Actionable Data: Routine Adjustments Based On Lack of Muscle In Spite Of Strength Gain

My most popular post, “The Six-Year Itch,” was capped with this statement:

I write this mostly for myself, as a return to what got me to damn near my genetic potential in the first place. High intensity weight training to total muscular fatigue, focusing on emptying the tank as fast as possible and judging progress by internal cues rather than forcing external metrics (e.g. raising weight just because or fidgeting to reach a better TUL).

If I end up training with weights more than 1 hour per week, I’m doing it wrong. I bet I can get it back down under 20 minutes like the old days. Hell, less than 10 minutes (per week) has let Vee achieve 18+ inch arms.

That post was just over 1 year ago and since then I’ve started grad school and have maintained a very busy training schedule. However, the perk of grad school is that I get Bodpod body composition measurements for a very reasonable cost. So on September 9th, 2011 I had a bodpod scan that gave me the following:

-Weight    173.898 lb
-Lean Body Mass    150.614 lb
-Fat Mass    23.283 lb
-Body Fat Percentage    13.4%

At that point I took on a constant loading program espoused by the late John Christy. I did this due to the fact that I didn’t have a trainer at my disposal to really drive me through high intensity workouts akin to Dr. Doug McGuff would espouse. I love carpet time but in order to achieve this you need to be able to give yourself over to a trainer you trust and Keith, and he’ll tell you this, is not a HIT trainer per se. That’s not to say that he’s not capable of kicking ass. So my workout was high-intensity oriented given that I didn’t have a trainer: big compounds with microloading. It also helps to know that I was coming off a hand injury that kept me from pulling hard or doing good chins. Here was my workout in early October:

  • Trap bar Deadlift: 220 x 12, 200 x 12
  • Weighted Chin: +12.5 x 12, BW  x 12
  • Weighted Dip: +30 x 12, +15 x 12
  • Shrugs: 200 x 12
  • Gripper: 92.41 x :45 x 2/each hand (static hold)

And here is where I was last week:

  • Dip: +100 x 3, + 75 x 4, +45 x 5, +23 x 6
  • Chin: +70 x 3, +47 x 4, +23 x 5, BW x 6
  • Trap Bar Deadlift: 360 x 3, 326 x 4
  • Dynavec Multi-Directional Hip Extension: 145 x 15
  • Nitro Pullover: 210 x 10

And for what it’s worth I can now do much more weight for higher reps. For example I can do weighted dips with 65lbs around my waist for 10 reps. This should mean more muscle, right? Let’s look at a Bodpod from last week:

-Weight: 174.508 lb
-Lean Mass: 150.438 lb
-Fat Mass: 24.07 lb
-Body Fat: 13.8%

Say what?! Big strength gains and no muscle gain at all? This is what is called “Adaptive Coordination” and is how athletes locked in a weight class sport continue to get stronger in spite a lack of gain in muscle tissue. After trying to reason my way out of it, I went and got a Dexa Scan done which gave me this result:

Bodyfat: 13.1%

Fat-Free Mass: 153.4lbs

Fat Mass: 23.2 lbs

Bone Mineral: 8.5lbs (HELL YEAH! MORE THAN KEITH! EAT IT!)

The Dexa had me at 176.6lbs, 1 hour later without any food or water intake, which makes up for the difference in lean mass between the bodpod and the Dexa. The cool thing about this, if I’m to look for a silver lining, is that I eat unweighed, unmeasured paleo and it keeps me rather lean. Not bad. However, I got stronger but not bigger, why?

My ability to lift weight improved due to a variety of things. This is just a short list of things I improved in the past 8 months:

  1. Inter and intra muscular coordination
  2. Motor learning
  3. Motor unit/fiber recruitment efficiency
  4. Golgi tendon inhibition
  5. Heterochronicity
  6. Fatigue resistance
  7. Postural changes
  8. Co-contraction
  9. Connective tissue changes
  10. Improvements in cadence and turnarounds
  11. Motivation
  12. Pain tolerance
  13. Perception of difficulty
  14. Confidence
  15. Experience

No less than 15 different things that can go up and allow weight to go up without muscle going up. There is a longer discussion about lifting ability versus lifting capability that is beyond the scope of this article.

