An Objective look at Biosignature Modulation: Part 1

In my last article, I touched on something called BioSignature Modulation. Today, I want to give it an article of its own, and examine whether it lives up to its hype. As it will be quite lengthy, I will break this article into two parts. In this first part, I will explain what BioSignature Modulation is and assess whether research supports its theories. Tomorrow, I will discuss the practical issues surrounding it.

What is BioSignature Modulation?

BioSignature Modulation (Biosig) is the brainchild of world renowned strength coach Charles Poliquin and is built on the premise that levels of different hormones lead to different patterns of fat deposition around the body.

Practitioners who are certified in Biosig (which costs trainers/coaches between $1145-1550 for a level 1 certification), are taught how to measure the 12 Biosig skinfold sites (cheek, chin, pectoral region, triceps, umbilical, supra iliac, subscapular, mid axillary, quadriceps, hamstrings, knee and calf) which are theorised to correlate with various hormones such as cortisol, insulin, testosterone, oestrogen, hGH, thyroid, and progesterone. From there, the coaches/trainers interpret these skinfold measurements to make predictions about an individual’s hormonal profile and devise a program consisting of nutrition, exercise, supplementation and lifestyle changes, which will improve/decrease the thickness of the measured skinfolds by improving the individual’s hormonal profile. Because of these hormonal improvements, fat loss is supposedly improved, especially from those stubborn areas (e.g. hips and thighs for women and lower abdominals for men).

Does this mean you CAN spot reduce fat?

Spot reduction refers to the notion that with a specific intervention (nutrition, exercise or supplementation), the body will preferentially use fat from a certain area of the body only. For example, by doing endless crunches one would hope to target fat loss from their midsection. Charles Poliquin believes that you can spot reduce fat and that his Biosig protocol is testament to that. For example, he states that excess subcutaneous fat (fat located under the skin) at each specific skinfold site indicates a hormonal irregularity that can easily be fixed with exercise or one or more of his overpriced, mostly useless supplements available on his site.

To quote one of Poliquin’s articles on the matter,

Let’s say that after being tested, it’s discovered there is an excessive amount of fat on the lower thighs (again, relative to the other major fat sites). This indicates there is a problem with the estrogen levels. If the problem area is the triceps, the issue is with the androgen levels. If the problem area is the shoulder blades or hip, the problem is with insulin levels. The shoulder blade area has to do with the genetic ability to handle carbohydrates, while your supra-illiac skinfold is a direct reflection of your dietary intake. Therefore, if a client cheats on an assigned low carbohydrate diet, the skin folds will not lie.”

“After determining the cause of the fat, the next step is to make appropriate modifications in your client’s diet. For the subscapular and supra-iliac, controlling the blood sugar levels of the body with more frequent meals, reduced daily carbohydrate and low GI food choices is critical.”

The idea that someone can preferentially gain or lose fat at a given skinfold site by eating or restricting carbohydrates is absolutely ridiculous. The idea of spot reduction is a myth and a physiological impossibility. People who claim spot reduction to be possible don’t really understand what it is or/and are completely ignorant of human fat cell metabolism. Rather, in burning body fat, the body will use fat from the easiest places (e.g. arms, delts, upper back etc.) first, leaving stubborn, more difficult to burn body fat (lower abdominal, hip, and thigh fat) until last (this be be discussed in greater detail in part 2). For this reason, stubborn fat typically isn't something most people should concern themselves with until they are relatively lean (males < 10% body fat and females 15% body fat).

This isn’t to say that hormones don't play a role in lipolysis and fat patterning, hormones exert massive influences on body fat distribution; one needs only to look at how male and female children differ in terms of body fat distribution following the onset of puberty.

The problem is that most of the hormones Poliquin talks about aren’t under our direct control unless you consider hormone therapy as viable option. Even then, you can't decide where you want to lose fat. Simply put, you can’t change your fat patterning, with the exception of hormonal therapy.

Poliquin seems to make several key assumptions in claiming to be able to diagnose hormonal imbalances through skinfold measurements. Firstly, he insinuates that hormones act independently of one another and like on and off switches; they don’t, they’re often interrelated (e.g. oestrogen generally decreases as a male gets leaner while testosterone generally increases) and have complex and often conflicting effects (e.g. oestrogen and progesterone). Furthermore, individual variations in fat distribution due to gender and genetic differences aren’t taken into account. In addition, even if fat distribution were similar for every person, there would be variations in levels of different hormones. Therefore, it is impossible to create a one size fits all model in determining hormone levels via fat patterning.

He further demonises certain hormones such as insulin and cortisol when they are both essential for life. Pretty much everyone who practices Biosig ignores the fact that physiological pulses of cortisol stimulate the mobilisation of FFAs for fuel. It is only when cortisol is chronically elevated – which occurs during times of sustained physical and mental stress – when problems start to occur. In conjunction with high insulin levels, chronically elevated cortisol may lead to insulin resistance and is very lipogenic, causing individuals to typically gain visceral fat around the midsection.

This brings me onto my next point. Poliquin also implies that all fat is stored subcutaneously; it isn’t. Depending on the individual, 40-60% of total body fat is stored under the skin, with the remaining fat consisting of essential fat (required for organ and nervous system function), brown adipose tissue (mainly found in developing infants and is involved in heat production) and visceral fat AKA belly fat (the fat surrounding your internal organs which increases various health risks). Poliquin states that,

“For lower abdominal fat, the key is reducing cortisol levels by restricting the consumption of stimulants and simple sugars.”

While there is some truth to this statement, as highlighted previously, chronically elevated cortisol tends to cause individuals to store excess visceral fat, which is not to be confused with subcutaneous abdominal fat. The problem with visceral fat is that it can’t be measured with skinfold calipers like subcutaneous fat can. Therefore, the suggestion of estimating chronically elevated cortisol with an abdominal skinfold site is partially inaccurate. Having said that, empirical observations suggest that elevations in cortisol due to excessive exercise or dieting, may increase water retention, particularly in the abdominal region. While skinfold thickness may increase due to water retention, this does not signify fat gain. Rather, it just reinforces the limitations associated with the reliability of skinfold measurements.

Using a final example, Poliquin states,

Let’s say that after being tested, it’s discovered there is an excessive amount of fat on the lower thighs… This indicates there is a problem with the estrogen levels”

If oestrogen were entirely responsible for excessive amounts of fat on the legs and glutes, anti-oestrogens would have done amazing things for female bodybuilders trying to get their legs shredded for competition. Furthermore, as female bodybuilders get really lean, their oestrogen levels plummet yet fat loss in the legs doesn't get easier; it gets increasingly difficult in fact. Oestrogen has effects that are seemingly both positive and negative depending on the physiological process, which is probably due to the different oestrogen receptors found at different tissues.

Ultimately, it is worth remembering that the human body is extremely complex. Therefore, to make the statement that the thickness of 12 skinfold sites each signify the imbalance of a specific hormone is a gross oversimplification and is laughable at best. What’s more, there is not a single shred of scientific evidence to back up the efficacy of BioSignature Modulation.

Please click here for part 2 of: An objective look at BioSignature Modulation