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Hey guys, been a while since I’ve done a health post and they always tend to be very long-winded anyway. I’m currently on my lunch break so hopefully that restraint keeps this post more succinct.
I want to address two topics that I’ve had arguments about before with both people more and less experienced than I.
Contradicting information about exercise science:
This is a big topic that I’m going to just generalise as people giving different opinions about how exercise (or nutrition) should be done.
So why does this happen? How do you know what you should be doing if everyone keeps telling you different things?
Firstly, you need to understand that there’s two main reasons this happens. Every human body is slightly different and tempered by genetic predispositions. What works for someone may not necessarily work for you. That being said, there are paradigms that generally work to a good degree (which is usually what advice is). Second, exercise science is a junior field. By that I mean the field of medicine and anatomy, for example, are tried and proven fields with many case studies and lots of research. The studies done in exercise science are not always consistent and worst of all – the sample size is not statistically significant.
Those of you that studied stats at university might remember this term. When analysing a portion of the population using a sample population (i.e. test subjects), that sample population is not considered representative of the actual population if the sample size is not large enough. Without going into the maths, let’s consider that the vast majority of studies use less than 30 test subjects. Now consider that there are 7 billion people in the world. Yep – huge margin of error.
This is why you will hear a lot of conflicting info but don’t get confused – that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to advice. It just means you need to learn who you are. This is something I promote as a part of becoming the best version of yourself, but it applies to physical health as well. I often encourage friends to experiment during their bulk/cut cycles to figure out what their bodies respond best to.
Finally, I just want to point out that the human body is highly adaptive. You should use knowledge you gain as part of your exercise vocabulary. Maybe 5×5 works best for you but someone keeps telling you to do 4×10. As Elliot Hulse would say, don’t get sucked into the religion of a certain methodology. Try both. In fact, you must, by necessity, do both anyway because if you stick to one methodology your body will adapt and you will plateau.
Ok, this post has already gotten a bit long but here’s the next part.
Another hot topic and popularly considered “impossible” in the sense that you cannot gain muscle and lose fat at the same time. In fact, I myself believed this for quite a while until I managed to lean bulk myself. May provide photos later but I’m at work right now.
Anyway, the common argument against lean bulking is quite scientific (on the surface). To gain muscle you require a caloric surplus to fuel growth. To lose fat you require a deficit to force your body to burn more fat for energy. I’ve gone into the body’s fuel sources before but in short – your body burns all 3 macronutrients at the same time but proportionally, much more carbs are burned and much less fat.
Now, we have to get a little technical, and this is where I’ve had most of my arguments. How do you build muscle whilst losing fat if it appears that they require conflicting caloric levels? Diet and meal timing.
“Meal timing doesn’t make a difference, it’s all about what you eat in 24 hours.”
Only half true. The other half is why lean bulking is possible.
As with all arguments, we will start from the simplest, most logical argument and build up (Occam’s Razor). Consider this scenario. You have fasted for a day. It is now night time and your body is completely depleted of glycogen and protein stores. You go for an intense steady state cardio session. Several hours after that session, right before bed time, you eat your entire day’s calories in one meal, comprised mostly of carbs.
Those of you that have studied nutrition/health science will know what’s going to happen. The rest of you can probably guess. First, you are engaging in catabolic activity with no glycogen or protein stores (all exercise is catabolic – in fact, living is catabolic). What’s going to happen? Well you still have fat so your body will burn that. Obvious right? What you might not know is you also still have protein. Your muscles contain it and your body will break down your muscle to fuel itself to allow you to keep doing your cardio. After exercise, you do not replenish your glycogen and your blood glucose remains low. EPOC continues to burn calories which will be taken from protein and fat (and protein burns in higher proportion to fat). Your body has no amino acids to repair muscle fibre so your neurological response is to let go of that muscle fibre to feed your body. Result? Muscle loss.
