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The Sauna: Beneficial or Total Bulls**t?

As you enter the locker room, you see a group of dudes entering the sauna. You think to yourself “Every time I come to the gym, I always see people going in there. But does it really do anything?”

That’s a very fair question to ask, and in this article, we’ll be discussing whether or not it has any impact on your muscle-building goals, or if it’s just a complete waste of your time.

Sauna vs. Steam Room

First, we have to realize that there’s two different types of “saunas” really.

Quite simply, the only difference that exists between them is that one is humid and one is not. A sauna consists of much drier air than a steam room, which is essentially 100% humid air. This is all a matter of personal preference, as there hasn’t been much difference shown between them in terms of health benefits, which we’ll get to in a minute.

So choose whichever one is most convenient, whether it be because of preference or simply because that’s all your gym has. It really doesn’t matter all that much.

So What Are the Health Benefits?

Several benefits have been touted for utilizing the sauna on a regular basis. These include:

  • Improved cardiovascular functioning (improved blood flow)
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Positive changes in cholesterol
  • Improved immune functioning
Image result for blood flow

But are any of these actually true?

Surprisingly, yes! In a systematic review conducted in Finland (which is actually where the sauna originated from), regular use of a sauna could potentially delay vascular disorders such as hypertension and heart disease. Also, dementia and lung disease could be delayed or even improved with the aid of regular, consistent bathing.

Unfortunately, however, there are many limitations with studies conducted on sauna use. For example, many of the studies are relatively small and others had several types of study biases’ involved, such as being involved with a company that produces saunas or the researchers’ using invalid study designs.

In another systematic review, it was shown that regular use of a sauna showed similar benefits in cardiovascular functioning as many other studies have shown. Also, interesting findings were seen in athletes as increased bioavailiability of nitric oxide was discovered, which is what helps the blood vessels dilate during exercise, expediting nutrient delivery to the cells. Putting it simply, it helps athletes to recover faster and perform better over the long term.

The authors of this systematic review even go on to say that there are potential benefits to the metabolism and specific hormonal pathways that deal with stress responses and excrete toxins from the body. But more research is needed in this area to confirm this claim.

What About for Muscle Growth and Fat Loss?

According to what I was able to find anyway (or lack thereof), there is no direct relationship between fat loss/muscle hypertrophy and sauna use. I mean it seems pretty obvious that there wouldn’t be a relationship between hypertrophy and sauna use, as that doesn’t really seem to make much sense.

However, as it comes to fat loss, you’d think it’d make a difference, right? Theoretically, it makes sense, and until official research comes out on this direct relationship pertaining specifically to athletes, we won’t know exactly for sure why this is the case. But we can make postulations as to why this is occurring.

Water Weight

Image result for water

For one, it’s mostly water weight that you’re losing when you sit in the sauna. Water and sodium make up a large majority of the sweat that exits out from your pores, so when you weigh yourself after a sauna and you see that weight drop, that’s what you’re seeing. Now don’t get me wrong, that’s great if you’re looking to lose some extra water that you may be holding, whether it be from excess sodium intake or what have you. But it’s most likely not fat that’s being oxidized and being put to use for energy simply because you’re sitting in high temperatures for 15-20 minutes a day.

Enhanced Performance

Perhaps sitting in the sauna has helped you in your overall performance in the gym. Let’s take the finding of increased nitric oxide (NO) production as an example. You’ve been able to perform more reps due to the increased amount of endurance you now have. And because of that, you’re now able to apply greater amounts of progressive overload, or the consistent increase of a training variable, to your training routine. In this case, it would be the number of repetitions.

Improved Overall Health

Let’s say that using the sauna has lowered your blood pressure and your cholesterol like the literature says it would. You know have a greater sense of well-being, therefore, you’re increasing what’s called your NEAT, or your Non-Exercise Induced Activity Thermogenesis. In other words, you’re increasing the amount of activity you’re doing during the day subconsciously, such as pacing, fidgeting, and walking around more in general. This, in turn, will help you to burn more calories over time.

Final Words…

Now, of course, what I just provided for you was a mix of facts and hypothetical situations. But the literature looks promising in my opinion in its usage not only for the general population but for those of us who engage in regular exercise as well. I personally believe it has helped me from both an aesthetic point of view as well as a performance standpoint.

Unless you have some sort of health condition that would make sauna use unsafe for you, I see no reason why you shouldn’t at least try to implement this into your training program for a week and see how it works out for you. 15-20 minutes for 2-3 times a week is all it takes to see benefits, at least in my experience.

So give it a shot and let me know what you think! If you have any questions about sauna usage, or have suggestions for future topics, don’t be afraid to ask!

5 Contest Prep Mistakes That Are EASILY AVOIDABLE!

As of this writing, I am fresh off of the 2019 Europa Games event in Orlando, Florida. It was a hell of a time, let me tell ya! I competed in both bodybuilding and classic physique, a crossover in which I’ve never attempted before.

BUT…

That was where one of my first mistakes was made. That and a few more led me to compile this list of 5 mistakes that you can avoid making on your next contest prep so that you can bring your best package to the stage!

Mistake #1: Looking At What Everybody Else is Doing

Now look, don’t get me wrong, you can learn a lot from people more experienced in the field than you are. But one things for sure, it can easily fuck you up mentally as well.

Something that I caught myself doing often times was obsessively researching all over the internet through forums, articles, and even the scientific literature as to what was the BEST way to do something.

For example, during my peak week, I was looking at all the different loading strategies for cutting carbs, water, sodium; the whole nine yards. Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with gathering information, but what is wrong with it is being an information whore and not sticking to a plan that you’ve logically thought out for yourself.

And that leads me to my next point…

Mistake #2: Constantly 2nd Guessing Yourself

I didn’t have a coach for this prep nor any of the other preps I’ve done during my time as a bodybuilder. But even when you do, you still have the urge to question “Why?” “Why can I only eat xxx amount of calories while so-and-so can eat xxx more calories and still lose that lower ab fat?”

