Testosterone Spikes: Predictor of Performance?

For a long time, I’d never really considered the hormonal aspects of training as being very important. It seems like a lot of wanking over what is, at best, a transient hormonal spike in response to a stimulus (in this case, exercise).

We’re talking brief here, like 45-60 minutes of increased testosterone which is, at best, a slight elevation off baseline. Steroid cycles have to magnify this level many times over to see drastic results.

However, there has been some correlation between testosterone and cortisol levels with the condition of the athlete. The first group I’m aware of that really investigated it were Lon Kilgore and Glenn Pendlay, who determined that the ratio of testosterone to cortisol was an accurate predictor of the state of the athlete — a marker of overtraining and overreaching, in other words.

Pendlay, G. and L. Kilgore (2001). Hormonal fluctuation: A new method for the programming of training. Weightlifting USA 19(2): 15.

Other (apparently unpublished) thesis research from Glenn Pendlay and Michael Hartmann has more or less confirmed that the test:cortisol ratio is depressed during hard training, but when unloading occurs it will sharply increase above baseline after adequate rest has occurred.

It seems like there’s definitely a correlation between testosterone levels and the athlete’s condition, even if it’s not responsible.

Is there anything more to it? There just might be.
Continue reading “Testosterone Spikes: Predictor of Performance?”

Ephedra and Caffeine: No good for strength?

The Effect of Ephedra and Caffeine on Maximal Strength and Power in Resistance-Trained Athletes
Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research:Volume 22(2)March 2008pp 464-470

Caffeine and ephedrine-related alkaloids recently have been removed from International Olympic Committee banned substances lists, whereas ephedrine itself is now permissible at urinary concentrations less than 10 μg·mL-1. The changes to the list may contribute to an increased use of caffeine and ephedra as ergogenic aids by athletes. Consequently, we sought to investigate the effects of ingesting caffeine (C) or a combination of ephedra and caffeine (C + E) on muscular strength and anaerobic power using a double-blind, crossover design. Forty-five minutes after ingesting a glucose placebo (P: 300 mg), C (300 mg) or C + E (300 mg + 60 mg), 9 resistance-trained male participants were tested for maximal strength by bench press [BP; 1 repetition maximum (1RM)] and latissimus dorsi pull down (LP; 1RM). Subjects also performed repeated repetitions at 80% of 1RM on both BP and LP until exhaustion. After this test, subjects underwent a 30-second Wingate test to determine peak anaerobic cycling power, mean power, and fatigue index. Although subjects reported increased alertness and enhanced mood after supplementation with caffeine and ephedra, there were no significant differences between any of the treatments in muscle strength, muscle endurance, or peak anaerobic power. Our results do not support the contention that supplementation with ephedra or caffeine will enhance either muscle strength or anaerobic exercise performance.

This was an interesting piece of information.

I’m not sure how many of you have ever played around with pre-workout stimulants, but if you’ve ever been a fan of ephedra/ephedrine products, you’ll know how they have a very strong effect on alertness and energy….which is a good thing if you’re in need of some extra training intensity.

Also, ephedra alkaloids (ie, the herbal form of the Ma Huang plant from which we get ephedra, not to be confused with ephedrine HCL which is a purified form) have recently been removed from the IOC banned list, which is an interesting move in itself.

Well, this seems to indicate that, while ephedra (E) and caffeine (C) taken in concert will do nice things for overall alertness and mental awareness, they don’t do anything for strength and anaerobic power.

Interesting, but not necessarily damning. For one, the boost of mental alertness in itself is reason enough to consider something of this nature. I can only speak for myself on this matter, but sometimes the motivation alone is the make or break in the workout – not to mention whether or not I even make it to the gym.

For those of you concerned about ephedra/ephedrine’s negative effects, all I can say is don’t be silly. E-based products of any type have been implicated in far less than 200 incidents of death, and all of those incidents have occurred in individuals that either 1) had a pre-existing cardiovascular issue and/or 2) ignored the warning labels and popped them like candy. The normal dose of 25mg will give you a buzz; 50-75mg without a tolerance is pushing it. But we’ve all heard the stories of people taking upwards of 100-200mg/day, and that’s just asking for it any way you look at it. Compare the number of deaths that occur each year from aspirin and you’ll see why, statistically, this is just not a worry if you aren’t a total moron.

