It’s a pretty great tweet.
When the gym is your lab: Bro-Science
If you go to any gym, you’ll find a great deal of unusually specific information about strength training. Strangely, you’ll find very little in-depth knowledge of anatomy, physiology, or scientific literature appended to it.
This information is Bro-Science. The problem with Bro-Science is that it differs from gym to gym based on a combination of the shared experience present and the amount of time people spend on the Internet and what lifting forums they frequent.
I used to make fun of Bro-Science. Truth be told, some Bro-Science could kill or a least injure you.
But some of it has proved remarkably prescient. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, occlusion training, increased protein for cutting fat, training to failure, and the rep-ranges for muscle growth all seem to have been discovered, not by bespectacled dorks in white lab-coats but by oiled gym-bros in sleeveless shirts. But what process gives us bro-science?
Tradition is Antifragile
Enter Nicolas Taleb. Taleb describes systems in terms of three traits: fragility, robustness, and antifragility. Fragile systems break when they encounter chaos. Robust systems survive. Antifragile systems grow and adapt. He describes this process in connection with tradition here:
Consider the role of heuristic (rule-of-thumb) knowledge embedded in traditions. Simply, just as evolution operates on individuals, so does it act on these tacit, unexplainable rules of thumb transmitted through generations— what Karl Popper has called evolutionary epistemology. But let me change Popper’s idea ever so slightly (actually quite a bit): my take is that this evolution is not a competition between ideas, but between humans and systems based on such ideas. An idea does not survive because it is better than the competition, but rather because the person who holds it has survived! Accordingly,Taleb, Nassim Nicholas (2012-11-27). Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder (Kindle Locations 3841-3847). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
wisdomyou learn from your grandmother should be vastly superior (empirically, hence scientifically) to what you get from a class in business school (and, of course, considerably cheaper). My sadness is that we have been moving farther and farther away from grandmothers.
In other words, bro-science works because the people who practice bro-science are still in the gym. Sometimes this is because their genetics and luck helped them survive and thrive under dangerous training methodologies. But s
I did an experiment based on some new data I discovered about tendons. My 8-year knee tendinitis is gone as of 2014. It had to do with exercising more frequently. I got a lot stronger in just 3 weeks. After 6 weeks, I hit my then all-time squat max of 365 for an easy single rep.
In my own life experience, perhaps the safest and least time-consuming way to pursue total body fitness is to train with somewhere between 6 and 12 exercises and train with perfect form, taking each exercise to a state of complete positive muscular failure, briefly resting and then moving to the next exercise. Your muscles are getting an intense workout, your hardest reps happen when the muscles are producing the least force (because they are tired) and none of the movements are “explosive” thus accelerating the weight to very high velocities and risking injury. During workouts of this nature, your heart feels like it might explode out of your chest, you breath very hard, and your veins pump lava or pieces of broken glass. The problem with training this way, at least for me, is psychological. Every workout must be all out if you wish to make steady progress. Other problems are related to trying to plan for enough rest and when you train this way the metabolic demands are high. Research shows that muscle protein adaptations last for up to 21 days after the most recent bout of training. Energy system adaptations can begin to regress within 4-7 days. I wish I could remember where I found that data, but I remember everything but the name of the study and it’s authors…which means nothing. Nevertheless, training like every workout is a zero-sum game can be psychologically defeating. Also, the training is seldom enough that other types of adaptations apparently cannot happen (more on that later, as it is the point of the article).
Personal Story: Knee and Back Pain
When I was 20 I woke up one morning with very bad knee pain. This came right around the same time I seriously injured my back. I went to a doctor and received an x-ray on both offending pieces of my body. The knee pain was determined to be very serious tendinitis (probably from a knee collision in a jiujitsu match a while before). The back injury, which was missed in the x-ray but was confirmed by another doctor, was a torn ligament between a rib and one of my vertebrae (don’t remember which). Anyhow, I was told to lay off exercise for 6 weeks. If my knee still hurt, it was recommended that I start walking more than just at work and home to facilitate recovery for 6 more weeks. It was especially important that I do no squats or dead lift. If it still hurt, I was told to go back (maybe to get recommended for physical therapy). A weird series of events involving a car accident occurred which lead me to hit the weights again despite the pain about 3 months later. I was weak, fatter than I’d ever been, and my first set of squats did two things: left me gasping for breath and trying my hardest not to puke and when the muscle soreness my knee and back hurt less. TMy knee never stopped hurting, it just hurt less.
