My Fitness Journey, and Why You Should Question Conventional Wisdom

eirik garnas waterIf you’ve been involved in the health & fitness community for some time, you’ve probably heard that eating every other hour (you gotta keep the metabolic fire burning!), training each muscle group to exhaustion once a week (finish off with a couple of drop-sets to maximize gains), and choking down a protein shake directly after training (run to the locker room and get it down as quickly as possible) are the optimal way to go for muscle growth. You’ve probably also heard that sustained endurance training (think chronic cardio) is one of the healthiest things you can do for your body and that endurance athletes should eat a lot of carbohydrates (3g/kg/BW+) to fuel their training efforts. However, if you’ve been reading this blog, where I’ve outlined the actual science, you also know that these notions are just myths. Actually, we don’t really have to dig deep to understand the fallacies of most of this conventional wisdom. A quick look at human evolution and physiology and a few review papers on training and nutrition – and these myths fall apart. Since today’s post is going to be about my own experiences, I’m not going to bore you with all the studies on nutrition and exercise. If you want to dig into that stuff, check out my previous articles on the subject, such as the one where I debunk the anabolic window myth, or the one on optimal protein intake, or the one where I discuss how a healthy diet really looks like. Also, don’t hesitate to post a comment in the comment section if you have any questions or want me to provide references for some of my claims!

Childhood – Endurance training and little focus on nutrition

eirik-garnas-soccer-childWhen I was very young, I rarely exercised with a goal to increase my fitness levels; I simply moved my body when playing and participating in sports. I was an avid soccer player for most of my childhood, and I also ventured into other physical sports like tennis, volleyball, and martial arts. However, it was always soccer (or fotball as we call it where I live) that was my thing. Actually, during some periods, I was so consumed that I rarely did anything else besides soccer and school.

During these childhood years, I didn’t really care about nutrition, and I simply ate whatever I wanted. Actually, I ate a terrible diet when I was young, which consisted primarily of grains (plenty of refined stuff), pasteurized low-fat milk, sugar-laden drinks, and a lot of other westernized foods. I also ate healthy stuff, but it was by no means a healthy diet.

For a long time, my main goal was to become a professional soccer player, and I was actually very good. As I started to get older (14-16 years old) strength training was incorporated into the training program, and I started lifting weights 2-3 times a week. At the same time, my interest in soccer went downhill, and I suddenly didn’t look forward to playing any more. Actually, since I had always been so set on soccer, I tried to force myself to enjoy it, but after a while I realised that I had lost the urge. At that time, resistance training become my primary obsession.

Youthhood – Resistance training and grain-based, high-carbohydrate diet

My primary goal when joining a gym was to gain strength/muscle and look fit. So, naturally, I also started getting interested in nutrition. Like most other people who begin lifting weights, I bought into most of the conventional wisdom surrounding health & fitness. I planned my meals so I could eat every 2-3 hours, I ate plenty of whole grains, I did 20 sets of each major muscle group once a week,  I always made sure I had a protein shake standing by when I was done at the gym, and I avoided saturated fat. Basically, I did everything wrong, but at the time I thought I knew what I was doing – after all, this was the accepted way to go when trying to gain muscle.

I remember thinking that my poor results (I was definitely getting results, but not as much as I had hoped) were simply a result of not doing enough. Basically, not training hard enough and not being strict enough about my diet. This frustration led to the adoption of some crazy training strategies, which typically involved a combination of high volume and high intensity. I was simply so consumed by conventional wisdom that I didn’t realise that most of the things I had heard and read about fitness were incorrect. Anyways, I continued on this path for a while until my body finally had gotten enough. It just couldn’t handle the high-carb, grain-based diet and high-volume resistance training (in combination with some endurance training) any more. I didn’t recover between workouts and I didn’t really progress – I just felt that something wasn’t right.

At the time I couldn’t understand why my health was deteriorating – after all, I was doing all of the things you are supposed to do to be healthy. I exercised a lot, I ate plenty of “heart-healthy” whole grains, I rarely drank, and I limited my consumption of “evil” saturated fatty acids. So, although I definitely looked for better alternatives than my current approach to health and fitness, I pretty much stayed with the “accepted” way of doing things for many years.

So, in the years that followed, I tried various different diets and training programs, but I always kept certain aspects of the conventional way. Basically, as everyone were preaching about the benefits of bodybuilding-type training and low-fat diets, it was hard to let go.

