Carbohydrates are perhaps the most misunderstood macronutrient. If I had to be a macronutrient, I’d probably be a carbohydrate. Since I am not, I’ll settle for being an author who defends their honor, palatability, and function in human physiology. The term carbohydrate originates from the root word carbo-, denoting carbon, and hydrate, denoting a compound that is produced when chemical substances combine with water. Put simply, they are hydrates of carbon, although structurally they are more complex than this.
Carbohydrates are classified as either simple carbohydrates or complex carbohydrates. This is where my carbohydrate lesson used to end as a teenager learning about nutrition from high school physical education teachers and sales representatives at commercial gyms or “sports nutrition” stores. Online coaches do a better job of explaining this today, but the sea of misinformation continues to ebb and flow.
Simple carbohydrates include monosaccharides and disaccharides. Mono- refers to single, di- refers to two, and saccharide originates from the Latin term sacchurum, which means sugar, and -ide is the suffix specific to these chemical compounds. Therefore, monosaccharides consist of a single sugar unit, a saccharide. The three most abundant monosaccharides are glucose, fructose, and galactose, with glucose being the most abundant. The disaccharides consist of double sugar units, and include sucrose, lactose, and maltose. Sucrose is table sugar, and is comprised of a fructose and glucose molecule. Lactose is found in dairy products and is comprised of galactose and glucose. Maltose is a sugar that forms when starch is broken down (more on this later) and is comprised of two glucose molecules. Maltose is formed when grains are sprouted in water and dried, which process activates enzymes that release maltose from stored starch, as well as other sugars and proteins. It’s found in beer, malted grains, and malt candy.
Complex carbohydrates include oligosaccharides (oligo- meaning “few”), which contain 3-10 saccharide units and polysaccharides (poly- meaning “many”), which contain more than 10 saccharide units. Most oligosaccharides are not broken down by human-produced digestive enzymes, so we rely on our “gut flora” – our intestinal bacteria – to digest them for us. The most common oligosaccharide is raffinose, which is found in beans and other legumes. Other oligosaccharides include stachyose and verbascose, which are found in peas, bran, and whole grains.
Another common category of oligosaccharides are dextrins, which are added to many commercially produced foods and supplements. Dextrins are essentially glucose units extracted from starch molecules (see below) bonded together in short chains, hence their popularity in many carbohydrate supplements. Dextrins are often listed on the food labels as maltodextrin, corn syrup solids, and hydrolyzed corn starch.
Polysaccharides, on the other hand, can consist of thousands of glucose units. The most common polysaccharides are glycogen, which is the stored form of glucose in animals, cellulose, which is the major structural component of plant cell walls, and starch, which is the storage form of glucose in plants. Starch comes in two forms, amylose and amylopectin, and both contain many chains of glucose. Amylopectin accounts for 80-85% and amylose accounts for 15-20% of the starch found in food.
The structural difference between them is in the degree of branching: amylose exists as a straight chain of glucose molecules lined up in ⍺(1,4) bonds. Amylopectin and glycogen are both highly branched, where they have ⍺(1,4) bonds to link individual glucose molecules together and ⍺(1,6) bonds that form linkages that “branch out” and create a nonlinear chain. In other words, unlike amylose which exists in a single linear chain of glucose, amylopectin (as well as glycogen) contains multiple branches of glucose chains, which makes the glucose easier to access.
You can think of this as a “bushy” tree with many branches vs. a straight tree trunk with short and perfectly horizontal branches. The advantage to branching is that there are many “ends” that glucose can be accessed from. This is in contrast to the linear chain of amylose, which has only two defined ends, and can only be accessed from one of those ends (the “non-reducing” end). During digestion, each glucose unit is hydrolyzed from “end to end” until the final unit is reached.
Imagine a tree with apples hanging from it. If you climb a ladder you can pick from several branches at the same time. If these apples hung from the tree in a straight vertical line you would have to extend the ladder vertically and pick one at a time. Thus, branching provides a metabolic advantage when glucose is needed quickly. Such a situation occurs when performing intense activity, such as squatting and deadlifting for several reps and/or sets. There are other factors involved, but this is one structural feature that makes glycogen a viable energy source during intense activity.
Cellulose is another plant form of carbohydrate that is considered a dietary fiber and not an energy source for humans. This is because the glucose molecules are linked by β (1,4) bonds, which are resistant to ⍺-amylase and can only be digested through the action of cellulase. Since mammals do not produce the cellulase enzyme themselves, grazing animals rely on the more robust gut flora in their more complex digestive systems to access cellulose for energy utilization.
Since “carbohydrate intolerance” has become a fashionable diagnosis recently, a discussion of carbohydrate digestion is in order. This is also useful in understanding the human digestive processes from a general standpoint. In general, protein digestion begins in the stomach and is finished in the small intestine, carbohydrate digestion begins in the mouth with enzymes in your saliva and is finished in the small intestine, fat digestion occurs in the small intestine, and the absorption of all three occurs in the small intestine.
As previously stated, monosaccharides are the smallest unit of sugar and are ready for immediate absorption in the small intestine. Most foods consumed contain di- and polysaccharides, which need to be broken down, or hydrolyzed, to their respective monosaccharide units for absorption in the small intestine. All dietary carbohydrates travel through the GI tract and are eventually absorbed into the bloodstream after hydrolysis. Since glucose and galactose transport differs from fructose transport, they will be explained separately.
All ingested carbohydrates travel down the esophagus and into the stomach, where gastric juice is released to form chyme, a semi-liquid mass of partially digested food. Gastric juice primarily consists of hydrochloric acid and facilitates the denaturation and digestion of proteins, the release of micronutrients, and the killing of ingested bacteria. Therefore chyme is a very acidic substance. After chyme is formed in the stomach, it is released into the duodenum (the upper portion the small intestine), while the pancreas simultaneously releases pancreatic juice (notably containing bicarbonate and digestive enzymes) to buffer the hydrochloric acid to protect the intestinal walls and continue the digestion of polysaccharides if needed.