The next stage: Bass + Blitz = Bomb Diggity?

So the next step is to see how I do with a full-on return to pure-HIT strength training. Specifically giving myself over to a trainer, my boss, and getting thrashed once a week in the weight room. On Saturdays I’ll run some Sprint-8 type intervals followed by a long weight vest walk. I won’t keep track of calories but I will eat more on those days just because I can.

If this looks familiar, it’s because this is exactly how Clarence Bass trains. At least that’s how he trained 14 years ago and no article I’ve read recently indicates otherwise. And like Mr. Bass, I’ll vary my routines while maintaining marker exercises: everything from Dr. McGuff-style workouts to Doug Holland-style deadlift+beer sessions. The latter will likely be once per month.

However, there is benefit of periodic volume and intensity increases. I’ve discussed the concept of the “critical point of change” as applied to power law dynamics, specifically the use of workout chaos to increase effort due to lack of coordination and the blitz to drastically ramp up demands and intensity at the same time. The thing is I’ve never actually done a blitz, not well, likely because I was too exhausted to get excited for one and/or the recovery demands are quite an undertaking. Think 4500+kcal/day, contrast bathing, weekly massage, loads of sleep, as little life stressors as possible. Ask Dallas about his clean mass gain and he’ll tell you just how hard it was to do for 5 weeks but 2 weeks is about the limit of a drastic, silly, obscene increase in effort, demands, and recovery work. Summer is where this could take place. I’ll plan on doing something like that in July and doing a bodpod right afterward. If it works, it validates both the ABCDE diet AND the No-Bull Mass Gain diet, at least somewhat.

“There is no failure, only feedback” is a saying that Arthur De Vany likes to use regarding his perspective on the lack of failure in life. I got stronger than I ever had been overall in my upper body and not a new pound of lean mass to show for it. This information is actionable and so we’ll see the result in another 4 months or so. Onward!

Update: 4/24/2012

James asked this in the comments:

I’d be interested to know what the inter and intra day reliability of your individual bodpod unit is. We have a bodpod and as part of our lab accreditation we had to perform a reliability study on it and although I can’t remember the coefficients of variation of the top of my head I do recall it was higher than expected. Bodpods better than most body composition measures, but far from perfect.

This is a great question that I don’t have an answer for but I can tell you that it was the reason I got the Dexa done to “check” the accuracy of the Bodpod. Halfway through the interval of this experiment, on 12/13/2011, I had a Bodpod done: same administer, same time of day, same status (17 hours fasted, no liquids since 8pm the night before). The results were as follows:

  • Body Weight: 175.04 lbs
  • Lean Body Mass: 151.437 lbs
  • Fat mass: 23.603 lbs
  • Body fat: 13.5%

So it might be off slightly day to day, it seems to be consistent enough to track long term changes, at least as consistent as hydrostatic weighing. That seemed to work for Clarence Bass, so I figure it’s OK for me for a very accurate directional accuracy.

Finally – “Strength Training and its Effects on the Biomarkers of Aging”

Way back when, I hinted at doing a research review of the biomarkers of aging. As class started this fell to the back burner as actually getting work done became somewhat important. However my research methods class had a research review as our main project and thus I had a reason to do the review. I’ve posted the review after the jump but be warned: it’s a 3200+ word monster. I hope you find it, if not interesting, somewhat useful.

