Recent Blog Posts

Exercise, Hypertrophy

April 11, 2014

Bodybuilding- vs. Powerlifting-Type Training: Which Builds More Strength and Muscle?

I’m stoked to announce that my dissertation study, Effects of different volume-equated resistance training loading strategies on muscular adaptations in well-trained men, was just published ahead-of-print in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. I had actually devised the protocol during my master’s degree course in research methods back in 2008. The study I ultimately carried out had some different wrinkles than the one originally proposed, but overall the essence remained the same. Most importantly, it investigated a topic that’s been debated for many years: What are the differences in muscular adaptations (strength and hypertrophy) between bodybuilding- vs powerlifting-type training programs? Here is an overview of the study and a discussion on its practical implications.

The Methodology
20 well-trained subjects (minimum of 1 year resistance training experience working out at least 3 days/week) were recruited to participate in the study. Subjects were randomly assigned to one of two groups: A hypertrophy group (HT) that performed a bodybuilding style routine or a strength group (ST) that performed a powerlifting-style routine. The HT protocol was a split routine where each muscle was worked once per week with 3 exercises per session, performing 3 sets of 10 reps and resting for 90 seconds. The ST protocol was a total body routine where each muscle was worked 3 times per week with 1 exercise per session, performing 7 sets of 3 reps. The volume load (sets x reps x load) was equated so each group essentially lifted about the same amount of total weight per week. Training was carried out over 8 weeks. All sets were performed to the point of momentary concentric muscular failure.

Strength was measured by 1RM in the squat and bench press. Muscle thickness of the biceps was measured with ultrasound. Testing was carried out pre- and post-study, and results were then compared between groups to assess differences in strength and hypertrophy.

The Results
3 of the subjects dropped out of the study before completion leaving 17 subjects for analysis (9 in the HT group, 8 in the ST group). Both groups significantly increased biceps muscle thickness by ~13% with no differences seen between groups. Both groups also significantly increased 1RM strength, but the ST group had greater increases in the bench press and showed a trend for greater increases in the squat.

Practical Recommendations
On the surface, the study showed that muscle hypertrophy is similar between powerlifting and bodybuilding type routines provided that volume is equated between protocols. Moreover, the study showed that maximal strength is slightly greater in a powerlifting protocol. This could lead to the conclusion that if your goal is hypertrophy then it doesn’t matter what rep range you use (at least in the heavy to moderately-heavy range) as long as you perform equal volumes, but that maximizing strength requires lifting very heavy weights. From a mechanistic standpoint with respect to muscle hypertrophy, the study suggests that either 1) the increased mechanical tension in the ST group was offset by the greater metabolic stress in the HT group on a volume-equated basis or, 2) there is a threshold for mechanical tension and once the threshold is reached, it doesn’t matter as long as the stimulus is maintained for similar timeframes. With respect to strength, this would suggest that neural factors related to training are still relevant in well-trained individuals, and that using very heavy weights does indeed have a greater transfer to maximal lifts compared to moderate intensity loads.

But the devil is often in the details and that is the case here.

First, it is important to point out that total training time in the ST group was 70 minutes while that of the HT group was 17 minutes. So from a time-efficiency standpoint, the bodybuilding-type training produced similar hypertrophy (as well as nearly similar strength increases) in about a quarter of the time as the powerlifting routine. Moreover, exit interviews revealed that those in the ST group were fried by the end of the study. Almost all of them complained of sore joints and general fatigue, and the two dropouts from this group were because of joint-related injury (and these routines were highly supervised with respect to form, so we took every precaution for safety). On the other hand, the HT group all felt they could have worked substantially harder and done more volume.

This brings up an important take-away message: While mechanistically it appears that it does not matter whether heavy or moderately-heavy weights are used for hypertrophy, from an application standpoint it simply isn’t practical to train constantly with the volumes used in this study on multiple body parts. The grinding on the joints and the taxation of the neural system that is involved with repeated performance of very heavy loads ultimately has a negative impact on the lifter; I am certain that if we had continued this program for any longer, most of those in the ST group would have been overtrained and seen performance decrements. If nothing else, these finding reinforce the importance of periodizing programs so that cycles of deloading are interspersed with very heavy loading protocols.

Additionally, realize that only three major muscle groups were worked in the study: the pecs (upper body pushing); the back (upper body pulling) and the thighs. Thus, the HT group could have easily done a couple of extra sets for each muscle group without overtaxing their resources. Although impossible to say for sure, it certainly is plausible that additional work would have enhanced the hypertrophic response in the bodybuilding-style training group. Moreover, the HT group could have performed exercises for other muscle groups, including some targeted work with single joint movements. Working specific muscles (and aspects of muscles) such as the middle and posterior delts, the hamstrings and the calves alone would definitely have benefited overall muscle hypertrophy.

So bottom line: The study indicates that the best approach to building muscle is to perform a combination of heavy and moderately heavy loads. The “hypertrophy range” is applicable from the standpoint that it allows the performance of a greater amount of volume without overtaxing the body’s resources. Adding in loads in the 1-5 RM range can enhance strength (which ultimately allows the use of heavier loads during moderate rep lifting) as well as providing a potent hypertrophic stimulus.

It should be noted that.I made a conscious decision to investigate the two types of routines as lifters usually perform them. Thus, the HT routine was a split routine since the vast majority of bodybuilders train in this fashion, while the ST routine was a total body routine since this is the way most powerlifters train. While staying true to the usual performance gives insight into how muscular adaptations generally play out in everyday practice, they also obscure the ability to attribute results entirely to the set/rep scheme. I will be carrying out a follow up study that seeks to address this issue in the near future. Stay tuned!


