For this week’s edition of Dear Mark, we’ve got a two-parter (although the first question has several parts to it). First up is a question about bee products and their effects (or non-effects) on human health. Are they miracle supplements? Are they all hype? Or is the truth somewhere in between? Find out below. Then, I try to help out Dan, a guy with a bum knee who, before injuring himself, based his entire workout routine around the back squat – which he can no longer perform safely. He wants to figure out a way to work out his lower body without the almighty squat at his disposal. Luckily, there are ways, which I’ll discuss below.
I wanted to get your opinion on all the various bee products out there like pollen, royal jelly, propolis, honeycomb, etc. You did a post on honey already, but what about the other stuff? Is it worth looking into? There’s a lot of hype surrounding them and I know you can get to the bottom of it. Thanks!
Let’s start with pollen. Bee pollen is just what it sounds like: the plant pollen picked up by hairy bee legs in the course of their travels, mixed with regurgitated honey and nectar and enzymes and microbes, and rolled into a little ball. These little balls, packed with protein, B-vitamins, sugar, fatty acids, minerals, and other components that won’t show up on FitDay, serve as food for the hive’s inhabitants. No two pollen balls are alike, of course, so it’s impossible to say with any shred of confidence that “bee pollen contains this, this, that, that, and those in these specific amounts.” Bee pollen is a diverse mix of nutrients. Sounds interesting, for sure, but does it do anything?
Well, if you’re allergic to pollen, like millions of people with hay fever are, taking bee pollen could induce allergic reactions in you. Several studies suggest this, including one in allergic children and one in a single person taking a pollen supplement. I doubt it’s as grave a public danger as some would suggest, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a possibility worth consideration. I was unable to find any study showing that bee pollen supplements can have the opposite effect and ameliorate pollen allergy symptoms.
Another common claim for pollen is that it improves athletic performance, acting as an ergogenic aid. This review summarizes the evidence of that claim:
- One study found that bee pollen increased the work capacities of weight lifters, although the increase was not statistically significant.
- Another study found that college swimmers derived no benefit from pollen. Neither hemoglobin, red blood cells, nor overall performance were affected by bee pollen supplementation in any direction.
- In cross country runners, bee pollen had no effect on performance, blood potassium levels, or hemoglobin.
There’s very little, if any, evidence for this claim.
That said, bee pollen does seem to be an interesting blend of antioxidant compounds. It’s basically a melange of plant residue, of phytonutrients and polyphenols and flavanoids from all across the land. Like most other plant phytonutrients, I could see it having some beneficial physiological effects that simply have yet to be catalogued. There’s already limited evidence that certain components of bee pollen are helpful against prostate cancer.
Onto royal jelly. If bee pollen is the meat-and-potatoes of the hive, royal jelly is the colostrum. It’s what baby bees eat in order to grow big and (relatively) strong, and it seems far more promising than bee pollen, with some very interesting properties.
For one, it contains primarily medium chain fatty acids, which some researchers think are responsible for the health effects of royal jelly. One in particular, 10-Hydroxy-trans-2-decenoic acid, has been shown to modulate the immune system, protect human skin against UVA damage, prevent endotoxin-induced inflammation, prevent the ability of cavity-producing bacteria to adhere to tooth surfaces, and increase collagen production. All that said, most of these studies were done in vitro, rather than live humans or animals, so take the results with a grain of salt.
In mice, oral doses of royal jelly increase expression of a neurotrophic factor. In other words, eating royal jelly may improve brain function. There are lots of anecdotes on health and supplement forums from people who report improved cognition after taking royal jelly for awhile. But you know what they say about anecdotes.
I’d say it might be worth trying if you can get a good deal. Royal jelly tends to be fairly expensive.
Honeycomb is the real deal. It’s a complete food, especially if you take it like the Hadza take their honeycomb: with vast numbers of bee larvae still attached. It’s packed with minerals, protein, B vitamins, antioxidants, fatty acids, and, yes, sugar, but a whole foods version of sugar with a very different metabolic effect. If you can get your hands on real honeycomb teeming with larvae, go for it!
