The author of Ageless Athlete, “Smitty” is one of the smartest trainers in the game. We spoke to him about training for the long haul, the keto diet, and where to start if you’re still stuck on Square One.
BY MATT TUTHILL
ROBERT IRVINE MAGAZINE: So many readers write to us and they’re overweight and looking for help. They’re pre-diabetic, haven’t been to the gym forever, and have no idea where to begin. That’s a rather broad starting point, but nevertheless, where would you tell that person to begin?
JAMES SMITH: I think it was Arthur Ashe who said, “Do what you can, where you are, with what you have.” Get moving. Don’t worry if you’ve got the right workout. Just start. That’s number one. That’s what Richard Simmons used to say. He got people off the couch and started moving. He didn’t have bands, chains, and mace bells. He just got people active.
The second thing, once you’re moving, you’ve got to figure out why, and it has to be something greater than yourself. Anyone who’s procrastinating on this, don’t realize that nine times out of ten, they’ve got people in their lives who are counting on them to be the healthiest they can be. It’s selfish to only think that it’s only about your health. It’s not. You have to figure out who you’re connected to and why that means so much to you. It’s their health too. It’s your kids. It’s your spouse. It’s your mom and dad. Because if it’s just yourself, you’ll just sit on the couch.
The third thing, find a training partner or a group can help keep you accountable day to day. After that first two weeks of muscle soreness and fatigue, there becomes this habit you create where you change how you think. You stop thinking, “I’m tired,” and you start thinking about how you love to work out and eat the right things and feel good all day.
The fourth thing is be consistent. You can feel up one day and down the next. That happens to everyone. But if you stick to the plan you get momentum and it creates a snowball effect. How you feel changes, the scale changes, the way your clothes fit change.
The fifth thing: Don’t hang around people who are unmotivated. Or, as my buddy says, “Don’t hang around people where batteries are not included.” You need to spend your energy to motivate yourself. You can’t be in a situation where they’re dragging you down.
The sixth thing: Keep a journal. Write down what you eat, how much you sleep, what you trained, how much water you’re drinking. If you can track this over the long term, that’s a huge piece of staying accountable. It’s very rewarding to see how long you can keep up with these good habits.
RI: In your CPPS certification (Certified Physical Preparation Specialist) you make a very big deal out of doing a proper warmup and progressing that warmup in a very specific way. Why is warming up so important?
JS: For one reason or another—be it old injuries, poor training choices, a lack of activity—a lot of the population is really immobile, rigid, non-athletic. I study the Tao. One of the verses of the Tao Te Ching is, “The rigid old tree breaks in the wind. The supple tree sways.” In the same way we die when we stop moving. Suppleness is part of youth and you don’t want to lose that.
So, warming up is incredibly important because before you add weight to movement patterns, you have to make sure that every joint in your body can move through its full range of motion. Your shoulders, hips, knees, need to be warm, lubricated. If you can’t squat down to sit on the couch under control—without plopping down—then you have no business adding weight to the bar and trying to squat down.
A warm up gets joints moving properly, increases core temperature. And all those sedentary muscles that get rigid from sitting on the couch—and stop contracting the way you need them to—you get those firing the way they need to. If you’re sitting all day, your core and glute muscles are down-regulated. They stop contracting the way they ought to.
As far as how to progress that warmup, it should move from simple to complex. From ground-based to standing, and from slow to fast. The reason you want that progression is because your next step is strength training. No matter what your goal is, you want to build lean muscle mass, because the more muscle you have, the higher your metabolism.
RI: The keto diet gets a tremendous amount of press—even from this magazine. But not everyone is sold on it. Where do you stand?
JS: A balanced structure is what I recommend for most people. But with any diet it really comes down to: Are you expending more calories than you are taking in? The second piece of that: Is it something you can sustain? If people eliminate a certain macronutrient, that’s rarely a good thing because it’s not sustainable.
Now, there are people who have been on keto for long-term and they’re doing great. There are others who walk around feeling cold with low energy all the time. It can be a highly individual thing.
But what most people never think about when they change their diet is if they’re optimizing how their body breaks down that food. How is their gut health? Are they taking a probiotic? Getting in good digestive enzymes? Your gut health can affect everything from your mood to your sleep, which leads into energy. If you eat a lot of simple carbs, you can proliferate the gut bacteria that feed on those and you can lose the gut bacteria that’s of a more beneficial nature.
RI: You quote the Tao Te Ching often, which is very unusual for a trainer. How did you get into that?
JS: I got into it, I guess, through tragedy. My dad left when I was three. And the weekend I went to college, right before my eighteenth birthday, my stepfather, who I always thought of as my dad, he left. He and my mom god divorced and I never talked to him again. So the two most important men in my life, I felt abandoned me. And I never had closure with either of them. When I was just turning 40 in 2012, I went to Paul Reddick, a business mastermind. I told him about this and he said, “That’s too big of a burden for you to carry. Put it down and walk away.” That simple statement changed my life.
Then out of the blue he sent me this Wayne Dyer DVD, My Greatest Teacher. And the reason he sent me that was Wayne Dyer’s dad ran out on him, and it’s all about Dr. Dyer’s path to forgiveness, and how he could never be a great father until he forgave his own father. That was what I had to do.
From there it was a journey from Wayne Dyer to Allan Watts, Eckhart Tolle, Osho, and the Tao Te Ching from Lao Tzu, all these spiritual teachers who I’ve studied over the years. So I’m a different person than I was seven years ago, even a week ago. I really believe that mastermind changed my life.
I was struggling. I worked for a Fortune 500 company for twenty years and fitness—which was my passion—was something I did on the side. And I was so tired of working myself into the ground for a job I hated. The fluorescent lights were draining my body. I felt like I was dying every day. Seven years ago, I quit, and I made fitness work, and the rest is history. I was training athletes for twenty years, but it was always on the side until 2012.
RI: That life philosophy seems to have informed your training philosophy. The fitness industry puts so much of its focus on “get arms like this and abs like that” but then you write Ageless Athlete which is all about a long-term sustainability.
JS: Here’s the biggest secret that no one talks about: Strength training changes your body, for the good and for the bad. When you add tension into the body, soft tissues respond. They get stronger, they interlock better, contract harder. But the repercussion is a loss of suppleness.
A loss of free fluidity of movement. And the longer you’ve been resistance training, the less you quality of movement you have if you don’t add mobility work every single session. Movement is lubrication. It’s life. The young sapling sways in the hurricane. It doesn’t break. Elasticity, reactiveness. You lose this as you get older.
Training breaks your body down. As you recover—that’s when your body gets bigger, faster, stronger, more explosive—but it’s at the cost of movement unless you’re focused on maintaining that. You’ll never see an old powerlifter who moves well.
Strength training is hard work because it adds tension to the body. Soft work, like stretching, yoga, mobility exercises is just as important. Your body works by the concept of use it or lose it. You have to have just as much soft work as you do hard work.
So in Ageless Athlete, the mobility work is built right into the workout. Right in the middle of the workout. Not just during the warmup or stretching for a few minutes after you’re done. And the reason I put it in the middle is so that you cannot skip it. Because this is about fitness for a lifetime. Movement quality for a lifetime. Move well, feel well, be well.