Nutrition Wave - Ending the Sisyphus Syndrome
See if this sounds familiar: you get an invitation to attend your 20th class reunion. You get a vision. The vision is of you - a transformed, streamline, muscled-up you, blowing minds, dropping jaws as you saunter into your reunion. You see an idealized version of you, vividly and repeatedly. This vison is so strong, so motivating that it converts into real enthusiasm, enthusiasm for embarking on a nutrition and exercise program, one that will transform you to the degree you envision within the allotted timeframe.
You hatch a plan: during the next three months, you will lose 25 pounds of bodyweight. The vison of your transformed body is so strong that yearning and desire are converted into action. After some research, you find a low-fat/low calorie nutrition plan that is all the rage and seems doable. You join the YMCA and you have a treadmill set up and ready to go in your garage. The strategy is simple: eat ever smaller amounts of low-fat food and perform more and more cardio exercise as the date draws closer. This is the classical mainstream prescription for losing weight: cut calories, increase “exercise” i.e. cardio training.
The main dietary emphasis is placed on lowering calories and this starts by eliminating as much saturated fat as possible from the diet. At 9 calories per gram, LCTs, long-chain triglycerides (as opposed to SCTs or MCTs) are twice as dense as protein or carbohydrate at 4 calories per gram. You can eat twice the volume of protein or carb for the same caloric cost.
The process becomes one of greater and greater degrees of depravation. The deeper you delve into the three-month process the more calories you must cut. You might start off eating 3,000 indiscriminate (“dirty”) calories per day but by the week of the reunion you will be existing on less than 1,000 calories per day.
The other part of the mainstream weight-loss prescription is to systematically increase exercise. The far and away favored form of exercise (favored by the mainstream) is frequent, long duration, moderate intensity cardiovascular exercise, aerobics, done daily and sometimes twice a day.
Everything is about the calorie: dietary nutrition discipline (willpower) is used to reduce calories as much as possible; the constant cardio is all about oxidizing more calories via exercise.
The Energy Balance Equation requires followers to determine how many calories a day are needed to maintain hemostasis. By way of example, if the current number of calories needed to maintain current bodyweight is 3,000 calories, the solution would start by switching out high calorie saturated fat with 4-calorie per gram Lite or Low-Fat carbohydrate foods. Theoretically, if a person reduces daily calories, cutting back 500-calories per day, every seven days, 3,500 calories are saved, the caloric equivalent of 1-pound of body fat.
The deeper into the three-month process you travel, the less food you are expected to eat and the more cardio you are expected to do. This requires willpower: boring, no-taste eating is combined with boring gerbil-mill cardio in a ceaseless daily grind that offers no let up.
Akin to Cool Hand Luke being sentenced to county lock-up for three months (for cutting the heads off parking meters) you are forced to do endless exercise, him on a chain-gang swinging a grass-cutting scythe versus you on the stationary bike pedaling mindlessly – in terms of intensity, what’s the difference? Like Luke, you are being over-worked and then starved.
Over time, this approach, fewer and fewer calories, more and more cardio, creates an emaciated, fat-free physique, using what I have dubbed “concentration camp fitness for extreme fat loss.”
The last 2-3 weeks leading up to the reunion are pure hell. To keep the weight loss moving ahead, double cardio sessions are instituted. Every morning starts with a 45-minute stationary bike or treadmill cardio session. The goal is to attain a pace and sustain it for the 45-minute duration. You listen to music, watch TV, text, send e-mails…anything to try and distract yourself from the drudgery of the exercise. The minutes tick by like hours. As you get closer to the event, you stall, zero progress for 14 days. What to do?
You add a second cardio session. Shorter, 30-minutes, done late in the day. You ride the exercise bike twice a day and live on less than 1,000 calories a day. You dread every workout and think about food, dirty, bad, evil food, all the time. Listless, zero energy, you are mentally fuzzy and in continual foul temper. You count down the days, the hours, and minutes until you walk into the ballroom at the Sheraton and see your classmates. And end this hell.
Psychologically, the goal, the payoff, the motivation, is stronger than the urge to binge or quit. Willpower is the ability to force ourselves to do things we don’t want to do. No one needs willpower to do fun stuff, cool stuff, no one needs willpower to eat delicious food or body surf in Hawaii. Willpower is used to voluntarily starve, willpower is used to push through hateful, boring workouts. Willpower is used to drag ourselves across the finish line.
Those that successfully starve and successfully engage in continual cardio will attain an emaciated, skeletal physique. However, beware the rebound, the aftershock, the celebratory after-party that begins a counter-process.
