Category Archives: Physical Education and History

Le Code de la Force: The Strength Code

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Georges Hébert’s “Code de la Force” book was published in France by Vuibert in 1914.

In its foreword, the author wrote:

The purpose of this book is to define the question of physical strength, by precisely defining the elements that comprise it and to give it a practical means of measuring it.

Because of the lack of works where notions relative to strength are codified [at the time of his writing], errors and preconceived notions of all kinds were plentiful on this topic. Thus, many people believe that large biceps constitute a criteria for strength; others solely consider strong individuals that are capable of lifting heavy weights; others finally habitually apply the qualifier of “solid bloke” to anyone tall and big. However, it so happens many times that the individual with large biceps shows inferiority when it comes to running or simply quickly climbing a slightly steep hill, that the weight lifter is unable to jump over any obstacle, that the solid bloke cannot follow an individual of ordinary ability in a long walk, a hike, a hunting game etc. 

He later writes:

On the other hand, no method concretely defines the outcome of physical education or training, meaning the goals to achieve. The result is trainees and coaches having no clue what to do. One not only trains without ardor or enjoyment when training without a goal, but one wastes time inevitably by repeating certain exercises without benefit. This is why I believed indispensable the need to establish exactly what the “training load” of the trained or educated individual ought to be.

One of my favorite parts of this foreword is that Hébert recognizes the need for experimentation, course correction and adjustment, his work being far from definitive. Philosophically speaking, isn’t it the first step to acknowledge what one’s limitations are in order to improve upon them?

Break it down into small steps

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With the upcoming and long awaited release of my updated version of Georges Hébert’s training program book, with equipment that we can find at any gym, playground, and surroundings, I feel it is important to understand that while some moves may look cool, difficult and even out of realistic reach for some, the basics of a move still carry benefits and can still be attempted by anyone at any fitness level.

Before your look at a heavy barbell back squat and say “I can’t do this”, realize that:

  1. You don’t need to if you don’t have to, unless your job or life depends on it. Your fitness doesn’t. If you want to, however, the next point applies.
  2. You didn’t come out of the womb sprinting. You didn’t even crawl for months. On point: you sit down on a chair, you stand up from it, you squat. Remove the chair, or lower it. Then, start holding on to something that weighs a few pounds.

See where I’m going with this? You’re squatting, just doing a different version from it. As the saying goes, we overestimate what we can do in a day, but underestimate what we can do in a year.

Take a look at this first short videoclip of a client going through a simple progression of how to clear a low wall: using both hands for support and landing his feet on the wall, then using only one hand with feet landing, then with feet clearing the wall entirely. Or jumping over from the other side, landing low (depth jump landing and continuing his run).

Now, take a look at this short clip of me doing what is an easy wall-to-wall, edge-to-edge jump, clearing about 6 feet of distance, immediately followed by a shot of the same client being afraid of performing the same jump (which he didn’t do that day, not ready yet mentally), as well as assessing jumping over the same low wall he cleared easily in the previous clip above. You can also see him do a running jump and clipping his foot on the edge nearest to him right at the beginning of his jump.

Regardless, doing such a jump is still, for most, a risky, advanced skill. However, a jump is a jump is a jump. Its requirements from a musculoskeletal standpoint, as well as command from the central nervous system, require the individual the be springy (something we lose with age if not practiced), supple, agile, strong and powerful, at whatever that level of strength, agility or flexibility one may be. It’s not how far, how high or how hard you jump (or lift, or throw, or punch), it’s that you do those things that matters.

So, go out and do something. Look at this funny little clip of my younger son jumping. That’s a big deal to him, to be able to do that, at 2 years old. Start there!

 

Expanding The Natural Method to Equipment

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A conversation, or rather a question I frequently have seen in various groups I belong to, when it comes to natural movement patterns and not limiting the association to Hébert’s Natural Method, is: what makes a movement natural?

How is lifting a rock overhead any more natural than a barbell, for instance? Because a rock can be found out in nature, and a barbell is a man-made object, therefore it’s not natural?

Is squatting with a sandbag better than doing a double-kettlebell front squat?

The Natural Method is not about the tool, nor is it about the execution of a movement with a tool-specific technique or form. Additionally, this statement is also not about form-bashing or questioning one organization’s technique or approach. Quite the contrary, it’s surface level rather than digging deep, if I may say so.

