Lessons on Leanness by max el-hag

Teachings From a Fitness Journey Part – 2

I began this series of posts threes weeks ago to help prevent people from making the same mistakes I have made trying to navigate the fitness culture. My hope with these is to continue to help others create a life worth living. My aim is to, as a group, transcend some of the broken aspects of our culture. This week’s topic is aesthetics, although in our culture that word really implies leanness more than beauty.

I have spent more time trying to ‘figure out’ the leanness puzzle than I care to admit so this is a topic that is extremely personal to me. Beginning at the age of 12 after gaining some bodyfat prior to hitting puberty, I became hyper obsessed with changing my physical appearance. Over the course of a year or so I successfully lost the weight, but carried the scars of that brief chubby period with me for a long time following. I became an athlete, and food became part of my protocols for success. Because I played football at a much heavier bodyweight than I wrestled, I learned to have extreme control of my appetite, I learned to ignore hunger pangs. I became big and thick eating huge amounts and then, without drugs, would get down to near single digit bodyfat. But there was an extreme cost to that financially, biologically and psychologically. I paid thousands of dollars on consults, blood work, and coaches trying to mold my body into the current standard of beauty. I remember going years at a time without tasting sugar, or putting grilled chicken into bags and sneaking them into restaurants so that I could go out with my friends. I remember waiting for cheat days after not having carbs for weeks at a time and eating so much that I rolled around on the floor in a puddle of my own sweat trying not to throw up all the delicious food I had just consumed. I remember having vivid dreams of eating doughnuts while playing with fasting protocols. I also remember being controlled, angry, and largely unhappy through all of these experiences that lasted over 15 years.

Even though my ability to help people create leanness has improved substantially over the years, my perspective has changed dramatically about what is important to me and what is important in life. This poses a difficult problem working as an expert in an industry that is largely fueled by the physical insecurities of the average citizen.

I felt it was necessary to finally address body composition because so many women tell me that men don’t have body image issues or that men have it easy. Many men tell me women are crazy because of their issues, without any real understanding of how much pressure we put on females to look and behave a certain way. Also our male culture is quick to criticize the insecurities/behaviors of women without being aware enough to realize that they suffer from many of the same issues. They just manifest in different ways. I hope this article is helpful to you, whether you are a man or woman struggling to change your body, a coach trying to help people who are struggling, or someone looking to gain perspective into the human psyche to see how damaged it can become by buying into group belief systems. Like all of these posts, they are written to my past self, as a reminder of how far I’ve come, and an exploration into how I would have coached/led myself. So, without further ado, here are the lessons I’ve learned about leanness:

Be Leery of the Media

Big business is created on the framing of perception. The ambiguity and greyness of reality is never as sexy and appealing to people as a promise that someone has THE ANSWER. The problem is that everyone in this industry has the answer. Everyone has it figured out, and everyone can provide testimonials to prove their greatness. The reality is that everything works for someone, and most things work for short periods of time. Those temporary “successes” make great stories, and business owners are quick to capitalize on their successes and hide their failures in an effort to constantly create a stream of converts into their excellent, bullet proof, easy to accomplish system. Think critically about everything you see, challenge the perspective of everything you hear, read counter arguments of every expert, and meet as many of them as you can. Unfortunately this is a lot of work to ensure you are finding quality information, but it will be worth it not to get indoctrinated into a system that is going to mess up your body as a result of following the wrong ‘guru’, not to mention cost you thousands of dollars. Be ready to be disappointed. Sometimes the people we think are going to have answers for us, really only have answers for themselves. Gurus sometimes disappoint. Not right away, but eventually.

People take drugs

The amount of people in the fitness or sports world who use drugs is far greater than you could ever imagine. You will be a little naïve in your youth, but as you get more exposure to world-class athletes, bodybuilders and fitness models you will realize how prevalent usage is, and how big of a difference it makes. You will also see how many ‘regular people’ are willing to seek medical usage to prevent ‘aging.’ You will have friends who swear they don’t use, who you will discover later definitely do. Squeeky clean athletes who you could never imagine touching anything bad because of their clean public images or strong moral centers will get caught. (Note to self, beware the people who publically advertise their morality, we are all flawed, people who believe they are not are usually headed for a fall.) It seems to be part of human nature for people lie when they feel they are not measuring up to society’s standards. I’m not sure if they’re too weak to face their true selves, or if they are just trying to get a leg up, but they take them. Not everyone is using, and not every athlete better than you is taking things so don’t use that as an excuse, but understand that a huge portion of the fitness culture is liberally using them solely for the understanding that your expectations could be skewed slightly by these scientific advancements.

Genetics matter

Genetics matter so much more than just about everything else. The genetics of water retention, skin thickness, skin elasticity, carb tolerance, stress adaptation, muscle physiology, hormones, etc. are going to dictate such a large part of your journey to leanness. If someone is world class and clean, they are naturally blessed. It doesn’t mean they aren’t working hard, but it does mean they have the genetics to adapt to and support high volumes of hard work necessary for success.

Don’t fight your genetics too hard or for too long. If you’re meant to be big and muscular and you drive your leanness too low you will lose a greater portion of muscle than fat, destroy your sex drive, appetite, mood, happiness, and quality of life in general. There are some people who can retain balance, fuel their training, and walk around at really low fat levels. Be happy and smile for them. They have their own struggles in life and leanness won’t solve all their issues, so just enjoy the immense variability of the human species.

