Home Blog Training Programs: Are Health and Aesthetics Mutually Exclusive?

Training Programs: Are Health and Aesthetics Mutually Exclusive?

Written on September 15, 2014 at 9:00 pm, by Eric Cressey

Roughly once a week, I run Q&A sessions on my Facebook page. Often, they give rise to good blog ideas - and today's post is a perfect example, as I received this inquiry during this week's Q&A:

"How do you think that we, as fitness professionals, can help people move from looks-based result mentality to health-based result mentality?"

This post really got me thinking, as it can definitely be viewed in a number of different ways.

On one hand, I "get" what this fitness professional is trying to say: there are still a lot of people out there who are steadfastly adhering to old-school "body part splits" for training when it likely isn't the most efficient way to get to their goals. We want training that improves quality of movement if we're going to stay healthy and highly functional as the years go on.

On the other hand, I don't think there is anything inherently wrong with folks wanting to look better - and allowing it to dictate their training approach as the "carrot at the end of the stick."  Whether we like it or not, what one sees in the mirror does have a dramatic impact on one's health - psychological health, that is.

In order words, the question seems to imply that looking good and being healthy are mutually exclusive training goals. I simply don't think that's the case - and for a number of reasons.

First, "health" means something entirely different to everyone. We obviously have a ton of different measures of health status with respect to chronic diseases, but what about being "healthy" enough to take on life's adventures on a daily basis? I know some powerlifters who would feel incredibly "unhealthy" if they tried to play racquetball, but I can guarantee you that if you took a racquetball only guy and asked him to train with a powerlifter for two hours, he'd feel really "unhealthy" the next day, too. If you train to be "healthy" in everything you do, you just might wind up not being really good at any one thing.

Second, I'd argue that there are loads of people out there who train exclusively for aesthetics and are incredibly healthy. Natural bodybuilders come to mind, and I know of a lot of people who "recreationally" bodybuild and supplement this training with powerlifting, Olympic lifting, sprint work, and recreational sports for variety and supplemental conditioning. I'm sure there are loads of accomplished "recreational" Crossfitters out there who have perfect blood work and no joint pain to match their developed physiques, too.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, it's not our job to tell people what their goals should be; it's our job to help them work toward them, even if it does conflict with our own personal biases.

However, I don't think personal biases should be a problem in this context, though. You see, if you really look at successful strength and conditioning programs, they all have a ton of things in common. In fact, it might be 90% of the program that's comparable across "disciplines."

Everybody can foam roll and do mobility warm-ups, regardless of whether they want to look or just feel good.

Compound lower body exercise can benefit anyone, whether they want a firmer backside, better athletic performance, or just to fit in their jeans a little easier.

Most folks need extra horizontal pulling (rowing), regardless of whether they want to step on a bodybuilding stage or just not wind up with shoulder pain from slouching over the keyboard every day.

Fluctuating training stress and incorporating deloading periods is important whether you want to recovery and develop bigger biceps, or you just want to make sure you have enough energy left over after training to play with your kids at the end of the day.

I could go on and on, but the key message is that we can have both health and aesthetics - and if aesthetics are a goal that helps folks to work toward that end, then so be it. I'd be lying if I said that I don't derive more motivation from seeing my abs in the mirror in the morning than I do from a report that my blood lipid panel looks good. It's human nature that we're more concerned with what is public (our appearance) than what is private (our health), so we might as well get used to it. Health goals are awesome, and accomplishments on this front should be celebrated, but don't think you're ever going to see a population shift toward wanting the "fit look" less than the "healthy feel."

Taking it a step further, though, I think improved performance can be lumped in with aesthetics and health as a result of an effective training program. Successful programs might be 75% the same, but it's tinkering with the other 25% that delivers the benefits on all three fronts.

