Woo Woo Fitness Idea

Before I start this post, I want to disclose my belief on building strength. The 2013 post On Building Muscle is a good representation. In that post, I summarize a Conditioning Research article.

Chris provides an overview of what the scientific evidence says is required to gain muscle. It isn’t about compound exercises or high volume. It is about recruiting muscle fibers. Your muscles don’t know if that recruitment is coming from free weights, body weight or a machine. But your joints sure do.

I still think most of that paragraph is true. Recruiting muscle fibers is still the path to gaining strength and protecting your joints will reduce your risk of injury, which will result in having more strength over a longer time frame.

But something Dr. G Moore said to me in an email got me thinking about an idea I had been toying around with for a month. He said:

When you train exclusively with your body weight, you’re heavily penalized for excess body fat.

Clearly a true statement. Not just excess body fat, excess weight period. I started wondering if the causality was bi-directional. Meaning we know a lighter body will excel at bodyweight exercises, but would bodyweight exercises signal to the body to be lighter?

Asking that question got me thinking about the opposite case, where one trains exclusively in the big iron movements: squats, benches, and deadlifts. With those exercises having extra bodyweight is not a penalty, but a benefit. Having more weight (to a point) helps one lift more weight. From observation and experience, it seems that lifting heavier weights regularly signals to the body to carry more weight.

Let us take 2 young men that both want to get strong. We will call them Karate Ken and Lineman Larry. Ken does a strength training program of bodyweight exercises. Larry does big iron. They both need to be very strong to excel in their sports. For Ken, excess weight is a penalty. For Larry, excess weight (up to a point) is an asset.

Maybe my head is scrambled after watching all 18 hours of the new Twin Peaks last month, but this is when my Woo-Woo idea came to me. What if the type of training indirectly determined body composition by affecting appetite differently? If Karate Ken and Lineman Larry each trained equally hard, would Larry have a greater appetite? Is there a mechanism in the human body that can regulate appetite to match the goals of how we build strength? Is the body smart enough to adapt to the demands of the type of weight we lift? Does my brain know I’m lifting myself up into a tree or if I’m lifting a heavy ass rock?

This is probably a case where success in a given sport dictates the body type, but I have seen some interesting things over the years that have planted seeds of doubt.

  • I’ve seen a friend go from a 300 to a 600-pound squat with a gradual increase in body fat at the same rate.
  • There are numerous examples of big iron guys that switch over to bodyweight programs that lean out and lose muscle. We have to assume this group knows how to work hard in the gym and they would not want to sacrifice muscle.

Your thoughts? Am I still in a Twin Peaks dream state or if there merit to this Woo-Woo fitness idea?

Twin Peaks

Photo by Stephan Walker

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MAS

Critical MAS is the blog for Michael Allen Smith of Seattle, Washington. My interests include traditional food, fitness, economics, and web development.

10 thoughts on “Woo Woo Fitness Idea”

  1. I am a woman. I go to the gym but I have also taken barre, pilates and yoga classes which are all bodyweight centric for the most part. I have noticed the barre, pilates and yoga goers, the ones whom I know have been going for a decade or so tend to be leaner. Women who tend to lift seriously (the heavy squat type) tend to develop a blocky hefty look.

    I do not know if its because genetically blocky hefty women excel at weightlifting and stick with it, and lean women do yoga and excel and stick with that, but there is a noticeable difference in bodytype.

    I think its interesting a lot of personal trainers claim a woman will not get blocky or manly from lifting weights, to some extent this is true. They will not look like men necessarily, but the amount of women who do heavy heavy squats who develop a hefty blocky appearance makes me questions this.

    As an aside, I myself stick to machines, as a result of your survivorship thought on weightlifting. Your post made perfect logical sense to me. I however do 1 single freeweight exercise, and that is the hip thrust. The hip thrust is extraordinarily safe and builds the glutes like nothing else. It also tends to not overdevelop the quads and hams like squats do, which is valuable for a woman. You can actually go to failure with the hip thrust. A lot of personal trainers at my high end gym originally thought I was an idiot for only doing machine exercises and then the incredibly safe hip thrust. They said something along the lines of how I wasnt going to develop very much strength and how it wasnt a compound exercise. It was alien to them because they were indoctrinated into the school of deadlifts and squats. Fast forward 6 months and my physique is lighter and less “blocky” than a lot of the females relying on squats to build their physique, I wouldnt say my glute development is superior than every single woman but it is better than 95% of the women who have been training longer. Most importantly, I have had absolutely no injuries. Lately I have been training with bodyweight hip thrusts and trying to recruit every single muscle fiber. I have noticed my glutes increasing yet I have continued to lean out. I cant say if it has affected my appetite or not.

    I can say what affected my appetite majorly was switching to simple foods like boiled potatoes and oatmeals. I basically eat a peasant diet, and being engaged to an old country Croat helps with this.

    I am tempted to try bodyweight exercises for a month and report back to you.

  2. By the way, I want to clarify when I say “95% of women who have been training longer” I mean of the population of women at my gym. I dont know how it compares to the general population. My gym population is high end, so that eliminates a lot of people. Due to the high income level at my gym, most of them rely on a personal trainer. Many of the personal trainers do not work their clients very hard. I just wanted to clarify just in case it sounded too much like hyperbole or bragging.