March 29, 2014

The Best Muscle Building Workout!?

Admit it. You’ve probably been lured into reading a magazine article with headline such as the one above. These types of claims are the norm rather than the exception in the muscle rags and fitness websites. And for good reason: the promise of a holy grail of workouts that will maximize your muscle development is an enticing prospect to say the least.

Problem is, no such routine exists.

It’s essential to realize that the response to resistance exercise is highly individual. Remember that research simply reports the means (i.e. averages). So if a study reports muscular growth after a given protocol as say 10%, you can bank on the fact that some subjects grew a lot more and some a lot less than 10%. Thus, you can’t simply extrapolate that you, or a client of yours, will achieve similar results to the reported mean.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in a recent cluster analysis study by Bamman et al.. Sixty-six men and women performed supervised lower body exercise (squats, leg presses, and leg extensions) 3 days a week for 16 weeks. Training was carried out in typical bodybuilding-type fashion that included 3 sets of 8-12 reps for each exercise. At the end of the study, subjects were grouped by their hypertrophic response: The top 17 subjects were considered extreme responders. Their muscular gains averaged ~58%. Pretty awesome, right? The middle 32 subjects were considered moderate responders, with muscular gains averaging ~28%. Still pretty good, although well below the extreme responders. Here’s the kicker: the bottom 17 subjects saw, get this, NO significant gains after 16 weeks or consistent training. Zilch! Again, all subjects performed the exact same program but, as noted, saw widely disparate results. Based on the research, genetic factors are highly responsible for these differences, including the expression of various proteins (such as IGF-1) as well as satellite cell population. Lifestyle factors undoubtedly play a role as well.

Now the fact that people respond differently doesn’t discount that there are certain principles that should be inherent in any routine designed to maximize muscle-building. These include:
• Vary the loading strategies: Using different rep ranges (i.e. heavy, moderate and light) will ensure that you stimulate the full spectrum of muscle fiber types in a fashion that produces maximal growth. Recent work from my lab shows that light loads are suboptimal for recruiting the highest threshold motor units, but they may be superior for targeting the type I (endurance-related) fibers.
• Train with high volumes: There is compelling evidence that a dose-response relationship exists between volume and hypertrophy. Although a single set to failure can produce substantial increases in muscle growth, multiple sets are needed for maximal gains.
• Employ some sort of periodization scheme: This simply means that you need to manipulate variables over time. In particular, volume and training frequency should be varied over the course of training to prevent overtraining. Ideally, volume/frequency should culminate with a relatively short training cycle designed to produce functional overreaching followed immediately by a period of active recovery. This will help promote a supercompensatory response that maximizes muscular gains.

Given these basic tenets, it is essential that you take individual differences into account when designing training programs. There are no cookie-cutter prescriptions for getting big. For those familiar with my book, The M.A.X. Muscle Plan, you’ll know that I reinforce this concept repeatedly throughout the text. That’s why I refer to the book as a “template” for success; optimal benefits can only be achieved by customizing the program to your own personal needs and abilities.

Bottom line: There is no “best” muscle-building program; only a best program for a given individual.

Exercise, Hypertrophy

March 8, 2014

Does Blood Flow Restriction Increase Muscle When Combined With Traditional Resistance Training?

Blood flow restriction (BFR) training is an emerging technique that consistently has been shown to improve muscle strength and size in a variety of populations. If you are not familiar with BFR, you can read my recent T-Nation article that details the hows and why’s of the topic. If you’re interested in the research, you can read the review that I co-authored here.

A new BFR study by Luebbers et al. has been creating a lot of buzz. A number of people have emailed me to ask my opinion on the paper, so I figured it was worthy of a blog post.

Briefly, the study was a follow up to a previous study by Yamanaka et al. , who reported significant increases in chest girth, as well as 1RM bench press and squat performance when BFR was combined with heavy resistance training in a group of well-trained college football players. Here are the particulars of the new study followed by my commentary and take home points.

Study Design:
The study used a protocol similar to the investigation carried out by Yamanaka et al. Sixty-two Division 2 football players took part in the study during their off-season from competition. Subjects were randomized into 1 of 4 groups:
• H/S/R Group. This group performed high-intensity training (H) consisting of traditional strength training exercises (bench press, overhead press, power cleans, squats, etc) and auxiliary lifts (bicep curls, triceps extensions, calf raises, and abdominal work). In addition, they performed supplemental lifts (S) at the end of each workout consisting of 4 additional sets of bench press on upper body day and 4 additional sets of squats on lower body day. The supplemental work was carried out under blood flow restriction (R).
• H/S Group. This group performed the exact workout as H/S/R except no BFR was used for the supplemental exercises.
• H Group: This group completed only the basic high-intensity training routine (H). They performed no supplemental exercise with or without BFR.
• M/S/R Group. This group performed only the auxiliary exercises but not the traditional strength training exercises. They also performed supplemental work with BFR at the end of each workout.

The BFR was a “practical” protocol that employed ~3 inch elastic wraps to occlude flow. The load for these exercises was set at 20% 1RM with the first set consisting of 30 reps followed by 3 sets of 20 reps separated by 45 seconds rest. For all groups, the training program employed an upper/lower body split performed 4 days per week for 7 weeks. The split followed a 2-on/1 off, 2-on/2-off format with workouts taking place Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday.

