Biggest Loser trainer Jen Widerstrom gets her clients to change with an energetic mix of toughness and compassion. Here, she lays down practical weight loss advice—perhaps none more pertinent than the fact that first you need to love yourself.
RI Magazine: If you were to talk to the average guy about why he bought the TV that he has, he’d be able to tell you every last thing about it. It’s the perfect size for the room he’s got. It’s the perfect resolution for the kinds of shows he likes to watch. The perfect price point for his budget. Every angle of that purchase will have a really well-researched justification. Then if you ask him why he trains the way he trains, he’ll tell you that it’s what his buddy showed him. I think most people are kind of like that with the way they’ll really respect a major purchase and do the research, but then when it comes to their own health and fitness, they’re incredibly susceptible to snake oil salesmen. I wanted to know if you see the same kind of thing and if in your opinion, why is there that disparity?
Jen Widerstrom: Well I think that the real difference is vulnerability. When you buy a TV, it’s a very black and white scenario. When it comes to physical health, when it comes to changing your body, it’s much more personal. And if you don’t know what to do, that makes you vulnerable.
Instead of showing that vulnerability you say, “ Hey, buddy what did you do? Oh great. Yeah, you look like you’ve got some abs. I’ll just do that.” It’s easier to use the buddy system than to do the work yourself because you don’t want to look like a fool. That’s really it. It’s not that complicated of a thing.
But when it comes to training, to really find the what works well for you, you have to put the ego to the side and learn what your body needs. That takes some time.
RI: I know this predates your involvement with the show but I want to get your thoughts. There was a study that came out about Biggest Loser contestants. They followed 14 contestants and six years after being on the show, 13 out of the 14 had regained the weight. So that raises a question about sustainability. What do you do to ensure the people you train can sustain their progress?
JW: You’ve got to look at Biggest Loser like you would a rehab center. These are people that come in with multi-layered issues or problems. We’re putting them in an environment that they can thrive in, that they can learn in, that they can find success in and really feel stable.
Then when they go home, they’re placed back in an environment where it’s the environment that created a lot of the issue. You see that with any kind of addict, whether it’s drugs or alcohol, and you see it with people that struggle with food and their weight.
It’s not that what we’re teaching is not sustainable. It’s that there are more variables at home to operate with. Trust me, I would let them all move in with me if I could, you know what I mean? Because I realize a lot of times the behavior changes take a lot of time. There’s a transtheoretical model for change. We use it for people that smoke cigarettes, for people that drink alcohol, for people that are on the brink of type 2 diabetes and would use it for people that are trying to lose weight. There is a process, a medical process that teaches behavior change. Some get it and some don’t. There’s nothing that we do during the time on the show that jeopardizes them. It’s when they go home and they’re met with a lot more variables and it’s not easy. It’s not easy. That’s just the honest to goodness truth.
It’s not like every person that’s ever gone to rehab leaves and says, “Yeah. Works forever.” I know really incredibly good people that have relapses. We all do. I think that unfortunately what does happen is these contestants, the biggest fear that they have is disappointing their families, or their spouses, or their friends, or their communities. The pressure to keep the weight off is often very tough.
RI: Have you kept in touch with a lot of people you’ve worked with?
JW: Every single one. Yeah, these guys are stuck with me. It’s fun to see. I have a contestant from my very first season who’s dating a girl that actually had a really big weight loss as well and now they’re apartment shopping up in Minnesota.
I still get the calls. I still have the text threads of season one, text threads in season two, and everybody’s all connected and supporting each other. It also opens up an opportunity for them to support each other. I’m one person, but by keeping the channels open between all of us, they’re able to be like, “Hey. I had a really hard day. This is what happened.” Or, “I kind of had a binging episode and this is why.” Then one of the contestants can speak up and say, “You know? It’s so funny, I struggled last week. This is what I did to get out of it.” It’s now created a community of support outside the show.
RI: To get someone to change their eating habits, you actually have to get them to change their palette, their idea of what tastes good, what constitutes a satisfying meal. That change is so difficult for most people. How do you approach that hurdle?
