For some time now, I’ve been repeatedly struck by the huge disparity between what people think matters when it comes to fitness versus what really matters. I’m not sure if other areas of human endeavor are characterized by such a wide gap between fiction and fact, or if fitness is just extra-mysterious for most people, but in any event, I’ve listed my three favorite examples of this phenomenon.
What You Think Really Matters: Meal Timing & Frequency
I’m sure you’ve heard these nuggets of nutritional advice more than a few times:
“It’s important to eat every 2-3 hours to keep your metabolism revved up.”
“Don’t eat past 6pm because your metabolism starts slowing down at night— you don’t need the calories then.”
Now, what makes the rebuttal to statements like this a bit challenging is that both statements do in fact have a kernel of truth to them. For example, the very act of eating does in fact elevate your metabolic rate — a BIT. After all, consuming and digesting a meal does require energy. And, it’s true that your metabolic rate does tend to slow down toward the end of the day — a BIT.
As you’ve no doubt already intuited however, the misleading nature of these statements involves the scale of the situation. Sure, eating a meal increases your metabolism, but not enough to account for the calories in the meal itself. If this were true, you’d never be able to derive energy from the food you eat, because every time you ate, you’d be burning more calories through the act of eating than the food actually provided in the first place!
Similarly, while your metabolic rate tends to naturally slow down toward the end of each day, limiting or avoiding food during the latter hours of the day offers no significant advantage for those of you looking to lose a bit of unwanted bodyweight.
What Really DOES Matter: What You Eat In 24 Hours
So if meal timing and frequency don’t really matter, what does matter?
Well first, although timing and frequency don’t matter much from a physiological point of view, they may in fact matter psychologically. Using myself as an example, I literally wake up hungry. If I wait until noon before I eat my first meal, I’ll absolutely lose my mind and binge on everything and anything I can find, which will ultimately lead to unwanted weight gain. You, on the other hand, might be different: lots of people don’t find themselves growing hungry until noon or even later. For those folks, there’s no point in eating breakfast simply because Johnny McTrainer told you that eating every 2-3 hours is essential for keeping your metabolism humming all day.
The science is pretty clear that the number of calories you eat every 24 hours is far and away the most important consideration for those seeking to lose weight (more specifically, fat). It’s not that meal frequency has no impact mind you — it’s just that it’s a relatively minor concern. After all, it’s certainly better to eat once a day as opposed to once a week. And sure, it’d be better to eat twice a day than once. Three times a day? Probably a bit better than twice. After that, the advantages of more meals per day is unclear.
Bottom line: Focus primarily on how much you eat each day, and use personal preferences to guide your choices about timing and frequency.
What You Think Really Matters: Muscle Confusion
You can thank a popular fitness infomercial for perpetrating this ludicrous training myth upon an unsuspecting public. The narrative goes something like this:
“The reason you’re not making progress in the gym is that your muscles are bored with your current routine — the key to renewed progress is to keep those muscles guessing with new exercises and methods that they’re not used to.”
Sounds reasonable, right? And the truth is, a certain degree of variation or novelty is an important aspect of good fitness programming. The problem is, most beginners are already using too much variety as it is — typically, they try one thing, fail to see overnight results, and switch to the next thing, ad infinitum.
It shouldn’t be news to anyone that you only get good at something when you do it for a fairly long time (10,000 hours according to best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell). Think of it like this — would you become more proficient in speaking Russian if you studied it for an entire semester, or if you constantly alternated between French, Italian, and Russian over the course of that same semester?
What Really DOES Matter: Muscle Memory
I think a lot of people are of the mistaken opinion that most high-level athletes use a lot of variety in their training. Newsflash: They don’t.
If you were to visit the national weightlifting team at the Olympic Training Center once a month for a year, you’d have the basic gist of what they do after only a few visits. It’s not like you’ll see them using kettlebells one month, plyometrics the next, gymnastics drills the next and so on and so forth.
Instead, every time you visited these lifters, not only would you see them using barbells each and every time, you’d also notice the repetitive use of about 12 exercises each and every time. In fact, when the Bulgarian weightlifting team ruled the lifting world a few decades ago, they used only 6 exercises during their brutal twice-a-day workout sessions.
The first order of business when it comes to physical fitness is identifying exercises that give you the most bang for your buck, given your goals and circumstances. If you want strong legs, it might be squats. If you need to pass a military PT test, it might be chin-ups, sit-ups, and 1.5-mile runs.
Once you’ve identified these exercises, variety is served up through changes in external loading, set/rep formats, and/or slight changes in the exercise itself (such as slightly changing your squat stance).
When it comes to fitness, specificity rules the day. You might improve your bench press by implementing some incline dumbbell bench presses into your program, but you won’t improve your bench press by switching to yoga for 3 weeks.
What You Think Really Matters: Intensity
When you talk to seasoned gym rats, conversation inevitably turns to the importance of intensity — no pain, as the story goes….
Well, much like the previous discussion on meal frequency, there’s truth to this common belief as well. In fact, I’ve often said that how hard you work on any given training strategy or program is much more important than the strategy itself. Yes, you read that right — working hard actually matters more than what you’re working hard on.
Actually, I’ll concede that intensity is the second most important consideration in your training. Here’s the first:
What Really DOES Matter: Consistency
When it comes to training, it’s your long-term habits that really bring home the bacon, not what you do during any particular workout. Thinking about this idea in terms of your nutrition will help you understand the point: Let’s say you ate perfectly (I’m not sure what that really means but stay with me here anyway) last Monday, but terribly on Tuesday through Sunday, what difference does it really make?
Training works the same way. If you wanna go beastmode on Monday’s workout, that’s great, as long as you’re not so trashed that the next workout suffers as a result. Dr Mike Isreatel uses a term called “maximum recoverable volume,” which is the most work that you can perform and recover and benefit from, indefinitely, week in and week out. It takes a bit of experimentation to determine your own MRV, but it’s worth the time and effort. If you’re lifting in the gym, start calculating and recording your daily, weekly, and monthly training volume (weight x sets x reps). Personally, my weekly MRV seems to be about 80,000 pounds, and while I’m always trying to push that number upwards, I’m careful not to rack up so much volume on any single session that it ends up reducing my weekly volume as a consequence.
Distinguishing Between Fact And Fiction
Just like any field of endeavor, understanding fitness involves a learning curve, and the path can be especially confusing for beginners. I hope you’ll subscribe to this blog, so that we can notify you of new updates on subjects just like the one I’m discussing here. And of course, if you found this information helpful, we’d be grateful if you’d share it with friends.