Upon entry into the small intestine, glucose and galactose are absorbed primarily via secondary active transport, and to a lesser extent facilitated diffusion. Secondary active transport, in this instance, occurs when glucose binds to sodium to travel down its concentration gradient, and into the cell. In other words, glucose is like Marty McFly riding his skateboard grabbing onto cars to get to school, only the road has to stay reasonably empty or he’ll be stopped in traffic. Facilitated transport is similar in that the glucose molecule is bound to a transport protein but does not require a second substance to latch onto. In this case, Marty just drives the DeLorean instead of skateboarding behind cars.
Main point: All carbohydrates must broken down into their respective monosaccharide units for absorption. For polysaccharide digestion, this begins in the mouth and continues in the small intestine. Monosaccharide units enter the intestines through transport proteins, are released for absorption, then exit the intestine using protein transporters.
Disaccharide Digestion and Lactose Intolerance
Virtually all disaccharide digestion takes place in the microvilli, or brush border, of the upper small intestine. The hydrolysis of disaccharides requires disaccharidases, which are enzymes that hydrolyze disaccharides to their respective monosaccharides. For example, lactose is hydrolyzed into galactose and glucose, sucrose is hydrolyzed into fructose and glucose, and maltose is hydrolyzed into two units of glucose. The resulting monosaccharides then enter the enterocytes.
Since we are on the topic of lactose and lactase let’s touch on lactase activity in humans. Lactase activity is highest in human infants and decreases steadily after weaning. This may result in lactose intolerance in some individuals. Approximately 2/3rd of the world population is somewhat lactose intolerant, with the highest frequency of lactose intolerance seen in Native Americans, Asians, and individuals of Middle Eastern descent. It is much less prominent in individuals of Northern European descent. In other words, it’s not a widespread problem that applies to every single human on the planet. Additionally, with modern advances in food technology you can now purchase lactase treated milk or do it the old-fashioned way and add lactase enzymes to regular milk. The idea that milk is this terrible thing that only cows should consume is fashionable, but not based on fact in most situations. Sorry to disappoint, but cow’s milk is not cyanide or any other type of toxic substance, and other mammals such as cats and dogs also consume it without problems.
There are plenty of academic textbooks that cover the intricacies of glucose metabolism. This article is not written for academics – they already know everything – so I’ll let them argue about the superiority of one term over the next. Since those of you with a science degree heard it, read it, and saw it in 25 courses and those of you without science degrees will feel like you are reading Chinese, I’ll just dial down the details to the main points, with a few diagrams for the enthusiasts.
After entering the small intestine, approximately 15% of glucose leaks back through the brush border into the intestinal lumen, 25% enters into circulation passively (instead of latching onto cars or driving the DeLorean, Marty just walks), about 60% is transported from the cell into circulation bound to a carrier protein, and a small fraction may be used by the enterocytes to fuel their own energy needs. Since glucose is a polar molecule, it cannot readily cross the phospholipid bilayer of the plasma membrane.
As stated earlier, glucose is transported out of the enterocyte and to the liver for glycogen storage or release. As glucose enters the liver, a phosphate group is attached to carbon number 6 of the sugar via phosphorylation, making it glucose-6-phosphate via the enzyme glucokinase. The glucose-6-phosphate can be used for energy via glycolysis, or it can be stored as liver glycogen. Glucokinase is stimulated by insulin, which is the hormone responsible for lowering blood glucose levels. Thus, as glucose levels rise, insulin is released, glucokinase is expressed, and the liver converts glucose to glucose-6-phosphate for conversion into glycogen or into pyruvate or lactate for energy use (more on this later). Glucokinase has a low affinity for glucose, which means that at higher glucose levels, glucokinase operates at a higher velocity, which allows the liver to rapidly remove glucose from the blood. This is practical, because at normal or low glucose levels it would not make a whole lot of sense to clear glucose quickly unless we were physiologically suicidal. The process described above is part of what makes the liver the key regulator of glucose homeostasis.
Glucose is also stored in the muscle, kidney, and adipose tissue as well. Since muscles account for most of our bodyweight, they store most of our glycogen (approximately 500 grams vs 100 grams in the liver vs marginal amounts in the kidney and adipose tissue). Muscle glycogen storage follows a similar pathway as liver glycogen, only that hexokinase (instead of glucokinase) is the enzyme that converts glucose into glucose-6-phosphate. The key factor is that hexokinase is inhibited by high glucose-6-phosphate concentrations, which means that when the muscle has stored enough glycogen, glucose-6-phosphate is no longer converted to glycogen, leading to a reduction in glucose uptake into the muscle.
Additionally, muscle glycogen can only be used to fuel the muscle itself and cannot be broken down into glucose for release into the bloodstream. This is due to the lack of the glucose-6-phosphatase enzyme in the muscle cells, which is the enzyme responsible for converting glucose-6-phosphate into glucose. Alternatively, muscle glycogen can be converted into alanine, via the glucose-alanine cycle, or lactate, both of which can be converted to pyruvate, which can convert back into glucose in the liver. In short, glucose entry into the muscle is a one way trip and thus does not contribute to blood glucose levels.
Now that we understand how glucose is digested, absorbed, and metabolized, let’s move onto to its role in energy production. As stated in my Calories for Barbell Training article, humans expend energy simply being alive, as well as by digesting and absorbing nutrients. The small intestine uses glucose for energy to perform the functions described above. This can change with dietary manipulations, but if you take a human that is naive to nutrition fads and left him with food to eat from all major food groups, the diet would likely be mixed. So, everything we discuss moving forward assumes a mixed diet and normal physiology.
The vast majority of our physiological functions preferentially use glucose for energy. By preferentially, I mean that if the option to choose between macros is present, as it is when consuming a mixed diet, the human body will opt for glucose over fats and protein. Our intestines, our nerves, our heart, and our brain all use glucose to perform the major vital functions necessary for us to stay alive. Proteins and fats can also be used for energy but when given the option, the human body prefers glucose because it is lazy and likes efficiency. In fact, it prefers glucose so much that our liver will convert amino acids from proteins and glycerol from fats to glucose via a process called gluconeogenesis if carbohydrate intake is insufficient. More on this later.
