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The Importance of Strength Training with Sal Di Stefano


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Exercise is right at the top of the list, along with diet and sleep, when it comes to ancestral health behaviors that can transform your health. It can lower your blood pressure, improve fasting glucose levels, improve sleep, lower stress ... the list goes on and on. But what kind of exercise should you be doing to get those benefits? The fitness industry is full of myths, and much of the advice out there is just plain bad. Today, I talk with fitness expert Sal Di Stefano about strength training—why it is critical to include it in your fitness plan and how you can get started safely.

Revolution Health Radio podcast, Chris Kresser

In this episode we discuss:

  • How Sal’s interest in fitness and wellness evolved
  • Optimizing health versus performance
  • The most important type of exercise to combat sedentary lifestyle
  • Why taking calcium alone won’t build stronger bones
  • A little resistance training goes a long way
  • Learning to enjoy the process
  • The cost of over-training
  • How to get started with strength training

Chris Kresser: Hey, everybody, it’s Chris. Welcome to another episode of Revolution Health Radio. This week, I’m happy to welcome Sal Di Stefano as a guest. I met Sal when I went on his podcast, the Mind Pump podcast, which is a fantastic fitness show. For anyone who’s interested in that, I highly recommend checking it out. He co-hosts it with a couple other guys, and they’re both hilarious and super knowledgeable about fitness, strength training and everything in that field. I definitely recommend listening to it if you’re interested in that.

I wanted Sal to come on this show to talk about the importance of strength training in a fitness program because I think that’s under-recognized, and it’s not something we’ve talked about a lot on this show or that I’ve written a lot about. And Sal has a lot of expertise in this area. He started strength training when he was just a teenager and was running gyms by the time he was 19. And by the time he was 22, he owned his own gym.

So, he’s been a personal trainer for 18 years, and he’s really good at cutting through all of the hype and misunderstanding that exist in the fitness industry. And if you’re in that industry or you followed it for any length of time, you know that it’s considerable. There is so much bad information out there in the fitness world, so much schlocky and sleazy marketing, and frankly, a lot of information that is dangerous and has led to people getting hurt or overtraining and causing a lot of health problems, and I see that all the time in my practice.

So, I wanted Sal to come on and set the record straight, to dispel some of the myths that you often hear about in terms of fitness and strength training, in particular, and then offer some helpful basic tips for people who want to get started with a fitness and strength training practice. So, let’s dive in and talk to Sal.

Chris: Okay. Sal, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show, thanks for joining us.

Sal Di Stefano: Yeah, I really appreciate you having me on your podcast. You’re one of the people that I looked up to years ago, when I first found some of your articles and blogs online, and you really get it when it comes to fitness and wellness. In your book Unconventional Medicine, you talked about allied professionals and I thought, that is such a good message because so many fitness professionals … We have so many different perspectives, and if we can work together, I think, we can solve a lot of the health problems that people have. I had a wellness studio for years, and in my facility I had a nutritionist, I had a physical therapist, I had personal trainers, I had an acupuncturist, I had a massage therapist. And then we worked with chiropractors and general physicians and surgeons that were in the area. And I did that on purpose because I found the more people we could work with and learn from, and the more resources I had where I could send clients, the more successful we were. And we were quite successful with that approach. I really appreciate what you’re doing, Chris, and some of the stuff you talk about.

Which type of exercise is best for weight loss? The answer might surprise you.

Chris: Yeah, that makes perfect sense, Sal. Your story is familiar in the sense that for so many of us, most of my listeners know my story and how I came to this, it started with some kind of health challenge. So tell us a little bit about how you came into this. We’re going to talk more about exercise and fitness and your approach to that because I’m really curious to pick your brain and learn from you and your experience, because it’s pretty vast in this field. But first, let’s talk a little bit about how you even came to do this work. I know that you had some … From our first conversation on your show, you had some health issues of your own.

How Sal’s Interest in Fitness and Wellness Evolved

Sal Di Stefano: I did. I started working out pretty consistently and just dived into the science of fitness at a really young age. I was 14 years old, and I have this personality where if I get into something, I tend to immerse myself in whatever it is I’m into. So I got into fitness, lifting weights in particular, a lot of the motivation was based on my insecurities. I was a skinny kid, growing up, I wasn’t very athletic, and weight training was, I thought, just magic. I could do this thing and change my body and there was a science behind it, and that’s how I started. And so I got into the fitness industry professionally at the age of 18 as a personal trainer. Very, very shortly after that I managed large health clubs and grand-opened gyms for 24 Hour Fitness. And I had teams working for me, and I would coach and train trainers on how they should train their clients. And I didn’t really dive into the wellness side of fitness until much later. I was doing personal training early on. Back in those days, you were either into building muscle and burning body fat or you were into wellness. It was two separate camps.

Chris: Right.

Sal Di Stefano: You had your kind of meditating yogi person who was into food quality and finding ways to mitigate stress, and then on the other side, you had your hardcore, workout-real-hard, burn-body-fat, look-real-good, all-we-care-about-is-aesthetic side, and they never crossed. Although you see a lot of that crossing now, it wasn’t like that back then. So a lot of my approach to fitness early on was very much that, that build-muscle, burn-body-fat model.

And wellness wasn’t something that I even considered until right around the age of 30, my body rebelled on me. All of a sudden, foods that I always could eat became an issue for me. I started having terrible symptoms, gut health issues, I was losing weight. I couldn’t assimilate anything, obviously, losing strength, losing weight, which was challenging me tremendously because I had identified so much with being this muscular, strong trainer and nothing … I thought I was eating healthy, my macros are in check, my calories are in check. I do my cardio, I do my weights, what is going on with my body? And luckily I had this wellness facility, with all these individuals that were working in there, and I had respected all of them, except, I kind of ignored that information for myself. This is very common with trainers, by the way, we tend to train our clients better than ourselves.

