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Recently we received the following question from a reader: “I’ve always thought that adding muscle speeds up your metabolism. But then I read this isn’t correct. So what’s the truth: Does increasing your muscle mass really increase your metabolism?” -Phil, Vancouver
For as long as I can remember, a lot of people have believed that for every 1 pound of muscle you gain, your body burns an additional 50 calories. On paper, this sounds awesome. But unfortunately, it’s not true.
Does Increasing Muscle Mass Increase Metabolism?
The answer is “yes, but not by a whole lot.”
Research shows that every pound of hard-earned muscle burns about an additional 4-7 calories per day. Translation: if you wanted to burn 100 calories extra per day, then you need to add a solid 10-20 pounds of muscle to your body — and that’s a lot of muscle.
But Here’s The Good News
The ever-wise Dean Somerset wrote a great post on why this seemingly depressing news can be a bit deceiving. Let’s start with basics: even if you were able to add 10 to 20 pounds of muscle (and that would take you years, not months, to do), that extra 100 calories burned per day still wouldn’t give you “the fat-burning capabilities of a furnace on high in Phoenix in July.” But gaining that muscle would still be very helpful for your body — and your fat loss goals.
More Muscle Moving Means More Calories Burned Faster
While the caloric burn of a single pound of muscle at rest is very much overstated, the work you’d need to do in order to build that muscle would still create positive changes for your body. And then, as Somerset goes on to explain, when the now-more-muscular you exercises, you’d be able to burn more calories faster.
“So the big outline of this is that adding muscle mass on its own won’t help you to burn a lot of calories, but can help you to do more work, which is what will actually burn more calories,” Somerset writes.
While adding more muscle doesn’t speed up your metabolism as much as you’d like, don’t overstress the impact on your baseline metabolism. Instead, realize that there are many good reasons to exercise and add more muscle (and drop fat) as a means to being healthier and looking better.
Less than 20 years ago, I used to drive past billboards warning against the use of marijuana. Use it or possess it, the signs warned, and you’ll go to jail.
Two weeks ago, I was in a health food store with a 60-year-old relative who bought a (perfectly legal) cannabis derivative known as CBD Oil. Why? Because he thinks it’ll help his heart.
Hype usually moves faster than science, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be curious about what might work for you.
Given the CBD explosion, we thought it’d be helpful to look at:
What we do know about CBD, according to research
What we don’t know
If you’re considering CBD, what you should do
But first, a little background.
What is CBD Oil?
The acronym “CBD” is short for cannabidiol, which is a non-psychoactive component of the cannabis plant. From a chemical perspective, CBD looks almost exactly like it’s more famous sibling, delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC. THC is what gets you stoned. CBD doesn’t.
Potential Benefits: Why are people so interested in CBD lately?
There have been studies in recent years that show CBD may be beneficial to your health. The most established (so far) is treatment for severe seizures. The research is so compelling that the FDA recently approved a CBD-based drug called Epidiolex, which will be available by prescription for those with rare forms of epilepsy.
There are a few other areas where CBD has shown some promise. Chronic pain is one. Anxiety is another. It may also be useful for decreasing inflammation. In a recent video, Dr. Mike T. Nelson said he thinks CBD could be useful for those in contact sports because of its potential effect on maintaining the blood-brain barrier after impact. So, from a scientific perspective, the compound is worth examining further.
CBD Oil Risks: Are There Any?
Well, now let’s talk about what we don’t know.
For nearly all of the other claims people make about CBD nowadays – i.e. that it will ease glaucoma, or help your sleep, or battle cancer — the honest answer is: No one knows yet.
Despite all of the excitement around CBD, data on its long term effects are lacking. A big reason why? It’s part of a Schedule 1 narcotic, which means that studying it can be enormously complicated.
That uncertainty hasn’t stopped a legion of new CBD oils from coming to market, however. And that’s where consumers like us face an even bigger unknown: What’s actually in the bottle?
Nelson describes the situation as follows:
“There are a couple companies working to do it the right way and a piss ton of ‘fly-by-night, let’s-put-ditchweed-in-a-bottle-since-most-people-won’t-know’ companies too.”
Marcel Bonn-Miller, an adjunct assistant professor of psychology in psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, echoes those sentiments. He told HealthDay News the following about the explosion of CBD oils in the marketplace.
“It really is the Wild West,” Bonn-Miller said. “Joe Bob who starts up a CBD company could say whatever the hell he wants on a label and sell it to people.”
Bonn-Miller backs up his point with data. He recently conducted a test of various store-bought CBD Oils. His team found that about 43 percent of the products had less CBD than advertised. And if you work at a job that drug tests employees, take note: Bonn-Miller also found that about 1 in 5 CBD products contained THC.
Bonn-Miller’s study isn’t the only deep dive into publicly available CBD that’s come back with dubious findings. An investigation by NBC 4 in New York found that every over-the-counter CBD supplement they purchased contained less than half of the CBD advertised on the label. A few contained none at all.
More concerningly, NBC found that some samples contained high levels of pesticides. One had potentially harmful levels of lead.
What’s more, with the most recent Farm Bill in the U.S. making hemp production legal, there will be more CBD products coming to market in the future. (Hemp is a cannabis plant that contains less than .3% THC). And unless the FDA changes its stance toward supplements (something that has been in discussion lately), these products will make it to market with little to no oversight.
