Is Extra Protein to Gain Mass Dangerous?
I’m having trouble gaining any mass. A friend of mine told me that I should eat more protein. Is this the answer? I am also concerned about possible health problems with high protein intakes that dietitians always talk about.
The debate over protein intakes for athletes has been raging for decades now. Strength and power athletes (bodybuilders, powerlifter, etc) have always been big proponents of high protein intakes on the (somewhat incorrect) premise that since muscle is made of protein, more protein will equal more muscle. To be technically accurate, muscle is actually about 70% water by weight and I wonder why strength athletes (and supplement companies) didn’t push water as an anabolic. There are essentially two opposing camps in the protein wars. On the one hand are the (generally conservative) dietitians who will tell you that the RDA for protein (which is 0.8 grams protein/kg body weight (0.36 grams/pound) or about 55 grams of protein for an average sized male and 44 grams for a female) is sufficient for everyone and that no studies have shown that excessive protein intake is necessary for growth. They are wrong. On the other hand, we have bodybuilders and supplement companies suggesting truly massive amounts of protein for lifters, in excess of 3-4 grams protein/kg bodyweight (about 1.5-2 grams/lb of protein). It’s quite convenient for a company selling protein powder to convince lifters that they need this kind of excessive protein intake. Guess what? They are wrong too. Outside of the pro ranks, the de facto standard for protein intake has been about 1 gram of protein/lb bodyweight (about 2.2 grams protein/kg body weight). Looking at the research available (and most of the good studies have been done by Dr. Peter Lemon at Kent State), the following protein intakes are what is suggested.
Endurance athletes 1.2-1.4 grams protein/kg (0.54 – 0.63 grams/pound) Strength athletes: 1.6-1.8 grams protein/kg (0.72 -0.8 grams/pound)
Note: the studies on strength athletes were done with lifter training up to 6 days per week, twice per day and likely represents the absolute maximum needed.
While other studies have occasionally shown that greater protein intakes (up to 3 grams/kg) increase nitrogen retention, they tend to suffer from some methodological flaws discussed below.
The problem with the above values is that protein requirements depend on a host of other factors including
1. Calorie/carbohydrate intake
2. Protein quality
3. Anabolic status
Outside of training volume and intensity, this is probably the single biggest determinant of protein requirements. Reducing calorie and carbohydrate intake (i.e. dieting) tends to raise protein requirements as protein will be converted to glucose for fuel. By the same token, raising calories (and carbohydrates) tends to lower protein requirements since all incoming protein can be used for tissue synthesis. This is also tied to the hormonal response to over and underfeeding. Reducing calories tends to lower anabolic hormones (especially insulin and IGF-1) while raising catabolic hormones (glucagon, cortisol, the catecholamines) which increases protein breakdown. Therefore more dietary protein is needed to help offset this and prevent muscle loss. By the same token, increasing caloric intake tends to raise anabolic hormones while decreasing catabolic hormones, all of which increase protein synthesis. When lifters tell me that they absolute MUST consume high amount of protein to grow, the first question I ask them is how many calories they are consuming. Invariably the answer is ‘not enough’ since they are afraid of getting fat. Eating more protein is a very inefficient (and costly) way to provide energy for the body. Protein is expensive, carbohydrates are generally cheap (and taste better). Rather than just increase protein to ridiculous levels, I would rather see a lifter increase carbohydrate (and fat) intake to get calories up to reasonable levels.
Proteins differ in their quality, which is primarily determined by the relative amounts of the different amino acids present. Whey protein is thought to be the highest quality protein, whole egg the next highest, egg white next, milk protein, meat proteins, and finally vegetable proteins. A lifter consuming only low quality proteins would need a higher intake (to obtain sufficient essential amino acids) of protein to compensate. Alternately consuming lower quality proteins WITH higher quality proteins increases the quality of the lower quality protein. So individuals on a tight budget (or who wish to minimize meat protein intake for some reason) can consume vegetable proteins but include a small amount of a higher quality protein (such as milk or eggs) to improve the overall quality of the meal.
When you see your favorite pro-bodybuilder suggesting massive amounts of protein for growth (500 grams per day is not unheard of) ask yourself about the possible differences in their anabolic status (as in steroids) compared to yourself. There is a limit to how much protein can be synthesized per day in a non-drug using lifter. When you add various anabolic substances to the body (especially steroids), protein synthesis is increased to higher levels and higher protein intakes are not only useful but probably necessary. As well, consider the fact that sponsored athletes are being paid to promote the products of their sponsor. If that sponsor happens to sell protein powders, all the better that it’s high-profile athletes are recommending massive amounts of protein.
So to sum up, protein is only partially the answer to your growth problems. As long as you’re getting 1 gram/lb (or even a bit less) of high quality protein AND enough calories per day (see next question), adding more protein probably isn’t the answer. Also look at your training structure. Overtraining is known to decrease the levels of anabolic hormone levels. If you’re natural and you’re in the gym more than 3-4 hours per week, I think you will benefit from cutting back.
So what about health problems?
