Humans Make It Complicated

Aidan Donnelly
March 28, 2022

Take home message: Why often the solution to our issue is more straightforward and obvious but difficult for us to see or explore due to our own biases, thoughts and emotions.

Time: 10 minutes

The first time I can recall where I realised, I had fallen into the trap of making something unnecessarily complicated and wanting to believe there was a magic bullet was back in 2011. I’m sure there were many other cases prior to that, and I was completely unaware or I can’t remember them. This particular experience I’ve since carried with me as a learning tool, to try and spot when I am falling into a similar situation. Whilst it’s been very helpful, I’m not sure it’s possible for it to never happen…it seems to be just part of being a human.

In 2011 I started working as a Personal Trainer whilst trying to build up my reputation and career in Strength and Conditioning. I had graduated University the year before and had already built up quite a bit if experience doing internships and a lot of unpaid work in order to gain as much knowledge and experience as possible. However, all that unpaid work wasn’t paying the bills, and I had always been interested in becoming a Personal Trainer, having qualified before going to University.

It took me quite a few attempts to land a job as a Personal Trainer. I was surprised that my experience in Strength and Conditioning wasn’t seeming to get acknowledged by any of the gyms I was applying to. I had expected it would be difficult to find a job, but not quite as much as what I faced. Thankfully I was very persistent and It eventually paid off, and I landed a Personal Training job in the biggest Health Club in the area.

I felt confident starting. I had a good few years behind me working with high performance athletes, writing programmes, coaching Olympic Lifts, learning about performance nutrition.

However, I knew nothing about sales and building a client base outside of what they teach you in your PT qualification. I was starting from zero, and left to my own devices to build up a client base. There was very little support.

I also completely underestimated the difference between working with high performance athletes and the general population. I had spent the past 5 years working with athletes aka ‘movement geniuses’ with high levels of motivation, that more often than not would do whatever was required of them. You suggested something to do, they did it. If it worked then all was good. This was very different…a lot of people didn’t really enjoy exercise… They struggled with motivation, and wanted to exercise to be as painless as possible…or else they put their head down, get hot and sweaty, and did not want to have to think. Structured programming, progressive overload, compound lifts were not the thing. Variety, keeping it interesting, keeping it motivational, making it look good, was the thing.

The environment was also completely different than what I was used to. This was a large health club with a huge gym floor, but the free weights section was small, especially in comparison to how the vast majority of gyms are set up now, with only one squat rack. Yet as standard there were cardio machines for days…

To add to things, sales seemed to be more important that results, and my methods were described as ‘old school’ and ‘dated’. There were lots of discussions amongst the other trainers around nutrition and training strategies. Conversations about adrenal fatigue, cortisol, and gluten. Areas I had never heard about and eventually lead to me questioning what I had learned. It was competitive, and everyone was looking to have a niche, and area to stand out in…

I naively thought that my knowledge would speak for itself, and I’d gain clients based on the fact I knew how to get someone bigger, stronger and faster. This was not the case.

Don’t get me wrong, when I started to gain clients and focus on the things I knew I definitely had success, but there would be a lot of clients I’d struggle with…couldn’t get results with. A lot of people were very focused on fat loss, and did not like exercise. Whilst ‘Steve’ the Rugby Player was up for trying to squat 2 x his bodyweight and increase his carbohydrate intake to aid his performance…’Wee Mary’ was afraid to go in to the weights area, really liked biscuits with her tea, and kept forgetting to record her nutrition for the week.

Doubt began to set in… I’d see more people following what I would see as unconventional methods (for example reducing gluten and losing fat) and other trainers at capacity when I was not.

“I MUST be missing something. I MUST be doing something wrong. These client’s are paying me to get them a result…and I’m not delivering…I MUST do better”

Around this time Intermittent Fasting was becoming popular, Ketogenic diets were resurging, and ‘carb cycling’ was popular. So off I went to guinea pig myself on all these different diets in the hope of finding the Holy Grail. Previously if I had dieted to lose weight or bodyfat it was for powerlifting competitions to make a weight class. I’d never gotten really lean doing this approach…and so I began to think that maybe it’s because I was missing a trick…I was behind the times with my thinking.

They all worked…all the diets…IF, keto, carb cycling. I started getting very lean…but as soon as I stopped the diet, I’d gain more fat…SHOCK. In my mind, this meant that something was still missing.

I then came across a book called ‘Carbohydrate Backloading’. The principle of the book was that elevated insulin levels blunted fat loss, made it harder, if not impossible, and if you control this…then it’s the window to easy sustainable fat loss! Why so easy? Well because you can, and are encouraged to eat ‘junk’ food, i.e. things people traditionally associate with ‘unhealthy’. The idea is that exercise, specifically high intensity exercise, allows you to shuttle carbohydrates into the muscle without the need for insulin. Simple carbohydrates, such as sugar can be shuttled faster as the digestion process is quicker.

What is important here, is how I was able to start to justify this approach in my own mind. The biggest reason for my buy in, was that my Undergraduate Honours project at University was on the use of high intensity exercise to allow muscle to uptake glucose/ carbohydrates without the need for insulin. It was focused on helping diabetic and prediabetic people manage their blood sugar and reduce body fat. So I had a decent understanding of the area, and this nutrition strategy fitted right in.

