No. I Prefer Food. Not Protein Powder.

I asked a colleague if she had any suggestions for topics. She suggested protein powders.

I said, “ugh, no. I prefer food.”

So she suggested I explain why. And fine, I will.

Protein Powder for Strength Gains

The basic concept behind protein powder and supplements is that they “help” or are even necessary for strength training. Because you need sooo much protein (I resisted the urge to insert an eyeroll emoji). I saw some pretty big numbers for protein requirements for strength training, as big as 400g per day! And if you really believed those numbers then sure, protein powder would help you hit that number.

To the research!

How much protein do people need? The USDA gives a value of 0.8 g/kg/day. This number is set to be sufficient for 97.5% of the population. Let’s assume that people who are serious about strength training make-up the 2.5% who need more (not actually a reasonable assumption, but let’s pretend). But remember that plenty of folks actually need less than the RDA.

The American College of Sports Medicine (ASCM) recommends (PDF) 1.2-1.7 g/kg/day for strength training. With a floor of 1.5 for novice lifters recommended by the National Strength & Conditioning Association (NSCA).

Published research from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) shows that most people are getting enough protein. The average American is actually already getting enough protein to be engaged in serious strength training without having to change their diet or add protein powder/supplements.

The exceptions found in the NHANES study were that a small but significant number of adolescent and elderly women who were not getting enough protein. That’s it.

If most people are getting enough without doing anything extra then why is there such a business in protein powder sales?

Protein Powder is Easy

If you’re worried that you’re not getting the gains you want then protein powder provides an easy route to thinking you’ve solved the problem. Just buy something and you’re all set! You don’t have to actually analyze your diet, activity, form or program. Just buy something.

But protein consumption doesn’t trigger muscle building. If I deliver a bunch of construction materials to a local builder they aren’t going to just build a building because I provided the supplies. And you won’t build muscle just from eating protein. You need to do the strength training. You need to have a sensible program, with proper rest periods and enough work etc.

From looking around the gym it seems like a lot of the folks who are consuming the protein powder are already doing a reasonable program and are probably doing just fine with building muscle. In which case the powder is just a placebo. It does nothing but helps them feel like their approach is great. That feeling that they are doing all the right things probably helps with motivation and effort – which improves the outcomes. But the powder still isn’t actually helping.

But why not use it, just in case?

Because it’s false.

Because it’s a waste of time.

Because it’s a waste of money.

Because it causes some people digestive problems. And telling those people they “need” to do it is a problem.

Because facts matter.

But maybe I’m not getting enough protein.

Then use MyFitnessPal and check. The app is free, unlike the powder. Or any other fitness and nutrition app – I can personally vouch for liking this app and finding it useful and having heard almost universally positive reviews.

Odds are you are getting enough protein, though.

Don’t use the target number the app generates. Use the math above.

Vegetarians and Vegans

Folks with these types of diets are more likely to be not getting enough protein. For meat eaters it’s pretty easy to get enough protein. For non-meat eaters is frequently takes a bit more effort and planning. But it’s still perfectly possible to do so just using food. And they need to make sure they’re protein sources are complete, which most vegetarians and vegans seem to already be aware of. Vegetables and fruits do have protein and a quick Google search brings up plenty of lists of high protein plant foods.

Conclusion

Protein powder is unnecessary and if you really are having trouble getting enough with the foods you are eating then I encourage you to first try upping your intake of protein rich foods to hit the goal. In particular vegetables and fruits. The real reason for preferring food though is the benefits of the micronutrients and fiber contained in the food. Both of which are good for health.

