Category Archives: Fitness

Are Bigger Muscles Better? Antioxidants and the Response to Exercise

We’re positive toward some dietary antioxidants:

  • Vitamin C is one of our supplement recommendations.
  • We also recommend higher-than-typical dietary intakes of zinc and copper, key ingredients of the antioxidant zinc-copper superoxide dismutase.
  • We recommend high intakes of extracellular matrix material in soups and stews. This is rich in glycine, a component of glutathione, a key antioxidant. N-acetylcysteine, which provides the other amino acid component of glutathione, is one of our therapeutic supplements.
  • Although we don’t normally recommend supplementing vitamin E, it is listed among our optional supplements, and we believe significant numbers of people might benefit from supplementing mixed tocotrienols.
  • Although we don’t recommend supplementing it, our book notes the importance of dietary intake of selenium, which is critical for an enzyme that recycles glutathione.

A fashionable contrary view has arisen: antioxidants not only don’t help, they can do harm by interfering with oxidative signaling pathways.

Adel Moussa, proprietor of Suppversity, has promulgated this view, especially the idea that antioxidants interfere with the response to exercise. In a post last week, “Bad News For Vitamin Fans – C + E Supplementation Blunts Increases in Total Lean Body and Leg Mass in Elderly Men After 12 Weeks of Std. Intense Strength Training,” he looked at a new study by Bjørnsen et al [1]. In the comments here, Spor asked me to address Adel’s post, and other readers expressed interest too.

The Bjørnsen Study: Muscle Size

In this new study, Bjørnsen and collaborators put a group of elderly men on a strength training regimen. Half the men were put on supplements – 1000 mg per day of vitamin C and 235 mg (350 IU) per day of the alpha-tocopherol form of vitamin E – and half on placebo. They then assessed the response to 12 weeks of exercise.

Both groups gained muscle mass, but the placebo group gained more. Total lean mass, and the thickness of the rectus femoris muscle (one of the quadriceps), increased more in the placebo than the antioxidant group. The lean mass increase averaged 3.9% in the placebo group, 1.4% in the antioxidant group. Here’s the plot of muscle thickness in the rectus femoris:

Bjornsen Fig 1

This muscle increased in thickness an average of 16.2% in the placebo group, 10.9% in the antioxidant group.

So far, so solid: it looks like muscle size will be larger if you don’t take antioxidants.

Adel concludes:

[Y]ou shouldn’t fall for … the bogus false promise that suffocating all the flames by using exorbitant amounts of antioxidants (and I am as this study shows talking about 10x the RDA not just 100x the RDA) would be good for you, let alone your training progress and muscle gains…. [Y]ou cannot recommend extra-vitamins for people who work out – specifically not the elderly.

I disagree.

The Trouble with Biomarkers

We have to use biomarkers to assess health, because the things we really care about – like how long we will live – cannot be determined on the time scales we need to make decisions in.

But no biomarker is a perfect assessment of health. There are always regimes in which a biomarker can look “better” but health can worsen.

Muscle size is no different. Other things being equal, more muscle is better than less muscle. But there are ways to increase muscle size that harm health. We have to look at the increase in muscle size in the placebo group and ask: was this good or bad?

The Bjørnsen Study: Strength

Fortunately, Bjørnsen and colleagues also reported another key biomarker: strength, as indicated by 1 rep maximum weight. Here is the data:

Bjornsen Fig 2

The exercises that utilize the rectus femoris muscle, the one that grew biggest in the placebo group, are the leg extension (b) and leg press (c). And here we see something interesting: in both cases, the antioxidant group increased their 1RM by more than the placebo group. Yes, the improvement was not statistically significant. But it was there. According to the text, on average, the antioxidant group increased their leg press 1RM by 18.7%, the placebo group by 15.8%.

So the antioxidant group gained more strength but less size than the placebo group. Which group was made healthier by the program?

I’ll put my money down on this: the smaller muscle that can exert more force is the healthier muscle. A gargantuan but weak muscle is an unhealthy muscle.

Large Muscle Size Can Be a Sign of Poor Health

To see that large muscles may be unhealthy, consider the health condition of cardiomegaly – an enlarged heart. When the heart tissue is dysfunctional and incapable of exerting as much strength as it should, the heart grows larger to compensate. People who have such an oversized but weak heart often die an early death.

We should consider whether something similar was going on in the placebo group of the Bjørnsen study. Their leg muscles grew larger to compensate for weakness. They needed more mass to accomplish less than the antioxidant group.

What causes cardiomegaly? One contributing factor is a deficiency of antioxidants. When antioxidants are deficient, oxidative stress generated during exertion leads to lipid peroxidation and tissue necrosis.