Yes, essentials of good form require solid foundations in technique and form to ensure a safe execution, which leads to long term progress. There comes a point where you individualize, personalize and find your way. You can find your way by finding what you truly want and need, with trial and error, experience, education and observation. The guidelines set for any given tool serve as your launchpad to proper execution.

Martial Arts are a great example of this. At first, you teach a person how to adopt a good fighting stance that allows both offense and defense. You throw that jab or cross without dropping the non-punching hand cover that side’s cheek and ribs as the punch hits its intended target (air, mitt, bag or face). If there is an opponent on the receiving end of that punch that is faster than you and counters quicker than you punch, having that ‘guard’ minimizes damage to your person, depending on how well protected you are.

But, eventually, from that structured minimal effective dose, you develop your own style, stance and you may even drop your hands, keep them free to “operate” and deflect, trap, block more efficiently than she you started. When you start from nothing, with no skills, you need a starting point.

The upcoming Natural Method Training book will be rich in photos and succinct with words by contrast. The reason behind it being I don’t need to reinvent instruction on how to properly clean, rack and press a kettlebell or two. It’s already out there, from a variety of sources and chances are, if you are reading this, you already know at least one way to do it, and may even teach it.

My Ninjutsu teacher, the late Shihan Steven Petrus always told us “don’t focus on the exact technique, focus on the motion“. A punch or a kick comes, you can avoid it by triangulating out of the way, deflect it, block it, take it or trap it, and counter with a kick,a punch, a throw. Yes, we’d start by working off of a choreographed sequence, and over time would build variations, only to eventually reflexively respond to the strike and adopt whatever motion is necessary. Haven’t most of us heard or read Bruce Lee’s quote about having no way as a way? When it comes to equipment and The Natural Method, all movement is natural. We follow the pathways our body allow us to operate in. The knee only bends one way, or the elbow, and if you go against it, bending it “unnaturally”, your experience will not be a fond one.

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Don’t look for barbell squats, bench presses or deadlifts in the book, and please do not complain that they are lacking because they are important for X, Y and Z. The Natural Method is about all-around development in many elements of fitness and not all of us have hours to devote daily to only one facet of fitness. And not all of us have hours daily to devote to several aspects of fitness to become supremely well-rounded.

Do not misinterpret this also as an under-achieving stance. Not everyone is going to become as well-rounded as Captain America. Let’s start where you are, and go from there. Learn the lifts, the jumps, the throws, the basic educational exercises that will keep your body efficiently balanced, muscularly, esthetically and functionally, and then as time allows and conditioning improves, move on to the cooler, flashier skills.

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Until then, use the equipment to fulfill that purpose, and equipment evolved as much as we did, only faster. Just because you are not in the woods jumping over boulders, throwing stones or climbing rocks, trees or vines doesn’t make your session any less natural. Going out is awesome, yes! But doing stuff in a gym two blocks away from you because you live in a city and have no car is more important. Don’t delay your fitness.

Women’s book cover art

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A visual blog.

Help me choose which is your favorite, especially if you like it better than the original art. Of course, I wish I could use full frontal, but I am unsure if Amazon would publish it…

E73njoy and let me know either on Facebook or privately if you want 🙂

And if you would like to pose in one of those shots in your modern accouterment d’entrainement  and send me that photo with the right to use it and grace the cover, please do! I might do an amalgamation of old and new to give it a cool edge!

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What’s The Natural Method and what does it mean?

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Shouldn’t I have answered this question many moons ago?

I have answered that in a few podcasts actually, the latest one from Joseph deLeo at Leo Training (link to come when it’s live)

I belong to a closed group on Facebook called the Movement Mavericks, started and monitored by Rannoch Donald and Neil Hill, who are not only huge supporters, they are also great promoters of proper movement skill and walk the walk when in comes to being all-around athletes and servicing their clients as such.

One way to explain it and make it a bit different from any answers I provided thus far is that it is simply the full development of our organism as nature intended, without excess or (whatever the opposite of excess is). Nothing unnecessary, nothing superfluous. We can all understand the notion of not having excess fat, being physically inactive, or needing to be physically active because we no longer are concerned with being part of the food chain. We don’t have to hunt and gather to survive, therefore we’re not utilizing our “naturally designed” physiology. I suspect some will potentially take offense, reject or misinterpret Georges Hébert’s vision when it comes to muscle building or strength training for what he considers to not be natural.

