It’s estimated that there are over 2+ million scientific papers published each year, and this firehose only seems to intensify.
Even if you narrow your focus to fitness research, it would take several lifetimes to unravel the hairball of studies on nutrition, training, supplementation, and related fields.
This is why my team and I spend thousands of hours each year dissecting and describing scientific studies in articles, podcasts, and books and using the results to formulate our 100% all-natural sports supplements and inform our coaching services.
And while the principles of proper eating and exercising are simple and somewhat immutable, reviewing new research can reinforce or reshape how we eat, train, and live for the better.
Thus, each week, I’m going to share three scientific studies on diet, exercise, supplementation, mindset, and lifestyle that will help you gain muscle and strength, lose fat, perform and feel better, live longer, and get and stay healthier.
This week, you’ll learn how steroid users train and supplement differently to natural bodybuilders, how to boost willpower with a shift in mindsetyour mindset can boost willpower, and whether foam rolling can improve your flexibility or help you warm-upyou should foam roll or stretch to warm up.
Steroid users can do just about everything wrong and still gain more muscle than natties.
Source: “Self-Reported Training and Supplementation Practices Between Performance-Enhancing Drug-User Bodybuilders Compared with Natural Bodybuilders” published on September 22, 2022 in Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.
“Yeah I take gear, but I still have to work just as hard.”
This is a common form of copium for steroid users.
Among the few bodybuilders honest enough to admit they’re taking steroids, many hedge their admission by claiming that they still have to be just as diligent and intelligent about their diet and training as they would be if they were natural.
A quick glance around the gym or at Instagram, though, shows this is a farce. Many steroid users pay little or no attention to what they eat other than consuming as many calories as possible and train like clowns.
This has been common knowledge among perceptive natural weightlifters for some time, but this study lends empirical support to the observation.
Scientists at The University of Sydney surveyed 147 natural and 40 “enhanced” bodybuilders to investigate how their training and supplementation protocols differed.
The responses showed that the steroid users did significantly more volume per major muscle group per week than the natty bodybuilders (24-to-40 sets vs. 12-to-24 sets) and typically trained in higher rep ranges (13-to-15 reps per set) than the naturals, who were more likely to train in low rep ranges (1-to-6 reps per set).
Enhanced bodybuilders were also slightly more likely to use “advanced” training techniques, such as supersets, partial reps, tempo training, pre-exhaustion, and so forth (~98% vs. ~90%), and less likely to periodize their training (50% vs. ~71%) than their natural counterparts. Basically, they were more likely to use “old school” bodybuilding techniques.
Another difference between the steroid users and natural bodybuilders was how long they rested between sets.
While most of the bodybuilders rested 1-to-2 minutes between sets, a larger portion of the steroid users rested 30-to-60 seconds between sets than the naturals (~23% vs. ~4%), and a larger share of the natural bodybuilders rested more than 2 minutes between sets than the steroid users (~45% vs. 20%).
Almost all of the bodybuilders did cardio as part of their training, though the enhanced bodybuilders did significantly more than the natty bodybuilders. The drug takers also did more of their cardio sessions at a high intensity than the natural bodybuilders (~81% vs. ~55%).
Both groups took legal supplements, though the types they used differed. Significantly more steroid users took liver support supplements, co-enzyme Q10, EAAs, BCAAs, HMB, and digestive enzymes. In contrast, significantly more natural bodybuilders took creatine and caffeine.
Lastly, all the bodybuilders were of a similar height (5’9), but the steroid users weighed ~18 lb more on average than the natural bodybuilders (~210 lb vs. ~192 lb).
These results don’t tell us anything new. Rather, they substantiate what many have believed for years.
First, they give credence to the idea that steroid users can do and recover from much more training (about twice as much, according to these results) than natural weightlifters, which is one of the reasons steroid users gain muscle and strength much faster than natural weightlifters.
Second, they show that steroids goose muscle and strength gain even when users train and supplement suboptimally.
The enhanced bodybuilders were almost certainly more heavily muscled (evidenced by their significantly higher body weight at the same height) than the natural bodybuilders, yet they were more likely to train in high rep ranges, use “advanced” training techniques, follow a non-periodized plan, take short rest periods, do lots of cardio, take EAAs, BCAAs, and HMB, and snub creatine and caffeine, all of which go against the scientific consensus on the best way to gain muscle and strength.
Conversely, the natural bodybuilders were more likely to do everything “right” yet still made inferior gains.
Third, they remind us that steroids have consequences. Unlike the natural bodybuilders, who emphasized supplements that boost health, such as a multivitamin, fish oil, vitamin D, and zinc, the steroid users prioritized supplements that support liver and digestive function and reduce cardiovascular disease risk to mitigate the potential side effects of doping.
So, next time you hear a roider claim drugs only help a little and that it’s their dedication to proper training, diet, and recovery that got them their gains, you now have evidence that this is more or less nonsense; they’re likely doing most things badly and still making more progress than you.
TL;DR: Steroid users can do significantly more volume and employ poor training and supplementation protocols and still gain more muscle than natural weightlifters.
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Willpower is mostly a matter of mindset.
Source: “Ego Depletion—Is It All in Your Head?: Implicit Theories About Willpower Affect Self-Regulation” published on September 28, 2010 in Psychological Science.
Many people believe willpower is a limited resource, and the more fatigued you become, the more it wanes.
That is, they think willpower is like a battery that begins each day fully charged. As the day progresses, however, the rigors of life drain its energy, making it increasingly more challenging to maintain discipline.
