Can't Prove It - Part 1

8 coaches explain what they believe to be true, but can't prove

There are things I believe to be true despite any scientific proof. For instance, I believe that if you hold a woman upside down and drop her, she will invariably land on her feet...wait a minute, I think I'm confusing them with cats. Let me try again: I believe that repeated and heavy spinal loading will make your whole body grow like nothing else.

As I said, I have no proof of this, but something tells me that perhaps the psychological stress of supporting a big weight with your spine–"Oh God I'm gonnna die"–elicits some sort of hormonal cascade that prompts total body muscular growth. Or maybe it's simpler. It takes a whole lot of muscle working in exquisite coordination to be able to hold a big weight up, and maybe by exposing that many muscles to that much of a load over and over again just builds a lot of muscle in the traditional sense (tearing muscle fibers up and building 'em up bigger and stronger).

In any event, I believe it. Of course, there are those that would disagree with me (see Mike Boyle's contribution later on in this article). They might be right. Right and wrong isn't necessarily what this article is about, though. I've simply asked 8 of our coaches to answer the following question:

"What do you believe to be true, even though you can't prove it?"

Freed of the shackles of scientific references, our coaches came up with some interesting and maybe even groundbreaking assertions. Here's the first batch:

Alwyn Cosgrove

"Lower intensity aerobic training is relatively useless for optimal fat loss purposes. Furthermore, for some populations, it's likely to be detrimental."

My theory (based purely on the observations of my clients' progress) is as follows:

Aerobic training encourages the body to adapt by becoming "energy efficient". This means it will take less fuel to perform the same amount of work. Although an energy efficient body sounds great, it isn't – not if you're trying to lose fat. Energy efficiency just makes the job of losing fat more difficult.

To simplify it as much as possible, fat loss comes down to creating a caloric deficit. The body burns calories primarily by muscular work. Steady state low intensity aerobic training does not require much work from the muscular system and does little or nothing to even maintain muscle tissue.

So, if muscle is "fat burning machinery," then aerobic training makes that machinery smaller and more fuel efficient, which is not what I'm looking for.

So we have an activity that burns calories, but the more you do it, the fewer calories it burns with each subsequent exposure (so to burn the same amount of calories you have to go harder or longer), and in all reality it just doesn't burn that many calories anyway.

A decent pace for a 180-200lb individual would burn about 10 calories per minute. Thirty minute aerobic sessions will burn around 300 calories. Performed three times per week, with no reduction in work performed (i.e. you keep increasing intensity or time as you adapt), you're still looking at about a pound per month.

If you woke up an hour earlier each day and just sat and watched TV, you'd burn about the same (7 days x 60 mins x 2 cals per minute).

Now granted, there are exceptions. Complete beginners, obviously, and precontest bodybuilders (or those wanting to go "beyond lean"), but for most people it's an extremely inefficient fat loss modality.

Anecdotally, you only need to stand at the finish line of a marathon and look at the physiques of the masses. These people developed the joint integrity and muscular and cardiovascular endurance to run 26.2 miles – some of them running in the 3-4 hour range – yet they haven't created enough of a metabolic demand to create significant fat loss.

Effective fat loss hinges on burning as many calories as possible during the workout, and elevating metabolism so that we burn more calories per minute, all day long. Aerobic training fails on both counts.

So why has aerobic training become so popular?

In the past, fitness professionals and researchers have looked at how much fat is burned during the exercise session itself. This is extremely short-sighted.

As my colleague Alan Aragon said:

"Caring how much fat is burned during training makes as much sense as caring how much muscle is built during training."

Think about that. If we looked at a weight training session that started at 9AM and finished at 10AM, how much muscle would we see built if we stopped looking at 10AM? None.

In fact, we'd see muscle damage. We could make the conclusion that weight training does not increase muscle; in fact it decreases muscle, right? It's only when we look at the big picture – and look at the recovery from the session – that we find the reverse is true: weight training builds muscle.

Fat loss training is the same way. Someone talking about the benefits of the "fat burning zones" or "fasted cardio" is a sure sign that the individual has stopped looking at the end of the exercise session. They have come to the conclusion that fasted, lower intensity steady state exercise burns the most fat and made a massive leap of faith to suggest it is best for real world fat loss.

Using that same logic these same people would suggest you avoid weight training if you want to grow muscle. – Alwyn Cosgrove

Christian Thibaudeau

"Neural activation is crucial to achieve maximum hypertrophy."

For performance-enhancement purposes I think the importance of the central nervous system is fairly well accepted.

However, it is still somewhat of an underdog in the world of bodybuilding and aesthetic training. Yet, it would seem obvious that the efficacy of the nervous system would play a huge role in stimulating muscle growth. Simply put, the more efficient the CNS is in recruiting high threshold motor-units, the more muscle growth you will be able to stimulate.

Some muscles (and individuals) have a higher proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibers (high threshold motor-units) and thus can normally grow more easily.

However, most muscle groups in the average individual are at least 40-50% fast-twitch and as such, there would be no phenotypical reason why a muscle should be more stubborn than another, or why an average gym rat could not grow just as fast as any other individual (save for the genetic mutants, which constitute less than 1% of the population). Yet we see a lot of people:

  1. Having problems stimulating optimal growth in some muscle groups while others grow very well.
  2. Having problems stimulating growth altogether.

As far as the second situation, the problem could be metabolic, hormonal, or nutritional, but it doesn't explain why some trainees have easy-responder and hard-responder muscle groups.

