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What You Can and Cannot Control

In the vein of my discussion of why it’s incorrect to exclude the middle, I want to write about a slightly different topic which has to do with what you can and cannot control. I suppose the impetus for this piece is one particularly (take your pick from the following list): consistent, repetitive, irritating, moronic folks that regularly troll my comments section.  No, I won’t name him, he doesn’t deserve the attention which is what he clearly so desperately craves.

Among his other amusing looniness, one thing he often asserts regarding the weight loss/fat loss/dieting issue is the role of genetics, and physiology, and stuff that falls well outside of the realm of diet and exercise.   Often accusing me of ignoring many of those biological realities.

He also appears to be illiterate since anybody who’s read this site or my books knows full well that I don’t ignore them.  Since the discovery of leptin and my first interest in it over a decade ago, the underlying biology and physiology of the body weight regulation system is one that has alternately fascinated and aggravated me.  To suggest that I ignore the realities of genetics or the underlying physiology (or difficulty involved in the whole game of long-term weight loss) is idiotic.  But so is he.

The same can and should be said for the role of genetics and inherent physiology for athletic performance or muscle mass.   I’ve discussed the issue of talent vs. work along with genetic muscular potentials before and clearly there are some inbuilt genetic limiters that we all have to one degree or another.   You can’t simply pretend that they don’t exist even if many try to do just that.

But here’s the problem which is the crux of this piece, and this is something that I actually explicitly stated in the two linked pieces above: there’s very little point worrying about things outside of your control. We can acknowledge that they exist, we may be able to find ways to work within or perhaps around them (to some degree) but letting them have more control than that is pretty pointless.

And since this isn’t making any sense, let me try to explain it with a series of three progressively more detailed examples, starting with one that I don’t think anybody will disagree with.

Benchers with Bad Mechanics

Let’s say that you decide that, for whatever reasons of your own, you want to have a big bench press.  It probably means you’re an American male between the ages of 18 and 30 but I won’t hold it against you.  But let’s also say that you have long arms, an uncontrollable biomechanical factor that is generally inconsistent with obtaining a big bench.

Now clearly the long arm issue is out of your control completely.  You didn’t choose it, you had no say in it, but it’s what you’ve got.   Unless you’re going to go the (supposed) Russian route of having your arms broken and reset to be shorter, there’s simply nothing you can do about that factor.  At least not directly.   It’s a factor that you can’t control, so there’s no real point in worrying about it.

However, there are still things you can do to work around it.  For example, recognizing that your bench stroke will be longer than someone with shorter arms, you could alter your bench technique to try to compensate for this.  A wider grip, up to a point (of shoulder and wrist safety) will decrease your bench stroke. Building up your chest and back musculature will do the same.  So would working on your arch (within the limits of legal technique).

Realizing that you’ll have one hell of a midpoint and lockout weakness, you could focus your training there with board or pin work at the appropriate heights.  Working on bar speed off the chest will help you get through the sticking point better.  You could just decide to get strong as hell and damn the weak points.  These are all things that you can control.  They are worth worrying about and focusing your effort there.

The point I’m trying to make is that there are factors that you can control and things you can’t control.  And only the first is worth worrying about; the second is only relevant inasmuch as it may let you tailor your specific approach to reaching your goal to work around it.

Moving on.

Overall Trainability

The idea of an athlete’s trainability ties in greatly with the idea of the debate over talent vs. work. Basically, as discussed in that series, everyone starts out with some inbuilt potential in terms of their overall trainability.  And much of this is set by factors completely outside of our control.

Muscle fiber types don’t change very much.  If you’re Type I dominant, you’re not getting very far as a power athlete and vice versa.  Hormones are certainly modifiable but most sporting federations frown on the necessary means to do so.  As with the bench example, body mechanics can’t be changed, they can only be worked around.  People clearly vary in not only where they start in terms of their physiological capacities but how well they adapt to training.  Until we have gene alteration capabilities, these are things outside of our control.  So they aren’t worth worrying about.

What we can control in terms of attempting to reach athletic goals are things like how we train (in terms of frequency, volume, intensity, consistency, etc.), proper recovery (including but not limited to sleep, therapy, etc.), our daily diet, etc.  Putting the effort into those things will let any given individual progress towards whatever their inbuilt limits are.  And since there’s no way to know what the limits are (not yet anyhow) there’s simply no point worrying about them.

As with the bench example, in terms of how far you’ll ever get in terms of athletic performance there are things you can control (training, diet, recovery, etc.) and things you can’t control (genetics, fiber typing, etc.).  Put your effort into worrying about the first, don’t worry about the second.

What About Weight and Fat Loss?

.And hopefully now you can see where I’m going with all of this babble.  As more and more research accumulates, it’s becoming clear that, just as with the athletic performance issue, there is a huge variability in the genetics of body weight and body fat regulation.

A half a dozen hormones (read the Bodyweight Regulation series for more on this, or any of my books) play a role here as does how the brain is wired to respond to those hormones.  Insulin sensitivity, leptin sensitivity, ghrelin, peptide YY, on and on and on it goes and there is clearly massive variability in how any given individual will respond to any given intervention.

