Practice Makes Better: Reaching Your Goals By Honing the Skill of Fitness


Elliott Recorder

Who remembers playing “Hot Cross Buns” on the recorder in elementary school? It seems like a rite of passage. I majored in vocal performance and spent years working as a musician. When my oldest son brought home his packet of songs, I couldn’t help but feel excited for his own foray into music.

He dove right in, and the phase where his instrument sounded like a dying animal was mercifully short. My budding musician was tearing through songs. Atta boy! He was determined to become a rock star at the recorder. However, before long, as the songs became more complex, I heard him yell in frustration. He would play a difficult piece over and over again, missing the same notes each time. I realized that he hadn’t learned how to practice. 

We looked at the song again. There were only a few notes that he consistently struggled with playing. So instead of trying to swallow the entire piece, we tackled only the problematic phrases. He practiced two notes at a time until they came naturally. Then we put them back into the entire phrase. When that felt good, we tried the entire song again and boom– he nailed it.

Here’s the thing: tackling a fitness goal works pretty much like practicing music. When we find that attaining our goals has failed, it’s often because we haven’t learned the skills necessary to reach them. Learning how to practice at fitness will set you up for success.  Here’s an example:

“I want to gain muscle and decrease my body fat”

This is the most common “outcome goal” that I hear, and yet it’s usually the most elusive for people. Everybody’s starting place is different, but for many people, gaining muscle and decreasing body fat will require becoming adept at the following skills:

  • Expending more calories than taking in
  • Learning how to lift weights in a safe and effective manner
  • Following a strength and conditioning program
  • Getting adequate nutrients for goals
  • Learning how to create meals and snacks that support goals
  • Creating a schedule that allows for fitness goals
  • Working on other issues like sleep or stress management
  • Re-learning how to manage patterns that impede progress, like stress eating, restrictive habits/reactive binging, etc.
  • Portion education and awareness
Kitteh has a headache.

Kitteh has a headache.

What do you think would happen if you threw all of those behavior changes at someone who was just beginning to develop these habits? Yikes!

Practice the line, then play the song.
Chances are, if someone has been struggling to get results, they haven’t mastered the skills required to get them. Each one of those skills needs to be learned, with plenty of practice along the way.

Case Study 
One of my clients was frustrated because she couldn’t seem to lose weight. We looked at her nutrition, and one red flag emerged: she drinks a large amount of soda; enough that it totals almost 1,000 kcal a day. Just knowing this hasn’t led to change. She has had to take the time to try different strategies: Going cold turkey failed. Swapping soda with seltzer water was unsuccessful. Eventually, she was able to find that giving herself a modest daily allowance of her favorite treat was livable. It allowed her to still enjoy something she loved without allowing it to derail her goals.

She needed to practice the skill of changing this habit in a way that worked for the long haul. Her failed attempts weren’t really failures: she was practicing the skill until she was able to succeed. 

Make it Work for You
Take one habit you want to improve. Break it down into parts. Is there a particular component that is tripping you up? Set your laser focus to that one small part and practice.

pew pew lasers

pew pew lasers

The great thing about practice is that you don’t fail. You just note what worked, what still needs work, and then revise your strategies from there. Eventually you’ll learn the lines, and the whole song will fall into place.


From Drunk Shopping to a Healthy Habit: The Consistency Challenge




I am a lightweight. I rarely drink alcohol at all: it gets in the way of my performance goals and a night out with several drinks under my belt ends with a very harsh jerk back to reality in the morning when I awaken to three small kids tugging on my arm at 6 a.m.  If I have more than two drinks I’m done-zo. I suppose you could say I can’t hang.

But I’m all for moderation, and once in awhile I’ll let loose a bit. Last weekend while in Kansas City, my friends and I decided to head downtown to the Plaza for dinner and a few drinks. Unlike me, these girls can hang.

After savoring two cocktails over a leisurely dinner, they pulled me up to a rooftop patio. It was a beautiful night and we basked in the warm weather while sipping just one more drink. Unfortunately, that put me over the edge and I got a little tipsy. Oops.