Bibliography

Fulgoni, V. L. (2008). Current protein intake in America: analysis of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2003–2004. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 87(5), 1554S-1557S. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/87.5.1554S
protein-intake-for-optimal-muscle-maintenance.pdf. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.acsm.org/docs/default-source/brochures/protein-intake-for-optimal-muscle-maintenance.pdf
Szedlak, C., & Robins, A. (2012). Protein Requirements for Strength Training. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 34(5), 85. https://doi.org/10.1519/SSC.0b013e31826dc3c4

Appendix: Looking at Online Searches

I expected to find that most of the links I clicked would overestimate protein needs. And perhaps my results are associated with my search history and particular search terms, but I was pleasantly surprised to not find that. In fact WebMD even low-balled the protein estimate (and didn’t even say I had cancer!). Many of the sources I found just quoted the USDA and/or ACSM recommended numbers, which is encouraging.

But the hits weren’t all good. Strength training oriented sites (like BodyBuilding.com) tended to recommend higher amounts than actually needed. With the International Sport Sciences Association (ISSA) recommending 2-3 g/kg per day. Which is almost double the actual need. The reason I highlight this is the fact that ISSA does personal trainer certifications. Which shows that the cert isn’t necessarily a reliable indicator of knowledge. (I’ll also point out that they provide references for the rest of the info on that ‘myths’ page but have no reference for this recommendation.)

In general the hits I got were for sites emphasizing the need to get enough protein and generally taking the attitude that you need more or need to make sure you’re getting enough. But the reality is that most people already are. So the emphasis is all out of whack.

Benefits of Strength Training

I’ve written before about the benefits of strength training, on my previous blog. Now recent research backs up one of the reasons I’ve long suspected.

As I’ve brought up before, it’s important not to over-interpret preliminary evidence or attempt to extrapolate from basic science to clinical reality. So while I’ve long suspected that strength training would have a benefit when it comes to diabetes development, I’ve avoided actually saying that.

And so it’s always nice when the clinical studies back up what I suspected. Hooray!

One of the things I learned from my exercise physiology education was that strength training upregulates GLUT4 on muscle cells. GLUT4 is an insulin triggered transporter for glucose. This means that strength training increases the ability and sensitivity of the of the muscle cell to take glucose out of the bloodstream and put it in the muscle cell.

Theoretically, this should reduce the likelihood of diabetes. But does it?

To the research!

I recently came across this study from JAMA: A Prospective Study of Weight Training and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus in Men. The large Health Professionals Follow-up Study was used to track physical activity in 32,002 men for 18 years. Any physical activity reduced the risk of developing or dying from diabetes. Strength training was more effective than cardiovascular training. Both was better than just one.

Things to note about why this research is notable for this conversation:

  1. The size of the study. Tens of thousands of subjects followed for nearly 2 decades is a lot.
  2. The effect sizes are large. For relative risk, reducing the number of cases by up to 1/3, of one of the most common and expensive lifestyle modifiable diseases, is a big deal.
  3. P value was tiny. P < .001. This wasn’t one of those, “if I hack it I can get P to equal .05” types of studies.
  4. Dose response. There is a clear, fairly linear, dose response of more weight training leads to lower risk.
  5. Normal living humans. Study was conducted on humans. The people were not having their lives dictated to them by researchers.

The best results were seen at 150+ minutes per week of weight training, cardiovascular exercise and for both. This may seem like a lot, but it’s hitting the gym 3 times a week and going for a 30 minute brisk walk most days.

There are limitations to the study, of course. It’s not randomized, but the best studies of this type of question can’t be because it’s hard to control behavior for that long in free-living humans. It’s only in men. Weight training is not necessarily defined the same as strength training.

Conclusion

As I’ll keep saying, the best outcomes result from a complete approach to physical activity which includes strength training, cardiovascular exercise, flexibility/range-of-motion and neuromotor (balance/agility) training.

Reference

Grøntved, A., Rimm, E. B., Willett, W. C., Andersen, L. B., & Hu, F. B. (2012). A Prospective Study of Weight Training and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus in Men. Archives of Internal Medicine, 172(17), 1306–1312. https://doi.org/10.1001/archinternmed.2012.3138

Putting Together the Program

Last week I posted about the basics of a strength training program – Getting Started with Strength Training. It contains the basic elements of what strength training should include. This post is about everything else that goes into putting together the program: warm-up, planning your sessions and progressing the plan.

