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Fundamental Principles vs. Minor Details

In that I am a bit obsessive compulsive about my field of interest, I have a driving desire to read anything and everything related to it.  I also happen to particular enjoy reading older books.  They often contain forgotten gems of wisdom.  More often they show that the brand spanking new idea you thought you came up with is 30 years old.

Trying to Figure Out Swimming

A little while back, in trying to fix my own ignorance about swimming, I read what is often considered a classic in the field of training literature which is the book “The Science of Swimming” by James ‘Doc’ Counsilman.  Written in 1968, the book represented one of the first attempts to apply much in the way of science to the technique of swimming.

Suffice to say that swimming is very strange and, so far as I can tell even in 2010, nobody is exactly sure how swimming “works”.   I mean that in a technical sense where there continues to be debate about exactly how propulsion is created.  But this is not an article about swimming, rather there is a particular quote in the book that really resonated with me and that prompted this article.  In discussing technique considerations and stroke mechanics, Counsilman writes:

Do not subordinate fundamental principles to minor details.

It’s quotes like these, ones that are so to the point and clear that really stand out for me.  It’s also the sign of a truly knowledgeable coach or person.  People who know their field can express complicated ideas in simple language.  People who use complex language to confuse you don’t really know what they are talking about and hope that you won’t notice.  But that’s a different topic for a different day.

In this specific case, Counsilman was talking about worrying about details of stroke mechanics (or trying to fix or alter them) without paying attention to the fundamentals of proper stroke mechanics.  Because the fundamental principles outweigh the minor details by miles.    I daresay this is true in most sports where focusing on a minor detail is pointless if the athlete doesn’t even have the fundamentals in place.

And it’s certainly true in the case of diet and general fitness information.   With the advent of the Internet, along with other forms of constantly updated media, people are absolutely overwhelmed with information.  Half of it contradicts the other half altogether too much of it (including someo f my own work) gets fixated on details that just aren’t that important for most people.

That is, it discusses stuff that isn’t likely to make an iota of difference to anything in the real world.  At least not for the grand majority.    So why is stuff like this written?  Well usually it’s because someone just needs to make content.  As much as anything it’s because repeating the same basic information all the time isn’t sexy or interesting.  It also doesn’t generate clicks or help you drive traffic to your store.

The Big Exception

Make no mistake, there are places where these minor details matter and athletes or dieters have to be extremely detail oriented.  In almost all cases it’s an advanced athlete or dieter who is working at the extreme and looking for that next level up.  Invariably they already have the basics dialed in consistently.  For them those details might give the last edge.

So the male dieter trying to get to 5% bodyfat without muscle or performance loss, or the elite athlete looking for that last 1-2% on top of their current results.  In that situations, the details matter.  Again I’d point out that the individuals always have the fundamentals dialed in to begin with.  Because athletes who look for secrets and focus on details before they get the fundamentals locked in don’t get very far.

And the reality is that those groups represent a microscopic percentage of the training and dieting population, especially as it exists on the Internet.   They may make the more interesting subgroup to coaches in the sense that they have more complicated problems to solve (and coaches love getting up their butts with this stuff too).  But they aren’t remotely the largest percentage of the training or dieting population.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that everyone on the Internet is an advanced trainee who trains harder than any 10 men combined.  Except that you’re not.  Most would be best served by simplifying rather than making things more complex.  They need to focus on the fundamentals rather than getting mired in the details.  Once the fundamentals are locked down, maybe then the details matter.  Until those fundamentals are locked down, no details matter.

The Reality of Most Trainees

Like it or not, realistically you’re not an advanced trainee who has locked down the fundamentals.   I’m not trying to attack you, I’m sure I’ll get someone in the comments who is an exception.  But that’s all they are.  Not everybody can be above average (by definition) and you’re statistically unlikely to be an exception because that’s not what the word means.

Of course that simple fact, that most people (by the definition) of most aren’t in the subgroup that needs to worry about the details doesn’t stop them from getting fixated on them.  And invariably this leads them down one of two potentially bad paths:

  1. They never actually get started on their plan.
  2. They manage to completely forget about the fundamental principles.

Let’s talk about both.

Just Start

One of the primary end results of the unnecessary focus on details will spend weeks or months trying to determine the perfect program or the perfect diet.  They will ask questions of such minor irrelevance about one approach or another that they end up completely missing the forest for the trees.