Simply put: For anyone who does want to buy CBD oil, the Wild West is about to get wilder.
So should you take CBD Oil?
If you’re considering using CBD Oil, first ask yourself “why.”
If the answer is “to address one of the data-backed concerns that the compound can potentially address,” then fair enough. We recommend speaking with your doctor first.
But, if the answer is “because a bunch of my friends, people at my gym, or a person I heard on a podcast said I should try it,” you may want to hold off. The data likely isn’t there to support their claims.
Nelson says, “If it’s really cheap, I don’t know that I would trust it. If the company only makes CBD, that makes me nervous. (<-Editor’s Note: A brand that makes CBD only could be problematic because it’s easier to set up shop, make one product, and then just go under if they get into trouble.) Ask the company for their traceability.“
You can ask by calling or emailing the company’s customer service line directly. “A big part of what I do personally is to see how cooperative they are,” Nelson says “You can ask about their COA, or Certificate of Analysis put out by their Quality Assurance department that shows the product meets its specifications.”
Nelson adds that you can tell a lot by how the manufacturer responds.
“Legit companies are more than willing to help you out and show that they are different,” Nelson says. “Non-legit companies will try to talk you out of specific request, give you the runaround, or just won’t answer emails or phone calls. There is not a 100% foolproof way to know for sure, just steps to hedge your bets as best you can.”
It used to be that few foods seemed as wholesome as a nice, cold glass of milk.
Your mom may have served milk with dinner or offered it at bedtime when you were feeling restless. You’ve seen your favorite celebs don milk mustaches as part of an iconic marketing campaign that’s spanned 20 years and appeared to solidify the idea that milk was not just healthy, but a necessity.
Turns out, it’s not.
“Any kind of natural food is not inherently bad; it’s eating patterns that can contribute to disease,” says Robin Foroutan, RDN, an integrative dietician at the Morrison Center in New York City and a spokesperson for the National Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
In other words, there’s little reason to think that any individual whole food on its own is going to ruin your diet. Milk isn’t dangerous. But milk also isn’t for everyone.
Here’s what you should know about who benefits most from milk, and who would be better off cutting back or going dairy-free.
Just the Facts on Milk’s Nutrition
Milk—or, more specifically, cow’s milk—is indeed a good source of vitamins and minerals.
“Milk is a great source of protein, calcium, vitamin D, which are ‘nutrients of concern’ in the U.S. population,” meaning that many people don’t get enough, says Vasanti Malik, PhD, a research scientist in the department of nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “It also contains magnesium, along with other minerals and nutrients.”
“If you don’t consume dairy it’s really hard to get enough calcium,” which is crucial for strong bones, says Ali Webster, PhD, RD, Associate Director of Nutrition Communications for the International Food Information Council Foundation. The vitamin D and potassium in milk are also important for bone health.
Webster acknowledges that you can’t rely solely on milk to fight osteoporosis. You also need magnesium (milk has some but isn’t a great source) and vitamin K (found in leafy greens, fish, meat, and eggs)—but it does help you check off a lot of these boxes at once.
That said, milk isn’t the sole source of bone-supporting nutrients. A cup of spinach, for instance, has 350 mg calcium (slightly more than the 300 mg found in a cup of milk), and also provides fiber and folate. A 6-oz can of salmon with bones provides 380 mg of calcium, plus heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids.
How Much Milk Should You Drink?
If you do choose to consume dairy, Malik says that one serving a day is a good guideline. Ashley Koff, RDN, CEO of The Better Nutrition Program, agrees. She tells clients who opt to include dairy in their diets to “accessorize” meals with it—say, one slice of cheese on a sandwich or a splash of milk in your coffee.
That might surprise you, considering that the USDA recommends 3 servings daily. But Koff, Malik, and Foroutan say that number may be overkill. The only people who might need that much dairy are children and the elderly, because they tend to be picky eaters who might not otherwise get the nutrients they need.
Why You Shouldn’t Overdo It On Dairy
Assuming you like milk and aren’t allergic to it, most experts say it’s fine and arguably even healthy to continue drinking it—at least in moderation.
The reason why eating too much dairy isn’t advisable is because it can push other healthy foods (like fruits and vegetables) out of your diet.
Conversely, the opposite is true: When people cut milk out of their diet and find they feel better, it’s often not because milk was wreaking havoc on their bodies. It’s because their overall diet quality improves when they replace that dairy with more nutrient-dense produce and other whole foods.
Another thing to consider is that, unless you’re going with skim milk, the drink will contain saturated fat. While the effects of saturated fat are hotly debated, most health experts agree that increasing saturated fat consumption elevates cholesterol, which can in turn increase your risk of cardiovascular disease.
Milk Myths You Don’t Need to Worry About
Not all concerns about milk are created equal, at least from a scientific perspective. For example, rumors that consuming milk will mess with your hormones, or cause heart disease or diabetes are largely unfounded.
Most mainstream experts say that, with the exception of a possible increased risk of prostate cancer (more on that later), the quality of any evidence indicating that milk would be dangerous is pretty weak—think “associations” or “based on animal studies” rather than high-quality controlled trials.
