Monday, May 16, 2011

Book review: Biology for Bodybuilders

The photos below show Doug Miller and his wife, Stephanie Miller. Doug is one of the most successful natural bodybuilders in the U.S.A. today. He is also a manager at an economics consulting firm and an entrepreneur. As if these were not enough, now he can add book author to his list of accomplishments. His book, Biology for Bodybuilders, has just been published.


Doug studied biochemistry, molecular biology, and economics at the undergraduate level. His co-authors are Glenn Ellmers and Kevin Fontaine. Glenn is a regular commenter on this blog, a professional writer, and a certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. Dr. Fontaine is an Associate Professor at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Medicine and Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Biology for Bodybuilders is written in the first person by Doug, which is one of the appealing aspects of the book. This also allows Doug to say that his co-authors disagree with him sometimes, even as he outlines what works for him. Both Glenn and Kevin are described as following Paleolithic dieting approaches. Doug follows a more old school bodybuilding approach to dieting – e.g., he eats grains, and has multiple balanced meals everyday.

This relaxed approach to team writing neutralizes criticism from those who do not agree with Doug, at least to a certain extent. Maybe it was done on purpose; a smart idea. For example, I do not agree with everything Doug says in the book, but neither do Doug’s co-authors, by his own admission. Still, one thing we all have to agree with – from a competitive sports perspective, no one can question success.

At less than 120 pages, the book is certainly not encyclopedic, but it is quite packed with details about human physiology and metabolism for a book of this size. The scientific details are delivered in a direct and simple manner, through what I would describe as very good writing.

Doug has interesting ideas on how to push his limits as a bodybuilder. For example, he likes to train for muscle hypertrophy at around 20-30 lbs above his contest weight. Also, he likes to exercise at high repetition ranges, which many believe is not optimal for muscle growth. He does that even for mass building exercises, such as the deadlift. In this video he deadlifts 405 lbs for 27 repetitions.

Here it is important to point out that whether one is working out in the anaerobic range, which is where muscle hypertrophy tends to be maximized, is defined not by the number of repetitions but by the number of seconds a muscle group is placed under stress. The anaerobic range goes from around 20 to 120 seconds. If one does many repetitions, but does them fast, he or she will be in the anaerobic range. Incidentally, this is the range of strength training at which glycogen depletion is maximized.

I am not a bodybuilder, nor do I plan on becoming one, but I do admire athletes that excel in narrow sports. Also, I strongly believe in the health-promoting effects of moderate glycogen-depleting exercise, which includes strength training and sprints. Perhaps what top athletes like Doug do is not exactly optimal for long-term health, but it certainly beats sedentary behavior hands down. Or maybe top athletes will live long and healthy lives because the genetic makeup that allows them to be successful athletes is also conducive to great health.

In this respect, however, Doug is one of the people who have gotten the closest to convincing me that genes do not influence so much what one can achieve as a bodybuilder. In the book he shows a photo of himself at age 18, when he apparently weighed not much more than 135 lbs. Now, in his early 30s, he weighs 210-225 lbs during the offseason, at a height of 5'9". He has achieved this without taking steroids. Maybe he is a good example of compensatory adaptation, where obstacles lead to success.

If you are interested in natural bodybuilding, and/or the biology behind it, this book is highly recommended!


David Moss said...

Maybe this is in the book, but why does Doug's case suggest that genetics are not so much of an influence? The fact that he wasn't very big, lifted some weights and then became very big, doesn't seem to count against the idea that muscular potential is largely determined by genetics (or some other innate factor). We shouldn't, after all, expect that if genes are a big factor, that all the genetically gifted people will be very big before doing any weight-training at all. More likely is that they simply have the potential to gain substantial amounts of muscle, IF properly stimulated (whereas many people, if stimulated in precisely the same way, wouldn't gain much muscle).

His particular case, in fact, does seem to suggest a rather naturally gifted individual. From his bio, he "earned 11 varsity letters" in high school in three different sports. Also, when he did hit the weight room during college he gained 40pounds before graduating, despite living on "cold cereal." These first couple of years presumably before he became an expert on weightlifting and so can't be attributed to his having learnt 'the secret' of training.

Scott W said...

Agree with David. This book does nothing more than confirm my reasoning for stopping Mens Health...genetic exceptions being held up as "If I can do it you can do it" examples.

Women would recognize this...same thing going on with the beauty and fat loss secrets on the covers of every womens magazine in America.

You know what I want to see? 100 guys taken at random off the street and forced to undergo this program down to the last detail. Then show me the average result, not the exceptional cases.

Secondly...I want to see this guy's labs. Maybe he doesn't supplement testosterone...because he doesn't need to. Naturally in the high range (genetics again).

