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General Exercise

  • Bulking and Cutting or Recomping: What's More Effective?

    Bulking and Cutting or Recomping: What's More Effective?

    Most people who train in the gym (myself included) do so because they want to look jacked, plain and simple.

    The goal is to grow muscle, lose fat, and build a lean muscular physique.

    But what is the best way to approach this?

    Bulking and Cutting, or Recomping

    If you want to change the way you look, you can take one of three approaches:

    1. You can commence a bulking phase, in an attempt to build some muscle. 
    2. You can commence a cutting phase, in an attempt to lose some fat.
    3. You can try and recomp, which describes the process of losing fat and gaining muscle at the same time.

     

    Keep in mind that, realistically, if you are going to choose a bulking phase, it will need to be followed by a cutting phase (or vice versa), as that will only get you halfway to building a solid physique.

    With this in mind, we normally consider bulking and cutting a single approach, where you can change the order of them as needed.

    Body Recomposition?

    The first approach I want to discuss is body recomping, because this is the one that seems to garner the most attention -- probably because it is the one that sounds the best.

    I mean gaining muscle and losing fat at the same time… What more could you want?

    Before anything else, I do want to highlight that for a long time people thought that recomposition was impossible. Because these two processes were “physiological” opposites, they simply could not be accomplished.

    But that is not the case at all.

    Over the last few years we have seen an abundance of research clearly demonstrating that individuals can gain muscle and lose fat simultaneously [1]. In this manner, you do have the capacity to make large changes in your physique in a short amount of time.

    However, because building muscle is easier when you are in a calorie surplus, and losing fat requires a calorie deficit, body recomping does become more challenging as your training age increases.

    Which means that body recomposition appears to be most effective under a couple of different conditions:

    1. You are relatively new to training (and are yet to experience your “newbie gains”)
    2. You are regaining muscle after a period of not training
    3. You have a lot of body fat to lose

     

    If this sounds like you, and you are keen to try a recomp, you want to make sure that you are eating around maintenance calories, consuming 1.4 to 2.2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight, and training hard 3-5 times per week.

    This is going to provide enough protein to facilitate muscle growth, while making sure you are not eating enough to gain fat.

    With all this in mind, recomping may not be the best option for people who are quite advanced (and close to their genetic limit in terms of muscle mass), already quite lean, and have been consistently training for years without a break. 

    Which is where bulking and cutting enter the discussion…

    Bulking and Cutting

    Broadly speaking, if you are already somewhat lean and have been training pretty consistently for more than two years, then bulking and cutting cycles are probably your best bet.

    • Bulking

    As I have already alluded to, bulking refers to a phase dedicated to building muscle. 

    Within this, a bulking approach involves eating in a calorie surplus, which will also result in the accumulation of some fat mass -- however, because being in a calorie surplus facilitates muscle growth [2], this is a cost that most are happy to pay (especially if they want to make some progress).

    If you are unsure when to bulk, I recommend pursuing a dedicated bulking phase if you are keen to get bigger and currently have visible abs when tensing.

    One thing to note is that most people ruin a bulk by eating too many calories and gaining too much fat. The goal should be to maximize muscle gain while minimizing the amount of fat you gain.

    If you are starting to bulk, aim to eat ~300 calories more than maintenance each day here, while also aiming for 1.4 to 1.8 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight.

    • Cutting

    Cutting phases are periods where we spend time in a calorie deficit to lose fat. 

    However, it is important to note that during periods of energy restriction (i.e., a diet) that muscle loss can also occur, the goal of a cutting phase should really be to lose as much fat as possible while minimizing muscle loss [3].

    I would suggest pursuing a cutting phase if you would consider yourself a relatively advanced trainee who is overweight (i.e., has poor muscle definition, despite holding a relatively high amount of muscle mass).

    Much like our bulking phases, we want to make sure that we don't cut too aggressively, as this is what can lead to higher degrees of muscle loss. As a result, when cutting, aim to eat ~300 calories less than maintenance each day, while also aiming for 1.8 to 2.5 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight [4].

