If you’ve contact me through this website recently and I haven’t responded, it’s due to an overly-aggressive spam filter setting that I just discovered.  Changes have been made, the responsible parties have been sacked, and I’m working on responding to everyone now.  I apologize for the delays!

Keys of Success – Patience

Welcome to installment #1 of what will be an ongoing blog series:  the Keys of Success!  It should be noted that whenever anyone asks me what the key is to success, I always tell them that there isn’t one.  This is a much easier answer, since the person asking usually isn’t looking for the honest answer.  But there are several things when, put together, will give an average person a significantly higher statistical chance of hitting their goal.

The first of these keys that I’ll talk about today is patience.  Totally not sexy, I know.  I don’t promise they will all be riveting, just important.  Future keys will take us into the kitchen, into the gym, and deeper into our heads – so keep watching!

When I say patience, what do I really mean?  The most obvious interpretation is to wait for your results.  And that’s true – this takes time.  You didn’t go from 10% body fat to 20% in a week, it’s going to take more than a week to get back down there.  Just because you decided 2 weeks ago to be a bodybuilder does not mean your body will respond at a speed commensurate to your desires.  You’ve got to put in the work.  It takes time.  The counterpoint to this I get asked about are those 19 and 20 year old guys and gals with great bodies – “they didn’t have to wait!” – I refer you to this post and remind you that you know nothing about their story, their experience, where they’ve been or where they’re coming from.

The other side of patience is possibly even more important:  patience with yourself.  Give yourself the opportunity to fail.  Give yourself time to learn.  Give yourself the chance to enjoy the process you’ve initiated rather than simply being irritated that you’re still closer to point A than B.

When people hire me they often do it with the expectation or hope that having me on their side will mitigate the need to patience.  To a small degree, this is true.  I can help remove uncertainty, and if you would have spend years following an unproductive plan and going through the motions with low intensity in the gym, then yes – I can accelerate the process by years!  But even with the right plan in place, it takes time.  The more ambitious your goals, the more time it takes.  Want to gain 3 pounds of muscle or lose 10 pounds on the scale?  Great, you will need a lot less patience than the guy who wants to gain 20 pounds or lose 60.  This is where short-term goal setting becomes important.  For those of us who struggle with patience, being able to hit a new, legitimate milestone more frequently is important.  Also important to note, those short-term goals do not exist simply to placate the impatient – they are real, valuable, and an indication that the long-term goal is attainable.

Me telling people to “just be patient” works oh so well, as I’m sure you can imagine.  Patience is valuable, but infinite patience is setting yourself up for failure just the same as no patience.  You’ve got to have a time frame by which you can measure progress to be sure that it’s happening, and it’s got to be a time frame that is reasonable.  Let’s take the following goals, for example:

“I want to lose 30 pounds”

Awesome, any coach in the world can do that for you.  It may take 10 years though, so hopefully you’ve been working on that whole patience thing.

“Ok, ok, ok, I want to lose 30 pounds in 4 weeks”

Perfect, there’s a 4 week waiting line in the OR to have a leg amputated, so that’s about right.  Outside of losing a limb, that ain’t happening.

“Fine, how long should it take for me to lose 30 pounds?”

Now we’re talking.  You tell me your goal, I’ll give you an idea of the time frame.

The actual length of time in this hypothetical situation isn’t important – that number would be different for everyone anyway.  What is important is your ability to mentally buy in to the time it will take to reach your goal.  That is patience, and that is one of the most valuable and universal keys to success.

Time for some new rules

I recently saw on Pinterest (yes, guys…it’s ok to be on Pinterest.  You’re girlfriend might even respect you more for it) this graphic titled “The Skinny Rules, by Bob Harper”.  Regardless of your opinion of The Biggest Loser, it is very popular and this guy is seen as an icon in the industry.  So I’d like to take a moment and dispel some of the bullshit myths spreading under his name, or at least offer my take on this list.  Let’s dive in:

Drink a large glass of water before every meal.  No excuses.

The reason behind this is to drink more water.  There is no practical reason to doing this before a meal to be “skinny”.  Also, how many times are we eating per day?  Three?  How big is a glass of water?  Eight ounces?  Is 24 ounces gonna cut it for the day?  No.  Advice is helpful only if it’s specific.

Don’t drink your calories.

