Thursday, August 14, 2014

One set, three sets, or more: Which is best for strength and muscle gains? by Jerry Brainum



Perhaps the most contentious debate among trainers, physiologists, and bodybuilders relates to the volume of exercise that is best to promote muscle hypertrophy (growth) and strength gains.Back in the early days of bodybuilding, pioneers such as the great Eugene Sandow,suggested that those lifting weights should do only one set per exercise. But Sandow also advised the use of light weights to build muscle, probably because he sold light dumbbells. As time progressed, the volume of training gradually increased, too. By the 1940s, men such as Steve Reeves and Clarence Ross, the 1947 and 1945 Mr.Americas respectively, were training three times a week, averaging three sets per exercise. In the late 50s, the volume of exercise increased exponentially, with programs that featured six days a week of training, working varying muscle groups, and as much as 20 or more sets per muscle group.
    The increased training volume remained the standard until about 1970. At that time, an eccentric entrepreneur from Florida, Arthur Jones, introduced the "better barbell," namely his Nautilus training machines. These machines, which Jones claimed were the result of about 30 years of development, worked on the principle of variable resistance, made possible by the unique Nautilus cam that was part of every machine. More importantly, however, Jones said that using his machines worked muscles far more intensely than was possible with free weights because the machines placed resistance throughout the full range of exercise motion, unlike free weights, where the resistance at some points was nearly zero. This increased stress on exercised muscles also required a reduction in training volume, lest you exceed a nebulous "recovery ability." Doing so, said Jones, would result in either no gains, or even a loss of muscle through overtraining. As proof, he pointed to the glacially slow gains made by most bodybuilders, who Jones considered grossly overtrained.
    Specifically, Jones stated that no one needs to do more than one set per exercise, done to complete muscular failure to ensure a maximal recruitment of available muscle fibers. While the often dogmatic Jones offered some persuasive evidence that training in this high intensity, but low volume manner is superior, in reality his system never captured the complete attention of those in the iron world. Most simply could not accept the notion that doing only one set could ever produce better gains than doing three or more sets per exercise. While Jones disparaged mainstream academic physiology researchers, most of whom he characterized as "idiots,"  several researchers nonetheless have published studies over the years that sought to either prove or disprove Jones' principles of high intensity, low volume training.
    Some studies have indeed found little or no difference in muscle gains when doing one versus three sets of an exercise. Others, in contrast, have found that a minimum of three sets is required to build muscle, although beginners can get away with doing only one set because the initial gains in muscle size and strength that occur with weight-training have more to do with neuromuscular adaptations, rather than actual muscle hypertrophy, which usually doesn't show up until after about three months of regular training. Some studies show that doing a greater volume of training is superior because it promotes a greater release of various anabolic hormones, such as testosterone and growth hormone. This seems a moot point, since recent research shows that the temporary elevations in these anabolic hormones that occur following exercise play no significant  role in promoting gains in muscular size and strength. What counts in the way of hormones is producing enough to maintain normal levels, or using drugs, such as anabolic steroids and growth hormone, that result in much higher than normal levels of the hormones, which have definite, unquestionable positive effects on muscle hypertrophy and strength gains.
   A major problem with nearly all the past studies that have sought to either prove or disprove the high intensity/low volume style of training is that the subjects in those studies have almost always been untrained college students. While being a college student doesn't matter in this respect, being untrained certainly can affect the results of the study. As noted, when you begin lifting weights, your initial gains result from a more efficient neuromuscular connection. Basically, the exercise makes the connection between your brain and your muscles more efficient, which results in increased muscle strength, followed by increased muscular size. The salient point here is that beginners have a tendency to make gains on any type of training program.So using rank beginners as a way to determine the benefits of any particular style of training is bound to produce skewed results. Not to mention that some beginners are able to train harder than others right from the start, and would likely make faster muscle gains.
    A new study that takes still another look at the one versus three set controversy, starts with the premise that three sets are indeed superior to doing one set of an exercise. But unlike prior studies, in this study the subjects all had at least a year of training experience, which is enough to eliminate any of the beginner anomalies discussed earlier. This study lasted for eight weeks, and featured 16 men with an age range of 18 to 21. The men were divided into two groups, with 8 doing an upper body routine that included one set per exercise, done three days per week. The other 8 men did the same routine and workout frequency, but did three sets per exercise. All the subjects ingested their usual diets, but refrained from using any food supplements that may have influenced the study results. At the start of the study, baseline strength tests were done using the bench press and shoulder press exercises. All the exercises done in the routines were standard upper body exercises, using only free weights, not machines (I can hear the ghost of Arthur Jones saying, "idiots!").
    The results after 8 weeks of consistent training showed that both groups showed a 20.7% strength gain, with no significant difference between the two groups. The only significant difference between the one and three set groups was in fat loss, as determined by measuring seven skin fold sites before and after the 8-week program. Those in the one set group showed less skinfold thickness compared to the three set group, an indication of greater loss of subcutaneous body fat. This finding surprised the study authors, who expected that the greater number of total reps and volume in the three set group would have produced a better body composition result. The authors suggest that the lower volume training may maintain better muscle glycogen and protein stores, reduce intramuscular damage,  and thereby promote greater lean mass formation. On the other hand, skin fold measurements, while accurate when measured by someone who knows precisely the correct measuring technique, isn't as accurate at other methods to determine body fat gains or losses.
    The essential point of this study is that it used more experienced subjects, and that with these subjects, doing one set proved as effective as doing three sets per exercise, despite 66 percent less training time. Science decrees that one study doesn't constitute definitive evidence, so this study would have to be replicated with similar results countless times before it's officially accepted as scientific gospel. Even so, I suspect that you cannot eliminate the specter of cognitive dissonance with regard to long held beliefs as to what constitutes the best way to train. In the end, the answer to that question is probably whatever you believe works best for you.

