In this episode, we discuss:
- The importance of building muscle
- The secret to building muscle and strength
- The impact of nutrition and macronutrient ratios for weight loss
- How to lift weights at any level
- How (and why) to dedicate more time to strength training
- Bigger, Leaner, Stronger, by Mike Matthews
- Thinner, Leaner, Stronger, by Mike Matthews
- Muscle for Life, by Mike Matthews
- Legion Athletics
Hey, everybody, Chris Kresser here. Welcome to another episode of Revolution Health Radio. This week, I’m excited to welcome Mike Matthews as my guest. He’s a certified personal trainer and best-selling author of [the books] Bigger, Leaner, Stronger and Thinner, Leaner, Stronger as well as the founder of the number one brand of all-natural sports supplements in the world, Legion. We’ve gotten a lot of requests over the last several months for a fitness-related podcast, and I wanted to bring a guest on who had a science-based approach to building muscle and losing fat and getting healthy because as I’m sure you’re aware, there’s a lot of pseudoscience and misinformation in the fitness world. So I really enjoyed this conversation. I think you will, too. Let’s dive in.
Chris Kresser: Mike Matthews, [it’s a] pleasure to have you on the show. Welcome.
Mike Matthews: Yeah, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.
The Importance of Building Muscle
Chris Kresser: Let’s just dive right in starting with why should someone be concerned with building muscle in the first place? Let’s take someone who’s not really oriented in that direction. They don’t necessarily even like to work out. But I talk about this to my patients a lot. I’d love to hear your take on why building muscle is critical for our health and wellness above and beyond how we look and even our general fitness level.
Mike Matthews: That is a great question because I hear from a lot of people who are already into building muscle, [and] they just want to know how they can build more muscle, right? But with this new book, Muscle for Life, I am trying to reach out to the people you’re talking about who don’t particularly like muscle building activities, and they don’t care whether they look jacked or not. Or in the case of women, whether they look really toned, or women use different words. And I would say there are probably a few different ways of looking at it. Let’s talk about the health angle first. This is something that for a long time, if people were given exercise advice, particularly from doctors, people they trust, or other healthcare professionals, it was often to do cardiovascular exercise. And there’s nothing wrong with cardio. I talk about it in the book. I do 30 minutes of cardio five to seven days a week, and I think if you want to optimize your health and wellness, then you should also do cardiovascular exercise.
However, and there’s a lot of research to support this, I would say that for the average person who has three to five hours a week that they can give to exercise, I would prefer that they give 80 percent of that time to training their muscles and the remaining 20 percent [they] can do cardio. And I also would prefer that they approach their strength training as training, so following a system. There are methods of progression. And then they can treat their cardiovascular exercise however they’d like. If they like to play a sport, go play a sport; if they just want to go for a brisk walk [for] 30 minutes a day, go do that. Like me, if they want to hop on an upright bike. I usually have work calls I have to do, so I’ll save that hop on my upright bike. And there are several reasons.
If we look at the health implications of let’s talk about, and this is relevant, especially in the context of what’s going on in the world, let’s talk about all-cause mortality. And let’s also throw in deaths related to disease, right? Research shows that it really is just this simple. The more muscle you have, which only goes so far when you’re natural. So forget about big, hulking bodybuilders. None of us can look like that naturally. But the more muscle you have, the less likely you are to die from anything and everything. Physical trauma, disease. And then as we get older, you have the functional problems that people run into because they are not strong [and] they don’t have muscle, [so] they fall down [and] break something that’s very dangerous.
Chris Kresser: We have a saying in medicine: “break your hip, die of pneumonia,” because that’s so often what happens in the elderly population. They break their hip because they don’t have enough muscle, and then they’re reclined in a hospital bed, fluid pools in their lungs, they develop pneumonia, and they die. It’s a really common cause of death among the elderly.
Mike Matthews: Yeah. I think that you probably agree that if you can avoid it, you want to stay away from medications, if you can avoid it, and you want to stay out of the hospital if you can. You want to stay out of the operating room if you can avoid it, right? So building muscle is a great way to give your, if we’re talking about in the case of disease, immune system, you can think of it as a big reservoir of fuel to pull from to fight off disease. And, of course, to prevent any sort of physical [problem], you’re not going to be falling down if you’re strong, and you are, if you have basic physical capabilities, right? So like, your hips can work the way they’re supposed to, and all the major joints can move through ranges of motion; you have strength. So there are long-term health impacts for gaining muscle, and I think there probably is something to be said for the aesthetic value of it.
Now people have different, of course, ideas of what looks ideal or what they would like to look like and what is a bit too much. But for most people, I would say the tendency is, having worked with a lot of normal people, that they would prefer to look athletic, they might say, than unathletic. And that usually entails gaining a bit of muscle and having a body fat level in a certain range depending on how they want to look. So there’s something to be said for the aesthetic value of muscle. And then I think that strength, and this is something that I talk about in this book, that strength is a result of muscle, Especially as you get more into weightlifting, it becomes really a direct correlation. You’re only going to get stronger if you gain more muscle. And strength is, I would say, another dimension of fitness that many people don’t realize that it comes with its own benefits in terms of the functional things that I mentioned; there are just the everyday things that I mentioned. Having a stronger body that doesn’t ache and allows you to be active. And most people have something that they want to be active with, whether it’s playing with their kids, or maybe it’s rock climbing, or maybe it is some recreational sport. The stronger you are, the better you are going to do at all of those things.
