Questions? Answers! Body by Science

Marc, from Feel Good Eating, (chock-full of fantastic Paleo-oriented food ideas), asks what I think about Dr. Doug McGuff’s Body by Science concept.  Well, let’s check it out and see what Doc McGuff is up to.

Let me first come clean by saying that, because I know somewhat (though I have not read the book) of what the good doctor is promoting, I am afflicted with a wee-tad bit of pre-established bias.  I’ve tried best I could to come to the concept anew, with a slate wiped clean as it were.  I like to think that I’ve succeeded in that task, however, I may just be fooling myself.  Also note that I’ve limited my discussion to what information is found in the  link above.  Ultimately, I’d have to say there is more to the Body by Science concept that I agree with than what I disagree with.  Again, though, this idea has been formed with limited knowledge.  Anyway, with that said, here’s my take on the good doctor’s concept, and practical applications thereof:

Dr. McGuff’s assertion that exercise, in and of itself, is not necessarily essential to, and may in fact be detrimental to, the body (and survival, for that matter), I can — with a few caveats, of course — go along with.  I guess I’d have to say my take on exercise is similar to that of water ingestion — it’s got to be of just the right amount, and of the right kind, or things will begin to get ugly in a hurry.  Now, I already feel my pre-concieved biases starting to kick in, so I’ll leave it at that short statement for now.  However, keep in mind that when we are speaking of exercise prescription, it is absolutely essential to also define the potential trainee pool.  Leave out either half of that definition, and the discussion becomes moot.

So, reading on.  I suppose the first real trip-up I came across in this piece was in answer to this question:

Question: When you have people want to
lose fat, has it been your experience that it’s inevitable that on a
below-maintenance calorie diet that one will also probably lose some
degree of muscle tissue – even if paying attention to the principles of
intensity, volume and frequency? Is that just a given?

MCGUFF: I believe it is because you’ve got
to remember that muscle is “metabolically expensive” tissue and if you
are going to be at a calorie deficit you’re body is going to make some
efforts to jettison its most metabolically expensive holdings as a
survival reflex. Now there are things that you can do mitigate that as
much as possible, including applying the appropriate exercise stimulus,
but I do believe it’s [i.e., muscle loss] going to occur to some
extent, especially initially in the process. But I think that will
occur to a certain extent and then stop, if everything else is done

My initial thought here is, of course, why do we need to be at a forced calorie deficit to lose fat?  What we need is proper Paleo nutrition, and calories (via the natural hunger response) will take care of themselves.  Muscle tissue will be shed, yes, if and only if we give our bodies the signal to do so.  “Cardio” work would be just such a signal.  In the good doctor’s defense, he does mention the fallacy of “cardio work benefits”  earlier in this piece.  Now would be a great time to talk about high-intesity, short duration, power-intensive work. However we’re next subjected to this

The point I try to make with my fat loss clients is the average
person at age 35 is unhappy because they’ve gained about 35 pounds of
fat since they were 20 years old. If you take that 35 pounds of fat
gain – from age 20 to 35 – and figure that out on a daily basis, that’s
a calorie excess of a single potato chip over that span of time. To
lose bodyfat you’ve got to do the opposite: a very modest calorie
reduction done in a disciplined fashion over a long range of time,
combined with strength training so all the weight loss is discriminated
towards fat loss. That’s our philosophy there.

This is the old calories-in, calories-out, body-as-a-basic-thermodynamic-machine mantra that has been sufficiently laid to rest in the minds of the Paleo-enlightened.  Good Calories, Bad Calories properly dissects decades worth of applicable science relative to weight-control theory.  My results (and the results of many, many others) are proof positive of that science (and the proper interpretation of that science) as applied within the laboratory of the real-world.  Dr. McGuff does tout the benefits of natural, whole foods, and he seems to acknowledge the benefits of limiting carbohydrates, so we’ll have to give him props, there.  But I know I’m preaching to the choir, here, so I’ll move on to the other “issues” I know are to come.  Like this…

Question…In other words, there’s nothing
intrinsically more beneficial in using free weights or rubber balls in
developing the muscles that aid in stability and, in fact, you can
probably train these muscles more efficiently and efficaciously by
using, say, a Nautilus machine.

