Probiotics have been gaining in public attention and commercial success over the last few years.
Products like Dannon’s Activia yogurt in the US and Unilever’s Latta margarine in Germany showcase some of the potential health benefits from probiotics.
One excellent definition of a probiotic comes from a paper published by researcher Roy Fuller in 1989.
He characterized a probiotic as “a live microbial feed supplement which beneficially affects the host animal by improving its intestinal microbial balance."
What that means in simple terms is that probiotic foods help to encourage the growth of healthy bacteria within your intestinal tract.
In addition to providing benefits specific to each strain of probiotic bacteria, an increase in numbers of helpful bacteria may also generally decrease the population of harmful bacteria in your gut.
While probiotics as a class are generally advantageous to digestion and health, it’s important to note that each genus, species, and strain of probiotic bacteria can often lend its own specific effects to the body.
While the evidence for many probiotic effects lacks bulletproof scientific confidence, many are supported by well designed studies.
It is worth taking a look at the results of just a few of the multitudinous studies linking the consumption of probiotic bacteria to health benefits.
For those of you not used to scientific notation, the name of the bacteria is in italics.
- Lactobacillus casei Shirota - lowered recurrence of bladder cancer.
- L. acidophilus and B. infantis - reduced rates of overall mortality and necrotizing enterocolitis in infants.
- L. rhamnosus GG and Bifidobacterium lactis BB-12 for prevention and L. reuteri SD2222 for treatment - acute diarrhea caused by rotavirus.
- Saccharomyces boulardii - reduced diarrhea in travelers and prevention of diarrhea caused by Clostridium difficile resulting from antibiotic treatment.
- Mix of lactobacilli, bifidobacteria, and streptococcus species - prevented relapse of inflammatory bowel disease symptoms.
- B. lactis HN019 and L. rhamnosus HN001 - enhanced immunity in the elderly
As you can see from the results of these studies, probiotics may play a role in cancer prevention, immunity, and the prevention and treatment of various infections.
However, it’s important to realize that there are many delivery systems for probiotic organisms and, depending upon the species and method of transit, not all (or none) of the helpful bacteria may survive to colonize the gut.
For those that do make the trip successfully, a technology complementary to probiotics has developed to aid their growth.
Prebiotics are food ingredients that are not digested by humans but that can be utilized by probiotic bacteria to spur their growth and aid their survival in the digestive tract.
They also can provide the building blocks used by bacteria to synthesize compounds beneficial to the host human.
Prebiotics generally take the form of carbohydrates and are often also classified as soluble fibers.
Popular prebiotics found in many food products include various types of oligosaccharides as well as inulin.
An interesting facet of prebiotic function is that the area of the digestive tract in which the prebiotic nourishes its target bacteria is dependent upon the chemical chain length of the prebiotic.
Short chain prebiotics are fermented more quickly, allowing them to feed bacteria inhabiting the primary areas of the digestive tract.
Longer chain prebiotics ferment more slowly and are consumed by bacteria living further along in the colon.
So-called “full-spectrum” prebiotics are comprised of compounds of many different chain lengths and are able to nourish the entire colon.
A final category of food product that is undergoing growth at the current time is the synbiotic.
Synbiotic foods contain both probiotic bacteria as well as prebiotic nutrients.
The idea is to get both the organism and its food in one shot.
While it’s a great idea, always be mindful when choosing synbiotics to ensure that both the bacteria and prebiotics are supplied at a level that has been shown to be beneficial.
As with all supplements, unscrupulous companies often include only miniscule amounts of expensive compounds simply for labeling and marketing claims.
Do your homework and make sure that you’re getting your money’s worth.
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has gotten some incredibly bad press over the last few years. I want to inject some rationality into the discussion and bring a little bit of science to the table in order to clear the air. It’s time that you learned the truth about the pros and cons of HFCS.
First, it was claimed that many HFCS sources were contaminated with mercury. The fact is that the levels of mercury detected in the HFCS samples are magnitudes below the harmful ingested dose for humans, even taking into account a lifetime of exposure. The idea that HFCS can cause problems due to mercury poisoning is absolutely ludicrous. It’s simply the product of media and anti-HFCS industry hype.
Next, pro-organic and natural factions of the food industry began to build upon the negative momentum against HFCS that had been established by the mercury fiasco. Many of the negative claims you will see about HFCS are false. For example, it has been claimed that fructose is “converted into fat.” There is a tiny bit of truth in that statement, but it’s (intentionally) phrased in such a way that the uneducated masses will equate fructose to fat. The fact is that fructose is metabolized primarily in the liver. Its degradation yields two products, both of which are substrates for glycolysis, which simply means that they can be used to produce energy like many other compounds. However, it is true that one of the two products can also be converted to glycerol which, among other uses, may serve as a building block for triglycerides (body fat). So, the upshot is that while fructose can contribute to body fat, it can also be utilized for energy along with all other caloric compounds found in food.
It’s also been claimed that fructose has a negative effect on insulin sensitivity and contributes disproportionally to the development of insulin resistance (a cousin of pre-diabetes). The truth is that when the liver is exposed to large quantities of fructose, the body speeds up the process of body fat production and the accumulation of triglycerides. These two effects then begin to negatively impact the body’s ability to respond appropriately to insulin. So, in fact the cause of insulin-related problems is not fructose, but the accumulation of body fat and triglycerides, which is likely to occur with chronic overconsumption of any caloric nutrient, especially sugars.
