Training or diet – which is more important?

When I started my fitness journey a lot of experts in the field and especially the bodybuilders like Jay Cutler said that the diet is 80% percent of the success. The first person with an opposing view was Layne Norton. Layne has a PhD of Nutritional Science, and I was shocked with his claim that the workouts are more important than the diet. When you ask the majority of people, they will tell you that the diet is more important and should take priority over workouts. To be honest, I was also in that group and when I watched the video, in which Mr. Norton expresses his opinion I automatically said to myself that this is nonsense. In that time, I didn’t believe. Over time, my opinion has changed dramatically. Eventually, I started to believe that maybe training is more important than the diet. I can’t follow Jay Cutler’s example and say what part of success is due to training or nutrition. Instead, in this article, I can express my opinion and defend it with examples.

Training vs fitness

First, I want to make it clear that there is a huge difference between following a structured training program and just going to the gym. Unfortunately, very large number of people fall into the second category. What often happens is that we leave room for “improvisation” in our workouts by swapping the order of exercises or spontaneously deciding to change the number of sets or reps. And how many of you actually record your progress (work weights, sets, reps) in a diary or excel table from each workout? Under such conditions we cannot be sure that we are applying progressive overload, which is fundamental to progress in the gym. There is no way to track if we are getting stronger with each workout. It is not possible to measure what training volume we are currently working with and therefore there is no way to judge whether we need training stimulus. You must be precise with your workouts to follow a well-balanced and structured workout plan with the help of a coach or by careful research. Anything else fits into the ” I just go to the gym occasionally” category. For the rest of this article, I will use the word workout as a synonym for a well-structured training regimen.

We follow the diet, but not the workouts

A lot of people watch their diet almost to a manic degree. We watch our personal weight, protein, carbs, calories, watch out for sweets, eat more fruits and vegetables, etc. We then use this information to make changes when things don’t go to plan. When we don’t lose weight, we reduce our calorie intake or do more cardio. We manipulate our energy expenditure to achieve the desired result. The reason is that this is easier to manage than the workouts. It’s also more enjoyable for most people. Information about food and diets is more accessible and more widespread. It is normal to pay more attention to something we do 4-5 times a day compared to something we do 4-5 times a week. But there’s something else too – nutrition gives faster results!

The most advanced athletes train for years to improve their own records by a few pounds. If you watch the Olympics, you know what I’m talking about. On the other hand, the scale moves pretty fast when we go from calorie surplus/balance to calorie deficit. Gaining strength in the beginning is relatively fast even with a crappy program. Afterwards it slows down more and more. With that said, usually the comparison between training and dieting is inappropriate, as our relationship to food is strictly individual! Similarly, people who put similar obsessiveness into their workouts but only eat junk can tell you how pointless it is to diet. Results come from the effort we put into something. When we put 80% of our effort into the kitchen, it’s perfectly normal for 80% of our results to be in the aftermath of our diet.

Muscle mass – diet vs workouts

Diet by itself could not give us a stimulus for growth. There is one possible scenario where it is possible to build muscle with just a change in diet, but it mainly depends on two things. The first condition is that our previous diet was inappropriate – not enough protein, too many processed foods, too high calorie intake and last but not least not consuming enough vegetables and fruits. The second condition is that we are absolute beginners, without any training experience and with a sedentary lifestyle. In general, we are talking about overweight people with a poor diet. In such conditions, a change in the quality of food (a good diet) and the availability of protein lead to fat loss and muscle mass gain. This has been demonstrated repeatedly in studies with overweight people. In all other cases, diet alone is insufficient. Of course, this is no reason to dismiss the importance of diet, I’m just illustrating a fact.

Diet is not a sufficient condition for building muscle mass!

Instead, there are numerous examples from both the scientific world and the stories of many people proving that we can gain a serious amount of muscle mass without following a certain diet! It’s very important to mention here that the people I’m referring to are probably consuming at least the minimum recommended amount of protein, which is a key factor. However, there are examples in which even with insufficient protein intake, muscle mass gains are again observed as a result of a prolonged training program.

Weight training is a necessary and sufficient condition for building muscle mass!

In fact, many people, myself included, come from that position! The first steps in the gym are not accompanied and motivated by a diet. The only goal is to get stronger and train hard. When we gain mass, that’s when we start looking for that third pair of abdominals (our six pack), the veins on our arms and shoulders and other details. This is where things take a different turn.

Body fat percentage – workouts vs diet

If we change the focus and look at the importance of training and a diet when we want to build not only a muscular but also an aesthetic lean body, things look very different. We also have examples where this is possible without a strict diet. Everyone has a friend who eats whatever they want and stays very lean. However, this is true for small percentage of people and most of us need a more controlled and accurate diet to lose the additional body fat. Is it possible to make this happen with exercise alone? Yes, if we have amazing genetics, a very good workout program or if we are using performance enhancing drugs. In all other cases, diet, through the rules of energy balance, will be the deciding factor in the amount of body fat and overall vision. Therefore we focus so seriously on the food we eat. But there are details and there are several factors that are of great importance and control the results, even when we aim for a visual effect.

Energy expenditure during diet

One of the deciding factors in the success of any diet is the amount of food we can afford to eat. Imagine two completely identical individuals compared based on muscle mass, body fat and height. The only difference is that one maintains their weight at 1500 calories and the other at 2500. It is clear which one will be more successful while dieting. The person who can afford to eat more food and feel satisfied will stick to the diet longer and get better results!

This should be the goal of every one of us while dieting – to keep our energy expenditure as high as possible. This is where the “secret” I mentioned earlier lies. The reason is that our energy expenditure is much more affected by training than by food! Muscle mass is active tissue that burns more calories at rest than fat. With a good training program, the loss of muscle mass is minimal even in a serious caloric deficit. In fact, it’s even possible to gain muscle mass during a deficit, but trust me, it won’t happen (just) by dieting. But there is another serious advantage of training over dieting – building and rebuilding muscle mass is an extremely intense process that requires tremendous amount of energy. Very often these facts get overlooked, but especially when we want to achieve a low subcutaneous fat percentage, it’s important to take advantage of anything that can make our diet easier. When it comes to weight training, if you follow a quality program, you’ll maintain a higher energy expenditure while dieting, which will also make the diet more successful!

What is more important?

In this article I looked at things from a bodybuilding and physique – type of sport perspective. However, I believe that more effort in the gym and more attention to your training program is beneficial for all people regardless of their goal. Still, I can’t isolate diet from training. I don’t believe in separations like “diet is 70%, training is 30%”. I am not capable of making a comparison between the two as they are extremely different. My goal with this article is to show that workouts are also worthy of consideration and can be of a great importance especially while dieting. This is true for people who are obsessed with their diet, but don’t pay attention to the volume of their work weights (and general fitness progress) from their last workout. I guarantee that if you put some of your effort into optimizing your workout regimen, the results will amaze you.

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