3 Things That Don't Matter As Much As You Thought
The title of this blog could also just as easily been "3 things that don't matter as much as I used to think", because at some point, we all get caught up in details that don't matter that much,
Below are three specific nutrition ideologies that have good use in specific situations and context but don't make that much of a difference for the average trainee. This is not to say there isn't a very marginal advantage to employing these, just that most people won't notice a difference in results compared to the extra effort it takes.
Workout Carbohydrate Timing
Don't get me wrong, I still think if you are doing any appreciable volume of weight training, that having some carbohydrate in the hours before and after training ais valuable. Especially before as that can refill liver glycogen and assist with blood sugar control during exercise.
However, the average workout, lasting 60-90 minutes doesn't use as much carbohydrate as you might think. I've read an estimate that puts glucose utilization at around 5g for every two sets of weight training on average. So a 20 set workout uses an additional 50g carbohydrate, 200 calories worth. That isn't a huge amount by any means, it's a slightly heaping cup of rice.
This doesn't mean that you CAN'T eat more carbohydrate, we can store somewhere up to 500g carbohydrate in our muscle tissue, about 100g in our liver and we have organs that are making up the crux of our metabolic rate, also expending energy. Not to mention that our nervous system operates primarily on glucose. So in addition to the small amount expended during weight training, we have a baseline of energy expenditure that can benefit from carbohydrate intake regardless of exercise.
Size makes a huge difference too: men are generally larger than women and carry more muscle mass. More muscle means more storage for glycogen and a larger body size means a greater energy expenditure. A moderate amount of carbohydrate intake, 30%, is going to be larger for a big man weighing 220lbs compared to a woman weighing 140lbs.
The above just points at that we already have pre-existing carbohydrate needs and the capacity for a decent amount of carbohydrate storage. While there is some benefit shown to consuming carbohydrates around workouts, it usually correlates to extended time spent training 1.5 to 2 hours or more OR performing two workouts in a single day. Most people don't do either of these.
Muscle gycogen will replenish itself within 24 hours even without any specific timing and even with various amounts ingested. If you don't train a muscle group for 24 hours or more between sessions, muscle glycogen will be replenished. Getting caught up in timing carbohydrate intake for someone who is eating 200g per day and trains three days per week is not going to have the largest impact on their results. I still do recommend people having their largest meal of the day post-training as muscle are more sensitive to insulin and ingesting protein can help speed recovery as well as a large meal helping to shift you back into a parasympathetic state. But in terms of trying to time the majority of your carbs peri-workout? Most people are better off consuming consistent amounts of macronutrients in a meal plan that they can execute.
Training Calorie Expenditure
The calorie expenditure from training makes up, on average about 15% of your resting metabolic rate. While this is not insignificant, it isn't nearly as impactful as say, your organ systems which account for about 60%. As noted above, body size determines a larger portion of your calorie needs.
Clearly, if you take a 175lb person who is sedentary, doesn't exercise and has a job sitting down compared to a 175lb person who exercises 4 days per week and gets 10,000 steps per day, their calorie needs will be a good chunk different. But these larger changes come from a lifestyle change, usually not just one area. Moving around more in general, exercising, eating a greater amount of protein and gaining some muscle mass all contribute to higher energy needs. But just adding one more session of exercise doesn't do a whole lot for total expenditure.
This conundrum has frustrated many people; they start exercising and eating better, walking their dog more, doing some outdoor work in the yard and consciously standing more at work and they lose a bunch of weight and gain some muscle. Most people attribute this solely to the 3 hours per week they spend in the gym. Inevitably, many people start adding more and more exercise hoping it will burn more calories. What happens is that metabolic rate eventually slows down a bit to compensate for all the added attempts at energy expenditure, the ability to perform at a high level on intensity goes down and stress hormones go up.
When most people should just focus on crushing the workouts they're already doing and making improvements to nutrition, sleep and lifestyle, most people do the opposite. I get it - exercise feels like the most directly applicable way to change energy expenditure but it's a slippery slope.
Training vs Non-Training Days
This last piece ties right into the first two.
Do you need to drastically change your calorie and/or carbohydrate intake based on whether you trained today or not?
If the above two points tell you anything, the answer is "not really". Again if you have a certain level of calorie needs from simply body size and lifestyle activity (not counting exercise), then the additional changes in calories and carbohydrate usage from exercise aren't huge. Maybe 200-300 calories.
If the goal is muscle gain, it makes a lot more sense to stay at a consistent slight surplus to help with anabolism than it does not only eat a little bit more on days you train. Likewise, for fat loss, you are usually better served getting your calorie deficit from diet rather than rotating calories based solely off whether you ifted weights for an hour. This doesn't mean you can't, it just means that for a small calorie change, the effort and time spent trying to cycle calories is better served elsewhere.
This holds true especially as the length of a goal grows. If you have 6-12 months of a training and nutrition goal, your day to day consistency is going to pay off way more than a 200 calorie shift up and down each day. Optimal protein is going to do more for muscle recovery and growth than force feeding a lot of extra calories. And if you are training regularly and stay active, your day to day energy needs are higher every day, regardless of whether you trained or not. Having chronic recovery is going to mean more calories expended daily.
Again, beginners see huge changes in fat loss and muscle gain even when they do subpar training and nutrition programs. In fact, the beginner gains are usually so good that we expect progress to happen that way indefinitely. Unfortunately, our ability to adapt goes down considerably once we aren't new to training any more. Force feeding a ton of extra calories won't force more muscle growth. And adding tons more exercise won't force faster fat loss as much as adjusting your nutritional deficit will. I especially caution people not to add tons of training on a fat loss plan because inevitably the fatigue build up from eating fewer calories and training a ton is going to catch up with you. Then what do you do? Binge and stop going to the gym or freak out and exercise more?
Remember that if you read a snippet or research that shows wild results for performance benefits often entails using high level athletes training many hours per week, skewing them toward needing much more specific nutrition. Likewise, research showing trainees getting certain results from a specific amount of exercise or diet protocol might simply be getting those results because anything new is going to make them improve. A couch potato who starts exercising and doubles his protein intake is going to see results whether he's low-carb or not; whether he did 5 x 5 training or 3 x 12.
The Timeline Matters
When you discuss someone's goals and they want to lose 40lbs, you know that isn't a two week process, we're looking at months and months of effort. Someone wanting to add 10lbs muscle when they've already been training 5 years is going to need the same. The daily ups and downs are going to impact the bottom line the way daily consistency over the long-term is. Most of us just get bored doing the same thing all the time and changing it up feels productive.
If physiology is responding more to averages over time in terms of adaptation, then a 200 calorie surplus on the 3 days per week you train is not doing that much. Most people probably operate within a couple hundred calorie window in terms of energy intake daily, whether they train or not. Again, you CAN make that work but is the effort worth the marginal outcome? For an athlete training 20 hours per week, it's much more important to time carbohydrate intake and adjust calories to training; for a weekend warrior training 3 hours per week, those effects become much smaller.
Sleep, hydration, rest and relaxation, fiber intake, consistent protein, consistent calorie intake and managing stress are hugely impactful. If you speak to the average person struggling with a weight loss or muscle gain goal, you'll probably find that one of these lifestyle factors needs addressing much more so than their post-workout carb intake.