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  • Writer's pictureJulian Molteno

Anne Elk’s Theory on Brontosauruses

As my many (gulp!) regular readers of will by now doubtless know, I started bodybuilding when I was a thirteen-year-old boy living in South Africa. As you can well imagine, information on bodybuilding in 1980, in that rather isolated country, was pretty thin on the ground. So I gleaned what I could from Joe Weider’s bodybuilding magazine, Muscle & Fitness, and the occasional bodybuilding book, and essentially just got on with it. And just getting on with it meant exactly that — I went into the school gym (an old basement armoury, furnished with the most rudimentary equipment) and exercised. Plain and simple. Of course, as I experimented with training and diet, and as I embraced every aspect of this new and thrilling bodybuilding life, I made loads of mistakes along the way, but . . . I learned a lot, and what I learned, I learned through action, through real-life experience.  

In the very basic school gym. It was always deserted as only myself and a few of my school pals ever went down there. A special mention to my Mum for the pudding-bowl haircut.  And slowly, miraculously, and to my utter amazement, it started to work!!! Not having access to masses of information about the theories and principles of building muscle, I threw myself into just training as hard as I could, and grew stronger and bigger, despite often training in a manner that would now be considered inefficient and incorrect. In fact, I developed many unorthodox training methods that served me well then and continue to do so now. (One of these methods is what I call “Dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s.” Exciting blog post on this super strategy coming up soon!) Precisely because I did not have the opportunity to study the science of nutrition and exercise, my mind was open to experimentation — I did not reject anything because “science” told me it was wrong and was not going to work, before I had even tried it! 

I was very privileged to have attended Saint John’s College in Johannesburg. Here I worked out with two of my school friends, Oliver MacCloud-Smith (left) and Sean Nunes (right). Sean went on the represent South Africa after winning his Springbok Colours. Our school motto was: Light, Life, Love.  All very fascinating I’m sure, but what does my ancient history have to do with Ms. Elk and her Theory? Well, I recently came to work at DW Fitness First in Tottenham Court Road, after 12 years at a much smaller Fitness First in Bloomsbury. At the Bloomsbury gym there were three personal trainers but at TRC there are thirty! It was interesting to be, all of a sudden, exposed to the lively discussions and theories on nutrition and training that my new PT colleagues were having every day in the staff room. Having a Level 3 Personal Training Certificate as my only qualification, it was humbling to work with PT’s who had degrees in Sports Science, Anatomy and Physiology, Nutrition for Sport and Exercise, etc. It was equally interesting to note which of the guys, apart from having the knowledge of how to eat and train, actually lived the life themselves by training hard and eating healthily and consistently. One of the guys who works at TCR (whom, let me say at the very outset, I like very much and have plenty of respect for — and I have warned him I am coming for him with this post) is a certain Shiv Patel. Shiv is clever, witty and sharp, and loves a verbal tussle. He is an accomplished cyclist and spends a tremendous amount of time cycling on the road and on the stationary bike. He can also deadlift three times his body weight, which is no mean feat. However . . . he often eats food that I disapprove of. He does have some healthy meals but often has take-aways from fast-food outlets such as Leon — but worst of all, he eats muck like chocolate muffins, etc. In my opinion this is unacceptable behaviour for a fitness professional.  

When I called him on this he said that because he burns so many calories, as long as his “calories in”, is lower than his “calories out”, he can eat whatever he likes. And of course he is entirely correct. If you ingest less calories than you expend it does not matter, in theory, if those calories come from refined sugar or from broccoli — you will lose weight. To my mind, however, this sort of scientific “truth” is well served by comparing it to another undeniable theory. Ms. Elk’s Theory on Brontosauruses. There is a famous Monty Python sketch featuring Graham Chapman as a television interviewer and John Cleese in drag as a palaeontologist called Anne Elk. In the scene she describes the basis of her supposed new palaeontological theory on dinosaurs, specifically brontosauruses. It turns out that in the end Miss Elk's new theory on brontosauruses is rather shallow: 'All brontosauruses are thin at one end, much much thicker in the middle and then thin again at the far end.' Ms. Elk’s theory is as sensible as it is self evident, and furthermore, beautiful in its simplicity. When observing the mighty brontosaurus and thinking of Ms. Elk’s words, who could deny their veracity? And just like Shiv’s calories in/out theory, which, like a simple mathematical equation that solves a complex theorem, both theories attract us because they offer the promise of a single, simple “one size fits all” answer. But in reality they are both a load of fatuous twaddle, because life is rarely that simple. However, having said that, sometimes a simple approach can work best, can cut through the complexities and confusions of the dietary minefield. Instead of hiding behind a scientific theory, (as a way to justify some poor habits) I have a simple question that I ask myself almost every day, (although when I asked my friend and client Joy, this question she did tell me to shut up!) and I often urge my clients to ask themselves this same question — “What is the best thing I can eat right now?” Not, what will do the least damage, not, what can I get away with? No! “What is the best thing I can eat right now?” And I can tell you the answer will never, never, NEVER be . . . a chocolate muffin, Mr Shiv. 

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