Protein supplements and other topics

From HARDGAINER issue #57

By Rich Rydin and Dave Maurice

Protein supplements

What about the different types of protein supplements, e.g., ion exchange whey protein? Is there really any value in these different types of protein relative to that found in milk, eggs, fish, etc., assuming that the individual can digest those foods normally?

Our position concerning protein supplements has not changed in the past ten years despite the increasing number of clever advertisements. We keep reading the same old arguments and we keep seeing the same old results. If there is any added value in protein supplements beyond convenience, it doesn’t seem to manifest itself in any extra muscle mass.

We won’t comment on any particular protein supplements; however, we will share several facts about protein that may help in your decision. The idea that only “complete” proteins can be absorbed is a myth. The body does not reject a particular protein just because one or more amino acids are present in a lower than ideal quantity. Furthermore, you don’t need to supply more of the limiting amino within minutes or risk losing the benefit of the protein consumed. The body is quite capable of storing (for hours) whatever proteins are available in the food you consume, and will continue to search for those that it needs. Finally, once the protein has left the small intestine and entered the portal system, it is indistinguishable by source.


Celebrity nonsense

A training celebrity is said to have performed some of his exercises upside down, supposedly to produce a better blood supply to a given area. It is said that he had some equipment specially made to permit this type of training. Is there any validity in training upside down?

Let’s take a look at what muscles could possibly be better supplied by turning the body upside down—perhaps small portions of the trapezius and levator scapulae and numerous odd neck muscles like sternocleidomastoid and splenius capitis. If you hang your arms down, you could have more blood pool in them as well. But none of these muscles or parts of muscles are large enough to ever tax the circulatory capability of the heart. In other words, even if an insufficient blood supply somehow limited training, it wouldn’t be very likely that any of these muscles would face such a problem.

There is nothing that we’ve ever seen which suggests that engorging muscles with blood benefits muscle growth. Furthermore, it is unlikely that you could safely load these muscles to a higher degree in an inverted position, so it all seems rather pointless.

Unlike bats, humans are physiologically adapted to walk upright, not hang from things. The control of cranial blood pressure is a tricky business and even small imbalances can cause serious headache pain. We don’t even like decline bench presses; dips are easier on the old noggin. The idea of intentionally over-pressurizing the cranial cavity by inverting, and then performing some strenuous exercise, seems like a recipe for an aneurism.


Shoulder problems

I hurt my left shoulder bench pressing. I had a good day in the gym and was totally unaware that I hurt myself until the next day. Why didn’t I feel the injury when I did it?

How do you know that it was bench pressing that hurt your shoulder? When we read your question as written, we have no idea what else you did in the gym, what else you did during the day, or even the nature of the injury. It is even possible that you slept in a strange position and aggravated your shoulder as a result.

Maybe you did hurt your shoulder bench pressing. The immediate pain indication may have been below your pain threshold, or simply ignored due to adrenaline or what we term “misplaced testosterone.” Why would there be a delay? Injured tissue (bruises) pools blood which causes swelling. The consequent pressure exerted on neighboring tissues could induce a sensation of pain later. As long as there is continued muscle contraction, i.e., for the duration of your workout, it is possible that such pooling of blood and consequent swelling was minimal. Following completion of your workout, the injured muscle may have tightened up. Subsequent motion of the joint may be painful due to the stiff muscle causing an unnatural joint rotation and distribution of forces within the joint.

While we can’t know whether it was benching that hurt your shoulder, there are numerous ways to damage your shoulders when bench pressing. One way is to exceed your natural range of motion. You should not lower a loaded bar any further than you can lower a bare bar. If you can’t lower the bare bar to your chest, then set up to bench press in a power rack with pins set so that you can’t lower the bar too far.

A second way to damage your shoulders while benching is to lower the bar to your neck or your clavicles. At the bottom the bar should be roughly at the level of your nipples; a little higher or lower on the chest is okay, dependent upon your limb lengths.

A third way to injure your shoulders is to cause a sudden discontinuity in loading near the bottom. Don’t do the drop, bounce, arch, belly toss version of the bench press. Lower the bar and pause it at the chest. Don’t pause for an extended period, but do come to a stop.

A fourth way to hurt your shoulders is to fatigue one arm or shoulder prior to the other, causing a drop in that arm which unbalances the bar. You may have seen the hapless trainee working without a spotter get caught in the extreme position of one fully extended arm and one collapsed arm going through a sometimes violent see-saw as weights alternately slide off both ends of the bar. And reserved for those lifters who valiantly catch themselves just short of such embarrassment, is the potential to injure one’s shoulder simply trying to fight against the impending debacle.

Getting the bar off the bottom position is where you really have to make it a point to smoothly squeeze the bar up. The shoulder joint is really in a precarious position here. If you want to try benching starting from a dead stop at the bottom, reduce the weight drastically. If you’ve been benching 250 pounds for reps, maybe you could immediately bench press 200 starting from the bottom. But don’t do it! Instead, drop the weight back to 150 and work your way up slowly. Your chest and triceps can handle more weight, but neither of them is in danger of being injured here, unlike your shoulders.

Our final recommendation is that you never perform isometrics at or near the bottom of your range of motion for the bench press. This position is rough on the shoulder capsule, and a loss of tension from any of the muscles which function to prevent anterior displacement of the proximal head of the humerus will result in damaged shoulders. Should you become stuck in this position during conventional bench pressing, your spotter should immediately help you to slowly raise the bar. This is not a place for your spotter to be exhorting you to “do it” on your own. You should not panic and try to “bang” the bar off your chest, nor should you be left to push against the bar for several seconds. Either course of action is unnecessarily risky.