Probably the biggest concerns regarding health problems from excessive protein intake are:
1. Kidney stress
2. Calcium loss
Kidney stress. Since protein must eventually be filtered through the kidney (as urea), there is some concern that an excessive protein intake might be detrimental to kidney function. The problem with this logic is twofold. First the studies from which this is extrapolated used subjects with pre-existing kidney problems. I wouldn’t doubt that someone with impaired kidney function would have problems with excess protein intake but this can’t automatically be extrapolated to individuals with normal kidney function. Individuals with total kidney failure (who have to undergo dialysis) have to consume a low protein diet to avoid overloading their kidneys. In healthy individuals, this should pose no problems. From a purely empirical point of view, when you consider the number of individuals consuming high protein intakes for long periods of time, there should be an increased incidence of kidney problems but such is simply not seen in the scientific literature. However it should be noted that the increased urea production from excess protein intake can cause dehydration which can cause some problems. Individuals consuming high levels of protein must consume adequate water to avoid this.
Calcium loss. The high incidence of osteoporosis (loss of bone calcium) has been correlated positively in many countries (especially the United States) with a high protein intake. As well some studies have shown a ‘leaching’ of calcium from bones with protein. The problem with these studies is that protein isolates were used, not whole dietary proteins. The phosphate content of whole dietary proteins prevent urinary losses.
For those with a technical bent, I highly suggest the following paper which addresses all the topics I’ve dicussed here. Peter Lemon “Is increased dietary protein necessary or beneficial for individuals with a physically active lifestyle?” Nutrition Reviews (1996) 54 (4): S169-S175.
Calculating Metabolic Rate and Caloric Intake
I am unclear on the determinants of metabolic rate and how to determine how many calories I should be taking in to either maintain my bodyweight, lose fat or gain muscle. What determines metabolic rate and how can I determine mine?
There are three major factors which determine how many calories we need on a daily basis.
- Resting Metabolic Rate
- Thermic Effect of Activity
- Thermic effect of Food
Resting energy expenditure (REE). REE represents the number of calories needed by the body to sustain itself at rest (I’ve joked that it should be called the couch energy expenditure since it’s how many calories you’d burn sitting on the couch all day). REE typically comprises approximately 60-75% of the total caloric expenditure per day. In general, REE is linked with total body mass as well as lean body mass. Due to difficulties in measuring lean body mass with 100% accuracy, I prefer to determine REE using total body mass. There are numerous equations to estimate REE. However the easiest method is to multiply total bodyweight in pounds by 10-11 calories per pound total body weight. Women should use the lower value, men the higher. Again, this number represents how many calories the body will burn assuming zero activity.
Thermic Effect of Activity (TEA). TEA includes general moving around, shivering, AND exercise. Depending on the frequency, intensity and duration, exercise can increase total caloric expenditure by 15% (very sedentary) to 30% or more (very active) over baseline levels. Although it is possible to calculate the number of calories burned with varying types of exercise, it is generally sufficient to simply estimate the number of calories burned with activity. The level of activity in a day will determine the increase in caloric requirements over REE. Even someone who is totally sedentary will need to adjust REE upwards by at least 30%. See Fig 1 below for REE multipliers:
Fig 1: Multiplication modifiers for activity level Low activity: 1.3 Medium activity: 1.5 High activity: 1.7 Excessive activity: 2.0
The Thermic Effect of Feeding (TEF). TEF represents the slight increase in metabolic rate which occurs when food is ingested. The term Specific Dynamic Action (SDA) of food is also used. The three macronutrients: carbohydrate, protein and fat have different SDA values. Protein has the highest SDA, burning off 25% of it’s total calories during digestion. That is, if 100 calories of protein is eaten, 25 calories will be burned during digestion. Carbohydrate is slightly less, having a SDA of 15-20%. Fat has the lowest SDA, approximately 3%. As a general rule, TEF will increase caloric requirements by roughly 10% per day.
So an example calculation for a male, with moderate activity (weight training 3 days per week) who weighs 170 lbs would be.
REE = 170 lbs * 11 cal/lb = 1870 cal/day TEA = 1870 * 1.5 = 2805 cal/day TEF = 2805 + 10% = 3080 cal/day
This is the number of calories needed to maintain body weight on daily basis.
Losing fat is a function of burning more calories than you consume. And to lose 1 lb of fat requires that you burn 3500 more calories than you consume. Thus the typical recommendations are to either decrease caloric intake by 500-1000 cal/day OR increase activity by the same token. Alternately some mix of caloric restriction AND increased activity is typically recommended. I generally find that dieters tend to decrease calories by too much AND increase activity (especially aerobics) far too much. And while this invariably works fine for fat loss initially, a plateau is quickly hit and fat loss slows. Frequently muscle is also lost, something which should be avoided. The absolute largest caloric deficit that should EVER be created is 1000 calories per day and this may even be too high for some. Please note that this is the TOTAL deficit from caloric restriction and increased activity. So you don’t get to cut calories by 1000 per day AND increase cardio at the same time. If you happen to be involved in an endurance sport and are burning 1500 cal/day with activity, this means that you would have to INCREASE caloric intake by 500 per day for optimal fat loss to occur. I realize that this is counter intuitive to everything dieters have been told but please trust me that it works. In practice, this works out to a low end caloric intake for optimal fat loss of around 11-12 calories per pound (women should use the lower number, men the higher). Going below that does not improve fat loss significantly but does increase metabolic slowdown and muscle loss.