MCGUFF: Correct. The whole concept of
“stabilizers” or bringing stabilizers into play while you’re actively
working another muscle is just a romantic notion that really doesn’t
bare out in reality at all – there aren’t “just stabilizer” muscles.
Any muscle can be a “stabilizer” if it’s contracting isometrically to
stabilize the body from any opposing movement in the opposite direction.

My first reaction here, was to rant all up, down, sideways and over this statement — until I realized that he’s absolutely right (…and a hush fell over the crowd).  In all seriousness though, to fully and adequately answer this question, we have to address just who the target trainee’s are.  Are we talking about a morbidly obese individual just beginning their fitness quest, or a highly accomplished athlete?  As a correlate to this, consider the whole CrossFit debate.  We absolutely have to define the trainee’s goals before we can properly define the parameters of their overall workout scheme.  Now, just so that we are all on the same page, let me state implicitly that the only machine I would ever routinely put a healthy, non-rehabbing athlete on is a GHR bench.  The musculature and CNS of an athlete — and all reasonably healthy individuals, in my opinion, have to be encouraged to work in unison — and in all dimensions, and planes of movement — to produce high levels of power output.  This, quite simply, and in my humble opinion, cannot be reproduced on a machine.

The following question, though, defines where Dr. McGuff and I take (somewhat) divergent forks in the road:

QUESTION: Let me ask your opinion on why was — or is — Nautilus such a huge advancement in bodybuilding and fitness training?

To be fair to Dr. McGuff, here, the question pertains specifically to Nautilus’s affect on bodybuilding and fitness training; no mention is made to it’s effectiveness as it pertains to athletic endeavors.  Quite simply, my belief is that Nautilus is to athleticism as slow and extended cardio is to sprinting, i.e., highly counter-productive.  If athleticism is not a concern, however, and we limit the talk to purely bodybuilding applications, then I’ll — still with some reservations — go along with the doctor’s concept.  That is, I’ll go along with the concept, however, I still have serious doubts as to whether there can be enough induced fatigue during an exercise bout to justify the extended amount of down time he proposes.  I agree with this  concept in theory; practically, however, I don’t believe it can be done effectively.  This all eventually gets back to the single set to failure, Arthur Jones argument.  Empirically, I can say that I have not seen much progress from anyone I’ve seen pursue this particular route.  Conversely, however, I have seen great progress in people who’ve stuck to different set/reps schemes within the “25 for a bigger engine” umbrella of routines.  And interestingly as well, I have even seen people make phenomenal progress (myself included) using 20 – 25 singles to failure while employing a much narrower recovery window (6 to 12 % drop-off to a 4 to 8 day recovery).  Now, this protocol really isn’t that far removed from what Dr. McGuff is proposing.  This just goes to show you that protocols within the strength and conditioning arena (and I’ll include bodybuilding here, as well) are not as black and white as they may first appear at the onset.  There is always plenty of room for morphing and overlap.

So, what exactly is the difference between an effective 20 -25 reps to failure routine and Dr. McGuff’s, Arthur Jones-inspired, routine?  Well, I think answering that would require a blog post in and of itself.  Briefly, though, let me suggest these things as being detriments to Dr. McGuff’s protocol: (1) too much recovery for too little drop-off , (2) limited CNS stimulation, (3) the inability to initiate instantaneous, supra-maximal muscle tension (i.e., as in the “catch” of a power clean, or a depth drop), (4) over-stimulation (and resultant fatigue) of the slow-twitch fibers, with an accompanying under-stimulation of their fast-twitch counterpart — the “too heavy, too fast” conundrum.  Now, I’m open minded enough to consider that, for certain trainee populations, this protocol would in fact be sufficient.  I do feel comfortable in saying, though, that for athletes, or for those who wish to move like athletes, I would not suggest this type of protocol.