Now, you eat your daily 3000 calories in one go. IIFYM right? Wrong. Your blood glucose level spikes like crazy. Your insulin levels must rise rapidly in response (often leading to Type II Diabetes). The insulin shuttles the glucose through your body and replenishes glycogen stores but obviously you’ve eaten more than you can store in your muscle. What happens to unused glycogen? It converts to fat for storage. Fat is a long-term energy source – slow burning and 9 calories per gram (whilst protein and carbs are 4 calories per gram).
So obviously meal timing does play a part.
This post is getting really long now so I’m not going into what you should do – you can just ask me yourself. I’m just here to prove a point. And those of you that have heard otherwise from so and so – well that’s an anecdotal fallacy. Those of you that have heard otherwise from a scientific paper? More credible, but go take a look at the number of test subjects used in that study and refer to my first subheading above.
When in doubt, trust the most foundational, unshakable concepts in science. You can argue all you want about whether a plane or a rock falls faster depending on what angle they drop, but you can’t argue against the fact that gravity is what’s making them fall.
I’ve been asked these a lot lately so I’m going to compile my information – otherwise I’ll be retyping the same thing over and over again. Basically, any physical or mental issues that are biologically possible can be alleviated to some degree, if not fully preventable or fixable, with good nutrition and exercise. I say “to some degree” so that people don’t start nitpicking at my words and proclaiming XYZ cannot be cured by diet and exercise – no it might not be curable but you can certainly make a positive difference. This is a medical fact that has spawned the “Exercise Physiology” field as a separate branch from physiotherapy, allowing it to be a specialisation all by itself.
Obviously obesity is the most common example but just to prove my point, I’ll give you a more obscure one. I have a fracture in my lateral meniscus that has weakened my knee a lot. I went to see a sports injury specialist – one of the best NSW apparently, every GP knows his name – and he said the only thing I can really do is strengthen the muscles around the knee to help support it (this was after already having done surgery). So yeah: “Fat? Exercise. Permanent fracture? Exercise”.
I’ll be a bit more politically correct and mention that you should only exercise properly at the proper time. I’m not telling you to drag yourself up off the road after getting hit by a car and hit the gym first. You might want to go to the hospital before that. But as a long term solution to an ailment, exercise and diet are really the only solutions (I don’t consider being on a wide range of medications for the rest of your life to sustain your existence a solution).
Most of the stuff I’m asked about relates to weight loss so I’ll focus mainly on that. Before I start, I’ll add one last disclaimer: I’m reasonably fit as I watch what I eat and work out but I’m no gym junkie. I’ve done a bit of research on these matters but I’m not an expert. What I’m telling you is really stuff that everyone should know – but for some reason they don’t. It’s simple.
I’m going to shoot the naysayers in the foot before they begin. I’m certain people have heard the whole “some people can’t lose weight even if they diet and exercise because it’s genetic or they have some kind of disorder (Syndrome X and hypothyroidism fit in here)” argument. Well if you want to get all scientific about it, I will too. Are you trying to claim that your body violates the first law of thermodynamics (conservation of energy)? So you say that no matter how much energy your body uses and no matter how little energy you put into your system, you still manage to survive without losing any weight? The only explanation for that would be if you are creating energy from nothing, thereby violating the first law of thermodynamics. If you still think this is you, then congratulations, you have transcended the laws of the universe and are a god unto yourself.
For those of us that are human, or at the very least, exist within the reality of this particular universe (multiverse theories aside), I will guarantee you that if you put less energy into your body than you burn in a day, you will lose weight. Your body needs to burn something for energy. It is not creating something from nothing.
Let me just make something clear. I have nothing against people who actually do have disorders but too often are these illnesses used as an excuse for an absolute lack of willpower and effort. And even if you do have Syndrome X or hypothyroidism, your body still obeys the first law of thermodynamics. The amount of benefit you get out of a diet will be less than someone without your condition, but you will still benefit to some degree. Hey, that’s life. It’s not equal and it’s not fair, but if there’s no point giving up and just moping about it because no one else is going to pick your ass up for you.