Chris: Absolutely … And doctors. [chuckle]

Sal Di Stefano: Same thing, right. There were these two young ladies that worked with me who were very much so on the wellness side and were studying things in regards to gut health. So this was maybe eight to 10 years ago, when it wasn’t super popular or common, and it was totally foreign to me. So out of desperation, I turned to these young ladies, and I said, “I need help, I don’t know what’s going on. I’ve gotten testing from my regular doctor, they can’t figure it out, they’re just giving me anti-diarrhea drugs, I don’t seem to have a parasite. I don’t know what’s happening here.” And I went through the process of doing an elimination diet, identifying food intolerances, changing my approach to supplementation. At the time, your muscle-building, fat-burning supplements, they were all artificially flavored, they were all super processed. None of them …

Chris: It’s like all about GNC, right? That sort of thing.

Sal Di Stefano: Yeah. Exactly, and I was a huge supplement consumer. And so I completely changed my approach, and it took about a year for me to fully heal, if you will. And I had a whole protocol with, again, avoiding food intolerances. I utilized intermittent fasting for the first time. Before that, I would eat six to eight meals a day, because I falsely believed, like many people still do, that eating every two hours is the ideal way to build muscle. It’s not, by the way, it’s totally false. But it also promotes, if you’re in the context of inflammation, it’s actually pro-inflammatory to constantly be feeding yourself. So I started doing fasting, I watched … I eliminated common food intolerances, I made sure I got adequate sleep. Because up until that point, I had pride in the fact that I could sleep for four hours and outwork anybody. I thought that was, like, a badge of honor. I did all that. I also utilized cannabinoids, in particular, cannabidiol, which is a non-psychoactive cannabinoid found in marijuana, for its anti-inflammatory effects. Up until that point, I was never really a cannabis consumer.

And I did this whole process for a year, completely changed my approach to fitness and health because I had experienced, now first-hand, what it really meant. And it really shaped me into who I am now, especially on my podcast with Mind Pump, where my approach now is very different. Much of the motivation behind fitness for a lot of people is based on a place of hating themselves, hating their bodies, hating the way they look. And that drives us to make decisions that aren’t necessarily the best ones to make for ourselves versus the standpoint of caring for myself. I love my body, I love myself, I want to take care of myself, and those decisions tend to be better decisions. And the best part about this, Chris, the irony of all of this is, I take my eye off of, or my focus off of the cosmetic and place it on health and taking care of myself. And the irony is, I looked better than I ever did before, as a side effect.

Optimizing Health versus Performance

Chris: Yeah. That makes perfect sense to us now, and looking back on this. But I’m so curious to hear more about this dichotomy that you mentioned earlier, that was probably more common earlier in fitness, where the idea was you’re either building muscle and maximizing performance or you’re focusing on health, not both at the same time.

Sal Di Stefano: Right. Right. And there’s a little bit of truth in that. If you do extreme, extreme fitness, you’re not optimal health. But most people just want to look good and feel good. And you don’t need … That message isn’t true for everybody.

Chris: Robb Wolf, you probably hear him talk about this, this triangle of performance, longevity, and health. And he says that you can’t completely optimize for one without sacrificing the others, at least a little bit. But that’s if you’re talking about maximizing to the fullest possible potential. For example, if you want to do everything you can to extend life span, then you’re going to … If you eat a caloristic diet, you’re going to be cold and miserable [chuckle] most of the time and not healthy. And then if you want to maximize for performance, like you just said, you’re probably going to make some sacrifices in both the longevity and the health category. But seems to me, and I know you agree, from what you said, that if you optimize for health on that triangle, the performance and the longevity may not be at the absolute maximum, but that’s the best way to get a balance on that triangle.

Sal Di Stefano: Absolutely. Because there’s … Of course, there’s how long you live, but there’s also the quality of life. And quality of life … I like to have a certain amount of strength and mobility and performance because it helps me enjoy my life. I also sometimes enjoy connecting with friends and family over a plate of lasagna and a glass of wine. That’s not optimal for my health, physical health, but it does optimize maybe my emotional and mental health. So it’s understanding this entire sphere that … The message we try to convey on the show. And there’s a lot you can learn from these different … I hate to call them camps, but from these different camps of longevity, health, or maximum performance, you can learn a lot from them. Again, most people don’t have the time to have to be extreme in any of them, they just want to have a good life, they want to look decent, they want to look fit. And really, health is the way to go. It’s the best way to go. It also places you in a position where you start to enjoy the process, which when it comes to training people … Most of my experiences in training people and training trainers, the success in fitness comes from understanding that fitness is not a destination, it’s not an end goal, it’s a process, a journey, if you will.

And when you learn to enjoy that process, it becomes something that you do always. It’s never a destination. It’s never, “My goal is to lose 30 pounds and once I’m there, I met my goal and I’m happy.” Because we all know what happens once you get to that goal. Why continue? Where is that motivation? Where is that drive to continue doing what you’re doing versus enjoying the process?

The Most Important Type of Exercise to Combat Sedentary Lifestyle

But like I was saying, there’s a lot you can learn from the fitness side. One of the things that I love to communicate, is that when we look at all forms of exercise, whether it’s yoga or cardiovascular training or structured-type of exercises like Pilates or classes like Orangetheory and resistance training, when you look at all of those forms of exercise, one of those forms of exercise is more valuable than the others.

