Shape Shifting: Fitness for Your Body Type

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Can a workout geared toward your body type help you escape your shape? Depending on whom you talk to, the answer is yes, no, and maybe.

There is no end to the workout advice streaming across the airwaves and pummeling you from the newsstand. From “get-this-cover-model’s-abs” routines and heart-rate-driven cardio gauntlets to mundane flab-fighting moves you can do in your office, they all offer something different. And that’s great, because you probably have all sorts of different reasons for working out. Maybe you want to drop some excess weight, improve your health, increase your energy or reduce your stress. Maybe you want to be a better athlete. But if you’re like most people, you’re also probably strongly motivated by the way exercise makes your body look – trimmer, leaner, better proportioned and defined.

Unfortunately, if you’re trying to do that with the mish-mash of advice you’re getting through fitness media, you’re probably struggling. Few people get the visible results they’re looking for, particularly at first. Part of the reason, no doubt, is our fickleness (we tend to flit from routine to routine). But part of it is that we often aren’t certain whether or not what we’re doing is actually working. Our bodies may be getting stronger but not look all that different, or they may look different, but not the way we’d like.

Of course, even the best program requires a sincere, consistent effort. But at some point, after a few weeks or months of dogged exertion and little or nothing to show, it’s also normal to start asking yourself: “What the heck am I doing wrong here?”

According to fitness expert and author Edward Jackowski, Ph.D., you’ve got good reason to inquire. Jackowski is founder and CEO of Exude Fitness (www.exude.com), a Manhattan-based fitness training company that for more than 20 years has specialized in designing workouts around its clients’ body types. From what he’s seen, it’s a rare person indeed who has his or her ideal workout all dialed in. In fact, asserts Jackowski, “I’d say it’s a safe bet that more than 90 percent of the people out there are exercising in ways that actually impede their progress.”

Early on in his career, Jackowski discovered that most of his personal-training clients interested in achieving aesthetic changes were making the same two mistakes: 1) failing to develop a well-rounded fitness routine, and; 2) failing to consider their natural body type. In the process of helping these clients reform and customize their workouts, he developed a whole theory of exercise based on body type, and tested it at length. He also designed special “Escape Your Shape” workouts for each of the four basic types he identified (and subsequently trademarked): Ruler®, Hourglass®, Cone®, and Spoon® (see sidebar).

Eventually, Jackowski wrote two books on these topics: Hold It! You’re Exercising Wrong! (Simon and Schuster, 1995) and Escape Your Shape: How to Work Out Smarter, Not Harder (Simon and Schuster Trade Paperbacks, 2001). He also launched a line of fitness products and videos designed to help people take exercising for their body type into their own hands.

The results? They’ve been consistent enough to net Jackowski a lot of client testimonials (he and his staff claim to have successfully trained well more than 10,000 people). Jackowski’s books also rank among Simon and Schuster’s best-selling fitness titles, and Exude now identifies itself as “America’s largest one-on-one motivational and fitness company.”

Recently, a spate of coverage in national magazines, TV shows and Exude’s own infomercials has broadened awareness of Jackowski’s body-type workouts even further, leaving many of us wondering: Is this yet another fitness fad, or does it have some merit? What’s the concept and if it works, how can I make it work for me?

Breaking Into Body-Typing

You may be wondering where this whole body-typing idea came from. Jackowski explains that he developed his workout approach in an effort to combat two problems that he saw as endemic in fitness circles: a general ignorance about how various types of exercise affect the body, and the common misconception that exercise generally affects everyone the same way.

A lot of people assume that there is basically one right way to exercise. They might see a workout promoted in a magazine or book and adopt it without considering their personal priorities or how it might suit their physiology. They might do the same workout as their friend. Or they might see a TV spokesmodel advertising fitness equipment and assume the model got that gorgeous body working out with that equipment (rarely the case).

Also, a lot of trainers assume that if they got good results with one client using a particular protocol, they’ll get good results with another. According to Jackowski, nothing could be further from the truth.

