Your top 5 health and fitness questions, answered.

As a strength and nutrition coach, I've come face-to-face with a lot of questions over the past decade.

And with so much conflicting advice freely available, I can understand why there are so many questions. Since there is no-one-size-fits all solution coupled with the fact that most advice given is grounded in a data point of one, it makes the scenario that much more confusing for someone trying to make progress with their health and fitness.

 In my own practice, simplicity has always been the cornerstone. I adopted this truism when I read a line by the fourteenth century philosopher William of Occam:

When confronted with many solutions to a problem choose the simplest one. 

This truism is also my GPS when I counsel or coach people wanting to transform their health and fitness. I've come to understand that people value simplicity and usefulness over brilliance and complexity in a coaching environment.

That's why I wrote this piece.

In this article, I've traced back and gathered the most frequently asked questions surrounding health and fitness that I've gotten over the years. The responses are all grounded to simplify your life without reducing your journey to a set of rules. Rather, I give you some context to make the simplest decision based on what's best for you and your goals.

 

1. Do I need to count calories?

This is the most frequently asked question of them all. The answer: Yes.

But, to what extent and intensity you count calories is varied. For a competitive physique athlete, counting calories as precisely as possible is common place. The desired adaptation requires that they are that precise.

Such an extreme approach for the lay person is not necessary. One, it's time consuming. Two, it leaves the door open to outsourcing your appetite signals to a calorie counting app (instead of internalizing your own hunger cues). Three, it can hinder your social life around food. 

There is a much simpler way. At each meal that is not after a workout, build your plate like so:

  • Two palms of protein for men. One palm of protein for women.
  • Two fists of veggies for men. One fist of veggies for women.
  • Two thumbs of fat for men. One thumb of fat for women.

For your post-workout meal, when your muscle cells are primed for nutrient uptake, build your meals like so:

  • Two palms of protein for men. One palm of protein for women.
  • Two fists of veggies for men. One fist of veggies for women.
  • One cupped hand of carbohydrates for men and women.
  • Two thumbs of fat for men. One thumb of fat for women.

Simple, right? Although this isn't as arduous as counting every single gram, it's still a version of calorie counting.

 

2. Where do I start?

Overwhelm can cause paralyzation. To overcome this, I always suggest thinking about a medical triage: 

In mass casualty situations, triage is used to decide who is most urgently in need of transportation to a hospital for care (generally, those who have a chance of survival but who would die without immediate treatment) and whose injuries are less severe and must wait for medical care.

In other words, give attention to what is most urgent.

Unfortunately, a large portion of the health and fitness advice looks like a whirlpool of spasmodic prescriptions leaving you more confused.

When we treat your own situation like triage, it clears the fog and gives way to a clear starting line. The most urgent needs when it comes to health and fitness are often the most basic. And it's usually not even about adding anything new to your life - instead, it's all about identifying deficiencies and then removing them.

The most common deficiencies I've seen are sleep and hydration. It also happens to be that these two aspects of health are essential, not additive. But yet, they are the most neglected.

If you're not getting enough sleep or drinking enough water, all your other efforts are likely to fall short. 

A general aim for water intake should be half of your bodyweight in ounces of water each day. For sleep, arrange yourself for seven to nine hours per night.

 

3. How do I train around bad (lower) back?

First, I suggest you see a specialist. If you're cleared to strength train, the following are a few strategies you can install. 

For squatting, single leg squatting exercises will allow you to load the legs without over-loading the spine. Bulgarian splits squats done with dumbbells are a good choice. The landmine front squat is another solid option. It'll allow you to load the legs while keeping an upright torso reducing the amount of sheer force on your lower back.

Trap bar deadlifts are a valuable tool if your lower back isn't up to par. In the conventional deadlift done with a straight bar, the load being moved is quite far from the axis (your hips), and thus your low back pays the bill. This is where the trap-bar deadlift provides its value. Since the bar is designed for you to step inside it rather than behind it, it shortens the axis which reduces the sheer force on the spine.

For upper back development, rowing movements done standing up (barbell and dumbbell rows) can be problematic for a cranky lower back. To work the upper back without irritating the lower back, there are two movements I love: The chest supported row (your chest is supported by an incline bench) and the inverted row (where you pull yourself up to the bar that is pinned in a power rack).

 

4. What diet should I follow?

The veil of ignorance must be lifted when it comes to the cultish culture of diets. We are humans, not robots. So when it comes to food, the silly dogmas of strict ideologies are laughable.

There are however, pillars to a good diet. How one fulfills these needs are nuanced:

  • Sufficient energy intake (see point #1).
  • Essential amino acid intake (one palm of protein per meal for women and two palms of protein per meal for men).
  • Essential fatty acids (one thumb worth of fat for women and one thumb worth of fat for men per meal in addition to any fat intake from protein sources).
  • Water intake (half of your weight in ounces each day).
  • Micronutrient intake (one fist worth of veggies and/or fruit for women and two fists worth of veggies and/or fruit for men per meal).

These five pillars are the foundation of a good diet. How you fulfill these requirements are up to you and your personal preferences.

 

5. What is a good workout?

My response is biased here. If we are talking about health and body composition, a workout based around strength training is the way to go. 

However, if you love running trails, the spin class that blasts EDM music, or swimming at sunset at your local lake, don't give those up. I would just add some strength training to your game.

With that said, here is what a good strength workout should look like:

  • Warm-up (5-10 minutes of aerobic activity followed by dynamic movements and mobility).
  • Mechanical tension (Heavy loads moved for 2-5 reps. Rest periods ~3-5 minutes).
  • Muscle damage (Moderate loads moved with longer time under tension or extended range of motion in the 4-8 rep range. Rest periods ~1-3 minutes).
  • Metabolic stress (Lighter loads moved with higher reps that fall between 12-20+ with shorter rest periods between 30-90 seconds).

Here is an example of an upper body workout following this template:

Warm up

5 minute row, then 2 sets of:

  • 10 arm swings (front and back)
  • 10 dips
  • 10 lat pull downs
  • 10 glute bridge

Mechanical tension

  • Work up to a heavy triple on the incline bench press. Rest as needed between sets.

Muscle damage

  • Flat bench press: 3X8 with a 2201 tempo. Rest 180 seconds.

Metabolic stress

  • Superset x 3: 8 chin ups, 15 push ups, 8 ab roll outs. Rest 60 seconds.

 

Wrapping Up

You've read this far. The next best thing you can do is to start right now. Amassing more knowledge without application of what you already know yields little fruit.

Taking your enthusiasm and turning them into results doesn't require brilliance and complexity. Master the basics and you'll poise yourself for sustainable progress in your health and fitness journey.