Are you looking to get stronger? Add muscle? Build endurance?
Does your current training match your current goal? Are you sure?
As the manager of personal training for my fitness center, it’s my responsibility to not only ensure that our clients are properly cared for, but also ensure that our all of our members – clients and non-clients alike − are exercising in a safe and effective manner. In doing so, I’ve become very familiar with many of the members’ patterns of training and have come to realize that a shocking number of people are not actually training in a manner that is consistent with their goals. What’s worse, they don’t know it!
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not throwing stones. I too, used to be that guy: vigorously committed to a regular routine of exercise that was never going to give me exactly what I was looking for. Reason being, our bodies respond in very specific ways to the stimulus to which we subject it. I can’t expect to see significant strength gains from workouts designed to improve endurance. Nor can I expect to see considerable increases in lean mass if my workouts are geared toward strength training! Now, granted, you may see incremental gains, but if your goal is inches, not millimeters, you’ll never get the results you’re seeking in the time that you want to see them.
So what’s the difference? Without being super scientific, basically there are three important factors dictate whether your workout will generate a) an endurance response, b) a strength response or c) hypertrophy (an increase in the size of a muscle through an increase in the size of its component cells). Those determinants are 1) Amount of Weight, 2) Number of Reps, and 3) Recovery time between sets and exercises. Manipulation of these three components modifies the intensity of the workout and signals the body receives, and hence it’s response.
Based purely on my own observations, and working with a variety of new and experienced exercisers, there are a lot of people looking to increase muscle mass, but actually gear their programs more around pure strength training. Now, when it comes to maximizing the body’s natural resources for muscle growth, there are tried and true formulas for stimulating hypertrophy. These, of course, can be varied to the extent that each of us varies biologically as individuals. But, taking a general look at the basic factors of program structure, these workouts tend to focus on lifts utilizing 65 to 75 percent of your one-rep max weight performed in sets of 8 to 12 reps. While most exercisers are on point with these two important aspects of their training, it’s the third component where many go astray: recovery time.
Reason being, again without getting overly scientific, recovery time between sets (and between exercises) for hypertrophic training should be 60 to 75 seconds. I employ a strict 60 seconds on all exercises except multi-joint leg movements. This allows the muscle enough time to sufficiently recover for the next set, but not fully replenish its fuel stores of creatine and ATP. Under these conditions, the muscle is forced to tap into energy stores outside itself to execute subsequent sets. The signal the body receives is “there are not enough resources (muscle) at the work site to manage the task at hand. Send reinforcements.” And, thus, the process of lean muscle creation/growth is initiated.
Contrary to this premise, lifters will often proceed with their next set when they “feel ready.” This is typically at the point when the muscle has fully, or almost fully, replenished its energy stores of ATP and creatine. The muscle has no need for back-up energy stores, and it may actually be able to manage weights typically above the upper limit of 75 percent one-rep max threshold. The net result is a strength adaptation rather than hypertrophic muscle growth.
This, of course, isn’t a judgment on the value of strength training. Clearly, it’s a critical component of any well-balanced training program. However, strength adaptations are primarily neurological; we’re stimulating the realignment of the neurological pathways of our existing muscle fibers to promote the simultaneous firing of increased numbers of fibers in each contraction. This, however, does not significantly change the fibers themselves. This explains how it is possible for a smaller individual to be as strong as someone who has substantially more muscle mass.
For some of you, this may also explain why you’re seeing a simultaneous increase in strength along with a growing number on the scale. If you’re not tapping into the nutrients you’ve stored as fuel for future workouts because your lifts are chemically driven (ATP and creatine), that extra “energy” can eventually store as fat. So, the strength gains you thought were from new or larger muscle are likely the result of strength training, and the added pounds may very well be from increased body fat, not an increase in muscle mass.
This article is by no means academic, but rather a discussion to get you to take a closer look at how you design your programs to match your goals. I encourage you to do your homework and find the balance that will get you your best results. Also, the next time you’re working out at your gym, take a look around. How many people are wearing a watch or stopwatch while working out. Are you?
Time is of the essence!
Michael Anderson, CPT NCSF
IFBB Physique Pro