Baker, JS, et al. Strength and body composition changes in recreationally strength-trained individuals: comparison of one versus three sets resistance-training programs.BioMed Res Intern 2013.

Coming soon: Jerry Brainum's Applied Metabolics Newsletter, the source of truth for all matters related to health, fitness, nutrition, longevity, and ergogenic aids. It will soon be available at: www.appliedmetabolics.com.

 ©,2014 Jerry Brainum. Any reprinting in any type of media, including electronic and foreign is expressly prohibited.

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Saturday, July 26, 2014

Does mouth rinsing with carbohydrates boost exercise and sports performance? By Jerry Brainum


Carbohydrates are the most efficient fuel for exercise. While certain amino acids from protein can be converted into glucose, which is the only sugar that circulates in the blood, the conversion of protein or amino acids into glucose is an inefficient process that doesn't yield much glucose. As for fat, only the glycerol portion of the triglyceride structure can be converted into glucose in the liver. Thus, only 10% of fat is capable of being converted into glucose. Carbs are considered the high test fuel to power both exercise and sports. Studies show that carb intake consistently improves performance in activity lasting more than 2 hours. It does this by maintaining glycogen stores, which are the primary fuel for anaerobic exercise, including bodybuilding exercise, and also enhancing carb oxidation, as well as maintaining a high energy level throughout the course of exercise or sports. When it comes to exercise lasted an hour or less, carbs aren't as vital. Studies have even shown that ingesting carbs prior to a high intensity weight workout does not contribute to the intensity level. But this also depends on the existing muscle glycogen state. With a depleted glycogen state, as occurs with a zero carb diet, ingesting the equivalent of one gram of carb per minute does boost intensity level during training.
    Some studies suggest that you don't even have to ingest carbs to provide an ergogenic effect. Merely rinsing the mouth with a carb solution for a few seconds is enough to boost energy and exercise performance. One study showed that cyclists who rinsed their mouths with carbs showed a 2.9% improvement in performance. Other studies have shown similar results with running.
    Why would just rinsing the mouth with carbs provide an ergogenic effect?  Some suggest that rinsing the mouth with carbs activates neural pathways that lower the perception of effort during exercise. A study published two years found that carb mouth rinsing didn't affect strength performance. A new study examined the effects of carb mouth rinsing during multiple sprints, which is a high intensity activity. The study subjects consisted of eight trained men, all with athletic backgrounds. The average age was 21. Anyone who had used creatine supplements, which would affect the outcome of the study was eliminated if they had ingested any creatine within 12 weeks of the study onset. The subjects were also asked to refrain from ingesting any caffeine and to ensure that they were fully hydrated to prevent dehydration-based interference.
     The men rinsed their mouths with either a carb solution composed of maltodextrin 6.4% or a placebo. They rinsed their mouths for 30 seconds before engaging in various sprint tests. The results show no improvement in sprint times, perceived exertion, or blood glucose levels in the men that rinsed with the carb solution. As such, the conclusion of the study was that mouth rinsing with carbs is not an effective ergogenic aid. It short, it just doesn't work.

Darling JK, et al. Effect of carbohydrate mouth rinsing on multiple sprint performance.J Int Soc Sports Nutr 2013: 10:41.

©,2014 Jerry Brainum. Any reprinting in any type of media, including electronic and foreign is expressly prohibited.