One of my favorite nutritional studies – I always show it at the Perfect Health Retreat to demonstrate the existence of multi-nutrient deficiency diseases, diseases that appear only when you are deficient in multiple nutrients at the same time – is a study by Kristina Hill and collaborators at Vanderbilt in 2001. [2] The running title is “Myopathy resulting from combined Se and E deficiency” and that summarizes it well. Guinea pigs were put on one of four diets – a control diet, the control diet but deficient in vitamin E, the control diet but deficient in selenium, or the control diet with both vitamin E and selenium removed.

Something interesting happened to the guinea pig muscles:

Bjornsen Fig 3

These are quadriceps muscles – the same muscle whose size was altered in the Bjørnsen study. Panel (D) shows a healthy muscle from the control group. The muscle fibers are long, straight, and parallel to one another. Panels (B) and (C), the low vitamin E and low selenium groups respectively, are mildly damaged but still functional. However, in panel (A), the group deprived of both selenium and vitamin E, the muscle fibers are severely damaged. This muscle cannot exert force.

In the group deprived of both selenium and vitamin E, the loss of strength continued until the guinea pigs could no longer stand or move. At that point they lost the ability to feed and began to die of starvation. This happened in as little as 30 days. Here was the survival curve:

Bjornsen Fig 4

The last guinea pig died after 55 days.

Why did this happen? The guinea pig muscles were damaged by lipid peroxidation leading to cell death. They didn’t have enough antioxidants.

Hill et al didn’t measure muscle thickness, but it wouldn’t surprise me if at 20 days the guinea pigs on their way to an early death had the thickest and most massive quadriceps.

Can Muscle Size Be Used as an Indicator of Overtraining?

If growth in muscle size may indicate muscle damage from either overtraining or antioxidant deficiencies, we might be able to use the response to exercise to assess nutrition or exercise load.

Let’s look again at the Bjørnsen study. If the cross-sectional area of a muscle is proportional to the square of muscle thickness, then we can get a measure of strength per unit cross-section by taking the ratio of leg press 1RM to the square of rectus femoris thickness. That is 1.187/1.109^2 = 0.965 in the antioxidant group, 1.158/1.162^2 = 0.857 in the placebo group. Per unit cross-section, the antioxidant group lost 3.5% in strength, the placebo group lost 14.3%.

It looks like both groups may have damaged their muscles; the antioxidant group just did much less damage. It appears both groups were overtraining relative to their nutritional status. Perhaps if nutrition were better, the response to exercise would have been better, and strength per unit cross-section would have increased. Maybe the missing nutrients included antioxidants, and taking even more antioxidants may have enabled this rigorous training regimen (designed “to stimulate as much muscle growth as possible”) to take place without any impairment of health.

Is Bodybuilding Safe?

If large size can be an indication of damage in muscle, then many techniques which cause muscular hypertrophy will be health-damaging. The healthiest strength gains might come with only small size gains, as the muscle becomes more efficient. It is only unhealthy muscle that becomes super large.

If so, then bodybuilders, who are judged on the size of their muscles, not their strength, will be tempted to use health-damaging and muscle-damaging techniques, like antioxidant deficiencies, to expand their muscle mass. Presumably the winning bodybuilders will be those who use all effective techniques to grow muscle, including the health-damaging ones. So we should expect champion bodybuilders to die young.

I have not seen statistical evidence, but anecdotal lore suggests that champion bodybuilders do, indeed, die young, often of heart diseases (indicating muscle damage). Here are two Youtube videos memorializing bodybuilders who died young:


If you want me to believe that antioxidants are bad, the Bjørnsen study is not going to do it. It looks to me that the elderly men who were in the antioxidant group were the lucky ones. The 1000 mg of vitamin C and 350 IU of vitamin E they were taking daily improved their response to exercise. Indeed, for all we know their antioxidant intake may have been less than optimal!

The elderly men who didn’t get the antioxidants should worry about their hearts. If their leg muscles became large but weak, their hearts may have also.

Everyone who works out should be aware: when it comes to muscles, bigger is not the same as better. The healthiest muscles are those in a wiry physique – modest size, but able to exert a lot of force.

Finally, a pitch for our upcoming October 10-17 Perfect Health Retreat. Our advice is sensible, comprehensive, and increasingly well supported by guest experience. If you want to learn how to optimize health for the rest of your life, and have a great time doing it, please come join us.



[1] Bjørnsen T et al. Vitamin C and E supplementation blunts increases in total lean body mass in elderly men after strength training. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2015 Jul 1.

