I’m sure the title of this blog post alone will initiate a flood of hate mail, so to all those who wish to defend Ms. Anderson without reading the entire post, please at least read this part. I’m not looking to condemn her as a person, just raise questions with respect to some of the statements she’s made publicly regarding anatomy and physiology.
Let the hating commence.
My first exposure to Tracy Anderson came a few years ago when someone on Facebook shared a video of one of her “Method” workouts, pretty much calling it useless and the biggest rip-off known to man. While I would say the selling of Manhattan Island for what amounted to a handful of beads was a bigger rip-off than a workout video, I watched, chuckled, shook my head, and calmly clicked over it.
Incorporating dance into fitness wasn’t anything new, nor was it something that I would immediately condemn, having trained some very fit dancers and performing artists who could move circles around the average personal trainer, yours truly included.
Then every couple weeks I would hear her name again, attached to a different article, video or audio clip where she was saying something associated with how her Method was superior to all others, safer, and produced better results, all with the undertones of not making women bulky.
She’s catering to a specific niche market. I get it. Women who want to get smaller is a massive segment of the fitness industry, and she’s working the angles as best as possible. To her credit, most women in the general population see weightlifting as a fast-track to gaining an Adam’s apple, and since society has engrained in the entire population the importance of being thin, it was a pretty easy sell. Saying she’s done her research and talked with sports medicine doctors adds a level of credibility to what she says, but anyone who has taken an exercise physiology class could poke countless holes in her approach.
Considering in 1965 Mattel came out with “Slumber Party Barbie,” complete with a guide on how to lose weight with the phrase “DON’T EAT!!” scrawled across the back and the scale permanently frozen to 110 pounds, the pressure against becoming bulky would be enough to make anyone pay attention.
Now while the niche she was marketing her services and product to were primed to go, her methods and descriptions of what happens with exercise, nutrition and health left much to be desired. While there’s more than one road leading to Oz, some of the pathways she was suggesting would possibly lead to some bramble bushes and wrong turns.
Recently, one of her celebrity clients, Gwyneth Paltrow put up a Q & A with Tracy on her blog, titled Is Your Workout Making You Fat? which was then passed around the fitness industry for looks, shock, and complete frustration. I read the interview, and was trying to figure out why she would say some of the things she was saying in the article, such as
While running and cycling may burn calories, they do not design feminine muscles or get rid of an imbalance that may masquerade as a “problem area.
…to combat real problem areas, there needs to be enough content to keep genetic weaknesses and imbalances awake, alert, and engaged.
I would never recommend (kettlebells) to women, even women who are fans of bulkier muscle lines. While bulkier muscle looks OK on women in their 20s and 30s, it doesn’t age well.
Some of the more commonly vilified statements outside of this article include such gems as:
- Women should never lift more than three pounds or they’ll get bulky
- Running makes you bulky
- Baby food is a reasonable dietary supplement or meal replacement
- Certain exercises can help pull the skin tighter to the muscles
- other exercise routines or products are risky and possibly dangerous
It also doesn’t hurt that she has a slew of celebrities under her wing that she can use to market her services as well.
One thing that always makes me a little wary is when someone consistently uses the words “always” and “never” in reference to exercise, physiology, nutrition or health. This is a powerful marketing tool that helps to create a sense of finality and experience regarding the sayers knowledge of the topic. It’s also a better soundbite than saying “it depends.”
If we look at the fitness industry as a whole, there is no body or peer review service that holds professionals accountable for what they say, advice they give, or practices they choose to engage in. This is something that’s present in medicine, law, accounting, dentistry, and every other field that allows professionals to work with clients or patience in a setting where there is real potential for loss if the wrong advice is given. With no system of checks and balances in place, people can say what they want and get away with it.
That’s why I wanted to write today’s post. Not necessarily to trash one individual, but to create some enlightenment for the general public on how some statements being made are erroneous and should possibly be taken with a grain of salt. I have no doubt she’s been able to get results for her clients and that some who have followed her Method have seen similar results, but having a point-counterpoint discussion about what physiology is and what it is not will help people make more of an informed decision about where to spend their money.
I should also note I don’t have a dog in this fight, as my main niche is more of the post rehab, strength training world and have never met Tracy in person nor had any discussions with her to form any kind of opinion about her person or thoughts other than what’s available for public consumption.
So today, I wanted to break down some of the commonly used statements and whether they have merit or could possibly need some adjusting based on the current state of research and popularly accepted realities.
