Sunday, December 23, 2012

How to get bigger and stronger without supplements...

Last week I wrote about the growing trend of children that are turning to steroids to improve to enhance their performance or appearance.  Clearly this is not the direction we want our children to turn.

However, what we must acknowledge is that kids and often times with encouragement or prodding from others, still want to get bigger and stronger.  We need to have this conversation and more importantly we must arm ourselves with the proper strategies to help them do this without resorting to the use of supplements let alone more treacherous substances like steroids.

So where do we begin.  When I was in high school I was advised to eat a lot of steak, potatoes and pasta.  All that did was make me feel like a slug because I felt like sleeping all day.  Yes, this probably is a very good strategy to add weight but rest assured it won’t be the type of lean muscle you have in mind.

So let’s throw out the old school notion of stuffing yourself with lots of protein and carbohydrates.

When I was in college I was constantly told that because I trained so hard and put so much time and effort into skill practice and physical development that I was missing a huge opportunity by not using supplements.  Their theory was the food wasn’t enough and I was wasting my time and energy by not boosting my training with powders and pills.  So I started doing some research and unfortunately my sources were a little one-sided and I never gained an appreciation for the entire picture.  Just like specializing in one-sport my sports nutrition knowledge was very narrow and left huge holes in my plan over the long term.

Suffice to say that after spending thousands of dollars on protein powders and other supplements over the course of my post high-school athletic career my performance never improved.  In fact, it dropped of significantly because I lost sight of what was important.  That is a story for another day but the take home point is that it turned out that the supplements were a significant waste of my time and energy and a very powerful drain on my limited bank account.

Second key point to go along with the flawed notion that you have to stuff yourself with carbs and protein, supplements are a waste of time. I found out the hard way but that is to the benefit of the generation of children that I know work with.

Supplements are like the high hanging fruit.  Why waste your time and energy bypassing all of the low-hanging fruit to reach for something than can be better attained from the ground level?

So what is the low-lying fruit as it pertains to youth strength and muscle development?  There are three areas that if addressed effectively can be the solution to greatly improving a young persons strength and muscle size in addition to providing an all important boost to their overall lifestyle (mood, emotional stability, academic and athletic performance).

Eat better food

Most kids are overfed and undernourished.  It is my strong belief that children get plenty of calories but the foods they do consume are usually of poor quality and thus lack essential nutrients like vitamins, minerals, and enzymes that are vital for muscle building and restoration.

Most children sustain themselves on processed foods that are loaded with carbohydrates and contain low-quality fats and protein.  Clearly this is not the type of material they need to build strong bodies.

Body building foods are whole foods like eggs, grass-fed meat and poultry (the whole bird, dark meat included!), nuts, whole dairy from pastured cows, and plenty of vegetables and fruit.  Think of these foods as the materials for the actual physical structure of a building (the body) and it’s wiring (nervous system) and food like whole grains and starches are the energy or manpower required to build the structure.  Children need both but most do not get enough high-quality fats and protein.

Get more sleep

Today’s youth sport culture often revolves around schedules that are just as demanding as those experienced by professional athletes.  Especially when you consider that the pros have the luxury of charter flights, first class hotel accommodations, in addition to therapists and dietitians to manage their recovery and nutrition needs.  It should also be noted that most professional sports leagues have at minimum a 3-month off-season.

It’s very common during the school year for athletes to arrive home after a game at 11PM or later and it may take them a while to come down from the emotional high of an intense game and may not fall asleep until well after midnight. Then they are up at 6AM or earlier to sneak in a little bit of homework.   Needless to say this is not a recipe for building muscle, nor is it conducive to success in the classroom either.  In fact it’s a perfect storm that if practiced routinely will slam the brakes on optimal growth and development.

Cheri Mah of the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Laboratory has been following the sleep patterns and athletic performance of Stanford athletes for years. Her research continues to show that getting more sleep leads to better sports performance for all types of athletes. [1]

Lack of sleep, or “sleep debt,” appears to have a negative effect on sports performance, as well as cognitive function, mood, and reaction time. Making regular sleep as much of a priority for athletes as practicing their sport and eating right can avoid much of this.

Researchers speculate that deep sleep helps improve athletic performance because this is the time when growth hormone is released. Growth hormone stimulates muscle growth and repair, bone building and fat burning, and helps athletes recover. Studies show that sleep deprivation slows the release of growth hormone. Sleep is also necessary for learning a new skill, so this phase of sleep may be critical for some athletes.