[2] Hill KE et al. Combined selenium and vitamin E deficiency causes fatal myopathy in guinea pigs. J Nutr. 2001 Jun;131(6):1798-802.


Peter Lakatos: Tips for Better Movement

The Hungarian edition of Perfect Health Diet is on sale! Jaffa Kiadó is the publisher, it can be purchased here, and this is the cover:

Hungarian cover

Peter Lakatos gets most of the credit for making the Hungarian edition happen. In addition to being a PHD fan, Peter is a StrongFirst Girya Master Instructor with Pavel Tsatsouline, Expert 2 Krav Maga instructor with Eyal Yanilov, blue belt Brazilian jiu jitsu practicioner with Carlson Gracie Jr., and a creator of Primal Move. Peter was born and lives in Budapest, Hungary.

Here are Peter’s tips for better movement.

Move More, but for the Right Reasons

Most training systems tell you to move more to become slimmer. And when you stop being slim, they ask you to move more. This advice is misdirected. Movement should not be thought of as a tool for creating a caloric deficit. Rather, movement should be regarded as a means to better health. Movement can make you slimmer, but only as a side effect of making you healthier.

If you move only to lose weight, and rely on movement for weight loss, you are in trouble. As David Whitley would say: you can’t out-train a doughnut.

The goal of movement should be better health and a more capable body. Movement reshapes your brain and makes you mentally, emotionally, and physically ready for almost any challenge.

We designed Primal Move to help people achieve this positive reshaping of brain and body. Here is a video which introduces Primal Move:

We noticed early on while creating Primal Move that we can easily get our students to move more or more intensely: all we had to do was add games. Games and play are seriously underrated in physical education. Today, we often see kids suffering from play deprivation. Yes, you read that correctly; I am not talking about sleep deprivation, but play deprivation.

Stuart M. Brown, whom we consider to be the world’s number one expert on play, studied several serial killers and found a shocking common pattern in their lives – they all had been deprived of play. According to Dr Brown, play deprivation can cause many cognitive disorders, and lack of play implies a lack of social skills. That does not mean that those who don’t play will become serial killers. But maybe they won’t become Mother Theresa either!

Improve Your Movement Quality

Moving better is where all things start. Now, better is of course hard to measure, but simply said – when things are getting easier you just learned how to make a certain movement more efficient. Moving better means moving with better coordination, better control, less mental, emotional and sometimes physical tension. Moving better means we have full access to the human body, and give us a great foundation for the next step, becaming stronger.

We created a full division in Primal Move focused on moving better, called the Fundamentals. Our Fundamentals division is based on the Functional Movement System of Gray Cook and Lee Burton, and we truly recommend visiting their website, Want to be super clever on human movements? Read Gray’s book, The Movement.

In Primal Move Fundamentals, we start and finish with a short but very valuable evaluation called the Primal Flow Evaluation. Yes, we want to know how well you move before we try to make you stronger or more fit.

We really believe the movement hierarchy should be based on the quality of movement. Establishing quality of movement first prepares you to load the movements with weight, repetition or speed. But don’t think you have to move like a ballet dancer. Just move well enough, so that additional strength will not distort your structure.

Now better movement gives a great feeling. Moving better and more fluidly builds your confidence. Can you remember a time when movement was painful – when you moved to play or even simply to take a book off the shelf, and knew before you did it that, “This is going to hurt,” and so you flinched and slowed your movement down. Maybe even just thinking about the movement made you stressed.

Moving better not only means you move well, but also that you learn movements faster because your movement literacy – the term was coined by Istvan Balyi, the famous Hungarian-Canadian sport expert – is wide enough that you will excel and enjoy almost any movement or game you attempt to practice.

Think about this – who is the last kid to get picked for football? Always the one who does not move well, does not kick well, the one who has problems on many levels with tha game. If you don’t get picked, you don’t practice. If you don’t practice, you don’t get better. If you don’t get better, you stop moving. If you stop moving, you get slower. Giving up on movement and play can lead to poor health and a greater likelihood of obesity and other health problems. Yes, there is a risk of a downward spiral with lifelong consequences.

Gaining Strength

Increasing strength is always a high payoff strategy. Being stronger makes everything easier. Yes, I know, we are so clever and original.

To get stronger you have many choices. Are you a minimalist? Keep to bodyweight exercises, play with leverage, and read Pavel Tsatsouline’s book, The Naked Warrior. Bodyweight movements made difficult with leverage are how gymnasts develop extremely strong and attractive bodies.