In order to shed even more factual light on the subject, it’s interesting to take a closer look at the chemical composition of various common commercial sweeteners and see just how alike they are. First off is the king of sweet: sucrose. Also known as table, cane, or beet sugar, sucrose has been used for millennia to sweeten both beverages and foods. It serves as the gold standard against which all other sweeteners are measures. Sucrose is composed of two individual sugar (a generic term for water-soluble crystalline carbohydrates) molecules bound together. One half is made up of a fructose molecule, while the other half is glucose. In the human digestive tract, sucrose is broken down into its component parts and absorbed as one molecule each of each sugar. It’s worth mentioning for comparison’s sake in a moment that sucrose is comprised of 50% fructose.
Next on the list is the big, bad werewolf: HFCS. Actually, there are three different types of HFCS produced commercially. They’re called 42, 55, and 90. The numbers refer to the percent of fructose in the sweetener. 90 HFCS is only used in the production of 55 HFCS, so you will probably never find it in a finished food or beverage. The interesting aspect to note of both 42 and 55 HFCS is that their percentages of fructose are very close to that of sucrose. In addition, the glycemic index (GI) of HFCS is around 60, which is slightly less than sucrose at around 64. The glycemic index of a product indicates how it affects your blood sugar level after you eat it. Generally, the lower the better when it comes to GI. High GI foods tend to cause blood sugar fluctuations that negatively impact energy levels and body composition. As you can see, the chemical composition of HCFS and sucrose is very similar once both are broken down into their basic components. Not surprisingly, their effects on blood sugar are almost identical as well. Hardly the nutritional Satan you hear about on TV.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning a couple of sweeteners that have been put on a pedestal by the anti-HFCS parade. First up is agave sugar syrup. This product has been touted as a healthy alternative to both table sugar and HFCS. The ironic part of this story is that while HFCS is being demonized for its fructose content, agave syrup is composed of approximately 85% fructose! I’m certainly not against the use of agave syrup, especially with its GI rating of 15(!!), but keep in mind that agave is an expensive sweetener and will likely not find much success in the mass commercial market due to cost considerations.
Honey is another sweetener touted as the healthy alternative to sugar and HFCS. Honey in fact has a fructose percentage similar to 55 HFCS. While not a bad sweetener, it’s nothing special from that angle. On the other hand, honey is relatively unique in the sweetener world because it actually contains antioxidant compounds. While not a viable replacement for fruits and vegetables, honey’s phenolic ingredients give it a step up on some other sweeteners. When choosing a honey, the darker the better. Darker honeys contain higher levels of antioxidants.
The campaign against HFCS is based on hyperbole, misused science, and outright lies. As with any sweetener, HFCS should be consumed in moderation to avoid detrimental blood sugar fluctuations and the accumulation of excess body fat. Remember to always research nutritional claims that you read about or see on TV. Marketers and propaganda artists rely on you to simply lie down and believe whatever you’re told. Don’t be a sheep. Look at the facts. Learn to make intelligent, informed decisions about your nutrition and health.
Energy drinks and shots have become ubiquitous over the last decade and a half, beginning in earnest with the introduction of Red Bull in 1997. Since then, the market has exploded to include similar products from most large beverage producers as well as small specialty drink houses. In 2004, a new type of product emerged: the energy shot. 5 Hour Energy was the premier member of this group and marketed itself towards those who wanted an “energy boost” with few calories but couldn’t be bothered with drinking a whole can of a “regular” energy beverage. While these products can produce some supposedly desirable results in certain people, their fundamental failure is that they treat the symptoms and not the underlying problem. Their use is unfortunately like putting a band-aid on a bullet wound. The simple truth is that the need to consume concentrated stimulant drinks is not normal. It indicates a lack of basic bodily maintenance and should be addressed from the ground up. So what are the causes of “that 2:30 feeling” and how can we avoid it?
The first major influence on both mental and physical fatigue is sleep. Most of us simply don’t sleep enough. Sleep is an utterly necessary part of human life. It serves numerous purposes from memory formation and stress relief to physical reconstruction and immune system enhancement. However, despite the fact that many people understand the benefits of sleep, it tends to take a low priority in our modern world of LCD screens and 24 hour entertainment. If you are chronically tired as the afternoon rolls around, take a look at your sleep schedule. Even an hour of extra sleep can make a gigantic difference in how you feel during the day. If you have trouble falling asleep, one way to help the cause is to remove yourself from bright light sources like TVs and high wattage bulbs for an hour or so before going to bed. In addition, once in bed it may be helpful to practice some deep breathing exercises and focus on “emptying your mind” in order to let go of the day’s stress. Think of it like a short meditation session that will end with you becoming fully relaxed and ready for sleep.
The second factor in daily fatigue is nutrition. The afternoon drag that many people experience around two or three o’clock is, in many cases, due to detrimental blood sugar fluctuations brought upon by poor lunch choices. Generally, faulty lunches fall into two categories: too small or badly constructed. The first group is unfortunately common. With busy work schedules and little time to plan a decent lunch, many people often rely on a simple salad or a lone a nutrition bar to keep them going through until dinner. Even worse, some people simply skip lunch altogether! Given the fact that most people still eat “three square meals” per day, your lunch is about all you have to take you from breakfast all the way to dinner. A salad or a nutrition bar just won’t cut it. 100-200 calories is not enough to keep most people satisfied, focused, and nutritionally stable for four, six, or even more hours.