As an example, with The High Performance Handbook, my goal was to create a versatile "main" strength training program that initially could be easily modified based on posture, joint laxity, ideal training frequency, and supplemental conditioning. On the supplemental conditioning front, folks pick different options to shift the program to athletic performance, fat loss, strength improvement, or mass gain perspectives. Thereafter, individuals can choose from a number of different "special populations" modifications, whether it's for folks who want more direct arm work, those who play overhead throwing sports, or those over the age of 50. Then, there are the obvious nutrition individualization components.

The point is that the best programs are the versatile ones that give people the wiggle room to pursue the goals - aesthetics, health, performance, or some combination of the three - that they hold dear.

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12 Responses to “Training Programs: Are Health and Aesthetics Mutually Exclusive?”

  1. David Medeiros Says:

    Great topic, Eric. I came into fitness through bodybuilding, and I get your point. I, myself, don’t train many physique-oriented clients, but the fact is my clients ARE motivated when their health goals ( better movement, diabetes control, improved bloodwork and bone density, etc.) bring about lowered bodyfat levels, improved body contours, or they can fit into clothing they haven’t been able to get into for years. I honestly feel that health goals and physique goals can exist together and should not be considered mutually exclusive. Thanks for a great blog.

  2. Austin Gilles Says:

    Great topic, great read. You pretty much summed it up in that last paragraph. The best programs incorporate goals toward aesthetics, health, and performance.

    If programs weren’t set up for how we “feel” then we would have too many days where we wouldn’t feel like training. I hear people everyday who say their joints hurt, muscles ache, or are way too exhasted to even step foot into the gym. Then I watch them workout, and the program doesn’t even include a proper warmup that includes foam rolling or mobility work, and then kill their bodies doing 5-6 days of HIIT along with weight training. Oh, and they’ll mention how they have only got a few hours sleep the past few nights.

    This is why I am a huge fan of your training philosophies. You must be able to know how to warmup, train, and recover properly or else you won’t last very long and adhere to the training program.

  3. Caitlin Burke Says:

    I think this may be heavily sex-mediated. I am not a coach, but I see a lot of women in the fitness community who are preoccupied with aesthetic goals to the detriment of health. (Maybe a problem for men, too — I don’t pay much attention to that segment.) Women do have the added disadvantage of a punishing, demeaning, looks-focused media barking at them all day, and it can be very difficult to deter them from accepting the “need” to “pare away,” and help them embrace the pleasure of goals that let them see numbers going UP instead of down. (I keep saying “them” because I am fortunate to have no aesthetic goals.)

    I agree that it is not a coach’s job to tell people what their goals should be, but it IS a coach’s job to educate about the downsides of narrow, limiting goals (highly specific target weights, precise inch measurements of waist/hips, precise targets for waist-hip ratio, preoccupation with specific shape of muscle — all “needs” I have seen women express using external standards, with no allowance for how their skeletal structure may differ from others, etc), just as they might educate about the dangers of overtraining or training through pain. I have seen women complain of back pain and then reject core stabilization exercises, because they “don’t want a thick waist.”

    In short, I think the focus on “psychological health” as a way that aesthetic goals can enrich health goals really needs to be expanded to encompass the way visual appearance expectations can be more of a cudgel than a support in some cases.

  4. Eric Says:

    Great Article Eric!

    The title to this post is the exact question I posed to a client last week when they came to me frustrated
    and confused about what they’re reading online. This particular client is a physique client. “Bodybuilder”
    if you must define them by their choice of training “style”, which is only chosen because of their goals.

    Like most of my clients, this person is interested in creating a body that looks the way they want it to look,
    while also being healthy and athletic. This person feels like, (and I would agree), that fit pros are taking
    sides on the issues of athletic performance, health, quality of movement, and the like.

    It’s common today to see bashing of the “bodybuilder” style of training in an effort to support a more “functional”
    approach to training. Interesting side note: how come it’s only bodybuilding these people bash? How’s powerlifting,
    olympic lifting, or “Crossfitting” any better as far as “functional” goes?

    Functional. What a word. Can anyone really define that in terms of how we train? To me, for a person who is
    interested in changing the way their body looks by adding muscle to certain areas of their body and manipulating
    body composition; body part splits, isolation exercises and God forbid, maybe even some (gasp) steady state aerobic
    work, IS funcional! Functional for what THEIR goals are.

