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The Code – A Philosophy to Guide Training and Nutrition

01dragonslayer

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“What is your training philosophy?”

I used to hate that question.

It’s a question that typically leads toward a discussion about various methods. Are you a DUP, conjugate, or linear periodization guy? Do you prefer full-body, upper/lower, or body part splits? Do you use percentages or the RPE scale?

Don’t get me wrong, I love talking about all of those things, but who wants to be married to one methodology? I always thought it was the wrong question to ask.

However, in recent years, I changed my stance. It’s not a bad question, it’s just typically answered poorly. A training philosophy doesn’t have to center around methods or even have anything to do with X’s and O’s. In fact, it shouldn’t.

A question on training philosophy is really a question about principles, not methods.

“As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.” -Harrington Emerson

I love that Emerson quote because it applies to the fitness industry perfectly. Methods are always subject to change but principles stand the test of time. Specific examples of methods are programs like 5/3/1, Strong Lifts, or Absolute Strength. Diets can be methods as well – Keto, Intermittent Fasting, and Paleo are nutrition methods, not principles. This isn’t a debate of effectiveness, methods can absolutely work, and are often grounded in principles. But, it’s like the saying goes, give a man a fish and he eats for a day, teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime.

Principles are multifaceted. According to Oxford, the definition of “principle” is a fundamental truth or proposition that serves as the foundation for a system of belief or behavior or for a chain of reasoning.

Principles can be big picture training variables such as volume, intensity, frequency, overload, etc. Or, for nutrition, the concept of calories in vs. calories out. However, they can also refer to something else entirely. Principles can be the foundation for a system of belief. I like to think of this as “the code”.

Live By The Code


Kaffee: The government of the United States wants to charge you two with murder. And you want me to go to the prosecutor with unit, corps, God, country?
Dawson: That’s our code, sir.

A training and nutrition philosophy is your code. It’s created to act as a filter and provide direction. All decisions must align with your code to be appropriate. It’s the foundation.

A well-thought-out philosophy provides direction to make the decision-making process easier and more efficient. It almost takes “thinking” out of the equation.

Throughout this article I am going to focus mostly on training and nutrition, however, these principles can just as easily be applied to business and life.

Don’t worry if your philosophy is not well established yet. This is something that takes time to develop and can’t be rushed. I developed my philosophy over the past 15 years and have whittled it down to three words: progressive, consistent, and simple.

Let’s dig in.

Progressive​

When we think of the word progressive in a training context, immediately we think of progressive overload, or the ability to do more work over time. This is one of the fundamental truths of making progress.

Most people who regularly frequent the gym, just go through the motions. Beyond the initial beginner gains, not much progress is made. Next time you go to the gym, look around. I would be willing to bet, most people look the same and are lifting basically the same weights they were last year and the year before. This is a problem in gyms all across America, probably the entire world.

Are you exercising or training?

What looks like a battle of semantics, is actually a significant distinction when you dig into it. Most people go to the gym without clearly defined goals. They essentially just exercise to exercise. When it’s not part of a bigger plan, exercise is simply done for the effect it produces today – getting tired, sweaty, and sore. There is no doubt this is better than nothing. In fact, going to the gym to do anything at all is 100% more than nothing. All gym-goers earn my respect. However, there is a better way.

Training, on the other hand, is done with the purpose of working toward a specific goal. Training moves you from point A to point B in the most time-efficient way possible. Training has a built-in progression system to make sure you improve and offers the ability to get better.

For a plan to be progressive it must be measurable. In a training sense, this would be periodic 1RM, AMRAP, or other forms of testing. Essentially, a program needs to allow for hitting personal records. In a fat loss phase, it would be weekly/monthly weight loss averages, circumference measurements, and/or body fat analysis. What is measured can be managed.

There are a few things that can trip you up.

Progressing too fast

Although we want to emphasize progression, there is a balance that needs to be met. The longer you train, the harder it gets to make progress. Beginners make progress very quickly, often almost daily. Intermediates make progress a little slower but still pretty consistently. Advanced lifters, on the other hand, have true respect for progress, typically only hitting new numbers on a month to month or even year-to-year basis. There is no need to rush the process. Start light, progress slow but progress consistently. Take what’s there.

Testing too much

If some testing is good, more must be better, right? Not exactly. In a quest to make training progressive, it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to hit new personal records as much as possible. Beyond the beginner stage, this is unrealistic and unproductive. It’s important to remember, training itself is not a test, and it’s the accumulation of quality work that gets you better. Focus on building your strength, not testing your strength. Trust me, if you focus on building your strength long enough when the time comes to test, even bigger numbers will be there.

Specificity

Lastly, progression must be specific. You have to work for results that are specific to your goals. Working hard for the sake of working hard is not very efficient. If your goal is to be as strong as possible, it doesn’t make sense to follow a protocol geared toward bodybuilding contest prep. In that case, you can be making significant progress, but the progress won’t be specific to your goals.

Key questions to ask: Does my current program/plan have a built-in method that allows me to get better and make progress? Is it specific to my current goals?

Consistent​

Consistency. What started as just an Instagram slogan, has garnered greater meaning. When I talk about consistency, really what I’m talking about is creating habits that we can repeat over and over. I try to do this with every aspect of my life, not just fitness. I live by the Dan Gable quote, “if it’s important, do it every day, if it’s not important, don’t do it at all.”