So naturally we went shopping next. Considering we were in a fantastic district for picking up some new goodies, it seemed like the right thing to do. I’ve never shopped while being drunk before, but I don’t recommend it unless you feel like spending way too much money.



As soon as we wandered into Athleta I spied a bright yellow water bottle made by S’well. Like a small child attracted to sparkly things, I snatched it up and decided I definitely needed to buy it. After all, the sales woman boasted, it kept water cold or hot for 24 hours. “This is amaaaazing” I declared with a bit too much exuberance. I peeked at the price tag. “Holy crap. $45?” “It holds 24 ounces,” she chirped, and I was sold. YES. I need this in my life. Of course.

As the sunlight creeped into our hotel room the next day, the memory of buying this thing settled in. I’d already done a good bit of shopping that month and I inwardly cringed. Shit. Oh well. There are worse things to regret after a night with a few too many cocktails. Maybe I’d drink more water. Meh.

Tastes like regret.

Tastes like bad choices.

After I returned home I saw a link to “The Consistency Challenge” on Jen Sinkler’s site. I clicked and immediately thought of my new water bottle. Here’s why:

For the last few years I’ve told myself that I want to drink more water. It’s not that I don’t actually want to be better about this habit. It’s just that for some reason, I suck at actually incorporating it into my life. Just saying that I’m going to drink more water has done absolutely nothing to improve my intake.

When I say that I don’t drink enough water, I’m not talking about not getting 60 oz. I’m not even close. There are many days when I don’t even drink a single glass. I do, however, drink a ton of coffee. Why is drinking water so hard? I don’t hate water. I know it will most likely make me feel better inside. What is stopping me?

Typically when I read about challenges I don’t bite. Usually they involve a huge commitment or focus on a bikini body or something else that just doesn’t speak to me. The ones I’ve actually done in the past usually involve me white knuckling through. For example, I jumped on the Whole 30 bandwagon a few years ago. On day 31 I ate all the cookies. Challenges that require behaviors that aren’t sustainable for the rest of my life just don’t work for me.

But this one was different in a few ways from what I typically see.

  • The goal is to develop consistency with one single action.
  • The action has to be something that we actually want to work on, not that we feel like we should work on.
  • An outcome of success is less important than what we discover in the process.
  • A big point of this challenge is to see what other things shift in your life when you incorporate a new habit. The focus is more on discovering how our habits impact our lives than a tangible outcome like weight loss or miles run.

So I approached the challenge as a bit of an experiment with myself. If I bought this thing, could I put it to use and commit to becoming consistent about drinking just 24 ounces a day?

Even on day 1, I noticed a few things:

1. I committed to carrying my water bottle everywhere with me, except during walking or running outside, because though that would be a natural time to need water, this thing is freaking heavy. I noticed that having it with me made me more likely to sip. Duh.

Oh, the places we'll go.

Oh, the places we’ll go.

2. Remembering to take my bottle with me has been way less problematic than in the past. It’s enormous and bright canary yellow. I can’t miss it! Even at home, I see it sitting on the counter and I sip.

I won't give up my precious. But maybe we can all get along.

I won’t give up my precious. But maybe we can all get along.

On days 1 and 2, I filled up my bottle twice and finished all my water, even though I’d committed to drinking only 1 bottle. Score! It wasn’t even hard. Ha!

So what has this taught me so far? First of all, committing to being consistent led me to be mindful of the habit I’m trying to instill. I downloaded a sheet from the challenge page as a visual reminder to stick on the fridge, though the yellow bottle has served the same purpose. But I’ve quickly discovered that the barrier to my water drinking was probably lack of a visual reminder. Only time will tell if I’ll need to develop other strategies to keep my habit going. I’ll report back in a month.

My conclusion so far is that drunk shopping might not always be so bad after all… (ok, it probably is a terrible idea). But sometimes what we consider an extravagance might become an unexpected tool for change. That surprised me!

Are you up for a challenge? Read more here for background information on how the consistency challenge was created. You’ll also find extra tips on how to make your new habit stick. Leave a comment and let me know what habit you’re working on incorporating into your life this month.

My constant companion.

My constant companion.

8 Things Fitness Pros Tell Each Other That You Need to Know Too

We may have arrived at the Fitness Summit a little early.

