I’ve talked about the use of Control-Feedback (CF) theory a few times before, but what I truly haven’t discussed yet before is a relatively clear outline describing how to approximately go about actually using it. I’ve been running CF based experiments on myself for quite some years now, sometimes with great results, sometimes with poor or even bad results. There are two things that are essential that I’ve learned the hard way and that I need to share so others don’t fall into the same traps:
- The external CF loop needs to have a significantly slower feedback than your internal feedback loops, at least for the big change inducing input vars.
- Multi variable feedback only after switching single var rounds is found to result in input-var oscillation.
So basically we focus (first) on using single var feedback loops to find decent levels for the big impact input vars. But where to start.
Step 1: establishing a baseline (3 months)
In our first step, we make a couple of relatively big ‘timing’ changes to our diet and lifestyle, but without actually changing much about the things we actually eat over the span of a day and without actually changing much about our workout routine. We do this in order to help us separate a number of variables that can greatly influence each-other when they are close together in time. We also do this because this reordering in time seems to actually have positive effects for many people all by itself. So lets look at what we change to get at our baseline:
- Determine your current macro split (meals + snacks +drinks)
- Move “all” your macros to two or three bigger meals a day, no more snacking or drinks with in any way significant number of calories in between.
- An extra (small) high-protein post-workout meal is both OK and suggested.
- Divide your day in a low carbohydrate and a low fat half, that could be.
- Low fat breakfast & lunch; low carb diner.
- Low fat breakfast; low carb lunch & dinner.
- Low fat breakfast; no lunch; low carb diner.
- No breakfast; Low fat lunch; low carb diner.
- Low fat breakfast;Low carb lunch; no dinner .
- Low carb breakfast & lunch; low fat diner.
- Low carb breakfast; low fat lunch & dinner.
- Low carb breakfast; no lunch; low fat diner.
- No breakfast; Low carb lunch; low fat diner.
Low carb breakfast;Low fat lunch; no dinner.
- On workout days, make sure your workout falls in the low fat part of the day.
Now that is our diet baseline. You eat exactly as much of every macro as you are used to eating, the only real change we really made was making sure there is a couple of hours between fatty meals and high carb meals. Now for the workout baseline. Bodily strength is a major and relatively quick responding variable that gives you information about things going well or going horribly wrong. A high relative strength indicates a high lean body mass and quickly decreasing bodily strength indicates major issues with your diet and workout program. We need a way to measure your strength and we choose to do so in a way that actually helps improve your strength and overall health. So for our workout baseline we make the following changes:
- Replace (part of) your workout with strength geared resistance training.
- Incorporate the “big three” into your resistance training regime:
- Bench press
- Dead lifts
- If your current workout routine is less than 5 hours of workout per week: increase is and increase your caloric intake accordingly.
- If your current protein intake is less than one gram per kg of lean body mass, swap some carb and fat calories for protein calories in such a way that your carb/fat macro split remains the same.
That’s it. You eat basically the same but time it differently. Only if you were truly protein deficient to begin with do you change your macro split. You work out the same number of hours per week but shift (part of) your workout from aerobic and or fitness oriented workout to a more anaerobic and strength oriented workout. Only if you were really inactive do you increase your workout hours. Meanwhile you measure. You simply keep track of a number of important variables related to body composition and strength, but keep this baseline stable for about 12 to 13 weeks. It may sound strange, especially when you are used to counting calories, but this baseline will lead to body compositional changes all by itself. You probably won’t lose weight or anything, but chances are you will improve your lean body mass and visceral fat measurements already without actually working out more or eating less. This is also the reason we need to keep this small change up for a couple of months and measure it. If we were to change many things at once we would not be able to differentiate what variable was responsible for what change. It might even be possible that different changes counteract each other in such a way that a negative change might get interpreted as positive. One variable at a time at least until we have established the impact and optimal ranges for the big impact variables. But now for our measurements. Our primary tool for measurements will be a Bio-Electrical Impedance scale. Most gyms and the more informed dietitians and general practitioners will have a BIA scale. If your gym, GP or dietitian doesn’t have one, try to switch gym/GP/dietitian if you can. A professional grade BIA-scale is an indispensable tool for a reliable CF setup. If you happen to be a dietitian of GP, get yourself one of these scales, your patients are worth it. And no, I don’t have any shares in companies who make these things for those who might be wondering. So what do we measure?:
- Your body strength: (Squat / Bench / Dead-Lift)
- Your total body weight.