Hébert rejects things we now refer to as powerlifting, or bodybuilding. Training for hypertrophy is such a popular thing, especially among men, and it has been for decades (think of the Pumping Iron days and the buff look of superheroes). And while we can all value strength, how much strength do we truly need? We do like to say that strength trumps everything, that it’s a great go-to fix for most issues (and I agree), there has to be a limit, at some point. Hébert’s motto of “be strong to be useful” can also be translated as “be strong to be functional”. The subtle variation can be detected if you speak French and are familiar with both the original text and my humble translation/transliteration.

Indeed, much like I still struggle with the best English title for the book on women’s physical education, I modified the exact terminology of the original books to reflect a more current understanding of training. Terms we know and can identify quickly and currently may very well be used differently in 20 years. An example of a change I made a decision on is (and you can attack me for the stance, the choice was necessary and this blog, or any other platform like a workshop or speaking engagement can serve the purpose of further explaining my choices): utilitarian exercises, which I renamed functional exercises. Hébert calls them “utilitaires”, for utility, like a utility knife serves a purpose, or any tool. We like to call that functional today, and while utilitarian may be more appropriate, I still have to engage people in a way they understand it. I can’t break too much ground or challenge mindsets without some way to have people identify with it first.

So, reverting to utilitarian, “être fort pour être utile” has an element of functionality and because his program, his Natural Method is geared at all-around athleticism, a focus on just strength training, while it may provide one with the usefulness of being strong for a specific task, automatically eliminates other utilitarian or functional features. For instance, a strongman will usually not have the ability to run long distance, or run very quickly, yet someone who is a runner only (let’s pick an endurance runner) will not have the strength to be useful at other tasks. And because the Method originates from a military need, it all comes back to the source of what Dr Ed Thomas like to teach:

  • Medical/corrective
  • Military/Martial
  • Visual (for a harmonious development of the body)

Also, the hyper focus on strength training only, at the expense of other aspects, is a direct validation of the SAID principle (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands).

Let us not misinterpret consequently that the Natural Method doesn’t apply to people with muscles developed beyond a natural environmental need (there is no such thing as environmental need, globally speaking, unless you’re a sherpa, a Maasai warrior or other exception). Bodybuilding has no real function, yes. But who cares? What’s important is the bodybuilder being able to have a certain level of skill in other areas: agility, coordination, basic climbing or scaling, throwing light or heavy objects, being able to run. I happen to work with bodybuilders who value the work and principles brought forth by Georges Hébert and apply them in their training while still working on developing their muscles beyond what Nature intended or daily needs call for (and I am not talking about drugs or other things, only that unless specific attention is given to hypertrophy, muscles will only grow so much from basic labors required in the wild).

There is a reason why many ‘natural’ movements (as in philosophies or fitness approaches) like to refer to our hunting and gathering ancestors looking a certain way, because no caveman would pick up a rock or tree trunk and dead-lift it for reps with the goal to get stronger or bigger. It simply didn’t exist or didn’t fit into the lifestyle. Today, it’s a choice and an interest with a health benefit, whereas fitness then was a necessity for survival. No one actually dies today directly from being unfit (heart disease will do it for you as a consequence only) because rare is the person who has a saber tooth tiger chasing them. Gazelles and lions get it, but we don’t have to. We’re not getting picked out of the herd anymore.

The Crossfit movement tries to adhere to that, actually, by pushing it to excess, though. That’s the spirit of competition (something Hébert rejected to a point, as he believes in competition among peers during training and development as a way to equalize all trainees, but not for the sake of competition and scoring). Hébert didn’t care about being Bigger, Better, Faster, Stronger, but he believed in being strong, fast and harmoniously developed based on the stimulus provided by all the activities. He was a generalist, a jack of all trades, and you know what? That’s not such a bad thing to be. Consider pro athletes: their ultra specialization makes them broken, physically, sometimes mentally and there is a reason sports careers are short (the career spans depending on the damages caused by the activity on the body). They are masters at their craft, for a while, and many end up badly hurt after they retire. For the rest of us, being fit, strong, functioning individuals is a lifetime journey, its span only affected by our health and fitness.

