Saturday, December 15, 2012

Gnosticism in Health and Fitness

I want that blogger's secret knowledge

Increasingly I am finding that so much of the fitness & fitness blogosphere is a strange place which I am seeing more as a form of gnosticism.  Let me explain:

Gnosticism I suppose is something of a theological term.  From Wikipedia

Gnosticism comes from the Greek: gnosis which means knowledge. Some religions and sects mostly in the few hundred years before and after Christ are said to be gnostic or practice gnosticism.
This is because these religions believe that there is a special, hidden knowledge that only a few people may have.

Not to get into the theological aspects of all this, look at that last sentence:

these religions believe that there is a special, hidden knowledge that only a few people may have.
Gurus & Salesmen

So often we treat our interest in Health and Fitness this way.  We are on a constant search for the  "special, hidden knowledge".  The are looking for the secrets: the special diet, the new routine, the amazing new supplement or exercise.  And on this search we become vulnerable to the gurus and to the marketing people.

The gurus are the purveyors of this special knowledge.  They have their own unique approach to diet or exercise which so often is put forward as the One True Way.  We gather around them in tribes or sects: RenEx, Crossfit, RKC or whatever.  Paleo, WAPF, Primal.

As in cults and sects behind it all often there are those who see the congregation as a source of income. We buy the ebooks, the newsletters, the DVDs because we want the secret knowledges.....

We have gurus pedalling their secrets....which you can buy in a £29.95 ebook.  (Now I feel guilty as I am hawking my ebook in the top right!)

The mainstream

All this goes along with a mistrust of "the mainstream".  There is a scepticism about the conventional wisdom.  We see ourselves as brave reformers, asserting our truth, nailing our theses to the doors of the church of the medical and fitness professions.  We know better....

The thing is that the mainstream is often right!  I know lots of research scientists and while they are not perfect, they are on a professional scrutinised search for truth.  Journalists simplify and sensationalise, but the scientists are generally on an honest journey to find what works and how to get better.

It is difficult!

Reviewing the scientific literature some things are decided....lots are held provisionally.   But the obvious thing is that a lot of it is hard to understand!  It is rarely as simple as we like to make out.  The processes and systems of the body are very complicated.  The scientists that study them work hard for years to develop the knowledge necessary to look into these things.    Yet somehow we run to the bloggers.  Why do we think that we should be getting our health and fitness knowledge, even our health advice from a blogger not a medical professional?

The Gnostic approach makes us feel special

Rejecting the mainstream also makes us feel special, better than the others.  We know a better way and are not so simple and deceived as to believe the conventional.  PRIDE is at the root of this of course.  We want to think of ourselves as so much better than the others, elevated above the drones.

Simplicity, Persistence, Habit

What if it is all actually a lot simpler.  I think it is time to reject the search for the special knowledge and embrace the basics.  A sensible diet.  Exercise.  Sleep.  Social interaction.  Stress management.  Time outdoors.

Most of all though the need is for persistence.  Just keep going.

I have been guilty

I have been guilty of all of this and still am....but I am trying to moderate it.  I have jumped at paleo, kettlebells, HIIT, low carb, whatever the current trend is.  Some - like interval training - has science behind it, but it is rarely as sensationalist as we make it out to me.

Is there still interest in the simple path?  Walk lots, do resistance training, eat well and sleep?  Where is the cash in that?


WoLong said...

Well written, Chris, thanks for this post.

garymar said...

Interesting, Chris. I think part of it is that much of the health / fitness world is dominated by the needs of 2 different groups of people: the very, very ill, and the very, very athletic. These groups have pressing concerns that motivate a constant search for immediate answers.

Anonymous said...

Spot on. Very, very well done.

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris,
It sounds simple, " Walk lots, do resistance training, eat well and sleep? " but "eat well" might not be so simple
Eating well is quite probably where most people go wrong. I am one of those who have made the mistakes that you write about, trying new diets as they come along and finding that they don't work.
The additional problem of falling back to a traditional Scottish diet complicates the situation.
I also have a distinct aversion to scientific works relating to diet. As soon as I come to technical explanations of our human biochemistry, I fall asleep with excitement.
So I was very pleased to come across your "simple" guide to protein/fat/carbs calculation and I will give that a go. I find it very difficult to avoid bread though, it has been a staple for such a long time.
If I start now, I might be able to restrict the temptations of the Festive Period!
I came across your blog via a hillwalking blog. I wish I had found it sooner.

