Exercise articles

Confession: I’m an exercise junkie.

If I don’t get my fix I start doing pushups and handstands in inappropriate places.

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Seriously, WTF?

I’ve lifted weights for a couple of decades now. How the time flies. Back in my day gyms weren’t like they are now with their… actually, they haven’t changed that much. The challenge of lifting heavy stuff is cool and the added side effects of being (subjectively) stronger, fitter, healthier and sexier are awesome.

Fitness is sexy
Fitness is sexy. Steroids are sexier.

After being around gyms and fellow fitness junkies this long you start to realise that articles on how to get in shape are as numerous as new programs claiming to be the best program ever. Every person and their pet has their five cents on the subject (cough, cough). There is nothing wrong with different programs with different ideals. Not everyone loves running, not everyone loves bench pressing on Mondays, not everyone needs to look super lean for their next Instagram shoot. Variety can be good. And some variety can be quite funny:

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But something happened to me between when I wrote about an F45 promotional ad news article and now. I’ve stopped reading exercise articles, blogs, and scientific papers.* Essentially, there are only so many times you can read “Exercise in a progressive way and eat healthily in amounts that match your energy needs/expenditure.” Doesn’t stop people writing them though.

Okay, big deal, you’re tired of reading the same 3 articles (Eat less/more, Do exercises that address a weakness, Train to progress), what’s your point?

Good question, imaginary audience surrogate.

Not a problem. Are you going to answer the question?

Not unless you can find a way to incorporate the answer into a segue to my list of things to look out for in any fitness article.

1) Fake experts.

So many articles are written by some unqualified hack who just happens to be in good shape in spite of any fitness program and diet they followed. These hacks quite often have some impressive modelling photos, or celebrity cache, or online course credentials, or all of the above. Sometimes the fake expert will be the opposite of this, with lots of legitimate qualifications and knowledge but zero idea of how to apply it.** Often it is very hard to tell the difference between an actual expert and someone who woke up with abs one morning and decided to advise others on how to do the same.

What to look for:
Fake experts will try to reveal some magic secret or brand new piece of knowledge but will likely have little evidence or be running counter to the majority of evidence. They’ll be citing one study, or what worked for them, or some other similarly small amount of evidence.

2) Quack medicine

The fitness industry is filled with alternative/complementary medicine nonsense. Health-conscious people will go looking for medical help. And there are lots of quacks looking to lighten their wallets.*** If any of this stuff worked it wouldn’t be called alternative medicine, it would just be medicine. Many of these fitness articles lend credence to quack medicine or use quack medicine to support their claims. The advantage of using quack claims is that it doesn’t require real evidence, which makes it easy to sell people on the new fitness fad.

What to look for:
If it comes under the banner of (S)CAMS or alternative medicine, there’s a good chance the article is rubbish.

3) BRAND NEW!!!

I remember when F45 was called circuit class. I remember when HIIT was called interval training. When Crossfit was just a cult… nothing new there. A few tweaks here, a brand name there, and you have the new fitness craze. This is more marketing than anything because no one wants last season’s wheel, have to reinvent it.

What to look for:
Advertorial disguised as news or an article.

4) Buzzwords, appeals, and contradictions

Have you tried holistic functional fitness? Get a six-pack for summer! How to focus on this extensive list of things.

This sort of meaningless nonsense is rife in an industry represented by people who failed high school. You know, athletes. You either focus on one thing, or you aren’t focussing at all. What exactly makes swinging a kettlebell functional versus doing a weightlifting snatch? How exactly does balancing on a ball while I wave dumbells around get me a six-pack and not a date with my shoulder surgeon? All these questions and more will be glossed over as someone tries to sell you on their new program or fill space between adverts for supplements you don’t need.

What to look for:
Marketing and spin.