Among those who do make time for lunch, many rely on meals that let them down shortly after they finish eating. Unbalanced lunches high in carbohydrates and low in fiber, fat, and protein often produce blood sugar inconsistencies that leave the subject feeling groggy and unfocused after less than an hour. The large amount of insulin released in response to such a high glycemic meal will inevitably draw down blood sugar reserves below an optimal level. The way to avoid such violent blood sugar fluctuations is to properly construct your lunch using proper fundamental concepts of performance nutrition. As always, the primary building block of lunch, as with every meal and snack, is a significant portion of protein. It can come from meat, poultry, dairy products, or tofu. They will all work. Aim to get 40% of your lunch calories by way of protein. Add some fibrous vegetables or high fiber grain products and a serving of fruit to complete the plate. I guarantee that a meal designed by that blueprint will carry you through the afternoon. You will have enough calories to keep you going and your blood sugar level will be stable.
Finally, don’t forget about snacks. I always suggest at least one snack between breakfast and lunch and another between lunch and dinner. They don’t have to be anything complicated or huge. Small, well constructed snacks will provide a consistent flow of nutrients to your body and will provide further assistance keeping your blood sugar level consistent. They should be constructed with protein and fiber, just like a meal. If time is a limiting factor for you in getting proper nutrition, snacks are the perfect place to make use of convenience products like protein bars and shakes. No matter how crunched your schedule, make time for excellent nutrition. You will be able to power through morning to evening and make the best use of your time. There’s no need for “that 2:30 feeling” anymore. Energy drinks and shots are not the answer. Construct your meals and snacks properly to be at your best all day long.
In this blog I usually cover technical nutrition and exercise concepts. However, the subject of this article, while not specifically related to those fields, is just as important to your ability to self-manage your body composition and health. Applied nutrition is not an easy subject for many people to master if they don’t already have a background in biology, chemistry, and other core sciences. Many people simply dedicate their life to other things, like business, history, or fine art. For some, the prospect of understanding the fundamental concepts of nutrition and exercise can seem daunting. The idea of being able to dynamically apply those principles to their own lives on-the-fly can seem even more alien. But learning is part of any new experience and becoming truly self-reliant when it comes to nutrition and exercise takes many people a decent period of study and practice. Luckily, there is a way to speed up the process that benefits not only yourself, but those around you who are in need. By becoming a teacher to those less experienced than yourself, even as you continue to learn and develop, will allow you to more completely understand the concepts that you are trying to put into action.
Children are fantastic learners for many reasons. One of their greatest assets in this vein is the unabashed manner in which they ask questions. It’s the classic game of young children in which every answer from the parent is simply responded to by another iteration of “WHY?” They are curious (sometimes annoyingly so) and aren’t worried about “looking stupid.” So they ask questions whenever they need an answer. Oftentimes, parents with kids of this supremely inquisitive age find that gaps in their own knowledge are unearthed when they can no longer answer the question of “why?” In much the same way, teaching another adult about nutrition and exercise even as you yourself are a student will shine a light on the limits of your current understanding.
You really never know what questions a student will come up with. Part of the beauty of learning through teaching is that every person thinks about a subject in a slightly different way. A problem does not appear identically to all. When a student becomes confused or has lost the train of logic guiding a discussion, their questions may cause you, the teacher, to reexamine your level of understanding and hopefully dig a bit deeper into the fundamental concepts underlying the subject at hand. Through this process of learning, teaching, questioning, and investigating, you will become an ever-improving master of your science. Always remain humble and open to questions posed to you. Discovering that you don’t know the answer can allow you the opportunity to improve yourself.
While taking on the role of teacher can indeed make you a better student, it’s always important to remember Spiderman’s Uncle Ben when he said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” As one trusted to provide an education of sorts, it’s imperative that you don’t overstep the bounds of your current knowledge. Never be afraid to say, “I don’t know.” The worst insult to a trusting student is a lie. When you come upon a question for which you don’t have a surefire answer, simply respond that you’ll have to look it up and report back. There’s nothing wrong with not knowing. The only mistake is pretending that you do. In the end, people respect honesty above almost anything else. Be honest with yourself and those around you and in time you will become not only a knowledgeable practitioner but an excellent teacher, as well.
Taking a student under your wing, even as you continue to learn and develop, can benefit both you and those you choose to help. They gain the benefit of your knowledge and you are forced to deeply examine the true depths of your understanding. Explaining from the ground up the concepts that you are trying to master can show where your knowledge is weak, allowing you to address these holes and become more informed. Above all, don’t be afraid to admit ignorance. It’s simply an opportunity for everyone to learn something new.
Breakfast cereals are often thought of purely as sources of carbohydrates and maybe some fiber if you get a whole grain product. However, there are a few outstanding options that offer more than just the basics. With these products, you get a significant proportion of calories from protein, which is unusual from cereals and grain products as a group. In addition, some also offer large doses of fiber. The combination of protein and fiber is a big deal, especially during breakfast. These products will provide you with a steady, moderate blood sugar level with a slow release of sugars over a long period of time. They will keep you feeling full and satisfied until your next snack or meal. They will also provide the basic necessities your body requires to perform any tissue maintenance and repair processes. In short, these are the best of the best. I should note that I have no reason to recommend these products except that I have used them extensively and find them to be extremely helpful. I have no other connection to these companies.