Also, most studies purporting to show milk’s potential harms also need to be considered in the context of other contradictory research. For instance, a study published earlier this year in the British Journal of Nutrition found that eating full-fat dairy products increased the risk of pre-diabetes and type 2 diabetes—yet a 2016 study, published in the journal Circulation, found that eating full-fat dairy was associated with a lower diabetes risk.
But Does Milk Make You Fat?
If you’ve heard that milk will make you fat, that’s not proven, either.
“It’s true that milk comes from mammals and has a biological purpose—to feed infants so they can grow up and develop,” says Foroutan.
Milk naturally contains growth hormone as well as IGF-1 (insulin like growth factor-1) — both of which are designed to make animals get bigger. But there’s really no proof that the amount found in milk would contribute to obesity—nor is it enough to make you get jacked. (There is some proof that drinking milk after a workout can help you build muscle, mostly thanks to the protein content).
Of course, if you eat ice cream everyday or put cheese on everything, you might very well gain weight. But if you eat dairy—even full-fat dairy—in small amounts, it might actually help you slim down. “Fat sends an important signal to the brain that you’re full, which can help with portion control,” says Foroutan.
The 6 Good Reasons to Ditch Dairy
While research is always evolving, for now the preponderance of evidence points to dairy being beneficial (or at least not harmful) for most people, says Webster.
For instance, a 2016 review of meta-analyses on concluded that dairy consumption was associated with easier weight control, neutral or reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, lower risk of stroke, and higher bone mineral density (though it has not actually been proven to reduce fractures).
That all sounds great, but of course it’s not the full story. The biggest issue is that each person’s body is unique.
While most people seem to be able to tolerate at least some dairy, “if you don’t break it down well or have some sensitivity to it, then consuming dairy products may trigger inflammation,” says Foroutan.
So if you’ve been thinking you might be better off going dairy free, or at least limiting it to an occasional treat, your hunch might be correct if you fall into one of the following categories:
1. You’re lactose intolerant.
A true dairy allergy is relatively rare, but many people are lactose intolerant—meaning that they can’t properly digest the primary sugar (lactose) found in milk. As a result, eating anything with lactose triggers unpleasant GI symptoms like cramps, gas, or diarrhea.
If you are, in fact, lactose intolerant, you may still be able to eat certain types of dairy. While you’ll have to steer clear of milk and ice cream or suffer the consequences, hard cheeses and probiotic-rich yogurt usually don’t contain any lactose.
2. You’re not lactose intolerant, but dairy still upsets your stomach.
Maybe you’ve been tested for lactose intolerance and the test came back negative, but you swear that eating dairy makes your tummy feel lousy. You’re probably not imagining it.
Dairy contains proteins such as casein and whey that many people are sensitive to, says Foroutan. “Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to test for a sensitivity,” she says.
If your gut is telling you that something is off, feel free to trust it. Or consider doing an elimination diet: Give up all dairy for a few weeks, then do a “challenge” during which you introduce different types of dairy products one by one to see how you react. (Butter, for instance, doesn’t have much lactose, but it has casein and whey.) You may want to see a nutritionist for guidance during your experiment.
3. Milk makes you feel sluggish.
Digestive issues aren’t the only possible signs of an intolerance. Someone who feels bloated, tired, or sluggish after eating dairy might be sensitive to one or more of the components in it. “Some people don’t even notice until the next day; sometimes we call it a ‘food hangover,'” says Foroutan.
If that sounds like you, it might be worth eliminating dairy for a few weeks and slowly trying to reintroduce it to see if it’s really the culprit. But the bottom line is that if you feel better without dairy, you don’t have to have it.
4. You feel congested when you eat it.
You might have heard that dairy increases mucus production, but there’s really no good research to support that notion.
That said, it’s possible that milk makes you phlegmy. Koff says this happens to her whenever she has milk or ice cream, and that many of her clients report the same thing.
The reason why this might happen to some people isn’t totally clear, but it likely comes back to an intolerance. “If you have a sensitivity to something and you consume it, it will cause inflammation and your digestive tract will secrete more mucus; it’s how the intestines protect themselves,” says Foroutan.
5. You have a higher-than-average risk of prostate cancer.
The link between dairy consumption and several types of cancer is murky. Some studies, for instance, have said that it might raise the risk of breast cancer, whereas others show that it lowers it. (The most research seems to conclude that it’s associated with a lower risk of breast cancer.)
Prostate cancer is a little different. The proof that dairy substantially raises prostate cancer risk is hardly iron-clad, but there’s enough reason for experts (including those at the American Cancer Society) to be somewhat concerned.
“It’s not the strongest evidence, but it’s worth mentioning,” says Malik. “If you’re at high risk of prostate cancer—maybe you have a family history or your PSA (prostate specific antigen, which can be measured via a blood test) is elevated—you might consider decreasing dairy.”
6. You just don’t want to eat dairy.
For most healthy adults, the best reason to eat dairy is because you like it. If you’re vegan and don’t wish to consume anything that involves animals, or are concerned about the toll that dairy farming takes on the environment, those are perfectly valid reasons to cut milk from your diet, says Malik.
Yes, you might struggle to get certain nutrients, like calcium, but there are other ways to meet your needs. Tofu, some beans, and certain leafy greens also contain calcium. When in doubt, consult a registered dietician.