#1: Women shouldn’t lift more than 3 pounds
The funny part comes when Tracy at around the 50 second mark says “no woman should lift more than three pounds, ever” and almost immediately after Gwyneth says “when I lift my 30 pound son…”
The argument against women lifting more than three pounds is that it will make women bulky and muscular, and in her words “less feminine muscle lines.” There is a grain of truth to this statement, as most common hypertrophy designed workouts such as those popularized and mainstreamed by Joe Weider, which was the foundational building block for pretty much every weight training program outside of olympic lifting and power lifting, which consist of body part isolationist movements performed typically for 3 sets of 8-12 reps. The design of these workouts is to gain muscle, so performing these kinds of workouts will cause people to gain muscle.
This does not mean women shouldn’t lift weights as a blanket statement, or that gaining muscle will automatically mean the loss of female characteristics and replace them with the development of male characteristics. Ask any figure competitor out there how easy it is to gain muscle, and they’ll shoot you a death stare with their carb-depleted eyes.
For a muscle to bulk to the level that would be noticable, a few things have to happen. First, the level of body fat over the muscle has to be low enough to show the change in muscle size and density. Think of putting a grape under a thick duvet, then putting a tennis ball under that same blanket. The visual difference isn’t that great. Now do the same with the grape and tennis ball, but this time use a very thin flat sheet. You can see each much easier. Having a higher body fat percent, irrespective to muscle size, will make you look much more bulky than having more muscle and a lower body fat.
Second, to gain bulk, women are at a disadvantage due to lower circulating levels of testosterone, different muscle architecture than men (think of how men can have a very prominent biceps peak where women typically can’t), and a lower relative release of growth hormone. Aside from that, women typically need much more volume than men to make any kind of substantial gains in muscle size.
To put it into perspective a little differently, there’s a lot of women who lift weights but wouldn’t be considered bulky, like my wife, getting after a set of heavy deadlifts.
Considering Lindsay is a competitive triathlete and cyclist, she needs to do weight training to improve her performance and also to keep from getting injured. She’s obviously not going to get accused of being bulky in any universe.
There’s a lot of female powerlifters out there who don’t exhibit what could be considered bulky muscles, and they do no cardio or isolation work, just lift mind-numbingly heavy, life alteringly massive weights
By utilizing a set and rep scheme that focuses more on lifting heavier for a lower volume, you can by-pass the hypertrophy asspect of weight training, and also get the benefits of resistance training such as bone building (Gwyneth Paltrow was diagnosed a short time ago with osteopenia, the initial form of osteoporosis), increased metabolism, core strength and stability (ie. Abs). Also, from a psychological perspective, there’s nothing more empowering than lifting something heavy.
So the blanket statement of women should never lift heavy or they’ll get bulky should be taken with the caveat of “if they follow the typical hypertrophy style of training exhibited by many bodybuilders and regular gym-goers.” Elastics, body weight, and other forms of external resistance are safe to use though, which is somewhat hypocritical.
#2: Kettlebells are Dangerous
I’ll admit, they can be dangerous if used improperly, just like ANY. OTHER. EQUIPMENT. That doesn’t mean they’re not an effective tool for use in a quest for a rockin body or to improve fitness. Just don’t do it like this.
Thanks to Sarah Rippel for pointing that one out.
I’d rather watch someone who knows a thing or two about how beneficial swinging a weight can be for developing strength, power, stability, and a rockin female body, like Neghar Fonooni.
Now I wouldn’t recommend anyone just jump into training with kettlebells at the level akin to Ms. Fonooni right away. That would be the equivalent of going one-on-one with LeBron before you know how to dribble. There are progressions to use, ways to build up your strength and stability and work within your tolerance. To simply chastise the equipment is to not understand its’ capability. I’m a big believer that there’s a way to use almost any exercise equipment, just like a tool in a tool box. This includes the vilified smith machine, leg press, and bosu.
I use kettlebell training a fair bit, but predominantly in a rehabilitative setting. They’re great tools for developing joint stability, proprioception, and are a fantastic starting point for getting people with low back pain to learn hip hinging. I have discogenic surgical rehabilitation clients who learn deadlifting patterns with kettlebells, as well as progressions and regressions of the movement shown here.
To simply say something is dangerous belies the sayer and not the subject. I could easily point out that after training dozens of competitive dancers, both current and retired, that dance training itself is extremely dangerous, specifically for ankle, knee, low back, and thoracic spine issues, but I wouldn’t be willing to dissuade people from trying it altogether.
