June 28, 2012 posted by

The Problem With “Calories In, Calories Out”

One of my themes this year at Summit was “TMI” or too much information when it came to how to best educate coaches. Clichés can be helpful but, when the root is not understood, can also lead to stagnations or regressions in your fitness. One of the worst offenders is the saying “calories in, calories out”.

This is not an untrue statement. The problem is that no watch made records the information you need to know. People are constantly rattling off numbers to me that they’ve used to assess their training that are not only wrong, but crippling their ability to evaluate the program.

In the name of the free market, you can now purchase all sorts of training apparatus that provide TMI when it comes to evaluating your training program. There are many important physiological responses at work that aren’t recorded by your Polar. To ignore them in the name of numbers will lead to an exercise plateau or worse. A deeper explanation will help you understand why we create fitness programs the way that we do.

In order to keep this short and simple I’m going to gloss over some science in the name of clarity. “Calories in, calories out” is correct in that it’s how you calculate weight loss or gain. The issue is that your monitor can’t see most of the factors involved. It cannot assess hormonal and nervous system responses to training or nutritional factors that affect recovery and all three things are arguably the most important aspect of your training.

Nutritional factors are the easiest to understand. Proper foods and nutrient timing, as you’ve heard in any spiel about Recovery Formula or Shakeology, enhance the body’s recovery process. The faster you recover the harder you can train. As those of you who are P90X Certified know results are based on adaptation to stimulus, and the only place you might be able to gauge this on a watch is with morning resting heart rate.

just some of the stuff your watch doesn’t understand

Even more important are hormonal factors. If you’ve read the guidebook for Turbo Fire you’ll see something that we call the AfterBurn Effect, which is your body’s metabolic adaptations to high intensity training. As our training programs get more advanced one of the main factors we’re targeting is hormonal response. In a nutshell, as we age our body shuts down its hormone production (eventually leading to death). Intense exercise is one of the few things that force you to keep producing these. Intensity is relative, of course, which is why we progress from say, squats to squat jumps to X jumps as you move up the Beachbody food chain of programs. But what’s called a “hormonal cascade” in response to training is even more important than what your heart is doing during exercise, and it’s something else you can’t see on your monitor.

adaptive stress that leads to overtraining that only can be guessed at by close evaluation of morning resting heart rate

Hormonal cascades are triggered by your central nervous system, which is the hardest training factor to gauge (why most overtraining comes from breakdown at this level). When you dissect a program like P90X2 or Asylum, one of the main things we focus on is nervous system function. All of those “weird” things like Holmsen Screamer Lunges or Shoulder Tap Push-ups work on something we call proprioceptive awareness. And while it might seem hard to understand, since it doesn’t lead directly to more sweat, the neuromuscular action of these movements force deep adaptations by your body. These changes can take a long time to register but force a massive adaptive response that lead to long-term increased changes in movement patterns that trigger hormonal responses and, thus, metabolic change. Needless to say that stuff ain’t getting registered by a chest strap or pedometer.

Sure, the cumulative effect of all these can be calculated and the number at the end would equate to calories in, calories out. But since there’s no way to measure these numbers without doing a ton of fancy testing in a lab setting you can see why doing one of our diet and exercise programs and trusting us is a better option than scarfing an “Extra Value Meal” and then walking around the neighborhood until your heart rate monitor says you’ve burned 1,500 calories.


  • Interesting post and very imformative. I learned a lot, thank you!

  • David Justus Very good Steve. Somewhat explains my ongoing question to when I do "Long Training" say 80-mile ride or 18-mile run I'll gain weight for a few days then drop back down to normal.43 minutes ago via mobile · LikeSteve Edwards cortisol release leads to water retention.19 minutes ago · LikeMichael Jason Dimaya and a HUGE thank you sir! exactly why I read you and Denis since I found your blogs over a year ago. Also as I briefly mentioned at Summit right after your Core presentation why I found and love Chia seeds lol. Btw we have a P90X cert – lets have a Coach cert that includes all this science! I love it.6 minutes ago · LikeDan Vinton That, Sir, is fantastic stuff. As usual. Thank you!6 minutes ago · Like

  • and a HUGE thank you sir! exactly why I read you and Denis since I found your blogs over a year ago. Also as I briefly mentioned at Summit right after your Core presentation why I found and love Chia seeds lol. Btw we have a P90X cert – lets have a Coach cert that includes all this science! I love it.

  • Steve – Fantastic post. I love reading about the science. I have definitely noticed that x2 does not induce the same sweat as x1 but I place my trust in the program based on your efforts to inform us through this blog.Can you take it a step further and point to research studies on the topics so we can dig even deeper into the science?

  • It's mainly text book info. I've got books here from ACSM, ISSA, NASM that all talk about these processes. Good coaching books evaluate these things too, since they are essential to understand for athletic performance. There's a ton of nutrition info. Perhaps the lay book Nutrient Timing explains it most simply. Google can be your friend as you'll find all sort of levels of explanation of these processes, from the lay world at T-Nation and to medical journals and everything in between. For studies, the last-line of wading through muck, the Pub Med database contains most published studies on everything. You only get the abstracts unless you pay but when you find an interesting study you can usually track it down and, most likely, it will have lay articles evaluating it.

  • Thanks Steve. I'll do just that.Any thoughts on metrics for improved performance for those of us that aren't actively training for timed events (nor have access to P3 measurement tools)? I've been through Insanity & Phase 1 and 2 of X2 and my weekly basketball game and peeks at the mirror don't really tell me all I want to know. You mentioned morning HR above; I'll take a look at that. Once in a while I'll run a ladder of sprints (100, 200, 300) hoping that those times will improve.

  • PS, it goes without saying some other metrics are reps/weights for certain p90x2 workouts and level of exertion for Insanity (ie am I able to keep up 100% with the workout). I have to read up more on HR as a measuring stick. One line I can't wait to cross is getting a leg off my arm in the Crane position. Over the span of a few weeks I've gone from hitting the deck the split second my right leg lifts off to almost getting 1 full second of hang-time. I love the fact that X2 has exercises it will take months to master.

  • Blah blah blah. Good God. Eat. Work Out. Have Fun.

  • Blah, blah blah blah. Merycx didn't train like this. He just went out and rode his bike. This sounds like a bunch of gobbly goop that basically means "you don't need to know all of this and we can't explain it in a way you'll understance, but you should just 'trust' us and follow our nutrition plans."~Bubbaps: I do trust you, but this whole post seemed a little weird.pps: It's 10:36. But then you knew that.

  • Bubba,You mean like when he says, "In order to keep this short and simple I’m going to gloss over some science in the name of clarity."?Manny you running for some kind of Republican seat?Merckx didn't just go out and ride his bike. First he did some speed, then he went out and rode his bike.A lot. We all did.-Bjarne

  • You and your pack of loadie cyclists, you'll never amount to shit.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

* Copy This Password *

* Type Or Paste Password Here *