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Barry Bassin - Senior Fitness Personal Trainer

Certified Fitness Professional

My Blog


Words About Words

Posted on December 10, 2010 at 3:58 PM
Those of us who are of an age will recall the utter frustration when reading the instruction manual that came with a new electronic product that had been written by someone using English words but who obviously didn’t speak the language well; you could recognize the words but the instructions were incoherent.
Fitness articles are sometimes like that. If you don’t understand most of what you’re reading, the article was not written for you. Read an article about headaches in the New England Journal of Medicine. If you’re not a doctor, you probably can’t even pronounce some of the words, let alone understand what they mean. But, read an article about the same subject on WebMD or MedlinePlus and you’ll probably learn what you need to know.
But even articles that present clear, concise consumer-use information often inadvertently stymie the reader as well, just by using a term or phrase without explaining what it really means.
Example: You should consume 15 calories per pound of desirable body weight if you regularly do moderate activity. Now, if you regularly consume more than 15 calories per pound of desirable body weight you will end up weighing more than your desirable body weight; makes sense. And if you regularly consume fewer than 15 calories you will not have sufficient energy to fuel your moderate activity. So the unanswered question becomes what is moderate activity?
These are some of the words that need clarification. For the most part, these are simple enough words, but because they are quantitative in nature they are only abstractions without some explanation.
Much of the information which follows is taken from the National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health. I find NIH information to always be thorough, reliable, and without ties to any commercial agenda.
Physical Activity
Your activity level is a major factor in determining how many calories you need each day to fuel your activities. Over-eat your caloric needs and you’ll gain weight. Under-eat your needs and you’ll lose weight.
Activity levels defined:
  • Low: No planned, regular physical activity; occasional weekend or weekly activity (such as golf or recreational tennis) is the only type of physical activity. (NIH)
  • Moderate: Participating in physical activities such as swimming, jogging, or fast walking for 30–60 minutes at a time. (NIH)
  • Strenuous: Participating in vigorous physical activity for 60 minutes or more at least 4–5 days per week. (NIH)
Desirable Body Weight
It is common to reference caloric needs to desirable body-weight. So, how much should you weigh?
  • Women: 100 pounds of body weight for the first 5 feet of height plus 5 pounds for each additional inch. (NIH)
  • Men: 106 pounds of body weight for the first 5 feet of height plus 6 pounds for each additional inch. (NIH)
  • Frame size adjustment: For a small body frame (see), subtract 10%. For a large frame, add 10%. (NIH)
Note: As a volume of muscle weighs 17.7% more than an equal volume of fat, athletes and others with muscular builds will usually weigh more than those with normal builds when all else is the same.
Frame size
“Desirable Body Weight,” as discussed above, is based on a “normal” frame (bone) size. To determine what frame size you have, measure the diameter of your wrist and match the results as follows:
  • Height under 5’ 2”
   o S = less than 5.5”
   o M = 5.5” to 5.75”
   o L = over 5.75”
  • Height 5’ 2” to 5’ 5”
   o S = less than 6”
   o M = 6” to 6.25”
   o L = over 6.25”
  • Height over 5’ 5”
   o S = less than 6.25”
   o M = 6.25” to 6.5”
   o L = over 6.5”
  • Height over 5’ 5”
   o S = 5.5” to 6.5”
   o M = 6.5” to 7.5”
   o L = over 7.5”
All of the above: (NIH)
Another popular technique for determining frame size is to wrap your middle finger and thumb around the smallest part of your wrist. If your finger and thumb overlap each other, you have a small frame; if they just touch, you have a medium frame; and if they don’t touch, you have a large frame. This method is less precise than the measurement technique, but is valid for the way most of us use the information.
Calories Needed for Weight Maintenance
Now that you know what your desirable body weight should be, and how to determine your activity level, use the following formula to determine how many daily calories you should consume to maintain your desirable weight. Consume more, and you’ll gain weight; consume less and you’ll lose weight.
Basis: Calories per pound of desirable body-weight (NIH)
  • 10 calories if you are sedentary or very obese
  • 13 calories if your activity level is low, or if you are over age 55
  • 15 calories if you regularly do moderate activity
  • 18 calories if you regularly do strenuous activity
Body-fat Percentage
Even though we are hard-wired to think about weight in terms of pounds as displayed on a scale, the real criteria for assessing your weight should not be pounds alone, but what percentage of your weight is fat. Many athletes, for example, are “overweight” based on the charts, but are not “over-fat” based on their body composition.
Body composition is the sum of your parts, as they relate to your body-weight. An assessment of your body composition is used to determine, on a percentage basis, how much fat you have versus lean body mass. Lean body mass is all of your weight that is not fat, and principally consists of muscle, bones, organs, and fluids.
As you age, it is normal that your body composition changes. These changes typically involve a gradual loss of muscle mass and an increased amount of body fat. But these changes are significantly influenced by lifestyle changes. Most people become less physically active as they get older, and these changes may be substantially mitigated by diet and exercise.
Most health clubs and gyms, as well as all personal trainers, can perform simple tests to determine your body composition. If you need to lose weight, it is much smarter to know how many pounds you should shed to arrive at a healthy body-fat percentage than simply picking a target number from a height-weight chart.
Following are age-adjusted body-fat recommendations for men and women. These data are especially useful as most body-fat recommendations found on the Internet do not adjust for age.
