Why Broscience Works: Muscle Building Art Versus Science

Who wins: art or science? Take a look at 3 of the hottest science versus broscience topics: frequent feeding, post-workout nutrition and fasted morning cardio.

That's broscience, bro! How many times have you heard someone say this?

It's nearly impossible to spend more than a minute reading on an Internet lifting site without the word broscience being used. Let's take a look at what the term means and why it is so popular.

What Is Broscience?

Broscience is observational data or anecdotal indicators used to explain results or counsel less experienced lifters on how to workout, eat and utilize supplements. Broscience is usually devoid of scientific backing, and may even contradict science in some cases.

The term broscience is typically utilized in a sarcastic manner. It is meant to minimize the artistic side of the iron game while elevating science above cumulative anecdotal evidence or one-off observations. A broscientist generally derives results from trial and error, evolving a program and diet based on body feedback. They are pragmatic in nature, caring not so much about the science backing the process, but more about bottom line results.

On the other side of the fence you find the "science guys." They will analyze known research on a topic and utilize it as a jumping off point for their programming and diet. A science guy will typically discount years (or decades) of anecdotal evidence if the scientific backing seems to lean in a different direction.

In most cases, the "art" of the broscientist will be pitted against the "science" of the science guy, and an epic either/or war will take place. The possibility of a gray area answer is minimized, as these two dogmatic sides are bound and determined to be right.

It should be noted that there are varying degrees on each side of broscience vs. science debate. Many broscience arguments are utterly ridiculous. Here are a few examples you might be familiar with:

Dumbbell CurlsThe Magic Workout - A lifter makes gains using 10 second negatives and declares them the Holy Grail of muscle building. He proclaims that any other training protocol is inferior.

The Magic Meal - A lifter eats only beef post-workout for 8 straight weeks. He notices that his arm size increased an inch during this time, and proclaims that eating beef post-workout will lead to faster arm size gains.

While some degrees of broscience can be utterly ridiculous and without common sense, the same can be said for certain adherents who push "science" beyond the bounds of common sense. For example, let's consider meal frequency.

For decades bodybuilders have relied upon frequent feeding. The belief was simple: you can maximize gains by injecting a steady stream of protein and other nutrients into the body.

Enter science. Modern research reveals that eating every 2-3 hours may not be needed. The result...some of the science guys push the pendulum too far to the other side. They act in almost a defiant manner, choosing to eat as few meals as possible.

The problem with this is that the start to ignore what their body is telling them, and don't always eat when they are hungry.  Take the post-workout meal, for example. Just because the post-workout window of opportunity might not be "needed" doesn't mean one should completely ignore raging hunger after a squat workout.

Let's look a deeper look at the 3 major - and heated - science versus broscience debates.

Broscience Battle #1 - Frequent Feeding is Broscience, Bro

Broscience - Frequent meals will "stoke the metabolic fire", raising your metabolism and helping you to burn more calories.

Science - Meal frequency does not impact energy balance, meaning fewer meals won't slow down your "metabolic fire." (1, 2, 3)

Common Sense - Listen to your body and structure a meal plan around your unique eating habits. Make adjustments as needed even if they don't fit into someone's concept of ideal.

Several years back intermittent fasting began to gain ground as a popular, and scientifically-backed alternative to frequent feeding. For years frequent feeding was touted as an amazing way to burn calories because it "kept your metabolic fire stoked." As research started to trickle in, we soon learned that this wasn't the case.

Frequent feeding provided no advantage over intermittent fasting when it came to daily energy expenditure. Though this was a victory for the science guys, it fast become an out of control monster that looked to destroy anyone using frequent feeding for any reason.

This isn't very scientific. In fact, it's bad logic attacking broscience.

Just because frequent feeding doesn't stoke the metabolic fire doesn't render it broscience for all people and all usages. An eating plan should always be based on the lifter's needs.

Some of you are grazers, and prefer smaller meals throughout the day. Some of you are young with fast metabolisms, and find it impossible to intake enough food to grow when sticking to an intermittent fasting window. Some of you are older, and do not like the bloat and fatigue that comes from eating larger meals.

There are many reasons to eat more frequently. More than this, we have over 40 years of anecdotal evidence surrounding frequent feeding. While frequent feeding may not be needed, and while it may not "stoke the metabolic fire", to my knowledge it has never let one lifter who was trying to build muscle down.

I have spent a good portion of my adult life talking to top level natural bodybuilders, powerlifters, physique athletes, fitness models, transformation stories and average Joes and Janes. Because frequent feeding has been the norm for so long, I can comfortably say that 98% of these individuals ate 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 or even 8+ meals per day.

