How To Apply Design Thinking To Fitness For Outstanding Strength

As many of you know, fitness can be an infinitely complex topic. With many of the best fitness sites devoted to science based training practices there are tons of evidence based resources floating around the web.

The problem with some of these informational outlets is that they often have tens or hundreds of articles that discuss the most important science based training and diet practices. Another problem is that many of these articles are written by highly intelligent, articulate, well meaning authors…

Those are problems?

The problem is that all of this science based, intelligent, well meaning information gets lost in a sea of seemingly important concepts and principles. The more you read, the more difficult it becomes to separate the truly relevant from the relatively trivial.

The problem is, in any subject, there are matters which should be given more or less relative importance. The difficulty in distinguishing the crucial from the trivial is the main problem right now with the online fitness industry.

Individually this problem is magnified by people’s tendency to consume information from a number of different sources. Even if one fitness outlet tries to assign relative importance to various issues, these assignments do not carry over when someone consumes information from another source.

In order to understand what is important in fitness, you need to have a framework for discerning the few vital issues.

For example, if you are thinking about the macronutrient balance of your diet, the total amount of calories you are eating per day and the ratio of carbohydrates you are eating that are coming from sugar or starch, which of those issues is going to have the disproportionately larger impact on your physique?  How do you decide?

Most people would probably say total calories or macronutrient balance is most important.

The point is that the above issues are not all equally important. Certainly, the ratio of starch to sugar is not going to have as large an effect on your health or fitness as the total amount of calories you eat. Right?

While this is a rather obvious example, many of the questions people have about health and fitness are not as easily answered. In some cases, people believe the issue they are giving their attention to are important when they just aren’t.

The number one problem keeping people from reaching their health and fitness goals is their inability to distinguish the activities and behaviors that are most important from the ones that are unimportant.


Systems Thinking In Health & Fitness

I know the introduction mentioned design thinking but bear with me.  Design thinking made for a better title and realistically system/design thinking are used interchangeably so often that most people don’t even differentiate between them!

Alright, so systems thinking has to do with the consideration of all the different variables that affect the output of a system.  In the case of computers or machines, a system is all the processes and functions that create an output.  For example, a television is a complex system that uses hardware to transform a cable signal into a visual picture on a screen.

In the case of a television, the system is all the processes and functions the television performs that allow it to create the picture output.  Everything is accounted for and the system is relatively simple.

In the case of your body, the system is actually just a mental model we create to try to isolate those variables or inputs that have the largest effect on a certain output.  In health and fitness people usually focus on a few common “outputs”.  Examples are cholesterol levels, waist circumference, bodyweight, body fat percentage, muscle circumference, maximum weight lifted on various exercises, running speed, as well as many combinations of these goals.

In order to change these outputs we isolate all the “inputs” or variables we can affect in the system of our bodies and lifestyle that are likely to have an effect on out chosen output.

For example, if someone wants to focus on the output of bodyweight, a common set of inputs to focus on manipulating are calories eaten per day and steps taken per day.  While there are obviously many different inputs that you can focus on, people tend to focus on ones like food eaten and total activity in order to simplify their lives.

If you actually considered all of the things that could potentially effect your bodyweight, you would face an overwhelming number of variables.  In order to deal with this abstraction we need to consider the relative weigh of the input variables.

For a super basic example, lets say that total calories eaten, macronutrient ratios, steps taken per day, and strength training are the only factors affecting your bodyweight. (this is nowhere close to the truth but let’s simplify for example sake)

For this example we will assign relative weights to each of the input that determine our bodyweight over time.  For example, each of the above four inputs might have the following weights.


Activity Relative Importance
Steps Per Day 30%
Total Calories Eaten 45%
Strength Training Exercise 10%
Macronutrient Ratios 15%


If the actual importance of any of these activities is close to their relative importance in manipulating your chosen output “bodyweight” then you will be successful in your quest to alter your bodyweight.  However, consider what would happen if your mental model was faulty and the actual importance of these variables looked something like this.

