Category Archives: Fitness

The Beginner’s Guide to Fat Loss: Nuts and Bolts

Lego-WorkoutOut of curiosity, I typed “what exercises to do for fat loss” into Google today. I came up with a  mish-mash of Pinterest and Instagram workouts (resplendent with hashtags),  a fair amount of nonsense like “fat burning zones” along with a mix of supplement pages and some quality training advice to boot. If I were just starting to think about putting together a plan, I’d probably get a headache. The internet is a wonderful thing, but all that information can be overwhelming. When it comes down to it, losing fat isn’t all that complicated.So why does it seem so difficult?

First of all, there isn’t only one way to go about fat loss. That complicates the stream of information hurled at us. A large percentage of it is likely garbage as well. 

photo credit: Mark Smickilas

photo credit: Mark Smickilas

Most importantly, despite knowing all of these tips, many people still get stuck. My advice is not your key to the kingdom, it just gives you more tools for your kit. The real work to be done to create change starts within your heart and your head. Successful behavior change requires learning the skill of fitness as well as gaining insight on why you want to change in the first place. 

But still, when it comes down to the process of losing fat, there are things to know that will help you succeed:

1. Do something. If you’re just starting out, you’ll notice a positive impact on your energy, health, and waistline by just moving. Read more on that here. It’s easy to take on weight loss with an all-or-nothing attitude. This will invariably backfire. The plan will fall into place. If you’ve been inactive for a really long time,  ease yourself into exercise.

2. Your nutrition is the leading lady when it comes to losing fat. It has the most important role in your body composition by a big margin. No workout is magically effective. If you’re consuming more calories than you expend, your weight loss will stall. Period.

This is unfortunately where people get tripped up the most. Conflicting advice obfuscates a clear path even further. There isn’t one nutritional approach that is better than another. As I’ve mentioned previously, the best plan is the one you can stick to. Ultimately, using methods that help you develop habits that will carry you through life work best. 

3. Lift the things and put them down. Yeah, set off that lunkhead alarm because strength training not only helps your bones and overall health, it also helps you retain precious muscle that in turn improves your overall metabolism. Aim for between 2 and 4 workouts per week, depending on your level of experience and available time.


4. You don’t need a specialized strength training plan for fat loss. 
How you structure your weight lifting isn’t nearly as important as just getting it done. Some advocate doing a circuit in order to keep your heart rate up and give you some extra calorie burn. Nick Tumminello’s Strength Training for Fat Loss does an excellent job of this and his workouts are fun.

Others use alternating sets of two exercises for a similar effect. Some people still just complete their sets with plenty of rest in between. I’ve had success using all of these approaches with clients. If you’re a seasoned lifter, you might need a more nuanced program, but most of the time, the biggest difference between weight lifting simply for strength and lifting for fat loss is in the diet.

5. Running will not make you fat. Every so often, the fitness pendulum swings with a published study, and everyone jumps on the bandwagon in hysterics. Doing endless cardio isn’t the most efficient means to fat loss. If you hate cardio, I’m here to tell you that you don’t need to go suffer on a treadmill for an hour.  Most people attempting an exercise program aimed at losing fat probably overdo the running around and getting sweaty and under-do (is that a word?) the strength training.


However, if you enjoy running, by all means, go run. It won’t kill your progress, and will give you some extra calorie burn to enhance your program.

6. Respect rest and move your body in ways that you enjoy. If you go balls to the wall every day, your efforts will backfire. You’ll lose enthusiasm, encounter injuries, and you’ll prevent recovery that enables you to get the most out of your training. Short, high-intensity workouts can be appropriate a few days a week if you’re already fairly fit. Lighter conditioning workouts are also a good choice. Check out one of my own here.

Regardless of what kind of movement you choose, you’re aiming to get some kind of activity, both for extra caloric burn and because it’s good for your health. These bouts of extra movement are just right for improving your fitness game without getting in the way of your recovery. Or go for a walk!