Milk is a good source of calcium, vitamin D, protein, and potassium. These nutrients are crucial for good health (including bone health). But you can also get them from other sources too.
Consider limiting dairy to one serving a day so you don’t overconsume saturated fat or miss out on other nutritious foods.
If milk makes you feel sick, even if you’re not lactose intolerant, feel free to scale back or skip it entirely. You can get the nutrients found in dairy from other foods, or talk to your doctor about taking a supplement.
Some research has linked high dairy consumption with an increased risk of prostate cancer. If your risk for this disease is already elevated, you may want to limit or cut out dairy.
More than 60 years ago, in the court of public opinion, the American public convicted saturated fat of an unforgivable crime: attempted murder of a U.S. president.
In 1955, while on vacation in Colorado, Dwight Eisenhower suffered a heart attack. “Suddenly people were frantic to understand the cause of heart disease,” says Jonny Bowden, Ph.D. and author of Smart Fat. In the years that followed, fat—and specifically saturated fat—took the blame.
If you’ve spent most of your life avoiding saturated fat, this moment is a big reason why. The day after Eisenhower’s heart attack, the president’s physician recommended the nation cut down on fat and cholesterol, citing the work of a nutritionist named Ancel Keys.
How Saturated Fat Became a Villain
Later that decade, Keys published research connecting countries that consumed the most fat with higher rates of heart disease. His “Seven Countries Study” wielded great influence on how Americans eat.
In 1977, a Senate select committee cited Keys’ research while making sweeping recommendations to the American people, stating you should consume less red meat — and by extension, less saturated fat — to avoid heart disease.
That message hardened into national policy when the government issued the 1980 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which advised people to trim the fat from their steaks and avoid saturated-fat foods like butter, cream and coconut oil.
Why Saturated Fat Made a Comeback
Today Keys’s research is under fire. An analysis by researchers at Harvard looked at 21 studies and found no link between saturated fat and heart disease (or stroke).
In 2014 an analysis of 76 observational studies and randomized controlled trials from the University of Cambridge concluded, “saturated fatty acids were not associated with coronary disease.” (The study also noted that some saturated fatty acids, notably the margaric acid found in dairy foods, was actually associated with a lower risk of heart disease.)
Finally, a couple years later, a third meta analysis published in the British Medical Journal reached a similar conclusion. After looking at more than 62,000 people in 10 randomized trials, researchers found that while reducing saturated fat helped to lower cholesterol levels, the effect didn’t translate to a lower risk of death. And death is what matters in this debate, ultimately.
Saturated Fat Isn’t Evil. But Does That Mean It’s Healthy?
The seeming turn of the tide within the scientific literature has led to an even bigger shift in public perception. Today you’re hearing loud messages from popular health pundits proclaiming that saturated fat is actually a long lost health food. Some even say you should get more of it by drinking butter in your coffee.
Now’s a good time to call a timeout and look at what’s really going on in this debate. Because both sides have gotten a little carried away.
Let’s start with the first side of the pendulum swing, starting all the way back with Eisenhower’s heart attack. It was a gross oversimplification to place all the blame for that heart attack — and eventually, heart attacks in general — on saturated fat.
First, let’s look at Eisenhower. The man was president at time, and a five-star general before that — both stressful jobs, to say the least. Ike was also known to have a temper, and at one point smoked four packs a day. It’s fair to say there were confounding lifestyle issues.
While some worry about the saturated fat in red meat, cheese is a far bigger contributor to saturated fat intake.
Second, saturated fat isn’t necessarily something most people eat in excess. The USDA and World Health Organization recommend you cap your saturated fat consumption at 10 percent of your daily calories. A 2007 analysis by researchers at Rutgers University showed saturated fat makes up about 11 percent of the average American diet. The top sources of saturated fat being full-fat cheese (8.5 percent), pizza (5.9 percent), and cakes and pastries (5.8 percent).
It’s also true, as Sat-Fat supporters love to point out, that Ancel Keys’s research showed correlation, not causation. “The lowest evidence,” as Bowden described it. Modern day reviews have not been kind to the study’s findings.
“The most recent evidence, which reviews all the evidence from the past decade, shows that when you feed people more saturated fat, that doesn’t increase their chance for heart disease,” says Kamal Patel, director of the nutrition research website Examine.com.
But Patel quickly adds, “That still doesn’t mean that saturated fat is good for you.”
The Connection Between Saturated Fat and Cholesterol
There’s a lot we don’t yet know for certain about saturated fat’s effects on the body. But here’s one thing we do know:
Saturated fat does increase LDL (i.e. “bad”) cholesterol.
Elevated LDL doesn’t guarantee you’ll have a heart attack — a possible explanation for the researchers’ null association between saturated and heart disease. It’s just one risk factor among many. But the general consensus is that, if your goal is to live longer, keeping your LDL low should still be part of the plan.
“If you have two people who are exactly the same except that LDL is high in one person and low in the other, the person with high LDL will still be at a higher risk [for heart disease],” says Dr. Spencer Nadolsky, a physician and osteopath based in San Diego.
So modern evidence shows that, at the very least, the once dogmatic fear of saturated fat is overblown. But Nadolsky and others caution that this doesn’t necessarily mean you should actively seek more saturated fat within your diet.