Continue reading

Musings on Diet, Muscle Gain, and Longevity

Over at Doug McGuff’s blog, there was some discussion regarding hypertrophy…big shock, right? Brandon Schultz DC proposed this regarding hypertrophy:

these men must choose to eat AND train to get bigger, with VERY specific meal times, protein servings every three hours or so, abundant rest/recovery/sleep, and pre/peri/post workout supplementation to exaggerate the insulin/amino acid uptake cycle for maximal anabolic response. Unfortunately, I don’t see a lot of men willing to follow this because they have chosen a dietary lifestyle (like Paleo or IF) for health reasons, and it may not be an optimal one for maximal hypertrophy. If you want a specific goal, you have to go after it with your ENTIRE lifestyle, not just training protocol selection.

And here was my response:


Martin of the Leangains fame has shown that you don’t need to eat every 3 hours (or whatever) to drive muscle gain, just like you don’t need to eat every 3 hours to drive fat loss.

Which causes me to question: how can eating every 3 hours be both good for fat burning and good for muscle gain, 2 polar opposite outcomes? It can’t and it doesn’t.

That said, you’re right about being actively eating for hypertrophy, being consistent to get enough when it is appropriate, and matching a training program that provides a sufficient stimulus for growth. Most guys simply don’t eat enough to maximize their gain but that gain on average is very small. Simply put the nutrient signals that we all like about an ancestral health type of diet (controlled insulin, adequate protein, high satiety signaling) are the opposite of what tends to promote growth (high insulin, more protein, less satiety to help get enough calories).

Much like fat loss and muscle gain are opposite ends of the spectrum, a diet that promotes growth promotes aging while a diet that promotes health and longevity doesn’t. There is a great read by Michael Rose called “The end of aging: Why life begins at 90″ that lays this out.

The link to Michael Rose’s article is found here.

Upon reading my response again, it makes it seem like I disagree with what Brandon has proposed but that isn’t the case. I only took umbrage with the eating every 3 hours bit; everything else is very correct. When it is spelled out, it makes it seem more complicated than it is however, again citing leangains, the “pre/peri/post” workout is taken care of by aminos before the workout and your largest meal after the workout. There is even more recent research to suggest that what really matters is the amount of calories and nutrients ingested. Quoting an interview with Alan Aragon:

Alan: The post-exercise “anabolic window” is a highly misused & abused concept. Preworkout nutrition all but cancels the urgency, unless you’re an endurance athlete with multiple glycogen-depleting events in a single day. Getting down to brass tacks, a relatively recent study (Power et al. 2009) showed that a 45g dose of whey protein isolate takes appx. 50 minutes to cause blood AA levels to peak. Resulting insulin levels, which peaked at 40 minutes after ingestion, remained at elevations known to max out the inhibition of muscle protein breakdown (15-30 mU/L) for 120 minutes after ingestion. This dose takes 3 hours for insulin & AA levels to return to baseline from the point of ingestion. The inclusion of carbs to this dose would cause AA & insulin levels to peak higher & stay elevated above baseline even longer.

So much for the anabolic peephole & the urgency to down AAs during your weight training workout; they are already seeping into circulation (& will continue to do so after your training bout is done). Even in the event that a preworkout meal is skipped, the anabolic effect of the postworkout meal is increased as a supercompensatory response (Deldicque et al, 2010). Moving on, another recent study (Staples et al, 2010) found that a substantial dose of carbohydrate (50g maltodextrin) added to 25g whey protein was unable to further increase post-exercise net muscle protein balance compared to the protein dose without carbs. Again, this is not to say that adding carbs at this point is counterproductive, but it certainly doesn’t support the idea that you must get your lightning-fast post-exercise carb orgy for optimal results.

Something that people don’t realize is that there’s no “magic anabolic window” that’s open for a short period of time near the workout & then rapidly disappears. As a result of a single training bout, the receptivity of muscle to protein dosing can persist for at least 24 hours (Burd et al, 2011).

Or to sum it up:

The Primary Laws of Nutrient Timing

  • The First Law of Nutrient Timing is: hitting your daily macronutrient targets is FAR more important than nutrient timing.
  • The Second Law of Nutrient Timing is: hitting your daily macronutrient targets is FAR more important than nutrient timing.