Now all of them are very valuable and ideally you want to be well rounded. You want to do lots of different things, because that seems to be best for the body. But one of them in particular combats the Western lifestyle condition. If we look at the ailments that happen as a result of the Western lifestyle, it’s obesity, insulin resistance, mobility issues. I could take the average 30-year-old and they probably can’t even sit in a squat, which is a basic human function. We look at hormone issues. We look at, of course, all the things that come from lack of activity, overconsumption of food, and overconsumption of highly palatable food in particular. And one form of exercise combats all those directly better than any other, and that’s resistance training. And at the moment, the message that we’re getting from Western medicine, or even that’s being studied … You know when we study exercise, what form of exercise do they typically look at? Vigorous cardiovascular.

Chris: Cardio. Yeah, steady-state cardio training.

Sal Di Stefano: We don’t look at resistance training, which is terrible because all workouts produce different results, there’s different demands on the body, and they call for different adaptations. Cardiovascular activity, or just moving, has got its own health benefits, definitely. Definitely got health benefits. However, when we’re looking at the context of a lifestyle of general inactivity and overconsumption, what we want, is we want to find a way to get a person’s metabolic rate to be higher. So if you’re in the context of hunter–gatherer and food is scarce, you don’t necessarily want to have the fastest metabolism, because that’s not going to be good. Right? That’s not a good adaptation. But if you live in America and you’ve got food at every corner and you have a desk job, it’ll behoove you to amplify your metabolism. It’s going to help you deal with regular life. It’s going to increase insulin sensitivity, because we know muscle utilizes a lot of glycogen, a lot of that sugar that you may consume, or whatever your body produces. And we know that it speeds up your metabolism.

It’s a different adaptation. Cardiovascular activity actually in some ways does the opposite. When you’re doing lots of cardio, you are burning calories manually during that cardiovascular activity, but what you’re also doing is you’re asking your body to adapt to become more efficient with its calorie burn. You’re literally telling the body, “We’re burning lots of calories manually because of all this activity. You need to become more efficient with how many calories you burn.” And we see this. We see over time that cardio produces—especially if you do a lot of it on a consistent basis, it actually, you’ll lower the rate of calories that you burn during activity because your body just gets good at it. Which by the way, your body evolved to do that. So it’s a good thing. It’s not a bad thing. It’s a good thing. And your body will actually slow itself down and burn less calories at rest. There’s some interesting studies that have been done on modern hunter–gatherers. I can’t remember the name of the tribe that they studied. I think it was … H-A-D-Z-A. I believe that was the name of the tribe, Hadza.

Chris: Hadza, Hadza, yeah.

Sal Di Stefano: They did some interesting studies on them and they found that they weren’t burning that many more calories than the average person in Western societies, even though they were way, way more active. But if you think in the context of evolution, it makes sense. The body learns to become efficient with food, especially if it’s scarce. Resistance training does the opposite. Resistance training, weight training, and proper weight training, by the way … I want to be clear, you can definitely work out with weights wrong, and there’s a right way to do it.

Chris: We’re going to come back to that. I’d love to talk more about that.

Sal Di Stefano: Absolutely. But if you do proper resistance training, the adaptation that you’re asking of the body, the prioritized adaptation, is improved strength. Now in order for your body to get stronger, there’s two main things that are happening, maybe three main things that are happening with the body. One is central nervous system adaptation. So this is where the central nervous system is firing your muscles more effectively. It’s creating a favorable recruitment pattern. So if I do a barbell squat, and I get good at a barbell squat, I’m going to get stronger because I’m getting good at the barbell squat. So that’s your central nervous system kind of adaptation. The other thing that happens is muscle fibers actually hypertrophy, or they grow. Larger muscle fibers contract harder and produce more force. This is not a shocking theory. This is something we’ve known for a very, very long time. And larger muscles consume more energy. They require more glycogen. They burn more calories. So lifting weights, the primary adaptation is getting stronger. The side effect of that is a metabolism that burns more calories.

And when you place that in the context of typical Western lifestyle, that’s the perfect thing. That’s what you kind of want. Because again, we have food that’s super plentiful. We don’t move that much, as our normal life doesn’t require that we move that much. So if we could get everybody’s metabolism to burn 500 more calories a day, it doesn’t sound like much, but believe me, it adds up, you’re going to directly counter a lot of the problems that we have with our lifestyle. And then as far as mobility is concerned, lack of mobility is just a lack of control and strength. And proper resistance training provides that.

As we age, which again, if we look at healthcare costs, they explode after … I think after the age of 50 or 60 is when it really starts to take off. A lot of that is, we have health issues. A lot of is like, “I hurt my knee,” or, “I broke my hip.” And you look at the expense of that, it’s all a lack of mobility which then causes other problems. You get people lifting weights in advanced age and they’re independent for longer, they don’t hurt themselves. And if they do, they recover much faster. And it’s unfortunate that the moment resistance training is relegated to the meatheads and nobody’s talking about it … That is the way everybody should … We should push that more than anything. The good news with that though, I’ll tell you what, you don’t need to do a lot of it. Two days a week of good resistance training, for the average person, you’ll get plenty out of that.

Chris: Yeah. I’m constantly talking to everybody, but especially my patients who are approaching older age because there’s a saying in medicine, “Break your hip, die of pneumonia.” Osteoporosis is a major cause, indirect cause of death for that reason. People break the hip or a bone, and then they end up being prone in the hospital, they develop a hospital-acquired infection, and they can die. So it’s a very serious problem that goes beyond just what we’re talking about now, which is overall health and strength and metabolic health, reducing the prevalence of diabetes and obesity. It can actually save your life to have stronger bones and muscles.

Why Taking Calcium Alone Won’t Build Stronger Bones

Sal Di Stefano: And it’s terrible, our approach to osteopenia and osteoporosis, our approach is “Hey …” It used to be, “Hey, take more calcium,” because …

Chris: Yeah, which is wrong.