5) Random numbers

Articles will often have a set of numbers that will be regarded as heavy or a long distance or a fast time by the author. Most often, these numbers are made up or arbitrary. This is most obvious when the numbers aren’t given any context. E.g. One-hundred kilograms is ridiculously heavy for a bicep curl, but light for a deadlift by an experienced lifter who weighs at least 80% of that.

Sometimes these numbers are just naïve. That sounds big enough to me. Sometimes they are humble brags. Yeah, those are my bench numbers. Impressed? Sometimes they are the inflated internet numbers. What do you mean only three people in history have run a faster time than that?

What to look for:
The context for the numbers or a reference to accepted standards.

Hope this helps you become disillusioned too.

 

* What? Didn’t I mention I’m a nerd and like going to the source for information?

** This is surprisingly common across a range of science fields. We may have the answer down to an amazing level of detail but it has little application to the average situation. E.g. a highly knowledgable nutritionist might be able to give you a full biochemical breakdown of how what you’re eating is killing you, but that does very little to address the underlying habits and reasons for those habits that would lead to actual diet changes.

*** To be fair, many of the alternative medicine people are genuine in wanting to help. The problem is that they have been sold on nonsense and become unwitting purveyors of it themselves. In many instances, reputable institutions who should know better hand out degrees in this stuff. Odd that the chiropractors aren’t in the physio or medicine faculties.

Oh, and before anyone says “My chiropractor is great” it is worth noting that most chiropractors make major misleading claims. “Physiotherapists didn’t make any major misleading claims, whereas 70% of misleading claims on chiropractor websites were major.”

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All movies are unrealistic

With the recent spate of superhero movies, it is easy to forget that not every movie has a superhero in it. Even the superhero films aren’t always about someone on steroids (Captain America) or weather presenters (Thor) but are instead about your everyday billionaire playboy (Batman, Ironman, Arrow). So it is easy to forget that feats of superhuman strength are not meant to be the norm in films.

Think about the scenes where the everyday hero is clutching the edge of a building by his fingertips whilst the love interest or bad guy is dangling from their other hand. Of course, the hero never loses his grip on the ledge, but the bad guy may slip from his grasp.

We accept that scene as plausible because we have been brainwashed into thinking that the average person can hold their own bodyweight with a single hand for extended periods. Double their bodyweight? They can hold that for the length of a dramatic moment – a period of time that is impossible to measure in real time since dramatic speeches and slow motion really mess with reality.

The problem is that outside of gymnasts, rock climbers, or people who crush rocks with their bare hands for a living, the Average Joe wouldn’t even be able to hold their own weight for more than a few seconds, especially not if they caught themselves from a fall. Elite grip strength can be measured a few ways, but the Captains of Crush grippers are one easy way to distinguish strong hands. The #1 requires 64kg (140lbs) of force to close, while the #3 gripper takes 127kg (280lbs) and is regarded as world class grip strength. Just for shits and giggles, they made a #4 gripper that requires 166kg (365lb) of force to close and has been officially closed by 5 people. Ever.

Watch this world-class rock climber hold just over double his bodyweight with two hands, not one hand, for time as another example:

So let’s just assume that our generic action movie conforms to long-held stereotypes of protagonists. This movie stars an everyday hero who weighs a buff 80kg and his falling love interest is a lithe 55kg, and they totally get naked in the second act for purely artistic reasons. That’s 135kg hanging from the hero’s fingertips, a weight that even a really strong person wouldn’t have the grip strength to support. Two supposedly normal adults, which is certainly very relative in movies, are not going to be hanging onto that ledge for any length of time.

Which brings us to the next amazing feat of strength in this scenario: lifting that falling love interest back to safety. For a strong person, the lithe love interest at 55kg isn’t exactly heavy. A buff 80kg hero could probably clean and jerk a dumbbell weighing that much…. assuming they work out, have some chalk on their hands, were able to get some leg drive happening, had decent technique, and that the dumbbell wasn’t particularly unwieldy. But most falling love interests are a tad unwieldy. I’m yet to see any love interests in a movie come equipped with appropriately knurled handles. And when dangling by your fingertips, there isn’t going to be a lot of leg drive happening. Yet without fail, the hero manages to get them both to safety using the power of his mighty biceps – without a single muscle or tendon tear. Well, unless it is one of those tragic character defining moments, in which case the hero will be in the same situation later and will find the determination to succeed the second time. Sucks to be the first love interest in that scenario.

