More and more lately I’ve been writing, speaking and thinking about, well, thinking. As the “evidence based community” has grown in fitness, I’ve been increasingly aware of the disconnect between scientific knowledge and scientific thinking in our little community.
Sometimes we accept logical fallacies in arguments, so long as we think the person being argued against is on the other side of science. Sometimes we accept personal attacks and insults, so long as we think the person being attacked is on the other side of science. Sometimes we are anti-guru, but not if those gurus are pro-science. In fact, deep down we might even subconsciously expect our science-based leaders to always be right, and infallible, because then we can just trust what they’ve told us. I remember accepting these things and thinking this way myself (even very recently).
Now this isn’t me wagging my finger at you, this is me acknowledging human nature. Thinking this way is natural. But, to truly be scientific thinkers, we must try to be self-aware of these tendencies, speak openly about them, try to circumvent them, and try to improve whenever possible.
For example, I was aware that in my early days I would take the opinion of certain evidence based professionals as gospel. So, I moved on to the point where I’d compare the opinions of a handful of evidence based professionals I trusted, and then try to reason my way through the most logical interpretation of their combined thoughts. At this point, I was aware that I wasn’t yet able to evaluate and interpret scientific information on my own, so my next step was to try to learn and adopt their thinking patterns and styles. Still today, I continually try to evaluate my biases, beliefs, assumptions, and desires to see how they might form blind spots that stop me from learning.
How do I know I’ve done this at least reasonably successfully you might ask? Well one metric is how many times I can look back and see where I’ve been wrong and changed my mind. Looking back, there have been many times…fortunately. I’m not so arrogant to think I’m an infallible genius, so there should be a lot of opinion changing over 14 years.
So, I thought it might be useful to share some of those times I was wrong:
1. Protein While Dieting
Prior belief: “Higher protein diets than currently recommended will prevent lean body mass losses during caloric deficits.”
Current belief: “There is no current evidence to support the notion that an intake higher than 1.6-2.2g/kg is more protective of lean body mass losses during caloric deficits. More data is needed to confirm if this could be true. However, a higher intake may be valuable for improving diet outcomes via enhanced satiety, mood state, and possibly via small increases in energy expenditure. However, protein intake should not be so high as to impinge significantly on carb or fat; a max intake of ~2.8g/kg is a reasonable limit unlikely to cause any negative effects.”
2. Load for Hypertrophy
Prior belief: “Loads under 60-70% of 1RM are suboptimal for hypertrophy.”
Current belief: “Except for extremely light loads (<30% 1RM), light, moderate and heavy loads can effectively stimulate hypertrophy given sufficient effort (i.e. reasonable proximity to failure ~5+ RPE). However, heavy low rep training (<6 reps) requires more sets be performed compared to higher rep training to compensate for the short length of time muscles are put under tension. Likewise, high rep training (over 12 reps) is probably unsuitable on skilled compound exercises that train much of the body simultaneously (squats and deadlifts for example) due to their technical demand and high risk, coupled with high metabolic fatigue which can be detrimental to the performance of subsequent exercises and a tendency to underestimate proximity to true muscular failure due to sensations of discomfort and fatigue.”
3. Relationship of Strength to Hypertrophy
Prior belief: “Getting stronger in a variety of movements across a variety of repetition ranges causes hypertrophy.”
Current belief: “Increased strength, especially when quantified using a low-skill, isolation movement and which persists over longer time periods indicates hypertrophy has likely occurred.”
4. Low Carb Diets
Prior Belief: “Low carbohydrate diets are detrimental to strength and physique competitors, as they result in reduced performance, decreases in energy expenditure, loss of fullness via decreased glycogen, greater muscle loss while dieting, and lower adherence.”