Oats and Protein Powder
The combination of oats and protein powder has been a staple of bodybuilders worldwide for decades. The excellent nutrition and complex carbohydrates of oat products is the perfect complement to the concentrated protein content of a commercial protein powder. Another positive aspect of this breakfast option is variety. Protein powders come in numerous flavors from vanilla to strawberry, as well as from different sources, including soy, milk, and egg. Suitable oat products include steel cut oats for maximum nutrition, and rolled or quick oats coming in second place but still getting the job done. The flavor and texture options available with this wide variety of products will allow you to find your favorite combination.
As far as the oat portion of this breakfast goes, it is important to know your players. At the top of the pile are steel cut oats. They are simply raw oat groats that have been chopped into smaller pieces for easier eating. They are the least processed form of oat you will generally find and offer fantastic nutrition. However, they have the heartiest texture and longest cooking time of any breakfast oat product. Rolled oats are similar to steel cut oats, but have been flattened and usually steamed and toasted lightly. Some rolled oats have had some or all of their bran removed, which is nutritionally unfortunate but can provide a softer texture and a shorter cooking time. Finally, quick oats are much like rolled oats but have been chopped into smaller pieces, rolled flatter, and sometimes steamed longer in order to further decrease cooking time.
Any combination of protein powder and oats will make a great breakfast. It will supply a significant portion of protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals, as well as complex carbohydrates. Feel free to add in chopped fruit or berries for even more nutritional punch.
Kellogg’s Special K Protein Plus
Kellogg’s Special K line of cereal products contains one real winner amongst a large crowd of degenerate losers. While Kellogg’s Special K original cereal isn’t the worst thing in the world, most of the rest of the bunch are pretty much useless. Products like Special K Chocolatey Delight, with 100% of its fat content as saturated fat and just over 3% of its calories from protein, are not acceptable. Fortunately, one variation rises to the occasion: Special K Protein Plus. With 5 grams of fiber and 10 grams of protein per 100 calorie serving, Protein Plus is definitely the king of Ks. In addition to excellent macronutrient numbers, the ingredients statement of Protein Plus tells its story. With wheat bran as its first ingredient and whole grain wheat, soy grits, and soy protein isolate not far behind, this is a well-made cereal.
The taste and texture of this cereal are surprisingly palatable, given some of its relatively hearty ingredients. For this you can thank Kellogg’s and its traditionally mainstream approach to breakfast cereals. It’s nice to see a truly big name producer put out a nutritionally rational product. The smaller, specialty cereal companies do a wonderful job, but a name like Kellogg’s means that this product will be widely distributed and able to help people the world over (though their formulations actually differ somewhat by country).
While Kashi makes a full line of GoLean cereal products, the original in this case is the masterpiece. Providing 13 grams of protein and 10 grams of fiber in a 140 calorie serving is pretty incredible, especially for a breakfast cereal. These stats make Kashi GoLean my personal choice as grand champion of breakfast cereals.
However, not all Kashis are created equal. The other members of the GoLean line, including the Golean Crunch! and Crisp! variations, are not quite as nutritionally astounding as the original type. Providing between 180 and 200 calories per serving with 9 grams of protein and 8 grams of fiber, you can see that the ratio of calories to protein and fiber is beginning to slip a bit. While still excellent products, I believe that if you can get the best option available, you shouldn’t settle for second place.
Finally, for those of you who prefer something warm for breakfast, Kashi also makes a line of GoLean hot cereals. While again not as awesome as Kashi GoLean original, they are still all-stars compared to many other hot cereal products. Providing 150 calories with 8-9 grams of protein and 5-7 grams of fiber per serving, they certainly have a leg up over traditional options like grits and cream of wheat.
Kashi has hit the mark on taste, texture, and nutrition with their GoLean cereals. If you can, pick up the original and give it a try. It is definitely the strongest competitor of the bunch. However, the GoLean Crunch! and Crisp! cold cereals, as well as the hot cereal options, can provide excellent alternatives that will get your day started off on the right foot every time.
Any of these three cereal options can provide the basis for a fantastic breakfast. Add in some milk or yogurt and some fresh fruit and you have a great way to start your day. No matter what your breakfast choices are, always pay attention to the fundamentals. Make sure to get a significant portion of protein at every meal or snack, make your carbohydrates complex, and include some fiber, fruit, and vegetables in there to complete your dietary landscape. A properly constructed breakfast will set the tone for the day, so try one of these options and see how great you can feel!
I am a vehement proponent of discipline’s positive role in a proper nutrition and exercise program. I believe that the ability to stick to your plan and make decisions based on your principles and not your feelings at a given moment is one of the greatest assets a person can have in their journey towards optimal health and performance. On the other hand, a big risk factor for abandoning a productive nutrition and exercise plan is mental and physical burnout. After a long period of time adhering to a strict schedule, many people simply want a break. In addition, in many cases the body is looking for a little rest, as well. However, the more disciplined a subject is, the more likely they are to resist the urge to take some time off from the gym or eat some more indulgent meals. In the end, the concept of a cheat day is a good one, but it can be overused. As with many good ideas, cheat days can become too frequent and too out of control, leading to a regression in health and condition. Used properly though, a little time off can do both the mind and body a whole lot of good.
