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Below is a technical guest blogpost from Andrew Vigotsky. Andrew and colleagues recently wrote a letter to the editor toJSCRcontending a claim that researchers made pertaining to a recently published EMG study. The study was in fact very well-conducted and the authors should be commended for their work, but we wanted to raise a small but important point.
In short, greater EMG amplitudes may indeed occur due to greater motor unit recruitment, but researchers who just measure EMG amplitude cannot make this claim, since more factors are at play. Examining actual motor unit recruitment is elaborate and requires specialized techniques. This blogpost does not imply that EMG is useless (as per ourprevious article), but it does imply that one must be cautious when interpreting EMG findings, especially in dynamic, fatiguing conditions.
Moreover, although exercises with greater EMG amplitudes may indeed provide a more potent stimulus for hypertrophy, just as in the case of motor unit recruitment, claiming that EMG amplitude implies greater hypertrophy would require a separate study examining actual hypertrophy following longitudinal bouts of training.
Can motor unit recruitment be inferred from EMG amplitude?
By Andrew Vigotsky
In August, a paper by Looney et al. (1) was published ahead-of-print in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. This paper certainly made the rounds on social media, and justifiably so with the claims it made: heavy loads taken to momentary muscular failure recruit a greater number of motor units than light loads taken to momentary muscular failure. This conclusion followed the fact that greater EMG amplitude was observed in the heavy-load condition. The question is, can such a conclusion be drawn from the data presented in this study?
In order to address this, it is immensely important that the constituents of, or components that make up, an EMG signal be understood. These components are:
Motor unit recruitment – the number of motor units that are recruited at any given point in time
Motor unit firing rate (rate coding) – the rate at which neural signals are sent the muscle
Motor unit synchronization – the timing of how motor units are recruited relative to one another (i.e., how closely, temporally, the firing of each motor unit is to one another)
Muscle fiber propagation velocity – the speed at which electrical potential travels over a muscle fiber
Intracellular action potentials – potential difference (voltage) created from the movement of ions within a muscle fiber
The authors of the paper in question, Looney and colleagues, purport that motor unit firing rate decreases with fatigue (which would cause EMG amplitude to decrease), and consequently, an increase in EMG amplitude is due to motor unit recruitment. However, especially in fatiguing conditions, such as those studied, this claim is demonstrably false. Therefore, upon reading this study, I reached out to a few of my friends and colleagues – including Chris Beardsley, Bret Contreras, James Steele, Dan Ogborn, and Stu Phillips – to write a letter to the editor or manuscript clarification, which just published ahead of print in JSCR (the full-text is available on ResearchGate). Below are the key takeaways from our letter.
Looney and colleagues studied the quadriceps muscles, which have been shown to have between-muscle differences in neural recruitment strategies. For example, the vastus lateralis may depend on motor unit recruitment, while the vastus medialis may depend on rate coding to maintain force output during fatiguing contractions.
A phenomenon called motor unit cycling may be taking place, wherein addition motor units are recruited and subsequently momentarily derecruited in order to reduce fatigue. As such, at any given point in time, less motor units may be recruited (simultaneously), but over the duration of the set, a comparable number of motor units may ultimately be recruited and fatigued.
The peripheral components of EMG make inferring motor unit recruitment from EMG amplitude extraordinarily difficult, especially in fatiguing conditions. More specifically, with greater fatigue, the more one has to account for intracellular action potentials, for which the authors did not account.
Lastly, the authors attempted to draw longitudinal conclusions from acute data; that is, the authors claimed that, due to greater motor unit recruitment, higher loads would produce greater hypertrophy, while a number of studies have shown this not to be true.
While it is certainly possible that the increased EMG amplitude is due to motor unit recruitment, this cannot be said for certain. In order to study this, more advanced methods are needed, which entail breaking down an EMG signal into the motor units from which it is created. This can be done via spike-triggered averaging or initial wavelet analysis followed by principal component classification of major frequency properties and optimization to tune wavelets to these frequencies. For more details and references, I encourage readers to download our piece and give it a read. Additionally, for those looking to learn more about EMG in general, Chris Beardsley has just released a stellar page on it, which I highly recommend.
