Thoughts from The Fitness Summit 2014

The Fitness Summit sucked.*

*During the How To Get Published roundtable at the event, Lou Schuler and Bryan Krahn spoke of enticing readers with an opening line that pulls them in. Bryan also spoke about revisiting that line at the end, so you already know how this is going to end.  Continue reading.

The Fitness Summit is an event that began as a meeting in Arkansas for the users of the JP Fitness forums.  It was grass roots, and it was friends.  The event has grown over the years, moved to Kansas City, and been bringing in some bigger names from the fitness interwebz.  While the event has grown, organizer Nick Bromberg has retained a certain atmosphere:

When this moved to Kansas City six years ago, I knew of the vibe that I wanted to create. I didn’t want it to be your carbon-copy conference. I knew that my favorite moments came outside the conference room and those moments needed to be replicated. Not for myself, but for everyone who attends.

I’ve known about The Fitness Summit for several years thanks to social media, and I was skeptical about attending when it was first discussed among the MFF team. Kyle Langworthy and Liz Messina have dragged me down the PRI rabbit hole and I’ve been a little bit more interested in the neurological implications of functional anatomy.  I didn’t think that there was that much to learn.

I was right; there wasn’t much new material to learn, but there was a whole lot of learning to take place. I typically attend fitness conferences to learn more about exercise science, and more about training as a whole. That didn’t happen in Kansas City.  Instead, I learned a great deal about training culture, community, and as you may have already read on the interwebz, politics.

Many of my training conference reviews are written in chronological order with a summary at the ending, but I won’t be doing that here.  I believe that my most honest review of The Fitness Summit starts backwards, at the very end.  Specifically with a question asked by the young, wise, and bearded Greg Nuckols:

Greg posed this question to the presenter panel during the closing round table, and there was silence.  Imagine that white noise that your brain creates when it’s completely quiet.  The silence in that moment was beautiful.

This question was posed in contrast to a conversation at the time that discussed how we as an industry can do battle with some of the horrible training suggestions out there.  I say “battle” and “horrible” because we can all be vocal about the disregard for science and safety from certain training methodologies.  While I don’t agree with some of them, I don’t know if these people deserve to be cast as pariahs, as much as we can accept them as well intentioned and flawed with opportunity for growth.

Perhaps Greg’s question was met with a pause because it was so graciously asked, or perhaps because it seemed like the question of an outsider.  A reminder of the events intentions comes from Nick:

Thanks to the wonders of the internet, it felt like a giant gathering of old friends as the day went on.

The initial complaints that I had about The Fitness Summit largely stem from the expectations I had when registering for the event.  I wanted to learn all of the things.  It bothered me that slides were being completed moments before someone spoke, that attendees and speakers filtered in and out of presentations so that they could lift, that there were questions, asides, and interruptions during presentations.  In hindsight, maybe these were all good things; there was tremendous learning on a more subtle level.  Let’s get to that goodness.

Dave Dellanave started the day off with his discussion about BioFeedback.  The most popular systems we use are Heart Rate Variability devices, Tendo units, and a host of quantified self products. (Think FitBit-style trackers.)   They’re all well and good, but Dave proposed that we can get real-time feedback by testing range of motion in the moment and using our intuition.

We all use feedback on a regular basis, but Dave’s model allows you to quickly determine what movement feels the most comfortable.  In any given moment, it lets you determine where you can’t move so that you can train comfortably.  Testing movements and positions with a variety of tools and loads allows you to answer the question, “Can I do this today?”

Dave embraces our inherent asymmetry and quotes Frankie Fares saying, “All exercise that tests well is corrective.”  This doesn’t touch me in exactly the right way, but I agree that we shouldn’t be training in pain.  If we religiously adhere to what we programmed without considering that person in the moment, then we have a blind training process.  How can we effect that person in the moment? Dave dropped some simple but sensible gems on us like this one:

The science and #BroScience of posture, position, and pain fascinate me, and I don’t know enough about this system to know how it interacts with what we continue to learn about autonomics.  What I do know is that avoiding pain is probably a good thing, Dave’s used this to much success, and when we get too carried away we forget the big rocks.