I use the term “cheat day” simply because it’s familiar to many readers. However, an entire day off may not be the best idea. Personally, I prefer the idea of a cheat meal. For many subjects, a single meal during which they can eat foods outside the bounds of their normal nutrition plan is enough to give them a mental boost and prepare them for another few weeks of discipline. It’s also possible to extend this concept to two meals. However, I think that an entire day of irresponsible eating can stretch the utility of the time off into the category of counterproductivity. One of the most successful methods of implementing a period of off-time is to plan a nice meal out with your family or friends and treat it like a special occasion. That way, you experience the feeling of relaxation and bonding with loved ones over food without having to monitor your diet so carefully. It also puts the cheat meal into the context of “occasional event” and not an everyday occurrence.
How often a cheat meal or day may be appropriate is dependent upon many factors. One of the most important is the effect that time off has on the individual’s ability to return to the regular plan of action. For some people, taking one meal or a day off leads to another meal or day off. That cycle of laxity can continue for days or weeks. In some cases, it can even cause the end of a successful nutrition and exercise plan. On the other hand, most people can simply have a nice meal out with a friend or take a relaxed day on vacation and then get right back into their regular, stricter schedule. If you find yourself in the former category in which the time off puts you on a slippery slope towards inactivity and irresponsible eating, then space out your cheat periods to a frequency of about once a month. On the other hand, if you find that a little time off proves beneficial to your state of mind and feeling of physical well-being while not compromising your overall discipline, then a frequency of once every two to three weeks may be appropriate.
Time off from a strict nutrition and exercise plan can benefit both the mind and the body. Continuous adherence to a strict eating plan, especially when losing fat, can eventually weigh heavily on a person’s morale. This effect is particularly common when first modifying your eating and exercise habits to fit a healthier and more productive lifestyle. The change in routine can be wearing on the nerves as it can take serious thought and planning to meld your new schedule with your current lifestyle. It is important to recognize that feelings of doubt and mental fatigue are normal when making big changes. Do not let your negative feelings take precedence over your pride in the progress you have made towards a healthier life. A small period of relaxation and time off from disciplined eating and training can allow your mind some time to refresh and motivate you to continue your journey of physical and mental improvement. Your body can also become worn down from consistent hard training and strict eating. Taking a day or even a week off from the gym can actually improve results after a period of strenuous, progressive exercise. In addition, a meal or two containing increased calories and nutrients can provide the body with useful extra fuel for building muscle tissue and replenishing glycogen stores emptied during hard training.
Cheat meals and days can be productive after a period of disciplined training and eating. However, like most good things, too much can be quite detrimental. Choose your time off sparingly and make it a special occasion. Don’t go overboard and try to still eat relatively nutritious foods during your cheat period. Finally, recognize that your urges for some dietary and physical relaxation are normal and can in fact indicate a physical and mental need for a break. Don’t feel bad about taking time off. Instead, enjoy it and use it to motivate yourself for your next productive nutrition and exercise cycle.
There are two major facets of athletic development: excellent nutrition and progressive training. Assuming that you have your nutrition plan squared away with the right amounts of calories, protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats, your training protocol is all that stands between you and reaching your highest potential in both athletics and general health and wellbeing. Unfortunately, when many people begin a training regimen of any sort, they have little information to guide them in the design of their exercise program. While there is an almost infinite number of strength training protocols available, this article discusses a principle that is fundamental to all effective resistance training programs. The concept of double progression is the foundation of continuous progression in strength and muscle gain, and yet it is an idea that is almost unknown outside of serious weight lifting circles. Learn to understand the practice of double progression and how to incorporate it into your resistance training schedule and you will find the results to be well worth the effort!
The concept of double progression involves, as the name implies, two different but parallel routes toward strength and muscle gain. The first is increasing weight. If you can lift more weight this month (for the same number of repetitions, in the same style, etc.) than you could last month, your strength has increased in that time and in many cases so has your muscle mass. The second avenue of progression is in the number of repetitions of an exercise that can be performed. If you are able to lift the same weight for more repetitions this month than you could last month, then your strength has again improved with a similarly likely increase in muscle mass.
Unfortunately, the fact is that you can neither increase weight nor repetitions alone indefinitely. If you attempt to add more weight each week, you will very quickly find that your body cannot keep up, even when adding very small amounts of weight. In the same vein, if you try to add more repetitions each week you will also hit a wall in terms of progression and, for reasons beyond the scope of this article, you will also see little if any muscle growth as the repetitions add up. Luckily, there is a solution. Double progression incorporates both increases in weight and repetitions in a focused and disciplined way, ensuring multiple paths of progression and providing the opportunity for virtually continuous improvement.
The first step to designing a double progression plan for an individual exercise is to determine a range of repetitions that you know will produce strength gains. Unfortunately, that optimal range varies between people and indeed can even differ between muscle groups within a single subject. The key to finding your range is to simply try out different options and see what works best. This process can take quite a while, but it produces extremely valuable information.
