloud. However, somewhere I’m sure I felt it. So it wasn’t until I was slapped in the face with some cold, hard, objective data that I realized how wrong I’d been.

The Texas Study

These data came in the form of a study I recently worked on at the University of Texas.

In this study, nearly 100 initially sedentary participants either stayed sedentary (about half of them) OR began exercising (the other half). They exercisers were given a program to follow that added up to about 5 1/2 to 6 hours of activity per week and that lasted for a total of 12 weeks. The non-exercisers did nothing for the 12 weeks except show up for measurement sessions.

These individuals, as stated above, did no exercise before the study began. As a result of this sedentary lifestyle, they averaged between 35% and 40% body fat (according to DEXA scans).

Once the study began, the training group gathered together for 3 weight training sessions per week and 2 group exercise / interval sessions per week. I designed all the training  and a weightlifting coach and group exercise coach oversaw it. So there was a pretty high level of quality control.

Now, it’s important to note that we didn’t alter the participants' eating at all. And we did this on purpose. We wanted to test the effects of exercise alone – without diet. In other words, the question became: “Without a dietary intervention, can exercise alone reshape a person’s body?”

At the end of the 12 week study, we got our answer: “Not so much…”

That’s right, when analyzing the data, I was shocked to find that even 3+ hours of training per week with a weightlifting coach and 2+ hours of training per week with a body-weight circuit instructor didn’t really work. The formerly sedentary participants didn’t do much better than their couch-sitting counterparts.

Without dietary control, 12 weeks of high intensity training produced a fairly disappointing 1% loss of body fat. In terms of raw data, the participants lost only 1 pound of fat and gained 2 pounds of lean vs. the placebo group. Frankly, that sucks.

I Coulda Gone to Disneyland

Now, imagine you’re overweight (about 38% body fat) and you decide to take the plunge to hire a personal trainer and get in shape for perhaps the first time in your life. You decide to buy a training package, one that contains 60 sessions (5 sessions per week for 12 weeks). The cost, per session, is 50 bucks, the going rate. So, you plunk down 3 grand and start your initial 12-week fitness journey.

You don’t expect big things…you just expect to start moving in the right direction. So you’re patient. You attend all your training sessions; you get to know your trainer really well, spending over 60 hours with him or her. You stay off the scale, not wanting to jinx yourself. Then, at the end of the 12 weeks, you weigh in.

So, you spent 3000 bucks and 60 hours working your ass off in the gym. And your ass didn’t change one bit! Is it time to grab a machete and take that good for nothing trainer’s head clean off?

It’s Not a Fluke

Now, when I first saw these data, I thought they were a fluke. I got the research team together on the phone and chewed them out. There must have been a data mix-up. I mean, seriously, 12 weeks of hard training and only one pound of fat lost versus no training at all. Was this some sort joke? Did they screw up the data collection? Did the research participants skip out on sessions? What was the deal?!?

Despite my insistence, there were no errors. The participants showed up. They trained hard. The data were collected properly. The participants just didn’t progress. And, for the first time, I started asking the question honestly.

Can a solid training program alone get people into great shape?

Note I said “solid” training program. In the past I figured people weren’t getting results because their training program was awful and perhaps so was their diet. But, as a result of this new study, a study in which the training protocol was solid, the answer appeared to be no. A solid training program alone wasn’t enough to get people into great shape.

Other Research Support

With a new sense of purpose, I started digging around in the research. And I quickly found another recent study suggesting the exact same thing. This study, demonstrated that after 10 weeks of training (3 endurance sessions and 2 strength sessions per week—the flip flop of our study), 38 previously overweight, sedentary subjects also saw minimal changes in body composition with training.

Different vs. Important

Sure, in both studies, the changes were “statistically significant.” In other words, participants did lose more fat and gain more lean mass when training vs. not training. However, let’s not confuse different with important. After all, these changes are small, really small. And I would suggest, unimportant.

I mean, come on now, people exercise to actually change their bodies in noticeable, measurable ways. They want to fit better into their clothes. They want to go from overweight to normal weight. They want to be able to walk up the stairs without getting winded. They want to lower their cholesterol.

In my estimation, and it might just be me, they’re just not all that interested in dumping big dollars and lots of time into something that leads to a one pound fat loss. Seriously, that’s not all that good.

The Lesson – No, it’s Not to Stop Exercising!

At this point you might be wondering if it’s my advice to stop exercising. Of course not! Exercise is critically important to looking better, feeling better, and performing better every single day. And don’t you forget it!

However, my point is that exercise ALONE just doesn’t cut it. What your clients really need is exercise PLUS a sound nutritional program. Now that’s just what the doctor ordered.

Indeed, for the last 3 years I’ve been running a large body transformation project that over 6,000 people have successfully completed. And when exercise, nutrition, and best practice coaching strategies are employed, we see 3-10x the results seen in most research studies.

So, at this point, I’ve gotta serve notice to you fitness professionals. Folks, if you’re not providing nutrition advice to your clients, that’s a real problem. Incorporating nutrition isn’t a “nice to have,” it’s a “need to have.” So don’t miss the boat.

But nutrition isn’t enough either. If you really want to become the best possible coach, you’ll need to master the art of change and create strong social support and mentorship circles among your clients. In this article series, I’ve discussed all three (nutrition, change, and support) areas of top-notch coaching. Put these ideas into practice and you’ll be the most in-demand fitness pro on the block.