- Your lean body mass.
- Your protein mass.
- Your total body fat percentage
- Your visceral fat percentage.
- Your waist circumvent.
Measure these things every workout day if you can, or every dietitian/GP visit if you must, but measure them as often as you can and keep them in a spreadsheet for later usage. As this blog post is just about an outline, I won’t go into how to use these measurements in composite variables best suitable for CF usage, I’ll come back to that in later posts. Chances are you will see improvements to these measurements in this 3 month run-in phase, and rate of chance will have now been reduced to a relatively low level. So now it is time for our first real change in terms of macro usage.
First round: protein (2..4 months)
We have established our baseline and we know how our measurements have been changing up until now. Time to make changes and apply CF theory. So what do we go for in our first round? Protein! Protein within our macro split that is. We take care to keep our fat/carbohydrate split the same as it was before. We take care to keep our total calories the same as it was before. All we do is make changes to the protein vs carbs+fat part of the macro split. Chances are your protein intake has been relatively low so far and swapping non protein calories for protein calories could have a relatively high and positive impact on your stats. I’ll get to the technical details in future posts, for now just consider finding a good protein starting point to be our first goal.
Second round: allowing snacks (1/2) ? (2x 6 weeks)
By now you’ve gone something of half a year without snacks. As many people will see no snacking as highly restrictive and unmaintainable long term. We start with the one least likely to be problematic, snacks within a same-macro window. Half our day is low fat, the other half is low carb. In this phase we keep the no snacking gap between the last low-X and the first low-Y meal intact, but apart from that we allow for snacking within. Pick one macro, fat or carbs and move some calories within that part of the day to allow for snacking. We are not looking for improvements here but for absence of deterioration. How much snacking can we get away with basically. How non-restrictive can we make our day halves in other words.
Third round : resting day carbs (2..4 months)
As far as macros are concerned, workout days and resting days can be something quite distinct. Chances are you are eating a way to much carb centric diet on days without any anaerobic activity. In this round we start swapping carb calories to fat calories. Chances are you will find yourself at the low carb side of the spectrum and you will find yourself fasting half the day at the end of this round, and your results will have improved from where they were in our first round.
Fourth round: minimizing the inter-macro gap. (6..12 weeks)
For those who find a many hours gap between fat and carb to be restrictive, we need to look at minimizing the gap as best we can. Carbs and fat combined in high quantities in a single meal spells disaster, but how much time needs to go between these two macros differs from person to person and may even differ over time. In fact, a decreasing minimum for your inter-macro gap is an important marker of progress. It seems the minimum inter-macro gap might be a relatively decent no-needles solution for acknowledging improvements in your insulin response, but that is a subject for an other day. I’m suggesting looking at your minimum inter-macro gap once a year to see how you are doing. That is unless the following rounds have you at one of the extremes in the carb/fat spectrum.
Fifth round: workout day carbs
While it is very likely your resting days will end up low carb, for workout days this might or might not be the case. In this round we see what happens to our body strength when we move carbs to fat on workout days and try to establish a minimum number of workout-fueling-carbs to consume on workout days.
Sixth round: calories finally
So far we hadn’t changed anything in our caloric consumption. But now that we are finally here, we are in a position where watching calories has actually become useful. Using our measurements we can plot an ideal-progress circle-fragment in a plot that puts a bodily-weakness index against a bodily-over-fatness index, a subject I discussed in other posts before and that I shall soon revisit. From here on calories will be a major factor in balancing muscle mass and strength improvement goals against body fat related concerns. If we had targeted calories before, chances are there would not have even been a caloric level allowing improvement along our ideal-progress circle-fragment, that is, loosing body fat might have been implicitly linked to unacceptable high loss of strength and/or lean body mass. Gaining substantial strength might have been implicitly linked to unacceptable high body factor even visceral fat mass increase. It is only now that we can start doing the really interesting control feedback stuff. remember the important thing from here on is our ideal-progress circle-fragment. We want to move as close as possible to that arc at the fastest rate achievable. From this point on we start to make binary changes for at least 6 week periods while using calories in a CD feedback loop in order to move across the ideal line. Always give at least 6 weeks for binary changes before writing them off. Give your bodies internal CF system the time to adjust and add more weeks if you notice a reversal there.
