Effects of aerobic and/or resistance training on body mass and fat mass in overweight or obese adults

Effects of aerobic and/or resistance training on body mass and fat mass in overweight or obese adults.

This study popped up on the social media yesterday and it’s caused quite an uproar among the pro-lifting crowd, mainly thanks to the last lines of the abstract which seem to say that “cardio is better than lifting weights”.

I don’t want to get into a full dissection of this paper, because I think, like most media-driven study-hysteria, it’s importance is overblown. I’d like instead to go over some thoughts that occurred to me as I read through the findings which might help slot these findings into a pragmatic framework.

  • I’ve had prior experience, both directly and in advising others dealing with “stuck” clients, with overweight and obese people not responding to the prescription of “just lift and watch your diet”. You can conjure up your own Pubmed explanations for why this might be, but the reality of it is that some folks just don’t respond well to that plan, and I don’t believe it’s because they are “really” just eating too much.
  • What has, however, worked consistently is taking these people away from an exclusive emphasis on lifting (and intense interval cardio) and getting them to do add light to moderate aerobic cardio. Even a half-hour to an hour of aerobic cardio, something as simple as a walk (my rule is “do something that makes you breathe hard”), can make all the difference, and suddenly the fat starts to come off.
  • Despite the internet trope to the contrary, I have known even “normal weight” (meaning normal body comp) people who see no substantial visual changes from lifting weights alone. Yes, they develop more muscle and drop body fat (by percentage), but the way those changes distribute just creates a “does this guy even lift?” effect. Underweight people (“ectomorphs”) of either gender will naturally tend to “shape up” via lifting, as will pudgy people who might otherwise be naturally lean outside an environment encouraging overeating. People who seem to have a genuine biological tendency to be heavier and “thicker” (“endomorphs”) don’t always seem to get this benefit, and they really seem to need aerobic cardio along with diet and lifting to see the best effect.
  • Most of these people have been women out of their early twenties. Whether this applies across the board or is an artifact of my own construction I leave to the reader, but I do believe there may be some genuine metabolic reasons behind this. It wouldn’t surprise me to find that this can apply to people of any age or gender, though, as my experience need not be representative of the statistical reality. The point is having the strategy when you run into the roadblock.

What this paper found doesn’t conflict with these observations.

The two modes of exercise consistently differed in their effects on body composition. Body weight and fat mass significantly decreased in both AT and AT/RT but not in RT, suggesting that aerobic exercise is more effective in changing these measures. However, the change in lean body mass in both RT and AT/RT was significantly greater than that in AT, a finding supported by similar observations for the measure of thigh muscle area. Having the benefit of both modes of exercise allowed AT/RT to decrease body fat percent significantly more than either AT or RT, due to decreased fat mass combined with increased lean body mass. Similarly, there was an apparent additive effect of the two modes of exercise on waist circumference, as AT/RT significantly decreased waist circumference more than AT or RT.

I have some questions about their methods for assessing calorie intake, but for the moment let’s just assume that their report of intake as being more or less equivalent between the three groups is right.

You could then say “Well with a tighter diet these folks would lean out by just lifting weights.” Let’s grant that this is true, although it need not be. Even so, there are people, and I include myself among them, who’d rather have the food and spend the time training harder. This need not even be a physiological effect, but rather an effect of “living what you want to be”, so to speak, and that’s a factor I’ve come to believe is far more important than any reductive measure of ‘efficiency’.

As I’m reading this, that strategy is validated: “there was an apparent additive effect of the two modes of exercise on waist circumference, as AT/RT significantly decreased waist circumference more than AT or RT.”

That may not seem like much, but I think that this sentence, when taken with the finding of increased LBM and reduced fat mass, is the real clincher. Even though, strictly speaking, there may be no superiority to the combined modes of exercise in terms of absolute fat loss or weight loss, that’s beside the point.

The authors reach that conclusion based on ‘time-efficiency’ and an assumption that it is the absolute reduction in fat mass that is definitive of health. While I can admit (grudgingly) that the former will be a factor of importance to some people, I can’t entirely accept the latter. Amounts of fat mass are certainly important, but if we’re going to talk of health then we can’t really leave out the importance of LBM, the distribution of fat mass relative to LBM (which, as measured by waist circumference, we saw improved in an ‘additive effect’ by the combined modes of training), and the myriad positive effects of placing the body under regular loading.

I don’t entirely agree with the author’s conclusions, but the study itself is interesting and I believe that, if anything, it suggests that those looking to reduce fat mass and improve the distribution of lean and fat mass should be lifting and keeping some conditioning work in the mix.

