Getting It Right – The Pursuit of Optimum

In a hurry? Have some highlights! (TL;DR)

  • You don’t have to get it all right all at once with training, nutrition, etc. to make great progress
  • Trying to get everything perfect prior to getting started is a prime recipe for paralysis by analysis
  • Consistency and effort on the basics alone can produce many months—even years—of progress
  • While they’re usually blamed on the training, plateaus can also be indicative of insufficient nutrition and/or recovery
  • Striving to learn more as you go is a good move, but be mindful of getting caught up in trivial details and remember that the basics never really cease to matter
  • The biggest bang for your training buck will be derived from learning and practicing (over time) quality nutrition, training, and recovery rather than from supplements or that “one weird trick”

Nitpicking.

It happens to me. It could happen to you.

Nitpicking over what, exactly? Over training. Over nutrition. Over everything.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying being “detail-oriented” is a decidedly bad thing when it comes to this whole eating-and-training-for-a-goal thing. Not at all. Agonizing over details, though… that can sometimes become counterproductive to one’s goals.

Just as an off the cuff example, take someone who’s fretting over whether or not they should use straps for their back exercises, or what row variation they should do. Do these things actually matter? Sure they do. But, in the grand scheme of things, do they matter considerably more than that person just simply getting to the gym and doing some kind of row with or without the straps? Probably not enormously.

she needs to sort out her priorities

Now, this isn’t me saying that details don’t matter. This certainly isn’t me telling you to go ahead and just always use straps for every exercise for the rest of your lifting life. This is me just trying to say that, above all else, consistency and effort are key to your long term success in this game. Let me repeat that, because it merits a second take: consistency and effort are key to your long term success in this game—almost certainly more so than any supplement or training trick probably ever will be.

I was at a gym where I used to train when I was back in my home town a couple of weeks ago, and this guy came in. He wasn’t particularly massive, and as he picked a bench and started warming up, I could see that he had probably never given much thought to how he should set up on the bench to be in an optimal position to transfer force to the bar (you know, those little nitpicky details). His feet and legs roamed freely about, his shoulder blades remained untucked, his whole body was just decidedly not tight on the bench… and he benched more than I can.

What’s the point of this story? Well, maybe that I’m just a lousy bencher (I am), and also maybe that, for a lot of reasons, some people just have an easier time building strength than others. But really, the point I’m trying to make is that a lot of people make impressive progress just by keeping things simple and working their asses off.

Now, from what I observed (and to be fair, I know nothing about the guy or his training, so I could be way off base here), I think this guy could have improved his bench numbers at least a little bit pretty immediately with some technique adjustments, but that doesn’t change the fact that he built a pretty decent level of strength (at least on the bench) benching with what was probably less than optimal form for generating maximal force (and this is just a guess, but probably using less than optimal programming as well).

Here’s what I’m trying to get at: you don’t have to get it all right all at once (as a side note, this really applies to most other pursuits in life as well). If you want to make serious strides towards your goals, whatever they may be, all you need to do now is start (if you haven’t already) by focusing on the most important, fundamental aspects of what it will take to reach those goals (in short, start with the basics). Be consistent and apply yourself to these fundamentals, and you will probably find that they are all you need to make great progress for several months or even for several years. All you have to do is start and not quit. Simple, right?

Trying to address every single detail before you even begin moving in the right direction is a recipe for achieving, as they say, paralysis by analysis. I’ve watched people put off finally getting started on that shiny new workout program just because they think, “Ah, well I don’t have all the kinks hammered out of my meal plan yet,” or, “Ah, well I don’t have the right shoes for deadlifting yet.” Don’t let these become excuses to put off getting started!

On a podcast I listened to a while back, Chad Wesley Smith (I know, I talk about him too much) recounted how he was scoffed at for wearing Nike Frees (running shoes) to train and compete in the squat at his first powerlifting meet. He said he hadn’t even really thought about the shoes he had been wearing to squat up to that point, but guess what? He squatted 800 damn pounds in those shoes. I believe he’s squatting in Romaleos these days, but the point is that you can achieve a tremendous amount as long as you are working hard. Details can be hammered out along the way.