So in short, here’s what your game plan might look like:

1. Eat in a way that supports your goals. Calculating a modest rather than extreme caloric deficit is important. Tracking at first is helpful, but not the only way to create habits that foster weight loss. 
2. Lift the things 2-4 days a week.
3. On your off days from lifting, move your body in a way that feels good but doesn’t leave you too exhausted to approach your weight training with gusto.
4. Rinse and repeat.
5. Keep your head screwed on straight. Fat loss can really mess with your head. It takes time and tinkering.
6. Remember that fat loss can bring you health, or aesthetic changes you might welcome. It does not, however, define your worth as a person. Keep your efforts in line with the overall task of having a life. ♥

This outline is just that; an outline, an example of what often works. The path to weight loss is different for everyone, but these truths might help you create your own winning strategy. Look for more articles soon on some of the strategies mentioned here.

Have more questions or strategies of your own that work well for you? Leave a comment below!

The nuts and bolts are the easy part. Motivation and support can be another. Looking for a coach to design a program and help you on the journey?  Apply here!

School’s Out For Summer: A Playground Workout For When The Kids Are Home

Photo by

Photo by

We’re in week 1 of summer vacation and already my schedule has been blown to smithereens. With school-aged kids, I have  found my groove during the school year. I go to work, find time to get chores done in the early mornings or evenings, and pick up my crazy train of boys at 3:45 every afternoon. Until this week: enter summer vacation.

We decided to juggle schedules so that either my husband, me, or my mom could be home with the kids all summer. I love seeing my little guys more frequently. We’re playing board games, going to the pool, the zoo, and also digging out long forgotten toys. But some of our regular tasks have become trickier to accomplish. For many parents, that includes getting exercise.

I miss the days when my boys were all small enough to be pushed around in the stroller. They’re roughly 17 months apart, so we had only a brief window of time when all three kids would happily ride along. Soon enough they began to squawk at their rolling prison and demand to be allowed to walk, only to either run off or roll around on the ground. Bye bye, stroller walking.

You had one job, kid. Ride. Just ride. Photo credit: Bari Bookout

You had one job, kid. Ride. Just ride. Photo credit: Bari Bookout

Enter the playground workout – parents of young kids can all appreciate the beauty of taking the kids to the park. Kids can run and climb all their crazy out. Sometimes my friends and I sit and chat while they play. But if you’re pressed to find time to get moving, the playground is a pretty damn good gym in the summer time. Especially if you’re up for a little play too. Read on:

Fitness + Funness (is that a word?)
I got creative and designed a strength workout in my back yard while my kids played.  What I forgot, however, was that kids rarely give you 20 minutes of uninterrupted time to exercise. Duh! As if!

Pay attention to meeeee.

Pay attention to meeeee.

So if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Play is important for adults too – it helps us beat stress, connect to others, and stay sharp.  Annie Brees and I even created a program here in Des Moines called Recess for adult playground games.

I created this workout as a “meet in the middle”solution for getting some strength and conditioning work in while having fun in the yard or playground. Play is a fantastic way to bond with our kids, even if sometimes you wish they’d give you 10 minutes to get stuff done, or just go to the bathroom in peace.  Take short bursts of time to run around and move with them, and they’ll likely let you sneak in some sets of strength moves too. If they’re old enough, they can join in too.

The Work Hard Play Hard Workout:
3-4 rounds of the following, or as many as you can do with you kids cooperating:

1. As many reps of pullups/negative pullups (start at the top and slowly lower) as you can do from monkey bars…



10-12 suspension rows with a swing


2. 1 round of freeze tag.

3. 8-10 Bulgarian Split squats per leg, using a step or bench for rear leg.

Put your front foot around 3 feet in front of your bench, and your back foot elevated  on the bench. Slowly lower your rear knee toward the floor. It's okay to lean forward a bit on these to focus on your booty.

Put your front foot around 3 feet in front of your bench, and your back foot elevated on the bench. Slowly lower your rear knee toward the floor. It’s okay to lean forward a bit on these to focus on your booty.