“Look at the Blue Zones,” says Nadolsky, referring to areas of the world where people live the longest. “Their cholesterols are low. They’re not putting butter in their coffee, but at the same time, they’re not entirely avoiding saturated fat.” In fact, they consume lots of dairy, mostly in the form of yogurt and cheese (albeit from sheep and goats, rather than cows).
“I’m not anti-saturated fat,” adds Nadolsky. “The problem is when people say, ‘Look! Saturated fat’s not bad for you now!’ Then you get people putting butter in their coffee. And what I’m seeing, and other doctors are seeing this as well, is that people [who do dramatically increase their saturated fat intake] are having explosive changes in their cholesterol.”
Saturated Fat and Your Diet: Here’s What to Do Now
You may not need to make any changes at all.
Your body doesn’t actually need saturated fat. “There are only two essential fatty acids,” says Patel. Those are alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3) and linoleic acid (an omega-6)—both of which are unsaturated.
While some people thrive on diets high in saturated fat, your body might not.
For some people—it’s unclear what percentage of the population—small amounts of saturated fat lead to big changes in cholesterol levels.
“We call them hyper-responders,” Nadolsky says. Some day there may be a reliable genetic test that will show who these people are, but it doesn’t exist yet. It’s safe to say that if heart attacks are part of your family health history, you’d be smart to keep your saturated fat intake within the existing 10 percent recommendation.
“If you have people in your family who had heart disease, despite having normal cholesterol, then you should probably do everything you can to decrease your risk,” Patel says.
But if you’re still interested in adding more saturated fat to your diet, there is a relatively easy way to monitor how your body reacts to it. Schedule two cholesterol tests spaced one month apart. Take the first test while eating your current diet. Then make the dietary changes you wanted and take the second test. This is the approach Nadolsky uses to assess his clients.
“You can tell pretty quickly if you’re going to have big changes to your LDL cholesterol,” he says.
Another test, which some experts say is more accurate and should replace the standard cholesterol test, examines your blood’s concentration of apolipoprotein B, or the cholesterol-carrying protein that embed themselves within arterial walls. The apoB test, as it’s called, looks specifically at the particles of greatest threat.
“When we check cholesterol [through a standard test], we’re just measuring the cholesterol on that low-density lipoprotein,” says Nadolsky. “But what really gets stuck in the wall is the lipoprotein, and that actually correlates better with risk.”
The Healthier Way to Eat More Saturated Fat
If bloodwork sounds too intense for you, then consider a simpler and safer way to add more fat to your diet: Skip the butter and eat nuts, avocado, and olive oil (all proven healthy fats) instead.
Olive oil, avocado and nuts contain proven healthy fats.
“The safest fat to eat is monounsaturated [fats, which are found in nuts, avocados, olive oil and fish],” says Patel. “They always have a benign or positive effect on lipids, and on the end result for heart disease and heart attack.”
Another saturated fat source that’s become popular in recent years is medium-chain triglycerides in the form of MCT oil, which is one of the saturated fat additives people have begun adding to their coffee in recent years.
“MCTs don’t have to go through the liver, so they’re available for your body to use more quickly,” says Patel. That can be useful during extremely low-carb diets, when you need energy. But Nadolsky adds, “I wouldn’t have anybody replace their olive oil or nuts with MCT oil. I don’t want to replace the fat that we know is beneficial with fat that may be of some little benefit for fat loss.”
The bottom line is that saturated fat is a nutrient, not something that your entire diet should revolve around. The body of evidence, taken as a whole, indicates that saturated fat is neutral. You should neither go out of your way to eat more of it, nor concern yourself with avoiding it.
“You shouldn’t be scared of saturated fat,” says Nadolsky. “But you’d be better off focusing on your overall diet.”
The pull-up might be the best indicator of upper body strength.
Your arms and back have to do an enormous amount of work to lift your entire body, which is why being able to perform many reps is an effective way to improve not just the obvious muscles — your back, arms and forearms — but can also help you build incredible core strength.
In fact, as an exercise physiologist and strength coach, I’d go so far as to say that the pull-up is the world’s most under-appreciated way to develop your abs—and every other muscle in your midsection, for that matter.
All of that is great, but there’s one problem: It’s an exercise that gives a lot of people a lot of trouble, regardless of whether you’ve been training for years or just started.
If you are struggling to perform a pull-up — or you wish you could do many more — I’ll share a few simple-to-learn techniques that aren’t taught enough and will change everything about your pull-up performance.
By the time you’re done, you’ll not only be surprised by how quickly you can improve, but also by how many of the methods used to increase your upper body strength aren’t actually pull-ups.
Can’t Do a Pull-up? Start Here
If you can’t do any pull-ups, odds are you’ll blame it on your lack of back strength. To become stronger, you might start doing countless 1-arm rows and other dumbbell or barbell exercises.
While those exercise will make you stronger (and are a part of the solution), they won’t guarantee that you’ll be able to do more pull-ups. That’s because pull-ups aren’t just about your back.
Even if you have a really strong back, you can struggle with pull-ups if you have a weak core.
Core stiffness, or being able to create tension throughout your torso, is a key part of successfully doing a pull-up.
