“Should I put my belt on for this next set?”
“Why does my knee hurt when I lunge?”
“Should I add weight next set?”
“I wonder if I should switch to an upper-lower split?”
These are just a few real-life questions that I’ve fielded from clients recently. If you’re a trainer or coach, you get these same questions as well, and if you’re a thoughtful lifter, you ask questions like this yourself.
And as you might already know, the answer to all fitness questions is “it depends.” It’s actually an inside joke among trainers. Despite this, “it depends” always struck me as an unsatisfactory, and frankly, evasive, response.
I happen to have an alternative response to these common fitness questions, its it’s meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but I like it anyway:
“Fitness and nutrition questions rarely have definitive answers.”
After I deliver this pearl, I usually wait for the predicable, disappointed response from my client, and then I proceed with the explanation, which happens to be much more satisfying:
Few fitness- or nutrition-related decisions are purely or definitively right or wrong — if only it could be that easy … if only we could have full confidence in our decisions. Instead, these decisions all have upsides and downsides. If the benefit is worth the cost, then the decision is worth making (tangentially, if the decision has little to no cost, and the benefit is unclear, that’s still a good decision — this is an example of Bayesian analysis — but that’s another subject for another post).
The important thing to understand here is that nearly all decisions have both costs and benefits — never just one or the other. Here’s a real-life example of what I’m talking about:
Let’s say you’re on a training program that calls for you to do incline dumbbell presses (among other things) every Monday for 6 weeks. On week 3, you find that you’d really rather do flat dumbbell presses. So the question is, is it OK to do that?
Well, it depends (right?!?)
Let’s consider this decision by doing a simple cost/benefit analysis.
First, what are the benefits of sticking with incline presses?
The primary benefit is that by doing the same exercise for several weeks in a row, you’re more easily able to ensure progressive overload, which is a key requirement for success, whether your goal is improving strength, gaining muscle, or both. If, on week 3, you switch to flat presses, you might progress the overload from week 2, but it’s kinda tough to tell — you’d have to know your current strength levels for both lifts, and then determine what weight you’d need to use on flat presses in order to ensure an improvement on what you did the previous week on incline presses. Now sure, this can be done, but it’s a bit clumsy and time-consuming.
A second benefit of sticking with the same exercise for several weeks in a row, is that lifters — especially experienced ones — can develop “adaptive resistance” when they experience the same stressor(s) for long periods of time. The cure for adaptive resistance is a fresh stimuli, but if your training is fairly random already, what new stimuli can you bring to the table? So to put it another way, one upside of doing the same exercise for 6 weeks in a row, is that when it goes stale and you can’t make any further progress with it, you can then switch to a different exercise.
OK so there are the benefits of not switching to flat dumbbell presses in the middle of your program — now let’s consider the possible upside of doing so, and a lot of this bold down to rationale.
For example, maybe you’re just very enthused about doing flat presses that day for whatever reason. This means that maybe you’ll work harder on them than you would on incline presses. And if you can find ways to work harder, that’s usually a big plus.
Or, perhaps inclines were hurting your shoulder during warmups, and you suspect that you’ll be able to flat press without pain — this strikes me as a smart decision.
Or, perhaps your gym is crowded and you’re going to need to wait awhile before a flat bench becomes available, but there’s no wait for the incline bench.
SO: We have competing costs and benefits of each decision — no matter what you decide, there will be a benefit, and a cost. There’s no definitive “correct” answer.
Coaching: Part Science, Part Art
I might note at this stage that coaches often talk about training being “part science, part art,” and the discussion we’ve been having personifies that sentiment: The benefits and costs of both decisions are culled from science. For example, the concept of adaptive resistance derives from training science.
Your cost/benefit analysis is the “art:” You’ve gotta look at the totality of your situation, consider your current training objectives, and make the best possible decision based on the data at hand. One coach might say “Sure, let’s do flat presses today!” seeing that you seem enthuses at the prospect. He realizes the downside of the decision, but thinks the upside is worth the price. Another coach, equally on top of the science, says “You know what — trust me here — lets stay the course even though you’re probably bored with incline presses — when we switch to flat presses in a few weeks, you’ll be all the more excited to do them, and the strength you gain on inclines will translate to flat presses really well.”
So there you have two equally competent coaches who see the cost/benefit analysis differently, and who therefore arrive at different decisions. Even though you might agree with only one, you can respect both.
Nutritional considerations work very much the same way. I might have 1360 calories budgeted for protein and carbs for a fatloss client’s daily intake. How many calories should be budgeted to protein, and how much to carbs?
More protein has the benefit of making the diet more satiating, but the cost is that with fewer carbs, the client will have less energy for hard workouts.
Less protein and more carbs has a different set of pros and cons: more carbs means more energy (and likely, more “fun”), but at the cost of a less filling diet, which might compromise long-term compliance.
Staying on the nutrition front for just a bit longer, a specific lifter might only “need” 65g of fat per day, but a higher fat intake might very well improve compliance, since it’ll increase both enjoyment and meal options.
Acute Versus Chronic Costs & Benefits
A related consideration for this discussion is that many poor training decisions — even the worst ones in fact — are harmless over the short term. For example skipping a workout for no particular reason is a pretty bad decision my all accounts, but if you only do it once, it’s almost meaningless. Eating an entire large pizza is a fairly unproductive move, but if you only do so on rare occasions, eh, no biggie at all.
There Are No Absolutes — Only Costs And Benefits
Whenever you hear a fitness guru use words like “always,” or “never,” or when you hear people giving definitive opinions about very complex issues, your suspicions should become aroused. On the other hand, when you hear high-level experts answer by saying “well that’s actually fairly complex…” you’ve found someone worth listening to. Years ago, as an aspiring fitness expert, it became clear to me that I could take one of two paths when it came to how I presented myself: I could feign confidence by providing clear, definitive answers and advice “Always eat at least 30 grams of protein within 60 minutes of working out.” This type of posturing attracts people to you because people are drawn to confidence and authority. In other words, it’s good for business.
Or, you could be honest, in the hopes that at least some people will appreciate the rarity (and value) of your gesture: “Well, it’s slightly preferable to get in some protein in soon after you train, but in the bigger picture, your total daily protein intake is much more important.” Sure, much less authoritative, but that’s what honest truth sounds like. And, as you seek answers to your own fitness questions, cultivate suspicion for certainty, and tolerance for uncertainty. Because fitness is an uncertain landscape, and you’ll need some good critical-thinking tools to navigate it successfully.