Sleep experts recommend seven to nine hours of daily sleep for adults, and nine to ten hours for adolescents and teens. [1]

Train smart

Right behind the flawed idea that you need protein powder to build muscle is the notion that you have to lift heavy weights to get bigger and stronger.  While that is certainly part of a very large equation it’s fruit that is still a little too high for most kids to worry about.  Going to the gym and trying to squat and bench press as much weight as you can will more than likely lead to injury, poor performance and wasted energy before it boosts your muscle mass.

Training is definitely an important aspect of adding strength and muscle but first you have to have a plan.  Timing is important.  The optimal time to add size through the use of resistance training would be in your sports off-season.  If you don’t have an off-season this is very likely a major reason you have trouble adding muscle.  If you are constantly tearing your body down, this is essentially what happens when you train and play sport, you never allow for optimal recovery and repair.

As an example a physical therapist for the Canadian women’s gymnastics team once told me that every summer the girls would take two weeks off to spend with their families.  When they came back many off them had literally grown several inches because they unloaded their bodies over their break which allowed for natural growth to occur.

There is a very good reason gymnasts are small in stature and it has a lot to do with an ultra demanding training schedule that interferes with the natural physical maturation process, a process that is best taken advantage of during adolescence.  And down time is essential.  This doesn’t mean they should lie around and play video games all day long for weeks on end but it does mean taking a few weeks off every 2-3 months to allow the body to repair and build.

Another important training consideration is taking part in an activity that directly counteracts your effort to gain muscle.  If you are a teen basketball player looking to add size to your slight frame running cross country in the fall to get yourself in shape for the winter may seem like a good idea but endurance training and building muscle do not go hand in hand.  Take a look at any elite level endurance athlete and they are all very thin with low muscle tone.  Meanwhile short-distance sprinters are well muscled.  If you are looking to add muscle your preferred mode of endurance training should be short burst activities such as sprint intervals or body weight circuits.

Finally, body weight training such as push-ups, pull-ups, squats and lunges should be mastered before adding any external resistance and are more than adequate activities for adding strength and muscle to adolescent frames.  Bodyweight training (low-lying fruit) allows children to develop foundational strength and once that foundation is solidly in place then added resistance can be included. 

In summary, children need to address the basics before they ever think about using supplements or start lifting weights.  Most kids don’t sleep enough, eat poor quality food and don’t allow time for their bodies to develop because of year-round sport demands.  No amount of supplements (even if they were effective and most aren’t) or weight training could make up for this gaping hole created by poor lifestyle habits.

I briefly touched upon the importance of the low-hanging fruit of adequate rest, better nutrition and smarter training but I have included links to past articles that cover the nutrition and sleep topics with more depth.  Those links can be found at the bottom of this page.

Sample Scenario
I will wrap up this topic with a sample scenario.  A few weeks ago I started coaching a young man (age of 16) with a very slight frame.  This boy has very good athleticism and is very mobile.  Also upon evaluation he has a few postural red flags that caught my attention, likely due to the fact that he is a one-sport athlete.  Because of these postural issues he is not a good candidate for resisted squatting, it would do more harm than good.  We will work on exercises with the intent of correcting these issues to keep him in the game for the long-term.   That said we would do more than just corrective exercise.  Strength, power, and speed training will be included but it will be implemented in way that builds him up while not feeding into his dysfunction.

From a nutrition perspective I always like to start off with things that can be implemented very easily.  I like to introduce one concept/habit at a time.  With compliance these small steps add up and over time can have a big impact.

Habit #1 for this young man is getting more body building nutrients into his eating.

He told me he essentially eats three times a day.

Usually he has a smoothie for breakfast.  All he should do is add a tablespoon or two of natural almond/peanut butter to his smoothie.

For lunch take a snack pack filled with mixed nuts to eat with his school food.  Good choices are almonds, pecans and walnuts.  Preferably unsalted.

For dinner add a glass of whole milk.  Ideally choose organic milk from grass-fed cows.  To make it easy for you the best source of milk I have found is from Thomas Organic Creamery (from nearby Henderson, MI).  You will find this milk at Whole Foods or Plum Market.

Once he "owns" these habits we can implement Habit #2.

In this example I learned the boy did not have a nut or dairy allergy and actually enjoys those foods making adherence to my recommendations more likely.

Happy Holidays!

Additional Resources

Eat Better Food

Get More Sleep


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