As with any letter, the authors were given the opportunity to respond, but they did not take advantage of it.
The thermic effect of food (TEF) is the increase in energy expenditure in response to the digestion, absorption and storage of food (1,2). In this article, I explore whether or not the thermic effect of food is higher in leaner individuals.
The thermic effect of food: the research
Protein is the macronutrient that increases your metabolism the most. True. Protein has a thermic effect of 20-30%, whereas carbs are at 5-15% and fat is at 3-4% (3,4). Since meals rarely contain only one macronutrient, mixed meals are often given a TEF of around 10% (1,2).
If two subjects – one having a normal and the other having a subnormal thermogenic response to a meal – increase their food intake, the former will not put on as much weight as the latter (5). Some studies show differences between obese and lean subjects. Most of the research indicates that lean individuals have a higher TEF than obese individuals, both for mixed meals (5–12), and for fat (5), while other studies have found no difference (13–15).
A review by Jonge and Bray in 1997 included 49 studies. About 60% of the studies found a higher TEF in lean subjects compared to obese subjects (16). A newer review by Granata and Brandon from 2002 came to almost the same conclusions: out of 50 studies, 60% found a higher TEF in lean subjects compared to obese subjects (1).
Tataranni et al, who conducted a study in a respiratory chamber concluded that body weight has no association with TEF (2). Worth mentioning here is that the mean fat percentage for the subjects was about 30%±10 for male and above 40%±10 for female, which means there were very few lean (if any?) subjects participating in the study. However, Tataranni et al associates insulin resistance with lower TEF, which has a stronger association with obesity in the literature. This table from Swaminathan 1985 shows the TEF of a mixed meal between the different macronutrients between obese and lean individuals (5). In this study, as we can see, a mixed meal in lean subjects is high, actually higher than the TEF of protein alone, 25% vs 22.5%, respectively.
Numbers up to 30-35% TEF have been reported for protein (4,17). However, since carbs and fat are needed in addition to protein, we most often eat a mixed meal. Therefore, it appears that if you are lean, you can’t get much benefit from increasing your protein, if it is sufficient in the first place.
Let’s take a look at Antonio et al’s two recent studies, where the very high-protein groups had 3.4g/kg/d and 4.4g/kg/d (18,19). In these two studies, there was no difference in improvements in body composition in the 4.4g/kg/d group vs low-protein group, and there were small improvements in body composition in the 3.4g/kg/d group compared to the low-protein group. More precisely, fat percentage decreased by 1.8% more in the 3.4g/kg/d group compared to the low-protein group. This can be explained by a higher adherence to training compared to the lower-protein group, a higher NEAT from the high-protein group (20), or over/under-reporting from dietary recall. Another important point; in the 4.4g/kg/d study, the dropout was high and some of the subjects stated that it was too difficult to consume the high-protein diet. In the 3.4g/kg/d study there was also a higher dropout in the high-protein group, however, the dropout in both studies can be partially explained by a higher number of participants in the high-protein groups. That said, the researchers divided the participants in two unequal groups to take into account the loss of subjects from potential lack of compliance in the high-protein group. So, why follow a diet that you can’t adhere to in the first place anyway? Protein and satiety will be an article for later.
Protein intake in bodybuilders has been noted up to 4.3g/kg (21) however, it is doubtful whether they gained any benefits from it. It may have even been counterproductive, due to the decrease in both fat and carbs, which can have an impact on hormones, vitamins, performance, recovery, etc. If you are obese it may seem like a good idea to follow a diet with a relatively high-protein intake, since the mixed meal in this study only had a TEF of 10%, vs protein of 18.7%.
Why are there conflicting studies?
As we can see, the studies appear to be conflicting, but why is this so? First, methodological factors such as meal size and composition, palatability and timing, measurements <3 hours, short duration, measurement and equipment, environmental factors, and heterogeneity in human obesity may explain different findings (1,2,9). Granata and Brandon mention that in both Jonge and Bray’s review as well as their own, most of the studies with measurements <3 hours reported that TEF was lower in obese individuals, while the minority of studies with measurements >3 hours reported lower TEF in obese individuals (1).
