About jonathan.thompson

Jonathan Thompson is a Certified Personal Trainer and Running Coach with the American Council on Exercise, specializing in nutrition. In addition to his real-world experience working with clients, his articles and blogs on fitness advice have been published on many websites and magazines.

What You Should Know About IIFYM

If you’ve been around the health and fitness community for any length of time – particularly online – you’ve more than likely encountered “IIFYM.” Short for “If It Fits Your Macros,” this term has spread across the internet and has gone from being a pithy piece of nutritional advice to defining a whole diet. So, what exactly is IIFYM and what should you know about it before fully embracing the concept?


What It Means

According to Examine.com, IIFYM got it’s start on the Bodybuilding.com forums. Dieters would post a question, asking if they could have a particular food, and the popular answer became a simple “IIFYM.”

The idea represented by those five letters is that you can essentially eat anything you want, as long as it stays within your limits of total calories, protein, fat and carbohydrates – macronutrients (macros). Eventually, this simple phrase spawned an entire diet and subgroup within the fitness community.


The Problem

The idea behind IIFYM – sometimes called flexible dieting – has definite merit. Allowing yourself the freedom to enjoy “treats” occasionally without being overly concerned with what you’re eating is a proven way to prevent discouragement and burnout while dieting.

And, for many people, this is all that IIFYM means. But for many others, the phrase has become an excuse to indulge in junk food… IIFYM. Writing for Breaking Muscle fitness expert Kyle Hunt, himself a flexible dieter, made some interesting comments on this. Hunt even states that this is a misconception about IIFYM that started with memes on social networks, depicting all sorts of junk food, put out there just to poke at clean-eaters. But the truth is that there are people who jump on the IIFYM wagon using these memes to set their dietary standards.

Flexible dieting is a liberating and effective way to eat. But you should not ignore quality of calories. If you were to compare 200 calories of walnuts to 200 calories of potato chips, the walnuts would doubtless give you a better nutrient profile. There is also the concern that chips – and many processed foods – contain artificial additives that increasingly demonstrate negative health effects. Many processed foods, for instance, contain emulsifiers that studies have shown can damage gut bacteria in a way that significantly increases the risk of obesity, diabetes and digestive conditions. The same can be said for artificial sweeteners.

The problem, then, is not IIFYM itself but rather the way that some misguided people use the phrase. As Examine.com puts it, “A more precise meaning of IIFYM would ‘if you have gotten high quality food and have reached your general macronutrient targets, there is nothing wrong with indulging in food.'”

By all means, enjoy your food and do not feel like you need to heavily restrict your diet. But don’t go to the other extreme and disregard the quality of a calorie.





Can Prebiotic Fiber Help With Weight Loss?

Dietary fiber is sort of an odd thing, nutritionally speaking. It is vital for our health and significant amounts of it are recommended each day (38g for men, 25g for women) – but our bodies can’t actually digest it. Still, this tough stuff has been connected to a huge number of health benefits, including improved digestion, reduced cholesterol, balanced blood sugar and – most famously – weight loss.

This ability of fiber to help you achieve a healthy weight has really been the reason that so many people pay attention to it. We have known for a long time that fibrous food tends to contain fewer calories while making you feel fuller for longer periods – thus preventing you from overeating. But, recent research shows that a surprising mechanism is at work here.


A Surprising Connection

It’s an odd and somewhat off-putting concept, but there are innumerable microorganisms living inside of your digestive tract. The existence of this gut bacteria isn’t a newly discovered fact, but experts are only just starting to understand the impact that these little bugs have on our health.

In a new study from the University of Calgary, a team of researchers demonstrated a powerful and surprising link between dietary fiber, gut bacteria and weight loss. Mice that were fed a high-fat, high-sugar diet were split into two groups: the control and those fed dietary fiber in addition to the diet. It’s very important to know that the fiber was a particular type, called oligofructose.

At the end of the study, the team reported that the fiber-fed mice gained much less weight than the control group.