Dave’s presentation was followed by Mike T. Nelson’s discussion of Heart Rate Variability.  Typical conversations about Heart Rate focus on how many beats take place in any given minute, but we’re aware that there are tiny differences between each beat.  To quote Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, “Whenever you inhale, you turn on the sympathetic nervous system slightly, minutely speeding up your heart.  And when you exhale, the parasympathetic half turns on, activating your vagus nerve in order to slow things down (This is why many forms of meditation are built around extended exhalations.”

Heart Rate Variability is a simple tool because in 2-3 minutes we have an objective appraisal of how stressed our body is, and what training is the most advisable for that day.  This better allows us to measure how we overload and respond to it.

Integrating HRV measurements is pretty damn simple to do.  Set up your app first thing in the morning, spend 2-3 minutes measuring your heart rate.  If it’s below 55bpm, it’s probably better to sit instead of laying down.  After taking a 4 week baseline, you can then start to modify training for different intensities based on your reading.  Mike made several jokes about searching for the smartest answers ever, or seeking to continuously get better.  After all, training isn’t very complex:

If we can harness the complexity of training into simple assessments and simple movements, we’re going to be successful.

Mike’s talk was followed by the equally nerdy and elegant Alan Aragon and Brad Schoenfeld.  They unleashed a deluge of nutrition research on us that took to task some of the myths about nutrient timing and protein consumption.  The presentation was punctuated with witty commentary and some great jokes.  The first big shot was about the anabolic window.

Every time someone rushes to chug their shake after they complete a lift, bro science is born.  Resistance training on its own raises protein synthesis post-exercise, and while short term research supports post-workout protein supplementation, what we see acutely doesn’t necessarily translate into long-term gains.  Most importantly, the effects of carb-mediated insulin spikes are superfluous provided protein is consumed.  So that ice-cream post workout to get jacked?  The world doesn’t end if you wait a few hours.  Overall calories consumed are probably a bigger deal.

Brad and Alan discussed something that is absolutely imperative for all of us, that You have to reshape your views along with the research.  Allowing for open, honest critique keeps science honest, and that’s what we need to get better.

The dynamic duo was followed by Galina Denzel, who gave one of the best presentations I’ve ever seen.  This is largely due to the fact that she took some very dense physiology and neurology and made it tangible for all. If you’re not very excited about breathing, the autonomic nervous system, and recovery strategies, I like to think that Galya made it simple enough that it became sexy.

The crux of her presentation was that we’re striving to create long-term awareness in our clients.  If those who we work with can become more aware of the positions of their bodies and related sensations and feelings, then they’re more in touch with their body, and can therefore appreciate their movement possibilities to a greater degree.  By teaching clients how to be aware of what they’re working on, they’re relearning how to look at themselves.  While Galya didn’t say this, I believe that if you’re not including posture and breath in how you cue an exercise, you’re missing the bigger picture.

We swung from our smallest presenter to our biggest, and The Glute Guy himself took to presenting Contributing Factors to Displays of Strength.  Bret Contreras went in on biomechanics and shared some specifics about what makes great squaters, deadlifters, and…hip thrusters?  Squatting and deadlifting rely on leverage systems to create force, and many of us are favorited for greatness at one or the other.  (Or I supposed mediocrity at both.)  Hip thrusting on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily rely on one or the other, so we can almost universally train our glutes this way. It’s all about that booty!