There are three major energy systems in human metabolism: 1.) Phosphocreatine (ATP/PC), 2.) glycolysis, and 3.) oxidative phosphorylation of fatty acids. All three of these energy systems are working simultaneously regardless of the activity. However, the intensity of the activity performed will dictate which energy system predominates during the respective activity. At rest, most of our energy production comes from oxidative phosphorylation, which means we theoretically burn more dietary fat assuming that all we are doing is resting. Now, what is interesting about carbohydrates is that if we eat more carbohydrates we use more carbohydrates. So, if we were to measure the respiratory exchange ratio (RER) at rest, consume a carbohydrate rich meal, and then measure it again, you’d see an increase, which is reflective of higher carbohydrate oxidation.
This also concurrently suppresses fatty acid oxidation if carbohydrates are overfed, which means that we oxidize less fat on a high carbohydrate diet. In contrast, fat consumption has a minimal effect on fat oxidation, and excess fat is easily stored if calorie intake is sufficiently high. This is because dietary fat is already in its triglyceride form and can easily be sequestered into fat cells without additional metabolic steps. So, while we should theoretically burn mostly fat at rest or during light activity, if we consume a mixed diet, we’re likely burning an even split of fat and carbohydrates.
This discussion is a general overview of what happens when we are lying in bed resting or if we decide to eat some donuts. Now what happens when we start moving around? If activity is light, oxidative phosphorylation continues to predominate. When we start moving around vigorously – running, sprinting, or squatting and deadlifting – things change. If we are squatting heavy or sprinting, our ATP/PC system predominates and we rely primarily on stored creatine phosphate and ATP for energy. The issue with this is that we do not store very much ATP; we continuously recycle it, and creatine stores are very limited. This is why creatine monohydrate supplementation is useful for lifters. The more creatine we have available the more high intensity muscle contractions we can produce. Even with that said, our ATP/PC system is only useful for activities that last 5-10 seconds.
As previously stated, the liver converts glucose into muscle glycogen. The liver also converts glucose into usable energy via a metabolic pathway referred to as glycolysis. Glycolysis begins after the conversion of glucose to glucose-6-phosphate to one of two possible end products: pyruvate or lactate. For our purposes all that you need to know is that in the presence of oxygen (i.e. under “aerobic” conditions) glucose converts to pyruvate, which converts into acetyl coenzyme A (“acetyl CoA”) for entry into the Kreb’s Cycle. Both glycolysis and the Kreb’s cycle release electrons via the electron carriers NADH and FADH2. The electrons are sent to the electron transport chain, where ATP is produced.
In the absence of oxygen (i.e. under “anaerobic” conditions) glucose converts into lactate. Since strength training is an anaerobic activity, the majority of glucose is converted to lactate. Lactate can then be 1.) shuttled to the liver to be converted back into glucose (referred to as the Cori Cycle), can be 2.) used by the muscles themselves as an energy source, and can be 3.) shuttled to other organs in the human body for use (e.g. the brain, heart, etc).
Lactate can also act as a buffer, which is why it is not the cause of soreness during or post-exercise or the cause of exercise-induced acidosis. The reason that muscles “burn” during exercise is because during anaerobic glycolysis the rate of ATP resynthesis increases, resulting in a greater release of hydrogen ions, which leads to a reduction of intramuscular pH, thus causing “the burn.” As a result, lactate can be a useful indicator of exercise induced acidosis, but it’s not the cause.
Anaerobic glycolysis predominates for 15 seconds to 2 minutes, with glycogen serving as the main source of glucose under these conditions. The end product of aerobic glycolysis is pyruvate, which can be converted to acetyl CoA for entry to the Kreb’s cycle, where electrons are passed to the electron transport chain for ATP production. Keep in mind that all three systems are working simultaneously, so although creatine phosphate predominates during heavy barbell exercises, we are also breaking down muscle glycogen during our 5 sets of 5 squats and even burning off trace amounts of fat. This is where carbohydrates become essential in the lifter’s diet. The key point is that heavy lifting happens relatively quick, so the fuel source needs to be accessed relatively quickly. Creatine and glucose are much easier to access than fat, which takes much longer to oxidize (more on that in the fat paper).
Macronutrient Partitioning, Weight Management, and Carbohydrate Goals
Now my watered-down attempt to be “academic” has concluded, so let’s talk about What You Care About: the role of carbohydrates in weight management and training performance. Optimizing macronutrients for lifters is essential to make sure that we are properly fueled and recovered. There are many diet fads that restrict entire macronutrient food groups (e.g. low fat, low carb) with various claims of their effectiveness. We have established that carbohydrates are essential for performance under the barbell, so “eating keto” typically results in fatigue and excessive soreness for most. The proponents of low-carb dieting argue that it is superior because we are better at burning fat and become more insulin sensitive. Here are some factors to consider with this argument.
If “eating keto” (<20 g carbohydrate) makes us better fat burners, we therefore will burn more fat, correct? Well yes, because in the near absence of dietary carbohydrates, and presence of high dietary fat intakes, the body has to adjust and oxidize more dietary fat for energy because it still needs ATP to perform basic physiological functions. It does this by breaking apart the glycerol molecule from triglyceride (the storage form of fat in adipose tissue, three fatty acid molecules and a glycerol group) so that it can be used for gluconeogenesis. Amino acids can also be converted to glucose via this pathway as well.
Now we become more efficient at using dietary fat for energy but this does not necessarily mean that we will burn more stored body fat. Mobilizing stored body fat is primarily a math problem. Sure, there are genetic limitations as well as psychological and hormonal influences, but for our purposes let’s assume normal physiology. I’ve already discussed why the “3500 calorie rule” does not always apply, but it can be useful for illustrative purposes. Assuming a pound of body fat requires a 3500-calorie deficit, one would have to subtract 500 calories per day for 7 consecutive days to lose 1 lb of body fat/week, 1000 calories per day to lose 2 lb/week, 1500 calories per day to lose 3 lb/week, etc. This applies whether you are in ketogenesis or not, and we are all subject to the limitations of our metabolic rate.