Interesting to think about just how many amazing feats of strength are passed off as normal in movies.

If there was only one piece of equipment you could have in your gym, what would it be and why?

It’s great to see that when asked what one piece of equipment people would have that they would equip a full gym. I’d love to do that too, but I’ll answer the question by naming one piece of equipment.

Of course, the one piece of equipment for me is not the same one piece that someone else would want, nor would it be what a younger or older version of me would want. A younger version of me would have vastly different needs than me now, and we’d both have much different requirements than the older version, whose idea of a workout would be shuffling from the lounge to the dinner queue at the retirement home.

Gymnastic rings

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Right now my ideal piece of gym equipment would be a set of gymnastic rings. Not only can you train most of your body with them, but you get to look really cool doing exercises on them.

Alternative: Chinup bar

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This is an alternative to the gymnastic rings if for some reason I couldn’t afford the rings at the current exorbitant prices. Again, you can train most of your body with a chinup bar (dips, chins, levers, muscleups, hammy curls, etc), plus all the cool kids on Youtube are doing bar training these days.

Younger me

Barbell set

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Yeah, I know, a set is not a single piece of equipment. A barbell on its own isn’t much use without a bunch of weight plates, but at least I’m not listing barbell, plates, rack, and bench. A decent olympic barbell with a set of weights would cover just about everything you could think of. Ideally you’d have a solid floor (or lifting platform) to lift on with quality bumper plates so that clean & jerk and snatches are in the lifting program. But even a standard barbell – which is what I had when I first started training – can be decent.

Alternative: Sandbag or Keg

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Before barbells were a thing, people lifted anything that was around: rocks, trees, bulls. The problem with those sorts of objects is that they are set weights, so progressive training is hard to accomplish, unless you start with a bull calf. So a rock might be a challenge now, but not after a few months or years of training. Sandbags and Kegs can be adjusted in weight and can be utilised for most exercises you would use a barbell for. Plus it sounds really hardcore.

Older me

Pilates sled machine thingy

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Let’s face it, older me will probably be happy to not have arthritis in every joint, so the idea of doing muscle-ups, deadlifts, and that thing with the kettle-bell that looks like you’re trying to hump someone whilst throwing something in the air, is not particularly plausible at 70. As lame as this sort of workout would be for a fit and healthy younger person, it would cover all the muscles for the older more decrepit version of me.

Alternative: Comfy bed

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Let’s be realistic, older me is probably going to be popping viagra and taking full advantage of all the facilities the nursing home has to offer. The bed will probably keep me in great shape to my dying days.

This post original appeared on Quora.

Does performing an additional weightlifting set not increase progress by more than 5%?

Exrx, a widely-known exercise resource site, claims in its article Low Volume Progressive Intensity Training:

By performing an additional set (50% to 100% more sets) only 0 to 5% more progress will be observed. Each additional set yields even less progress to a point of diminishing return.

Is this statement supported by any research?

Answer:

Many of the low volume or high intensity styled programs make claims about diminishing returns from extra work. The easiest way to address this question is to look at the science of training volume. I agree with one of the commenter’s (Dave) that exercise science is not always a solid science, but his recommendation replaces measurement with opinion.

Volume vs HIT: The Answer There have been many studies that have sought to understand whether it is better to use a single set, many sets, how many sets, etc. Most of the training programs used by athletes today are based upon periodized programs developed by the former eastern block Olympic coaches. But there are two issues: strength and hypertrophy.

Firstly a strength training meta-analysis by James Krieger (Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 23(6):1890-1901, September 2009) found that 2-3 sets led to 46% greater strength gains than 1 set.

