Sunday, November 20, 2011

Intermittent Thoughts on Intermittent Fasting - Programing Success: Building Muscle Begins With Losing Body Fat.

Image 1: Arnold does the "double bicep" + vacuums. If you want to look like a bodybuilder, muscle alone is not enough.
First, I want to thank Jahed, Pablo, RF, Angimal, Garrett and Rudolf for their patience. After all, it has been two weeks now since you have submitted your (meta-)goals, which were all more related to building muscle and increasing performance, then to losing body fat, which was the topic the last installment of the Intermittent Thoughts dealt with. Yet although, at first sight, both topics have little (to nothing) to do with each other, there are are at least three important factors by which a reduction in body fat is very well related to increased muscularity and skeletal muscle hypertrophy. Let's get back to the "Peter Griffin" type of chubby person from the last installment, for a few seconds. Imagine "Peter" has packed on, say 10lbs of lean muscle and now stands in front of you, does the "double bicep" and vacuums, just like Arnold does in image 1... what? Why are you laughing?

Do you want muscles? Or do you want to look muscular?

Now, obviously the first intersection of bodyfat and muscularity (in a broader sense) relates to the question whether or not your body fat level is low enough for any increases in skeletal muscle mass to be visible. I mean +10lbs on the ripped frame of a 202lbs (now 212lbs) bodybuilder look absolutely freekish. On our Peter Griffin, a gain of 10lbs of lean muscle tissue will probably go completely unrecognized - this also puts "chubby" beginners at risk of neglecting the strength training component of their exercise regimen, because, from a mere "cosmetic" stand point, each gram of body fat they drop will make a significant difference in terms of the way they look. Building muscle beneath the thick layers of adipose tissue, on the other hand, initially appears to have little value... but remember: looks are deceptive, and I hope that my elaborations in the last installment made it quite clear "building a bigger metabolic engine" and not starving the latter away on a low-calorie diet, is the cornerstone of maintainable reductions in body fat levels.
Figure 1: Where are you on the fat/muscle mass (FFMI = weight/height[in m]²) continuum? *indicates age-group 20-29 in the NHANES dataset (data based on data from Hattori. 1999; Picket. 2005; CDC, NHANES data from 2010)
Interestingly enough, being lean, or, I should say, the metabolic and endocrine consequences of being lean actually have way more profound implications on "building muscle", than the mere advantage of the immediate visibility of the newly acquired lean body tissue. On "the boards" (meaning bulletin boards like, anabolicminds, etc.) it is a recurrent topic whether you should "bulk" (people there interpret that mainly as "eat to gain" and often as "overeat to gain") or "cut" (meaning lose fat) first. And while the answer obviously depends on where you are starting from, it stands out of question that the average American male (aged 27-62) who gets fatter and fatter every year and currently has a body fat percentage of 24.9% (Rohrmann. 2011) would be ill-advised to even think about the word "bulking".
Image 2: Just to put the 24.9% body fat of the average American male into perspective. The average bodyfat percentage of a sekitori sumo wrestler is 28.6%
(Hattori. 1999)!
Please note, that the "no bulk with high body fat percentage" rule does also apply to the female physical culturists out there. The reason that I am mainly addressing the male faction of my readership here, is that women are not so stupid to think, they would have to down 2-3 portions of "weight gainers" (these products are exactly what they are called, they will make you gain weight, not muscle) and 4-5 protein shakes in addition to a hypo-caloric (junkfood-)diet in order to build a muscular physique, anyways. Things would be different, though if the physique of a sekitori sumo wrestler (one of the higher ranked sumos, cf. image 2), is what you are aspiring. In that case you can start "bulking" with weight gainers and all the other "high class" products the industry has to offer... I mean the average sekitori sumo has 109kg of lean muscle tissue hidden somwhere beyond the 45.4kg of fat he is carrying around the dohyo.
If you want to "program success" and your "motivational elevator pitch" from part one of this part of the Intermittent Thoughts Series contains sentences like "look like a cover model." (Garrett; November 14, 2011 3:05 AM) or "[building] a stronger body, bodyfat below 8%" (RF, November 7, 2011 12:22 PM) or my favorite one which obviously nobody was dared to say, yet 90% of the Men's Health readers probably have on their minds "build muscle just to look good at the beach / impress the ladies", it is imperative that you lose your love handles first! Not to (just) to be able to see the gains you are making, but to set yourself up for optimal lean muscle gains (in essence, this is also related to the assumption Jahed Momand's assumption made in his "motivational elevator pitch" that leaning out prior to building his maximal clean and jerk and snatch to compete at 85kg probably is the smartest way to go, after all a low body fat percentage is obligatory if you want to be competitive in the lower weight classes).