It’s questions like these that can lead to frustration and even anxiety. So how can we fix this problem? Hire a coach? Possibly. But some people can’t afford that. Just “fake it till you make it” until you start oooozing with confidence? No, that shit never works. So what do you do?

Well, let me tell you what you DON’T do, and that’s

Mistake #3: Not Being Meticulous Enough

Yeah, that’s right. I said it (or typed it anyway). Just like me, you’re more than likely NOT BEING PRECISE ENOUGH WITH YOUR PREP!

There were quite a few things I did this prep that I now scratch my head at in disbelief. Things such as:

  • Eat copious amounts of Walden Farms products (zero-calorie dressings, desserts, etc.)
  • Never developed a solid game plan for peak week as well as the day of the show
  • Made a last minute decision to crossover into both classic physique and bodybuilding

As far as all of the new “diet” products that are out now, such as Walden Farms, diet sodas, zero-calorie sweeteners, they’re all fun and great, until they start adding up!

Especially as it pertains to the last 4-8 weeks of prep when you’re really cutting it close, I now believe that these should really be tapered down, or at the very least, tracked for precisely. Even Walden Farms products contain trace calories even though they are marketed as “zero-calorie, it even says it on the label! Even though we don’t know exactly how many calories are in there, what we do know is that FDA guidelines allow for products with less than 5 calories per serving to be labeled as “zero-calorie”. Therefore, to err on the side of safety, I would label every serving you take of this as a gram of carbs, or 4 calories.

These MUST be accounted for, where everything counts. Think of it as a clinical trial, but on yourself. Everything must be tightly controlled if you want to achieve the most optimal results.

And as for making other important decisions on prep, please make sure to have a plan in place! Especially for something as important as peaking for a show! I kind of treated it as an afterthought, and when it came to show day, I was trying a million and one things to try to drop weight for the lightweight bodybuilding class as well as peak optimally during my carb backload. Which brings me to my next point…

Mistake #4: Crossing Over

Unless you have A LOT of money, or are simply curious, I don’t suggest crossing over into two different classes. I feel like at that point it’s more like being a “jack of all trades” as opposed to a “master of his craft.” Instead of being an expert in one, you kinda mediocre at both.

At the last minute, I decided that my weight was pretty close to a lightweight bodybuilder that I decided to throw out the big guns and try some dehydration strategies so that I could make the weight cut-off for that class. BIG MISTAKE!

Because I decided to do that, I ruined my chances of succeeding in the classic physique division. At this point, I was far below the weight cap for this division, as I now sacrificed too much size to be able to even place in the open class.

So please, just do the one division you feel best fits your physique. You’ll save a lot of time and money that way.

Mistake #5: Not Practicing Your Posing Enough

And last but certainly not least, PRACTICE YOUR POSING!

I can’t stress this enough how important this is. I think that posing needs to be practiced every single day, starting at 8 weeks out minimum. I was beginning to do this, and then I began to slip up, giving myself excuses like “I’m too tired” and “I already know how to do this.” Trust me, no amount of excuses are going to help you here. It could be the difference between a 1st or 2nd place trophy.

C’mon bro, you can do better than that.

It’s a workout itself. It takes practice to not only hold the poses for an extended period of time, but also to capture the right angle and lighting that you want the judges to witness the pose in. You’ve worked this hard, don’t screw it up by not practicing your posing.

Final Words

Well, there ya have it. Five mistakes that you can take with you to the bank. Learn from them. Learn from your own mistakes as well, because everybody makes them. This sport is very rewarding, especially when you snag a first place trophy 😜

Don’t worry babe, I won’t be this tan forever.

WARNING: CONTEST PREP IS NOT HEALTHY

Competition season is upon us once again for those of us who compete in physique sports. A time to get shredded, diced, chizzled…you get the idea.

So I was speaking to a friend of mine earlier this week to catch up. As she’s aware I’m competing in the next upcoming week (I’m in my peak week as I write this), she noticed that I was very tired, lethargic, and just overall lacked interest. Her, not being totally immersed into the scene of competitive fitness and physique sports, asked me “Zach, is this even healthy?”

I answered something along the lines of “No, no it’s not. But it’ll be worth it.” In a very unenthusiastic tone I might add.

But I Thought It Was Healthy To Lose Body Fat!

And you’d be right! In fact, there are a plethora of health benefits to losing body fat, particularly if you’re overweight or obese. Those following a standard calorie-restricted diet (approximately 500 calorie deficit) can often expect to see significant decreases in waist circumference, glucose, insulin, triglycerides, and LDL cholesterol, also known as “bad cholesterol”.

However, the difference here is that we’re talking about conditioned athletes. VERY conditioned athletes. This is much different than many of the studies that are out there, which are usually conducted on overweight or obese individuals. But even if they’re conducted on those of normal body weight, they’re often still not very physically active or are on the higher range of healthy body fat levels, particularly in the United States.

It’s All About the Ranges

When we’re talking about body fat, we can’t think of it in terms of simply “how much weight did they lose?” We need more context. We need to think about WHO we are actually talking about here and we need to think in terms of body fat loss as opposed to simply weight loss. That’s why utilizing body fat percentage along with body weight is so important in tracking somebody’s progress.

Men and women vary widely in the amount of body fat that they carry. Typically, women carry more body fat than men. This is just basic physiology at work.

Source: American Council on Exercise (ACE)

As you can see, there are many different categories that somebody can be placed into depending on where their body fat percentage falls. Obviously, most would fall into the average category.

This is completely fine, as most improvements in health biomarkers, such as the ones mentioned earlier, are seen when somebody drops from the overweight/obese category to the average category. After that, results would still be seen, but the returns would diminish after each and every category the person drops. Makes sense?

Contest Expectations

During a bodybuilding contest, it is standard and expected that you come in as lean and conditioned as you possibly can, while still carrying as much muscle mass as you can hold onto (the exception to this being something like the women’s bikini division, where excessive vascularity and leanness would be discouraged).