4. Handstand/cartwheel/somersault showdown. Warning: somersaults are a lot more uncomfortable when you’re 40 years old. Good God.

henry handstand

5. As many pushups as you can do with good form. Use a bench or stair if it’s too hard to go from the ground.


6. 5 minutes of kickball, soccer, or playing catch.


7. 10 Leg curls using the swing.

Put your heels on the seat of the swing. Lift your hips and bring your heels toward your butt.

Put your heels on the seat of the swing. Lift your hips and bring your heels toward your butt. Try to keep your hips up high for the whole set.

8. Red Light Green Light – sprint, crawl, or shuffle your way to victory.

Finally, after the workout, play a round of hide and go seek. Find a really good hiding spot. Bring a good book, and maybe you’ll get a few minutes of quiet. Seriously though, when I take a little time to play with my kids for even a little while, they burn off their crazy, fight less, and then chill out so I can get some work done. Plus we have a good time together. Go play!

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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.

6 Tips for Conquering Your Fear of the Weight Room


Are you a weight room avoider? Does the area of your gym with the dumbbells, squat rack, and mysterious pieces of equipment scare the hell out of you?

As it turns out, a lot of women (and men) are pretty bored hanging out on the elliptical or the treadmill (the dreadmill, if you ask me).  If going to the gym meant having to do those things, I’d still be sitting on my sofa.  Having options for staying fit is important. More people than ever are getting the message that lifting weights is great for  losing weight, developing stronger bones, gaining more muscle,  and feeling like a badass.

But for people who are new to lifting heavy things, the weight room can be really intimidating. So many people have told me that they want to start lifting weights but that they’re too uncomfortable to venture into new territory.  However, if you go in armed with a little knowledge and reassurance, it’ll be easier to take the plunge. You might even find that it wasn’t so scary after all.  Let’s tackle the biggest obstacles people encounter:

  1. The Equipment.
    Even after I started using the weight room, there were machines that I had no idea how to use. That’s okay! You don’t need to know how to use every single thing in there. When you begin strength training, you really only need to do a few key movements each session. Many gyms offer equipment orientation. If you see staff wandering around, nab them and ask them how to use something if you’d like to know what it does. It’s okay to ask another gym member too. Over time, I got to know the regulars and could feel out who was friendly and open to being a helper.


2. The Workout.

“I just wander around, having no idea what to do next.” This is the biggest complaint I hear. Having a plan is really helpful, but knowing how to create a strength plan is overwhelming to most beginners. Here are a few good options:

  • Follow a plan from a book or online guide that’s aimed at beginners. The structure of the routine takes one more stressor out of the equation and you’ll be more likely to find some success. Stick with it for at least 6 weeks to give yourself time to see progress. Some of my favorite sources are the plans by Nia Shanks or books like the New Rules of Lifting series, Strong Lifts 5×5, and Strength Training for Fat Loss. You can look them over and decide what plan best fits your goals. Bring your plan or book with you to the gym to record your progress and have a guide to help you remember your exercises.
  • Hire a trainer to show you how to perform basic movements, create a program for you, and follow up. Some people want to work out with a personal trainer for reasons like accountability or motivation. They can also help you create a plan designed for your specific needs and then check back in periodically to fine tune your exercises.
  • Take a small group training class. Many gyms now offer small group strength training. You’ll get some individual attention, learn to safely lift weights, and depending on how the class is structured, learn to use the equipment commonly used in the weight room.

3.  The Bros.
For women especially, a weight room full of jacked dudes can be off putting. Thankfully, I see this shifting. At the YMCA in my town, I noticed a huge shift over time in the demographics of the weight room. At times, the space was filled with more  women than men. Certain times of day are less crowded than others, so starting at a time where there’s little commotion might feel good.

Bros gettin' swole.

Bros gettin’ swole.

Remember that the space belongs to you as much as anyone else. I also found that some of those guys we call “bros” are the most helpful people in the gym. They’re passionate about strength training and happy to answer questions. They love to talk about lifting. The best gyms have a strong sense of community, and you should be made to feel welcome. If you get bad vibes after settling in,  consider finding a more welcoming place to join. Gyms have their own particular cultures, and it’s okay to shop around for one that embraces all kinds of people.

