Science

Warm Up and Foam Rolling – is there a point?

Why do we warm up?

“Warming up” is a blanket term used to describe the actions we perform prior to an exercise to allow us to exercise injury free and prime us for ideal performance. During a warm up we increase blood flow to the muscles we plan on using, increase our core temperature, increase range of motion, and get our heart rate elevated. These are all necessary to decrease instances of injury and ensure we have the best performance.

Static stretching vs. dynamic warm ups

When I was in elementary school and took PE I remember warming up with static stretches. This involved grabbing various parts of your body and folding them in ways to stretch the muscles prior to exercise we performed. This mode of warm up is no longer recommended – it’s been replaced with dynamic warm ups.

Dynamic warm ups are not static – it’s movement of the muscle to stimulate it for action. This includes things like lunges, kicks, walking, etc. Any sort of movement that increases blood flow to the muscle. Study (source) after study has shown an increase in acute performance after dynamic warm ups vs. static stretching. This has been confirmed in all sorts of populations, from children (source) to D1 collegiate athletes (Source).

Some dynamic warm up videos:
Katie Anne’s Warm UpMegsquat’s Lower Body and Bench Warm Up

Foam Rolling

Over the last few years’ foam rolling has gained a lot of traction. A foam roller is a long foam device that allows someone to manipulate their muscles without the need of a second person. They come in a lot of different types – plastic, foam, some have rivets on them, etc. While I use “foam rolling” in the rest of this article, you can include using items like lacrosse balls, tennis balls, PVC pipe and massage sticks in this topic.

When I asked friends and family why they foam rolled, by far and away the most common response was “To break up the lactic acid in sore muscles, decreasing DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness).” This isn’t an accurate point for many reasons. First, lactic acid build up does not cause DOMS. While many theories have been explored – and the exact mechanism isn’t known – the lactic acid theory has been widely rejected and replaced with theories about microtears and inflammatory processes. Second, it gives the idea that the foam roller can cause fascial (tissue/muscle) manipulation at a level to “break up” or “release” anything. Studies have shown that you need somewhere in the neighborhood of 600-900kg of weight to cause meaningful manipulations in fascia (source). In fact, there have been quite a bit of papers debunking the idea that you can “release” fascia without serious force – as stated above.

So why foam roll? Well, there are studies that prove foam rolling increases acute range of motion (source). If you’re foam rolling a “tight” area of your body prior to exercising that area you will find that your range of motion has increased (source). However, this has been noted with any sort of warm up, not just foam rolling. Additionally, the science supports it being just an acute process. If you foam roll on your off days and expect that to carry over to the next day’s exercise you’ll find no improvement. It’s the movements you perform afterwards that are meaningful in long-term increases in flexibility and range of motion.

There’s also been a lot of interesting studies into why foam rolling seems to decrease DOMS (source). There are theories about stimulating pain perception points and even more theories about a placebo effect. Much like the cause of DOMS, the jury is still out on how this can decrease the sensation of soreness.

 

So how should you interpret this data and apply it to your life?

  • If you enjoy foam rolling, keep doing it. Limit it to <10 minutes pre or post workout and include it with other types of warm ups like dynamic stretches and movements.
  • Don’t guilt yourself if you don’t foam roll on your days off. Instead, try other active processes to increase blood flow to your muscles and help with range of motion and flexibility.
  • If foam rolling is not something you enjoy, you don’t have to do it.
  • As always – if it works for you and you feel better before/after you foam roll, keep it up! What works best for you is what YOU should do.

A Case Against Breakfast

Let me preface this article by saying “If you’re hungry, you should eat.” Plenty of people wake up ravenous, enjoy breakfast, and go on with their day. Others wake up without an appetite and report that when they do eat breakfast, they feel like crap all morning, or they’re hungry twenty minutes later. Without delving into the “What are you eating? How much? Etc” argument, I’d like to present this little piece of science for those of you who want it. If you find breakfast a chore here’s some ammo to shoot at the pro-breakfast crowd always trying to get in your face. If you’re not hungry, you’re not hungry: end of story. Every body is different.