So where do we start? Which parts of the puzzle merit significant attention? Let’s break it down within a few categories.

Training

I’ve hammered on this enough times in previous writings, so I’ll keep it brief. Most lifters (especially beginners/novices) will probably be best served by focusing on progressing a few compound, free weight exercises in a linear fashion (e.g. doing something like the classic 5 sets of 5 scheme for one or two variations of a squat, a press, and a pull with a barbell, and increasing the weight every time you are able to complete your prescribed work), while also practicing each of these movements multiple times per week.

Getting into things like periodizing one’s training are certainly prudent steps eventually, but it’s been my experience that most trainees tend to have the best long term success when they keep things as simple as possible for as long as they can while continuing to make progress. At some point, progressing without changing the training strategy will become very difficult, at which point, the training probably needs to take on some additional complexity, as illustrated in the qualitative timeline below, but as the old adage goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

How does one know when they’ve run their course with simple linear progression?

Training fundamentals

 

Well, if a trainee is truly putting in consistent effort and doing reasonably well with their nutrition and recovery practices, simple linear progression—like that found in the Meat and Potatoes program—will likely be sufficient to get them to the point of being able to bench at least their body weight, squat probably closer to 1.5 times body weight, and deadlift around 2 times body weight (of course, trainees’ affinities for different lifts will also depend on their relative strengths and proportions, so these numbers will fluctuate some).

I’m not saying this is a hard, set rule. There will be exceptions, sure, but if a trainee is putting in the work consistently and still struggling to get anywhere near these kinds of numbers following something like Starting Strength or my own Meat and Potatoes program, there’s a decent chance that they’re not giving themselves adequate support outside of the gym, whether its a lack of nutrition, sleep, stress management, etc.

Nutrition

Those of you who have been reading my other work will not be surprised that my first recommendation here is to recommend focusing on getting enough protein. I’ve discussed in previous articles (one; two; three) the magical (okay, maybe not magical) effects of protein when it comes to building and maintaining lean mass (especially during periods of weight loss), so I will leave it at that for this article and move on to the question: how much is enough?

For lifters, it appears that 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight is sufficient (although not necessarily optimal), but you can just go with 1 gram per pound body weight if that makes your life more simple. While non-lifters probably don’t “need” as much protein as lifters, to my knowledge, there is no conclusive evidence that suggests there is any reason for the general population to not consume this level of protein, and as I have discussed in previous articles, higher protein diets are still shown to be more effective at promoting leaner body compositions than isocaloric (same caloric content), lower protein diets even in non-lifting populations. 

As for the rest of the nutritional picture, you just need to figure out how much energy you require from carbohydrates and fats to meet your goal (performance, growth, weight loss, etc.) and then consistently stick to that intake—unless, that is, you are changing your energy intake to advance your goals (e.g. bumping caloric intake up slowly to continue growing).

You can get a rough idea of where to start by using a total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) calculator (which is imperfect for several reasons), or you can simply focus on hitting your target protein intake while eating what feels about “right” (i.e. eat when you’re hungry and don’t eat when you’re not) and begin tracking whether your weight is increasing or decreasing as your training (hopefully) progresses. Add or decrease caloric intake gradually from there based on your goals.

That’s pretty much it, folks: set a plan and stick to it. There is of course more to consider, like macronutrient ratios (mostly carbs vs. fats, as protein will be more or less set) and nutrient timing (e.g. consuming most of your carbs around the time of your workout), but these are things to consider once you are a pro at getting enough protein and being consistent with your total caloric intake. See below for a qualitative depiction of the relative importance of these facets of nutrition.

nutrition priorities

Recovery and Well-being

For our purposes here, by recovery, I am mostly referring to getting enough sleep and avoiding undue stress (and, again, mostly the former). Granted, ensuring adequate nutrition is also an important part of recovery, but I just covered that above!  This two-part article by Greg Nuckols hits on several of the mechanisms by which a lack of quality sleep can insidiously undermine one’s efforts to lose fat or build muscle.

