What You Think Really Matters vs What Really DOES Matter

by Charles Staley on April 15, 2015

Healthy young guy doing push up exerciseFor 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.

Leave a Comment

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Amel Langford

Please register me for the Blog —Thank You DocL

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Charles Staley

Amel, you’ll have to do that yourself — the sign-in field is at the upper right part of the blog.

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Robert Bruce

I’ve been working out or going to the gym for the past seventeen
years, so I find things like this very interesting. I’ll put some of the
things I read about to the test. Robert Bruce

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@@ron

There are so many different approaches to fitness, exercise, and eating that it becomes hard to tell fact from fiction. When it comes to “new findings”, I wonder if we suffer from the Hawthorne Effect: once we make a change to diet or exercise, we observe and measure ourselves more closely. Simply paying attention and looking for results often produces those results.

I’m apt to believe that the very basic principles will always apply: don’t eat garbage, do eat good stuff, don’t eat too much of anything, do something to build muscle, do something to exercise heart and lungs, and be consistent. For this reason, I really agree with your approach.

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Charles Staley

Thanks Ron — I think you’re basically correct — it always appears that best methods changes, but they really don’t — it’s an illusion.

Here’s an example — in the 60’s, low fat was the big thing. In the 90’s low carb was the big thing. In both cases however, deleting entire categories of food leads to less caloric intake — both approaches hinge on the same underlying principle — when you eat less, you tend to lose weight.

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Derek Evans

Hey Guys, Memory is a function of the Brain, Muscles do not have a Brain so there for they do not have memory. It is really difficult to take a post like this seriously when it makes comments like Muscle Memory, it makes me think that you actually do not know about the human body, how it is made up and how it functions, I do know where you are coming from with this, enlarging or enabling Neural Pathways, but it is not what you are saying. Tell me do your muscles remember your Social Security number or your Mums Birthday? No, they have a pretty selective memory then do they not?

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Charles Staley

Derek, of course muscles don’t literally have memory — I just used that term as a literary device to compare/contrast it to the term “muscle confusion.”

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LeeHamm

‘Muscle memory’ is a common metaphor, in the fitness/fighting/self defense world. It refers to performing an action regularly and often, so that it becomes almost automatic. It is as if your brain is not involved and your muscles know/remember what to do. In self defense, reacting quickly can be very important 😉

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Ian

Charles, I like your article and there is a lot of truth in what you say. Derek, you need to revise your physiology. Muscle memory is a very real thing and without it, you couldn’t even walk without consciously thinking about each and every step you take. In self defence, we train so that our response is “automatic” and we don’t have to consciously think about what strikes we use – it just happens. We are talking about autonomic responses that don’t initially involve the brain. They happen in the spinal cord and hence are much faster and don’t require much conscious thought.

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kurt berube

good advice and to the point, thanks!!

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paul

What you say makes sense. Add me to your blog list.

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Charles Staley

Thank Paul — you’ll actually need to sign yourself up though – the sign-up box is at the upper right sodden the page

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Roy T Weaver

Hi Charles,

Your opinions make sense, even for this “senile citizen.” I’ll be 73 next month. Have a total gym 1700club since about ’07. Because of being primary car giver for my wife for the last 9 years it just got “resurrected” from storage & I’m trying to use it again, had I’d known I’d live this long maybe things would be different. My DL says 5’11” I’m back to wearing 30WX32L jeans as in hischool days. Lower back pains + lower leg cramps
are limiting my usage of T/G. I lost my soul mate last year, so my goal is to get back to “M/C Trials” riding again. Only this time (like me) in the “Vintage class.” I need improvement in leg & arm strength + balance (it is above average for my age) there is always room for improvement, I’m still active, any suggestions? I’m on NO Rx. I take 30-40 vitamins & supplements daily. Probably more water intake would help. I do eventually get relief from leg cramps with 250m/g of magnesium.