When you think about it, you’re asking your body to do something very extreme, much against its wishes, as it is far from its normal state (homeostasis).

Referencing the above chart, men are often expected to come into shows at below 5% body fat, tapping into that “essential fat” category. Because this fat is “essential” to our survival and our calories at this point are extremely low, the body doesn’t have much place to turn in terms of energy production. Because of this, muscle loss becomes a huge concern.

Hormonal Effects

The effects that take place on the body’s hormones are quite drastic for both men and women.

  • Testosterone: lowered in both men and women, which we all know is important for building and maintaining our muscle mass and strength
  • Estrogen: this will be lowered along with testosterone. This is because testosterone converts into estrogen, and with less testosterone, you’ll obviously have less estrogen.
    • This is mostly important for women, as it will have significant effects on their menstrual cycles and mood.
    • But it’s also important to note for men as well, since it plays a vital role in skin and joint health, as well as sexual function in both sexes.
  • Leptin: this one has gotten a lot of attention lately. Leptin is a hormone that regulates your hunger, and the further it drops, the hungrier you get. It can get so bad for some people that it may exacerbate those with eating disorders or other mental health conditions.
  • Cortisol: “the stress hormone” as it’s often referred to. This one actually elevates, as opposed to the ones I previously discussed.
    • This catabolic hormone is responsible for breaking down tissues for energy, and it is notorious for doing this to muscle mass, particularly in times of high stress, such as contest prep.
  • Insulin: pretty much the opposite function to cortisol, this anabolic hormone helps to synthesize new tissues. But when it is very low, such as during contest prep, new tissues are more slowly created and the body’s normal processes begin to slow, thus dropping our metabolic rate, our the number of calories we burn at rest.

I could go on and on about the effects that contest prep has on hormones, but as you can see, it’s not pretty. This can most certainly take a toll in many aspects of your life, including your relationships, job(s), and academic pursuits.

Post-Contest Rebound

Often, after a show, win or lose, competitors will participate in an all-out binging episode. This is to relieve themselves of the 3, 4, 5, sometimes 6 months of hard dieting that they did leading up to this point. And this is expected.

However, it becomes unhealthy when they cannot stop this type of binging behavior for weeks after the show. This can lead to copious amounts of body fat being accumulated onto their physiques. As dramatic as it sounds, it can lead to things like depression and anxiety, as they do not look nearly as lean, vascular, or cut-up as they did when they were on that stage.

But That’s Okay!!!

It’s okay to not be as lean anymore! In fact, it’s encouraged!

The body cannot sustain that type of leanness forever, at least not healthfully. You would be living in misery for the rest of your life if you tried to maintain a look like that year-round. It’s not sustainable, don’t even get it in your head that it is.

Unfortunately, this is what can cause or exacerbate body image issues in some people. They created this “new normal” for themselves, and now that they are not there anymore, they may resort to unhealthy tactics to try to get back to that look again, long before the body has recovered from the intense preparation is was previously put through.

It’s Not For Everybody

Unfortunately, this isn’t for everybody. Competing in physique sports is extremely tough. Many people overlook the mental strength and fortitude that it actually takes to succeed. Most only look at the physical aspect, which is understandable. But it’s more than just vanity, I promise you.

Don’t get me wrong, taking part in physique competitions comes with great benefits as well! Mental toughness, perseverance, discipline, I could go on. These aspects of your character translate over to other areas of your life as well, which makes it even better.

Final Words…

I saw an interview not too long ago where an IFBB pro bodybuilder was asked “Would you ever have your son compete in bodybuilding when he gets older?” His answer surprised me, saying “Absolutely not. It fucks you up mentally. A lot.”

Now of course this is just one perspective, but a very interesting message is portrayed here.

If you want to try it, than by all means, I’m for it. But don’t go into this expecting it to be some cakewalk. Yes, it is fun. Yes, striking the poses in front of hundreds (sometimes thousands) of cheering fans is exciting. But please, for the love of God, make sure you are mentally prepared. It can even mess with the mental health of those who are considered in good mental health, such as myself.

Just be careful. Knowing all this, you’ll have a good time, and stay healthy in the process.

If you enjoyed this, please don’t be shy and share this with your fellow competitors to get the message across! Talk to you all soon! 😁

Is Bodybuilding ACTUALLY a Sport?

This is something that has received quite a bit of controversy over the past few years as bodybuilding has grown in popularity. Is bodybuilding an actual sport, or is it mostly a “beauty pageant”, as those who criticize the sport like to call it.

Well to find that out, it would be pretty helpful to look at the definition of sport.

If you look up the definition on Google, the noun “sport” means:


“An activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.”

Google Search, 2019

So if we go solely off of this definition, I would say that bodybuilding most certainly IS a sport. Posing involves physical exertion as well as both gross and finite motor skills. The individuals taking part in the competition receive scores against one another in order to determine the victor.

Image result for bodybuilding score

Alright, it’s sold. Bodybuilding is a sport.

Hold On, Not So Fast

You really thought that was the end of the story? Here at Scholarly Muscle, there’s always multiple facets to the argument!

What sets bodybuilding apart from other quote unquote “sports” is its lack of objectivity.

What I mean by this is that bodybuilding judges come from various origins, backgrounds, upbringings, and experience. With this in mind, there are multiple ways that the competition can go. You can have the same exact two competitors standing next to one another, and two different judges could declare a different victor, simply because of the differences they both have in their experiences.

It’s All Objective

In most sports, both team and individual, there’s a clear winner and a clear loser. This is usually defined by a point system, though they usually vary, they mostly work the same, with the highest amount of points, runs, goals, etc. winning (with the exception being something like golf where the lowest score wins).

No matter the bias of the officials, coaches, or whomever else, the winners and losers of these events are very clear (barring any sort of scandals or cheating of course).

Here’s Where It Gets Tricky

The part of bodybuilding that gets quite tricky lies in the fact that the preparation and training for the event can be considered objective.