In “science speak,” this gradual decline is called ego depletion, and it’s one of the most common excuses people give for reneging on their diet or skipping a workout after a challenging day.
Is this justification fair, though?
Does hard work erode discipline?
Or is it more a matter of mindset?
That’s what scientists at Stanford University wanted to investigate when they had 66 people rate a series of statements between 1 (strongly agree) and 6 (strongly disagree) based on their beliefs. Here are some examples of the statements the people rated:
- After a strenuous mental activity your energy is depleted and you must rest to get it refueled again.
- Working on a strenuous mental task can make you feel tired such that you need a break before accomplishing a new task.
Or . . .
- Your mental stamina fuels itself; even after strenuous mental exertion you can continue doing more of it.
- Sometimes, working on a strenuous mental task can make you feel energized for further challenging activities.
The researchers characterized people who agreed more with statements like the first two as having a “limited” view of willpower and those who agreed more with statements like the second two as having a “non-limited” view of willpower.
The researchers then asked everyone to complete two 5-minute tasks.
In the first, all the participants had to complete the simple task of crossing out every letter “e” on a page of text. In the second, half the participants repeated the same exercise, while the other half completed a task requiring deeper concentration that involved crossing out specific combinations of letters on a page of text.
After completing both tasks, everyone did the Stroop test (a psychological test that measures people’s attention and thinking speed), which allowed the researchers to see how people’s ability to focus changed after completing a simple or demanding task.
The researchers found that everyone’s ability to focus was unchanged after completing the simple activity.
However, after completing the mentally demanding task, those with a limited view of willpower experienced a dip in focus, causing them to make more mistakes on the Stroop test. In contrast, those with a non-limited view of willpower showed no signs of diminished concentration.
Here’s a graph from the study illustrating this point:
In other words, how people felt about willpower influenced how they performed. If they believed that doing something difficult weakened their resolve, their ability to concentrate ebbed after completing a difficult task. Conversely, if they found hard work energizing, their willpower remained strong even after doing something demanding.
The same researchers went on to test this theory in 3 subsequent studies included in the same writeup, uncovering similar results. One of these studies also found that students with a non-limited mindset were less likely to procrastinate, eat junk food, and give up on their goals in the run-up to their exams than those with a limited mindset—a finding other research corroborates.
Scientists have found this effect in health and fitness settings, too.
For instance, in a study conducted by scientists at the University of Toronto, researchers followed 322 people for 3 weeks and found that those with a non-limited mindset were more likely to exercise and less likely to snack at the end of a challenging day than those with a limited mindset.
The good news for people with a limited view of willpower is that it’s easy to change your mindset. Research shows that simply understanding how your attitude affects mental pep is enough to sway you toward a non-limited way of thinking.
That is, knowing belief informs behavior, not the other way around, is enough to boost your willpower.
In the future, then, allow hard work to invigorate rather than enervate. Adopting this perspective should help you feel less tempted to forgo a workout, cheat on your diet, or bypass important work at the end of a busy day.
TL;DR: If you believe hard work saps willpower, your resolve will dip after doing something challenging. However, if you believe hard work is energizing, your willpower will remain strong even after doing something mentally demanding.
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Foam rolling and dynamic stretching increase flexibility equally, but neither boosts performance.
Source: “An Intense Warm-Up Does Not Potentiate Performance Before or After a Single Bout of Foam Rolling” published on June 1, 2022 in Journal of Sports Science & Medicine.
Most people like to limber up before they train.
However, many feel confused about the best way to do it.
Should you listen to people who say foam rolling is the way to go because it increases flexibility without hindering performance?
Or should you heed the advice of those who say dynamic stretching is a better bet, since it “primes” your nervous system to communicate more efficiently with your muscles, which may boost performance?
Or should you do a mix of both? And if so, which should you do first?
These are the questions researchers at Graz University wanted to answer when they had 27 experienced soccer players do 3 lower-body workouts at least 48 hours apart.
Before each workout, the soccer players either foam rolled their hamstrings, foam rolled their hamstrings then did a series of dynamic stretches, or did a series of dynamic stretches then foam rolled their hamstrings.
The results were straightforward: all the warm-ups increased the soccer players’ flexibility equally, and none improved lower-body strength or power.
Similar studies comparing foam rolling and dynamic stretching to dynamic stretching alone have uncovered similar results, too.
Thus, we can probably put the foam rolling vs. dynamic stretching debate to bed. Both increase your flexibility without hindering your performance, and neither seems to meaningfully boost weightlifting performance. As such, you should do whichever you prefer, a mix of both, or neither.
That said, not everyone feels the need to stretch or foam roll before they lift weights. And if that’s the case for you, the best option is to skip to a warm-up that’s specific to the exercise you’re going to perform first in your workout.
For example, in my fitness books for men and women, Bigger Leaner Stronger and Thinner Leaner Stronger, here’s what I recommend you do before your first exercise of each workout:
- Roughly estimate what weight you’re going to use for your sets of the exercise (this is your “hard set” weight).
- Do 6 reps with about 50% of your hard set weight, and rest for a minute.
- Do 4 reps with about 70% of your hard set weight, and rest for a minute.
Then, do all your hard sets for your first exercise and the rest of the exercises for that workout.
Following a warm-up like this is enough to “groove in” proper technique, help you troubleshoot your form, and increase the temperature of and blood flow to your muscles, which can boost your performance and thus muscle and strength gain over time.
TL;DR: Foam rolling and dynamic stretching increase flexibility to a similar degree and neither boosts athletic performance, so do whichever you prefer, or a mix of both, or neither.