The endocrine advantage of low(er) body fat percentages

The first and often overlooked advantage of a decent degree of leanness (cf. "active American", figure 1) is a hormonal one. According to the findings of the latest (published) NHANES data (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey III; Rohrmann. 2011) there is a direct correlation between body-fatness as measured by BMI, waist circumference and body fat levels, on the one hand, and total and free testosterone and estrogen levels and their binding globulin SHBG:
Total and free testosterone and sex hormone binding globulin concentrations decreased, whereas total and free estradiol increased with increasing BMI, waist circumference, and percent body fat (all p trend < 0.05). 
Further statistical analysis of the data reveals that a body fat increase of one-quartile (e.g. from the lower 1/4 of the study population to the next fatter quartile) goes hand in hand with a decreases in sex hormones into the next lower quartile (e.g. from the highest into the next lower quartile). A sample calculation for a 50 year old white non-smoker revealed that for each 5.2cm increase in body waist circumference or +2.7% increase in body fat, the free testosterone level decreased by 2%. With an increase of "only" +3.7cm or +1.8% in waist circumference or body-fatness, respectively you can however bump up your estrogen levels by 2%.
Figure 2: Relative free testosterone and free estradiol levels in men from the NHANES study; data expressed relative to serum levels of "lean" men with <84.9cm ~ 33.4" waist circumference; values above the bars are the differences between relative testosterone vs. estradiol levels compared to "lean" men (calculated based on Rohrmann. 2011)
In view of the differential response of androgenic and estrogenic free (i.e. "active") hormones to changes in body-fatness (cf. figure 2), it is no wonder that we see a characteristic and in terms of lean muscle gains highly unfavorable pattern in the "fatter" quartiles of the study population, with maximal  free estradiol levels (1.08pg/ml; +30% vs. min) and minimal free testosterone levels (0.097ng/ml; -13% vs. max) in the "fattest" quartile of the study population (I deliberately selected waist circumference over "body fat levels" which were measured by bio-impedence, as my body fat marker of choice). Even if you as a SuppVersity reader should by now be aware that testosterone alone does not "build muscle", its highly facilitative effect on exercise induced increases in lean body tissue is significantly blunted by the fat-induced reduction in free testosterone and the (by the way fat promoting) increase in free estradiol in "chubby" men.

The endocrine factor: By leaning out first you set the hormonal scene (a higher testosterone to estrogen ratio) for optimal lean muscle gains.

The metabolic advantage of lower body fat levels

While testosterone and estrogen levels obviously figure large in the orchestrate that determines whether the nutrients you ingest (remember no one of you eats "calories") end up being stored as body fat, used as "fuel" or building block for lean muscle tissue, insulin, the "most anabolic agent in the world" (a quote from; obviously a very questionable statement), may play an even greater role, when it comes to building muscle, not fat. Those of you have have listened to Dr. Layne Norton's and Dr. Connelly's dissertations on the largely misunderstood role of insulin in relation to the protein synthetic response to exercise, as well as its highly undesirable effects on fat storage during the last episodes of BodyRX Radio, will be aware that the often touted idea that "insulin is the most anabolic agent in the world" applies, above all else, to adipose tissue.

Image 3: "Insulin the most anabolic agent in the world"!? Correct, if we are talking about fat,  not muscle tissue ;-)
While "broscience" and the producers of sugary "weight gainers" and "post-workout recovery formulas" still maintain the myth of the "muscle building insulin spike" the (post-workout) ingestion of large amounts of fast-acting carbohydrates would provide, a recent study from Stuart Phillips lab at McMasters University into the purported benefits of the "insulin spike" produced by the co-ingesting 50g of carbohydrates with your 25g of whey protein post-workout found neither an increase in muscle protein synthesis, nor decreases in muscle protein breakdown, which are often cited as another benefit of increased insulin levels (Staples. 2011). More specifically, the additional +1,250% (!) increase in insulin (over +400% with whey alone) did not have any additional effect on protein synthesis, or, in other words: With insulin some (here 5x above fasted baseline) appears to be good, more, on the other hand is not only not better, it is in fact worse.