JamesSteeleII said...

Thanks for this Chris, just what I needed.

I'm finding myself becoming more and more agnostic with regards to various area's, openly saying I don't know and happy to continue using the simple persistent approach I currently use for myself and those who I work with. It may not squeeze out the last few percent of performance, but its pretty damn effective and I've more interesting things to spend my time doing (like finishing writing up the RPG I am running with my group of friends - I know, massive geek). That social interaction and fun is worth far more to me than obsessing and mentally masturbating over the minutiae. It still interests me, but its my job and I'm learning more and more to switch off from that when I get home and leave it at the office.

I've was chatting with my brother before we headed to the gym for our training session today about how some of my thoughts are developing with regards the set volume debate. Looking at James Kriegers rebuttal to Carpinelli I've reopened the question in my mind as to whether multiple sets are superior to singles. But my brother brought it home to me when he flatly said he wouldn't want to practically spend 3x, let alone 6x, as long in the gym doing what I put him through. He's got other things in his life to be getting on with. I had to agree with him. In a busy public gym our training session takes ~1hour for the both of us.

Simplicity makes application much easier.

Stephan Guyenet said...

Nice one Chris. I think you hit the nail on the head. In retrospect, I've also been guilty of this at times.

Anonymous said...

Yes Chris, there is a simple path and you hit it on the head..., "walk lots, resistance train, eat well and sleep." Where is the cash in that you ask; well, there is none. I've always said, "you can't sell the basics." No one wants to pay for or be told that all they have to do to get in shape and be healthy is perform a handful of exercises and engage in some daily activity. That's why every time we open a magazine or check out some blog it's choc full of new exercises or gidgets/gadgets promising to "rip up our abs." I've actually always kind of laughed at the very idea of the profession of personal trainer. The very fact that one person needs another person to "make" or "motivate" he or she to move is kind of silly. Please don't misunderstand me though. I know that many people, for one reason or another, as they age and because of obligations created by our fast-paced modern world, lose the ability to move fluidly, whether that be a sprint, squatting down to pick something up, heaving a weight, etc. Maybe they've never lifted a weight and need simple guidance on form. I get that. However, some personal trainers knowledge of proper form is questionable anyway. It just becomes absurd when many of these "gurus" as you mentioned, are charging $1000 a pop to so-call "teach one how to walk again." But, I digress, as Sisson's blond and bronzed physique sprints across the beaches of Malibu and Erwan's chiseled trapezius and latissimus dorsi flex in the hot sun as he tosses yet another log (where is he taking that damn log anyway) in the midst of paradise, seems to always draw us in for more. Chris, as you know, there are no secrets. How does anyone who has mastered anything get to where they are? They practice and practice, and practice the basics over and over and over again. They're consistent and persistent day in and day out. The same holds true for intellectuals to an extent. How does one become a doctor? By going to school for years and years and practicing and practicing. I don't see or hear of any doctors asking for the magic secret to give them all the knowledge. Why do we expect any different when it comes to our physical bodies? Even many of the well-respected strength and conditioning coaches in the game, I feel, get caught up in glitzing and glamming of things. Take Dan John's and Pavel's latest book, "Easy Strength." I'm expecting..., well, something simple and easy. Before I knew it, there were like 54 programs laid out in that book. Dan John should've just stopped at his 5 basic human movements; squat, push, pull, hinge, loaded carry (or sprint) - DONE! What more needs to be said? As far as eating and sleeping well... heh, Paleo this, Zone that, done em' all. Sure, they're all great and they all work - for a time, just like everything else. We shouldn't confine ourselves to specific foods or avoid ones that we like. If you want a little bit of bread, hell, have some bread, it WILL NOT kill you. Wine, chocolate, lean meats, fruits, veggies...? Like Michael Pollen says, "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.' Can't really argue with that. As far as sleep is concerned, man, I wish I had the answers! One thing that I hate being told is how I have to get "X" amount of hours of sleep per night. Listen, I exercise daily, eat well and socialize well however, I am a firefighter and paramedic at a very busy station. I wake up multiple times at night and breathe in exhaust from the truck daily. I'll probably die from cancer by the age of 63. What can I do? Do I know what is optimal? Sure. Can I do anything about it? Nope, not right now. I get up everyday and on most days I lift my weights, run fast, walk the dogs, eat 65%-90% paleo (I guess, huge margin I know), sleep when I'm tired and breathe fresh air when I can. Time will only tell.