Since most individuals have a total daily energy expenditure of 1500-4000 calories per day, they will run out of room to subtract food real quick, thus resulting in a 1-2 lb fat loss per week for most individuals. This is regardless of macronutrient ratios. The human body stores fat like we save money – it’s our reserve in the event of a recession, which in this case would be a famine. We only use it if we are in a net energy deficit. Therefore, if a lifter has weight to lose, calorie restriction should be primarily through fat restriction while keeping carbohydrates and protein as high as possible for as long as possible.
If a lifter has to gain weight, similar ratios are still advantageous. It is well established that high-carbohydrate diets are superior for performance at all sports for the reasons described above. There are several situations where lifters need to gain weight for various reasons. These reasons include, but are not limited to, underweight status, filling out a weight class, moving up a weight class, or simply to gain muscle mass if the goal is aesthetic. This is done by eating at a caloric surplus. That caloric surplus will be high in carbohydrates for most people. As we stated, carbohydrates are necessary for glycogen storage, and carbohydrates also stimulate insulin release. Insulin is the most anabolic hormone in the human body and facilitates deposition of both glucose and amino acids into the muscles. This results in better training performance and better recovery from those training sessions.
Since we are trying to skew weight gain towards lean mass and away from fat mass, it only makes logical sense to keep fats at moderate levels when eating to gain weight since it contributes the least to performance for reasons described above. So how many carbohydrates should you eat a day? My practical experience as an RD, the published literature, and the established guidelines have shown that self-reported carbohydrate intakes of 300-400 g/day of carbohydrates for adult males and 150-250 g/day of carbohydrates for adult females tends to work well for getting strong under isocaloric or hypercaloric conditions. This results in 1200-1600 calories/day and 600-1000 calories/day for males and females respectively. This lines up with 45-65% of calories from carbohydrates assuming a 2500-3500 and 1500-2500 calorie diet for males and females respectively.
These should be comprised mostly of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, with simple carbohydrates reserved to peri-workout meals. Additionally, ~40 g/day and ~30 g/day of these carbohydrates should be in the form of fiber for males and females, respectively. This is a general guideline and serves as a good starting point, but it will ultimately need to be adjusted for the individual. Older adults often need less than this because we become more insulin resistant with age, and we are also not training as much.
Carbohydrate timing need not be complicated, but there are some physiological considerations worth mentioning. Glucose and insulin follow a diurnal variation, and general guidelines have been proposed based on this. Glucose is typically lowest in the morning with insulin sensitivity the highest. Glucose peaks in the late evening/early morning hours (i.e. ~1:00 am), with greater insulin resistance. This diurnal flux has also been observed in individuals who work graveyard shifts, which means it is independent of sleep.
This serves as the premise of recommending that carbohydrates, especially simple sugars, be consumed earlier in the day, with minimal starchy carbohydrates in the evening. These meals should also be spaced out in evening time intervals to promote more steady changes in glucose and insulin throughout the day. If it is a training day and you train in the evening, it is best to shift your carbohydrates to the afternoon hours, with most of them consumed before and after training sessions. Although the insulin sensitivity tends to decline in the evening, a phenomenon known as exercise-mediated glucose transport occurs independently of insulin. This means that training alone triggers an increase in glucose transport to the muscles both during and after exercise. Additionally, post-exercise carbohydrate has also been shown to reduce markers of muscle damage.
So although insulin sensitivity isn’t optimal in the evening, we don’t need as much insulin to transport glucose during and after workouts. Training earlier in the day theoretically takes advantage of the more optimal insulin response in the morning hours. However, it is unclear if a superior time of day exists other than the time that works best for the lifter. The theories were worth mentioning here since they do come up quite often.
It is quite fashionable to discredit carbohydrates as toxic waste, unnatural, disease causing, baby seal-killing nutrients that we should steer clear of. Fashion does not always line up with reality. Athletes have been consuming carbohydrate-rich diets for centuries, and the approach continues to work today. I wish that I had some complicated voodoo to sell to you here, but unfortunately I am clearly on the path of avoiding extreme wealth by not being a very good crook. Now, some individuals may fall outside of these recommendations, and that’s fine. Remember, this paper assumes normal physiology and thus clinical conditions (e.g. diabetes, epilepsy, various autoimmune diseases) are something to refer to a RD for further discussion. But this material is quite simple, and the information has been available for several decades. However, just like 5 exercises can’t possibly be enough to get strong and build muscle, neither can a well-balanced diet including 5 major food groups, right?
Discuss in Forums
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Keeping a Training Log
by Mark Rippetoe | January 14, 2020
Data is important in actual training. If you just go by the gym on the way home to mess around with the dumbbells and ride the treadmill, don’t bother writing it down, because it doesn’t matter what you do from one workout to the next anyway. You’re just punching a ticket, burning a few stray calories, and making yourself proud of yourself for doing something hard that you’d really rather not be doing anyway.
But if maturity has finally set in and you have determined to actually accomplish something, you must keep a training log. Training is a process composed of separate incrementally-increasing stress events that collectively accumulate into a physiologic adaptation. Over time, this designed and directed process produces progress toward a performance goal. And each of these separate stress events are important, in that they trend in the direction of progress towards the goal. Each training workout is a critical step upward, in contrast to each trip by the gym to ride the treadmill and play with the dumbbells.
Human memory is a less-than-perfect thing. Can you remember exactly what you had for lunch last Thursday? How about the last time you had tomato soup? How old are your gray socks? Some data is not very important, but when you start training, the data generated by the previous workouts determines what today’s workout will be, and what you should expect of the next one too. Processes generate trends, and data quantify the trends.
Your training log is the data you will use to monitor and direct the process. It is absolutely critical to keep a log in a usable and accessible format, a durable record of the process of acquiring the physical adaptations your performance requires. It should be with you during the workout, so that you can record information relevant to the process beyond just the weights, reps, and sets – cues you stumble upon accidentally that positively affect performance, new ways to think about your focus points, things you learned from other people in the gym that day, reminders about equipment, injuries and their status, and any other information that can contribute to your progress down the road.