That being said, the improvements in insulin sensitivity which go hand in hand with reductions in body fat levels (increases in leptin sensitivity, reductions in inflammation, etc.) will decrease your basal, as well as your postprandial insulin levels, because your body will simply need less of the storage hormone to get the job done. This, in turn, will allow you to fuel your workouts with appropriate (not exorbitant) amounts of carbohydrates without running the risk of storing additional body fat. This is particularly true, in view of the fact that the "type of insulin sensitivity" you acquire when you selectively lose body fat (not muscle) favors the storage of blood sugar as muscle glycogen over its conversion to triglycerides and subsequent storage in adipose tissue (note that the latter happens both in obese and insulin resistant, as well as in "reduced obese" individuals, who have lost a lot of body mass, not fat, on prolonged calorie restricted diets).

The metabolic factor: By reducing your body fat levels first (leaning out vs. just losing weight) you decrease the risk that (superfluous) carbohydrates (and other nutrients) get stored as body fat.

The anti-livelong-obesity advantage of lower body fat levels

Image 4: There are two ways to get fat, adipose tissue hypertrophy and adipose tissue hyperplasia. While you obviously want to avoid both, only the latter is potentially irreversible (Otto. 2005).
The third and maybe most far-reaching  advantage of lowering your body fat level before bulking up is actually related to the leeway you have in terms of the unavoidable fat gain that is part of every "bulk" no matter how "clean" it may be (see also red box below). It should be obvious that just as the myonuclei in your skeletal muscle have a limited capacity to "grow" (also to hypertrophy, i.e. to simply increase their size /we will discuss the three pathways of muscle growth in one of the upcoming installments in more detail), your fat cells can only store a finite amount of lipids before they begin to "burst from the seams" (some scientists even believe that this is part of what triggers the detrimental inflammatory cascade in obese individuals). When that is about to happen, the only way your body can protect itself from suffocating in glucose and triglycerides that can neither be burned as fuel nor stored in the bristling adipocytes is to generate new fat cells (adipocyte hyperplasia).
My definition of a clean bulk: You may now be shocked to hear that even a "clean bulk" will necessarily also increase the amount of body fat you are carrying. That, and this is a very important point, does yet not mean that your body fat % must necessarily increase. A "clean bulk" by (my) definition is a bulk where you add more muscle than fat tissue to your frame. Now, even if you you were an absolute zero in math, you should recognize that this implies that your body fat percentage would actually drop, although your overall body fat levels may increase. Keep that in mind, whenever you are trying to gain muscle. Your goal should never be to cut fat (reduce overall fat mass) and build muscle (increase lean muscle tissue) at the same time - if you try that you program stagnancy, not progress!
Now, the unfortunate truth is that it is pretty easy to "empty" those cells again (you can do this in weeks), yet uncertain on which time-scales (if at all) and by which means (other than surgery) you can get rid of newly acquired adipocytes ever again.
An infant usually has about 5 to 6 billion fat cells, the number of which naturally increases during early childhood and puberty, so that the average healthy adult ends up with 25 to 30 billion fat cells. If those 30 billion adipocytes are already filled up when you start bulking, chances are that your body feels compelled to increase its storage capacity, so that - in the worse case - you end up with the roughly 75 billion fat cells, the typical overweight adult is carrying around on his "chubby" frame. If you still insist that you are not "big" enough and continue to eat whatever you can grab, the number of fat cells can increase up to 250, even 300 billion... it stands to reason that even when you emptied all of those, you would still be "fat".

The anti-obesity factor: By leaning out first, you reduce the risk of a (potentially irreversible) increase in adipocyte number that may set you up for lifelong weight problems.

An intermittent conclusion on the first step of programming skeletal muscle hypertophy

Image 5: After a handful of unsuccesful bulking efforts, SuppVersity Student Duong Nguyen eventually made it right - he leaned out first. If you are interested in his subsequent bulk, check out his blog!
As you may notice, I (once again) went off on a tangent. I hope you don't mind that you have not yet learned about effective ways measure your progress, about how to improve your gains by setting realistic, but challenging goals and about the often-overlooked impact the mind-muscle will (not could!) have on the real world outcomes of your efforts in the gym, in this installment of the Intermittent Thoughts.

But hey! For (hopefully) a minority of you the "time to bulk" may not have come anyways ;-) So, if you have not achieved a degree of leanness comparable to that of the "average active American" (cf. figure 1), I suggest you re-read last week's installment on setting yourself up for body-fat loss and thusly take appropriate measures to increase the effectiveness of your first or next "bulk" and decrease the propensity of doing permanent "aesthetic" or even metabolic damage.

As for the rest of you, I would hope that you could at least gain a few new insights into the challenges your not so lean friends are facing when they are trying to gain muscle without adding another inch to their waistlines.