Most studies use variable caloric loads that are dosed after bodyweight or fat-free-mass (FFM), while some use the same caloric load for all subjects. There are problem with both, however, which makes it difficult to compare and conclude. The magnitude of the TEF is strongly related to the size of the caloric load. Thus, when meal sizes are dosed relative to bodyweight or FFM, obese subjects receive larger meals which may bias the comparison to the lean subject. On the other hand, if both receive a given quantity of nutrients, TEF may increase less in obese subjects because their rest metabolic rate (RMR) is higher (15). However, this was not the case when both lean and obese subjects were eating meals with 35% of their RMR (9). Jonge and Bray’s review speculates that factors such as BMI were used and not body fat percentages, that some studies didn’t leave a large enough gap between the upper limit of the lean group and the lower limit of the obese group (16). This could lead to an overlap in the percentage of body fat and thus misclassification between the two groups, which again could lower the chance of finding a potential effect of TEF in different body fat sizes.
If obese people have a lower thermic effect of food, why?
Recent studies suggest that blunted TEF in obese people is related to impaired glucose tolerance and insulin resistance(9,16). From Jonge and Bray’s review, the greater the degree of insulin resistance and body fat, the lower TEF. The same researchers also speculate that lower sympathetic nervous system and higher age could be part of it. Granata and Brandon seem to agree that higher age reduces TEF but believe the sympathetic nervous system theory is more speculative (1). A reduced rate of non-oxidative glucose storage is believed to play a role, which has greater energy cost than glucose oxidation (9). Other explanations that are mentioned are a reduced thermogenesis in brown adipose tissue and skeletal muscle. Tateranni et al also mention lower spontaneous physical activity among the people with lower TEF (2). Another suggestion is that obese people may have reduced sensitivity to the actions of thermogenic hormones that are stimulated with a meal. One reason for this can be because of a sedentary lifestyle (22), as shown in the figure.
As you can see in the figure, if you are sedentary, you don’t have as good of satiety signaling as if you are active. Regarding the insulin resistance, it has been shown that a reduction in insulin sensitivity down regulates nervous system activity in the postprandial phase, and reduces energy expenditure (23).
If supposed lower TEF in obese individuals is true, the researchers don’t seem to agree if it is part of a consequence of obesity or if it contributes to obesity (1).
If you are lean, you may have a TEF of up to 25% for a mixed meal, based on one study. However, since the research is far from clear – you should opt for 10-25% in your calculations, as the research slightly favors a higher TEF in lean subjects. So maybe, just maybe, you can enjoy an extra scoop of ice cream without bad conscience if you are lean.
If you are obese, you should remain on the safe side and assume you have a lower TEF than lean individuals. Opt for a TEF up to 10%.
From the data available, it is clear that we need much more controlled research in this area.
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Antonio J, Ellerbroek A, Silver T, Orris S, Scheiner M, Gonzalez A, et al. A high protein diet (3.4 g/kg/d) combined with a heavy resistance training program improves body composition in healthy trained men and women – a follow-up investigation. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2015 Oct 20;12(1):39.
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About the author
Fredrik Tonstad Vårvik is a personal trainer & nutritionist. He writes articles and work with online coaching at FredFitology. Follow him and his colleagues at Facebook & Twitter. Check out FredFitologyfor more info.
My most recent contest prep was a unique experience. My trainer Bret Contreras and I adopted an unconventional approach for my return to the bikini stage, which took place at OCB Nationals in Washington, DC on October 24, 2015.
When it comes to my training, I trust him implicitly. I’ve been following his work since 2011 and have been a fan ever since, and we teamed up this past year to prepare me for my first powerlifting meet in May and then my bikini show in October.
After I competed at the OCB West Coast Florida Classic on November 8, 2014, I knew that I had my work cut out for me to improve my package. In order to be a viable competitor at the national level and beyond, I would have to come in with more muscle and less body fat.
I knew this wouldn’t be an easy feat. Despite having lifted heavy weights for several years, as a female, I have always had a difficult time building muscle mass. I wasn’t going to let that discourage me from trying, however. I had eleven months to prepare for the national stage and not a minute to waste.