    I agree with you 100% on this, Eric. They are not, nor do they have to be mutually exsclusive.
    Like with most things, and for some reason especially in the fitness industry, people like extremes.

    For a long time the fitness industry has been driven by the “bodybuilder” mentality of training.
    Then fairly recently with Crossfit catching fire, the shift went more toward “athletic performance”.
    Which for the general population is probably a pretty good shift in thinking. But in the past couple
    of years I’m seeing fit pros take it to another extreme of almost avoiding either side. Don’t do too
    much in either direction. I guess “balance” is what they’re after.

    But what I don’t see that bothers me a ton, is anybody addressing what the CLIENTS goals are! Although
    their baseline reasoning for exercising SHOULD focus on health, not only is that not on the mind of a
    great majority of the population, but it certainly isn’t what motivates them to begin an exercise program!

    As fit pros, like it or not, that’s the reality! Like I’ve said for years; the majority of the time,
    vanity trumps health, unless poor health causes pain, in which case the desire to avoid pain trumps
    everything! Vanity, not health, is what drives the desire of MOST people to get into exercising and eating
    “healthy”. I came to this realization early on in my career as a fit pro and it’s written on the wall
    in my office to this day!

    I don’t care what motivated someone to begin exercising, vanity or health, because the end result, regardless
    of reasoning, will generally be better health. Again this is for the general population, not extremists,
    they’re not the majority. I’d agrue that high level athletes are extremists in their approach to training.
    They have to be to compete! And at a certain level of performance, health considerations go out the window too!
    At this level the approach is more about trying to balance training for a high level of performance while trying to minimize
    the damage. Of course this is only true if we’re willing to be honest with ourselves.

    Is biking 250 miles a week “healthy”? Is deadlifting 1000lbs “healthy”? Is walking around at 4% body fat “healthy”?
    Is training to compete in the Crossfit games “healthy”? Is being a professional athlete “healthy”? I think most fit
    pros undertand it’s probably not. But we should also understand that in the above situations the individual has made
    a choice to do what they want to do, and our job is to try to help them be as “healthy” as they can be at the level
    they choose to train or compete.

    For the general population, not the above mentioned, our goal should be to understand what the client WANTS. This is
    THEIR motivation. Take that away by trying to tell them their focus is wrong and you might just end up driving them
    back to where they came- the couch! Allow them to stay focused on what they WANT, while also subtly delivering to them
    what they NEED through education and programming.

  5. Andrew B Says:

    Hi Eric,
    I train for aesthetics, health, recreational sports performance, being able to run faster than my kids…

    I base my program on improving performance by old school methods and everything else improves as well.

    I can’t imagine a real need to prioritise one over the other unless you’re trying to be a pro-athlete or someone trying to emulate the juiced-up guys in muscle mags.

    I suppose most folks are more comfortable mentally when they have identified a single “goal” and have found a “custom product” that helps them achieve this goal. It’s just how the mind works…

    As this is my first post, a big thanks for the all the info you’ve put out here and elsewhere over the years. It’s been an inspiration. I’m really happy with what I’ve achieved so far, in my own small way.

  6. Andrew B Says:

    @Caitlin, great comment.
    Yes, I think very similar comments can also be applied to guys. There’s the pressure to “get big” or look “shredded”. It’s all driven by unrealistic aesthetic portrayals in the media.
    So yes, coaches should make sure their clients are starting with realistic expectations that are in the best interests of their psychological and physical long term health.

  7. Gina McNeal Says:

    I have been having the hardest time lately with clients who have poor mobility, especially at the shoulder, but insist on doing overhead presses and other “arm” exercises for aesthetic reasons but who are impatient with much-needed mobility work. It’s a battle is wish I did not have to fight. Other than offering the observation that kyphosis makes a person look at least as bad as flabby arms (IMO), what can I do or say to get them to understand that mobility is not a waste of time, even for aesthetic goals?