“Genetically, each of us is designed differently,” explains Jackowski. “Our bodies are naturally shaped and sized very differently. They have different ratios of fat and lean muscle tissue, different ratios of fast- and slow-twitch muscle fibers, and they are programmed to respond to both diet and exercise in totally different ways.”

When developing a fitness plan, says Jackowski, most people fail to consider all the relevant individual factors – including current level of fitness, individual fitness motivations, lifestyle and medical concerns – that should determine their program. “While there are many benefits to exercise,” notes Jackowski, “most people exercise because they want to look better naked.” Sadly, focusing more on the desired results than on a practical strategy for achieving them often keeps our desired mirror image far beyond our reach.

So what’s the big breakthrough secret underlying the “Escape Your Shape” concept? There isn’t one, really. In fact, Jackowski is the first to admit that much of his message is fairly basic and common sense, and that it’s founded mostly on well-accepted principles. “It’s just that with so much hype and misinformation out there, it’s currently a lot easier for people to get confused or misled than it is for them to get the straight story,” he explains.

All of Jackowski’s workouts follow American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) guidelines. They also focus on all five components of fitness as defined by the ACSM, namely: cardiovascular efficiency, muscle strength, muscle endurance, flexibility and body-fat ratio. What’s somewhat unique about the “Escape Your Shape” workouts is their emphasis on achieving specific, evident changes in an individual’s body shape.

While this emphasis makes the promise of Jackowski’s workouts extremely attractive to some people, the mere mention of them makes other fitness experts bristle – in part because they assume that the workouts must hinge on “spot reduction” (an idea that most trainers see as pure chimera) at the expense of general fitness concerns.

If you can get past the jazzy title, though, the “Escape Your Shape” workouts are pretty straightforward. They mostly draw on three well-accepted fitness principles: 1) If you work a muscle under heavy load, it will grow; 2) if the muscle is covered in fat, you won’t be able to see it very well; 3) trying to lose weight while simultaneously building a lot of muscle generally backfires. With that in mind, what Jackowski’s workouts address (in addition to building general strength and endurance) is helping individuals reduce fat while reshaping key regions of their bodies through strategic, individually tailored training choices.

Being Selective

In Jackowski’s view, an individual’s physiology and personal-fitness goals should determine what types of cardio and resistance exercises they perform. Their current fitness level and desired outcomes should determine the level of intensity. For example, a person looking to lose weight might work out very differently than the person looking primarily to optimize his or her athletic performance.

All of Jackowski’s workouts share four consistent phases: warm-up, stretching, workload (including customized cardiovascular and strength-training routines) and cool-down. How challenging you make each component is up to you.

“You have to have all four of these phases, regardless of your body type or your fitness goals,” notes Jackowski. While that may seem like old news to experienced exercisers, Jackowski still finds that it’s a point worth repeating. “People invariably nod and say ‘yes, right, of course,’ but in practice, virtually no one actually does it.”

Most people simply don’t realize what each of these components contributes or how critical they all are to continued fitness progress, Jackowski explains, so they skip steps, inadvertently setting themselves back. Meanwhile, they waste time and energy on exercises that don’t really suit their intended purpose. As a result, they end up working harder than they need to and get less-satisfactory results. Eventually, they get frustrated and give up.

According to Jackowski, it shouldn’t be that hard. “I tell people, ‘If you’ve been working out for 30 days and haven’t seen a noticeable improvement, you are probably doing the wrong thing for your body.'”

Jackowski notes that most people arrive at their workouts through a sort of trial-and-error process. They try one thing, then another, and are surprised when “nothing works” – except that most of them have still never tried the one thing that generally ,I>does work: A customized, well-balanced workout that addresses aesthetics and functional fitness, and that keeps pace with an individual’s fitness gains.

“It’s not going to work,” says Jackowski, “if you do the exact same routine for six months running. It’s also not going to work if you start out doing a cardio routine and then switch over exclusively to weight-training exercises and then drop those in favor of core work and sort of fit in stretching when you think of it.” Rather, he insists, it’s a package deal: “All these things go together, and how you do them is as important as whether you do them at all.”