For our same 170 lb person above, maximal fat loss would be achieved at 170 lb * 12 cal/lb = 2040 Which is right at a 1000 calories/day deficit.
In the same way that fat loss requires a caloric deficit to occur, in all but a few cases (see next question), muscle gain requires a caloric excess of some sort. While it’s wonderful to hope that calories to support muscle growth will be pulled from fat stores, this tends not to happen except in beginners and those using repartitioning drugs like clenbuterol. Sadly there is no hard and fast rule for just how many calories an individual may need to support muscle growth. Someone with a very high metabolic rate may need in excess of 25 cal/lb. Someone with a lower metabolic rate may only need 20 cal/lb. I generally recommend 20% above maintenance as a good starting point which, in practice, works out to 18 cal/lb or so.
Adjusting caloric intake
Please note that all of these calculations are estimates only and there is a great degree of variability in metabolic rate, etc. I recommend that individuals use semi-frequent (every 2 weeks or so) body composition measures to adjust their caloric intakes. If you goal is fat loss, you want to find that ideal calorie level which maximizes fat loss while minimizing (or eliminating if possible) muscle loss. If muscle gain is you goal, there will be some optimal level where muscle gain is optimized by fat loss is minimized (keeping in mind that some fat must be gained as you are gaining muscle). If at all possible, try not to change too many variables at once when dialing in your caloric intake for either fat loss or muscle gain. Decreasing calories and adding a thermogenic like ephedrine will make it impossible to tell if the calorie change or the ephedrine caused the fat loss.
Problems with Bingeing While Dieting
I am trying to diet to lose bodyfat. I find that I am generally very good about it but every once in a while, I end up bingeing (which I call the ‘hoover effect’) and eating everything in sight. Is this going to hurt my diet and is there anything I can do about it?
Ahhh, dieting. You gotta love the starvation and suffering that goes along with trying to reach that higher level of physical perfection don’t you? Yeah, right. Let’s face it, dieting is no fun no matter who you are or what you do. Think about it this way, if I told you that you couldn’t have something, no matter what it was, simply knowing that you couldn’t have it would make you want it even more. Even if it was something that you didn’t want in the first place. This is human nature, we want those things which we cannot have.
This especially pertains to dieting. Most people take a very all or nothing approach to dieting for fat loss. Either they are on a diet or they are in a full blown binge. Either they are perfect or they are putting away as much junk as they can get their hands on. I had a client once who took this to an incredible extreme. Came to me one Monday with guilt all over her face. Told me she’d been ‘bad’ over the weekend. She had eaten (get this) one whole candy bar. Putting on my best sarcastic voice, I chided her for it, trying simply to point out how irrational she was being.
The all or nothing approach that most take to fat loss is an extremely dangerous mental state to get into. There are NO absolutes in anything. We all miss workouts, we all ‘cheat’ (and I hate to use that word because it’s got so many negative connotations) on our diets, etc, etc.
And here’s what I”ve found, both in myself and in clients. The more extreme you try to be with your dietary or training approach, the LESS likely you are to follow it in the long term. We all know of someone who decided to get into shape and jumps into it head first. Extremely low calories, daily workouts. And they initially do very well but without exception they drop out because they get burned out or injured or something else. No one can be that perfect all the time.
Which is all leading up to the fact that trying to be perfect on your diet is ultimately a recipe for failure. What happens is this, you’ve associated going off your diet with a lack of willpower or mental strength. And as soon as you have that first cookie and decide that you are a failure, you are much more likely to eat the rest of the bag out of guilt. As a buddy of mine once put it “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing.”
Of course, I suggest an alternate approach. I encourage individuals (and this of course assumes they don’t have some timeline, like a bodybuilding contest to get into shape) to plan their cheating. That is, consider these two individuals.
1. The first individual follows a super strict diet 6 days out of the week. But one day out of the week, when willpower gives out, they have that first piece of pizza. Suddenly the wave of guilt hits and the rest of the pizza disappears. To atone for their ‘sin’ this person hits it that much harder the next week, more restriction, more time on the bike, leading to yet another (and probably bigger) binge the next weekend. This cycle repeats until this person finally just gives up completely.
2. The second person is following the same strict diet but has decided that one meal per week, they get to eat whatever they want. Pizza, donuts, whatever. Just eat it, be happy and get on with their life. No guilt. No increased resolve to do better the next week because this was a planned excursion from the diet.
The end result is the same, 6 days of dieting with an excursion to eat whatever you want. But the psychological effect is totally different. The first person feels nothing but guilt for their excursion from the diet because it wasn’t part of the plan. The second can easily go back to their diet the next day since the excursion was part of the overall plan. Who do you think is more likely to stick with their plan, the one who feels guilty every weekend or the one who feels in control of what they are trying to achieve?
