I’m gonna jump right in and bulldoze through a few myths about training that I’ve heard countless times over the past 11 years I’ve been a coach. *DISCLAIMER* If you are about to get offended because you have said/thought one of these things – don’t! I also believed these statements myself once upon a time, before I knew any better.
“I just want to get toned” – Cool. Muscle tone is the residual tension in a relaxed muscle. The more tension you are able to generate in a muscle, the more tone the muscle will have. So if you want tone, you have to build muscle. If you want to build muscle, you are going to have to lift some weight.
“I’d rather use lighter weights and just do more reps” Sure. But that is not going to produce the same results as lifting with a challenging load.
“Lifting heavy weights will make me bulky” Depends. The truth is that adding muscle mass (I’m not talking about adding fat) is often more challenging than shedding fat. It requires a lot of training hours, and a lot of nutritional work. This is good news for people who aren’t looking to add size, but tough on those who are.
To dig a little deeper here, you need to understand that muscle growth (known as hypertrophy) happens in two different ways: sarcoplasmic and myofibrillar. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy occurs when the number of capillaries in the muscles increase, and the muscle fills with glycogen. One glycogen molecule binds with three water molecules, and the result is a muscle that is filled with more fluid. It looks larger, but is not necessarily stronger, unless of course you are training in a way that also builds myofibrils. Sarcoplasmic growth occurs when training is done for more volume, at a lower intensity. So, more reps with relatively lighter weights. This type of muscle building usually doesn’t last as long, and you have to train pretty much constantly to maintain that “pump”.
We do have a few members who come to us to add size, and as you can hopefully now see, this requires lots of hours in the gym (and the kitchen). So if you are like most of our members who want to lose fat and/or build strength and tone without really adding size, have no fear, your three hours in the gym each week isn’t going to have you looking the way a bodybuilder or pro athlete does after spending several hours a day in training.
So how do you make the most of your training time to get the lean, strong and toned results you are looking for? Of course if you have fat to lose, we can’t ignore nutrition. But speaking just in terms of what you do in the gym, you need to train with the right level of intensity in your strength work.
For myofibrillar muscle growth, most of your training should be challenging, but not so difficult that you lose your technique or can’t complete all the reps. We know that the greatest strength gains come from spending the majority of your training year lifting loads somewhere between 70% to 80% of your perceived rate of exertion. Occasionally in the year you might go lighter for recovery and technique, or heavier for a peak or competition, but most of the time 70% – 80% is the intensity you want.
Intensity in strength training is easiest to figure out with exercises where we can get very specific with loads, like barbell lifts. We can make small adjustments of 5 pounds at a time to find the right load. And the longer you’ve been lifting, the more data we are able to collect so that we know just how much you can lift for a heavy single, and how many reps you can do at a given percentage. So if you can deadlift 300 pounds as your single rep max, you will get the biggest benefit from most of your reps being somewhere between 210 – 240 pounds (70% to 80%).
With body weight exercises this can be even harder to decipher since we might have to make an exercise more or less challenging, but now we don’t have the benefit of a load to vary. Using the same method as above, we might take push ups as an example. If your program calls for 4 sets of 6, the last two or three of each set should feel challenging. If doing all 6 with full range of motion and perfect technique is a struggle, I need to use an incline or a band for support. If I do 6 and feel like I could do 4 more with no real struggle, maybe I need to raise my feet on a box, or practice dead stop push ups. What about exercises done for time, like core work? These need to be intense as well, generally in the range of something you can do for no more than 20 reps (like a hollow rocker or dead bug), or for no longer than 20 seconds. A plank done for a minute straight has to be done at low intensity to sustain it that long, whereas a plank held for maximal muscle tension (hardstyle) can only be held for 20 seconds tops. Guess which one is going to help you produce myofibrillar muscle growth? Even if you do have a goal to add size, my guess is that puffy, liquid filled abdominal muscles isn’t really the look you are going for.
Personal brief aside – “the terrible ab workout.” About 6 years ago, I used to take aerial silk classes and had so much fun using this outlet to express my strength. I was able to learn exercises that required lots of strength fairly quickly because I knew how to use my lats and core muscles, and how to generate tension because of my strength training, which some of the other class participants were surprised at. The only downside was that the class ended with 5 to 10 minutes of not so smart “ab work”. 20 sit ups, 20 hollow rocks, 20 bicycles etc… all with no rest, basically no instruction in technique, lots of burn but no strength gained, and certainly no 6 pack. I had no intention of burning out my abs with such nonsense and not being able to do my other training later in the week. To leave the class early would have been rude, so for the better part of a year I just hid in the back and tried to do fewer reps with higher intensity, and modify the exercises, but eventually I just got tired of it and ended up discontinuing the class, even though it was really fun. Caleb has had similar experiences in martial arts classes, where the “warm up” consists of a gazillion crunches and push ups done in not full range of motion, also usually with little to no coaching, and not really a great prep for the class to come… But I digress…
Here are a few other elements to consider for cultivating long and vibrant muscles:
- Train through full range of motion as often as you can. For example, in squats, try to get your hips below parallel if there is no injury preventing you. If you are doing push ups, take your chest to the deck. In your pull ups, start from a dead hang. If you are working up to full range of motion and you are not yet strong enough- that’s ok – you have to start somewhere and you will get there eventually. If you are lacking mobility… that leads me to the next point…
- Don’t skip mobility work. This should include a combination of self massage with balls/rollers, stretching and more dynamic mobility drills.
- Make sure you train the muscles fairly evenly, especially antagonists. If you like to do lots of biceps curls to build up those guns, you’d better include some triceps extensions too.
Ignoring the above can lead to muscles that are short, tight and don’t perform as well as you’d like. But hey, since your training sessions are likely to be shorter since you are doing fewer reps and training with more intensely, you should have plenty of time!