Two weeks ago, I introduced you to Greg Ellis, whose new book,
Dr. Ellis's Ultimate Diet Secrets (Targeted Body Systems
Publishing, $59.95), is to eating and exercising what
Moby-Dick is to whaling.
During a power walk, Ellis and I discussed some of the surprising
things he's learned over the last 40 years about how the body turns
food into energy, muscle and fat.
One of Ellis' favorite sayings is "putting it to the numbers" -
his phrase for testing conventional wisdom against scientific fact.
By putting it to the numbers, Ellis, 55, who has a doctorate in
exercise physiology, has discovered that many accepted truths are
"People don't do their homework," he gripes. "That's how these
myths get started and propagated."
A prime example: If you build more muscle, you'll burn lots of
"This one really irks me," Ellis says. "It's the big one, the
I confess: It's a myth that I, too, have helped propagate. As
faithful readers know, I'm a big booster of resistance training -
weight lifting for boys and girls, men and women, people of all
ages. In this space and in public presentations, I have sung the
benefits of pumping iron, including how it helps control weight.
The conventional wisdom: Muscle is metabolically active. It burns
calories even when your body is at rest - 50 to 60 calories a day
per pound of muscle. Ergo, if you add a pound of muscle, you can
burn an additional 350 calories a week, 1,500 calories a month,
18,000 calories a year - the equivalent of 5 pounds of flesh.
In other words, if you gain a pound of muscle, everything else
being equal, you can, in a year, shed 5 pounds of flab.
Trouble is, it ain't so.
"Putting it to the numbers" reveals that resting muscle burns a
mere tenth of that - about 5 to 6 calories per pound per day, Ellis
says. Since every pound of fat burns 2 calories a day, muscle hardly
confers a hefty metabolic advantage - a mere 3 to 4 additional
calories per pound.
How does this play out in the real world?
Suppose a woman who weighs 150 pounds begins working out, walking
two miles a day, lifting weights three times a week. After six
months, she manages to shed 18 pounds of flab and gain 6 pounds of
To feed that new muscle, her body needs 30 calories of food
energy a day (6 pounds x 5 calories = 30). But because she has
dropped 18 pounds of fat, her energy needs have also dropped - by 36
calories (18 pounds x 2 calories = 36). Result: Despite all that new
muscle, she needs to eat 6 calories a day less to maintain
her new weight.
Moreover, adding 6 pounds of muscle is no easy feat. When Ellis
was working on his doctorate, doing body-composition studies in the
lab, he found that the muscle mass of female bodybuilders, compared
with that of untrained women, was greater by only 6 pounds.
"Steroid girls had only 8 to 10 pounds more lean body mass,"
Ellis says. "I'm talking about hard-core bodybuilding chicks - not
someone lifting 5-pound dumbbells, but a gal benching 150, and going
at it hard."
Ditto for guys. After several years of training hard, a man may
be able to gain 10 pounds of muscle, max. Even with steroids and
other anabolic aids, the most a competitive bodybuilder can add is
30 to 40 pounds of muscle, Ellis says. At 5 calories per pound of
muscle, all that extravagant anabolic gingerbread revs the
metabolism by a mere 150 calories - an amount that could be wiped
out by a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup.
"So when Diane Sawyer works out with rubber bands and 5-pound
dumbbells and manages to add a quarter-pound of muscle, she may be
burning more calories through the exercise itself," Ellis says, "but
she's doing zip to increase her resting metabolism."
Can Ellis be believed? For proof, he showed me citations and
tables from his trusty texts, including a real page-turner titled
Energy Metabolism: Tissue Determinants and Cellular
Corollaries. But more persuasive than academic data was this
argument: "If new muscle burns 50 calories a pound, why doesn't
already existing muscle burn 50 calories a pound?" Ellis asks. "How
does the body determine that new muscle burns 50 calories, while old
muscle burns only 5?"
Answer: It doesn't, because all muscle burns only 5
calories. Putting it to the numbers: If every pound of muscle burned
50 calories, a typical 200-pound man would have a resting metabolic
rate (RMR) from muscle alone of 4,000 calories (80 pounds of muscle
x 50 = 4,000). Since muscle accounts for about 40 percent of the RMR
(organs such as the liver, kidneys, brain and heart account for
about 60 percent), the RMR of our hypothetical musclehead would be
10,000 calories - an impossibility. Even Ellis, a mesomorphic pillar
of vintage beefcake, has an RMR of only 1,900 calories. So if muscle
isn't a calorie-gobbler, why bother to lift weights?
Because, besides making you stronger, fortifying your bones and
joints, improving your balance, reducing the risk of heart disease,
and giving you a sense of power, control, accomplishment and
well-being, pumping iron will make you look better.
"If you add 5 pounds of muscle and lose 5 pounds of fat, the
impact on your shape and appearance will be dramatic," Ellis says.
"If you add 5 pounds of muscle and lose 10 to 20 pounds of fat,
you're definitely going to be eye candy."