Sal Di Stefano: That’s the building block of bone. It would be no different … Literally Chris, it’s no different than me saying to somebody, “Oh, you need more muscle. Let’s just increase your protein intake,” without sending a signal to build more muscle, just take more protein. It’s not going to build muscle. Same thing with the calcium. So that was stupid. We all know that there’s some potential negative side-effects of that. And then the other approach is medications that in many way are immunosuppressive, trying to fight osteoporosis like that. When the answer is simple, very, very simple. You build bone the same way you build muscle. You send a signal to the body that tells it, “We need stronger bones.” A lot of this comes through sheer force being applied on bone, which is lifting weights. Like just lift weights and watch what happens. I’ve had countless clients that would come to me … My old wellness facility was next to a hospital.

And at one point, I was training probably up to 13 or 15 physicians and clients who were surgeons in that field, and they would start sending me a lot of their patients who are in advanced age, and many of which were either osteopenia or osteoporosis. And the change and the reversal, or being able to stop that process of bone loss and then reverse it, they were always shocked at how effective resistance training was. But it wasn’t shocking to me. I could see their strength go up in the gym. Of course, it’s not, 70-year-olds aren’t squatting 300 pounds, but if I have a 70-year-old who could barely stand up out of a chair without assistance, all of a sudden be able to do 10, just body weight standing squats, that increase in strength, that tensile tension that now is being created on the bone, is going to send a signal to the body saying, “Hey, get the bone stronger.” And it was obvious to me, and everybody was always shocked at how crazy the results were in that regard.

A Little Resistance Training Goes a Long Way

Chris: Yeah. I agree with you that there needs to be a lot more attention paid to this because it’s really missing from the dialogue about exercise. And it’s amazing how little that dialogue has changed in the past, really, half century. [chuckle]

They’ve been talking about the importance of cardio exercise for the last 50 years, and I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. But I think we’ve learned a lot in that interim period in terms of what can really make a difference. And certainly the idea that you have to go on a treadmill or go outside and jog for an hour, five times a week to be healthier, that that’s even a good idea for most people has pretty thoroughly been debunked. And yet, that is still, I think, what most people think of when they think of exercise. If you ask someone “Are you exercising?” [chuckle] That’s what comes to mind. And I think a lot of people, the … One of the biggest issues with it, is that a lot of people who are sedentary are not exercising because that’s what they think they have to do, in order to get the benefits of exercise. And so instead of doing that, they just do nothing. Whereas if they understood that they could do some … That shifting from being sedentary to doing more non-exercise physical activity, like standing and walking and bicycling to work, and then adding some strength training even just three days a week, could make a huge difference in their health and longevity, I think a lot more people would actually make that switch.

Sal Di Stefano: Oh, resistance training first and foremost, will change your body cosmetically faster than anything. So if you want to change how you look … And I know that motivates people and so I want to make that point, if you want to change how you look and shape your body, nothing will do that like resistance training.

And the second point I want to make with resistance training, is that if you do it properly (and it’s very individualizable, of course, when it comes to resistance, whether it’s weights or cables, machines, bands, or body weight, I can modify it and individualize it for anybody.. other forms of exercise aren’t nearly as adjustable as resistance training) it balances out the hormones. If I have a client who’s coming to me with symptoms of HPA axis dysfunction or fatigue or whatever, having them do a ton of a cardio is not a good idea. It many times will do the opposite. If you have a guy with low testosterone, symptoms of low testosterone, nothing is going to raise the testosterone like traditional resistance training. Now if I have him do tons and tons and tons of cardio, I may actually start to do the opposite and start to depress those anabolic hormones through the process. Resistance training balances out growth hormone, testosterone. In women it’s been shown to have favorable effects on estrogen, progesterone. It’s a very, very good way to move the body in the context of, like I said, Western lifestyle.

Learning to Enjoy the Process

I had a paradigm shift recently, that I quickly was able to make the connection to fitness. So bear with me as I tell the story. I promise it’s all related. So my girlfriend, she’s very much into decorating for the holidays. Huge fan of it. She gets the napkins, the Christmas napkins and the soap containers. The house is just … It looks like …

Chris: Do you guys have like the full light show going on outside the house too?

Sal Di Stefano: No. No, because that would be my job and I’m not super into it.

Chris: Right. [laughter] It’s indoor decorations. Got it.

Sal Di Stefano: Like Rudolph exploded in my house. But anyway, she’s super into it and she says, “Hey I want to go cut down a tree this weekend. We can take the kids and do the whole thing.” And to me, I’ve always viewed decorating as … It’s cool but it really takes a long time just to get the end result, which is a tree with decorations on it. So my mentality around the whole thing was, “The reason why we’re doing this is so that we can have a tree with decorations on it.” So I’m talking about this and she says, “No, you idiot.” She says, “It’s not about having a tree with decorations. It’s the process. It’s going, driving up to the place with the kids, listening to Christmas music, it’s getting out of the car, cutting the tree down, drinking hot cocoa, putting the tree on the car, driving back down, decorating it together.”

And a light bulb went off in my head. It was a paradigm shift, and all of a sudden, I was really looking forward to it because it wasn’t about the end result. It was about the process.

And I think part of the problem with fitness today, and the reason why most people or a lot of people don’t have a fitness routine, if you will, as part of their life is because we’re constantly bombarded and marketed to with “end result.” “Lose 30 pounds.” “Lose 20 pounds.” “Look like this.” “Before and after.” It’s all about … I used to have clients that I would work with, and they would motivate themselves by signing up for marathons. Like if they didn’t have a marathon schedule, then they wouldn’t work out. They had to have that thing scheduled. And of course, after the marathon, they’d lose this huge motivation. They wouldn’t want to work out, or wouldn’t want to run anymore until they sign up for the next one.