Training for competition involves weight training, cardio, diet manipulations, supplements, etc. These are all very objective measures:

  • Weight Training: load, volume, sets, reps, rest time, etc.
  • Cardio: duration, intensity, speed, incline, intervals, etc.
  • Diet: macronutrients, micronutrients, vitamins, minerals, meal timing, etc.
  • Supplements: timing, dosage, cycling, etc.

All of these factors are quantitative sets of data that can only be analyzed for what it is: data. So can you judge bodybuilding solely by the training methods associated with it? Or can you only judge it based off of the competition itself?

It’s Probably Not a Sport

I think most people would say that it’s not a sport due to the fact that you must judge it off of the competition itself, which I would completely agree with. And even though the argument of subjectivity vs. objectivity isn’t mentioned directly in the definition of sport, it’s heavily implied, at least in most people’s minds. Because of this, I don’t think it’s worth arguing any further because…

Who the Hell Cares?

Does it really matter if it’s a sport or not? If you enjoy doing it, and you view it as a form of entertainment, then why does a simple classification affect whether or not you garner enjoyment out of something?

For some reason, this really affects people (especially bodybuilders), feeling the need to heavily defend the fact that it is in fact a sport. When you think about it, there’s a lot of things going against it in that argument.

Let’s take powerlifting for example, what I believe to be the most closely related strength sport to bodybuilding. I’d say this is the objective version of what bodybuilding is. Training styles are similar (but most certainly not identical) and a surplus of muscle mass is standard for these activities.

However, in powerlifting, judges score based off of the weights lifted across the three lifts of the deadlift, bench press, and the squat. There’s clear criteria as to what constitutes a successful attempt and what doesn’t, and there’s clear rules established as for what’s allowed and not allowed to be used, such as particular pieces of equipment or aids.

When it comes to bodybuilding, there are many more factors at play that hinder its objectivity. For example, during the “most muscular” pose, bodybuilders are allowed to hit their choice of various poses that constitute it as a “most muscular”. Because of this, this allows them to hide their weaknesses and showcase their strengths more easily. Yes, there are standard rounds of symmetry and comparison that take this into account, but still, it’s something that should be noted.

Image result for bodybuilding most muscular

Do What You Love!

So at the end of the day, who cares?! Do what you enjoy, and if it’s a “beauty pageant” than so be it. There’s no room for homophobia in 2019 anyway.

If you guys enjoyed this article, please let me know what you think! Do you think bodybuilding is a sport or not? And why do you think so?

Use These 4 Methods to Help You Survive Intermittent Fasting!

In a previous article I’ve written, I talked about intermittent fasting and how it’s not the magical weight loss solution that many tout it to be. While this may be the case, I didn’t eliminate its usefulness entirely.

Image result for intermittent fasting

A Quick Refresher

First, let’s recap what exactly intermittent fasting is…

Although there are several variations of the diet that exist, the most popular and one that we’ll focus on here is called the 16/8 fasting protocol. It’s pretty self-explanatory, where you fast for 16 hours during the day and you have an 8-hour “feeding window” where you fit all of your regularly scheduled meals.

It’s become quite popular due to its touted health benefits, such as improvements in cholesterol and fasting blood glucose. However, there’s still a lot of research that has to be conducted in this realm, as many of the results come from animal models, and we are now just starting to see similar results replicated in humans. So for now, we can take the results with a grain of salt.

And it’s become increasingly popular in the fitness industry because of its claims to help you burn more fat faster than a traditional diet. This is where the problem lies.

This simply isn’t true, as stated by notable exercise scientist Brad Schoenfeld and colleagues, viewing the concept of fat-burning over a span of only 24 hours is extremely shortsighted. If one is burning more fat during one period, the body will compensate by burning more carbs during the other, and vice versa. See where I’m getting at here?

My Own Experience

I’ve actually been experimenting with it myself during my contest prep, and let me tell you, it’s helped a lot.

And let me reiterate this one more time for you guys, it is not because it is a magical diet that will “annihilate fat” or some other nonsense like that. Instead, let me explain to you how it’s helped me in a more practical sense.

It Fits My Lifestyle

As proven by science, the key factor to success in any diet is adherence. This is what makes or breaks a person’s success to achieving their fat-loss goals.

And intermittent fasting just happened to be the strategy for me that helped me to adhere to a calorie-restricted diet better than any other. Personally, I like to eat bigger meals. Especially when the calories begin to drop, I’m not really an avid fan of eating rabbit-sized meals every 2-3 hours (plus, the concept of meal frequency “speeding up your metabolism” has been debunked for quite a while now).

It Helps Me Keep My Relationship with Food Intact

We all love food, don’t we? Especially for those of us who are into competing and are experienced with very-restrictive dieting, it can really damage the once healthy relationship that we had with food.

For me, fasting helped me keep my mind off of food. Instead of constantly thinking about eating all day, as I’m used to eating more frequently throughout the day, it helped me to apply my thoughts towards other priorities that I had.

I would often hold off eating until around 2 p.m or so, sometimes even later. Because of this, I was able to concentrate on my morning tasks, such as doing cardio, running errands, and working on my online business. It helped me to be more efficient, as I wasn’t stuck on the thought of eating or even prepping food for that morning or early afternoon.

It Lets Me Eat Bigger Meals

Okay, maybe not that big…

Again, it lets me eat much larger meals during times of restrictive dieting. To many, this can feel a lot more satisfying afterwards compared to the empty feeling one may have after eating such a small portion of food.

The Problem(s) with Intermittent Fasting

While I may be making this sound like rainbows and unicorns right now, the fact of the matter is intermittent fasting can be tough at times, especially at the beginning.

Hunger

Often, people can’t get used to the feeling of hunger in the mornings, especially if there avid fans of a bigger breakfast. Many people can get past this feeling after getting accustomed to the diet, but for some, they just can’t stick to it. That’s completely fine, that just means this specific diet is not for them.

