My Number One Workout Rule: Don’t Listen Too Hard To Tracy Anderson

Photo: John Lamparski/Getty Images.
I’m not exactly surprised that celebrity fitness person Tracy Anderson’s recent interview with Well+Good consisted almost entirely of body-shaming, fear-mongering, and unscientific “facts” about fitness — that’s sort of her brand. But I guess I am somewhat surprised that we’re still giving Anderson a platform to spread these myths. I will say this: I’ve interviewed Anderson before — for Fit Pregnancy magazine — and found her take on pre- and post-natal fitness surprisingly comforting and reasonable. Unfortunately, she doesn’t seem to take the same approach to life outside of procreation. As an ACE-certified trainer and Refinery29’s director of health and wellness, I’m here to urge you — implore you — to take anything Anderson says about what you should be doing in the gym with a grain of salt. To that end, here are my six (maybe surprising? maybe not) workout rules.

1. Working large muscles is good for you. Anderson says that less is more, and large muscles are a roadblock. But in fact, the largest muscles in your body are set up that way because they’re responsible for most of the daily work of living — you need glutes and quads to help you walk, abs to help you keep yourself upright, and lats to help you move your arms around, pick things up, and put them down. Making sure these larger muscles are strong helps you live your life more comfortably and efficiently. They also help you age better: Squatting with resistance helps keep your lower half strong throughout your life, which helps ensure that you’ll be able to sit down and stand up with ease even as you get older. Plus, it’s a true joy right now to be able to lift your suitcase into the overhead bin of an airplane without needing anyone’s help. Believe me, I’ve done the teeny-tiny-movements-with-teeny-tiny-weights thing, and while I did notice a bit of definition, I could barely lift my cat.

2. Working large muscles helps you achieve many solid fitness goals. (No, I’m not done talking about large muscles.) Beyond the functional benefits, these muscles give you the most bang for your buck in terms of time in the gym — you have to engage many of the smaller accessory muscles around the big guys in order to use them properly, so everyone gets some attention. Crazy coincidence: That’s also just how bodies work — your muscles work in tandem, not in isolation. Anyway, I can attest that when I started focusing my workouts almost exclusively on movements like squats, clean and jerks, snatches, and push presses, the smaller muscles in my arms became more defined than ever, even though I hadn’t done a single bicep curl or tricep dip in months. And while metabolic function may not your goal, if it is, working these muscles contributes to a greater metabolic boost than focusing on the little ones.

3. Lifting heavy weights makes you stronger — not bulkier.
Okay, Anderson didn’t say the word “bulky” in this recent interview, but it’s basically implied (plus, she’s said many times, including on this website, that “bulkiness” is a major exercise risk for the fairer sex: “98% of women will bulk completely.” Okay.). First, can we do away with the idea that bulky is bad? Or that any body type is bad? Not everyone wants to look like a tiny waif. Personally, I see female Olympic weightlifters and CrossFit athletes and think, Damn, girl. But moreover, it’s actually pretty freaking hard to build visually noticeable muscle mass when you’re a woman — you pretty much have to have the right genetics and frame, a seriously intense workout regimen, and a focused diet, sleep, and hydration schedule to do it. And might I share this photo of myself after nearly two years of regular CrossFit and weightlifting sessions — during which I regularly chugged protein shakes and ate crazy amounts of meat? Not all bodies are the same, but even when I tried to get more muscular, it was actually difficult. (Unrelated note: The CashCats tote bag is from onepurrrcent.com.)
Photo: Courtesy of Anna Maltby.
4. Damaging your muscles is the point. Anderson really shows her true colors (as, btw, a fitness empresario who literally has zero fitness certifications or bona fides, according to this fantastic New York Times story) when she touts her method as not being damaging to muscles. Damage sounds bad, but when it comes to your muscles, it’s actually a great thing. Moving a weight results in structural damage (tiny tears, basically) to your muscles, and when that damage is repaired, your muscles end up stronger than before. (That’s why you feel a little sore the day after an awesome workout — your muscle fibers are working overtime to patch up the tears.) No muscle damage = no point to even thinking about working your muscles in the first place.

5. You do not have to exercise every day. If you love doing it and feel motivated by a daily appointment with the gym, as Anderson seems to be, go for it. But for many people, thinking of a workout as a daily requirement feels too overwhelming — and skippable. The official recommendations from the American Heart Association are to get 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week, and that’s an awesome rule of thumb. (More can be better, to a certain extent, but that doesn’t mean going with the recommendations — or even doing less exercise than recommended but still being active sometimes — isn’t good for you.) Even if you are exercising all the time, rest is a really important factor: That’s actually when the aforementioned muscle repair happens. Exercise is simply not one-size-fits-all, and the key is determining a program and schedule that you’ll actually be able to stick to. If that’s three times a week? Go for it. Personally, at my most active, I was working out about five to six times per week (two CrossFits, one yoga, one Pilates, and a cardio session). Right now I’m netting about four to five workouts per week (one to two Pilates classes, one to two lifting sessions, a cardio session and maybe a yoga class if I can squeeze it in), and it’s feeling great.

6. You can do whatever combination of things works for you. Anderson seems to suggest that, like learning a language, you should focus on one form of fitness. But I’m personally a big fan of variety — yes, it’s the cornerstone of CrossFit, but I’m not even necessarily talking about that (see above re: how I mix up lifting, yoga, Pilates, and elliptical time). Different fitness modalities provide different benefits, and doing a combo of workout styles can feel just as great as focusing on one technique and building your skills over time. It all depends on what you’re aiming for. If you want to get really good at dance cardio above all else, then by all means, do nothing but dance cardio. But if you want to feel balanced and strong in a handful of different ways, figure out the combo that makes the most sense to you.

I could go on (and if you’d like to see a more in-depth rant about all this, check out my friend Adam Bornstein’s smart post). Like any other fitness tool, kettlebells are not dangerous when used properly. There is no scientific evidence that driving a convertible burns more calories than driving a car with a roof (an actual thing she actually said, apparently). Stronger muscles don’t mean saggier skin. But let’s wrap things up on a positive note — an Anderson quote I actually agree with: “[Getting active] is about you carving out your lifestyle and not following trends.”

If only she actually seemed to feel this way.

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