Give Your Workouts More Cowbell

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We all know the SNL cowbell skit. If you don’t, then you must have been on Mars, in a cave, with your fingers in your ears for the past 5 years. Watch it before reading this article:

Pretty damn funny. I mean, Christopher Walken and Will Farrell together never gets old, but allow me to break down the sketch for a minute. Notice how sullen Will Farrell’s character is at the beginning. He’s playing the cowbell half-a**, in the background, and getting no respect. In fact, the other members openly disrespect him when Walken comes in. Lo and behold Walken loves the cowbell and, since Farrell stuck to his guns, he’s become a star. All of a sudden he’s banging out every note and is the hero. How often do you think that you’re doing the wrong thing in the gym?

How often do you avoid new exercises for fear of looking stupid? How often do you avoid asking for help because you’re afraid it will make you look weak? Here’s what I see every time I walk into a commercial gym. Semi-fit people sweating away on cardio machines, terrible form on the most basic of exercises with way too much weight (guys) or way to little weight (girls), unqualified personal trainers ‘training’ clients, a couple scattered people with reasonably good form, 1-2 fit people with a notepad and pen being Cowbell Exercisers.

Be a Cowbell Exerciser

I say Cowbell Exercisers because they’re different, they’re weird, and people stare. These people are avoiding the workout version of a Faustian Bargain. The Faustian Bargain as described by Seth Godin is when we trade our genius and artistry for stability.

Makes sense doesn’t it? It’s hard to be different. Isn’t it easier to do what everyone else is doing? Why run sprints and look stupid when you can slowly jog in the fat burning zone or perform 3 sets of 12 reps for 6 exercises on arm day? I’m here to call you to action. Crap or get off the pot. Stability is, by definition, the antithesis to working out.

I’m assuming that you’re in the gym to create a change. You want to lose weight, gain weight, get more muscle, or become better at sports. Usually so you can be sexier to the opposite sex. The body enjoys stability. Its goal is to reach and maintain a state of equilibrium. In order to force the body to adapt you must stress it. If you want to have a strong and lean body you’re going to have to stress it often with high intensity.

3 sets of 12 reps is fine if you want to feel good about eating a piece of cake the night before but it won’t continue to pack on muscle. Long slow runs are fine if you want to get better at long slow runs. If you want to burn fat, then you’ve got it backwards. Remember the lesson above. Your body always wants to reach equilibrium. If you run day in and day out your body will get more efficient and burn less calories each time you do it.

What Did Will Do?

Will Farrell stood out in the cowbell video. He looked stupid. Everybody else in the band looked at him funny but he stuck to his guns.

What was the result? Turns out he was on the right track after all. The producer loved the cowbell and wanted it to be more central. Farrell gave the band a different sound; the sound that the producer was looking for.

Be Like Will

I’m going to lay out 6 steps that you can be a Cowbell Exerciser:

1. Be careful who you follow

  • Why did you choose your trainer?

Did you walk into a gym one day and, with a burst of excitement, sign up for the trainer that the sales person recommended to you because of reason A, B, and C. When you buy a car do you buy a Gremlin (see below) because a hot salesperson recommends it to you? Of course not, you do research and make an informed decision. I’m here to argue that your body is more important than any car you ever buy. After all, you only get one body. Over the course of your lifetime you’ll have multiple cars. I’m also willing to bet that a lot of people who work with trainers spend more money on their trainer than they do their car. I know a lot of my clients do. When looking for a trainer or gym ask around, interview the trainer, watch them work with other clients, ask them for references of other clients they’ve worked with and make an informed decision. It could be the most valuable decision you make this year.

  • Does your boyfriend train you in the gym?

I shake my head every time I see this. Let’s assume for a minute that the boyfriend is knowledgeable. He has done his own research, has gotten himself into good shape, and works hard. I’m willing to bet he’s never researched training women who have your injury or muscle imbalance because, quite frankly, it’s not him and why would he know how to train anybody that isn’t him.

  • Do you read fitness magazines?

JC covered this one in much better detail then I ever could so I’m not even going to try. Fitness Marketing and its Effect on Women

  • Do you pick an ‘internet guru’ without looking into who they actually are?