Stronger bodies are less likely to get hurt. So people who have put in some time to gain muscle, gain a bit more muscle than the average person and get a bit stronger than the average person [are] much less likely, and this has been shown in research, to have back problems, to have knee problems, shoulder problems. And pain is a mysterious thing. I’m sure you know this. Researchers aren’t exactly clear why it works, but they know that if you take somebody with back problems, for example, and you start having them build their back muscles up to strengthen their back muscles with different exercises, their perception of pain, this is what researchers currently think, is likely what’s changing. It’s that the underlying factors that were contributing to pain have not changed, but the sensitivity to it has changed. And so what you have is, again, you have people who put in time to train their muscles to get stronger; they generally just have fewer aches and pains as well as a more functional body.
Chris Kresser: I have a personal anecdote about that. I live in Utah and ski a lot. And the first season that I was here, we moved two years ago, and I had a lot of lower back issues throughout the season. And nothing like [a] serious injury, but just a lot of soreness and stiffness, and it was a bummer. I still got out there, but it limited what I could do, and I just spent most of the season in some form of pain or stiffness. And knowing a little bit about this and being reminded of it by a friend and colleague, I started doing deadlifts and squats again. And particularly, now I’m at the point where if I don’t do deadlifts and squats on a regular basis, I will experience back pain and be injured and I cannot make it through a ski season without doing deadlifts and squats, which is.
Mike Matthews: It seems counterintuitive, right?
Chris Kresser: It [seems] weird; it’s like I’m skiing, this is a pretty intensive activity, at least the way I do it, and now I’m going to go do deadlifts and squats, and that’s going to make my back better. It’s like what? That doesn’t make sense.
Mike Matthews: Yeah, especially when you look at what you’re doing with the deadlift, and it’s not a dangerous exercise at all, as you know, if you know what you’re doing. But to somebody who’s new to all of this, they look at that, and they say that can’t be good for your back.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, it would be the last thing you would choose for your back where you’re going to lean over and like, as you said, if you’re doing it with proper technique, it’s very safe and actually helps a lot. So I’m happy to hear you say that because I’ve seen that research, and I’ve also had that direct personal experience [with] doing that strength training. And at my age, preventing injury is number one on my list because I love to stay active, ski, mountain bike, all kinds of different activities here in Utah. It’s kind of a playground. In order to do that, I have to prevent being injured. And my recovery from injuries is not what it was when I was 25. So anything I can do to prevent that is something that I will do, and I’ll do it religiously. And strength training has been a game changer for me.
Mike Matthews: Yeah, that’s fantastic.
Chris Kresser: I wanted to briefly mention, too, I had a mentor when I was dealing with pretty serious chronic illness back in my 20s. One of the doctors that I saw who also became a mentor for me as a clinician was a big believer in the importance of building muscle mass for people with chronic disease. And his basic theory was that chronic disease increases the metabolic demands of the body. Being in a state of low-grade chronic inflammation and having the demands of the chronic disease process is taxing. So in order to basically buffer against that and provide your cells with the energy that they need, adding muscle was a way of I guess you could look at it as anabolic versus catabolic. If the chronic disease is a catabolic process, building muscle is an anabolic process, and that helps balance things out and prevent an ongoing decline that would otherwise happen with that catabolism caused by chronic disease. Do you think that the evidence supports that kind of approach?
Mike Matthews: Absolutely. Unfortunately, that happens even if you don’t have chronic disease.
Chris Kresser: Life is a catabolic process.
Mike Matthews: Correct. And unfortunately, what did Dylan say for not busy being bored or busy dying, right? And it starts [in the] late 20s or so for most people, and this is in men, too; they are biologically programmed to have more muscle than women are, right? And so, in men [in their] late 20s, if you don’t do anything to at least retain the muscle you have, you slowly lose it. And research shows that that, for example, accounts for the majority of the metabolic decline that we see in aging, which is good news for everybody listening, meaning that if you can maintain your muscle mass, just maintain. Let’s say that [you] take the amount of muscle mass you had in your 20s. And let’s say you are not into weightlifting; you’re just a healthy 20-year-old person. If you just maintain that level, which and even to your purpose of squatting and deadlifting, more functional, the great news is, if we’re talking about maintaining muscle or preventing injury and just maintaining function, it’s a few hours per week.
It’s two to three workouts per week. You can do more if you want to. And if somebody is inclined to, I could give them many reasons to do more, but it’s just a couple [of] hours per week, and you can maintain. If you just know what you’re doing, you can maintain all of the muscle that you have. I would say actually you can gain quite a bit if you’re starting new, and then you will plateau. But you can slowly continue to improve on just a couple of workouts per week. Eventually, the progress is going to slow down. But that happens regardless, right? So back to your point, yes, I think it makes a lot of sense that there’s just, there may be some very esoteric condition where exercise and strength training would just be completely contraindicated if we’re talking about disease. But maybe you would know. Nothing comes to mind for me. I would say that no matter what type of condition somebody is dealing with, a moderate, let’s say an appropriate amount of exercise, and particularly an appropriate amount of strength training and appropriately programmed.