The Math of Recovery [Excerpt]

This post is an excerpt from a project I started working on close to two years ago and which may never see the light of the internet. But there are some decent sections in it which may be interesting. This piece is taken from a chapter called “The Overtraining Myth”.
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Adrenal Fatigue Revisited [Recovery]

Several years ago, I wrote a post on the subject of adrenal fatigue. I don’t recall exactly what prompted the rant, but I’m sure it had something to do with a personal trainer or MD-turned-author trying to make a quick buck by pushing supplements. It really annoyed me (still does, really) that people who should know better would jump on bandwagons built on almost insultingly simplistic science. Capitalize on the general mistrust of mainstream medicine and you’ve got a set of passive income streams in the making.

I think that this is a topic worth revisiting. It appears that my original article, now almost five years old, garnered some attention in the last day or two, so I thought it’d be worth addressing some of the “interesting” replies. More importantly, my understanding of stress and fatigue has progressed since those days, so this post can serve not only to debunk “adrenal fatigue” claims, but to explain how stress actually works and what might be happening in lieu.
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How much can the CNS handle? [Stress]

Squat Every Day Cover

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Awhile back, when I was talking about heavy daily training, I wrote a post about inflammation and how this contributes to the common feeling of ‘overtraining’ (which is probably better termed ‘staleness’). There’s a lot to be said about this topic. I’ve said a lot already, and there’s still plenty more to go.

Overtraining, overreaching, and the interaction between training and the stress response is a blurry area. Relating wider biological concepts, like stress, to specific instances, like workouts and training schedules, is no easy task. Contrary to popular belief, research doesn’t do that. Virtually all of our knowledge on ‘overtraining’ comes from observations in athletes or inference from neurological or biochemical effects.
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The Cortical Lottery: Dopamine and the Activity Set-point [Research Review]

Years ago in one of my criminology classes, the professor introduced us to various theories on social deviance. Criminologists want to know what makes people act up and steal, or rob you in the street for crack, or stab their neighbors in the face. That’s social deviance. Lots of theories have come and gone over the years, thanks to the mysterious wiles and real difficulties of doing quality sociological research.

Lots of ideas came out of the literature, ideas on social strife, class struggle, even plain old boredom. One of these in particular stuck with me over the years, thanks to my budding interest in cognitive neuroscience. The theory goes that some people are natural stimulus-seekers. For whatever reason, this group lacks something in their brains, or they have some dysfunction that leaves them feeling under-stimulated, and this leaves them with an itch. These people are always in search of a fix, always looking for the next hit of neurochemical reward, and as a consequence they’re more likely to go out and get mixed up in naughty things like drugs, sex, and, you guessed it, crime.

At the time, I didn’t think much of the idea. Not because I don’t agree with it, but I didn’t have nearly the interest in behavioral psychology and neuroscience back then. With my current investigations into the neurological factors behind exercise performance, the concept of the stimulus-seeker brain-type stands out. To understand why, we need to look at how neurological activity creates behavior.

I recently finished Jonathan Haidt’s book The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. I found it a brilliant read, but I didn’t wind up doing a full review on it because I didn’t have a clear way to relate it to exercise or performance. As you could imagine from the title, the book examines the concept of happiness–where does it arise in the brain, what causes it, and what are the circumstances that maximize that feeling of ambiguous bliss? An interesting topic, but there was no direct application to exercise, minus the vague connection to neuropsychology.
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Recovery Strategies

I’ve been getting some questions about recovery methods and strategies, given how I’ve been training recently. I figured that would make a good update for this week.

Recovery methods can be broadly grouped into three categories: organizational, manual/external, and chemical. That’s not the precise naming scheme but that’s how I remember it. This reflects your program, things you physically do to your body, and things you take to help recovery. Not surprisingly, most attention focuses on the latter point thanks to drugs and a robust supplement industry. The other facets of recovery are just as important, if not more.

We’ve all heard that we recover outside the gym, not in it. This is largely true, with some caveats. It’s the caveats that make the difference, as they always do. Thinking of recovery as an all-or-nothing matter is, bluntly, wrong. The state of your body at any given time is an on-going balance of building-up and breaking-down. When translated to exercise, you’re constantly recovering from stress and creating new stress. This is unavoidable.