    When to stop a cut and start a bulk, or vice versa?

    Based upon this information, under most circumstances rotating through bulking and cutting cycles will be your best option for long term progress. But how do you know when it is time to change from one to the other?

    Well, for this I like to refer to the 10-20 rule.

    As a rule of thumb, you want to keep your body fat somewhere between 10 and 20 percent. If you are bulking, and you get up to around 20% body fat, it is time to start a cut. Conversely, if you are cutting and you get below 10% body fat, it is time to start a bulk.

    This is a simple way to ensure you keep making progress long term, without ever being too far away from leaning out if needed.

    Closing Remarks

    Recomping certainly is possible, although it does get harder the more advanced you become. 

    As a result, it should be reserved for people who are new to training, coming back from an extended period away from the gym, or for people who are quite overweight and have a large amount of fat mass to lose.

    For anyone else, bulking and cutting cycles is the best approach moving forward.

    References:

    1. Barakat, Christopher, et al. "Body recomposition: can trained individuals build muscle and lose fat at the same time?." Strength & Conditioning Journal 42.5 (2020): 7-21.
    2. Slater, Gary John, et al. "Is an energy surplus required to maximize skeletal muscle hypertrophy associated with resistance training." Frontiers in nutrition (2019): 131.
    3. Cava, Edda, Nai Chien Yeat, and Bettina Mittendorfer. "Preserving healthy muscle during weight loss." Advances in nutrition 8.3 (2017): 511-519.
    4. Helms, Eric R., Alan A. Aragon, and Peter J. Fitschen. "Evidence-based recommendations for natural bodybuilding contest preparation: nutrition and supplementation." Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 11.1 (2014): 20.
  • The Benefits of Unilateral Training (Single Leg Exercises)

    The Benefits of Unilateral Training (Single Leg Exercises)

    Single leg exercises are often some of the least liked in the gym -- but they should be a part of your routine. 

    Here's why.

    Symmetrical Aesthetics

    If you are training to build muscle and improve the way you look, symmetry is something you should care about. I mean looking big is great, but looking big and symmetrical? 

    That's what sets you apart from the crowd.

    With that in mind, unilateral exercises are some of the most effective ways to eliminate asymmetries in the muscle size of the lower body. 

    See, your body is smart, and although big compound exercises like squats and deadlifts technically train both sides of your body, they don't do so equally. If one side of your body is stronger than the other (which is the case for most people), then you will naturally compensate to make the movement easier.

    And this often means subconsciously placing more load on your stronger side.  

    As a result, asymmetrical muscle development is pretty common. But single leg exercises are your solution.

    Because exercises like split squats and lunges predominantly load one leg at a time, they eliminate the potential for compensation. This has obvious implications for building a symmetrical physique.

    As a note, when you first start performing single leg exercises, you will notice that one side is stronger than the other (this is entirely normal). Make sure to start all your single leg exercises on the weaker side, then match the number of reps on your stronger side.

    This is a great way to even up asymmetries while ensuring an even amount of muscle growth between legs.

    Greater Muscle Growth

    While you should never change exercises every week, there is some evidence to suggest that implementing different variations that target the same muscle group will lead to better muscle growth than using just one or two variations [1].

    If all your quad work comes from squats, leg presses, and knee extensions, you are loading the muscles in a somewhat similar manner between exercises (especially between the squat and the leg press).

    But if you throw just one single leg exercise into the mix, you add another degree of variability into the program, which can increase muscle growth.

    As a bonus, you don't even have to add in more training volume for this to yield a positive effect. Instead, all you need to do is reallocate some of the volume you are already performing to single-leg exercises:

    For example, if your quad work looks like this:

    • Squat 3 x 8
    • Leg Press 3 x 10
    • Leg Extension 3 x 12

    You could replace two of the sets with split squats like this:

    • Squat 3 x 8
    • Leg Press 2 x 10
    • Split Squat 2 x 10
    • Leg Extension 2 x 12

    If your leg routine is void of single leg exercises, give this a go to kickstart some extra muscle growth (just be ready for some serious DOMS that first session…).