Here in the 21st Century, everything is done on electronic devices. That’s fine, because the best training log is the one you will actually use. But let me show you something:
These are my training logs, back to 1982. Starting in 1986, every work set was recorded, on paper. None of these files crashed. I used to log all my sets, but switched to saving trees and just kept the work sets recorded after I learned that my warmup tonnage was of no use in the training record. Now I keep a very concise record of all work sets of every workout that allows 15-20 workouts per page, so that in an open book’s two pages I can see 2-3 months’ training. I’m not training seriously now, but I am training, and I couldn’t do it effectively without a record of what happened previously.
If I was sharing my training with a coach, an electronic file would be easier. But this is also a shareable electronic file:
More from Starting Strength
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January 13, 2020
Starting Strength Radio
Starting Strength Channel
In the Trenches
Rip holds a Q&A with visitors at the Starting Strength Denver grand opening event last weekend. [photo courtesy of Nick Delgadillo]
Attendees – two-legged and four – at Starting Strength Denver’s first Squat Training Camp held this past Sunday by Mark Rippetoe and Jared Nessland. [photo courtesy of Jay Livsey]
Squatter and spotters on the platform at the Squat Training Camp in Denver. [photo courtesy of Jay Livsey]
Best of the Week
Joe Rogan / Pavel “Which is best – barbell or kettlebell or machines?”
The first two minutes [of this video]: “Kettlebells promote functional strength.”
I’ll waste zero airtime deconstructing the low quality content of that sentence. What’s depressing is that Joe Rogan arguably has one the of the biggest global outreaches on the Internet for a huge demographic of males (and well done to him for achieving that). However, for someone such as Rogan who has spent so long thinking and doing the things in the domain of physical male culture should say the above and continue throughout the podcast to make less than well-informed comments on basic matters of phenomenology and (as most people do) – forget the raw scientific definition of what strength IS – is very disappointing.
I wish I found Starting Strength years ago – it would’ve saved me a lot of wasted / non-optimised mental and physical endeavour and money. I can’t help but feel sad that the general public is exposed to ever increasingly vast swathes of either downright dishonest information, or in the main, seriously flawed information. Like you say, the health and fitness industry is particularly prone to this. Criminal.
The nutrition industry is particularly prone to it as well. This Friday SS Radio will examine The Game Changers. Watch for it.
Very surprised at Pavel crediting barbell training on the one hand whilst implying the barbell is a less safe option to kettlebells. Okay, he is selling kettlebells and that’s his thing, but rather disappointing to hear him say that about barbells which just is not logical.
He sells kettlebells, I sell barbells. Kinda predictable.
Predictable in terms of him falling heavily on one side of the coin but I was still surprised given his relative stature in the industry that he should say such a stupid thing re. his barbell safety comment. He should’ve at least issued some sort of a caveat. And Joe Brogan commenting about how brilliant kettlebells are for building functional strength for sport, well, I think you’ve already covered that one perfectly.
If I had to summarise that topic in one word, I’d reference your discussion with Stan Efferding and say “eggs.” The general public are being royally screwed. Nothing new under the Sun I guess….
It’s funny that all these people who do kettlebell and functional strength exercises still ask me to carry the fucking cooler.
It’s funny that they think a 500 deadlift is not “functional.” If your function is picking things up, do the math.
If I remember correctly Pavel didn’t trash barbells. And of course he’s going to say kettlebells are superior, it’s his livelihood. But he did say barbells are very functional and effective.
3:55 “The barbell is not forgiving”
Neither is unprotected sex with parrots.
Correct performance technique in desired domains = commensurate rewards reaped (usually).
I remember it the same way. Probably because I listened to a lot more than 10 minutes of the podcast. He also did say that Bill Starr was one of the greatest strength coaches and referenced Starr’s books as being great as well. I expected Pavel to be a quack but he did say a lot of good shit.
This from the StrongFirst website:
“The kettlebell is the entry point into strength. Properly used, it teaches priceless movement lessons that prepare you for safe and effective barbell training. But the kettlebell can only go so far in the development of absolute strength. Enter the Barbell Course.”
Pretty much sums it up – barbells are superior for strength, just as we already knew.
Best of the Forum
Starting Strength and Proprioception Issues
I found your videos on YouTube which lead me to buying Starting Strength and I’m reading through it right now. Long story short, my wife and I have always enjoyed working out together. She’s 31. I’m 35. In February of 2017 she was hit head on by an impaired driver. She suffered a TBI and several small strokes. She’s made a great recovery and is doing well, but as a result of her injuries her proprioception is screwed up. So during complex movements her body doesn’t move the way her brain is telling it to. So moving a free barbell isn’t an option for her. I think Starting Strength would be a great program for her but what can we do to make it possible for her? I’ve been looking at Smith machines or power tech machines but I wanted to get your opinion before we spend the money.
What is her status now? Can she walk normally, balance, stand up/sit down with no trouble? Any permanent paralysis or vision problems?
She went through a month of inpatient rehab and 8 months of 3 day a week outpatient rehab. She can sit, stand, walk, drive, and take care of herself. No paralysis or vision problems. She has some fine motor issues. She has trouble with hair and makeup and handwriting. She’s a physician assistant and has been back to work full time for almost a year now.
I should add that she’s been doing beach body workouts since the spring of this year. She gets through the warm ups just fine but once the workouts start and the moves start to get more complex she has to struggle to get her arms and legs to cooperate. So she doesn’t end up getting much out of it and it’s frustrating for her.
Ryan, we are all pulling for you and your wife. She is a brave woman and its people like her who have to struggle through a TBI recovery that provide an example for the rest of us. She is amazing if she is at the point of considering to squat. I remember my Mom’s recovery and all the balance issues. Many people can’t consider how difficult it is, having to relearn how to stand and then walk again.
