How Detail Oriented Do You Need to Be?

If the internet has accomplished one thing, it’s making people extremely obsessive compulsive about the most minute details of their training program and diet. Arguments and flame wars erupt over the absolutely least consequential of things. How many minutes should pass between sets, how long after workout before you drink your liquid beef aminos with waxy maize starch, stuff like that.

Of course, I’m as guilty as everyone else, I worry about such things and my books often contribute to the problem by providing fairly detail-oriented approaches to diet and training. However, I’m often writing for a fairly small population of folks (trying to reach the extreme low-end of leanness) for whom such details may matter.

Now, in my experience, a lot of people are attracted to complex approaches whether they need them or not, it’s just part of their psychological profile. At the same time, an equal number are plenty happy with nothing but basic simple guidelines.

Ultimately, all of this is just an introduction to the topic this article is about which is “How detail oriented do you need to be?” in terms of your training or diet. Of course, the short-answer is that “It depends.” Now let’s look at the long answer.

The Long Answer

How detail oriented you need or have to be depends on a lot of factors. One of these is where you’re starting out. Someone going from 30% bodyfat to 25% bodyfat or just trying to lose a few pounds won’t have to pay nearly the attention to the details as the individual trying to get from 10% bodyfat to 5% bodyfat with no muscle loss.

Wanna lose weight? It’s simple: Eat less, exercise more, repeat. Get a few basic details correct and that’s really about everything you need to know in the initial stages or if you aren’t trying to get super lean. Everything else, quite seriously, is just details. For the record, same thing for muscle gain but in reverse, more or less. If you don’t care how much fat you gain, just eat a lot, train hard, sit on your butt as much as possible and be done with it.

Since that latter group, the folks who are worried about the last few percentage points, probably describes only a tiny percentage anyhow, you’re probably wondering why I brought it up. To drastically oversimplify, I have found two types of individuals, psychlogically speaking, when it comes to diet and exercise advice.

Group 1: Keep it Simple Stupid

The first group isn’t really that detail oriented, they just want some basic easy-to-follow advice that will help them get moving towards their goal. They usually like to make the smallest, least intrusive changes to their diet and exercise programs when they start and they tend to go through a lot of anxiety if they have too much to deal with in terms of details.

If making small changes will get you to where you want to be, more power to you. I’ll absolutely be the first to tell you to make the smallest changes you have/need to, as long as they are producing the results you want. If you don’t need the hassle of all of the details, don’t stress yourself out about them. Basically, keep it simple as long as it’s working. In actuality, I see a lot of people drastically over-complicating things long before it’s needed. Which brings us to group 2.

Group 2: All the Plumbing

Then there’s the second group: they want all the details and then some. Some refer to this as nutrition (or training) with “all the plumbing”. Based on the kinds of email questions I regularly get, I’m used to getting the “all the plumbing” types of questions. As I noted above, people are obsessed with just about any possible bit of diet or training minutiae you could conceive of even if it’s not necessary. They time their workouts to the minute, their sets to the second, and measure their post-workout drinks to the gram. They worry about details so minute as to have literally no relevance to real-world results.

We can really divide Group 2 into two separate groups. The first are folks who are simply more ready to make changes to their diet and exercise program when they have everything laid out to the last detail. They tend to be drawn towards very complicated dietary approaches that have a lot of details to keep up with (cyclical ketogenic diets being a prime example) because it fulfills a psychological aspect of the diet. I know, I used to be one of these types of people. Still am to some degree. I want to make it clear up front that meeting psychological goals is as important as meeting the physiological ones.

The second group consists of an even smaller percentage of folks: they want all the plumbing because they truly need it. They are the natural bodybuilder who loses too much muscle dieting down and hopes there’s a magic solution (better yet, a magic pill). Or a sprinter who needs to drop 10 lbs. of accumulated fat, without losing performance, in 8 weeks, for a competition (that was an actual email I got one time, and I told the guy he was basically out of luck without using drugs). They are meticulous about all the details because they have to be, not because they necessarily want to be. I’d surmise that this sub-group would rather not have to pay so much attention to the details if they didn’t have to.

There is much to be said for group 2 individuals, at least with regards to short-term success. Folks in this group tend to get overall faster and better results because of their attention to detail. But it seems that overall long-term success can be up in the air.

Basically, when they are on their diets, they are ON THEIR DIETS (!!!) and the results come as a consequence. But when they fall off the wagon, they fall off hard. So they tend to alternate between two extremes: one of anal-compulsion and one of total indifference. These extremes correspond to being in shape and not being in shape respectively.

