Featured story January 22, 2015
In the world of health and fitness, old wives' tales and gym lore are oft repeated, chapter and verse, as hardcore fact. Opinions are bandied about as truth, and legend is taken as history. Health clubs are home to more speculation than the pork bellies market. And that's just the way it's always been. Until now.
We've recruited bona fide experts in the fields of exercise science and nutrition to help us answer 17 questions that have historically been ripe for speculation, guesswork and hearsay. So now, instead of listening to the advice of your training partner's friend's roommate's sister, you can be the one giving it. But one word of caution: You may find your standing among old wives seriously downgraded. So, what really happens when . . .
According to nutrition and exercise guru Chris Aceto, there are two sides to this coin. "If you don't use a belt when lifting heavy, you could possibly injure yourself because belts support the abdominal and lower back muscles—the stabilizers of the trunk region," he says. "Paradoxically, when people start out training with a belt, they don't build those stabilizer muscles, so the risk of injury increases as the strength of other muscles increases." In other words, use a belt only to help prevent possible injury on your heavier sets, not to take the place of supporting muscles.
We all know that protein builds and maintains muscle. So we do our best to get the right amount of protein to reach our personal fitness goals. But what happens on those days your meal schedule gets derailed?
Aceto explains: "If you eat too much protein, the excess is sent to the liver, changed to a sugar and used as fuel, stored as glycogen or stored as bodyfat. Many people don't realize that protein can be stored as fat. Conversely, if you eat too little protein, you fall into a negative nitrogen balance, meaning there aren't enough amino acids to make your muscles grow." All the more reason to keep a log of your daily nutrient intake. Try to stick to 1-1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight daily.
Sleep deprivation has reached epidemic levels in the United States. While eight hours of work, eight hours of play and eight hours of sleep used to represent the magic triangle of balance in a person's day, our current version is an isosceles, with the sleep side getting ever shorter. What does this mean to you, the dedicated trainer?
"Sleep need is an individual thing," notes M&F Science Editor. "But research supports the fact that most people require between seven and nine hours. You should strive for at least seven; otherwise you risk perturbations in your hormone levels, like growth hormone, which seven hours tend to gain more bodyfat."
Between work, the fiancée, Sunday afternoon with the kids and your Internet addiction, you've got maybe an hour a day, four days a week, to hit the gym -- and you're not about to waste one minute of it stretching. So what's the worst that could happen?
"You'll lose flexibility and range of motion in each muscle," reports Aceto. "Consequently, you won't be able to overload the muscle through its entire range, and you'll limit your growth potential." Stretching is best done after working out to maximize flexibility and range of motion. It's never a good idea to stretch cold muscles, because it could lead to muscle pulls and tears.
"Studies show that exercise will generally cause an acute suppression of the immune system," states William J. Kraemer, PhD, CSCS, director of research and a professor in the department of kinesiology at The University of Connecticut, Storrs. "But with things like upper respiratory tract infections [colds], it's not going to do much damage and can even be beneficial if the exercise isn't too intense."
But what about the feverish? "If you're experiencing any flulike symptoms, you don't want to take the chance of compromising yourself and making things worse," Kraemer warns. Plus, it's not polite to sneeze on your gym partner while he's benching.
"Diet experts" often advise not to eat after 9:00 p.m. But what if you do?
"If your goal is to build muscle, you should consume a slow-digesting protein like meat or a casein product within an hour before sleeping to provide amino acids throughout the night," Stoppani advises. "Without them, muscle breakdown occurs while you sleep. As far as carbs go, some controversy exists. Many bodybuilders get good results by not eating carbs within four hours of bedtime. Others say it doesn't matter, as carbs won't make you fat if you don't take in excessive calories throughout the day."
A good rule of thumb: Try to grab a protein-rich (30 grams or so), low- to moderate-complex-carbohydrate meal about an hour before bedtime. Your muscles will thank you in the morning.
"Women weaken legs!" This infamous caveat bleated by crusty boxing trainer Mickey Goldmill to Rocky Balboa as he trained for his title shot made many a lonely lady out of athletes' wives and girlfriends. Did Mickey know what he was talking about, or did he have a few marbles knocked loose during his fighting days?
"It depends on who it's with," jokes Aceto. On a more serious note, he adds: "The idea that having sex drains you of your strength is an old wives' tale. I think it's probably a positive thing because it can help you to relax, men-tally and through the release of chemicals. When you're relaxed, you tend to perform better." Just don't make it a marathon session.
This idea is all but taboo in gym circles; the common belief is that it will surely lead to overtraining.
"We've trained people on consecutive days and have had success with it," Kraemer points out. "But the key is, the rest period following needs to compensate for the intensity of the workouts. This means between workouts, don't do any other type of activity -- just go home, eat and relax. It's also important that you vary the load on the muscles and the angle of the exercises. For example, if you were to train chest on consecutive days, you'd want to do flat benches on day one and inclines on the following day, or vice versa."