Where to go from there?
Basically we now have calories, timing and top level macro split covered, so now it is time to look at swapping out macro sub types and sources. Swapping out weight training exercises, changing the sizes of your sets, adding or removing cardio from your workout program, looking at micro nutrients supplements, etc. Too many things basically so you need to pick those you think are most promising. Read papers and wild claims about nutrition and body composition. Read strength sports magazine articles and wild nutritional and workout claims made in those. The science behind these claims might be totally based on educated or even uneducated guesses and anecdotes or inconclusive possibly spurious correlations and causation, we are looking at YOUR body using ENGINEERING here, not nutritional science. Further, once you are reasonably on track, multivariate control feedback finally becomes achievable. You can design a personalized CF system that allows you CD on multiple input variables at the same time. Something we definitely could not have done at the start.
Before you are at the stage where multivariate control feedback loop system design becomes a serious option you will probably be a few years down the line, but your diet and workout will be more dynamic and customized to your body than could be achieved in any other way. It has been a hard pill to swallow for me to have to come to the conclusion that either this long run-in is inevitable for nutrition and workout or my engineering skills are somehow insufficient to find the proper balance between system stability and speed. It might be possible to create a shortcut to some of this by extrapolating some of my current data from me and less than a hand full of my gym buddies that I managed to give all of this a try, but currently that would be just guesswork. When I write about this stuff I tend to get lost in technical details and in the urge to want to explain and justify every step along the way. In this blog post I’ve intentionally omitted any such detail in order to show a multi year outline to using engineering in general and CF theory in particular to slowly finding your own personal sustainable diet and workout program. I realize the missing details and justification, while making it more accessible possibly make it less convincing and I’ll try to get back on multiple things mentioned here in later posts as to fix that, and I also realize that many people would rather opt for the quick results that many diets offer rather than using a slow CF system to try and find your own personal optimum. If you do however, I encourage you to go for it until you hit a wall in your progress as you doubtlessly will, and than start your baseline from there. The great thing about this approach is that while being slow, it is completely agnostic with respect to different dietary dogmas. If your HFLC diet is too low in pre-workout carbs, you will find out, If it isn’t you will see acknowledged you were right to start with. If your low fat plant based diet is too low in protein or too high in sugary fruit, you will find out, and again if it isn’t you will see acknowledged you were right to start with. Good results or lack of return of bad results aren’t necessarily optimum results, and even what might be best for a population as a whole might not be particularly suitable for you as an individual. CF theory does not lie. In the case of workout and especially in the case of nutrition it may require patience due to interaction with your bodies own internal control feedback loops. We are aiming for coming relatively close to critical dampening and avoid any kind of oscilative behaviour. Unfortunately that means we need our feedback to be relatively slow and accept it will take a long time for an optimum diet and workout routine to reveal itself.
Some wild speculations for speeding things up
If you don’t like wild speculations, stop reading here. If you are willing to take a big chance in order to potentially speed things up a whole lot and potentially get much quicker results, then I would suggest doing the following things in the run-in period, deviating from the play it safe minimum change paradigm. A warning, this is stuff that works for me and at least more than one of my gym buddies or not for me but for more than two of my gym buddies. No guarantees any of this works for you:
- On your resting day only eat a big high fat high protein low carbohydrate breakfast, fast the rest of the day.
- Start of with an average of 1g of protein for each lbs of lean body mass.
- If you can manage, don’t return to snacking.
- If it fits into your time schedule, start your workout day with nuts and berries as breakfast, then hit the gym early, have a small high protein low fat moderate carb post-workout than don’t eat till lunch. Rest of the day low carb high fat.
- Stack up on low caloric veggies (both whole and juice)
- Take BCCA, L-Carnitine , L-Leucine and CLA supplements.
- Eat organ meat twice a week.
At this point in time I don’t know of anyone who started out this way, but of multiple who ended out this way, so it might be a shortcut to start out this way in the run-in period, but then it might not. At this point in time it is just an educated guess. A guess though that when correct might save you possibly a year or more of CF induced slow changes, so it might well be worth the gamble.