Internet fitness guru’s are a great example of post-modernism. A guru is often a guru because they decide they want to be. They’ve figured out that if they market themselves well with lots of flashing lights and fancy images people will listen, and sadly, follow what they have to say. Often, fitness guru’s are looked upon as experts and their preaching becomes gospel without adequate research. The printed word means less and less everyday so please look into the qualifications of internet fitness types and check up on their references before buying their products or following whatever radical claims they make. Ever try the Crazy Fit system? Or want your muscles to be pulled closer to the bone by Tracey Anderson?

2.  Stop caring

Know that most people in the gym will never get measurable and long-term results. It’s unfortunate but true. Stop caring about looking stupid and bang your cowbell with gusto. Try new exercises and work on form with lighter weight until you feel comfortable. As Daniel Coyle eloquently points out in “The Talent Code” the best way to learn a skill is to try, fail, and fail better. Failing with purpose forces our bodies to adapt. You will look different than anybody else in the gym and they might stare. 3 months later when you’re looking great and they look the same I can promise that you’ll enjoy the stares.

3. Stick to your program

Program hopping is a huge problem. During the first 4-8 weeks of a new exercisers life they will get results from anything. Once neural adaptation slows, a more concerted effort is needed. The quality of the program dulls in comparison to consistency. If you find a great program midway then I urge you to make a note of it and try it ONLY upon completion of your previous program.

4. Do your research

There are some great programs available on the internet or published in books. Personally I’ve benefitted greatly from Eric Cressey’s “Maximum Strength”, John Berardi and Michael Mejia’s “Scrawny to Brawny” and a couple of Christian Thibaudeau’s programs. If you’re women I recommend Nia Shanks “Beautiful Badass” workout.

5. Give it your all

Time is finite. Time is also your most valuable commodity. Why spend more time in the gym then you have to? And why spin your wheels doing something that won’t get you results? Put 100% of your effort into your workout every single time. Don’t stick to 12 reps because the paper says so. If you can do 13 go for it!

6. Hire A Trainer

Maybe my opinion is skewed here but is it not worth it to hire a trainer if it will save you hours of valuable time and frustration? Time that you could be using to make money or spend with your family. Find somebody in your area who is good (if you’re looking please send me a message, I might know somebody near you) and purchase some of their time. Even if you don’t want them with you every workout please take the time to pick their brain. We’re here to help you and we’re passionate about helping you succeed.

Ring On

Jonathan Goodman CSCS is the creator and head coach of the Personal Trainer Development Center.  He also acts as the Senior Trainer at Body + Soul Fitness.  You can follow him on twitter @Jon_PTDC or find him on Facebook.


September 9, 2011
11 Comments.

  • Toni September 28, 2011

    I’ve always believed that to do the right thing and walk in the truth (sorry to sound preachy) you will inevitably stand alone. Most people are followers and I was too – for a long time. As I’m about to turn 40, (in six weeks, eek!) I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t really give a damn what most people think about me anymore. It’s a pretty freeing realization actually.

    Case in point: when I used to do my hill sprints this past summer at the ungodly hour of 5 a.m., this one neighbor of mine used to stare at me as if I was from Mars. He even said to me, “you don’t need to exercise, you’re already thin.” I ignored him and continued on with my workout. Well, fast forward a few months and guess who’s doing hill sprints now? I guess I’m not so crazy after all.

    Another example: (I have so many, lol) My dad belongs to a gym and has a trainer. He threw me a few guest passes recently. I’ve avoided the gym like the plague the past 15+ years b/c men are so lewd in my past experience. I prefer to work out in the comfort and safety of my basement, lol. Anyhow, I asked the trainer (who’s my age and in great shape) if he could show me how to properly execute the deadlift. When I was in the weight room doing it, the men all stopped and just stared. It was more than a little awkward. As I walked out, one of the men called out to me, “that’s pretty good…for a girl!” Now when I was younger, that kind of comment would’ve leveled me but instead I just ignored the idiot meathead, lol. There wasn’t one women in there; I was the only one but I didn’t care. I didn’t see a sign on the door that said, ‘men only’. ;)

  • Rick September 22, 2011

    Love it, I’m sitting here laughing at the clip and remembering when I saw it the first time it aired. Classic.

