People hate nutrition.
What I mean is, they're not that excited about nutrition-related topics, at least not when compared to hot new training programs.
I know because I used to be the worst offender. I loved to train hard and read about new exercises and new techniques, but nothing about nutrition.
I thought it was boring. Instead, I wanted to know about the latest Bulgarian Biceps Blasting Routine. You know, the fun stuff.
It was a big mistake.
Nutrition played a much bigger role in building muscle than I ever thought possible. In short, the foods you eat matter. You just can't out-train bad eating habits.
So if your progress has stalled out, your approach to nutrition and supplements could be the blame.
With that in mind, I've asked some of the industry's best nutrition and supplement experts about a few hot topics, then boiled down their answers into practical info that you can put to work today.
Sounds cool? Good. Let's get rolling.
Aminos at Midnight
"Wake up in the middle of the night and drink a protein shake."
Bet you've heard that one before, huh? The idea is that we catabolize or lose a little muscle during the night as our bodies run out of fuel. Consume some amino acid tablets in the middle of the night, or even a protein shake, and you'll keep this muscle and maybe even gain more.
But does that work? And if it does work, does it work enough to even cause noticeable muscle gains? What would be the effect of a lifter ingesting a handful of aminos or sucking down a protein drink in the middle of the night over, say, a six-month period? We asked the experts.
"I don't believe in that," said elite strength coach Charles Poliquin. "Sleep is for sleep. As soon as you're awake for more than three seconds you disturb melatonin production, and melatonin is part of the hormonal cascade that builds muscle. Plus, the digestive system is made to rest at night."
So what about taking a handful of aminos before bed? Poliquin notes, "A lot of people find that too stimulating and they wake up in the middle of the night. Instead, the best thing before bed is something that will keep your blood sugar constant. Casein, the slow-release protein, is a good choice."
That's one strike against middle-of-the-night meals. Next we went to Christopher Mohr, PhD, RD. "The pattern of sleep is more effective than disrupting your sleep cycle to pop some aminos," he said. "There's very solid data about quality sleep, hormone levels, and its effects on the body. Most dudes don't get enough solid sleep anyhow; getting eight well-rested hours of sleep will do a lot more for recovery and rejuvenation than disrupting it to swallow some aminos. "
Okay, so what about pre-bedtime nutrition? "If you're tremendously concerned," said Dr. Mohr, "eat some cottage cheese as a bedtime snack with some raw nuts — two slow digesting food options."
Mike Roussell, nutritionist and doctoral candidate in Nutritional Sciences, adds this: "I think that the effect here is smaller than most people would like to admit. From a muscle-building standpoint, you'll find more benefit from getting uninterrupted sleep than from the amino acid boost you'd get from a middle-of-the-night shake. People don't get enough sleep as it is, so don't forcibly interrupt the little that you are getting for some protein."
Okay, so setting an alarm for a 3AM protein or amino acid tablet feeding isn't a good idea, but what if you wake up to pee in the middle of the night anyway? Can you go ahead and get some "bonus nutrition" then to stave off any potential catabolism?
Roussell says, "Although the effect is probably very small, I'm all about doing a lot of little things which then add up to a bigger effect. So if you're already getting up in the middle of the night, then it wouldn't hurt to use BCAA or a protein shake laced with added Leucine."
Finally, we asked Dr. Lonnie Lowery, who warned us that this is all pretty speculative given the lack of data in healthy weight trainers. But he did note that glucose tolerance stinks at night while sleeping, so BCAA or a small 10-20 gram protein drink in the wee hours does seem advantageous.
"They provide muscle-sparing aminos that don't add up to too many calories or spike blood sugar at a time when muscles are resistant," he said. Like Poliquin, Dr. Lowery also gave a nod to the idea that "gut rest" might be necessary on some level.
Conclusion: Based on these responses, what's the final answer? Well, we always encourage self-experimentation since everyone is different, but here's some general advice:
- Don't purposefully wake up in the middle of the night just to consume a protein shake or BCAA. The benefits of uninterrupted sleep outweigh the benefits of middle-of-the-night feedings.
- If you're waking up anyway to pee or let the dog out, a small protein shake (one-half to one-scoop of Metabolic Drive® Low-Carb) or a serving of amino acids (BCAA Peptides) can't hurt. Just leave a glass of water and the BCAA sitting on your nightstand or on your bathroom countertop. If going for the protein shake option, just place the powder in an empty glass with a spoon. Add water and slug it down. Another option would be to blend the small protein shake with ice, then leave it on a bedside table. In the middle of the night, give it a quick shake or stir and slam it down. But do not do this if it disturbs your sleep!