The Results
At the end of the 7 week study period, the group performing the traditional strength training protocol supplemented with BFR (H/S/R) showed significantly greater increases in 1RM squat compared to the other groups but there were no differences in 1 RM bench press between groups nor were there any differences in thigh, chest, or arm girth.

The researchers should be commended for an ambitious study design. They had a fairly large sample size (over 60 subjects) and the 4 groups provided diverse info on a variety of possible program applications. Moreover, the subjects were all well-trained lifters (average of over 7 years resistance training experience), which rules out any confounding issues associated with an initial learning curve and inflated gains from sedentarism.

That said, the study had a number of substantial limitations that cloud the ability to draw relevant conclusions. First and foremost, the use of circumference measurements as a proxy for muscular gains is highly suspect as the technique does not specifically measure muscle tissue in isolated areas of the body. Indeed, imaging techniques such as ultrasound have been shown to detect increases in muscle hypertrophy not seen by measures of girth. Compounding matters, the researchers made no attempt to control for nutrition. Remember, the subjects were college football players in the offseason from competition. To put it mildly, it’s highly unlikely they weighed their food and adhered to a balanced nutritional regimen. Since girth measurements cannot discern between muscle tissue and subcutaneous fat, this certainly could have confounded results.

Another thing that jumped out at me when reading the methodology was the following statement: “All sessions were supervised by the same two primary researchers in order to ensure compliance.” The study had over 60 subjects who trained at one of three times during each training day. That means that there were over 20 subjects training at a given time. How can two researchers adequately supervise all these subjects and ensure that they are training as per protocol? In my lab, I have a dedicated research assistant work with each subject in a training study. They supervise every aspect of the workout protocol – from using proper technique, to exerting sufficient intensity of effort, to making sure that the rest intervals are rigidly upheld. If research assistants did not in fact help out with supervision here, I’d have to question how well subjects actually complied with the protocol.

Finally and importantly, the results don’t make a whole lot of sense. Specifically, how could lower body strength show greater increases with BFR without concomitantly greater increases in hypertrophy? There are two primary mechanisms for strength improvements: an increase in muscle size (there is a direct relationship between muscle cross sectional area and the ability to produce force) and/or an enhancement in neural response. Research indicates that neural enhancement is primarily achieved through the use of heavy loads, particularly in a well-trained population who have transitioned past the initial motor learning stage. Thus, I find it difficult to believe that BFR — which uses very light loads — had a significant impact on neural aspects such as rate coding or synchronization. If strength was significantly increased in the BFR group compared to the non-BFR groups, it would seem that these improvements would have to be due to greater gains in muscle mass.

Bottom Line
While this study (as well as the previous study by Yamanka et al.) provides interesting data on the potential use of BFR as an adjunct to traditional resistance training, the aforementioned limitations make it difficult to draw an practical conclusions. Similar studies should be carried out using a validated imaging technique (i.e. MRI, CT, ultrasound, etc) under well-supervised conditions to determine if there are in fact any benefits to combining BFR with heavy loads.

Exercise, Hypertrophy

February 3, 2014

New Study: Bodybuilding-Type Training Increases Intracellular Water Content

I recently co-authored a new study that investigated increases in intracellular hydration following performance of 16 weeks of bodybuilding-type resistance training. I am pleased to say that the study — a collaboration with colleagues at Londrina State University in Brazil — has just been published in the European Journal of Sports Science. Here is a summary and what to take home from the findings.

The Background:
It has been well-established that regimented resistance training results in increases in muscle hypertrophy (i.e. growth). The mechanical forces associated with lifting cause an adaptive response that results in increases in the contractile elements (actin and myosin) as well as structural proteins of muscle. These adaptations ultimately facilitate the muscle to be able to exert greater amounts of force. It’s a basic adaptive response to a stress (i.e. a survival mechanism) that makes us stronger so we can handle similar future events if and when needed.

There has been extensive debate as to whether resistance training also increases non-contractile (sarcoplasmic) hypertrophy. Non-contractile elements include things such as collagen, organelles, and fluid. The fluid component is one of the more intriguing areas of discussion. It’s no secret that resistance training can have an effect on altering intramuscular water — the “pump” is a well-known phenomenon in bodybuilding-type training. But what remains unclear is whether resistance training can increase intracellular water chronically over time. Our study sought to shed light on this topic.

What We Did:
A total of 64 college-aged subjects (30 men and 34 women) participated in the study. Subjects engaged in a supervised progressive resistance training program carried out 3 non-consecutive days a week over 16 weeks. Training consisted of a bodybuilding-type routine whereby 3 sets of 8-12 reps were performed with 60-90 seconds rest between sets. A total of 11 exercises were performed per session using a combination of free weights, cables, and machines. All sets were taken to the point of momentary muscular failure.

Bioelectrical impedance spectroscopy (BIS) was used to measure total body water, intracellular water and extracellular water content. BIS is a validated tool for measuring body water and its various sub-fractions. Assessments were made at baseline, the mid-point of the study, and at study’s end.

The Results:
Intracellular water was significantly increased following training in both men and women. The effect size — in simple terms, a measure of the magnitude of results that takes into account variance between subjects — was considered moderate, indicating the results are meaningful. Both men and women showed approximately equal responses as to increases in intracellular water over the course of the study.