Ok enough pop-psychology, what are the physiological effects of bingeing while on a fat loss diet? In the short term at least, the body is able to deal with an excessive influx of calories by raising metabolic rate. Think about Thanksgiving Day. The average person consumes from 4000-7000 calories on that one day. From a strictly thermodynamic standpoint, that should equal a ‘true’ fat gain (not including water and stuff) of 1-2 lbs. But it never does. Sure we all gain a few pounds but it’s mainly water and carbs being stored as glycogen which is quickly lost. It’s only when caloric intake is higher than caloric expenditure in the long term that true fat gain occurs.
Additionally a known effect of fat loss diets is a gradual reduction in metabolic rate as the body adapts to lowered calories. Many authorities recommend a ‘cheat day’ as I have described to prevent some of the attenuation in metabolic rate. I happen to agree with them. By planning your ‘binge’ day, you may be able to prevent some of the fat loss plateaus which always tend to occur.
Finally individuals who are weight training (and you all should be) while they diet tend to find that they fill out after their cheat day. The body’s first priority when calories (especially carbs) reintroduced into the diet is to refill muscle glycogen stores. Only when those are filled will the body start laying down bodyfat. This means that, under ideal circumstances, your cheat day should probably fall on a weight training day to ensure that all those extra calories go to glycogen resynthesis instead of fat stores.
But unless you have a specific time frame to get into shape, I don’t see the occasional detour off you diet as a big deal. Simply build it into the plan to avoid the negative psychological feelings associated with it and get on with your life.
Fat Loss Plateaus
I’ve been following a good fat loss diet for about 5 weeks now and was losing fat consistently. But now I’ve hit a plateau and I can’t lose any more fat. What causes the plateau and how can I get my fat loss started again?
To be absolutely honest, no one has all the answers to what causes fat loss to plateau. Various mechanisms have been suggested including a drop in thyroid levels, or increased leptin or decreased catecholamine levels. While it’s academically interesting to wonder exactly why the body tries to attenuate fat loss by lowering metabolism, from a purely practical standpoint, it’s not that critical. Simply accept that fat loss plateaus happen and worry less about what causes them and more about what you can do about it. In general terms, we can say that a fat loss plateau occurs when metabolic rate slows to such a point that the caloric deficit you’re creating (through some combination of caloric restriction and increased activity) is canceled out. The most common approach to breaking fat loss plateaus is to either decrease calories even more or increase activity. Both of which serve to create a further caloric deficit, spurring more fat loss. But there’s a limit to how little you can eat or how much you can increase activity to compensate. Additionally, it seems that the lower your calories go (or the more activity you do) the more muscle and less fat you tend to lose. To this approach is ultimately a dead end. The second, and my preferred approach, is to take 5-7 days off your diet. While this runs totally counter intuitive to what dieters have been taught (‘Eat MORE to lose fat’) it does work. Giving your body a break from dieting for even a short period of time tends to upregulate metabolism enough that going back to your diet for a few more weeks will spur some further fat loss. My current recommendations (assuming you don’t have a specific time frame to get to a certain bodyfat levels) are to diet no more than 4 weeks straight before taking a week off. 4 weeks just seems to be the time point when the body really starts to adjust metabolism downwards and fat loss tends to slow. So this is the time to take a break from your diet. When you do break from your diet, go back to eating roughly maintenance calories and normal carbohydrates (especially if you’ve been lowcarb dieting). For whatever reasons, this seems to really help the body get past fat loss plateaus. And as long as you continue training intensely, it’s rare to put on a really significant amount of bodyfat during this 5-7 day span. But you will refill muscle glycogen (see previous question) and you might even rebuild any muscle you may have lost during your previous 4 weeks of dieting. I find that I tend to lean out even further during the week that I’m off of the Cyclical Ketogenic Diet (CKD). Whether it’s just filling out my muscles or my body continuing to use fat for fuel or the thermic effect of all those carbohydrates, I don’t honestly know. But it does work.
Guidelines for Pre-contest Bodybuilders
I want to do a bodybuilding contest sometime next year but am confused about how to get in ideal shape. Do you have any general guidelines for pre-contest bodybuilders?
Although there is no one hard and fast plan to follow for getting into contest shape, here are some good general guidelines so that you can avoid the common traps I see people fall into. Keep in mind that the goal for your contest diet should be to lose all the bodyfat necessary while sacrificing minimal muscle mass. I say minimal because it’s nearly impossible to keep all your muscle mass while dieting. My recommendations can hopefully prevent you from losing more muscle than you have to. Unfortunately the dieting advice available to natural lifters has gotten garbled by what the pros are doing. Whenever you introduce steroids and other drugs (especially thermogenics) into the mix, things change drastically. It’s much easier for someone using steroids to crash diet and lose a lot of fat very quickly without dropping a lot of muscle.
