Showing posts with label CrossFit. Show all posts
Showing posts with label CrossFit. Show all posts

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Unless you've been living under a kettlebell for the last several years you would have heard of CrossFit. Actually, if you have been under a kettlebell then chances are you are already part of the CrossFit CULT movement. 

I was first introduced to CrossFit in 2009 through a good mate of mine who also introduced me to Paleo. Five years later I'm still living the Paleo lifestyle but CrossFit (in the strictest sense) is not a part of it. This article explains why. 

Firstly, let me preface by saying that to my knowledge there isn't any sound science on CrossFit at this time. That means that we have to be skeptical about any claims both for and against CrossFit - ranging from claims that it is either the best form of exercise on earth or the most likely way to tear a rotator cuff or fry your adrenals. Any claims on either side are merely conjecture. 

This also means that everything I am about to say is purely anecdotal and completely biased towards my own personal experience. So before all you CrossFit die-hards out there start bombarding me with ad hominem attacks let me say this: I don't care if you agree with me or not. There are some generalizations here and your own experience will probably differ from mine.

My experience is limited to just a handful of CrossFit affiliates in Melbourne, London, Miami and New York over a couple of years. My knowledge of CrossFit and the institution is by no means extensive. I did, however, learn a lot in my CrossFitting days and I am actually grateful for all I learned. I have continued to explore the foundations of gymnastics, Olympic lifting and mobility that I touched on through CrossFit and my training has benefitted greatly.

I think the original foundations of CrossFit are sound and if done with proper coaching and appropriate intensty it still remains the best form of functional training widely available to the public.

However, I think somewhere along the line of it’s market domination and popularization those solid foundations have been overshadowed by the “sport” of CrossFit and the overzealousness of CrossFit die-hards.

We silly humans have a tendency to take a great new idea or movement and turn it into an uncontrollable monster through our over-enthusiasm and extremism. It’s a mob mentality where people get swept up in the movement and caught up in the dogma. It happens with religion. It happens with politics. It happens with corporations. I believe it is happening with CrossFit.

The concept that more is better is etched into our social fabric. Especially here in the USA where we worship competition and sport, where spectacle is everything, hard work and physical pain are honored and people strive to push themselves beyond their physical limits.

A lot of my issues with CrossFit are to do with my perception that it is too intense and too extreme for the average, non-elite person, and at the dogmatic attitude of CrossFitters in general.

This is my personal issue. If I were a stronger person who could resist the heat of competition and use self-restraint to limit my intensity then I probably wouldn’t have a problem with CrossFit. The problem is, like most humans, I’m very susceptible to getting swept up in the mob mentality and ingesting the dogma. Like an alcoholic at a Christmas party I get a little bit carried away and it seems the best way to avoid a bad outcome is to remove myself from the situation.

I found myself overdoing it in WODs and pushing myself beyond my capacity for work. Fortunately I didn’t get injured but I’m pretty sure I would have given how bad my form became when my heart rate regularly got up over 170bmp in those killer workouts.

In the end I decided it was simply better for me to take on the foundations and tenets of CrossFit and practice them myself – free from hype and competition. 

I am not here to bash CrossFit or claim that it is inherently "bad", only to communicate to people why I personally chose not to do it anymore and why I wouldn't recommend it to most of my friends. For whatever reason people seem to be very interested in my opinion on this particular subject, which is why I’m taking the time to write this post.

Ultimately we have to use a "cost versus benefit" approach to something like CrossFit, running marathons or going vegan. Either you determine that CrossFit is worth it for you, or it isn’t. And this can change over time. After a couple of years I determined that CrossFit, in the traditional sense of training at a box, just wasn’t worth it for me anymore.  


CrossFit defines itself as "a regimen of constantly varied functional movements performed at relatively high intensity in a communal environment.” 

The types of movements most often practiced in CrossFit include Olympic lifting (snatch, clean and jerk), rowing (on the Ergometer), running, calisthenics (push ups, lunges, burpees), barbell weight training (deadlift, overhead press, squats), kettlebell training and basic gymnastics (rope climbs, muscle ups, handstands). 

Proper programming attempts to schedule various combinations of the above exercises in seemingly random but planned series so that you can achieve constant improvement. 

CrossFit is about being very good at many modes of fitness, without necessarily specializing in any. 

You are encouraged to train three days on, one day off (i.e. 23 days a month) and a Paleo diet is sometimes suggested as a template for nutrition. In reality many hardcore CrossFitters I know eat like binging pregnant women with fetishes for peanut butter, Ben & Jerry’s and Oreo’s… sometimes all mixed together!


CrossFit generally consists of one-hour group classes typically starting with a brief warm up and then some strength training (e.g. work up to 3-rep-max barbell front squat) and/or skill training (e.g. learning the progression for handstand push ups). 