Thank you,

Roy T. Weaver

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tffitness

Roy, interns of developing leg strength , please see my posts here on squats. Arm strength is simple to improve — refer to the “welcome to my workout” posts here for clarification.

Balance as a general capacity is mostly genetically determined, however specific balance skills can be improved.

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Bill

I like it and live it like your article

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Craig Merritt

Great information can’t wait for your next post.

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Rahul Raje

Hi Charles

This was a very helpful and mind-clearing blog post, especially on the idea of removing clutter out of the amount of thought which is put into making food choices.

One related question which I face is: Currently, following a 5 x 5 based training template targeted towards strength-hypertrophy, I have been steadily increasing my current caloric intake over a period exceeding 12 weeks now. The increased food consumption does help during the high volume thrice weekly sessions, however, it does cross my mind as to where and how should I draw a line before the amount of food I’m eating is just enough for supporting the grueling volume of my training sessions and is not contributing majorly to gaining fat. Often limiting my calories on non-training days results in an energy-deficient feel during my training days(which urges me to consume more calories even on my non-training days).

Would love to get across a template on such a daily caloric/nutritional timing of food based on the training frequency which can act as a very handy example for designing one’s food intake. Maybe a future blog post demystifying the idea. Thanks for the very useful and informative blog posts once again.

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Rawleigh McCullough

What a great article look forward to more articles from Mr. Staley

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Stan R. Mitchell

Good logic. I am 73 year old Welder that usually works alone in building boat docks. I understand the MRV as throughout building, I usually lift each piece of metal by hand at least 2 to 3 times. Since this is not a scheduled training session, some days I’m moving brutal amounts of metal while standing on uneven surfaces on a moving dock and the next day I’m worthless for work. Diet, especially for a Non-medicating Type 2 diabetic is a different matter. Consistency is a must. Great article, thanks again.

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tffitness

Thanks Stan — in some professions, it’s useful to consider your work as a workout, if that makes sense. Structure your gym sessions to address muscles/movements/capacities that are not addressed during your work day, and ALSO, to possibly correct imbalances/deficiencies created through your work.

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FRANK

I have Good solid tummy but it looks like I am fat how can I get ride of the pouch I am 79 and I don’t take time for long walks just sort one . I try and eat right but that’s not helping. CAN you HELP??

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tffitness

Thanks for chiming in Frank!

I have a few thoughts for you:

1) Consider a medical checkup, with an emphasis on your hormone levels, especially testosterone. Low T levels can thwart even your best efforts

2) A bit key is self-monitoring — I did a 2-part piece on the subject here:

http://targetfocusfitness.com/success-requires-self-monitoring-part-one-2/

http://targetfocusfitness.com/success-requires-self-monitoring-part-two/

Please take a look at those and get back to me if you need clarification!

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Charles McSparren

Very good info to know and use, especially when you’re 70 and are very restrictive in exercising (not by choice but by heart doctor’s orders). No strokes or heart attacks so far (knock on wood!). CTM

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Walker

I have lifted most of my life and played sports, been physically active and have been told that shocking the system is a good idea every once in a while.
Well, when I do that my digestive tract makes me pay for several days so I have given up on that one but, I do mix up routines as much as possible from weights to cardio to keep the heart and muscles off balance.
As far as food, I load up on good carbs (sucrose, fruits, grains, dairy, etc) and lean out as the day goes on. (lean meats, veggies, nuts, light snacks between meals and at night)
Because of this “life style” change (important) I’m down 60 lbs in 6 mos and 30 lbs away from my goal!
It’s easy once you get used to it and don’t think about it anymore. Try it!
God Bless, Walker.

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Jeff Craft

Great article.

So many folks (myself included BIG time) get so bogged down on the administrivia and the details that we forget about the big picture of health and fitness. This sometimes clouds your mind to the success you’ve actually been having in your efforts.

Did that make any sense?

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Tyler

Love it, Charles! Now if we could just get all beginners to ready this! 🙂

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