You successfully lose those 25-pounds and squeeze into that new suit and make your grand entrance. Having succeeded, it is only natural to want to have a few drinks, a wonderful meal and then party till dawn. The backsliding begins and continues through the weekend.
The binge continues Monday and lasts the remainder of the week. Every day you tell yourself you’ll get back on the drudgery bandwagon starting tomorrow. It never happens and within three weeks you undo three months of deprivation, starvation, and endless hours of mindless cardio.
You now associate transformative fitness with a prison camp approach: overwork and underfeed to attain the goal. Those class reunion-inspired gains, those physical improvements were transitory, temporary, illusions, fleeting instances when you, the trainee attained a certain targeted bodyweight for the briefest of instants before completely breaking down and quitting. You morph, literally overnight, from months of slow starvation into bursts of instantaneous gluttony.
The trainee, on the other side of the event, is suddenly liberated from their voluntary prison camp; they go buck wild, they ditch exercise, going from twice-day-cardio to zero cardio. They eat anything they want whenever they want it – and as much as they want. The starved body, suddenly flooded with insulin-spiking refined carbs, massive amounts of sugar, alcohol, and bad fats, freaks out. The trainee goes backwards three times as fast as gains occurred.
There is a natural and predictable adverse psychological reaction to prolonged periods of starving and hateful exercise. Now, instead of dreaming about food you can have the verboten food you had been denying yourself. It is only natural to stop training when you dread the training.
The elite find joy in training and because they love to train, they do it often and enthusiastically. A critical psychological shift occurs when enthusiasm takes over from willpower as the motiving mental propellent. Willpower can be used with great initial effect; however, the sooner enthusiasm replaces willpower, the better.
Enthusiasm is born of results: tangible, measurable, objective increases in performance and/or physique. Real results beget real enthusiasm. Enthusiasm powers the process. Results occur because the trainee is consistent, diligent, and enthused. They are enthused about the progressive resistance training, the cardio exercise (a different type) and the applied power nutrition that are skillfully and artfully combined.
Over time, enthusiasm, born of results, begets physiological momentum. Whereas willpower is a finite fossil fuel, enthusiasm is infinite, solar power, cold fusion: results recharge enthusiasm.
Approach nutrition differently: make potency paramount. Taste and deliciousness spring from potency. The most potent foods are the tastiest. The most potent proteins and produce are the most flavorful. Seek natural, organic, seasonally appropriate, locally sourced proteins and produce. Jack Lalanne once said, “If man made it, don’t eat it!” Good advice. That and learn how to cook.
Can you roast a chicken? Grill a steak? Can you sauté vegetables or smoke meat on a Weber Grill? Can you create a perfect power meal in less than 15-minutes? Skill in the kitchen, kitchen preparation techniques, are as important as resistance techniques learned in the gym.
Willpower launches the process. Optimally, within 10-14 days willpower is replaced by enthusiasm. Born out of factual, tangible results, enthusiasm is continually replenished by additional improvements in physique and performance. Small gains in physique and performance compound over the life of the periodized cycle and create a radically transformed physique.
When breakthrough gains have been attained, those gains need to be solidified and secured.
This is done by maintaining rough proximity to the training and nutritional regimens that got you there. Maintain the modes and methods that transported you to these new gains – stay in this (approximate) groove for 3-6 weeks. This is the way in which peak gains are made permanent.
Some loosening up can occur once the peak is attained – but let us limit the after-party to 24 to 48 hours. Then it is time to get back into the saddle. Dramatic backsliding is avoided because there is no revulsion to the ongoing nutrition, no abhorrence of the ongoing resistance training and cardio exercise that got us to the goal. We now love to train, we figured out to infuse taste and deliciousness into the (mostly) organic foods we eat.
The foods eaten are wholesome, delicious, nutritious and the meals prepared are looked forward to. No starvation eating ever. No need. The Energy Balance Equation is bogus. The trainee has learned to love the muscle-building progressive resistance training and uses a wide variety of fat-burning cardio exercises. Training fun has replaced training drudgery. Results recharge the ongoing effort. When you look forward to weightlifting and cardio training, when you look forward to the nutrient-dense diet foods, the transformative battle is all but won.
The way to solidify gains and end Sisyphus-like drama of ten steps forward (months of agony) and nine steps backwards (the endless binge) is to approach training and nutrition with a brand-new mindset. If you dread training and if proper nutrition is horrific, you need a new approach.
About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of multiple books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.