Science can be confusing. After all, not everyone out there is like me, able to spend many years studying research to obtain a high-class degree and learning to dissect scientific journals. If you’ve ever browsed a medical journal thinking it is a second language, then don’t worry, I’m here to help!
While like everything, it takes time to become good at analyzing studies, this basic guide will give you with an overview of the structure, different types of research and key words you may come across when researching for yourself.
While you may still be some way away from obtaining a PhD, you should be able to start pulling up research studies and browsing the abstracts for information. In turn, this can allow you to make an informed decision, saving you hundreds of dollars in random supplement purchases!
It will also give you a unique skill that few people possess and in turn it will allow you to make better, more informed diet, training and supplement choices. After all, if you can use that knowledge to optimize your routine you will drop fat and add muscle faster... so yes, this article is still going to help you maximize your gains!
Here’s what you need to know.
Understanding Different Research Studies
There are several types of journals or research papers. It is important to understand that different studying methods / protocols will be used. Some are better than others, with all of them being useful in certain conditions. If you’ve ever seen the crazy headlines such as “red meat consumption is as bad as smoking” or similar, then this will help explain what study they used and why it may be inaccurate.
Meta Analysis: A large review of all the literature on a topic, which will report the overall findings of the RCT and discuss important issues, application and further considerations.
Randomized Control Trial (RCT): The best type of direct research where they investigate a single area or aspect, usually with only 1 variable. For example, this type of trial may have 2 groups and provide 1 group with a supplement and the other without, testing its effects.
Prospective Study: This type of research can be seen as an overview, monitoring change. Researchers won’t tend to interfere or prescribe diets, supplements, exercise etc, they will simply monitor participants. For example, they may monitor processed food intake and weight gain over a 5 year time period.
This type of study can be a smoking gun, as more often than not it can draw correlations to lifestyle habits that actually have no link to issue at hand. For example, a recent headline went something like the following, “red meat eaters are more likely to die early than smokers”. The big problem here is they simply observed red meat intake and correlated (with some clever mathematical formulas) this to a premature death. However, there are hundreds of reasons for this outcome, for example, red meat eaters may be confusing fries with that steak, or participating in a ton of other negative and unhealthy habits. As you can see, this study may highlight “trends” but is by no means able to isolate and highlight the cause, like a RCT could.
Case Study: A case study is like a report. Researchers will analyze and assess a specific case and then report the findings. For example, they may report a participant who became ill from a diet, reporting symptoms etc. This can be useful to document findings after they have happened. For example, someone may use a sport supplement and get ill, so it could be turned into a case study for future considerations and followed up with RCT studies.
Expert Opinions: Researchers provide a brief review of that area and the current findings. This is subjective as it is highly reliant on the individual and may be altered if they “believe” or are biased towards a concept / approach. Depending on the researcher, this can be very good or very biased and misinformed (researchers are just like normal people, with beliefs and opinions etc).
Here is a visual image to help you understand. As you move up the pyramid, the stronger and more scientifically backed the research becomes. As you can see, Meta Analysis and Randomized Control Trials are the best 2 that you should primarily look for.
Breaking Down a Research Paper
Now you understand the different types of research papers here is a breakdown on the abstract, which is normally accessible before you read the full article. An abstract provides you with a brief overview of the study so you can make a judgement if you want to read the full text.
In science, we advise you do not base your decision on the abstract alone, as it really is just a brief overview. However, for most of you just trying to get a basic understanding or overview, then an abstract can be a good place to start.
Abstract Reading 101
Introduction: Discussing the topic, some research and the goals of the study.
Methods: How the researchers conducted the trial, breaking down all the specifics, what equipment, tests, procedures they used.
Results: The data and findings of the study.
Discussion: The researchers will discuss what they found, why they found it, why it’s relevant, how it compares to other studies, future research, limitations of the study and more.
Finding a Research Paper Online
To start, try and find a meta analysis (large review) of the subject / topic. This will save you hours and summarize the current research while often providing recommendations.
To search, just type the keywords like a normal google search. For example, if you wanted to see the research on creatine monohydrate supplement on weight lifting strength you would search:
“Creatine monohydrate meta analysis strength power”
Once you’ve found the research, you can normally view the abstract / overview for free and then depending on the journal and research, you may be able to download the whole study for free or you may need to pay.
If you are in a university or have a university email you can often access these for free from there.
If not, you can also copy the title and search it in the normal google search. This may pull up a PDF version for free or a website called Research Gate, which is like Facebook for researchers and often has the free download, uploaded by the main researcher.
If you are about to read a research paper for the first time, then you should get ready for A LOT of big, confusing words. Even after years of research and an academic background, chances are there will be some new molecular word that pops up in a paper.
For the most part, the keywords below will appear in most research papers. Understanding these will give you a head start, especially when browsing the abstract, study design and findings etc.
Placebo: A pill, drink or procedure that provides no benefit to the user but is in place so participants don’t know if they are getting the benefit of the experiment or not. This way, participants won’t change their behavior or actions to create an outcome.
Control: The group NOT receiving the additional supplement, diet, training regime or stimulus that the researchers are investigating.
Experimental Group: The group that is receiving the special condition that the researchers want to test.
Example: If researchers were studying the effects of whey protein on muscle growth during a 10 week resistance training program, the experimental group would receive the whey protein and train while the control group would perform training only.
Within Subject / Group: A study where the same participants perform a series of trials.
Cross Over Design (COD): Similarly, in a COD, participants will perform a trial or test and then perform another test at a later time point. For example, they may perform a 60 second sprint with caffeine and then 1 week later repeat it without caffeine.
Significant Difference: If the results or change were large enough to be significant.
No Significant Difference: The study did not find an effect or the effect they did find was not statistically significant / relevant.
Example: If researchers studied the effects of caffeine on amount of repetitions performed on 10 sets of bench press and found the caffeine group performed 110 and the non caffeine group performed 108 that would be only a 2 rep difference and not significant. However, if the difference was 7, 10 or 15 reps + then this may reach significance.
In-Vitro: An In-Vitro (latin for “within a glass) describes a technique to study cellular and molecular changes in a controlled environment. For the most part, this will be cellular studies in a glass dish under a microscope. This tends to be the first stage of research, seeing what happens when you provide a nutrient or supplement to the cell. From there, you can go on and try it in a live human being.
In-Vivo: In-Vivo (latin for “in the living”) is the opposite to In-Vitro. It other words, it is conducted in a live human or animal, which of course is more realistic. However, it’s often harder to recruit subjects than experiment on cells. Other issues with In-Vivo studies, or studies in humans, is the body is very complex, so, unlike with cellular studies, you can’t isolate a single process with In-Vivo studies, so it can get very complicated
Never Be Fooled Again
Now you’ve learn’t the basics of research you can stay smart and avoid crafty marketing tricks used by most supplement companies. Before buying your next supplement, spend some time and try to find any research online. If nothing comes up, then chances are it’s nothing more than fairy dust.
If you are taking several supplements at the minute, try punching the ingredients into google scholar or pubmed (as mentioned above) and see if they are actually using the research-backed dose. The answer may just surprise you!
This is why I recommend KAGED MUSCLE to all my clients and fans. After years of working in the research and supplement / fitness industry, there are sadly very few products formulated on research-backed doses. Before KAGED MUSCLE I was forced to buy each of the ingredients in their core powders and mix my own pre-workout (which pretty much exactly matched PRE-KAGED) and other blends.