A Dirty Little Secret About Working Out No Trainer Will Tell You

…Except me

Before the magical reveal, there are two basic criteria that must be followed for this to hold true and they are:

  1. Your exercise form isn’t complete garbage
  2. You’ve established some consistency with your training, which means working out at least three or four days per week

Here’s the deal for every beginner…

You can follow ANY workout program and experience great results. No trainer has a magical program. You can literally do almost anything.

Now, as you progress in your training you may want to learn proper periodization and tailor your needs as your goals change. For that, hiring an experienced trainer or strength coach may really provide some value. Until then, your program doesn’t matter.

Why is this the case? When you introduce a new stimulus/stress to your body, it has to adapt. That adaptation leads to muscle growth, fat loss, and an overall change in lean body mass. Going from sedentary to gym rat is a major change. Whether it’s calisthenics or powerlifting, you’re going to progress very quickly. These are the ‘noob gains’ people speak of. They usually last six months to a year.

Unfortunately, this becomes a curse for many lifters. They apply the ‘use what got me to the dance’ mentality and never make any changes to their routine. They continue to perform their three sets of ten reps on the bench press and wonder why they’ve hit a plateau.

Does this mean it’s completely pointless for someone new to the gym to hire a personal trainer? Of course not, it’s always a good idea to learn proper form from the beginning. Oftentimes a novice client will come up to me, almost apologetically, and explain that they’ve never lifted before. This is actually a blessing because it’s much easier to teach a blank slate rather than fix a bad habit.

The majority of my clients don’t hire me due to a lack of knowledge however. They hire me for accountability. Most people simply don’t like to work out and won’t do it unless they have a trainer. Some may consider this silly, but I say do what you have to do to get in the gym and improve your health. Your mentality changes when you realize that skipping a workout means you’re letting someone else down besides yourself.

I don’t want to dissuade you from hiring a trainer. Hell, it’s how I make a living. But be mindful of the trainers trying to sell you on their protocol that guarantees results quickly. Anyone new to the game can get results quickly with good form and consistency. Ironically, I believe my services are better for intermediate and advanced lifters who have hit the wall with their training. As we head towards 2018 and the thoughts of getting in shape flood your mind for the new year, just remember that showing up is half the battle.

An Unbiased, Objective Keto Breakdown: Is It Right For You?

I have no stake in the Keto game; I neither love nor hate the diet. I’ve done it for a few months, which I think is crucial when critiquing any diet. It’s important to experience something yourself before recommending or discouraging someone else from using it, particularly as a nutritionist. There are aspects of the diet that I like and aspects that I dislike. Keto is by far the hottest weight loss diet right now, and naturally every diet will have its benefits and drawbacks.

Dieting is both very simple and very complex. You have to find the right method of restricting your calorie intake. While the idea of restricting calories is elementary, the follow through is what most people struggle with. They know what to do, they just can’t do it. What is the easiest way for you to control your calorie intake over a sustained period of time? Could it be Keto?


Weight Loss

The number one reason most people experiment with the ketogenic diet is for weight loss. As we mentioned, the number one key to success with weight loss is the person’s ability to comply with the diet over a long period of time. The ketogenic diet is restrictive… but also not. Hear me out. The diet is restrictive in the sense that you are essentially eliminating an entire macronutrient group, carbohydrates. No more fruits, bread, pasta, starches, grains etc. In that regard the diet seems very restrictive. But you have to consider what happens when you consume carbohydrates. You get a surge of energy due to a spike in blood glucose levels, followed by a subsequent drop in said glucose. This leads to low energy, more hunger, and cravings for more carbs. Hard to stay on a diet when you’re feeling ‘hangry’ every three hours.

Since you are not ingesting carbohydrates on the ketogenic diet, your blood sugar remains stable all day every day. Hunger pangs become much less frequent, and you’ll often find yourself going hours without the thought of food entering your mind. This is a huge plus for any dieter.