Of course, Jackowski isn’t the only fitness expert who has emphasized the importance of customizing your workout to address various individual factors. Nor is he the only training guru to insist on a well-rounded workout. What separates Jackowski from many other trainers is his adamant insistence that body type is a critical factor in getting both these things right, right from the beginning.

Getting What You Want

The “Escape Your Shape” workouts featured in Jackowski’s books and videos hinge on a few key factors: 1) Burning off excess fat primarily through cardiovascular exercise and low-resistance interval training; 2) doing low-resistance weight training in areas you hope to shrink; and 3) saving heavier resistance work and weightlifting for areas you want to enlarge.

Both Jackowski’s rejection of heavy weight training for weight loss and his promotion of lighter weight training (for some) radically contradicts a great deal of popular training advice, but there is a certain logic at work here – particularly for those who have a predisposition toward putting on bulk in undesirable areas and for those who’ve had difficulty achieving the aesthetic results they want by working with heavier weights.

Jackowski believes that much of the confusion surrounding resistance work, particularly for those looking to slim down, hinges on the whole “increase muscle to increase metabolism” argument. It’s well known that muscle is more metabolically active than fat – in fact, each pound of muscle burns about 50 calories a day, while excess fat mostly just sits there doing nothing. Because of this, people often mistakenly focus on building muscle mass when they want to lose fat, believing it’s the only (or best) way to raise their basal metabolic rate (BMR). For many, says Jackowski, that strategy just doesn’t pay off.

For one thing, he explains, you may have to add a lot more muscle than you realize. “To raise BMR by 5 percent through weightlifting alone, the human body needs to put on approximately 20 percent more mass,” he says. Not only is this virtually impossible for the average exerciser, even if we could put on that much muscle, many of us wouldn’t want to.

The other problem, says Jackowski, is that if you’re already overweight when you start doing heavy resistance work, even if you do burn more calories as a result, you probably won’t burn enough fat (at least in the short run) to compensate for the space of the bigger muscles. Net result: You’re likely to get bigger instead of smaller, or you may look generally fit, but kind of “puffed up” rather than sleek and defined.

“It’s called hypertrophy,” says Jackowski. “When you tax a muscle and put a resistance against a muscle, whether it’s a weight or resistance with tension, the muscle grows.” Normally, of course, that’s a good thing, because it produces improved shape, increased strength and more lean muscle tissue (watch for the hypertrophy article in the July/Aug. issue of Experience Life). However, for people carrying a considerable amount of extra body fat, the result can be that even as they get more muscular, they may still not see a very noticeable difference in their body’s appearance. Rather than looking and feeling more svelte, they may just look and feel more dense.

Had these people spent their time and energy balancing muscle-building exercises with more extended and intense calorie-burning cardio or interval work, Jackowski suggests, they might have taken off enough bulk to show off their new muscles to better advantage. He hastens to point out that it isn’t an either/or proposition: Everyone needs to do both cardio and resistance work, and everyone must work every area of the body. The real issue, he says, is the amount of time and energy you devote to each purpose.

Jackowski sees it this way: If, like most overweight Americans, your goal is to burn fat and lose weight or mass, 75 percent of your workout time should be devoted to performing aerobic exercise, such as stationary biking, jogging, fast walking, jumping rope, or using elliptical machines. If your first priority is to add mass and build muscle, on the other hand, 75 percent of your workout should be spent performing anaerobic exercises, such as weightlifting, calisthenics, abdominal exercises, pull-ups and pushups.

The rule of thumb is easy, says Jackowski: The more weight you need to lose, the lighter the resistance and/or weights you should use with higher repetitions. The more muscle you want to build, the more resistance and/or weights you should lift with fewer repetitions.

Agreeing to Disagree

Most experts agree that losing fat is the priority for the vast majority of Americans, and that until you’re down to a reasonable fat-to-lean ratio, your muscles aren’t really going to “pop” anyway. They also agree that the muscles you work under the heaviest weights are the most likely to grow. But when it comes to arguing the merits of entire workouts based on body type, things get a bit stickier.