Fast forward a couple of years of degeneration and trial and error, I finally started putting some of the pieces together. I discovered the whole ancestral health thing, and I started getting my information from the scientific literature and high quality websites. I also started to understand that the primary reason it’s so important to have an evolutionary perspective on health & fitness (and pretty much all other aspects of life) is because it allows us to understand what types of environmental conditions, dietary inputs, exercise patterns, etc. we’re adapted for. By combining this evolutionary template with modern science, I realised that “all” of the things I had been doing were completely wrong.

Adulthood – Varied training and paleo template

eirik-garnas-beach-africa-organic-fitnessFor the last 4-5 years my diet has stayed pretty much the same. As I’ve laid out on the site before, I follow a paleo template, meaning that I’ve ditched all the grains and no longer fear fat. The fact is that I not only think the evidence in favor of this type of eating is strong, I think it’s overwhelming – and bear in mind, I study nutrition, meaning that I’ve heard all of the low-fat, heart healthy whole grains, etc. dogma a million times.

Okay, so that’s a quick summary on nutrition. What about exercise? I’ve now completely moved away from my old way of doing things. At the moment, my goal is primarily to stay fit and healthy and achieve multifaceted fitness. I still regularly perform resistance training, but I no longer train to maximize muscle growth and/or strength development. This means that I’m no longer as muscular as I was before, but I train in a way that is more consistent with the types of activity patterns that shaped our genome (However, that’s not to say that I’m against focusing solely on muscle growth and/or strength development). At the moment, my training program consists of sprinting, rowing, bodyweight exercises, low-moderate activities such as walking, and compound barbell movements.

What I’ve learned

Although my journey is far from over, I now feel that I’ve come to a place where I understand the fundamental principles you always have to adhere to when determining what to eat, how to exercise, and how to live your life. I don’t propose to know all the answers (there’s always plenty of stuff to learn, even overwhelmingly so), but the thing is, when you understand the evolutionary road that shaped our species, then you also understand how to think about health and fitness in the 21st century. You’re no longer grasping in the dark.

I remember thinking prior to starting my nutrition degree that there must be something more to the official recommendations than what meets the eye; they must surely be based on a solid foundation that I haven’t discovered yet.  However, the fact is that they aren’t. Evolutionary biology is completely lacking in most nutrition courses, and when you actually start to read the scientific literature that the official health authorities “choose” not to focus on – or are unaware of – you realise that many of the things you learn are complete bogus. However, as long as you expand your horizons beyond your required textbooks, you discover professors, bloggers, writers, and up-to-date science that really show you what nutrition/health is all about. That’s not to say that studying nutritional science at school is a complete waste; you definitely learn a lot about chemistry, macronutrients, micronutrients, etc. However, if I was to choose again, I would have studied biology instead.

One of the things I’ve learned from this journey is that humans aren’t as intelligent as we think we are. As I’ve repeatedly highlighted on this blog, many of the advancements (technology, drugs, etc.) that are considered the best of human achievements also come with a wide range of adverse effects – especially to our health.

Also, what is very clear – at least from where I’m sitting – is that conventional wisdom is usually wrong. This is where the primary problem lies, most people don’t question things. They simply read the paper, go to work, and go along with the established notions. The average Joe doesn’t know how to find out what’s “true”; he generally accepts what society deems as healthy – at least when conventional ideas are so ingrained in people’s belief system as they are in the field of health & fitness. Most people who want to improve their health don’t look to the scientific literature, they get their information from magazines, fitness blogs (they aren’t all bad:P), health authorities, and more experienced trainees (who often just prescribe what they “think” has worked for them).

In many ways, it sucks that I had to spend all these years doing the wrong things. However, all of this trial and error and research are also what lead me to open my eyes. And this is actually how many people discover the whole ancestral health thing. They get sick, overweight, or inadequate results from doing things the conventional way and they start looking for answers.

Okay, that’s it. If you like what you read, then help me spread the word by sharing this story on social media by using he sharing buttons below. Also, now I want to hear from you! How does your fitness journey look like? Do you recognize any of the things I talk about in this post?


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Comments

  1. Really enjoyed seeing your story in full :)

    I’m still in that transition stage. I’ve slowly relaxed my previous ideas of food, but I cannot let go of cutting back on exercise and allowing rest. That idea of ‘more is better’ is so deeply ingrained, I find it hard to let go!

    Great post Erik!

