Fundamental Principles Versus 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 older books as you generally find that what you think is a brand spanking new idea in the world of training or diet was being done 30 years ago by someone smarter than you.

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’.  That is, in terms of what’s going on mechanically in the water.

But this is not an article about swimming, rather there is a particular quote in the book that really resonated with me (especially after some of the silliness I had been seeing on the support forum) 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 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.  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.  But it applies equally well to the issues of diet and training.

As I’ve written about in a previous article How Detail Oriented Do You Need to Be, with the advent of the Internet (along with other forms of constantly running media) people are absolutely overwhelmed with information, much of it dealing with what can only be termed completely irrelevant details.  That is, stuff that just isn’t likely to make an iota of difference to anything in the real world.  I think the reason for this trend is that writing about the basics and the fundamentals all the time isn’t sexy or interesting. It certainly doesn’t sell magazines.

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Let’s Get the Big Exception Out of the Way

Certainly, there is a time and a place where details can matter.    As discussed in How Detail Oriented Do You Need to Be usually it’s people who are at the very extreme high level of performance or leanness looking for that next level up.  Yeah, fine, if I’m trying to diet a male down to 5% body fat without muscle loss, the details may start to matter (though amusingly some can do it without ever moving past the most basic of approaches).  An elite athlete looking for that last bit of performance is in that position where all of the esoteric stuff, the insane details, start to matter.

But those tend to represent such a tiny percentage of the training or dieting population as to be almost irrelevant.  They may be the more interesting subgroup  (because coaches like getting up their own butts with this stuff too) but they aren’t the largest percentage of the training or dieting population.

And while everyone on the Internet thinks that they are advanced, the simple fact is that most are not; most would be served by simplifying more than complexifying.  As well, the individuals in the situations above have spent years working on the fundamentals to the point that they are so well entrenched that they needn’t be worried about.  At that point the details can matter.

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So Let’s Talk about Everybody Else

As I mentioned, by  the definition of the word ‘most’, most people training or altering their diet are not in the above situations, looking for that last bit of a percentage point gain where details may start to matter.  Which unfortunately, doesn’t stop them from all too often focusing on the minor details to such a degree that one of two damaging things happens which are:

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

Both are clearly a problem and I want to talk about both in some detail.

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Just Do Something

One of the primary end results of the unnecessary focus on details is that people often spend weeks (or months) looking for the perfect program, the perfect diet.  And invariably they are focusing on the minor, minor, minor details that separate different successful programs.  So one program has such and such a set and rep scheme, another slightly different.   One training program might be more frequency based, another more intensity based (as discussed in A Quick Look at Some Popular Hypertrophy Programs).

I see people do it all the time: asking for a compare and contrast of one training program vs. another.  Is one ‘better’ than the other?  What about this third one? What about this one?  What about that one?

The same holds for diet.  One uses carb-cycling of some form or fashion on a daily basis, another uses big-carb refeeds less frequently (most of my plans), a third does something else entirely.   And every approach seems to work stunningly (at least for some people) or not at all (in others).  But that gets into the issue of context more than anything else; what is right (or potentially ideal) for one person or one situation is not right for another.  Context matters.

Of more relevance, what often happens is that people get so overwhelmed at focusing on the details that they never act.  They spend weeks looking for the perfect diet or training program (which doesn’t really exist in the first place, at best all programs have pros and cons and are, at most, best under a given set of circumstances) and lose time when they should simply be doing something.

Because, at the end of the day, assuming the training or diet isn’t completely and utterly moronic (and make no mistake, there are plenty of those out there) actually doing something is always better than talking about it for weeks on end.

Yet it’s that latter pattern I see altogether too many falling into: people spend days and weeks and longer asking about this plan versus the other plan, this program versus the other.  Time that would be more productively spent actually starting any one of the myriad programs that they’ve asked about.

And this is especially true at the beginner stage (less so at the intermediate stage although the same principles still hold).  When you’re starting out in training or diet, the ‘nice’ thing is that everything works.  One set, three sets, it all works; for the most part any non-idiotic diet will be effective to some degree for generating weight or fat loss.

Hell, some of the idiotic stuff usually works at this level simply because it’s better than what the person was doing beforehand. It’s not that the new approach is better so much as what was left behind was awful. But at this point, the details just don’t matter.  What matters is actually doing something.  You usually won’t find out if something is right for you ahead of time unless you just hunker down and try it.  So stop worrying and start hunkering.

Once again, as folks get more advanced, the details can start to matter.  Basically, you often have to worry more and more about less and less as you try to get to higher levels of performance or leanness or muscularity.   But by the time someone truly reaches that stage, they usually know enough about how their body responds, on top of having years of fundamentals under their belt, that they either know what to do next or how to proceed.  As mentioned above, while everyone wants to think that they are advanced, the reality is that they are not.