Bret dropped this gem about the glute hypertrophy in relation to torque:

As well as this gem on neurology and pain:

When Bret wrapped up the rear, it was time for two round tables.  KyleStaci, and Mark visited the coaching workshop given by Dave Dellanave, Bret Contreras, and Tony Gentilcore.  I attended the “How to Get Published” roundtable that Nick Bromberg facilitated with Lou Schuler, Bryan Krahn, and Jen Sinkler. As they told their origin stories, there was a range between semi-planned and completely unplanned journeys to where they were currently at.  A summary of the sentiment:

As the conversation continued, they agreed on simple things:  Write, write often, write well, write for your audience, write for the appropriate editor,  and just goddamn write.  That’s huge, and probably underrated by everyone who wants a magazine article and a book deal tomorrow!

Expect that editors are going to change what you write, but maintain the utmost quality for your own personal site.  It’s your resume for the world.  One thing that Bryan touched on that I’m clearly not doing right now:

As the roundtables wrapped up, the MFF crew rolled out with fellow New Yawka Kevin Dineen of Structure Personal Fitness.  After a quick nap, it was time for our favorite thing in the world:  Deadlifts.  But first, deadbugs!

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After doing our normal workout, and the weirdest seen at a 24 Hour Fitness in Kansas City, we hit a chain restaurant to feast and talk shop.  Steaks filled out bellies for the second dinner in a row, and it was back to the party.  We had to stop for ping-pong balls, and decided that some swords were a good addition.

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Now lets get to day two.  Bryan Krahn led the charge with his presentation, How to Act and Build Relationships: Tips and Tricks on Surviving in the Fitness Industry.  Bryan’s presentation covered some of his personal journey both as a writer and an editor, and included a number of tips on how to network, expand, and share ideas.  If you missed the publishing roundtable, this was all brand new, but he expanded on the previous afternoon’s conversation.  The big take away is still the same: Write more, write well, write for the right audience.  Frequently, this means writing for the audience that you are a part of, but it’s entirely up to you as a writer.

Bryan’s wisdom was followed by Cassandra Forsythe’s presentation about Inspiring, Successful & Busy Women in the Fitness Industry.  As Cass addressed the strength and conditioning patriarchy, the room became unsettled.  As examples of successful and inspiring women such as Rachel Cosgrove, Krista Scott-Dixon, and the Girls Gone Strong were explained, it seemed like the guys were getting upset about it, and then asking, “What can we do to help women?” and then the gals were upset and and asking. “What can we do to get better?”

When a question was posed about this industry wide imbalance, another audience member squandered it with politically correct gender neutrality, and it made me think that if some of these great coaches are so quick to ignore the issue at hand, how are we changing it? The strength and conditioning corner of the fitness industry is largely male dominated, and while Dr. Forsythe laid out some great examples, I do wish we responded more openly.  Obviously I’ve decided that there was some Male Privilege in the room, anyone else could decide that I had Male Guilt, but that’s my simple observation.

Just as Galya Denzel discussed how we ned to bring awareness to our bodies in movement in the gym, Roland Denzel discussed how we can bring awareness to our lives so that they don’t undermine our fitness progress.  The cliché example?  Footwear.

If you’re spending most of your training time addressing sore ankles, legs, and hips that result from wearing shoes with a heel lift, why don’t we just ditch the goddamn heel lift?  Ah, but it’s not that simple.  Roland discussed the intricacies of these choices and what influences our decisions.  He also beautifully explained the pendulum in the wellness world, which is currently focused on the benefits of standing.

As we transition to more standing desks and standing activities, we’re going to start to see the same negative effects.  It’s not the standing that’s the issue, it’s the lack of movement.  We’re immobilized in a different position.  We have a new problem.

Roland’s presentation led us to lunch, a lovely chat with the wise Mark Schneider, and another visit to Latte Land.  If you’re in Kansas City, they have their caffeine on lock.  It was back inside for Spencer Nadolsky’s Medicines and Conditions that Inhibit Progress with a Client.

I think it’s pretty safe to say that Spencer had the best presentation of the conference.  Not because of his gracious presence and frequent jokes, but because he actually talked about something new.  Many of us at the Summit have been learning from the same group for so long that we have intellectual imbreeding.  Additionally, we don’t get to see that many MD’s at these events, and Spencer came to share the love.