Warm-up

Exercise should be begin with a warm-up. It’s problematic to jump straight from cold, “I just drove to the gym”, to vigorous exercise. Doing so increases the risk of injury.

What’s not necessary is stretching, in the sense of doing static positions to feel a stretch. Especially for long holds. A brief stretch, if it helps you feel more ready to move isn’t bad.

The Warm-Up is literally named. You should have a light sweat going by the time you are done. Your pulse should be above 100. But it shouldn’t be tiring or difficult either. A light jog, a few minutes on the bike, jump rope, really whatever works for you is fine.

How long this should take depends on the context. It will take longer to warm-up on a cold day outside than it does in a hot gym. A bike ride or jump rope may warm you up a bit faster than a light jog.

Building dynamic stretches into the routine is helpful but not essential. It’s a topic that will be covered later.

Cool Down

Taking some time to cool down after a workout is also helpful. Rather than jumping straight into a cold car. A short walk. Or just doing light exercises as the end or your workout etc.

Building it into the plan

I always encourage folks to build physical activity time into their routine to make it easier to get the recommended amount of activity. This ties into designing a program for yourself because if you can warm-up by walking to the gym and cool down by walking home, then it’s easier to get the workout done in a reasonable amount of time. Or jog, or bike to the gym.

Planning Each Session

Here’s a suggested break down of the exercises in the first post into a 2 day a week plan:

Day 1

  1. Squats
  2. Bench Press
  3. Step-ups – use a box/step platform, not the padded bench, if you’re gym has one
  4. Bent-over row
  5. Planks
  6. Side planks

Day 2

  1. Straight leg deadlift
  2. Pull-ups
  3. Split squat
  4. Overhead press
  5. Planks
  6. Side planks

This is intended to be a basic, easy starter plan. If you feel like it’s not enough you can message me for suggestions or watch for future posts.

Make sure to have a day in-between the workouts.

Progressing the Plan

Week 1 just use 5# weights for everything. It’s supposed to be easy, and the point is to learn the movements. Any movements you’re not sure about feel free to do without weights initially. It’s more important to get the movement right than it is to look impressive at the gym.

When you reach a point where you can do 15 reps at that weight, and feel good about the movement, for all 3 sets, then it’s time to progress. Progress slowly at first add 2.5#. At the low end of weight gyms typically have dumbbells in 2.5 pound increments or even smaller. But you may need to look for some magnetic 1.25# weights and add a pair, depends on the gym.

Once you get around 30# you should start increasing weight in 5# increments.

The progression scheme is for each exercise individually. Which means that keeping track of everything can get awkward.

Record your progress

Bring a notebook. You won’t be alone in doing so. Or use a note taking app on you phone.

Or use the Jefit app. It’s the best app for this purpose that I’ve encountered. (Hahahaha, I don’t get any money from them – just in case you were wondering)

Upping the Intensity

After a month up the intensity. Now aim for 12 reps. Obviously the same weight won’t be a challenge at fewer reps, so up the weight on everything. Not a lot for the first set. See how that first set goes and then bump it up a notch for the 2nd or 3rd set based on how that went.

I’d suggest going up in intensity level at 1 month intervals, as discussed in the last post.

When you reach a month at the 6RM level then it’s time to up your game to some more serious strength training. Which is not today’s post.

What to Expect When You Are Starting

Oh yeah, you are going to be sore. That’s normal. It may take a day, or two, to feel it. It may take a day or two to resolve. That’s all normal too. As you make this a regular routine it will become less of an issue. Pain or discomfort in your muscles is normal. But pain in the joints is not.

You may want to massage the sore muscles. That’ll help them feel less icky but it isn’t magic. You’ll still be sore.

You should take it easy on days you are sore. That means some walking, other light exercise is fine. But don’t go lifting weights.

