Training and Diet are Simple Because Your Body is Complex

Your body is a massively redundant, nonlinear, messy system. It has lots of ways to accomplish the same purposes.

Here are a few examples.  This is the classic image depicting most of the factors that influence the current obesity epidemic:

Click on the picture to go to the site where you can enlarge the picture and examine each cluster. It's truly fascinating.
Click on the picture to go to the site where you can enlarge the picture and examine each cluster. It’s truly fascinating.

Here are (some of) the signaling pathways leading to muscle hypertrophy, all of which are impacted to different degrees based on nutrition and training factors:

Click the image to read a review on the topic
Click the image to read a review on the topic

Does your body need fuel? There are four energetic macronutrients for that (you can’t forget about alcohol!), as well as an abundant supply of stored energy for three of those macronutrients, in addition to the ability to produce ketones.

Does it need to accomplish a particular movement? There are multiple muscles at most joints to accomplish any particular movement. Most people, most of the time, don’t need to worry about what particular muscle is being used; your nervous system typically takes care of that quite efficiently without conscious thought, and more often than not, focusing on the movement itself is more beneficial than focusing on individual muscles.

Do you want to get jacked? There are a lot of different signaling pathways that lead to muscle growth, meaning a lot of sufficiently challenging training parameters can make you swole.

There are certainly more and less efficient ways for your body to accomplish any particular purpose, and those things certainly matter at elite levels of competition, but it’s easy to over-emphasize the differences and ignore the broad domains where pretty sizable differences in application really just don’t matter all that much for most people, most of the time.

We like to use mechanical analogies to explain our bodies. But, quite simply, those analogies just aren’t very good.

For example, a car needs a very particular type of fuel, it performs equally well until it runs out of fuel but stops functioning completely the moment it runs out, and it only has a single way of accomplishing any purpose (if one part doesn’t function correctly the whole machine stops working, or starts functioning much, much worse).

A car is linear. With a car, cause and effect are easy to unravel.

Pretty cool, but much more linear and much less complex than your body.
Pretty cool, but much more linear and much less complex than your body.

If you conceptualize your body as a linear system, it becomes much, much easier to get hung up on the details.

In a linear system, a small tweak can be the difference between optimal function and zero function. A small tweak will have predictable downstream consequences.

In a messy, nonlinear system, small tweaks are much less important.  Fasted cardio?  Eating six meals per day?  Post-workout supplement regimens?  Finding a magic rep range (that’s the topic of next week’s article)?

It’s not that those things won’t make any difference.  It’s just that, if they do make a difference, the difference will probably be very small, since those things are just details, not big-picture items.

In a messy, redundant, nonlinear system, small tweaks generally get lost in the noise.

Calorie intake, protein intake, and training volume are by far the most important factors determining your body composition and degree of swole-ness. Add in training intensity and specificity, and you’ve got the major factors determining strength as well.

Everything else is just details. And it’s not that details don’t matter; it’s just that unless you’re an elite-level athlete trying to eek out an extra percentage of performance, they don’t matter very much.  In a complex, redundant system, details generally get lost in the noise, and end up having at most a trivial effect.

You have the complexity of your physiology to thank for the simplicity in application.

Quick Note: If you’re interested in dialing in your nutrition, check out our app MacroFactor. You can create a custom macro program, easily and accurately track your food, and stay on track with the app’s smart weekly macro adjustments. Learn more and try MacroFactor for free here.

18 thoughts on “Training and Diet are Simple Because Your Body is Complex”

  1. Hey Greg,

    Great way to prove a point and I cannot agree more. Personally, I can provide myself as an example: I used to focus on all these small things in my training, recovery and diet and not only did I not see noticable difference but I also stressed myself out. Should I sleep 8 hours or 9? Hmm.. will I build muscle eating 3650 calories a day or do I need to bump it by 100? Should I do 8 or 10 reps on the seated cable rows?

    Now when I think about how obsessive I used to be over these small details I think to myself: “Oh just shut the hell up and stop worrying!”.

    Once I started focusing on what matters and what allows me to make steady and consistent progress in the gym, I not only saw huge improvements but I also stopped being stressed out over small things that don’t really matter unless I’m stepping on the Olympia stage or competing in the next Olympics!

    Thanks, Greg and once again – awesome piece!

  2. Based on other articles I’ve read on this site, I would think that recovery/work capacity would be a top focus area among calorie intake, protein intake, and training volume. Or have I been over emphasizing this aspect?

  3. Great stuff Greg. I’m not sure that the reference to the attention study was accurate though – in the abstract at least it states that an ‘external focus’ (“focused attention away from the body”) worked better than either no focus or an ‘internal focus’ (“focused attention on the body’s movement”).

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