I will relate my personal rep ranges so that you can develop an idea of how to start investigating your own. From experience, I know that most of the muscles in my back (latissimus dorsi, trapezius, spinal erectors, etc.) produce the most consistent strength gains over time using a range of three to six repetitions. However, the muscles in my shoulders (deltoids) require a higher rep range of about five to eight. The difference in ranges may seem insignificant, but through trial and error I’ve found that, for example my progress on rowing exercises slows to a crawl or even stops if I use sets with more than six repetitions. Attempting to gain back strength using sets of eight is, for me, essentially futile. Similarly, when performing the overhead press, which strongly activates the deltoids, I have found that performing sets of less than five reps leads to rapid stagnation. While sets containing between five and eight reps are effective, sets of three produce little to no success. Experimentation is essential to determining your optimal repetition range, but the time spent is well worth the valuable data you will discover. On the other hand, if you are just starting out and have no experience, simply choose a range anywhere between six and twelve repetitions. From there you can try different ranges as you become more comfortable
Once you have determined a productive repetition range for each exercise, you now must find a weight at which you can begin to work your progression. One method used to come up with a starting weight is to discover your maximal capabilities at your desired repetition range and then decrease from there. Of course, any time you are working to the point where you cannot lift a weight anymore requires a spotter to ensure your safety. Once you have a safe mechanical and/or human safety system in place, work your way up in weight until you reach a point where you cannot properly complete a set. For example, if I choose five to eight repetitions as my optimal range in the bench press, then I will need to find out the maximum amount of weight I can lift for five repetitions, also known as my five rep max (5RM). After enlisting an experienced spotter to catch the bar when I fail, I will begin to lift in sets of five reps with adequate rest in between, raising the weight by five to twenty percent each set. At some weight, say 210 pounds, I will be unable to safely complete all five reps. I might get three or four and then be forced to stop. The weight used on the previous set is then my 5RM. For this example, we will say it was 200 pounds.
Now that I know what my maximum weight is for one set of five, I need to find my starting weight for my progression. Generally one does more than a single set of each exercise. So, for this example I’ll choose three sets of five to eight for the bench press. The total volume (set multiplied by reps) is another variable that you can tweak over time to produce the best results. Some people respond better to higher volume and many progress best with lower volume. Begin somewhere in the middle with two to four sets and work from there. When beginning a new double progressive cycle, it is best to underestimate your starting weight to give your body some time to adapt to the new regimen. With a 5RM of 200 pounds, I will begin the cycle with 160 to 170 pounds, or 80% to 85% of my 5RM.
To execute the double progression, my first workout will consist of a good warm-up followed by three sets of five to eight reps with 160 pounds. During each set, I will attempt to complete all eight reps. If I am unable to succeed with eight reps in all three sets, I will use the same weight next week and try again. However, if I do complete eight reps in all three sets, I will then increase the weight by five pounds during my next training session. I may be able to perform all three sets of eight successfully again with 165 pounds, prompting me to add another five pounds for the following week. However, at some point I will not be able to complete eight reps in all three sets. At that time, my goal would then be to add at least one rep each week until I again reached by goal of eight reps for three sets. More weight will then be added, the reps will drop back down, and the cycle continues.
Double progression fights stagnation and allows for multiples avenues of progression by taking into account both increases in weight lifted as well as the number of repetitions performed. By setting a repetition range that you know if effective for you, you can most efficiently effect strength and muscle mass gains while consistently raising the working weight to compensate for your newfound abilities. Progressive resistance is essential to produce increases in strength and muscle mass. These assets are extremely valuable to both men and women, regardless of their age, condition, or previous activity level. You will gain confidence, functionality, and self-esteem through the use of a properly designed nutrition and progressive resistance exercise program. Don’t be intimidated by the numbers or the challenges of lifting. Start slowly, do your best, and discover abilities that you never knew you had!
It’s often said that the most colorful fruits and vegetables are the most desirable and that the brightest and most intensely colored ones are the healthiest. While both of these notions are in fact true, the reasons behind them are rarely explained. Most nutritionists and public health officials dumb down dietary recommendations to the point that a toddler can execute them. I want you to have a slightly deeper understanding of nutritional concepts so that when you are presented with a situation that doesn’t quite fit what you’ve experienced before, you’re able to apply the principles of your current knowledge to the new problem and make an educated decision. In short, I want you to think about what you are eating!
The basic reason behind choosing the most colorful fruits and vegetables is that the chemicals that impart the color to the plant are actually some of the most beneficial compounds we can eat! In addition, different colors are caused by the presence of different phytochemicals (plant-based compounds), so choosing foods with a variety of colors ensures that you get a dose of numerous healthy nutrients. However, some colors can be caused by the presence of a few different compounds and certain classes of chemicals can impart more than one color. It’s important to know which specific nutrients are working behind the scenes in order to best evaluate your fruit and vegetable choices.
Purple, blue, and some red colors can be caused by a class of compounds called anthocyanins. The acidity of the fruit or vegetable determines whether the anthocyanins appear bluer or redder. While anthocyanins show strong antioxidant properties in test tube studies, they appear to be metabolized quickly upon entering the body. However, despite their fragility they do cause a rise in the antioxidant capacity of the blood following ingestion, indicating that they are worth eating. Antioxidant chemicals have been implicated in the prevention of heart disease, atherosclerosis, and some types of cancer. While the data on their effectiveness is still inconclusive on many accounts, for now the safe bet is to make room for them in your daily diet. Anthocyanins are present in many dark-colored fruits and vegetables including blackberries, blueberries, black currants, red grapes, lingonberries, cherries, and eggplants.
Another source of purple and sometimes yellow colors in fruits and vegetables are betalains. The purple types of betalain are known as betacyanins while the yellow forms are called betaxanthins. Betalains exhibit a wide range of beneficial properties including antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer activities. They are most commonly found in beet roots in the betacyanin form and are sometimes used as a natural food colorant. Yellow betaxanthins are found in papaya and cactus pear, among other sources.