And really it’s about learning to enjoy the process of exercise. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t enjoy taking time for themselves. When they’re doing something they enjoy, that they take some time … And I don’t care how busy you are, especially if you’re busy. Especially if you have kids and you feel like you’re just frazzled because you have no time, because you’re spread so thin. Sometimes taking 20, 30 minutes to yourself, I mean it feels so good, like everybody wants to do that. That’s how you should approach fitness. And I know I’m talking a lot about resistance training, but really at the end of the day, anything done consistently is going to be better than even the best program done inconsistently.

If you like something, do it. And do it because you’re enjoying it at the time that you’re doing it. What you’ll find is, you will become consistent. It’s no longer about achieving a particular goal. It’s all about, “Oh, I can’t wait till later today. I have 30 minutes to myself to go on a hike, or I can go workout in the gym, put my headphones on, listen to my favorite podcast, listen to my favorite music, and just enjoy myself for about 30 minutes.” And on the flip side of that, it makes you a more effective human being in everything else. You end up becoming more productive. It’s that whole paradigm-shattering thing where … When I first learned how to meditate, it was so hard for me to meditate because it felt like 30 minutes of wasted time. “I’m going to sit here and do nothing for 30 minutes. I have all these things to do.” [chuckle]

But then when I started applying it, I found that that 30 minutes of meditation turned into an extra hour of productivity throughout the day. At that point … In marketing, they call it “trading dimes for quarters.” I was like, “Wow. Okay, so if I’m doing 30 minutes of meditation and I’m far more productive throughout the day, it’s not wasted time at all. This is helping everything.” The same is true for a structured kind of fitness routine. You don’t need to do a ton of it. You don’t have to be a super athlete or Mr. Olympia. A few days a week of structured resistance training and increasing your daily activity through small things, like you said, standing and walking a little further, or whatever, and you’re set. But learn to enjoy the process, and you’ll never have to worry about this I’m-on-the-wagon-off-the-wagon thing. Start to realize there’s no wagon. It’s just the way I live.

The Cost of Over-Training

Chris: Yeah. Let’s talk about the flip side of that and tie it to something you said at the beginning of the conversation, about the historical focus on just building muscle at the expense of everything else, and then maybe the more recent analogue of that, which is perhaps the traditional CrossFit-style training, where people are doing WODs five days a week. What are some of the mistakes that maybe you made earlier on, and then you still see people making in terms of fitness training, particularly on the end of the scale of people doing too much? Because we’ve been talking … Obviously, nationwide, [chuckle] the bigger problem is doing too little, we know that. But within the population of people that listen to these kind of shows, my show and your show, we also have the other problem.

Sal Di Stefano: Right, right. Say it’s the same thing, it’s still not listening to your body. What we need to understand is that exercise itself … If we didn’t know anything about exercise, and we had a bunch of scientists, and we said, “Okay we’re going to have this person lift these heavy objects for 45 minutes at a particular type of intensity and then we want you to monitor inflammatory markers, we want you to monitor the hormones, we want you to monitor markers of damage or whatever,” at the end of that test, the scientists would all conclusively agree that exercising is damaging to the body and horrible, and we should never do it. [chuckle]

Exercise itself is not doing … What it’s doing is, it’s sending a signal to your body to adapt, that’s it. All you want to do with your workout is send the right signal. If you send the wrong signal, then you’re not going to get the most out of your workout routine. And the wrong signal can also be, and many times is, too much, especially in regards to intensity. There’s many factors that you look at, when you’re looking at a workout routine. You have your volume, so that’s your total work load or how long you work out. You have the frequency, or how often you exercise. And you have the intensity, how hard you exercise. And the one that is glorified the most is intensity. Partially because it really serves the “I hate my body” mentality very, very well.

If I ate a cheeseburger and a burrito yesterday and I’m feeling terrible about myself, I’m going to go to the gym and beat myself up. I’m going to go in and punish myself for making those “bad decisions” yesterday. Or if I don’t like the way I look and I hate my body, well, I’m going to beat myself up today in the gym and I need to feel really sore, and I need to sweat like crazy, and I need to crawl out of the gym, and then I’ll be satisfied because I think I’ve accomplished a lot. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you send the right signal, your body will change. Sometimes you need to have a certain amount of intensity, actually many times. But that intensity needs to be appropriate based on your … Many factors, your current state, so how did you sleep last night, your current nutrition, did you work out yesterday, and your genetic ability for recovery, and your current state of fitness.

If I use a different example of adaptation, if I use the signal that the sun sends the body to darken the skin, if I go outside and I expose my skin to UV rays, those UV rays are slightly damaging. My body receives that signal and it aims to adapt to that by darkening my skin so that next time the same insult doesn’t produce the same damage. So if I want to get darker, I have to expose myself to longer amounts of sun or stronger amounts of UV rays to get a further adaptation. Same thing happens with the body with exercise. If you’ve been living in a basement for your entire life and you’re as pale as an Irish ghost, [chuckle] then three minutes of sun exposure is going to elicit some change in your body. If I go outside and decide I want to get a tan this second, and I’m going to go out there and I’m going bake myself for the next hour, I’m not going to get a tan, I’m just going to get a sunburn, I’m just going to cause too much damage. Same thing is true with exercise. If I go to the gym and I apply the right intensity, my body will adapt and change. If I go and I apply too much intensity, all my body cares about is recovery.

And this is a very important point to make that a lot of people need to hear. Recovery is not the same as adaptation. Now, many times they happen concurrently, many times they happen at the same time. So if I go to the gym and I cause some damage to my body through exercise, which is what exercise does, it’s why your body adapts. My body wants to recover from that damage, but then it also wants to adapt so that next time the same exercise, the same intensity, same workout, doesn’t produce the same damage. Now if I push it too hard, it just wants to heal. And many people get stuck in this trap where they go to the gym, they get really, really sore, they recover, they go back to the gym, they get really, really sore, they recover, but they’re the same, there’s no progress. They’re not getting any stronger, their body is not changing, they’re just basically getting a sunburn each time without any adaptations to their body.