  8. Tim Says:

    I’m not a fitness professional, so my opinions are influenced by the fact that I don’t need to retain clients.

    If you’re on this website, you are probably familiar with Mark Rippletoe. I really like his differentiation between “training” and “exercising.” To me, a lot of this health v aesthetics debate is that people want to “exercise” but expect results that come when they train.

    For example, that racquetball player (who presumably doesn’t do anything else) might feel completely wiped out the first time he lifts. However, a racquetball player who can deadlift their bodyweight, squat their bodyweight (or have the equivalent strength in their legs) and bench maybe 2/3 of bodyweight will have a HUGE advantage over a player who’s never picked up a barbell. Plus they’ll look significantly better.

    Also, I think both genders completely misunderstand what the opposite sex is looking for. Guys want big arms, but their attractiveness would be much better served by going shopping and getting a better wardrobe. Girls might think they want to lose weight and end up doing too much cardio, but any girl who can deadlift their bodyweight will not have any trouble snagging a man.

    My impression is that physical training clients want to feel like they get their money’s worth. If they’ve never lifted and the trainer tells them to deadlift for the first time, most of the time is “wasted” by focusing on technique and recovery between sets.

    I think Caitlin can be right that coaches shouldn’t “tell people what their goals are.” But coaches should also say, “Here are the minimum expectations I have for any person I work with.” If someone is rejecting X exercise for Y unfounded reason, a coach has a responsibility to either educate them or tell them to suck it up.

    Of course there’s a big difference between a strength coach or an athlete’s coach, and a physical trainer who needs to retain clients to put food on the table!

  9. Adam Says:

    Great topic Eric… I’ve been thinking about this one a lot lately. For me, there are a few outliers that would require vastly different training techniques from the other 90% or so of society– Competitive body building and competitive olympic or powerlifting come to mind. These sports have certain requirements that kind of make them different than an athlete in another sport or a general fitness client. For example, if a client has a goal of competing in a powerlifting meet, I am going to teach them a very different style of bench press than I would with somebody who simply wants to get stronger, even though I still might use a bench press as one of my means to get them stronger. When max weights or max hypertrophy are THE goal to training, training changes. But I think for everyone else, most programming should look fairly similar.

  10. Jude Says:

    I love this topic as it is something that I know I face when dealing with my clients all the time. However, even with taking this into consideration, nutrition still plays the number 1 role in whether clients end up achieving what they want or not. I spend a lot of time finding ingenious ways to educate my client as to why something is good for them or getting them to have ahaha moments and acknowledge their progress and achievements. I can help them sculpt the best shape possible and help them become mobile and move well. However, the biggest challenge I think I face is that the women (in particular) are so brainwashed by society thinking that they can out exercise their bad nutrition and that all they have to do is turn up and train and they will magically have this amazing body .

  11. Eric Bach Says:

    Great topic Eric, I run across this all the time. Wise words ” it’s not our job to tell people what their goals should be; it’s our job to help them work toward them, even if it does conflict with our own personal biases.”

  12. Kurt Says:

    This is a great topic. There is a distinction between telling clients what their goals should be, and what we are committed to as fitness professionals. For example, I work with plenty of clients who want aesthetic results. However, philosophically, I think people should exercise and eat healthy because it is the right thing to do, period. It’s not about perfection, its about commitment to doing the right thing. In many areas of life, we strive to do the right thing not because we get immediate results and immediate gratification, but because that is how we are committed to living our lives, Health is no exception. Unfortunately, the world we live in is superficial in many ways, an an emphasis on physical perfection/beauty is a powerful seductress. I have experienced numerous clients who, despite my admonition to the contrary, expected “yesterday” results and a magazine-cover body in just a few weeks of exercise and good nutrition. When that did not manifest itself, they abandoned the journey entirely. Too often I think people quit – or even worse, fail to start – taking care of their physical health because they are doing it for the wrong reason. even the most aesthetically driven client can be made aware of the need to be committed for commitment’s sake.

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