#3: The Physics of Exercise
In an article published in the New York Times, Tracy talked about the science of her Method, and how she has no formal education in exercise physiology, saying she was so focused on the research of her method she wouldn’t let anything deviate her from the research and development of her method.
I would think part of any research plan would involve some level of formal education.
Some of the concepts she brought up in this article include:
- proprioception perception
- strength of synapses
- muscle confusion (a la P90X)
- pulling the skin closer to the muscle
Let’s break each of these down a little further.
“Proprioception” is a word that means the unconcious perception of where and how our bodies are positioned in space based on sensory information within the body. Proprioception Perception is therefore a redundant term. While I don’t doubt that moving your arms and legs through various movement patterns can aid in developing kinesthetic awareness (another term for proprioception), its’ use in fat burning and muscle development is limited. Movement training? Fantastic. However without an external load or directive to apply force on to the benefits of proprioception are lost. Since the weights used are fairly minimal, the benefits are negligible.
Strength of synapse could have a couple different meanings. Synapses are the nerve receptors on the target tissues, in this case it would be muscles. The synapse carries the signal from the nerve into the muscle to produce a contraction. The strength of the synapse could mean the strength of the signal hitting the synapse, or the efficiency of the synapse in sending that signal into the muscle.
The amount of signal hitting the synapse is directly related to the relative intensity of the task at hand, meaning using a low load for countless reps will not increase the signal strength hitting the synapse. The only way to do this is to demand more of the muscle, which means lift a heavier weight, or move with a greater speed.
Synaptic efficiency could come from endurance activities. When performing higher demand activities like stair climbing or cycling up a hill, the muscles can burn out before the lungs ability to deliver oxygen. Some clients find this after a hard set of sled push or prowler push, where their legs don’t quite work all that well.
The efficiency of the synpase is dependent on a couple things: the consistent signal sent to the synapse, the use and efficiency of neurotransmitters in the synapse, and the effectiveness of the muscle to utilize those neurotransmitters.
I will admit that the use of the higher reps and lower resistance used in the Method programs would help increase the endurance of the muscle, and would help improve the efficiency of the neurotransmitters crossing the cleft. This could also be accomplished by any number of endurance activities as well, and is not exclusive to any one particular program.
Finally, the concept of pulling the skin closer to the muscle because the muscle is vibrating so much.
From a physics perspective, this is a somewhat curious concept, as there’s a lot of stuff in the way between the skin and the muscle. Additional to that, all the layers of tissue run parallel to each other, meaning all forces are directed across, not up or down, so pulling the skin closer is somewhat impossible.
Now while there are differences in the architecture of collagen tissues and the type of matrix formation they make between males and females, these typically aren’t altered through exercise, only structural injury and the development of scar tissue.
One mechanism that could “draw” the skin closer to the muscle is through the decreased size of the fat layer in the hypodermis. Another is through dehydration, which would decrease the cell volume and interstitial tissue fluid volume, essentially pulling the skin to the muscle in the same way dehydrated meats are smaller than their unprepared counterparts. The best option is through fat loss though, but if you have a substantial amount of fluid collected under your skin, you should probably be looking at a doctors help to figure out why.
Now while I have no doubt whatsoever that people who have followed her Method have seen good results, lost inches, decreased weight, felt better about themselves and gained a new sense of confidence, the issue I take is in the delivery of her message. To say her Method is unique when it clearly blends concepts of formal dance, martial arts, resistance training, and even aspects of bodybuilding is somewhat paradoxical.
While I could understand using soft science to back up her claims of the superiority of her workout, using emotional baiting terms that prey on women’s drive to be skinny is somewhat reprehensible. To say that weight lifting and running will make you bulky, that kettlebells are dangerous and shouldn’t be used at all, and that her Method is backed by “research” are all faulty thoughts that can easily be picked apart by any number of fitness professionals, but the downside is that the average person may not have ready access to those professionals and have no choice but to trust in the message presented.
At the end of the day, I’m happy she’s been successful, that people have seen results with her program, and that many more will continue to see results. Anything that gets people motivated to move more is a definitely beneficial option in my book. Hell, I’ll even include a link to her Method HERE so you can get your own copy if you want. I’m just not a fan of the select science she’s using to get that message across.
Let me know what you think. I’m sure there are differences of opinion on what her Method is and what it isn’t, but I’d love to hear your thoughts. Drop a comment below and have a say.