Though some betalains can produce yellow colors, the vast majority of yellow and orange hues in fruits and vegetables are due to carotenoids. However, some carotenoids can also produce a red color. Carotenoids are excellent oxygen scavengers (antioxidants) and have been shown to help prevent cognitive decline in some populations and may also protect the eyes from age-related ocular diseases. Unfortunately, supplementation with concentrated beta-carotene, one of the most well-known carotenoids, has been shown to increase the risk of developing lung cancer in smokers. So, while the jury is still out on daily doses of supplemental carotenoids, the benefits of this class of compounds is worth the trouble of consuming a couple carrots a day. Carotenoids can be found throughout the plant world in everything from leafy vegetables like kale and collard greens to fruits like mango, tomato and pumpkin.
In addition to choosing a variety of colors in your fruits and vegetables, it’s also important to pick those products that have the brightest and most vivid colors. Many biological pigments are quite susceptible to degradation from heat, time, acids, and other harsh conditions. As the compounds become ineffective, they also tend to lose their color. So, in many cases the depth and vibrancy of color in a fruit or vegetable is actually a decently accurate gauge of how good it is for you.
Next time you go to the supermarket, make sure to choose fruits and vegetables with a variety of colors, ranging from yellow and orange to deep red and purple. The different colors actually indicate the presence of some of the healthy phytochemicals that you are looking to get from your plant foods. Finally, pick the products with the brightest and most intense colors to help you get the highest nutritional bang for your buck.
Balance, Zone, Cliff, Pure Protein, and other nutrition bars can be extremely useful tools to help fight hunger, provide a healthy, quick snack, and maintain a continuous flow of protein and sugar into the body. However, they are not all created with the same user in mind and it is important to understand where each kind of bar best fits into your nutrition plan. By reading the Nutrition Facts information as well as the ingredients statement, you can learn a lot about what a bar can do for you.
Generally, nutrition bars will range between 150 and 400 calories per serving, which for the majority of people makes them most useful as snacks. They do not usually provide enough energy to constitute a full meal. In addition, they are almost always lacking in at least one key component of a well-structured meal, including fiber, healthy fats, or phytochemicals like antioxidants. However, when used as a snack, either alone or with other healthy foods, nutrition bars can strike a wonderful balance between convenience and nutrition.
There are three main categories into which I divide nutrition bars: protein-based, carbohydrate-based, and those that supply a balance of macronutrients (fat, carbohydrate, and protein). Each type of bar can be a powerful tool in the right circumstances, but when misused can be counterproductive to your success. Protein-based bars are designed with maximum protein content in mind. Pure Protein and Met-Rx Protein Plus bars are examples of this category. Pure Protein bars provide approximately 34% of their calories by way of protein and Protein Plus bars supply approximately 41% of their calories as protein. Besides their macronutrient profile, another perspective on the bar’s design can be had by observing the ingredients statement. Pure Protein bars utilize artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols in order to keep their overall caloric content down and boost their relative protein content. Bars in the other categories will generally avoid such ingredients (although there’s nothing inherently wrong with them) and will therefore have a more carbohydrate-heavy profile.
A protein-based bar can be an excellent supply of high quality protein when you are away from home or otherwise without access to meat, soy, or dairy-based protein sources. They can often serve as the major source of protein in a snack that might also include whole grain cereal products or fresh fruits and vegetables. Be aware, however, that many high-protein bars also contain large amounts of saturated fat. Due to the negative health consequences of chronic high saturated fat consumption, always use protein-based bars in moderation and only when you are without healthier protein sources.
Another type of nutrition bar is the carbohydrate-based product. Cliff Bars, Bear Naked Grain-ola Bars, and the ever-popular PowerBar Performance Energy Bar are members of this group. They supply between 7% and 17% of their calories from protein. Clearly, these products were not designed to provide a maximum amount of protein. Instead, they are generally engineered with fiber to slow digestion and low glycemic carbohydrates to give the user a steady supply of sugar over an extended exercise session. The benefits of these bars are varied but can include natural ingredients, whole-grains, and a lower saturated fat content than the other types of bars.
Carbohydrate-based bars can be used as part of a pre-workout meal to supply healthy, fiber-buffered sugar to fuel your training session. They can also be used in concert with a concentrated source of protein as part of a post-workout meal. However, they do not often make good starting points for snacks during a normal day at work or home due to their often high sugar content.
The last type of bar is the meal replacement product. These bars usually provide a balance of macronutrients and can be useful in many situations. Balance Bars, Zone Bars, and Met-Rx Big 100 Bars fall into this group. Balance and Zone Bars provide about 210 calories and approximately 28% of their calories from protein. Big 100 Bars contain 410 calories and supply approximately 31% of its calories from protein. Despite their similar protein contents, the 200 calorie difference between the bars is substantial. This category of products tends to have the largest variation in total caloric content, so always pay attention to the Nutrition Facts label to see how you can best make these bars work for you.
Meal replacement bars or those with balanced macronutrient profiles are best used as part of a snack during every-day life. If you do not need as much protein as protein-based bar would supply or if you have a good protein source and are looking for a convenient, balanced source of macronutrients to complete a snack, the meal replacement bar may be a good choice. Unfortunately, this sort of bar often contains levels of saturated fat similar to the protein-based bar type. As always, pay attention to the Nutrition Facts and ingredients statement labels to find the right bar for your nutrition plan.