This is followed by a grueling, high intensity Workout of the Day (WOD) - typically a circuit of two or more exercises done for rounds of multiple sets. Everyone completes the WOD simultaneously in a competitive fashion, typically for time or maximum repetitions. 

WODs can be as short as a couple of minutes or as long as, say, 60 minutes. You are encouraged to scale the exercises to suit your capability. For example, the prescribed weight on deadlifts for a WOD may be 155lb for men and 115lb for women. In that sense a small woman could do better than a big man in certain strength WOD given she finishes first or does more reps. Likewise, an absolute machine of a CrossFitter may finish last if he did the full prescribed weight where others scaled by reducing their weight used.

Either way the underlying goal is to push your limits to the absolute extreme in order to get the best time or most reps on the whiteboard, which is often beyond the realm of reasonable form. It doesn’t have to be this way – proper coaching and self-restraint should come in here to prevent people from pushing themselves into risky territory. The problem is that in my experience, proper coaching and self-restraint are often shrugged aside in the heat of the competition.

Basically, the common perception is that if you don’t collapse on the floor in a panting mess, throw up, or feel shaky for at least 30 minutes after the WOD you probably aren’t doing it right. (I’m only half joking).

At the end of the class your results are written on a whiteboard for all to see and you can compare yourself to other members who have worked out that day or to your past performances on the same WOD. Don’t underestimate the motivational power of the whiteboard.


Sometimes called 'the sport of fitness', CrossFit has exploded in popularity in the last few years. There are over 10,000 affiliates - or Box gyms - across the world now, with over 35,000 accredited (Level 1) trainers. It's growing so fast that I'm sure these statistics are already outdated. If you live in a metropolitan city these days in Australia or America, chances are there is a Box near you. 

When I first heard about CrossFit there were less than five boxes in Melbourne. As of October 2014 there are now this many:

Clearly the movement has caught on Down Under. 


1. CrossFit is immensely effective at getting average, non-elite people to commit to a rigorous, elite training schedule. 

CrossFit has absolutely nailed the motivational aspect of training. The combination of the competitive nature, sense of community and camaraderie, exclusivity (it's expensive) and even the way they leverage military motifs and dedicate certain WODs to fallen soldiers all comes together to form a close-knit web of dedication and commitment. It is very clever really. 

And here is where the cult-like devotion of CrossFitters actually pays dividends. It is difficult to just dip your toes into Crossfit at a box gym. Damn, if you're paying $200 a month or more you better be using it!

But more than that, the rigid structure and accountability make it easy for the undisciplined to get motivated. The often charismatic coaches yelling support while your fellow CrossFitters cheer you on to finish that final set give you so much encouragement that it would simply be rude not to be a committed member of the team. No one wants to let the team down. Maslow's need for belonging is a strong human desire. 

Being a CrossFitter gives you access to an exclusive club of like-minded individuals who share an experience of overcoming physical pain, working together, competing and improving. I have no doubt that the mental toughness gained through physical training can be life-changing for some individuals. 

2. The results are impressive

I was already in reasonably good condition when I joined CrossFit. I've been consistently training in the gym in many different modalities for over 15 years. Back in my Army Reserve days I even won the 'Best at Physical Training' Award in my platoon on graduating recruit training - the real "boot camp". But I have never felt stronger and fitter than when I was really focusing on CrossFit. 

With the level of volume and intensity that CrossFit demands the initial strength, mobility, skill and general conditioning gains are truly remarkable. It is not uncommon to see slight women who walk in to a box not being able to do a three proper push ups being able to clean and jerk their bodyweight in less than a year. It is basically impossible to do CrossFit consistently without seeing vast improvements in CrossFit-specific "skills" and conditioning. 

Most of the CrossFit trainers themselves that I've come across are insanely ripped and strong. Although being ripped does not necessarily mean being healthy, as 10 years in the modeling industry has shown me first hand. 

3. The 'sport of fitness' is a global phenomenon that has some merit

I am a big supporter of anything that gets people motivated to get moving and improve their lives. 

I have many concerns surrounding CrossFit as an individual practice, which I will cover in detail soon, but as a collective movement I must admit that it is a step in the right direction. 

As one who has studied commerce and economics I am a big believer in free markets and have a lot of faith in consumer choice. In this sense CrossFit deserves its stratospheric rise in popularity and success. There was clearly a gap in the market for an exercise movement for average people striving for elite fitness and CrossFit fills that gap as the most accessible form of functional training available today.

The participation in the CrossFit Games has almost doubled year-on-year. Last year 138,000 competed in the CrossFit open. Money continues to flow in from sponsors such as Reebok, who were early to jump on the CF bandwagon. ESPN even picked up the coverage of the Games. This year's winners, Rich Froning and Camille Leblanc-Bazinet, took home a cool $275,000 each for their superhuman winning performances. 