Luckily for me, I’ve never really been a fan of eating breakfast, so this works perfectly for me.

Social Acceptance

Sometimes this style of eating can cause complications with one’s schedule, particularly around social events.

For example, it may be viewed as impolite when you go out to lunch with your boss and you just order a water or black coffee. This may make you feel awkward or uncomfortable.

The same goes for breakfast. Maybe on Sundays you and your friends all like to go out to brunch (I don’t judge). This usually doesn’t fit within most people’s fasting windows, but it can if you coordinate it correctly.

And that brings me to this point…

You Don’t Have to Follow it to the Tee

People get really stressed out when they can’t follow this diet exactly as they planned it. Maybe they started eating with 30 minutes left in the fast. Maybe they put a little milk in their coffee in the morning by mistake. But trust me, IT’S OKAY!

Those who are only concerned with the metabolic benefits shown in the scientific studies should be the ones focusing more precisely on the nooks and crannies of the diet, as opposed to those who are simply trying to lose fat.

I technically “break my fast” all the time during my fasting windows. I also break my fast at different times during the day, depending on what my schedule looks like.

I tell you this because I want you to understand that as long as you’re following the general fundamentals of the diet, you’ll still receive its benefits.

4 Hacks to Help You Implement This Diet

If after all I’ve explained thus far and you’re still not interested, I understand. You can stop reading this now.

But for those who are willing to try this out for themselves and see if it’s right for them, then read on! As I tell you 5 of the “tricks” that I use to make adhering to this diet a bit easier.

1. Diet Soda

This works for any other carbonated beverage as well, as long as it’s zero calories. And no, artificial sweeteners don’t raise insulin levels, like you may have been lead to believe.

I find that drinking these throughout the day, particularly during my fasts, gives my body the feeling of fullness for a little while. Usually, I do this when it’s close for my fasting window to end, around lunchtime.

Just always make sure to look at the nutrition label before choosing your beverage. Some drinks, such as Diet Mountain Dew, contain a bit more calories than most, about 10 calories per 20 oz. While this may seem negligible, this can add up if you’re guzzling the stuff and not keeping track of it.

2. Pickles

Yep, you heard me right. Pickles…

But Zach, don’t these technically have calories. Why yes, fellow reader, they do. But think about this for a second. It’s a cucumber, which is a green vegetable. Green vegetables are naturally low in calories, so it’s very difficult to overeat on them.

Can you see a common theme here with these tips? It’s that a high amount of food volume is what is going to affect your feeling of fullness, or satiety, not the number of calories in the food. That’s what your stomach is, a volume counter, not a calorie counter.

But Zach, isn’t all that sodium found in pickles bad for you brahh? Not in the way that you may think…

It’s really only bad if you are what they call in the scientific literature “salt-sensitive”. These are people who are especially sensitive to the effects of sodium on their blood pressure, often people who are hypertensive already. Those who are salt-sensitive are estimated to account for about 25% of the population.

If you’re not one of those people, then you don’t have anything to worry about. And plus, as with many things in life, use moderation. Anything in excess usually isn’t good for you, including water.

3. Walden Farms

I am freakin’ in love with this stuff. If you haven’t heard of them, go give them a try. Basically, they make various salad dressings, condiments, syrups, and other goodies, all with ZERO CALORIES! I’ve been putting the Italian dressing on my chicken and vegetables and it’s been absolutely killing my cravings.

Now, I’m gonna be real with you here. It’s not exactly zero calories, as FDA labeling guidelines allow for anything less than 5 calories per serving to be labeled as zero. However, these calories are quite insignificant, given how great they actually taste. These certainly make dieting a hell of a lot easier.

But How Would I Use This During My Fast?

Some of their products, like the chocolate dip and cinnamon raisin peanut butter, allow you to eat it straight from the jar! Often times, it’s the taste of the product that will allow you to kill the craving you have during that moment, which you may have mistaken for hunger.

4. Coffee

Ahh yes, that good ole’ cup o’ Joe.

A lot of people use it as their morning staple, but did you know it can actually help you out in your fat-loss goals as well?

Much of it has to do with caffeine and its effects on appetite suppression, but researchers are now beginning to discover how another non-caffeine ingredient in coffee blunts hunger levels as well. This means that even decaf coffee can have similar effects compared to regular caffeinated coffee in terms of regulating your hunger. More research needs to be conducted for sure, as they’re still trying to figure out what that ingredient is exactly, but it looks quite promising.

Conclusion

So give it a shot and see if this diet is right for you. If it’s not, no big deal. But you won’t know for sure until you try.

Let me know how it works out for you in the comments section below!

Social Media: How’s it Affecting Our Performance in the Gym?

Let’s face it, you’re probably one of the 99% of my readers who are using social media on a consistent basis. More specifically, a daily basis.

In the world of fitness, bodybuilding, CrossFit, you name it, Instagram is the place to be for it.

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You’ve got your “fit-chicks” and dudes juiced up to the gills, all the way to your average Joe just looking to document his journey into the big, scary world of fitness. There’s so much variety out there, that there’s bound to be something for everyone.

But is it too much variety? Are we being bombarded with too much information? Too much “fitspiration?”

The Psychological Aspect

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How can this so-called “information overload” be affecting our mental health? It can’t be good for us, can it? Well, just like with everything in life, it’s not so black-and-white?

In all honesty, it’s very difficult to tell, because there are so many different variables at play:

And I could go on and on about this. Many casual female users of Instagram (those who seem to scroll through rather than post content) seem to have an issue with the content released by other female “influencers”, as it often includes similar themes; sexually suggestive images/poses, emphasizing appearance-related ideals, all in an effort to promote a product a large majority of the time. And I’m not alientating here either, men are just as guilty of this.

Now, don’t get me wrong, promoting oneself and their products via social media is not a problem in its own right. The problem occurs when people are giving excessive credit to a product that helped them build and produce the body that they possess. Even though this sort of dishonest marketing has always existed in the fitness industry, social media gives it a whole new depth on which to thrive.