However, achieving a caloric deficit is still vital. If there is any metabolic benefit to the ketogenic diet, it is minor. You cannot simply remove carbs, eat pepperoni and cheese all day, and expect to lose weight. You have to eat responsibly.

Brain Health/Disease Prevention

Many people report improvements in mental clarity on keto. The brain can use both glucose and ketones (the energy derived from fat metabolization) to function. These reports are largely anecdotal, as it would be difficult to measure differences in mental acuity from glucose vs. ketones since there are so many other variables involved. In addition, would it necessarily be the ketones providing the improved brain function or is it the stability in blood glucose?

Perhaps the greatest benefit of the ketogenic diet is its effect on neurodegenerative diseases. As mentioned before, the brain can use both glucose and ketones for energy. However, glucose is the preferred energy source. If glucose is available, the brain (and body in most cases) will use it. Many neurodegenerative diseases are based upon the brain’s inability to use glucose. By starving the body of glucose and consuming high amounts of fats, it allows ketones to become the main fuel source and gives the brain an alternate fuel to use.

This ideology applies to certain forms of cancer as well. Many cancer cells rely on glucose to thrive and grow. These same cells are unable to utilize ketones. Once again, starving the body of glucose and using ketones as its main energy source may be helpful in mitigating the effects of certain diseases. (Note: I am not a doctor, just telling you what I know).

Low Inflammation

Carbohydrates cause inflammation to some degree, largely based on the type and quality of carbohydrate. Inflammation has its place and function, but too much can lead to pain, disease, etc. Although I feel the gluten intolerance narrative is largely overblown, there are some people that truly have a hard time digesting gluten. The same applies to dairy. If you are a person with say, chronic joint pain, perhaps a low carb or keto diet can help alleviate the symptoms.

Endurance Athletes

The body has multiple energy systems when it comes to exercise. The energy system you use is based on both the intensity and duration of the activity. Endurance athletes use mainly the slow glycolytic (carbohydrate fueled) and beta oxidative (fat fueled) energy systems. Carbohydrate storage has a limited capacity, eventually the body will turn to fats for fuel. Fats are a robust energy source, they can sustain activity for a very long time. Unfortunately, most people are so reliant on carbs that they have a hard time making the transition to fats when carbohydrate stores run low.

Ever heard of a runner getting his ‘second wind?’ This occurs when they have made the switch from carbs to fats. An aerobic athlete can forgo this period of fatigue if they are running on fats from the very beginning.


The Delicate State That is Ketosis

Your body wants to use carbs for energy. It’s dying to use carbs for energy. Carbs are truly the body’s preferred energy source. Anyone who has done the ketogenic diet for an extended period knows that it is not only hard to get into ketosis, it’s hard to stay in ketosis. The only way to truly know is to use a blood ketone meter, which I own. I can tell you from experience, blood ketone levels fluctuate all day every day, leaving you questioning what you’re doing wrong… or right. Point is, it can be a frustrating experience.

You may experience gut issues when making the transition from a carbohydrate-based diet to a fat-based diet. I’ll spare you the details, but you may become well acquainted with your lavatory.

The worst thing that can happen is being in what I call ‘no man’s land’, where you are consuming too many carbs to get into ketosis but not enough to fuel your day-to-day activity.

The Long Term Sustainability of Elimination Diets

Will you really be able to avoid cake, pizza, and ice cream for the rest of your life? Better yet, should you? The body wants to achieve homeostasis and thus will adjust to anything you do (within reason). If you avoid carbs for a long period you will lose the ability to tolerate carbs. You will produce less of the digestive enzymes to break down carbs. This is why I suggest cycling off of keto every few months and slowly re-introduce carbs back into your diet, just for a week or so.

Anaerobic Sport Performance

Earlier we touched on the keto diet’s application to endurance sports. We mentioned how endurance athletes utilize both carbs and fats during exercise. This is not the case for all sports. Anaerobic sports like football, sprinting, hockey, and mixed martial arts among others primarily utilize creatine and carbohydrates for energy. Rarely will the athlete utilize fats unless they are completely depleted. Even then, the beta oxidative system that utilizes fats will not be able to keep up with the high speed nature of the sport and thus the athlete’s performance will suffer greatly.