Don’t be fooled by this idea that resting a week between muscle groups or exercises is sufficient for full recovery. As a rule of thumb, “volume” stress will mainly affect muscle and other peripheral/tissue factors, take longer to recover from, and create a milder disruption to the body. By some measures, the body’s tissues can take upwards of 4-6 weeks to completely finish the adaptive remodeling cycle from a single workout; when you start compounding that with multiple sessions, you’re looking at a state of on-going, constant recovery — and this happens on the fly, as you continually train.

“Intensity” stress is a much greater hit to the system, more of a central or neurological stress, but it can peak and recover much faster in many cases. Regardless of what muscle groups were trained, central “intensity” stress can still be an issue; there is a cascade of mostly negative effects on the body that can arise from too much mentally-challenging exercise. Even if one week were sufficient for full tissue recovery, you’re still dealing with different factors that recover at different rates.

The moral of the story: You are never fully recovered between sessions, so it’s pointless to design a program as if you will be.

Rather, we need to chase optimal recovery for the goal at hand, and then program according to how those factors recover in the short term. The Russians designed programs with the goal of riding the recovery curve for whatever they were training for, with minimal impact from post-training fatigue. You’re trying to train as much as you can while minimizing the effects of fatigue.

After muscle growth? Then you should train in a way that keeps protein synthesis maximally elevated. After strength? You need to train in a way that optimizes neurological output and avoids central/CNS fatigue.

This is why the frequent training approach works if you train in a way that optimizes the daily stress while minimizing fatigue. This is why you can see people growing when they train a muscle group two or three times a week. You get the idea.

This is the first step in recovery: don’t get too beat up in the first place. Organize your program so that frequency and volume are in line with how you’re training. Bodybuilding will look a little different from competitive powerlifting and those will both look different than general athletic strength training. Train accordingly and plan frequency and rest days from that.

Manual therapies will cover everything from stretching and foam-rolling to sitting in a hot bath or sauna and everything in between. I don’t have a whole lot to cover in this area except to give an overview of things I’ve tried that seemed to work well.

In the general warmup and/or warmdown, stretching and foam rolling definitely helps a lot. I know static stretching is not in vogue these days, but keeping the hip flexors, piriformis, and shoulders/pecs/lats stretched is what keeps me going. Foam rolling the IT band, adductors, glutes, and lats hasn’t hurt anything either. Granted that’s for my specific set of injuries, but the hips and shoulder girdle are a common trouble spot. Dynamic stretches are another useful warmup tool, good for the phasic or working muscles.

Other methods are useful post-training or to help feel better between sessions. I like hot baths with epsom salts. Whether it does anything physical I don’t know, but it sure feels nice on beat up legs and back. It’s also mentally relaxing, which might be the important part. Sitting in the sauna will be about the same thing. Heat seems to do nice things as far as loosening up tight muscles and encouraging relaxation, so even a hot shower could fill this role.

I haven’t yet resorted to icing, although by all indications it does help with local tissue trauma and inflammation. If you’ve had a massive session and are really beat up in a given muscle, it may be worth a go. This may be one of those things that is most valuable immediately post-training, to manage inflammation, if you’re so inclined.

Massage and other forms of manual therapy are nice. You may or may not have access to a massage therapist or physio that can deliver such services. Even so, having some kind of therapeutic session on a regular basis is probably a good idea. I’m the number one offender in being lax on this, but every time I get some kind of manual therapy done I’m glad I did.

I would add that the benefits to a lot of this stuff will be largely mental. I’m not convinced there is a huge performance-boosting effect here, but you shouldn’t discount them because of that. Mental relaxation and recovery is easily more important than physical, in my ever so humble opinion.

And then we have chemical solutions, which would encompass both legal dietary supplements and neutraceuticals, along with not-so-legal performance enhancing pharmaceuticals. There’s a hell of a line regarding what’s natural and thus ethically okay, and what’s an artificial change in chemistry that should be condemned as a moral failing. I’m largely not interested in having that debate, due to my stance on human self-enhancement in general and the fact that it is incompatible with mainstream views on sporting ethics. So I won’t.

Anabolic steroids (AAS) work by increasing rates of protein synthesis in muscle and other peripheral tissues (for example, they can alter collagen synthesis in tendons), and in some instances by increasing neurological output. These effects are variable between compounds, and some may offer secondary effects in addition to this primary action. In large doses, AAS will tend to increase muscle mass both through increased protein synthesis (new contractile tissue or ‘myofibrillar hypertrophy’) and by increased retention of water, glycogen, and energy substrate (‘sarcoplasmic hypertrophy’). This is the most common way that they are used by recreational athletes, for a quick “cosmetic” effect.