Let’s start with hormones and waking. Cortisol (click the link to read about it) is a huge part of your sensation to wake up. It gradually rises through the night, and reaches its peak when you open your eyes. Your cortisol is highest in the morning and may continue to rise after you wake up, until about 30-45 minutes later. That’s breakfast time. Here’s the deal with cortisol – it antagonizes insulin. Insulin helps pull the sugar from your bloodstream after a meal and put it into your cells to refuel them. Because of this, you end up with a higher blood sugar than you would normally.

The issue is that with a blunted insulin response your cells aren’t getting the energy they need. Simply put, insulin gives the energy directly to the cells, and cortisol gets in the way of them doing that. If your cells are yearning for energy they’re going to send hunger signals to your brain to encourage you to eat and feed your cells. This is the case with people with chronically elevated cortisol levels as well who have trouble maintaining a normal appetite.

What about the fit person?

A fit person will have increased insulin sensitivity, especially as they lean out. They tend to be very responsive to an increase in blood sugar and quick and efficiently pump out insulin to compensate. These people then see their blood glucose drop faster, and tend to get hungrier faster. This is exacerbated in the fasted morning states with a high cortisol. You have an extremely active pancreas pumping out insulin and being countered by cortisol, so you’re pumping out more. This can mean a dramatic decrease in blood glucose. Not so much as to cause hypoglycemia, per se, but enough for your hunger signals to fire up just a short time later.

But why does this not affect ALL people – why are some people breakfast lovers and others aren’t? The level of cortisol in your blood is highly dependent on a lot of factors. Some people simply do not have a high enough level of cortisol to counteract any of the breakfast-induced blood sugar problems. Others, such as diabetics, have a need for a regular blood sugar management. Every individual is different, which is why I say again – if you’re hungry, eat!

Lastly, let’s look at a very specific study targeted at the traditional “If you skip breakfast you’ll gain weight” hoopla. This study was a 16 week controlled study in overweight and obese adults, one group ate breakfast, the other didn’t. Between both groups the average weight loss was 1.18 kgs vs. 1.17 kgs. Essentially, the results showed little difference in weight loss between breakfast eaters and non-breakfast eaters.

So, as I said earlier – eat if you’re hungry, don’t eat if you’re not. If you find breakfast is detrimental to your state of mind (no one likes being ravenous at 9am!) then skip it. It’s your individual choice.

Fasted Cardio: Myth or Fact?

Fasted cardio is one of the hottest topics amongst dieters, especially those who compete in body building. The idea of doing cardio on an empty stomach first thing in the morning makes sense to some people – with no immediate source of energy, won’t your body burn stored fat for energy? There’s compelling evidence for and against fasted cardio, so I thought I’d break down the main points of various studies for both sides and let you chose.

FOR FASTED CARDIO

One study that is often cited (Bonen, A. et al. (2008). Effect of training in the fasted state on metabolic responses during exercise with carbohydrate intake. Journal of Applied Physiology. Apr;104(40):1045-55) showed that training fasted actually increased your muscle glycogen stores, making it a great adjunct to endurance athlete’s training. The idea is that increasing the body’s ability to store glycogen will allow athletes to compete at higher intensity long term.

Another study looked at supplementing your fasted cardio with caffeine and yohimbe and found that this increased catecholamines in the body, which helped to break down fat stores more readily. So fasted cardio, at least in the short term, increases the bodys’ ability to burn fat.

But, that’s pretty much where the science ends. The idea of fasted cardio – that your body would used its reserves instead of readily available food – was greater than the research. Now powerhouses such as Dr. Layne Norton and pretty much all of science have decided the cons far outweigh the pros.

AGAINST FASTED CARDIO

A lot of data for this comes from a study done through The Strength and Conditioning Journal (Volume 33). They found that the thermogenic effect of exercise (that is, your long term calorie burn) is HIGHER if you’ve eaten before exercise. They also found that training fasted decreased your overall energy output, so if you felt sluggish you didn’t put as much effort into a training session as someone who ate before.