Six pack

Use Frequent Feeding If It Fits Your Needs

I have yet to see frequent feeding let a lifter down during a cut, or during the muscle building process. So while it "may not be necessary to stoke the metabolic fire", we do know that when used there is no known downside found in this body of anecdotal evidence. Therefore, it is certainly ok to used frequent feeding if it fits your needs or eating habits.

If a practice is the norm, and it rarely if ever let's anyone down, should it be ignored? Absolutely not.

Forget the discussion over metabolic fire. It is bleeding over into the realm of muscle building, and lifters are abandoning frequent feeding and moving feeding windows without even testing things upon their own bodies.

We are pretty confident about the fact that if you eat fewer meals your metabolism won't tank. This doesn't mean there aren't other reasons to eat more frequent meals.

Start somewhere in the middle ground and test things upon yourself. Structure an eating plan based around your habits, and make changes as needed. Monitor your body composition, weight and muscle measurements so you know exactly what is happening.

All by all means, use common sense. Eat when you are hungry. If you choose to stick to dogma - either dogma - and stuff or starve yourself when your body is asking for otherwise, it's very likely that muscle gains will slow, or fat gains will increase.

Listening to your body doesn't make you a broscientist. It makes you smart. With that said, understand that what works for you might not work for others. if you believe what works for you will be magic for others, you are truly a broscientist.

Broscience Battle #2 - Fasted Morning Cardio Is Broscience, Bro

Broscience - Performing cardio first thing in the morning on an empty stomach is the best way to burn fat.

Science - While fasted cardio seems to burn more energy while actually performing the exercise (4), you burn more energy over a 24 hour period when you perform unfasted cardio. (5, 6, 7, 8)

Common Sense - The amount of fat burned from cardio over the course of a year is rather trivial. Because of this it really doesn't matter what type of cardio you use, or when you use it. Perform cardio when it is best for you.

Like the previous bro-battle, this issue has turned into a full-on raging war against morning cardio. If morning cardio is recommended (for any reason) it is attacked with cries of broscience.

Let's get something straight. Just because fasted cardio might not be the optimal choice doesn't mean it's a pointless or ineffective choice.

Press DownsMost of you are not bodybuilders, fitness models or figure competitors. You're not concerned about squeezing out that last 1-2% of fat loss. Your main concern is just finding time to fit in cardio each week.

If morning cardio fits your needs, then do it. You don't need to feel inferior simply because you don't want to perform cardio after work, or later in the day. Some individuals like to get their cardio workouts over with.

The small metabolic boost you receive from performing cardio with something in your stomach might not matter if you start to cut your cardio sessions short because they don't fit your schedule, or because you are tired due to a long work day.

Relax. Enjoy. Do Morning Cardio

Do what you enjoy, when you enjoy it. These wars being waged over "optimal" results really don't concern most of us. As long as you are performing cardio several times per week, you have nothing to worry about. 

Furthermore, weight is mostly controlled by diet. If you perform 3 cardio sessions per week of 20 minutes each, this amounts to a 5 pound fat loss per year. This weight loss is nothing compared to the amount of fat you can keep off using a quality eating plan.

This fitness and lifting communities often do a great job of battling over small details. When comparing fasted versus unfasted cardio, the difference is likely to be over 0.5 to a pound of fat per year. While this is certainly important to a competitor, for the rest of us it's easier to just avoid one binge meal per year and do cardio whenever convenient.

I would like to end this section with a quote from fat loss and diet guru Lyle McDonald:

For the lean trying to get very lean (15% body fat or less for men, 22% or less for women), various strategies, including fasted cardio are probably going to be required to offset the mobization and blood flow defects.  That’s why that specific group found decades ago that fasted morning cardio worked best.  And why I wrote The Stubborn Fat Solution since it deals with how to overcome all of the problems.

But for folks who aren’t that lean yet, the folks in the middle range of body fat levels, it really doesn’t matter.  The best time to do cardio will be whenever it will most consistently get done.  If that’s first thing in the morning, fantastic.  If not, also fantastic.  It’s more important in this situation that it gets done than when it gets done.

Broscience Battle #3 - Your Post-Workout Window Of Opportunity Is Broken, Bro!

Broscience - You must eat within a certain post-workout window of opportunity to maximize gains.

Science - The post-workout window of opportunity is nonsense. Numerous studies exist showing that protein synthesis levels remain elevated for days after training.

Common Sense - Eat when you're hungry. Most of us are thirsty post-workout, so it makes sense to have a protein drink. As soon as your appetite returns, eat a solid foods meal. Listen to your body, not the clock.

Research by Tipton et al., 2001, revealed that lifters who drank protein immediately post-workout had 30% lower protein synthesis rates than those who waited at least an hour after lifting to drink a protein shake.

Whoa, bro!

