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Nutritional Big Rocks

by Justin Thacker MS, RD, LD, ACSM-HFS, CES, USAW, CSCS

Over the years as a dietitian and trainer I have been asked every question you could possibly imagine.  Questions ranging from the likes of everyone from high school athlete, to bikini body weight loss, to elite weightlifters.  From counseling sessions to countless emails sounding something a bit like this:

What kind of protein powder should I take?
What is the best pre-workout supplement?
Why does the water swirl to the right when I flush the toilet bowl?
What fat burner should I use?
Are bananas, carrots, and tomatoes BAD for you? Is it really cheating if it’s your dog?  I mean it’s YOUR dog!

Wow.  At one point I felt like such a broken record that I literally began saving emails that I felt I could just copy and paste to anyone that ever asked me a question.   They tend to get redundant after a while.  Over the last 20 years I have been no stranger to using supplements, eating 5,000 plus calories per day, and experimenting with nearly every workout routine, or ‘secret training/diet tip,’  imaginable.  And perhaps some not so imaginable.

After all I guess I did have something to share on these topics.  With enough practice, experimentation, and trial and error, your start to see some patterns of what works, and what doesn’t, and where you should focus your energies.  One way I always try to communicate my weight training philosophies is the ‘big rocks’ principle.  The ‘big rocks’ principle simply illustrates how to classify your exercises selections appropriately to effectively program your training arsenal to get to your goals as fast as possible with the least amount of energy possible.  Not to say we are trying to avoid hard work.  Just that we are trying to take the most direct route possible to our goal.  Not wasting time on flashy or fruitless exercises that may give you and arbitrary ‘pump’ for 15 minutes eluding you to think you actually just added that much size to your arms.  Or, some flashy exercise you just saw in Shape magazine that may look like a mean calorie burner that will blast those thighs, but is simply just distracting you from working hard enough on the real exercises you may have been avoiding.  Few people seldom see the forest for the trees and what is actually behind their success in the diet and exercise realm.  It’s the not so flashy or sexy stuff that we are talking about here.  Likewise, avoiding the stuff that is HARD to do, requires more work, effort, and may cause you to experience more discomfort or pain.

For example, many people floating around in the gym may think that leg extensions are a fantastic quadriceps exercise as it leaves a fun little burn in their legs after they do them in their quadriceps muscles. Although true, it is stimulating only a relatively small amount of muscle fibers in the legs and flushing them with a lactate and hydrogen burn.  Big fish, little pond.  However, on a squat exercise we are using the entire leg stimulating extensively more muscle fibers getting more progress and results with each rep (the differences would be an article all on it’s own).  No, you may not get that same fun burn with the squat.  Its’ not an isolation exercise, and the effects are more wide spread and systemic, and that’s a good thing.  You are training your quadriceps, hamstrings, core (abs AND back), and pretty much 80% or more of your body.  We get faster muscle growth and faster fat loss as a result.  But sorry, no flashy little quad burn.  So, in this example leg extensions are ‘little rocks’ and squats are ‘big rocks.’  The more big rocks in your training the better your results and the less time and energy you waste.

Let’s look at the big picture now.  Let’s say we have an empty glass jar.  The jar represents several things.  But for now let’s say it is the amount of time you have to work out (daily and weekly) and your ability to recover from training stress.  So now we need to fill it up as quickly and effectively as possible.  But then, let’s look at how densely we can fill it up.  Naturally, we will use as many big rocks as we can fit in there as possible to take up and fill the most space.   Then you will see we do have extra room in there to fit in some smaller rocks.  So, let’s pack it full and squeeze in all we can.  Next, we have room for pebbles.  Pack it up.  Sand, grit, dust, pack it all in.  Maybe then we can even pack that sucker with water.  That’s it, we have displaced as much air and room as possible, and we have filled it with everything we can.  Looking back you can see the biggest majority of that jar that took the least amount of time and covered the most ground was the ‘big rocks’.  The rest was a bit tedious, but it helped.  We could have started with the little stuff but then would have taken more time and had to put so many more little pieces in there to get the job done.   There are many ways to classify this, but while I still have your attention here it goes:

Lets say our goal is muscle gain with concurrent fat loss (cardio and diet will be excluded for this example)-

Big Rocks: Multi-joint/compound, bilateral, free weight movements-squats, deadlifts, military presses, pullups, barbell rows, bench press, dips, etc.  They require the most energy and training the biggest muscle groups collectively in biomechanical motions and sequences that make sense to how the body is put together.