A Money-Making Machine

If you’ve been an avid reader of my content, you know how I feel about most sports supplements: Garbage

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There are exceptions. Feel free to take your multivitamins, fish oils, protein, creatine, and several other scientifically-backed ingredients in order to boost your performance, along with some other supplements to relieve any deficiencies in nutrients that you may have.

But you know what I’m talking about here as it pertains to social media. The constant bombardment of detox teas, testosterone boosters, weight-loss aids, and other supplements that have zero evidence that they work!

The problem here is that the body is a great selling tool. A great physique is powerful. It illustrates hard work and intelligence. It tells their audience that they are an individual who is experienced and knows what they are talking about. And a lot of the time, that’s very true.

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It does take intelligence, patience, hard work, and a whole slew of other positive qualities in a person to build and form an appreciable physique. But what’s also true is that one can turn this intelligence and use it for the sake of pure monetary gain.

“Money talks”, as they say. Usually, most of those who start out on Instagram or any other social media platform have the best of intentions. They aim to document their progress; share with you how they got to where they are. And given, there are people out there just like that, selling products and services they truly believe in and that have worked for hundreds of thousands of people.

But most of the time, they sign contracts and deals with companies who look to prey on the desperation and innocence of others. The point here?

ALWAYS BE SKEPTICAL!

Always do your research before investing into a product or service that somebody on social media is promoting. Whether it be a scientific study on a particular supplement, or reviews of a person’s training programs, always arm yourself with the knowledge before you invest your hard-earned money.

So Are There Any Benefits to Social Media?

Alright, enough of being a negative Nancy (for now). Of course, not all of social media is bad. There are plus sides of having access to a vast array of people and information at your fingertips.

The Information

You have access to so much information out there, it’s unfathomable. A valuable skill that you need to develop here is how to cycle through what’s good, and what’s crap.

This can be tough to do since there are so many different kinds of people out there that exist on social media. So the only real practical piece of advice that I can give you is to follow certain accounts from different parts of the fitness community for a little while; maybe a bodybuilder, then a bikini competitor, a science nerd, a dietician, you get the idea.

Follow people from a variety of different subcategories in the fitness community and over time you’ll see who’s providing valuable information to you, and who’s just trying to shove their BS product or service down your throat.

The Motivation

Can many people on Instagram be fake as shit? Sure.

But, what Instagram is a great place for is motivation. As I’ve discussed previously, it takes pure discipline to achieve the majority of your success.

But motivation is still a piece of the “success” equation. We can’t rule it out entirely. None of us out there are “self-made”. We all receive influences from others in one way or another, whether it be from family members, friends, celebreties, and yes, even Instagram “influencers.”

There are some days where you really don’t want to train. You’re too tired. You’re too hungry. There are some days you really don’t want to stick to your diet. You’re miserable. You feel like you’re being deprived.

But sometimes all it takes is looking at the hardships and struggles that somebody else has gone through, even if you don’t know them. Instagram provides us with such a powerful tool to see this all unfold; visual images and videos.

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For many, this is so much more meaningful then just the written word.

Keeping Up with New Products and Services

Yeah, yeah, I know I just completely bashed this earlier, but there are actually some good products and services out there in this field!

DISCLAIMER!!!

Anything I’m about to mention here I am not paid to advertise or endorse, these are my true opinions of what I believe to be good examples of paid services in the fitness niche.

Coaching Services

Let’s take Mike Matthews, owner of Legion Athletics, for example.

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This man created a very honest and down-to-earth supplement company, even stating that supplementation is a very small piece of the equation when it comes down to your muscle-building and fat-loss goals. He also makes blogs and offers coaching services based around the science that his company uses to formulate its supplements, as well as his own anecdotal experiences in the realms of training himself and others.

Go check him out at @muscleforlifefitness

Nutritional Information

Although very controversial, a name that pops into my mind is Layne Norton for this category.

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He has a PhD in Nutritional Sciences, and is also a champion bodybuilder and powerlifter. Many feel that his approach is too bashful (which I can agree it can be at times), but it provides a unique twist and insight into the info that exists on sports nutrition.

Go check him out at @biolayne

The Bottom Line

So as you can see, there’s no simple one-size-fits-all answer to this very broad question. Social media is going to affect everybody differently. Some people even prefer not to use it at all. And that’s okay!

What I want you to take out of this is that as long as social media provides value to you and you use it in moderation just like anything and everything else in life, then you’ll be okay.

Agree or disagree with any of my points? Let me know in the comments!

Refeeds and Cheat Meals: Are They Really Necessary?

It’s almost that time of the year. Many people will begin to end their bulks and shed the blubber that they put on over the winter.

I may have taken my last bulk a little too far…

The diet usually starts out simply enough. You’ll begin by dropping the calories. You start to see gradual but consistent changes. You decide to amp things up and include some more cardio into your plan as well. The scale begins to budge faster now, things are going quite well.

But then…

BAM! Like a freight train, it hits you. You hit that dreaded wall. You’ve reached the infamous plateau.

You’re not losing weight anymore. Your performance is declining. You always seem to be in a sour mood. You need to be drinking coffee every hour on the hour in order to just survive the day.

So what do you do? Drop the calories even more? No, you say to yourself, you’re already hungry as it is, and this will just exacerbate that issue.

How about more cardio? Hell no! You’re tired as it is already, you feel like you can’t manage any more of an increase in activity.

Well, my friends, there may be a solution out there that you may have heard of but never tried before.

Refeeds and Cheat Meals

These are two different types of dieting strategies used to combat this plateau. But what are they and how do they work?

Well before we dive into each of the strategies, let’s examine what exactly the function and purpose of them are.

Leptin and Ghrelin

These are two potent “hunger hormones” in your body that regulate appetite and energy balance within the body. Both leptin and ghrelin directly contrast one another.

Simply put, a drop in leptin signals for hunger while a drop in ghrelin would signal that you are satisfied or full, and vice versa.

