Milk, Silent Killer

A timely concurrence of news articles allows me to contrast how the media portrays scientific studies with their content.  On one side we have Vox reporting the evils of milk and the other we have the debunking of the same article on Suppversity.  I like Vox, but this was science coverage no better than your average media outlet.

First of all, it misrepresents the findings.  Higher mortality rates for men that consumed more milk was not a statistically significant result.  More importantly it doesn’t discuss any of the methodological problems with the study, foremost is that it is remembered consumption of milk and that it assumes that their dietary habits 20 years ago explains their cause of death.  Similarly, it doesn’t control for other factors like type of milk or calorie consumption (milk intake also positively correlated with energy intake).

What we have here is an ambiguous scientific study being interpreted through the foggy lens of the news media.  By the time normal people hear about this, it would probably be in their best interest to discount it.  Unfortunately, I am sure a few hypochondriacs will suddenly stop consuming dairy products.  Just remember, there are numerous studies purporting health benefits to milk too, even if bone health is not necessarily one of them.


The Fitness Industry is Evil and Manipulative

I recently started my first membership at a commercial gym.  As part of the enrollment package I got four free personal trainer consultations.  I figured what the hell and they set me up with someone.

First off is a discussion of my training history.  He goes on about he was 135 lbs and is now 175 lbs of lean muscle.  Which is either a lie or indicative of steroids.  He poo poos my habit of working out fasted despite ample evidence that it is not detrimental for performance and has demonstrated health benefits and maybe even better improving for building muscle/fitness.  Furthermore he goes on about eating every two and a half to three hours.  This has been thoroughly debunked as unimportant and in fact may retard progression as there is a refractory period between periods of heightened muscle protein synthesis from eating.  Thus the recommendation is to get 20-30g of protein no more than every four hours.

With this demonstration of his broscience credentials we moved on to testing my fitness levels.  Now the day before I had done upper body exercises and related this information to him.  Unfortunately, he is of the common personal training philosophy that you should go to failure always.  This is of course a terrible idea as it is extremely taxing on your Central Nervous System.  Needless to say, I was very sore after hitting upper body two days in a row.  He was also fairly negligent of lower body strength.

All of this confirmed my suspicions that personal trainers are a waste of money.  Most aren’t particularly knowledgeable about the subject, their only credential usually not being a fat slob.  Even if they were, there really isn’t much about the subject of training that we know for sure.  I have summarized a lot of it on this blog.  The results they always get are mostly from training newbs who would get stronger just looking at a dumbbell.  I could never be a personal trainer because I would just give my clients a two page pamphlet and let them go at it.  The only advantage of a personal trainer is that you now have someone to yell at you for slacking.  If you need that motivation then feel free to fork over the cash for a personal trainer.

Despite this paucity of real information, the fitness industry acts like there are secrets to building muscle and looking good that only their priesthood can reveal and sell you.  They back this message up with impossibly lean and hairless fitness models for you to aspire to be.  However said fitness models are all on drugs.  The vast majority of supplements do nothing and the two that do something (whey protein and creatine) probably provide only marginal improvements over the long-term (hard to say as I haven’t seen a study on it) above eating a well balanced diet with a solid grounding of protein.

Nor is there some secret routine that will get you ripped.  Look around at the gym at all the fit but not huge guys.  Do you think it is because they are doing it wrong?  Well, OK, there are many dunderheads at the gym, but you just wont get that big as a natural lifter.  The bottomline is that your body doesn’t like to carry around muscle.  From a survival standpoint it wants the least amount of muscle it needs to survive and would much prefer to store energy as fat.  We train to convince our bodies it needs muscle, but it is fighting us all the way.  There is no secret exercise selection that will overcome this fact and make us HUGE.  In fact, the accumulating evidence suggests that the form of stimulus is really not that important.  Varying the number of sets/repetitions all seems to end up with similar results if it ends up being taxing.  You just need to provide a stimulus and your body is ready to adapt.

Yet the fitness industry is huge and growing and always trying to sell the next magic bullet for health.  It preys on our vanity and ignorance.  Unfortunately, this seems to be the source of a lot of economic activity today.  I see caffeinated water being advertised as zero calories and other junk, as if coffee isn’t exactly the same and carries other useful health benefits (-10% all cause mortality).  Or energy drinks which put a bunch of crap into what is for all intents a caffeine supplement.  Just walk around your supermarket and really analyze the healthspeak they employ now and you will see it is all empty and often tautological.  I saw a ramen noodle commercial claiming it was a healthful meal for your family despite mostly being refined carbs (probably the one true nutritional evil).  A better educated populace would recognize the vacuousness of all these claims and hopefully not be suckered into them.

Exercise for Health and Physique, Not Weight Loss

Another myth that seems to have gripped the popular consciousness is that exercise is the key to weight loss.  In no uncertain terms: THIS IS WRONG.