I also believe in moderation, of course. What’s the point of being too strict if you’re miserable all the time? And how are you truly enjoying yourself if you’re unhealthy, in pain, popping pills all the time and unable to do basic tasks, be they for fun or utility? On a scale of 0 to 10, 0 being totally inactive and poorly eating and 10 being gangbusters gym rat orthorexic antisocial, choose to be an 8: eat well, train, and reward yourself with a few vices that you earned. But only if you earned them. If you fall below a 6, you’re not even average or median, you’re simply far below optimal. The difference between 8 and 10 is just as big as the difference between 6 and 8, but it’s far easier to get from 6 to 8 than it is to get from 8 to 10, and the benefits of being an 8 over a 6 are vastly, vastly worth the effort. Claiming lack of time is simply stating that “it’s not a priority”.

As a friend of mine recently said on FaceBook, try to say from now on “it’s not a priority” rather than saying “I don’t have the time”, and see how you feel. Is your health not a priority? Your strength? Your bank account? Your family?

What did fit women look like a century ago?

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Even though a century ago feels like forever, pretty soon we will be answering the same question and posting photos of Jane Fonda or Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” video from the 1980’s and that will be our answer, and aside from the fashions, maybe a little closer to what contemporary fit women would/will look like. Unless the women of Crossfit Games competition become that standard.

I want to note that this post is a continuation of sorts of my previous post, which dismissed the need for smartphone apps, because as you will see below, fitness has been achieved 100 years ago without the use of any gimmicky gadgetry. We’re only victims of our era’s mindset.

I should replace the word “standard” as well, since the photos shown today reflect more of a desired direction, and the look that female students of Georges Hébert’s Natural Method looked like. Presented to you will also be photos of what Hébert called “covering”, which means with a bit of natural body fat, something that is in “maintenance” mode, when not training actively for some competition or, like all fitness models do, for a photo shoot or other way to exhibit a body in peak condition. As you know, or should know, very few people look super chiseled year-round. Even if their abilities can remain sharp, the low body fat look is short-lived and should be moderated for good health.

In the first “dual photo op” (top of post featured image), the emphasis is on equalizing men and women in the similarity of their muscular development. Aside from the obvious sexual organ and breasts differences, muscular development is the same in both genders. The use of Antique statues has its own dedicated chapter in the upcoming book on Women’s Physical Education, as Hébert likes to refer to the standards of that era, since the models were live representations of what was seen.

In this first photo, Hébert shows one of his students who represents integral physical development and muscular definition.

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In this next set, the woman on the right differs from the women on the left not only because of integral muscular development, but also in the shape of her waist. Hébert wants you to focus in these shots not only on the importance of muscular training, but also on how the wear of corsets or other shape altering devices can deform the body. The women on the left are corset-wearing non-training individuals.

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The last picture set shows yet again the importance of complete muscular development and how it relates to having good posture. All the females who are “in good shape” here are students and practitioners of his Natural Method approach to training.

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I know many times, social media photos of “fitness porn” tend to discourage or antagonize rather than motivate, making the fit women look like they seek attention, or working against any progress women have made to reduce the objectification associated with their sex. The idea here is not to use sex as exploitation, or nude photos to entice anyone to read this post. Instead, consider the time period. Early 1900’s, no magic supplements or fitness apps or latest greets shiny infomercial fitness junk products. Simply solid work put in sensibly, with discipline and commitment, over the long haul.

 

 

The Shape Of Breasts

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Here is an excerpt (unedited or proofed yet) about the shape of breasts and how society viewed them a century ago, according to Georges Hébert, when it relates to judging or appreciating beauty in women.

“The shape of the breasts is considered wrongly by many as a criterium of beauty in a woman. “The breasts, that the whole woman”, we have heard in stupid refrains. In reality, the shape of the breasts only makes up one element of general beauty, and its importance is only secondary when compared to essential body parts: the abdomen, the chest, the limbs, etc.

It is, if we may, one of the first attributes of beauty among young women, but not in the adult woman, as of all her attributes, it’s the least durable.

This process, a little too simplistic, which consists of judging the beauty of a woman according to the shape of her breasts comes without a doubt from the following fact: on an under-developed trunk, skinny or fat, the breasts first catch the eye, because, as a rule, these organs present defects of which the most common ones are exaggerated volume and sagging. They thus appear to have a capital importance, because their misshaping alone breaks the general harmony of the body.