Included in these anaerobic sports is bodybuilding. If you are a gym rat looking to put on as much muscle as possible, then the keto diet is just not optimal. I’m not saying it’s impossible to add muscle, that would be an irresponsible statement. However, the lack of carbs will negatively impact anabolism and performance in the gym. The glycolytic energy system is a major component of bodybuilding.

Making the Mental Shift

This is rarely discussed but in my opinion is the biggest barrier to success with the ketogenic diet. We have been brought up in a world that heavily markets low fat or fat free foods, dressings, desserts, and meals. When you are bombarded with this for your entire life, it becomes hard to accept anything else as true.

I know fats are important for many aspects of overall health and wellness. Hell, I know saturated fats are important. But I must admit, it was hard to make the mental shift and accept the fact that I have to eat upwards of 200g of fat per day in order to get into a state of ketosis. All too often I have people come up to me asking for advice on keto and in almost every situation they are eating too much protein and/or not enough fat. They experience the ‘no man’s land’ state that I alluded to earlier.


Keto is MOST appropriate for:

  1. Sedentary people looking to lose weight and improve their health
  2. People who may be predisposed to certain diseases
  3. Endurance athletes

Keto may not be ideal for:

  1. Anaerobic athletes or people looking to gain maximal amounts of muscle
  2. People who live a lifestyle in which they cannot consistently consume meals that allow them maintain a state of ketosis.

Culture Beats Talent: Time To Take This Narrative Seriously

Todd Bowles has gone from lame duck coach to possible focal point of the Jets rebuild

Every year we are enthralled by the Leicester Cities and George Masons of the sports world; teams that overcome odds to defeat adversaries of far superior talent. On the flip side, we are baffled by newly assembled ‘super teams’ that come up short on the big stage. Sometimes we forget that these elite athletes with unfathomable physical talents and skills are in fact… human beings. Human beings with feelings, emotions, good days, and bad days. Naturally, all human beings are impacted by their surroundings and environment. When things go awry off the field, it can affect things on the field.

Coming into the 2017 NFL season, the New York Jets were a laughingstock. Media experts projected them to win two, three, maybe four games at most. Yet here we are in mid-October with the Jets sitting at 3–3, and it’s arguable they could even be 4–2 if not for an inexplicable Austin Seferian-Jenkins ‘fumble.’ The Jets could very well run the table (in a bad way) and go 3–13, but it seems unlikely. Dare I say Jet fans are a bit optimistic regarding the product on the field. Forget analytics, this is a team that plays hard for each other and their coach, Todd Bowles.

How could a team that lost Darrelle Revis, Brandon Marshall, and Sheldon Richardson, only to replace them with Morris Claiborne, Jermaine Kearse, and Kony Ealy perform better? Granted Revis and Marshall are in the latter stages of their careers, but on paper it’s safe to say the team got much worse during the offseason.

The answer is culture.

Culture makes an enormous difference. Those who are in a position of power pretend to recognize this and will give you lip service on how important it is, but in many cases their actions don’t reflect it. Think of all the locker room cancers throughout the years across all sports given opportunity after opportunity because of their superior physical talents. Chad Johnson, Pacman Jones, Terrell Owens, Percy Harvin, Albert Haynesworth, just to name a few. Smart, successful teams don’t sabotage their culture by adding these types of players.

Losing Marshall, Revis, and Richardson was the proverbial breath of fresh air the Jets needed. There’s a lot to be said about the simplicity of being able to relax and feel comfortable at work. We are more productive and perform better when we are not looking over our shoulder or expecting the worst day by day. Last week the New York Giants went into Denver, one of the hardest places to play in the entire NFL, and dominated a well-rested Broncos team coming off of a bye week. Is it any coincidence that this happened after Odell Beckham and Brandon Marshall (Sorry Brandon I didn’t intend on picking on you this much) went down with season ending injuries? It’s no secret that Beckham is a major distraction, despite his world class talent. The Giants had zero hope going into Mile High on a primetime stage that night. No one expected Orleans Darkwa to run down the Broncos’ throats.