1. CrossFit acts like a cult

If you’re a CrossFit devotee and this subheading makes you defensive, you are merely proving my point. There is nothing wrong with exclusive clubs, or even employing a sort of ‘us versus them’ ethos in order to increase dedication and loyalty to a certain community. 

What makes CrossFit seem like a cult - and I’m talking here in a relatively benign sense of the word, say, something more cultish than ‘cult' film but less cultish than Scientology - is that there are certain dogmas, attitudes and a defensive manner inherent in CrossFit that stem all the way down to the very core of the institution and possibly to the founder Greg Glassman himself. The CrossFit juggernaut seems to be quite cagey about their methodology, very pugnacious towards any criticism or detractors and it sounds like Glassman has fallen out with many people over the years. But anyway, I’m not here to talk about individual personalities and hearsay.

What I do hear though, is plenty of dogma surrounding CrossFit. Dogma is ‘a set of principles laid down by an authority as an incontrovertible truth’. For example, CrossFit teaches you that efficiency in a movement is crucial to be able to complete a high volume of work, quickly. Using this logic, kipping pull-ups, where you use a type of circular (butterfly kipping) or swinging momentum (kipping) to be able to do far more pull-ups than you could do with strict form, are the taught as the way to do pull-ups. 

And CrossFitters accept this and love it without really questioning whether it is a best practice. Kipping pull-ups are a mainstay of CrossFit. When I started CrossFit I could do around 12 strict pull-ups. After a few months I could do 25 unbroken kipping pull ups. I stopped doing strict pull ups-all together. Kipping pull-ups were the bomb! Look how many pull ups I can do now, I thought. Basically I had ingested the dogma that kipping pull-ups were great and made complete sense and that strict pull ups were for losers.

I should mention here that some coaches will still program strict pull ups into strength training but kipping is the mainstay for most WODs and butterfly kipping is essential to be competitive at the higher levels of the CrossFit games.

The problem is that kipping pull-ups are a terrible idea from a sports physiology standpoint, and only make sense in the realm of CrossFit. The harsh jerking movement at the bottom of the kipping pull-up - where you have the force of roughly three times your bodyweight bearing down on your connective tissue - is a dangerous movement for those who do not have the strength and conditioning on those joints and tendons to be able to get away with that kind of force (Sommers, 2014). 

Sure, gymnasts can safely do movements that place up to ten times their bodyweight on connective tissue but only after years of very specific gymnastic strength work. 

Anecdotally, shoulder injuries are rife in CrossFit and it seems that kipping pull-ups are a major culprit. But even though many CrossFitters realize that kipping is a quirky, initially awkward and often painful way to do pull-ups, they’ve drank the Cool-Aide and ignore these gut feelings. I know, I was one of them! 

2. CrossFit is "extreme" for the average person

I think CrossFit is an extreme level of exercise for the average person. 

What do I mean by extreme? Well I think that if you combine the volume (total work load), frequency (almost daily) and intensity (competition level effort) of fully committing to CrossFit then this is above and beyond the level of exercise that THE AVERAGE human needs in order to thrive. Furthermore, by training beyond their capacity with highly complex motor patterns such as Olympic lifting some people may be putting themselves at risk of overtraining and/or injury. 

Obviously this is relative. Proper coaching and the self-restraint to limit volume, frequency or intensity to your personal capacity are of course the intended means to reduce the risks of overtraining and injury. Yet in my experience the proper coaching and self-restraint were lacking.

The big caveat in claiming that CrossFit is “extreme” is that I'm talking about normal people who just want to get fit, strong and look good naked. If you need to be in superhuman condition for your job, or if being awesome at CrossFit is really that important to you and it is worth the risk then that's great - power to you. 

But for mere mortals like me and most of my friends who do (or did) CrossFit we probably don't need to be doing five to six WODs a week to be fit and healthy.

Some people have the work and recovery capacity to get away with it. Others don't. 

Especially for those who don't have their lifestyle dialed in with adequate sleep, stress management and good nutrition, jumping headlong into CrossFit might not be the best way to achieve your long-term health and happiness goals. 

I think the person who can really delve into CrossFit for the long-term, without overtraining or getting injured is quite rare. Of course there are probably some people who have been doing CrossFit for 10 years, have never been injured and couldn't live without CrossFit... but these are probably the outliers. 

I know far more people who jumped into CrossFit for a couple of years and have since turned away from it, either through injury or just not being able to maintain it with their busy lifestyle. In this sense I just don't think CrossFit is a sustainable form of exercise for most people in its current state. 