Attraction is influenced only in small part by looks

So many people will tell you that they just ‘want to look good naked.’ Or that ‘nothing tastes as good as looking good feels.’ The premise of most of these arguments is based on the fact that people want to be desired by the group of people they desire. The problem is that people have no idea to what they are genuinely attracted. Don’t listen to the words people say, especially young people, but instead pay attention to actions and couples, and see behind into the unconscious forces that drive attraction. Science has studied and proven that there is so much more to it than what we consider beauty. The compatibility of immune systems to create a more resilient offspring, economic status, the postural stances of confidence, and emotions can all cause people to be attracted at a far deeper level than just looks. It does feel good to look good, and creates confidence which is attractive, but it won’t change your likelihood of finding a deep meaningful relationship. Ironically being physically attractive generally won’t even help you attract the super attractive subset of people that are held in YOUR standard of beauty. If attracting someone is your goal, then learn to speak to them, pay attention, be confident, look them in the eye and treat them like people. Eventually, you’ll realize that most people don’t want to be objectified even if at first they think they do…and when you work so hard on your body you make it really difficult to get close to you in any meaningful way.

Expand your Self-Concept

You are not just your body. You should constantly work to improve your body and do your best to stay healthy, but what you give to this world and the people you love is barely influenced by the shell of skin and flesh that carries you around. You have a brain capable of thought and both body language and spoken language capable of sharing those thoughts. Those are going to be your keys to communicating love, gaining knowledge, developing wisdom, finding expertise, building wealth, etc during the course of your life. People are infrequently remembered for their looks or their bodies, but often remembered for the quality of their character and the complexity of their thinking. Unless you get an offer to be a professional athlete or model, you must understand that your concept of self should be much more expansive than just your body. Your emotional awareness, your analytical skills, your relationships, your profession, your passions, and your beliefs should all be equally as invested in as your body. You will see people who obsess solely on the physical become outdated, and lose their relevance and power of influence. Stay focused on building the concept of ‘you’ into the most encompassing and complex entity you could possibly fathom. Don’t be boring.

Function Versus Form

People will argue about what is more important and which comes first. Function will ultimately be more important than form to almost every body over the duration of a lifetime. While it won’t be guaranteed to perfect your form, as many experts will claim, it will make a change if you get too far out of shape. Strive to be pain free, energetic, strong, capable, flexible, enduring and explosive, and allow form to morph itself in support of those broad functions. With those you can comfortably navigate the world as your playground. You will see people without function who have beautiful forms, and it will be depressing sometimes knowing how little time they put in, but ignore that and focus on how far you’ve come and what you are capable of physically and otherwise. Let your healthy optimal physical self take precedence over your leanness.

Every BODY Gets Old

People get wrinkly, saggy, weak, immobile, and fatter over time. People can fight it for a time and the miracle of science has allowed surgeries and synthetic drugs to cover it up for a longer period of time. But no matter what you do, all beauty fades. The most physically beautiful 40 year olds will likely pale in comparison to the tightness and natural vibrancy of an innocent 20 year old. If you consider your ‘self’ to be solely physical, you will struggle to cope with the aging process. If you are aware of the natural cycles of life, and you consider yourself to be more than just the biological casing that covers you, then you can accept that it is a part of life for every one. Different things will be important to you as you get older, different things will draw your attention, and you will want to do different things with your time. Continue to prioritize keeping your function as it will help to keep you on track to enjoy life, but allow your obsession with looks to recede naturally as you age.

So, what is the secret to getting lean?

Tough shit, there is no secret. People out there will tell you it’s HIIT or flexible dieting or strength training or intermittent fasting or low carb paleo or whatever else led them to have success. The reality is that most of those interventions do create leanness in the short term, but many of them also have horrible ramifications on your endocrine system if used for too long or too aggressively, and can cause the exact opposite effect when you rebound. The terms themselves can also be confusing because they mean different things to different people. In reality, people will struggle to be lean for different reasons. You could be over fed, underfed, over trained, under trained, have low quality food, be low in metabolic hormones, be low in anabolic hormones, have digestive issues, sleep poorly, create too much emotional stress with your thoughts, or just have bad genetics. So, you need to experiment to find out what works for you. I would suggest taking a long term balanced approach where sleep quality and amount are emphasized, you strive for a balanced distribution of hard/moderate/easy energy system training, strength training is employed in a mix of low/moderate/high rep schemes, you focus first on the quality of your food and then on the optimization of the amounts relative to your physiology and training stressors. Most importantly I advise you to seek psychological therapy so you can understand your own inner workings to get healthy in the mind as you improve your body.

Concluding Thoughts

It is rumored that the Buddha once said

“…in the end only three things matter: How much you loved, how gently you lived, and how gracefully you accepted the things not meant for you.”

I think that is such a good mind state for living. Many leaders of culture (and fitness) have become charismatic sales people who can convince you that you are capable of anything. While the idea is beautiful and helps people avoid the pain they are feeling today, it can lead people to disappointing realizations reminiscent of what they felt when they discovered Santa wasn’t real. Some people were meant to be beautiful. Their metabolisms are superb, the facial structures exhibit symmetry, their skin is flawless, and people will want to stare at, desire or be friends with them solely because of that. In a world where everyone is interconnected it can be difficult to cope with an inability to express your uniqueness when you can’t be noticed for looking the way other people want us to look. But, the reality is that you can only change so much, and people who are built to be beautiful will always beat you at the craft without even trying. This was not an article meant to tell you not to care about your appearance or make you feel hopeless about your quests for a better look, but instead an attempt to get you to see there are bigger things to worry about in life and fitness than how your body looks on your Instagram account.

~ Max

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Max El-Hag
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