Activity Relative Importance
Steps Per Day 13%
Total Calories Eaten 80%
Strength Training Exercise 3%
Macronutrient Ratios 4%


If you made the mistake of assigning too little weight to the importance of monitoring calories eaten per day, you would have failed to reach your bodyweight goal.  You might have been trying your heart out to get more steps per day, nail your gym workouts and hit your macronutrient goals but you still would have seen little progress in your bodyweight if you weren’t carefully monitoring your total calories per day.

An even more destructive scenario takes place when their is an important variable that is affecting the outputs that is not accounted for. For example.

Activity Relative Importance
Steps Per Day 10%
Total Calories Eaten 20%
Strength Training Exercise 5%
Macronutrient Ratios 5%
Unknown Input 60%


Unfortunately this is what many people’s health and fitness plans look like.  The majority of people are  completely un-aware of the biggest factors affecting their health and fitness due to an assumed mis weighting of the various inputs.  Let me explain.

Continuing with the example above, lets say someone trying to lose bodyweight has been focusing on steps per day, calories eaten per day, strength training and the macronutrient ratios of their food.  If this person has some type of metabolic derangement that is causing them to inappropriately process the calories they are eating, then their “system” might look like the above.

In this case, fixing the metabolic derangement would be the “unknown input” shown above which accounts for 60% of the total effects on the output of “bodyweight”.

While all this might seem overly complicated for health and fitness, it’s actually not.  While the idea of systems thinking might be new to you, the point is that their are certain variables that have a disproportionately large effect on the output you are trying to change.

Whether you are trying to get stronger, leaner or lose weight, there are usually a very small number of variables you absolutely must pay attention to in order to progress.  Therefore, the most important part of your health and fitness plan must be first isolating those few important factors that will allow you to progress, the ones with the most relative importance in the system.

In Gary Keller’s New York Times best seller The One Thing he talks about the importance of focusing on the inputs that create outsized results.  Gary talks about the Pareto Principle, commonly known as the 80/20 rule.

The rule states that 80% of your outputs are caused by 20% of your inputs.  Or 80% of your results are caused by 20% of your efforts.  While the percentages are rough  (90/10),  (95/5),   (75/25)   all apply equally well, the concept is the same.  Certain efforts create disproportionate results.

The interesting thing about Gary’s book is that he takes this idea to it’s logical conclusion.  Gary asks if I can get the top 20% of things that produce the most effort, why cant I get the top 20% of those 20% of things.  He keeps reducing his most results producing efforts until he is left with the smallest quantity possible.

Photo Credit: The One Thing

   In his book Gary gives the example of brainstorming with the team of his world renowned real estate company. He challenged his team to come up with 100 ideas to expand the business and brand of his company.  It took his team all day but they came up with 100 legitimate ideas.

The next day he had them whittle the list down to the 10 most important things.  Then, on the final day they were charged with narrowing down the list to the number 1 most important thing that would help expand the company and its brand.

It turn out that the company needed a way to legitimize the brand in order to be considered as reputbale as their many international counterparts.  They decided that their one most important idea was to have Gary write his best selling book!

Cool story, hopefully it hammers home the point about narrowing down the trivial many into the essential few.  If you don’t, you may very well end up spending all your effort on things that are useless or counterproductive.  Nothing is more discouraging then that.


Health and Fitness Is An Optimization Problem

Let me repeat that.  Health and Fitness is an optimization problem.  You are always trying to optimize for certain outputs.  For most people this means optimizing for a combination of outputs that looks like the following:


Feel like I have more energy

Enjoy my training and have confidence that I’m progressing. 

Look better to the opposite sex

Get stronger and make progress on my lifting, running, badminton etc…

Enjoy eating because I have a nutrition plan that’s working

   In order to optimize for a group of outputs, like the above, you must first have an understanding of what is important to you.  You then must have a clear idea of what you are willing to sacrifice to get the outputs (results) you want.

  For example, if you want to look like a professional bodybuilder and you also want to maximize for longevity, those two goals are going to be almost completely at odds with one and other.  That is like telling an engineering team that you want to design a top fuel drag racer that gets better gas mileage then a Prius.

    You first need to get clear on what is important to you.  For example, if you want to maximize for longevity as a primary goal, increase muscle mass as a secondary goal and increase your endurance performance as a tertiary goal, that is more reasonable.  There will still be some trade offs, but you can now create a plan to maximize for those outputs.