3. CrossFit can be risky 

I've been to some fantastic CrossFit boxes around the world and met some incredibly talented and sensible coaches. Unfortunately I've also been to some sub-par affiliates and received some rubbish instruction from people who really aren't qualified to teach any movement - let along the highly technical nuances of Olympic lifting. 

I have since sought out Olympic lifting coaching from proper Olympic lifting coaches and I absolutely love my Oly lifting practice but I don't think it is for everyone.

Traditional weightlifting programs in Eastern Europe and Asia demand years of progression before young athletes are allowed to even pick up a barbell. CrossFit, on the other hand, often throws people into the main lifts within just weeks of starting, and in a largely uncontrolled environment that demands multiple reps for time. It is not uncommon to see classes of 30+ people with just one or two coaches. I think this is madness. Once again, proper coaching and programming should prevent this but in my experience many affiliates are keen to get their clients under the bar as quickly as possible.

If you ask me the risk of completing 30 snatches or 30 clean-and-jerks for time far outweighs any possible benefit of doing so. 

Getting a sedentary adult with no athletic background and just a few weeks of CrossFit training to perform Olympic lifting movements in timed workouts is about as irresponsible as giving a person who has never driven before a Lamborghini and telling them to race five laps of Nürburgring. 

Of course not all affiliates do this and many have excellent coaches and very good "on-ramp" training schedule for novices but as a general rule the intensity of CrossFit combined with the complexity of movements and a competitive environment all feed into a relatively risky endeavor for your average, non-elite person. 

4. CrossFit is probably not optimal for health and longevity

If you've read a lot of my work here on The Paleo Model you'll be familiar with my holistic approach to lifestyle and how I always warn against extremism. When it comes to exercise I think less can be more. I think the minimal effective dose of exercise is actually quite small and going too far beyond that is really not necessary and may even hinder achieving a healthy body composition and overall wellbeing. 

High intensity training is fantastic, but not at high volume and frequency. Intervals, tabatas, sprints and circuits are very effective ways to train but only as a short, sporadic or acute (hormetic) stress. If done too much and too often then there is a risk of your training becoming a chronic stress that may actually do more harm than good. 

Just as I think running marathons is not a great way to get healthy, I don't think doing CrossFit is the best path to choose if overall health and wellbeing are more important to you than performance. 

Athletic performance and health are definitely correlated, and some training is always better than none, but I think focusing too much on performance can potentially hinder your health and longevity if you exceed your capacity to adequately recover and thereby create a state of chronic systemic inflation. 

CrossFit has the potential characteristics – volume, frequency and intensity – to constitute a regimen that may lead to overtraining and chronic inflammation.

Chronic systemic inflammation can result in a host of metabolic issues such as adrenal fatigue, endocrine disfunction, mood disorders, poor sleep, fatigue, irritability, low libido, chronic infections and a host of other ailments. 

CrossFit is a physically demanding regimen that is also addictive and dogmatic. When you're swept up in the CrossFit mindset it is very difficult to take your foot off the gas pedal and take it easy - especially if you are a competitive type-A personality (like me) who thrives on punishment and adrenalin. More often than not CrossFit attracts people such as this and filters out those who can't cut it. 

Now please remember that exercise is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to a "healthy lifestyle". I believe that nutrition is more important exercise, as is sleep and stress-management. 

Exercise is extremely important, but it doesn't need to be extreme. Unless performance is crucial to your job or livelihood then I really don't think your training should be so extreme that it constitutes a chronic stressor to your body that could potentially harm your health in the long term. 

I'm not saying that CrossFit constitutes overtraining or a chronic stress to everyone. As I said some people have the capacity to train like this, others don't. Some people have the self-restraint to limit their volume, frequency and intensity to reasonable levels. It is all relative.


As a general rule and erring on the side of caution, I think that the potential for injury and overtraining in CrossFit for the average person merely looking to "get in shape and be healthy" tilts the cost/benefit analysis towards the "probably not worth it" side of the scales. 

This is my opinion. You need to decide for yourself. But if you do try CrossFit just sip the Cool-Aide... don't skull it! Always remind yourself that CrossFit is not a religion so please don't preach to your friends about it incessantly or think less of people who don't CrossFit! 

Conversely, if you're a professional athlete, in the armed forces, a first responder or just really, really want to attain an elite level of fitness and are willing to put up with the risks then CrossFit might be great for you. Interestingly, in 2011, the U.S. military, in conjunction with the American College of Sports Medicine, advised soldiers to avoid CrossFit, citing "disproportionate musculo-skeletal injury risk" (Davis, 2013). 

Ultimately, (like the U.S. military) I decided that CrossFit wasn't worth it for me. But I am very grateful for my time in CrossFit. I met some amazing people, had a lot of fun and learnt a great deal about my physical limitations.

