The bottom line is: everyone has the same skeletal structure, ingeniously manoeuvered by an intricate network of muscles. Lying over this is a layer of stored energy, or body fat. The extent to which you choose to develop your muscle tissue (or allow it to deteriorate) and the degree of excess body fat you allow to accumulate is completely up to you. Saddlebag thighs and love handles cannot be blamed on poor old mum, grandma or a distant uncle on your father’s side! Of course, we all have certain genetic traits that may make fat loss or muscle gain a little easier for some, or more difficult for others, but generally, great bodies are not born, they are made … as are those which are out of shape!
These days you can’t swing a cat in a gym without hitting an ‘expert’! Unfortunately, there are more widespread, contradictory opinions amongst the experts than there are diet books, so whom should we choose to believe? How much of what we do is a necessary part of getting into shape, and how much is urban myth? Most diet and exercise veterans are still trying to piece it together, so I can certainly sympathise with the disillusioned novice enthusiast.
So where are we going wrong?
To make significant changes to our shape and general condition, we must change our body composition by adding lean muscle tissue and losing stored body fat. Contrary to popular belief, developing muscle does not necessarily mean increasing muscle size, but rather increasing the density of the fibres within that muscle, improving tone and shape.
Despite the growing number of exercise enthusiasts, I’ve always found that those individuals actually making significant gains are so rare that it is disturbing. The sheer frustration of witnessing this phenomenon over the past 20 years continues to inspire me to write books and work 1:1 with private clients.
If you feel like you’ve been working hard, yet your body shape is not changes as you’d like it to, or it is changing shape in a less than desirable way, perhaps you’ll find the answer in the list of common exercise faux pas below:
Overdeveloped upper traps: This common phenomenon results in sloping shoulders, a thick neck, poor posture and likely, headaches. Your trapezius muscle (or traps) is a diamond shaped muscle spanning from the base of your scull to the middle of your back. The upper traps often become dominant if you have poor scapula (shoulder blade) stability, poor technique, you are training too heavy for your capability, choosing the wrong exercises or, all of the above. This muscle ‘shrugs’ your shoulders up towards your ears. Once your upper traps become dominant, it’s very difficult to reverse and can ruin your symmetry and posture. It’s a particularly unattractive muscle for women to overdevelop. The most common exercises which can cause this issue: shrugs, (incorrect) deadlifts, (incorrect) deltoid raises, (incorrect) lat pulldowns or rows.
Thick waist: Whilst excess stored body fat is the most common cause of a thickening waistline, overdevelopment of obliques and erector spinae (lower back) muscles can also contribute and are particularly noticeable in lean individuals with unsuitable training regimes/technique. Compound movements, such as heavy deadlifts and weighted oblique work are common culprits. To make your waist look smaller and improve your symmetry, development of your lats (lattisimus dorsi) will have a positive impact on your overall proportion. Again, correct technique is rare, but crucial.
Poor posture: It’s common to focus your training on the muscles that are most visible (front) and neglect your ‘posterior chain’ of muscles. We also spend much of our day reaching forward (driving, sitting at a desk, reading, etc.), so strengthening the posterior chain of muscles and stretching/releasing anterior muscles (chest, shoulders) plays a crucial role in developing and maintaining good posture and avoiding injuries.
Underdeveloped glutes: Poor squatting and lunging technique, often exacerbated by inflexible hamstrings and tight hip flexors, will often result in poor recruitment of your glute muscles and potential lower back and knee injuries. Your glutes are powerful muscles and, when trained correctly, reduce injury risk and improve overall aesthetics.
Poor overall symmetry: Some of the most commonly neglected muscle groups are lats, rear shoulders, lower traps, hamstrings and calves, all of which contribute significantly to a symmetrically proportioned body.
Out-training a poor diet: For those of you who feel you need to be ‘smashed’ by your trainer in order to feel you either get ‘value’ from your session or you feel the need to work off your poor eating habits, think again. Engaging in smart, mindful, focused and planned training will see you gain more results, faster and with far less risk of injury and simply pushing your body with poor technique through inappropriate exercises, all in the name of ‘sweat’! I call this the new phenomena of the ‘Instagram workout’. It’s gathering momentum amongst some, both in the form of 1:1 training and group class cult followings. Experience tells me that many of these regimes will end in tears – both in poorly developed physiques and inevitable injuries – not dissimilar to the ‘aerobic’ movement of the ‘80’s!
All of the above can be overcome and/or corrected by a reputable, experienced trainer.
Bottom line? Train smart .. avoid injuries … get results!