We may have arrived at the Fitness Summit a little early.

I’m still basking in the afterglow of the Fitness Summit, an industry conference in Kansas City where passionate fitness pros gather to learn, share information, network, and have fun. It was a phenomenal experience – professional conferences are usually boring and dry, but our gathering was ridiculously entertaining while still giving us plenty of useful ideas to take back home. I brought home a little hangover with me too (drinking skill: 0). But overall, the experience was a shot in the arm of excitement that made me ready to jump out of bed this morning and get going with my clients.

The summit provided plenty of ideas that I’ll tuck into my toolbox, but some of my best takeaways are lessons that anyone trying to improve their health should nab too. Here are the biggies:

1. Get creative to find the movements that work for your body. 
Nick Tumminello, often dubbed “The Trainer of Trainers”, has an incredible knack for cutting through b.s. and helping people reach their goals. He reminds us that there isn’t a single tool or technique that works for everybody. I had the good fortune to chat with him about programming, and along the way he gave me some advice for working with my own mother, who has arthritic knees. Squatting exercises feel painful to her.

Instead of giving me a bunch of tests and corrective exercise suggestions, he asked me why she needed to  squat. We talk about the squat and deadlift being fundamental movement patterns, but Nick sees them as fundamental gym movement patterns. My mother doesn’t pick up her groceries from a classic squat position. So why should I demand that she perform a squat if it always bugs her knees?

Squats and deadlifts are fantastic exercises and most people will find some form of them beneficial, but certain variations on movements fit us better than others. I can retool the basic human movement of lowering the body in a way that allows her to work on her fitness while minimizing pain. It just might look a bit different than the typical exercises that I use. This idea was also resonated in David Dellanave’s discussion of biofeedback and listening to our bodies, which I’ve talked about in another post.  My takeaway: If something isn’t working for our bodies, we can try something a little different.

2. Stop avoiding carbs before your workouts already. 
Dr. Susan Kleiner is a Registered Dietitian, PhD, and author.  She is also a hell of a lot smarter about nutrition than I am so I appreciated her lecture. Kleiner argued against ketogenic diets (low-carb, high fat, moderate protein) for athletic performance. Stop fearing carbs! They don’t make you fat. They fuel your training, allow you to work harder, and give you a positive impact on your overall metabolism. She spoke of feedback loops that impact our metabolism, which is a bit over most of our heads but just know this – when you chronically skip meals, fast before workouts, and starve yourself of carbs, you screw with your metabolism. And you feel like shit. “Never underfuel your training,” she emphasized.

3. Smaller deficits disrupt your metabolism less than larger deficits. This is another nugget from Kleiner. When we want to lose weight, we might assume that knocking our calories down more will make a bigger impact. In the short term, maybe. But in the long term, cutting out 300-400 kcal from our maintenance calories is better than 500 or more. Kleiner says the body doesn’t slow metabolism because the smaller deficit “doesn’t disrupt the feedback loop of the metabolic pathway”. I’ll ungeek that for you: figure out how much you can eat without gaining weight first. Then if you want to lose weight, eat a little bit less than that. Try it. You’ll be less hangry too.

4. Cholesterol’s impact on the body is still kind of confusing, but it’s important to understand. 
In one camp, we have people freaking out about eating any saturated fat. In the other camp, we see people guzzling copious amounts of Bulletproof Coffee. (Seriously, it’s butter melted in coffee. I’ll take my butter on bread, thanks. But do whatever rocks your boat I suppose.) Some doctors, including Dr. Spencer Nadolsky, have concern about going to either extreme.

Nadolsky cleared the cholesterol confusion for us and gave us the straight dope about how it impacts our arteries. Lately there have been a lot of books and blogs shrieking about “the cholesterol myth”. Apparently, LDL and total cholesterol aren’t the strong markers for heart disease that scientists once believed they were. But that doesn’t mean we should ignore our overall intake of saturated fats. While the cholesterol itself might not be a big deal, it attaches to problematic little proteins called apolipoproteins. The cholesterol is the cargo, and the proteins are the boats. Together, they become cargo ships sailing right through your arteries. The ship isn’t very considerate, because it crashes into the walls of your arteries and bangs them up. This happens pretty slowly, but over time, it puts you at greater risk for atherosclerosis and heart disease.

