The Missing Variable In Your Fitness Equation

The Fitness Equation:

Training + Nutrition + Recovery = Results ?

Makes sense, right? 

Mostly, but it’s incomplete.

Read on to find the missing link in your plan.

A Smart Client’s Fitness Equation

The first time I worked with Steve was when he joined my strength and conditioning program.

He said “My diet is on point and I am really consistent in my workouts. I foam roll and get a massage regularly. I’m sure that all I need now is to get stronger! ”

It was true. There was no one more consistent.

He tracked all of his workouts and lifts, ate really ‘healthy’ meals and tracked his sleep. Ten minutes before class he showed up to roll out and stayed after to stretch and recover.

He was a very smart guy and a high performer in his career. His drive to perform in life at a high level was clear.

He wasn’t looking for just ok results in the gym, he wanted to find his peak physical state.

Fast forward, 1 year and Steve was still reasonably fit and reasonably lean, but he was putting in what he felt like was more than a reasonable effort.

He wasn’t gaining muscle, and he wasn’t getting leaner. In fact he had seen a slight increase in his body fat.

His frustration that he wasn’t seeing progress led him to the conclusion that he just needed to do more.

Do more to see the results he wanted since he was sure he was doing everything right. He must not be working hard enough.

Sound familiar? 

The ‘Aha!’ Moment

Over the past 10 years, I’ve seen this pattern play out many times.  At first, like any coach, I looked at the fitness equation. Was he managing all the variables? And was he consistent?

We spent a few weeks tweaking his macros. Tweaking his programming. Looking at his recovery making sure he was managing stress and sleep.

Tracking all the data to see where we could make adjustments to get him stronger and leaner. It still wasn’t changing and he was getting fed up.

One day after a particularly difficult strength training class, Steve got out his dinner as we were chatting and cooling down.

He opened his Tupperware and inside was the fitness industry standards- sad dry bits of chicken breast, broccoli and brown rice. 

Aha Moment
The ‘Aha” Moment: there’s another nutrition variable

So I asked him something no one else had asked him before, “How do you feel after you eat this meal?”

 He looked at me, a bit puzzled and said, “ Full. I guess? How should I feel?”

This was my big ‘Aha!’ moment with Steve. From there we changed one thing that broke his plateau.

Tracking Nutrition Data

As coaches, we’re like Vanilla Ice “If you’ve got a problem, yo I’ll solve it’.

We love to break out our measuring equipment and get to work providing a set of exercises or a new macro split that will solve it all.

We have come to a place in fitness where many of us approach change and progress with cold, calculating, almost robotic methods that manipulate numbers only.

Pouring over numbers and controlling every aspect makes us feel like we are doing something.

Something that will guarantee our results. Up to a point this is true and worthwhile.

Not losing weight? –> Change your macros

Not getting stronger/faster? –> Change your training volume/exercise selection

Not sleeping well? –> Take melatonin and implement a sleep ritual

It feels good to give a client something tangible and immediately implementable to address their concerns. 

Simple right? A+B= Results!

A=write a program

B= Client follows program and voila!


Unfortunately, this neglects the fact that we are not simple, programmable machines.

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Fitness and Human Behaviour

We have more complex decision-making machinery than we are addressing in our coaching practices today.

So why did I ask Steve how he felt after eating and how did that help us break his plateau?

Because the secret sauce to long term results are emotional. It’s about satisfaction

Emotion is tricky because it can feel like an unreliable and constantly moving target, but that’s not an excuse to ignore it. 

Our subconscious is the driving force behind our behavior.

Behaviour is a result of what we feel, as our feelings are our first line of information processing.

First, something happens, then you feel something, then you respond.

Event + Feeling/emotional response = Reactive behaviour

It mostly serves us well by letting us know when there is danger, who we can trust or not trust and tells us about what we truly value.

This is where the expression “follow your gut” comes from because it can be difficult to articulate why you are having a particular emotional response in time to make a rational decision.

Luckily, we’ve been observing and processing life situations since we were born. Subconsciously, we have established a framework for how to live our lives that makes our ‘gut feelings’ useful. Happiness, sadness, anger, pride, excitement all send clear messages about what to do/not do to continue being a successful organism.

We chase ‘happiness’ in particular because it is our subconscious’ way of rewarding what it thinks is ‘productive’ behavior.

Find yummy food —> happy feeling. Get chased by bear —> not so happy feeling.

