The acronym “Keep it simple stupid” or “KISS”, has been used for decades by the military, business schools, medical schools, and in countless other areas where unneeded complexity should be avoided at all costs. In the military, adding complexity where it’s unnecessary to complete a mission will get people killed. Adding complexity to a business venture where it is not required will often get you fired or see your company go down in flames. Adding complexity, or looking for complex answers to simple problems, in medical settings can cause a loss of life or unneeded suffering. I am sure my readers have also experienced situations in which complexity added to situations that didn’t require it, led to disastrous results.
One area where most people fail to follow the KISS system is in their approach to fitness, nutrition, or supplements. In fact I find people seem to gravitate toward adding complexity to their approach when it comes to building muscle or losing fat. Not coincidentally, it’s the people who take the most complex approaches to their nutrition, supplements, and training who are always the most confused and least successful. They focus on – and subsequently worry about – minutiae that prevent them from seeing the big picture and making the type of progress they desire. It often leads to what is referred to “paralysis by analysis.” The vast majority of people would have better results, not to mention less stress, if they simplified their approach to losing fat or gaining muscle. It’s not rocket science, brain surgery, or even rocket surgery!
Yes, there are times when complex approaches need to be used to get advanced athletes, such as pre-contest bodybuilders and Olympic track athletes, prepared for an event. These people make up, at most, 1% of the population. The rest of the world needs to worry less and act more.
Why is complexity a bad thing? The issue is variables.
Adding too many variables makes things more difficult, especially when trying to figure out why something is working or why it’s not. Variables are an essential part of science. We don’t need to go into great depth on this topic, so don’t worry. I do, however, want people to appreciate how variables affect the outcome of their successes or failures in bodybuilding or fitness related endeavors.
So what is a variable? According to one of my textbooks:
“Scientists use an experiment to search for cause and effect relationships in nature. In other words, they design an experiment so that changes to one item cause something else to vary in a predictable way. These changing quantities are called variables…”
There are different types of variables (e.g., confounding, independent, dependent, controlled, etc.) but we are not going to worry about that right now. So how does this all apply to the KISS approach? The more complicated you make your approach to your goals of gaining muscle or losing fat, the more variables you have to control for. That is, for every new bit of complexity you add, you have to be able to account for it in terms of the results, or lack thereof, you experience.
Confused? Here’s a simple example:
Last week you changed your diet, added in three new supplements, and changed your routine, then three weeks later you notice you have made no improvements (i.e. you didn’t lose any fat, or you didn’t gain any muscle, or whatever). Why? It’s impossible to know! You added too many variables into the equation and now you’re unsure what went wrong – which means you won’t be able to make appropriate changes to correct it. Conversely, let’s say you did lose fat or gain muscle with the changes. Great, but do you know which of the changes you made resulted the positive outcome you experienced so you can reproduce it? No, no you don’t.
So, Lesson #1 is: never change more then one or two variables at a time so you can track what worked – and what did not work – from the changes you made. Most people find writing it down in a note book or online journal is the best way to keep track of their progress. When you write it down, you can see the effects that changes in your diet, training, or supplementation have on your body composition, strength, etc.
KISS and those ugly variables
On my forums, it’s not uncommon for someone to post a question like “I added supplement X, Y, and Z to my supplement intake, added an extra day per week in the gym, and reduced my calories by X. Why am I not seeing progress?” My response is “…too many unknown variables to answer that question” which translates into “how the hell should I know?”
Why do people make so many changes at once? I suspect it’s due to the “I want it now” syndrome. Making permanent changes to your performance, physique, and health, takes patience, planning, and a willingness to take things one step at a time and assess what is working and what’s not working in the overall plan.
Clearly, the KISS approach fails to be effective as more variables are added to a program. It also fails to be KISS. How can you keep it simple if it ain’t simple to begin with?! The more complicated the program, the more variables there are to keep track of – which makes success far less likely. This basic idea was appreciated and understood by history’s greatest minds. For example:
“Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
- Albert Einstein
What was the father of Relativity saying? Be it math, science, nutrition, or life, Keep It Simple Stupid wherever possible, but don’t simplify it to the point where it’s no longer effective or true. In my own writings, be it articles or books/e-books, I make every attempt to keep the information and message as simple as possible. However, I often see popular books and diets that are in fact too simple. They don’t want to confuse people, so they simplify things to the point that their advice is no longer correct and has little value to the reader – thus, Einstein’s warning. Oversimplified statements like “carbs are bad” or “fat is bad” or “do weight lifting for big muscles and aerobics to burn fat” are among the gems we all see. Problem is, those statements are dead wrong! A line between simple and too simple must be drawn.