It’s been clear for years that people differ massively in how they respond to either overfeeding or dieting (and there is a link in how people respond to each: some people are genetically more prone to burn off excess calories than others and they are the same who get the least metabolic drop during dieting).

Some people partition calories more readily to fat cells than others, some ramp up calorie burn in response to overfeeding (I’ve discussed the first paper on NEAT previously).  On and on it goes and I don’t think anybody would argue that some people have it far easier than others for underlying genetic, biological, physiological reasons.

Even behavioral factors come into play here; some people are clearly better at making ‘good’ choices than others and some of this may be wired into them.  Make no mistake, the brain is eminently malleable, people can change behaviors but it takes time and most people give up before new habits ‘take’.

That’s what my troll seems obsessed with.  I’m obsessed with it too.  But here’s the thing and you should already have seen the punchline to this coming: all of the above is outside of our control.  Because except for taking drugs to impact on the various systems that might be problematic, there are things you can control and things you can’t control.

What you can control is your activity patterns, your food intake, how much sleep you get (sleep playing a role in obesity).  Depending on your specifics, there might be others that you can control.  And that’s where the focus should be.  Things that you can’t control aren’t worth worrying about.

You can’t control it or impact it, accept that it exists and move on.  Mind you, just like the benching example about the only point of acknowledging or looking at the things outside of our control is to tailor the diet or exercise (or drug) regimen better to the individual.

So, for example, some people’s bodies shut down faster metabolically than others.  In my experience, those folks do better with more frequent refeeds and diet breaks to keep things humming.  For people who find that eating makes them want to eat more, or who have behavioral issues with small meals while dieting Intermittent Fasting may be the best choice.

As I discussed in the Comparing the Diets series, there are factors (such as insulin sensitivity) that may determine what type of diet might be ‘best’ under a given set of cirumstances for a given individual.  I wrote the Ultimate Diet 2.0 in an attempt to mimick in the genetically non-elite some of the physiology that is often seen in folks with genetic advantages.  I think you get the idea.

Unfortunately, we’re only at the earliest stages of knowing what might be best for a given individual.  It would be fantastic to be able to give someone a test or something to say “This is your physiology or whatever, this is the best approach for you.”  Currently, it’s a lot of trial and error.  But that’s besides the point.  As with my other two examples: there are things you can control (hence worth worrying about and putting your energy into) and things you can’t control (hence not worth worrying about except inasmuch as they might guide the approach you take).

And that’s why I tend to focus on the nutrition/exercise aspect of the whole fat loss game.  Those are the two factors most in our control.  Unless you’re in jail or the military, you choose what goes into your mouth (even if those choices are often driven by some underlying physiology and make no mistake people vary here as well), you choose to sit in front of the Tv/computer or go be active.   Those are the things you can control, that’s where the focus should lay.

Summing Up

Man, that wasn’t nearly as short as I hoped it was going to be.  Ah well: if you read it all the way through it was your choice to do so.   And that choice was under your control.

Get it?

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9 thoughts on “What You Can and Cannot Control

  1. as a young salemans I was advised by a senior saleman. “control what you can control.” It always stuck with me and is reiterated in this “point-less” article. You make a great point in saying that people give up on behaviour change before it really “takes”. People need to not only learn the new behavior, but repeat it and then let it become the new “reflex”. And as you say there are not really that many factors within our control and so we need to focus on the basics of eating and worrying less and sleeping and moving more! But between ‘paraylsis through internet-over-analysis’ and marketing it is often hard for the average person to figure out what the basics should be. SO keep the straight facts coming, Lyle!

  2. Good article. This synthesizes various notions I’ve had rattling around my head lately. If you REALLY want to drive yourself crazy, you can use all of this as a jumping off point for the whole determinism vs. free will/compatibilism vs. incompatibilism philosophical quagmire.

  3. Great article, Lyle!

    I try not to focus on things I have no control over. There is always going to be somebody who is bigger, stronger, better looking, smarter, more successful, etc. Worrying about these things creates needless stress and can cause your self-esteem to take a nosedive, especially if it’s done over a long enough period of time. All anybody can do is “play the hand that’s been dealt them.”

    Nobody likes to fail at anything but if I give 100% effort into achieving a goal, whether it be diet, exercise, education,etc, and I still come up “short,” then I can live with that. As long as I did my best I will have very few, if any, regrets. Peace of mind comes with doing your best at all times even if failure is the end result.

  4. thanks for the interesting post…..great read

  5. Great read Lyle. Your point is obvious enough, but that doesn’t mean that people don’t need to be reminded from time to time.

  6. I hung on every word. Read bits a time or two more……timely piece for newbies and someone with the genetic disposition to find errors in your writings.


  7. Great post, I liked both of these ‘pointless’ posts 🙂

  8. Thank you, Mr.McDonald.I love your articles.I’ve been reading them for only three days and they are a great eye opener.I’m revising the ways I train and eat.Thanks! keep ’em coming!!

  9. Great advice Lyle – you seem to be saying genetics are the key but I can still make considerable progress – I like that – thanks

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