    Improved Athleticism

    Most of us don't only train to look good but feel good too.

    Considering this, single-leg exercises are a must. Split squats, lunges, and their many variations replicate athletic movements like jumping, sprinting, and bounding. As a result, they have a direct carryover to those activities, making you more athletic [2].

    If you intend to become big, jacked, and athletic, single-leg exercises are an absolute must.

    Less Systemic Stress

    You can think of systemic stress as the total stress placed on your body during a gym session. This encompasses the stress placed on your joints and connective tissues, as well as the stress placed on your muscles.

    In short, the greater your level of systemic stress, the harder it is to recover.

    Taking this into account, those exercises that create the most systemic stress allow you to use the most absolute load, and therefore place the most load on your connective tissues.

    Think squats, deadlifts, and their many variations.

    While there is little to no scientific research on this topic, most people are aware of it. Think about the fatigue you accrue after a heavy set of squats. It is much more than a set of leg presses, even if the muscular fatigue is similar between the two.

    As such, if you replace some of these exercises (or at least reallocate some of their volume) with their single leg variations, you can get the same muscular stimulus with significantly less systemic stress. 

    This means faster recovery between sessions, which could increase long-term gains by the quality of your training sessions over the long term.

    Plus, not feeling like you got hit by a truck after every leg session is nice too.

    Enhanced Functional Capacity

    While this is not something that all of you care about right now, it will be in the future.

    Single-leg exercises improve balance and your capacity to perform activities of daily living, such as standing up from a chair, walking up stairs, and moving about the house.

    As a result, they can also help reduce your risk of falls as you get older, while ensuring you maintain your independence wll into your golden years -- which, if you intend to be a lifelong lifter, is a pretty big bonus [3].

    Best Single-Leg Exercises

    Like most things, the "best" single-leg exercise will be dictated by your goals.

    If you want to maximize muscle growth and eliminate asymmetries, exercises that take your joints through a larger range of motion are your best bet. This means Bulgarian split squats, front-foot elevated split squats, and front-foot elevated reverse lunges should be your first point of call.

    Exercises replicating real-world movements are key if you want to improve your athleticism and functional capacity. This means reverse lunges, lateral lunges, walking lunges, and step-ups should be a part of your program.

    Suppose you are simply looking to try something different and reduce systemic stress. In that case, any single-leg exercise is a good choice. I like barbell split squats, walking lunges, and Bulgarians, but it is really up to you.

    Single Leg Training: Final Thoughts

    Whether your goal is to build muscle, become more aesthetic, increase athleticism, or improve your day-to-day life, single-leg exercises must be part of your routine.

    Next program you write, we want to see a heap of single-leg exercises thrown in the mix.

    References:

    1. Kassiano, Witalo, et al. "Does Varying Resistance Exercises Promote Superior Muscle Hypertrophy and Strength Gains? A Systematic Review." The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 36.6 (2022): 1753-1762.
    2. Fisher, J., and M. Wallin. "Unilateral versus bilateral lower-body resistance and plyometric training for change of direction speed." J Athl Enhanc 6 (2014): 2.
    3. Josephson, Micah D., and John G. Williams. "Functional-strengthening: A pilot study on balance control improvement in community-dwelling older adults." Montenegrin Journal of Sports Science and Medicine 6.2 (2017): 75.
  • Steady State Cardio vs. HIIT For Fat Loss

    Steady State Cardio vs. HIIT For Fat Loss

    Fat loss is one of the most common fitness goals on the planet. When we consider it has relevance from both a health and an aesthetic perspective, it is very easy to understand why.

    And when it comes to fat loss, cardio is a must -- but is one form better than the other?

    What causes fat loss?

    Although there are a number of unique social, environmental, and physical factors that can influence someone's ability to lose weight, it ultimately comes down to one thing -- expending more energy than you consume for an extended period of time [1].