Bren said...

This article and Michael Pollan's book on Food Rules (An Eaters Manual) are all I need in my health library. Terrific article.

tlaw said...

Very well written Chris, people think there is some secret, the secret is to begin, persist, diversify. No product can get you to start "wanting" to do better and "how much" you are willing to battle through.


Follow me on Twitter @tonylawl

and check out my website, its brand new!

Stuart Gilbert said...

With all sincerity I have to say thank you for writing this article. It honestly goes right up there in the top 5 things about fitness / health issues that I have ever read. I totally agree with every word. I read what you had written ( from the heart it seems ) and it immediately struck a chord with me. I too have been guilty of searching for a magic bullet over the years. I shudder to think of the amount of money I have spent over the years on training literature from different sources, who have caught my eye over the years, with sensationalist claims. So I feel we have travelled similar paths in this regard. The only consolation I can draw from the time and money spent ( I won't say wasted, because many dead ends finally led me to sources that I find are invaluable, such as yourself ) is the lesson taught by Bruce Lee on the journey of a martial artist through his life. He said that you have to spend time accumulating techniques, before finally stripping back most of what you have learnt, until you are left with what works for YOU. I think the same principle has to be applied here in most cases, unless you are extremely fortunate to stumble upon the one rich vein of information which will serve you well for the rest of your training days. But even then, the danger is that you will be at risk of having your head turned by sensationalist and even false advertising claims. I recently had a purge of training literature as we are currently moving house, I was absolutely shocked at how much I had accumulated over the years,( and how much I felt I could get rid of as I now consider it useless ) in an effort to discover "the secrets". I now only get "Master Trainer" by Richard Winett, who often promotes a reality check with regards to training, as you have done here. I had to smile reading the comment by James ( one , who like yourself I feel I can keep returning to on the internet for credible / sane advice time and time again ) regarding the sets issue. Richard has also commented on the same issue in his latest edition, and came to the same conclusions as James' brother. Even if 6 sets were even 6 times better in terms of development than one set ( and they are probably a long way )then if it is not as beneficial to you in terms of enjoyment and in fitting in with your life in general, then the sane person would draw a line and say "NO". Unfortunately, as we all know sensationalism, coupled with unreal expectations, often leads us to step off the logical path in search of the secrets. I'm glad that common sense has returned for me. A determination never to buy any more training "literature" ( Richard, Bill DeSimone and a couple of others who are still worth reading, Clarence Bass also springs to mind, are obvious exceptions )and also to quit the gym, where "dreams" and illogical practices fuelled by "Bro Science" abound, and instead train at home, has helped me greatly in this regard.

Chris said...

Thanks for all the comments. I wrote this quite quickly yesterday afternoon and didn't really plan or edit it; I was trying to express some of my frustration and disillusionment and I hope I achieved that.

Chris said...


My main love is hillwalking - my other blog is where I give accounts of my walks in the Scottish Hills. I am gradually ticking off Munros - about 25 still to do - but am in no rush to finish.

Diets can get pretty complicated but it is an area where there are so many gurus.....Try using to track your intake for a few days. It is eye-opening. Emphasise protein and just eat real food.

Chris said...


Thanks for your comment.

I totally agree with your brother. Maybe 3 sets might give an advantage of some degree.......but there is more to life than the gym. If I can hit it hard in one set and then get out then that is worth it to me.