Training intensity

Progress may be reduced due to not working intensively enough. How can trainees measure the intensity of their workouts, and find ways of operating nearer to/at their maximum?

Let’s make a couple of points very clear. Failure (defined here as reaching the point of being unable to move against the source of the resistance, be it a barbell, machine, cable or whatever) is not necessary for progress or growth. This should be quite evident from the number of people who make progress without ever working to failure. Could those same people make faster progress if they worked to failure? Given that training involves many variables, it would certainly be reductionist nonsense to take an absolute opinion on either side.

It should be equally apparent that very few people push themselves to the limit, and so never find out if they can gain faster by training in this way. Some seem to operate under the impression that if it is becoming really hard to finish sets, or if they can’t add weight every time, that it is time to take a week off from training! And then they wonder why they are never able to progress beyond a certain threshold of strength.

You do have to work hard, very hard, to make progress. There is no way around that. In fact, working hard is a great goal to have for a workout—it is part of focussing on doing the best you can at every workout. But measure intensity? All you can measure are external markers, such as your strength level. There are, in fact, at least two definitions of “intensity” based upon strength levels. Regardless of their merits, neither definition lends itself to measurement on a frequent basis, since both require previous knowledge of your maximal output.

Forget the idea of measuring “intensity.” Instead, set yourself some qualitative objectives for hard work. Use weights which allow you to keep squeezing out reps after it gets hard. Keep pushing until the bar won’t move—not until you don’t think you can do another rep, but until the bar won’t move. If that is harder than what you have been doing, then try it for a while and see if your progress is better. If it is, the next step is to push the bar for a period of time even after it can’t be moved anymore. Try five seconds of this functional isometric to start. If your progress improves again, you can try holding for longer times.

A couple of caveats are in order. Depending on how hard you were working before, you may need to reduce the number of sets you do, or the frequency with which you train. Also be aware that performing a functional isometric in the bottom position of the bench press, dip and any form of deadlift, is dangerous for most people. Squats, chins and rows too are not without their risks in the bottom position.

Most people aren’t able to train with intensity with heavy weights and low reps, as this combination often results in a sudden inability to complete a rep. You need a weight which allows you to get a “maybe” rep or two. A “maybe” rep is one where it will seem quite borderline if it can be completed. Make very sure that you maintain your form, and don’t try to rush these reps. If using a barbell, you also need to either have a spotter or some mechanical means to prevent your being trapped when you are no longer able to move the barbell.

The use of a spotter merits an additional comment. Many spotters are too eager to help you get through a sticking point. Some spotters seem to feel the need to always be giving a few pounds of help. A good spotter will help you to increase your effort by giving you the confidence to push to your limit; a bad one will effectively reduce your effort by helping too much. Instruct your spotters that they should not give any help at all, should not even touch you or the barbell, unless the barbell starts to move down, or if you get stuck at the bottom. Then and only then should a spotter offer just enough help to enable you to slowly move the weight. In other words, the spotter should only help during part of one rep, and that rep should be a slow uncomfortable experience.

Then simply make it a point to keep pushing or pulling no matter what. It doesn’t matter if you can’t complete the rep. The only thing that matters is that you try to complete it. Don’t give up, no matter what. There are no special techniques, no tricks. Just honest effort.



What’s your opinion on some of the supplements that really do give your workout a boost, such as ma-huang and ephedrine? Are there any of these that you would recommend? If so, which ones?

We are opposed to the use of such substances and recommend that you save your money and learn to push yourself naturally. We also suggest that you ask yourself why you feel the need to push yourself harder. If you really want to push your limits, you will. If you are simply seeking the extra pounds or reps which often results from being “wired,” be advised that invariably when people quit taking these substances, their poundages fall off. If a product doesn’t lead to a permanent gain, why spend the money? Why take any chance, however slight, with your health?


Upright row

Despite the bad press about upright rows, can a case be made for the wide-grip upright row in which the bar comes no higher than the lower pec line?

We don’t think so. What does this movement do that is uniquely beneficial? What muscle does it train that isn’t adequately trained by other basic movements? And it isn’t simply “bad press” about the upright rows. The exercise is physiologically a bad idea. The combination of internal rotation and humeral elevation results in the greater tubercle of the humerus impinging on the acromion process and the bursa there. The argument given for limiting the range of motion to the lower pec line is that for the average individual, this limitation will prevent this impingement. Because roominess in the shoulder joint varies between individuals, however, some people will have problems anyway.

The next sentence is one of the most important messages we have to offer on training. Movements and modalities which cause damage to joints rarely result in early feedback (pain, irritation, and discomfort) letting you know of the damage, and once the damage is done it is extremely slow to heal, if it even can be healed. Sometimes it takes years for incremental joint damage to manifest in noticeable pain. Please think about this.


Protein absorption

Is the protein absorption rate increased immediately after an intensive workout with weights?

It seems that protein is digested more rapidly after training. We don’t know if it is used more rapidly in tissue building. After training, carbohydrate absorption increases significantly to replenish blood glycogen levels and liver glucose levels and to provide the energy to re-convert amino acid and nitrogen by products of muscle catabolism back into useful muscle protein. Carbohydrate absorption will actually be enhanced by consuming some protein simultaneously after a workout.

Consume a meaningful quantity of carbohydrates and protein as soon after training as you can comfortably do so. That means having a good meal, not sucking down some supplement drink while you socialize at the gym. Just as you can never really pay the body back for lost sleep, it is difficult to promote muscular growth if you insist on robbing the body’s energy stores at the critical rebuilding moment immediately following a workout.

Unfortunately, gorging on the most nutritious goodies in the world four hours later cannot make up for an absence of calories when they are needed most. This is one time when you should minimize fat consumption, simply because fat will slow the digestion process.