    Every single day you burn energy. This energy is used to perform tasks of daily living, fuel your exercise habits, and ensure that every single one of your cells is performing its specific role within your body.

    This amount of energy is known as your “total daily energy expenditure,” and it describes the amount of energy you expend every single day (keep in mind that this “energy” is often measured in “calories”).

    If you are looking to lose weight, you ultimately need to ensure that the calories you burn each day are greater than the calories you consume. This puts you in a “calorie deficit,” and forces your body to rely on its own energy sources to get through the day -- with the largest energy store in your body being fat. 

     As such, being in a calorie deficit results in fat loss, because your body is forced to burn fat for energy to support your daily functions.

    Now, you can achieve a calorie deficit in one of two ways:

    1. You can reduce the amount of energy you consume by changing your dietary habits, or:
    2. You can increase the amount of energy you expend through exercise.

    With this in mind, we are going to dive a little deeper into exercise and fat loss.

    Why Cardio for Fat Loss?

    While weight training is an amazing tool when it comes to changing how you look, it is not the most effective way to promote fat loss because it does not burn a huge amount of energy.

    This makes sense when you consider that, during most weight training sessions, you perform more time resting between sets than you do exercising.

    However, cardio offers a much more effective fat loss tool.

    Because it involves a high degree of consistent effort, it also causes a consistent and sustained increase in energy expenditure. This makes it a more effective method to increase the “energy out” side of the equation we spoke about earlier [2].

    Steady State Cardio and HIIT

    When talking about cardio, it can really be broken down into two main types: Steady state cardio, or high intensity interval training (HIIT for short).

    Steady state cardio typically involves cardio performed at a low-to-moderate intensity of effort (less than about 80% of your maximal heart rate), over a longer period of time (more than 30 minutes), and within a single bout.

     Conversely, HIIT is a type of cardio performed in multiple shorter bouts of high intensity activity (more than 80% of your maximal heart rate), interspersed with recovery periods that are either done at a much lower intensity, or in a state of complete rest.

    As an example, going for a light 60 minute jog would be considered steady state cardio. On the other hand, a HIIT session might involve doing 30 seconds at near maximal effort, followed by 30s of complete rest, for a total of 30 minutes.

    Steady State Cardio vs. HIIT For Fat Loss

    Now for the crux of the article -- when it comes to fat loss, is one better than the other?

    Fortunately for us, a recent meta-analysis (a study that combines the results of multiple studies) looked to answer this question. 

    The authors of this meta-analysis combined the results of 54 individual studies comparing the effects of steady state cardio and HIIT on fat loss, and found that they both caused the exact same amount of fat loss [3] -- however, there are some considerations that should be mentioned.

    The average weekly dosage of all steady state cardio in all the studies per week was ~120 minutes, whereas it was only ~30 minutes for the HIIT sessions.

    So, what does this imply?

    Well, HIIT training is performed at a much higher intensity than steady state exercise. As a result, it burns more energy per minute, which is why it might be considered a more “efficient” tool for fat loss.

    What should you choose?

    The good news is that both modes of cardio are effective, so you can make your decision entirely on personal preference.

    If you can only sneak in two 20 minute cardio sessions per week, then HIIT is going to be your best bet. On the other hand, if you enjoy going for a big run on your non-gym days, then doing two 60 minute steady state sessions probably makes the most sense for you.

    With this in mind, your best bet is to choose the type of exercise you enjoy the most, or most easily fits within your schedule -- because that is what you are more likely to commit to over the long term.

    Final Point

    Despite what you may have heard, both steady state and HIIT training are equally effective for fat loss -- which simply means that you should choose the one that suits your personal situation best!