Dr. Nadolsky touched on medical conditions and treatments that can sabotage your fitness journey.  In some cases, they’re going to slow down your fat loss while in others, they’ll make it downright impossible.  The big one is the best medicine of them all: sleep.  We normally talk about sleep duration, but quality is important, too.  If you’ve ever been told that you snore loudly and/or gasp in your sleep, that could be an indicator of sleep apnea, which holds back the health and hotness.  Additionally, Spencer ties waist measurements over 40 inches for men and over 35 inches for women to insulin resistance, which could make fatloss all the more difficult.

It would behoove everyone to read about the top ten drugs, both prescription and over the counter, that can hinder your fitness progress HERE.

Tony Gentilcore brought his A-Game to Kansas City to answer the question, “Are Deep Squats Worth It?”  Wait, what’s that… Oh, that’s right he didn’t!  In the spirit of The Fitness Summit, Tony polled the audience and determined that “Training Jane from Joe: Female-Specific Training” was a more appropriate choice.  Baller!

Tony’s presentation focused on two key things:  Programming for women isn’t all that different from programming for men.  Coaching women can be a whole different story.  Being the best coach possible is about being on your client or athletes terms, and if they view you as the enemy, shit’s not going to work out.  Tony discussed the psychology of speaking in their language and providing education in a way that’s empowering.  That’s important when this is the common viewpoint:

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Allowing for a variety of regressions and progressions for any given exercise allows you to instill feelings of success from early in a training career, which prepares both coach and client for further success down the line.  A big part of this success is getting stronger.  Associating or replacing a physique goal with a similar strength goal can bring the focus off of how one looks and uses performance as a baseline.  This typically means getting stronger before you isolate specific muscles.

I had several conversations with Tony at the Summit, and as we moderated some Facebook trolling since Saturday, I think it’s a huge factor that we miss in our exercise science classes:  Psychology trumps physiology every day.  Sure, a program is important, but it takes a great coach to elicit an empowering result.

It’s time for the round table.  Round Table discussions, typically held at the conclusion of any conference, are one of my favorite parts.  The material is candid, honest, and you’re able to see coaches interacting with each other as colleagues and peers.  This is exactly what happened…sort of.

As several attendees also have noted, the Round Table embraced the familiar atmosphere of the event, but was also awkwardly cordial.  Ideas between presenters didn’t feel challenged, and everyone sort of agreed.  This is fine, and I get that everyone is friendly, but I would have appreciated a more varied discussion.  That being said, I enjoyed the inherent checks and balances achieved by having some very bright people in on one conversation, and the presenters ability to discuss what’s found in the literature and what’s done in their own facilities is fascinating.  Frequently we don’t know why something works, but we’re observing the desired results.

We’re all in the business of results, be it academic achievement, facilitating weight loss, or coaching performance.  I always get excited to hear about what the presenters are working on in the next year, as I find it makes me think about where the industry is going.  As future plans were laid out, I can assure you, we’re in good hands.

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After the roundtable, it was back to the hotel with my MFF crew to express our first thoughts about the conference.  Mine were quite judgmental at the time, and I wasn’t very excited about the event.  That’s because of how I set my intentions before I got to Kansas City.

If your goal is to learn about the most recent research or the latest-and-greatest training techniques, The Fitness Summit is not for you.  If your goal is to meet and greet some wonderful people who happen to be great minds in the world of fitness, this is the place to go.

If I rely on my initial intentions, The Fitness Summit sucked.  Considering the intention of the event and adjusting my expectations, I realize it was a valuable experience to meet internet friends in person, meet passionate coaches for the first time, and hang out while talking about fitness.  For those reasons, I’ll be heading back next year.

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8 Replies to “Thoughts from The Fitness Summit 2014”

    1. Spencer, thank you. It’s receiving some great feedback, and I’m looking forward to sharing the great ideas from the Summit in the upcoming weeks.

      Also, get your ass to New York!

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