Diet Detective: Can you tell us how you became a fitness expert and writer?
Lou Schuler: Pure luck! In 1991, I was a grad student in creative writing at USC. I answered a blind ad in the L.A. Times for an editor at a fitness magazine. The magazine turned out to be Men's Fitness, but it didn't matter because I'd never heard of it. I was 34 at the time, and I'd been working out since I was 13, but I'd never picked up a fitness or bodybuilding magazine. I'd seen them on newsstands, but when I looked at the swollen, oily guys posing on the covers, I never thought they were for me.
Once I could make a living writing about fitness, which to that point had been my hobby but something I hardly ever got assigned to report on, I never looked back. I started full time at Men's Fitness in 1992, switched to Men's Health in 1998, and went out on my own in 2004.
DD: If you could do only one strength-training exercise, what would it be?
LS: Push-ups. But I'd do, like, 75 variations.
DD: What is the biggest secret that trainers typically don't tell their clients but should?
LS: What I wish they would tell clients is that movement competence has to precede any dramatic improvements in size, shape or performance. Most of us still think of mobility, stability and muscle-activation exercises as warm-ups or specialty movements. But they're really the key to your success in everything else. You get more out of training when your joints have their optimal range of motion and you can activate the right muscles while stabilizing the joints that aren't supposed to move on any particular exercise.
DD: In all your years of training, what do you consider the best non-weight-related exercise (e.g., lunge)?
LS: I think every exercise you do should be based on something your body does naturally. Squats, lunges, step-ups. Pushing, pulling, climbing. Jumping, throwing, running.
The flip side is that I wish people would avoid exercises that don't remotely resemble anything you'd do without a barbell or machine. When in life, do you do anything that looks like a concentration curl, or an overhead triceps extension, or a kickback, or hip adduction and abduction the way it's done on those machines?
I totally get why people do those things. And if someone is a bodybuilder, I'd agree she/he has to do whatever produces the best result for each individual muscle. But most of us are looking for systemic benefits: a leaner, more muscular, more athletic, healthier body. So, for most of us, the exercises I mentioned are a distraction from the ones that get us closer to our goals.
DD: What are some common workout mistakes?
LS: I think a lot of people do exercises simply because they're the only ones they know. The first thing a gym employee teaches a new member is how to use all the machines. And that's often the last thing the member learns.
There's also the social-anxiety issue. Someone walking into a gym for the first time in 20 years isn't going to ask strangers to explain what the hell's going on with all these exercises he's never seen before. He's going to grab a pair of dumbbells and do the ones he remembers. The last thing he wants to do is draw attention to himself or run the risk of someone correcting his form.
DD: What's the best way for a person to stick with a fitness program?
LS: For anything to work long-term, it has to be meaningful to the individual, and something the person enjoys and feels she or he is good at. Someone with crappy mobility probably isn't going to enjoy yoga enough to get serious about it and stick with it.
Take me as an example: I started working out because I was terrible at sports. I was skinny, weak and slow. So, naturally, I chose a type of training that would help me get bigger, stronger and faster.
But I also spent a lot of time running to improve my endurance, because I thought I was supposed to. I never enjoyed it and never improved beyond a certain point. My best run ever was 5 miles. I built up to that twice — once in college and once in my early 40s when I worked at Men's Health where almost all my colleagues were serious runners. Running didn't help me get leaner or make me feel better. It didn't even help me get along better with my co-workers. The best thing about running, for me, was how good I felt when I stopped doing it.
The exercise has to address an issue the individual has and wants to solve, and it has to be something that makes the individual feel both good and competent. No one sticks to something that makes her feel worse, or feel uncoordinated or out of place.
Here are a few common traits that Alwyn Cosgrove and I describe in our “New Rules of Lifting” books:
•Never lift anything heavy until thoroughly warmed up and prepared.
•Never do anything that isn't a challenge to my strength, muscle endurance, balance or coordination.
•Never do anything that hurts while doing it.
•Never push so hard that you feel worse instead of better.
Charles Stuart Platkin is a nutrition and public health advocate and founder of www.DietDetective.com.