People become mesmerized by what they can see and touch. They tend to ignore what lies hidden beneath the surface. We focus on the outside, the big picture, rarely on the inside or the intangible. Never has this been truer than with strength training. Our obsession with the tangible becomes blatantly apparent through the laundry list of questions I get on a daily basis. Here are some of my favorites:
- How many reps should I do to get bigger? Or leaner? Or Stronger?
- What types of body splits and workouts should I be doing?
- Should I do low intensity, high intensity or steady state cardio?
- What types of exercises should I do?
- How can I get this last roll of fat off my butt? Not the first two rolls, the last one?
- I wanna tone, not get too bulky. How do I do that?
- How many days a week should I train?
- How much cardio should I do?
- How much, what and when should I eat?
- How many calories should I burn in a workout?
All great questions, but unfortunately we’re putting the cart before the horse. Truth is, the answers are a bit more complex than you may think. Let’s don our lab coat, break out the microscope and beakers to examine our body from the inside-out.
Here’s the deal: All the benefits we love about weight training is happening (or not) at a cellular level. More specifically within our metabolic pathways. Such benefits include:
- Decreased body fat
- Bigger, stronger muscles
- Increased fitness abilities, athleticism and work capacity
- Increased bone density
- Increased energy levels
- Increased mobility
- Improved balance and stability
- Increased sex drive
- Decreases risk of diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure, cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, stress and anxiety, and injuries related to lack of mobility/ stability
The metabolic process
Metabolism (from the Greek word metabolē, meaning “change”) is the set of life-sustaining chemical transformations within our cells. The three main purposes of metabolism are to convert food/fuel into energy; to convert food/fuel into building blocks for proteins, lipids (fat), and nucleic acids; and to eliminate waste products. Metabolism is usually divided into two categories: catabolism, the breaking down of organic matter (including our body’s own tissue), and anabolism, the creation of a cell’s structures, such as proteins and nucleic acids. (NASM.org)
Given the two functions of the metabolism, it’s obvious we want a strength training regimen that ignites the metabolism and leads to an increase in muscle mass (anabolism) while at the same time decreases body fat stores (catabolism). Programs that are too stressful or hyper-focused on a single dimension of fitness, such as running at steady-state high heart rates, can have the opposite effect; decreasing hard earned muscle, and potentially leaving us with negligible body fat loss (Boutcher, 2011).
Outside of being injured, the worst situation to find yourself in is metabolic suppression caused by overtraining. Such scenarios can result in muscle degradation or loss of muscle tissue, a decrease in fat metabolism, an increase in sugar metabolism, and the production of hormones such as cortisol, which—if left unchecked—can lead to serious health concerns. All caused from hittin’ it too hard, for too long.
Different types of training have completely different effects on the metabolism. For instance, if two people the same sex, age, and size were to exercise for half an hour, one doing weight training and the other running on a treadmill, both at an average heart rate of 150 bpm, the individual performing weight training would have a much higher metabolic effect (Greer et al., 2015). This is primarily due to the breakdown and rebuilding process of muscle tissue, which is much greater in weight training than in running, and requires massive amounts of energy for the body to restore itself to homeostasis post workout. This restoration process is called EPOC (excess post-exercise oxygen consumption), or often is referred to as The After-Burn Effect (LaForgia, et al., 2006).
EPOC raises oxygen consumption in the mitochondria of the cell. If the oxygen consumption in the body is raised, so is the amount of fat being burned which is only possible during the presence of oxygen (aerobic activity). Your resting metabolic rate (RMR) is the amount of calories required to perform all bodily functions at rest. Believe it or not, the majority of calories burned on a daily basis come from energy expenditure at rest, not from exercise. If we increase EPOC, we also by default increase your body’s RMR and the energy needed to power the metabolic process. Make sense?
Here’s the best part. The majority of this increased energy is coming from fat stores. This sounds awesome right? Wait a second, there’s a slight glitch. The amount or percentage of EPOC experienced post workout is correlated directly to multiple variables including:
Type of exercise – A 2015 study by Greer et al. clearly showed that EPOC was much greater (lasted longer) during resistance training exercise than during steady state cardio. Long story short, if you want to get leaner, walking on the treadmill is better than nothing but doesn’t come close to pumping some iron.
Volume of exercise –Volume as it relates to exercise, is the number of exercises, sets, repetitions, amount of weight and heart rate intensity added all together within any given time increment (Micro – day or week, Macro – month or year). Volume plays a primary role in EPOC, but only up to a certain point. Too little volume or workload is ineffective at creating EPOC. However, it has also been noted that once volume surpasses a certain level, EPOC plateaus and the increased volume is no longer correlated with greater metabolic impact (Abboud et al., 2013). The point of diminishing return with EPOC is largely due to a phenomenon known as maximal recoverable volume (MRV); Dr. Mike Isreatel, professor at Temple University and renown practitioner in the strength training industry describes MRV as the maximal amount of volume a person can handle and still recover. MRV is different for everyone and plays a critical role in both hypertrophy and strength. The antithesis of MRV is MED or minimum effective dose. MED is the least amount of volume needed to cause desired physiological adaptations. Undoubtedly the key to achieving hard earned gains rests largely in the amount of volume completed by the athlete and whether or not that volume is enough, or too much.