And it’s not just her – your involvement and support in her recovery. Good luck to both of you. Please tell her some guy on the internet said that she is his hero. Because she is.
Where do you live? I see no reason for her not to start training with a bar. I have trained people far more profoundly disabled than her, and they got good results. But she’ll need coaching, and I wouldn’t recommend that she try to do this without it.
Thanks! White Hall, Illinois. It’s about an hour and a half north of St. Louis
There are two great coaches in St. Louis. Lots of good options for you.
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"I have discovered experienced lifters that lacked the ability to concentrically control the lumbar muscles. These guys immediately improved their pulling and squatting upon being shown how to produce the contraction – immediately meaning the next set."
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Mark Rippetoe, Stef Bradford, and Robert Santana have a discussion about the The Game Changers – a recent popular vegan propaganda film.
Transcript, Pt 1
(Full transcript & timestamps pending)
- 00:00 Intro
- 07:40 “Plant-based” WTH?
- 18:47 Talking about one thing, explaining another
- 26:10 The road to Snackwells & soylent green
- 39:04 Sample subjects
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In a follow up to Rip’s video on what it takes to earn the SSC certification, Starting Strength Coach Nick Delgadillo talks about how best to prepare for the evaluations and gives tips for getting started with gaining coaching experience.
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Mark Rippetoe shows you the proper way to enjoy Irish Whiskey.
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Mark Rippetoe discusses the Starting Strength Coach certification and how its roots in the Starting Strength Method makes it the most valuable credential in the fitness industry.
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From a practical standpoint, as of 2019, there are nearly 20 million people in the United States with a license to carry a concealed pistol. However, choosing to carry a weapon in public is also very serious business – and unfortunately, it is a decision that is often not taken as seriously as it should be. After all, being fast and accurate with a firearm is a learned skill, the same as catching a football while running at full speed, sinking a three-pointer with a defender in your face, or performing a complex violin solo in front of a crowd of music aficionados who are intently listening for every minor aberration. If you haven’t put in the training time, you will not magically turn into John Wick in the event you are placed in a life-or-death scenario.
Practicing your shooting technique is the most important aspect of being a high-performing gun handler. This is something most serious competition shooters, special forces “operators,” and tactical trainers know. As a result, there is an ever-increasing number of videos and training programs being developed to help inexperienced shooter build the proper muscle memory to operate under less than ideal conditions.
What is “Performance Shooting”?
Simply put, performance shooting can be defined as “hitting what you aim at, and being able to do so repeatedly.”
For competition shooters, each “stage” or round of shooting is scored by a formula that considers the total amount of time required to complete the course of fire as well as the accuracy of their hits on the target. Some targets require only a single hit, while others may require four or more. So, shooters must balance the speed of their shots and movement between shooting positions with the time required to line up accurate shots.
For your average armed citizen, the same holds true, except the consequences of failure are potentially life-threatening. When confronted with a situation that warrants the use of deadly force, the decision to fire a weapon must be made with the awareness that being too slow, or missing the target, can have disastrous results for shooter (and, potentially, for innocent bystanders).
What’s This Got to do With Starting Strength?
An often-overlooked aspect of performance shooting is the benefit provided by being strong. After all, what possible benefit can weightlifting provide to an individual that will enhance the ability to center-punch the bad guy quickly and accurately under stressful conditions?
Go to any pistol competition and you’ll see plenty of people who are too fat, or too skinny – and in both cases weaker than they should be – but who are able to post impressive times with high levels of accuracy. These folks are highly skilled individuals who have put in thousands of hours practicing all the mechanics of drawing, firing, and moving from target to target. However, it is indisputably true that they would be even better shooters if they increased their overall strength.
Principles of Recoil Management
Recoil – or what untrained folks commonly call “kick” – is the equal and opposite reaction created when an ammunition cartridge is fired. When you pull the trigger, the firearm’s firing pin strikes the primer in the end of the cartridge, causing the smokeless powder inside the cartridge case to ignite and burn rapidly – an “explosion.” This forms a large amount of hot pressurized gas which pushes the projectile (the “bullet” itself) out of the barrel at a high rate of speed.
This gas pressure and force pushes the firearm back toward the shooter as it exits the barrel, the degree to which is based on several variables:
- The amount of smokeless powder used and the energy density of the powder itself. Larger, more powerful calibers use more powder with more energy to propel a heavier projectile at a higher rate of speed. Calibers with a higher chamber pressure produce more gas, and therefore more recoil.
- The speed at which the powder burns (pistol-caliber powders must burn more rapidly than rifle-caliber powders due to the shorter barrel length available to build pressure).
- The height of the firearm’s barrel above the wrist of the shooter. The higher the barrel relative to the arm of the shooter, the longer the ‘moment arm’ between the recoiling firearm and the shooter’s wrist joint. This is the reason that recoil causes the barrel of the firearm to “flip upward” as opposed to pushing straight back toward the shooter.
Simply put, recoil is an inevitable and unavoidable result of a firearm’s discharge. We cannot eliminate recoil, but we can damn sure work to manage and control it.
The best way to think about managing recoil is to think of your body as a lightning rod – a grounding rod in an electrical system. We must position the body in a way that allows recoil to be transferred through our hands, forearms, shoulders, back, hips, legs, and feet all the way down to the floor. Any weakness, flex, or other instability that exists in this chain will result in lower overall performance. Let’s explore the major components of proper recoil mitigation – Grip, Arms, Stance, and Mass – and how barbell training can play a role in building better shooters.
Without a doubt, practicing and developing your “master grip” on a firearm is the foundation upon which you build proper shooting mechanics. This is especially true for pistols, where your grip is the only contact your body has with the tool. Without a proper strong master grip you lack the ability to properly aim, fire, control recoil, follow moving targets, and place shots accurately. We won’t delve too deeply into the specifics of hand and thumb placement, but it is universally true that the ability to grip a firearm more firmly for a longer period will make you a more accurate shooter. A weak grip allows the firearm to move around in the hands of the shooter, preventing him from keeping the sights on target as shots are fired. The more shots you fire, and the quicker your cadence, the more obvious this becomes. Watch any number of YouTube videos where an untrained shooter fires a fully automatic rifle and this becomes easy to see. The barrel climbs farther and farther upward, which in turn loosens up the shooter’s grip further, which in turn makes recoil even more difficult to fight.