So for some people, for example, and one of the reasons I wanted to write this book is, some people [are] not ready to start deadlifting and squatting anything. It’s not possible yet. So take a 65-year-old person who has to lose 80 pounds just to be in a normal body composition kind of range, and they’ve never touched a weight before. I wouldn’t tell them to start squatting and deadlifting. We would start with probably let’s go out for a walk a few times a week, and then let’s move into some bodyweight exercises. And I would love to get you squatting and deadlifting, but we’re going to have to work toward it, right?
Chris Kresser: Yeah.
Mike Matthews: So anyway, to your point, yes, that makes sense that we have to counterbalance the catabolism that occurs naturally. And if it occurs faster in somebody because of a health condition, well, then I would say that it’s even probably more urgent for them to do that.
Chris Kresser: Yeah. And I think that’s also counterintuitive for some people with chronic disease.
Mike Matthews: They always, the stress and.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, or you’re feeling drained and tired. You might not think that working out and lifting weights is going to be the thing to do. But I found that, again, when it’s appropriately done, it was vital for me to get through that period. And I always recommend it to my patients, even patients with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, where absolutely, you need to be very careful with the level, with how much you’re doing. It’s quite easy for those folks to overdo it and then they’re bedridden for days afterward. But the key is in modulation in my experience. I think we have this mentality, you probably see a lot as a personal trainer, where if you’re not doing full-bore 100 percent, it’s not even worth doing. And so people avoid [it].
Mike Matthews: It’s the no pain, no gain.
Chris Kresser: No pain, no gain. More is always better, that uniquely American mentality. And I think it prevents a lot of people who would benefit from strength training from doing it. Because in their mind, they have to be able to deadlift 400 pounds and squat ridiculous amounts of weight and do that for an hour, five days a week. And if that’s not possible, then why bother? So they miss out on the benefits of that.
I would bet that the average 30-year-old probably can’t sit in a squat position, a basic human function. In this episode of RHR, I talk with health and fitness expert, Mike Matthews, about a simple and science-based approach to building muscle, losing fat, and getting healthy at any age or fitness level. #chriskresser #fitness
The Secret to Building Muscle and Strength
Chris Kresser: And this is probably a good segue, because I know there’s a lot of misinformation and pseudoscience out there in the fitness world, which you work hard to combat. And you have, through all of your research and your experience as a trainer, a secret sauce that you have summed up nicely, I think, for how to build muscle and build strength. I’d love for you to talk, first on a general level about those three elements, and then we can dive into each of those in a little more detail.
Mike Matthews: Yeah. So I think you’re referring to, I share in the book a pretty simple formula saying, hey, here’s the 20 percent that gives you the 80 percent basically, right?
Chris Kresser: Yes.
Mike Matthews: And so the training component of that, is that, so let’s just think of super fit people, not even necessarily fit people, but super fit people. There is a small percentile at the top, and you’ll see them on Instagram, and you’ll have guys who are just muscles on muscles, and 4 percent body fat. Not those guys, but I would say maybe take someone like me. I’ve gained about 55 pounds, let’s say 45 pounds of muscle since I started weightlifting, about 10 percent body fat. [I’m] pretty fit by anybody’s standards, right? And a lot of people think that I must spend a ton of time in the gym, and I must be completely neurotic about my food, and I weigh everything, and I count every calorie. And they think that again, it’s a lot harder to not only get to a level of being fit or super fit, but also stay there.
So kind of the secret sauce. Here it is. The fitness elite, so to speak, control their calories, [and] they control their protein. That doesn’t necessarily mean they count all of their calories. But they understand how calories relate to body composition, and they understand the importance of eating enough protein. And so they know that they need to regulate those things. And there are different ways of doing that. They spend a couple of hours per week. So again, I said three, let’s call it three to five hours per week exercising, and most of that time is going into their strength training, not their cardiovascular training. So those are two major components of it. And if you want to talk more specifically about muscle building and strength gain, we can. But I would say that you need both of those things.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, let’s talk a little bit about protein and also calories because there’s a big controversy and has been for years, if not decades, about calories in calories out.
Mike Matthews: It’s still going.
Chris Kresser: It’s still going and will keep going forever and ever until the end of time.
Mike Matthews: The [crosstalk] It doesn’t matter how many studies debunk this.
Chris Kresser: Yeah, it doesn’t matter.
Mike Matthews: It’s simply not going to go away.
Chris Kresser: Yeah. I don’t know if you know [who] Stephan Guyenet [is].
Mike Matthews: I know the name.
Chris Kresser: He debated Gary Taubes about this on [The Joe Rogan Experience], and Stephan has been on the show three or four times, and he’s a friend. And he studied the neurobiology of fat loss at U of W. [He has] a PhD, [is] a really bright guy, and [is] really conversant with all of the research on this topic because that’s his field.
Mike Matthews: Alan Aragon has debated Taubes, as well.
Chris Kresser: Yes.
Mike Matthews: And if I remember correctly, Taubes was referring to observational research 20 years ago. Like it got to a point of absurdity, basically.
Chris Kresser: Yeah. So I don’t want to get sidelined here, because we could go down a rabbit hole and never come out. But I think my take on this is [that] counting calories is rarely effective, but not for the reasons that people think that that’s the case. It’s that there are a number of innate mechanisms that kick in when we consciously and intentionally reduce calorie intake. And this is what we discussed with Stephan Guyenet. Like, your resting energy expenditure will decrease, the amount of calories you extract from food that you eat can increase, and your appetite will increase, because the body has a pretty strong desire to avoid starvation. And from a biological perspective, that’s often what gets triggered if you intentionally reduce calories. But I think that’s different [from] having a general awareness of the importance of the amount of food you’re consuming and just incorporating that into whatever your diet plan is.