Just quickly on the two mentioned disorders: Syndrome X is a metabolic disorder that apparently affects one in four Americans (yes, I said Americans – if you don’t like it read the blog post before this one). It’s basically an insulin resistance; your body usually produces insulin to escort glucose into your cells where it can be burned efficiently. An insulin resistance means that your cells don’t recognise the glucose and deny it entry, leaving it to accumulate in your blood stream. Fun fact number one: insulin resistances are usually caused by obesity in the first place. It’s a slippery slope. Hypothyroidism is when the thyroid gland at the base of your skull, which regulates your metabolism, gets low on hormone levels and thus slows your entire body down. As a result, your cells need less energy to fuel them, so you might be eating less than a similar person without hypothyroidism, but in actual fact you are still overeating (because you require less food).
By the way, your metabolism deteriorates in tandem with your health. By the same process, your metabolism gets better as you get healthier. Blaming your metabolism is just another excuse – you can improve it.
I’ve noticed my posts are turning into blocks of text so I’m going to split it up into subheadings now.
Your body burns three types of fuel: carbohydrates (glycogen), protein and fat. These are burned in different ratios at the same time (so technically, you don’t burn each individually until it runs out then move on to the next). Of course, if you have no carbs or protein to burn, you’ll start burning fat as it is the only energy source available. Again, refer to the first law of thermodynamics. Your body can only operate with at least one of these three fuel sources because nothing in the universe can create energy from nothing and your body is only designed to burn these three types of fuel (so no, you won’t start burning off bits of your skull and brain).
Carbohydrates are the easiest for your body to burn because they convert to glycogen very easily and glycogen is basically the easiest and most available fuel for your body to burn. Glycogen is stored in your muscle to fuel their contractions and excess is stored as fat. There’s your first tip, if you want to lose weight, decrease your carbohydrate intake and if you want to gain weight, increase it (I’ll get to weight gain later). There are two types of carbohydrates, simple and complex. The good ones are complex carbohydrates; they have a lower glycemic index which means they release energy slowly. A high glycemic index (simple carbs) means it releases energy quickly and basically your body’s glycogen levels will spike suddenly, causing a lot of it to be stored as fat because you have more glycogen than your muscle needs. Then, as you use up the glycogen in your muscles, your body now has no more glycogen (because the excess has already turned into fat), so you get hungry and eat more. Complex carbs will release glycogen slowly, meaning that glycogen will mostly go to fuelling your muscles rather than being stored as fat. The easiest way to distinguish between the two (for when you’re shopping) is that simple carbs are anything heavily processed or sugary (the latter should make a lot of sense because carbs are classified as saccharides, which basically means they’re a form of sugar). White bread, white rice, and pretty much white anything else is bad. Go for the brown option (no, this did not turn into a racial debate).
Next we have protein, a favourite for everyone trying to build muscle. Protein itself does not get burned, but rather, it gets turned into amino acids which are basically the building blocks for skeletal and cardiac muscle (among other things). Unused amino acids get converted to glycogen. Eventually, all protein will be converted to glycogen at a similar rate to carbohydrates (four kilocalories of energy per gram), but the process takes longer than for carbs. Despite this, increasing your protein intake is important for both those trying to lose weight and gain weight. For those trying to build muscle, it should be quite obvious why. I’ll explain it anyway: amino acids are needed to build muscle and if you burn out all your amino acids (during a workout, for example) you’ll start catabolising your muscles, which basically means your body will start breaking down your muscles for more amino acids (because muscles are made of amino acids and protein). For weight loss, protein is a slower fuel than carbs and more importantly, it keeps you full so you feel less need to eat. It also doesn’t that you’ll put on some tight muscle to replace your fat (if you’re exercising with your diet as you should be).
Lastly, we have fat. It’s a long-term energy source that breaks down into nine kilocalories per gram, which is more than double protein and carbs. It is much harder to break down into fuel, and thus you burn fat at a much slower rate than carbs (the easiest fuel source). As mentioned, technically, your body will be burning all three of these at the same time – so you’ll be burning tiny amounts of fat all the time, but if you have weight loss problems, chances are you’re putting on more fat while these little bits of fat are being burned.