There’s some drawbacks, though. This study used three groups (placebo, caffeine only, and ephedra + caffeine), but had only nine subjects. Yes, nine. Not nearly enough to matter statistically in total, let alone have any significance per group. So that means that this is more or less worthless in any realistic sense; but as a researcher in this area, you have to work with what you can get, I suppose.

Still interesting overall, though, and it does at least correlate to what I’ve personally seen to happen in the gym. Stimulants will get me very wired up and “in the zone” as it were, but I don’t think they’ve ever actually made me stronger. If anything, they just have the effect of getting rid of the “squat jitters”, those butterflies you get when you’re about to hit a really heavy weight.

Hey, again – getting over that and being able to push it is the big reason I’ve used stimulants. I’m not particularly interested in any real strength gains, just the ability to push it out.

Are you ‘result-based’ or ‘idea-based’?

One of the core problems facing everyone involved in fitness and strength training is how to figure out what is garbage and what is legitimately effective.

This can be difficult because the entire field of exercise science is still made up of a lot of unknowns. Most of the knowledge and things we take for granted today have come in large part from experts in the field, the coaches and trainers that actually work with various athletes.

Even then, there’s a wide disagreement among these practitioners. A lot of it will really boil down to argument over fine details, as the general philosophies will usually line up.

But the devil can often be in the details; how do you know what you should listen to and what you shouldn’t?

Ideally speaking, we should use a rationalist stance in evaluating information. This means being open-minded, but at the same time being critical, logical, and rational in how we look at material.

Due to some weird quirks of human psychology, the rationalist stance can easily be derailed. Humans are emotional thinkers, reactive to the feelings and sensations that different things can elicit in us. This is the basis of much of our culture in fact, from religion to politics. We like ideas, we like charismatic people to rally behind, and we like groups to be a part of.

Marketing is based on the scientific study and application of these responses, in fact. By study and understanding what people will respond to, you can create an entire program designed to make people give you money. It’s elegant, in some ways, while being a little bit scary.

Getting back on topic a bit, the fitness industry in the modern day actually does have some interest in helping you out. The problem is that marketing, and more precisely the emotional responses it’s designed to tap into, has made everybody’s opinion relevant.

Most of us in the know refer to these guys as Gurus. They develop a system of training and/or dieting, codify it and turn it into various products that they sell you, and make money.

There’s nothing wrong with this, I want to add. As long as the information is of good quality, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with making money off it. Both parties benefit from the exchange.

There’s one tiny problem that comes up, though.

Gurus can fall prey to their own marketing rhetoric. When this happens, the rationalist stance flies right out the window. Open discussion is closed, disagreement is chided, and censorship will begin.

So how do you operate when you listen to authority? Are you emotional, falling into line based on promises and expectations? Or are you a rationalist, evaluating skeptically, but fairly?

An expert worth listening to will be a rationalist by nature. He or she will be capable of backing up claims made, be it with science or anecdote. He will be able to admit gaps in knowledge, or areas which are speculation.

Gurus tend to fall into three categories, based on level of competence:

  • * The Bro – The Bro is a meathead down at the gym that is big, ripped, and probably on drugs. He played football in high school (if he’s American), and works as a personal trainer. The Bro might understand a little science, but it’s just enough to get him into trouble and support his Bro-logic beliefs.

    A Bro’s claims can be easily countered with basic logic and science reasoning. Once challenged the Bro will inevitably respond by moving the goalposts with arguments like “hey, look at me!” or “oh yeah, well science doesn’t know everything, look at me!”. Expect to hear inflated claims of bench press numbers or body fat levels, and how those pencil-neck researchers don’t know anything.

  • * The Educated Trainer – The Educated Trainer is a guy that works down at the gym that’s a cut above. He may or may not have an impressive physique, but he doesn’t rely on this to get business. Instad, he relies on being educated and knowing things.

    This actually does put him a cut above in the Bro-dominant personal trainer industry, but instead of falling victim to Bro-logic, the Educated Trainer relies too much on research topics. This means he will probably have a really good grasp of general fitness topics and how to work with special populations. The drawbacks are that he will tend to be closed-minded with regards to what he does know.

  • * The True Professional – This guy is the real deal (no sarcasm implied). He’s actually trained and worked with athletes, may have some higher education, and generally speaking knows his stuff.

    So where’s the problem? The True Professional can still be a Guru and fall prey to Guru hubris. Themes here will include getting so locked into a way of doing things and a single thought process that anything outside this becomes worthless.