Here might be why paleo + milk makes people grow like gangbusters assuming they get enough calories. What I’m taking here is Dan’s summing up of Pedro Bastos’ (Sup, Bastos?) presentation at the Ancestral Health Symposium:

  • How can milk lead to rapid growth? Maybe insulin.
  • Insulin response is 5x higher than expected for glycemic index. Doesn’t matter if it’s skim or whole.
  • The good: Whey can increase muscle protein synthesis and glutathione, one of the major endogenous antioxidants the body.
  • Betacellulin – Another growth factor in milk. Survives pastorization. Found in cheese.
  • IGF-1 in bovine milk is identical to human IGF-1. Not high amounts in bovine milk.

But there’s a downside, from the same article:

  • Increasing height associates with increasing risk for epithelial cell cancers.
  • Milk may promote premature puberty, a risk factor for breast cancer.
  • Prostate cancer shows a high correlation with milk intake.
  • Milk may be protective against colon cancer.
  • Milk seems to promote acne, at least in people who have insulin resistance.

So you want to promote muscle growth but not cancer growth. Milk calories are cheap and, assuming no gut or lactose issues, easily digested.

In the “I can’t yet prove it but I highly suspect it” category, I suspect that there is a peak anabolism in our lifetime. What I mean is that there is a peak muscle mass for our genetics and a closing window in which to reach it. If you reach it, your ceiling is set high for the rest of your life…you’ve reached your “10” level. But if you start training after that critical point, you’ll never get to “10,” maybe a maximum of “8” on that same scale. Here is why I think that; first let’s look at a slide of lifetime bone mineral density to illustrate my previous point:

See how the peak hits around age 35 and maintains before a decline? Also note that lifestyle (read: physical loading) is the main reason why the peak densities are different between the lines. The second and third lowest line, upon reaching their max around 35, can never drive their BMD up to that of the first line. Now let’s look at some muscle evidence:

This muscle mass curve is from the book “Bending the Aging Curve” by Joseph Signorile and it is a visual of the data presented in the study “Variability in muscle fibre areas in whole human quadriceps muscle: effects of increasing age.” The bent muscle curves, while not from the same study, are shown in other studies. Check out the MRI from the master athletes in the study “Chronic Exercise Preserves Lean Mass in Master Athletes:”

Fairly compelling visual evidence, in my opinion, to just how much lean mass we can build and maintain. Different life stages prime us for different outcomes, which leads me to…

Putting it together

I didn’t intend for this to be as long as it has become but in conclusion

  1. Maximizing muscle growth requires adequate nutrition, smart strength training, and adequate time.
  2. Nutrient timing for strength and mass gain is far less important than getting enough calories in during the 24 hours after a workout.
  3. A proper diet, nearly ancestral in its framework, can effective “stop” aging around 35.
  4. Milk promotes growth above and beyond its caloric value. Good for muscle, bad for cancer.
  5. Muscle, like bone, seems to have a “peak” value that can be achieved. There are studies that suggest this occurs in and around our 5th decade (which, like centuries, means the value 1 number below the number actually listed, so our 40’s)
  6. So if you want to maximize muscle growth milieu while minimizing the negative implications of a growth-promoting environment, follow a paleo+milk-type diet with plenty of calories up until around the age of 35. Note that I’m suggesting adding milk only after a workout, the amount will vary depending on your size and goals.  After that I would suggest dropping the milk and ramping up calories by way of shakes like those suggested by Dallas in his “Clean Mass Gain” while also understanding that you’ve likely reached a high percentage of your potential anyway. You’re unlikely to add more than 2lbs/year at this point so the calories you need won’t be very much above baseline. If you maintain 12-13% bodyfat, you’re eating enough to support whatever muscle you’re likely to have in your genetic tank.

I hope this helps some of you regarding the balance between longevity and maximum muscle. The latter helps the former, generally, and there seems to be a “best time frame” to maximize this.