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Forgetting Fundamental Principles

Make no mistake, I often get rather focused on details, and many articles on this site reflect that.  Of course, I try my best to balance those out with articles looking fundamental concepts; that is, the basics that are important and should underlie all intelligently set up approaches.  That’s why I write the primers on various topics and try to look at fundamental principles instead of just getting up my own butt with complicated details (that fascinate me but are often not globally very relevant).

It’s worth noting that most of my own complicated approaches to things are aimed at the advanced people in the first place.  The Ultimate Diet 2.0 is an advance diet for advanced dieters; it’s aimed at people for whom the details matter.  Even there, while the overall structure of the diet is a bit complicated, any given day actually isn’t.

The information in The Stubborn Fat Solution is equally detail oriented.  But again, it’s aimed at folks looking at the last little bits of fat, the stuff that doesn’t come off easily without an attention to such details.   For everyone else, such details are not needed: that training and dieting gets done is more important than how it gets done exactly.

But the fundamental principles must always be adhered to, even in the advanced/complicated programs.  It’s simply that the details are less relevant for the non-advanced.  So, for example, as I looked at in The Fundamentals of Fat Loss Diets Part 1 and The Fundamentals of Fat Loss Diets Part 2, there are a set of fundamental principles of fat loss diets that I consider crucial to success, first and foremost among them the creation of a suitable caloric deficit.

And, frankly, any approach that meets those principles in one form or fashion will be a ‘good’ program.  So while I have my approach and Alan Aragon has his and someone like Borge Fagerli (Blade) has another, and Martin Berkhan has his intermittent fasting approach; if you looked at all those plans in terms of the fundamental principles, you’d see that they  all met them.  They may differ slightly in details and approach but the fundamentals are always present.

A similar article could be written (and I will eventually write it) regarding training principles for growth or strength gains.  There are fundamental principles (revolving around intensity, frequency, volume, etc.) that all intelligent programs must meet.  How they are met is less relevant than that they are met in some form or fashion.  And while people will argue endlessly about the (apparent) differences in application; when you get down to the fundamentals most programs are not as different as you think.  Not the good ones anyhow.

The problem comes in when people start focusing on details (that may or may not be relevant) to the exception of those fundamental principles.  So people want some magic combination of foods or whatever to get around the necessity to create a caloric deficit; they hope that they can avoid the fundamental principle of fat loss (an imbalance between energy intake and output) with some minor detail.  That’s when the problems start.

I can’t count the number of times someone has come on the support forum with a question about “Why am I stalling/why am I not losing weight?” and they can’t even answer the basic questions of “How many calories are you eating per day?  How much protein?  How many total carbs?  How much total dietary fat?”  They can tell you just about everything about their diet except the relevant stuff: how much.

So they are worrying about the glycemic index of one food versus another and one protein source versus another and whether 12.7% of one nutrient is better or worse than 17.2% of the same nutrient and one supplement versus another and…..  And they haven’t even figured out how much they are currently eating per day, or their total macronutrient intake or anything else that actually matters.  On and on it goes and I’m sure readers can see this for themselves across the Internet.

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Making My Point

Make no mistake, worrying about minor details can have value in certain circumstances and don’t misconstrue what I’m saying here.  For some it’s a true physiological need; those advanced people who need to worry about the details because they are at a level that matters.  But, as I noted above, those folks have already spent so much time on the fundamentals that they are in a position where it may matter.

For others, there is often a psychological need to worry about details.  There is a type of dieter I once saw Dan Duchaine describe as ‘wanting all the plumbing’ who tends to follow diet and training programs better when they have an insane amount of details to worry about.   They may not need them in the sense of a true physiological need but they want them and will only be happy if they have them present.

And, to a degree, a lot of what is written in the athletic and bodybuilding literature (those subcultures being towards the obsessive end of things) is geared towards that; giving people a lot of details that are often irrelevant to worry about and obsess about.  Certainly psychological needs are important and have to be taken into account but those details must be placed on top of a basic of fundamentals.  Many of those folks often learn over time that the details aren’t really that relevant anyhow.  But starting out they often need/want those details to be happy or to follow their program.

Because what you usually find is this: once you get the fundamental principles in order, most of the minor details don’t matter very much.  At the very least, they don’t add nearly to the results that most people hope for.  And until you get the fundamental principles in place, the minor details don’t matter at all.  That’s on top of the situation where obsessing about those details prevent someone from ever actually acting in the first place.

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