With training they will see that one program recommends 4 sets of 6 and another 4 sets of 8 and another 3 sets of 12.  Which is better?  Which is superior?  Which is BEST?  Maybe one is more frequency based and one is more intensity based.  It doesn’t matter.  They will post up article after article asking “What do you think of this training approach?”.   And they’ll do it for weeks.

And during that entire time, they’ve yet to actually go work out.

The same holds for dieting.  They’ll ask about carb cycling vs. IF’ing vs. cyclical diets vs. something else vs. something else.  Endless links to endless diets asking “What do you think of this approach?”   And invariably any approach they name works stunningly for some, meh for some and terribly or not at all for others.  Mind you, this has more to do with context and the diet being right for the person.  But they’ll spend all this time looking for that singular perfect dietary approach, wasting weeks or longer.

And they’ll do it without ever having actually modified an iota of their food intake.

Because the dirty little secret, especially in the earliest stages of training or dieting is that most of this doesn’t matter.  The diet has to create a deficit and have sufficient protein and everything else is details.  Details that often don’t matter.  And yet it is those details that people will spend weeks or months examining.  More importantly, the time they spent researching the perfect ™ approach is time when they should have just been DOING SOMETHING.

Because at the end of the day, unless a particular diet or training program is utterly moronic (and make no mistake, there are lots out there), doing something will always trump doing nothing or just talking about it for weeks on end.   You can worry about the details later when they matter.  For now?  Just start.  Just do something.

The Nice Thing About Being a Beginner

All of the above is especially true in the beginner stages because of a dirty little secret: almost everything works when you’re a beginner.  One set of an exercise or three sets of an exercise, it all works.  Any diet, irrespective of the approach, that gets you to eat less while getting enough protein will generate fat loss.  The specifics don’t matter at all.  What matters is that you can adhere to it.

Hell, some of the idiotic stuff usually works at this level simply because it’s better than what the person was (or wasn’t) doing beforehand.  That is, it’s not that the new approach is brilliant so much as the previous approach was utterly awful.  But at this point.  The details don’t matter.  What matters is starting and doing something.   We can endlessly argue about the optimality of this, that or the other but outside of some general rules, often the only way to find out is to try it.

Even at the intermediate level, most of the above holds.  The male trying to get to 12% bodyfat (women to 20%) or continue gaining muscle into their second year, the basics still work just fine.     Even on a less than “perfect” program, just being consistent will do most of the work.  Fine, we can quibble about optimality here but it’s still unlikely to be meaningful in terms of the differences in results.

Fine, as folks get more advanced, the details can start to matter.  At this point you have to worry more and more about less and less to get that last little bit of fat loss, performance or muscularity.  But by this point the person has already started.  They’ve been consistent.  I don’t have to tell them to start since they already have.

Forgetting Fundamental Principles

I’d be lying if I didn’t say I got up my own ass with details sometimes.  And that is often reflected in the content on my site.  That said, I try to balance out those detail mongering articles with information that deals with more fundamental and general concepts of both training, nutrition and fat loss.  Those fundamentals should underlie all intelligently set up approaches to fat loss or training.  That’s why you’ll find various primers and guides with basic information rather than the endless details I have often gotten way too far up my own butt with.

Mind you, even my more advanced information is squarely aimed at advanced individuals to begin with.  Those dieters or trainees who, presumably at least, have the fundamental in place.  Who have reached a certain level but need the details to move past them.  My Ultimate Diet 2.0 is an advanced diet for advanced dieters.    My Stubborn Fat Solution is as well, being aimed at lean dieters looking to get to the extremes of leanness.  It’s detail oriented for those people who have to be.  Those books aren’t appropriate for beginners and I don’t represent them as such.

But the fundamental principles must always be adhered to, even in advanced or more complicated programs.  Each individual day in the Ultimate Diet 2.0 is fairly simple even if the weekly structure is complex.  And each of those days adheres to the fundamentals of fat loss diets that must be followed regardless of the specifics involved.

And regardless of the specifics, any fat loss approach that adheres to those principles will be a good one.  Which is exactly what you see.  All programs that generally “work” have at their core the same basic principles.  They may differ slightly in the details of how those principles are applied but the fundamentals are always present.

There are a similar set of fundamental principles that applies to training for strength or hypertrophy.   I haven’t written that specific article yet but it certainly could be written.  But there are certain concepts surrounding intensity, frequency, volume, etc. that all intelligent programs will meet.  The details of how they are met is less relevant in this situation.   And while people will endlessly argue that merits of one program over another, when you strip out the details, you always find that the fundamentals are the same.  Always.