There has been considerable debate over the optimal number of sets per exercise to improve musculoskeletal strength during a resistance exercise program. The purpose of this study was to use hierarchical, random-effects meta-regression to compare the effects of single and multiple sets per exercise on dynamic strength. English-language studies comparing single with multiple sets per exercise, while controlling for other variables, were considered eligible for inclusion. The analysis comprised 92 effect sizes (ESs) nested within 30 treatment groups and 14 studies. Multiple sets were associated with a larger ES than a single set (difference = 0.26 +/- 0.05; confidence interval [CI]: 0.15, 0.37; p < 0.0001). In a dose-response model, 2 to 3 sets per exercise were associated with a significantly greater ES than 1 set (difference = 0.25 +/- 0.06; CI: 0.14, 0.37; p = 0.0001). There was no significant difference between 1 set per exercise and 4 to 6 sets per exercise (difference = 0.35 +/- 0.25; CI: -0.05, 0.74; p = 0.17) or between 2 to 3 sets per exercise and 4 to 6 sets per exercise (difference = 0.09 +/- 0.20; CI: -0.31, 0.50; p = 0.64). There were no interactions between set volume and training program duration, subject training status, or whether the upper or lower body was trained. Sensitivity analysis revealed no highly influential studies, and no evidence of publication bias was observed. In conclusion, 2 to 3 sets per exercise are associated with 46% greater strength gains than 1 set, in both trained and untrained subjects.

Now the low volume claims are for diminishing returns after the first set. This is clearly not the case, but there is a point that no more strength is gained (4-6 sets) by performing more work. I won’t address it here, but it is to do with how fast the body can restore ATP and how much micro-trauma has been induced.

Hypertrophy is the second part of weight training. Krieger again performed a meta-analysis of the research (Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: April 2010 – Volume 24 – Issue 4 – pp 1150-1159) and found that increasing the number of sets increased the amount of hypertrophy by 40% (up to 6 sets).

Previous meta-analyses have compared the effects of single to multiple sets on strength, but analyses on muscle hypertrophy are lacking. The purpose of this study was to use multilevel meta-regression to compare the effects of single and multiple sets per exercise on muscle hypertrophy. The analysis comprised 55 effect sizes (ESs), nested within 19 treatment groups and 8 studies. Multiple sets were associated with a larger ES than a single set (difference = 0.10 ± 0.04; confidence interval [CI]: 0.02, 0.19; p = 0.016). In a dose-response model, there was a trend for 2-3 sets per exercise to be associated with a greater ES than 1 set (difference = 0.09 ± 0.05; CI: −0.02, 0.20; p = 0.09), and a trend for 4-6 sets per exercise to be associated with a greater ES than 1 set (difference = 0.20 ± 0.11; CI: −0.04, 0.43; p = 0.096). Both of these trends were significant when considering permutation test p values (p < 0.01). There was no significant difference between 2-3 sets per exercise and 4-6 sets per exercise (difference = 0.10 ± 0.10; CI: −0.09, 0.30; p = 0.29). There was a tendency for increasing ESs for an increasing number of sets (0.24 for 1 set, 0.34 for 2-3 sets, and 0.44 for 4-6 sets). Sensitivity analysis revealed no highly influential studies that affected the magnitude of the observed differences, but one study did slightly influence the level of significance and CI width. No evidence of publication bias was observed. In conclusion, multiple sets are associated with 40% greater hypertrophy-related ESs than 1 set, in both trained and untrained subjects.

So there is no science to support the claim that doing more sets will only see small increases in returns. It is possible the person making this claim has not understood the conclusions of studies such as the ones I have cited, but it is more likely that the claims are unfounded.

Cardio vs. weight lifting for weight loss

There are a lot of people who either claim that cardio or weight lifting is the key to losing weight. For example an article questioning the need for cardio or an article claiming that cardio is the key to weight loss.

