What is optimal?
Optimal is defined as 'being the best or most favourable', but how does this relate to health and fitness. As it's a term that is being used more and more and usually in very different, often contradictory circumstances, I thought I'd give my views on what optimal should mean to you.
Before I give my view on what is optimal, it's probably worth looking at some of the ways it is used in the health and fitness industry. It ranges from the basics such as type of training (bodybuilding, Crossfit, running) and type of diet (iifym, paleo) to more specific things such as meal frequency and timing (intermittent fasting, eating every 2 hours) and specific exercise choice (squat vs leg press). Optimal really is becoming the buzz word of the industry and everyone is convinced that their way is worthy of the title.
So, what's my view and how do I think it applies to you?
Well, I think that what's optimal for you is whatever you can stick to long term while still putting in the necessary effort to achieve results. Simple. The optimal choice is the one that you can see yourself doing a few years down the line or the one that you can put all your effort into. I'll give a few examples below.
A lady I know who struggled with standard gym training due to the lack of competition and group environment fell in love with Crossfit. Is Crossfit the most 'optimal' choice for body composition? That's a debate I'm not going to get into here as it will detract from my overall point but it is the most optimal choice for this lady because she loves it and keeps going back. Choosing a type of training that you will follow through for years will be a better choice than 'the best' training system that you'll only do for a short while before giving up. I've heard the same thing with Zumba and others. Does this offer the same benefits as resistance training? NO, but if you've no interest in hitting the weights but enjoy dancing then it could be the optimal choice for you (although I really would recommend that everyone tries to get into some form of weight lifting).
The best exercise for leg development is the squat. It's very hard to deny this. If you want big, strong legs then squatting is optimal. I don't squat. Partly because of a recurring hip injury and partly because I struggle to motivate myself to squat, I choose the leg press as my main exercise. Avoiding injury is a big reason for this, whether it's psychosomatic or a real injury (form is good, but again, debating form is not the point of this blog) I always get the same outcome, pain and weakness in my right hip. This always lessens my ability to train for the following few weeks whereas leg pressing keeps me injury free and able to continue training at full capacity. The second issue is motivation, because I fear injury, I'm never able to motivate myself to push my limits when squatting but can take myself to new levels leg pressing because I'm confident. I view choosing an exercise that I know I'll push myself and stay injury free as a more optimal choice than a superior exercise that I know I won't give my all.
Flexible dieting. I've written both a blog and article on this so I won't discuss flexible dieting in detail other than to say flexible dieting offers you the ability to eat whatever foods you want if you fit them into a greater plan. Junk foods will never be superior to whole foods when it comes to health and well being but if restricting them from your life will see you break diet and binge, then including them in small amounts and being able to stick to a diet long term is going to be the optimal choice. The individual foods may not be optimal for body composition or health, but being able to stick to a long term plan is.
On the flip side, some people simply need a plan to follow. If the idea of tracking your macros/calories doesn't appeal to you then a specific diet plan may be the better choice as long as you can stick to it.
In conclusion, the optimal choice is the one you'll actually do and be happy doing for a long time, so go and do it.