    The point of this section is that by having a clear understanding of your motivations you can then design a system of health and fitness that is optimized for your top 2-3 outputs.  At this point you will be ready to consider all of your inputs and figure out which ones you are going to focus on manipulating.

Why You Should Look At Your Fitness As An Optimization

“In mathematics and computer science, an optimization problem is the problem of finding the best solution from all feasible solutions.”

     Before I talk about inputs, lifestyle factors or how to plan your goals, I want to give a solid reason for why this mental model of goal setting is actually useful in fitness.  After all, figuring out what you want, making a plan to attain it and adjusting course along the way is par for the course in any type of self development writing.  However, for anything related to a personal attribute such as health and fitness, a hands off systems engineering point of view is especially useful.

The reason it’s important to look at your goals in terms of an optimization problem is that it divorces the emotional component of health and fitness from your decision making and long term planning.  Body issues and emotional issues related to appearance and health can be major obstacles to creating a realistic plan for health and fitness.

    Whether you want to look like a competitive bodybuilder or lose the last 10 lbs. of weight, there are probably underlying emotional issues you will have to deal with to reach your goals.  In order to make the day to day actions you need to take more clear, it helps to separate the tactical decisions from the motivation & emotional decisions you need to make to reach your goals.

Misplaced Variables In The Design Of Health And Fitness

Once you have decided on the few (1-3) things you want to optimize for you can start to figure out which inputs you are willing and able to manipulate in order to reach your goals.  For example, you might want to do “everything” you can to gain muscle but be completely unwilling to take drugs and train 2x per day 5 day per week in order to reach your goal.

In this case, you need to have a more realistic idea of the inputs you are actually WILLING AND ABLE to manipulate OVER THE LONG TERM.  Again, this is where the systems engineering focus comes in.  If you are considering training 3 days per week or 5 days per week and know that your literally twice as motivated to train if you only have to go 3 days per week, making the decision to train 3 days per week is a no brainer.

The problem for most people is that they are un-aware of the inputs that are having the largest affect on their outputs.  Since this article is mostly theoretical, I wanted to add some concrete steps people can take right now to improve the design of their fitness programs.

Off the top of my head I can think of a handful of variables most people ignore that have a huge impact on their health and fitness.  Some of the biggest ones are the following:

Motivation – Your diet and training program should be designed to motivate you.  Obviously there will be days where you just don’t want to comply with your plan.  This will be in large part dependent on how much of a rebel you are.  Besides that, the way your program is setup will have a large impact on your motivation and willingness to train and your enthusiasm in following your diet day after day.

Making sure you like what you are eating and are excited to train are two of the biggest things that need to be a part of your plan for you to succeed.  As a concrete example, you cant follow a program that is designed for a pro bodybuilder if you want to be excited to train. A training plan that includes 12 hours per week in the gym is probably pretty exciting for someone with no job who is on drugs.  If that’s not you it will probably wreck your hormonal health and make you lose your job!

Satiation – How full do you feel through out the day.  Fighting off hunger is a surefire way to have no willpower.  No willpower means you will not be able to combat other tough activities through out the day.  You cannot have this.  Not having willpower is a surefire way to loose your job, see “motivation” above.  Anyway, you ideally want to feel full almost all the time.

Sometimes you may have to sacrifice the enjoyment you get from certain foods in favor of the long term satiation you get from other foods.  For example, I enjoy bread and pasta, but Ill usually sacrifice my enjoyment of those foods for other starches like potatoes that keep me full for longer.  On the vegetable front, I will usually add some in if I need to feel full for longer despite the fact that they take a long time to cook and are inconvenient.  In terms of the optimization I am going for, the inconvenience of eating theses foods is more then made up for by my not having to fight off hunger, at all!  Many people under estimate the importance of figuring out what keeps them full.  Huge mistake.  Everyone that is lean year round has figured out, with great precision, which foods keep them full and prevents them from fighting off hunger.