I trialled in on myself…got great results…and BAM! I was now REALLY bought in. So I suggested it to clients, and they started to get good results! That was it…I had found the Holy Grail…the cheat code…the magic bullet.

All the calorie tracking, and monitoring portion sizes and all that other stuff was for fools…misguided fools. Eat all the carbs you want, in whatever form, just do it in the evening after a heavy lifting sessions and fat gain was a problem no more…it fitted perfectly for me.

I started to, and mostly importantly wanted to, believe that getting lean can’t just be down to monitoring calories or energy intake (portion size, over eating, emotional eating). I was thinking “Everyone must be misguided or not up to date … monitoring calories takes so much effort …I have seen countless examples of people who seem to do it with less effort… this is the only feasible explanation as to why I haven’t been able to get results with those clients, I have been going about it all wrong.”

Bring on the results, bring on the clients…global domination of the market is just round the corner…

Thankfully I have an innate sceptical mind, and I tend to question everything and I don’t like to shy away from the truth. This scepticism eventually kicked in and I started to question the validity and realise the drawbacks. Not only was it all based on faulty rationale and cherry picking research, it created some very unhelpful attitudes to binge eating, fear of carbohydrates, and it was not sustainable in the long term (something I later realised is fundamental for long term progress). At its core, the same principles held true…you want fat loss, you need to create an energy deficit. This diet did the same thing, but through methods that could be hit or miss, were misleading, and potentially harmful.

So how did this happen…I regarded myself as a pretty switched on person, well read, had a descent understanding of research and pretty sceptical of marketing nonsense…

Well, it turns out there were many factors driving my thought process. At that time the environment I was in was pushing me to sell, whilst I had experience and a background and coaching within sport, the general public and fitness industry came with a different set of challenges. I was out of my comfort zone, feeling pressure to generate clients, pressure to create a ‘niche’ and personally I wanted to feel unique, a head of the rest, and I wanted results and clients without having to negotiate on my integrity by selling things I didn’t believe in. Further to this, my immediate reaction to most negative situations is to look at what I personally may have done wrong…which can be both a positive and hinderance as it can lead to lots of self-blaming.

So, when people weren’t getting results, I thought ‘I must be doing something wrong’. I didn’t have the conviction or experience to take a step back and trust in what I knew. I didn’t want to be closed to different ideas and ways of doing things either.

So, with all these factors combined, it was easy to start to look for and believe in methods that were…safe to say…not completely accurate.

The principle of fat loss rests on energy balance…whatever way you want to spin it, contort it, or bend it…that’s what it comes down to. Most nutritional ‘magic’ bullets or methods, manipulate this principle in some form. How honest and accurate the creator of the strategy or method is with their description on how this occurs and what the diet is ACTUALLY doing…varies. More times than not, its inaccurate and perpetuates the notion that there is some form of magic involved, not discovered before, that is the reason a person cannot achieve what they want to.

This serves a few purposes…

  • It makes the process seem easier than it is, and that the fault or blame for a lack of results in the past lies and rests within something external…outside of the persons responsibility.
  • It sells products

Convince people carbs are the problem…they remove carbs…they invariably reduce their calories…they lose fat…they determine it’s the carbs… aka ‘post hoc fallacy’.

Reality is, people usually struggle moderating their consumption of hyperpalatable foods that combine sugar, salt and fat. For example, donuts taste great…easy to eat…very calorie dense and therefore it’s easy to overconsume calories. Also known as consuming more calories or energy than you expend.

Add to this emotional associations with food…comfort, being social, avoidance and this starts to become complicated. Food serves many purposes outside of providing energy and sustaining us, and emotions and identity can get tied up in there. When challenged with the idea that we may need to change our associations and behaviours we frequently will try and find any other solution except that one we need to do, because it is the most uncomfortable. We are geared towards avoiding discomfort and maintaining strategies that help us avoid discomfort.

The lengths we can go to achieve this are quite astonishing. This leads us to biases and confusing correlation with causation. Whilst, in my experience, at the heart of most areas are some fundamental principles that determine what needs to be done…but we as human beings make this complicated.

How do we make this complicated? Our past experiences, our beliefs, our emotions. These can lead us in some funky directions and be incredibly hard to untangle. They can lead us to being incredibly trusting and to a fault or incredibly sceptical and unwilling to accept help. They can lead us to believe that what we feel must accurately reflect the cause, or what we observe must accurately depict the course of events. Terms and phrases such as post hoc fallacy, confirmation bias, Dunning- Kruger effect, Baader- Meinhof effect and cognitive dissonance are really simply just ways to describe how ultimately, we are always trying to make sense of a situation and our surroundings to avoid some form of discomfort and/ or pain in order to feel safe.

If this were not the case, we’d be opening ourselves up to a whole host of feelings such as a lack of safety, hopelessness, inferiority and frustration.

So take our internal need to feel safe, and make sense of the world and add an area that causes us pain and discomfort and we feel no sense of control over and you become incredibly susceptible to the marketing of false promises and results and magic bullets that can take away that discomfort away rapidly…quickly…and without a lot of work.

Some of these claims are simply misleading…whilst others are complete lies…but the difficult part is generally we really want to believe they are true…as it means we don’t have to experience some form of discomfort that whether consciously or unconsciously we REALLY don’t want to have to engage with…but if we were to look internally…if we were to be introspective…and ask ourselves the question…”what is it I am avoiding” or “what feeling am I trying to take away”….we’d likely already know the answer.

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