On my mind #1

I’ve received some good feedback on the Strong Science series, but wanted to create some posts that aren’t necessarily tied to a theme or filled with science. My thought process is best described as anything but organized so I thought I’d throw together a random thoughts style of post as a good way to put some shorter content on the site, link to articles I like, and talk about stuff other than exercise science.

Here’s what’s on my mind right now:

1. Can adiposity hinder hypertrophy via elevated IL6?

Here’s a recent paper that suggests that elevated trunk adiposity over a nine month resistance training program was correlated with increased IL-6 and reduced training-induced hypertrophy.

Definitely take some time to look this one over, but realize that I haven’t gone crazy, I know that a study performed in post-menopausal women doesn’t directly apply in the physique and performance world we live and train in. Either way I think you’ll see that the role of obesity and IL-6 could hold important implications for a few areas relevant to training.

For one, should we alter our expectations for lean-body mass gain in the obese, or those with elevated body-fat, as they may be less sensitive to the strength training stimulus? To add to that, have you ever seen the weight-loss shows where every week of failed weight-loss is because of the pounds of lean-body mass they added to their frame? Well if they accurately quantify lean body mass, all the power to them, but if they have substantial fat-mass to lose, I don’t think their trainer should be relying on this defacto explanation just to keep their job.

Now for those of the physique persuasion (bodybuilding), could drastically cycling (increasing) body fat through a ‘bulking’ cycle inhibit muscle growth? We could make a case that if we don’t keep a close eye on the gains, specifically fat mass, then that extra mass may just be inhibiting muscle growth via chronically elevated IL6. Oh shit hang on a sec, Lee Priest is into the fried chicken again.

Lee in the chicken

I didn’t stumble across this paper totally randomly, I’ve been involved in some research looking at how aging influences IL-6 and the immediate response to a strength training session. If all goes well over at the Journal of Physiology you should see some data from our group looking at how age affects IL-6 and how this potentially impacts the adaptation to resistance exercise. Fingers crossed!

Think twice before you let that bulk get out of hand, excess fat could inhibit muscle growth through elevated IL6

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2. Drop sets

I can remember being a teenager whose training programs were usually ripped straight out of the pages of FLEX magazine. I was still creative at heart and often ‘supplemented’ the program by endlessly (or maybe mindlessly) drop-setting the last set of every exercise. By today’s standards I’d be crucified by the online training police, but I grew, had fun, and at the very least got in lots of ‘practice’ with the exercises.

Now I’ve discussed the two recent studies that found similar stimulation of muscle protein synthesis and hypertrophy with drastically different loading conditions (30% vs 80-90%-1RM) ad nauseum on the site, so I’ll keep this short. Based on their findings, and a nice discussion in a subsequent review, Stu Phillips suggests that it’s the recruitment of large amounts of muscle that matters most. This can be achieved through high load (size principle of motor unit recruitment) or through prolonged, low-load training where fatigue results in gradual recruitment of large motor units. Load compensates for reduced time-under tension.

But with drop sets you’re really combining both loading conditions, maximizing recruitment through both high load initially, then cycling through with fatigue induced by prolonging the set with lower loads. There’s probably a threshold through which protein synthesis isn’t further stimulated, but my meat-head side would have loved to have seen a drop set condition included in the study.

3. Do what they did, not what they do.

I recently shared an old clip from EliteFTS on my tumblr page and it’s generated some interesting discussion with one of my new favourite fitness/bodybuilding writers Menno Henselmans on Facebook. After posting to my Tumblr as well, an astute reader noticed their wording carefully, ‘do what they did’, not what they do. An important distinction; while it’s tempting to try to re-enact the training of your favourite athlete, bodybuilder or powerlifter, the way you see them training at their current level may not be indicative of the steps they took to get to that level.

Sure enough a short while later Ben Bruno (the official king of exercise modification) dropped seven lessons he’s learned in 27 years of life on T-Nation (a good read), and again we see that expression popping up again. This time, Bruno relates it more to the business/coaching side of the equation than actual training, and it really hit home for me. Long story short, I need to write more, post frequently, and get the word out on other sites. If you’re reading this, feel free to hold me accountable and call me out anytime.