Finding balance

It would be relatively safe to say that a balance of the two different groups is probably ideal for most applications (excepting the subgroup of group 2 who have to track the details or risk failure). Somewhere between complete devotion/compulsion and total slackness will work for the majority of folks. We’ll talk more about finding balance way later on in this book.

It’s pretty safe to say that bodybuilders and athletes (especially bodybuilders) are almost always in the second group, whether they are very good or not. To say that they are obsessive compulsive is putting it far too mildly. Psychotically obsessed is more like it. Even folks who don’t have a prayer of ever reaching a decent level of competitive bodybuilding will worry about every detail under the sun. The psychology just seems to accompany the activity in this case. Meaning that folks who tend to get drawn to bodybuilding in the first place tend to be detail obsessed, control freaks. I don’t mean that as a negative, necesssarily, just a statement of fact.

As a side-note: some psychologists have commented that most top athletes are slightly obsessive compulsive in the true sense of the term, others have even tried to turn it into a psychological syndrome as a bad thing. Whatever. I’d argue that most people at the top of any field are a bit compulsive; if they weren’t, they wouldn’t reach the top level because there’d always be someone willing to work a little bit harder who would surpass them.

Of course, obsessive dedication is part of the price to be paid for high performance and maximal results. That’s also a big part of the reason group 2 folks get the results they get. Sure you can’t deny genetics, good coaching, drugs, etc. but the fact that they are so attentive to ALL the details ALL the time makes a big difference in the level of performance that these individuals ultimately achieve. At the elite level, genetics, equipment and everything else tend to be fairly equal across the board and it comes down to who worked the hardest and smartest. There are, of course, exceptions.

Then again, a lot of very dedicated people don’t get the results they want (or think they should) usually because they are getting bad advice. So don’t equate obsession with automatic success. A crappy diet or training program is a crappy diet or training program no matter how dedicated you are. A lot of people will stick to really crappy diet or training programs far longer than any reasonable person should, usually because a ‘guru’ told them it was the right way to do things. This leads to the my most important rule of training and diet. Call it Lyle’s Rule #1 :

If something isn’t working, change it.

My general rule of thumb is that if some dietary or training change hasn’t generated some type of progress within 4 weeks, it’s time to try something else. Sure, there are exceptions and I’ll note them as we go but something that hasn’t done anything in a month isn’t going to magically start working. Seriously, no matter who the guru is or how smart you think they are, if the advice isn’t producing results in a reasonable time frame, it’s time to move on. You have little to lose (you’re making zero progress to begin with, and you can’t do any worse than that) and everything to gain.

Oh yeah, that goes for any advice I might give you in this book too: if it’s not working for you in a reasonable time frame, try something else. I’m as fallible as the next guy and have given some pretty crappy pieces of advice in my life. Like I said before, I’m all about honesty here.

While I’m on the topic, I suppose I should mention the Corrolary to Rule #1 which is

If it’s not broken, don’t mess with it.

Yes, I know, this isn’t a new idea but it is absolutely true. It’s quite common to have someone doing everything just fine, losing fat without losing any muscle or gaining muscle at a good rate, to make a change simply for the sake of making a change.

This is depressingly true with pre-contest bodybuilders and newbie athletes; they’ll freak out 2 weeks beforehand and start doing goofy stuff. They’ll change their diet, experiment with some untested strategy and it always does more harm than good. If something is working, don’t mess with it.

You also see it out of simple impatience: body recomposition takes time and humans are not good at waiting. We want it NOW, and that attitude tends to make folks change things to try and generate results faster. Seriously, if what you’re doing is generating the results you want, leave it the hell alone. Change simply for the sake of change is just as bad as not changing something when it’s not working. When we get there, I’ll give you guidelines for what I consider good progress in terms of fat loss or muscle gain. If you’re meeting those numbers already, then what you’re doing is fine. Don’t mess with it.

Making a Choice Between Groups

Now. there’s also no reason that you have to be in one group or the other. It’s not uncommon for individuals to begin in group 1 (making small, manageable changes to their diets and exercise programs), begin to see some nice progress, and become more detail oriented as the time passes or such detail become necessary to reach the next level. There’s actually a lot to be said for making the changes gradually, because they are more likely to become part of your daily patterns, instead of some extreme approach that you won’t stick to in the long term.

Which do I think is better? As I said in the introduction “It depends”. If you came to me as an athlete with 5 weeks to accomplish some nearly impossible goal, I’d say you better pay attention to the details. If you’re a newbie starting out on a weight loss or exercise journey, I’d be more inclined to argue for keeping it simple initially and getting more detail-focussed as needed.