The best physique improvements happen in the offseason when you’re consuming ample calories and spending considerable time out of a caloric deficit. As well, one of the best ways to look leaner is to build more muscle. This goes for not only men but also women.
I wish that more women, rather than chasing fat loss 365 days of the year and spinning their wheels most of the time, would shift their mindsets to chasing strength and staying properly fueled. This means that you can’t be constantly in diet mode if you’re serious about packing on some quality muscle and looking more athletic and leaner overall. There is so much fear mongering out there by the mass media scaring women into thinking that they can only improve their body composition by shedding body fat. While this is true in many cases (particularly for individuals who have high levels of body fat to begin with), for others, this can lead to an endlessly frustrating cycle of getting nowhere fast.
The best hypertrophy training program in the world isn’t going to do much for you if you’re not consuming sufficient calories to support quality growth. There’s really no way around it. I will include the caveat that yes, body recomposition (simultaneous fat loss and muscle gain) is possible, but the degree of body recomposition is not nearly as great as people like to make it out to be, and this phenomenon is typically observed in beginner trainees, obese individuals, and those on steroids. For everyone else, the process is technically doable but relatively slow, and once again, this cannot happen in a calorie deficit.
I don’t believe that women need to endure drastic “bulk” and “cut” cycles wherein they gain and lose upwards of 20-30 lbs for the sake of piling on as much muscle mass as possible. If you’re truly comfortable with putting on that much weight (which, by the way, ends up being largely extra body fat), then by all means carry on – but I have found that the vast majority of women strongly prefer to experience only slight weight fluctuations throughout the year. It takes a heavy, heavy dose of self-love and self-compassion to stomach a rapid spike in body fat, and I’d argue that there’s no need to get to that point to make appreciable physique improvements.
Back in 2009, I did go through a bulk, with my bodyweight skyrocketing from 99 lbs to 124 lbs in a matter of two months. I went from being able to wear whatever I wanted to hiding in sweatpants 24/7 from the shock and shame of how rapidly my body transformed. I know there are probably some women out there who sincerely do not mind this kind of weight gain, but it was pretty traumatizing for me, and I’d imagine that most other women would feel the same way. Because of this experience, I know how firsthand how stressful it can be to go through such rapid weight fluctuations, and I’m convinced now that there is a better way.
From January to August of this year, my calorie intake varied anywhere between 1500-1800 Calories a day. That comes out to a bodyweight multiplier of between 14-16x, which is considered to be the maintenance range for most people. My bodyweight also slowly crept up from 106.0 lbs to 110.8 lbs by the time I switched gears to fat loss.
If you do the math, that comes out to 0.60 lbs per month, or approximately 0.15 lbs per week weight gain. Obviously, this is just an average, and the weight gain was not linear by any means. Some weeks I maintained my bodyweight, some weeks I appeared to dip slightly, and other weeks, I went up. The point I’m trying to make here, however, is that I did not go the traditional bulking route of packing on appreciable pounds in a short period of time, and my physique still did improve precisely because I was purposeful about continuing to gain strength in the gym. As well, the weight gain was by no means an agitating experience, and I still felt confident in my physique and enjoyed my life without having to buy a bigger wardrobe.
The first five months of this year consisted of training for my powerlifting meet. You can read more about how that went by checking out the following posts:
After the meet, we switched to higher reps, and I incorporated in exercises like front squats, block pulls, and incline press. In retrospect, Bret thinks that I may have seen better results had I stuck to the lower rep ranges like I did during my powerlifting training. Bret’s Thoughts: If I could do Sohee’s training over again, I wouldn’t have shifted away from heavy loading. She was making steady progress on her squats, deads, bench, and hip thrusts, and when I moved her to high reps for a couple of months she lost tons of low rep strength. We always do plenty of high rep work with goblet squats, band hip thrusts, back extensions, push ups, inverted rows, and lateral band work, so no need to go low on squats/deads/bench/barbell hip thrusts too. It’s ideal to get strong in a variety of rep ranges for hypertrophy in my opinion.
The theme of my training programs never changed: emphasis on hip thrust, squat, deadlift, and bench variations with some accessory work thrown in at the end; continual pursuit of gaining strength week after week.
