Saturday 19 February 2022

The "New" Science of Muscle Building

Many lifters think that the more scientific-sounding an article or program is, the more muscle it will build. This causes them to get distracted by the wrong type of research. If you are serious about your results, stop using "old" science to build new muscle!

Photo by Damir Spanic on Unsplash

Now, let me be clear: science does not expire. Do not be a publication date-snob A properly designed study published decades ago can be just as relevant as a study published today. By “old science”, I mean traditional exercise physiology studies. Allow me to explain with a quick history lesson. 

A Brief History of Exercise Science
Physiology is the study of how the human body works. Exercise physiology studies how the body responds to the stress of exercise. In traditional research, an Exercise Physiologist would put a research subject on a bike or treadmill and then measure various factors (e.g. heart rate, cardiac output, oxygen consumption, blood lactate levels) changed in response to exercise. Early resistance training research followed this approach. For example, the researcher might take a blood sample, have the subject do a set of leg extensions, re-take a blood sample, analyze the results, and publish a study. 

The problem with this approach is that physiologists ask the question, “How does the body build muscle?” As a lifter (and if you are a coach), you need to ask a different question: “What actually works to build the most muscle?”

When you ask the wrong question, you still get some exciting, scientific articles, posts and videos, but you often fail to get the best way to build muscle. The old science leaves muscle building in the theoretical realm. It goes like this: 
Because training protocol X changes physiological variable Y the most, we think X will build the most muscle. Right? 
Really? Are you sure?

Let us look at three classic examples:  

Example 1: EMG Studies
EMG (Electromyography) studies attach electrodes to subjects’ muscles. This can be on the surface of the skin or inserted in the muscle (sounds like fun!). Then they have subjects perform various exercises for a particular muscle group to see which exercise produced the highest electrical activity in the target muscle. Then fitness writers produce articles such as, “The Best Chest Exercises According to Science!” 

One concern with EMG research is its accuracy (15, 1). In addition, there is limited evidence that EMG predicts long-term changes in muscle hypertrophy (17). You must also consider your individual structure. For example, if you have long legs, squats will work your glutes more than your quads and vice versa if you have short legs.

EMG Research Application: 
Yes, EMG studies might help you find effective exercises for a body part. However, muscle recruitment is only one of many factors that you need to consider when selecting your best muscle-building exercises. Never look at one factor while ignoring the others. The full list of factors includes:

  1. Joint comfort
  2. Your confidence in doing the exercise 
  3. Target muscle recruitment 
  4. Cost (risk, energy demand, recovery impact) vs. benefit (effect on muscle growth)
  5. Load you can use (higher is usually better)
  6. Ability to progress the exercise 

Example 2: Protein Synthesis
Research shows that protein synthesis (tissue building) is elevated after training for about 36 to 48 hours after training (6, 8). This has led to the support of high-frequency training. However, recent research found that the higher frequency did not change the rate of protein synthesis (14). Research has also shown that short-term protein synthesis does not correlate to long-term muscle growth (7).

Protein Synthesis Application: 
Stop worrying about protein synthesis. A recent systematic review and meta-analysis found that when the volume is equated for, training frequency is not that important (11). A review published the following year found the same results (3). 

Example 3: Testosterone, Growth Hormone, and IGF-1
Exercise physiology research has identified resistance-training protocols that cause acute (short-term) increases in anabolic hormones. However, these short-term spikes do not seem to correlate to long-term muscle growth (2). In addition, a recent systematic review and meta-analysis found that training (weight, cardio, or a combination) does not seem to affect resting total or free testosterone (17). 

Hormone Research Application: 
Use your overall healthy lifestyle, sleep, stress management, dietary practices, and possibly supplementation (to help correct deficiencies) to help you optimize your natural hormone levels. Focus on your results, not on protocols promising to maximize acute spikes in anabolic hormones. 

The Good-Better-Best Approach to Scientific Muscle Building
Good: Use Training Studies
Thanks to Dr. Brad Schoenfeld and many other fine researchers, there has been an explosion of training studies in the last decade. With training studies, researchers compare two different variables that lifters care about (e.g. whole body vs. split routines) to see which actually builds the most muscle. While these studies are far more useful than the traditional exercise physiology studies, they come with their own challenges, which include:

  • Expensive 
  • Small number of subjects
  • Often (though not always) use subjects with little or no (thus limiting application to experienced lifters)
  • Short duration
    • Remember, you are training for decades, not 6-12 weeks like these training studies. Things that may work well in the short-term (e.g. high volume or frequency) might beat you up, and hinder long-term progress.
  • You cannot account for all the out-of-gym time which can drastically change training outcomes

Better: Use Meta-Analysis 
A meta-analysis is a study of studies. For this, researchers gather all the studies that meet their criteria. Then, they statistically analyze the results of all these studies. This gives you a better understanding of research trends. You also get to see how things are working for a larger group of people. For example, if you take 10 studies that have 20 people in each study, you can now examine the effects of that training variable on 200 people.