What is more alarming than this is the catabolic effect fasted cardio can gave. Muscle catabolism is exactly what everyone wants to avoid – why train fasted if you could possibly lose muscle in the process? Proteolysis (the break down of protein) is higher in fast training and nitrogen losses more than doubled in this state.

So what’s the take home message with these studies? Know your goals. If you’re trying to maintain muscle and lose fat then eating something before doing your cardio (oatmeal, BCAAs, egg whites, pop tarts, etc.) can help you from losing muscle and keep your energy high. If you’re an endurance athlete then fasted cardio can contribute to your glycogen stores. With this information you can make appropriate decisions based on your own goals and levels of fitness.

What is Creatine?

I remember the first time someone told me to take creatine to improve my performance. Like most newbies to fitness I had absolutely no idea what it was or why I’d use it, or even if I should use it. I placed it on the same level as a fat burner or some other useless supplement parroted by people wanting to make money.  In reality, creatine is one of the most effective performance enhancing nutritional supplements out there.

How does it work?

During stress your body releases phosphocreatine to aid in cellular function. Creatine is integral in storing phosphocreatine. This is why it’s cited as increasing strength, but why it’s also important for brain, bones, muscle and liver. Creatine essentially puts more gas in the tank to allow you to perform at higher levels.

Is it safe?

Creatine has undergone a plethora of tests that have confirmed its safety. Most people recommend 2g-5g a day taken with 8oz of water. When taken without water GI upset has been a side effect. If you’ve taken too much diarrhea is a common side effect. It’s important to maintain a good hydration status (drink plenty of water!) while taking creatine. Some people have reported an increase in water retention up to 5 pounds, but this is a highly individualized response.

Who should take it?

Anyone looking to increase their performance may benefit from creatine. Creatine is found naturally in food (like meats, eggs and dairy) and also naturally produced in the body, so in no way is it a “foreign” supplement.

Do not confuse creatine with creatinine, which is the breakdown product of creatine in muscle.

Cortisol – A Love Story?

Cortisol is one of those hormone buzz words that is making its way around the diet industry right now, especially in respect to how it helps or hinders fat loss. People advocate for a stress free lifestyle in hopes that you lower your cortisol levels, or talk about exercising during the morning or the night depending on your cortisol levels, or even not eating breakfast because of its effect on cortisol. I think before you make a decision on what to believe, you should get a little more information about cortisol and what exactly it does.

Cortisol is a hormone that comes from the adrenal glands, which are located right above the kidney. It really has a few main functions: raise blood sugar through gluconeogenesis (making “sugars” for your body to utilize when it doesn’t have any carbs immediately), to suppress the immune system (which is why you use them with some allergic and autoimmune conditions), and also to help with fat, protein and carbohydrate metabolism.

When the diet industry is talking about cortisol they usually are referring to its role in gluconeogenesis and glycogenolysis (breaking down glycogen, the stored form of carbohydrates in the liver, for energy). This is where things get tricky – cortisol can both help and hinder these scenarios. For example, long-term elevations in cortisol can lead to muscle wasting. While cortisol does break down fat, it’s also shown in some conditions to SUPPRESS the break down of fat.

Like stated above, cortisol is released in times of stress. If you’re running away from a bear cortisol is one of the hormones that tells your body to stop digesting your food and start running…fast. Cortisol is also a hormone that tells your body it’s time to wake up, which is why it’s highest in the morning.

Cortisol literally has a hand in every body system you can think of. From counteracting insulin to controlling diuresis, cortisol is involved. When you’re reading studies or claims about how cortisol will help or hinder your lifestyle don’t think of cortisol as a bad hormone. Remember instead that hormones exist in a balance in our system and we must pay close attention to how they make us feel. If you feel like you have a medical problems that may be related to excessively high or excessively low cortisol it’s important to contact your doctor and schedule an appointment.

Remember, like anything there are no “good” or “bad” hormones, foods, etc. there are only imbalances in the system.