When drawing a firearm from the holster, a master grip is taken with the shooter’s dominant hand wrapping around the grip frame. The thumb stays high on one side with the middle, ring, and pinky fingers curling around the opposite side – the index or trigger finger has a different task (firing the weapon) and therefore does not contribute to the master grip. Once the master grip is taken and the firearm is drawn from the holster, the non-dominant hand fills the leftover space between the heel and fingers of the dominant hand, crushing the grip frame of the pistol securely between the two.
The placement of the master grip higher toward the barrel axis of the firearm is a key component to mitigating the effects of recoil, but this is constrained by the mechanical design of the firearm. Modern magazine-fed semi-automatic pistols have a slide which must reciprocate unobstructed in order to chamber the next round and prepare the weapon to be fired once again. There is a limit to how “high” your grip can be on a pistol before your hand prevents the slide from moving, or before the slide slices a bloody line into the webbing between your thumb and forefinger (a common phenomenon known as “slide bite”).
Once a shooter has optimized the hand placement on the firearm, and thereby limited the length of the moment arm between the barrel and the wrist, the resulting recoil must be managed by the strength of the shooter’s fingers, forearms, biceps, traps, and shoulders. All of these contribute to the squeeze imparted upon the firearm, keeping the sights level, and transferring recoil through your hands, forearms, and shoulders as it moves down your body to the floor.
The less space the pistol has to move around in the operator’s hands, the better recoil can be transmitted through the hands, down the forearms, and into the rest of the kinetic chain. As a result, it is practically impossible to squeeze a pistol too tightly – the more grip strength we have, the tighter we can grip, the longer we can maintain that grip without tiring will ultimately result in better accuracy on target.
Proper arm and elbow position assists in the management of recoil through the elimination of moment arms. Starting Strength followers know the importance of moment arms all too well – we have all failed enough overhead press reps to be well acquainted with the effect of even a small moment arm underneath a heavy load. The recoil of a typical 9mm pistol can generate around 338 ft-lbs of energy back toward the shooter, plenty of energy to exploit the moment arms created by improper arm, elbow and wrist placement.
Many new shooters have the tendency to pull their elbows in toward each other, creating a bend in their elbows as the firearm is raised to eye height. This creates a large moment arm as the recoil is occurring at eye level while the elbows are almost a foot below.
Some shooters take the opposite approach by locking their elbows out. This can help to reduce upward movement at the barrel, but it places higher levels of stress on the elbow joint which is now required to transmit the force of the recoil through the elbow joint. It also results in the “tactical turtle” shooting position which we will discuss shortly.
Instead, the elbows should be raised as high as possible, and pushed outward but unlocked, allowing them to be in the same plane as the firearm. This greatly reduces the moment arm at the elbows and allows the elbows to move naturally as the firearm moves directly rearward toward the shooter’s face.
Once recoil passes through your arms and shoulders, it must continue down your back to your hips and legs, and finally through your feet into the ground. Proper shooting stance is crucial to maintaining this chain, which is enhanced greatly by understanding which muscles must be tight through the shooting sequence.
A typical problem with many shooter’s stance is what’s known as the “tactical turtle” – a tendency to round the back, raise the shoulders, crane the neck forward, and tilt the head slightly downward. This causes the spinal erector muscles to be very loose, preventing recoil from continuing its movement downward to the hips and legs. To make matters worse, tilting the head downward forces the shooter to look “upward” in order to maintain the sight picture, and limits the peripheral vision above the target.
Another common stance issue is leaning too far backward – commonly found with new shooters who are not quite comfortable placing their faces only a few inches away from a firearm. This creates a balance problem during any rapid-fire shooting as the recoil pushes the shooter further and further back, forcing him to eventually take a step backward to keep from falling over.
Instead, the proper upper body position is much the same as what’s assumed during the squat – shoulders squeezed tight, chest up, and lower back contracted. Like many novice barbell practitioners, many shooters are wholly unable to feel which muscles to tighten and contract without the proper verbal/tactile cues.
For the lower half of the body, foot and leg position is just as important. Proper shooting position uses a split stance where the leg and foot of the shooter’s draw hand is dropped back approximately 12-18 inches. This knee is kept locked stiff to allow recoil to travel down the back, through the hips and leg, and finally through the foot into the ground. The front leg (on the non-dominant side of the body) is flexed with the knee unlocked and the weight firmly planted through the ball of the foot. The feet are approximately shoulder width apart with the toes pointing toward the target or slightly outward, depending on the proportions of the shooter.
One of the best ways though which recoil can be controlled is by adding mass. A common problem expressed by many brand-new firearm owners is the amount of recoil produced by the tiny little pistol the guy at the gun store advised you to purchase, because it was “easy to conceal.” That may be true, but it is also true that smaller, lighter pistols will have more “felt recoil” than a larger, heavier pistol in the same caliber shooting the same ammunition. This is for two reasons:
- Smaller pistols may not allow the shooter to fit her entire hand on the grip frame, reducing the amount of contact with the hands and limiting the amount of grip force that can be applied.
- Pistols designed to be small and concealable – especially of the polymer plastic variety – do not weigh as much as the full-size firearms carried in the holster of a police officer. Heavier objects require more energy to move, and thus, a heavier firearm will impart less recoil to the shooter by absorbing some of the energy. And it requires more energy to properly cycle and reset the heavier slide on larger firearms, which means there is less energy transmitted into your body when it is fired.
This produces four possible combinations, the worst of which is a small, light, “cute” sub-compact sized pistol shot by a small, light, and equally cute woman. Unfortunately, the firearms industry primarily targets women when they design marketing campaigns to sell these types of pistols (which is why they typically come in a variety of fun colors, ready to match any outfit), making this a problem which is likely to exist for eternity. The best combination would be a larger, heavier human firing a full-sized pistol which allows the entire hand to grip the frame.