An arbitrary rule with no reasoning.  Milk, juices, protein drinks, etc can have productive and useful applications.  If he changed this to “don’t drink caloric soda” that would be more helpful, but you can still do that and be “skinny” if you play your cards right.

Eat protein at every meal – or stay hungry and grouchy

Finally something I agree with!

Slash your intake of refined flours and grains

The only reasoning behind this that makes sense is that it’s easy to overeat on these items.  Slashing your intake of anything will likely have the same effect.

Eat 30 to 50 grams of fiber every day.

Do this.

Eat apples and berries every single day.  Every.  Single.  Day.

Why?  These are not magical “skinny” foods.  Nothing amazing is going to happen if you do this.  Yes, these are good and fine foods – but they do not possess some secret that is going to melt away pounds.

No carbs after lunch.

1998 called and wants it’s weight loss theory back.  STOP WITH THIS GARBAGE CRAP ALREADY.

Learn to read food labels so you can know what you’re eating.

Smart advice, I like it.

Stop guessing about portion size and get it right.

Distill the entire list down to this one item and it would be a great list.

No more added sweeteners, including artificial ones.

Not a bad idea I suppose, but zero calorie sweeteners aren’t making you fat.

Get rid of those white potatoes

I understand it’s easy and convenient to say all white foods are bad (rice, bread, potatoes), but there is nothing inherently evil about a white potato.  EAT THEM, I DARE YOU.

Make one day a week meatless.

To accomplish what?  You’ll take in fewer calories that day likely, unless you say “I’m not having meat, so I’ll double my carbs!” in which case your plan has backfired.  Whoops.

Get rid of fast foods and fried foods.

These are definitely calorie bombs and a good place to start, especially if it’s a regular thing.  You can, however, get/stay skinny eating these things if you are meticulous with your diet.

Eat a real breakfast

Great, but can we define that?  Cheerios and a banana doesn’t count.  Get a protein source, get a fat source.

Make your own food and eat at least 10 meals a week at home

This is a good habit but if you don’t know what to make this isn’t necessarily going to help you.

Banish high-salt foods.

Other than the fact that high-salt foods are often processed (another fictional devil in the weight-loss world), this is pointless.  Salt doesn’t make you fat.  I salt the hell out of my food.

Eat your vegetables.  Just do it.

Yep, good plan – but don’t treat them as though they don’t have calories.

Go to bed hungry.

Great plan.  Also how eating disorders are born.  But, you know…if you aren’t miserable, it isn’t working.  Or something…

Sleep right.

How?  What does that mean?

Plan one splurge meal a week

Ah yes, the binge to justify all your hard work.  Trust me, this has the ability to turn into the most unhealthy habit you can develop.

So, how would I re-write these rules?  And what would I call them?  It sure as hell wouldn’t be the “Skinny Rules”, because I don’t think that’s a particularly appealing goal.  How about the “fit and healthy rules”?  That sounds lame and cheesy, but let’s run with it.

  1. Monitor your intake carefully.  Track it.  Adjust it – in small increments – only if you don’t see progress over a 10-day period.  Be consistent.
  2. Lift weights (funny how nothing on the above list was activity-related)
  3. Get a variety of foods.  Experiment.
  4. Drink a ton of water.  100 ounces a day is a good starting point for an active person.
  5. Avoid foods that make you feel physically bad.  Everything else is ok.  Yes, everything.  Wrap your head around that, then see point 1 again.  Moderation, people.  Oreos don’t make you fat.  A package of them a day does.
  6. Take up a hobby that requires you to be active.
  7. Take naps when your body wants them.  If it doesn’t want naps, work harder until it does.
  8. Be honest with yourself.  Completely and wholly.
  9. Learn patience.

There you go, that’s the list.  Do those 9 things, learn about yourself, and refine your activity and intake to really get to know your body.  THAT is the real secret.

No one matters but you

Ok, listen up – I’m giving everyone reading this permission.  Permission to be completely self-centered, absorbed, and borderline narcissistic.  You are the center of the universe.  Block everyone else out.  Picture yourself, alone, on top of a mountain somewhere.  You, and nothing else.

This is the prism through which you need to assess your progress.