I bring this up because well-educated colleagues in the Physics department have made this mistake multiple times recently.  These are people that with a few salient facts could calculate a rough estimate of the energy expenditure involved in a particular exercise and would promptly realize the absolutely trivial amount it represents.  I have heard a tenured professor excuse digging into the cookie jar because he went to the gym yesterday.

As calculated here you would need to do an entire year’s worth of bench pressing in order to burn one pound of weight.  The energy expenditure of an actual intense weightlifting session is probably no more than 200 calories, the equivalent of not drinking that soda with dinner.  Don’t drink a sugary soda that is probably bad for you beyond its calorie count or spend a grueling hour in the gym?  I know which one I will take every time.

Another problem is that overtraining is a very real problem with sometimes antithetical results.  According to that study, doing moderate amounts of cardio actually yielded better results in terms of fat loss.

My suggestion then is to determine your goals.  Realize that fat loss is best done through diet and do exercise to push in that direction but mostly for your health.

The Lean Bulk

Ah the mythical lean bulk where you gain muscle without gaining fat.  It’s every gymbros’ fantasy.  Sadly, it just doesn’t happen.  If it does, either you’re new to training and overweight or hitting the juice.  For everyone else, you are probably just going to spin your wheels if you try any of the lean bulking schemes circulating on the internet.

Usually they recommend eating 20% more calories on workout days and 10% less on the rest of the days, but this buys into the (wrong) impression that muscle gain only occurs in a short window after a workout.  In fact everything points to hypertrophy NOT being a response to acute phenomena.  Neither bursts of testosterone or growth hormone or muscle protein synthesis seem to correlate that well with muscle growth.  That is, hypertrophy seems to be a complicated chronic response and trying to game the system with nutrition timing seems fairly hopeless.  If you want to try it you need to go to extreme lengths.  For instance Lyle Mcdonald’s Ultimate Diet strictly plans out an entire week of exercises and macronutrient ratios to try to optimize the partition ratio of fat and muscle gain.  I haven’t done it, but some people claim it actually works.  But be warned, it is not for the faint of heart.  He has you eat virtually nothing on some days and do a workout specifically designed to tire you out by depleting muscle glycogen.  It sounds terrible and I will probably never try it.

However, I have another idea that is not as exacting, but still follows what we do know about hypertrophy.  While hypertrophy is not a response to acute elevated muscle protein synthesis, it seems pretty clear that you will never build muscle unless MPS is greater than catabolism.  This is essentially an identity and we know that MPS is elevated for about 36 hours after a resistance training workout and actually peaks around 20-24 hours afterwards.  This is the so-called anabolic window.  Thus, we can see why the nutrient cycling scheme I talked about doesn’t work.  You are eating less the next day, but MPS is still elevated and is in fact peaking!  You are throwing away a large period where you could be growing.  This ignores other potential effects on hypertrophy from hormones that might be blunted by consistent dieting stimuli, which might be even more important than the anabolic window.

However, this does suggest a strategy which boils down to diet outside the anabolic window.  Unfortunately, this really limits your options since popular routines are 3x or 4x a week between Monday and Friday.  This usually leaves only the weekend as a two day rest between workouts and thus Sunday becomes the only possible diet day.  But we can work with that!  Do a so-called protein sparing modified fast where you eat almost nothing but protein for one day, at least a g/lb of lean mass, netting you somewhere around 800-1000 calories for that day.  For those just trying to lose weight, the alternate day version of this in that link is a great way to do so.  Dieting hard one day and then eating normally is psychologically much less grueling and it’s unlikely that even the “I was good yesterday so I can splurge today” mentality will blunt your losses.  It’s just really hard to eat so much that you compensate for such a harsh deficit of calories.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand.  A man should bulk at a rate of at most 1 lb/week, a figure that goes down the more trained you are, and for most people that will probably be about half fat and half muscle.  For a woman you want to half the weight gain since there is much less propensity to put muscle on.  Anyways, that gives us at most a half pound of fat accumulation a week.  If one then engages in the dieting above on Sunday and assuming a 2500 calorie maintenance and about 3500 calories for a pound of weight they could lose about half a pound of weight.  Now because you are eating a lot of protein and you have been training hard and it is only one day so your hormone composition is still in bulking mode this should be a half pound of fat loss.  It’s outside the aforementioned anabolic window so it should not curtail your muscle gains and because it is one day a week it should not disrupt your hormone levels like a prolonged diet can.

Thus, in theory you can achieve a lean bulk where most of the week you are above maintenance calories and then in one day you try to drop all the fat that you accumulated.  I haven’t seen such a technique really pushed on the internet and I currently do not have any empirical results.  I will be testing it on my next bulk though.  As stated before, an already well-trained person should bulk at a slower rate and thus in effect could actually lose weight while gaining muscle, but again this is all theoretical at this point.

