When it comes to training and nutrition, people have a tendency to get caught up in the minutiae, the little details that they are convinced are going to make a massive difference. When in fact, these are the little dot of icing on top of the cherry, on top the banana slice on top of the icing on top of the cake.
In short, most people are missing their cake.
For most of us, being consistent with 90% of the important stuff will give us the results we want. The last 10% is what gets you in stupidly good shape but usually isn’t maintainable in the long term.
Let’s look at the order of importance in training and eating when it comes to achieving the body you want:
Compound movements. The cornerstone of your training, these build strength and add muscle. Deadlifts, squats, pullups etc work multiple muscle groups, burn more calories and generally increase your awesomeness more than any other exercise.
Accessory exercises. These are the exercises that help improve your performance in the main exercises you do, Rdls, single leg variations such as lunges and step ups, dumbbell presses, pull downs etc are usually multi joint exercises to help improve stability and strength. Generally these are going to be performed with higher reps than the big lifts.
High intensity conditioning. Short, brutal, effective. While this type of cardio burns calories at a reasonable rate, predominantly using glucose as fuel, when it’s over, the oxygen debt created help the body burn fat for several hours after the exercise finishes through the wonder of EPOC (Exercise Post Oxygen Consumption, also known as afterburn).
Low intensity cardio. This is the long walk, half hour+ on the treadmill or bike, walking to work etc that burn calories while you do it but doesn’t create the afterburn effect. There is no oxygen debt to be paid off so calorie burn returns to baseline levels very quickly after exercise.
Isolation exercises. These are the cherries on the cake. Everyone likes a few sets of biceps curls now and again, triceps extensions, lat raises, leg extensions and the rest give you a pump and in some cases can help out with the bigger stuff if programmed in correctly (bicep curls to help with a pullup for example).
Unfortunately in training, especially for fat loss, (low level) cardio and crunches are still seen by many as the route to a beach ready body, but inevitably this doesn’t work.
Focus on getting stronger and I’ve yet to see many folks who can deadlift and squat 1.5x bodyweight and crank out a few good pullups who aren’t in really good shape.
Total calories. This is the foundation of of your weight change. At its most simple, calories in v calories out still counts as the major factor in fat loss or muscle gain. It is of course a little more complicated but if you dont get this right, the rest doesn’t matter.
Macros. The ratio of protein, fats and carbs that make up your diet is important too. For me, Protein is the most important of the 3, since it’s responsible for so many processes in the body and most people are barely getting enough in their diets to hit their minimum necessary intake. Fats and carbs make up the rest but this takes a little experimentation as some folks handle slightly more carbs better and some prefer a little more fat. Track, assess and adjust as needed.
Hydration. You are made up of a lot of water, you need to drink lots to maintain adequate levels. You probably don’t drink enough. Drink more water, tea, coffee.
Meal timing. As you get closer to low body fat levels, meal timings begin to count a little more but the difference this makes is less than people think. If you are on low carbs, book ending them around training makes sense, getting 20-30g of protein in every 3-4 hours has a good effect on protein synthesis, but beyond that most of us don’t need to worry about meal timings if the previous 3 points are being met.
Supplements. They are called supplements for a reason, they supplement your diet, making up for any short falls you have nutritionally. A good protein powder, a multivitamin and a good fish oil will help. If you are dairy free, then maybe a calcium supplement will help. 99% of the rest are a waste of time.
For most of us who are training to move better, get stronger and look better naked, points 1-3 on both lists are going to give you 80% of your results, if you have time for the rest and you are consistently getting the rest done, then go for it but don’t rely on these to get the changes you want!