The 'optimisation' fallacy
The inspiration to write this article came from my more recent search to find out what the biggest struggles are for people when it comes to achieving health & fitness goals. A word that cropped up again & again is the word ‘optimal’. “What is the optimal training volume for me?” “What is the optimal warm up routine?” “What is the optimal calorie intake?”. It became apparent that the issue was based around a lack of realistic expectations. Most individuals were expecting me, or other fitness experts, to be able to just subscribe them the ‘perfect’ routine or answer to their questions. I understand that we all want the best return on investment when it comes to our time & effort. The reality is that it takes a lot more time, consistency, planning & monitoring to be able to determine what is appropriate for someone.
Depending where you search, the word ‘optimise’ means some variation of ‘modifying related variables to achieve the best possible results’. If you want the short version of this article, no one in the world can truly optimise training & nutrition for anyone. The reasons why will be discussed in this article, but in its essence, to optimise the outcomes of a training or nutritional protocol we would need two things:
1. Be able to measure the response we are having to any given training or nutritional protocol & be able to compare that to some measure of what our maximum rate of response is (which we can’t currently measure)
2. Be able to fully control & ‘optimise’ every single variable related to the outcome we are looking for (including sleep, stress, time spend training & eating, work, family etc.)
Although some people may be able to do the latter (not very often, & if so this is generally because this is what generates income for them), the former is something that even in the next decade, will unlikely unfold for us. Unfortunately, we get caught up again & again in trying to perfect things from the get go. The chances of this happening in reality are low, so starting anywhere is going to be better than waiting until the stars align.
On top of this, as high a level of expertise as anyone has in our field, nobody knows for damn sure what the best way of applying training & nutritional practice is. We understand there are some fundamental principles, but there is no evidence of a best way to apply them to all populations.
What we actually should be doing, takes more thought, measurement, effort & time as discussed prior. What we actually should be doing, is focusing more on how we respond to any given volume, calorie intake, training frequency etc., & then adjust over time as is appropriate. Doing this will allow us to get closer & closer to what is ‘appropriate/ideal’ much sooner than waiting for the perfect plan to come along. There really is no perfect plan universally, & those that understand training & nutrition on a deeper level know this.
As mentioned previously, a big issue that is at the root of this is a lack of realistic expectations, & 3 things stick out to me that seem to allude peoples thinking regarding tracking down what is ‘optimal’.
Firstly, what we can do & get a positive response from is likely a much wider range than we give credit for. We think we need to hit the exact calorie amount to lose the most fat, or the exact training volume to gain the most muscle. The truth of the matter is that we will make progress towards our goals anywhere within a range calorie intakes, training frequencies etc., & that moving through this range simply increases or decreases the magnitude of response.
Secondly, when you understand training & nutrition on a slightly deeper level, you will get to grips with the fact that all we are trying to do is create a specific response & that there are specific principles at the route of this response. These responses we are trying to crete can be done so with more than one single best method. Many different exercises cause the same hypertrophy response, many different meal timings cause the same amount of fat loss response. Thinking conceptually, our pursuit of fitness goals is like a journey to a destination, we are looking to get from A to B. Think of the method that we choose as like the vehicle we choose to fulfil our journey. Some vehicles will be more suited to the job than others, & so, some methods are more suited to some goals, but in reality, there is a plethora of vehicles that will get us where we want & not just one specific one; they just get us there in different time courses.
Thirdly, when it comes to training & nutrition programming for ourselves, we can easily get caught up in thinking we are a bit special. We think we can handle more volume than others, a bigger calorie deficit, a bigger load progression week to week etc., but unfortunately, for those of us that are the more neurotic type it’s generally the opposite. If we responded to anything & everything, we likely wouldn’t have become quite as obsessed over the small details. Us neurotics are generally the below averagers (not always the case). We generally can handle less than the average, & don’t respond quite as well as we think we should. This is something we cannot really control unfortunately. The up side of this is that we don’t actually need to spend as much time & effort at first to achieve our goal. Theres nothing wrong with being conservative at first, if we start with less than we think we needed, we will still likely get a response. If we don’t get a response, we can always add on to what we are currently doing. The benefit to this is reducing the risk of burn out/frustration/injury etc.
What’s also good about starting with less is the fact that it doesn’t necessarily mean we won’t still reach our ‘best’ over time, it may just take more adjustments than with more volume or calorie deficit etc. More training volume (if you can handle it) will get you more directly to your hypertrophy goals (by more directly I mean we don’t have to change as much over time). A bigger calorie deficit will get you more directly to your fat loss goals. What isn’t explained within this is that as long as you make adjustments as you adapt, you will reach the same place in the end starting with a lower amount of work/deficit etc.. More volume just sees you get there quicker & more directly, as does a bigger calorie deficit. The bigger calorie deficit & training volumes also come with more push back on stress, motivation, hunger etc. Starting with less & adjusting doesn’t necessarily (although research may change this view) mean that your absolute progress over time will be any different. I would argue it would potentially be better in most real life cases, as most people give up not due to lack of progress & hard work, but due to over use injury, lack of motivation or psychological/physiological burn out, which can be attenuated with a slower approach. So, starting slow & steady ensures you will likely make some progress, & as you learn more about yourself & where your boundaries are, you can push things a little more. What this allows in the meantime is that you will likely have a much more sustainable & enjoyable time with your training & nutrition, & it will allow more time for real life to happen all the while.
My best advice for those that get caught up in this sort of deliberation over optimality, is to get a good coach. There are so many out there now, & they will create objectivity where you can’t. They will tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. They will track & monitor your progress. They will adjust your plan only when is needed, & not because some new sexy training method has come out. They should get you to your goals much more quickly & smoothly than you could alone, & they will create a learning platform through this all to understand training & nutrition on a deeper level. Scrap spending money on fancy supplements, organic grass fed foods, partying at the weekend or whatever is getting in the way of what you want to achieve, & invest the money into a good coach & get both the results & education you want/need. We are coaches ourselves, & we have plenty of good recommendations if you don’t want to work with us, so you don’t have to worry about getting a bad coach nowadays as there are so many top-level ones available.
Thank you for reading this far, we hope this was informative & it shone a new light onto what you needed to hear. Now we’d like to hear from you. Let us know how this has helped you in your training & nutrition, tag us on Instagram @myonomics & let other people know that they need to read this article, we really do think it is something that is wide spread & can cause a lot of unnecessary stress.