Again, let me state that this post is in reference to the above link, provided by Marc, (as he asked for my thoughts on that post specifically),  and my not be totally indicative of what my thoughts might be on the book, Body by Science. I think it only fair that I provide you with a favorable review of the book, here.  I certainly wouldn’t mind reading the book in it’s entirety — I am open to the fact that my overall opinion of the system my be swayed by a more complete understanding of Dr. McGuff’s ideas.

In Health,


9 responses to “Questions? Answers! Body by Science

  1. Keith,

    I was flattered to find myself mentioned in your post. I would not judge Body by Science by that particular interview on the website. John Little conducted that interview several years back before we even began writing BBS.

    The biggest change since that time would be my emphasis on a hunter-gatherer diet, as my views over the span have been largely influenced by Dr. Art Devany. I think body composition autoregulates beautifully when we are eating in harmony with our genome. I still think calories count, but not in a mechanistic/algebraic way (a long and deep discussion that probably doesn’t matter).

    I have always known by your posts that you and I would differ on exercise, which is fine. The purpose of BBS is to create a cultural shift toward high intensity exercise based in strength training. The particulars of the application are different for me, and my rationale is explained in the book. I want to operate in “the spirit of the law”, which is to follow a hunter-gatherer diet, work out extremely hard (and out of necessity briefly), allow enough recovery to show improvement and not damage the organism in the process.

    My perspectives on volume and frequency come from overseeing thousands of workouts in my personal training facility ( The data I have collected on the population I train supports the recovery interval discussed in BBS. The general population, in my experience, does not recover like you do. Your thinking may be influenced by a bit of confirmation bias, looking at the pictures you have posted from your youth, you are obviously genetically gifted (which is in no way meant to denegrate your accomplishments). Long muscle bellies, and good density and leanness are seen even as a teenager. You need to consider “the graveyard” as Nasim Taleb calls it. The number of people who have attempted explosive or high force training regimines and fell out due to fatigue or injury. My post “Running study=Nasim Taleb’s Health Club for Rats” illustrates this concept. The graph that accompanies Ryan Hall’s essay in the trainer’s section explains my views on training frequency.

    In the end, it may be me that is the outlier in terms of exercise requirements and not you…we all see through our own looking glass and have our own confirmation biases. In principle, I think you and I differ little. We differ in our application of exercise, though the underlying premises are similar.

    By the way, I think you would really like the article on “Internal Starvation”.

    Thanks for your fantastic and inspiring blog. Your condition is a testament to your techniques. Keep up the good work.


    • Thanks for taking the time to reply, Doug. I agree that exercise application, in its entirety, and to be effective (and, especially, not detrimental), must be matched to the trainee’s goals and abilities. This would include psychological leanings and recovery ability. I’d say we’re probably both in agreement that this is both an art and a science; to what degree each is applicable we might not see exactly eye-to-eye — but hey — that’s what makes this endeavor so interesting! I would be curious to match notes with you sometime on fatigue management — more specifically, the dosing thereof, and from that, calculating the required recovery/super-compensation. And, of course, I’d love to read BBS in full — and critique here on TTP as well. I don’t think we are that far off in our philosophies, and I’d love to see why, were we do diverge, what our reasoning is. It may so be simple as the fact that I tend to see each trainee as an athlete or potential athlete, i.e, my definition of superior health is honing the trainee’s body so as to produce as much functional, short-duration power as possible, given that trainee’s inherent limitations. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  2. Keith

    I’m in the middle of reading BBS (I’m a sucker for a new book on training) and I think that there is some really good stuff in there. There are many similarities between TTP / EF and BBS – brief infrequent intense exercise interspersed with lots of rest. There is an interesting chapter on metabolism that is well written. I think there is some real divergence on the nature of what intense exercise is and how best to hit fast twitch fibres e.g. McG and Little are not keen on explosive movements / plyos.

    There is almost a paranoia about the dangers of being injured by training too – thus they are not keen on “functional” exercise plsu i think they question whether there is much transferability of strengths from exercise to functional movements.

    As I read it half the time I find myself agreeing with it and half the time I’m disagreeing!