OK, back to the KISS approach…
It’s not possible for me to go through every example of how to take a KISS approach to your training, nutrition, or supplement intake, but I will attempt a general discussion of each.
KISS and training:
One of the most common mistakes I see in this area is what I like to call the “I have tried everything and nothing works” syndrome. My response is always “have you tried sticking to one program long enough for it to actually have any effect?” The answer is usually a guilty sheepish facial expression. Let me be honest with you: even an average uncomplicated program you are consistent with is far more effective then any high-tech, super-advanced program you fail to be consistent with. One simple program you follow consistently for a year is always better then the five high tech programs you tried in 6 months where none of them were followed long enough to have a positive outcome. Simple programs such as: weight training Monday, Wed, Fri, and aerobics, Tue, Thurs, and Sat, with Sunday off, whilst varying your exercises tend to work well for the majority of people.
Are there better programs out there? Of course, but the vast majority of people follow routines that are overly complicated, take too bloody long, and are simply unneeded.
I also see a dependence on less productive movements in the gym over more productive choices. I see people doing reverse Romanian lunges while the squat rack gathers dust in the corner. Was that you I saw the other day?
KISS and supplements
You don’t need them. Bet you never thought you would read that coming from me did you?! Let me qualify that statement: does a person need any supplements to achieve the basic goal of either adding muscle or losing fat? No, no they don’t. Can supplements help the process? Can supplements potentially speed up the process? Can supplements potentially offset some of the negatives? Can supplements help optimize the effects of exercise and diet? The answer is yes in all cases. The problem, however, is that I see far too many people under the impression that the next wiz bang “cutting edge” supplement is going to make some huge difference to their appearance while their diet and workout are put on the back burner or set low on the priority list. They are constantly looking for that one supplement that’s going to make all the difference while they ignore their nutrition and training! I see it all the time and frankly, it’s frustrating.
Remember, KISS. Focus on your training and your nutrition – then worry about supplements. Start off with the basics, like a good multi vitamin, a source of essentially fatty acids (EFA’s) and a good protein powder post workout, then add additional supplements over time depending on your goals, such as creatine when trying to add muscle, or ephedrine and caffeine when focusing on fat loss, and so on. The shotgun approach many people take rarely works, wastes money, and adds complexity (remember our conversation on variables above) where it serves no useful purpose.
I love supplements. I take a dozen or more supplements every day of my life. I have designed them for supplement companies, spoken about them at various conferences, been involved in the published research of supplements, and built my career on them, so I am not some anti-supplement zealot by any means. However, I do speak with people all the time who outline a long list of supplements they are taking (many of which have been shown to be totally worthless) while their diets stink and their training programs are a joke. Don’t be one of these people! Don’t think for a second there is any one supplement out there that will make or break your success. Realize that supplements are exactly that; supplemental to a good diet and intelligent exercise program.
KISS and nutrition
Finally, we make it to nutrition. Nutrition is a potentially complex topic, and just as importantly, it’s a highly emotional topic for many. No place do I find such clear examples of people adding complexity where it’s not required. Again, there is a small segment of people that will benefit from – and require – advanced nutritional approaches, such as pre-contest bodybuilders, pre-race marathon runners, or even the average person seeking to get to very low bodyfat levels. Does the average person who needs to get into better shape and lose perhaps 20 – 30 lbs. (or more) need to follow advanced nutrition concepts? Of course not! Can the average person benefit from techniques more advanced dieters (e.g., bodybuilders, fitness competitors, etc.) might employ, such as cyclic ketogenic diets, refeed days, carb cycling, and other approaches? Of course! Do they require such strategies to drop some fat and get into shape? No, no they don’t. That’s why I tend to offer well thought out, healthy, and easy to follow approaches to nutrition in my e-books and offer more advanced approaches to people who want to take it to another level.
Simplicity + consistency = success
The above is what I consider the basics of the KISS approach to nutrition, supplements, and training. You will have to fill in some of the blanks as it applies to you specifically. If you are making steady predictable progress, great, stick to it. If however you are not making progress in your goals to add muscle and or lose fat, or some other goal, then you may need to sit down and seriously rethink your approach to the problem. Is there added complexity where you know it’s not needed? Are you relying too heavily on supplements to achieve your goals? Do you find yourself doing exercises that are less effective then the good old fashioned basics, like squats, deadlifts, and bench press? I can’t answer those questions for you, but hopefully I’ve made you think – which is half of the battle. You know what they say, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him think!