This much I know:
The absolute worst diet or exercise program is the one that kills you.
Fortunately, those are rare. But there are many tactics used in the pursuit of looking good that are anything but heathy, from restrictive diets and punishing workouts to dangerous drugs and sketchy supplements.
Most assume that bodybuilders and fitness chicks are the biggest offenders. And while there’s no denying that a few could be poster children for the holy trinity of body dysmorphia, substance abuse, and skewed priorities, not every physique professional abuses his or her body with reckless abandon.
(Eight-time Mr. Olympia Lee Haney even preached caution with caffeine; something to remember before you let your nephew napalm his adrenals with that 20-ounce energy drink from 7-11.)
But here’s another wrinkle: some of the dumb, extreme, or psychologically toxic things the pros do to look or perform at a high level can be very effective, if used prudently.
Should we still ignore them?
I say no. Not entirely. Because a lot of folks — including many health and fitness authorities preaching moderation and balance — could use a little extreme ass kicking.
Cause they’re soft. Certainly physically. Maybe even mentally.
And there’s a time and a place for extreme measures. Here are just 10 that can be useful.
Just not often.
1. Follow a Restrictive Diet. Yeah, you can eat whatever you want and still lose weight. Cake, ice cream, butter-infused coffee, even a 10-pound bag of peanut M&Ms blended with heavy cream – just account for the calories and you’ll lose fat.
Know what can deliver even better, faster results? Not eating any of that shit.
For decades bodybuilders got lean by avoiding entire sections of the grocery store or simply labeling foods as either “clean” or “can’t eat right now sucks but whatever.”
This militant, “helps or hurts ” approach is hardly accurate or even necessary.
Except for some, it is necessary.
Emotional eating is a reality. Ditto eating distracted or to manage stress and overwhelm. You honestly think it’s wise to tell someone prone to self-medication that they’re “allowed” four Pringles a day? Talk about setting ’em up for failure.
Try the opposite. Cut out shit food for 21 days. You won’t die. You will, however, learn a lot about what you really crave.
2. Train So Hard You Crush Yourself (sometimes). An exercise program should make you better, not kick your ass so bad you miss work for three days.
That said, it should still be challenging and above all progressive, something lost on a generation that tries to classify folding laundry and taking out the garbage as exercise.
Once a month or so, do stuff that (safely) tests your limits while gently reminding you what real hard fucking work really feels like.
Challenge your friend to “I go, you go” Prowler pushes or sets of 10 back squats. Whomever taps out (or throws up) first has to buy lunch. Just not that day. You won’t be hungry.
3. Have Very High Standards. Happiness is found in being grateful for what you have, not wanting something more. Which is why I spend about 80% of my life a certified malcontent. I think I need to be bigger, and leaner, sometimes even taller and certainly move better. Calves I’m okay, thanks.
Of course it’s not healthy to look at your body this way. But it can also be effective. No one has ever lost a substantial amount of fat or dramatically improved a stubborn body part by thinking “oh well, at least my friends love me for who I am.” High standards may not make you happy, but they can make you better.
4. Do Ridiculous Amounts of Vanity Training. In the past decade it became “stupid” in some circles to do any type of “non functional” exercise. Even a simple biceps curl will earn ridicule and disdain. Instead everyone must train like they only have 20 minutes a week to commit to exercise.
If you have the luxury of time (are you really THAT busy?), why not train your weak bodyparts more? More sets, more reps, and more variety. Do an hour or arms in plain view of your gym’s resident “corrective exercise specialist.” Hit a most muscular pose between sets and watch the dork have a stroke. Bask in the schadenfraude that comes with being jacked.
Here’s my current arm workout:
A1) Slight Decline Close Grip Bench Press – 5 x 10, 8, 6, 4, 12
A2) Barbell Curls, Medium Grip — 5 x 10, 8, 6, 4, 12
B1) Machine Triceps Extension – 3 x 6/6/6 – triple drop set
B2) Machine Preacher Curl – 3 x 8/8/8 – triple drop set.
