Science of Lifting: The Research Process Uncovered

TAGS: science project, funding, experiment, education, brandon patterson

Are you a future strength science researcher or just curious about where the latest and greatest information comes from? If so, keep reading.

Imagine that you’re a new tenure track assistant professor who’s interested in hypertrophy research. You’re at a smaller undergraduate school in the US, so you have a lot of responsibilities with teaching, advising, and committee work. You’re also expected to contribute original research to your field. This is where your experiment comes in.

You’ve come up with a novel weightlifting method that combines electrostim, occlusion training, and odd rep combinations. Based on some new research and some tinkering that you’ve done in your lab, you think this technique will lead to better hypertrophy gains than any of the three methods alone or in already tried combinations. In fact, you’re so excited about this research that you want to put it to the test in a convincing human study. You’ll need a decent amount of data to reduce the impact of random factors so that means you'll need a lot of human subjects. Students are cheap, so you’ll use them. You can weigh your results against previous similar studies, but nothing’s better than having a control group—this will double how many students you need. You have tracking charts and guidelines to keep their diets steady and your own students to monitor the tests and training. Finally, you’ll run the project for six months to get a good, long look at results.

You also want to ensure that your results are as accurate as possible. You’ll use an involved biopsy procedure to measure muscle adaptations at the microscopic level and dual energy x-ray (DEXA) equipment at a larger school that’s close by to account for total muscle gains. To keep the protocols simple, you’ll program based on one rep max percentages and use a row of leg extension devices that you already have on hand. Because you’re running the show, you would be the project’s principal investigator (and anyone who helps you is a co-principal investigator). As the principal investigator, there are a few big concerns to address before you can even think about testing your theory...

Your life

Fortunately, you don’t have to worry about running a huge lab, which means fewer responsibilities and headaches for you. But the good news pretty much ends there. The tenure hunt means that you have to exemplify the “teacher scholar” ideal, so you’ll be churning out journal articles to bump your geek cred while taking on an uncompromised course load so that you won’t look like you’re slacking on your teaching responsibility. You’ll have to fit your experiment into all of this (and good luck if you’re also starting a family at the same time, which is true for many new professors/researchers).

Your bosses

You have to go up the chain of command just to get permission to pursue your project. First, you have to get your department head on board. The department head has to determine if the project will interfere with your other duties and approve your time away if that’s necessary for your project. Because the department head has to, for example, figure out who runs your classes when you’re gone, this is a pretty important step. After that, you might get kicked up to your dean and/or provost (depending on the institution).

But wait—there’s more. Your Office of Sponsored Research (OSR) needs to chime in. OSR is your institution’s hub for externally funded faculty needs. While they offer advice and assistance on developing grants and fellowships, their main role is to keep faculty in line. At many schools, OSR is required to actually submit your grant just to prevent rogue projects from gumming things up; most at least serve as liaisons with your potential funders. And remember—because you’re working with a partner school, any co-principal investigator(s) there will have to successfully complete these steps, too.


A big hurdle for projects like yours is the Institutional Review Board (IRB). The IRB is a committee of faculty and administrators that makes sure experiments involving human subjects are conducted in a humane and ethical manner. Your project involves shocking, squeezing, and exhausting people for a period of six months. Add to that the fact that you’re cutting your subjects open (for biopsies) and bombarding them with radiation (the DEXA scans) and suddenly you have a project that needs to be airtight to pass faculty review. If there’s the slightest chance that your sterilization, health monitoring, or pain management techniques aren’t up to par, your study won’t be approved. Shoot, it might not be approved even if you dot your Is and cross your Ts. The IRB might just think the project is too onerous, a process to justify any foreseeable conclusion.

There’s also the issue of personal ethics. You’re testing a training method that you’ve designed and believe will work, so in some ways your ego and time are already on the line. Can you keep your personal involvement from influencing your research? If that seems troublesome, you better have some objective partners and reviewers who can keep you honest. Or you might even start over from scratch and see if you can create a more objective route for yourself.


The last step on your road to just starting your project is finding the money you need in the first place. Projects like this are expensive. At the very least, you’ll need disposable lab materials, assistantships for your student workers, payments for student subjects, electrostims and constriction cuffs for all those subjects, costs for using your cross-town colleagues’ DEXA setup, and stipends for you and the other researchers who are helping you.

Your options are slim. You’re a low rung on your university’s ladder of financial priorities, so there isn’t going to be much backing for you (assuming your institution even has feasible internal grants). Corporate support could be a possibility, though your complicated protocol might not interest the manufacturers of electrostim or occlusion devices, and you don’t have the clout to catch their attention with your body of work. Besides, why mar your results with the potential for bias?

Grants—especially federal grants—are your best ticket because they fund the bulk of research like yours. But it won’t be easy. The National Institutes of Health is your most likely target, but they’ve been hurt by budget cuts. The cuts are deep enough that NIH is thinking about moving to an award model that favors established researchers over newer ones, so things might be doubly problematic. And writing grants is a process that no researcher has ever liked. Still, it’s your best shot. We’ll go over the grant writing grind in Part 2.

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