The Real “Secret” to Getting and Staying Fit

Getting and staying fit can be tough. And we have limited time and energy. So how should we allocate our precious resources of energy and time?

We can use the analogy of big rocks. Focusing on big rocks helps us get results, rather than get distracted and confused by minor or irrelevant things. It is a mantra I repeat to myself and clients to stay focused on what matters.

The Big Rocks Analogy

Imagine you have some small stones, big rocks, and a jar. If you first put the small stones in the jar, you’ll fill up the jar but not have room for the big rocks. However, if you start with the big rocks, you’ll fit all the big rocks in the jar AND have room for the small stones.

Similarly, in fitness there are big rocks and small stones. And there are some things that shouldn’t even go in the jar.

Example: Big Rocks for Weight Loss

Let’s take weight loss as an example.

One of the big rocks for weight loss is eating whole, minimally processed foods that keep you full. Another big rock is eating fewer processed foods and liquid calories (like soda, juice, and alcohol). Both of these big rocks reduce overall caloric intake which contributes to weight loss.*

On the other hand, a small stone for weight loss is eating an exact ratio of carbs, protein, and fat. This might be relevant once someone has lost a lot of weight and wants to get a 6-pack. However, for the majority of weight loss, focus on the big rocks first.

Lastly, there are things that don’t even belong in the jar. For weight loss this would be gimmicks like apple cider vinegar shots and green tea extracts. At best, they are a waste of time and money. At worst, they are a distraction from the big rocks that truly matter for weight loss.

Most Fitness Goals Have Big Rocks

The big rocks analogy holds for goals other than weight loss. For example, a big rock to get stronger is to lift increasingly heavier weights consistently over time. Choosing the best brand of lifting belt is a small stone.

Usually big rocks are not cool or sexy. The results take longer, but are real and sustainable.

Whatever your fitness goal, first ask what are the big rocks?

*There are other big rocks for weight loss, but for brevity, I’ve just listed two big rocks in this article.

Does Stretching Pre-Workout Decrease Strength?

We hear lots of narratives about stretching before lifting. Some lifters insist on stretching before training. Others claim that it hurts performance.

But what does the research say?

Behm et all did a systematic review of research on the effects stretching.1 They looked at the effect of stretching pre-exercise on strength. They examined other variables too, but we’ll focus on strength today.

What studies were included?

The review included 125 studies looking at:

  1. Static stretching – holding a muscle at its lengthened position.
  2. Dynamic stretching – moving joints through their full range of motion.
  3. Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) stretching – a technique of contracting and relaxing muscles to increase flexibility.

How did stretching pre-exercise affect strength?

Generally, static stretching and PNF stretching caused a decrease in strength afterwards. Dynamic stretching did not affect strength much afterwards.

Static Stretching

Static stretching was associated with a 4.8% decrease in strength.

But the story doesn’t end there. The researchers found a “dose-response relationship”. Meaning that as stretch duration increased, strength was further decreased. For stretches performed for < 60 seconds, strength decreased by 2.8%. However, when stretches were held for > 60 seconds, strength decreased by 5.1%.

Dynamic Stretching

Dynamic stretching had trivial effects on strength. Strength decreased by only 0.23%.

PNF Stretching

PNF stretching was similar to static stretching – it was associated with a 5.5% decrease in strength.

It makes sense that PNF stretching would follow the same trend as static stretching. Both involve relaxing and holding muscles at their end range.

What does this mean for lifting?

-If you want to maximize strength, do static stretching after training.
-If you really want to do static stretching before training, keep it brief (30 seconds per stretch). Research suggests that a 30 second stretch increases flexibility as much as a 60 second stretch.2
-Dynamic stretching before training has trivial effects on strength.

I personally do not have clients stretch before lifting. In addition to this research, I’ve observed that static stretching is relaxing and calming. Before training, we want to get amped up and excited – the opposite of lying on the ground relaxing into stretches.

Static stretching can feel great. But to maximize lifting performance, save it for after training.