Practical Implications:
As noted, this study provides compelling evidence that regular bodybuilding-type resistance training leads to an increase in sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. Why should anyone care about increasing the water content of muscle? Well, there is a large body of research showing that cell swelling via increased intracellular hydration results in marked increases in protein synthesis and reductions in protein degradation; a hypertrophy homerun. These findings have been shown in a wide variety of cell types, implying that keeping muscle fibers hydrated may actually increase contractile hypertrophy and thus enhance strength.

Now it’s important to note that these observations are from in vitro (i.e. test tube) data. Whether similar results play out in practice in hard-training lifters is still unknown and need further study. That said, the aforementioned findings certainly suggest that there may well be an anabolic effect (and in fact one of the hypotheses for hypertrophic effects of creatine is its role as an osmolyte).

What remains unclear is whether the increased intracellular hydration is specific to bodybuilding-type training or inherent with all types of lifting. We speculated that results of the current study may have been due to increased glycogen storage. Bodybuilding-type training relies primarily on fast glycolysis to fuel performance, whereby carbohydrate is the primary energy source (as opposed to powerlifting-type training, which relies primarily on the phosphagen system). As such, the body adapts by increasing its capacity to store glycogen. Since glycogen attracts 3 grams of water for every glycogen granule, it stands to reason that this was responsible for the increased hydration status.

What’s Next:
We are currently designing a study that will compare chronic changes in water sub-fractions following bodybuilding- versus powerlifting-type training. The hope is to begin data collection before the year is out. Stay tuned.

Ribeiro AS, Avelar A, Schoenfeld BJ, Ritti Dias RM, Altimari LR, Cyrino ES. Resistance training promotes increase in intracellular hydration in men and women. Eur J Sport Sci. 2014 Jan 28. [Epub ahead of print]


January 20, 2014

2014 Speaking Schedule

Here is my speaking schedule for 2014. I’ll update the page as new dates are added.
• January 24: Private Seminar, Bath, UK
• January 25: Private Seminar, London, UK
• March 21: Sports Nutrition and Human Performance Conference, Tampa, FL
• May 2-3: Fitness Summit, Kansas City, MO
• May 15-16: BodyPower, Birmingham, England
• May 30-June 5: Private Seminar, Reykjanesbaer, Iceland
• June 21: ISSN National Conference, Clearwater, FL
• June 28: ISSN Europa, Hartford, CT
• July 11: NSCA National Conference, Las Vegas, NV
• July 26-27: Private Seminar, Limerick, Ireland
• August 7-10: CanFitPro, Toronto, Canada


January 15, 2014

A Dozen Must-Read Fitness Blogs

There’s certainly no shortage of fitness blogs on the internet. Everyone who’s ever lifted a weight seems to have one. Problem is finding those that have solid info backed by research and experience.

In an effort to separate the gold from the silt, I’ve compiled a list of fitness blogs that IMHO consistently deliver the goods. They provide info you can trust. No hype. No bro-science. Just quality fitness content.

A few caveats before proceeding. First off, the list is in no particular order — placings are not indicative of one blog being better than another. Rather, the blogs are all inherently different and unique, and therefore provide complementary reading. In addition, the list is not intended to be comprehensive. There are certainly a lot of other excellent blogs that are not mentioned here. I had to keep the number of entries manageable so I limited it to a dozen (actually a baker’s dozen, but who’s counting :)).

With that out of the way, on with list.

Bret Contreras: If you could only read one fitness blog, this is the one I’d recommend. No one puts out more quality content than Bret. It is really amazing how many posts he pens, but even more amazing that the info he provides is so consistently cutting-edge. There is a focus on glute training (he is “The Glute Guy” after all), but there’s also tons of posts on pretty much every aspect of exercise. Importantly, the info is always presented in a balanced fashion; there’s never an agenda furthered.

Weightology is a blog written by James Krieger. I’ve known James for years and collaborated with him on a number of research-based projects. Hands down he’s one of the brightest minds in the fitness industry. Much of his blog is pay-to-view, but there also is a good amount of free content as well. When James posts, you can bet the info is scientifically sound.

Alan Aragon: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, no one has a better grasp of the practical application of nutrition to exercise than Alan. As would be expected, his blog is great…except for one little thing: He’s too busy dominating the nutritional stratosphere to write many posts. Fortunately, when he does decide to post it’s invariably a homerun. For Exhibit A, check out this now-legendary rebuke of fructose alarmism. Side note: The comments section is just as compelling as the article with a guest appearance by Dr. Lustig himself!

Eric Cressey: In case you don’t know, Eric Cressey is one of the most sought-after strength coaches for baseball conditioning. Players come from all over the country to train at his facility, Cressey Performance, including many top pros. His blog includes baseball-related contditioning info but focuses more on general S&C info, including lots of discussion about mobility and stability drills. Best of all, he posts numerous teaching videos that demonstrate concepts discussed in the articles. Always a great read.

Born Fitness: This blog is written by Adam Bornstein, former editor for Men’s Health and Livestrong. Adam has keen insight into what fitness topics people want to read, and an innate ability to convey the info in an interesting fashion. He’s knowledgeable about exercise, and astute enough to consult with experts when needed. Bonus points for having one of the most well-designed sites as well.

Exercise Biology: This blog is written by Anoop Balachandran. Anoop has a terrific grasp of the exercise literature (he’s currently pursuing his PhD in ex phys), and understands the practical implications for the general public. The content is always evidence-based, with lots of discussion about the application of research into practice. When you fnish reading the blog, scan through the forums; they often contain high-level discussions as well.

