You've heard these sayings before. They make sense... if you don't think about them very hard. Let's think about them hard and get to the truth.
1 – "Diet is 70% of Your Results!"
Nobody will argue the importance of diet when it comes to achieving your physique goals. A nutrition plan that's not in line with your goal will make it much harder to reach it.
If your objective is to get shredded and you're consuming too much food or the wrong kind of foods it'll make the process harder. If you're mostly after size and strength, then not consuming enough protein and overall food will slow the process down.
So the overarching message of this quote is good – if you want to progress optimally, pay attention to how you eat. Problem is, this old saying is not very accurate.
Here's Where It Falls Short
It's the percentage thing. "Diet is 70%" means that training is only responsible for 30% of your gains. Heck, it's actually less than that because we must also factor in sleep and supplementation.
I prefer what Dorian Yates said: "Nutrition is 100%. Training is 100%. Recovery is 100%." Basically if you want maximum results, everything counts. And the one that you're not paying attention to will be responsible for your lack of progress.
This quote can also lead to diet extremism. People who get too obsessive about eating perfectly believe they'll lose their gains if they stray once in a while. While you should definitely shoot for eating as much healthy food as possible, you don't have to be that OCD about it.
Studies have shown that as long as protein intake is high and caloric intake falls within a reasonable range, your nutrition plan will work. I always joke that I could get someone in bodybuilding contest shape by eating only fast food and having protein shakes. But for health and longevity reasons, this isn't a great idea.
And nutrition is NOT more important than training. Training triggers muscle growth; food alone can't do it. Training makes you strong; food doesn't, unless you're deadlifting crates of frozen chicken breasts. And while your diet is crucial for fat loss, it's the training that helps you retain muscle. Muscle is the main contributor to the power of your metabolism, and you can't eat on muscle without training.
A perfect diet without hard training will never yield optimal results. And hard training with an improper diet also won't lead to the best progress. So don't make up percentages and attribute them to either element.
2 – "Abs Are Made in the Kitchen!"
No, abs are revealed by what you're doing in the kitchen. They're made in the gym, like any other muscle group.
This expression comes from two things:
- You can do a million reps of various ab exercises, but if you have too much fat covering them you won't see a six pack.
- Tons of people who are very lean have abdominal definition even if they don't train them (or train at all).
So it's pretty easy to jump to the conclusion that the secret to having abs is getting lean, which most people believe to be solely diet thing. But that's not quite right.
Here's Where It Falls Short
Some people can get lean and still not see their abs. And others (like me) can have a full six pack even at a higher body fat level.
That's because having that six pack is dependant both on having a thinner layer of fat and having separation between the sections of the "pack." And that separation occurs when the muscle bellies of your abs are thicker than the tendinous attachments (the lines between the abs). Since the muscle bellies can get thicker if you train them, but not the attachments, training can give you that separation you need.
Some people are born with more natural separation than others and might not need to directly work their abs to have a visible six-pack. And others who have thinner abdominal muscle bellies might not have that separation even when they're super lean.
If you're lucky and born with good separation then you might not need to train your abs directly; all you need is to get super lean. But most people will need to work their abs to get that look. Furthermore, the direct ab work will make the abdominal bellies thicker which also means that you won't need to get as lean to have ab definition.
By the way, T Nation coach Ben Bruno got so tired of the "Abs are made in the kitchen" mantra that he cleverly named his training facility "The Kitchen."
3 – "No Such Thing as Overtraining! Only Under Eating and Under Recovering!"
This quote, often attributed to the Barbarian Brothers, is factually incorrect. First because it misinterprets what "overtraining" is and second because it ignores the limits of natural human physiology.
Overtraining is the name of a syndrome, NOT the act of training too much. I've written extensively about this here: What Overtraining Is and Isn't.
It's a physiological state caused by an excess accumulation of physiological, psychological, emotional, environmental, and chemical stress that leads to a sustained decrease in physical and mental performance, and that requires a relatively long recovery period.
Basically your body is under more stress than it can handle – more than it can recover from and adapt to. So the quote about overtraining and under recovering is correct but it's also erroneous. The simple fact is, overtraining is a lack of recovery.
Here's Where It Falls Short
This saying will lead people to believe that you can compensate for an excessive training volume simply be eating and sleeping more. There are several problems with that belief:
Digestion and absorption of nutrients can become an issue.
Eating 5, 6, or 8 thousand calories per day will overload the digestive system and cause issues. It's also impractical. Unless you're eating mostly junk food, getting in 5-6 thousand calories per day is quite a chore.
It's doable for a few days of course. But try sustaining it for a long time and it's hell. I once tried to eat 6000 calories from "clean" foods and I was constantly cooking and eating, not to mention feeling bloated and gassy.
Your body has a limited capacity to use nutrients to repair and grow muscle.
This is especially true for protein. Utilizing the ingested protein to build muscle is dependent on the rate of protein synthesis, which is itself highly dependent on the level of anabolic hormones in your body: testosterone, growth hormone, IGF-1, and insulin.
At first, increasing protein intake will increase the rate of muscle growth. There are benefits to increasing protein intake up to maybe 1.2 grams per pound of bodyweight (for the natural lifter), but beyond that it stops having any added benefits for muscle growth. The rate of protein synthesis just can't keep up.
Calories can also come from carbs and fats.
Like protein, there's a similar limitation with carbs. And a muscular man of more than 190 pounds can store around 350-500 grams of carbs in his muscle in the form of glycogen. Once glycogen stores are full, the extra carbs will be stored as body fat.
Now, if you keep carbs high every day, you'll never totally deplete muscle glycogen. With a grueling workout and your normal daily activities you'll use maybe 350-400 grams of carbs per day. This means if you ingest more than 400 or maybe 500 grams of carbs per day it will most likely be converted to fat.
And I'm being generous. In most people the limit is likely closer to 300-350. And 400 grams of carbs is 1600 calories. Let's assume you'd have a 250 gram protein intake and you're up to a daily caloric intake of 2600 calories, which is well short of the huge amounts we talked about earlier.
Fat is different than protein and carbs because your body can store an unlimited amount of it.
I like to see fat as a caloric "filler." Once you've consumed the limit of protein you can use to build muscle, and the quantity of carbs that can be stored in the muscle and used for your daily activities, use fat to reach the proper caloric intake level for your goal. If you need 3500 calories per day and you're consuming 2600 calories from carbs and protein, that leaves you 900 calories from fat (100 grams).
While consuming a slight calorie surplus will help you build muscle, consuming too big of a surplus will not speed up your muscle gains.
This is due to the limitation imposed by your natural level of anabolic hormones. It will however, contribute to making you gain fat. The natural lifter's body has a limited capacity to use nutrients for building muscle. Overconsumption won't allow you to be excessive in your training.
As for sleep, getting your 8-10 hours per day will allow you to progress faster and handle more volume than shorter durations. But exceeding that amount won't provide added benefits. And even if it did, who can afford to sleep 14-16 hours per day?