So it’s important to understand that they are two separate things. And we know this now … Scientific study will show that post-resistance training, muscle protein synthesis, which is a marker of adaptation, muscle protein synthesis shows that there’s muscle-building going on, that that spikes at about between 24 and 72 hours post-exercise, and then it drops very quickly, regardless of recovery, regardless of how sore you are. So I could hammer my legs on Monday super, super hard, and I get this muscle-building signal that peaks on Wednesday or Tuesday and starts to drop very quickly, but I’m still sore and I’m still recovering. Now I can’t work out because I’m super sore, but I’ve missed the opportunity to send another muscle-building signal.

So too much intensity can cause that problem, not getting enough results. And of course, if you continue to push that, then you overcome your body’s ability to even recover, and you start to go backwards. You start to have this elevated cortisol response to exercise. Your body starts to become very efficient with calories, like it would with cardio, so you start to burn less calories. Your body starts to want to store body fat because it feels like it’s in a state that it needs to protect itself, and so body fat is one of those insurance plans that we tend to have, that we evolved to have. So it becomes very inefficient and ineffective, and now you’ve got somebody who’s working out like crazy, getting very little results, or at least they plateaued really hard and their body stopped responding, and then, where do they go from there? Like harder? It can’t go harder, so now what?

Chris: Right, right.

Sal Di Stefano: Your approach needs to be smart with exercise. The right intensity is the intensity that gets your body to adapt and change. Any more intensity is more than you need and will start to take away from your body’s ability to adapt.

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How to Get Started with Strength Training

Chris: I know some people listening to this might be a little overwhelmed, especially if they’re not familiar with a lot of stuff that we’ve been talking about. Again, I think one of the reasons that people don’t start exercising if they’re sedentary, is it’s just … There’s a lot of disagreement and lot of different options out there, and it can be all just too much. And so inertia is powerful and the easiest thing is just to keep not doing anything at all, and so that’s what happens. And as you know, I think we talked about when I came on the Mind Pump show, I’ve been really interested in behavior change, and studying evidence-based principles of behavior change, and how can we help people to shift their behavior. It’s not enough, we know now, just to tell people, “Eat healthy and exercise.” If it was, we wouldn’t be in the situation that we’re in now.

Sal Di Stefano: Absolutely.

Chris: It’s not an information problem, it’s a behavior change problem, right? And I know you know this from your experience working with people in this capacity. So I know that you have developed a number of online fitness programs as a way of addressing this, which I’d love to talk a little bit about because I think that kind of support is really important for people to be able to be successful and sticking with a program. Not everyone has access to a really good trainer in a local gym. Not everyone is able to find that, or even knows how to interview someone and make sure that they’re the real deal, and they know what they’re doing and are not going to hurt them. Let’s talk a little bit about the programs that you’ve created and who they’re designed for and how they help address this behavior change problem.

Sal Di Stefano: Absolutely. The first step, if you’re getting into resistance training, you’ll have a ton of experience doing it or you have no experience, is as a trainer, what I would do with a client is, step one is I would focus on correctional exercise. My goal is to produce favorable recruitment patterns in the muscle, so the muscles fire better. I want them to gain mobility so that they can get into a squat, so they can do a proper hip hinging movement, like a deadlift. So they can lift something overhead with full extension in their arms without having excessive arch in their back and they’ve got good, what’s called scapular retraction, where the shoulder blades can come back, because we see a lot of forward shoulder in today’s population. I’m going to focus on correctional exercise. That’s always the first step. We have a program that we designed specifically for that.

We have two of them. One is called MAPS Prime, and we designed it specifically because we understood that this was a huge missing piece in the fitness programming that’s out there. There’s a lot of workout programs out there, most of them, if not all of them, are designed to just get you to sweat and get you sore, because that’s what sells. They’re not super effective in terms of long-term results, but there’s almost nothing that you can find that’s going to help you correct imbalances with movement and gets your body to move better so that you can start doing the most effective exercises, like barbell squats and deadlifts and rows and overhead presses, and all these great movements that just yield the best results. Like, how do you get a person to get to be able to do those? And it was a difficult challenge for us to design something like that because we’re designing a program that is for the masses, and muscle imbalances and how people move is very individual.

I can have two people with completely different lifestyles—this person over here has an anterior pelvic tilt, this person has a posterior pelvic tilt. This person over here, when they do a squat, there’s too much knee extension. This person is not getting good hip extension, whatever. How do we design something that allows people to individualize what their correctional exercise routine is going to look like? So it was a difficult problem. Luckily, I work with two of the best trainers that I’ve ever encountered. And the three of us sat down and we were able to come up with what we call the compass test. And this covers three basic movements, that if you’re able to perform these well, with good control, good mobility, and according to how we describe it in the compass test … There’s different points you want to look at. Then that means that you probably get good function in this particular area of your body. And we came up with three movements, and what you do is, you do these three movements, you watch how we demonstrate it on the compass test, the videos in the program. You do these movements, and then based on how well or how bad you do these movements, those will direct you to exercises and workouts based on your individual body.

So now you have your correctional workout that is programmed and prescribed for your individual body. You take that workout and you go to the gym and you do them, you do these exercises. Many of these exercises involve no weights whatsoever, because they’re correctional. Some of them are body weights, some of them you can use bands, or like a broomstick for support or to give you feedback. And through following these movements you start to create better recruitment patterns. And from somebody who’s completely sedentary, super deconditioned, it can take anywhere between 30 and 90 days to get to the point where then they can progress to a more traditional workout-type program, which we also have, many of which that we offer.