If you prefer to pick up heavy objects – and many claim this is the meaning of life – we recommend that you still consider minimalist solutions. Kettlebells and sandbags, plus a pull up bar, are a perfect set of equipment for building strength. Want to learn more about these? Visit and

Thanks Peter! For those who would like videos, here is a group doing Primal Move Fundamentals:

One thing I like about Primal Move is that they have developed movement exercises for those who are not physically able to perform the Fundamentals. This practice is called Primal Move Regeneration:

And for runners, here is Primal Move Velocity:

Exercise: Is Less Better Than More?

NOTE: Shou-Ching and I will be traveling in Europe next week; she’ll be speaking at this meeting and we’ll take a few days vacation. Blogging will resume on October 2 or so.

A New York Times column, “For Weight Loss, Less Exercise May Be More,” got some attention this week. It was based on a recent study of the effects of exercise on weight loss.

The Danish study [1] found that exercise is helpful for weight loss – but only the first 30 minutes of light exercise per day. Additional exercise had no effect on body weight – in fact it even seemed to diminish weight loss. Those who jogged for 60 minutes a day lost five pounds, those who jogged for 30 minutes lost seven.

The subjects wore activity tracking devices – Actigraph GT1-M devices, which are an older model of these and similar to a Fitbit – which produced a surprising result. Those who exercised 30 minutes a day were seemingly energized by their exercise, as they became more active in their daily lives – more likely to take the stairs, for instance. Those who exercised 60 minutes a day, on the other hand, seemed to be worn down by their exercise, and became less active in daily life.

It seems that 30 minutes of exercise improved health but 60 minutes of exercise may have diminished well-being. When it comes to exercise, perhaps, less is more.

A Well-Supported Result

While the Danish study [1] was novel in looking at how weight loss and non-exercise activity respond to exercise, it is not the first study to show that light activity may be healthier than intense activity.

In the new Scribner edition of our book, we greatly expand the part which discusses how to optimize immunity and heal or prevent disease. The new edition discusses exercise. We found a number of recent studies showing that light daily activity is as good or better than intense activity for health:

  • A study of American runners found that those who ran between 1 and 20 miles per week at a jogger’s pace of 10 or 11 minutes per mile reduced their risk of dying as much as those who ran more than 20 miles a week or who ran faster. [2]
  • Another Danish study reported that Danes who exercised two or three times per week for a total of one to two and a half hours reduced mortality by 44% and extended their lifespans by 6.2 years for men and 5.6 years for women. Those who exercised either more or less had less benefit. [3]
  • A study of 416,175 Taiwanese adults found that an hour and a half of moderate exercise per week (13 minutes per day) reduced mortality by 14% and extended lifespan by 3 years. An additional 15 minutes per day reduced mortality by only another 4%. Benefits peaked at 50 minutes of exercise per day. [4]

These are intriguing results. What’s more intriguing is that it doesn’t seem to matter how fit the exerciser is. People gain substantial health benefits from light exercise, even if the activity never makes them fit.

An Evolutionary Argument for Not Over-Exercising

Thanks to Stephan Guyenet, we’ve been talking a lot about the reward system of the human brain. It evolved in order to make us want to do healthy things, like braving the stings of angry bees to get honey from hives concealed high in trees.

David recently linked to an interesting post suggesting that our Paleolithic ancestors may have done a lot of honey gathering, which reminds me of this movie about the Hadza and their honey seeking:

Why did we develop an attractive taste for sugar, and why does the brain reward us for carb consumption? Presumably because the Paleolithic diet was too low in carbs for optimal health, and evolution wanted to encourage Paleolithic hunter-gatherers to gather more honey.

But, however valuable carbs are, it’s not clear that they are as valuable as the extra six years of life we obtain from light daily exercise. Yet there’s no innate reward for exercise. Many people are quite content to live their whole lives as couch potatoes.

Why didn’t evolution reward exercise, if it is as valuable as carbs? Probably because Paleolithic humans almost invariably got more exercise than they needed. Perhaps our brain evolved to prevent our ancestors from over-exercising, and now our brain unfortunately rewards us for over-resting!


It looks like exercise is healthful, but most or all of the benefits come from a relatively small amount – the first 30 minutes per day.

Doing the research for the new edition of our book has led me to revise my ideas of why exercise is beneficial, and how we should exercise to optimize health. In my next post, I’ll discuss why I think light exercise is most healthful, the tension between healthfulness and fitness, what I think a health-oriented exercise program should look like, and how my personal exercise activity has changed.


[1] Rosenkilde M et al. Body fat loss and compensatory mechanisms in response to different doses of aerobic exercise–a randomized controlled trial in overweight sedentary males. Am J Physiol Regul Integr Comp Physiol. 2012 Sep;303(6):R571-9.