    References:

    1. Strasser, B., A. Spreitzer, and P. Haber. "Fat loss depends on energy deficit only, independently of the method for weight loss." Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism 51.5 (2007): 428-432.
    2. Grieve, George Lewis. "The effects of exercise mode and intensity on energy expenditure during and after exercise in resistance trained males." (2018).
    3. Steele, James, et al. "Slow and steady, or hard and fast? A systematic review and meta-analysis of studies comparing body composition changes between interval training and moderate intensity continuous training." Sports 9.11 (2021): 155.
  • Nitric oxide supplements

    Nitric oxide (NO) supplements are very popular in the sports and bodybuilding community. The NO molecule has been found to play an important role in many functions in the human body including mitochondrial respiration (and hence energy metabolism), blood flow, vasodilation and implicated in my own research, neuronal functions and developments. Nitric oxide is synthesized via two physiological pathways, I won't bore you with the details, all you need to know here is that L-arginine acts as a main precursor of the first pathway whereas nitrate is the substrate used to produce NO by the second pathway. It was hypothesized that NO supplementation can enhance oxygen and nutrient delivery to active muscles and hence improve performance. Truth or myth, let's find out.

    L-arginine works on the first NO pathway and it has been proposed that taking L-arginine can increase NO levels and subsequently exercise performance. However, oral L-arginine supplementation has been found to unable to elevate NO levels in the test subjects and did not improve strength performance (Alveare et al 2012, Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism). Other studies further suggested that the supplementation of L-arginine had no effects on the hormone and NO levels in the body and had no effect on performance (da Silva et al 2014, Food and Nutrition Research; Zajac et al 2010, Journal of Strength and Conditioning). There are some contradicting reports showing L-arginine has a somewhat measurable effect on hormone levels and exercise performance. However, the general consensus of the scientific community is that there is a lack of concrete evidence to support the claim that oral L-arginine supplementation has a positive effect on NO levels in the body and exercise performance.

    Nitrate is converted into nitrite after ingestion and can be converted into nitric oxide when the body's oxygen availability is low. The supplementation of nitrate has been shown to lower oxygen demand during submaximal workout, and improves exercise efficiency (Larson et al 2007, Acta Physiologica). It was suggested by one study that nitrate should be consumed 2-3 hours prior to competition or training for maximum benefits (Jones et al 2012, Medicine and Sports Science).

    One of the common flaws of the studies involving NO supplements and exercise performance is that only young males were used as subjects. To my knowledge, the effects of NO supplements on exercise performance in older males or women have not been yet been explored as of today. The effect of oral L-arginine supplementation is debated and the outcome is not conclusive. The use of nitrate supplements has shown to improve exercise performance in some and may be used for their ergogenic potentials.

  • Exercise addiction

    We promote regular physical exercise because it is beneficial physically and psychologically. However, too much of anything is bad and excessive exercise can also have adverse physical and psychological effects. Exercise dependence, also known as exercise addiction, is a behavioural addiction, it is characterised by an excessive preoccupation with exercise. The prevalence of exercise addiction ranging from around 3% to over 40% of the population depends on the demographic of people tested. For instance, the prevalence of exercise addiction of people in a sports club is higher compared to that of in the entire population. Currently, there're still no universally recognised, distinct criteria separating exercise addiction to healthy habits or compulsory disorders. Researchers and medical professionals nevertheless constructed general guidelines to identify exercise addiction. Below is one of the more recognised ones as reviewed by Freimuth et al 2011 (International Journal for Environmental Research and Public Health).

    • Tolerance: increase the amount of exercise in order to feel the buzz and accomplishment;
    • Withdrawal: feeling anxious, irritable and sleepless in the absence of exercise;
    • Lack of control: unable to reduce the level or amount of exercise for a period of time;
    • Intention effects: exceeding the amount of time devoted to exercise beyond originally intended on a consistent basis;
    • Time: a great deal of time is spend on preparing, engaging in, and recovering from exercise;
    • Reduction in other activities: reduced or non-existent social, occupational and/or recreational activities as a direct result of exercise;
    • Continuance: continue to exercise despite knowing that it is exacerbating or creating physical, psychological and sociological problems.

    Remember, the purpose of this article is to raise awareness, it is not meant for self-diagnosis. See a health care professional if you feel that you might be addictive to exercise and it's affecting you negatively.

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