If you follow my Instagram account (@huntfitness), you have most likely seen a picture of my #consistency breakfast. I eat nearly the same thing every day. My go-to breakfast is 4 egg whites, 2 whole eggs, 60-80g of oats, and fruit.

I don’t eat the same thing every day because it’s part of a meal plan, or because it’s special in any way. I eat the same thing because I enjoy these foods and it’s a breakfast I can be consistent with. It’s a guaranteed small victory first thing in the morning. One quality meal doesn’t mean much, but one quality meal every single day for ten years will make a big difference. This is what the consistency principle is all about.

Anyone can go hard in the gym, or stick to a diet for a week or two. However, in order to make real progress, it takes consistent effort, moving in the right direction for an extended period of time.

It’s not about optimal​

Instead of chasing “optimal”, most people would be better off chasing consistency. It’s not about what’s best, it’s about what you will actually do. For example, if you can only make it to the gym three days a week, it does no good to try and follow a six-day per week routine.

Progress in the gym acts a lot like compound interest. Just as a fortune can be amassed from a single small investment, big-time gains can start from a single productive workout. But, the key is getting started and consistently building. It’s easy to overestimate what can be done in a short period of time, and underestimate what can be done over the long term.

A “bad” program followed 90% of the time will yield more results than a beautifully designed program followed 50% of the time. What’s on paper doesn’t matter nearly as much as what’s executed.

Taking things a step further, there are different levels of consistency.

Short-term consistency: Daily, weekly, monthly.

Long-term consistency: Monthly, yearly, multi-yearly.

Think about most fad diets. Why are they not successful? It’s not because they inherently don’t work. That’s not it. If followed 100% as written, most fad diets will work. With that being said, look at the data. In the big picture, even those who successfully drop a few pounds, struggle mightily to keep it off long term. Most fad diets work when followed in the short term, but are not sustainable in the long term.

Key questions to ask: Can my current plan be followed consistently day to day, week to week, and month to month in order to achieve my short-term goals? If so, how does it fit into my long-term plan? Will I need to adjust anything in order to ultimately get where I want to go?

Simple​

A training program must be simple, concise, and easy to understand. This part of the philosophy has been developed from coaching literally hundreds of clients over the past ten years. Looking back, this is also an area I struggled a lot with in the past.

I am obsessed with learning. The minute you think you know everything is the start of the decline. Keeping up with your industry is the hallmark of being a professional. To me, nothing beats cracking open a book or research review with a cup of coffee and a notepad. On average, I probably spend ~5 hours a week studying fitness, nutrition, supplementation, etc. I don’t say this for a pat on the back, I’m simply pointing out that it’s easy to get lost in new information when you aggressively pursue it. It’s easy to get caught up in a shiny object syndrome, constantly chasing after the next new thing just as a child chases after a shiny toy.

This is where having a philosophy comes in. How does new information fit into the big picture? Does it allow for progression, is it specific to your goals, can it be done consistently, and most of all, do you understand it? That last part is critical. Knowledge isn’t nearly as powerful if you don’t know how or when to implement it. Plus, if you do not truly understand a program, you will be less committed to it, even subconsciously.

Dunning Kruger Effect​

What’s interesting is, the more “advanced” I get, I find myself leaning harder and harder on the fundamentals. After talking with a bunch of elite coaches and athletes, I have found I am not alone. You only want to use more intricate answers when they are needed. A well-designed program doesn’t have to be complex.

Keep in mind, simple doesn’t mean basic or elementary either. As Einstein said, “everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”.

The intermediate stage is where people get themselves in trouble. In my last podcast, I talked about the Dunning Kruger Effect, which is a cognitive bias where people with low ability or skill at a task overestimate their ability. It’s essentially the definition of the intermediate stage. Don’t feel bad, it happens to nearly everyone. The key is recognizing it.

When I was in college, one of my professors offered us an opportunity to write a research review for extra credit. Around this time I was really getting into PubMed and reading research in my spare time. When the professor offered this as extra credit, I was ecstatic! I went right to the library and started digging in. He gave us full autonomy to self-select the paper. When I finally picked something out, I immediately emailed it over for approval. I expected him to message me back, super impressed with the selection, and give me the go-ahead. However, that wasn’t the response I received.

He sent me back a series of questions I had no clue how to answer. As it turns out, I only had a vague understanding of what the paper was actually about. He called me out and it was the best thing that could have happened to me at the time. I was a PubMed warrior. I read the abstract and skimmed through the rest until I got to the conclusion. I considered that “reading research”. I Dunning Krugered the shit out of it. There is a difference between skimming and understanding. Just because you know of a new way to train, doesn’t mean you understand it.

Learning new information and advancing your knowledge is a fundamental aspect of progress, but without a philosophy or code, it can easily lead to overly complicated programs that miss the main objective. If what you are doing is not easy to explain and understand, it probably needs to be re-evaluated.

Key questions to ask: Is what I am doing easy to understand? Could I explain every aspect of my training and diet to someone else?

Where do we go from here?​

There comes a time in everyone’s fitness journey when what they believe to be true, becomes clear. An ironclad philosophy takes years of trial and error and is never truly a finished product. Above all, hopefully, this article helps provide you with a framework to ask the right questions. Feel free to use my philosophy as a starting point, but recognize the limitations in my wording. This is my code. These are the words and phrases that resonate with me. In the words of Bruce Lee, ‘Research your own experience. Absorb what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is essentially your own.’
 
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