Unhappiness, Fear, Anxiety are signs that something in our environment needs to change.

The Elephant in The Room

The Elephant in Nutrition

Think of your subconscious as a big quiet elephant. We have instincts and feelings that are programmed to help us make decision that will guide us towards success.

Basic decisions we make all day, everyday promote the pillars of life which equate to success in survival terms; find food, find shelter, find a mate and reproduce.

Job done. Congratulations you are a successful organism.

But as humans, we also have this rational brain that gets involved too. It’s the part separating us from the rest of life on this planet which functions solely on instincts (or feelings).

Think of the rational part of your brain as the dude riding the elephant.

It’s the part of our brains that like finding logical solutions to problems. It likes using data to measure things. It likes to ensure that we feel in control of our situation at all times. It makes our elephant feel safe and stable.

After all, control = success. Right?

The Rider On The Elephant
Your rational brain is the rider using logic to direct that elephant of emotion

So here we have this super-rational little dude trying to steer and control this giant instinctual elephant.

For the most part, if we are generally heading in a direction the elephant thinks will keep it happy and alive, the rider remains in control.

If the elephant feels threatened or in danger, it becomes a lot trickier to control.

What Do You Really Want?

When our deeper values and principles match with our environment there is harmony and equilibrium. We can maintain this for the long term.

The rider tells the elephant where they are going and the elephant agrees because it feels safe.

When the rider tries to force the elephant down a particular path, it can become a struggle between instinct and rationale.

For example, you value your family life and you also want to have a rewarding amazing career. You want a career that provides value to society, all while having the physique and stamina of Thor.

Sometimes those values and priorities conflict forcing you to make choices. Choices that your elephant fears will make you less happy, or possibly less healthy.

If you spend all your time at the gym, your family and work may suffer. If you only go to work and spend time with your family, you may find yourself less healthy than you’d like. Equally, if you constantly miss work to spend time with family and work out you may find yourself out of a job.

The weight we give each of these priorities, and how we choose to balance our responsibilities, is different for each of us and is part of what makes us unique individuals. 

But what happens when the rider consistently makes decisions the elephant isn’t on board with? 

In Steve’s case, rigidly restricting food choices all day every day over a long period.

For a while, the elephant may go along, but push it too hard or ignore it and may just take you for the ride of your life!

Managing The Elephant in The Fitness Equation

So now maybe you are starting to see how this relates back to Steve and breaking his plateau.

 For a long time, Steve had been ignoring his elephant.  

Even though he thought he was paying attention to his needs, his elephant was hungry. It was tired and unsatisfied with the path he was walking. 

His subconscious set of values prioritized social time with family and friends. However, his rational brain said these are things that are contrary to his fitness goals and so they must go.

He was isolating himself from colleagues and family during the week in order to eat ‘compliant’ meals. On the weekends he was ‘binging’ on not just food but social activities as well.

He really loved good food. Yet, his rational brain was saying only bland portion-controlled food will give you results. To get where he wanted he had to control his calorie intake precisely and he couldn’t do that if he was around other people or if he enjoyed what he was eating. Because as we all know flavor = calories.

This is where our rational brain can let us down. We can create ridgid scenarios that are perfectly controlled and effective but don’t reflect reality very well.

Food variety is interesting to us because it is beneficial. Eating a narrow selection of foods can lead to longer-term nutrient deficiencies due to the limited range of foods we take in on a restrictive diet.

Color and flavor are indicative of the wide variety of nutrients our bodies need to sustain optimal health. We are wired to crave variety. It keeps us healthy and interested.

Boredom or monotony in training or nutrition will lead to non-compliance because it doesn’t feed our broader needs.

For Steve, this rigid strategy meant his rider and elephant were pulling in opposite directions. 

The Missing X-Factor In Your Fitness Equation

Our rational brain likes black and white thinking. It simplifies a complex world and creates opportunity for action. Chicken good, chocolate bad is very clear and actionable.

It’s thinking, “I can’t ever go out to eat if I want to have a six-pack! When I have a beer on Saturday with my friends, the whole weekend is blown, so I might as well say screw it and let loose!”

Monday rolls around with a dose of feeling like a failure and so the rider yanks back on the reigns and tells the elephant “Enough is enough! Get back on the path! You just need more self-discipline!”