I saw how CrossFit can really help people – motivating them and empowering them to take control of their fitness and physicality. But I still believe that there are other less risky, less dogmatic and more sustainable ways to approach fitness, which I why I still wouldn’t recommend CrossFit to most of my friends.

But I’m not a hater! I really loved CrossFit and I still incorporate many of its methodologies in my training today. My WODs just don't include kipping pull-ups or snatch reps for time! 


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Chris Sommers, 2014: The Paleo Solution Podcast - Episode 213.

Grant Davis, 2013: 'Is CrossFit Killing Us?' Outside Magazine.

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Monday, May 19, 2014

Eat More Fat!

In my last post, 'Crappy Carbs can Kill', I explained that the chronic overconsumption of nutrient-poor refined carbohydrates is at the root of metabolic diseases such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease and also a contributing factor to many other modern diseases. 

Well that was all a bit heavy, but the good news is that if you are willing to take control of your health it is relatively simple to eschew these crappy carbs and instead eat healthy real foods that our bodies have evolved to thrive on over millions of years. 

Eating a healthy, whole foods diet that is in line with our evolution enables us to live the healthy, happy and disease-free lives we are entitled to.  

Monday, February 24, 2014

Arnie as a teenager (left). Myself as a teenager (right)

I'm blessed with the ability to gain muscle relatively quickly and easily. Ironically, as a fashion model this has been more of a curse over my 10 year career than a blessing. A few weeks of eating and training how I would like to and I no longer fit the sample size 40 suits!

While I'll admit that part of my growth potential is genetic, I think it can largely be attributed to my passion/obsession with food, sleep and lifting heavy things. Also in my teenage years I went through a token megalomania phase where I wanted to be Arnold Schwarzenegger. Thankfully I got over that boyish beefcake obsession but it did teach me how to train hard, eat prodigiously and get results fast. 

If you're a "hard-gainer" or simply need to build more lean muscle mass here are my five (no shortcut, no supplement, no bullshit) tips to honest muscle growth in a safe, sustainable and healthy way. 

1. Eat real (Paleo) food - more than you think you need. 

If you are lean, if your current diet sucks, if you're "skinny fat", or if you have been trying to lose weight through calorie restriction (and obviously failing because it doesn't work) the chances are that you are not getting adequate nutrition. 

In all of these scenarios, and even if you are overweight, your goal should be to build lean muscle mass, as this is the only sustainable way to improved body composition and optimal health. 

You need to be eating enough quality food not only to maintain your current state but to build new tissue. That is, you need periods of energy surplus - but only of quality, real (Paleo) foods. Extra calories from crabby carbs like sweetened cereals, protein bars, shakes and juice will screw your metabolism and counter your efforts to grow lean.

So cut the processed, adulterated, modern food out of your diet and eat big, satiating meals of whole foods that are high in quality fats, moderate in protein (you don't need to consume prodigious amounts of protein to gain muscle), and moderate in safe carbohydrates. I have written many articles on nutrition so check them out for more detail. 

But basically you need to focus on nutrient and energy dense foods like pastured eggs, coconut products, oily seafood, sweet potatoes, raw nuts, 85% dark chocolate and (not-too-lean) grass-fed meat and pork. 

If you really want to gain size then incorporate more starch such as white rice, sweet potatoes and whole fruit. And if you tolerate dairy then consider adding in fermented, full-fat, (preferably raw) dairy like aged cheese/sour cream/greek yoghurt/kefir.

2. Sleep more

This is both simple and crucial. You cannot repair and rebuild if you don't rest and reset. I believe sleep is actually more important than training. 

If you smash the gym but only sleep five hours a night, even if your nutrition is impeccable, you will go backwards and put your health at risk in the long term. 

Sleep eight or nine hours a night. The better the quality and quantity of your sleep, the quicker and easier you will gain muscle mass and shed fat. 

3. Train hard, smart, and not too much

Lifting heavy weights is not the only way to gain muscle, but it's the best, fastest, and most efficient way. 

Exercise needs to be an acute stress to your body - enough that it causes positive adaptation and growth but not so much that it becomes a chronic stress from which you cannot recover.

The effective dose of exercise is actually a lot less than you would think. Given that you train at intensity (that is, complex movements at a challenging amount of weight, until failure, without too much rest) I think that two intense weight sessions per week, such as a circuit of 20-30 minutes if you're not stuffing around, is sufficient to build substantial amounts of muscle without risking injury or overtraining. 

I would suggest adding one sprint session to this per week, along with as much low-level movement or activity as possible (e.g. walking, yoga, commuter cycling) and you're good to go!

4. Avoid "chronic cardio"

Q. What do fitness models, sprinters and bodybuilders have in common, besides having massive guns and less than eight percent body fat? 