In other words, that’s a factor that you’re holding in your consideration and that you’re thinking about. And you generally don’t see people who are extremely fit eating massive amounts of calories, right?
Mike Matthews: Exactly, unless they are massively active.
Chris Kresser: Right, if they’re like Michael Phelps, who eats like 14,000 calories a day or something while he’s training. But for those of us who are not in that category, right. So there’s that. What about protein? There’s also a lot of controversy about how much protein you need [and] what types of protein are best. What’s your take on that subject?
Mike Matthews: First, let me quickly just comment on the calorie point. And yes, there’s no question metabolic adaptation does occur, not metabolic damage, as some people would call it. But the body does adapt when it is not being fed enough food. But we shouldn’t get too fatalist[ic] about it and say, “Oh well, there’s nothing we really can do, because our body is just going to compensate for the calories that we are restricting. And then we’re just going to end up eating more or moving less or burning less energy.” And let’s remember that, I mean, I myself [have] worked with thousands and thousands, it’s got to be over 10,000 by now, over the last eight years or so, men [and] women of all ages, all circumstances, all abilities who have successfully lost weight. And I’m just one person doing this. There are many other people like me. And so collectively, you can find if you want to go years, you’re going to find millions and millions of people who have successfully done this. And so success leaves clues, right?
And one thing that you will always hear more evidence-based fitness people talk about is the importance of energy balance, calories in and calories out, and that we understand that the only way to reduce body fatness is to consistently eat less energy than we are burning. And yes, that’s simple. But as you said, it’s not necessarily easy. And it’d probably be a whole discussion. I talk about different ways to make it easier. And when you do it right in the book, and protein is one of those points, actually, but when you do it right, when you restrict your calories for fat loss properly, the experience is pretty smooth. Meaning that you might be hungry a little bit from time to time, and a lot of people don’t realize that that’s not a bad thing. It’s okay if you feel a little bit hungry. That doesn’t mean that you have to rush and eat food. So it’s okay to experience a little bit of hunger now and then, but you should never be starving.
Again, if you are doing this correctly, iif you are controlling your calorie intake correctly for fat loss, you should never be starving, and you should be able to enjoy the foods that you like. Maybe you can’t eat as much of everything that you like as you would like. Meaning like to your point, okay, if somebody says look, I want to lose a bunch of fat, but I also want to eat a large pizza and a pint of ice cream every single day. And that’s probably 3,000 calories right there. And to put that in perspective, on a good day, maybe I burn 3,000 calories, and I’m in the gym lifting weights for about an hour, I do 30 minutes of cardio, [and] I’m kind of a muscular guy, right? So to that person, I would say, all right, no; we can’t make that work. But if you really like pizza, we could work in a slice. We can throw that in your meal plan if you want to enjoy that. Or if you would rather have some ice cream, we can’t do the whole pint. That’s a bit extreme. But could we do a couple hundred calories of ice cream? And somebody might say, I would be one of those people, I’d be like, now it’s not satisfying enough for me. A couple hundred calories of ice cream?
Chris Kresser: Slippery slope.
Mike Matthews: Exactly. And they go well, what about dark chocolate? All right, great; let’s throw a couple hundred calories of dark chocolate. That’s actually pretty satisfying. Okay, cool. And that would apply to generally, let’s talk about some nutritious foods; let’s talk about carbs. I am pro-carbohydrate, and I understand that it is not optimal to eat a bunch of highly refined carbs. And, of course, [we’re] on the same page there, but I’m pro-fruit, I’m pro-vegetable, I’m pro-whole grain, [and] I am pro-seeds, which obviously have some fat, as well, and if people want to have some more highly refined stuff, that’s okay. So long as they are getting enough nutritious foods in their diet. I talk about in the book, it’s in the literature, it’s referred to as flexible dieting. And some people take it to the extreme, and they do just look at calories and protein, and then they come up with really bizarre diets where they’re eating a bunch of junk food but getting enough calories, getting enough protein, and they can look pretty good, but they don’t feel very good.
A more balanced approach is 80 percent of your calories coming from relatively unprocessed, nutritious stuff, and then you can take that remaining 20 percent if you want and do whatever you want with it. And part of flexible dieting is this point of eating enough protein. And just as again, people who succeed with this consistently pay attention to their calories; they do know how to keep their calories in a certain range, whether it is by following a meal plan or just eating foods that they’re familiar with and not making any major changes on a day-to-day basis, which is something that I do. Or in the book, I give a simple method of approximating calories, and then also protein, carbs, and fats, just comparing foods to the size of your palm, the size of your thumb, the size of your fist. So about a palm size of meat, oh, okay, that’s about 150 calories, about this much protein, about a fist of whole grains, and these measurements are consistent across a lot of these types of foods. So just as people who are good at the fitness thing, they do that. They do something along those lines. They also almost always eat a high-protein diet. And to answer your question directly, there’s a lot of research on this now. This is one of those things that really shouldn’t be controversial, in my opinion, but it still is; it’s about 0.8 to 1 gram of protein per pound of body weight per day. And that’s for somebody with a normal body composition.
