Whether your goal is to lose fat, build muscle or gain strength, there is a pyramid or hierarchy to the things you need to do in order to successfully reach your goal. However, most people have this flipped upside down, as they view exercise as the number one strategy to reach their goals. And when that doesn’t work, the only solution is to pack on more exercise, more intense exercise, because if one hour a day is good, then 3 hours a day must be better, and will get you to your goals quicker.
That is flawed thinking. And if you’ve been following us for a while, you’d know that all progress is made when you rest and recover, not while you pack on more exercise and training.
To get an idea where people stood on this topic, we posted on our Facebook page to rank, in terms of priority, where nutrition, sleep, cardio, strength training, and stress management rank for your goals, and we got a lot of varied responses, but also a fair amount of consistency. The hierarchy for success that appeared most often was:
- Stress Management
This is pretty spot on when it comes to prioritizing what you’d need to see success, no matter what the goal is. Now you could argue that sleep and nutrition play a big role in managing stress, and you’d be correct, but stress management can be attributed to other things as well. 4 and 5 can also be goal dependent, as a marathon runner will need to prioritize their cardiovascular training over strength training, but generally this ranking holds true.
Progress comes with rest, and rest means sleep. Sleep is when our body has a chance to repair all the ‘wear and tear’ we experience throughout the day. When our body is finally at rest the healing process begins. Whether that’s repairing muscle tissue after an intense training day, letting soft tissue heal, or letting the nervous system recharge, sleep is priority number 1.
Sleep is going to be the foundation in which everything else is built, as without a solid 6-8 hours:
Recovery doesn’t occur, which means poor training sessions.
Decreases in satiety hormones, TSH, and testosterone
Increases in hunger hormones and estrogen.
Cortisol rhythms thrown out of whack.
If the choice is between needing to sleep more or get in a training session, you’d be better served to sleep.
Solution: Prioritize sleep, set a sleep schedule and create a night time routine.
Stress is a normal part of our day. Without it, we would never adapt and change. Everything we do has a degree of stress, work, school, even exercise, but when it lingers over the long haul, it can become problematic. This is where how we manage the most stressful parts of our day becomes so important.
Lets go through a typical day:
- Wake up to screaming kids, trying to get them ready for school
- Get in the car to go to work and you hit traffic
- Check into work late, and your boss is on your case
- Project is due tomorrow, and you’re not ready
- Leave work to go to the gym
- At the gym, you do a super intense workout
Stress, on top of stress, on top of more stress and the cycle continues. This can lead to many different coping mechanisms, like emotional eating. And we all have those times where stress gets so out of hand that we reach for things we know we shouldn’t have, food and drink alike.
Solution: Find ways to unwind during the day or at the end of the day. Meditation, breathing exercises, or just going for a walk can bring down stress levels.
You can’t out train a bad diet, nor can you do extra exercise to make up for past sins. It just doesn’t work that way. Conversely, you also can’t expect results from eating too little, or at the very least not long lasting results. Additionally, nutrition doesn’t have to be perfect 100% of the time, because 1) that’s boring as hell, 2) you’ll just end up frustrated and 3) you’ll never enjoy life.
Whatever nutritional strategy you take, it should match up with what you need to get out of your training whether that’s fat loss, improved strength, or increasing muscle. When you do this, you also enhance your recovery, as the food you eat is able to help repair your muscles and give you energy throughout the day. Where we tend to go wrong is cutting too much out when looking to drop fat, or adding too much when looking to build muscle. It’s important to add or subtract just enough for either process to occur.
If you think of everything you eat on a scale of 1-10, 1 being garbage that takes you further from your goals and 10 being perfection or bringing you closer to your goals, then the more you can stay above 5 or 6, the more success you’ll have.
Solution: Keep it simple with lean proteins, vegetables, fruits, carbs (yes carbs are necessary) and healthy fats. And water.
These next two can be interchangeable depending on what your goal is, but prioritizing strength or resistance training will help you maintain or build muscle mass depending on what your goal is. Especially when in a fat loss phase, the go to is to do more exercise, usually cardio, and that’s great but what ends up happening is a loss of fat, water weight, and yea, muscle mass. We want to avoid that.
Why is it this far down the list? Well, if the top 3 aren’t flowing smoothly, then training is going to suffer. Either you’re going to stress your body more, which will just compound the problem, or the workouts wont be done to optimal potential.
Solution: Prioritize multi joint movements, using loads that are challenging. Rep ranges from 3 up to 15+, but no matter what, it should not be easy or comfortable. Think movements like squats, deadlifts, pushing (pushups), pulls (rows), and sprinkle in core exercises (pallof press, side plank,etc)
Cardio is usually the first thing we turn to when looking to get back in shape, meaning we tend to think that if we just run for endless amounts of time it will end up bringing us closer to our fat loss goal. Now when strength is a priority, this falls off the wayside, but it still has its purpose in the program.
Moderate intensity cardio, where you can barely hold a conversation, can be beneficial in improving aerobic function, health markers, and recovery between bouts of more intense training.
Adding in a higher intensity cardio session, like interval training, tabata’s, etc can give you a great anaerobic workout, which will help improve your threshold for intense exercise, and can spark some fat loss.
Solution: Sprinkle in longer durations (15-30 min) of moderate intensity cardio with more challenging intervals.
So that’s it. Your hierarchy to fitness success.
- Get some sleep
- Manage your stress
- Eat to perform
- Train smarter not harder
by Chris Cooper