You’ve heard both Nicole and I say in previous posts how fitness is kind of like a science experiment and we are our own test subjects.
The most important tools a scientist can use to test theories, manipulate outcomes or get a desired result (such as develop a vaccine or cure for an illness or disease) are variables. A variable, in the context that we are referring to here, is an element that can change (increase, decrease or eliminate all together) with the goal of either seeing how the test subject reacts to a change in that variable, or manipulating a variable specifically to cause a change in the test subject.
A simple example of this would be taking 100 calories out of your daily total (700 calories per week) with the goal of losing weight.
CONSISTENCY – AND FOOD JOURNALING – IS CRUCIAL
The variable in this example is calories. You can either decrease the amount of calories you take in per day, or you can increase the amount of calories you burn per day.
The only way you can tell if you’ve decreased your caloric intake by 100 per day is to have a controlled number of calories you were eating before, we’ll say 1,650 calories per day on a consistent basis. If you don’t food journal regularly (or at all) then you don’t truly know how many calories you’re eating on a daily basis. Or if you are all over the board with the total number of calories you consume daily. For example, one day you may eat 2,000 calories then the next day you may eat 1,245 calories. There is no way of knowing what your body is accustomed to because your energy intake is all over the place and you don’t have a consistent starting point. The variable you want to manipulate here – calories – is not controlled in the first place.
This is one of the reasons why it isn’t enough to simply make healthy food choices if you are looking to change your physique. You have to be more deliberate and knowledgeable about specifically what calories and macros you’re putting into your body (kind of takes the fun out of it for many people, I know ?). And you have to have a base starting point, or a control (a control variable is the one element that is not changed throughout an experiment, because its unchanging state allows the relationship between the other variables being tested to be better understood).
What if instead of decreasing caloric intake, you decided to get rid of the 100 calories per day by increasing your energy expenditure by burning roughly 100 calories per day? The variable is still calories, you are just getting rid of 100 calories per day by burning them instead of decreasing how much you are taking in. The potential problem here still lies in tracking your food intake. What if you burn 100 calories per day, but you end up eating 200-300 calories more? You increased the number of calories you’re burning per day, so you may be hungrier than usual and you end up eating more but don’t realize it because you aren’t food journaling.
MANIPULATION = CONTROL
In these previous Tip Me Tuesdays – Gaining Vs. Losing and Gaining Vs. Losing Part II I cover in detail the need for creating a caloric surplus in order to gain muscle and creating a caloric deficit to lose body fat (or bodyweight in general) and how to know when to focus on which one.
What I want to share with you here are the three major “magic variables” I feel can be used as the best manipulation tools for both gaining muscle and losing body fat: carbohydrates (aka: carbs), cardiovascular exercise (aka: cardio), and calories (energy intake/expenditure). As a side note, the word manipulate generally has a negative connotation. But in the case of changing one’s body composition, having the ability to manipulate, or skillfully influence and control a situation with the desire for a specific outcome, is the “secret” to having as much control over changing your physique as you possibly can.
CARBS, CARDIO & CALORIES
I’m focusing on these “Three C’s” because I feel that these elements are the key variables you can change both minimally and drastically depending on 1. how your body responds to them and 2. your desired outcome. From my experience with both myself and my clients, I also feel that these are the variables that can cause the body to respond the most when these variables change.
Keep in mind that what I am suggesting below doesn’t mean you will magically start to gain muscle or lose body fat just because you increase or decrease your carbs, cardio or calories. How your body responds also depends a number of other variables in your fitness program, such as the amount of total calories you’re eating; what your fat and protein ratios are; the sources of your macros (flexible dieters may not agree with me on this one); the amount, type and frequency of cardio you’re doing; and what your strength-training regime is like.
It also depends on how consistent you are and how long you incorporate the changes in any one or all three of the variables. Other things can come into play as well, such as hormones and metabolism but I don’t want to get too far off on a tangent!
Carbohydrates are a hugely debated topic in the health and fitness industry. High carb, low carb, no carb, paleo, ketogenic, you name it! Protein and fats are the other two main macronutrients that come into play with any diet, but it seems that carbs are the centerpiece or focal point to most popular diets. There are many ways you can manipulate carb intake, such as:
– High carbs, moderate protein, low fat
– High carbs, moderate protein, moderate fat
– High carbs, high protein, low fat
– Moderate carbs, high protein, low to moderate fat
– Low carbs, high protein, low fat
– Low carbs, moderate protein, high fat
– As little carbs as possible (only trace carbs from other food sources), moderate protein, super high fats
How To Use Carbs As A Variable
Depending on what your body composition goal is and how your body responds to carbs, you can increase or decrease them to create a certain outcome. If you are keeping carbs as your variable only, then your general daily caloric intake would stay the roughly same, but your carbs will increase or decrease. In order to keep your calories general consistent, you’ll slightly increase or decrease your proteins and fats as well. This can take some trial and error of seeing what combinations work with your body
Cardiovascular exercise has generally two extreme audiences: those who love it and those who loath it! And there are those who just tolerate it and do what is necessary.
