Fitness Distilled

Studies That May Surprise You, Vol. 2

Seems like every trainer on the Web these days is from central casting. There are a lot of characters out there: the “hardcore guy”, the “kettlebell guy,” the “intermittent fasting guy”, etc. They’re all recommending you do something very specific to achieve your goals, and want you to remember them as the ones who told you first.

This is a post about nothing.


Well, I think if I had my choice, I’d rather be remembered as the guy who told you to do nothing. Or at least that you didn’t have to do nearly as much to get in the shape you want as you previously thought.


Here’s a synopsis of some studies that just came out that pretty much boil down to one theme: “It doesn’t matter.”


Cardio: Before Lifting, or After?


The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research published a study that attempted to answer the old question of whether to do cardio first and lift later or the other way around, with respect to strength and muscle gains.


Subjects were divided into 2 groups—those who did lower-body machine exercises first and then 30–50 minutes of continuous cycling (and, later in the program, intervals), and those who did the reverse—cardio, then lifting. The study ran for 24 weeks.


Both groups made “significant” gains in both leg strength and leg mass and there was NO DIFFERENCE between the groups. I.e., it didn’t matter which type of exercise came first.


One caveat: the subjects were women and had no training experience, so if you’re a gym veteran, the results could be different for you. But 24 weeks is a good chunk of time. If gains were steady and even for both groups throughout that period, it probably doesn’t matter which you do first—cardio or weights—as long as you do them.


My recommendation: do whatever feels right to you. If you’re going for a new PR on an exercise, you’ll obviously want to be as fresh as possible, so do weights first that day. If it’s sunny and gorgeous out and you want to run, do so, and lift later.


I think it’s worth noting that the weight training in the study was purely lower body. If subjects, especially untrained ones, were able to lift strong after cycling, which also works the legs, fatigue isn’t as much of a concern as we might think. If you’re doing an upper-body workout, I definitely wouldn’t worry about hitting cardio first. There’s no way cycling is going to throw off your bench press.


With that said, you’ll avoid any “interference” whatsoever if you keep your cardio and weight sessions separated by a few hours or even days. So that’s my ultimate preference.


Vitamins Hurt Muscle Gains

This one from the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports shocked me. Thirty-five older (in their 60s and 70s) but healthy men were split into 2 groups. Both weight trained 3x per week for 12 weeks; one took supplemental Vitamin C (1000mg) and Vitamin E (235mg) and the other took a placebo.


These could be making you weak.

Both made good muscle gains, but the PLACEBO GROUP did much better—lean body mass went up 3.9% versus 1.4%.


The vitamins reduced muscle gains!


Although it wasn’t clear if C or E individually was to blame or if it was the combination of the two.


My recommendation: Don’t stress out about taking vitamins. They’re expensive, and if you think you’re not making the best possible gains without them, stop worrying. I don’t think we can definitively say “vitamins suck” and you shouldn’t take them, especially if you lift, but you clearly don’t need them to build muscle.


HIIT Doesn’t Help

If you’ve followed my work recently, you know that I’m not a big fan of high-intensity interval training (HIIT). I’m NOT saying you shouldn’t do it or it’s useless, I just don’t think it’s necessary and it often isn’t appropriate.


This study, from the Journal of Applied Physiology, agrees with me.


It looked at 28 African-American women. They were divided into 2 groups of 14. One did a HIIT workout 3x per week consisting of 4 work intervals of 30–60 seconds and up to three and a half minutes rest between each. The other maintained their “normal levels of physical activity.”


Both groups ate a weight-maintaining, high-fat diet, where 50% of calories came from fat.


Maybe your workout shouldn’t leave you like this.


A the end of the study, only 7 women remained in the HIIT group. Half the subjects dropped out! (“For a range of different reasons.”) Neither group increased its maximum aerobic capacity, and neither improved insulin sensitivity.


So what does this tell us? When the diet doesn’t change, or is too high in calories, HIIT is useless for weight loss, aerobic capacity, or improving insulin sensitivity.


My recommendation: Do HIIT if you want to. If you enjoy it. Or you’re already pretty lean and want to lose more weight and are pretty well conditioned to start. HIIT workouts, by their nature, are brutal, so most people quit on them. That’s one reason I don’t like people doing them: I know they won’t stick with it! Since you only make progress when you REPEAT workouts, there’s no point in doing something you won’t do again.


To be fair, I don’t know for sure if the difficulty of the training was a common reason why the women quit, but I suspect it was one of the reasons. I bet if they had these women walking on a treadmill at a lighter pace, more of them would have stayed in the study and possibly seen better results.


But remember, no type or amount of cardio will cancel out a diet that’s too high in calories!

Any studies that have surprised you recently? Share them below. Or share this post with a friend who thinks he/she needs to do more to see results than is needed.

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