C) Meadows Triceps Pressdowns on Dip Machine — 1 Disgusting Drop Set
And of course, forearm work.
5. Compare Yourself to Bigger, Stronger, Prettier People. You shouldn’t use someone else as your physical barometer. It will only leave you sorry and disappointed, not to mention an easy mark for advertisers.
“Maybe she’s born that way? Maybe it’s Maybelline?”
Actually no, she was born that way — and then she was airbrushed, photoshopped, and likely surgically enhanced, God bless her. Now buy our $80 skin cream.
Still, every muscular dude was once a kid who saw a picture of Flex Wheeler or Arnold in a magazine and then asked Santa for a weight set for Christmas. Most of us turned out okay I guess.
What’s wrong with having carrot to chase? I love muscle. I find it inspiring and motivating. I see a dude with legit 20-inch arms and still think “that’s awesome, I wanna go train.” So now that’s not healthy? But sitting at home playing the victim of poor genetics card is?
6. Follow a Crushing Schedule (for a while). My friend is a psychologist. Unfortunately, I’ve become his pet project. At least once a month he says, “I must slow you down,” to which I respond with any number of socially acceptable variations of “go hump a camel.”
He’s right though — burn the candle at both ends and you will burn out. It’s not if, it’s when.
But that doesn’t you can’t periodically test your recovery abilities. For one month, train twice a day. Then relax a bit. See what happens to your body. I’ll bet you build muscle (it’s called supercompensation), not to mention realize that the standard three times a week gym commitment isn’t really that”exhausting.”
7. Obsess Over Exercise Trivia. The “fitness nihilist” says exercise choice doesn’t matter. Just do something that works the intended muscle. Great advice, until it doesn’t work. And then all the stuff you labeled minutiae because you’re so damn smart is suddenly much more importanter.
I have a client whose put a half-inch on his arms in 3 months following a steady diet of reverse curl variations, despite training for years. It wasn’t rocket surgery on my end – he’d just mentioned on day one that he’d never done a reverse curl before. So I guess minutiae did matter, at least to him.
8. Beat Yourself Up Mentally When You Fuck Up Your Diet. I always say if you miss a meal or cheat on your diet, don’t get down on yourself. Just take ownership and move on, with the goal of doing a little bit better next time. It’s just one meal. It will all come out in the wash. And it does.
But I’m lying. Sort of.
Sometimes you deserve a little chastising, maybe even need it. When Arnold (who has a notorious sweet tooth) would slip up while preparing for the Olympia, he’d look in the mirror and say, “You can’t even follow the diet required to win? You’re a fucking loser.”
Granted, this is a very mentally strong person competing to be the best in the world, but there’s still a lesson there. Quit babying yourself.
9. Avoid Social Situations So That You Can Exercise or Follow a Meal Plan. No one should ever bring chicken and broccoli in Tupperware to Thanksgiving dinner. Unless you have plans the following week to step on stage or go-go dance in your underwear in front of a room full of dollar bill wielding fans.
However, there’s a difference between skipping a holiday dinner with family and choosing not to go to Hooters for beer and wings with the boys every Friday. Any goal worth achieving must have sacrifice. Set your standards and stick to them.
10. Talk About Exercise and Nutrition Incessantly, Especially on Social Media. Actually, don’t do that. You’re a boring asshat. And we’re making fun of you when you’re not around. So forget what I said in the last point. Go to Hooters for beer and wings. You need it.
You don’t have to be “hardcore” or “extreme” to get very good results from a diet or exercise plan. It’s also healthier and certainly more sustainable if you don’t, which is why my approach to coaching is decidedly safe and guaranteed not to send you to the ER.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t borrow a little hardcore inspiration, from time to time. Sometimes what doesn’t kill you really does make you stronger.