I'd like to see this guy's results in about 10 years....the same point where my T was dropping below 300, my estrogen was increasing and I couldn't get anything but fatter from working out, no matter how Paleo I ate.

T replacement therapy is working wonders for me now (mood, libido, physical endurance)...but guess what? Getting my T levels back to the point they were at when I was sub-30 still is not giving me an amazing body...those pesky genes again.

Ned Kock said...

Hi David and Scott. The book goes into some interesting aspects of BB that do make some sense, and that lessen a bit the gene connection.

For example, it discusses autogenic inhibition and Doug’s ability to override it. This is consistent with the finding that “one’s mind can act as an anabolic steroid”:

Having said that, the book does acknowledge a gene connection, as it should. But it makes the case for some generic diet and lifestyle enhancers, and for individualized training methods.

David Isaak said...

Hi. This looks like a book I'll enjoy.

I'm not a bodybuilder and have no desire to become one, but I find the bodybuilding community to be a fascinating source of (admittedly uncontrolled) experiments. Whenever I am interested in supplements or anything related to hormones or metabolism, I always trawl the bodybuilding forums, because you can bet that someone out there has been experimenting with whatever you're interested in (and usually have lab work to accompany it). It's a whole universe of (often dangerous) self-experiments.

So, the authors can thank you for selling at least one copy...

David Isaak said...

@Scott W

I'm 58, and recently had my T tested for the first time. My T was in the mid-500s, and my free T was in the upper quartile for 30-year-olds.

And you're right--despite high free T, there is absolutely no danger that I'm every going to look like The Incredible Hulk.

I attribute my T levels to thinking about sex too much. Seriously, there's medical evidence:

Talk about the mind as an anabolic steroid!

js290 said...

High responders to resistance exercise training demonstrate differential regulation of skeletal muscle microRNA expression

Glenn said...

Hello everyone,
Thanks for the feedback! Doug and his wife are on a much-deserved vacation until tomorrow, but I wanted to thank Ned for the review and all of you for your comments.
On the genetics point, I see where you guys are coming from... and its a fair point. Its probably true that most guys could not look Doug no matter how hard they worked. But on the flip side (since I do work out with him) Doug did not get the physique he has easily. He works _extremely_ hard in the gym and is incredibly strict with his diet. So it's not like genetics replaces hard work and discipline. Ultimately, I think that is the point we were trying to make in the book. Everyone can improve, to some degree, their health and their physiques if they put their minds to it.
Thanks again for the feedback.

Ned Kock said...

David, that is an interesting article, thanks. Funny comments by Helen Fisher at Rutgers. I would have thought much more likely that high T influenced libido than the other way around. Maybe not, I guess.

Ned Kock said...

Like Glenn, my impression is that Doug works insanely hard, and follows a very strict dietary regime. But here is something that he doesn’t do: he doesn't overtrain muscle groups, typically leaving a full week for recovery for each major muscle group.

I am saying this because my impression is that many people overtrain; notably men, with muscle groups that are involved in multiple upper body exercises. Shoulder muscles often take the brunt of overtraining, which leads to catabolism and a noticeable lack of progress over time.

Johnnyv said...

I feel there is probably some genetic factors, calve muscles it seems you either have them or you don't.
I have large bulging calve muscles and I don't actively train them at all.
Also with high reps on dead lift he is going for sarcoplasmic hypertrophy(liquid) rather than myofibrillated hypertrophy(muscle).

Frosty said...

Hi Ned. Slightly off-topic question for you since you seem to have done so much research on glycogen depletion - do you know if an intense isometric hold will deplete glycogen?


Ned Kock said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ned Kock said...

Hi Frosty. Isometric strength training also causes glycogen depletion at speeds comparable to those of concentric, eccentric, or mixed-mode training.

Endurance exercise (e.g., jogging) also causes glycogen depletion, but at a much slower rate, and frequently with minimal growth hormone secretion.

Anonymous said...

Natural, yeah right!

doug said...

Hi Fellas,

Thanks for the comments everyone. As to genetics, I don't think I have bad genetics but I don't think they are great. My best attributes are probably my drive and persistence. As it was pointed out, I did respond well to weight training initially but it has certainly been a long and hard road to get to where I am now. I pretty much never missed a meal or workout in 12+ years. As Glenn mentioned, and as discussed in our chapter on genetics, I think the main point that we wanted to make is that everyone has the ability to improved their physique through hard work, and even cooler, can potentially change how genes are passed to and expressed in their offspring (epigenetics). I think this is the most promising point. A lot of people use the "I have terrible genetics" route as an excuse to be fat or weak. I don't buy that!

Thanks again for the comments on the book.

Doug Miller

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