If you feel like your life has been following the same script and nothing works out, well, you might be lacking something called “self-control”.
Self-control and willpower are two components of your psyche that are in constant dialogue.
Oftentimes, we blame ourselves for not doing the things that have to be done in order for us to achieve our goals.
For instance, that burger you ate last night contrary to your weight loss goal, felt natural and temptatious…
Or maybe, you got as far as buying a gym membership, but you only attended once for a half-assed workout.
If the answer is “Yes”, then you’re in to learn something new in this article.
Let’s talk about willpower.
The Biology Of Willpower
Willpower and its development is without a doubt a hot topic for many people, which is why you can probably find a lot of people talking about it online.
But really, to fundamentally change how your willpower functions, you have to understand how it works on a physiological level.
If we trace the human history, we can come to find that willpower & self-control are instincts that formed throughout our evolution.
For instance, when humans were more primal, you had to somehow know that you should stay away from other humans’ things, or otherwise, you might get hit in the head.
This is exactly how in time, the prefrontal cortex has developed - This is the section of the brain that is responsible for self-control.
The thing is, this part of your brain uses up quite a lot of energy and when you’re tired, underfed, or under-recovered, it suffers the most.
What this means is that you are practically off your leash in terms of self-control, if those conditions are present.
And the problem is that nowadays, we are exposed to such conditions EASILY, leading to more and more people finding less and less motivation and willpower to do the right things for themselves.
Stress vs. WillpowerIf you know a thing or two about stress, you’d be aware that the body has the so-called “stress response”.
This is a self-protection response that arose back when our ancestors were living in the wild, where predators were behind every tree.
The stress response is also known as the “fight or flight” response and is characterized by an increased heart rate, alertness, lowered immune function & high cortisol and adrenaline levels. (1)
The same response gets triggered in animals, such as when a gazelle gets attacked by a cheetah.
Contrary to the fight or flight response, the instinct of willpower kicks off another response, called the “pause and plan” response. (2)
This is basically the moment of rationalization when you’re responding to an internal conflict.
So, you see, with the stress response, you respond to a threat in the environment…
But with willpower, you realize you are your own threat.
If you trigger the pause and plan response, you will be able to induce self-control and develop more sustainable, healthier habits, and overall, make the right choices in any situation.
It’s All In The Heart
Your heart rate variability (HRV) is one of the most important variables that can speak about your internal response and whether it’s a stress or self-regulation response.
Heart rate variability (HRV) is basically the variance of time between the separate beats of your heart.
When under stress, the heart rate goes up and the variations decrease, pushing the heart to work closer to its maximum capacity.
This in turn triggers the feelings of fear or anger that are relevant to the fight or flight stress response.
Oppositely, when you successfully trigger the pause and plan response, your parasympathetic nervous system takes over to induce a relaxation signal.
This makes the heart rate come down while the HRV increases and this, therefore, creates the feeling of calmness, present alertness, and focus.
Heart-Brain CoherenceYou see, willpower, self-control, or however you like to call it, is not just about one component of your brain, such as the prefrontal cortex.
The moments of self-regulation and willpower are the end product of the work of a countless number of intricately connected neurons and systems in the body.
But we can certainly look at two specific organs that seem to govern the majority of physical and mental responses.
Those are namely the heart and the brain.
Studies find that the heart has its own “mini-brain”, which is basically a bunch of brain neuron-like cells. (3)
This means that the heart can do almost everything the brain does, independent of the brain.
And then again, these two organs are intimately connected through the neural network, constantly governing each other’s work.
Isn’t It All Autonomous, Though?
When we talk about biology, most of the processes in the body are automatic.
You don’t consciously digest, control your blood pressure, heart rate, etc… (4)
BUT… There is ONE autonomous function that can make you capable of powerful self-regulation responses… Breathing! (5)
Now that you’ve read the word above, you’re probably breathing consciously, but don’t worry, you’ll switch back to autopilot in a second.
However, whenever you decide to, you can take conscious control over your breath.
Even at moments when willpower needs to come into play, you can use breathing to induce powerful self-regulation.
Breathing Willpower Practice
Remember, most of your responses and thoughts are a repeating pattern and you have the willpower to change that, in case it impacts you negatively.
Here’s something you can do during moments when you need willpower/self-regulation:
Though you may think “Hell, what will breathing do?”, this sends a powerful relaxation signal to the brain and the heart.
Each breath takes you further and further from the stress response, thus opening the doors for a brief moment of pause and plan, that will improve your thoughts, feelings, emotions, actions, and therefore, end results.
Willpower and self-control are instincts that have allowed us to survive, thrive, and evolve.
Much like the stress response, the willpower response doesn’t get triggered as it used to during the times of our ancestors.
Nevertheless, it remains a functional part of people’s character and is something that can be worked on.
It is just a matter of YOU taking conscious control over your own actions, thoughts, and feelings.
Remember, you are the master of your body and mind, you are capable of powerful, internal self-regulation.
In the last part of this article series, you learned that protein and fats are the two essential macronutrients in your daily nutrition.
These two contain essential amino & fatty acids, which regulate many processes, growth of tissues & body composition.
For the goal of building muscle mass, however, there is one more very important nutrient in the foods you consume.
In this article, we’ll explain everything you need to know about carbs and why they are an important aspect of your nutrition.
What Are Carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates, also known as “carbs” are the sugars, fibers, and starches, found in vegetables, fruits, grains, legumes, milk, and other food products.
This nutrient provides 4 calories per gram and when metabolized, gets converted to blood glucose & muscle/liver glycogen.
Glycogen is basically the stored form of carbohydrates.
Most of that glycogen gets stored in the muscles and a lesser portion goes to the liver.
Carbs Are The KING Of Intense PerformanceNow, during intense bouts of training activity, the body uses ATP (adenosine triphosphate) as its main energy source.