I was also trying to get across the idea that while I am looking for simplicity human physiology can be quite complicated. The experts are the scientists, not necessarily the bloggers!

Chris said...


Thanks for the comment. It means a lot to me that you still visit this blog.

Chris said...

Anon, Bren, Tony - thanks for your kind words and encouragement

Chris said...



Richard Winnet and Clarence Bass are good guys. Honest deep thinkers with great experience. I agree that their stuff is always worth reading. Alan Aragon is great for nutrition research too.

Chris said...

Oh and Stuart, I should have mentioned Bill DeSimone - one of the best!

Skyler Tanner said...

I just wanted to let you know that I have the secret for learning how to not be attached to secret training wisdom.

Chris said...


you should write an ebook on that and sell it via Clickbank.

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris,
Thanks for the link to your hillwalking site. I will drop in there regularly. I reached about 200 Munro's many many years ago but have no desire to "compleat". Why drive for hours just to do some hills when you pass dozens of better hills on the way? So I go to the ones that I enjoy the most, even if I have done them a dozen times before.
Anyway, back to the crunch of the matter. Using your 12 times bodyweight calc, then quantifying protein/carbs/fat, I did a quick check on my food intake for Saturday and Sunday. Daily calories were okay, carbs were slightly under, protein was way under and fat was too high.
Not really surprising I guess. My simple analysis highlighted the culprits, they will get the chop, but the protein requirement look like a challenge. I suppose that's why you use whey in your porridge.
So the fridge is nearly empty, then I will restock with better choice stuff and run the Myfitnesspal facility to keep track.
Many thanks for your help and insight.

Anonymous said...

The cash is in helping people, who are either inherently lazy or confused, through the process. Many in the "consulting" business, for whatever business, just end up confirming for people/businesses what they already know and help guide them through the process of change. It is no different with health and fitness. There is plenty of cash to be made.

Anonymous said...


I'm very surprised you don't have Clarence Bass's excellent site ( on your Favorite Places list. His is just as good as the best ones on your list and twice as good as the rest. Check it out sometime. His is "anti-gnostic", especially compared to some of those groups you mentioned (CrossFit, RenEx).

Chris said...


We mentioned Clarence a couple of times in the comments above. He should really be in my list of links. I've mentioned him a few times on this blog before and we have exchanged emails a few times.

Clarence is one of the best. It is interesting though that is was through him that I was first exposed to many of the gurus - Pavel, Art DeVany, Matt Furey (remember him?!).

Clarence is such a good example in so many ways.

Aileen said...

Well you know if you don't have a "secret" you don't have a marketing edge do you!

My biggest training 'secret' is consistency. I'm out with facet joint problems right now and lying around for 4-5 days doesn't help my program AT all. and the worst thing is I don't know what started it this time.

Aileen said...

Oh and I forgot to mention I'm a woman! Does ANYONE cater for women. From research through to training, especially for older women (non obese, diabetic etc). Who still work ie don't have endless training hours, let alone consistent training hours. No wonder I can't find any in the gym - I am an endangered species! No wonder so many women have a distorted view of themselves. Oh hold on - maybe that's me? Is it so wrong to think I need to have the strength (and its not really that much) to change a tyre? I don't wish to wait for the RAC :-)

Ondrej said...

Maybe you could update Favorite Places to emphasise ideas you still consider at least partly valid:P

Chris said...


Check out Amber's writings at gokaleo

Chris said...


I've updated the links a little. It is not that I consider things invalid, I was more expressing frustration with myself at following each new trend and fad that appears. Each time I think I find the secret....each time it is not as senational as it is made out to be

Thomas said...

"Is there still interest in the simple path? Walk lots, do resistance training, eat well and sleep? Where is the cash in that?'

OK, but that's like saying "to make more money, take the simple path: you just have to go to university and get a degree, without any additional guidance.

Yes, I think I'll major in basket weaving. Now, where is my money? Uh oh..oops.

Often, the devil is in the details, right? While guys like RenEx come off as esoteric and gnostic to many, they still offer valuable and specific guidance that help people reach their goals while still maintaining their busy lifestyle.