4. The Fear of Doing it Wrong 
Newsflash: at some point, we all do something wrong, even those of us who have been in the weight room awhile.  Even weight training veterans are improving their technique. Everyone started where you’re starting, and unless they’re an asshole, they will offer encouragement and some assistance if you’re really off base and doing something that’s potentially dangerous.

There are really only a few key rules of the weight room. Remember these and you’ll be golden:

  • Be courteous. Put your weights away after you use them.
  • Let people “work in”: i.e. if there are a few of you needing to use a piece of equipment, take turns with your sets if possible.
  • If you sweat all over the equipment, spray it down. Because yuck.
  • If you’re going to do a circuit and it’s busy, keep in mind that the equipment you want to use might be in use by others too, so be patient.

5. Everyone is looking at me! 
No, really, they’re not, unless you do what I did a few years ago and thwack yourself hard in the face with a band. (I’ve got a gift for doing dumb stuff like this!) Even then, a few people came over to make sure I was ok and went back to business as usual. Most people are focused on their own workouts and are tuned out with their headphones.

6. I’m not in good enough shape to be in the weight room.
Many feel that their current body isn’t worthy of being in the gym and that they’ll be judged. It’s possible that a few jerks may judge you, but it’s an exception not the rule. Hold your chin up high and own your space and right to use whatever you need to achieve your goals. The vast majority of gym goers are decent human beings. They’ll be mentally high-fiving everyone else who made it to the gym that day to get some work done.

The weight room is for every kind of body. The last three gyms I visited this year were filled with all the sizes and shapes. If the image you have in your head of a weight room is filled only with jacked and tan gods and goddesses that you find on Instagram, think again. Most weight rooms are filled with the same mix of peeps you see everywhere else.

If you’ve been on the fence about using the weight room, I hope these tips prepared you to dive in. You can do it! Did I miss something that’s still holding you back?  If you got over your own fear of the weight room, what helped you?  Let’s chat about it – leave a comment below.

What Fit is the Best Fit for Beginners? Here’s the Truth.


What workout should you do to get into shape? What’s the BEST way to burn fat/get strong/become a ninja? Have you asked yourself this? Chances are, if you did, you dug around a little bit. You read some magazine articles. You saw blurbs on Facebook. You asked your friend, who might have raved about her own workout.

It’s likely that when we ask this question that the answers will be all over the place. The answers usually don’t have the most important piece of the equation: you.

Here’s the thing: yes, there are more optimal ways and less optimal ways to go about burning fat if you’re talking about the very most efficient way to go about that task. The same goes for getting stronger or faster. But we get so bound up in the variables of fitness that sometimes we never start. That can also lead us to take on someone else’s vision of what a workout program looks like instead of allowing ourselves to find our own fit.

After I had my third son I was really out of shape. The task of moving again felt monumental. When I finally decided to do something about it and get into the weight room, I wasted weeks because I read way too many articles. Every resource I read had a different take on the best course of action. I had information paralysis, so I sat on my ass for even longer.

As a trainer, I now spend a lot of time in Facebook groups devoted to fitness and reading fitness-related articles. Fit pros often debate among ourselves the very best way to go about achieving an outcome, but we sometimes lose sight of something critical, particularly for beginners:

There are many ways to achieve an outcome. For someone new or returning to exercise, the truth is that any choice is a good choice, as long as you can do it safely. Beginners are lucky because they’re probably going to see some results just by doing something. It doesn’t really freaking matter what it is at first.

Find something, anything, that you enjoy. Or even something that you don’t completely hate. Go for a walk. Try a new class. Dance in your kitchen (I recommend Taylor Swift. You know you secretly love Shake it Off). Start with something smaller than you think you can handle. Seriously.

You know you want to shake it off. Just give in already.