All three types of nutrition bars can play a beneficial role in your life. They are convenient, portable sources of concentrated nutrition. When used properly, they can supply just the right nutrients at the right time. However, each kind of bar has its drawbacks, so don’t rely on them regularly as replacements for healthy conventional foods. Always read the rear label carefully, paying special attention to caloric content and macronutrient ratios, to make the right choice when selecting a nutrition bar.
There is a commonly held misconception about resistance training (weight lifting, anaerobic, etc.) that is both so deeply ingrained in exercise mythology and so counterproductive to the user that it begs to be addressed. The idea that strength training methodology should change depending on whether your goal at the time is fat loss or muscle growth is simply false. I have to assume that this concept is a vestige of the "toning" age, which also happened to be the era of sideways ponytails, leg warmers, and ubiquitous perms. Clearly, none of these trends had any basis in rational thought and were therefore eventually swept under the embarrassing but forgiving rug of history. It's time to move on.
The reason why this myth is so pervasive within exercise circles boils down, I think, to the fact that many trainers have a poorly developed understanding of the physiological effects of different types of exercise as well as nutrition. As a result, their expectations are unrealistic and their exercise plans inefficient. I always stress the importance of education when it comes to nutrition and exercise. To become self-sufficient in this field and capable of managing your own body effectively, you need to understand when, why, and how you should use certain nutrition and exercise techniques. Without fundamental knowledge of the effects of your actions upon your body, trying to achieve your goal of fat loss or muscle growth is much like trying to bat at a piñata, blindfolded. You may eventually hit it, but you will waste a huge amount of time and effort swinging wildly and there's a good chance that you'll do some unintended damage along the way.
So, let's begin to clear up this myth by defining what our goal is for our resistance exercise plan. It is singular and simple: muscle growth and maintenance. Don't worry if your first reaction to that statement is, "But Rob, I don't want bigger muscles!" As you will soon understand, the growth rate of your muscles is primarily dependent upon nutrition, not exercise.
Now that we understand our resistance training objective, it becomes clear that changing our exercise methods depending upon our fat loss or muscle growth goals makes no sense. The key here is to allow yourself to separate the uses of nutrition and exercise as they relate to body composition management. Loss of fat is generally best achieved by inducing a caloric deficit, meaning you are taking in fewer calories than you are putting out. Conversely, muscle growth is most efficient during a caloric surplus. Exercise is an inefficient method for inducing either a caloric deficit or surplus. Maintaining the balance of your caloric input/output is best left to the tools of nutrition. However, with either goal in mind you will always be fighting to grow or maintain muscle mass, which is best achieved through intense resistance training. Let exercise and nutrition each do what they do best and fight the urge to overlap their uses.
Fat loss always comes with some decrease in muscle tissue. Our body is simply not going to lose 100% pure fat mass because our internal energy consumption pathways are not engineered as isolated systems, but are integrated to allow us maximum fuel flexibility. On the other hand, an increase in muscle mass is almost always accompanied by some accumulation of fatty tissue. Again, our body almost never takes an energy surplus and generates only one type of tissue. Body fat is like an insurance policy that aids our survival in times of famine. When you convince your body through intense exercise to increase its stores of highly metabolic, energy-hungry muscle tissue, it will also take a bit of your caloric input and invest that in a slightly larger insurance policy. While it is sometimes possible to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time, for the vast majority of people in most cases it is more efficient to focus on one goal at a time.
Keeping in mind that the body rarely grows or consumes one sort of tissue in isolation, the duality of goals becomes apparent for any nutrition and exercise plan, whether aimed at fat loss or muscle growth. When executing a plan aimed primarily at maximizing body fat reduction, it is imperative for long-term success to also remember to minimize muscle tissue loss. As well, when attempting to increase muscle mass, it is important to minimize the gain in body fat. In both cases, however, fat loss is best achieved through nutrition and muscle gain through resistance training.
The old adage that, when it comes to anaerobic exercise, higher repetitions should be used for fat loss and lower repetitions for muscle growth is incorrect. In reality, the best repetition range to use is the one that produces the best results for you. If you consistently get stronger using higher rep ranges, the primarily use those. If you instead find better progress resulting from lower rep ranges, then stick to those for the majority of your sessions. The time to change your exercise methodology is when it stops working or becomes inefficient. If you are able to add weight or reps each week during a caloric surplus or even just maintain your strength during a period of caloric deficit, then you currently have a useful plan. Trust in the validity of your results because they narrate the real story of your success or failure.
Once you have designed an effective exercise plan for muscle growth, losing fat or gaining muscle is simply a matter of energy and protein input vs. output. If you use effective resistance training and supply your body with lots of good calories and protein, you will grow muscle. If you also take care to control some of the finer points of your nutrition plan, you will also be able to minimize fat gain. If you use the same exercise techniques and provide a caloric deficit while maintaining a good level of protein consumption, you will lose fat while minimizing muscle loss. Either way, the exercise strategy is the same because the goal of maximizing muscle mass never changes.
Using high reps for fat loss and low reps for "bulking up" is an outdated concept. The best resistance training method for you is the one that produces the greatest level of muscle growth. Only change your exercise plan when it stops working. Let nutrition handle your fat loss efforts. Your caloric balance is best controlled by monitoring what goes into your mouth and not what you do in the gym. Resistance exercise builds and maintains muscle mass. Nutrition decides whether you are actively growing muscle tissue or are instead trying to maintain it while losing fat. Always remember to use exercise and nutrition each in their most efficient role.