You are the only one who can stand in your shoes, both literally and figuratively.  The sum of your parts – your genetics, your work ethic, your commitment, your experience – is what makes you who you are.  Those variables are different for everyone, and when you’ve got that many variables in an equation you can make damn sure there’s going to be a wide variety of “answers”.

I see so many people who struggle with the comparison game – wanting to be better than the next person, etc.  And really, for those who engage in physique competitions, you’d think it’s pretty much inevitable – but it’s not.  Or shouldn’t be, at least.

Compare against yourself.  I see a lot of people say that, but I wonder how many actually stop, think about what it means, and reprogram something in their brains to help them make that shift.  And how many go back on Instagram 2 minutes later thinking things like “his arms are bigger” or “she’s got better legs” – it doesn’t matter.

Even as competitors, we are trying to bring a better version of our physical selves (note the added word there) each time we step up on that stage.  Our reasons for doing this can be very different, and that’s ok.  And it’s foundation, I think competing is a very effective way of setting time-based goals for yourself.  Ask yourself why you’re doing this.

I want to win.  Why?  What is winning going to do for you?  If you have plans of making a career out of this I genuinely wish you the best of luck, but I’d suggest you just go get a degree (or 2nd degree) instead.  It’s likely to be cheaper (ha!), less frustrating, and more successful.

I want to get up on stage and do something!  Ok, now we’re getting somewhere.  As a performer myself, I get this.  It’s fun to be under the lights, have your moment, and show off what you’ve been working on to a crowd.  It’s the act that matters, not the accolades.

I want to improve.  Bingo.  When you get up on stage, you are defining a moment.  At this exact moment, this is how I look.  At the next arbitrarily defined moment, I want to look better than this.  Many people advocate waiting/training for years before getting up on stage, and to that I say:  why?  Unless you’ve got a serious and legitimate need for the additional time (major imbalances, metabolic deficiency, etc), get up there and establish a baseline for yourself.  Train, diet, go through the process, and enjoy learning about yourself along the way.

A final note about results:  seriously, I cannot stress enough how unimportant show placings are.  I have seen so many things that can only really be classified as bullshit I don’t know where to start.  People winning natural shows who later fail drug tests.  Someone winning a class when their coach is a judge.  The top 3 finishers in a class all being sponsored by the same company, who happens to sponsor the show.  Pre-judging that last for 6 hours – do you really expect me to believe the judges are still awake or seeing straight by the end of that?  And in the end, shows aren’t even consistently judged by the standards published by the organizing body.  Different looks are rewarded differently at different shows.  If you let your worth be determined by a system that lets itself be described by the above terms, you are going to be unhappy.

So take those progress photos.  Get up on stage.  Define your starting point, and define your steps along the way.  Improve some each day, improve some more each month.  Change yourself each year.  Just keep looking straight ahead.

Emotional thinking

People often ask me where I stand on certain topics.  What I think about this training style, that diet, some product, whichever method of cardio, you name it.  I live and exist in this industry, so it’s good to have opinions on things and be able to explain and articulate those opinions to others.

Something I think we need less of in this industry is emotion.  Specifically when it comes to taking a position, developing a vested interest in the advancement of that position, and shooting down challenging theories without engaging in an honest debate or taking the time to really learn about them.

The flexible dieting movement is a great example.  For those unfamiliar, this is the concept that you can eat whatever you want and, as long as your macronutrient numbers add up at the end of the day, you’re good to go.  When this theory just started to gain mainstream attention, the traditional bodybuilding community was in outrage.  “YOU MUST EAT TILAPIA AND ASPARAGUS EXCLUSIVELY AT 4 WEEKS OUT,” they cried – otherwise you are not a real bodybuilder, or something.  Eventually there was a large enough body of evidence that this theory actually produced results, and it started to gain acceptance.

Then, something funny happened – the pendulum swung the other way around.  Now people who chose to eat clean were suddenly slaves to their diets, miserable, and living a life of dietary prison in which the only possible outcome was the development of an eating disorder.  Clean eating had become a villain, and coaches who advocated that approach – even those who did so responsibly – were becoming “old school” at best, or “stuck in the past” and “ignorant of science” at worst.

The problem is that people have taken these dieting theories and turned them into positions.  With a position, you have – for some reason – developed an emotional attachment to a particular philosophy.  While emotion and passion are good things, they do little to further honest debate and assessment.