We have MAPS Anabolic program, which is our foundational strength-building program. Then we have MAPS Performance, which is more for the athletic-minded people who want to be able to perform multiplanar movements and perform like a broad spectrum athlete. We have MAPS Aesthetic, which is advanced targeting more of the aesthetic-minded, maybe stage presentation-type individuals.

But MAPS Prime is a great place to start if you’re just getting into this. Now, if you’re already into working out; you know what you’re doing or you’ve been doing it for a while, then you can do the MAPS Anabolic, MAPS Performance, or MAPS Aesthetic. And the way we program these routines … And they come with videos and demos and blueprints, so it’s all spelled out for you. But the way we program these is really based on how a majority of people’s bodies are going to adapt and respond to exercise.

So the old … And we say “old” because finally the tide is starting to turn, but when we first came out with these programs, we were by ourselves and how we were preaching exercise. The old mentality with resistance training was to follow what’s called the body part split. These are routines where you go to the gym and today’s chest day, tomorrow’s legs, the next day’s back. And you isolate different areas of the body and then you do a lot of exercises for that one body part, or whatever. Working out with the split works fine if you’re a genetically gifted, anabolically enhanced bodybuilder. But for the average person, it’s nowhere near as effective as more of a full-body approach to training. Part of it’s because of that muscle protein synthesis signal that I talked about, where it spikes after about 24 to 72 hours, so you want to be able to work out the whole body again. You don’t have to wait a whole week before you hit that body part.

And the second thing is from a functional standpoint, isolating muscles does have a place when it comes to correctional exercise, but when it comes to being functional, it’s terrible. When you go lift something off the floor or when you’re moving furniture, or you’re doing somewhere around the house or whatever, you’re not …

Chris: Using your biceps.

Sal Di Stefano: Yeah, you’re not like, “Okay, biceps …”

Chris: “I’m going to curl this up.”

Sal Di Stefano: No, it’s the whole body working in unison, so it’s just much more functional. And so our programs are kind of based on that approach. We also use a style of periodization called phasing. So just for your listeners, quick description: phasing your workouts or periodizing your workouts means we’re going to focus on specific forms of adaptation for particular periods of time, and then we’re going to shift our focus to another type of adaptation. So here’s a real general basic example. For three weeks, we may have you focus on maximal strength. So this is where you’re going to train with very low repetitions. You’re training heavier movements, you’re taking longer rests in between sets and we’re trying to really get some good central nervous system adaptation. We’re trying to get stronger in these low-rep ranges for particular movements.

Then after doing that for a few weeks, because the body starts to adapt and … It’s really cool with strength training, the body is quite specific in how it adapts to strength training. So if I train in the five-rep range, I’ll get really good at five reps, but I won’t necessarily get super good at the 20-rep range. I’ll have a little bit of carryover, but not much. And the body will start to plateau as it starts to get used to a particular style of training, your body will stop responding. So what we’ll do with our programs is we phase them. So maybe for three weeks you’re focusing on that maximal strength, then the next three weeks we’re focusing in a little bit of a higher-rep range, more muscle hypertrophy; or we’re focusing on actually building muscle fibers and less on maximal strength. And then maybe we’ll focus on what is known as sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.

Sarcoplasm represents all of the non-muscle fiber structures within muscle. So glycogen, fluids, capillaries, everything that’s not a muscle fiber within your muscle, which incidentally makes up something like 70 percent of your actual muscle. And that’s a faster pace, it’s higher reps, you’re getting lots of blood to the muscle. You may notice or feel what’s called a pump, and you build more endurance. And so that yields a particular result. And cycling through different phases gets the body to continuously adapt, you get better results, your body responds better. Mentally, it’s more fun. You get to change up your workouts, you change the focus, whereas on… “This phase I’m trying to go a little faster with my workouts. This phase I’m trying to lift heavier and go slower. This phase I may be more controlled with my movements and trying to isolate certain parts of my body.” And so our programs are really designed … I mean they’re designed by personal trainers with 15 to 20 years of experience. That’s where integrity with the programming comes. It’s not about, “Hey, let’s sell this flashy workout that’s going to get people real sore.” It’s like, “Okay. Let’s do a program that’s going to actually work long term. That’s going to give people results and not hurt them and get their body to respond and get them healthy.” And that’s kind of what we did, but …

Chris: Yeah. That’s so key, and I love … I know you have a program, MAPS Anywhere, that’s also for people who don’t maybe have access to a gym or don’t have time to go to the gym several times a week. And that’s super important too, because I think that’s another obstacle for a lot of folks in terms of starting resistance training.

Sal Di Stefano: Oh, absolutely. Look, I work out at home. I have a garage and I have a real basic gym in my garage. And I love working out in there more than going anywhere else. It’s convenient, it’s right there. I’m on my own, nobody’s around me. I can play my own music. I can work out with my shirt off, or I don’t have to comb my hair or brush my teeth. I wake up and work out. [chuckle]

Chris: Yeah. I do the same thing.

Sal Di Stefano: Yeah. And I know a lot of people, specially if you’re busy or you have kids and literally you carve out 30 minutes, 30 to 40 minutes, if that’s all I have. Well, MAPS Anywhere, again, no equipment required. You pull up your program on your computer and you just do it right there in your living room, and again, we program that expertly like we do with the other program. So it’s actually effective, it’s not … Again, a lot of the at-home workouts are just terrible.

Chris: Yeah. Yeah.

Sal Di Stefano: They’re just pushing you to the limit. It’s high intensity, it’s all it is. And they aren’t very good long term. [chuckle]

Chris: Yeah. For me, I’m pretty hardcore about it, and if you want to listen to the show, it’s just about maintaining balance, spending time with my family and my meditation practice, doing the work that I need to do, having time to just chill and relax. Yeah, 30 or 40 minutes. And because we live way up in the Berkeley Hills, that is the time that it would take me to get to the gym and get back, and not do anything there. [chuckle] So working out at home, like you have a garage and some equipment, that’s … If I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t be doing it. So it makes a difference between doing it and not doing it. It’s hugely important.