As you progress further and further into your diet, leptin will continue to drop. This is what causes that intensifying hunger and drop in metabolic rate. Cheat meals and refeeds would theoretically combat this issue. But the caveat here is that we have to find the right balance. We have to eat just enough more to reaccelerate our fat loss, but not too much that we throw off our calorie balance and end up gaining fat. This is the trickiest part for most people.

Cheat Meals

This is the one that most people are familiar with. But notice a subtle detail here. I said MEALS, not DAYS. Trust me, no matter how far you are in your diet, you DO NOT NEED an entire day to break your plateau. That’s just ridiculous, and most often just an excuse to eat like a pig and not stay disciplined.

This method often doesn’t utilize calorie or macro tracking and is usually pre-planned as well. Depending on the macronutrient composition of the meal, it has the potential to raise leptin and provide psychological relief to the dieter.

However, the problem here lies in the fact that as cheat meals become increasingly popularized and endorsed (particularly in social media), the risk for developing eating disorders increases, such as binging episodes. As we continue to diet, we want our relationship with food to remain healthy. Remember, beyond the vanity of this endeavor, we are also doing this for the betterment of our health.

Plus, the use of the word “cheat” creates its own set of problems. This also has the potential to damage ones’ relationship with food, as the word “cheat” has a negative connotation and stigma attached to it. People have often referred to this type of meal as a “free meal” in order to remove that taboo.

Refeeds

This is where refeeds come into the picture.

Think of this strategy as the more balanced and planned out version of a cheat meal. Basically, it is an increase in one’s calories by only increasing carbs. Protein is often set to around 1 gram per pound of body weight, and fat is dropped anywhere between 25-50 grams per day to make room for more calories from carbs. Calories are increased to about 20-30% above the person’s calorie deficit.

Just note that these are ballpark figures and that there are no scientific studies out (yet!) that have determined a “best number” of macronutrients and calories to consume for a refeed. This requires constant experimentation and monitoring of one’s own physique and performance over time.

Now what’s the benefit of doing this over a flat-out cheat meal?

Well, you’ll increase leptin more so than cheat meals would. Carbs have been shown to increase leptin far more significantly than dietary fats do. In one study, leptin was increased by 28% after a carbohydrate overfeeding compared to fats which didn’t even increase leptin to a statistically significant level.

Plus, it’s more structured manner allows you to more easily track what is working and what isn’t. When you’re utilizing cheat meals, it’s not as easy to see what foods make you perform and look better, as you’re most likely not tracking them either.

But with refeeds, you’re able to modify and adjust the amount and type of carbs that you’re using, as fats and proteins remain constant. That’s one of the most important things to do when performing experiments, even on yourself; keep as many variables as constant as possible.

But It’s Not All Black-and-White Either…

As with anything in fitness and bodybuilding, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Those who prefer cheat meals may not have any psychological issues with food whatsoever and find that it works better for their particular physique and increases their motivation. That’s fine. You have to do what works for you.

But others may find that once they get off track one time, they develop that all-or-nothing mentality and begin to binge and use it as an excuse to fall off of their plan. Try both of them a couple of times and see which one works better for you.

How Often Should I Utilize These Strategies?

Depending on which one you decide to choose, frequency is going to differ.

If you go the cheat meal route, I’d stick to a more pre-planned route. I would pick a certain day of the week to use it (probably a weekend day) and use it as the last meal of the day. This reduces the chances of excessive binging later in the day and allows you to start fresh the next day.

If you’re prepping for a contest or photoshoot, I’d switch to the refeed strategy for the last 2-3 weeks, as you want the most control possible as you get closer to your deadline. But if you’re just dieting with no set deadline, then experiment and determine which frequency is best for you. The leaner you get (sub-10% body fat), the more often you’ll need to implement them.

Before I learned about refeeds…

If you go the refeed route, I’d start out with once a week after you’ve been in a deficit for about 2 months or so. You don’t really need it that much before this point, depending on how lean you start the diet. Just like with the cheat meal route, the leaner you are, the more often you’ll need to implement them. As you get to the 8-10% body fat range, you’ll probably need to do it 2x/week.

Final Thoughts

So again, you’ll really need to try these out on yourself in order to see which one works best for you. The scientific community is finally beginning to look at this in the bodybuilding and fitness community, so expect to see some interesting revelations in the industry relatively soon.

Do you use refeeds or cheat meals (or both?) If so, which one do you prefer? Let me know in the comments!

Don’t forget to follow me on Instagram @zach.macdonald

Overcoming Sadness, Lonliness, & Depression

“What the hell does this have to do with lifting and performance”? You’re probably asking yourself. Well, more than you might think.

It’s Not Just About the Physical

It’s not all about just what’s on the outside. It’s not all about your performance on the field. It’s about what’s going up on in there; in that noggin of yours.

In the world of performance and physique enhancement, it can be too easy to get all caught up in the vanity and aesthetics. We do everything we can to improve in every which way physically, but what’s all that for if you’re all fucked up mentally and emotionally?

Side Note For the Bros

Guys, I need you to listen here especially. There’s NOTHING wrong with wanting to talk about your mental and emotional health. It’s a serious matter.

Don’t ever think that it’s “unmanly” or “gay” to have the need to talk about these things (plus, there’s nothing wrong with being gay anyway). It can be quite debilitating at times. Dealing with things like anxiety, depression, and loneliness is no easy feat. However, I want you to know that you’re not alone.

It’s Gonna Happen At Some Point

Something will happen in your life; whether it be the death of a family member, breaking up with your significant other, getting fired from your job, or some other major life event, that will cause you to lose sight. It’ll cause you pain. It’ll cause you to suffer. Hell, it might not even be due to a singular event. It could be a condition you’ve been suffering from for quite a while now.

No, it’s not pretty. It’s not easy. Some people may not even understand or be there for you. But I promise you there is always somebody that is. There’s always ways to make it better.

How Can I Feel Better Now?