1. Don’t get too fat in the offseason. A lot of lifters go into bulk-up mode in the offseason, see their strength and mass coming up and put on ‘fat blinders’. Since they aren’t keeping track of body composition, they end up at too high a bodyfat percentage and end up sacrificing all that nice muscle when they diet down. For men, the highest you should let your bodyfat get is about 10-12%. You won’t have abs at this level but neither will you be ‘fat’ in the classic sense of the word. Women should try to go no higher than 15% bodyfat or so. What this means is that you will need to do short dieting cycles during your mass phases to keep bodyfat under control. Basically you should mass until you hit that high end bodyfat level (10-12 or 15%) and then diet for 3-4 weeks. This also gives you a chance to dial in your dieting for when the real contest prep starts. However neither should you try to maintain super-leanness during the off-season. It’s extremely difficult to add much muscle while staying totally ripped and, as a general rule, you will have to gain some bodyfat if you want to gain any mass.
2. Start your diet too early rather than too late. I’ve seen fat bodybuilders give themselves 8 weeks to get into shape for a contest.. There is a physiological limit to how much bodyfat you can drop in a given amount of time without losing muscle and it’s about 2 lbs. Also it’s better to get into shape 2 weeks too early than 2 weeks too late. So many lifters report looking just great a week after their contest which doesn’t do them a heck of a lot of good. Assuming you didn’t let your bodyfat get too high during the off-season, a 12 week dieting cycle should be plenty. Of course, if you really let your bodyfat get out of control, you may need 16 weeks or more to lose fat without losing muscle. Do you really want to diet for 16-20 weeks? I didn’t think so. Better to throw in short dieting cycles during your mass phase. Starting your diet early enough also gives you a chance to throw in a week off the diet which seems to help break fat plateaus. That is, rather than diet straight down for 12 weeks, you can diet 4 weeks, take a week off, diet 4 weeks, take a week off, etc. Seems to work better than one long diet cycle.
3. Dance with who brung ya’. Meaning that you should maintain (to as great a degree possible) the same training that you used during your mass cycle. There is an erroneous idea out there that you should use high reps and lighter weights to ‘cut up’ a muscle. My feeling is that this idea came from the steroid users who had to lighten the weights when they dropped the heavy androgens and their joints started to hurt. The worst thing you can do during a diet is to drop the stimulus to maintain your muscle mass which is heavy weights and low reps. Now this doesn’t mean that you should try to maintain maximum intensity and go crazy with forced reps and negatives. I think you should try as much as possible to maintain your poundages and train to the point of concentric failure (or even a rep short) but no further. You won’t have the recovery to handle set-intensification techniques.
4. Don’t overtrain or overdiet. A lot of lifters (who didn’t follow rules #1 and #2) panic when it comes time to diet. They cut calories too low and do hours upon hours of cardio. While they lose fat, they lose a lot of muscle too. By the same token that it’s a bad idea to push yourself too hard in the gym (rule #3), I think it’s a bad idea to increase your frequency in the gym during a diet. Yes you will burn more calories but you won’t have the calorie or hormonal levels to handle a higher frequency of training. In the start of you diet, I don’t recommend any cardio. Simply cleaning things up food wise and reducing calories slightly will get fat loss started. Bring in cardio only when it’s necessary (i.e. when fat loss starts to slow for a given calorie level) but don’t go nuts. Some people can get plenty ripped with no cardio, others can’t. But I think that 4-5 days per week for an absolute maximum of 40 minutes is more than enough. More than that and you will whack hormone level and start losing muscle.
Initial Opinion on Androstenedione
I’m a 37 year old male who has been working out for the last 5-6 months, after about 5 years of not working out. I’ve been doing some reading about body building. It seems that most articles are really just advertisements in disguise. But the most impressive product I’ve seen appears to be 4-androstene3, 17-dione. I’ve seen claims that it can increase your Testosterone level by up to 350% and more. Is this true and does it actually benefit people or are there some potential negative side effects? Finally what’s up with all of the androstene variants which are appearing?
Androstene does appear to have some neat things behind it, doesn’t it? There is only ONE peer-reviewed study (published way back in 1962 in Acta Endocrinologica) which compared Androstene to DHEA. They gave 100 mg of each to two women (two women in each group). The androstene did significantly raise testosterone and I seem to recall it was to the tune of about 300% with the peak occurring around 90 minutes and the elevation in test. remaining for about 3 hours total. But that’s in women who have between 1/10th to 1/30th of the testosterone that men do.
So, I’d expect a supplement which converts to testosterone to have MUCH greater effects in women than in men. DHEA falls into this category, raising test. in women but not reliably in men (depends on age). The other ‘studies’ which are being cited by the companies are German patents for it’s use as an anabolic, nothing peer reviewed. At least not yet. Oh yeah, one of the studies people like to cite looked at andro -> conversion in ovary slices. REAL applicable to humans.
In any event, I think there *may* be something to androstene. I used it for a month and noticed more aggressiveness in the gym, a killer pump and increased libido (not good when you’re single). I have heard similar things from other individuals so I think it’s way more than a placebo effect.