Cardio can be a tricky element because too much of it and you run the risk of burning too many calories, not allowing your body to “keep the calories” in order for your muscles to grow (if your goal is to build a little more muscle). You could even potentially do so much cardio that your body actually burns off muscle – so you end up losing muscle – to use it for energy when glycogen stores have been used up. Because of our bodies’ survival mechanism, fat stores are the last to be used which is why it can take so long to burn off fat, especially in our “trouble spots.” So if you’re talking about survival of the fittest stranded on a deserted island, the leaner person with a higher metabolism would likely die before someone with a slower metabolism and more fat stored up!
How To Use cardio as a variable
Depending on what your body composition goal is and how your body responds to cardio (how fast your metabolism is, if you’re a hard gainer or gain weight easily, etc), you can increase or decrease your cardio minimally or significantly in order to create a certain outcome. If your goal is to increase muscle mass, some people may choose to eliminate cardio all together to allow for the most optimal conditions for muscle growth. Here are ways to use cardio as a variable for body composition changes:
1. Slowly add cardio in by doing two to three 20 min steady state cardio sessions per week
2. Assess your progress based on your desired outcome and you can then either add another cardio session and/or increase the duration of your session to 25 min
3. Keep assessing and keep adding until you reach 5 sessions per week at 35-40 min per session
4. At this point if your body is progressing, you can either keep things as they are or if you’d like to speed up the progress, you can:
– add a plyometric track workout in one time per week on top of the five training sessions
– add a 6th weekly cardio session of 30-35 min
– increase to 45 min of cardio five times per week
– start incorporating 2-3 high intensity interval training (HIIT) cardio sessions by replacing a few of the steady state sessions with the HIIT
– change your weekly strength-training workout structure to include one of Nicole’s Total Body
On the opposite end of the spectrum, if you are doing a ton of cardio and coming off some kind of event, such as one of Nicole’s challenges or a competition, you shouldn’t just completely stop doing cardio all together. You should work backwards on slowly decreasing your cardio. Nicole covers this in her very informative blog Reverse Dieting 101: A Guide To Staying Lean.
Caloric deficit = weight loss (except for a few exceptions with regard to serious metabolic, hormonal and thyroid function issues), and caloric surplus = weight gain. Again, you need to have a consistent base starting point in order to assess what your daily maintenance caloric intake is. From there, you can play with increasing or decreasing your calories based on what your goals are. As far as what macronutrients the caloric increase or decrease comes from can depend on a number of factors, including your food preference (vegan, vegetarian, ketogenic, lactose intolerant or any other Irritable Bowel Syndrome issues or food allergies) what your goals are, what your daily activity levels are, what your strength-training and cardio regimen is like, etc.
How to use calories as a variable
This is pretty straight forward:
– increase your calories (slowly) for a caloric surplus to gain muscle or weight in general (again, see Nicole’s Reverse Dieting article)
– decrease your calories (slowly) for a caloric deficit to lose body fat or weight in general
If you try to change all three variables at the same time or change them drastically, for example going from no cardio to 35 minutes five times per week, and decreasing your caloric intake by 300 calories per day while simultaneously cutting carbs, you are setting yourself up for a crash and burn. If you do survive one week of doing this “crash diet and fitness bender,” and lose five pounds in one week, you would not be able to keep it up for very long, and you would also not know which variable and to what degree was causing what reactions in your body.
The best way to use these variables to your advantage in order to change your body composition and reach your fitness goals is to incorporate each one slowly and change them in small increments at a time so that your body can adjust and you can assess to see which variables need to be incorporated, and to what extent (how much, how often, etc.) they need to be a part of your program to continue seeing the results you want to see.
Tip Me Tuesday: Are You Really Hungry?
Tip Me Tuesday: My 45 Day Summer Abs Challenge Experience
Tip Me Tuesday: Gaining vs Losing Part II
Tip Me Tuesday: The Heart Of The Fitness Process
Tip Me Tuesday: Learn To Count On You
Tip Me Tuesday: Find Your Fitness Auto Pilot Mode
ABOUT NAOMI RABON
One of the trainers on Nicole’s elite NW Fitness Training Team, Naomi is a certified Personal Trainer and Fitness Specialist through the National Academy of Sports Medicine. She is a NPC Figure competitor who has been involved in the health and fitness industry for over 12 years.