Note: a meta-analysis is only as good as the quality of studies they use. Better original studies = better meta-analysis. 

Summary of systematic reviews and meta-analysis on muscle hypertrophy: 
Training frequency: 
When volume is equated for, training frequency is not that important (11).

Reps & Loads: 
High and low, loads produce similar gains in size while high loads are better for strength (12, 5, and 10).

Increasing volume increases muscle size (13). My Note: There is of course a limit to how much you can increase volume. At some point, further volume increases will not yield more muscle and may result in a loss of muscle and strength. 

Training to Failure:
There is no difference in hypertrophy between training to failure and non-failure training when the volume was equalized (16). Note: non-failure training still has to be hard (i.e. close to true failure).

Best: Be Your Own Research Subject 
In today’s research-saturated, information-overloaded world of training, many lifters and coaches stop thinking and blindly follow the research. Remember, science does not have all the answers. Instead, you need to be your own researcher and research subject. You need to find what works for you! I know you have heard that before. However, do you actually have a system in place that lets you truly discover what is and is not working for you? 

8 Steps to Individualizing your Training
Step 1: Actually do the basics
Some people take individualization too far, thinking they are such a unique snowflake that their training must be radically different from every other lifter on the planet. Do not be that lifter. In addition, do not become so focused on insignificant details that you fail to do what really builds muscle. No investigation into individualization matters until you are consistently doing the following:

  • Training consistently
  • Working hard
  • Using mostly compound, multi-joint exercises
  • Using good form
  • Eating mostly nourishing foods
  • Getting a modest calorie surplus each day 
  • Eating around 1 gram of protein per pound each day
  • Getting 7-9 hours of sleep each night
  • Having some rest time to chill each day

Stop! I know you knew everything on that list. However, go back and ask yourself, “Can I honestly say I am consistently doing everything on that list?” If you cannot, making each of those items “yes” items is your top training priority. 

Step 2: Use science as a starting point
Use well-designed training studies as a starting spot for your training discoveries. Chances are slim that you will be radically different from what is working for many people.  

Step 3: Do not be a science snob
While you do not want to follow everything they say, you can learn a lot from veteran coaches and lifters – even if they do not have a bunch of letters behind their names.

Step 4: Carefully track and measure
The more you track the more data you have to work with. Here is what you should track:
  • Body composition (weight, girth measures, use other testing methods if available)
    • Note: body composition testing is not for everyone. It can be harmful for those who struggle with disordered eating and/or healthy body image. 
  • Training log
  • Comments in your training log (e.g. this exercise is hurting my shoulder)
  • Sleep log
  • Food intake
  • Monthly or bi-monthly performance on key lifts. (For example, if you are squatting the same weight you were squatting 6 months ago, there is a good chance your legs are not any bigger)
Step 5: Be patient
If you are making progress, do not start tweaking and changing things to make faster progress. Remember, most people who train make no progress. When using a program, give it several weeks to months so you can actually see what works. If you constantly program hop or are a compulsive tweaker, you will never learn what works best for you. 

Step 6: Change one thing at a time
Many lifters try a new diet, a new training program, and 10 new supplements all at the same time. While this may yield good results, you now have no idea what actually worked. Instead, think like a scientist. Try one new thing at a time, so you can assess the impact of that one variable. 

Step 7: Take time to stop and reflect
There is no point in taking time to gather data if you do not stop to analyze your data. After you finish a program or a least a few times a year, go back through your records, reflect, and discover. 

Step 8: Keep a lessons log
As you go through steps 1-7, keep track of what you learn about how your body responds to training. I have wasted years of my training life re-learning the same lessons. Remember that every training experience be it a smashing success or complete disaster is a learning opportunity – if you capture that lesson. 

Your careful execution of the scientific method on yourself trumps the latest, greatest science – every time. 

For more information on how to build muscle, check out my book: Size for Skinny Guys.

If you have questions or suggestions for future topics, drop them in the comment section below.

Thanks for reading!


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