But perhaps we should have expected it. The examples of culture change leading to success are endless, all in recent history. The Bills traded Sammy Watkins and let Stephon Gilmore walk, leading everyone to believe that are in full tank mode. They are currently 3–2, and are a tough matchup for any opponent. The Rams fired Jeff Fisher and hired Sean McVay; suddenly Jared Goff doesn’t look like the bust we all thought he was. If the Giants go on a run, it will be interesting to see how they address Beckham’s contract in the offseason. Perhaps it isn’t the sure thing we all thought it would be.

The question becomes, how can you change culture? In my opinion, the hierarchy is as follows:

  1. Ownership
  2. Coaching/General Manager
  3. Players (Quarterback in particular if we’re focusing on football)

Ownership rarely changes, especially as the NFL essentially prints money year after year. Sorry Redskins fans, you’re stuck with Dan Snyder for awhile, and he’s only 52. Even as owners get older and experience health issues, they are more likely to pass duties to their family rather than sell the franchise. This can go either way, but in most cases it’s more of the same (whether good or bad).

Coaches and General Managers, on the other hand, are extremely volatile. ‘Black Monday’ occurs at the end of each regular season, where upwards of ten coaches receive their walking papers. A team is often a reflection of its head coach. Bill Belichick’s players are disciplined, Mike Tomlin’s players are energetic, Pete Carroll’s players have personality and are outspoken. Some would argue that coaches are not given enough time to instill a culture with their team, due to the volatility of the position. Hard to argue with this, given the impatient nature of society today.

I can’t help but chuckle when media personalities say things like “imagine if Team X drafted Dak Prescott, or Team Y drafted Russell Wilson!” Prescott and Wilson are two franchise quarterbacks that happened to fall in the latter rounds of the NFL draft. They were put in situations where they could grow and succeed. If the Browns drafted Dak Prescott, they would still suck. The Browns are a dysfunctional franchise that lacks the leadership and environment to develop players.

Gone are the days when Saints fans would wear paper bags on their heads

Perhaps the best example of the massive effect of culture change occurred in 2006 when the Saints hired Sean Payton and signed Drew Brees. For years the Saints were dubbed ‘The Aints’, due to their futility on the field. They did not finish with a winning record for the first twenty years of their existence. Payton and Brees’ impact was immediately felt, with the Saints making it all the way to the NFC Championship game in their first year together. Three years later they delivered the first ever Lombardi trophy to New Orleans.

So fear not Browns, Redskins, Bears, Bills, Jets, Lions, and Bengals fans. The Payton/Brees combo has taught us that ANY franchise can be saved. The question is whether or not the teams realize that talent is not the only variable for success.

Why Reverse Dieting is Nearly Impossible

Dieting for a bodybuilding show is one of the most challenging things a person can do. Life is stressful as it is, and during a contest prep there’s no junk food to turn to for relief when work and relationships are kicking your ass. A typical contest prep diet usually lasts about 12 weeks, with cardio making an unwanted guest appearance late in the process. The body does not want to be at low body fat levels, and it will do everything in its power to stop you from getting there.

After showtime has come and gone, many fitness coaches recommend that their client go through a reverse diet. A reverse diet is a systematic and slow increase in calories over a period of time to rebuild what is a now a slow churning metabolism. Metabolism is directly related to calorie intake; if your intake is low then your metabolic rate will slow to adjust to that level. On the surface, it may appear that a bodybuilding competitor has a furnace-like metabolism, but that is likely not the case. Aside from the genetically gifted, most competitors have to go through hell to be stage ready.