Whatever the dietary strategy – old school clean eating, flexible dieting, low carb, paleo, high fat, intermittent fasting, blah blah blah – I don’t care what it is, there is likely a place for it.  Maybe not for you or me, but for someone out there.  The same with training styles, with different types of cardio, with various cleanses, with every potential variable you could have when it comes to fitness and changing your body.  A responsible and intellectually honest coach will not take a hard position on something, because doing so means you become unwilling to listen to the needs of your clients.

One of the hardest things I do is listen to people and determine what approach is going to work best for them.  Often times we start out with one strategy and then – either because I’m not happy with the rate of progress or because the individual I’m working with wants to try it – we’ll switch gears.  I have a lot of clients who choose to figuratively bury their head in the sand and trust whatever I tell them to do.  They get results, it works, they’re happy, no need to complicate the issue.  I work with others who read incessantly and always want to try new stuff – I like that too.  It’s my job to keep things from getting too A.D.D., to make sure that if we try something new, it’s under the right conditions and we stick with it for long enough to give it a chance to do it’s thing.  I’m a fan of experimentation.

So if you’re searching for a coach, ask them what their philosophies are.  If they give you concrete answers, you’ll know what to expect – exactly that, and probably not a huge degree of flexibility if that doesn’t end up working out for you.

Online coaching – do it right, or get out.

As I browse through various fitness-related pages on Instagram or Facebook, I come across a lot of trainers, fitness celebrities, and…well, I guess you could just say “personalities” that have a lot to tell the world.  Usually these people are personal trainers, often times they hold down other jobs but have a passion for fitness that they want to share.

I often see a blip show up from these people whether in a post or an updated bio that they are “now offering online coaching!”  Ohhhhhhh, boy.

Let’s first talk about why this happens.  From my own experience getting my footing in this industry, I can say I’ve been through this process.  I’ve found what works and what doesn’t.  The proliferation of online coaches is largely due to some combination of:

  • The well-intentioned desire to diversify your business model as a personal trainer
  • Your inability to keep yourself busy with in-person clients
  • Your dissatisfaction with your current training arrangement
  • Thinking it’s an easy way to make some extra cash

I believe the thinking is “hey I’m good with people in-person, but why should I limit myself to people that are within driving distance of where I train?  HEY EVERYBODY, I DO ONLINE COACHING TOO.”

The problem is that these are completely different, separate, and basically unrelated services.  Sure you’re concerning yourself with the health and well-being of another human, but that’s where the similarities end.

You’re typically concerning yourself with a different type of client.  The way you go about handling each individual is very different than if you were seeing them in-person.  You have to have systems in place to account for the fact that you will likely never have face-to-face contact with this person.  It’s a lot to think about it.

Most importantly, online coaching requires a totally different skill set than training someone in a gym.

You need the knowledge, yes.  It helps to be able to motivate someone, yes.  But you also have to be able to teach someone how to do something without being able to demonstrate it.  You have to be able to convey the idea of intensity from afar.  You have to be a great communicator, which means more than just responding to emails (though many people can’t even do this).  It also means knowing what questions to ask, and hearing the answers that aren’t given to get a more complete idea of what’s actually going on in someone’s life.  Yes you’ve got to care about each individual person you’re working with, but caring isn’t enough – you’ve got to be able to identify problems and then have the ability to do something about it.

And then there’s the technology.  Oh, the technology.  Online coaching means you need a firm grasp on technology, or you’re going to confuse the hell out of your clients (best case scenario) or drown yourself (worst case).  How is your program being delivered?  I’ve seen online coaches who legit write up plans via email and just send them over, stream of consciousness style.  I’m sorry, how are you tracking this?  Are you keeping any records?  What’s your process, your methodology, your workflow?  How do you keep anything straight?

All that being said, let’s find solutions rather than just listen to me rant all day.  Here are some things to ask an online coach you are looking at:

  • How long have you been doing this? (experience)
  • What percentage of your work is online coaching? (dedication to the process)
  • How many clients do you work with?  (too many = spread too thin or very little detail)
  • What format is the program in?  (organization)
  • How are updates handled and what is the frequency? (some do not offer updates and that’s ok, just a different service – be aware of what you’re getting into)
  • How do I know I’m doing the exercises correctly? (is there a feedback mechanism for correction?)