Building the habit is the most important step at first. All those details will shake themselves out later, whether you want to get leaner, stronger,  faster or have more energy and zestiness. If that goal is to become a ninja , you might be on your own there. It’s past my pay grade.  🙂 Once you become a regular exerciser, then you can find the activities that might best suit your goals. But at first, any activity that you can commit to doing regularly is the best activity.

How did you start moving again? If you haven’t, what’s holding you back? Share below and let’s have a conversation!


Intuitive Training: How to Work with Your Body instead of Against It

The messages we hear in the fitness world often seem to tell us to ignore pain, fatigue, and discomfort. Certainly, a certain amount of mental fortitude is necessary to make fitness gains. The old adage “if it doesn’t challenge you it doesn’t change you” still rings true to me. Yet, in our current fitness culture that seems to glorify extreme workouts, puddles of sweat, and exhaustion, we’re missing the mark. The goal is not to make ourselves tired: it’s to make ourselves better.

If we want to improve our fitness, we would do well to look at how athletes train: not to copy their routines, which are very specific to their needs. Rather, taking a look at what keeps athletes performing well while keeping injuries at bay will give us insights that can make fitness training more productive and enjoyable for everyone, regardless of recreational activities and fitness goals.

The thing that strikes me about sport training is that an athlete’s strength coach wants to create the least amount of stress necessary on the body while still producing the greatest performance impact. Injury prevention is paramount. Every workout has a purpose: to make the athlete better. Another related concept in athletics is something called auto-regulation.

Coaches employ techniques with their athletes that help them tune in to what their bodies are telling them. Athletes are much more likely to train intuitively than the average fitness enthusiast. When a recreational Crossfitter (ok, not fair to pick on Crossfitters. Simmer down, it’s just an example) might have a night of lousy sleep and feel awful during a workout the next day, they’re much more likely to hammer through it than ease back and let their bodies tell them what they can handle. Meanwhile, using tools like HRV units, Tendo units, and biofeedback techniques, an athlete will sometimes purposefully work with a lighter effort during a training session.

University of Minnesota strength coach Cal Dietz, author of Triphasic Training, employs what he terms “biometrics”, an auto-regulatory protocol derived from  cybernetic periodization. It is a system that harkens back to the Soviets. 1

If you read the giant opus Supertraining, you can learn more about cybernetic periodization. If you’re like most of us and are not up for that, just know that in essence, on days when you feel really good you train harder. On days when you feel not so good, you don’t train as hard.

These ideas appeal to me, especially as I grow older and my body is less forgiving of the days where I push too hard.. I stink at listening to my body and instead of my war chest being filled with trophies, it’s filled with stories of hip surgery, shoulder pain, and way too much physical therapy to boot. I’m not a pro athlete, but I am passionate about strength training and I want to get better. When I learned about the intuitive training going on at The Movement Minneapolis, a Twin Cities gym highlighted for its innovation recently, my interest piqued. Auto-regulatory principles work well for athletes, though sometimes complicated and expensive devices are employed. Hearing about a gym that makes intuitive training widely accessible piqued my interest. Of course I had to check it out myself.

David Dellanave founded the gym and has been a driving force in exposing more people to biofeedback principles in athletic training. I’d been following the writing of Dellanave and his wife, trainer Jen Sinkler. Fellow trainer and friend Annie Brees was also curious and excited to go learn and so we ventured northward to Minneapolis to work with Sinkler and Movement strength coach Jennifer Vogelgesang Blake. What we learned really enlightened my philosophy about much of what I do for my own training as well as for my clients.

When I first heard about biofeedback, I’ll admit it sounded a little like mysterious, crazy juju to me. I’m a skeptic at heart. I wondered how a toe-touch test could possibly guide my training. It’s a lot more complicated than that… except it’s not. Biofeedback is surprisingly simple to implement into training. It can be done with lifting weights at the gym or even for a runner outside.

Much of the practice utilized in biofeedback protocols that Sinkler and Blake use come from Frankie Faires. Faires and Dellanave have both written extensively on the theory and practice of auto-regulatory training and how biofeedback fits into that paradigm. You can find more links at the end of this article if you want to dive in and learn how to specifically implement it into your own training plan.

