How Strength Training Justifies Being Overweight

Posted on 30 Apr 2011 23:19

By Eric Troy

I was just reading a review of Mark Young's new "How to Read Fitness Research" product. A few questions occurred to me. One, what in the heck is fitness research? There are so many different types of studies and different types of subjects, all of which could fall under the "fitness" umbrella. Many of these have their own specific pitfalls and unique challenges. A person would need to have a more thorough background in the sub-disciplines before simply "learning how to read a study".

Just what the fitness industry needs is another crowd of Pubmed dreamers constructing the latest and greatest "training program" based on their new understanding of "studies". Let's take some short linear periodization, paste in some magical fruit from a study or two, and make a million! Nah, I disagree that most trainees or gym trainers need to be scouring Pubmed because they think they understand how to read studies based on some online product they purchased. Likely they will just "think" they know what they are doing. Most would do better to build a good library of resources written by professionals who actually do know what they are doing and did not get their expertise from an online product, but from a lifetime of professional endeavor.

The reason I say all this is not to attempt to criticize Mark's product as I am sure it is a fine one. After all, one of the major differences between those who can read studies and those who can't, usually, is that those who can read studies have letters after their does Mark. I am criticizing those who are recommending it willy-nilly to everyone. A product that would be great for coaches and others who already have a large amount of foundational knowledge could actually be damaging to a casual or beginning strength trainee.

However, having an idea how to read and understand research is a must. Fortunately there are some free resources available. Yep, usually you can get everything for free. You just have to look. For these I simply looked at Jamie Hale's blog "Knowledge Summit" where he has provided permanent links to some pertinent resources: How to Read a Paper by S. Keshav and How to Read a Scientific Paper by John W. Little and Roy Parker, the latter being the most useful for non-scientists. I'd start with those and then if you still think you want to push forward (it will not be fun), go for Mr. Young's product.

Critical Thinking Versus Research

There is a lot more to it than a PowerPoint presentation of how to read studies, though. Critical thinking is, in large part, developing a very good BS meter. Research is not necessarily an indication that one is applying critical thought. How to conduct research and how to think critically are not necessarily one in the same.

It is critical thinking, however, that the average person needs to develop in order to see through the BS in the fitness industry more than it is learning how to read research papers. Part of doing that goes way beyond scouring Pubmed for studies and actually reading these things I like to refer to as "books." What ever happened to books, folks? I think Samuel Johnson said something disdainful about someone who has written more than he has read. Well, I have a bit of disdain for someone who has read more studies than they have books. Because studies rarely contain foundational information!

Books are still pretty darn useful. The idea is to develop a good sense not of what we do know but what we DO NOT know. Do this long enough and thoroughly enough and after a while you will not even need to search Pubmed for studies. You can make what we call an EWAG (An Educated Wild-Ass Guess).

Somebody Told Me…Wide Gut Equals Big Strength

For instance, not long ago somebody told me that those with the widest abdominal areas were consistently the strongest individuals. Notwithstanding that we need to be clear on what activity we are talking about my BS meter went off. This statement makes it seem as if there is some statistical data that can be readily called on to show a direct correlation between abdominal girth (I had to translate "width" into girth) and physical strength by some consistent measure. There absolutely is not any such data and I did not need to go searching to confidently point out that there was no such data. I was able to make this EWAG not because I had specific data to point to but because I have enough knowledge of the subject matter in general to make my guesses very good ones.

Waist Circumference and Abdominal Fat

Now, this individual was undoubtedly thinking of very well developed obliques and the massive and blocky look. In fact, the same look that many modern bodybuilders sport. Although many bodybuilders are very strong and a few individuals are notably strong most of them would be out-lifted by a less blocky and relatively skinny powerlifter. Likely, what this individual did not know is that intra-abdominal fat deposition is highly correlated with abdominal girth (not in women). Intra-abdominal fat is fat that is visceral, meaning it is stored between the organs of the abdominal cavity rather than under the skin, i.e. subcutaneous. For men, a waist size greater than 40 inches (about 102cm) means that it is highly likely that this individual has a great amount of intra-abdominal fat. However, it is absolutely not appropriate to rely on abdominal circumference alone as an indication of risk. It is possible that subcutaneous fat could lead to an increased abdominal circumference measurement in an individual who had otherwise normal risk factors and it is important to realize that a waist circumference measurement measures both visceral and subcutaneous fat. When compared with CT (CAT scans) high waist circumferences can show a very large variation in fat distribution between visceral and subcutaneous.