On a well developed trunk, on the contrary, with well-defined muscles, normal breasts barely get any attention.  

They are well molded onto the chest and solidly anchored to the pectorals that they look as if being entirely part of these muscles. In the preceding case, they seem added to the chest, which seemed inconvenienced to carry them.

The same observation could be applied to the basin and buttocks, which always appear too big when the trunk is muscularly atrophied.”

Have we learned anything? I do believe Georges is right: a fit, muscular, lean woman’s body will draw more attention as a whole, without specific focus on any area, as she will project an attitude of health, strength and beauty at once, not limiting her to esthetics, but to the Holy Trinity of fitness and attractiveness, intellect notwithstanding of course.

 

“Normal” everyday fitness esthetics

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There is a difference between being camera ready, which is ephemeral (unless you want to destroy all sense of social life with extreme discipline), and how the body looks daily. Think magazine cover, or “money shot” when an actor shows a chiseled body in a superhero movie (and then you don’t see the body for the rest of the movie, as it can take weeks or months of filming and it’s hard to maintain the “look”).

Don’t trust this fitness porn Instagram pictures of super ripped bodies. Few people look like that on a daily basis, even bodybuilders peak for a contest and look different in the off-season (that’s why it’s called the off-season, it’s never a year-round look).

Here’s an example of what my body looks like on a daily basis.

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I don’t care to show you a chiseled, mega ripped dehydrated body, because it looks like that for an instant only. I want to show you the body of someone who is like you: trains as frequently as a client should, has responsibilities, a family, bills to pay and is healthy, eats sensibly (meaning well and enjoys treats like chocolate or beer on occasion without guilty feelings).

And better yet here’s and excerpt of Georges Hébert’s book on physical education for women, with an applicable explanation for both men and women:

“The curve/shape is more or less pronounced according to the degree of development or the current state of training. It is necessary to differentiate these two states, as one can have achieved integral development and find oneself, at any given moment, either in a non-active period or simple rest, or in a training period.

 At the peak of development and at once during a training period, in other words in a “ready state”, to use the expression used in sports, the shape of the muscles and the fascia lines are extremely sharp/defined.

The skin adheres to the muscle without fat in-between, or at least without a noticeable layer. Muscular fibers are even seen through the skin when the muscle is strongly flexed.

At the limits of extreme training, curves become “cut” and in the case of overtraining, remind a bit that of someone being “skinned”. This applies to women as well as men. 

When the training period ends, and it cannot last more than a few weeks or days without reaching over training, or as soon as normal activity slows, the muscles appear less “defined”,  small fat deposits fill in and soften the lines of external contours or the fascia. “Covering” takes place, more or less visible as the training load is reduced, compared to what it was prior, and a more abundant food intake. Flesh is then filled.  

This state of covering disappears easily in a few days or weeks as soon as training or regular activity resumes. If, by lack of exercise, we let that covering go on, we progressively suffer all the setbacks on health and beauty. Fattening begins.

In summary, muscular definition is characteristic of the state of training or maximal activity; simple covering, average level of physical activity (maintenance), which is the normal state of training outside of maximal training intensity periods; exaggerated covering, a state of activity inferior or of weak training in relation to the vitality of the body (under training) and finally, obvious overweight, a state of complete inactivity or extremely weak, or also a specific state, which we will discuss, which has nothing to do with our natural needs. Nutrition also has an important role in the production of these various states.”

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The Natural Method: How Hébert Programs Training

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Most training programs are designed with short-term goals, like infamous 90-day programs to get “insanely” ripped. Then what? I find that outside of hypertrophy goals (muscle gain) or people focused on strength training goals like power lifting, there isn’t much consistency or “longevity” built into training programs. Indeed, the most popular training goal is weight loss, and it tends to be patchwork of high intensity drills. Yes, they get you moving, sweating, burning, but most of the time, people wind up too sore to move, beat down, tired, quit too soon or worse, revert to their original “shape” because 90 days isn’t long enough to bring your body to a permanent “good shape” if the “bad shape” was established over a period of years, if not decades.

And for those who exercise diligently and still do not improve, be it at least skill set, abilities or esthetics/looks, you may want to revisit your path to your goal, or troubleshoot life outside the workout itself.