So if somebody has a lot of weight to lose, then that would entail eating more protein than they need to eat. And for those people, there are different ways you can look at it. You can look at it [as] about 30 to 40 percent of daily calories from protein; that’s one way of looking at it. Another simple way of looking at it is, again, let’s say a guy weighs 270 pounds. Does he need to eat 270 grams of protein per day? No, he doesn’t. Is it going to hurt him? No, it’s not, unless he has a major kidney issue. But for that person, you can also just take height in centimeters; one gram per centimeter in height is another way of looking at it. So most guys are eating, let’s say anywhere between 150 and 200 grams of protein per day, depending on how big they are and how much they weigh and how active they are with their strength training. And then for women, probably around 90 to 130 grams per day is the norm; those are the normal ranges.
The Impact of Nutrition and Macronutrient Ratios for Weight Loss
Chris Kresser: One of the things I want to come back to is the satiety value of protein. You mentioned earlier, you briefly alluded to it. But this is why, I think, when you study the literature in terms of weight loss diets, one of the most effective diets is the protein-sparing modified fast, which is essentially a low-carb and low-fat diet.
Mike Matthews: Low-calorie.
Chris Kresser: Low-calorie and high-protein. And it’s actually one of the diets that I found that people are able to, it’s not fun, but because of the higher protein, they’re able to stick with it, because protein is the most satiating of all three of the macronutrients. So it seems it’s another reason why, I think, when you see weight loss that happens on a low-carb diet, a lot of times the assumption is that it’s just because of the carbohydrate restriction. But very often, what happens in a low-carb diet is that the protein intake goes up, as well. And then there’s a spontaneous reduction in calorie intake, because you’re excluding or significantly reducing an entire class of macronutrient[s] with carbohydrates, and then you’re increasing the protein intake, and people naturally eat less as a result of that.
Mike Matthews: And that’s been shown in a number of studies, as well. You have studies that if you were to just read the abstract, you might conclude [that] a low-carb diet is just better for fat loss than a high-carb diet. But when you actually read the paper and you look at the data, what you’ll find is in every case, and I’ve written about this, and I’ve linked a lot of these papers, and I’ve also then linked papers where I think the experiments were conducted appropriately [but] incorrectly. And what you’ll find is, to your point, in one case, you’ll have it’s not low-carb versus high-carb. What they actually were doing is low-carb, high-protein versus low-protein, high-carb. So they’re not comparing like with like. But in studies where calories are equated with protein intake, where those two things are equal among the participants, carbohydrate intake has had no meaningful effect on fat loss, total fat loss, or rate of fat loss. Meaning that when you compare high-protein, high-carb, and you compare that with high-protein, low-carb, and if you make the calories the same, you get the same results in terms of fat loss.
And again, I could pull up at least 10 papers, and there probably are some newer ones that I haven’t even seen. But the weight of the evidence is extremely clear. And it’s also supported by the weight of the anecdotal evidence, which is still scientific evidence. Like is anecdotal evidence as scientifically powerful as a meta-analysis of [randomized controlled trials]? No, of course not. But it’s still scientific evidence. So when you look at the published literature, and you go, okay, that’s interesting. And then you go look at the anecdotal evidence, again, in the evidence-based fitness space, and you quickly learn that literally every single person in the space who gets results with themselves, who gets results with their clients, all operate on these assumptions, and with this model, and they get the same types of results again, and again, and again, there [is] a point where you just conclude, okay, so this is true enough. This works really well.
Chris Kresser: Totally. Yeah. And as a clinician, my perspective has always been to find what works and to avoid dogma. And I think when you’re working with people on a regular basis, whether you’re a clinician or a trainer, I forget who’s saying this was, but it’s something like, the best plan never survives the first battle.
Mike Matthews: Yeah.
Chris Kresser: I’m paraphrasing, but you can have the most beautiful theory you want in terms of like, you could be a die-hard, low-carb advocate. And then you start working with women, for example, in your clinical practice who are burning the candle at both ends, and they’re raising kids and also working outside of the home and doing CrossFit and getting five hours of sleep a night, and they start a low-carb diet, and guess what happens? They gain weight rather than lose weight.
Mike Matthews: And feel terrible.
Chris Kresser: And feel terrible and can’t function and go further into the catabolic hole, and [the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal] (HPA) axis starts breaking down further. I’ve seen situations where a low-carb diet works phenomenally well, and I’ve seen situations where it’s a train wreck. But what’s consistent in my experience, which matches yours, is a higher protein intake tends to work very well for both muscle building and fat loss. And, of course, there’s a correlation there.
How to Lift Weights at Any Level
Chris Kresser: I want to talk a little bit more about actual strength training, because I imagine a lot of people [who] are listening are like, oh, strength training, okay. Well, does that mean free weights? Does it mean bodyweight exercises? [What] does it mean?
Mike Matthews: Squats and deadlifts?
Chris Kresser: Yeah, squats and deadlifts. Does it mean the Nautilus machines at the gym? Does it mean the resistance bands? And like the X3 kind of, and various similar platforms like that? What qualifies as strength training? What are the best ways to get started for somebody who maybe [is] not totally inexperienced with strength training. Maybe they did it in high school and when they were playing football or whatever, but they haven’t done it for a while, or maybe they’re pretty new to it. Where should they start?
