If you were to ask a dozen people why they’re spending time in the gym, you’d likely get a dozen different answers. And that makes sense: most of us are motivated by some personal driving force that’s specific to our own lives.
But if you were to take the exactitudes of our individual experience out of those answers, you’d find something very interesting: once you zoom out a bit, the answers start to run together pretty quickly. And the more people you asked, the more you’d find that this is true.
On a core level, a mid-40s stay-at-home mom in Brisbane, Australia might have the same goal as a 25-year old post-college bro getting his tech start-up off the ground in Silicon Valley.
As much as we’d like to believe we’re all beautiful unique snowflakes, as human beings we’re all motivated by same basic things. And when you look at our individual goals from far enough away, they fall into one of a few categories.
This was most succinctly broken down for me by world-class coach and trainer to the stars Gunnar Peterson. According to Peterson, the reasons people step into the gym are legion, but at the heart of it, they really have only one of three goals:
- Sex Appeal (or ‘aesthetics’).
As fitness professionals, that’s what Gunnar and I help people do: look better, feel better, or perform better.
That’s it. People want to look better, feel better, or perform better. Of course, there’s bound to be cross-over of desirable outcomes: most people would like to look, move, and feel better from their training efforts. I know I do.
That said, the vast majority of clients walking in the door are most concerned with their appearance. It doesn’t matter if they want to lose weight for a class reunion or gain some muscle for beach season, the stay-at-home mom and tech start-up bro both just want to look better. That means different things to each of them, but it falls into the same bucket
As a coach, I’m well aware that most of my clients are interested purely in aesthetics–or think they are.
And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. After all, if you want to look better naked, training with weights is absolutely integral; it’s the most effective method to re-shape your physique and transform your body.
But here’s the caveat.
When improving aesthetics is the only goal of training, people often neglect a number of factors integral to building a well-rounded program. This can then lead to a constant battle with pain and dysfunction, long before physique goals are met.
And this is why orthopaedic conditions such as shoulder impingement, rotator cuff tears and low back pain, to name a few, are so common amongst lifters.
Here are some of the common pitfalls when ‘aesthetics’ is over emphazised at the expense of health and performance.
Training Muscles Over Movements
So, you want to sculpt a body worthy of Greek god status. Naturally, you decide you need to train like one.
Problem is, there aren’t many Greek gods running around for you to model your training after. No problem, just find the next best thing: people who look like Greek gods…then train like them.
It’s this exact line of thinking that leads aesthetics-focused gym-goers to train like physique athletes: using traditional split training, with entire training days dedicated to individual muscle groups.
Now, there is merit in this style of training. Especially if you intend to become a physique/bodybuilding competitor. But while those of us who never intend to step on stage can use this style of training, it should be in very, very specific situations.
Most importantly, it needs to be well-programmed by a coach with a lot of experience working with such athletes. As the vast majority of us are not using programming designed by such coaches and have no intention of competing, the cost to benefit ratio just isn’t there.
This style of programming is designed to achieve a single primary goal: maximum muscular development. Workouts are comprised of several exercises that target specific muscle groups, in a mostly isolated way. And there is little to no concern for function or health for that matter.
More often than not, muscle imbalances develop and the smaller, joint stabilizing muscles become weak. Over time, this screws up joint function. And when you add the repetitive motion of weight training through poor functioning joints, the strength and resilience of the tissues become overwhelmed – which can result in acute or chronic injury.
If you have a modicum of concern for moving well and living free of pain, there is a smarter way to program your training. And YES, you will still build lean muscle, shed fat and look hella sexy as a result!
Rather than base training around muscle groups, base it around movement patterns instead. There are 5 main categories (You could also throw in direct core training):
- Loaded Carries
Structure your training in a way that places equal emphasis across ALL of these movements and trains them using a variety of exercises.
Not only will you transform the physical look of your body, but you will develop functional strength, resilient joints and better physical performance to go with it.
Training Too Aggressively
Go hard or go home right? If you’re not laying in a pool of sweat and blood at the end of a session, you obviously didn’t work hard enough.
But unfortunately, this mentality is ubiquitous. Not surprisingly, it’s causing more harm than good.
Sure, we need to train hard if we expect our body to change. But it needs to be methodical.
When stress (in the form of training) is applied consistently and progressively, our bodies will adapt in a positive way.
For example, adding 5lb of weight to your squat each week (progressive overload) would more than likely lead to positive adaptations in strength.
If, however, the training stress is applied too aggressively, one of two things will happen:
- You will fail to repair and recover before the next bout of training – and therefore training performance stays the same or gradually decreases (overtraining).
- The training stress can exceed the load-bearing capacity of your joints/tissues and lead to an acute or chronic injury.
Neglecting Body Maintenance
Body Maintenance is an umbrella term that I define as ‘the stuff that maintains joint and soft tissue health.’ That really scientific definition can include things like stretching, movement practice, and self-massage.
But when aesthetics are prioritized, body maintenance is often neglected. Most trainees have a limited amount of time to dedicate to the gym; they’ve got busy lives. People want to get in, hit a great workout, and get out.
When every minute counts, it’s understandable that people would want to dedicate the entire session to productive training. Unfortunately, instead of training smart, that often leads them to view time spent on anything that isn’t actually lifting weights as time wasted.
Unfortunately, that neglect catches up to you.
Over time, failure to maintain your body will lead to muscles stiffness, reduced mobility and ultimately compromised joint health.
The human body is very good at compensating for poor quality movement. But eventually, the pain will rear its ugly head. And when significant damage is caused, a long road to recovery will be waiting.
For example, take our Silicon Vally lifter: after months of hammering on his shoulders to try to add some mass to hist delts, he’s come to the point where cant even raise his arms overhead without cranking through his low back and squaring his chest to the ceiling.
All of the pressing in the quest for aesthetics has put some size on the shoulders but he’s severely compromised mobility and he’s developed compensation patterns that can have serious long-term consequences if not addressed. And that will take a long, long time to correct.
Here’s the rub: by trying to save a few minutes every time he goes to the gym, our boy will ultimately put himself in a position where he needs to dedicate weeks or months on end to correcting things with specialized programming. Could have saved himself A LOT of time and effort by just taking care of his shoulders on the front end.
In the end, we ALL want to look good. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Wanting to look better is the number one reason most people step into the gym at all–so that sense of “vanity” is the driving force for making changes to your health and lifestyle.
Having said that, training solely for aesthetics is a tricky business. If you don’t make sure to take care of your joints and soft tissue or to employ intelligent programming, you could find yourself injured, beat up–and even looking worse!
Follow the tips above, and you’ll be tip-top for the long haul.