My training sessions consisted of anywhere between 12 to 15 total working sets. For accessory work, I was oftentimes prescribed just two working sets of, say, chest-supported rows or high rep barbell hip thrusts. While I may have felt slightly apprehensive at first given the past ultra high volume training programs I was used to seeing, my fears were quickly laid to rest when I realized how much stronger I was getting. I didn’t spontaneously combust and my muscles didn’t atrophy overnight. In fact, being prescribed less volume overall meant that I had more energy to push myself during my working sets and, in turn, continue to set PRs. This proved to be critical in seeing positive changes in my physique.
I also didn’t sweat much during my workouts, and rarely did I ever feel like I was being run into the ground. I know it’s a common (yet false) line of thinking out there to believe that no workout is effective unless you’re left crawling across the floor with exhaustion by the end. But my goal was not to be fatigued; my goal was to gain strength.
As Bret would say: trust. And trust I did.
Now technically, you could claim that I was in contest prep mode for eleven months straight. But as far as being in a calorie deficit, that was only for six weeks. This is because I had stayed lean enough during my offseason that I didn’t have much body fat to lose to be stage-ready. This was very intentional on my part. After last year’s show, I wanted to prove that it was entirely possible to experience zero rebound following a contest prep, so I carefully reverse dieted out of my show.
I’m not saying that everyone who wants to compete in a bodybuilding competition should only have to diet down for six weeks. Obviously, there are a multitude of variables that influence the length of time spent in a caloric deficit, including starting body fat percentage and lean body mass, current calorie intake, and dieting and health history. For me specifically, I made it a point to hover at just a few pounds above last year’s stage weight while also spending ample time out of a caloric deficit. That way, once I did cut back on my intake, my body would respond readily and drop body fat without putting up too much of a fight.
The gist of my training program also didn’t change much during this time. I was still lifting heavy and, though I did lose a little bit of strength towards the end of my prep, I continued to approach each workout with intensity to maintain as much strength as possible. More specifically, my squat strength dropped the most (likely attributed to a 10-day vacation to Italy that I took in August), while my hip thrust, bench, and deadlift numbers dipped only slightly.
I was doing full body sessions four days a week, and at the end of each session, I would toss in 10 minutes of banded glute work. I didn’t do anything extra in the way of conditioning or cardio. Instead, I kept my dietary adherence high, making sure that my macronutrient intake fell within 5 grams of my prescribed numbers per day.
After six weeks of dieting, I lost 5.2 lbs off the scale, dropping from 110.8 lbs to 105.6 lbs, and my waist measurement dropped from 25.0 to 23.0 inches. I competed on October 24th and won the bikini B class, winning my IFPA pro card in the process.
Here’s what my individual presentation looked like during the finals round of the show:
The most intriguing observation about this prep is that I came in in the best shape of my life – with more muscle and less body fat than ever before – all the while eating more food and doing less exercise than during previous preps. During my 12-week contest prep in 2011, my daily calorie intake started at 1440 and ended at 1080; in 2014, my intake started at 1550 and ended at 1220; and this time, my calorie intake started at 1560 and ended at 1280. I’d like to include a huge caveat here that everyone’s dieting calories are vastly different, and these intakes, while low, are not dangerously low for someone of my height, weight, lean body mass, activity level, dieting and health history, and genetics. Some people can get away with eating more calories everyday and still drop body fat, but when you weigh a buck-ten, work a sedentary job, and don’t have freakish genetics, you don’t get very much wiggle room with your calorie intake.
Physique aside, you may notice in the pictures above that my overall presentation is also much improved. I came in looking more and more polished every year, and I believe that my most recent show had me with my best hair, makeup, jewelry, spray tan, and posing to date, which all play heavily into placing well at a bodybuilding competition.
You could say that this was, relatively speaking, an alarmingly moderate approach. After all, the norm when it comes to contest prep is to cut out most food groups, make exercise a part-time job, and feel like dirt the whole way through.
As I write this, I have been lifting weights for just shy of eight years. I’ve spent a substantial amount of time laying a solid foundation to step on stage as a viable competitor. It’s important to not only have sufficient muscle mass in the right places to compete, but also consume enough calories for long enough. Constantly living in fat loss mode means that you’re running on fumes and not allowing any room for growth. Obviously, this applies to non-competitors as well.
