On Not Counting

I was trained as a researcher. I’ve further pursued training in data analysis & predictive analytics. I think machine learning has facilitated insights into nutrition and health that no human could have spotted. Using tools like the ARX has saved me so much effort helping people get results faster and safer than they had in the past. I use data every single day to keep clients motivated and on track.

I say all of that so as to show my bona fides, because what I’m about to say is the polar opposite: I don’t know if data is always useful. In fact, I think it can be tyrannizing.

I’ve been training for nearly 20 years. I responded fairly quickly early in my career before basically settling in to nearly peaking out with objective measures insofar as progress. The deep dive into the minutia is akin to the quantified self folks, only I didn’t call it that when I started. From sleep to nutrition to supplementation to affect, I believed the more data I had, and the more change I saw in that data, the better my results.

Unfortunately, this isn’t true. Mentally masturbating over some marginally measurable microcosm of metabolism is distracting at best, paralyzing at worst. Our ability to measure this stuff does not mean that the measurements are accurate, nor does it mean that changes locally reflect improvements systemically. That’s too reductionist.

This idea is counterintuitive on its face: how do you know if you’re getting better? How do you know if you’re healthier? How do you “scratch the itch” to look under the hood if you don’t count?

Flip that around and as more questions:

Do you need a Dexascan to tell you that you’re lean, or can you look in the mirror at how defined your stomach is?

Do you need to know exactly how many calories you ate at this meal, or can you feel satisfied from the amount of food you ate without feeling stuffed?

Do you need a GPS to tell you that you were running at the limit of your ability for a given distance, or are you out of breath and having deep conversations with your central governor to make it through?

Do you need to know how *exactly* much work you performed during your strength training session, or were you able to maintain the mind-muscle connection right up to the point of muscular failure?

You are aware your body doesn’t count, right? That’s just humans sticking something cold and digital on our squishy biological vehicle.

Instead, measures are a tool, but not the goal. At a macro level they have utility, but at some point they’re not sensitive enough to tell us if changes in their reading (with the error rate that everything has) actually is a function of changes in us.

Work hard, consistently. Don’t get hurt. Value recovery. You have to do this until you die, so take a focused, but relaxed, approach.

12 thoughts on “On Not Counting

  1. Skyler,
    I think you just made an excellent (indirect) case for autoregulated training.
    Are you familiar with the work of Menno Henselmans/Borge Fagerli? I think you may appreciate their approach.

    1. Wade,

      Familiar with their work (Borge for ~10 years now) but not what I’m talking about. Autoreg, by definition, requires counting to determine changes in weight. The “pre-test probability” that the initial test set can accurately determine performance for a workout that day is dubious.

      Put another way, olympic athletes have coaches taking all sorts of metrics, who have worked with them for months to years and THEY cannot accurately taper an athlete to reliably setting a PR on the stage in which they would most desire to do just that. Why would you do better in your own training, given other stressors in life that affect the quality of your workout?

      1. Hey Skyler, thanks for the quick response!

        Maybe I thought it was more applicable than it actually was… 🙂 With autoregulation you’re letting your body tell you when to stop a set (RPE-based) vs. prescribed reps, thus (less) arbitrary counting. How is this any different than going to failure (other than getting in more volume)? In both cases you’re trying to quantify “work” in order to know when to up the weight, no?

        Not sure that I understand this part: “The “pre-test probability” that the initial test set can accurately determine performance for a workout that day is dubious.” Are you talking about setting a rep target from a percentage of 1RM, or something else?

        Second paragraph = right on the money, but I think it only strengthens the case for autoregulating sets. Yes, there is no way to quantify all the things that can screw up your performance on a given day, but that’s the point! You let fatigue determine your ability.

        Love your work! Thanks again for your response.

  2. It’s interesting to reach the same conclusions independently. For years I’ve coached clients to maintain a “relaxed-focus.” If they get too uptight about the numbers (whatever numbers they may be), it can be as counter-productive as slacking so much they’re not improving either. The answer, as with most things in life, lies somewhere in the middle: a relaxed-focus.

  3. I really enjoy articles like this. I feel like you’re getting down to the core of strength training with this kind of stuff. I have been doing “non counting” workouts for awhile. I’m also a big fan of mini warmups or “feeler weight”. To sort of contradict this, I see the reasoning of microloading and things like trying to perform more metabolic work in less time. Trying to keep track of reps, TUT, the amount of weight using that amount reps, the amount of reps after adding ten more pounds, etc. For me, takes away from “getting at the muscles / getting at the body”. A strength training workout for me is also akin someone taking a sports car out for a fun drive, going to a martial arts class, etc. Granted I don’t use crazy form, maybe not strict enough to some, too strict for some others? I think the only way I’d be happy “counting” during a workout would be to video it and count everything then. To be clear, there were times in the past where I was rather OCD about record keeping.

    Regarding diet. I’ve never been overly concerned about getting cut/ripped. I have went through phases where I tried to force feed more food and protien shakes. More goal was and still is to get as big and strong as my body will get. I kind of view nutrition for me that if I every time I eat, that I’m consuming nutrious food, with a good portion of protien, what else could I do anyway? Of course this didnt happen alot and still doesn’t, lol.

    1. There is something for me about going into a workout: Not stressing about what I “have” to do. Being able to get in there and feel my muscle working harder than usual. Going for a certain feel, and I don’t know if it is what some would call the mind muscle connection or the synergistic feel of fighting against a decent amount of weight. I don’t dread workouts. I get a feeling of enhanced well being during, and post. Not intending to take away from all of the various processes that can be measured.

  4. For the most part, I agree. Too much focus on the quantified self can be a big distraction. However, I have to say that counting (and controlling) calories seems to be a reliable way to lose excess fat. Not to be harsh, but my appetite lies to me, all the time. Having some numbers around what I’m eating is a valuable tool.

    1. Craig,

      I think numbers can be valuable for short-term interventions or periodic checks (is your appetite in line with your actual caloric expenditure).

      However, as I’m keen to point out, the longest lived, healthiest cultures on Earth (who are leaner than us, on average) aren’t counting macros, calories, or anything like that. Certainly they’re “tracking” cultural habits, but it’s not OCD like orthorexic America tends toward.

      And I don’t think you were being harsh. 😉

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