One of Jackowski’s fundamental arguments is that if you are naturally bulky in a certain area, it is likely that same area will also bulk faster when trained under any kind of load. We’re not just talking about weights, either. According to Jackowski, high-tension cardio workouts (running uphill, walking with leg weights, using a stairclimber or incline treadmill or a cycle machine set to high tension) can cause trouble for bottom-heavy “Spoon” types. Meanwhile, he says, rowing-machine workouts can cause undue bulking in top-heavy “Cones.” Essentially, Jackowski asserts that simply observing your body’s shape – the way you’re built – is one of the best indicators of what type of resistance training you should emphasize where, and what kind of cardio workouts are most likely to deliver complementary results.

But many experts have their doubts, including Dan Wagman, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., publisher and editor in chief of Pure Power, a science-based strength-training, conditioning and sports-performance enhancement magazine. “The basic facts of physiology treat everyone the same,” he says. “Sure, if you are training to look a certain way, you’ll want to vary the volume [sets and reps] accordingly, but to suggest that even a limited amount of high-resistance work is going to make the average person bulk up is wrong.”

Wagman also emphasizes that to a large extent a person’s body shape is determined by their skeletal frame – something that no amount of exercise will change. Most people are better off, he says, focusing on becoming the fittest, strongest, healthiest version of themselves that they can be, rather than striving to sculpt themselves toward a particular aesthetic. “There are always outliers,” he says, “those people who are fat and out of shape who suddenly commit to a healthy lifestyle and serious training, and transform themselves into an incredible physical specimen. But the truth is, most people aren’t born athletes, and they aren’t going to end up looking like a fitness model no matter what they do.”

Still, Wagman acknowledges that there may be value in noticing that you have a certain body type and, if you want to change the way you look, deciding you want to exercise accordingly. “It’s a fact,” he concurs, “that in some people, certain muscle groups are just more naturally developed than others, and may not need as much work. If your legs are already really muscular and developed, then I’d say fine, don’t emphasize them. But don’t ignore them either, and don’t be afraid that just doing some basic weight training is going to make them huge.”

Jackowski points out that his workouts don’t promise to turn average people into fitness models, nor do they suggest that everyone is likely to experience undesired bulking from doing heavy-weight training. But based on decades of experimentation and a 300-person, in-house study he and his training staff conducted on the effects of body-type-based exercise, he takes issue with anyone who insists it is impossible for average people to dramatically alter their God-given shape – for better or for worse.

“Obviously, countless bodybuilders have already proven it is possible to change your body’s shape in any variety of ways,” he says. “I’ve just developed a method that lets regular people make significant body-shape changes based their personal goals. You can’t tell me it can’t be done, because I see people do it all the time, simply by adjusting their cardio and resistance-training choices.”

Wagman and other fitness experts do agree that getting an individual’s correct workout entails figuring out the right frequency, intensity, duration, and volume of exercise necessary to produce the desired results for an individual body. They just have a problem with the whole “Escape Your Shape” concept. In essence, though, some of the principles they endorse aren’t so distant from Jackowski’s. “Whatever their body shape,” Wagman asserts, “most people’s first concern should be getting to a healthy fat-muscle ratio. From there they can build up additional muscles as they see fit.”

The problem is, figuring out frequency, intensity, duration and volume on one’s own requires a fair bit of fitness reading and, it turns out, even a little math (to determine progressive training routines, heart-rate training zones, etc.). The best and most reliable information on fitness and sports performance typically comes out of scientific journals which, as Wagman points out, aren’t much fun to read. And this brings us right back to why most people stick with their hit-or-miss approaches, or lurch toward fad workouts that aren’t particularly suited to their purpose.

Looking at Limitations

So should you try adjusting your workouts using Jackowski’s body-type recommendations? It really depends on your purpose and whether or not you are happy with the workouts you are doing now. It also depends on what your instincts tell you.