How It Works and How To Use It

The reason that oligofructose was used in this study is because this specific fiber is known to act as a prebiotic – a nutrient that is especially useful to your but bacteria. While the exact mechanisms are not fully understood, it’s clear that oligofructose changed the gut bacteria of the mice in such a way that weight gained is restricted. Previous studies have demonstrated this property in humans but this study was the first to look closely at effects of the fiber on gut bacteria.

It’s also interesting to note that the oligofructose changed the hormone profile in mice so that they felt full longer and therefore craved less food.

But, as always, we need to be clear that there is no magic bullet for weight loss. Oligofructose alone should not be seen as a replacement for healthy eating and regular exercise. The fiber could be used, though, to give your otherwise healthy lifestyle an extra boost.

Core Exercises Off The Floor

When we talk about working your abs – or core – the first thing most people think of is the classic crunch. And, don’t get me wrong, the crunch has it’s place. In fact, according to two separate studies – one in 2001 and the other in 2014 – both conducted by the American Council on Exercise (ACE), the crunch is still the best overall core exercise.

Sort of. For one thing, many people just do the crunch wrong and end up either limiting the effectiveness of the exercise or causing injury to their lower backs. Many more have preexisting injuries that stop them from even attempting the crunch.

But another issue comes up when you consider the mechanics of human movement. Your core is just not made to be doing much while you’re lying down. Those muscles are meant to keep you upright and moving correctly. So, it stands to reason that the best way to work them would be while you’re standing up.

What follows are some simple exercises that you can do to work your core while standing. These having the added benefit of training your balance and stability – aspects that are very valuable to the athlete.



  1. Woodchoppers – Stand with your legs about shoulder-width apart so that your left leg is slightly ahead of your right. Hold either a medicine ball, a dumbbell or a cable handle in both your hands with the weight resting on your right side and your arms straight. Keeping your knees soft lift the weight up and across your body so that it comes above your left shoulder. Slowly return to starting position. Switch the position of your feet and weight to work the right side.
  2. Around-the-worlds – Stand with your feet even, about shoulder-width apart. Hold a medicine ball or dumbbell in both your hands, with the weight resting in front of you and your arms straight. Tighten your core to stay upright and swing the weight in a wide circle, clockwise around your body. Keep your arms straight throughout the movement. After 10 reps, pause and reverse direction.
  3. Side bends – There are several ways you can work the side bend movement, but holding the weight above your head adds a challenging element that can help improve balance and posture more than the traditional take. Stand with your feet at shoulder-width and hold a weight above your head. Keeping your arms straight and your knees soft, bend your torso as far as you can to the left. Slowly return to center before repeating the movement on your right side.

Try adding these movements to your normal workouts as a way to improve, not only the strength of your core, but also your balance and posture.

Fast Food – the New Recovery Trick?

When a 2012 study reported that chocolate milk was an effective post-exercise recovery drink, athletes and exercisers everywhere rejoiced. Not only did the findings mean that you could save money by skipping some of the fairly expensive recovery products out there, but it also gave you an excuse to drink chocolate milk guilt-free.

A similar wave of excitement – albeit with a little more hesitation – is sweeping the health and fitness realm in response to a University of Montana research paper entitled “Post-exercise Glycogen Recovery and Exercise Performance is Not Significantly Different Between Fast Food and Sport Supplement.” While the title itself may not be particularly exciting, the findings of the study carry some interesting revelations for athletes when it comes to post-exercise nutrition.


What They Did and What They Found

For the study, 11 male subjects (all recreational athletes) completed two separate time trials on a stationary bike. First the men took on a 90-minute ride, designed to deplete their glycogen stores, followed by 4 hours of rest. During this rest period, muscle biopsies were taken to measure glycogen levels.

The subjects were also given a recovery meal, consisting of either traditional sports supplements or fast food. Each of the meals was designed to contain roughly the same amounts of total calories (about 1300) and macronutrients. At the end of the 4 hour rest break, the men were put back on their bikes for a 20K time trial.