Lou Schuler: Lou is perhaps the best pure fitness writer I’ve encountered. He has a knack for being able to present technical topics in a manner that is easily-digested, and usually does so in a humorous way. Similar to Adam Bornstein, Lou was a former editor at Men’s Health and other fitness mags. As such, he always seems to be at the forefront of what people want to know fitness-wise.

Nick Tuminello: Nick is another guy who amazes me with the number of articles he writes. He’s truly a writing machine. Nick posts on a variety of topics and isn’t afraid to tackle some controversial issues. He’s got a good sense of research and provides innovative training strategies based on a combinatoin of evidence and experience.

Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle: This blog is written by Tom Venuto. As the name implies, the blog primarily focuses on how to optimize body composition. Tom is a former bodybuilder and his approach borrows from many of the popular bodybuilding principles. But Tom isn’t just some bro. He’s well-versed in exercise science and dishes out advice in an evidence-based fashion. You won’t read about “peaking the biceps” or “carving out an inner chest.” You will read about time-tested training practicies that will help you attain a better physique.

Dean Somerset: Dean has more of a post-rehab focus than the others on this list. Accordingly, you can get a fresh take on topics that aren’t well covered elsewhere. While much of the posts delve into the medical fitness arena, there also are some good general training articles as well.

Body Recomposition: This is Lyle McDonald’s blog. Lyle is probably best known for writing about ketogenic diets, but he is highly knowledgeable in many areas of nutrition. Over the years he’s been an innovator in the field, using research to develop strategies for optimizing fat loss. Lots of evidence-based info about fitness on his site, particularly pertaining to diet.

Robertson Training Systems: This blog is penned by Mike Robertson, a popular strength coach based out of Indianapolis. Mike mostly focuses on performance-based topics with an emphasis on exercise technique. That said, there’s a little bit of something for everyone here, including some interesting interviews with up-and-coming fitness pros.

Tony Gentilcore: Tony is a partner with Eric Cressey in Cressey Performance. His blog covers serious training topics, but generally does so in a humorous manner. The topics are fairly diverse and the supporting videos he posts are first rate. What sets Tony apart is his fluent and engaging writing style that continually holds your interest. Always entertaining.


January 12, 2014

My Journey to a Doctoral Degree

My journey began a little more than 3 years ago, but in actuality it had been in the works for a lot longer. The idea of obtaining a PhD in exercise science came about while I was pursuing my Master’s degree in 2008. By the time I started working on my Master’s thesis, the thought was in the forefront of my mind; upon graduation, it had become my ultimate goal.

One little problem. I had a thriving career and, being in my 40s, was not about to chuck everything and become a full-time student. It simply wasn’t an option.

My alternatives were very limited. There simply weren’t many programs that provided a platform to getting a doctorate while you worked. Even fewer had programs that were within my area of interest. Yet I was committed to finding a viable solution.

Rocky Mountain University

Rocky Mountain University

After months of investigation, I learned that Rocky Mountain University in Provo, Utah had a hybrid PhD program that combined online and on-site coursework, thereby allowing the ability to go to school while working full-time. Better yet, Dr. Brent Alvar was the program director of the university. I was very familiar with Dr. Alvar’s work. He did the pioneering research on the dose-response relationship of resistance training, and was the mentor to many leading researchers during his tenure at Arizona State University.

For those who don’t know, the most important criteria in choosing a doctoral program is the person in charge of the program. This is who will be mentoring you throughout your studies. If the relationship doesn’t work or if your interests are out of sync, you’re basically wasting your time.

I spoke with Dr. Alvar by phone. We hit it off immediately. He told me about the coursework. I told him about my situation. He said it would be tough but doable. He said I was exactly the type of student he enjoyed mentoring. That was all I needed to hear. I applied the next day. A month later I was accepted into the program.

I began studies at RMU in March of 2011. For the next two-and-half years I had little time to myself. Between work and school, my social life was virtually nonexistent. Coursework was intense. We had 4 to 5 classes per semester working on a trimester schedule — i.e. there was almost no break between semesters. In addition to writing multiple research-based papers, each course required weekly online forum discussions throughout the term. Most courses had comprehensive tests as well. Once every semester I had to travel to Provo for a week of intensive in-class study. Classes met Monday-Friday from 8:30 am to 5:30 pm with an hour for lunch. Those were some loooong days!

Initital Cohort Group: 15 ultimately became 9

Initital Cohort Group: 15 ultimately became 9

The majority of my coursework was centered around research. I took three biostats classes, two classes in research methods, two classes in epidemiology, and other related courswork such as dissertation proposal writing and grant writing. Oh yeah, and there were the core classes as well. Our initial class had 15 cohorts; by the end of the program, only 9 of us remained. Suffice to say, the program was intense.

There also were four “independent project” courses. These courses afforded the ability to work on research by writing papers specific to our area of interest. I used the opportunity to write four review articles that were ultimately published in major peer-reviewed journals. I also was able to integrate the material into my dissertation review of literature. Without question, these classes were highly productive.

I finished up coursework in July of last year. I immediately took (and passed) my comprehensive exams so I could begin data collection for my dissertation study. The study was something I’d been planning since my Master’s class in research methods. I actually wrote up a proposal in that class which was quite similar to the study I ultimately carried out. The study itself examined muscular adaptations between bodybuilding- versus powerlifting-type training in experienced lifters. There were several novel findings from the study that will certainly add to our understanding on the topic, with important implications for program design. The manuscript is currently in journal review. I’ll be discussing the results at length upon publciation.