Little Rocks: Other multi-joint/compound, bilateral, machine based exercises-pulldowns, back rows, leg presses, machine shoulder presses, machine chest presses, etc.  Although arguably similar biomechanical sequences the energy spent is less and less proprioceptive demand requires less muscle fiber stimulation.

Pebbles: Single joint (‘isolation’), bilateral/unilateral, machine and cable based exercises.  Cable curls, triceps pushdowns, cable shoulder flies, bicep curls, overhead triceps extensions, shoulder flies, leg extensions, leg curls, calf raises, etc.  You are exercising very small ‘parts’ of the body at once.  The arm is about 9% of your body.  Your bicep is about 33% of that 9%.  You better clear out your schedule if we are going to hit this whole darn thing!

Sand, grit, dust, water:  (although important) Corrective exercise, instability/stability training, direct abdominal training, combining several exercises at once that have no one overall objective stimulating nothing other than injuries (where do I start), and stretching.  Yes, many of these things are important but again, review our goals here and what gets us there the fastest.  You can be extremely flexible, but still overweight.

That gives things a functional hierarchy and perspective right?  We all have only so much time and energy to give right?  Unless, you do have 4 hours per day to train you still have something called training economy to consider.  And that deals with how much work you can do and still recover and gain benefit from it.  Or, the concept of diminishing returns.

But what about nutrition? I have often resist saying much to loud in public on matters of nutrition as it often becomes as scary as mixing a room full of republicans, democrats, middle eastern terrorists, Catholics, Southern Baptists, and Cubs fans all in to one room and trying to align church, state, decide who is going to heaven, hell, and who is going to get all the virgins.

Finally, after over a decade of beating my head against the wall time and time again, some unassuming client who was seeing me regarding weight loss wanted to talk about nutrition.  We began our talk and the first think out of her mouth was, “what about green tea pills?  I hear that is good for weight loss.”
Ok, this was my exact reaction:

I don’t know why it happened that day, because this was not the first time this has happened.  But, I opened my mouth and there it came.  “BIG ROCKS!”

What she exclaimed?!  As if I was sexually assaulting her with some sort of innuendo or like some sort of rap video, ‘yelln bout my rocks’.

I said, “excuse my knee jerk reaction but we need to talk about big rocks.”

Still perplexed, crossing her arms and leaning back in her chair with a slight glance over at the door.

“Relaaaax,” I said.  “Big rocks, you have big rocks in your head.

NO! I mean, we need to get the idea of big rocks in your head.”

“What!?”  She fired back

“Ohh no, excuse me.  Big rocks, ok look at food and diet like this-
Big rocks are: lean protein, vegetables, fruits, water, calories, portion sizes, etc.

Little rocks are: Diet sodas, protein bars, food supplements, or ‘low calorie/reduced foods.’

Sand, grit, dust, water:  Pills, powders, potions, green tea pills, etc.

The big rock items are what we need to focus on first.  They will yield the highest and quickest reward.  Then, once we have the in check we can get to the little rocks and pebbles.  And Rome wasn’t built in a day so I want you to get your big rocks in a row first.  Then we are going to pack this sucker full and perhaps even talk about green tea pills if you still want to fit them in.”

As I finally shut up and looked back at her, she was returning the same eye popping look back at me.

Snapping back at me loudly, “you mean, I have to change the way I eat!!!”

Oh dear. I did what any seasoned dietitian in my shoes would have done and said, “So, what are your thoughts on the U.S. policy in the middle east?”

She grabbed her bag and left.  She called 30 days later (a bout the time it took for her to finish her bottle of green tea pills) and said, “I think I am ready for some big rocks.”  Confused, I asked, are you looking for drugs mam?  Is this a set up?

“No,” she said, “I am finally ready to make a real change and build Rome one rock at a time and get these rocks out of my head.”