under 21%
over 39%
under 23%
over 40%
under 24%
over 42%
under  8%
8 -19%
over 25%
under 11%
over 27%
under 13%
over 30%
  Source: Gallagher et al. Am J Clin Nut 2000; 72:694-701
Lean vs. Thin
Lean and thin don’t mean the same thing; indeed, it is possible to be “skinny-fat.” Lean has very positive health implications, whereas thin people often have unhealthy levels of body-fat – just less obvious when you see them with their clothes on. While skinny-fat people may not need to lose weight for aesthetic reasons, they do need to bring their body compositions in line with healthy norms, just the same as if they looked overweight, and for the same reasons.
A major concern for skinny-fat people is that because they don’t look fat with their clothes on, and because their scale-weight is not alarming, they feel little need to lose excess body fat. But, if their scale-weight is within a “normal” range and they have a body-fat percentage that classes them out of the healthy range, they almost certainly have too little muscle mass - not vanity muscles, but what they’ll need to avoid frailty in old age and the attendant impact on their ability to perform activities of daily living. In other words, they face a real likelihood of losing their physical independence. Bummer.  
Reconciling Body-fat % vs. Desirable Weight
It may seem that the three preceding sections – Desirable Body Weight, Calories Needed for Weight Management, and Body-fat Percentage - are at odds with each other. But they’re not. Taken separately, each component typically leads to desirable outcomes for the rest. If you regularly consume the calories needed for maintaining your desirable body weight, you will arrive at your desirable body weight, if you’re not already there. Because the components of body composition cannot exceed 100%, when your body-fat percentage is within the healthy range, your lean mass is automatically within the healthy range, too. Exercise contributes to calories burned, which eases the burden of calorie restriction using diet alone.
“Strength training” applies to various modalities, but they all have one thing in common: applying the force of your muscles against a resistance workload that imposes a challenge. Resistance can be in the following forms:
  • free-weights (barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, etc.)
  • resistance machines that mimic the movements and workload of free-weights
  • resistance bands or tubes that create resistance by stretching them
  • body-weight exercises, such as push-ups, pull-ups, and sit-ups
Weightlifting or “lifting” are terms that apply specifically to free-weights (“weights”), and resistance/weight machines.
Lifting is also a generic term that applies to working with weights and weight machines, regardless of the nature of the movement. In this regard, “lifting” may be equally applied to any movement that involves pushing or pulling movements against resistance. Examples: a biceps curl is a pulling movement, whereas a chest-press is a pushing movement.
Core is too often misunderstood to mean the abdominals; the core is much more than that, and is perhaps the most important group of muscles in the body. The core muscles run through the length of the trunk and torso, and they act to transfer power between the extremities - both side to side, and upper to lower - by stabilizing movement through the spine, pelvis and shoulder girdle.
When you think about hitting, swinging and lifting actions, it’s easy to class them as arm movements. Now, picture yourself going through the full range of motions involved in hitting a homerun, or driving a golf ball 300 yards down the fairway, or serving an ace, or bowling a strike. Not an athlete? The same principle applies to lifting a child or placing your carry-on in the overhead bin, or putting away the groceries. None of these activities are possible without engaging the core muscles, and any weakness or impairment in the core will limit your ability to do these things well.
The core muscles include:
  • Abdominals, (rectus abdominis, internal and external obliques, and transverse abdominis)
  • Erector spinae (along the spine, neck through lower back)
  • Hip flexors (front of the pelvis and top of the thighs)
  • Hip adductors (inner thigh)
  • Gluteals (uppermost hamstrings, back and side of the hips, buttocks)
The good news about core training is that because multiple muscles become engaged during many of the core-related exercises, only a few exercises are necessary to exercise the entire core.
With regard to strength training, exercise guidelines usually specify the intensity to be used. A typical strength training guideline for someone with coronary artery disease (CAD) will feature low (light) resistance and high repetitions. Someone working to add muscle size and strength will use a moderate resistance, and when absolute strength and power is the goal, high (heavy) resistance is the mode.
But, what do these intensities really mean and, more importantly, how do you know how much resistance you should use to match a light, moderate, or heavy workload?
There are two ways for measuring resistance training intensity:
1RM is shorthand for how much weight you can lift one time, but not more, or your “one repetition maximum.” Once you have determined your 1RM, you can gauge your exercise intensity by using a percentage of your 1RM as follows:
Workload          % of 1RM
Low/light           less than 70%
Moderate           70-80%
High/heavy         80-100%
Cautionary note: There is a real risk of injury when attempting to lift an absolute maximum amount of weight, especially without the assistance and supervision of a qualified trainer.
RPE is a subjective way of self-describing your “rating of perceived exertion.” It is less precise than a true 1RM-based resistance workload, but it is unapologetically sufficient for all but the most serious hardcore exercisers seeking maximum results.
For an in-depth discussion about intensity, with special emphasis on RPE, see my earlier article on this blog, Exercise: Measuring Intensity.
Got a question . . .
If there are other fitness terms for which you would like clarification, post a comment and I'll do my best to explain.

Categories: Exercise, Weight Management

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