“Don’t worry about it yet,” Stronger By Science Ep. #62–Energy Deficiency, Training Frequency, and Beginner Gains

I’m an avid listener to the SBS Pod, but I don’t usually feel comfortable adding my commentary. I’m not a statistician or scientist, and it’s out of my wheelhouse to interpret data. However, this week’s podcast is a Q&A, and that means it includes conversations about applying an evidence-based approach to our training, and THAT is in my wheelhouse!

The first conversation (56 min) I wanted to discuss is about newbie gains that ends up in a discussion of training age which I think is really important. Those of us with a tendency towards goal-setting are prone to making efforts to estimate our relative training ages. The usual thinking is along the lines of 1) how much I can progress decreases over time therefore 2) if I can compare myself to other folks with similar amounts of training, I should be able to assess where I fall on that spectrum and evaluate my progress over time. Training age, is of course, a mental construct. We are looking for an heuristic to help us contextualize the pattern of gaining strength and muscle mass relatively more easily in the beginning of a trainee’s efforts and how that progress seems to slow as it reaches the natural limits of their physiology. One important element I don’t think we yet have the data for is guessing what the slope of that line is–how gradual or rapid the growth will be–before it begins to approach the asymptote. I have often wondered if we assume rapidly greater gains at the beginning, rather than slow and steady gains over a longer period of time, because of self-selection–folks who see rapid growth early are going to be more motivated to stick around and keep lifting.

In any case, if we’re trying to figure out how much progress we have yet to look forward to, training age isn’t the only meaningful factor, and Eric mentions the importance of proper programming and adequate nutrition that can impact how much we grow early in our training. In my own case, I know that another complicating factor they didn’t mention has been managing chronic illnesses and the physical limitations that can come with repeated surgeries, medication changes and the like. I truly have no idea how to estimate my “training age” given the many ups and downs in my ability to train regularly and with intensity over the years. I have been in the gym lifting weights for maybe 7 years now, but the frequency, intensity and programming has had to be dictated by these physical limitations. How does someone with a less consistent, less linear training history evaluate where they are at in the journey and how much strength they yet have to build? I don’t think science has any answers for that.

Then the talk of newbie gains transitions into a conversation about puberty, and they lose major points on the Hundtoft-Bechdel test(1). I wish Eric and Greg had included females and other folks who are not testosterone-dominant in this discussion. Instead, they only discuss how boys can build strength, but are unlikely to have significant hypertrophy before their voices have changed and undergone other signals of later puberty. My own observations of middle-school athletes would suggest that some of my girls are already ready to build muscle by the age of 12 or so, while others may not be there until a few years later. I have witnessed a shift in their frames around this age, from very small and “little girl” looking to a more mature, fuller body with wider hips and shoulders. I would guess that these changes would also indicate an increase in muscle mass, although I haven’t heard anyone evidence-based discuss it. I wonder if the research is out there, or if young female athletes have mostly been left out of research of this nature?

Finally, I want to note their conversation answering my question about Pontzer’s research which I discussed in my book review of Burn. I hope that Greg and Eric do come back to this research and explore it more in-depth. If I understand Ponzter correctly, I feel that they didn’t quite address his main point, which is that habitual levels of activity are compensated for in how we “spend” our energies. It is my understanding that his constrained energy model does not suggest we don’t burn extra calories for discrete periods of increased activity (like running a marathon), but that over time, as we habituate to our training, our calorie expenditure returns closer to the original energy usage over time. So, if we would train for marathons habitually (for the record, please don’t sign me up!), then we would expect to use less energy than predicted based on previous models of total energy expenditure. I look forward to hearing how Greg and Eric make sense of this longer-term adaptation, assuming I’m understanding it correctly! And if I’m misunderstanding, I look forward to having a deeper understanding of the model and how it applies to recreational athletes.

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(1) The Hundtoft-Bechdel test is my (admittedly hacky) effort to give praise (or more likely, shade) to evidence-based fitness communicators who succeed (or the degree to which they fail) to include women in their conversations about weight lifting and strength. Pass the Hundtoft-Bechdel test by including all people in your data, not just men, especially when the sentence includes gender-neutral subject words like “someone.” The original Bechdel test is the far-cleverer creation of Alison Bechdel to help identify films that represent women outside the context of their interactions with men.

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