The common theme here is the argument that science is the best, until science disgrees. Then we can ignore the things we don’t like, cherry-pick the parts that support our argument, and maintain the Guru status of expert. Often enough the goalposts are moved so that knowledge isn’t the measure; we’re instead shown glitz and glamour in the form of high-level athletes. In other words, marketing over substance.

Hey, you can get results, that’s awesome. But if your knowledge is shaky, it’s shaky. If it’s not applicable to certain groups, if it’s not applicable. And for the love of Rama don’t fall into the trap of thinking that your way is the only way; down that path lies total failure.

The rationalist approach is much better. Instead of slavishly sticking to a mantra, you can actually use this contradictory data to either come up with reasons for the contradiction, or use it to update your own thought processes.

But this might require some common-sense thinking, which is apparently hard to come by.

Functional or Not?

What does the word “functional” mean to you?

If you’ve had any sampling of the modern fitness industry, “functional” will probably mean doing exercises that have a high carryover to the motions and actions found in most team sports.

It could just as easily mean standing on a wobble board doing one-handed dumbbell presses, in order to improve “core stability”.

Have you ever stopped to think what “functional” really means, though?

The word itself should give you a hint. A more appropriate definition of functionality would be “the way the body’s systems work in order to create motor output”, to paraphrase the late Mel Siff.

In other words, functional training is a formal way of saying “training to improve how the body works in order to perform in specific ways”.

When somebody says that something is “functional”, the response should be “functional for what?”. Functional training is not just a discrete thing you can point to. It’s not a style of training, as much as people like to quantify training in this way.

Continue reading “Functional or Not?”

Machines vs. Free Weights: A Problem of Context

This is one of the oldest and most frequently debated subjects in the field of weight training.

As per the status quo in these arguments, you have camps that are polarized on both sides of the issue.

I’ll give a little summary of each side, then throw in the Common Sense outlook.
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Adrenal Fatigue: A Quack Disease for the New Millennium

Adrenal fatigue is the new fad for all the quack doctors and fitness trainers of the modern day. Just don’t ask anybody with medical training.

Why, you may ask? Well, when this first started cropping up as the Next Big Thing, I did a little checking around on Google, and the top results were from a doctor yes, but not in the way you might think. The results belonged to one Dr. James Wilson. More accurately, his website designed will all the standard Inner Circle Marketing cliches.

For obvious reasons this set off my bullshit alarms at once; if you Google search any real disease, you’ll find that actual, you know, information pops up, not some doctor using his MD as an appeal to authority while he tries to sell you things.

I didn’t give up, though. I went over to Pubmed, which is a repository of health and medical research that contains an index of virtually every medical-related publication. Again, if this were a valid thing you’d expect a good number of results.

The search string “adrenal fatigue” returned zero (0) matches.

By now I’m 95% convinced this is garbage. But, just to be fair and to prove to myself that it’s the case, I dig around a little more. Continue reading “Adrenal Fatigue: A Quack Disease for the New Millennium”

Block Periodization for Bodybuilders

For those folks out there that don’t know, Professor Yuri Verkhoshansky who is considered one of the fathers of Russian sports science, has a new website up that contains a lot of his articles (some translated, some not).

This is not exactly light reading, mind you, but if you’re a sports science geek (like I am), you’ll find it pretty interesting to read through.

It just happens that he’s got a forum up on his site as well, and with the help of his translator, Prof. Verkoshansky has had a lot of interesting things to say.

The big one has been shooting down all the terminology-wankers that are constantly screaming “Westside isn’t conjugate!!!!” He clarified that the “conjugate method” used by WSB is not the same thing as the conjugate-sequence system he spoke about, but that it really doesn’t matter in the final outcome.

Continue reading “Block Periodization for Bodybuilders”

Realistic Expectations

Have your mind right, the rest will follow

When people start weight training, they come in with a lot of pre-conceived notions. For the average raw newbie with the common if ill-defined motivation of “looking better”, most of these notions can be anticipated.

For men, they want a 6-pack set of abs. Women need to tone up the legs and firm up the butt.

Neither the average man or woman wants to get “too bulky, like the guys/girls in the magazines”.

In logic, it’s generally considered that if you start with a false premise, you will invariably end up with a false conclusion. If you’re in the gym busting ass and watching your diet like a hawk week in, week out, under the wrong idea, you’re probably not ending up where you want to be. A false premise has created the expectation of an outcome that doesn’t follow from what you’re doing.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m completely aware that the subjects of exercise and nutrition can get complex at times. Your job, be you beginning gym rat trying to figure things out or trainer trying to figure things out for people, is to reduce that complexity down to simple terms. It can seem like a daunting task.