AAS can also be used in much lower doses for a more therapeutic effect, and indeed this is how many athletes employ them. The training schedules of high-level athletes can be extremely demanding. So they take a small amount of winstrol or dianabol to help them recover that much faster and keep up the training.

Besides being an interesting look at the physiological effects, I wanted to point this out because it’s an interesting look at the mindset behind the usage of any performance enhancer, legal or not. Your average gym lifter wants to take something to give him gains. Your competitive athlete wants to take something to help him recover better and thus to train harder.

I can’t tell you how many times I see relative newbies judging any supplement or recovery aid by how fast they add weight on the scale, or how quickly their lifts improve. Creatine is dismissed by a lot of guys as useless because they don’t add 5kg when they go on it, or they don’t instantly see a 10kg PR.

To me creatine is one thing that is almost essential if you want to train hard and often. This is because I fall into the latter camp: I want to take things that help me recover faster. I’m not looking for a magic potion to carry me in lieu of bad training and/or diet. But I digress.

Creatine should be in there because it’s shown numerous wonderful effects on recovery, and new benefits seem to pop up all the time. It’s safe, it’s cheap, and it’s proven. There’s little reason not to take it, unless you’re like me and just forget all the time. The effects on recovery are just too good to avoid it, especially given the price point for plain ol’ monohydrate (which is the only thing that actually works anyway).

I’ve mentioned before that I love ibuprofen as a general means of controlling inflammation. This would apply to any non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID). I try to keep this in reserve for the really bad days, so as not to become reliant on it. That’s probably a good suggestion for you, too.

Magnesium, zinc, and calcium may be worth looking at. These are usually pretty cheap and depending on how you eat you may be deficient. These minerals play an important role in our bodies, so they might be worth adding in for general recovery purposes.

Fish oil is another good cheapie that has a lot of wide-spectrum positive effects on physiology. I don’t think you need to mega-dose. A range from 6g to a high end of say 12-15 grams per day is plenty. Fish oil is omega-3 fatty acids, which are called essential fats for a reason. Your body needs these to do a wide variety of things. So take them.

I’ve seen some indications that ginger and curcumin (found in the spice turmeric) have positive analgesic and anti-inflammatory effects. I can’t really say how much these things help or even what a daily good dose might be. On the other hand, my ground beef, chicken, and green tea taste a lot better now.

Speaking of green tea, that’s just good stuff in general. I try to get at least a cup a day.

And while I’m on that subject, keeping so-called nutrient-rich foods in your diet is a good idea. This is really getting away from supplementation and more into having a good diet, and that’s okay because having a solid diet is a more important recovery aid than messing around with any of the detail-work.

Fruits and veggies can sometimes be underrated in our diets in the quest for More Calories, but there are a whole range of neat little nutrients and such that can be of use to us. Green veggies like broccoli and spinach have a ton of goodies in them. Berries are basically nothing but antioxidants and worth keeping in the mix. I’m sure there’s a ton of stuff I’m overlooking, too. The point is, if it grows from the ground and is brightly-colored (and non-poisonous, remember that one!), it’s probably worth eating.

The lesson here: eat good, eat healthy, then worry about the detail stuff after that.

That is a very rough overview of my take on recovery. It’s a holistic thing, as you can see, not dependent on any one thing and certainly not on any magic pill. Take care of your program, take care of your diet, supplement smartly, and add in manual/physical methods as needed.

Autoregulatory Training vs. Linear Periodization [Research Review]

I know I’ve been slack on the blogging lately, but I really have had a few interesting things going on training wise, both theory and application side of things. There’s goodies on the way. For now, since this segues into the concept, I want to have a look at this paper which I got a few days ago:

The Effect of Autoregulatory Progressive Resistance Exercise vs. Linear Periodization on Strength Improvement in College Athletes.
Mann JB, Thyfault JP, Ivey PA, Sayers SP.
J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Jun 10. [Epub ahead of print]