Dr. Brent Alvar: My Dissertation Chair and Mentor

Dr. Brent Alvar

This past Friday I defended my doctoral dissertation. The day seemed as if it would never come. The defense was held in Indianapolis at the NSCA Coaches Conference. My dissertation chair, Dr. Alvar, was present in the room. My other committee members, Dr. Nicholas Ratamess and Dr. Mark Peterson, were beamed in by the wonders of online technology. I gave a half-hour powerpoint presentation. I was then grilled for about 45 minutes on a wide array of topics about my study and its implications for future research.

After answering all questions, I was asked to step out of the room. I probably waited about 10 minutes but it felt like an hour. Finally Dr. Alvar opened the door and uttered the words, “Congratulations Dr. Schoenfeld…”

It was one of the most satisfying moments of my life. Just a huge feeling of accomplishment. So much work. So much sacrifice. All coming to fruition in the form of a doctoral degree — the ultimate testament to being a content expert in your area of study. My only regret was that my father was not around to share in the experience — he instilled the scientific method in me from the time I was young and would have probably been even happier than me with the achievement. Hopefully he’s watching somewhere from above.

So what’s next? I will continue exploring a wide variety of educational pursuits. My life’s work is to make a difference in the fitness realm, to have a positive impact on people’s lives. We have a limited time on earth; it’s imperative that we use our time wisely.

In addition to teaching at the college level, I’m currently involved in numerous research studies that will shed light on important topics in exercise science and sports nutrition. I’ll also be speaking across the country and around the world over the coming months, lecturing on how to apply the science of training and nutrition into practice. I’ll still work with a select group of individual clients for one-on-one training consults as well as serving in an advisor capacity to various corporations. And of course I’ll be involved in writing more articles and books targeted to fitness professionals and consumers, detailing the best practices to optimize results.

I feel very blessed to be an educator and make an impact. I look forward sharing the knowledge I’ve gained. I’ll be doing so right here on this blog. Stay tuned.




December 28, 2013

This and That…

As 2013 comes to an end, here are some random thoughts and goings on that I’d like to share:

• First and foremost, I’ll be defending my doctoral dissertation in a matter of weeks. The defense will mark the culmination of years of study and research. My dissertation paper titled, “Effects of different volume-equated resistance training loading strategies on muscular adaptations in well-trained men,” was submitted last week for peer-review. I’ll have lots more to say about the results in short order. Looking forward to completing this phase of my education and excited to enter the next phase in my never-ending quest for knowledge and enlightenment in exercise science.

• I was disappointed, although not entirely surprised, that Dr. John Ivy did not respond to my offer to publish a rebuttal to my critique of his recent review on nutrient timing. As discussed in my critique, the review by Dr. Ivy was a classic case of cherry-picking research to support a closely-held opinion while conveniently neglecting to mention compelling evidence to the contrary. This type of article would be expected in the muscle rags, not in a peer-reviewed journal. If Dr. Ivy truly believes the evidence supports his position, I challenge him to debate me on the topic. He can pick the time and place. Let’s put all the info out there and allow the public to decide. It’s how science is supposed to work.

• Speaking of nutrient timing, I was interviewed by Carl Lanore on Super Human Radio about my recent paper, The effect of protein timing on muscle strength and hypertrophy: a meta-analysis. Carl always does a superb job asking the right questions and allowing leeway for scientific discussion. Some very important info discussed here, not just about nutrient timing, but also as to how to put research into proper perspective for practical decision-making. Here is a link to the interview.

• I’ve had several peer-reviewed papers either published or accepted for publication within the past few weeks. My paper co-authored with Bret Contreras titled The Muscle Pump: Potential Mechanisms and Applications for Enhancing Hypertrophic Adaptations was just published ahead-of-print in the Strength and Conditioning Journal. This article discusses how cell swelling associated with resistance exercise can provide an anabolic stimulus that potentially increases muscle growth. On a related topic, I just received acceptance from the European Journal of Sports Science on a study that I collaborated on with researchers from Brazil showing that bodybuilding-type resistance exercise results in a long-term increase in cellular hydration. This has important potential implications for muscle growth. Finally, another article I co-authored with Bret, Is Postexercise Muscle Soreness a Valid Indicator of Muscular Adaptations? has been made available to be viewed for free by the NSCA. Normally articles published in the Strength and Conditioning Journal are only viewable at no charge for members. I’m not sure how much longer the opportunity will last, so if you haven’t read the article as yet I’d encourage you to download it now.

• Last but not least, here is Episode 7 of the B&B webcast covering evidence-based fitness prescription. Contrary to popular belief, evidence-based practice is not simply a matter of knowing the research; it involves synthesizing the current body of evidence and then combining this knowledge with personal experience and taking the needs and abilities of the individual into account. In this episode we delve into the topic in depth and discuss how to blend the science and art of fitness to optimize training programs.

That’s all for now. 2013 has been a great year, but 2014 should be even better. Look forward to making a meaningful contribution to our understanding of the science and art of fitness and nutrition, and of course sharing that knowledge with you all.

Stay well and stay fit!



December 8, 2013

Calories: True as a concept, futile as a law

This is a guest post from the good folks at, who do a great job providing objective research-based info on pretty much all areas of nutrition and supplementation. It’s an important topic that all-too-often is misunderstood by the general public. Thanks to Sol Orwell and his team for explaining the concept in an easy-to-understand manner and exploring its practical applications. For those interested in the technical aspects, I would recommend you read the paper by Thomas et al. A Mathematical Model of Weight Change with Adaptation.