Conclusion

Good luck, strength training is fun. More fun than a treadmill. But I may be biased.

As always, if you have any follow-up questions, feel free to ask in the comments or email.

Getting Started with Strength Training

(This is an update of a post from my old blog)

This is about getting started with strength training. For those who have little or no experience with the topic.

I firmly believe that just about everybody will benefit from strength training. It has different health benefits from cardio and flexibility training. It is part of the ACSM guidelines for physical activity for adults.

One of the big reasons is that strength training is all about functional activities. I could rename the core exercises of a typical strength training program as:

  • Picking up heavy things
  • Carrying heavy things
  • Carrying heavy things up and down the stairs
  • Pushing something
  • Pulling something
  • Keeping your spine stable

First though, we need to properly define strength training: Strength training is exercises hard enough that you can only do 12 in a row or fewer. Or, with isometric exercises, a position you can only hold for less than 45 seconds. 

Otherwise what you are doing is endurance training. Which is not the same thing.

Primarily, it’s not about which exercises you do, but how heavy. Bodyweight squats are an endurance activity for most folks because they can do 15 or 20 or more. But if you did the exact same exercise while holding weights – enough weight that you could not do more than 12 – then the exercise would be strength training instead.

The basic exercises I recommend here are dumbbell exercises. This is because adjustable dumbbells are cheap, readily available and usable at home; alternately they are commonly available an just about any gym. Dumbbells also address a common cause of hesitation in new folks, the concern about the bar, in barbell exercises. 

The Exercises

  1. Squats – can also be done with the dumbbells held by the side
    • Can also be done with a goblet style hold for lower weights
  2. Split squats 
  3. Straight leg deadlifts
    • Alternate option, easier to do safely – Hip thrust/bridge with weight (you can start this with dumbbells in your lap. You need to put your back up against something sturdy. I push a chair up against the wall).
  4. Bench press – can be done on the floor, a bench isn’t necessary
  5. Bent-over row
  6. Shoulder/overhead press – do this standing not seated 
  7. Pull-ups (a pull-up bar can be gotten that works in almost any apartment and doesn’t require tools to install). Here‘s a primer on doing pull-ups if you can’t yet.
  8. Planks – when you get up to 45 seconds, start adding weight. Put it on the small of your back
  9. Side planks – when you get up to 45 seconds, start adding weight. Put it on your hip
    • Start with the bent knee version if necessary

This set covers every major muscle group in the body and works them in all the major planes of motion. So it is very nearly complete.

The amount of weight you are looking for is something that will develop strength, which means higher weights and lower reps.

Start at 12-15 RM – Repetition Maximum – the number that you can do before you cannot do another with good form.

Start easy on the exercises to develop your form. In the long run good form is much more important that increasing weight quickly.

For each week pick an intensity level. Do all of your exercises at that level. Every 4 weeks you can increase the intensity level.

Intensity levels:

  1. 15 RM – learning the movement
  2. 12 RM – building endurance for the movement
  3. 10 RM – building muscle
  4. 8 RM – building muscle and strength
  5. 6 RM – building strength

I wouldn’t go higher than that without a spotter though.

Do the workout at least twice a week and each session has a rest day in-between another session. So not more than three times per week.

Aim for multiple sets of each exercise. 2-3 sets is a reasonable workout.

But if you only have time to do one of each then start there.

You need to rest between each set to get the most out of it.

  • 12-15RM – rest 60+ sec.
  • 8-12RM – rest 90+ sec.
  • 6-8 RM and heavier – rest 2-4 minutes

You can shorten the rest periods if you alternate exercises between different muscle groups e.g. push/pull or upper/lower. But you’ll still need rest between sets. This sort of plan can be done on “light” days.

For strength training you should also have a “heavy” day where you don’t alternate like this, take appropriate rest periods and do fewer exercises.

Questions? Feel free to ask.

There’s a part II about Putting Together the Program.