6 min read

Optimal vs Practical

Optimal vs PracticalI’ve been spending more and more time lately reading research. I’ve always been a voracious reader, but research is different…

Research is always something I’ve been interested in, but also something I’ve always figured it can wait till I’m over 40 or 50 to pursue doing, ya know when I’m bored with coaching or training or I just want to do something a little easier on my feet.

Maybe go back and do a graduate degree or something…

For the most part it’s boring, nothing exciting about reading statistical analysis, analyzing research methods and determining first the validity of the approach and the answers it provides. That’s probably why so few people take the time to read entire papers, instead of just abstracts.

Few people taking the time to actually go through the research is what leads to such broad and sweeping statements about training, things like:

  • You need 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight to put on mass
  • You have to consume a protein shake immediately after a workout or you’ll waste away
  • You need to completely train your muscle to fatigue to make gains
  • You need to calorie count or you’ll never be able to lose weight

These days they call that ‘broscience…’

There is also a bias effect called ‘anchoring‘ whereby people (and especially it seems practitioners) get caught up on one or a few pieces of research.

For instance, read a piece of research showing that calorie counting leads to more weight loss than not (duh!) but completely ignoring the body of research showing that it’s probably just the mindfulness of eating that calorie counting develops that makes the biggest difference.

I’ve had plenty of people achieve healthy body weight without counting calories (myself included). The ‘practical‘ side of this article.

I can understand if it’s a meta-analysis — a statistical look at a bunch of research to look for patterns — but I try to remain open to multiple possibilities at any time.

That’s also really hard, it’s very hard to try to remain unbiased. Human beings have hundreds of bias’.

I don’t doubt that calorie counting works better than nothing, or that it might even work better than other methods, but is it practical?

Which is the topic of today’s discussion. 

Lately I’m big on paired set research and training, but if some research started to emerge showing it didn’t work in certain situations, I hope I’m open enough to evolve with the presence of new research.

What is exciting about reading research, is every now and then you stumble across some great ideas, at least theoretical ideas, often in strange places. Or at least they feel strange.

For years I had research paper scattered all over the place, these days I’m a little more organized (binders!) and lately putting a lot of stuff into digital format via scanner.

Sneak Peek at One of My Bookshelves

This makes things a little easier to search for, rather than having to remember what binder or duo tang it’s all in.

Then it goes into evernote these days, which allows me to quickly search for it, something I use now almost exclusively for research purposes, it’s a great tool.

Most of the books I buy these days are on Kindle too, less clutter in my office that way.

Research is also annoying, with peer reviewed journals charging ridiculous pricing for papers in many cases, though thankfully more and more of it is becoming open source.

You have to know what you’re looking for and check up on references.

No doubt people just read abstracts, which are often purposefully vague (so you’ll buy!), because the amount of open source available research is low and journals charge on average $35 for one PDF paper!

Seriously??? $35 for 5-40 pages…!@!#???

Or if you know you want several papers from a journal you can get a yearly personal subscription for $100-200.

Often the best way to get ahold of something is to visit a university library, sometimes a public library, but who is going to take the time to do that? Me…sometimes…

Most people are probably better off just reading a $10-20 book featuring hundreds of good citations (though be weary sometimes, there are more reputable authors than others).

Unfortunately research is hard. Really hard to do well but you have to consider it and try to stay on top of it as best you can because there is so much conflicting evidence out there.

Popular opinion often takes several years to catch up with scientific consensus, if it does at all.

Most of the methods that persist (body part split training for instance...) aren’t really doing any harm, there are just better methods…

That conflict, leads to a ton of confusion.

Do you need to count calories to lead a healthy lifestyle? Many experts that I respect even, believe so, but I don’t see the practical application.

I have clients take photos of food instead, same accountability, same mindfulness awareness raising and I get a similar result without providing hard to follow meal plans.

It’s always way easier! Who doesn’t have a cellphone these days? Sure there are calorie counting apps, but most people relate poorly to numbers, and relate a lot better to imagery.

I encourage you to question normal assumptions about fitness. Be a skeptic.

At the end of the day, even when research shows something as being optimal in one case, practicality will trump it.

If an expert tells you something as ‘factual’ (even me) then question it’s logical application to you.

If I told you ice cream was bad for you (it isn’t — I’m being hypothetical) but you don’t really eat ice cream, then I guess it’s of no real practical application to you.

Yet millions of people complicate their lives worrying about trivial details that don’t apply to them.

People are talking a lot about ketogenic dieting, and while it’s probably great for epilepsy, maybe even some body composition objectives, it’s also incredibly difficult to stick with for most people.

Having a potato could easily throw you out of ketosis. It’s incredibly restrictive trying to get 70-80% of your calorie intake from fat.

And I’m not picking on it specifically, most ‘diets’ in the conventional world are incredibly restrictive, with a laundry list of what you can and can’t eat.

These might work, optimally even for some people, but are they practical? Do they mix with your lifestyle?

Isn’t a better approach to take a little bit from column A and a little bit from column B and see what works for you?

I’m a big fan of full body training, but that doesn’t mean that’s all I do. I have clients that see me on back to back days, warranting the need for creative split training.

I eat breakfast every morning, and research shows that I’m more likely to eat fewer calories in a day because of that but a lot of people don’t like breakfast and are in just as good a position physically.

I’m a big fan of squats to depth, and research supports deep squats more than shallow squats, but not everyone is capable of it.

Should I throw the baby out with the bathwater?

Just because research or an expert has shown something as ‘optimal,’ you should always first consider the practical applications of it and how it applies to you.

Then balance that information with as much other information as you can find.

Research is just a foundation to support an approach. If you can integrate more optimal approaches without problem, then have at er’ but if you can’t, don’t fret, just use the most optimal option for you.

A good 15 minute walk today is better than the run you never go on.

Optimal vs Practical, nine times out of ten, practical wins.

Most Optimal Option Available + Practical For You = Where the Magic Happens