Application to Barbell Training: The Squat
The squat serves as the foundation of a well-designed barbell training program. The hamstrings, quads, spinal erectors, abdominals, hip flexors, and groin muscles are all major contributors to a properly performed squat. Squatting under progressively heavier loads will result in increased muscle mass, better balance, thicker and stronger tendons/ligaments, and increased cardiovascular capacity.
For performance shooters, these adaptations contribute directly to recoil mitigation. Especially important is the ability to maintain a tight contraction in the lower back, tilting the hips forward and down, and allowing recoil to travel down the back and into the hips/legs/feet.
The muscles trained by the squat also allow a shooter to better mitigate recoil in less-than-ideal shooting positions – for example, squatting down midway to shoot underneath a solid barrier at eye level, or leaning out from behind cover to take a shot without exposing too much of the shooter’s own body. Stronger muscles and better balance contribute to a more stable position when a perfect stance cannot be assumed.
When considering scenarios likely to be encountered in the real world, the squat trains nearly every muscle required to be a useful human being in the event of an active shooter, a robbery, or any other situation where the defensive use of a firearm is warranted. Strength is required to move casualties, barricade doorways, and of course, to fight for your life.
If the squat is the #1 exercise of a well-designed barbell training program, the deadlift is #1A. Deadlifting requires the lifter to maintain a contracted lower back throughout the entire range of motion while moving heavy loads. The deadlift trains many of the same major muscle groups as the squat with the addition of the lats, trapezius, forearms, hands, and fingers.
For novice lifters, an initial hurdle to overcome once they reach moderately heavy loads is a lack of grip strength which must be developed over time. The benefit of the additional grip strength developed by the deadlift cannot be emphasized enough – it contributes directly to a better master grip which is the foundation upon which all performance shooting is built. Sticking with a double overhand grip and avoiding the use of lifting straps for as long as possible during novice linear progression (NLP) will develop your grip strength much faster than any other method.
Outside the arena of competitive shooting, developing the deadlift is important to many other tasks that may arise, depending on the situation and environment. For example, an armed citizen in an active shooter situation may need to move injured people out of harm’s way, or drag a heavy desk in front of a doorway to barricade himself inside a room in the event escape is not an option.
Balance, stability, and precision are all vital aspects to developing the overhead press. Despite its appearance to outsiders as a “brutish” lift, the press actually requires more focus on proper technique than any other lift. An error of only an inch or less – pressing the bar away from the face – can result in a failed rep as the weight increases.
The press contributes directly to strengthening the pectorals, deltoids, triceps, trapezius, forearms, and abdominals. These allow a shooter to “press” the pistol toward the target at the end of the draw stroke, keeping the firearm level and true during extended strings of fire.
A classic staple of even the most common gym routine, the bench press is a valuable tool for training the upper body including the pectorals, triceps, forearms, and deltoids.
For pistol shooting, strong triceps and forearms transmit recoil force to the shoulders and allow the shooter to keep the firearm steady and level. When utilizing rifles with a buttstock, the buttstock is placed between the pectoral and the deltoid with the shoulder rolled forward, effectively trapping the stock between these two muscle masses. Larger, stronger pectorals provide a more stable surface as well as a larger surface area across which recoil is transmitted.
A powerful bench press is also beneficial to real-world defensive shooting scenarios where an armed citizen may be required to create distance from an attacker before drawing the firearm.
Quick, explosive moments may not seem like an important part of high-performance shooting at first glance. However, the ability to coordinate large muscle groups into a fluid motion is a fundamental aspect of the “draw stroke” – simply put, getting your firearm out of the holster and on target as quickly and efficiently as possible. Watching a highly-trained weightlifter perform a heavy clean or snatch movement is like watching poetry in action. Every part of the movement happens in sequence with no wasted effort. Watching a well-trained performance shooter clear a cover garment, obtain a master grip on the firearm, draw the firearm out of the holster, present the firearm straight and level with sights on the target, and squeeze off a shot in the same amount of time (or less) as power clean is just as beautiful.
The old saying “speed kills” has real-life implications when it comes to firearms training. In the unfortunate event of a gunfight, the shooter who gets the gun on target the quickest has an obvious advantage. Often this must occur with little or no preparation by the defender and little or no warning on the part of the attacker.
Learning and practicing the coordination of large muscle groups to move a heavy weight quickly through space not only provides the strength necessary to perform the task at hand, but also supplies the confidence that it can be done under very stressful conditions.
Do your fives, drink your Gallon Of Milk A Day, and this will take care of itself! Starting Strength has been proven to build muscle mass for those who follow the program as designed. Simply adding mass to your body – regardless of whether it’s lean mass or excess adipose tissue – will provide more resistance against both recoil and a bullet wound.
Obviously, our goal with Starting Strength is to add lean mass, which is useful for activities outside performance shooting. As we build muscle, we not only enjoy the benefits of additional strength to better secure our grip and “lock in” our stance, but the simple fact that we are now heavier means our body will be moved less by the recoil energy of the firearm. This is further evidence to suggest the current US Military disposition toward running as the basis for their fitness standard is antithetical to the goal of producing better “combat athletes.” We actually want soldiers who are physically larger and heavier and capable of producing as much force as possible.
Performance shooting is a learned skill, the same as any other athletic endeavor, and therefore it can be enhanced through a properly designed and programmed strength training routine. Controlling the firearm’s recoil is key to maintaining accuracy, and recoil must have a solid path of transmission through the body to the ground. Strong hands, forearms, shoulders, spinal erectors, hips, and legs allow the shooter to maintain posture throughout the firing sequence. Additionally, general strength as an attribute provides a distinct advantage for other tasks that may be required in the event of a defensive shooting scenario.
As Rip has often said, “Strong People Are Harder to Kill.” This adage could not be more relevant to citizens using a firearm for self-defense. Stronger people, it turns out, also make for better performance shooters.
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Mark Rippetoe teaches the weighted chin up and explains how and when to use them in your barbell training program.
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