Research on Tendon Adaptation
Anyhow, fast forward to now and I started using Ebsco to do research through the public library (out of grad school so I don’t get my own key code anymore). I discovered that there have been several advancements in the knowledge of connective tissue adaptation since my time as an exercise science major. For instance, in 2007 a study was published (though with no control group) observing the effects of leg extension training on subjects doing heavyweight with one leg and light-weight with the other. There were several interesting observations, but what was most pleasing to discover was that the patellar tendon actually experienced hypertrophy as well as increased stiffness (a good thing for joint health) in the leg trained with heavier weight:
In summary, the present study is to the best of our knowledge the first human study to report tendon hypertrophy following heavy resistance training. Further, the data show that tendon hypertrophy to heavy-resistance training in the patellar tendon was related to the proximal and distal region, but not to the mid-region of the tendon.Kongsgaard, M., S. Reitelseder, T. G. Pedersen, L. Holm, P. Aagaard, M. Kjaer, and S. P. Magnusson. 2007. “Region Specific Patellar Tendon Hypertrophy in Humans Following Resistance Training.” Acta Physiologica 191 (2): 111–21. doi:10.1111/j.1748-1716.2007.01714.x.
In the abstract of a literature review from 2006, I found that
For tendons, metabolic activity (e.g.detected by positron emission tomography scanning), circulatory responses (e.g. as measured by near-infrared spectroscopy and dye dilution) and collagen turnover are markedly increased after exercise. Tendon blood flow is regulated by cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2)-mediated pathways, and glucose uptake is regulated by specific pathways in tendons that differ from those in skeletal muscle. Chronic loading in the form of physical training leads both to increased collagen turnover as well as to some degree of net collagen synthesis. These changes modify the mechanical properties and the viscoelastic characteristics of the tissue, decrease its stress-susceptibility and probably make it more load-resistant.Kjær, Michael, Peter Magnusson, Michael Krogsgaard, Jens Boysen Møller, Jens Olesen, Katja Heinemeier, Mette Hansen, et al. 2006. “Extracellular Matrix Adaptation of Tendon and Skeletal Muscle to Exercise.” Journal of Anatomy 208 (4): 445–50. doi:10.1111/j.1469-7580.2006.00549.x
Several other studies report the same sort of results. The most interesting things to me are A) The increase in protein synthesis B) The increase in blood flow (which can provide nutrients for recovery) C) That actual hypertrophy can be stimulated in tendons D) that even body weight squats increase tendon stiffness in elderly and untrained populations. But what was most interesting to me on a personal level was that “collagen synthesis in human tendon rises by around 100% with just one bout (60 min) of acute exercise, and the elevated collagen synthesis is still present 3 days after exercise (Fig. 3; Miller et al. 2005). In skeletal muscle, the rate of collagen synthesis also increases with exercise, in a time-dependent manner that follows the increase in myofibrillar protein synthesis with exercise (Miller et al. 2005).” What this means for people who have had chronic tendinopathy, is hard to say. But what inferred that it could mean is that training with more frequency than I’m used to could increase the protein turnover rate in my knee and promote recovery. Given my own hypothesis that overuse injuries often come from explosive exercise and sudden acceleration of a limb which puts tremendous force on connective tissue despite low resistance, I decided that squatting more frequently with heavy enough weight to induce protein synthesis could help my knee.
I thus decreased my weight on squats, began using a high-bar Olympic depth, squat and hit the gym 3 days in a row during week one. Then week two I did the same thing and the weights that were very heavy using that style of squat went up very easily. I ended up squatting a personal best (345 pounds with no belt, no spotter, and no struggle) even compared to my wider power-lifting stance. This week I did
Starting Thursday morning I woke up with no knee pain. Today I still have no knee pain. Now, any number of things could have contributed to my apparent recovery after eight years of tendinitis. I could have just finally eaten enough protein, I could have finally slept enough, maybe I ate a magic vegetable like in a video game, it could be placebo though I imagine that would have fixed it years ago, or perhaps a wizard did it. But, the only variable I changed in my one subject sample group was exercise frequency. Now, my shoulders feel a bit beat up from squatting heavy for 5 days in a row. My lower back is pretty sore too. I certainly read less this week because the trips to the gym eat up evening time after work, but my knee feels better. I did chores around the house all morning and hardly noticed. Normally my knee remains in the fore on my consciousness when I’m picking things up, fixing things, or bumping it into stuff. It was unnoticeable today. I’ll tell you what happens in the future.