Intensity of exercise – Intensity can be measured in two ways:
- Amount of weight (Repetition Max)
- Heart rate
Børsheim & Bahr (2003) report, “A more prolonged and substantial EPOC was found after hard- versus moderate-resistance exercise”. This should be an easy concept to wrap your noodle around. Heavier weights and higher heart rates require more energy expenditure both during and after the workout. Long story short, put down the Pure Barre tiny weights and grab something more substantial if you’re looking to get shredded.
Nutrition and metabolism
I know most of you guys and gals have heard the old wives’ tale that drinking a gallon of milk a day will get you bigger and stronger. Well, if you want to get bigger and fatter, then maybe that’s a good idea. Although a surplus in calories (hypercaloric) is necessary to create hypertrophy, optimum nutrition is a bit more involved than just shoving whole milk and Krispy Kremes in your pie hole all day. If you are looking to gain lean muscle and not additional love handles, individualized nutritional programming is absolutely essential! New Problem: there is once again more conflicting advice on nutrition out there than there is about strength programming. Since you’re reading my blog you might as well hear my thoughts on the subject. Here goes:
First off carbs are your friend, not the enemy. I know everybody and their mother these days is either Paleo, non-GMO, organic, a “clean” foods addict, etc. All of these equal one thing to me, low carb, high fat. I know, you’re gonna say the Eskimo in the Arctic live on seal blubber, eye of newt and toe of frog, why can’t I? Short answer, just because our human bodies can survive in the absence of major macro nutrients (e.g., Carbs) by converting fat into ketones to replace the absence of essential fuel derived from carbs, doesn’t mean it’s OPTIMAL to do so…carbs are your friend, especially when it comes to weight training. Agreed, everyone’s ability to handle carbs in certain amounts, types and timing is unique.
My body can process 500 grams of carbohydrate via pop-tarts, red wine and pasta the same as someone else might have to rely on sweet potato and brown rice. Other people look at a pop tart and gain weight. From my experience, interviews with world class strength athletes, and extensive research, I believe carbs are essential to strength and performance gains. The trick is knowing how many grams of carbs you need to power your workouts, restore energy, grow and conserve muscle tissue. Below is some food for thought on the subject. We will cover nutrition extensively later on in the blog series but for now here’s several studies which provide a summation of findings on carbohydrate, protein and caloric requirements for gaining lean mass.
- It takes quality protein and adequate calories to build lean muscle tissue. “Two essential, nutrition-related, tenets need to be followed by weightlifters to maximize muscle hypertrophy: the consumption of 1.2-2.0 g protein/kg of body weight, and greater than 44-50 kcal/kg of body weight.” (Stark et al., 2012)
- Low carb diets are not only counterproductive for building lean muscle, this approach is not so good for the heart either. Don’t just get fixated on gettin’ jacked guys, think about your ticker too! “A low carbohydrate-high fat diet decreased lean mass and impaired cardiac function.” (Nilsson et al., 2016)
- Could low-fat chocolate milk be the holy grail of muscle mass? “Both pre and post-workout is most effective in increasing muscle protein synthesis, resulting in greater muscle hypertrophy and strength. The protein type and timing, has been linked to increased protein synthesis (hypertrophy and strength) especially when combined with fast acting carbohydrate.” (Stark et al., 2012)
- If you want to optimize your post workout recovery and muscle development, be sure to include the mighty carb! “Carbohydrate and Protein taken together effects protein synthesis and deters protein degradation.” (Poole et al., 2010)
I hope this information has been beneficial. Tune in next Stewsday for Hacking Strength: Part II of Metabolism, and Energy Systems. Until then, please don’t hesitate to email us with any questions you may have. #sweatsmarter
Abboud, George J.1; Greer, Beau K.2; Campbell, Sara C.3; Panton, Lynn B. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: July 2013 – Volume 27 – Issue 7 – p 1936–1941
Børsheim E, & Bahr R. Effect of exercise intensity, duration and mode on post-exercise oxygen consumption. Sports Med. 2003;33(14):1037-60. Review.
Boutcher, S. High-Intensity Intermittent Exercise and Fat Loss. Journal of Obesity. 2011; 2011
Greer, B. K., Sirithienthad, P., Moffatt, R., Marcells, R. T., Panton, L.B. EPOC Comparison Between Isocaloric Bouts of Steady-State Aerobic, Intermittent Aerobic, and Resistance Training. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport. 2015.Vol. 86, Issue. 2.
LaForgia J, Withers R.T, Gore C.J. Effects of exercise intensity and duration on the excess post-exercise oxygen consumption. J Sports Sci. 2006 Dec;24(12):1247-64.
Nilsson, J., Ericsson, M., Masoumeh, M. J., Anderson, F., Carlson, L., Nilsson, S.K., Sjödin ,S., and Buren, J. A low-carbohydrate high-fat diet decreases lean mass and impairs cardiac function in pair-fed female C57BL/6J mice, Nutrition & Metabolism. 2016, 13:79
Poole, C., Wilborn, C., Taylor, L., Kerksick, C. The Role of Post-Exercise Nutrient Administration on Muscle Protein Synthesis and Glycogen Synthesis. J Sports Sci Med. 2010 Sep; 9(3): 354–363
Stark, M., Lukaszuk, J., Prawitz, A., and Salacinski, A. Protein timing and its effects on muscular hypertrophy and strength in individuals engaged in weight-training Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutition. 2012; 9: 54.