Had I not had the patience to stay the course and keep up my calorie intake, I likely would have ended up looking the exact same up on stage this year as I did last year. If I’d snuck behind Bret’s back and added in extra workouts on my own against his orders, I likely would not have seen the positive results that I did. That would have been a tad bit disappointing.
There’s no rush and no reason to hurry the process. Quality growth takes time, so you might as well kick back and learn to enjoy the ride.
Sustainability is the name of the game. No, it’s not sexy, and nobody likes to proclaim that they practiced moderation for a long enough period of time to see stellar results, but that’s the true (albeit slightly dull) secret.
Here’s a complicated biomechanical article on the squat from my colleague Andrew Vigotsky (my former intern who is now smarter than me LOL). Hopefully some of you will be able to understand and enjoy it. Cliff notes: the way most of us fitness bros estimate hip and knee extension torques in a squat is oversimplified and erroneous. I still believe it provides a reasonable estimation for narrow stance squatting, but Andrew makes some great points in this article. Down the road Andrew and I will compare calculations to see how far off the methods are in torques.
For many years, people in the fitness industry have calculated joint moments in the squat using the floor reaction force vector (FRFV) method or by assuming the external load is the only force inducing a moment (Figure 1). This method, however, is erroneous for a number of reasons (Winter 2009).
Figure 1. Calculation of knee and hip external moment arms using the floor reaction force method or barbell location method. The dashed line represents the ground reaction force, floor reaction force, or center of gravity of the barbell.
Those who utilize the FRFV method often assume the lifter’s center of pressure is the midfoot. However, this has been shown not to be the case, as lifters tend to shift their center of pressure anteriorly during the later phases of the movement (Dionisio et al. 2008).
The traditional FRFV method is myopic in that it only examines the sagittal plane. Two-dimensional kinetic analyses become less valid with wider stances and more horizontal abduction (Escamilla et al. 2001), as the other planes cannot be ignored. So, while some believe that hip and knee moment requisites decrease with wider stances, this is not the case. In actuality, it appears that widening one’s stance increases the knee moment arm and decreases the hip moment arm, but only by about 3 cm (Escamilla et al. 2001).
This method ignores superincumbent weight and how joint reaction forces and segmental moments of inertia affect joint moments. These differences are summated in multisegmental models and, especially during dynamic movements, lead to erroneous interpretations of joint moments (Winter 2009) (Figure 2). In reality, inverse quasi-static or dynamic analyses are needed for more accurate calculations. However, in the squat, this may not be as relevant.
Figure 2. FRFV may lead to erroneous interpretations of joint moments as you go up the kinetic chain. This would imply that walking would require some serious neck strength (torque)!
Figure 3. Quasi-static analysis of the squat.
Proper inverse quasi-static analysis of the squat has been shown to be 99% as effective as inverse dynamic analyses (Lander et al. 1990), and is much, much easier to conduct, as segmental angular accelerations may be ignored. Such analyses can be performed using the ground reaction force, segment angles relative to horizontal, segment lengths, segment masses, and segment center of masses (Figure 3). This is, however, much more intense than the FRFV method described above. So, in an effort to increase the validity of the FRFV, it is important that other planes (i.e., transverse plane) be taken into account when attempting to calculate knee and hip moments. In order to take these into account, the joint center must be extrapolated into space, such that the force from the load is perpendicular to it. Only then can the moment arms and moments be calculated (Figure 4).
Figure 4. Aerial View – Top left: narrow stance squat in the transverse plane with moment arms drawn in the sagittal plane. Top right: wide stance squat with moment arms drawn in the sagittal plane. Bottom right: wide stance squat with moment arms drawn in the plane of the joint axes of rotation.
From Figure 4, it can clearly be seen that only examining the sagittal plane can be misleading. These figures are supported by Winter’s support moment theory, in addition to the findings of Escamilla et al. (2001), wherein horizontal abduction resulted in similar summed moment arms, but a bias for a larger moment arm about the knee.
This is one simple example of how biomechanics is not as simple as many may think. In this case, because humans move in three dimensions, calculating things using two dimensions may be shortsighted.
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