Finally, lets say you still gain a bit of fat because you gained weight too fast or have a bad nutrient partitioning ratio, at the end of the bulk you could try Lyle Mcdonald’s Rapid Fat Loss scheme where essentially you do the above diet for two weeks straight.  No more than that if you are pretty lean, otherwise you will mess yourself up.  You would be looking at like 5 pounds of mostly fat loss, which should more than cover any fat accumulation during your bulk.  Thus the final plan would look something like this:

Deload to 80% of working weights and increment back up over one or two weeks

Now push the weights up for something like 4-6 weeks

Deload again for one to two weeks

Do RFL for two weeks if needed, otherwise push max weights again

Take a one week break from training after an RFL or Deload to reset body’s response to training stimuli as I mentioned in a previous post

In this way we can minimize fat gain and maximize time we are gaining muscle.

Why Are Americans Obsessed with Health and Still Fat?

I really can’t stand checking more matrix elements and the last post got me thinking about this topic.

Americans are the fattest people on Earth, no contest.  We also seem to have an unhealthy obsession with health.  There is always a new diet or a new  food item or a new gimmicky appliance that will make you lean and fit.  Yet we pound down Doritos Locos tacos like nobody’s business.  What is with the paradox, or is it even a paradox?

I have two theories that are not mutually exclusive.  One is that society has bifurcated.  We have the health nuts that are predominantly white and upper-middle class.  On the other side we have our poor who seem to be the big drivers in our fattening obesity problem.  This, sadly, also means the problem is localized predominantly in America’s minorities.

As an amusing but pertinent anecdote, my sister, who works at Starbucks, told me about a video of a (now former) Starbucks employee where he expounds on the drinking habits of various minorities.   My sister says he has the right of it when says that African-Americans and Hispanics almost inexorably order frappucinos.  That is 430 calories for a medium size drink according to the interwebs and most of it is carbs with a bit of fat sprinkled in.  Of course, most of these people probably order a large and inevitably add more whipped cream (which is apparently free at Starbucks).  Either way you are drinking a large number of mostly empty calories and drinking your food is never a good way to satiate yourself.

Maybe we as a society that just never gets the results we want.  After all, the Baby Boomers are notoriously vain and at the busiest time of their lives.  This would explain all the snake oil being sold when cardio+weights+diet is like 90% of what you need to do.  There are no superfoods that will make you live longer or magically burn calories.  There is no easy path other than pushing the iron and getting your heart burning and restricting your calories.  Nutrition science is mostly full of shit.  Even things that we have “known” are bad for decades like saturated fats don’t appear to be bad if from the right sources.  So rather than grabbing for those acai berries maybe you should grab a dumbbell.

However,  I am mostly leaning toward the first option.  I primarily associate with the first group of health nuts.  Maybe outside this bubble health is not such a big deal.  It certainly would not be the first time this privileged group managed to delude itself that what they care about is what everyone cares about (which is not to say I am not carried along with them at time).  Poor people probably just want to eat and they see that you can get 400 calories at McDonald’s for a buck and they go at it.  They don’t have time or money to go to a gym.  Who needs to be healthy when as a black male you are  going to die at something like 66 on average anyway?

Still, I see a not-inconsiderate number of middle class folk that are working on some world class guts.  What is their excuse?

Tips For Cutting Like a Goth

Just about finished with a cutting cycle and it went far better than last time.  When I first got into lifting I was doing Starting Strength and took Rippetoe’s advice on nutrition.  Don’t.  You don’t need to eat as much as he claims; a pound a week for a newb, less if you have been training a long time (after all you aren’t going to be turning as much of that caloric excess into muscle).  Furthermore, as I said in a previous post lower bodyfat seems to encourage your body to put on muscle and not more fat.  My hypothesis is that your leanness signals your body that you need more muscle to catch food, etc.  Too lean (<10% for men), however, and your body will preferentially put on fat since it, justifiably, thinks you are on the verge of dying.  As such, interspersing cutting and bulking fairly regularly is probably a better way to go.

Following my absurd diet (I was in fact drinking most of a gallon of milk a day), I plateaued at 200 pounds.  A hip injury at around that time that prevented squatting suggested to me that maybe it was a good time to lose some weight.  So I did. Over the next six months I dropped about 25 pounds, but especially near the end my lifts started to drop.  A lot.  I lost twenty pounds on my overhead press for instance.  And I wasn’t even that lean!  Also my weight loss started to stall near the end despite a rather harsh cut.