Mike Matthews: In the book, I give beginner, intermediate, and advanced programs for exactly this point. Because you can’t start everyone in the same place, at least if you want to start them optimally. And my previous books like Bigger, Leaner, Stronger for men, and I would say the primary, [at] least the target demographic, when I wrote that book, guys from let’s say, 18 to 45 to 50. That’s really who that book was written for. And also guys who are ready to squat, deadlift, [and] bench press. It’s okay if they start with lower weights. But that is what the program entails. And if you can’t do those things.
Chris Kresser: They can do those movements, and they’re able to do them properly and safely, and they know what you’re talking about when you say deadlift and squat. Yeah.
Mike Matthews: And, of course, I provide instructions, and I try to give them as much of an on-ramp as I can. And we can make changes to exercises if they don’t work. But as I mentioned earlier in the podcast, that isn’t ideal for many people, especially people who are middle aged or beyond and who have never done any of this kind of stuff, or, like you said, maybe they did a little bit. Back in high school, I could bench 405, right? With like two inches of range of motion, maybe.
Chris Kresser: Right, and your back arched off the bench.
Mike Matthews: Yeah, your butt is like two feet off the bench, right? I think the bar moved.
Chris Kresser: Right.
Mike Matthews: So that isn’t the best place. Now, ironically, I have heard from many guys over the years who are 40, 50, 60, and beyond, who read Bigger, Leaner, Stronger and jumped into that, and they made some modifications based on, sometimes they reach[ed] out to me and I was able to help them through it. But it was clear to me that I needed to create something that is a bit more, let’s say user friendly for the bigger target market as far as strength training goes. Which, to what you mentioned, are people who haven’t done much of this, they haven’t done any of it or it’s been a long time, and they’re not in good shape. So where do they start?
Well, strength training, if you want to simply define it, [is] simply exercise that improves the strength of your muscles, improves the strength of your bones, and improves the strength of the connective tissues, your tendons, everything in your body that gets stronger with good strength training. And how you do that is you do resistance training. So you’re moving your muscles against some sort of resistance. And in the case of free weights, or moving against gravity, of course, you have a weight and you’ve got to move it. A lot of it is pick[ing] the weight up and put[ting] it down, basically, and you do that against gravity. But you can also use machines, you can use bands, you can use your body weight, [and] you can use TRX and other contraptions. The key, though, is that you have your muscles working against resistance. And where somebody starts depends where they’re at. So in the beginner program in the book, this would be for people who have probably never lifted weights before, or maybe they did it a long time ago and they now are not strong, and they are not comfortable just jumping into the gym and deadlifting and squatting. And that is many men and many women.
So in the beginner program, for example, it is basically all bodyweight training. There are maybe one or two dumbbell exercises where you’re holding dumbbells, but most of it is just working with your bodyweight. And the reason that works is you’re where you’re at with your strength. And by working your muscles against resistance, they’re going to get stronger. And then what we do is we make it a little bit harder. And there are different ways to make it a little bit harder. But the easiest way and the most productive way to make your training more effective is to move more weight. So with bodyweight exercises, there are different variations, for example, that are harder than others. If you think of a simple bodyweight squat, okay, that’s one bodyweight exercise. Now think of a one-legged squat, also called a pistol squat, which you could do; it takes a lot of balance to do properly. But if you want to take that element out of it, which is okay, if you just want to use it to strengthen your legs, you can just hold on to something so it helps you keep your balance, right? But now you are squatting the entirety of your body weight on one leg at a time. And there are a couple of other variations of lower body exercises that you can work through to work up to that pistol squat.
So [in the] beginner program, you start with just your body weight; you don’t have to go to the gym. And there are a couple [of] dumbbell exercises, which could be replaced by bodyweight exercises, really. So bands are useful, as well; I talk about using bands in the book. They’re inexpensive for people listening. They’re just like big rubber bands, basically. And then you can use them in different ways to add resistance to make the exercise a little bit harder. And then, eventually, what will happen is after probably if somebody’s starting brand new to all this stuff, within the first three to six months, they’re going to plateau on just bodyweight things because you can only get so creative with just your body weight and with bands and with TRX. You can certainly then if somebody were to say, let’s say they did six months of that, and they’re very happy with the results, and they were to say, “Hey, I’m happy to just stay here, actually. I don’t care to get any bigger or stronger or fitter than this. This is good for me.” You had mentioned skiing. Maybe the reason they’re doing it is so they can play tennis better, and that they’ve accomplished that and they don’t want to go [to] the gym and spend more; they want to just play more tennis. And so then, they could just keep doing that, again, a couple of times per week; they could do those modified. They’ve made them more difficult, but really just doing bodyweight resistance training, workout strength training workouts. But if they want to then upgrade their fitness to the next level, they have to make the exercises harder. They have to make the resistance greater; they have to force their muscles to contract harder. That’s really what it comes down to. Force their muscles to produce more tension. And so now we start talking about machines, free weights. And generally speaking, free weights are more effective for building muscle, for gaining strength than machines, meaning that you are going to gain muscle and strength faster. And this has been shown in research; you’re going to gain muscle and strength faster with free weights than you are with machines. However, that doesn’t mean that you have to train with free weights.
Again, something you had mentioned earlier on the podcast, which is a great point, is that, and I really want to make that clear with this book, people shouldn’t assume that they have to do a lot more than they actually have to do or have to do extreme things they see on Instagram to get into good shape. You really don’t. And if somebody wants to get to the point where they’re deadlifting 400 pounds, squatting 300 pounds, they could try to work toward that. But that is so far into the remaining little.