However, waist circumference is still a good estimate and has been suggested to be a better predictor of intra-abdominal adipose tissue than BMI alone. A BMI between 30 and 39 is referred to as obese and above 40 as morbidly obese.1 But those with large muscle masses may easily have a BMI of 30 or above that has no association with adiposity. Also those who are very tall and/or thin, have a different range of BMI's associated with excessive fat. 1, 2

I'm Bloated!

This intra-abdominal fat is also likely to be the origin of abdominally "gifted" powerlifters claiming they are "bloated" all the time. These same individuals may actually have somewhat visible abs. However, if they were truly "bloated" they would look smooth and puffy. Please trust that I have no problem with fat powerlifters. I only have problems with those who make excuses about it. As a matter of fact, I simply do not care at all whether a lifter is overweight unless I myself am engaged in training them and I must optimize training and performance.

Subcutaneous belly fat will tend to look soft and will hang in folds over the belt. A big puffy belly that sticks out and feels firm is the result of a large amount of visceral fat. Obviously there will tend to be a mixture of both visceral and subcutaneous fat but the largest bellies have the highest amount of visceral fat and this tends to counter-act the folds of subcutaneous fat. To illustrate this to yourself notice how many overweight men have large fat folds in the pectoral region as compared to in the belly region. These individuals may not even have love handles. This clearly shows the different ways adipose tissue is deposited in different areas of the body.

Anthropometric Measures and Body Composition

There is a very good reason why the way fat is stored in different body areas is considered important and it is based on observations about abdominal fat. Individuals who have a predominance of abdominal visceral fat have been seen to exhibit many metabolic differences compared with those who have fat distributed subcutaneously over the lower extremities, such as the hip and thigh area. This led to examining disease risk by looking at these fat mass distributions. The waist-to-hip circumference ratio was the most commonly used measure.

According to the American Heart Association a waist-to-hip ratio of 0.96 in men and greater than 0.88 in women is considered to be an indicator of central obesity (also termed "android obesity"). The waist is measured at the narrowest point while standing in a relaxed position and avoiding sucking in the gut. The hip girth is measured at the widest point over the buttocks. This ratio correlates much better to abdominal fatness in men than in women because of men's increased tendency to store fat in the abdominal region. However, these measurements are very difficult to perform accurately and even a slight change in the area measured can produce significantly different results.5, 3

There are many problems with this approach, not the least of which is a lack of standardization of measurement technique and persons with different levels of training performing the measurements. It is not clear at all whether there is any real biological reason to suspect that the ratio of hip to waist should be a general indicator of risk factors. Abdominal measurement alone may be a better indicator of risk with advancing age due to the BMI's decreasing usefulness in this population.3 Intra-abdominal fat accumulation has been shown to be greater at any given BMI (or %BF) in older individuals.6

According to Willet, it could also be that hip and waist measurements should be considered as two independent factors in a multi-variate model that considered the impact of greater muscularity. In this way hip measurement could be seen as an indicator of muscularity and thus physical activity whereas abdominal measurement would be a more confident predictor of "fatness". For example, while abdominal fat could increase the risk of insulin sensitivity, gluteal mass could indicate a relatively large level of lean mass and this would decrease such risk. These factors and correlations differ across sexes and age brackets and the relationships are highly complex.3 For further discussion of the value of anthropometric measures for assessing body composition as well as a dietary assessment see Nutritional Epidemiology. For the lay person, however, it is prudent to expect a correlation between waist circumference alone, visceral fat, and health risk.

subcutaneous abdominal or belly fat

Subcutaneous belly fat is clearly distinguishable in appearance

subcutaneous abdominal or belly fat

Subcutaneous belly fat is clearly distinguishable in appearance

Yes, It Applies to Strength Trainees

These correlations are not magically and mysteriously erased in a strength training population and there is not a special "squat and milk" program that can erase them. The appearance of a wide belly is much more likely to be an indicator of central obesity and a corresponding excess of caloric intake. The external appearance, over the muscles and under the skin is an indication of where that individual tends to store these calories.

The general rule of thumb is that if you cannot grab a hold of it with your hand or's visceral fat rather than subcutaneous fat. In the buttock and thigh areas fat will tend to be subcutaneous but the origin of the beer belly, the "middle aged spread", or muffin top, is caused by this intra-abdominal visceral fat and this is termed "central obesity". This fat pushes the abdominal muscles outward into a tight position. Rather than the subcutaneous fat stored elsewhere on the body, central obesity is what puts one at risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, etc. This type of fat deposition should be considered high risk, resulting in complications such as insulin resistance, impaired lipid and glucose metabolism, hypertension, cardiac dysfunction, and sleep apnea disorder. 4 Many people mistakenly expect this type of abdominal fat to appear similar to fat in other parts of the body, such as having a cellulite appearance or showing pockets of fat cell storage. The skin of the abdomen is thicker than on other areas of the body so even subcutaneous fat will not appear as it does in the hips or thighs, and elsewhere.

