25 September 2020
Nihilistic or Utilitarian: The Choice Is Yours
Fascinating times, these are. It wasn’t all that long ago that trying to figure out the best way to coach yourself or clients through fat loss or muscle gain just came down to asking the biggest/leanest person at the gym or reading interviews with big/lean people in magazines. But now, we have tons of research…
Fascinating times, these are. It wasn’t all that long ago that trying to figure out the best way to coach yourself or clients through fat loss or muscle gain just came down to asking the biggest/leanest person at the gym or reading interviews with big/lean people in magazines. But now, we have tons of research to reckon with too.
That research has illuminated some clearly superior methods, but it’s also often shown equivalent outcomes when comparing other different things. What are we to make of this?
As we approach this fork in the road, we have two main paths we can choose as far as how we interpret those equivalent findings: what I’m calling the nihilistic and utilitarian paths. Before I describe those and make my case for which direction we should take (although the names alone probably spoil the ending), let’s take a quick tour of the winding path that has led us to the fork at which we currently stand.
Researchers have investigated all sorts of different nutritional approaches in hopes of finding the best way to approach fat loss or muscle gain. Certainly, there are some things that have emerged as better methods than others. For example, if the goal is fat loss, it’s probably a good idea to be in a calorie deficit as opposed to a surplus. If the goal is muscle gain, you’ll see better results if eating a high protein diet versus a low protein diet (7). However, various other details of how to set up a nutrition plan have not shown a meaningful effect.
Possibly the most recent example is intermittent energy restriction, normally implemented via refeeds (typically 1-3 days of increased calories) or diet breaks (typically 1-3 weeks of increased calories). For a detailed breakdown of this research, check out this previous articleon the JPS blog – but long story short, there doesn’t appear to be a direct physiological benefit from using these strategies.
There are also different ways to approach your food selection, with popular choices like keto or paleo. While those strategies can be very effective, their power comes not from some magical effect, but from allowing people with certain preferences to stick to their diet better.
We can manipulate our meal spacing as well, either via meal frequency or different feeding windows. While it seems to be best to eat protein at least three separate times spaced throughout the day (15), extreme changes in meal spacing aren’t going to present much other than cool names – Warrior Diet, Snake Diet, etc. (13).
What about supplements? There are so many products out there with some pretty strong claims, but if you’re reading this article, you may already be aware that the list of effective supplements (at least those used directly for strength, fat loss, or muscle gain) is pretty short – and even those that actually do something only make a very marginal difference. Everyone knows about caffeine and creatine and there is a handful of other potential options (2), but supplementation is not nearly as exciting as the marketing makes it seem.
One area that I personally got excited about was using a carbohydrate mouth rinse – swishing a sports drink around your mouth and then spitting it out – for a potential performance benefit without any calories, which could be especially helpful during a hard diet. Well, that line of research, when used with lifting weights at least, is really mixed and not looking nearly as exciting as I once hoped (3).
Alright, well, I guess the fancy nutrition stuff isn’t doing much, but what about with training? Again, exercise science researchers have been busy experimenting with all sorts of different things. We know that training needs to be challenging, it makes sense to train muscle groups more than once per week for the most part, and that it’s good to do at least a moderate amount of volume (10). But just like with nutrition, there are a bunch of cool ways we can manipulate variables to try to improve upon the basics, if indeed they lead to some improvement.
While a once-per-week bro split probably isn’t the best idea, different frequencies beyond training the same muscle twice per week don’t make much difference for hypertrophy (9). Frequency is better viewed, in most cases, as a way to organize training stress by intelligently spreading and undulating intensity and volume to allow for adequate recovery.
A common claim is that free weights are better than machines for hypertrophy, and some actually argue the opposite, but that appears unfounded (12). Exercise selection matters to some degree, but at least in terms of whether you do your overhead press with a barbell, dumbbells, Smith machine, or cable machine, it won’t make much difference at all.
Despite still being taught in most undergraduate and certification programs that 8-12 repetitions is the “hypertrophy range,” it’s pretty clear now that a massive range of reps can be equally effective for muscle growth as long as proximity to failure is accounted for (8).
Similarly, some textbooks still teach that taking very short rest periods between sets is best for hypertrophy due to acute increases in anabolic hormones. While more recent research has shown that to not be the case and that longer rest periods generally outperform shorter (6,11), I wouldn’t necessarily say that short rest periods are always worse for hypertrophy either. It may just require an additional set or two to make up for accruing less volume during each set (less rest = more fatigue = less reps performed). And a variety of moderate/long-ish rest times seem roughly equally effective. So, we have a lot of flexibility with rest periods as well.