Chris Kresser: You’re well beyond the 80/20 rule.
Mike Matthews: Twenty percent, yeah, of what’s remaining. You have to work extremely hard for it, right?
Chris Kresser: Yeah.
Mike Matthews: But to get the 80 percent, you don’t have to do any of that stuff.
Chris Kresser: Right, yeah. There [are] diminishing returns for that type of effort.
Mike Matthews: Exactly.
How (And Why) To Dedicate More Time to Strength Training
Chris Kresser: I see maybe it seems to have settled down a little bit, but for a period of years, there was [a high-intensity interval training] (HIIT) craze, where it was like seven minutes a week.
Mike Matthews: I was into it myself.
Chris Kresser: You can get the same results as if you spend three hours a week. And there [are] various programs that are based on this. I mentioned X3, John Jaquish’s program. And a lot of those still insist, hey, you just need to do this. It’s like 12 minutes a day, and it’s frequent, maybe four days a week or something like that once you ramp up. But what’s your take on that versus a more traditional program where you’re doing deadlifts and squats and bench press, and you’re doing that, like you said, three hours a week; maybe you’re going to [the] gym three times a week or something like that.
Mike Matthews: I’m all for [a] minimal effective dose if that is appropriate to the person’s goals and circumstances, and if they understand that the minimal effective dose is not as effective if we’re simply talking about bottom-line results as more than that. And, of course, then you can reach the point of diminishing returns, like you mentioned, and going beyond that just becomes more and is also probably not appropriate for most people. But the sweet spot, so to speak, for gaining, again, let’s look at it in the 80/20 perspective where you’re going to gain 80 percent of the muscle in strength; you’re going to gain it at 80 percent of the rate that you could out of 100 percent. It takes more than 12-minute workouts. And I am familiar with some of the arguments made for [going] very intense for a short period of time. And if we talk about the cardio HIIT craze, [that’s] still very much a thing; I think it was a bit bigger 10 years ago than it is now, and we look at how research has progressed on HIIT. Whereas once it was at least theorized that not only are you burning a lot more calories with high-intensity interval training, but there also seemed to be some additional fat-burning mechanisms that come into play. You’re getting the pure calorie burn plus you’re getting these mechanistic magnifiers, so to speak. So you’re burning even more fat.
Now the weight of the evidence is that it’s mostly just the calorie burning. Meaning that if you want to just blast it, you want to burn a bunch of calories in 20 minutes, you work really hard, and HIIT is really good for that. But keep in mind that when you look at what people are doing in studies on HIIT, real proper HIIT is very hard. It’s probably a lot harder than the average person at home hopping on the bike doing what they think is HIIT. And just to put that in perspective, when you are doing your 3 second sprint or 6 second sprint, it needs to be so hard that you certainly can’t talk. Maybe you can get out single words, like you’re gasping for air.
Chris Kresser: You’re at maximum effort.
Mike Matthews: That yes, that’s how hard.
Chris Kresser: Like running away from a lion that’s chasing you.
Mike Matthews: Correct. Yeah.
Chris Kresser: [And] most people have a hard time summoning that level of effort on a [crosstalk].
Mike Matthews: Simply to burn some calories.
Chris Kresser: Average workout, yeah.
Mike Matthews: Exactly. The same can be said of that type of methodology applied to resistance training. I wish it were true. I wish I could say, honestly, yeah, just do my 12-minute workouts, and it’s going to be more effective than the one-hour workouts that the strength training guy is telling you to do.
Chris Kresser: Yeah.
Mike Matthews: But that’s just not the case. The scientific evidence is not there, and the anecdotal evidence is certainly not there. You’d have to wonder, then, what are all these bodybuilders doing? Do they just not know what they’re doing? Why don’t they just do 12-minute workouts?
Chris Kresser: Yeah, it’s true. You can say what you want about bodybuilders and their methods, but they’re effective, right?
Mike Matthews: The results speak for themselves.
Chris Kresser: The results speak for themselves, and they’re generally ahead of the curve because they have to be, right? The difference between the winner and the not winner is basically being ahead of the curve and knowing, along with genetics and some other things, but yeah.
Mike Matthews: Even if you take drugs out of it, even if you stick with truly natural bodybuilders. There probably aren’t that many of them out there, but they are out there.
Chris Kresser: Right.
Mike Matthews: I actually do know a few. And in the cases of people that I’m thinking of, they’re smart people. They work in academia, and you had commented about as a clinician, being very interested in what works, and smart bodybuilders are similar in that they are very interested in what works and they’re always looking for ways to tweak things. And again, unfortunately, can you get an effective workout done in 12 minutes? To some degree, yeah. We’re going to have to define what we mean by effective, but it will have an effect. It’s better than not doing it, certainly.
Chris Kresser: Right. Yeah.
Mike Matthews: If I could get them to do 30 or 45 minutes, I would love to see it.