  1. Behm, D. G., Blazevich, A. J., Kay, A. D., & McHugh, M. (2016). Acute effects of muscle stretching on physical performance, range of motion, and injury incidence in healthy active individuals: a systematic review. Applied physiology, nutrition, and metabolism = Physiologie appliquee, nutrition et metabolisme41(1), 1–11.
  2. Bandy, W. D., Irion, J. M., & Briggler, M. (1997). The effect of time and frequency of static stretching on flexibility of the hamstring muscles. Physical therapy77(10), 1090–1096.

5 Steps to Pass the CSCS

Annoyed. Caught off guard. Surprised.

These are common reactions of candidates who take the Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) exam. I’ve known candidates with exercise science degrees and even physical therapists who have not passed the exam.

According to the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), only 58% of candidates pass both sections of the CSCS exam (the exam has 2 sections-“Scientific Foundations” and “Practical/Applied”). At the time of this writing, retaking a single section costs as much as $385. Besides the money spent on a retake, consider the time wasted studying again and retaking the exam. It’s fair to say that you probably want to pass the whole exam on the first attempt-saving money and time.

You can pass the exam with the right strategy. I’ll show you the exact steps I took to pass the CSCS exam on the first attempt.

1. Read AND Understand the Textbook

The “Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning” textbook houses the foundational content for the CSCS exam. However, the textbook includes a lot of research and information that may not be directly applicable to the exam.

While reading, focus on deeply understanding these areas:

  • Charts, graphs, and diagrams/images. These graphics synthesize much of the relevant content from each chapter.
  • Bolded vocabulary terms. You should understand these terms with respect to human physiology and real world coaching. Simply memorizing definitions is of little use for the exam.
  • Understand the cues and technique corrections for each exercise. Many candidates are gym goers and have a false sense of confidence with respect to exercise technique. Unfortunately, the NSCA has specific, detailed cues for each exercise that you may have never given much thought. Also, the corrections for technique errors might vary from your personal experience as an athlete or coach, so you’ll need to understand the NSCA’s corrections.

2. Apply the Information Practically

Too often, candidates only understand the CSCS information intellectually, without knowing how it relates to the real world. Applying the information to real athletes makes the information stick better and improves you as a coach.

Start by applying the information to your own training. For example, I experimented with some of the plyometric progressions; squat jump > tuck jump > single-leg tuck jump. This gave me a kinesthetic understanding of the increasing intensity of each exercise.

Besides your own training, apply techniques to your clients. For example, I learned of the 2-for-2 “rule” (if the athlete performs 2 more reps than planned for a given weight, for 2 workouts, then it’s time to increase the load). I started applying this to training clients as a conservative way to increase load.

3. Test Yourself with Practice Questions

Test taking is a skill and practice questions are the most specific way to improve that skill.

Practice questions help you:

  • Simulate exam conditions. Studying with calming music, snacks, and coffee breaks is significantly different than sitting in a quiet exam room for 4 hours straight. Practicing questions in exam conditions builds the mental endurance needed to pass.
  • Experience the format of exam questions. Having experience with exam question format means you’ll spend less time reading and analyzing questions and more time answering questions.
  • Practice rusty math skills. Many candidates forget that calculators aren’t allowed on the CSCS exam. There will be basic math on the exam like calculating percentages, multiplying, and long division. You want to do be able to do these calculations effortlessly-save the mental exertion for the tough questions.

4. Understand the Content Outline

A major mistake candidates make is only reading the textbook and ignoring the content outline. The content outline lists topics that are not heavily covered in the textbook (such as deceleration drill technique). These topics are still relevant and can appear on the exam, even if they are not emphasized in the textbook.

5. Use Flashcards

While, you should prioritize understanding the content and its application, certain pieces of information simply have to be memorized.

For example, it’s great to understand that pre-exercise carbohydrates help athletes. But you need to know the specific recommendations in terms of timing, quantity, best sources of carbohydrates, etc.

Studying with these steps will help you pass the CSCS exam on the first attempt. Passing the CSCS exam depends on studying hard AND studying smart.