Specificity and Awareness: Two Principles for Faster Results

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Squatting below parallel is still the best and natural way to train the legs and overall body function.

Have you ever been in a situation where your fitness coach asks you to avoid legumes but then you get home and come across an article explaining why legumes are good for you? Or your personal trainer cuing you to squat below parallel then see another trainer making his client squat only at parallel?

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“As a medical student who has to stay in the hospital for approximately 34 hours, finding time to focus on fitness has been a challenge. Now that I’m in a much lighter hospital rotation, restarting my fitness routine felt like I had to start from scratch. Thanks to Richard, restarting didn’t feel so difficult. I signed up in the gym that’s nearest to the hospital I’m working in and Richard designed a program for me which I can do regularly. Still need to do a lot of work but thankful because I have great help!” — Hannah de Veyra, Med student

Too often, “experts” make fitness and nutrition too complicated than it needs to be. Unlike chemistry, physics, or biology which early scientists began studying thousands of years ago, today, the science of fitness and nutrition is still at its infancy. According to Precision Nutrition co-founder Dr. John Berardi, “Nutrition science can be a mess. Lots of competing theories. One study seems to suggest one thing. The very next study seems to say the opposite. People interested in health, fitness and wellness are stuck in the middle. Confused. Directionless.” He goes on to site that, macronutrients (carbs, proteins and fats) have not been discovered until the mid-1800s. In addition, vitamins were only discovered in the 1900s.

That is why for the last half century there have been a lot of conflicting claims, confusing data and downright scandalous revelations in the fitness and health industry.

Awareness: Our Inner Compass

We are our own experts. Our body knows which movement is natural and unnatural. It knows which food to eat based on nutrient deficiency. Our body is built to thrive but sometimes modern ways of living interfere with its natural rhythm. For example, when we take a dump, we naturally go into a squat position. This relaxes our rectum for the poop to easily come out. When we are stressed and fatigued, we naturally crave sodium, potassium and magnesium to heal the adrenals.

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We are our own experts. Our body knows which movement is natural and unnatural.

Listening Skills

We all get lost in complexity but for me the best way out is listening to your body. Your body wants to be strong. It wants to be fit and healthy so that it can roam the grasslands, hunt and gather food, fend off predators and have sex at the end of a tiring day. Simply: it was created to move. Nutritionally, it naturally craves vegetables because all the nutrients are there. When the muscles are tired after a long hunt, it craves the meat because protein rebuilds muscle. When the sun goes down, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in to rest, digest and heal.

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Our body is naturally created to move with purpose.

By now you have probably figured out that health simply means keeping in tuned with what nature has created for our bodies. Amidst the multitude of biohacks, superfoods and anti-aging technology these days, you simply need to be aware of the different signs and signals your body produces to get what it needs. Obvious signals such as hunger, thirst, and sleepiness are easy to detect and address. But there are also subtle cues like muscle tightness and belly bloating that are warning signs that there may be something (or a chain of things) going wrong.

The Uphill Battle

During the era of our Paleolithic ancestors, health flows naturally like a river. But today, trying to achieve fitness and health is an uphill battle. My tip is this: match your goals to your needs to keep you from going around in circles, avoid redundancy and keep injury away. This is simply a common sense approach sounds simple but it is never easy. Knowing what we need can be a little tricky and it requires mastering one crucial skill: awareness.

In training, I always put a great emphasis on body awareness, also known as, mind-muscle connection. Simply feeling your muscles contract improves its activation. Knowing the pace of your breath gives you info on how fast or slow you should go and being conscious of your biomechanics allows you to address imbalances if there are any. The greater the awareness, the faster and more accurately you reach your goals. Don’t just train to get strong, use your training to improve your awareness.

My best and simplest tip to gain awareness is to start feeling your body.

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Don’t just train to get strong, use your training to improve your awareness of your own body.

Try this:

Relax and sit up straight on your chair. Clear your mind and notice your breathing. Are you breathing fast or slow? Deep or shallow?

This simple mindfulness breathing exercise gives you the idea that you are in control of your body.

This awareness can be applied when walking, eating, training and even in thinking. Imagine yourself as the observer of your breath, movement and thoughts.

“Be aware of your breathing. Notice how this this takes attention away from your thinking and creates space.” –Eckhart Tolle

The Straight Line Principle

The shortest distance from point A to point B is a straight line. I know, it sounds like 5th grade geometry but think about it. Why would you go from point A to point C to point D then to go point B when you can simply go from point A to B? In a training program, the same principle applies. I call this the Straight Line Principle. If your goal is longevity, would use a taxing sport-specific program? If your goal is looking muscular, why beat your heart and lungs up (a.k.a. cardio) multiple times a week? As you can see, digging out awareness and honesty is crucial in order for this principle to work.