I routinely have noticed that martial arts practitioners tend to do best at learning, being disciplined and moving, and that’s because they are part of a system, regardless of the style chosen. You work on a drill, movement or exercise for a while before moving on to the next, after not necessarily having mastery over it, but a clearer understanding. Example: if you work on the pull-up, practice hanging and only retracting your shoulder blades daily for a week (scapular retraction). The following week, work with a band to assist you in going full range of motion. The week after, work on negatives (lowering yourself unassisted and with control). And yet another week after, try partial pull-ups unassisted, and so on.

Outside of movement fundamentals to prepare and prime the body for training, through warm-up, mobility and corrective exercise (which also develops as fundamental, basic educational exercises), the “meat” of a training session according to Hébert is broken up into several categories. If you hit ONE skill/drill/exercise per category, and you do that for a week, you get to progress gradually. Then, the following week, you either add a new one or continue an exercise (add if easy, repeat if more challenging). So, week 2 would have you either recap all the previous week’s exercises PLUS add one, or add one only in some categories on top of the previous, and repeat some of the previous week’s.

The difference between that and those “get ripped quick” schemes (which only rip you off your money) is that you don’t do too much too soon. It’s a more realistic, gradual and long term approach, where you feel satisfaction from knowing you’re doing things better, and keeps the boredom away. Kinda like Christmas (where you get all your gifts at once and are on overload) versus Hanukkah, where you get one daily for 8 days. I’m not Jewish, by the way, but I think getting something daily is a good way to appreciate things.

So, here’s a teaser of the upcoming programming book and example of how to design the weekly plan:

1 skill per week per category for 12-16 weeks, which gives you a full workout, all-around athleticism, and proper skill development. 
Fighting: cross punch.
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Lifting: two-handed shoulder press.
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Throwing: single-arm light object swing throw.
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Climbing:
– rope: using hands and feet.
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– bar: pull-up.
Photo from The Natural Method: Fundamental Exercises (Book 2) translate by Philippe Til
– obstacle (beam, scaffold, etc.): straight arm support to seated position.
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– Jumping: high and/or broad jump, no momentum.
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– Sprint: 30 meters, try to improve the time daily.
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2nd week: (same order of categories)
– add front kick.
– jerk
– extension throw
– repeat last week’s (harder one, so needs more time)
– etc, etc…

 

The Return of a Bad Health & Fitness Trend

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I know it feels I am very Hébert-centric these days, and that’s probably because I am engrossed in the translation of one of his book as well as the adaptation of the program design and training of another. What is actually happening is that things fall into my lap, verifying the importance of my work, confirming that everything good and bad has been done before, and sooner or later resurfaces.

Case in point: in my junk email today, an ad for a waist slimming device was delivered. A century ago, this was the corset, which Hébert described as a torture device deforming women and causing all kinds of health issues.Now, a revamped version of it has appeared, and as any good marketing piece, it checks off what’s emotionally connected to the target demographics socially programmed “wants”, with benefits that can be attained without doing any work for it, and carefully worded claims which in fact, as only potential and not guaranteed.

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Now, let’s take a look at the benefits and break those down:

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1) Reshaping of waistline: this is an external process, fake, like a push-up bra, encouraging lack of activity and fitting into a standard that may not be the physiology of every individual woman.

2) Helping define curves: does it rearrange, tucking here, pumping there, shuffling skin and fat around (because muscles, even at rest, aren’t going to move a whole lot if they are developed properly)?

3) Helping you feel toned: so you *may* “feel” something that isn’t there (muscle tone), tricking your brain momentarily (until it shuts the sensation down, like wearing silk or not noticing perfume you put on). The problem remains: if you have no muscle tone, this doesn’t provide muscle tone.

4) Smoothing of rolls and bulges: Hébert wrote “For centuries, many poor creatures, to satisfy this criminal concept, have condemned themselves to deformity with the force compression of their flanks.” Hiding under a cloak is only deception, not health, of self and to self and others. 

5) Helping to feel fuller: yes, the best weight loss tools are the knife and fork. Caloric restriction alone isn’t enough. Nutritional balance is needed.

Now, let’s take a quick look at what happens internally. I will not comment, the pictures are worth, as the saying goes, a thousand words. Discuss amongst yourselves.

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