Why in the world should you take the words of an egghead over those of that big guy with the huge muscles? There are some darn good reasons, not the least of them building muscle as efficiently as possible.
Science And The Bodybuilder
Let’s imagine you start bodybuilding, have no clue and want to find out how to get them big muscles and awesome strength. You scour the internet for information and come upon two sites: one by a huge guy able to bend iron bars with his middle finger, another by a scrawny dude in a white lab coat who says he ran tests on developing strength and came to such and such conclusions.
Whom do you listen to? The first impulse most people have is to listen to the big guy. It’s human nature: as soon as we are unsure, we observe those who apparently know what they are doing and mimic them. Ever wondered why people build one long line in front of two open supermarket checkouts and the cashier at the empty one dies of boredom? Because everyone arriving later figures there must be a reason why no one goes to the empty checkout.
It’s built into us. And the big bodybuilding guy sure looks like he knows what he is doing, doesn’t he?
Real Life Bodybuilding Advice
But we don’t know if his way to build muscle was the shortest. Sure, he must have done something right, otherwise he wouldn’t be this big and strong. But did he get there on the quickest possible route? Those people at the supermarket reached their goal (paying) too. But they could have done so much faster. Mimicking others often works for us, but it doesn’t have to be the most effective way.
In bodybuilding and strength training there aren’t only two checkouts (taking the supermarket analogy to the max here), but hundreds, if not thousands: train low rep, train high rep, go to failure, don’t go to failure, train often, train once a month, use this supplement, no, that one etc. etc. ad infinitum.
The second problem is that in real life it’s often hard to tell what caused what: I go to bed when it gets dark, so does it get dark because I go to bed?
Sounds silly, doesn’t it? But let’s say the big guy claims that ever since he switched to high rep workouts, his absolute strength increased like whoa, dude! Which goes right in the face of conventional strength training wisdom. His strength really increased when he switched to high reps – he just forgot that at the same time he also managed to get more sleep and started using creatine.
The Science of Bodybuilding
Getting this sorted is where science shines, because it came up with an elegant and totally simple way to find out if A really influences B: you keep all the rest the same.
When you want to find out if high reps really lead to more strength, science has you take two similar groups of people and make sure they all do the same stuff. You let them eat, sleep and train in the same way, with only one difference: one group does low rep, the other high rep. If after six weeks there is a difference, you can be pretty sure it was the rep range.
The method is not foolproof, but it beats getting sidetracked and being potentially misguided about effect and cause by a mile.
This is also why I’m critical of the various workout supplements out there. A company like BSN, who is behind stuff like N.O.-Xplode, could easily pay for independent researchers having two groups of people train the same way, giving one the supplement, but not the other, and see what happens.
But they never bother. Why? If their claims were true, having them backed up by science could only increase sales. Could it be that the product may not stand up to the tall claims? Do they hope that people will erroneously assign any workout progress they make to the supplement? Like the big guy above does about high reps and strength?
Don’t Be Suckered, Use Science
Whatever you read or hear about bodybuilding, stay neutral. Some of the advice you get will be correct, some wrong and the best way to find out is checking if someone went through the trouble of investigating it properly. A resource like PubMed lets you browse tons of research papers. All you have to do is type in some keywords.
That too takes time, but far less than what you could be wasting on training methods that aren’t really effective. Perhaps more importantly, it can save a dollar or two which you might otherwise spend on supplements that do next to nothing.
Picture courtesy of the United States Department of Agriculture.