Nick Mitchell is a leading body composition expert and the founder of the Ultimate Performance global personal training gym. He is based in Los Angeles.
Picture a potter at his wheel, sitting in front of a lump of clay. To shape and sculpt it into a thing of beauty, he must understand the science behind his craft, and have the experience of putting that knowledge into practice as efficiently and effectively as possible. Yet he must still constantly make small yet significant touches to the clay to mould it and keep it advancing towards the finished product he ultimately set out to create. Now imagine that you are the potter and your physique is that lump of clay. Because exactly the same principles apply if you want a better body.
Creating the best physique possible is an artisan craft. With any form of art – which body composition undoubtedly is – there is the science and the experience and a third, but often neglected, factor that is crucial to your chances of success: ‘feel’.
The concept of ‘feel’ is the sculptor’s ability to respond to the clay with subtle changes and tweaks to end up with exactly what he wants. And this is how you need to start thinking about your body. Only by fully understanding how your body is responding to your current training protocol will you ensure that you are constantly improving.
Being in tune with the constant bio-feedback your body gives you – gym performance, mental performance, even sexual performance, plus your ability to pump up, the ability to hold a pump, appetite, sleep, appearance, motivation, the list goes on – enables you to make the smart changes and tweaks to keep your gains from stalling. And the only way to hone this skill is to become your own scientific experiment.
Science over sensibility
One of my earliest, and biggest mistakes, when I first started training was voraciously reading everything about bodybuilding I could get my hands on. I devoured it all to gather as much information as possible.
That wasn’t my mistake. Educating yourself is important and something I have never stopped doing.
No, my error was to ignore the advice that the big guys in the gym were trying to give me. I thought I was smarter than them because I had acquired so much knowledge through reading magazines and journals. After all, I was top of my class at an uber-academic school and they were mostly beefed-up knuckleheads.
That’s the arrogance of youth, and something I now see with increasing frequency on social media with keyboard warriors who are all theory and zero practice. I was too eager to listen to the purported science without fully appreciating that not everything you read is either true, entirely accurate, or relevant to real-world application.
Not all science is created equal
A real scientist would scoff at many of the experiments and studies of ‘sports science’. There are simply too many variables for any human performance study to be properly controlled. And then once these studies are published, they are immediately open to the cognitive bias and misunderstanding of fitness industry professionals out to prove or debunk notions that best serve their own personal agenda.
I believe that one needs a great deal of experience in how to read scientific studies otherwise how can you appreciate the potential flaws of each and every study, and understand the nuances needed to extrapolate the information that might matter? Don’t misunderstand my words, however, there is genuine and authentic nutritional science being conducted by proper scientists.
Yet more often than not scientific study lags behind professional sports. That’s where the big money is, after all, not working in labs and submitting studies for peer-reviewed journals. It’s understandable that leading scientists are working at the coalface of elite sporting performance, perhaps administering post-game IV drips of a BCAA, vitamin and other compound solution to an NFL lineman, or using hyperbaric chambers with Olympians to aid recovery and boost performance.
For these scientists, out in the field and at the bleeding-edge of fitness and nutrition research and understanding, their long-term professional and financial security relies on them keeping their proprietary knowledge and experience out of the public domain and away from others who could profit from their findings which, although not necessarily backed up by empirical data, they know to work from first-hand experience with world-class athletes.
Become your own experiment
The more experienced you are in the gym, the more crucial it is you treat yourself like a walking, talking, breathing experiment. This can be done by tweaking angles, ranges of motion, hand and foot position, sitting or standing, tempo, rest periods – the list of variables to tamper with is incredibly long. Experiment and see how the changes make your muscles feel and how your body responds.
The key is to record as many details as possible, not just sets, reps and weight. Make a note of what you did, why you did it, and how it felt. How did the early reps feel compared to the final reps? Was the rest period between supersets enough to hit the second move hard? How did your biceps feel when you changed hand position? And how did your muscles feel the days after a workout? This bio-feedback will then arm you with the information you need to keep making smart decisions about the way you train.
As a young lad I got good results doing high-intensity training, as popularised by the likes of the scientific-sounding Arthur Jones and Mike Mentzer. I was frightened to change the approach that had worked in the past, even though it was no longer as effective. It took me years to realise that I needed to be less rigid and more flexible and play around at the edges of my training programme. But once I did I have been able to train smarter and push the limits of what I had previously been able to achieve.
Don’t make the same mistake I did. Training is a highly emotional and subjective experience, because you are so heavily invested in the result. Learning to look at your body subjectively, and taking the time to appreciate how your body feels and responds to the various training tweaks you subject it to, gives you all the insight you need to make the best decisions to keep coaxing muscles into growth.