Written by Dr. Mike Israetel
“Don’t sweat the small stuff.”
“Just focus on the basics.”
There seems to be a trend in the fitness community of emphasizing the fundamentals while downplaying the particulars. I’m not sure if this is a recent trend, or if it has always been around to a similar extent. Diets trends such as “If it fits your macros” and workout trends such as crossfit are receiving quite a bit of attention. Much of this attention is on social media, where excitable (especially novice) adherents post meme after meme extolling the benefits of these approaches, and occasionally take time to harp on the “needlessly obsessive” meal timers and assistance exercise performers. The “back to basics” trend does have some very good points. But as with all things, there can be too much of a good thing.
In part, the new trend of emphasizing the basics is having a beneficial impact on the fitness community. For a very long time, and in many circles to this day, detail oriented people have been mind-numbingly obsessing over details while missing the big picture. Dieters were weighing and portioning their meals to the gram, while eating enough protein to make Brian Shaw full, and were expecting to lose weight when they started the diet at 200lbs. Skinny college kids were (and still are) at the gym, debating the differential effects of toe angle in the leg extension on regional quadriceps growth, meanwhile avoiding deep squats like the plague.
The recent trends are a pleasant rejoinder to the old mistakes. Focusing on total macros and calories per day is absolutely more important than meal quality, glycemic index, timing, and possibly all 3 combined. If your goal is to get lean or add size, and you’re unaware of your daily macro intake, you may be doing everything else correctly and still failing miserably. On the training front, if your goal is to get into great general shape, whether it be too look and feel healthy or just look good naked, the angle of pull in the one-arm triceps extensions you’re doing is pretty close to meaningless. As well, if your goal is better fitness and you’re not performing squats, presses, pull-ups, and rows, you’re missing out on the most effective movements for body alteration, plain and simple.
While much of the impact of the “back to basics” approach has been positive, some of it has been otherwise. The effect is not so much downright negative, as it is misplaced. Advocating the basics is one thing, but advocating them at the expense of the particulars is quite another. Just as in my previous article, the contention here is in the realm of applicability. If you’re doing and preaching “just the basics” for everyday, sustainable fitness, then more power to you. However, a slight issue arises when some advocates go a bit too far with the claims, and insist that the basics are ALL that is needed, even for elite athletes and exotic outcomes.
For example, some have been advocating “If it fits your macros” (IIFYM) for achieving exotic conditioning worthy of the bodybuilding stage. I frankly think this is downright ridiculous. You’re going to be stepping onstage (or at least taking duck-face Facebook pics) almost completely naked. Are you ok with throwing away nutrient timing and the glycemic index from the get-go? While not the most important aspects of sport nutrition, timing and GI seem to have an effect on body composition. Is the effect MASSIVE? No. Is the difference in appearance between the 1st and 3rd place at a bodybuilding show MASSIVE? Almost never. You’re putting so much time and effort into looking your best, so why oversimplify and ignore two small but significant performance enhancements?
The story with oversimplified training is much the same. While an absolute necessity for optimal quad development, squats are not the only exercise that a bodybuilder or powerlifter can use in his/her arsenal. Front squats and leg presses can offer a very advantageous injection of variation into a routine that relies mostly on squats. Yet including hack squats or leg presses in a training program will bring scorn and judgment upon you from a plethora of “functional training” and crossfit advocates. Just like the dieting side of this issue, the relative impacts must be remembered. Yes, squatting (or just the compound moves in general) are and should be the basis of any program that seeks optimal development. However, if your legs can get 1 or 2 or 5% bigger and stronger with other exercises, isn’t their inclusion worth it? When it comes time to total in powerlifting or posedown in bodybuilding, 5 extra lbs on your squat or a quarter inch extra on your thighs may just be what separates you from second place.
Compared to the fantasy world of Facebook memes, the real world is much more complicated and unforgiving. The combinatorial nature of success (in any field, fitness included) means that success is a matter of summing inputs of varying contributions. Some inputs are highly determinative, others less so, and still others border on trivial. For example, in powerlifting, success is primarily a question of training. If you don’t lift heavy things often, all the drugs and genetics in the world won’t make you successful. While lifting heavy on a consistent basis is the most key ingredient, it is not the only ingredient. Genetics, diet/supplements, and the particular nature of the training program come into play, likely in that order.
It’s important to understand that ALL inputs play a role in success, even the ones that add only a single digit percentage to the total outcome. If you’re just starting out, doing only the basics is likely a very good strategy. However, if you’re seeking to enhance an already impressive strength level or physique, just the basics are just not good enough. If you want to lift and look like a finely tuned machine, then you had better be ready for some fine tuning in the training and diet department.
While there are no hard and fast rules about when to begin incorporating various degrees of complexity into training and dieting, there can be a rough outline. For example, when someone first starts lifting weights, most accomplished lifters will agree that for the first several years, just training heavy and eating enough calories to gain muscle is a very good start. After several years, more advanced lifting techniques (possibly more isolation exercises on occasion) and nutritional strategies (counting macros of protein, carbs, and fats per day) can be introduced, and over a period of several years of integration result in the employment of all known advanced strategies. Eventually, training strategies such as the phase potentiation of exercise selection and nutritional strategies such as nutrient timing with regard to the GI of food should become commonplace in the advanced powerlifter’s and bodybuilder’s arsenal. The last part of that sentence is critical to the overriding message of this article; the advanced athlete needs to have a great attention to detail, not necessarily the beginner.
Is such an attention to detail life-sapping, monotonous, and insanity-producing? It absolutely can be. But where on earth did we get the idea that becoming exceptionally ripped or strong was easy and uncomplicated? Where on earth did we get the idea that “just getting in our macros” or “just doing squats” was going to lift us to our maximal potential? Oh yeah… Facebook memes!
Born in Moscow, Russia, Mike Israetel is a professor of Exercise Science at the University of Central Missouri. Additionally, he is a competitive powerlifter and bodybuilder, and has been the head sport nutrition consultant to the US Olympic training site in Johnson City, TN. Mike is currently the head science consultant for Renaissance Periodization, and the Author of “The Renaissance Diet.”