Micronutrient Density –  Along the same lines as satiation is micronutrient density.  Most hormonal health experts know that micronutrient deficiencies will prevent the functioning of the endocrine system (hormonal system) faster then just about anything else.  Even hormonal health experts often under estimate the impact hormonal balance and micronutrient sufficiency has on satiation.  If you are not getting enough nutrients from the foods you eat your body will be screaming at you to eat more.  Eating micronutrient dense foods is an easy way to stay full for longer.

Building or Enhancing Mobility – Most people drastically underestimate the importance of maintaining or enhancing their range of motion for movement.  From faulty muscle recruitment patterns to degraded hormonal health, bone loss and neuromuscular inefficiency, lacking mobility can cause some serious problems.  Since I want this to be memorable I’ll just talk about one, hormonal health.

As you lose your ability to perform forceful movements through full ranges of motion, your body degrades it’s ability to perform these movements.  This creates a cycle of movement loss and a loss of maintenance functions related t supporting these movements. For example, as most people age, they lose the ability to powerfully move through full range of motion movements like sprinting.

These are the very movements that require the body to maintain strong muscles bones and ligaments to support high power production.  When these “edge cases” or end range movements are lost, your body no longer has a reason to maintain the same level of strength and integrity in it’s tissues or overall ability of it’s nervous system.  Slowly but surely your overall capacity down regulated over time.

This down regulation of capacities is one of the main reasons so many people see a sharp decline in their youth associated hormones as they age.  They lose movement capacity and the body reacts by down regulating the production of key hormones that are used to maintain the tissues of the body.

You can take a strong stand against this destructive process by maintaining and enhancing your movements quality.  Making sure you have a movement practice that takes your body through its full ranges of motion as well as doing some type of explosive training is a great first step.


Testing And Creating a Feedback Loop



In order to test out how well the system you have setup is working you need something to test and a certain period of time you are going to allow between tests.  In order to make this happen you need to setup a feedback loop.  The people that are most successful with fitness all do this.

Consider Martin Berkhan’s approach to staying in shape, courtesy of How To Look Awesome Every Day.

“One of my secrets to staying in shape at all times of the year is a little concept I call “checkpoints”. A checkpoint is a pre-determined day during which I note all my relevant stats: my body weight and my strength in four key movements. For each checkpoint, I try to beat the results of the previous checkpoint.

Each year I have six checkpoints interspersed by eight weeks. I usually place them on holidays; placing checkpoints on days of festivities is like having a carrot in front of yourself.”

Martin has set up a cycle of 8 week blocks that he uses to measure his relevant outputs (bodyweight, strength on lifts etc…) against the inputs he has been using (diet and training setup).  This gives Martin a clear picture of how the training he has been conducting is working and whether or not he needs to shift course.

You don’t need to setup the same checkpoints as Martin.  The point is that you should have some sort of concrete measure you are looking to affect over a set period of time.  You should also have specific inputs you are going to measure.  If you don’t pick what you are going to alter ahead of time, you might end up making progress toward your goals but being unable to repeat your success in the future.

Easy Inputs and Outputs

  . My suggestion is that you setup a system very similar to Martin’s.  I believe your system should include these variables at a minimum.


Sets x Reps x training days (your workout program)

Kcal (total nutritional intake

Steps per day

Hours sleep per night


Strength on checkpoint lifts




     These are great measurements to start with to get a better idea of how the type of training you are doing is affecting your body.  From this point you can include any other measurements you want.  You can of course whittle the above variables down to an even shorter list of variables that have the most outsized effect on your overall results.

Tracking 1 or 2 variables consistently is better then tracking a bunch of them haphazardly.  At a minimum you should realize that there is a much more direct way to reach your goals.  Isolating the factors that are having an outsized affect on your fitness is the first step toward getting faster results.



Yoon, Susan A., Emma Anderson, Eric Klopfer, Jessica Koehler-Yom, Josh Sheldon, Ilana Schoenfeld, Daniel Wendel, Hal Scheintaub, Murat Oztok, Chad Evans, and Sao-Ee Goh. “Designing Computer-Supported Complex Systems Curricula for the Next Generation Science Standards in High School Science Classrooms.” MDPI. Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute, 03 Dec. 2016. Web. 26 May 2017.

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