A. They don't do hours of cardio per week. 

That's right. If you want to get lean then doing long sessions of steady-state cardio is a very bad way to go about it.

When you're trying to build lean muscle mass a high volume of endurance training or "chronic cardio" will counter your efforts. 

Distance running or cycling, for example, is all about efficiency. Do these singular, repetitive movements enough and your body will strip away non-essential muscle to make you more efficient at running or cycling. Just look at pro cyclists or marathoners! Endurance comes at the cost of physique... Unless you're going for that emancipated look (models)?

I'm not saying don't go for a run or ride if you enjoy doing so, I'm just saying that if muscle is your priority then do as little "chronic cardio" as possible and instead focus on high intensity weights and sprints. Feel free to do as much low intensity movement (e.g. walking, yoga, hiking, etc) as you want though. 

Arnie after a few more years of steroid abuse...

5. Rest, recover and don't overtrain

I've already mentioned the importance of sleep and the benefits of short, intense workouts over high volume training but I think this point bears repeating. 

Smashing yourself at the gym, on the pavement or on the road everyday will be counterproductive to your progress (unless you are 18 years old or devouring anabolics like Arnie in the 70s)

While the precipitous overtraining promoted by hardcore fitness communities [cults] like CrossFit or Barry's Bootcamp does lead to great results initially, I believe that this style of training is both unnecessary and unsustainable for the average person. The risk of injury or burn out is simply not worth the results it if your objective is health and a good physique more so than elite performance.

As a type-A personally who is slightly masochistic I've done my fair share of overtraining in the past. I get it. I loved CrossFit for my brief stint at it. Hard workouts are addictive, especially in a competitive environment or group atmosphere. Yet if your goal is to build muscle in the healthiest, most sustainable way that will enhance longevity rather than hinder it, less is definitely more. 

This is why I suggest spacing out your weight sessions with at least one (and up to four) rest days. 

My ideal weekly schedule will look something like this:

Monday: heavy lifting session
Tuesday: yoga
Wednesday: sprints
Thursday: weights + metabolic conditioning (i.e. circuit training)
Friday: rest
Saturday: Rest/Play (cycle, surf, walk along the beach/river, get some sun, etc)
Sunday: yoga

In NYC (except for winter) I cycle everywhere on my fixed-gear as my mode of transport... Often up to two hours a day. This does not count as 'training' but rather 'movement’. So even though I am highly active almost every day I only consider myself to be doing around one hour of actual intense 'training' per week, split over three workouts.


If you want to build muscle honestly and healthily you need ample nutrition, sleep and rest. Training is important but intensity trumps volume. To summarize:
  1. Nutrition: Eat as much clean, real Paleo food as you want/need. 
  2. Sleep: Aim for eight hours a night, minimum.
  3. Train: Train hard, smart and not too much.
  4. Avoid chronic cardio: do weights/circuits, sprints and lots of movement.
  5. Avoid overtraining: rest, recover and rebuild.
"Form a habit. Forge a lifestyle." 

The Paleo Model

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Thursday, January 9, 2014

WARNING: I am not a doctor or health practitioner. Just because I look good in Speedos does not mean you should take my advice or do what I do. What works for me may not work for you and vice versa. Beware of people like me who take an N=1 experiment on themselves and get all preachy as if they have the answer… I'm looking at you, Tim Ferris. 
Being a huge fan of the Paleo diet and the amazing results I have seen (body composition, energy levels, overall health) in the four years I have been eating in this manner I thought I'd toy with this idea of Intermittent Fasting (IF). In this article I first explain a bit about IF and then go on to describe what happened to me when I tried it for six weeks last year. It ends with some thoughts on who may benefit from IF and who should probably stay clear. 
What, IF?
Basically, Intermittent Fasting is an eating pattern that alternates between periods of fasting and feeding. Ramadan is an example of IF (although you probably won't get smitten by Allah if you don't observe this type of IF strictly). IF may involve alternate-day fasting, fasting one or two full days a week, fasting every day for an arbitrary number of hours or any other combination. 
The form I chose to do it involved a 'condensed eating window' of four to eight hours a day, every day. Some would call this a 16:8 or 20:4 intermittent fast. The timing and ratio changed daily but effectively I was not eating anything from around 9pm at night until some time between 1pm to 5pm the next day depending on when I trained. 
I was training in the fasted state. And by training I mean heavy weight training often paired with metabolic conditioning (high intensity interval training ala CrossFit). In hindsight I think this was a mistake, but more on that later.
From when I broke fast after my workout I would eat as much and as often as I liked during that four to eight hour period until starting the next fast. Thereafter it was just water and black coffee in the mornings until my next feeding window. Not that crazy, really. (Is it?? I can be a bit crazy sometimes... Who said that?) It's important to note that I was also eating low-carb at the time. Probably between 50-100 gm of carbs a day, which is very low for my activity levels and size. 