Lesson: eat less if you want to lose weight. Stick to complex carbs instead of simple carbs and just reduce the entire amount you consume. Fibre is a lot harder to break down into glycogen so increasing your fibre intake (fibrous carbohydrates) is good too, plus it’ll increase your nutrition absorption and keep you full. Increase protein as well, to keep you full. Reduce fat intake because it’s already fat. Yes, healthy fats are still necessary, but if you have a weight problem it’s much simpler for me to say “just avoid fat”.
For weight gain – I know a lot of my friends who work out already know a lot about nutrition. Basically, you need to have fuel ready on hand so that your body doesn’t catabolise your muscles (catabolism is the metabolic process of breaking down molecules into energy). You also need amino acids to “protect” existing muscle and help build more of it. By this logic, it’s not good to work out on an empty stomach because you’ll have low glycogen and amino acid levels in your body, meaning that your work out could do more harm to your muscles than benefit.
Finally, drink lots of water. It cleanses your body and prevents water retention, which is basically your body thinking it’s short on water supplies so it stores water, causing bloatedness, puffiness of skin and an overall chubby appearance (plus cold water burns tiny amounts of calories as an added bonus). By the way, for those who don’t know, calories are a measurement of energy like a metre is a measurement of distance.
This is something that stereotypically, girls avoid (whereas guys stereotypically avoid the diet when trying to lose weight). I’m being politically correct here by saying “stereotypically” so don’t get offended if this is not you. The majority of fad diets are taken by girls though and a lot of guys pig out when trying to lose weight. The purpose of me mentioning this is not to point fingers, but rather to raise the issue that if you ever ignore one of these two elements to weight loss/gain, you are only doing at most 50% of the process. That means that even if you have your diet down to absolute perfection, you’re still missing half the weight loss process. Why not do 40% of each and get 80% of the process done? (These are rough figures obviously, the weighting of each element in regards to its influence on your body depends on your goal).
In terms of exercise, there is way too much information to give. I’m just going to address the most common ones. “How do I get a flat belly/six pack?” Diet. Sit ups will build your abdominal muscles but the reason why you have a big belly is because your fat is on top of your abs. In fact, getting huge abs will just push the fat out farther, making your belly look bigger. You need to burn off that fat. Core exercises are helpful here because they teach you to tighten your stomach area at all times. It’s like tensing your abs all the time.
Weight loss in general requires cardiovascular exercise, which burns a lot of energy as it is a prolonged need for fuel (as opposed to a 1RM deadlift, which is about five seconds of energy burning). As a general rule, if you’re not sweating, you’re not trying at all. If you can still walk normally when you’re done, you didn’t try hard enough. If you feel weak, almost nauseous and trembling from exhaustion afterwards, you pushed yourself and you should be proud. The same applies for weight lifting. For girls, I usually don’t recommend jogging because a lot of you jog with improper form, leading to high impact on your knees and too much strain on your ankle (which makes you develop large calves, something most of you don’t want). I recommend riding a stationary bike because it’s very low impact.
For muscle gain, most people know what to do. I’ll just say that hypertrophy (the increase in size of something in your body due to an enlargement of the cells) can only occur after cell deconstruction. What that means is basically you need to tear your muscles for them to grow bigger. You do this by overloading (lifting heavy weights). Recent studies showed that doing 80% of your 1RM (1 Repetition Max) for 5-8 reps is the most effective at building muscle. I’m not going to source it but you can Google this if you don’t believe me. No offence but I see a lot of Asians coming into my gym who flail 2kg dumbbells around for 2 minutes, chat for half an hour then leave. You might feel like you did your “gym session” for the day but really, you achieved nothing at all. Push yourself – if you’re not increasing the amount you lift every few weeks then you’re not progressing.
Well that concludes this lesson. Notice I didn’t talk about fitness here because the post would get too long. Your fitness is closely related to weight but not exactly dependent on it. Suffice to say fitness composes of four categories: cardiovascular, muscular endurance, muscular strength, and body composition (fat ratio, etc.).
I’m going to file this under Random Facts and Science because this is medicine and chemistry related (although die-hard physicists consider physics the only true science).