JW: It’s interesting that you said palette, because I thought you were going to say mindset. The palette will change with the mind. What used to sound really good to me, doesn’t anymore. In college [Jen was a hammer thrower for the Universtiy of Kansas], oh my God. I would get an entire pizza, and I would trade a slice. Like if you wanted to try a slice of mine, I would trade you a slice. I would never give one away. I was like, “I need all this so I can’t give some away.” Now the thought of me sitting down and having an entire pizza with the ranch dressing, with the parmesan cheese… I’m literally nauseated and it would mess up my system. It doesn’t sound good to me anymore.
A lot of what my book is about [Diet Right For Your Personality Type, available for preorder on Amazon, HERE] you’ve got people that are trying to be like someone else. They’ll see a new book or program come out that tells them you’ve really got to be like this, you’ve really got to get organized, you really got to do this. I say, “No, no, no. Be who you are because who you are is an asset, not a problem. Let’s lean into that personality. Let’s lean into those qualities. Here are some guide twists along the way so you can be as you are and use that as a strength and as a support of the nutritional templates than as a problem.”
I think that what ends up happening when you give people guidelines that are accessible for them and the behavior patterns is they’re able to spot those potholes in the road. You’re able to navigate where your tendencies are.
I know a lot of people that I’ve worked with had terrible cravings. I looked at their day and I’m like, “Oh okay. You’ve had 2 cups of water all day.” Some cravings come because people are actually just dehydrated and their body’s craving for sugar and carbohydrates only happens because they’re so depleted. When your body is depleted it goes to the immediate and more successful fuel source, which are probably from the sugar.
You’re not a sweets person. You’re just dehydrated.
And if you skip a meal, of course because your body’s smarter than you, it said, “Well I didn’t know when this jerk’s going to feed me again so whatever they do feed me I’m going to store” It reaches back into that old DNA that we have in us to survive.
RI: The pizza eating that you mention. You needed to gain weight as an athlete?
JW: Yeah. As a hammer thrower you really want to create a lot of velocity and speed, and the faster you go, the more the weight kind of pulls you out of your legs. You want to stay as low as you can in the crouch in order to use that snatch position and throw far. I was so light that it would pull me out of my legs, so by the time I got to the front of the circle to throw, I was already almost upright. It was a goal to just put weight on me. I was eating everything I could. But the weird thing about training, I couldn’t break 150 pounds. I got to like 149.7 once and I was like, “Dangit! Why can’t I be 150?”
After I graduated [and stopped training for track every day], by that September I had gotten to like 165. I actually got on the scale and I was like, “This can’t be right. This thing’s broken.” Not in all my years of throwing could I break 150 and yet in a blink I was up. It just kind of woke me up. Then I was like, “I’ve got to figure this out.”
There’s heart disease in my family, there’s high cholesterol in my family and blood pressure issues. I was like, “I need to go to be present here and not go down the rabbit hole” which was by the way, my reaction. My default was to get emotional, get upset. Just drink and eat, because what am I supposed to do? I felt really lost and frustrated. Instead I decided I wanted to be mindful and I wanted to be aware.
RI: Your book, Diet Right For Your Personality Type, does it dive into these mindset issues?
JW: One hundred percent. It’s mindset, but it’s more. We are all very unique people. One size doesn’t fit all. Well then why are we only creating programs that are one way? When asked to write a book, I was like, “Why? We already know that protein is good. We know how important water is. We know why fiber is important. What am I going to write about that people don’t already know?” I almost got in a fight with my book agent because I was like, “I don’t know what you guys are expecting. I’m not going to make up some bullshit diet that doesn’t work. People deserve the right answer. You’ve got to make that for them.”
I cannot teach people about what I do because I’ll only get about 20 percent of the people that are out there.
I started to realize this when I was training people in group classes. I would say something that I thought was really motivational, and half the room didn’t respond. There’s a percentage that would go faster or grab a heavier weight and really respond. Then there was another person that got on their cell phone and walked to the bathroom. I was like, “We’re all pretty different, aren’t we?” I started to use this customization of training within a group setting, walking by people, talking in their ear, knowing their PR and saying things to motivate people differently within the room. With the book I applied this to food. You need to ask, “What do people need? What kind of person are they?”
Essentially it’s based on using a personality assessment where you identify your dominant personality trait. I’ve got 5 programs within the book and based on the assessment you are assigned one of the programs.