The problem, in my opinion, is with the nervous system and not with the actual muscle tissue. Muscle tissue is muscle tissue and the adaptive process is the same regardless of what muscle we are talking about.

Sure, some muscles probably have more growth potential than others, but we should be able to stimulate proportional growth to all of our muscle groups. Yet this rarely happens. Why?

The problem is neural: stubborn muscles have a higher activation threshold, meaning the nervous system isn't efficient at recruiting the HT motor-units within that muscle group.

In most cases this is due to a lack of "recruitment skills" (for a lack of better words): your CNS is not used to activating the HT motor-units in that muscle group. This is why a stubborn muscle group should be trained more often and with more targeted (as opposed to only compound movements) training.

Frequent targeted practice will increase your capacity to recruit the HT motor-units within that stubborn muscle group: you become better at it. And as you become better at recruiting the HT motor-units in a muscle group, you will "transform" this muscle into an easy-responder.

Take myself for example; I trained 8 years to improve football performance and then 4 years for Olympic lifting. During those 12 years my training was heavily "lower half dominant" because I figured that I needed a lot more leg than upper body strength.

In fact, during my first two years of training I only trained legs (and I trained them 4-5 times per week)! Okay, fast-forward to the present time: I can actually train legs only once every 2 weeks with a few sets of squats and they will grow.

I can gain more leg size with 5 total sets of squats per week than most can with a myriad of exercises and more complex training techniques. However, my chest grows very slowly (as an Olympic lifter, training chest was a big no-no) and requires more frequent and more intense stimulation. Why is that? A lot of it has to do with the fact that my nervous system is "good" at recruiting the HT motor-units in my legs because it had a lot of practice at that.

Another example is Sébastien Cossette (known as Da Freak) who is well known for his huge traps. Yet, we hardly ever used any trap exercises with him. Otherwise they'd grow too big in comparison to other body parts.

Sébastien's father used to own a convenience store. Sébastien worked there and spent his days carrying boxes and that put a tremendous amount of stress on the traps. He did this for years and as a result his traps became insanely easy-responders. However, when he was young he didn't really train his legs intensely (like most kids his age) and as a result they grow slower than his back, biceps, and shoulders.

The bottom line is that the more efficient your CNS is at recruiting HT motor-units within a muscle, the better that muscle responds to training. – Christian Thibaudeau

Mike Robertson

"I believe that by simply fixing someone's posture and alignment, you can either maintain or improve their current lifts without training them for an extended period of time."

For example, I went three or four months earlier this year with no deadlift training whatsoever. Instead, that time was geared towards improving my posture/alignment, movement patterns, and mobility. When I finished that phase, I did a ME pulling session and found that I'd maintained (within 95%) my previous best pull.

How does this happen? The gains obviously weren't neurological or technical in nature; all I can say is that the body is an amazing creature, and when given the appropriate tools (such as better posture and alignment) it's much more efficient at any given task.

Better alignment led to improved neuromuscular function of the appropriate musculature, and thus strength maintenance without specific training. It's not just me, either; I've seen this more and more with multiple clients with whom I've worked in-person and online.

I hate the analogy of "driving with the parking break on" because everyone uses it, but it's very true in this case. By removing the postural or mobility issues, we allow our body to function in an optimal fashion. Not only are we lifting more weight in the long-run, but we're less prone to injury because the appropriate muscles are doing the work at the right time.

This is a true win-win.

Lastly (and I guess this rolls into my entire training philosophy), I'd rather take one step back in the short-term to see some serious gains in the long-term. I see people who design these amazing long-term programs (a year or more), yet never address the real issues!

Why bang your head against the wall with fancy set/rep schemes when the real issue is faulty alignment?

It may not be as sexy as conjugate, Eastern-based block training with cybernetic periodization, but I think a lot of people would see amazing improvement by improving their alignment and movement efficiency before hitting the iron with a vengeance. – Mike Robertson

Mike Boyle

"Heavy squats and deadlifts may not be good for you long term."

To the Testosterone crowd, this is the heresy they hate to hear. Many of the readers are in a constant state of denial. They don't want education, they want validation and reinforcement that what they're already doing is the "best" route.

The reality is different. How many adults do you see performing heavy squats or heavy deadlifts? The answer is very few. Those few probably fall into the category of "those blessed with great discs and connective tissue."

I firmly believe that we almost all have a failure point in terms of connective tissue. It's just a matter of whether or not you reach it. In my case that failure point responded to approximately 500 lbs. Every time my competitive squat or deadlift approached the 500 lbs. mark, I incurred a back injury. Eventually I came to the conclusion that I was not made to lift really heavy weights.

As a 47 year old I've had one shoulder surgery that I directly attribute to bench pressing, a bad back that I directly attribute to squatting and deadlifting, and have had two knee operations that I don't feel are powerlifting related.

I never, I repeat never, perform squats or deadlifts with my adult personal training clients. In truth, as my articles indicate, I never back squat or perform a conventional deadlift with any of my athletic clients. The lone exception is to progress kettlebell sumo deadlifts to sumo deadlifts for some clients.

Both squats and deadlifts tend to fail at a connective tissue point versus a muscular point. This is the inherent failure off these lifts. Most trainees will fail technically before they fail muscularly and will expose the connective tissue to undue stress. Add in the motivation/ stupidity of the young and you have a prescription for disaster. – Mike Boyle

So what's your verdict? Nuggets of wisdom or cowpies of folly? While you're debating the preceding, I'll put together the responses from the second group of coaches for next week.