What is Biofeedback?
Biofeedback is really about paying attention to the responses that your body gives you. According to Faires, “Better is not a stimulus. Better is a response”. 2 Every person responds differently to stimuli. By paying attention to how your body responds to a particular movement, you can more effectively guide your training.

Annie and I began with a short warmup and decided to work on deadlifts. We then performed a toe touch to establish a baseline of our range of motion (ROM). We reached toward our toes only until we began to feel tension. That tension is an indication of the Golgi Tendon Organ response. That’s a natural process of inhibition within our nervous system that tells our musculatory system to basically turn on the brakes. Why? Because if we didn’t have brakes, at some point we’d break ourselves. Our bodies are pretty good at self-preservation.

We then performed the movement pattern of a conventional deadlift, then retested our ROM. We paid attention to how the movement looked and felt and compared our ROM to our baseline. We then repeated the process for a sumo deadlift and a Jefferson deadlift. Based on the feedback from our nervous system we were able to choose the movement that would, according to the theory behind biofeedback, produce the most productive training for us at that moment. That’s a key idea: on any given day, a particular movement may feel better or worse for our bodies.

It turned out that for me, a sumo deadlift pattern gave me the best response. A positive response is a better range of motion than the baseline. A negative response is essentially a red light. If every movement tested negative, that would be a strong indication that it might even be best to not train the movement that day. We both we had positive responses to multiple movements and yet each of us had a very clear first choice. Annie’s was the Jefferson deadlift. The Jefferson was a completely new variation for Annie. I hadn’t trained a sumo deadlift in over a year. With a bit of tweaking of my form from Blake, I performed a set. I retested my ROM. I was continuing to see a positive response. So I kept going. My sets felt solid and so I used that as my internal cue to keep adding weight.

Biofeedback is a form of auto-regulation, which I discussed above. The auto-regulatory component of our session is what felt so different to us. We’re accustomed to periodized training plans with prescribed sets and reps. Utilizing biofeedback protocols, you periodize yourself on a daily basis. It’s more flexible than even a traditional, non-linear periodization structure because you let your body decide how many reps you do: at The Movement, they use physiological responses such as breaking the rhythm by slowing down. Blake noted that trainees aim for “effortlessness” instead. David Dellanave corrected my original interpretation of “effortfulness”, explaining that the goal is to have the movement feel like it is without effort – the feeling of effort is your internal cue to stop. 

Blake and Sinkler acknowledged that those training for events like powerlifting competitions do implement more structured periodization. In group training classes, instructors may indicate that there are days when participants are told to aim heavier or lighter. In the class I observed I noticed that the women were primarily using their own responses to guide their choice of reps and weight.

Back on the Range
It has been a few months since our trip and I’ve implemented some intuitive techniques already. For my own training sessions, I found more confidence in approaching a set. The mental aspect of intuitive training seems to be heavily entwined with the physiological: having a choice in exercise selection brought me confidence and a more positive attitude toward my training. There may be something to the importance of choice in the mental component of training that contributes to the efficacy of biofeedback protocols. In a 2010 study of beginners in a weight training class, 3 participants followed either a non-linear periodized training program or a flexible non-linear periodized training program. The difference between the two programs was that the flexible group was allowed to choose which day they completed either a 10, 15, or 20 repetition workout. The group that was given greater freedom of choice in their training had improved outcomes on the leg press, though both groups had similar outcomes on the chest press and standing long jump. The idea of choice merits further investigation.

Most importantly, the intuitive training methods reminded me to respect my own body. I had a few days where my movements just felt awful this month. I probably would have powered through before and made the issue worse, but now I give myself permission to make more adjustments.

In my small group training sessions, I have shifted from always prescribing reps and sets to instructing clients to tune in to their own bodies for that sense of effortfulness. I ask them to pay attention to cues like their rhythm, the integrity of the movement, and how they feel. We still do conditioning finishers that use timed work-to-rest intervals. This shift has been really positive for a few reasons. First, even new exercisers feel successful. Class members who need a bit more nudging can get it, but I’ve found that most will squeeze in a few more reps if they feel good instead of just punching the clock and doing the rep count assigned. They’re paying more attention to their own body’s responses.