RI: When we’re talking about how much exercise a person needs in a week, you always hear these very doable numbers thrown around, like it’s 30 minutes a day 3 to 4 times a week, or something in that neighborhood. Someone who has a lot of weight to lose, that might get them into kind of general health range, but to lose a lot of weight, don’t they need much more activity than that?
JW: Yes, but no. I mean we have to realize that transformation has to come in layers. For someone who has a lot of weight to lose, I recommend 20 minutes of walking every day after lunch or dinner. Just 20 minutes, moderate pace to move. It works with digestion, brain activity. I mean it’s proven already you add between 3 to 5 years to your life just by walking 20 minutes a day. That’s where you start.
Then you start to layer. You start to extend the time. You start to add some weights in there.
And, frankly, when people have more weight to lose, you really have to protect the knees and the feet. We have to progress forward without injury, without setback. It’s making sure you create not only success for the body. I also want to create success mentally.
When I ask someone to walk 20 minutes after lunch and they do it, I’m creating a neuro pathway of success. Number one, I did it. I actually went out and walked after lunch. Number two, I didn’t die. Number three, I feel pretty good! Now neurologically I remember that walk was good and I was able to do it, so I’m going to try it again tomorrow. Now we’ve got 2 days, and now we’ve got 3, and now we’ve got this layer.
Then after those few weeks you think, “I think I could actually walk longer, or actually I’m going to start carrying weights. Actually I’m going to go to my gym and see what I can learn with a personal trainer because the neuropathway of success has told me I can.”
A lot of times when it comes to weight loss, I need to prove to someone that they can before they’re willing to extend themselves and try.
Then what happens? If I have to work out and move, I’m probably not going to go get a big burrito before I do it, right? Because that’s going to sit in my stomach and I want something lighter. Then also if I have moved, I’m probably not going to go get that whole pizza because you don’t want to ruin the work you just did. Your body is going to want something healthier.
RI: You use support groups to create accountability. What can someone do at home?
JW: Training partners create accountability. Daily weigh-ins create accountability. If you don’t know what you weigh you don’t have to do anything about it, right?
RI: A lot of people like to go on Facebook and say, “I’m starting a new thing today” and they make a big deal that they’re starting a program. Do you want people to make that announcement or not? Because if they fail, now they’re a public failure.
JW: Well the definition of failure is learning, right? You can look at as the kid doing a forward roll. You can look at 3-year-olds doing big jumps on a trampoline. When they go to their butt and they can’t get their feet under them, did they fail or did they learn that the next time they’ve got to pull their feet tighter to stand up? In my mind they’re learning.
It’s not for them to feel shame or embarrassment, but for people to say, “Hey. I care that you’re doing well and that you’re trying.” That’s why I have a job. They’re showing up because I’m there. I think that’s why CrossFit’s been thriving is because when you leave class, someone’s like, “Hey. See you tomorrow?” Then they say, “Yeah. Okay, I’ll come.” That person cares if I’m here.
Ultimately, success is not going to come find you. You’ve got to go get it. You’ve got to find your finish line. You’ve got to be accountable to yourself. That’s what I’m trying to get across. I know you’re not going to be perfect. I don’t need perfection, but I do need progress. That’s what I say to a lot of my people because people show up every day and feel like they’re falling short and failing. I go, “You’re perfect. This is who you are today. Get out of your head, man. Let’s just do this right now.” You’ve got to give yourself permission to be human.
CAN YOU TRAIN LIKE JEN?
We wouldn’t recommend this workout for a beginner, though it can be scaled down by changing the 30-rep exercises to 20-rep exercises. Leave the running and rowing as is.
DIRECTIONS: Do the following workout as a circuit, one time through. Try to complete it in the 25-minute time limit.
Row 500 M
30 Bumper Burpees*
30 Wall Balls**
30 Box Jumps***
Run 200 M
Row 500 M
Run 200 M
30 Box Jumps***
30 Wall Balls**
30 Bumper Burpees*
Row 500 M
100 Partner Situps
*Perform a burpee while holding a bumper plate.
**Men use a 20-lb. ball, women use a 14-lb. ball. Squat low and throw it to the overhead target.
***Men jump to a 24-inch box, women jump to a 20-inch box.