  2. Love your honesty mate. The whole journey lead you to this point and I’m for one glad it did. Your work is great and i learn so much for it. Keep up the great work.

  3. Enjoyed your fitness journey and found this purely motivational. Thank you so much for sharing this wonderful write up.

  4. Eirik,

    I have only recently started exercising, and the thing is, I really like doing endurance exercise (running) in addition to lifting – but I also want to gain some muscle over the course of my “training career” (about 20-30 lbs would be fantastic!) and be healthy. Is running per se incompatible with that, or can I getaway with incorporating some endurance exercise up to a certain degree of volume/intensity?

    • Hi Karl! Intense cardio (heart rate in the 80+% range for prolonged periods of time) several times per week is not a good idea if your main goal is to gain muscle. However, you can (and should) definitely incorporate some endurance training, it’s just a matter of finding the appropriate balance. It’s difficult to give you any specific recommendations without knowing how your current training program looks like… And what is your primary goal?

      • Thanks for your answer!

        My current training program consists of 3x weekly strength and 3x weekly endurance training on alternating days.
        On strength training days I do 3 compound lifts (upper push, upper pull, lower) for 3 sets in the 5-10 rep range (once I hit 3×10, I increase the weight):

        Mo – back squat, bench press, bent over row
        Wed – deadlift, military press, pull-ups
        Fri – front squat, dips, chin-ups

        On endurance training days I run for about 30 minutes; because I am not exactly fit, it`s actually more of a “very slow jog” than a “run,” which still feels relatively strenuous (my slowest jogging tempo currently puts me at about 80% MHR); being familiar with the “chronic cardio” concept from MDA, I was planning on doing this until I can maintain a slow jog at less than 75% MHR, and then little by little increasing the volume at that pace – in the hope that hypertrophy can still occur to a certain degree as long as the bulk of my aerobics training is “low-intensity”.

        As to my “primary goal”: I am not quite sure. I guess I would like to become sort of a “jack of all trades” (by “average-guy standards”) with regard to the different fitness parameters, and I figured that decent strength and aerobics bases would be a reasonable starting point from which I could then “branch out,” so I was planning on concentrating on that for the next few years (though I am not quite sure how to change up my program for ongoing simultaneous progress in both strength and aerobics once I am beyond the “rank beginner” stage) – I hope to be in the ballpark of Martin Berkhan`s strength goals for the average male (body weight x 1.5 bench/chins, body weight x 2 squat, body weight x 2.5 deadlift) in five years while being able to run a 45 minute 10k and a 20 minute 5k.
        Appearance-wise, I want to “look like I lift weights” by “average-guy standards”; I have no aspirations to even come close to the looks of, say, a fitness-model or natural bodybuilder (and probably couldn`t manage that if I tried). I guess that translates to falling into the “overweight” BMI category at an “acceptable” (less than 20%) body fat percentage – something like 195 lbs at 15% body fat would be great.
        (I am 5 ft. 10 in. tall, and currently “borderline obese” at 209 lbs; I have recently adopted a “Paleoish” whole-foods diet, and am slowly losing weight.)

        • How these sprints look really depends on your fitness level. Since you’re relatively new to exercising, fast walking uphill on the threadmill (perhaps with a dumbell in each hand) could be enough. 20 sec on and 20 sec breaks, repeated 10 times.

  5. “…get away with…”

  6. First off, I really like your simplistic strength training program. Too many novice lifters (you said you just started exercising so I’m guessing you’re new to strength training) do too much random stuff in the gym. Also, great that you’re eating a paleo-type diet!

    Not much to add really. However, 6 training days a week is too much for most people. I would replace one of the endurance sessions with some sprints directly after one of your strength training workouts.

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  8. jeffreydumonte says:

    I’m currently exploring the benefits of the paleo template–as opposed to diet–as well. I’m particularly interested in developing a diet that is best suited to my unique needs and lifestyle. I’ve been following the general outline laid out by here and in similar articles: http://chriskresser.com/beyond-paleo-moving-from-a-paleo-diet-to-a-paleo-template. Curious to know what you think of this approach…

    • I agree with pretty much everything Chris Kresser says in that article.

      I recommend primarily eating a “pure” paleo diet (meat, seafood, eggs, vegetables, fruits, and nuts), but including some legumes (which were actually consumed by some Paleolithic tribes) and grass-fed dairy products is generally unproblematic.

      Let me know if you have any further questions!

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