Learn More
Want to try intuitive training for yourself or learn more about the ideas behind it?
There are excellent resources to get going. Check them out below:

Are You The Movement: Online home of The Movement Minneapolis.
Using Biofeedback for Better
How to Test Range of Motion Using Biofeedback
Intuitive Training for Fitness
The Biofeedback Solution Faires’ guide

I still have much to learn about Biofeedback but I’m looking forward to more research emerging and further exploration into how we can employ intuitive practices. Many thanks to our gracious hosts, Jen Sinkler and Jennifer Vogelgesang Blake, thanks to David Dellanave for pointing me in the right direction to learn more about Biofeedback, and to Annie Brees, who is always up for fitness adventures.


  1. Dietz, Cal. “An Interview with University of Minnesota Strength Coach Cal Dietz”. Interview by Jeff Angus. Angus Certified. N.p., 27 Feb. 2013. Web. 27 Mar. 2015.
  2. Faires, Frankie. “The Biofeedback Solution.” 2014. PDF file.
  3. McNamara, John M; Stearne, David J, “Flexible Nonlinear Periodization in a Beginner Strength Training Class”, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research Vol. 24 (2010): pp 2012-2017.

Keeping it Real


I’ve made a lot of progress lately in the gym. After a summer on the bike, I hunkered down into my own strength training plan and have been reveling in being inside the gym. My strength gains have been consistently improving, and most days I feel energized and strong. I’ve seen some really dramatic changes in my body, which I’ve come to love as little reminders that my muscles are working and growing. After a few years of being sidelined here and there by injury, I feel like I’ve found my groove. I even took a selfie – in the fitness world, that’s de rigeur, right? But for me, it was huge. For years I avoided taking pictures of myself.

Seeing my photos always provoked a huge amount of anxiety and self loathing. It didn’t matter if I was overweight, which I was several times throughout my life, or really lean. I yo-yo’d back and forth, all the while looking at my body as something to be fixed. Something that wasn’t good enough.

In fact, when I started creating this site last summer, I had my good friend Yana take my photographs and could barely bring myself to use them.  She captures some of the most gorgeous images I’ve ever seen, and I could always see the beauty in every person whose photo she snapped. Except my own. Despite the beautiful quality of the pictures, I could only see the flaws. I wasn’t fit enough. What the hell does that even mean?

In a moment of panic, I asked her to have them photo-shopped. I moped. I buried my head in the sand. And then when they arrived, I moped some more, because they felt strange. They weren’t me. I looked slimmer, but those weren’t my arms. My arms are bulky. Because they house my biceps. Biceps that are getting pretty damn strong. I’d enjoy a little less body fat. I don’t even know why. But at some point I realized how silly it was to hide. The disordered thinking subsided and I scrapped the edited photo. Here they are, side by side.


Yana’s beautiful work made everything way more gorgeous of course. I’d keep the lighting. It’s so pretty! Here’s the original, without any editing.


What I want for this site is for it to be a place where we work on our fitness in a way that is positive. Fitness is a tremendous vehicle for transforming not only our bodies but also our thoughts. Strength training gave me a confidence and determination that carry over to every other area of my life. At the same time, I want to communicate a message that also affirms that we are fundamentally enough. All bodies are good bodies. As I learned from people like Nia Shanks, when we focus more on what our bodies can do and less on what they look like, we can get out of our own way and really make progress on feeling good.

So the challenge with fitness for me, and I suspect for many others, has been to find that peace. It’s a balance, or rather a healthy spot that allows us to utilize fitness in a way that enhances our lives. It requires discovering the habits that will really make us feel good inside and developing a path for practicing them.  The goals are great but the path that leads to them is greater. Let’s recognize the amazing in ourselves and let that lead the way. Good things are ahead.