This time I just got off a 5 week bulk and went to cutting again to see if I could get closer to 10% bodyfat.  I like to take a week off between blocks of cutting or bulking for healing minor injuries and resetting the body’s response to exercise (I think a previous post mentioned the study where one group took three weeks off every six weeks and still made the same progress as an always “on” group because of catch up growth).  I try to line up my break with trips or when the school gym is closing, so this bulk was five weeks and this cut was seven.  Ideally it would be six, but real life always takes precedence.

As I said, I am finishing this latest cut and my lifts haven’t deteriorated at all and the stubborn fat around my lower abs has melted off.  This is in stark contrast to my long cut where my lifts went down, I started to look a bit softer in the midsection and weight loss stalled despite very low calorie deficit.  So what did I change?  Many things but here is a list of what I think worked.

1) Don’t cut for too long.  Months of cutting was probably a bad idea.  Your lipid levels are permanently low and who knows what other machinery you are messing up by sending the signal to your body that you are dying for months on end.

2) Don’t cut too hard.  In a similar vein, don’t cut so hard your body panics.  I was down to a protein shake and one meal at the end of my long cut and I stalled.  Now I am eating a larger meal and small meal before bed along with my post-workout shake and the pounds melted off just as fast.

3) Meal Timing.  Eating three meals spaced out turns on your muscle protein synthesis one more time than the two meals I was eating the first go around.  Also eating some casein protein before bed probably helped.

4) Refeeds.  When I was with my wife on the weekends I didn’t worry about my cut other than I didn’t want to pig out.  This gives a couple days for your lipid levels to return to normal and therefore more propensity to use fat for energy.  Also, some evidence that the first days after calorie restriction your body actually burns more calories.  Finally, they are also called cheat days for a reason; it’s good for your self control to indulge a bit.

5) Workout Volume.  You are on a cut so your body isn’t recovering as much so keep volume down.  I went to two rather than three sets on all my exercises.  Remember you aren’t going to put on any muscle during a cut, so just do enough to keep what you have.  According to the research maintenance is much easier than progression.

6) Higher Rep Work and Supersetting.  Evidence suggests that higher rep work is more likely to maintain muscle.  For much of my first cut I was still doing Starting Strength which is all 5 rep stuff.  This time I also started supersetting antagonist exercises together (bench and row, for instance) which burns more calories.

7) Cardio.  I hate it, but it works.

Sadly, that means I wasted half a year where I lost fat and muscle.  But lifting is a long game so I am not too upset about it.  The upside is that I know more now and there is something empowering about knowing that you can control your weight in either direction.  I think for a lot of people the scale is some number that inexorably goes up and is completely out of their hands.  It goes back to the old behavioral psychology result that people that believe they can get better at something (in this case fitness) are more likely to indeed get better.  It is an intuitive, but hard lesson.  We often think oh I will never be good at math or I will always be an unfit slob and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  But you can.  It will just take you 10,000 hours to become an expert in a mental skill and whole lot less to look good naked.

Training According to Science, Part 3: The Little Things

Probably the last installment since the field of exercise science is not expansive and I am no expert.


Cardio of some sort has a benefit for everyone, even if mostly doing strength training.  It has been proven to help recovery and it creates satellite cells that are the precursor to muscle fibers  There is also a study that show VO2 max being correlated with better nutrient partitioning (whether your body spends nutrients on muscle or fat)

So the question is not whether you should do cardio, but how much and what kind?  HIT seems superior in pretty much every way: less effect on strength training, better VO2 max increase, more satellite cells, less time.  Also it is way more fun (and useful) to sprint.  Which doesn’t mean that long jogs aren’t good as well, but I don’t like cardio that much so I want to do as little as possible.  Try not to do it on a training day or do it after and at the opposite end of the day for best results.

Nutrient Timing:

One of the more persistent myths is that you can eat all day and keep your metabolism humming along to burn more calories.  This has been thoroughly debunked now for twenty years, yet I talk to intelligent people that still think it is true.

That said, it’s not completely without merit.  Studies have looked at how you consume your  food during the day; spread out or all at once and at various amounts of protein.  The results seem all over the map with some concluding that a large bolus is better, while others show meals every 3 hours are better.  It also seems to depend on your age as if your body’s response to amino acids weakens as you age.  What is clear is that when you reach a threshold of protein ingested in one meal it turns on muscle protein synthesis and that it takes about three hours for the amino acid concentration to fall again.  At this point another  another bolus of protein could turn MPS on again.  Theoretically a feeding strategy might lead to more muscle growth, but empirically significant results are not available yet.  However, a study on athletes showed that those who snacked gained more lean mass and lost more fat.

More importantly, is your pre-bed meal.  Sleep is vitally important, probably more important than anything but training.  You can make it even better by ingesting some casein protein before bed  This is a much more significant result than any of the meal frequency studies have shown.  It might even get me to purchase some casein powder if we are talking about 7 pounds of muscle in a year.