Why the F would you do that?
Good question! Well, firstly I am an inquisitive person and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. IF has become very popular in the whole Paleo-sphere and there have been quite a few (animal) studies over the years suggesting that calorie restriction and/or intermittent fasting could really have some potential health and longevity benefits. 
For example, in multiple animal studies rats that were fasted (usually alternative days of no food) ended up living up to 50% longer than the 'eat whenever you want' control group. It seems like the mechanism was somehow related to fertility - in scarce times when the body doesn't have enough energy to reproduce it will delay the aging process in order to live long enough to reproduce. The fasting rats' telomeres - the ends of chromosomes that shorten as you age - degraded at a slower rate.
I later found out that the latest research was suggesting that this longevity effect is somewhat overstated and nowhere near as prominent in primates/humans. In particular, one primate study suggested that severe fasting (one week on/one week off) for your whole life may increase life span by up to seven years for a human. Hardly worth it for a life of misery in my opinion! The theory is that unlike rodents, large mammals with long gestation periods (like humans, elephants etc) require relatively less energy to rear their young than, say, mice, for whom rearing young requires a greater proportion of their total available energy. Thus the longevity effect of fasting is far less for humans than rats. 
The other, perhaps more enticing suggested benefit of IF for a body-conscious sucker such as myself is an overall improvement in body composition (maintain lean muscle, lose fat) that IF proponents push. Basically, by fasting large portions of the day your body will be in a ketogenic (fat burning) state for most of the day, which should enable stored body fat to be burned for fuel rather than all the readily available glucose from that big bowl of sugar-nothingness known as cereal and large glass of refined fructose (Orange Juice) us fat Westerners have been told constitutes a “healthy breakfast”. In a sense, IF should turn you into a 'fat burning beast' as Mark Sisson calls it. 
My experience with Intermittent Fasting
So you're wondering how not eating most of the time worked out for me?
The Good
I did IF consistently for about three months last year while living in London. After the first few days I actually found it easy to not eat in the mornings. I was drinking a lot of black brewed coffee and actually felt really mentally alert during the fasted period. Kind of like when I was a kid playing football or doing Athletics and you have that semi-nervous, super-alert feeling when you are about to run out on the field. This is probably a good indication that my sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response) was dominating during the latter part of the fasted state and not giving my parasympathetic nervous system (rest and recover) enough field time.
Anyway the first few weeks I was performing well in the gym, and was really growing to like the feeling of not eating for hours on end. It is strangely addictive and definitely gives you a buzz. It makes sense to me that our Paleo ancestors often went very long periods with no food and would often have to hunt in the fasted state and so I guess there may have been some evolutionary pressure on the ability to ramp up alertness when we are very hungry. 
Also, It is quite liberating knowing that you don't have to think about preparing food or snacking every few hours. I think it can help with productivity too. Sometimes around midday I would get quite strong hunger pangs that lasted for about an hour but they would always pass and I would feel great again. As soon as I started training I would feel very energetic - "on the hunt" I guess you would say. 
I have no doubt that we as a people these days do not embrace hunger enough. Instant gratification, greed and relative prosperity have made being hungry a frowned upon and unnecessary condition. It's a shame. Furthermore, I find the natural/Primal hunger you feel during a fast or when in the ketotic state is subtle and tolerable. Contrast this to the modern hangry (hungry + angry) food craving cycle most Westerners face every couple of hours when their blood-sugar plummets shortly after consuming a sugary/grainy meal or snack. I think the 'six small meals a day' myth is defunct for the average person.

The Bad
While my performance was good in the gym for the first few weeks it kind of plateaued after that. I also seemed to lean out a couple of kilos in that initial period but by around week three or four I was back to my normal size/weight again. It started to become obvious that IF wasn't going to turn me into a freak that could walk around at 5% body fat with veins popping out of my abs and bench-pressing 200kg. Don't worry, I'm fully aware that these are unrealistic goals and I not particularly desirable! But I was hoping that this would be a kind of cheat to being super-ripped all the time while also being able to gorge, drink booze and eat a bit less clean than usual. Spoiler alert: It isn't… for me at least.
When you fast for 16-18 hours everyday and it finally comes time to eat, you overdo it. At least I certainly did. I'm always a big eater. I'd say I average 3000-4000 calories a day. I'm very active and I eat high quality whole foods and relatively low levels of carbohydrate so I can get away with an energy-dense diet. When you are trying to get in all your daily calories in just a few hours you really have to eat a lot. 
I am a bit of a fat-kid at heart so I kinda like gorging myself. I think many people would struggle to get enough calories in for the day in just 4-8 hours which is probably why IF is so often heralded as a great weight-loss tool. By default people fall into a substantial calorie deficit and the weight just comes off. But for me it just meant I was eating massive meals and grazing for the rest of the eating window. 
I would routinely eat a whole 100gm block of 85% cocoa dark chocolate in the evening, after already consuming a can of coconut cream, sometime a whole chicken (they are small in the UK) and copious amounts of vegetables, salads and fruit. Ironically, I think I was eating more than I used to eat when not doing IF. More troubling though, I was eating more of the energy-dense foods that I try to limit such as the dark chocolate, coconut cream and nuts. It makes sense that I was probably going to these foods to get the calories quickly and easily as my time frame for eating was restricted. (There are only so many salads and vegetables one has time to prep and eat in 5 hours). I didn't gain weight but I started to feel sluggish.