The unanswered question is whether a 3 hour increase in testosterone will have a *significant* effect on muscle mass. Right now all we can do is speculate. I have a feeling that 24 hour testosterone levels are arguably more important than any increase which occurs over a short time period. However since testosterone levels can begin to decrease during a workout (I’ve always seen one hour given but have never found the studies supporting that), I could see a rationale for taking androstene about 30 minutes before you being training so that the androstene will be peaking (90 minutes remember) when your body’s normal testosterone levels are dropping. Might prevent a shift from anabolism to catabolism.
Now, you could always dose andro throughout the day (say one dose every 3 hours) to increase testosterone all day long but you’d increase the risk of side effects which are IDENTICAL to that of anabolic steroids. These include shutdown of endogenous testosterone production, aromatization to estrogen which can cause fat gain and the development of gynocomastia (swelling of male breast tissue), acne, etc. In fact, one of my female trainees has acne breakouts (and gets real aggressive/libidinous) when she uses a DHEA/andro combination.
I’d say that androstene is definitely doing *something* physiologically. The question is whether it’s going to have the major impact on growth/recovery that everyone seems to be claiming. Without peer reviewed research, it’s hard for me to say with 100% accuracy. Also considering the established increase in training intensity with pre-workout androstene, it’s always possible that people are growing from using it because they are training harder. As with most supplements, since so few studies are done on weight trainers anyhow, you have to try it for yourself, try to keep all other training variables (diet, training structure) constant and just see what happens.
As far as all of the androstene variants which are now showing up, I’ll be honest that I haven’t really kept up with any or all of them. According to what little I’ve read and a few people I’ve talked to, the variants may convert to testosterone through different enzymatic pathways or convert to slightly different molecules (i.e. norandrostene converts to nor-testosterone, aka nandrolone).
Ephedrine, Caffeine, Aspirin plus Yohimbine
Can you give me a brief rundown on the Ephedrine/Caffeine/Aspirin stack I keep hearing so much about? The guys at my gym tell me it’s great for fat loss but I’ve also seen stories in the media that it can be dangerous. What’s the deal? Also I’ve seen some suggest yohimbe for fat loss. Is it safe to take yohimbe with ephedrine?
Ephedrine belongs to a class of compounds which are generally called beta-agonists. To understand what this means, we have to look at a little physiology. Tissues in the body (i.e. muscle cells, heart cells, fat cells) contain both beta receptors and alpha receptors. Without getting into nasty details, there are at least three types of beta receptors (called Beta-1, Beta-2, and Beta-3) and two types of alpha receptors (called Alpha-1 and Alpha-2). Beta receptors tend to stimulate things like calorie burning, fat breakdown and heart rate. I have described them in the past as being like accelerators in that they accelerate certain metabolic systems. By contrast alpha receptors are like brakes, slowing those same systems.
Schematically we can show this as:
Net effect = beta receptors – alpha receptors
Take fat mobilization for example. When beta receptors are stimulated (for example by adrenaline) it sends a signal to the fat cell to breakdown Triglycerides to Free Fatty Acids (FFA) + Glycerol. The FFA enter the bloodstream where they can be picked up by muscle or heart and be burned for energy. When alpha receptors are stimulated, they send the cell a signal NOT to breakdown triglycerides.
So where does ephedrine fit into all of this? Ephedrine is a beta-agonist meaning that it stimulates the beta-receptors of cells. Additionally ephedrine signals the body to release adrenaline and noradrenaline (also called epinephrine and norepinephrine depending on what side of the Atlantic you’re on) which also stimulate beta-receptors.
When this occurs many processes are kicked into action. Fat breakdown increases, muscles being burning more calories, and heart rate and blood pressure go up. All of these processes being mediated by beta-receptors. This is how ephedrine helps with fat loss. It raises caloric expenditure (by stimulating muscles to burn more calories) as well as increasing fat breakdown.
So what about the caffeine and aspirin? In general, the body doesn’t like change. This is why metabolism will slow down when you try to diet by lowering calories. By the same token, when you use ephedrine to stimulate metabolic rate and fat burning, the body mobilizes a variety of other processes (such as prostaglandins) to bring things back to normal. Caffeine and aspirin help to prevent the body from adapting to the ephedrine. Additionally, they allow less ephedrine to work more effectively (i.e. they work synergistically) which is important in terms of side effects. As mentioned above, in addition to it’s fat burning effects, ephedrine can also increase heart rate and blood pressure which is where the possibility of danger occurs. Someone who had pre-existing heart conditions (or high blood pressure) could conceivably get into problems by taking too much ephedrine. And most of the publicized deaths have been in individuals taking far more than the recommended dosage. I knew a girl who took 10 times the recommended dose of ephedrine one time (I have no idea why she did this) and ended up in this hospital. Thing is, taking 10 aspirin would be equally as bad. So it’s not that ephedrine, used at the proper dose, is necessarily dangerous. But like any drug, abusing it and taking more than the proper dose can get you into problems.