Get Specific

Now you’ve gotten more mindful of your body, more aware of your goals and gotten honest with yourself, it’s time to set specific goals. In the fitness world this is called the Principle of Specificity. Big word! But what this simply means is that if you want to achieve a specific outcome, like getting pumped six pack abs, you got to train the abdominal muscles directly. This may mean allocating about 10 to 15 minutes of ab training about 3 times a week. In line with this, if you’re a tennis player trying to get a stronger backhand, spend hours practicing the swing instead of doing countless dumbbell presses is what you need. Each person is different, so training variables will vary. The key is to get started. Don’t be shy to be a beginner. Make mistakes and learn from them.

“You get efficient at the things you repeatedly practice.” –Ross Edgley

Maddox Method X Aerobic Capacity Master Class 2019

In a recent Master Class that I attended, Neal Maddox, a CrossFit Games veteran and founder of the Maddox Method, shared that he jumped from program to program early in his career. He thought he needed to do what everybody was doing. He wasn’t aware of how his body worked and what he specifically needed in order to improve. That resulted from slow progress, beat up body and injuries. Early in my lifting career, I was the same guy. I would scout across the gym and see what the other guys were doing and I would copy them thinking that what’s working for them will work for me. I was dead wrong. World class coach to CrossFit Games champions and founder of Aerobic Capacity, Chris Hinshaw, also added that load and intensity are not the end all be all of an effective program. Creating fatigue stimulates the body to get stronger, but clearing out fatigue was equally, if not more, important. He would literally slow his athletes down so that they gain awareness of how their bodies move, which in return, speed them up. Whether you’re an elite athlete or just a beginner, if you want to increase your body’s work capacity you also need to train your recovery. This means using breathing techniques to pace your heart rate, taking rest days, slowing down a movement and using data to achieve results faster. These two legends in the industry of fitness know very well that awareness and specificity are keys to be successful.

If you’re just starting, make sure you seek advice from a fitness coach for proper guidance. Remember, a program should be centered around you and your needs, not the coaches needs or what other people need.

Harvey’s Sample Program

Here’s a sample program overview for Harvey who I have been working with for the past 12 weeks. His goal is to lose fat, specifically belly fat. Also, he wants to be more functional and not just look good.

Sample Day Workout

Functional strength training 4 to 5 times per week to build strength and muscle. Metabolic Conditioning 3 to 4 times per week.

Aerobic Warm Up

3 rounds

30s Walk

30s Slow Jog

60s Fast Run

*being mindful of breathing cadence, not hyperventilating

Dynamic Warm Up

3 Rounds

15 Jumping Jacks

10 Thoracic Openers/ side

5 Cat Cows

5 Pause Air Squat

Rest 10s

*being conscious of biomechanics

*practice mind-muscle connection

Back Squat

5 sets of 5 reps

*rest 2 to 3 min between sets

*start with empty bar

*build to a challenging 5 rep max for the day

Conditioning

AMRAP 10

15 calorie Assault Bike

15 Dumbbell Deadlifts at 35lbs

15 Butterfly Sit ups

Cool Down

5 minute slow walk on the treadmill

Nutrition Overview

  1. Slowly eliminate and stay away from processed foods.
  2. Consume real, whole, nutritionally dense foods.
  3. Intermittent Fasting.
  4. Specific macronutrient partitioning for post workout meals and other meals.
  5. Eating slowly and mindfully: chewing food thouroughly and stop eating at about 75% full.
  6. Anticipate next meals and adjust as needed.

Recovery Protocol

  1. Getting quality sleep every night, ideally 7 hours to 8 hours.
  2. Stress management techniques

Harvey started with his program already well aware of his body and his goals. He had a year of training experience back in his hometown gym and have tried many diets. I would consider his workout, nutrition, and recovery program an intermediate level one and is specifically tailored for his body type, goals and lifestyle.

At the end of the day, the best program for you is the one you can stick with. Be aware of your goals and be specific in your approach. We all want to reach the same destinations of health, wellness, happiness, and success but almost always we learn the lessons in different ways. Your journey is different from the person beside you. That is why your methods and principles must be specifically for you. Avoid joining the bandwagon of the latest trends and hypes. Likewise, avoid dragging people in without understanding where they are coming from. Accepting the fact that you and each individual have unique and specific needs is to awaken into a deeper level of awareness.

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“What is necessary to change a person is to change his awareness of himself.” –Abraham Maslow

Richard Liao

American Council on Exercise Certified Personal Trainer, CrossFit L1 Trainer, Precision Nutrition L1 Coach

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