Top 5 Bodybuilding Myths Debunked by Science

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Have you been avoiding fruit or maybe even a couple scoops of ice cream late at night because you fear it will all be stored as fat when you go to sleep? Or perhaps you freak out when it’s been more than three hours since your last meal? (Oh my, you’re going “catabolic”!)

For real, though, these seemingly harmless habits are completely baseless in reality. It makes me wonder where they even began? Although, I was once guilty of such dogmatic thinking, largely because my only source of “education” when I first got into lifting was periodicals like Muscular Development and Muscle & Fitness magazine.

I guess I never really put much thought into the things those magazines preach; after all, if the IFBB bodybuilders that grace the covers truly got to that point because they never go longer than three hours without eating, then surely there must be some merit to such a dieting method, right?

 Surprisingly, there really isn’t. And that’s just one example of inane bodybuilding ideals that continue to pervade fitness subculture.

Ideally you'll approach these misconceptions with more of an open mind and see that there truly is a light at the end of the tunnel. Continue reading as we debunk the top 5 bodybuilding myths with (rather) simple logic and scientific evidence.

Myth: Eating carbohydrates before bed will lead to fat gain

The supposition that the carbs you eat at night (before bed) will lead to fat gain stems from a fear of the “storage” hormone called insulin. You see, insulin levels rise in response to eating carbohydrates in order to shuttle glucose out of the bloodstream and into cells.

When you consume more carbs/sugar than your body needs in the short-term, it can be stored as a longer-term source of energy known as glycogen (particularly in skeletal muscle and the liver).

Burning fat (or gaining it), however, is ultimately dictated by your energy balance (this is supported by many studies).1 In other words, if you want to lose fat, you need to be consuming less calories than you're burning over extended periods of time. 

As such, if you happen to eat a pint of ice cream an hour before bed, but your energy balance is still 200 calories less than what you burned that day, then you’re not going to magically gain body fat just because you ate carbs at night.

As a side note, some research studies even contend that consuming carbohydrates in the evening may enhance weight loss.2

Myth: You need to eat 6+ meals per day to keep your metabolism “burning” at max capacity

The idea that eating more frequently throughout the day “stokes” your metabolism and increases calorie expenditure is far from sound. Fitness “gurus” claim that by eating multiple smaller meals, as opposed to a few larger meals, you increase the total thermic effect of food (TEF).

However, this isn’t how the TEF works. For example, let’s say you are allowed to eat an entire box of 12 donuts at your leisure throughout the day. Let’s also assume that eating one donut produces a TEF of 20 calories. (In other words, eating one donut requires your body to burn 20 calories due to the energetic demands of chewing, digestion, etc.) 

Using simple math, we determine that eating all 12 donuts will produce a TEF of 240 calories. Now, let’s say you decide to split the box of donuts into 3 equal meals of 4 donuts spread throughout the day. Each of the three meals would have a net TEF of 80 calories (240/3 = 80).

Ok, so what happens if you instead split the donuts into 6 smaller meals of 2 donuts spread throughout the day? Each of the six meals would have a net TEF of 40 calories (240/6 = 40).

Wow! Crazy, isn’t it? The end result is the same regardless how you split up the donuts.

What this teaches us is that meal frequency and the thermic effect of feeding are independent of one another, meaning your metabolism won’t be burning more just because you decide to eat every two hours.

Myth: Your body can only absorb up to 50 grams of protein per meal

For reasons unbeknownst to me, gym-goers often seem to think their body has a completely arbitrary “cap” of how much protein it can digest/absorb per meal. (This number is usually right around the 50-gram mark.)

Basically, the notion that your body has an intrinsic limit of how much protein it can absorb per meal suggests that any protein you eat beyond that limit is being excreted (because it has to go somewhere after all…). Essentially, rather than your body absorbing the "excess" protein, it somehow bypasses the highly intricate digestive process and heads directly to the colon. Bear in mind that if this is truly what happened, we would all be spending a ton of time on the toilet and probably abhor protein in general.

To my knowledge, there is no research or evidence that suggests the body can only absorb up to 50 g of protein per meal. In fact, there’s some research that shows the body can absorb exceptionally large boluses of protein (it just takes longer for the body to assimilate it all).3

Instead of shuttling excessive protein directly to your colon, the rate of food digestion compensates to decrease the supply of nutrients being sent to your small intestine. 

So now you’re probably wondering, “Ok, but what if I eat 200 grams of protein in a meal? Will it all be absorbed?” The short answer: Actually, yes! But, you should of course realize that just because protein is digested and absorbed doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to lead to more muscle growth.

Protein, like carbohydrates, can be endogenously converted to fat. Biochemically, it’s not an efficient process, but it does happen in situations where you consume exorbitant amounts of protein. For the most part, excessive amino acids are oxidized and/or sent to the liver for gluconeogenesis.