Chris Kresser: It would be better. As someone who has been very busy over the past 10 years, I was, like anybody else, drawn to those kinds of methods. And I did Body by Science for some period of time, which you probably are familiar with, and I’ve done some of the X3 stuff. And then I found my way back to more like starting strength, more kind of traditional program, Olympic weightlifting style and have settled into like, yeah, that’s just the time commitment that needs to be made. [I do] 30 to 45 minutes a few times a week for strength training, and then the rest of the stuff I do is 100 percent for fun but also happens to be great exercise like skiing or especially alpine terrain where you’re skiing uphill and then downhill, and it was a phenomenal workout.
Mike Matthews: Skiing downhill is hard.
Chris Kresser: Skiing uphill, yeah, going 2,500 feet up a hill and then skiing downhill first. And I learned to inline skate last summer as part of my ski training. I like to have fun when I’m exercising, because I find that if I do that, I’m far more likely to stick with it. But the core of what never changes is the strength training routine. And I’m always changing everything else around that. But I’ve learned that it’s kind of like brushing my teeth.
Mike Matthews: Yeah, that’s a smart way of looking at it.
Chris Kresser: I just don’t think about it. I just go and I do it. And actually, I do enjoy it. But it’s something that’s just built in at this point.
Mike Matthews: Yeah, and that’s what I’m hoping to spread the word with this new book and hoping to get more people on that bandwagon of, hey, even if it’s just a couple [of] hours per week. And something I should mention that is relevant, if we’re talking about shorter workouts, is you can take, let’s say it’s 30 or 45 minutes of work, and break that up into a few 10- or 15-minute workouts. Let’s say you have a little setup at home, and you don’t have a 45-minute block of time to do that whole workout. You could do 15 minutes in the morning and then 15 minutes, let’s say, at lunch, and then 15 minutes later; maybe it’s after dinner. And you might have to spend a little bit more time. I’m talking about maybe five or 10 minutes total warming up, depending on what you’re doing. You might do a couple [of] extra warm-up sets than you would do otherwise. But that works well. That works with not just strength training, but cardiovascular or anything. You don’t have to do a solid block of 30, 45, 60 minutes.
Chris Kresser: I’m glad you brought that up. That was definitely my strategy. [For] both books that I wrote, I had to do that, because with family and other commitments, I just didn’t have that much time. And I didn’t live close to a gym, so I had some equipment at home, and I would just incorporate it throughout my day, basically. And that was [crosstalk].
Mike Matthews: Yep, it works great. Okay, I’ll do my bench presses now; I have 10 or 15 minutes.
Chris Kresser: That’s right. Whenever you can fit it in. Exactly.
Mike Matthews: Yeah, your body doesn’t care.
Chris Kresser: No. So Mike, the book is Muscle for Life: Get Lean, Strong, and Healthy at Any Age!, coming out in January 2022. And tell people where they can learn more about it and learn also more about your work in general.
Mike Matthews: It depends on when this interview is going to go live; on November 15th, I’m going to do a whole book launch bonanza and have fun with it and give people free bonus material, and we’re going to do a big giveaway. It looks like we’re gonna have at least $10,000 of stuff that we’re going to be giving away to people who buy the book or preorder it. So that’s all going to be at MuscleForLifeBook.com. And if thisgoes up before then, people can preorder the book right now, but just save your receipt, and then make sure to go over to that URL after November 15th and get some cool stuff and get entered into the giveaway. And otherwise, people can find my articles, and I have a podcast, as well, called Muscle For Life. And I actually had a website; it was really just a glorified blog. I started it in March 2013 called Muscle For Life. So I guess this is maybe like, don’t artists do this sometimes? Like musicians where, later in their career, they release an album that’s like just the name of the band, you know what I mean?
So I’ve had this Muscle For Life property I guess in different incarnations, and now it’s going to be a book. But otherwise, people can find all my stuff at LegionAthletics.com. It’s a sports nutrition company, but that also is, if you go over to the blog, for example, we probably have at least 2 million words published just from me, and I have a team of people who also write. I mean, not as me; they write as themselves, but there’s a lot of stuff from me [and] a lot of stuff from people who work with me. We have my podcast there. And Legion’s website is kind of my online hub.
Chris Kresser: Great. I really enjoyed the conversation. I think people are going to get a lot out of this. I would highly recommend the book. It seems like it’s a great resource for anybody coming to this from any point, and I love that you’re not just limiting it to the traditional fitness demographic but to people who might be in their 60s who are thinking about this because they are definitely the underserved when it comes to the importance of strength training, and I’m happy to have a book to recommend to them in my clinic. Because as we’ve talked about, I’m a big believer in the importance of this, and I see the best outcomes over and over from a chronic illness perspective, and also aging and people who are able to maintain strength and build strength, and it’s never too late. I’ve had patients in their 60s and 70s even start strength training for the first time ever in their life and still see huge benefits. So it’s really important.
Mike Matthews: I talk about it in the book; there’s research [on] people [in their] 70s, 80s gaining muscle, gaining considerable amounts of muscle, considerable amounts of strength; it really is never too late. It’s only too late to gain maybe all of the muscle that you could have gained if you would have started when you were 20. But who cares about that? That doesn’t mean anything.
Chris Kresser: Exactly. Yeah, you might not be jacked, but you’re going to be healthy and live a longer life.
Mike Matthews: And you’re going to look great, you’re going to feel great, [and] you’re going to be able to ski and do [physical activities].
Chris Kresser: Yeah, totally. That’s the important thing. Thanks again for coming on the show, Mike. Check out the book, everybody, and keep sending your questions in to ChrisKresser.com/podcastquestion.
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