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Why fancy gym words may be sabotaging your workout

A unique – if not downright confusing – use of language is a defining characteristic of many subcultures. Lawyers operate under the shroud of jumbled legalese; the language of classical music is peppered with all sorts of Italian words and phrases; and Internet trolls invent new slang on what seems like a daily basis. The subculture of fitness is no different. Whether it's using unfamiliar anatomical terms to describe body parts, or showcasing their knowledge of biomechanics with a detailed breakdown on how to manipulate leverage points in order to vary the difficulty of calisthenics exercises, trainers can just as easily fall victim to the scourge of this verbal diarrhea.

It doesn't need to be this way. What should be a fairly simple and intuitive thing – moving your body at varying levels of intensity for a set period of time – has become needlessly complicated thanks in part to the non-standard language used by health and fitness professionals. This is why I was so happy to learn about a new project led by the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute (CHEO RI) that aims to bring clarity and consensus to the study of sedentary behaviour by creating a standardized dictionary of terms.

The dictionary – and the research behind it – was recently published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.

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"There is an urgent need for clear, common and accepted terminology worldwide to facilitate the interpretation and comparison of research," said lead author Dr. Mark Tremblay, director of the CHEO RI's Healthy Active Living and Obesity Research Group (HALO) and a professor at the University of Ottawa in the news release announcing the study. "Our hope is that these [definitions] will reduce confusion and advance research related to sedentary behaviour and, ultimately, promote healthy active living."

Now, thanks to Tremblay and the 83 other researchers, trainees, grad students and health professionals who co-authored the paper, you can know for sure if physical inactivity ("an insufficient physical activity level to meet present physical activity recommendations") is the cause of what ails you, or, worse, sedentary behaviour ("any waking behavior characterized by an energy expenditure equal or less than 1.5 metabolic equivalents, while in a sitting, reclining or lying posture").

The distinction is subtle, but important; physical inactivity means you don't move enough, sedentary behaviour means you don't move at all.

And, while it could be argued that the complexities of clinical research are a tad greater than that of personal training, the need for standardized language crosses all fields of the health profession. After all, what happens in the lab usually finds its way to the gym and, unless all parties are speaking the same language, our clients will be the ones who suffer.

And suffer they will. The language trainers use when providing instructions has a direct impact on client performance. Verbal cues must be brief, easy to understand and directly applicable to the task at hand, otherwise we risk stealing attention and mental energy. The facial expression of a newbie exerciser who's struggling to make sense of the instructions offered by their science-loving trainer is not one that says "Let's lift!"

The way I see it, my job is to make the gym-going experience as positive and productive as possible. A big part of what I do involves educating my clients on fitness terminology so that they don't feel intimidated or insecure when training on their own.

I also do my best to not use fancy 10-dollar words when explaining a technique, at least not without providing context and a basic definition as well. With that in mind, I present here a concise dictionary of common fitness terms.

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Body Parts

  • Pecs: short form of pectorals; chest muscles; the Gym Bro’s favourite muscle group.
  • Delts: short form of deltoids; shoulder muscles; the Gym Bro’s second favourite muscle group.
  • Lats: short form of latissimus dorsi; mid-back muscles; should be a favourite muscle group, but alas you can’t see your own back in the mirror.
  • Glutes: short form of gluteals; butt muscles; Sir Mix-a-Lot’s favourite muscle group.
  • Quads: short form of quadriceps; leg muscles; no one’s favourite muscle group because leg training is hard and tedious.

Training Terms

  • Repetition: a single, complete movement of an exercise performed through its full range of motion; often called a “rep.”
  • Set: a group of repetitions/reps.
  • Flexion: bending a limb or joint; the opposite of extension.
  • Extension: straightening a limb or joint; the opposite of flexion.
  • Compound Exercise: a movement that involves multiple joints and/or muscles groups. For example, a squat requires flexion of the hips and knees, making it a compound exercise.
  • Isolation Exercise: a movement that involves a single joint and/or muscle group. For example, a triceps pushdown requires extension only at the elbow, making it an isolation exercise.
  • Aerobic Exercise: any light to moderate level of physical exercise that can be sustained for more than a few minutes; literally exercise that requires oxygen.
  • Anaerobic Exercise: any moderate to high level of physical exercise that can be sustained for a few minutes or less; literally exercise that doesn’t require oxygen.
  • Strength: the amount of muscular force generated against a load.
  • Power: an expression of strength performed quickly (strength + speed = power).
  • Hypertrophy: an increase in a muscle’s size, often as a result of resistance training.

Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator at the Toronto West End College Street YMCA. You can follow him on Twitter @mrpaullandini.

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