After various numbers – including performance, glucose response, insulin response, cholesterol response – were crunched, there was no difference between the fast food and the sports supplements.


Implications and Cautions

After this story first broke several months ago, many publications latched onto it. But, according to one of the authors of the study, these articles misrepresented the findings. This study is not a free pass to load up on fast food.

The positive results in the study, related to eating fast food as a means of recovery, were achieved with small portions.

You also have to consider that food contains a lot more than just calories – especially fast food. There are plenty of preservatives, dyes, flavorings and texturizers added to processed food that may have any number of negative health effects. While these additives most likely will not have any acute impact on your athletic performance, they probably aren’t doing you any favors in the long-term. So, then, you have a choice to make: If you do not typically indulge in fast food, you may consider allowing yourself this one dietary lapse as a recovery meal. On the other hand, your repulsion from fast food might be too strong to even let that slide.

Either way, the facts remain: Fast food is – depending on your personal attitude toward the subject – an acceptable recovery meal. If your dietary conscience allows and you can practice moderation, grabbing a bite from the nearest fast food establishment can provide you with a cheaper, more accessible option than the more traditional sports recovery foods on the market.

Does Unstable Surface Training Work?

If you walk into just about any training facility anywhere, you’re likely to see instability training equipment – even if you don’t recognize it by that very clinic name. Sometimes called “unstable surface training,” this approach uses things like Swiss balls, BOSU balls and suspension trainers to challenge your balance while training for strength. The idea is that this extra element will help you make faster progress, especially in core strength and balance, than tradition strength training would.

For athletes in most sports, this seems like a profitable concept. After all, improving your balance can both reduce risk of injury and increase your overall efficiency of movement. With claims like that, it makes sense that what was once a training modality limited to rehabilitation has quickly spread into the athletic world.

But, we have to asked the unfortunate question: Does it work?


Defining Your Expectations

Within the realm of health and fitness, this is often a very difficult question to answer. Really, it all depends on what you expect unstable training to do for you; How do you define “work?”

Looking at the classic uses – that of decreasing lower back pain and encouraging recovery from injuries –  it seems like unstable training does work. Numerous studies have shown that resistance training performed using these unstable surfaces can challenge the core and other muscles in such a way that these aspects of fitness significantly improve.

Studies have also backed up the use of unstable training as a way to prevent injury in athletes. Specifically when it comes to the all-too-common knee and shoulder injuries, regularly incorporating unstable surfaces into your strength training program can help to condition your muscles so that they operate in a balanced way – preventing problems down the road.

This “does it work?” question becomes a little messy, though, when we get into the world of strength and power.


Picking A Side

All of the above-mentioned benefits of unstable training could be invaluable to you in various stages of your training. However, the balance-testing element of it could also limit your development of both strength and power.

Because your muscles and joints are struggling just to keep you upright, unstable training prevents complete muscle activation. Put simply, your body just has too much going on to worry about fully contracting your muscles. Without forceful muscle contractions, you will not see the same increased in strength that you might from a more traditional program.

A recent study in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine, though, compared the benefits of a traditional circuit workout versus one performed on unstable surfaces. Keep in mind that circuit training is typically not focused on developing strength, but usually shows more general improvements in fitness.

At the end of the trial, there was no significant difference between the two programs in strength, power, speed or jumping ability. This means that, when it comes to circuit training, you can have your pick between stable or unstable training. Since unstable training requires specialized equipment and can be more difficult, though, it doesn’t seem to be worth it.






What’s The Best Shoulder Exercise?

Your shoulders – or deltoids – are extremely important muscles regardless of your chosen sport or daily routine. Unfortunately, the delts are also a commonly neglected muscle group. So, what’s the best shoulder exercise?

As it turns out, that’s a pretty difficult question to answer. The deltoids are actually an extremely complex muscle group that, unlike many muscle groups, can perform flexion, extension, rotation and other movements. To accomplish this remarkable range of motion, the deltoids are actually made up of three difficult muscle groups – the anterior, medial and posterior deltoids – that work around a ball-and-socket joint. Because of this commonly unappreciated complexity, many people tend to have an unbalanced training program that usually just focuses on the anterior delts – those in the front that we see when we look in the mirror. Those are the show-delts.