[2] Gretchen Reynolds, “Moderation as the Sweet Spot for Exercise,” New York Times, June 6, 2012,

[3] European Society of Cardiology (ESC) (2012, May 3). Regular jogging shows dramatic increase in life expectancy. ScienceDaily.

[4] Wen CP et al.  Minimum amount of physical activity for reduced mortality and extended life expectancy: a prospective cohort study. Lancet. 2011 Oct 1;378(9798):1244-53.

CrossFit NYC: 20 Tips for Optimal Health & Fitness

I’d like to thank Court Wing, Hari Singh, Josh Newman, and all the folks at CrossFit NYC for a delightful visit to New York on Saturday. Court was a most gracious host. Ninety-three people attended, and many introduced themselves to us; some were familiar commenters from the blog, and it was great to put faces to names. I spoke for 2 hours, and answered questions for another hour. The questions were very interesting, and most of the audience stayed through the question session.

My talk offered 20 tips for optimal health and fitness. I promised Court I’d make the tips available, and several readers asked for them as well. Here they are.

20 Tips for Optimal Health & Fitness

  1. Eat carbs in the range 20% to 30% of energy; higher adds muscle more easily.
  2. Eat protein in the range 300 to 500 calories per day; higher adds muscle more easily.
  3. Listen to and trust your “food reward system” – if you are eating natural foods it will guide you to the best diet.
  4. Eat bone broth and gelatin for a healthy extracellular matrix tissue scaffold.
  5. Get adequate sulfur, which means not only eating sulfur-rich foods like eggs, onions, and garlic, but also obtaining additional sulfur from sources like supplemental MSM or Epsom salt baths. (Sulfur was traditionally obtained from water, but no longer.)
  6. Supplement vitamin C, 500 mg to 1 g per day.
  7. Drink plenty of water.
  8. Eat sufficient salt – at least 3 g/day sodium (1.3 teaspoons salt).
  9. Get sufficient potassium – eat some vegetables!
  10. Eat only “useful macronutrients” in the right proportions; minimize omega-6 and fructose; balance omega-3 and omega-6; keep carbs and protein in the ranges mentioned earlier.
  11. Avoid unnecessary infections:
    • Wash your hands, cook your food, practice safe sex.
    • Live in a low-infection location – ideally, one with cold winters and a dry climate, perhaps some elevation, but plenty of sunshine; in the US, the Rocky Mountain states have the lowest rates of infection.
    • Get plenty of sunshine on bare skin, and optimize vitamin D!
  12. Know your pathogens; utilize diagnostic tests, like the Metametrix stool profile, to see which pathogens have infected you.
  13. Use antimicrobial medicines when appropriate. These can make a huge difference in health and athleticism.
  14. Don’t eat toxic or immunogenic foods, such as wheat, soy, or peanuts.
  15. Protect the gut. The most important step is eating fermented vegetables and fermented dairy, plus a “Goldilocks” amount of fiber. Also, modulate the gut flora in a positive way with foods like traditional herbs and spices, antimicrobial oils, acids including vinegar and lemon juice, green leafy vegetables, and berries.
  16. Nourish your toxin removal systems. Nutrients like glutathione are essential for liver detoxification; production of bile with cholesterol, vitamin C, taurine, and glycine is also helpful. Eating sufficient fiber can help bind and excrete toxins.
  17. Promote healthy circadian rhythms:
    • Sleep in total darkness and don’t use an alarm.
    • Eat in daylight hours.
    • Expose yourself to sunlight in the morning and at mid-day. Allow ultraviolet to reach your retina; do not wear glasses or contact lenses.
    • Avoid blue light at night; install f.lux on your computer and consider adjusting the colors on your television.
    • Make an effort to talk, socialize, and view faces during the day. If your work involves staring at a computer all day, put a digital photo frame on your desk and install something on your computer that shows faces. Take regular breaks to chat with colleagues, or if that is not possible then look at videos like this one (hat tip to Kris in the comments – thanks Kris!):

  18. Engage in intermittent fasting. A good method is to restrict eating to an 8-hour window each day. This will promote immunity and longevity.
  19. Exercise with variable intensity: routine low-level activity, such as walking or working at a standing desk; regular playful and mobilizing activity, such as sports, yoga, or tai chi; and occasional intense exercise such as resistance exercise or sprinting.
  20. Be sociable, be happy, and don’t be stressed! “Do not be anxious about tomorrow. Let the day’s own trouble be sufficient for the day.”

Thank you, CrossFit NYC, and thank you also to the following writers whose material appeared in the talk (with acknowledgement): J. Stanton, Russ Farris, Seth Roberts, and Pål Jåbekk.