So what is the proper dose? Numerous studies have established that 20 milligrams of ephedrine with 200 mg of caffeine works better than other doses. That is, caffeine should be 10 times the dosage of ephedrine. One study I’m aware of used 30 mg of ephedrine with 300 mg of aspirin but most people seem to think that this much aspirin is not necessary. As well, since the ECA stack is generally taken three times a day, taking this much aspirin could cause problems (like ulcers). Most take either 150 mg of aspirin (just break a whole aspirin in half) or get the 81 mg baby aspirins.
So the basic ECA stack, which would be taken three times a day would consist of: 20 mg ephedrine 200 mg caffeine 81 mg of aspirin
Note that many companies prefer to use the herbal equivalents (which are ephedra/MaHuang, guarana or kola nut, and white willow bark respectively). It’s important in this case to make sure that the herbs are standardized to give the same dose each time. That is, one popular brand of herbal ECA provides 334 mg of ephedra standardized for 6% ephedra. 334 * 0.06 = 20 mg ephedra, the proper dose. Personally, I refuse to buy any herbal supplement that doesn’t list the standardization of it’s herbs since there’s just no way to know how much you’re getting. There is some debate over whether white willow bark (supposedly a natural form of aspirin) works as well as aspirin. As well the studies show that aspirin has more of an effect in obese individuals than in lean individuals. Finally, aspirin *may* cause problems with testosterone synthesis by blocking prostaglandin production.
What about side effects? The major side effects from the ECA stack are just a general stimulant effect. The first time I took ECA, I made the mistake of taking it around 8pm. I think I finally fell asleep around 4am the next morning. Some people are more affected by ECA’s stimulant properties than others. The best recommendation I can give is to start with 1/2 the recommended dose once per day. After 2 days, move up to a full dose taken first thing in the morning. As long as that doesn’t over-stimulate you, you can gradually increase to three doses per day with the last one being taken around 4 pm (assuming that you like to sleep). An interesting observation in the studies is that the stimulant effects from ECA go away after about 2 weeks. However the fat burning/metabolic rate effects appear to remain (and at least one study suggests they increase) with chronic usage. This is beneficial if you’re using ECA for fat loss. however some people like to use ECA as a pre-workout stimulant in which case regular dosing will be detrimental. I typically notice an increase in lifting performance of 5-10% when I take ECA but only if I haven’t been using it consistently.
What about yohimbe? Yohimbe approaches fat mobilization from the opposite end. It is an alpha-antagonist (meaning that it blocks the effects of the alpha receptors). Since alpha receptors inhibit fat breakdown, and yohimbe inhibits alpha receptors, the end result is that yohimbe increases fat breakdown (got that, it’s basically a double negative, inhibiting an inhibitor means that you get an increase). One observation in the research is that women’s lower bodyfat has much higher levels of alpha receptors than it does beta receptors. This is probably a big part of why a lot of women will get very lean in their upper bodies but still carry a lot of fat on their legs. Women probably have more to gain from using yohimbe than men do. The standard dose of yohimbe is 8-24 mg per day but the problem is that most yohimbe products are poorly standardized and there’s no way to know how much of the active ingredient is present. The problem is that yohimbe plus the ECA stack *can* be relatively more dangerous than either one used separately. Here’s why. Recall from above that the beta receptors are analogous to the accelerator on your car while alpha receptors are kind of like the brakes. Taking ECA is like stomping on the accelerator, taking yohimbe is like taking your foot off the brake. Meaning that ECA + yohimbe will have an overall greater effect on metabolism than either one taken alone. This is a good thing from the standpoint of fat loss since you are both stimulating fat breakdown and inhibiting the inhibition of fat breakdown. But the heart also has both alpha and beta receptors. Stimulating beta receptors in the heart raises heart rate. So does inhibiting the alpha receptors. Doing both means that the heart rate and blood pressure response to ECA + yohimbe will be greater than with either one taken alone. For some people this is a non-issue. Others report a racing heart rate and vastly increased blood pressure when they take ECA + yohimbe and there is no way to know in advance if you’ll be susceptible or not. If you do choose to experiment with both, at least show some common sense and monitor your heart rate and blood pressure response. Normal heart rate for most individuals is 60-80 beats per minute and a resting heart rate over 100 is considered dangerous. Normal blood pressure is about 120/80 and anything over 140/100 should be a major danger sign. Blood pressure cuffs are cheap (or use the free ones at the grocery store). A trip to the emergency room is most definitely not cheap. This isn’t mean to be a scare tactic. Just be smart about what you put into your body and do the most you can do avoid having any problems.
Pre-Workout Meals and Pre-Bedtime Meals
I have heard varying suggestions for pre-workout meals and before bedtime. Several authorities seem to be dead set against food (especially) carbohydrate consumption will inhibit Growth Hormone release by raising insulin levels. I work out late in the evening and I am not sure whether I should be eating carbohydrates after my workout. On the one hand I want to replenish my glycogen stores, but on the other I don’t want to stop the release of growth hormone when I go to bed. I would be grateful for your thoughts on this subject.
