Believe me, after spending many years heavy in the fitness industry, I've witnessed more fad fitness trends come and go than I'd like to admit. I've also watched many once revered fitness beliefs get debunked and shredded into myth.
Sure, it might take time for a fad fitness trend to get busted - but, thanks to science, the truth is eventually revealed. But, interestingly, the individuals most reluctant to letting go of muscle building and fitness myths are often times personal trainers and exercise instructors, hung-up on the false beliefs and mental dependence to routine. And, some how, even after many years of scientific "debunking," many fitness myths have managed to float around gyms and health clubs - myths that hold you back when it comes to building muscle. So, in this episode, I'm going to unlock the top three muscle-building myths that you should avoid.
Myth 1: Heavy weights are required to build bulk
It's certainly true, lifting heavy things will add bulk to your body. But, there are more ways to build muscle. Ann excellent alternative to strictly relying on heavy weights is simply using light weights (or body weight) and increasing your reps.
For example, one study compared the effect of high reps and low reps on muscle growth, comparing sets performed with 80 percent to complete muscle failure with sets performed to 30 percent to complete muscle failure. It turns out that load isn't the big gun, but simply whether or not a muscle is actually worked to failure and or fatigue, and in this study, high reps and light weights stimulated just as much muscle growth as low reps and heavy weights. So yes, this means you can, for example, build chest muscles by skipping three sets of eight reps on a bench press, and instead doing a few sets of high-rep push-ups to complete failure (which is good to know if you find yourself working out in a hotel room or on your living room floor with no access to weighted plates.).
There are plenty of other studies backing up the muscle-building capabilities of high-rep, low-resistance training. In this study, light super-slow lifting at 55-60 percent of the participants one rep max (1RM) increased both muscle density and maximal strength just as much as heavy normal-speed training performed at 80-90 percent of 1RM. In this study, both heavy weight training with 8-10 reps and light weight training with 18-20 reps stimulated the genes necessary for active muscle growth.
Another study reported that training with higher reps and lighter weights (25-35 reps) indeed results in the same gains in muscle girth and density as heavier weights with 8-12 reps. Even in seasoned weightlifters, researchers found the same muscle growth occurs when comparing 20-25 reps light weight compared to 8-12 reps with a heavy weight.
In this study, high reps and light weight (24 reps with 30 percent) were shown to increase post-workout protein synthesis, a sign of active muscle growth, for 24 hours after exercise, and to a far greater degree than low reps and heavy weights using 5 reps and 90 percent. In yet another study, light weight training, not performed to muscle failure or muscular fatigue, was found to promote and activate protein synthesis just as much as heavy weights.
Ultimately, if you want to quickly add muscle girth and density , lifting heavy weights or heavy objects (sandbags, kettlebells) is the way to go. But you can build the same amounts of girth and density with light weight and high reps. And, to make matters a bit more interesting, this study and this study show that light weights might be the most effective avenue of training especially for the legs.
Myth 2: You must carb up to pump up
Many people have been told that to build bulk you need to eat tons of carbs to ensure a vast store of glycogen. However, a recent study using rodents, proved that this may not be true. In the study, researchers compared a ketogenic high fat diet comprised of 20 percent protein, 10 percent carbs and 70 percent fat with a typical Western diet of 15 percent protein, 45 percent carbohydrate, and 40 percent fat.
It turns out that after a six-week ketogenic high fat diet, rats were just as capable of producing all the biochemical parameters associated with anabolism and building bulk. And yes, while these were rats being exposed to electrical muscle stimulation and not weight training like we humans, you can certainly explore the "N=1" example with a human subject by reading my article "Can You Build Muscle On A Low Carbohydrate Diet" or by visiting a website such as Ketogains.com (which I am not in any way affiliated with!).
Myth 3: You must weight train to maintain
Common thought among those who exercise is "if you don't use it, you lose it" and that the only way to maintain muscle is to load that muscle regularly.
But there are other ways to keep your muscles lean and toned, even if you're injured and can't make it into the gym or weight room. One such method is electrical muscle stimulation (EMS), a topic which I cover in detail in this article.
However, another lesser-known and under the radar method of maintaining muscle is heat stress therapy, which you can implement by using a dry sauna, wet sauna or infrared sauna. One of the mechanisms by which heat stress prevents muscle loss and protein degradation is by triggering the release of proteins called heat shock proteins (also known as HSPs). HSPs can circumvent muscle damage by removing free radicals and supporting cellular antioxidant production, but can also repair misfolded, damaged proteins in muscle tissue. Research has shown that when rats are exposed to heat stress, they activate HSP's to an extent on par with 30 percent more muscle regrowth compared to a control group. As an extra aging related bonus, one particular HSP (the HSP70 gene) has also been linked to increased longevity, which suggests there may be anti-aging benefits to regular heat stress too!
Growth hormone is also critical for repair and recovery of muscles, and research has shown that two 20-minute sauna sessions separated by a 30-minute cooling off period can elevate growth hormone levels two-fold over baseline. Two 15-minute sauna sessions at an even warmer temperature separated by a 30-minute cooling off period resulted in a five-fold increase in growth hormone. Take away here: Get thee to a sauna - STAT - for optimal muscle retention.
A good note to remember is when hyperthermia and exercise are combined, they induce a synergistic increase in growth hormone, which is why I do yoga, push-ups and squats in my infrared sauna, a practice that I outline in detail here. Additionally, sauna also increases blood flow to the skeletal muscles, which helps to keep them charged with glucose, amino acids, fatty acids, and oxygen. Furthermore, heat stress assists the body while removing by-products of metabolic processes such as lactic acid and calcium ions, so that your body can build new red blood cells at a rate similar to that of illegal performance enhancing drugs such as EPO.
To be completely honest, I admit that when it comes to building muscle girth and bulk quickly and maintaining lean muscle, there really is no substitute for lifting heavy stuff and stuffing your face with carbohydrate rich sweet potatoes. However, if you don't have access to heavy equipment, and do have dietary or injury limitations, rest assured that you can build and maintain muscle with simple body weight exercises and low weight training. Add in a low-carb or ketogenic diet, and the use of electrostimulation or sauna and you'll be on the right track to building and maintaing your muscles.
If you have more questions or comments about these muscle-building myths, then leave your comments below!
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