Calories in versus calories out is one of the fundamental ‘laws’ of nutrition. Though it upholds both the law of thermodynamics and the conservation of mass, the calories in versus calories out theory doesn’t hold up when applied to the human body. If anything, it is a guiding statement based on a law.

When looking at a true closed system (humans don’t count), any possible conversions of energy can be predicted down to a single joule, with nearly 100% accuracy. This is because our equations for energy transfers in closed systems are very good.

When looking at an open system, like the human body, we also have a set of equations we can rely on. Unfortunately, they’re not quite as good as their closed-system counterparts. As an example, lets look at the most commonly used equation to determine caloric expenditure and your basal metabolic rate.

The Harris-Benedict formula for men:

88.362 + (13.397 x bodyweight in kg) + (4.799 x height in cm) – (5.677 x age in years)

The Harris-Benedict formula for women:

447.593 + (9.247 x bodyweight in kg) + (3.098 x height in cm) – (4.330 x age in years)

Don’t forget to multiply by the ‘activity’ factors. Use 1.2 if you are sedentary, 1.375 for light exercise, 1.55 for moderate, 1.725 for heavy, and 1.9 for intense exercise.

The above calculations are pretty good, since the parameters being measured (gender, weight, height, age, and activity level) account for a lot of variation in the metabolic rate between individuals.

Still, it’s not an absolute rule. There are many other factors that influence the metabolic rate that are not included in the Harris-Benedict equation. These include:

• Adipokine status, including leptin, adiponectin, and resistin.
• Thyroid hormone status
• Steroid hormone status, including estrogens and androgens, as well as DHEA.
• Mitochondrial efficiency and ‘uncoupling’, also known as thermogenesis.

The formula doesn’t include these factors because it is impractical to expect people filling out a BMR equation to know their mitochondrial efficiency.

Moreover, the activity levels are vague. What feels ‘intense’ to one person could be ‘moderate’ to another. A misinterpretation of activity levels for someone with a 2000kcal intake could result in a difference of up to 700kcal.

Calories in, as a concept, is fundamentally hard to predict. Differences in food absorption, whether due to genetics, nutrient co-ingestion or even the shape of the chyme in your stomach are hard to account for. The differences in nutrient partitioning after absorption, or whether the nutrients go to muscle, glycogen or fat are even harder to predict.

Don’t forget that calorie counts are not absolute. Though a food label may list “70kcal” as the caloric value for one serving size, a more accurate description is “70kcal, give or take a 5% margin of error.”

Does this mean I shouldn’t worry about calories?

No, no, and no. Despite the above complications, calories do matter in concept, and having even a rough grasp on caloric intake is invaluable. The only change that needs to happen is how you view your caloric intake.

Instead of deciding to eat 2,357 calories a day to maintain weight, eat “a little above 2,000 calories.” Rather than deciding to cut 500 calories from your daily diet to lose a pound of fat per week, aim to eat approximately 500 less calories per day, and track how your body responds.

At any point during the day, you should be able to accurately estimate your caloric intake, as well as how many calories you have left to eat that day. Instead of expecting a perfect caloric count, aim for +/- 200 calories of the true value.

A relaxed but consistent style of nutrient tracking means you’ll be hitting your goals and stressing less about it. Best of all, you’ll never feel constricted because your favorite food would put you over your limit by 50 calories. Just remember: being relaxed doesn’t mean you’re not determined.

Written by Kurtis Frank and Dr. Spencer Nadolsky. Both are directors at, an independent and un-biased organization that focuses on evidence for supplementation and nutrition.


December 7, 2013

Our Meta-Analysis of Protein Timing: Thoughts and Perspectives

I’m happy to report that the meta-analysis on protein timing that I co-authored with Alan Aragon and James Krieger has been published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition. The study has created quite a stir, provoking discussion and debate in numerous forums. As a testament to its impact, the study already is in the top five most viewed articles for the JISSN over the past year at the time of this writing — less than a week after its publication!

This post will recap the study and provide consumer-friendly practical application of results. Before getting into particulars, however, here is a brief overview as to how it all came about.

A Little Background
For many years I was a staunch proponent of the concept of an “anabolic window of opportunity,” advocating that protein and carbs needed to be consumed within about an hour post-workout to maximize the hypertrophic response to an exercise bout. I’d read the seminal text by Poortman and Ivy that championed the approach. I’d seen numerous studies suggesting the presence of a narrow window, including the JISSN position stand on the topic. I’d heard a number or prominent researchers in the field lecture at conferences on the importance of quickly ingesting nutrients after resistance training for promoting anabolism. The evidence seemed pretty overwhelming – a no-brainer.

But then…

A couple of years ago, I asked my good friend and colleague Alan Aragon – one of the preeminent sports nutritionists in the world – to review the nutritional chapter for my book, The M.A.X. Muscle Plan. In doing so, Alan challenged my recommendation as to the importance of nutrient timing. He pointed out various flaws in the underlying science. He put forth the hypothesis that the concept was largely overhyped.

I was intrigued.

I did a thorough literature search, combing through all the relevant studies, both acute and long-term. And guess what? The more I looked into the matter, the less convinced I was at the veracity of supporting evidence for a narrow anabolic window. It became evident that the staunch proponents of nutrient were cherry-picking studies to support their position while ignoring conflicting research. Moreover, there were important limitations in many of the studies favoring timing that often were not properly addressed. It was clear to me that a balanced review was needed to provide clarity on the topic.