Autoregulatory progressive resistance exercise (APRE) is a method by which athletes increase strength by progressing at their own pace based on daily and weekly variations in performance, unlike traditional linear periodization (LP), where there is a set increase in intensity from week to week. This study examined whether 6 weeks of APRE was more effective at improving strength compared with traditional LP in division I College football players. We compared 23 division 1 collegiate football players (2.65 +/- 0.8 training years) who were trained using either APRE (n = 12) or LP (n = 11) during 6 weeks of preseason training in 2 separate years. After 6 weeks of training, improvements in total bench press 1 repetition maximum (1RM), squat 1RM, and repeated 225-lb bench press repetitions were compared between the APRE and LP protocol groups. Analysis of variance (ANOVA) and analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) were used to determine differences between groups. Statistical significance was accepted at p </= 0.05. Autoregulatory progressive resistance exercise demonstrated greater improvement in 1RM bench press strength (APRE: 93.4 +/- 103 N vs. LP: -0.40 +/- 49.6 N; ANCOVA: F = 7.1, p = 0.02), estimated 1RM squat strength (APRE: 192.7 +/- 199 N vs. LP: 37.2 +/- 155 N; ANOVA: F = 4.1, p = 0.05) and the number of repetitions performed at a weight of 225 lb (APRE: 3.17 +/- 2.86 vs. LP: -0.09 +/- 2.40 repetitions; ANCOVA: F = 6.8, p = 0.02) compared with the LP group over the 6-week training period. Our findings indicate that the APRE was more effective than the LP means of programming in increasing the bench press and squat over a period of 6 weeks.

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CNS vs. Peripheral Fatigue

The title is a topic that’s come up a lot over the years, and it’s been on my mind lately. I’ve written about this quite a bit in the past, on forums and in some detail in Maximum Muscle, but I think this is something that could use some elaboration for my blog audience and those of you that aren’t familiar with my older writings.

I also want to scoop all these upstarts that think they’re on to something. What I want to do is define “CNS Fatigue” and talk a little about fatigue in general, as it relates to strength training and exercise in a broader sense.

Firstly, just so we’re all on the same page, CNS is short for Central Nervous System. That’s the brain and the spinal cord, for you bio-illiterates.

Fatigue, at least in exercise-science terms, is a reduction in your ability to express physical fitness for a given task. Fatigue is a temporary reduction in your ability to perform at some activity, in other words. Note also that fatigue is fairly specific, although like everything else it can overlap with other things. Get tired from lifting weights and you may still be able to go for a run, as an example.

Fatigue can be both slow-acting and fast-acting, depending on the activity and the rest time allowed. Doing singles with 10 minutes rest between each rep will generate less fatigue than doing sets of 10 with 60 second rests between each set. Work out every day and you’ll accumulate more fatigue than working out once a week.

Fatigue is largely a function of the work:rest ratio, in other words. More work and less rest yields higher fatigue.

CNS fatigue (also known as central fatigue) is therefore a reduction in performance attributed to factors in the CNS, as opposed to the peripheral nervous system and neuromuscular system (peripheral fatigue; that is, the rest of the body besides the brain and spinal cord).

The question is, how much can you separate the two? It’s hard to distinguish central (CNS) action from peripheral (rest of the body) action because the CNS tends to influence everything, and is in turn influenced by everything. CNS fatigue will filter down through the rest of the body through hormonal feedback loops and similar mechanisms, so it’s not always so clear-cut.
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Occlusion, Ischemia, and ‘The Pump’

It’s in vogue these days to hate on bodybuilding and the training methods bodybuilders use. The trend these days is to play up the role of strength-based training and ‘functional’ (sic) training methods, getting away from the older bodybuilding culture that’s dominated the popular conception of weight-lifting since at least the 1960s.

It used to be all about the pump, about feeling and shaping and all of that. These days, it’s more about ensuring proper movement, developing well-rounded fitness, and putting strength-based methods at the center of that balanced program. Specialized goals are then added to that framework, in the same sense that your house can look different from your neighbors even if they have the same blueprints.

I can’t say there’s a real problem with this, because that’s the gist of my philosophy, and in general I think that’s how things should be done. However, this takes us to a dangerous place, a thought process that can be counterproductive; in other words, you don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
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The Difference in Speed, Power, and Explosiveness

The other week a blog was linked on a board I read, and it was a discussion loosely titled as “explosive movements don’t make you explosive”. This is a recurring theme amongst some elements of the strength & conditioning field, most notably the more rapid later-comers of the HIT and SuperSlow schools of thought.

I added a few comments to the discussion, because I felt the gentleman in question was mistaken on a few assumptions. Firstly, I linked to several studies that showed the addition of elastic bands to regular strength-training to be more effective at developing both strength and power when compared to regular weights (PMID: 16686552, PMID: 18550975).

This sparked a tangential discussion – namely, what does variable resistance training (the fancy name for adding bands or chains or anything that changes the normal resistance curve) have to do with training explosively?

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