    I could not agree with you more on the ‘stop caring’ point. I can’t tell you haw many “silly” things I’ve done in a gym that got all sorts of strange looks, only to have people ask me what & why I was doing that and could I show them. Some quick examples – putting down a couple of floor mats to do neck bridges (that always got some looks). Getting into a full squat position (think of a baseball catcher) and then hopping across the floor never coming out of the squat (usually 60 feet or so). Finding a corner and jumping rope, never understood why that one was “weird”. Here’s one that got all sorts of looks, but within 2 weeks I had about 20 people doing. Take a barbell plate (weight/size will vary based on strength and conditioning), hold it out in front of your chest, arms bent with the weight close to your body. Do a full squat. While still in the full squat raise the weight over your head. Now, while doing a “duck walk” (not sure what else you’d call it) with your arms still extended, rotate the weight around clockwise. When you’ve reached the other side of the room or whatever, stand, bring the weight down to your chest again, rest for a second then repeat, this time rotating counter clockwise. Not sure if you can picture this, but it certainly looks very strange and not something you see very often. And until you try it, you have no idea how difficult it is and how much balance and core strength it takes.

    Actually at one point, many years ago, myself and a couple of the other guys I trained with (they were a bit younger) actually would try to come up with the ‘whackiest” stuff. What’s funny is a few of the things we did are now part of Crossfit routines.

    I’m a firm believer that anyting you do that pushes you (way) out of your comfort zone is when you get results.

    PS – Just thought of another one. Remember the old Universal machines? They had a pull-up ‘station’ on one corner that consisted of a U shaped bar with basically bicycle hand grips at each end. This was a great place to hand upsidedown, with your feet braced under the bracket that held the pull-up bar to the machine’s frame, and do ab work. That always got some great looks. Was a bit of a head rush too…

    • Jonathan Goodman September 22, 2011

      Thanks for the input Rick. I love to hear about people being creative in the gym while staying safe.

      Well done!

  • Tim September 20, 2011

    Overall a good article, but the part about cardio burning less calories the more you do it is just dumb. Lyle wrote a whole series about interval training vs steady state and went into good detail on a lot of the cardio issues and showed how steady state is still a very useful form of cardio to burn fat. In fact you can burn more calories per session and it taxes your body less, allowing more recovery for weight lifting workouts. The argument that you burn less calories the more you do it is overblown. Lance Armstrong is thought to have increased his calorie burning efficiency by 5%, and this is after years of 5 hour cardio sessions multiple times per week. Any bodybuilder doing a few hours of cardio per week is not going to increase efficiency by much at all, if any. Even if they did, burning even 20 less calories per session is not a reason to not perform the cardio session, for fear of becoming too efficient at burning calories.

    • Jonathan Goodman September 20, 2011

      First off. Thanks for the compliment on the article. In response to your comment:

      I agree that the issue is overblown and your points are absolutely correct. This article was meant to be geared towards the everyday exerciser. I didn’t go into detail into energy systems and made a blanket statement which I will make sure to justify in future pieces. The fact is, in well-developed individuals steady-state Cardio is an effective tool to burn fat as it doesn’t tax the body in such a way that it needs 24-48hrs rest.

      With that in mind the majority of exercises have a VERY finite amount of time that they can train in. Steady-state cardio may burn calories, true, what you don’t get are the same EPOC (Excess-Post-Exercise-Oxygen-Consumption) and TEF (Thermic Effect of Exercise) as HIIT or resistance training.

      The point I’m trying to make is that 99% of exercisers may have 2-4hrs to train in a week (or less). Those 2-4hrs are much better spent doing resistance training as EPOC will lead to a raised Metabolic Rate for 24-72hrs post workout as opposed to steady-state cardio. In addition, steady state cardio will not develop whole-body musculature.

      I think the disconnect here is that your comment was geared towards highly-trained individuals. It is a valid argument. Bodybuilders will benefit from steady state cardio (especially female) as they will burn excess calories without taxing the system and causing a stress response.

      My interest, on the other hand, is with the masses. Most people need the best bang for their buck and steady-state cardio is not the way to go.

      Next time I will be more clear as to the scope of the article. Thanks for your feedback. If you want any references for the info provided above please email me at jonathan@theptdc.com and I’ll be happy to send you research papers.

      • Tim September 21, 2011

        Very well said. I appreciate your comment and your pragmatic attitude and I agree with you whole-heartedly with this population. Not many writers would explain as calmly as you did without getting defensive. Very good response.

        Kudos to you, lol.

        • Jonathan Goodman September 21, 2011

          Everybody is here to get better Tim. No sense in getting upset as you’re all entitled to your own opinion. I apologize for not making myself more clear.

          JC… you buying?

          • JC Deen September 21, 2011

            yeah, I owe Tim a beer, or two, actually.

        • JC Deen September 21, 2011

          I’m glad we can all play nice. beer anyone?

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