I sat down and watched Pumping Iron recently because I love watching Arnold be and ass and I love the mystique of golden age bodybuilding, but one thing stood out to me this viewing. Paying close attention to the training sequences I noticed something, no one was counting. Arnold didn’t count to 8 reps, put down the weight, record his reps in a notebook, stare at a clock for a set amount of rest and then return to training. If you watch the golden age guys train, they weren’t worrying about counts, they were too busy listening to their bodies.
One of the worst fitness trends today is the ridiculous over-quantification of everything. Sets, reps, macros, calories, steps, rest times to the second, Fitocracy, FitPal, Fitbit, body weight, body fat, etc… It’s exhausting, it’s distracting and it keeps you from learning how to really listen to your body.
It reminds me of a quote that is often falsely attributed to Einstein (regardless of where it came from it’s truth):
Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.
The body is more than math and your mind is much more powerful than your ability to count to 8, follow a clock, or input data into an app. There’s no equation or app that can tell you when your recovery needs have been met and you’re ready to train at 100%, likewise there is no equation that will tell you how many reps you’ll get out before failure.
Back when I was a much more serious cyclist I had a lot of racing buddies who would go out for a ride and obsessively chase a wattage, regardless of how they actually felt that day. They’d tank their week of training by pushing too far into the red on a day they just didn’t have it, or they’d waste perfectly good training hours by holding back on a day they were at 110%. Instead of listening to their bodies, they were overriding all their instincts with numbers blinking on a 1-inch by 2-inch screen.
Think again of those golden era bodybuilders so many of us lust to look even a bit like, before the days of growth hormone, insulin abuse and hypertrophic, bloat guts. Those guys were building world-class physiques without apps or websites and they were doing it on crappy equipment, no TRX bands, just a bunch of iron. What else is missing from Pumping Iron? Rep-tempo nonsense, resting by the clock and obsessive notebook usage. Just big dudes grunting out reps until their bodies say no more and resting until their bodies are ready to go again whether that’s 30 seconds or 5 minutes.
What about diet though? I have to obsessively count calories to get it right, right? The
The National Weight Control Registry has studied just the thing, they monitor people who’ve lost a substantial amount of weight and who have kept it off long-term. They study success stories and look for common denominators of success, what they’ve found is that calorie-counting is NOT a major contributor to losing weight and keeping it off. Learning to change your lifestyle like eating breakfast and having regular meal times is where they see success.
Obsessive counting might even keep you from reaching your goals. Recently, a study out of the University of Pittsburgh was published in JAMA which showed that Fitbit-like trackers did NOT help people lose weight compared to those who went on a diet and didn’t use such technology.
Listen to Your Body
The fact is, wannabe fitness gurus, broscience practitioners and Silicon Valley asshats looking to make a quick billion with some fancy tech and mystery math love peddling snake oil to consumers. They truth? Most quantifications of fitness and diet give the illusion of control, while effectively achieving the exact opposite.
Similar to the business world, over-quantification syndrome provides the illusion of expertise. “Look at all these numbers and graphs, they must mean something!” True expertise is far more sophisticated, numbers will never help you create a satisfying relationship with your own body.
Trust the wisdom of your own body. The energy you put into tracking, counting and timing could be put to use in learning to listen to your body. So give it a try, get in the gym and leave the Fitbit, notebook and app at home. Hit the weights and listen to your body, you might be surprised what it tells you.