I’m here to tell you the ways in which you can do that. Let’s dive right in:

Exercise

Ah-hah! You knew I was gonna slap this one right in there. In terms of depression, unfortunately, the data on resistance training and its effects on its treatment are lacking. However, what we do know is that the most effective exercise intervention for the treatment of depression in the literature is aerobic training [1]. The best programs consisted of the following variables:

  1. 3-4x/week
  2. 30-40 minutes per session
  3. Low-moderate intensity (ranging from a brisk walk to jogging at about 50-60% intensity)
  4. Perform for at least 9 weeks

So as you can see, it doesn’t take much. Simply taking the time to walk a few times a week can pay dividends to your mental health. Especially after a traumatic event, every little bit helps.

However, if you feel like resistance training suits you better (I feel like that personally), then go for it! I find the concentration it takes to focus on the task I’m about to perform (especially on compound lifts) is especially helpful for me to put my brain power into something else entirely, even if it’s just for a few moment.

Whatever works for you, just go do it!

Talk Therapy

No, you don’t have to go beg your insurance provider to have them cover a psychiatrist for you. When I say “talk therapy”, I mean talk to anybody you feel most comfortable with. This could be your family, significant other, best friend, hell, even one of your professors if that’s the kind of relationship you have with them. A lot more people care about you than you might think.

Think about how lucky we are to live in the day and age that we do. With all this modern technology, there are more options than ever to be able to connect with others. You can find forums dedicated to your specific condition or feeling, you can find private Facebook groups, even apps!

For instance, there is an app currently in development called Psychologist in a Pocket (PiaP), that utilizes the technology of lexicon synthesis (human vocabulary and speech) in order to detect symptoms of possible clinical conditions and connect you with the right provider who can help you to feel better [2].

Side Note: Didn’t get paid to mention that app, I just think it’s really freakin’ cool.

So don’t rule out any of these options until you’ve tried them for yourself. The results just may surprise you.

Supplements

Yeah, yeah, I know. Many of you will write this one off right away. How can a freakin’ supplement help me feel happier?

However, there have been some supplements that have shown in the literature to either work in isolation or with anti-depressive drugs to help cope with depressive symptoms. Those are:

SAMe (Pronounced “Sammy”)

S-adenosyl Methionine, also known as SAMe, has been shown to improve depressive symptoms over placebo after 12 weeks of treatment [3]. This was measured by a validated scale called the Hamilton Depression Rating Scale, which is used as a standard of measure for depression in various depression treatment studies.

How Much To Take?

1600-3200mg/day

Kava

This herb is becoming a popular anxiety reducer, as well as even a mood-booster. In fact, 300mg per day was shown to elevate mood and cheerfulness in healthy individuals without any existing depression or anxiety disorders [4].

Also, it seems to benefit those with anxiety disorders as well, as supplementation significantly improved their conditions after 8 weeks of daily use [5].

How Much To Take

300mg/day

Saffron

This spice is quite fascinating. In fact, it has been touted as being as powerful as the depressive drugs fluoxetine and imipramine. A meta-analysis revealed this, as it looked at 5 randomized controlled trials of saffron [6]. They discovered that saffron was much better than placebo at treating depression and that it was equal to the previously mentioned depressive drugs. For a supplement, this is quite powerful stuff.

How Much To Take?

30mg/day

Psychiatrist

If all else fails, go see a professional. There’s only so much you can do before you have to eventually call in the experts. They’ll be able to prescribe you drugs that may help you in conjunction with supplemental therapy, as well as other treatment options such as cognitive behavior therapy in conjunction with medication.

DON’T Force Yourself to Feel Happy

I know it can be tempting, but don’t try to make yourself feel happy when you really can’t. The energy it takes to “fake it till you make it” can be really draining, plus, it won’t solve the true problem. Basically, forcing yourself to be happy is like placing a small butterfly bandage over a 2nd degree burn; it ain’t doing much.

Instead, realize that the sooner you realize something’s wrong and that you need help, the sooner you’ll feel better. There’s no scientific data to back this one up. Sorry guys, there’s nothing I can do about that. However, trust me on this one; I’ve been through it as I’m sure you guys have as well. Get help. Don’t wait.

References

  1. Stanton, R., & Reaburn, P. (2014). Exercise and the treatment of depression: A review of the exercise program variables. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 17(2), 177-182. doi:10.1016/j.jsams.2013.03.010
  2. Cheng, P. G., Ramos, R. M., Bitsch, J. Á, Jonas, S. M., Ix, T., See, P. L., & Wehrle, K. (2016). Psychologist in a Pocket: Lexicon Development and Content Validation of a Mobile-Based App for Depression Screening. JMIR MHealth and UHealth, 4(3). doi:10.2196/mhealth.5284
  3. Sarris, J., Papakostas, G. I., Vitolo, O., Fava, M., & Mischoulon, D. (2014). S-adenosyl methionine (SAMe) versus escitalopram and placebo in major depression RCT: Efficacy and effects of histamine and carnitine as moderators of response. Journal of Affective Disorders, 164, 76-81. doi:10.1016/j.jad.2014.03.041
  4. Thompson, R., Ruch, W., & Hasenöhrl, R. U. (2004). Enhanced cognitive performance and cheerful mood by standardized extracts ofPiper methysticum(Kava-kava). Human Psychopharmacology: Clinical and Experimental, 19(4), 243-250. doi:10.1002/hup.581
  5. Volz, H., & Kieser, M. (1997). Kava-kava Extract WS 1490 versus Placebo in Anxiety Disorders – A Randomized Placebo-controlled 25-week Outpatient Trial. Pharmacopsychiatry, 30(01), 1-5. doi:10.1055/s-2007-979474
  6. Hausenblas, H. A., Saha, D., Dubyak, P. J., & Anton, S. D. (2013). Saffron (Crocus sativus L.) and major depressive disorder: A meta-analysis of randomized clinical trials. Journal of Integrative Medicine,11(6), 377-383. doi:10.3736/jintegrmed2013056