The Missing Variable

The more we repeat this pattern, the less satisfying it becomes. Then we become less compliant, finding ways to ‘cheat’ or ‘have a break’.

When we first started that new diet or training program, we could maintain it. It provided a clear path to success by simplifying the complex foodscape we live in. When it’s exciting and new, it is sustainable, but over time we find it repetitive and less exciting.

Excitement and motivation are finite but allow us to give 100% to any aspect of our training while they last. As soon as the newness is gone so are the results.  In fitness we see this every January, and we watch as excitement wanes and consistency goes with it.

Whether this is in your nutrition, training or recovery. Variety is the key to satisfaction and sustaining your results.

Nutrition Tracking With A New Variable

So when I asked Steve how he felt about the meal that he was about to eat he was stumped.

His rider was the only one answering and he wasn’t talking to his elephant.  “This is what I am supposed to eat to get super lean. It’s not what I want to eat. I can’t eat what I want or I will not be able to achieve my goals.” The rider thought that how his elephant felt was irrelevant and counterproductive. 

In his mind, letting the elephant have control meant he would find himself in a pile of peanuts a mile deep because his elephant was an out of control animal that needed more discipline!

Rider and elephant didn’t trust each other anymore.

So the first step was the hardest. It went against everything he thought would get him where he wanted to go. 

We still needed to track things and assess progress, but not in the way he was used to.

I asked him to track how he felt after each meal…. With a very unscientific emoji system.

Regardless of whether they were ‘compliant’ meals or not.

😀 For a meal you enjoyed 

😐 For a meal that was meh

😕 For a meal that was totally unsatisfying

What he found was his big Aha! moment!

He learned that all through the week for almost every meal he had a 😕 or a 😐

On Friday night when he let loose, he had a 😀

then Saturday morning a 🙁 because he felt guilty for being so weak willed

followed by a big 😀 on Saturday evening when he went out 

And another even bigger 😠 by sunday evening when he was getting fired up to ‘get back under control’ for the week.

The pattern showed without a doubt that he had a death grip on his eating throughout the week. (success = control) When he finally let loose, he went nuts and unit he was really satisfied. (out of control = failure)

The consequences of this all or nothing approach showed up in his lack of progress.

Here’s What Your Diet Might Not Be Telling You About What It Takes To Get Lean.

A New Nutrition Variable: Satisfaction

We talked about what might happen if he didn’t feel 😕 about his meals during the week and how it might affect his weekends. We also talked about the nutrient/calorie deficit he was generating throughout the week that might have been generating some of the need to ‘cheat’ Friday-Sunday.

It took a lot of courage for him to trust that adding in some satisfaction to his daily routine would work.

He was scared that he would utterly lose control in the face of the ‘freedom’.

We took what he was already eating so he felt safe and still under control and added the most important ingredients- Flavor and Satisfaction

No more eating alone at his desk while everyone else was going out to eat together.

We also added a few calories per day in the form of more food volume and variety, using spices and herbs to pump up his satisfaction throughout the week. This helped ensure he was getting enough nutrients to fuel his workouts and grow some muscle.

What he found changed his approach forever. He immediately found weekend outings less out of control, even though initially he went to the same places with the same people. He ate and drank less because he didn’t feel like ‘it was now or never’.

He noticed that not feeling lonely while eating increased his satisfaction at meals. So much that he even stopped eating before he finished his portions. Paying attention to his feelings of fullness and satisfaction was helping him control his calorie intake,

A Fitness Equation For Sustainable Results

You see, if you want to do something really well you, have to do it A LOT for a long time.

That’s no secret.

But what we forgot to consider is that if we don’t enjoy it, we won’t do it as often and therefore, we don’t get super good at it.

Satisfaction = longevity of results

Therefore, a fitness equation that only includes rational brain data collection like this;

Training+ Nutrition+ Recovery= Results misses the elephant in the room. Pun intended..

Without satisfaction, nothing you achieve will last. Amazing results are only attained through consistent effort and consistent effort is unlikely if you are forcing yourself into doing something.

So the real fitness and health equation includes an x-factor. The satisfaction elephant. SO….. The real fitness (or Achievement) equation is:

Training+ Nutrition+ Recovery+ Satisfaction = Sustained Effort = Mastery Level Results 

How satisfied are you with your training and nutrition?

Could you still be following the same plan when you are 80?

If not, maybe it’s time to take a look at your strategy and make some adjustments.