Basically, sleep deprivation can make it harder to hold on to lean mass, possibly in part due to resultant decreases in the production of testosterone and IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor). This has been shown (as discussed in Greg’s article) to be quite detrimental to those trying to lose fat mass (especially when it comes to losing fat without losing lean mass in the process), and it is also not good news for those looking to build new muscle and get stronger.

Granted, there is more at risk than the safety of our gainz when it comes to sleep deprivation. For one thing—and I don’t even really need to tell you this—not sleeping enough leaves most people just generally feeling like shit, and who wants that? The literature is pretty clear on this, and most of us have experienced the phenomenon ourselves at least a few times (or chronically, for many of us). This meta-analysis further demonstrates the effect of sleep deprivation on performance, showing that across multiple paradigms for inducing sleep deprivation, sleep deprived individuals exhibited slower response times and accuracy across a variety of tasks.

In short, missing out on sleep can hinder one’s efforts in the gym as well as negatively affect their ability to perform their daily activities and their general well-being. As to how much sleep one should aim for, this seems to change both from person to person as well as throughout life for each individual. If you wake up naturally (without having to rely on an alarm clock) and feeling refreshed, congratulations, you are probably winning at the game of sleep.

alarm clock

Most of us (probably due to a combination of poor sleep quality and not allotting enough total time for sleep) will probably still need to use alarm clocks at least during the work week. The deal I have made with myself is that—with a few rare exceptions—I will  allot at least 7 hours for sleep every night, with the more ideal amount being closer to 8 hours. Would more sleep be better for me? Probably. But this seems to be keeping me functioning reasonably well, and I would probably also quickly begin to experience diminishing returns as I increased my sleep duration.

While excessive chronic stress (outside of that caused by sleep deprivation, which really constitutes a form of chronic stress itself) can be a much more complicated issue to eradicate than sleep deprivation alone, I’ll quickly touch on it just to point out that it is an important part of the picture. Like sleep deprivation, an abundance of chronic stress can insidiously affect one’s body composition and hinder progress towards.

It has been shown in multiple species (rat study; human study), for instance, that chronically stressed groups exhibited greater increases in abdominal fat accumulation and metabolic-syndrome-like symptoms such as insulin resistance in response to high fat/high sugar diets than what their “non-stressed” (or less stressed; when it comes to humans—and probably a lot of other animal species as well—we all have some level of life stress at any given time) control counterparts experience in response to the same diets. Add this observation to the one that a lot of individuals tend to seek high fat/high sugar foods in response to stress, and you see how this effect can compound on itself.

However, it’s also important to note that responses to stress can change a lot from person to person. There is a growing body of research (some of my friends at Drexel are actually exploring this phenomenon) that supports the idea that some individuals are simply more vulnerable to the effects of stress than others for reasons that are still being hashed out. As with most things in physiology, the explanation to this phenomenon seems to be complicated and multi-faceted.

I’ve probably already delved into this too much for the purposes of this article, so let’s get back to the take-away message when it comes to recovery: it will behoove you both in your gym endeavors and elsewhere in life to make getting a good amount of sleep a routine practice. Along the same lines, minimizing your daily stresses is also ideal, although this can be a much harder goal to identify and achieve.

Find what works for you and do it. Get enough sleep and make time to do whatever de-stresses you (socialize, play games, have sex, read, play sports… whatever works for you!). Just avoid the mistake of sleeping 3 or 4 hours a night and then placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of your training or diet if your results are lackluster. Remember that these are all interconnected pieces of a large, complex puzzle!

Lastly, there are also a plethora of popular techniques floating around these days that claim to promote recovery, and while there does seem to be some merit to some of them, that is venturing into the realm of things better left to consider down the road once the training, diet, and sleep amount/quality are on point.

bodybuilding supplements

But What About ‘Dem Supplements?

More often than not, when someone asks me anything about my own training, the first question—and a lot of times, the only question—is what supplements I’m using. This makes me sad. Why? Because, again, more often than not, these people have large gaps elsewhere in the foundations of their training and telling them about my supplement consumption is probably one of the least productive things I can do to help improve the efficacy of their training.