Current Belief: “Low carbohydrate diets are inherently more rigid than diets without restrictions on macronutrients and result in lower food variety. When initially implemented, low carbohydrate diets often result in fatigue which can degrade performance, sometimes for up to a month, before performance normalizes (typically). Additionally, low carbohydrate diets reduce sensations of hunger and often result in reductions in ad libitum food intake which persist sometimes up to a month, which can result in unintended weight loss due to a reduction in energy intake. However, the type of training typically performed by strength and physique competitors is typically unaffected by a low carb diet after initial adaptation. The requisite knowledge and skills needed to implement a low carb diet for a short period is lower than a “flexible dieting” approach. It is not known if low carb diets are less effective for muscle gain, but there are potential physiological reasons why they could prove suboptimal. Thus, I don’t advise them for gaining currently. Likewise, to get to extreme levels of leanness appropriate for physique competition, tracking and/or moderating energy intake will be required at some point, so the satiety related benefits of low carb diets likely don’t outweigh their unnecessarily restrictive nature for most individuals. For mini cuts, and weight cuts in weight class restricted athletes who struggle with tracking and measuring, low carb diets may have utility. Lastly, some individuals will be favorable responders to low carb diets while others will respond negatively.”
5. Periodization for Hypertrophy
Prior Belief: “Specific forms of periodization including the planning of micro, meso and macrocycles is required to optimize hypertrophy in bodybuilders in the long run.”
Current Belief: “Ensuring continued overload, efficiently distributing stress, and balancing stimulus and recovery is required to optimize hypertrophy in bodybuilders. This can be primarily achieved through programming at the micro and mesocycle level, while macrocycle level changes are largely reflected by changes in recovery status due to energy intake (prep vs offseason). Throughout all phases of training, there should be sufficient flexibility to adapt to the changing status of the lifter (autoregulation or regulation by a coach).”
6. Reverse Dieting
Prior Belief: “Reverse dieting (i.e. the slow reintroduction of calories and gradual reduction in cardio after contest prep) is optimal as it maximizes metabolic rate while preventing excess fat gain, setting you up for less offseason fat gain and subsequently easier contest preps.”
Current Belief: “When a contest season is finished, so too should an energy deficit end. There is no reason to extend energy restriction as the athlete no longer has to be contest lean. Being contest lean comes with side effects including decreased mood state, reduced energy expenditure, reductions in anabolic, metabolic, and satiety hormones, and increased stress, hunger and catabolic hormones. The potential outcomes of maintaining a deficit and near stage condition leanness are reduced strength, lethargy, impeded regain of muscle mass, increased risk of disordered eating, amenorrhea in women, low testosterone in men, possible reductions in bone density, depression, micronutrient deficiencies and disordered sleep. Metabolic rate is primarily recovered by regaining lost muscle mass and a gradual increase in body fat rather than small increases in energy. Reverse diets where multiple months are taken to move from a deficit, to maintenance, to a slight surplus are counterproductive as they cause all of the above, and more importantly are rarely adhered to (causing further psychological distress). Rather, competitors transitioning to the offseason should implement a caloric surplus after their competition is finished via substantial reduction in cardio and appropriate increase in energy intake to result in the steady regain of lost muscle and body mass until reaching a still lean, but healthier body fat more suitable to the goal of offseason muscle gain (~10-15% body fat in males, ~18-23% in females).”
7. Peak Week Carb Loading
Prior Belief: “Front-loading carbohydrates during peak week is the preferred method of loading (two peaks in carb intake, one early to mid-week, one prior to competition) as it prevents an athlete from being flat, and allows greater fullness on game day. Additionally, it allows for a more consistent peak as you can adjust the second load up or down if the athlete is full or flat.”
Current Belief: “Front loading introduces more variables to manage and therefore can be less predictable than an intelligent back load (no dehydration strategies no extreme sodium/potassium manipulation, based on trial run). This lack of predictability can result in athletes spilled over or flat, and sometimes, elements of both (lingering water retention from the midweek load but not quite full on game day). Back loads are more consistent, but do more often result in flatness compared to a front load. However, an ideal scenario is being ready multiple weeks in advance so cardio can be reduced and carbohydrate increased leading into the show, such that all that is needed to increase fullness is a conservative back load.”