Researchers have found that under the typical conditions of care for obese and overweight individuals that:
“current nonsurgical obesity treatment strategies are failing to achieve sustained weight loss for the majority of obese patients. For patients with a BMI of 30 or greater kilograms per meters squared, maintaining weight loss was rare and the probability of achieving normal weight was extremely low. Research to develop new and more effective approaches to obesity management is urgently required.(58)”
The article isn’t entirely pessimistic and it ends on a positive note, I recommend reading it.
The point I wish to highlight is that once a certain threshold of weight gain is reached, it can be difficult or impossible to reverse.
I do not mean to take away hope from people who have overfatted themselves. The data reviewed was from the UK primary care database. That means, it doesn’t include people who see dietitians, personal trainers, or who take personal ownership of their own well-being through research and hard work. That means it doesn’t include you. Why? Because if you read this blog you aren’t the kind of person who lets a statistic enslave you.
My doctor friends tell me that it is rare for patients to respond positively to non-surgical and non-prescription intervention recommendations. And there is some evidence that doctors often don’t tell patients that they are over-weight. The same article linked in the previous sentence indicates that many doctors to not feel competent to help patients lose weight and keep it off.
As the Fildes article states, “the greatest opportunity for tackling the current obesity epidemic may be found outside primary care (58).” While your doctor may not be able to help you lose weight or prevent you from gaining it, you can choose to do it. You can lift weights, you can base your diet on meat, eggs, and veggies. You can throw away all of your junk food. You can walk every day. You can lift 3 days a week. You can make food your fuel rather than your fun. You can do these things. And if you finished reading this post, you will.
Alison Fildes et al., “Probability of an Obese Person Attaining Normal Body Weight: Cohort Study Using Electronic Health Records,” American Journal of Public Health 105, no. 9 (July 16, 2015): 54–59.
When I was a personal trainer I had always hypothesized that strength training would lead to positive outcomes for pregnant women and the child, particularly if they had been training prior to the conception of their child.
Since I’m not a research center and such training could be high risk, I just wouldn’t train a pregnant woman. The wisdom in the early 2000s was, “don’t engage in strength training if you’re pregnant.” Among
Recently (2015) the American College of
Anyway, strength training is getting closer and closer to being a scientifically verified panacea. In the case of pregnancy, strength training:
- Does not increase the risk of pre-term birth.
- May improve fetal heart function (circuit style training)
- Improves maternal energy levels
- Decreases risk of preeclampsia.
- Lowers risk of unhealthy weight gain (this one should have been obvious)
- Lowers risk of gestational diabetes
- Decreases incontinence by strengthening pelvic floor musculature
- Potentially decreases risk factors to the child caused by the mother being overweight
- Makes the mother feel healthier
- Decreases risk for post birth depression (exercise in general)
- Decreased back pain
Now, I’m no doctor and I’m not making any recommendations. But hopefully this information helps you do some of your own research.
*American College of Obstetrians and Gynecologists. Physical activity and exercise during pregnancy and the postpartum period. Committee Opinion Number 650 2015.
So asks Tyler Durden in, Fight Club.
I think it’s a serious question.
And even for men to prefer gymnastic exercises by far to the baths, is perchance not bad, since they are in some respects conducive to the health of young men, and produce exertion—emulation to aim at not only a healthy habit of but courageousness of soul…But let not such athletic contests, as we have allowed, be undertaken for the sake of vainglory, but for the exuding of manly sweat. Nor are we to struggle with cunning and showiness, but in a stand-up wrestling bout, by disentangling of neck, hands, and sides. For such a struggle with graceful strength is more becoming and manly, being undertaken for the sake of serviceable and profitable health.Clement of Alexandria
Clement of Alexandria is under the impression that the gymnasium, including wrestling/
 Clement of Alexandria, “The Instructor,” in Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire), ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 2, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 284.