Your shoulder blades are connected to your torso. A stiff, stable core gives your arms something strong to pull on. And that can have a massive impact on your ability to lift your body.
So if you are struggling with your pull-ups—or can’t do a pull-up at all—train your core with these moves.
(If you prefer to watch all tips, here’s a video breaking down a lot of the progressions we’ll discuss today. In it, you’ll see my friend and fellow coach Tony Gentilcore demonstrating a lot of the moves discussed here.)
Hollow Body Holds
Start by lying on the floor. Lift your arms overhead (biceps in line with your ears), keeping your elbows straight.
Cross your hands and your ankles. Then press your hands and ankles into each other to create tension, and lift up into the hollow body position.
Let’s talk about that term “hollow” for a second. You might hear it and think: “belly button to spine.” DON’T DO THAT.
In a good hollow position, your abs are securely braced, as if they were about to take a punch. Take a breath in and squeeze. If anything, your abs will move slightly outward.
Start by holding a hollow body position while pressing your hands into each other and pressing your ankles into each other. This builds some of the body tension related to the position of hanging from a bar.
Hold this position for 5 seconds or 2-3 breaths per rep, maintaining as much head-to-toe tension as you can (more on how to create tension). Take a 5-second break, then repeat for 5-6 reps per set. Over time, you can increase the duration of your holds. If you can maintain tension for a full minute, that’s really good.
Hollow Body Horizontal Pull-ups
Next, you’re going to use a dowel or broomstick. Hold it in both hands as if it were the pull-up bar.
Start with your arms straight and elbows locked out, as if you were hanging from a pull-up bar. Then, while you hold the hollow position, bend your elbows to pull the bar across your face and toward your chest line, mimicking the pull-up movement.
The goal here is to maintain the core strength requirement while including an arm movement that replicates the pull-up—all while trying to breathe.
Hold the hollow body and try to complete 8-10 reps, breathing out as the bar comes to your collarbone.
Hollow Body Leg Raises
Are you a boss at the hollow body work? Great! Then it’s time to take it up another notch.
You can create some additional arm stimulus, and increase the challenge to your core, by doing a leg raise. Keep both knees locked out and cross one foot over the other. Pull down on the stick and lift your toes toward it. You may even be able to touch your toes to the bar, depending on your level of strength and control.
The big thing to remember here is to maintain tension throughout your lats to help pull your torso up. Squeeze the bar as hard as you can in your hands and think about pulling down on the bar as much as you are pulling up with your legs. This tension in your arms, back and core will help you lift your legs more easily.
Another exercise that develops core stiffness is a stability ball rollout. There are two ways you can perform the movement, and both are helpful to your pull-up quest.
Option #1: Try to keep your abs tensed and press your hips forward, allowing your arms to extend out as you move. Then pull back with your hips. This version will place more emphasis on your abs and lower back, while taking some of the work off of your shoulders
Option #2: Do the same thing as you did in option #1, but use your lats to try and pull the ball back with your elbows to return to the starting position. In this version the shoulder angle is changing, which means the muscles that control the shoulders will be under greater load.
Complete 5-10 reps of either option, or both if you’re a little crazy.
How to Build Strength on the Pull-up Bar
Before you start pulling, it’s helpful to build your skill hanging from the bar.
You might struggle at maintaining a dead hang from the bar due to grip strength. Hanging for 10-30 seconds can be a simple and very effective way to build the grip strength needed to perform pull-ups.
Hanging Shoulder Shrugs
When you can conquer that challenge with ease, your next goal is pulling your shoulders down and tight to your ribs while holding the same hollow body position you used on the ground.
Hold that position for 5 seconds per rep, breathing out forcefully with each contraction.
Hanging Leg Raises
Have the hollow body hang down cold? Good. You can add in some leg raises to really take it up a notch.
Start with a bent knee leg raise. The key is to not sway.
If that’s no problem, try a straight leg raise. Again, you want to avoid rocking back and forth. The movement should be slow and controlled.
In all likelihood, you will find at least one of these moves challenging. Because your goal with these is quality, not quantity, you can use “micro sets” to accumulate volume. Try to hit 10 amazingly good reps total. To do that, you might need to perform 5 sets of 2, or 4 sets of 2-to-3, or 3 sets of 3, and so on.
If you wanted to get a little crazy, you could try to bring your toes to the bar. Use your arms to help pull-up on your torso to get a more horizontal angle on the movement.
Pull-up Training: Mastering the Movement
Now let’s “grease the groove” of the movement in a way that will help you develop strength if you’re a beginner, and provide value if you’re more advanced.
Flexed Arm Hang
The flexed arm hang is a simple, yet underutilized move that will have all the muscles in your back and arms firing hard.
To perform the move, just grab the bar and jump up. Keeping your chest as close to the bar as possible, hang there as long as you can tolerate. When you start to feel yourself coming down, fight the lowering for 3-5 seconds so you can get some eccentric strength development out of the move.
Try to maintain 10 to 30 seconds per hold, accumulating up to 30 seconds in a workout. For eccentric reps, try to keep it to a max of 5 reps of 3-5 second eccentric lowering unless you want to look like a T-Rex for a few days after your workout because you’re too sore to extend your elbows.
Band Assisted Pull-ups
Once you are able to do flexed arm hangs (and the 3-5 second lowering) with skill and control, you should be ready to try the pull-up.