Now, I know what you're thinking: what about solid food? Perhaps solid food is better than liquid food, post-workout? After all, many of the old-school broscientists talk about the big meals they ate after training.

Nope, not any better. A study by Borsheim et al., 2002 showed that protein drinks are superior to solid foods following a workout.

So, piecing this together...you are officially a broscientist if you eat solid food post-workout, or rush to drink any protein immediately following a workout. Does this sound right?

I call it nonsense. It may be optimal, but in the long run this "optimization" is really just a trivial difference.

Say it makes 1% of a difference. (This is likely being generous) Though it has been shown that natural lifters CAN gain up to 16ish pounds of muscle their first year, let's pretend for the sake of argument that the average man adds about 10 pounds of mass his first year.

One percept of this is 1.6 ounces. Typically gains decrease by half year in and year out. This would equate to about a 3 ounce difference over the course of 4 years. Certainly not trivial, but nothing that can't be made up with a little programming and diet optimization.

Push Ups

But I'm Hungry

Eat when you're hungry. In the long run it isn't going to make one bit of difference when or what you eat as long as you listen to your body.

In the battle of art vs. science, it's easy to become obsessive compulsive to the point where you wring all the fun out of life and training all in the name of trying to improve optimization by 1%.

You can't go wrong by listening to your body.

Though fads and practices have changed over the years, most lifters I know have either consumed a whey shake post-workout, or a large solid foods meal. They all turned out huge, strong and unhindered by these choices.

Focus on proper calorie and macronutrient intake rather than precise meal timing. It's likely you will feel different each day. It's ok to adjust meals, including most-workout meals, as long as you're reaching your daily nutrition goals.

Science vs. Broscience: Will It Matter?

When you analyze the 3 broscience battles presented in this article one thing becomes apparent: if you go against science, the difference is trivial. There, I said it.

If you remain dedicated, it won't matter in the long run when you perform your cardio. If you remain dedicated, it won't matter in the long run what your meal frequency is, or what and when you eat post-workout.

While some degree of obsessive-compulsiveness management might be required for you to succeed in the sport of competitive bodybuilding, most of us are not competitive bodybuilders. So the question you need to ask yourself - is it worth rearranging your life, cardio habits and eating habits just to micromanage a few ounces of muscle and a few ounces of fat?

If so, optimize. If not, relax.

In the battle of the broscientists versus the scientists, the only real losers are those who stop enjoying the journey. Consistency, progression and proper food intake will go a long way. So does listening to your body.

This article in no way is meant to minimize the importance of science. It's point is simple...in the hunt for optimization, many lifters:

  • Stop having fun
  • Stop listening to their bodies
  • Stop using their intuition
  • Become obsessive compulsive, overthinking every small detail

Which path you choose is up to you. Art, science, or a combination of both. Just let it be known that it's ok to not be optimal if it makes life more manageable - even if you are being labeled as a broscientist and/or mocked in the process.

We can learn just as much from the broscientists as we can from the scientists. I hope you will considering setting aside the sarcasm and embracing both sides of lifting.

References

1) Jenkins, DJ, et al. “Nibbling versus Gorging: Metabolic Advantages of Increased Meal Frequency.” N Engl J Med. 1989 Oct 5;321(14):929-34.

2) Wolfram, G., M. Kirchgessner, HL Müller, and S. Hollomey. “Thermogenesis in Humans after Varying Meal Time Frequency.” Ann Nutr Metab. 1987;31(2):88-97.

3) Bellislea, France, Regina McDevitta, and Andrew M. Prenticea. “Meal Frequency and Energy Balance.” British Journal of Nutrition (1997), 77:S57-S70 Cambridge University Press.

4) Zoladz JA, Konturek SJ, Duda K, Majerczak J, Sliwowski Z, Grandys M, Bielanski W. Effect of moderate incremental exercise, performed in fed and fasted state on cardio-respiratory variables and leptin and ghrelin concentrations in young healthy men . J Physiol Pharmacol. 2005 Mar;56(1):63-85.

5) The TRUTH About Fasted Cardio. MensHealth. 2011.

6) Onunkwo, D. Fasted Cardio For Fast Loss…Does It Work? . Health & Fitness. 2011.

7) Stannard SR, Buckley AJ, Edge JA, Thompson MW. Adaptations to skeletal muscle with endurance exercise training in the acutely fed versus overnight-fasted state. J Sci Med Sport. 2010;13(4):465-9.

8) Tanner JM, Kearns DT, Kim BJ, Sloan C, Jia Z, Yang T, Abel ED, Symons JD. Fasting-induced reductions in cardiovascular and metabolic variables occur sooner in obese versus lean mice . Exp Biol Med (Maywood). 2010 Dec;235(12):1489-97.