Let’s put it this way: adding creatine into one’s daily protocol is probably not going to be the solution to getting stronger or building more muscle if that person is also skipping meals, sleeping 4 hours a night, and skipping out on the gym every other week. Furthermore, in this hypothetical situation, minutiae like whether our hypothetical trainee should take their creatine before or after they lift are definitely not the kinds of things they need to be worrying about if they want to start making progress, yet I’ve had people in this kind of situation ask me these kinds of questions!

In short, trainees are going to generally get a lot more bang for their buck by focusing on getting their training and nutrition in line (and making sure they’re getting some good sleep) than they will by fretting over supplements.

If anyone is really curious, I do take several supplements:

Daily: fish oil, resveratrol, vitamin D, and a very occasional multivitamin

Pre-workout: creatine monohydrate, beta-alanine, citrulline malate, and caffeine

I also consume a fair amount of whey protein (mostly pre-, intra-, and post-workout), although I think of that as more of a food product than a supplement (not that that is an important or meaningful distinction). Along the same lines, I mix Gatorade powder (just because its an easy, palatable source of simple carbs) in with my intra-workout whey and usually have whole food with the pre- and post-workout whey.

I don’t want to delve into any more detail than that on this stuff right now, because the point is that none of these things are really making or breaking me. Most of the supplements I listed above do have bodies of research (as a side note, examine.com is a great resource if you are interested in the research behind a given supplement) demonstrating their efficacy in various facets (e.g. citrulline malate in increasing muscular endurance) of training and general well-being, but these are generally fairly small or mild effects, and I am more or less the same lifter with or without these supplements.

These specific supplements are cheap enough and I enjoy taking them enough that I continue to do so during most phases of my training, but please, please, PLEASE do not come away from this article thinking that the one thing holding you back in your training is that you aren’t taking a specific supplement. They just aren’t that important in most cases.

Which leads us to…

The Anti-sexy Truth

Basics, basics, basics. Like many of the things I have to say about training, it’s not sexy. In fact, it’s anti-sexy, but—at least for now—putting forth consistent effort and mastering the fundamentals discussed above are going to give more bang for one’s training buck than will any pill or “one weird trick.” Maybe in the decades to come, someone will actually develop an effort-free therapy for becoming jacked, or lithe, or physical powerful, but for now, these attributes are ones that come at the price of hard work and dedication.

And you know what? I’m glad for that, because while I—like many others—started this journey just to look “good,” I have found—as so many oft seem to in life pursuits—that the most valuable reward of the entire process has been the journey itself, and not the aesthetic outcome that I originally desired.

I don’t know how to make you believe this, but I hope that after reading this, you will take a hard look at your own training and assess what’s good, what sucks, and what you can do to make it better as you continue on the never-ending quest for optimum. Do it for you, and do it For the Love of Lifting.

Peace.

 

… JK. Can’t leave without plugging. Please follow me and share this work with your friends if you want to support the site. ALSO, please leave some love in the comments below; tell me what you think of this article, if there are any topics you’d like me to cover in future writing, or if you have any questions about getting a handle on your current training!

 

References

  1. Pilcher, J.J. and A.J. Huffcutt, Effects of sleep deprivation on performance: a meta-analysis. Sleep: Journal of Sleep Research & Sleep Medicine, 1996.
  2. Griffith, C.D. and S. Mahadevan, Sleep-deprivation Effect on Human Performance: A Meta-analysis Approach. 2006: United States. Department of Energy.
  3. Kuo, L.E., et al., Chronic stress, combined with a high‐fat/high‐sugar diet, shifts sympathetic signaling toward neuropeptide Y and leads to obesity and the metabolic syndrome. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 2008. 1148(1): p. 232-237.
  4. Aschbacher, K., et al., Chronic stress increases vulnerability to diet-related abdominal fat, oxidative stress, and metabolic risk. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2014. 46: p. 14-22.

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