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Friday, June 20, 2014

Will baking soda help you train harder? By Jerry Brainum



Depending on which study that you look at, sodium bicarbonate (better known as baking soda) is either an efficient ergogenic aid, or just another way to induce nausea. Sodium bicarb acts to alkalinize or reduce acidity. It is made in the body, and used to help maintain a narrow range of acid/base levels in the blood. Either excessive alkaline or acidic blood is very harmful to health. Sodium bicarb is often administered to patients suffering from heart attacks, in which a lack of sufficient oxygen flow to cells results from a failure of the heart to sufficiently pump blood leading to increased blood acidity. From an athletic standpoint, while there are several causes of muscle fatigue, increased acidity is definitely one of them. Increased muscle acidity is the result of anaerobic metabolism, whereby waste products of muscle metabolism boost local acidity in muscles. This, in turn, interferes with the activity of certain energy-related enzymes, which cannot function in an acidic environment.
    While lactic acid has often been accused in the past of being the primary instigator of increased muscle acidity, in fact only the acid portion of lactic acid is the true culprit. Lactate itself is a reusable fuel, where it is released into the blood from exercised muscle, sent to the liver, and then reconverted into glucose in a process known as the Cori cycle. The actual process of converting lactate into glucose is known as gluconeogenesis. So the actual acidity from lactic acid are hydrogen ions. These hydrogen ions cause a drop in both muscle and blood pH levels, meaning higher acidity. In the muscle, this leads to lower rates of glycolysis, or use of glucose as a fuel; an interference with the activity of calcium ions required for muscular contraction; and an increased feeling of overall fatigue in the muscle.
     Although sodium bicarb doesn't work in the muscle itself, it does impart an alkalosis, or acid-lowering effect in the blood. This lowers levels of hydrogen ions in the blood. But the sodium bicarb also tends to promote exit of lactic acid out of the muscle and into the blood, and this is where the ergogenic effect comes into play. Since the increase of metabolic acid occurs mainly during higher intensity, short-term activity, the ergogenic effect of sodium bicarb is most evident for shorter duration events, such as sprints. But not all studies of sodium bicarb have found a definite improvement after its use. A recent analysis of prior studies that have involved sodium bicarb use in sports found that it was ergogenic in 38% of the studies.
   Since weight-training and bodybuilding exercise normally features a short period of high intensity, and since the major cause of fatigue appears to be increased muscle acidity (felt as a burning sensation in the trained muscle), it would initially appear that sodium bicarb would be an ideal ergogenic aid for use in bodybuilding and other weight-training activity. Several studies have examined whether sodium bicarb may be useful for those engaged in weight-training. The results have been mixed, with some studies showing increased repititions done, less feelings of fatigue after using sodium bicarb. Other studies, however, have not shown any improvements.
    One primary reason for the lack of response after ingesting sodium bicarb is that since it works by neutralizing excessive acidity, for it to work you need to impose a level of exercise intensity high enough to significantly boost muscle acidity levels. Several of the prior studies that showed no effects after using sodium bicarb did not provide sufficient  intensity levels for the bicarb to do anything. In actuality, you would need to use enough weight to stress the muscle, and do each exercise to failure as a means of producing an intensity level high enough to truly test the effects of bicarb.  
   This was precisely what was done in a new study that involved 8 men experienced in weight training. They ingested either 0.3 milligrams of sodium bicarb per kilogram of bodyweight, which is the standard dose for athletic purposes, or a placebo consisting of salt water. Both treatments were separated by 48 hours, and both drinks were mixed with 5 milliliters per kilogram of bodyweight  flavored, sweetened water provided in a opaque flask. The men then did 3 sets of bench press and back squat using 80% of one-rep max weight done to complete muscle failure. The results showed that when the men consumed the sodium bicarb solution, they were able to complete additional reps in the squat compared to the salt water placebo. But when they did the bench press five minutes after the squat exercise, no improvement was noted. The men did a similar number of reps on the first set of both the squat and bench press, but did more reps on the second and third set of the squat. The study authors suggest that the failure protocol used in the exercises explains the clear ergogenic effect of sodium bicarb. Why the bicarb didn't work for the bench press wasn't explained, but it may be related to the larger muscle mass of the legs compared to that used when doing a bench press. More muscle mass means more muscle acidity.
    Should you consider regular use of sodium bicarb to enhance workout performance? While baking soda is not expensive compared to high priced "pre-workout" supplements, routine use of sodium bicarb would not be a good idea because of the high sodium content of baking soda. In fact, it is the high sodium content of baking soda that has limited its use among athletes, since many have experienced gastrointestinal distress following the use of sodium bicarb. But there are ways around this. If you ingest a high carb meal, 120-150 minutes prior to exercise, and at that time consume a dose of 0.3 grams of sodium bicarb per kilogram of bodyweight mixed with 7 milliliters of water per kilogram of bodyweight, the risk of gastrointestinal distress drops significantly. Most of the problems that have occurred with ingestion of sodium bicarb have involved ingesting it too close to exercise or sports activity.
     Recent research suggests that sodium bicarb is synergistic with beta alanine, which works to boost levels of carnosine, an intramuscular buffer in muscle. Creatine also lowers muscle acidity, and the combination of sodium bicarb and creatine offers a potent weapon against premature training fatigue, and would likely allow you to train with an increased level of intensity, which translates into increased muscle and strength gains. Adding caffeine to the mixture would make it even more potent, with the amount of caffeine being 300-400 milligrams.






Duncan, M.J, et al. The effect of sodium bicarbonate ingestion on back squat and bench press exercise to failure. J Strength Cond Res 2013: in press.

©,2013 Jerry Brainum. Any reprinting in any type of media, including electronic and foreign is expressly prohibited.

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