There are other risk factors too, along with steps you can take to give yourself better protection against disease.  Don’t smoke. Exercise. Eat a decently balanced diet of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and lean meat and fish. Certain saturated fats can actually help lower LDL. And no, nuts won’t kill you. (I didn’t realize some people actually were anti-nut. Who knew?)

5. Fear Can Screw Up Your Workouts. Chill out. 
I’ve been heavy deadlifting lately and my coach, Jordan Syatt of Syatt Fitness, knew something was off when I sent him videos of my lifts. I was able to meet with him in person at the summit, where he took a closer look at my form. When I chose a light weight I rocked the hell out of my deadlift. So what was going on when I bumped up  the weight?

Jordan asked me if I felt fear when I set up for my heaviest sets. I did, along with nervous jitters and a million reminders to myself to keep the bar in the right place, my lats engaged, my breath executed perfectly, and so on. My brain zoomed at a thousand miles per hour and I panicked when I faced a really tough set. Fear and nerves make it much more difficult to execute your exercises well. Even if you’re not powerlifting, going into your workout with confidence and trust in yourself will make a positive impact on how you move.

Jordan isn't just eye candy. He's a killer strength coach.

Jordan isn’t just eye candy. He’s a killer strength coach.

6. Surround yourself with people who have a positive mental outlook.  I believe every trainer this weekend shared a commitment to make the clients we serve not only function better physically but also have better overall health and well being. Jennifer Vogelgesang Blake is a badass strength coach and friend of mine. She trains at the Movement Minneapolis and writes great stuff at Strong is Fun.  This woman fills me with happy energy every time we talk. Jennifer is crazy strong and has sweet ninja moves that she shares, but more importantly, she reminds me to be kind to my body and mind and speaks in a way that helps me value my overall well being. Her words and actions demonstrate that things like the shapes of our bodies and squat records don’t define us. She has a thoughtful, empathetic approach to fitness and life that I look up to. Find the people around you who make you feel awesome. Then go be the person that makes other people feel awesome.

that moment where you need a selfie stick

that moment when you need a selfie stick

7. The real secret to long-term weight loss. 
It’s this one crazy thing! Just kidding, it isn’t. But hopefully you know that already. Alan Aragon, who we sometimes call Lord Aragon, is a nutritional high wizard and co-author of the Lean Muscle Diet. He summarized the real key:

“Personal preference is the biggest determinant of long term adherence.”

Aragon called for an end to the diet wars. There is no particular diet that will help us maintain a healthy weight. The habits that we can live with for life are the ones that we should use to lose weight. He listed 10 key markers of a sustainable diet and they were so spot-on that I’ll share them here:

1. Respects personal taste preferences.
2. Supports physical and mental performance goals.
3. Covers macronutrient and micronutrient goals.
4. Does not promote unnecessary or scientifically unfounded food restrictions.
5. Respects intolerances and allergies.
6. Convenience.
7. Affordability.
8. Socially acceptable (no roadkill diet, please).
9. Compatible with personal lifestyle or religion.
10. Sustainable in the long term.

If you’ve yo-yo’d back and forth trying to lose weight, take a look at that list and see if your methods mesh with these.

The ladies love some Alan Aragon.

The ladies love some Alan Aragon. Picture credit: Brynda Ivan.

8. HFL. 
Aragon showed us a fancy pie chart with “20% diet and exercise, 80% HFL”. HFL? Have a fucking life. Eating well and exercising is important, but it shouldn’t consume us. Life is too short. We need to move. We need to eat well. But we also need to laugh, celebrate, and take pleasure in the world around us. If you find yourself consumed with your fitness goals, it might be time to re-evaluate the place it has in your overall life. Look at the big picture and find a mentally healthy place to settle into.

That’s a wrap! There were many more lessons over the weekend, and I was grateful for the opportunity to learn, grow, and make new friends. Get out there and kick some ass at life this week! What lesson helps you the most? Let me know in a comment below.