And they focus on safety, something that isn't even mentioned in "Walk lots, do resistance training, eat well and sleep". Safety is often forgotten in goal focused, hung-ho, health oriented individuals (enter CrossFit here). I see this all of the time.

While I agree with the basic premise of your article, we need to be careful that we don't label people and systems that we don't understand as gnostic waste.

Congruent Exercise said...

Excellent. The last fitness post anyone ever needs to read. Except mine, of course;)

Aileen said...

Chris I looked at kaleo's stuff before when you recommended it. I don't have a problem with it except I simply can't do a lot of that stuff with my back any more. It gets me into a world of trouble! I have to do back friendly stuff so back squats are only light and powerlifting stuff like snatches and power cleans are really asking for trouble. I do more one legged stuff. I am short - 5 foot 2 and have really bad facet joints at L4-L5 and L5-S1. I've just had three days off work and a trip to the physio because its stirred up now. But just because we have dicky bits doesn't mean we're helpless and we can't be strong and can't train. I run fine. But when people find out my back is dicky they automatically assume that many years of weights and running is the cause. But as a horticulturalist I've had years of bending, lifting and twisting that's probably just as much as the cause. Plus I'm pretty mobile, very short waisted, sway backed and with slight scoliosis. You can't help your parents! Bill de Simone is more helpful for people like me.

Patrick said...

It's funny someone mentioned Easy Strength by Dan John and Pavel, because it's what I was thinking about when I read this post. The previous commenter mentioned there were "were like 54 programs laid out in that book," which is true, but what strikes me as funny is what the authors say on page 138:

"But for most of us, we will reach our goals far more quickly and relatively easier by following a focused diet and a simplified lifting program.

Thanks gurus, because that's exactly what we do with our clients.

Is it easy? Not necessarily. But it's pretty simple.

1) Basic strength training movements

2) Making fat loss a priority in your life

And let me just add this: people will always need coaching or instruction for something they can't accomplish on their own. Doesn't really matter the topic.

What I recommend to clients is they use us until they can do it consistently on their own. "Consistently" being the key word. For some that means working with us for a few months, while others may need us for the long haul...

Chris said...

Bill (Congruent Exercise)

Thanks for the comment.

Chris said...


I'd agree that Bill's stuff is very solid and sensible. Injury is the last thing we want and will destroy what is most important - consistency. Most of my training is around movements of which he would approve. Pushups, split squats or wall sits, dumbbell rows. Staying safe, using sound movements is so important.

Chris said...


This wasn't particularly aimed at RenEx...but people do follow them in this way.

eyelash perming said...

I want that bloggers secret knowledge Increasingly I am finding that so much of the fitness & fitnes.

Anonymous said...

The word "biohacking" comes to mind here.

Ondrej said...

I don't think you can really hack our organism...there are so many positive/negative feedbcack mechanisms to ensure proper's not hacking, but using the appropriate stimuli to get the desired response while acknowledging that our influence is limited and ve can't really control the process to the finest degree.

Anonymous said...

Outstanding post!

Unknown said...

Thanks Chris for this post.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for verbalizing what I have been thinking for a couple of years. My common sense has told me all the extremes of any sort - diet, fitness, money-making, etc - fail the smell test...and yet...I get bored, wander to a paleo (or whatever) site and get sucked in again. Sometimes my mind seems to scream for a break, and I promise myself no more. Then I am back at it in no time.

Perhaps I should have just one New Year's resolution, a health/fitness blog diet. I just can't take it any more.

You are SO right that consistency with the basics (that we all kind of know by age 10 or 20 at the latest) is all we really need to be simply fit and healthy, and then to get on with life. I've experienced that consistency for a few recent periods in my life, and when I stopped to notice, I was in great shape, at my lowest/best weight ever, and looked and felt like a million bucks.

My new fitness/health plan is "trust your gut" or "to thine own self be true," for no one else can possibly know what is best for each of us as individuals.

Thanks again for writing with such clarity and at a time when I really needed to read this.

Happy New Year to all!