- A better method than middle-of-the-night feedings is to be smart about your pre-bed meal. Consuming a casein-containing meal such as cottage cheese or Metabolic Drive low-carb will prevent any negative nighttime catabolism if paired with a good breakfast upon waking that also contains adequate protein. (The real risk of muscle loss comes from skipping breakfast, not from skipping 3AM feedings.)
So, have a two-scoop Metabolic Drive shake about 30-60 minutes before you plan on being asleep. Blend this with very little water so you won't have to urinate too often in the night. Making a thick pudding out of it (lots of ice, very little water) is a good plan.
For those dieting and strictly controlling every single calorie, use Biotest BCAA right before you climb into the sack. Immediately upon waking take three more. Although Poliquin says that aminos before bed may cause sleep disturbances, we find that most people have no problems with this moderate dosage.
Now, will all this actually lead to more muscle? Well, it certainly can't hurt provided that sleep isn't disturbed. But in reality, you probably aren't withering away in the middle of the night anyway.
As long as you "break the fast" of sleep with a good, high-protein breakfast, then there's probably no need to panic about nighttime catabolism. If you really want to get anal about nutrient timing, then focus your efforts around workout nutrition and the 3rd Law of Muscle. That's where your diligence and consistency will make the greatest impact.
The Truth About Taurine in Energy Drinks
Taurine: It's the standard ingredient in just about every energy drink. But what is it? What does it do?
According to Wikipedia, taurine "...has not been proven to be energy-giving." Then why is it in there? There are some conspiracy theories saying that taurine is an energy sapper, and it's only in there to make you crash and crave another Red Bull.
Given the popularity of energy drinks, taurine might be the most-supplemented supplement on the planet, yet most people really don't even know why it's in most energy drinks or what it supposedly does for energy.
So, let's find out.
First we asked Dr. Jonny Bowden. "Taurine is an important conditionally essential amino acid, and it's definitely depleted in hard-training athletes. But the idea that adding it to a drink to give you 'extra energy' is pure bullshit," he said.
To delve into the research, we posed our question to Dr. Lowery. He noted that "...taurine-containing energy drinks also contain other ingredients like caffeine or even creatine, and that really muddies the waters in the research. One Dutch review surveyed nine years of research on the National Library of Medicine's database and concluded that the energy-enhancing effects of most generic energy drinks were mainly due to the caffeine. They concluded the 'lesser known ingredients' of energy drinks — including taurine — needed further study."
Dr. Lowery told us about another study done a year ago by Hoffman and colleagues in JSCR that showed increased total reps as well as greater insulin and GH release after squatting when a pre-workout taurine-containing supplement was involved. But this supplement also contained creatine, BCAAs, and caffeine among other stuff. Again, muddied waters.
Mike Roussell adds, "Of all the compounds that you could stick in an energy drink, I'm not sure why so many companies have settled on taurine. A recent review article that examined a whole slew of amino acids and their functions listed the major functions of taurine as 'antioxidant; regulation of cellular redox state; osmolyte.' No mention of 'energy giving.'"
What about those conspiracy theories? Roussell said, "A 1996 study found that 6g/d of taurine lead to lower urinary norepinephrine excretion, which the researchers then noted 'implies suppression of the sympathetic nervous system.' Isn't that the opposite of the effect we're trying to achieve?
"Red Bull itself has been shown to improve performance and mental function, but I'd say that those effects are due to the caffeine and sugar more than anything else."
So what's taurine good for? Taurine is extremely abundant in muscle and functions as an osmolyte, which means that it may have volumizing effects in the same way that creatine does. But as Roussell notes, if you're going to spend money supplementing with specific amino acids, pick Leucine and not taurine.
Conclusion: Most energy drink manufacturers probably put taurine in their products simply because Red Bull did it first and had financial success. In marketing, some companies choose to just play it safe and copy the big dog rather than coming up with anything better. This is seen as a risk by many product manufacturers.
And while many Red Bull addicts say asinine things like, "I gotta have my taurine in the morning!" they're probably just feeling the effects of plain 'ol caffeine.