“Dr. Jackowski’s theory that people should exercise according to their body types is worth considering, particularly for those who haven’t had success with other approaches,” says personal trainer Michael Gerrish, author of The Mind-Body Makeover Project (McGraw Hill, 2003 – see Reading List, page 75 of the printed version of Experience Life). “But I don’t agree that ‘high-tension’ movements should be categorically avoided by those who are concerned about gaining mass in specific problem areas.”

“The real problem,” he says, “is not so much that certain people have a propensity to gain muscle mass in these areas, but rather that these areas are where they have a predisposition to store fat. The solution to their problem lies primarily in reducing body fat, which can be accomplished through proper diet, appropriate types and amounts of aerobic exercise, and an individually appropriate weight-training regimen.”

Ah yes, the ever-elusive “individually appropriate training regimen” – the one that most of us normal individuals haven’t the first clue how to design. In the face of such cluelessness, couldn’t body-type-based, total-fitness workouts be at least a good place to start? The answer, it seems, is a definitive maybe.

As noted, many of the criticisms of Jackowski’s “Escape Your Shape” workouts revolve around the whole notion of aesthetically driven fitness. In “evolved” company, it seems, the idea that you should want to escape your shape is not very politically correct. But whatever your feeling about that, the fact remains that the vast majority of exercisers out there do care about how they look, and about the visible impacts of exercise.
Jackowski’s concern is that too many of these folks all but overlook the more essential aspects of general fitness, and then still don’t get the results they are looking for – not because they aren’t working out hard or long enough, but because they are exerting themselves in ways that are wrong for their desired goals.

So where does this leave you, the fitness consumer? Hopefully, thinking more carefully about your own fitness purposes and priorities: Are you in the gym to slim down, to build up, or to kick butt in a particular athletic pursuit? Is it more about how you look, what you can do, or both?

While incorporating “for your body type” suggestions may help you fine tune some of the visible effects of your workouts – and while following the five-component workout model can help you avoid injury and improve your cardio, strength and flexibility training overall – when it comes to increasing athletic potential, there’s just no substitute for sport-specific training.

For that matter, there’s also no substitute for looking at your body as unique and wonderful in its own way, rather than as any kind of “type” at all. This is an especially important point for women, suggests Krista Scott-Dixon, Ph.D., an avid weight lifter and a regular, expert contributor to women’s fitness and weightlifting publications. “Women tend to get hung up on an imaginary ideal which contradicts most women’s natural body shapes,” she says.

Moreover, Scott-Dixon asserts, what most women perceive as “excess bulk” in any part of their body is almost always body fat, not muscle. “I’d hate to think that women were so incorrectly convinced of their propensity for building massive muscles that they stayed away from doing valuable exercises like squats and deadlifts with any appreciable weight. It’s challenging for anyone, especially most women, to gain significant muscle naturally.”

Scott-Dixon also suggests that any fitness program will work best when it is part of a larger “wellness project” that incorporates holistic athletic goals along with aesthetic ones. “The body isn’t just a collection of parts,” she notes, “but rather a system that you can harness to perform tasks and activities. Spoons shouldn’t be ashamed of whatever natural lower body strength they’re blessed with. They should be using it to run and jump!”

Most importantly, she argues, spending all one’s time on “minimizing” features deemed undesirable is ultimately basing a fitness program on a negative goal, rather than a positive goal of performance accomplishment in a chosen sport.

Jackowski says he couldn’t agree more, “but the fact remains that a lot of people aren’t focusing on sports, they’re focusing on appearance, period.” His goal, he says, is to get people doing workouts that deliver visible results and significant health and fitness gains.

In weighing the pros and cons of any fitness plan, just keep your own athletic and aesthetic goals in mind. Consider talking with a qualified trainer about how to balance and make the best of the shape you’ve got. Whatever you do, whatever your priorities, recognize that your body is truly one of a kind. It’s also yours to develop and mold as you see fit. So respect its natural characteristics as well as its capacity for change. You’ll find that tuning into your body’s peculiar fitness quirks puts you that much closer to experiencing – and celebrating – your body’s inherent beauty and potential.

Kelly James-Enger is a freelance writer who specializes in health and fitness topics.