The very fortunate reality of the matter is that, at the end of the day, it’s not that hard. While you’re being actively discouraged from learning and improving on your own by a fitness industry that needs your ignorance in order to profit, you can still make headway in this area.

Then we have the other side of the matter: how realistic is any given goal for you? As a newbie starting out, are you even asking the right questions? If your knowledge base is fundamentally skewed, how can you be?

Continue reading “Realistic Expectations”

Bro-Science vs. Real Science

The Difference in Science and “Unexplainable” Results

This piece is being written in response to the proposition that “scientific theory” cannot explain certain results, in the context of the human body’s function.

More specifically, the proposition was to the effect of:

“If science tells us that the body mobilizes fat in a fashion that is genetically determined, and therefore spot reduction is impossible, then why do some bodybuilders note that when they work the midsection harder that it gets leaner?”

Well ok, the astute among you have likely noted some of the problems here, but I’d like to go into some detail just to eliminate any doubt. This is a treatment of real science vs. bro-science.

Continue reading “Bro-Science vs. Real Science”

Programs? There ain’t no programs

One of the biggest questions you’ll hear from people, in regards to strength training, is ‘what program are you doing?’ or ‘what program should I use?’

I can’t help but laugh a little when I hear that. Not because it’s a stupid question really, but more because I remember the days back when I was always obsessed with the perfect program. I think we all start out with that mindset to one degree or another, because it’s pushed on us by the fitness industry for one, and really, we just expect that there’s some plan out there that if we just follow it, will lead us to success.

This is true, to an extent. Everybody needs a plan. You have to know where you’re going, and be able to measure progress on that journey. That’s essential. That’s also not what I’m bitching about.

What I’m bitching about is the idea of cookie-cutter monstrosities found in various magazines, books, and websites. Or even worse, sold to you by so-called coaches.

If you just do A1) back squats for 6 sets of 5 with a 4/1/0/1 tempo and 65 seconds of rest in between sets and A2) leg curls for 6 sets of 10 with a 10/5/0/5 tempo and 20 seconds between supersets, you’re on your way to gettin’ JAKKED!!!

Right.

This is where the idea of individualization comes in. When every “program” you see falls into the same generic category of n sets of x reps, this tempo, that rest period, this dumbass A1/A2 superset scheme etc etc etc, you lose that touch, even if it is just what you’ve been waiting for.

Going back to the roadmap analogy, you might find 15 different routes to get you from A to B. Which you pick is largely up to you. In a hurry? Take route 1. Want to enjoy the scenery? Take 2. Need to stop by grandma’s house? Take 3. And so on.

To sit down and create some blanket routine with rigid guidelines and say “here ya go! Best thing ever LOL!”, is faggotry.

In the best case scenario, a weekly routine is just a framework. It gives you a guideline of how to structure and perform each session, and controls how those sessions relate to one another. This is a very important role, mind you.

The real magic is not the routine. The magic is how the routine changes over time. You have to manage issues as they come up. What if progress stalls after three weeks? What do you do? Go find a new magic routine? This could lead into an entirely new rant about consistency, hard work, and sticking to goals.

The other X-factor is the individual response. Once you get past a few hurdles, the structure you choose really isn’t important. Anybody that tells you it is has something to sell you. What’s really important is finding a routine that you like, that has your goals in mind, and that (most importantly) you’ll stick to. Hey guess what? Consistency, hard work, and sticking to goals.

In the ideal situation, as you become more advanced, you’d move away from this “program fever” disease. The biggest and strongest guys don’t have a program. They have a concept of how they should train. What they do in the gym is often unplanned; they’ll go in with an idea of what needs to get done, then just fill in the blanks as they go.

This is the evolution that you should take as well. Rigid programs might create a good foundation, but the more advanced you get, the less you’ll be able to rely on them. In fact, to reach truly amazing levels, you’ll likely need to throw out the idea all together. Yeah yeah, structural balance, posture, WTFever. That stuff’s gotten almost as bad as bro-science. They both use confounding psychology to stop people from going to the gym and working hard. It’s like some damn alien plot to steal all our water, only instead of aliens and water, it’s Internet gurus wanting your money. Go lift some weights and it’s amazing how little any of the trivia will matter.

In summary, roadmap = good. Rigid routine = bad.

Don’t be one of those guys.