Taurine may have some benefits for the hard-training athlete or bodybuilder, but it's a pretty minor player compared to high-impact amino acids like L-Leucine.
"Holding" Muscle After a Mass Plan
Before you go on a fat-loss diet, should you seek to maintain the weight you gained from your bulking diet for a period of time so the new muscle gains "stick?"
That's the advice you hear often on bodybuilding forums, but is there any truth to it? And is it self-defeating to go from a mass diet to a fat-loss diet virtually overnight? Let's unleash the experts.
"I don't see any efficacy in staying fat for a couple weeks to hold muscle," said Mike Roussell. He added, "I'm amazed that people still believe that they're going to lose muscle on a fat loss plan. The field of fat loss has evolved to a point where people who lose muscle while dieting are the exception, not the rule.
"If you're a T Nation reader and you're losing pounds of muscle while dieting, you should be smacked over the head with your laptop because you're obviously not applying what you're reading! If your fat loss training program is metabolically demanding and your diet is low carb with adequate protein (and added amino acids for insurance) then you won't lose muscle when dieting — period."
Dr. Mohr seems to agree, noting, "What's important is how you lose that fat. There's no science to muscle 'sticking' if it stays there longer. If your mass is true lean body mass and not fat, it will stick just fine."
And this seems to be important: the loss of actual muscle vs. the perceived loss of muscle. For example, with lower carb diets, the dieter may temporarily experience muscle glycogen loss, leading to an unsatisfying "pump" in the gym, but this isn't muscle loss.
Also, many "bulkers" panic when they go on a diet and lose some upper arm size, but fat is stored on the arms as well. If all you're losing is fat, then your arms will look more muscular in the long run, assuming you have some muscle under there to show off. Hey, fat people have big arm measurements.... but they don't look like they train.
The important thing is not to get too wrapped up in measurements. A big chest measurement is great, but not if three inches of it is a layer of fat giving the appearance of saggy breasts instead of powerful pecs. Important things to keep in mind in the discussion of muscle retention and true LBM vs. fat mass.
One message we got from our panel is that fat loss dieting does not have to lead to muscle loss, if it's done correctly. "Correctly" means a reduction in calories, but not a ridiculous reduction. It means you're still consuming lots of protein and supplementing with muscle-preservating supplements such as Carbolin-19®.
A fat loss diet also means not forgoing your peri-workout nutrition drinks, the extra carbs from which do not lead to fat storage if consumed around the resistance training session. Proper peri-workout nutrition can greatly aid in the retention of muscle while dieting.
Now, what about going from a higher calorie intake to a lower calorie intake — i.e. from bulk to cut — very quickly? Roussell said, "In regards to jumping from a mass plan to a fat loss plan, I've never been a big fan of huge caloric swings.
"For example, if you're eating 4000 calories on Sunday and then Monday morning you start eating 2000 calories, that's dumb because you could probably start losing weight at 3250-3500 calories. Change your training program to be metabolically based, dial back your calories a little, and see what happens. If you could lose fat eating 3250 calories a day wouldn't you rather do that than eat only 2000 calories per day?"
His suggestion? "Transition into your fat loss diet," Roussell adds, "Focus on what's the most food you can eat and still lose weight, not what is the least amount of food you can eat without wanting to hang yourself."
Dr. Mohr agrees with the transition approach: "Diet, but diet smart. Don't go from 5000 calories a day to 1200 calories the next. Sure, you'll lose lots of mass that way, but surely not just body fat."
But Dr. Lowery thinks a little differently on these topics. "The concept of a (new) body mass set point has been around for ages and is no doubt driven by genetic and related hormonal factors. I wish I could say that one should hold his weight for X months (or years) before attempting further dramatic change, but there's no definitive data on this that I know of."
Although Dr. Lowery is a scientist and doesn't like to speculate too much without data, we asked him to do just that. His response: "I do think the idea of getting a little crazy with a weight gain cycle, then 'growing into that new weight' over several months' time is intriguing. My own meso-cycles have actually grown to about six months each for similar reasons (fuller and hopefully more permanent adaptations)."
"The same might be said for dieting," Dr. Lowery adds. "With body mass losses over 10% (say 15-20 pounds), it might be best to hold the new body weight for many months before trying to go further. This is just a pragmatic suggestion based on what I've seen with clients/patients and what I know about endocrine changes."