Finally, a review from late 2019 summarized the research on what they called “advanced resistance training techniques and methods,” which included things like agonist-antagonist supersets, drop sets, high or low-load training paired with low-load blood flow restriction, and more. They concluded that while these techniques can be effectively used to increase time efficiency, increase volume during a workout, or break up monotony of training, we have yet to find a holy grail technique that offers some inexplicable benefit for hypertrophy (5).
The Pareto Principle
I’m not trying to make the case that NOTHING makes any difference at all for fat loss or muscle gain. However, it’s pretty clear that a lot of the cool tricks out there just aren’t going to move the needle. Our efforts toward changing our body composition align with, like so many other things, the Pareto principle.
The Pareto principle is used extensively in business. It states that only around 20% of the inputs account for about 80% of the output – thus, the savvy businessperson can pay attention to only the most important variables that strongly affect their bottom line. This is vital for the performance of the business because it allows decision-makers to avoid paralysis by analysis, as well as allowing them to spend more time working on the things that matter a lot and less time worrying about the things that don’t.
This principle seems, in my experience, to extend to many other domains in life besides business. I’ll spare you my ramblings about the many examples where these Universal Rules as I call them are at play, but as we can see, only a small percentage of what we can potentially do with diet/training cause the vast majority of our results.
Nihilistic vs Utilitarian
There are two perspectives we can take on what we’ve been pondering here:
1) None of that fancy stuff is worth stressing over, just stick with the basics
2) We have a bunch of options that we can mix and match
Let’s think about what we consider to be the “basics” for fat loss. A straight calorie deficit that’s the same every day, 3-4 square meals per day, 3-4 sessions in the gym of moderate volumes and rep ranges at a challenging intensity. Something like that. On paper, that will certainly be effective, but the key words here are “on paper.” What about people who really struggle to adhere to a plan like that? Maybe their schedule precludes them from being able to eat breakfast, maybe they only have 30 minutes to train, maybe they keep overeating on the weekends, or maybe a plan without much variation in exercises is very boring to them. If we continually tell these people that “there are no magic tricks, just stick to the basics,” we are reinforcing their “failures” with guilt and robbing them of the self-efficacy required to overcome challenges, experiment, adapt, and roll with the punches.
Instead, we should adopt what I’m calling a utilitarian perspective.
We should be honest on the front end and acknowledge that there are no magical quick fixes, but we should emphasize that we have many different tools at our disposal. The fact that none of these tools are better than any other isn’t a negative thing, like the nihilistic perspective might see it as; on the contrary, it’s a positive! It also means that none of those tools are worse than any other, and we can therefore choose tools to fit an effective plan into whatever unique circumstances are in front of us. We can edit the base program.
Doing this can have numerous benefits. If someone has been struggling for a long time to adhere to the basics, we can instantly increase buy-in by promoting a more open and rounded approach. The client (or yourself) can see greatly improved psychology, mood, and attitude toward fat loss or muscle gain – something that they may have been losing hope in their ability to achieve. These things all improve adherence, which we all know from a certain pyramid is the foundation of everything. The best plan ever written is useless if the person is unable to execute it. Finally, despite being clear that none of these tricks will bring some sort of supernatural gains, people may have strong beliefs in one thing or another. If doing so won’t harm them in any way or negatively affect their results, and they strongly believe that it works really well for them, why on earth would we stop them from doing it? Education is great, and helping people see whysomething is working well for them is great too, but if there is a placebo effect happening… why not ride that wave? Believe it or not, a placebo effect in and of itself is very powerful for affecting results. In research, it often shows a similar effect size as different interventions, sometimes even larger (4)!
Self Determination Theory
Most importantly, by having a more flexible system and using different tools to fit an effective program into someone’s life, we can dramatically increase their self-efficacy, a key feature in theories of behavior change and motivation. One of the leading models of this is self-determination theory (1,14), which stands upon three pillars: competence, autonomy, and relatedness. Learning about the bottom line of how to cause change (i.e. calorie deficit for fat loss) and about these different options for doing so increases competence. With that knowledge, people can build their own toolbox and manipulate their plan as life circumstances change, thereby gaining confidence and self-efficacy, and increasing their autonomy. Through that process, success in inevitable, and they will feel much more included within the fitness community. They will likely gravitate toward others who share the same interests (other people who enjoy ketogenic diets, for example, with whom they can share recipes and support). With that strong relatedness, they are much more likely to stay consistent with fitness in the long term.
It’s not that telling people to just stick to the basics is never warranted – some people have been overthinking all the details and succumbed to paralysis by analysis, and a reminder that the basics are all they reallyneed can help them to focus on the things that truly matter, simplifying the process and helping them actually see a program through rather than always running towards the newest exciting trend they hear about. “Stick to the basics” merely becomes one of the many buttons we can push. These various buttons may not have any direct impact on fat loss or muscle gain, but strategically choosing which to push based on the individual situation can indirectly have a profound effect.
No more reinforcing failures. Reinforce self-efficacy in adaptive problem-solving.
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