The Ugly
Around week 10 or 12 I started to feel pretty flat. I wasn't sleeping well, my performance was declining in the gym and I started to feel more anxious. It became clear that the honeymoon period had ended and my body wasn't so happy with this new normal. When I couldn't get to sleep at night I knew something was wrong. My body was under stress and not recovering as it should. 
My sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight response) was in overdrive. I knew it was probably a cortisol issue, adrenal fatigue, a slow-down in thyroid function or most likely a combination of the three. All of these physiological responses are very typical of type-A personalities (me) who push themselves too far, overtrain, under sleep, go too low-carb and are generally addicted to adventure, stress and stimulation… and caffeine!

I was becoming mildly addicted to the buzz of the fasted state, but then obsessing over food more than usual. I had the gut feeling that this wasn't a sustainable or healthy endeavor for me. 
IF's and buts
I stopped IF and went back to a more normal routine, eating breakfast most days. I think my issue was probably with the fact that I was eating too low-carb, training too intensely and trying to do IF all at the same time. When you do intense CrossFit type workouts that are very glycogen (muscle glucose) dependent you really need enough carbs in your diet to replenish the glycogen stores or you will literally run out of gas and start to feel like crap and get all those symptoms I mentioned above (poor sleep, fatigue, anxiety, brain fog, etc). It seems obvious but sometimes you just have to learn for yourself, the hard way!
I've learned my lesson now and when I train intensely I make sure I get enough starchy carbs from things like sweet potato and occasionally white rice. This seems to be working really well for me right now and I'm looking, performing and feeling great - as Robb Wolf would say. (Love that little guy).
I still do the odd IF day now and again but would never do it for prolonged periods of time. It can be a good tool for some people, with the following caveats…
Who should definitely not use IF:
IF is probably not a good idea if you are: highly active or a professional athlete, a person prone to eating disorders, pregnant, highly stressed, partying a lot or working irregular night shifts, suffering adrenal fatigue, diabetic or otherwise metabolically deranged. 
People who could get away with IF a few days a week:
I AM NOT RECOMMENDING INTERMITTENT FASTING. However, if you are healthy, moderately active but not an athlete, sleep well, eat well but are a bit overweight and need a new simple strategy to lose some fat then this could be an option. If you are lean and want to try IF, ask yourself why? Make sure your motives are genuine. 
Take aways from my dabble with IF:
  • Hunger is good, natural and largely absent in our society
  • Don't do IF with low-carb and high intensity training. This is a recipe for disaster! 
  • Used wisely IF can work well for some people
  • I believe IF would work best as a random, sporadic practice rather than doing it every day for extended periods of time. Randomness breeds adaptability, resilience and robustness. 
  • If you choose to do IF I would highly recommend taking one or two days off a week.
  • Take everything I say with a big pinch of iodine-enriched salt as this is purely an N=1 experiment. We are all unique snowflakes who require unique lifestyle guidelines. 
12-month update:
About six months ago I began to do what Dave Asprey calls “Bulletproof Coffee Intermittent Fasting” (BPCIF) This involves the same 16:8 intermittent fast that I was doing except with the addition of consuming one ‘bulletproof coffee’ in the morning. Dave proposes that you get most of the benefits of IF (cell autophagy, insulin sensitivity, improved body composition etc) due to the fact that you are still fasting from carbohydrate and protein. However, the fat from the butter and MCT oil gives you the fuel necessary to get you through the morning and optimize brain function and performance. I personally find that BPCIF works very well for me. I do this most days of the week. I don’t think it is good to keep exactly the same routine when it comes to meal frequency and prednisone size. I try to mix it up to keep my body guessing. 
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Thanks for reading. You might want to check out my post on Bulletproof Coffee next. 

Some links from sources I trust on IF and potential benefits and problems:
The mice study:  Hatori, Megumi (2012). 'Time Restricted Feeding Without Caloric Intake Prevents Metabolic Diseases in Mice Fed a High Fat Diet'. Journal of Cell Metabolism, June 9, 2012.
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