The problem then become when people start focusing on those minor details or differences and lose sight of the fundamental principles.  So rather than focusing on the need to create a deficit and get sufficient protein, they get mired in endless minutiae and details.   They start worrying about everything else about their diet except the one thing that actually matters which is energy balance.

A question I see endlessly will have the structure of “I am [eating clean, eating 6 meals per day, eating paleo]” followed by three paragraphs of endless details about every food, every combination, every meal.

And the singular piece of information that matters is missing.  That piece of information being how many calories they are eating per day.  Or how much protein.  Or how much dietary fat.  They can give you every detail about their fat loss diet except for the fundamental aspects that actually matter.

They’re there wondering about the glycemic index of one food versus another or a microscopic difference in protein digestion rates and whether 12.7% of one nutrient is better or worse than 17.2% of the same nutrient and this supplement versus that one.

But they don’t know their calorie intake which is the only factor that truly matters.

The same occurs in training, of course.  People get fixated on their specific split routine or that one exercise has  12% higher EMG peak than another and whether or not they should take a 1:17 or 1:37 rest interval between sets and a bunch of minutiae that doesn’t ultimately matter.  And then you ask them to show you their training log and what poundages they are using and they don’t have one to begin with.

Information vs. Application

Related to this topic is the idea of information versus application.  In the modern era we are overwhelmed by “new” information both in research and lay publications.  Every week I look through hundreds of paper titles and abstracts to find the ones I want to read in full and it gets exhausting some time.   The grand majority of it adds nothing new or profound to our knowledge base.  I still read it just in case.  There are hundreds of article on my website alone and mine is one of lord knows how many sites.  Information is not lacking in the modern world.

And for this reason, it’s easy to become more interested in accumulating information than in actually applying any of it.     People spend days, weeks, months just reading every piece of information on a given topic before they doing anything with it.  They fall into that trap of never starting or doing anything.    And it eventually becomes self-defeating.    As many like to tritely point out, all of the information in the world doesn’t do you any good if you never actually apply it.

But the obsession with new information often comes out of continuing to look for the perfect program, or getting mired into details that don’t matter in the big picture.  The time-tested programs all share the same fundamental principles.  They have to or they don’t work.  And what you find is that applying those principles over time works better than continuing to cast about for something new.

Essentially once you have the fundamental information that you need to get results in hand, you’re better served by applying that information than continuing to look for something new.  And no, I’m not saying that obtaining new information or ideas is bad.  What I’m saying is that you can’t let the quest for new and more information get in the way of applying what you already know.   And yet it’s a mistake we all often make.

Never Subordinate Fundamental Principles to Details

The point of all of this is that the fundamental principles of anything should never be subordinated to minor details.  The fundamentals always matter and will always make up the majority of the results in any endeavor.   This isn’t to say that the details don’t or can’t matter.  There are clearly situations where they do and can.  This is invariably advanced trainees or dieters seeking the last few percentage points.  But they are also the group that already has the fundamentals nailed down and have for years.  They are in a position where the minor details may matter.

For others, this isn’t the case. Certainly for some, there is a psychological need to worry about all of the details.  Dan Duchaine once discussed this type of dieter as someone who “wanted all the plumbing”.  They are the ones who have to have all the details to really buy-in to the program and follow it.  They don’t need the details but they want them.  I guess this is ok to some degree.  At the same time I usually see it causing more harm than good.  Those dieters either never actually start their program to begin with. Or when they do, they forget about the fundamentals because they are so hung up on the details.

To a degree, much of what is written in the training world is written for those people.   These are subcultures where people tends towards the obsessive.   I don’t exclude myself from that, by the way.   But the industry is geared around giving people a lot of details that are simply irrelevant under most circumstances.

Fine, psychological needs are important and should be taken into account.  But if getting hung up on the details causes someone to miss the big picture fundamentals, it’s leading them down a bad path.   I daresay many of the people who get hung up on all those details early in their career eventually realize that their results are not noticeably different when they ignore them.  The fundamentals do most of the heavy lifting here.

Because over a career what folks invariably find is this:

  1. Once you have your fundamentals in order, most of the minor details don’t matter much.  At the very least, they certainly don’t add very much to the overall results.
  2. Until you have the fundamentals dialed in, the minor details don’t matter at all.  In fact, they often do more harm than good by keeping people from starting or causing them to ignore the fundamentals.

As Doc Counsilman said so clearly and succinctly: Do not subordinate fundamental principles to minor details.

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