If you want to ease yourself into the movement, start by using a band for assistance.
The thicker the band, the more assistance it provides. Similarly, placing two feet in the band versus just one gives you more help when you perform the move.
Start with the thickest band you need in order to execute the move, then work down to smaller, thinner bands over time.
(More ways to use resistance bands in your workouts here.)
The “Pernicious Pull-up Power” Workout Routine
So how do you put all of this together into a realistic pull-up training plan you could use on a regular basis? Glad you asked.
You want to “train for the movement” frequently. Three to four times a week is ideal.
Notice I said “train for the movement” and not “train the movement itself.” That’s because not all of your sessions need to include pull-ups. In fact, you’ll only perform actual pull-ups one day per week on this plan.
Here’s a sample calendar of what this pull-up training plan looks like:
Hollow Body Holds – 4 sets x 5 reps/set x 5 second hold per rep
Bar Hangs – 4 x sets x 6 reps/set x 5 second hold per rep
Flexed Arm Hang – accumulate 30 seconds
Hanging Shoulder Shrugs – 4 sets x 5 reps/set x 5 second hold per rep
Hollow Body Horizontal pull-ups – 4 sets x 8-10 reps/set
Hanging Leg Raises – 10 total reps
Hollow Body Leg Raises – 4 sets x 5-8 reps of smooth controlled tension
Eccentric pull-ups – 4 x sets of 4-5 reps working on 3-5 second eccentrics
DAY 4 (Pull-up day!)
**If you can’t do a pull-up, perform…
Band Assisted Pull-ups – aim for a max of 3 reps per set
** If you can do pull-ups, then….
Pull-ups – start with a single max set, then perform 3 sets of 50% of this number. For instance, if you do 6 on the first set, do 3 sets of 3.
Following this pattern will help you develop pull-up specific strength in your back and arms and the core stiffness needed to accomplish the movement. Since there are a max of three moves per session, you can combine this simple calendar with your current training program.
Pull-ups may never be easy. But by training for them specifically, you’ll soon be able to do a lot more than you think.
Dean Somerset is a kinesiologist, strength coach, author and public speaker who specializes in injury and medical dysfunction management through exercise program design. The seriously in-depth “The Complete Shoulder & Hip Blueprint,” which Somerset and Tony Gentilcore teamed up to create, is available now. Born Fitness is not an affiliate and has no financial stake or interest in the product, but we do genuinely think Dean and Tony are rad, and are way better at pull-ups thanks to their knowledge.
*This recipe can also be made with gluten-free rolled oats for a faster, gluten-free version made in the microwave; however, the water measurements will change.
**If you don’t like the taste of your protein powder, you won’t like the taste of this recipe. Step 1: find a protein powder you enjoy! In this recipe, we used Vital Farms Collagen Peptides, no flavor.
Bring water and salt to a boil. Then add in the oats, stir and reduce heat to a simmer. Cover and cook for about 10-20 minutes depending on how mushy you like it.
Remove from the heat and let cool. Stir in the honey, coconut oil, cinnamon and protein powder. Stir until well combined. You want to make sure to let the oats cool before stirring in the protein powder. Sometimes the protein can get clumpy if it’s too hot.
Garnish with ¼ cup blueberries, ¼ banana slices, ½ tbsp. coconut flakes, 1 tbsp. almonds and a drizzle of honey.
Serve immediately. You can store the leftovers in individual-serving size Tupperware for easy grab-and-go breakfasts for the following three days. Keep in fridge. When ready to eat, reheat in microwave or on stovetop. Feel free to switch up the flavors by adding fresh fruit, unsweetened dried fruit or chia seeds on top.
You’ve probably heard that you need more protein in your diet — and for good reason.
You might think of protein as the main building block for muscle, but it’s so much more.
Protein is also essential for maintaining a strong immune system, bones, tendons, and is responsible for many metabolic reactions. There is also clear relationship between protein and weight loss.
Here’s the thing:
Not all proteins are created equal.
Quality counts. But what’s the difference between protein and “high-quality protein?”
It can be a confusing distinction and one that doesn’t receive enough attention.
The good news: Distinguishing high-quality protein from lesser-quality protein is easier than you might think.
Your high-quality protein sources
If you just want a list of high-quality protein sources, we have you covered. The top sources are:
Dairy products; milk, whey powders, cheese and cottage cheese, yogurt
Seafood and fish
Blended meals (beans and rice)
Vegan protein powders with multiple protein sources
If you want to better understand why all proteins are not created equal, then keep reading.
You might notice that the majority of the high-quality options are from animal sources. That’s simple because, by and large, animal proteins are of higher quality than their veggie-sourced counterparts. You’ll soon learn why.
But never fear, plant-based friends: you can still fill your diet with the protein you need even if you never want to put any animals in your mouth. We’ll show you how later in this post.
What makes a protein “high quality”?
A high-quality protein really is a function of three things:
protein digestibility (i.e. “Can your body break it down?”)
amino acid content (i.e. “What’s really inside the protein?”)
the resulting amino acid availability to support metabolic function (i.e. “Will your body be able to use those amino acids the way you want it to?”) .