From here this topic can get theoretical and controversial. Dr. Lowery notes that even the researchers don't agree. And this is probably because of basic human variability. One factor may be where you were at physically when you started your mass cycle or cutting cycle. "Progress during an upcoming mass cycle or ripping phase may depend on your specific body composition at the beginning and not just how long you've held that state," said Lowery.
"Body comp memory" — baseline fat vs. muscle content affecting subsequent progress — has been around at least since the 1990s. (See research by Dulloo and Forbes.)
"Some researchers report that surplus fat on the body would be oxidized first during a diet (i.e. fat guys lose more fat and less muscle when dieting compared to smaller lean guys). This may also be true of 'excess' muscle mass (i.e. heavily-muscled guys may lose more protein mass than less-muscled guys)," said Lowery.
Based on these ideas, should a guy go on a strict diet after a mass plan in which he gained both muscle and fat? "That depends," said Lowery. "He would be fatter at the get-go of the diet, which might help, but he would also likely have less fat burning machinery (e.g. mitochondria) in place.
"Further, divergent interpretations are out there among speculative gurus who say a dieting phase should begin from an already fairly lean state. Ugh! This confusion is due to genetic and related hormonal differences between individuals."
Our heads already throbbing, we asked Dr. Lowery to be more specific. "I wish I could be specific, but nutrigenomics is a reality," he replied. "Listen, not everyone bulks or diets well. For this reason and more, if someone is laying down specific meso-cycle plans for you based strictly on starting body composition, it's largely conjecture. You'll have to discover for yourself how well you respond to bulking vs. dieting and whether a conditioning phase should divide them."
Lowery then added a sentiment echoed by many nutrition and hypertrophy experts: Don't get too sloppy fat during bulking cycles, not if bodybuilding is your goal.
- Most, but not all, experts agree that there's no reason to "hold" overall body mass after a bulking plan in order to get the new muscle to "stick." That being said, a slower transition into a dieting phase is better than going from a large excess of calories to a great deficit of calories. Ramp it down slowly.
- "Your results may vary." The guy going from 30% body fat to 15% is less likely to lose muscle when dieting then the guy going from 10% to 6%. Likewise, the heavily-muscled, natural bodybuilder may need to be smarter about fat loss diets than those carrying less muscle mass. The addition of supplements like L-Leucine will help to insure muscle retention. Try four, 5-gram servings a day with meals. All that aside, due to genetic variances the only way for you to really figure out what works best for you is to try several different strategies.
- Don't get too fat to begin with and you won't have to sweat any of this. Remember, a gross excess of calories doesn't help you to build muscle any faster than the perfect amount of calories. It just helps you build fat, and that's not the kind of mass you're probably after. (More info on ideal calories here.)
The "Energy" Effects of Superfood
Superfood has been out on the market for over a year now and many people are reporting a feeling of "clean energy" while using it. They don't describe it as a stimulant effect, but rather just an overall good feeling.
Now, Superfood does contain a little naturally occurring caffeine, but less than 12mg — a small cup of coffee has 83mg and a diet soda has around 45mg — so clearly this miniscule amount isn't causing this "energy."
So, what's causing it? We asked the experts:
"Most of us are so damn nutrient depleted that it makes sense that we feel good after an infusion of clean food," said Dr. Jonny Bowden. "Superfood looks like a really good product, and the ingredients are teeming with health-promoting compounds like anthocyanins and phenols. A 'feeling' of energy is pretty hard to measure scientifically, but I'm not surprised that people feel better when they consume good stuff."
This makes sense, and perhaps when we're well-nourished — even hyper-nourished — feeling energetic and good is how we're supposed to feel. Most of us just don't feel that way because our diets are so lacking in these powerful foods.
Lowery adds that some foods that have methylxanthine ingredients increase what's called "energetic arousal." Berries and green tea — both found in abundance in Superfood — have cognitive and neuronal/motor benefits in both young learning animals and in ageing studies.
"In fact," Dr. Lowery said, "blueberry, spinach, and strawberry dried extracts have even been shown to reverse, not just prevent, neural declines. I think that these reasons are probably behind the sense of energy, elevated mood, and cognition being reported."
Food can have drug-like effects. (And good drugs and highly-concentrated supplements can have food-like effects when you really think about it.) Some of these effects, like an increase in positive mood and mental arousal, are felt with Superfood.
Got any food or nutrition related questions for our panel? Reply to this thread and maybe we'll include your question in a future edition!