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phys ed

I once harboured a notion that I would become a professional fighter. This urge was born of the same masculine insecurity that first nudged me toward weightlifting in high school. It consumed me for years, becoming the cornerstone of my entire fledgling identity.

Of course, this dream never came to fruition. Despite having a fairly decent set of skills, I simply wasn’t disciplined, talented or tough enough to make it in the fight world. On top of that, I absolutely hated cutting weight.

Whether it’s boxing, mixed martial arts or bodybuilding, crash dieting is the not-so-secret shame of all weight-sensitive sports. The idea is to be the biggest-yet-leanest in your particular weight class in order to have a size and/or strength advantage over your opponents; to achieve this, athletes often go to extremes, living off nothing but slices of broiled chicken and piles of steamed greens for weeks on end.

I’ve gone through this ugly, unhealthy process twice, and it sucked all the joy out of the idea of competition. I remember clearly those final few days before the events; never have I been so thirsty and miserable (restricting water intake is one of the main cutting tactics). But man, I sure was shredded. There was nary an ounce of fat on my already svelte physique – that is, until after I weighed in and could eat whatever I wanted.

You don’t need a degree in exercise physiology to wrap your head around how and why this sort of drastic dieting is counterproductive for peak athletic performance. Restricting calories and fluids to such a massive degree impairs brain and nervous system function. Work capacity becomes reduced, reflexes become less responsive. And then there are the potential long-term health consequences, which could include kidney damage and hormonal disruption.

On the other end of the weight-manipulation spectrum we have what’s called the “dirty bulk.” Also known as the See Food Diet (as in, “I see food, I eat it.”), there is no subtlety or deprivation involved in the dirty bulk. The entire point is to gain as much mass as possible, be it lean muscle or soft fat.

While the goals of these two practices appear to be diametrically opposed, they’re actually flip sides of the same coin. In the world of sports, they serve as tactical gambits; the most muscularly defined bodybuilder takes home the title, just as the bulkiest powerlifter often pulls the most weight. But in the real world (or at least in the unreasonable facsimile the fitness industry presents as such), dirty bulks and quick cuts are almost always used by misguided individuals for achieving the appearance of a physique that they simply haven’t earned.

Pay attention and you’ll see this sort of stuff at every commercial gym. Bloated wannabe muscle-men in baggy shirts (all the better to hide the flab!) who spend most of their time strutting around instead of, you know, lifting weights; emaciated women plodding away on cardio machines while sipping whatever “cleansing” concoction Instagram has sold them on this month. This behaviour would almost be funny if it wasn’t symptomatic of disordered eating and body dysmorphia.

When the entire point of your job is to promote fitness as part of a healthy and sustainable lifestyle, these sorts of ill-conceived shortcuts are maddening. They also set a terrible and contagious example for a group of people (i.e., aesthetics-chasing gym rats) that are typically quite impressionable.

Whether your goal is building muscle or burning fat, both endeavours take a lot of time, patience and effort. This is one of the reasons why our culture celebrates those who have done so; their success gives hope to the millions who struggle to achieve either. But – and I say this as someone who has silently craved validation from strangers his entire life – if you’re in this game for the glory, you’re never going to be satisfied.

Don’t get me wrong, the ego can be a powerful ally. Without it why would anyone strive for greatness or chase after seemingly unattainable goals? But an ego untethered is like Frankenstein’s monster: a lumbering, clumsy and ultimately destructive force.

Ask yourself: Are you motivated by a deep-seated desire to improve your health and maximize your genetic potential? Or are you trying to impress others by way of an elaborate ruse? If your answer is the latter, well, I hate to break it to you, but nobody really cares what your body looks like. You might as well re-evaluate your plan before you waste all that time and energy stuffing or starving yourself for the sake of applause that will never come.

Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator in Kitchener, Ont.