It is quite common to observe a male with a large "beer belly" but with a clearly visible linea alba2 and some will even display the slight appearance of a six pack. It is common to mistake visible abdominals with the absence of belly fat in general. These bellies may feel somewhat firm, but not as hard as well developed and well-visible abs. Remember that an excessive beer belly will not tend to be as "squishy" due to the stretching affect of the intra-abdominal fat.

The Infamous GH Gut and Circular Thinking

None of this should be confused with the infamous plague of modern bodybuilding: the so-called "GH Gut" or "roid gut."3 Some modern bodybuilders are displaying grossly distended abdomens but with highly developed and visible six packs over them. This is said to have nothing to do with belly fat but instead be caused by the use of Human Growth Hormone (HGH) and in particular IGF-I which is supposed to cause the lower intestine to grow in size, thus pushing it against the abdominal wall and causing this highly unnatural distended appearance. To my knowledge there has been no clinical investigation into this and it is unclear what is causing these swollen bellies in bodybuilders.

The reason I bring this up is because some (quite idiotically) have tried to blame "powerlifting movements" for these guts on professional bodybuilders. Basically, they are saying big lifts like squatting and deadlifting give you a distended gut. The reason they come to this conclusion is because they look at many of today's upper weight class powerlifters and see that they have…big guts. These powerlifters have big guts because they have a higher body fat proportion. But that hasn't stopped some individuals from making the ridiculous leap to "big lifts equal big gut". As most things in strength training and bodybuilding are circular, others borrow on this spurious logic to justify their belief that a portly appearance is correlated with a "stronger individual". So, not only do the big lifts give you a big belly, having a big belly is a powerlifting "credential". Conclusion: powerlifters should over-eat, eat big and lift big. Now, this, clearly, is not the 'critical thinking' I referred to at the beginning of this post. It is simply bro-science in a big circle-je…umm..goat rope.

I've mentioned this before in my post on breathing, ribcage expansion, and abdominal hollowing when I said:

"The stretched rib cage and hollowed abdomen is not so much a part of modern bodybuilding. Bodybuilding has gone to the extreme opposite and much has been made of the distended abdomens that many professionals display. And many think that these huge protruding abdomens are caused by a lack of abdominal vacuum exercises and thus a weak transverse abdominis. It is true that a weak TA can be a contributor to a "poofy" gut, but in the absence of fat I doubt very much it's the sole cause of these unnatural looking midsections." - Troy8

Weak and Stretched Abdominal Walls? Sheesh…

I should also mention that many like to blame powerlifters' big guts on high intra-abdominal pressure from frequent heavy lifting. They say this results in stretching of the abdominal wall. This stretching is also thought to weaken the abdominal wall, thus, conveniently, resulting in hernias which cause further distension. Although I'm sure Paul Chek would love this idea it is simply an indication of how far some people will go to continue gorging themselves on food. Why should I say I am fat when I can say I am bloated, or my belly is stretched due to all the hardcore lifting I do? If it quacks like a duck…you get the picture. It's belly fat. As for hernias, they stem from a congenital weakness in one area of the abdominal wall where an opening exists or where an opening was supposed to close and failed to do so, such as the umbilical. While heavy lifting may exacerbate certain hernias, it doesn't cause them.

Stubborn Fat and Belly Fat

It just so happens that this visceral abdominal fat is highly receptive to diet and physical activity. Especially exercise. I am not suggesting that one should control body fat through diet alone and some data suggests that this is one reason why. Visceral fat, more prominent in men, seems more correlated to physical activity than subcutaneous fat. But diet should still be considered the key to maintaining healthy weight. While there is some decidedly preliminary "data" suggesting that those who control body fat through diet alone may be prone to having visceral fat, those who are obese will tend to have more.

I have mentioned before, however, when I explained how strength training was not the key to fat loss that exercise may be of particular importance for controlling visceral fat accumulation. This certainly seems to be a key. And strength training, given all it's parameters, fits this bill.

However, the relative ease (for so-called hardgainers) with which fat can be accumulated and then controlled, at first, leads many strength trainees to adopt the "bulk and cut" methods of geared bodybuilders. Some few individuals find some immediate success as they are able to quickly progress in strength and body weight while storing a good proportion of the fat in the belly. They are then able to lose this fat fairly easily with some dietary control and changes in activity level and are left with not too much subcutaneous fat on their hands. This will not work forever though and even these lucky few will find that the body responds to this constant yo-yo in undesirable ways, including a slow but sure deposition of subcutaneous fat that will not be so amendable to a simple decrease in caloric intake. It is this subcutaneous belly fat that is the "stubborn fat".