Propolis is the glue that holds the honeycomb together. It’s a resinous mixture gathered from various plant and tree saps that plugs any unwanted entrances to the hive, provides structure, prevents diseases and parasites from entering, inhibits microbial infections, and reduces vibration. Propolis is also one of the richest sources of polyphenols, presumably because it’s basically an extract of dozens of plant essences. This one seems to have some merit.
There appear to be great potential benefits if in vitro studies pan out in humans, and the phytonutrient profile of bee products is quite broad and varied, but overall I’d say the evidence is inconclusive.
Recently, I tore the meniscus in my left knee. I’d previously been really into barbell lifting, particularly the squat. Basically, my whole workout regimen revolved around being able to squat. I had surgery, but I’m still not really ready to get back under the bar. Now I never feel like I’ve gotten a good workout. How do I keep from going crazy and is there a way to replace the squat?
Ha, if there’s one downside to the Internet’s obsession with the back squat, it’s that people feel they’re wasting their time in the gym if they don’t – or can’t – squat. That’s ridiculous. The squat is an incredible exercise, don’t get me wrong, but its absence does not necessarily nullify the effectiveness of a workout regimen. There are lots of things you can do to get a really strong lower body that don’t involve placing a bar across your back.
So, first of all, try to relax. You can still get a great workout.
Get a bike, sit astride it, and then pedal really really hard for a little while. Rest, repeat. There’s no other form of “cardio” with the cycling sprint’s potential toward leg hypertrophy and strength development (unless you’re doing something like lifting weights faster). If you don’t believe me, get a load of these. Yeah, yeah, those guys also do squats and stuff, but all that cycling plays the biggest role. Very few of my old endurance buddies would ever be called “muscular,” but the cyclists all had well-defined, sizable legs that dwarfed the rest of their bodies (without ever sniffing a squat rack).
- Ideally, you’d do this on an actual mobile bike, but a stationary bike works too.
- In my experience, the hardest bike sprints take place on slight inclines. You don’t want it so steep that you’re chugging along, barely able to pedal. You want it to be subtle, almost so subtle that you can’t even tell it’s uphill until you start pedaling.
- Slightly stand in your seat. Life your butt about an inch off the seat when you pedal. This seems to really put the focus on your thighs.
- Don’t just “push” with your quads. Actively “pull” with your hamstrings, and don’t forget about your glutes. After a session of proper cycling sprints, your entire lower body should be fried.
- Play around with gears until you find the right one for you. You want a nice balance of speed and effort, so that you can go really fast against a fairly high level of resistance.
- For strength gains, fully recover in between sprints. For hypertrophy, shoot for a bit less rest.
Single leg work
Some people with knee injuries who can’t squat find they can do lunges, step-ups, or Bulgarian split squats without any pain. And some are the opposite: they can squat, but single leg work kills their knee. The reason for this probably comes down to how you squat, how the weight is distributed across your tissues, as well as the nature of your specific injury. One advantage of single leg work that might affect knee pain? It’s way easier to keep your torso upright during a lunge, step-up, or split squat.
Before I’m consumed by a cloud of waxy maize, whey protein hydrolysate, and creatine given life by the raw anger of the Internet strength training community, allow me to explain myself. The leg press requires a machine, yeah. It’s not a squat, sure. You miss out on the upper body involvement, okay. But it’s a compound movement nonetheless. You’re using the entirety of your lower body to press a heavy weight. It may be inferior to the squat in terms of athletic and strength development, but it’s no slouch – and it’s a lot harder to mess up.
Don’t neglect the posterior chain
Knee injuries often limit knee flexion exercises like the squat while leaving the ability to perform hip extension exercises like deadlifts relatively untouched. So do them. Romanian deadlifts, kettlebell swings, traditional deadlifts, single leg deadlifts, whatever you prefer. If you can’t squat, your posterior chain – the glutes and the hamstrings – still require your attention. Plus, simply working your legs with a relatively heavy load without stressing the injured joint will help that joint get back to health, just from the movement and gentle stimulus.
That said, I would suggest that you try to maintain squat mobility throughout all this. Practice your Grok squat, as long as it doesn’t hurt your knee. You don’t have to add weight (just yet or ever), but you should be able to squat comfortably. It’s a good goal. Make sure you’re not just squatting wrong before you write yourself off.
That’s it for today, guys. Keep the questions coming and thanks for reading!