To help sort through all this, the American Council on Exercise (ACE) sponsored a study that examined how a number of popular shoulder exercise activate this essential muscle group. Their results are useful, eye-opening and a little frustrating.


A Complicated Answer

Specifically, the study used 10 of the most common shoulder exercises. The list included:

  • dumbbell shoulder press
  • push-up
  • cable diagonal raise
  • dips
  • dumbbell front raise
  • battling ropes
  • barbell upright row
  • bent-arm lateral raise
  • 45-degree incline row
  • seated rear lateral raise

Each of the 16 participants in the study performed 5 reps of each exercise at 70 percent of their 1RM (except in the case of battle ropes, push-ups and dips). During the sets, the subjects wore electrodes that monitored how thoroughly each exercise activated the various parts of the deltoid group.


What They Found

Here’s where things get irritating: there’s no one exercise that effectively works all three parts of the delts. And this is a problem since – as with any muscle group – training imbalances can cause some significant problems and even injuries.

The real question, then, is which exercise works best for each deltoid portion? For the anterior delts, it seems like the dumbbell shoulder press is the best option. The 45-degree incline row was most effective for the medial group. Finally, the seated rear lateral raises were best for your posterior delts.

What we see, then, is that a complete shoulder routine cannot consist of just one exercise – which is actually pretty common. To be a solid workout, you really need to include several exercise that work your shoulders from different angles. That being said, this study did show that the medial deltoids get worked along with the anterior or posterior in several exercises.

According to these findings, a balanced shoulder routine would consist of the dumbbell shoulder press and either the 45-degree incline row or the seated rear lateral raises. While the 45-degree rows do not activate the posterior delts as well as the rear lateral raise, they have a greater effect on both the medial while still significantly working the rear delts. Also, many people find the 45-degree rows more comfortable – which is worth considering when it comes to exercise choice.

So, there you have it: There isn’t a best shoulder exercise because the shoulders aren’t just a one-directional muscle that can be totally worked with a single movement. To get the greatest benefits, while preventing injury, design your workouts to challenge all aspects of your delts.






Is Souping the New Juicing?

Juice cleanses and detox programs have been all the rage for several years. As it turns out, though, it seems like a new fad is on rise: souping. In fact, several companies have even gained rapid success selling either premade soups that make up a complete detox program or “soup makers” so that you can make your own healthy soups at home.

So, let’s get down to it: Is souping worth it? What are the benefits of this new fad? What do you need to now?


The Deal With Detox

The first thing that we need to address is the proposed detox benefits of both juicing and souping. In short, cleanses do not work. Or, if they do, there is no science to prove either their efficacy or necessity.

Your body has natural systems in place for removing toxins – primarily, your liver and kidneys. And these do an excellent job. It is true that some of the more dangerous chemicals are not removed by the liver and kidneys, but that’s because these substances are fat-soluble. This means that even a high-fiber cleanse wouldn’t be able to get to them since they are stored in your body fat. The only way to reliably get rid of any potential toxins, then, is to lose weight. And research backs this up, suggesting that slender people are more efficient when it comes to naturally getting rid of these chemicals.

Any weight-loss benefits attributed to these detoxes are generally because the programs are severally calorie-restricted. One of the most popular soup cleanses on the market right now, for example, provides just about 1200 calories in a single day. The standard juice cleanses would likely be even less.


Souping Vs. Juicing

All that being said, is there any benefit that souping has over juicing?

Depending on the ingredients used, many juices are extremely high in sugars and can carry a considerable glycemic load. Souping, on the other hand, tends not to have the same impact. Again, it all depends on the ingredients used.

Soups will also likely be more filling and made with heartier ingredients, so you may not encounter the same feelings of hunger that you would on a juice cleanse.