Over the next several months Alan and I delved in head-first, discussing the body of research in context and developing evidence-based conclusions. This process ultimately led to a change in our perspectives, with both of us moving more to the center (as reflected in our practical recommendations). The final product was titled Nutrient Timing Revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window?, published in JISSN earlier this year. It is now by far the most popular article in the history of the journal and has been highly cited in subsequent research.

One thing that really struck me when reviewing the literature was the disparity in longitudinal studies; some showed clear increases in muscular adaptations while others did not. A major issue with long-term training studies is that they have small sample sizes; the time and costs associated with such research limit the number of participants that can be evaluated. It was certainly plausible that studies showing no effect simply lacked the statistical power to note a significant difference (a so-called a Type II error). The only way to evaluate the topic and provide a valid quantitive analysis of findings was to conduct a meta-analysis, where the data from all relevant studies are pooled to achieve optimal statistical power. I spoke with Alan about the undertaking. We contacted nutrition and statistical whiz James Krieger. The rest, as they say, is now history…

Data Collection and Findings
The meta-analysis took several months to complete. We decided on appropriate inclusion/exclusion criteria, coding variables, and other info relevant to the analysis. We were meticulous in our approach, checking and rechecking data for accuracy. Most importantly, we remained unbiased and objective throughout; none of us had any idea what we would find nor did we care. The only thing that mattered was getting clarity on the topic.

It was a very involved process, with an endless number of email exchanges and phone calls. We continually reassessed our methods so that results would properly reflect the body of literature. The most frustrating part was not being able to get any preliminary findings until all coding was complete. Patience was a virtue :)

The first analysis looked at the basic data. In other words, we did a simple pooled analysis to see if there were any increses in muscle strength or hypertrophy from protein timing. No effects were seen with respect to strength but, lo and behold, there was a small but significant effect on muscle hypertrophy. Had we effectively confirmed the existence of an anabolic window?

Not so fast…

Over the next couple of days we ran sophisticated regression analysis whereby a number of variables (i.e. covariates) were examined independently to evaluate their impact on results. This produced the most interesting finding of all: the quantity of protein explained virtually all the variance in results! Specifically, a majority of studies did not match protein intake between groups: the experimental group consumed substantially more protein than the controls. Thus, the average protein consumption in the control groups were well below what is deemed necessary to maximize protein synthesis associated with resistance training. Only a few studies actually endeavored to match intake. We did a subanalysis of these studies. No effects were found on protein timing (and this was in spite of having to discard a study that showed no effect because of insufficient available data).

Practical Implications and Other Observations
The take home message from the meta-analysis is that there does not appear to be a narrow “anabolic window of opportunity”; for the vast majority of the population it really doesn’t matter whether you consume protein immediately after training or wait for a couple of hours. This should be liberating for most lifters. You don’t have to worry about slamming a shake the minute you finish lifting. It’s okay to relax a bit, do whatever you need to do, and get in your post-workout nutrition when its convenient.

Now the findings of our study come with several caveats. For one, our criteria for timed consumption was < 1 hour pre- or post-workout, while the non-timed groups were > 2 hours. It is not clear if waiting say 5 hours or more after a training session would have a negative impact. In my previous review with Alan, we proposed that a window probably exists, but it is rather wide (4-6 hours) and will depend on when you ate your pre-workout meal. Our findings in this meta-analysis do nothing to change these guidelines.

Another important point is that there is a paucity of studies that have matched protein consumption between the timed vs untimed groups. Although our subanalysis failed to show any differences, statistical power was lacking and it remains possible that there may be an underlying effect that we were not able to detect. We need more well-controlled research where intake is matched between groups.

Finally and importantly, the majority of studies were carried out on untrained subjects; none employed elite bodybuilders or athletes. There are numerous differences between newbies and experienced lifters, including anabolic responsiveness, the ability to train at higher levels of intensity of effort, the capacity to recruit the full spectrum of muscle fibers, etc. These factors may or may not have an impact on the importance of timing. We simply don’t have enough info to make a determination at this juncture. Moreover, the measures used to assess hypertrophy (i.e. DXA, MRI, CT, etc) have inherent limitations and might not be sensitive enough to show small effects that potentially could be meaningful to competitive athletes. So if you are a highly trained lifter where it is essential to achieve absolute maximal hypertrophy, it makes sense to consume protein as quickly as possible post-workout; doing so certainly won’t hurt and possibly might help, albeit to a small extent.

In closing, I want to say special thanks to Dymatize Nutrition for funding this study. They agreed to provide the grant without any strings. They placed no restrictions on findings; whatever we found, we reported. This truly speaks to the integrity of the company. In my book, they are tops when it comes to nutritional supplementation.

In addition, kudos to the JISSN for publishing a study that runs counter to their position statement on the topic. It’s refreshing to see that journals maintain a commitment to science and reaffirms faith in the peer-review process.

What’s Next?
One of the important things about meta-analyses and reviews is that they help to guide the direction of future research. Based on our findings, I am in the process of designing a timing study that should help to fill in the gaps in the literature. Still some things to work out, but I hope to get it underway sometime in 2014.

Moreover, Alan, James and I are currently working on a related meta-analysis that should produce equally impactful results. That’s about all I can say at the moment, but will post as soon as data is available. Stay tuned…