While this shouldn't be the basis of a long-term approach to your training, you could certainly incorporate it as a short-term way to shock your muscles into new growth. And make sure you consume sufficient carbs, protein and total calories.
So now the job, the fianc´e and the rest of your busy life has squeezed that chest/back workout right out of your schedule. Or worse yet, all of your bodyparts took a backseat this week. Is it time to start repenting?
"Missed workouts provide you with an opportunity to rest," assures Kraemer. "A lot of guys become obsessed with getting to the gym anyway, so it can be a positive thing. The body is not going to untrain that quickly." Just how much time are we talking here? "In high-level athletes it can take two weeks," he says. "Recreational athletes won't see the effects for up to six weeks. Moreover, we've found that the longer an athlete has been training, the longer a rest period he or she should take to re-energize."
A lot of the more serious (read: obsessed) trainees out there can't stomach the thought of missing one workout, let alone a month's -- or a year's -- worth. What's the worst that could happen, other than gym-withdrawal side effects?
"After a month, you'll definitely lose some muscle mass and strength, but probably not as much as you might think," Stoppani points out. "A recent study found that lifters lost little muscle and strength and gained minimal fat after six weeks off."
And what if you decide to call it quits for good -- will your muscle turn into fat? "The myth that muscle cells turn into fat derives from the fact that most guys who were bodybuilders at one time continue to eat as if they still were -- as if they still have the same metabolic requirements as someone with big muscles," Stoppani remarks. "But with smaller muscles comes a slower metabolism, and less training means less opportunity to burn calories. Hence fat begins to accumulate."
Credit Rocky with propagating yet another sports-related myth. Who can forget watching the Italian Stallion in the ultimate act of athletic dedication, downing a glass full of freshly cracked eggs? And who didn't try, at least once, to emulate his gut-churning heroics? But to what end -- increased strength, energy and stamina, or food poisoning?
Although it's uncommon, you could suffer bacterial contamination. "You need to be careful with raw foods because they could contain food-borne pathogens," explains Kraemer. In fact, cooked eggs are better digested and utilized than raw. Sorry, Rock. Mickey should have told you.
Sooner or later, it happens to everyone: You're running late and you're fresh out of meal replacement bars. Major dilemma?
"If you skip a meal here or there, it's not going to suddenly put you into a catabolic state," Aceto notes. "We do have amino-acid pools that we store for just these instances. We also have glycogen reserves. But if you're trying to put on mass, you obviously don't want to make a habit of it."
It's hard to envision an image more synonymous with weight loss than that of a towel-clad health enthusiast sweating it out in a sauna. But what's really going on in there? Is some mystical metabolic process transpiring that will ultimately render the user thinner?
"No, you just lose water due to sweating for cooling the body," reports Stoppani. Don't sauna before a workout, as the majority of the water comes from the blood, so you may compromise blood flow and the pump to your muscles. A recent study did find, however, that sweating can be beneficial for your health."
M&F has repeatedly heralded the importance of grabbing a quick-absorbing protein and simple-carb meal after working out. But why is this so important, and what happens if you miss it?
"We've found, as have other labs, that the initial 30 minutes to an hour after a workout is the optimal time for protein synthesis to occur," Kraemer states. The mantra "the sooner the better" clearly applies in this instance, he adds. "We actually try to get to that post-workout meal within 10 minutes after training. But sometimes people have a tough time getting a meal down that soon after working out, in which case a half-hour or even an hour is fine."
If you can't find whey or casein after your workout, go for any kind of protein. It may not be digested as efficiently, but as the sailors say, "Any port in a storm."
Remember how your mom always told you to wait an hour after eating before going in the pool? Some people believe the same warning applies to resistance training. But what really happens if you lift on a full stomach?
"For most people, nothing," Stoppani remarks. "Some people have to eat earlier, as their stomachs may be more sensitive; when you work out, blood flow is diverted away from the GI system and to the muscle, and digestion and absorption of nutrients slows. But it's more of an individual thing." Regardless of your preworkout eating habits, you need to consume some sort of protein and carbohydrate within an hour after your workout.
Another old wives' tale is to stay out of the gym if your muscles still ache from your last workout. "A recent study found that when muscles were trained when still sore, no added damage occurred to those fibers," states Stoppani. "One study found that when a workout was repeated just two days later and muscles were still sore, subjects had lower cortisol levels than normal. Since low cortisol means more testosterone is available, it may actually be beneficial from time to time to train the same bodypart two days in a row -- but only rarely."
Once again, life gets in the way of lifting, and you miss your preworkout meal. What can you expect from your hungry body during the workout? "As far as fatigue goes, it depends on your reps and total sets," says Stoppani. "The higher your reps, the more muscle-glycogen you'll depend on to complete those reps. Without some form of dietary carbohydrate, you may fatigue earlier."