Final Word

All in all, cleanses are unnecessary – regardless of whether they include soups or juices. There is no proof that either approach can effectively help your body remove toxins, or that it even needs help.

It is worth stating, however, that following an extremely low calorie diet for an extended period can be damaging to your metabolism and encourage counter-productive yoyo dieting. In terms of weight loss and general health, it’s much more effective to simply eat a balanced diet and allow your body to do it’s job.






Does Crossfit Work?

Crossfit began humbly. But since it’s creation in 2000, the intense workout has spread from just one founding gym (or “box”) to several thousand worldwide, with many more thousand loyal adherents and coaches. And, when you look at the anecdotal results of Crossfit, it’s popularity really isn’t that surprising: It seems to work and work well.

But there is a surprising lack of research surrounding Crossfit. That, combined with the somewhat frightening intensity of the workouts, naturally leads to the question: Does Crossfit work? Beyond that, is there anything else you need to know about the routine before you decide to dive in?




Very often, Crossfitters point to any number of studies touting the undeniable benefits of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) as a way to support their particular style of workout. This does make sense – technically – since Crossfit could be classified as a form of HIIT. But the studies cited are generally performed using cycling, running or some other workout that is pretty far removed from anything you’re likely to see in a box.

In an effort to specifically test the effectiveness of Crossfit, the American Council on Exercise commissioned John Porcari, Ph.D., head of the University of Wisconsin’s Clinical Exercise Physiology program to lead a study that would answer this question. The study involved 16 healthy, trained volunteers (both male and female) and asked them to perform two different Crossfit Workouts of the Day (WODs). The WODs chosen were called Donkey Kong and Fran, and have both been featured on the Crossfit website to be performed by boxes and individuals.

Before, during and after each of the workouts heart rate, calorie expenditure, blood lactate production, ratings of perceived exertion (RPE) and VO2max were all monitored.

Not all that surprisingly, both WODs were extremely effective by all measurements. The male subjects burned an average of 20.5 calories/minute and the women burned about 12.3 calories/minute – both very impressive for fit subjects who would typically require fewer calories. Both heart rate and VO2 skyrocketed, agreeing with the RPE that these workouts were very challenging for all of the subjects.

So, there you have it: Crossfit workouts. But, that’s not really the end of the discussion.


Things to Consider

Remember that all of the subjects involved were already in fairly good – or even excellent – shape. And these WODs were still very difficult for them to complete. The point is that Crossfit is not for beginners.

In fact, the danger of Crossfit has been widely accepted and even embraced by both it’s creator and his disciples. Cartoon clowns called Pukey and Uncle Rhabdo (short for the potentially fatal condition, rhabdomyolysis) can be found on posters and shirts throughout the Crossfit landscape. Glassman even told the New York Times in 2005 “It can kill you… I’ve always been completely honest about that.”

A big part of the problem is that Crossfit places a powerful emphasis on speed, even at the cost of proper form. This can be an extremely dangerous trade when you’re dealing with Olympic lifts and handstand pushups.

If you do decide to give Crossfit a try, then, know that there is a high risk if you aren’t already in excellent shape. Even then, avoid giving into the pressure to sacrifice your form for speed.







Common Food Additive Contributing To Obesisty

In the past several years there’s been in a shift in the way that people view food. For many people, long lists of mysterious ingredients is a strong motivator to walk away. And, as we learn more and more about these additives, the more this approach makes sense. A few years ago, many parents started crusading against certain dyes and preservatives, asserting that these caused ADD and other conditions in their children. Just recently, a group of researchers reported that caramel color – found in a staggering array of foods and beverages – can also expose you to a potent carcinogen. And these are just a few examples.

A new study, though, shows that another common group of additives called emulsifiers could be contributing to colitis, obesity, metabolic syndrome and a host of related conditions. Let’s take a closer look at that study.


Messed Up Bugs

While it’s often a strange thought for many people, you are an ecosystem. Dwelling both on your skin and throughout the inner workings of your body, there are myriads of bacteria. Of special importance are those that inhabit your digestive tract, working along with your body to make sure that your food gets properly absorbed and even producing nutrients that are vital for life.