It is true that insulin and growth hormone are antagonistic to one another. Generally, high blood glucose/insulin levels reduces growth hormone levels. By the same token, low insulin/blood glucose causes growth hormone to go up. The problem with just looking at GH levels is that GH per se is not that terribly anabolic (it is useful for fat loss).
Most likely, any anabolic effects of GH are mediated through something called IGF-1 (Insulin like Growth Factor 1, also called somatomedin). When GH is released and a host of other factors are in proper place (including adequate dietary energy, protein, etc), the liver will produce IGF-1. Also, IGF-1 can be released by muscle cells themselves (most likely due to eccentric muscle trauma).
As to effects on muscle growth, I happen to disagree on the relative importance of GH for muscle growth. Studies that injected GH into individuals weight training showed NO greater muscle growth in the GH group vs. the non-GH group. Fasting actually raises GH the highest and we all know how good fasting works for putting on muscle.
The reason is that While it’s true that high glucose/insulin will decrease GH release, especially at rest, I have to wonder how much effect it will have during exercise. Once exercise starts, insulin levels start to drop almost immediately due to the release of catecholamines so I’d guess a 5-10′ warmup would lower any high insulin levels from a high carb meal.
Thing is, I’m not convinced that the overall hormonal response to training is that critical. That is to say, the effects of overall tension, fatigue and muscle damage play a much greater role in my mind than any hormonal release. Now, it may be that maximizing/optimizing the hormonal response (GH or testosterone) to training may increase gains but I still think that the overall loading, etc is more important.
As to eating carbs before your evening workout, you have to weigh this:
Is it more important to you that you: a. get a good GH response from your training b. have adequate blood glucose (from your snack) to support your high intensity training.
Yes, it’s all wonderful to get a good GH response from training but if it means having a crummy workout because you’re running out of steam, it’s a moot point. The same thing applies to the debate over eating before morning workouts. If you work out early in the morning, yes you might get more of a GH response from training on an empty stomach but weigh that against training with low blood sugar. If your workout goes poorly because you don’t have any energy, you won’t grow no matter how perfect the hormonal response is.
As far as post-workout carbohydrates, at least one study has shown that the combination of protein and carbohydrates raised both insulin and GH after a workout. The reason is that the carbohydrates raised insulin which then caused a drop in blood glucose (which is what insulin does) which caused a GH release. Ultimately, I think replenishing muscle and liver glycogen after a workout are relatively more important than worrying *too* much about GH release during sleep, etc.
Training While on Low-Carb Zone Diet
I am following Dr. Sear’s Zone diet to lose some bodyfat before I start my mountain bike racing season this year. Because of my training schedule I have to do several high intensity workouts during the week and I find that I am unable to recover from workout to workout on the carbohydrate intake I am currently consuming. Though I usually try to keep my carb level at about 220-250 grams for the day, on the days I indulge in the Ultra Fuel/Whey Protein post work-out shake nearly half of the day’s carbs are in the shake (100 grams). On workout days should I account for the nutrients in the shake in a different way? Possibly allowing for a higher carb intake on workout days?
Although the lowered carbohydrate diets like the Zone are excellent for fat loss, it is a reality of life that high intensity exercise absolutely requires carbohydrate. Simply put, free fatty acids are not able to fuel exercise above a certain level. This applies both to weight training and to high intensity (above lactate threshold) endurance workouts. So your solution is a good one. Although much is made recently about problems with insulin sensitivity and how the insulin released from carbohydrates can result in fat gain, there is one time point where a high insulin response is not only useful but desired, and that is right after workout.
For reasons which are not entirely understood, high intensity exercise raises insulin sensitivity. Meaning that the muscle can more effectively utilize the insulin which is released. Additionally, since the muscle tends to use the insulin which is released, fat cells (which require higher insulin levels than muscle cells) are not stimulated to store fat during this time period. Most likely the increase in insulin sensitivity with exercise is related both the glycogen depletion as well as the fact that muscular contractions cause things called GLUT-4 receptors (which stands for GLUcose Transporters) to move to the membrane of the cell. Ultimately though, all you need to understand is that high intensity exercise will allow you to use more insulin (and by extension more carbohydrates) without having to worry about gaining fat.
A good guideline for post-workout carbohydrate intake is 1.5 grams of carbs/kilogram lean body mass (divide lean body mass in pounds by 2.2 to get kilos) which works out to 75-150 grams for most people. Additionally, as mentioned in the last question, adding protein to these post-workout carbs seems to help with recovery and get a better hormonal response.
Now the problem comes in when you are trying to design a diet around a specific ratio of nutrients, as in the Zone. Sears makes an argument that the ideal ratio of protein to carbohydrate is 3:4. But he also makes a big deal (and I agree) that you don’t want to consume more protein than you need. So you are faced with somewhat of a dilemma. Personally (and a mountain biker I train who uses the Zone does this with good results) I would suggest that you follow the Zone ratios for all of your meals and simply count your post-workout carbohydrates separately. So if you add the 100 grams of carbs as a post-workout drink, don’t try to balance it out with protein and fat so make the days ratios come out to Zone ratios.