The process of digesting any food begins in your mouth when you chew. But protein is unique among the three major macronutrients in that your body’s digestion of it truly begins in the stomach and continues into the small intestine.
Within those organs, acidic digestive juices, powerful enzymes, and other components fully break down intact proteins into smaller chains of amino acids, the building blocks of protein.
Before a chain can be absorbed into the bloodstream, it must be shortened into individual amino acids. Only then, when these amino acids hit the bloodstream, can they be transported to working tissues, reassembled into larger proteins that the body needs.
They may also be held for a short time with other amino acids in what’s referred to as an amino acid pool. The body can turn to this pool and take the exact amino acids it needs to create a larger protein molecule required for one function or another, and leave behind what it doesn’t require at the moment.
More protein isn’t always better. Quality counts.
While the process might appear cut-and-dry, it’s not that simple. And like many processes within the body, it isn’t 100 percent perfect. In other words, less than 100 percent of the protein you consume will be digested, absorbed, and put to use.
Scientists can measure a protein’s digestibility in the lab is by monitoring nitrogen absorption and excretion. (Protein is the only macronutrient that contains nitrogen, which is why this works.) The outcome of this test typically produces a digestibility score.
Proteins that are highly digestible receive scores close to 100% (digestible). Lower scores are less digestible. If you were to consume a protein with a digestibility score of 90%, then for every 10g you consumed, you would absorb 9g and excrete 1g.
In general, animal proteins — such as dairy, eggs, and meat — score highly. Vegetarian proteins typically score lower.
But there’s another wrinkle in the process. Your body’s ability to absorb nutrients compared to its actual requirements don’t always line up.
Amino Acids: What’s Inside Your Protein?
Every source of protein has a different amino acid profile. These amino acids — or the component parts that a protein will become when you digest it — are a big determinant of whether or not a protein is high quality.
Your body can produce many amino acids on its own. But there are some it can’t make. They are:
These are the “essential amino acids,” and you must get them through your diet.
Any food that contains all nine essential amino acids is known as a “complete protein.”
Why Animal-Based Protein is the “Easy Button”
Animal protein sources mimic the protein composition of human tissue. Which is why meat naturally offers a highly usable blend of amino acids—including all nine essential amino acids (with some exceptions, which we’ll get to in a second).
As a result, we humans can use protein from an animal source in a very efficient manner.
Animal proteins range from the obvious—beef, pork, chicken, eggs, and fish—to fluid sources such as milk. All of these are high-quality protein sources that are highly bioavailable (your body can put them to use easily).
Nearly all animal proteins are highly bioavailable — meaning your body can put them to use more easily.
This includes dairy, which supplies a wealth of amino acids, including a high amount of leucine. So perhaps it’s not surprising that studies involving chronic exercisers have found that consuming milk-based protein after resistance exercise promotes muscle protein synthesis, more muscle, and less flab.
While collagen and bone broths are popular for their potential to support joint health and other tissue function within the body, collagen protein is high in only 3 amino acids (glycine, proline, and hydroxyproline) while being fairly devoid of the other essential amino acids.
Bone broths may deliver health benefits, but they alone won’t help with muscle building or fat loss (or satisfy your body’s amino acid requirements, unless you add chicken or beef to the broth, in which case, you’re all set.)
What About High-Quality Plant Protein?
They say pea protein is the new whey.
Conversely, most plant sources (but not all) have an amino acid profile that differs drastically from that of humans.
Many (but not all) plant proteins are low in various essential amino acids, especially leucine. This is important to note, because leucine plays a critical role in turning on muscle protein synthesis (MPS), which is key for building and repairing muscle tissue.
The big exceptions are soy and select sources of pea protein (like pea protein isolate). These vegetarian sources contain all, or nearly all, of the essential amino acids you require.
Outside of those sources, most plant-based proteins are not complete. All this means is that consuming one lone source of plant protein cannot support body growth and maintenance.
But there’s a simple fix. If you combine different plant protein sources, then you can receive adequate amounts of all nine essential amino acids.
Examples of complementary proteins include combining legumes and grains, such as red beans and rice, or vegetables and legumes, like you’d find in a 9-bean vegetable soup.
When you eat complementary proteins, the combined sources equal a complete protein source.
You don’t have to do this at the same meal. Your body will store the amino acids as they come in, and then resynthesize proteins as it needs by pulling from body cells and blood supplies later. So even if you had rice at breakfast and beans at dinner, you’re covered.
Often you need to eat more plant-based protein to get the equivalent amount of amino acids that you would from a smaller amount of animal protein.
So really, your main takeaways here are:
The exact amount of protein you need will depend on the quality of the protein you eat.
If you consume a lot of plant-based protein, or are exclusively plant-based, you may need to increase your total daily protein intake even more to compensate for the lower protein quality.
If you are vegetarian or vegan, eat a diverse mix of foods, and you may want to research the amino acid profiles of the foods you eat.
Pamela Nisevich Bede, MS, RD, CSSD, LD is a 21-time marathoner, Ironman triathlete, and mom who counsels athletes and wellness enthusiasts towards optimal performance at Swim, Bike, Run, Eat!, LLC, and is the resident endurance sports nutrition expert at EAS Sports Nutrition. She has contributed to multiple books and is regularly sought to provide insight to numerous publications. Connect with her @PamBedeRD