Nutrition or training — which is more important?

Tom Venuto’s Burn the Fat Blog today has some fine advice in answer to the question “Nutrition or training – which is more important?” Venuto writes:

The first thing I would say is that you cannot separate nutrition and training. the two work together and regardless of your goals — bodybuilding, fat loss, athletic conditioning, whatever — you will get sub-optimal or even poor results without attention paid to both.

In fact, I like to look at this in three parts — weight training, cardio training and nutrition — with each part like a leg of a three legged stool. pull ANY one of the legs off the stool, and guess what happens? (emphasis added)

Venuto doesn’t directly answer that question, but I lived it one version of it in the past couple of months: Because I had pulled the “weight training leg” of the stool off (except for the incidental resistance training inherent in pushing bike pedals or walking up a hill), I ended up on a weight loss plateau. This was despite increasing my overall exercise dramatically as a result of my participation in my workplace’s Start Walking program, but that was mostly on the cardio level.

Again, the difference between weight loss & fat loss: I think I did continue to lose some fat, & gain some muscle (thanks to the incidental resistance training), but not I think at the levels that having a structured weight training component would have had me at. Just doing the level of weights I’m at now began to make a difference within a day or two of starting back up with it.

But back to Venuto’s blog: Venuto believes that while overall all three components are necessary parts of a good program for fat loss or general fitness or bodybuilding, different components can be more important at different times.

For example, someone who has very poor nutrition can stand to benefit almost immediately from improving their diet. In my case, my switchover in late December from refined & other high glycemic carbohydrates to low glycemic carbohydrates had the immediate effect of making my acid reflux go away. I also lost ten pounds in just a few weeks, even while continuing to tinker with my diet by starting to eat five small meals a day & learning to match my carbs with protein, healthy fats, & nonstarchy vegetables.

Meanwhile, I had a fairly basic exercise program going — for cardio, mostly dancing for a minimum of 30 minutes on most days to a playlist on my iPod; for weights, a basic routine that didn’t change much over time, except for an increase in weight. Venuto writes,

The muscular and nervous systems of a beginner are unaccustomed to exercise. Therefore, just about any training program can cause muscle growth and strength development to occur because it’s all a “shock” to the untrained body.

And so it was for me. Until things began to slow down a bit.

My diet has been pretty consistent since about mid-February. The big changes since then were: falling away from the weight training in mid-March, greatly increasing my walking & biking in early May, & then picking up the weights again early last week.

Once you’ve got the nutritional basics in place, Venuto says, then additional twiddling with your diet might still help but won’t have as great an impact as the original major improvements. But tweaking your exercise program probably will. Now, I thought I was doing that by joining in with the Start Walking program, & there’s no doubt that I’ve had improvements in my general & my cardio fitness from that participation, but it was only with resuming weight training that I began to experience weight loss — what I believe to be increased fat loss — again.

[Y]ou can continue to pump up the intensity of your training and improve the efficiency of your workouts almost without limit. In fact, the more advanced you become, the more crucial training progression and variation becomes because the well-trained body adapts so quickly.

Now, I wouldn’t say that my body is “the well-trained body” quite yet. But point well taken: my diet’s in place, my cardio’s in place — now time to pay attention not just to the weights themselves, but to progression & variation. Remember that in mid-March, before I stopped the weights, I had already landed on the weight loss (possibly fat loss) plateau, & I believe that happened because I hadn’t been varying my workouts. A little progression, yes, but no variation.

Strength coach Ian King says that unless you’re a beginner, you’ll adapt to any training routine within 3-4 weeks. Coach Charles Poliquin says that you’ll adapt within 5-6 workouts.

I’m paying a great deal of attention to this now.

So, to answer your question, while nutrition is ALWAYS critically important, it’s more important to emphasize for the beginner (or the person whose diet is a “mess”), while training is more important for the advanced person (in my opinion).

An opinion which matches my experience thus far.

Once you’ve mastered nutrition and the proper diet is in place, it’s all about keeping that nutrition consistent and progressively increasing the efficiency and intensity of your workouts, and mastering the art of planned workout variation, which is also known as “periodization.”

That’s my focus now.

Venuto’s entire blog entry is well worth a read. And of course so is his online ebook, Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle, which has been critical to my plan for making myself fit & healthy since I came across it at the tail end of January. (See my review of it on 2 Feb 2006.)

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