Reverse dieting seems quite logical. Slow increases in calories will allow the metabolism to rev up and minimize body fat accumulation in the process. A typical reverse diet will have the client adding about 10g of carbs and 5g of fat to their macronutrient totals each week. Sounds like a reasonable course of action aside from one thing; there is a huge margin of error when it comes to calorie counting.

Lets say you go to the grocery store and pick up a box of granola bars. The nutrition facts panel on the side of the box is an approximation. In fact, the FDA allows for up to 20% error on these labels. This revelation nearly throws the concept of reverse dieting out the window. You could be meticulous and perfect and weigh and track every food item, yet still be inaccurate. The only way to know exactly how many calories are in something is to put the food in an instrument called a bomb calorimeter. In a nutshell, this instrument burns the food and measures the heat generated to determine the calorie content. I assure you that many foods have not gone through this process. This is not what strict MyFitnessPal users want to hear, but it’s the truth.

So what’s the answer when it comes to post contest dieting? Personally, I have my clients go back to their pre-contest maintenance level. Will they put on body fat in the process? Probably. Is that a bad thing? No. No one will claim that bodybuilding is healthy. Walking around at dangerously low body fat levels is not optimal for hormone function and general health. Plus, I think it’s a bit irresponsible to have a client go on a 12 week reverse diet immediately after a 12 week contest prep diet. No one should be dieting for half a year.

I’m not saying reverse dieting does not or can not work. I understand the concept, but just believe the implementation is nearly impossible. Theory and practice are two different things.

Should You Hire a Fat Personal Trainer?

No one will mistake me for Dwayne Johnson anytime soon, but I consider myself to be in reasonable shape. I’ve owned my personal training company for a few years, and have been working out for over a decade. If you saw me on the street, I’m confident you would say ‘yeah, that guy looks like he works out.’ Stalk me on Instagram and decide for yourself.

This is certainly not a politically correct statement, but if you are a trainer, I believe you have a responsibility to be in shape. You should not only be a guide and resource of information to your clients, but you should also set a standard and inspire them. Personal training is not like other jobs. Credentials and experience are some, but not all of the determining factors for an ideal trainer. Would you hire a tattoo artist with cartoonish ink on their body or a stylist with hair like Sideshow Bob?

I’m not saying an overweight trainer doesn’t know what they’re talking about. Many of them are actually quite knowledgeable from my experience. But, there’s more to this job than shouting instructions. Certain clients will have high fitness levels and can be pushed to their physical limit. Is it appropriate to have a client perform an excruciating cardio circuit if you couldn’t handle it yourself? Shouldn’t you practice what you preach? Let’s be honest, when you see an overweight trainer waddle around the gym, don’t you roll your eyes just a little bit?

You may wonder why a person would become a trainer in the first place if they don’t live the fitness lifestyle themselves. The truth is, the process of getting a training certification is quite simple. Buy the book, take the test, pass the test. Boom, you can now legally train anyone you want. Pretty low cost of entry into a potentially lucrative industry. A person with good sales skills can make a successful living as a trainer, even with the extra fluff around their waist.

Conversely, many people with great physiques are completely clueless as well. There are tons of gym rats who look great in spite of themselves. Look at any ‘gym fails’ compilation and you’ll notice that quite a few of the victims actually have some quality muscle. Genetics are a major component when it comes to building a physique.  Some people can develop a well-sculpted physique doing almost any routine despite subpar form and no mind-muscle connection.

I don’t expect most people to agree with me. In their eyes, they probably think a trainer should have the knowledge and communication skills to help clients reach their goals and improve their health. There is no doubt that those are two attributes every trainer should have. In this day and age, we are scorned when we pass judgement on others based on appearance. Personally, I feel the need to display a respectable physique 24/7/365. I hold myself to a high standard. I would be completely embarrassed to huff and puff after demonstrating an exercise or joining a client for a jog as a warm-up. This is the profession I chose. If you hire me, it’s a honor.  I have an obligation to look the part.  If you introduce me to someone as your trainer, I want their reaction to be “well shit that makes sense” not “oh really” followed by muffled laughter.

Sean Felenczak, CSCS