    A lot of it is the same old Nautilus / Mike Mentzer / Darden stuff that I have been reading for 20 years, which appeals in some ways but nne thing that I think these guys miss is that some of us actually enjoy training and don’t want to be restrcted to 8 minutes every 10 days!

    • Chris,
      I’m not sure if you read my reply to Doug’s comment or not, but one thing I’d love to do is compare his (Doug’s) prescription for fatigue dosing relative to rest/recuperation/super-compensation, and compare that to my own ideas of fatigue management. I don’t see where we can be that far off.

      And again, I think, too, that many questions of exercise prescription are answered once the target trainee has been identified & abilities (and goals) assessed. The application of explosive/plyometric exercises, of course, must be meted-out appropriately, and only when the trainee is prepared for such work. But in my opinion, there’s no reason that a reasonably healthy individual should not be eased into this type of modality. Life is explosive by nature — athletics, of course, even more so. This is true, to some extent, even in the elderly. What is the stumble and attempted recovery prior to a fall, if not explosive in nature? Again, sensible dosing and recovery needs to be implemented, but an explosive element within the overall workout plan of even the elderly, in my opinion, can still — and ought to — be used.

      With the right tweaks (as I somewhat covered in the post), I think the Jones/Mentzer/Darden concept can work. I just think the fatigue/recovery ratio is off, for one thing. The other thing is that I don’t think the fast-twitch fibers are adequately taxed. Both are easy fixes. But then the fixes, by definition, then move the protocol to something other than what the true HIT adherents propose.

  3. Keith,
    Thank you SO much for taking the time to give your thoughts. I will be reading your post a few more times before I comment with my humble input, but wanted to say thank you.

    I’m also glad to see you got a repsponse from Dr. M.

    From everything I have learned from you Keith, it is obvious that high intesity is key, coupled with a constant evaluation of your personal progress and aims. An ever evolving art form if you will…….

    Can’t thank you enough for your GREAT GREAT blog. I learn so much from it.


  4. I’ve certainly come close to the ‘Graveyard’ that doug mentions (I’m 24 but have injured my knee once or twice doing high rep thruster/squat clean type exercises).

    I’ve learned my lessons, though, and I still greatly enjoy training explosively, but I’ve definitely started to decrease the high-rep, explosive type crossfit workouts in favor of power-dominant workouts. I used to do them 2-3 times per week, but now they creep in a 2-3 times per month. Sprinting, jumping, and explosive lifts/throws dominate my training now, mixed in w/ gymnastic movements.

    I still love my crossfit metcons, but I simply treat them with more respect . . . ensuring that my body is ready for them before hand. I must say that as I continue to emphasize power dominance, I feel my metabolism is becoming more conducive to fat loss. I think I am able to weather the insulin storms associated with visits home a little better, due both to my focus on fast twitch msucle, and to my increased insulin sensitivity from eating a more paleo style diet.

    Thanks for keeping us pointed in the right direction keith.


  5. Also Keith, regarding recovery, I’d love to see what your take is on Rob Shaul’s ‘Mountain Athlete’ style of training. It’s similar to crossfit, but frequently emphasizes 1-2 hour long training sessions (like gym jones). Rob is a very creative trainer who emphasizes functional and explosive training to prepare his alpine athletes for skiing, climbing (ice and rock), and etc. I have done some of his workouts, and they are tough, but seem to emphasize crossfit style durability on a longer scale, instead of power production. He only lets his athletes train 2-3 times per week in most cases, but I have to think that training like this would wear me out.


    • Bryce,
      Sounds like you’re really getting the TTP/Paleo lifestyle dialed in. I like Rob Shaul’s stuff as well (and gym jones, too) — if targeted to the right trainee group. That’s really what it all boils down to — what are your goals, and what methodology best supports the acquisition of those goals? Think of the vast difference in athletic requirements between a Navy SEAL and a collegiate wrestler. Each has his own unique training needs.

  6. How can I use BBS if i want to prepare for a triathlon in the next six months. I find in the book that doing long runs, bike or swim is not very recomended, but then, how can i get prepared?

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