So Eating Too Much Makes Me Fat and Strong?

Even so, most trainees will utterly fail with this approach and will simply find themselves getting fat in general. The large caloric surplus, depending on macro-nutrient proportions and their own sensitivities will likely make them feel like crap and have the gastrointestinal discomfort (and swelling!) to show for it. This should be somewhat intuitive. If you suddenly start purposely gorging yourself you're going to feel sick and, yes, bloated. But this is just what many strength trainees are being told to do! Recommendations of 5000 to 6000 calories a day, across the board, are not uncommon. Despite the misconception about huge "powerlifters" only a few large framed individuals will ever need these amounts. These amounts are much more appropriate to endurance athletes.

I have shown some of the reasons and silly justifications used for these recommendations but many will see through these ridiculous claims. So, further claims are made as to the validity of "eating big to lift big". Remember, eating big means eating great excess. Clearly rigorous strength training requires rigorous attention to adequate diet and caloric intake. The emphasis here is on the excessive nature of the recommendations. The excess, then, is said to simply make it "easier" to gain strength. Similar to the claims of excess protein, excess food calories in general, together with fat storage, is said to result in greater strength and muscle gains in a shorter period. While adequate nutritional intake, based on ones individual needs will certainly make it easier "excess" calories will simply make you fat. More fat makes it harder to gain muscle, not easier.

Fat Has Mechanical Properties? Check Your BS Meter

Then we have another little strength myth. Now, there is absolutely NO correlation between fat storage and physical strength. How could there be? Fat is not functional in human movement. Yet, that has not stopped some, in the past, from claiming it to be! I touched on this in the "Strength Training Versus Bodybuilding" eBook when I discussed the idea that being "fat and swole" in the off-season allows bodybuilders to lift more weight and thus be bigger after trimming down. The weight gain is postulated to, quite magically, improve leverage around the joints, these ideas were then extended from bodybuilding to powerlifting:

"Improved leverage around the joints by bigger muscles is probably related to an idea called “tissue leverage” which is a bodybuilding idea that attempts to explain why “getting fat and swole” during the off-season will allow a bodybuilder to lift more weight thus being bigger when he trims down again. Apparently it doesn’t matter whether the “bigness” is due to fat deposition, water retention, or actual functional tissue." (Troy 7)

If you were to read about "tissue leverage" alone you should darn well find your BS meter peaking! Now, should you really need to look for justification in "fitness studies" to say this is bullshit? NO! If you cannot already recognize this as bullshit then you are far from the need for Pubmed. You need some foundation in biomechanics, kinesiology, and physiology. So, instead of spending your hard earned money on a "how to read fitness studies" package, spend it on some basic foundational texts.

1. Coulston, Ann M., and Carol Boushey. "Chp. 31: Obesity and the Risk for Diabetes." Nutrition in the Prevention and Treatment of Disease. Amsterdam: Academic, 2008. 578-80. Print.
2. Fletcher, Gerald F., Scott M. Grundy, and Laura Lucia. Hayman. "Chp. 1: The Epidemiology of Obesity in Adults in Relationship to Cardiovascular Disease." Obesity: Impact on Cardiovascular Disease. Armonk, NY: Futura Pub., 1999. 19-21. Print.
3. Willett, Walter. "Chp. 10: Anthropometric Measures and Body Composition." Nutritional Epidemiology. New York: Oxford UP, 1998. Print.
4. Kopelman, Peter G., Ian D. Caterson, and William H. Dietz. "Chp. 15: Obesity as an Endocrine Disorder." Clinical Obesity in Adults and Children. Chichester, West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. 201. Print.
5. Jenkins, Simon P. R. Sports Science Handbook. Brentwood, Essex: Multi-Science Publ., 2005. Print.
6. Bray, George A., and Claude Bouchard. "Chp. 7: Obesity in the Elderly: Prevalence, Consequences, and Treatment." Handbook of Obesity Etiology and Pathophysiology. New York: Marcel Dekker, 2004. 137. Print.
7. Troy, Eric. "Chp 2: Why All This Muscle Talk, Then? Bigger Muscles Work Better." Strength Training and Bodybuilding: How Different Are They? Baltimore. Ground Up Strength. 12. Epub. 2009
8. Troy, Eric. "On Breathing…and Strongman." Ground Up Strength. Web. 14 May 2011. <>.

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Last updated 20 Mar 2018 20:01

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