The cardio folks usually point out the “afterburner” effect, where the body continues to burn calories even after the workout. And weight lifting people mention that muscles burn more calories than fat, so more muscle is the key.

Are there studies showing if either one is true? Or are both needed? And what about interval training?

Answer:

This is a tough question to answer as there are a lot of ifs and buts.

Weight loss is all about caloric deficit, expend more energy than you consume and you lose weight. Most people do this by dieting, but the body tends to readjust the resting metabolic rate so that you don’t lose too much reserves. Thus exercise plus diet is needed for weight loss to be effective.

How effective is ‘Diet Only’ versus ‘Diet plus Exercise’ for Weight Loss? Most studies demonstrate that when diet (caloric restriction) and physical activity are combined in a weight management program, encouraging results in weight loss occur. Donnelly and colleagues (2009) explain that a weight loss program design may create an energy deficit (e.g., 500 to 1500) composed of exercise (e.g., 250 kilocalories/day) and caloric restriction (e.g., 250 kilocalories/day) for the daily caloric deficit total (500 kilocalories in this example). In studies where investigators introduce an energy deficit of 700 to 1000 kilocalories per day, ‘diet only’ and ‘diet plus exercise’ result in similar losses. Donnelly explains that this is due to metabolic adaptations that “diminish any additive effect of energy expenditure from physical activity on weight loss”. However, in investigations where the energy deficit is 500-700 kilocalories/day, the ‘diet plus exercise’ group is about 20% greater than the ‘diet only’ intervention.

So weight loss needs to be related to your activity and diet in order to understand your basal metabolism. But weight loss isn’t just about bodyweight as it is about losing bodyfat (as muscle is useful for maintaining basal metabolism and body function). When you calculate this you are able to figure out how many calories need to be removed from the diet in order to lose fat. See here. There are also strategies that can change your metabolism.

Exercise is usually broken down into two categories: cardio and weight training. There are many benefits to both and generally both are recommended for long term health. Weight training is known to burn fat.

This study is the first to directly show that resistance exercise increases adipose tissue lipolysis and thus contributes to improved body composition. This boost in lipolysis is apparently due to the excitatory effect of resistance training on specific hormones (e.g., epinephrine, norepinephrine and growth hormone). As this study design was completed with trained male subjects, it is hoped that the methods and procedures will be completed with other subject populations (e.g., females, untrained persons, youth, seniors, overweight, etc.) in future research.

For cardio training, there is obviously fat burning taking place. The amount of fat burning that occurs is related to the intensity of the cardio.

In summary, that data clearly show that exercise intensity is the main factor in determining the magnitude and duration of EPOC following aerobic exercise. Thus, when developing a cardiorespiratory exercise prescription for weight maintenance and weight loss, the influence of exercise intensity on EPOC and its potential contribution to total caloric expenditure should be taken into consideration.

The same is true of weightlifting (from the same article):

The data on resistance training and EPOC suggest that EPOC is distinctly influenced by the intensity of the resistance training program.

The actual amount of post activity “fat burning” will be related to the intensity and duration of the exercise done. Weightlifting has advantages in terms of encouraging muscle satellite cell accumulation that sustains and grows muscle. Cardio has the benefit that it can be performed for longer durations than weightlifting. So the essential answer will come down to the individual and their strength and fitness.

Essentially any exercise program should incorporate both cardio and weight training for weight loss, especially targeting fat loss.

For more articles on fitness and metabolism see here.

Further question: Hey, do you think I can get the source on your statement that “the body tends to readjust the resting metabolic rate so that you don’t lose too much reserves.”? I’m rather curious about this. – Joel Cornett

Reply: Joel, there is a lot of research related to metabolic rate and how it changes under dieting and exercise regimes. It is quite a complex topic because it depends upon many factors. Someone who has just started dieting will be different from someone who is active already in terms of responses. Here is one paper that looks at the overweight people and weight control. I linked to Kravitz’s other articles that cover some of the athlete side of metabolism in the last link.