Clearly, these microorganism are extremely important and do plenty of good for your body. But, is it possible that things could work the other way? Could they have a negative influence on your system?

According to a new study published in the journal Nature, yes. Fortunately, though, the study also gives us clues as to how to keep the bugs happy and healthy – thereby doing the same for us.

Before beginning their research, the team noticed that the trend of obesity, diabetes and digestive problems steadily began an upturn when emulsifiers where introduced to many processed foods. These substances thicken food and can also act as preservatives, making them extremely useful and widespread.

Specifically, the team decided to see what two of the most common emulsifiers – polysorbate 80 and carboxymethylcellulsose – did to the gut bacteria of mice. Interestingly, a diet which included these two chemicals cause the bacteria to change in such a way that it was able to bypass your body’s natural defenses, systems designed to keep it in specific areas. This migration caused high levels of inflammation which, in turn, caused colitis and other digestive disorders. The mice also tended to eat more and were therefore more likely to be obese and develop metabolic syndrome.

It’s also very interesting to note that when the emulsifiers were given to mice that had no gut bugs, they experienced none of the adverse symptoms. When some of the altered bacteria from emulsifier-fed mice was transplanted to the bug-free mice, though, they also developed systems. These additional findings make it fairly plain that it is not the emulsifiers themselves, nor the bacteria, that are the problems. Instead, the issue is when the two are mixed together.

So what does this mean for you? Human studies, and research into other types of emulsifiers are pending. In the meantime, this just drives home the value of sticking to whole, natural foods.








The Achilles Tendon and Downhill Running

For runner’s, the Achilles tendon tends to be a pretty troublesome body part. Of course, we need it – it’s incredibly important to our balance and suspension – but it is also notoriously easy to injure. In fact, an estimated 52 percent of runners will hurt their Achilles tendon at some point in their career.

Out of fear of this, many runners tailor their training to avoid putting undo stress on their Achilles tendon. One of the most frequently touted techniques used to protect this tendon is to limit downhill running – something that can be very challenging for long-distance runners. Clearly, if you participate in marathons or other endurance events, you can’t totally avoid ups and downs in your course. And changes in grades also tend to focus on different muscles, which need to be trained.

So, runners are presented with a challenge: How do you train for downhill running without destroying your Achilles? As it turns out, the solution is pretty simple.


Don’t Overthink It

A recent study looked at this issue to try to see just how much the Achilles tendon can take. As it turns out, the tendon is much more adaptable and resilient then people give it credit for.

For the study, the researchers recruited 20 trained female runners who could all complete a 5K in under 24 minutes. The subjects were than asked to run three different running trials that were flat, inclined and declined, with 48 hours between runs. Before and after each trial, the researchers examined the thickness and stretch of each woman’s Achilles tendon – with the understanding that exercise typically makes the tissue thinner and more pliant. Other techniques were used to monitor the runners’ stride and strike-force.

While it is true that downhill running put a huge amount of stress of the Achilles tendon, it’s also true that there were no signs of damage to the tendon. These findings suggest that downhill running does not actually increase your risk of injury.

Even though this is great news for runners, the study’s authors did include a word of caution: Gradually transition to downhill running so that your tendons can adapt to the greater impact forces. One of the authors, Iain Hunter, went on to say that “The main cause of any running injury is a sudden change in training.”


In Application

Ultimately, then, it is safe – and important – for endurance runners to train for downhill runs. But this training needs to be done gradually, slowly increasing the severity of the decline and the time you spend running downhill.

Obviously, this is easier if you have access to a treadmill that will allow you to control and measure how steep the decline is. Otherwise, it might be tricky to find naturally occurring hills that can work for this type of training.

Be sure to listen to your body, as well, and pay attention for warning signs that you could be pushing yourself too hard. If your ankles feel stiff or swollen after the exercise, give them amble rest time. Stop your run immediately, though, if that pain sets in while you’re exercising.