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Myth: During contest prep you should train with light weights and high reps

A perpetual misconception in bodybuilding and fitness subculture is that you should lift lighter weight in high rep ranges (e.g. 15+ reps per set) to “tone” your body and “etch detail into muscles”. This is ludicrous, to put it bluntly.

The term “tone” is actually nonsensical when we refer to muscular morphology; your muscles grow or shrink in response to resistance training, which changes their shape accordingly. There is no evidence suggesting you will see better gains in muscle growth if you’re training with 30+ reps per set, and there is certainly no evidence that will “tone” your muscles any better than lifting heavier weights for lower reps per set. If anything, assuming training volume is matched for, you’re better off lifting heavier loads and building strength so you can keep progressing and giving your muscle new stimuli to adapt to.

Moreover, you cannot "spot-reduce" particular body locations no matter just how much you target/stimulate them. If you desire an engraved six-pack of abdominals, avoid the marathon sets of sit-ups; work rather on offering progressive overload to the abdominals and losing adequate body-fat.

Ultimately, your training should incorporate a variety of rep ranges and both lighter and heavier weights. The core of bodybuilding is in many ways strength training, not just going through the motions and using light weights for every exercise.

Also consider, in the offseason you see so many bodybuilders lift heavy loads and they pack on a ton of mass; why is it then that when contest prep time comes around they turn into wimps and lift much lighter loads? It should be rather intuitive that what builds muscle best retains it best.

Let your contest prep diet and cardio regimen do its thing for cutting fat, but keep training just like you would when you’re in the offseason.

Myth: It is best to train each muscle group once weekly with a ton of volume

Truth: Many bodybuilders follow training regimens that have them extensively train each muscle group just one time each week. While this might supply good outcomes gradually, it is really a rather ineffective method to train. A research study in the "Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology" discovered that muscle protein synthesis increases 65%-75% above baseline values for up to 24 hours after a heavy bout of resistance training, and after that considerably declines back to baseline levels at about the 48-hour mark post-workout.4

Intuitively then, it’s much more sensible to train each muscle group 2-3 times weekly and divided the volume across each session. Consider each training session as a chance induce an acute increase in muscle protein synthesis in the targeted muscle groups.

Ask yourself what’s better for overall chest development, igniting the muscle building process in your chest once a week (52 times annually) or twice a week (104 times annually)? Would you rather give your chest the opportunity to grow twice as much as it could every year? The answer should be rather obvious.

Moreover, a second research study in the "Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research" showed that athletes who trained just one day per week experienced only 62% of the strength gains compared to athletes who divided their training over three days of the week (total volume was matched for between the two groups).5

Given these findings, here's an example of what an effective training split could be for most any gym-goer looking to improve muscle development:

Monday-- Chest/Shoulders/Triceps

Tuesday-- Legs/Calves/Core

Wed--Back/Traps/Biceps

Thursday-- Chest/Shoulders/Triceps

Thursday-- Legs/Calves/Core

Friday-- Rest

Saturday-- Back/Traps/Biceps

Sunday-- Rest

→ Repeat rotation

Take-Home Message

There you have it: the top 5 bodybuilding myths debunked with science and reasoning. If this is your first time really putting some intellectual thought into these common nutrition and training myths, chances are you’re a little distraught. It’s ok, I’ve been there.

How could these notions not have any basis in reality? Frankly, this is what happens in an industry and subculture where zealots and conjecture reign supreme. This should teach us all an important lesson: Don’t believe everything you hear or everything you read (especially if there isn’t any hard evidence - aka literature/peer-reviewed research - to back up the advice). \

Just because some guy on the cover of a magazine eats eight times daily to purportedly “stoke” his metabolism, doesn’t mean it makes sense physiologically. Sadly, many bodybuilders and fitness icons achieve great results in spite of what they do, not because of what they do.

References

  1. Hall, K. D., Heymsfield, S. B., Kemnitz, J. W., Klein, S., Schoeller, D. A., & Speakman, J. R. (2012). Energy balance and its components: implications for body weight regulation. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 95(4), 989-994.
  2. Sofer, S., Eliraz, A., Kaplan, S., Voet, H., Fink, G., Kima, T., & Madar, Z. (2011). Greater weight loss and hormonal changes after 6 months diet with carbohydrates eaten mostly at dinner. Obesity, 19(10), 2006-2014.
  3. Adibi, S. A., & Mercer, D. W. (1973). Protein digestion in human intestine as reflected in luminal, mucosal, and plasma amino acid concentrations after meals. Journal of Clinical Investigation, 52(7), 1586.
  4. MacDougall, J. D., Gibala, M. J., Tarnopolsky, M. A., MacDonald, J. R., Interisano, S. A., & Yarasheski, K. E. (1995). The time course for elevated muscle protein synthesis following heavy resistance exercise. Canadian journal of applied physiology, 20(4), 480-486.
  5. McLester, J. R., Bishop, E., & Guilliams, M. E. (2000). Comparison of 1 Day and 3 Days Per Week of Equal-Volume Resistance Training in Experienced Subjects. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research,14(3), 273-281.

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