However, the stores of that ATP are generally limited, and as your workouts continue, the body needs to find more sources of energy to REGENERATE that ATP, in order to continue the activity.
This is where muscle glycogen comes into play - In a process called “glycolysis”, the body uses muscle glycogen to restore ATP and continue muscular contraction.
What About Keto?
Carbs have often been demonized and this is the exact reason why trends like the ketogenic diet come to the surface.
There are actually many people that consider the ketogenic diet to be optimal for high-intensity performance.
But the truth is that during a keto diet, the body starts utilizing fatty acids as the main energy source, due to the lack of carbohydrates.
And, guess what, fats have 9 calories per gram, as opposed to carbs that have just 4 calories per gram.
This makes fats more than twice as caloric as carbohydrates.
That exact caloric value, combined with the more complex structure of fats, makes them unsuitable for high-intensity performance.
This is because high-intensity performance is optimized when you have an energy source that can be broken down RAPIDLY.
Quite logically, when we have a nutrient with a simple structure and 4 calories per gram (carbs) and a nutrient with a more complex structure and a higher caloric value, the winner is obvious.
Studies have shown that no matter the trends, carbohydrates remain the KING of high-intensity performance, due to the fact they are the only nutrient that can be broken down into energy rapidly enough, during high-intensity training bouts.
Can you build muscle and get stronger on zero carbs? Yes, but the rate of progress will likely be suboptimal.
What Carbs Should You Choose?
When we look at carbs, there are two main types we can differentiate between:
Simple carbohydrates are called that way, due to their simple structure, which the body breaks down easily during digestion.
This means that simple carbs are quick energy for the body and this can be used in certain scenarios.
However, for the most part, this quick and easy digestion leads to sudden spikes and drops in your blood sugar levels, which can lead to what we refer to as a “sugar crash”.
Simple carbs are mainly found in refined sugar products, such as raw sugar, brown sugar, syrups, fruit juice concentrates, candy, doughnuts, etc.
On the other hand, we have complex carbs, which have a more complex structure and release energy gradually.
If your goal is to build muscle mass, complex carbs are what you should primarily focus on.
This type of carbohydrate will not lead to any blood sugar spikes and will grant sustainable energy, that is released gradually, as we already mentioned.
Complex carbs are mainly found in grains, legumes, and starchy vegetables.
Here’s a list of the best complex carbs you can use in your muscle-building nutrition plan:
If you are trying to build muscle mass, you should know that you can’t go without performing well in the gym.
And well, quite frankly, optimal athletic performance is a matter of providing the body sufficient energy.
Specifically for intense performance, the most potent energy source is muscle glycogen.
This implies that a suboptimal consumption of carbohydrates may actually hinder your workout performance, due to the low levels of muscle glycogen.
If you read part 1 of the muscle-building nutrition series, you now know that one of the most important things about nutrition during a building period is to eat in a caloric surplus.
This extra amount of energy will allow the body to optimally recover the musculature, thus improving gains.
Now, besides caloric value, however, food also gives the body essential nutrients.
In this second article of the muscle-building nutrition series, we will go over protein & fats and tell you more about why they’re important, how much, and what sources you should use.
Let’s get to it, shall we?
What Are Essential Macronutrients?
When the topic at hand is sports nutrition, the word “essential” can only mean one thing.
Essential macronutrients are macronutrients that the body NEEDS but can’t produce on its own.
If there is a lack of those essential macronutrients, it is likely that you would experience suboptimal recovery, tiredness, quick exhaustion, and in severe, chronic depletions, you may experience dysfunctions of certain bodily systems.
And well, while this sounds bad, we live in a world where all the food you want is right at your fingertips, meaning that you can easily avoid those depletions.
All you have to do is to make the right food choices!
Protein - How Much & What Food Sources?
The name of the word “Protein” is derived from the Greek word “Protos”, which means “First/Of prime importance”.
That is to say that protein is essential and there’s no wonder about that - You ARE protein…
Especially your muscles, they are made up of protein and they NEED protein to recover and grow.
Protein is made up of amino acids, which the body uses for all recovery and physiological maintenance.
There are 20 amino acids in total and 9 of those are essential (remember what essential means?)
The optimal daily protein intake forms at 0.8-1g of protein per lb. of body weight.
If you are an omnivore, it is recommended to derive most of your protein from quality animal products, as animal products contain all essential amino acids.
Oppositely, if you are plant-based, try mixing different types of grains and legumes, as plant products lack certain amino acids.
Fat - How Much & What Food Sources?
After protein, you have dietary fats, which are the second essential macronutrient in your daily nutrition.
The dietary fats in your nutrition plan will do the following:
Even more importantly, dietary fat will ensure that your hormonal system functions properly.
Studies have shown that males who under-consume dietary fat, have LOWER testosterone levels, as opposed to males who get at least 20% of their daily energy from fats.
And guess what - Your testosterone levels massively impact muscle growth, recovery and mood.
The optimal daily fat intake forms at 0.35-0.45g per lb. of body weight.
Generally, most animal products contain sufficient amounts of fat, but if you need to add more fat sources, go for the following:
By taking care of all the essential macronutrients in your daily nutrition plan, you will ensure that the body has everything needed to recover and grow bigger and stronger.
Protein and fats are the two ESSENTIAL nutrients we get from food, which as you learned, regulate the majority of bodily processes.
And then, we have carbohydrates, which are not really essential but can be a powerful thing to use during a muscle-building period.
In the next part of this article series, we’ll explain to you EXACTLY why your carb intake is important for the goal of building muscle.
I have been weight training, running and cycling for 37 years and I have gained a vast amount of experience in fitness both as a Soldier in The British Army and in the past 21 years having been involved in the fitness industry.