4. To ice or not to ice?

RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) has recently been questioned as a valid clinical response to musculoskeletal injuries as the use of icing now seems controversial. We can certainly come up with a few physiological rationales for and against the use of ice, but how anyone in the field arrives at a solid conclusion is beyond me. Much of the research in the field is complicated by differences in treatment types, duration of application, timing of application after the injury, and even situation (exercise-induced muscle damage vs acute musculoskeletal injury).

A recent post by Kelly Starrett and the ensuing comment aftermath certainly made me realize that this is a polar issue. More importantly it highlighted the double standard that exists between established practices and new techniques. The practice of icing has been around for decades, so understandably there is more literature on it than there is to support some of the new technologies and methodologies that are out there. We run into problems when we dismiss one technique based on the existing literature, only to suggest or adopt an alternate technique based on little to no scientific validation. Add financial interests to the equation and you’ve got a great recipe to generate some serious discussion and drive some great traffic to your site.

Reading the comments, it seemed that more people took issue with the fact that he recommended a commercially developed device than the sub-par efficacy of ice. There are times when you’ll have to go out on a limb, and there may not be science to support you. You’ll find that even scientific history is littered with leaps of faith. You can’t always wait for pubmed. In Starett’s case, he relied on personal experience in his clinical practice, and while this would obviously be trumped by a properly designed clinical comparison of recovery techniques, if those don’t exist then what do you go on?

When the research group I worked with delved into the massage study, we realized that there is a deficit of invasive physiological research on these clinical problems. When you see evidence on the mechanism of treatments like massage or icing, it’s important to realize that much is based on animal work (not a bad thing) or indirect physiological theories. Looking at when ice is applied (post-injury), what ethics board would approve a study to biopsy an already injured muscle? Better yet, who would volunteer? Even ignoring the biopsy aspect, I think much of what is said regarding the mechanism of benefit or detriment of ice is largely theoretical in nature, lacking direct observations. The logistics of studying this means that the icing area of literature will likely rely solely on clinical outcomes (probably most relevant anyway), and that theories about specific physiological mechanisms will remain just that, theories.

Starrett’s post definitely generated some passionate discussion for and against, and made me realize that I need to delve into the literature on this topic more and fill in the nearly empty ‘Injury/Rehab‘ category on the site.

5. Just a barbell

It’s been about a year since I ordered thousands of dollars in equipment and ditched the commercial gym scene to train at home. The home gym is definitely a work in progress but I have all the basics I need to keep progressing, that is, everything but dumbbells. At first I didn’t miss them too much, and used this as an excuse to get inventive with a barbell, but I’m starting to think I need them back in my life. When I wanted to order a beautiful but expensive circus ‘monsterbell‘, my wife acted as the voice of reason and suggested that an adjustable set may be more reasonable. I haven’t done my research yet, but wonder if we can find some compromise that can get us to 150 lbs per handle but still accommodate adjustments on the smaller end (sub 50lb). If anyone has some recommendations let me know in the comments below.

Dumbbells on rack

While I’m on the topic, when are those Kroc row handles coming out anyway? I feel like it’s been awhile since I’ve heard anything about them and would love to get my hands on one to take my DB row to the next level.

6. Six lessons learned from the master blaster

Bret Contreras and Brad Schoenfeld have an interesting article on T-Nation right now, putting a little science to those classic Weider principles many of us grew up reading. Love them or hate them, Weider left his mark on the training industry, and I can still pick apart many training programs online today and how they fit with some of these basic bodybuilding principles.

I really like the approach these two have taken with the article and it fits well with what I’ve been trying to achieve on this site and with my own writing and research. Too often we get stuck in this trap of trying to use science and research to discredit and disprove existing knowledge, when in reality we need to reconcile how new data fits with our own personal experience and existing knowledge base. There will always be points of dissonance and congruence between ideologies and we need to resist the temptation to jump to conclusions and assume all research is black and white.

That’s it for me!

That’s all I’ve got today. If you like this format, let me know in the comments below and I’ll keep it going.


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Dan Ogborn