Sal Di Stefano: “Hey, whatever fits your lifestyle.” That’s what I always tell people.

Chris: Absolutely. And that can change. There was a time, a few years ago, where I had more time and I was going to the gym and I liked that. And there probably will come a time again when I do that. But you gotta adapt your routine for what’s going on in your life. And having different tools to enable you to do that is really important. So that’s why I’m happy to be talking to you about this. And like I said before, I have just come to believe now that people need way more support than they typically have when they embark upon any kind of diet or lifestyle or behavior change. And the reason people fail with weight loss or with exercise or even with things like sleep and stress management is not lack of information, it’s lack of support. I’m 100 percent sure about it. And the research supports that. It’s not not knowing what to do that’s the problem. It’s not having the support to put it into practice, and so I’m a big believer in programs like this that actually can just make it simple. You fire up the iPod or the computer, hit play, watch the video and just do it. And that makes all the difference in the world. I think mindpumpmedia.com is the website where they can find out about these programs.

Sal Di Stefano: Yeah. You can find out about each one. We’ll have information under each program. And then our podcast, Mind Pump, we talk about them as well. And then we have a YouTube channel for people who … Because at the end of the day, our higher mission really is, we want to influence the fitness industry so that it becomes the answer to, or part of the answer to, the health epidemic. In the past, traditionally it hasn’t been. It’s been riddled with fads and poor information. It hasn’t helped anybody. And our higher mission is to provide as much information as possible that’s quality, that’s the right message that gets people longevity with their workouts, long-term success. And we also have free videos on our YouTube channel, which is Mind Pump TV. You can go on there. It doesn’t cost you anything. And we break down exercises. We talk about workout programming. We talk about nutrition. Even if you don’t want to invest anything, you can just go to our YouTube channel and check out all the free information. We post a video … Almost every single day there’s a new video out there.

Chris: Yeah. These guys are so fun to listen to and hang out with, when I went down there to record your shows, with Sal and talking to Noah and Adam and Justin, I had a blast. And so definitely check out their show, their podcast, and their YouTube channel because if you’re going to learn fitness, you might as well have fun while you’re doing it. That’s why I like you. Your attitude’s really … There’s just a lot of really kind of sleazy, cheesy stuff in the fitness industry. And I don’t need to tell you that. You know that probably better than anybody. And for me it’s always really important to cut through that and find people that I can recommend, that I know are approaching it from an evidence-based perspective and are doing it with integrity. Because particularly in the fitness industry, there are a lot of bogus claims being made. There’s a lot of really kind of sleazy marketing-type of tactics and there’s also the real potential to get hurt. That’s true for diet, too. But you can really, really get hurt if you do this wrong.

Sal Di Stefano: Oh, I’ll tell you, because we’ve had the podcast for a few years now and we’re relatively successful in the podcast space with fitness. We’ve gotten to meet … The opportunity to meet some of these fitness influencers and a lot of them are putting out workout programs. We see their workout programs and we know that these people should not be putting out information. And we’ll meet some of them and it’s shocking. It’s shocking. Many of these people look good and that’s their credibility. Because I look good and put out a fitness program and tell people how to work out, and it’s just terrible. It’s horrible. [chuckle]

Chris: Yeah, and it’s not just a question of “this isn’t going to work.” Like I said, it’s a question of “this can actually hurt you.” I’m really glad you joined us, Sal. I’m really glad you have these programs available because we haven’t actually … Of course, I’ve talked a lot about physical activity and the importance of resistance training and increasing non-exercise physical activity. In my book, I wrote about more kind of the why and the what you need to be doing, but we haven’t talked much about how, and so it’s great now that we have this resource to refer people to. Are you guys doing anything locally now in San Jose or are you pretty much focusing on reaching a wider audience now through the online programs?

Sal Di Stefano: Yes, online programs. We’re always looking to create new ones that can help address different segments of the population, so we’ll probably end up coming out with more programs in the future. But yeah, we’re focused on media. We want to … We had a meeting when we first started our company, and we talked about fighting fire with fire. In fitness, the people who get out the most information or who reach the most people are the ones that shouldn’t. They’re really good at marketing. They’re really good at marketing, they’re really good at media, they’ve got bad information. Then you’ve got these really smart people with really good evidence-based information and approaches, and nobody hears them because they’re terrible at marketing. And so we’re trying to get the good information but also fight fire with fire and produce entertaining podcasts and YouTube channels. Get people on our show like you, who can reach even more people through our audience. We’ve got great information, and so that’s our goal. Our goal is to get out … get as much information out there as possible, reach as many people as possible and hopefully influence others to be able to do the same.

Chris: Great. Well, thanks again so much for joining us on. [chuckle] Thanks for fighting the good fight. Again, it’s a relief that you guys are out there and getting your content out there in a big way so that people have a really reliable source of information and support to turn to.

Sal Di Stefano: Thanks, Chris, I appreciate you having me on.

Chris: All right, everybody, that’s it. Remember to send in your questions to chriskresser.com/podcastquestion, and we’ll talk to you next time. All right. Thanks again, that was great.

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  1. This was perfectly timed.

    It was good to hear some of these basics…immediately I was evaluating my routine…seeing my errors, where to make adjustments. Where to back off, and where to pick it up a little, and what to drop. (Which might be more important, dropping whats ineffective.)

    Sometimes we get so committed to a routine…we cant let go. It worked before, it should always work, it must work NOW!

    Im in one of those now…brought on by the weather change.

    Excellent post Chris…couldnt have come at a better time.