  3. @Clare
    I think Bret Contreras contributed to popularizing the weighted hip thrust. I see many more women doing it over the last few years. Maybe the biggest change (post CrossFit) that I’ve seen in the gym recently. And it’s maybe the only “new” thing I’ve seen that actually appears to work.
    @MAS
    I’ve read in many different places that the wisdom of the body will react differently if you do lat pulldowns (cable pull) versus pullups (even weighted pullups). The body willl put on weight to help with lat pulldowns and shed weight to help with the pullups, Haven’t seen any studies though. Could just be the subconscious guding the appetite.

  4. @Clare
    Also, good point about people self selecting their exercises based on original abilities. For example, Pilates people tend to have long lean muscles, but the system tends to attract dancers and others with that body type to start with.

  5. Yes, I have noticed hip thrusts at other more popular and accessible gyms (ie Planet Fitness). At my gym I was the very first. I think eventually it will took over squats. Very heavy squats probably lead to a very high percentage of injuries in the long run. The women advocating that doing very heavy squats will probably “die out” (i.e. get injured and leave the gym) and the hip thrust fanatics will continue uninjured. It is a terribly silly looking exercise, but it is very safe and effective. It might be a little less safe than a leg press, but it is millions of times safer than a squat. I regularly employ static holds and go to failure, something that would be impossible with a barbell squat.

    Even Bret Contreras continues to push heavy barbell squats too, but I wonder if its because he would become a total pariah in the fitness community for advocating that.

    As far as your comment on the bodyweight chinups vs lat pull downs is concerned, I find it interesting.

    Thanks MAS for providing so much food for thought!

  6. @Clare – I like that you are doing this experiment, but I wonder if a single month is enough? I’ll be joining you by experimenting myself, but I have no end date in mind at this time. I’ll be doing more chin-ups and push-ups to replace the plate loading machines I have been using. My leg workout will be goblet squats and hack squats. More volume and less weight.

  7. you are right. one month is probably not enough. i have been training regularly using strength training for about a year, but I really got serious about 7 months ago. right now im in the newbie gains stage. I think this experiment should probably happen when that stage is passed.

    I wonder if anyone knows any twins? one who does more martial arts but another who does weight lifting? i would be interested in total weight and bodyfat. now that would be interesting.

  8. Speaking from a guy’s perspective, I think hulking, ripped musculature is dependent on genetics or steroids/supplements. I remember back to high school, we had a weight-lifting program, only a handful of kids (16-18) developed bigger than average muscles, the rest got stronger with varying levels of body fat and visible muscles, and a few could not even progress beyond starting-level weights.

    For me, I was always strong, but carried excess body fat. I was “farmer strong” as the kids used to tease me in high school. Most of the farmers in the rural Ohio area where I grew up were very strong, but were also very large, probably from a lifetime of manual labor and less-than-stellar food (and drink!) choices.

    Tall, lean, and muscular is a genetic oddity, in my opinion.

    Throughout my 21 years in the military, I maintained a decent level of strength and stamina. Post-military, I stopped exercising and ate like I was 20…this led to a very fast debut of metabolic syndrome and a weight gain of 75 pounds over a couple years.

    In 2010, I started eating better and exercising again. I pretty much reversed all my health problems and became quite lean. I tried bulking my muscles with heavy weights, but seem to have settled in on that “farmer strong” appearance that I carried as a teen. My preferred exercise now is running 30 minutes several times per week, walking 60-180 minutes every day, and bodyweight exercises most days (pushups, pullups, squats). This exercise routine keeps my metabolism high and allows me to eat pretty much whatever I want without gaining. But I think for me to hit 10% body fat and have visible, large muscles, I’d need to get on some type of anabolic steroid, testosterone, and all the other body builder supplements used throughout the industry.

    The military knows more about human fitness and limitations than anyone. They do not care how the soldiers look as long as they can pass a rigorous fitness test. They only allow young men and women to join if they have a basic level of fitness and display a genetic predispostion to good health. Most times when a soldier becomes overweight and fails his tests it is due to medical issues. It’s rare for a healthy 18-35 year old to become overweight if they are required to maintain a certain level of fitness. I saw firsthand what happens when you stop exercising and keep eating the same (or worse).

    Of course, there’s always the exception: people who can eat whatever they like and remain lean. But rarely do you find someone who can be strong without exercising or working at a very strenuous job. I think that to be truly healthy, you must simply eat good foods most of the time and regularly perform activities that require strength and endurance. If you are doing this, and remain unhealthy/overweight, there are underlying genetic or medical conditions at play that must be addressed.

  9. Your thinking is super interesting. The body may know when the particular exercise puts near survival requirements on the body and the body adapts as best it can. Heavy weights should signal the body to prepare for a more survival mode than bodyweight. Carrying a little more fat is beneficial for survival.

  10. No. What may happen is your desire to lift more weight guides you to eat more as you feel you are “getting stronger” while you’re just improving your levers by getting fat. Starting Strength clients were famous with their GOMAD diet drinking gallon of milk a day, getting fatter and “better” numbers-wise. The opposite happens when you can do less pushups than last week because you gained some fat. In my opinion, bodyweight brings the focus on form to the forefront, and being fat doesn’t bring the validation of increased numbers.
    Muscles respond to resistance, not weight, so if you generate the same resistance and the same combination of damage, tension and stress (easier said than done), adaptations should be the same.

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