Also look at response times on email, and be fair.  If I get an email from someone on Friday night it’s entirely possible I may not respond until Monday morning.  I see trainers with comments on the Instagram photos all the time along the lines of “I emailed you two weeks ago and haven’t heard back, please respond.”  Here, I blame the emailer as much as the coach – if 2 weeks pass and you haven’t got a response, move on.  It ain’t worth it.

To the online coaches out there, step up your game.  Do better.  Know if this is your thing or if it isn’t.  If it is, act like it, and commit to it.  If not, stay in the gym and find other, easier ways to diversify your business that are in line with your strengths.

The all those seeking a coach, all I can say is this:  expect more.  One marketing expert I heard once said something that stuck with me:

“Make big promises, then over-deliver on your service”

Is your coach doing that?

Wrist wraps: the 411

Another gym accessory firmly in the “non-essential but nice to have” category:  wrist wraps, for added stability on pressing movements.  In this video I talk about why and how to use them, and also review the wraps that Nordic Lifting sent me to get my take on.

Nordic Lifting wrist wraps on

Why everyone should practice posing

Yes, even non-competitors.

If you have any desire to step on stage, you need to being practicing your posing now.  It is absolutely impossible to spend too much time working on it.  The more time you spend on it, the more automatic it becomes.  The more opportunity you have to see room for improvements and adjust the way you are positioned in a specific pose.  The more opportunity you have to identify weak areas in your physique that have maybe gone unnoticed before.

And perhaps most importantly:  the greater the opportunity to better understand your body.

Let’s start with the basics – when you learn how to pose correctly, you can actually see what kind of changes your body is making.  If you’re not posing, you’re taking part in what I like to call mugshot progress pics.

Nice traps, but no legs.

Nice traps, but no legs.

When you just stand there in front of the camera, you can make a great deal of progress over the course of weeks and months and struggle to see it.  But when you learn to pose correctly and actually, you know, flex some of the muscle you’re busting your butt to build, results become more evident.

Case in point:  my client Alison.  When she started with me she admittedly had no clue about posing, but managed to figure it out pretty quickly.  She made great progress over her first 12 weeks, and combined with learning how to pose, she ended up looking pretty much like a completely different person at the 3-month mark.

Got it?

Got it?

And now my second point:  when you learn to pose, you’re really just learning how to flex a muscle isometrically.  Easy peasy, right?  Everyone can flex their bicep.  Well, can you flex your lats, or your hamstrings without bending your knee?  If you’re an experienced competitor, do you remember a time when you couldn’t?  Once you learn this stuff and take it with you into the gym, everything changes.  Finally figured out how to flare your lats?  Great, now those pullups and pulldowns are going to feel a lot more productive.  Finally figured out how to engage those hamstrings on your back double bicep pose?  Awesome, now enjoy getting more out of a light warmup set of Romanian deadlifts than you ever would have thought possible.

Regardless of your competitive ambitions – or lack thereof – take advantage of the opportunity that posing offers in order to increase your body awareness, get more out of your lifts, and be better able to see those changes in your photos.

Squat smart and squat safe!

When I lived in Asheville I was a member of Biltmore fitness – a very cool gym that was definitely a bit on the…rustic side.  It has a very ‘old school’ vibe which I found super appealing.  By and large, the people who worked there and trained there were pretty chill, cool people as well.  When I moved to Knoxville, the search began for a similar gym within a reasonable driving distance.  Unfortunately, none was to be found – so I signed up at the Rush, where my girlfriend was already a member.  For those outside the area, the Rush is a regional chain of large box gyms that are very well-equipped, appeal to a wide range of people, is incredibly noisy and ADD-inducing inside, and has the most obnoxious, god-awful color scheme (inside and out) that you could possible imagine.

And it also provides the guarantee that pretty much any time you step foot inside, you’re going to see something that could end up on the Awkward Gym Moments Facebook page.  While these events can happen anywhere in the gym, the squat rack is the prime location for bad form, bad decisions, and bad mojo.

