How to Individualize Your Training and Diet for The Best Results
In a sport known more for brawn than brain Arnold Schwarzenegger was an enigma. He was one of bodybuilding’s best of all time and he achieved it through not just out working but also out thinking everyone.
“To succeed in bodybuilding or in any sport, you need to learn to think. You have to understand what you’re doing... find out what really works for you...Sure you have to train hard, but it won’t do that much good unless you also train smart. “
Arnold knew each of our bodies is different and hence each will respond differently to training.
To Arnold working smarter meant learning the Principles of Training that apply to all of us and then figuring out how to apply those principles in a way that worked best for the individual. Smart training involved learning about these differences and tailoring your training accordingly.
For example, in his book the encyclopedia of bodybuilding Arnold describes how he could train his chest and lats as intensely as he could but his results remained better when he combined the two together. From his exercise selection to how many times a day he trained Arnold used a scientist mentality to find what worked best for him.
If we all respond differently then how do we find what works best for each one of us?
We find out the way humans have always found out an unknown - Experimentation.
Experimentation is how Arnold discovered that super setting his back and chest exercises (pairing them together) yielded better results than training them intensely separately, It’s how I learned that for me to not get injured running required an extremely slow rate of progression, It’s how we learned that my client Jim requires more carbs in his diet to get lean, and it’s how you will learn what works best for you.
Don’t worry, Don’t worry, I know many of you may be having bad flashbacks to high school chemistry when I mention experimenting. There will be no decanting of beakers, adjusting of bunsen burners, and only the periodic science pun. (Why don’t skeletons get into fights? Because they don’t have the guts! Ha!) Instead, we will draw upon the scientific method to help us learn about our bodies. Again nothing to worry about as I’m sure you use it every day without even realizing it.
Here’s a brief refresher of the scientific method:
- You make an observation - “This smoothie tastes funny”
- You then make a hypothesis “I think the milk may have been bad”
- Test the Hypothesis -Take a sip of only the milk
- Measure the results - Taste = bad
- Come to a conclusion - Hypothesis confirmed - milk indeed taste funny.
We can apply this same method of thinking to our training, diet, or any other aspect of our lives. Doing so will allow us to better tailor our lifestyle to our overall wellbeing.
Breaking it down
Every inquiry starts with an observation. For many, the observation may be as simple as “I’m not losing weight” or “I’m not getting stronger”. When I ran collegiately my observation was that when I increased my weekly mileage by 5 miles a week, I would get injured. Observations serve as a starting point for change by pointing out what is or isn’t working.
After you make an observation, the next step is to ask why about your observation. A hypothesis is a proposed explanation to that 'why' question.
- Observation: I’m not losing weight
- Why am I not losing weight?
- Hypothesis: Maybe I’m not losing weight because my portion sizes are too big
In college, I followed a similar process to help solve my injury issue.
- Observation - I’m injured. Again…
- Why do I keep getting injured?
- Hypothesis - Maybe I’m getting injured because 5 miles a week increases in my running mileage is too much for my body to handle.
A hypothesis is often called an educated guess. It’s a guess because you don’t know the answer. It’s educated because you take the time to think about potential reasons why what you observed is happening. For example, to say “I’m gaining weight because the moon is full” would be an uneducated guess and a poor hypothesis because there’s little evidence to suggest the moon affects a person's weight. Perhaps, if ominously your menstrual cycle is perfectly in tune with the lunar cycle, then it may be true that the full moon coincides with a period of weight gain but the smarter hypothesis would then be that your menstrual cycle is causing you to gain weight - not the moon.
Be smart and clear when you make a hypothesis.
Test the Hypothesis
This is where you act. It's your time to make an intervention. To determine whether our hypothesis is right we have to test it. During this phase, we change our lifestyle and measure the results.
If you're not losing weight and you suppose it’s because you're eating too much then the action you might take is to cut the size of your meals back by 20%.
When I noticed I kept getting injured even with the conservative 5 miles a week increase, I tried increasing only 2 miles a week.
Be sure when you test to only change one variable at a time. If you cut back on the amount you eat but start cooking with butter then it will make it harder to know which action caused a change. If you didn’t lose weight would it be because the cutting back the portions didn’t work or because you added butter to the diet?
Second, make sure you leave yourself enough time to see a change. Weight loss may require a minimum of one or 2 weeks to see if the intervention is working or not. Training changes may take even longer. If you only leave one to two days, then the weight loss you see could just be due to a daily fluctuation and not the intervention.
Measure the results
This is the most important part of the process. Measurements provide real tangible feedback to what’s going on. As you decide on a course of action, ask yourself “How will I measure it”.
In our first example - How will you know your portion sizes are smaller? Eyeball it? Use a measuring cup? A kitchen scale?
How will you know if you’ve lost weight? Look in the mirror? A scale? A comprehensive DEXA scan?
A truly scientific experiment these measurements must be precise to ensure that the experiment is valid and reliable. In real life, most of us don’t have access to high-tech measuring tools and that's ok. Most of us don’t need that extreme level of precision, an eyeball test and a digital scale should be sufficient. As you get leaner or closer to a high-level goal, the margin of error becomes narrower. The person who just started exercising can likely eyeball that there is less food on the plate than usual and see results. The bodybuilder preparing for a show may need to meticulously log, weigh, and measure everything that enters their body.
For me, I needed to know “how many miles I was running” And I needed to know whether I was injured. To measure my mileage, I used a GPS watch to measure how long each run was and a running log to track my mileage each day, week, and month. As for the injury - I just needed to know if I was in pain or not.
Come to a Conclusion
You had a hypothesis; you took an action to test it and you’ve stuck it through and measured each part of it. Now it’s your time to look back on the data and make a conclusion about the intervention.
You reduced your portion size by 20% for 4 weeks to see if it would make a difference in your weight loss. The data says you’ve lost 4 pounds in that 4 weeks. The data seems to confirm your original hypothesis - you were eating too much.
What if the data said the weight didn’t change? Fortunately, we know from the laws of thermodynamics that when you cut calories you should also lose weight so why didn’t you?
Conclusion time is a time for reflection - were your methods accurate, was there something that happened? Maybe you cut your portion size back but made up for it by adding higher calories foods. Maybe you also stopped exercising. Maybe your body is resistant to weight loss and you require a larger calorie deficit. Reflect over the results and make new observations. With these new observations, you can repeat the process, furthering your knowledge of how your body works. The learning never stops.
In my situation, I steadily increased my mileage over a 6-month period and reached points I had never reached before. The 2 miles a week change made a difference. Over several years of different training methods, I eventually found a trend: when I increase my workload even by a conservative amount I get injured. When I increase at a snail's pace I don’t get injured. While I don’t enjoy having to progress so slow, I do enjoy not being injured and actually seeing results. This is just how my body works and I’m glad I learned this lesson earlier rather than later.
Over a training lifetime, you will have completed hundreds if not thousands of mini-experiments. Every time you try something new you learn from it. Over time, you will notice patterns and learn what works and doesn't work for your body. I’m going to let you in on a secret - myself nor my coaching peers know exactly what will work for you. Everyone’s different and what works for one client doesn’t work for every client.
What we do have is years of training experience on both ourselves and our clients. Over the course of these thousands of experiments, we become good at identifying patterns, finding what works and what doesn’t, and we become adept at adjusting to the feedback we receive from each individual. We’ve made the mistakes so you don’t have too.
The most important takeaway from this article is to think about your training and lifestyle choices like a scientist. Observe changes, take actions, then observe the results. Measure changes to be sure what you observe is correct and then reflect on why. Each of us is different and if you want to be your best you have to train according to your body - this is smart training.