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No Gimmicks : Why Exercise Gear Doesn't Get You Moving

by Patrick Reynolds

For our #nogimmicks campaign we invited new trainees to submit photos of their old, ineffective fitness products from the past. As expected, there were a lot of submissions of exercise gear and gadgets that didn't get the job done:


When looking over the mistakes people make when buying exercise gear, I see three broad categories:

Wishful thinking.

One trick ponies.

Some day my prince will come.

Let's see how it all shakes out.


Wishful thinking

Products that fall into this category are promising results that simply aren't plausible. The best example is the classic "ab-belt" that stimulates your abs with little electric shocks. Get a six-pack while sitting on the couch!

A modicum of critical thinking would stop anyone from buying this. If it was really possible to get great abs with one of these, why isn't everyone using them? Why aren't there ab-belt shops next to every cell-phone store? But of course, when you buy something like this, you're not thinking critically, your head is in a foggy daydream that maybe, just maybe, this time it's not a scam. It's always a scam. 

 

Products that fall into the wishful thinking category:

• Shoes with rounded bottoms that claim to tone your butt and legs.

• Face massagers and face toners.

• Phiten-style magnetic bracelets and necklaces that claim to improve athletic performance.

• "Instability" machines that vibrate or rotate your torso, promising to build muscle as you sit or stand.

Your body is the result of millions of years of ruthless evolution. Trust me when I say that any shortcuts to build muscle and burn fat have been discovered and exploited by mother nature eons ago. When you buy into the wishful thinking of these products you do the world a disservice. You waste your time and energy on things that don't work, and you fund charlatans and scoundrels who feast on the gullibility of the public. These are not people you want to be giving money to. When they're not devising their next scam product, they're sitting in their beachfront mansions laughing at us.


One Trick Ponies

Just a step up from the outright scam products is the class of gizmos which work only one very specific muscle. The classic example is the Thigh Master. Millions upon millions of these things were sold in the 90s, promising shapely legs and thighs just by squeezing this contraption between your knees.

The thing is, this movement mostly targets three minor muscles in your groin area, the pectineus, brevis, and gracilis abductors. These muscles are mos

tly buried deep under the skin of the inner leg, "toning" them will do absolutely nothing for the overall shape of your thighs. So, the thigh master is technically "working", but the muscles its working are inconsequential, can be trained much more effectively with other exercis-

es, and have nothing to do with the aesthetics of your legs. Your body fat is the single biggest factor in how shapely your legs will be, followed by basic dynamic exercises like squats and lunges which will tone the entire leg system, not just a trio of lame inner-groin muscles.

Almost all of the "as seen on TV" products are one trick ponies. Other examples include:

• The Shake weight, which promises to build muscle through dynamic inertia as you both 

hold the device still and shake it. This will result in a microscopic amount of muscle gain. Muscle grows when you move it through it's full range of motion with resistance. Shaking and vibrating are pathetic substitutes for proper repetitions.

• Ab-rollers, ab-rockers, ab-circles, ab-anythings! These products promise better torso definition by isolating the abs for a targeted burn. You will get some burn in the abs using these, but drastically less burn than a proper unaided core exercise. When you work the core without all these crappy plastic accessories, your abdominus rectus, transverse abdominus, internal and external obliques, and spinae erectors all learn to work together, leaving you stronger, more coordinated, and with better muscle mass gains than these execrable products deliver.

• Bosu-balls or other balance equipment. These types of devices are good for increasing your proprioception; your awareness of where the body is in 3D space in relation to its center of mass. But combining these with strength training is pretty dumb. You receive neither the benefits of the balance training or the effectiveness of the strength training; you get a dirty mix of both at a watered down level.

• Any other gadget that exists to perform one simple, repetitive movement. You will always get better results using a full range of motion in dynamic situations that call on muscle-chains to work together. There's nothing else to say on this. Go to any serious gym with serious people and look around for the "As Seen on TV" products. Amazingly they're nowhere to be found.


Someday My Prince Will Come

Things gets a little more interesting now. This class of products starts to get into "real" equipment. These are your free-weights, kettle bells, bench press racks, Smith machines, treadmills, exercise bikes, and elliptical machines. All of these products have perfectly plausible pathways for building muscle or burning fat, and yet the majority of people who buy them don't get the results they hoped for. Why is that? 

Snow White is a pretty unbearable movie to watch these days. The main character is a simpering, mindless victim of circumstance, singing about how one day her prince will come and rescue her.

Many unfit people have this same "someday my prince will come" attitude towards their physical condition. Things aren't lining up right now, but one day they're going to find the right regime and equipment, everything will click and they'll be on their way to peak condition.

The classic example of this is someone who takes up a new hobby, and before actually doing any of the hard work of getting started goes shopping to get "kitted up". When I ran my yoga studio, people would walk in with $170 Lululemon outfits and $90 organic mats who had never taken a yoga class before. They rarely lasted long. The people who came in with ratty gym shorts and asked to borrow a studio mat were always better students.

Here's how it happens. You decide it's time to change your life and have alighted on some new exercise program or piece of equipment to be the catalyst. Even before you've lifted a finger, your brain is sending out feelings of satisfaction and accomplishment just from imagining how good you'll feel. This is pleasurable, but it's fleeting. You're ready to make it more real. So you head to the store, and suddenly you can buy all this tangible stuff which complements your daydream of how great it'll feel to be in shape. 

Exercise is hard. You're not very good at it. And you've got a lot more of it in front of you than behind you.

We all know that shopping releases dopamine. Combine those good feelings with the premature satisfaction of imagining yourself in shape and you've got a powerful cocktail. It's the fun of shopping plus the smugness of knowing you're taking care of your health. When someone in that dreamlike state enters a sports store, you can almost hear the salespeople licking their lips in anticipation of big commissions.

Everything is going great here except for the pesky fact that you haven't actually done any exercise yet. That first session comes and you get smacked in the face with the reality of your situation. Exercise is hard. You're not very good at it. And you've got a lot more of it in front of you than behind you. You falter and give up, shoving your expensive, barely-used gear into a closest where the sight of it can't remind you of your failure.

This is the pattern most people go through when they buy an expensive piece of real gear. They think THIS is their prince, the thing that will finally get them moving. "After all, look at how much money I spent on it!"

True fitness efforts work the opposite way. You start with minimal gear, or none at all, and get to grips with your new activity first. After some time, you start to see the benefit of a specific piece of equipment, and you make a purchasing decision based on exactly what you need, not the price point, brand name, or trendiness of the item. Over the years you might add to your collection, but you're making smart purchases based on needs, not blindly buying things to make yourself feel better. Dilettantes buy gear first and buy gear often. Professionals buy gear last and do it rarely.


One of the founding principles of Kenzai is minimal equipment, maximum effectiveness. Our mission is to change lives, not peddle gear. You DO NOT NEED any of this stuff to get in amazing, fantastic, head-turning-on-the-street levels of fitness. What you do need is a solid exercise and nutrition plan, combined with patience, discipline, and a sense of humor.

Guts and grit, not gadgets and gear!


Check out the other entries in the No Gimmicks series of articles; The real data on fitness trackers, the skinny on diet pills, and the dirty truth behind cleanses.

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