Case in point:  3 guys (averaging probably a buck seventy per) taking turns in the rack, “squatting” weights in the neighborhood of 285-355.  I use the quotes because I don’t think it counts if the bar only travels 6-8 inches vertically.  Knees would shake like a newborn deer on every rep, they would rack the weight, congratulate their bro on a good set, increase the weight and move on.  Eventually, one guy officially overdid it:  he went down the customary 6-8″, and just kept on going down.  Luckily, they did not have the spotting arms of the rack in place and his buddies weren’t paying attention….oh wait, that wasn’t lucky at all.  He went down in a hunkered mess to the floor, and I ran over to help while one of his buddies also became alarmed and tried to yank the bar off his back (bad idea dude – you can’t squat that weight, and you also can’t deadlift it or curl it off your buddy).  Ultimately we each grabbed a side of the bar and got it off the guy’s back.  He was lucky, and managed to walk away.  As did his two buddies – without re-racking their weights, of course.

So let’s please learn from these guys.  When you go to squat, make sure you know how to do it first.  Read a book, watch some YouTube videos, hire a smart and qualified trainer for a single session, whatever – just learn how to do the move correctly first.  You are placing a heavy compressive load near your cervical spine and then moving with that load in place.  It is very easy to injure yourself doing this if you go about it carelessly.  Whether you do a low bar squat (my preference) or a high bar squat, learn where to properly position the bar, how to hold it, how to manipulate your knees and hips in concert with one another through the movement, how to gauge your depth as being too deep, too shallow, or just right, and how to balance your weight distribution between the front and back of your foot.

Find an open rack and claim it.  Don’t be afraid to set up shop for a little while, but don’t sit around for 5 minutes between sets either.  Do your business and take the time you need to do so, then get out and let someone else use it.

Just the basics, thanks.

Just the basics, thanks.

Plan ahead.  Most racks have adjustable cradles (where the bar sits at rest).  Make sure these are at a height where you don’t have to get up on your tip-toes to get the bar positioned on your back.  Better to have them too low than too high.  Adjust the spotting arms to an appropriate height as well.  Warm up with some unweighted squats and look to the side when you’re at your bottom depth, and gauge where to place the arms.  Get them in position, do a few more unweighted reps, and adjust as needed.

Start with just the bar.  This will not only allow you to determine if you set the arms to the correct depth, but will also be your first reps of the day with weight (not a lot, but still).  If you’ve got any kind of minor tweak, irritation, or annoyance in your legs or back, this may be the first thing you do that makes you aware of it.  Adjust your plans for the workout accordingly if you feel anything like that.

When you’re ready to go, remember this:  the less unnecessary movement you make with the bar on your back, the better.  Get the bar on your back, take one small step backward with each foot, and begin.  That’s it.  Don’t take a ton of little steps back or shuffle your feet endlessly.  Know where your feet need to go (you’ll get more confident in this with time) and put them there.

And finally:  when in doubt, go light.  If you’re accustomed to having someone spot you and find yourself lifting alone one day, make the necessary adjustments in weight (your spotter isn’t there just to catch you but also should be telling you about details and deviations in your form – without those eyes present, back off the gas pedal just a tad).  Remember that first and foremost, your job each and every time you enter the gym is to walk out ready to come back the next time.  If you let your ego dictate your lifts and get hurt, the missed time in the gym will hurt even more.

Lift safe, and lift smart!

And re-rack your damn weights when you’re done, too.

Taylor @ Team Universe!

This past weekend, Five Starr Stud Taylor Spadaccino made her debut on a national stage at the 2013 Team Universe in Teaneck, NJ.  After placing 3rd in her very first show last year she followed that up with a dramatically improved package in April at the NC State Championships, winning her class and narrowly missing out on the overall.  Following that show we had a nice planning discussion and both agreed it was time for her to move on to the national stage, and we selected the Team U show due to timing and also the ability to compete with her friends and family in the audience (being from NJ, originally).  She pushed as hard as ever for the 12 weeks between shows and her efforts were evident and she placed 5th in her very competitive class, taking home a nice shiny trophy for her efforts.


After this awesome success of a performance we agreed another national show would be in order before calling it a year, but decided to take our time until mid-November and the NPC Nationals in Florida.  This not only gives us time to make some improvements but also ensures Taylor won’t get burnt out and over-dieted.  It’s sure to be a competitive class at Nationals (it always is), but you can be sure Taylor will be doing everything she can between now and then to bring her best package to the stage.

  • @darinstarr on Twitter

    Online bodybuilding prep coach, musician, thespian
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