This guide is for all weight trainers, regardless of experience, but it should help athletes with limited experience or someone who has reached a plateau. It’s not a programme in itself but it will try to explain the basic principles of muscular contraction and adaptations to weight training, hopefully providing you with a strong foundation to build from. Before designing any type of programme it’s important to understand the basic physiological adaptations to exercising with weights, otherwise you can end up ‘busting a gut’ for nothing. I’ll discuss ‘Train Smarter, Not Harder’ programme design in later articles.
The basic, undisputable Laws of Thermodynamics determine that you cannot simply create muscle out of thin air, nor, for that matter can you make fat just vanish. There are no magic potions, pills, secret training arts known only to Tibetan monks who can breathe through their ears that work (steroids only speed up the process a bit). There is only hard work in the gym, a good diet and consistency in both that will. If you want to wake up in the morning with a 20” bicep, then, I’m afraid you’ll have to go to bed with a 20” bicep.
Before I go any further, I’ll just clear up a couple of points about using steroids. You cannot simply ‘pop a pill’ or stick a needle in your arse, then just sit watching TV and build muscle. An athlete taking steroids can get away with eating more protein without getting fat and train longer and harder without over training than a ‘natural’ athlete, but he/she would still have to eat the food and put in the hours in the gym in the first place. In many cases steroids are unnecessary because the athlete is taking them to compensate for over training, when all they need to do is re-evaluate their programme. This also applies to some supplements as well.
It’s important to understand is that all forms of exercise, including weight training, are only a means to an end. The end result may be being fitter, faster, stronger, bigger, smaller, less fat, more mass – whatever. Training with weights is merely one method of the ‘means’ available; however, don’t confuse weight training with simply weight lifting.
Weight lifters (Powerlifters) lift weights; weight trainers (Bodybuilders) use them. The two disciplines are not mutually exclusive and each can often benefit the other, but the objective in Powerlifting is to get as much weight as possible, using skill and technique, from point A to point B, whereas in bodybuilding, it’s using the weight to apply stress to the muscle in order to create a specific look. Once you’ve decided on the end result that you’d like to achieve, then you have to apply the means in the most effective way possible. In order to do this, you first have to understand the basics.
Although there are millions of programmes, training, splits, rep ranges, etc., there is only ONE UNIVERSAL LAW of weight training that ALL programmes have to follow and this is – OVERLOAD + RECOVERY = GROWTH.
Using weights, you apply an overload stress to the muscle and then allow it to recover before it can grow. This is ‘written in stone’ and applies to EVERYONE. However, the APPLICATION of the equation in terms of how much overload and how much recovery will vary, not only from person to person, but also between muscle groups. For a point of reference, I am using the word, HYPERTROPHY, which means tissue growth, to indicate an increase in the size/thickness of individual muscle fibres, as opposed to HYPERPLASIA, which would indicate an increase in the actual number of fibres in the muscle. Although hyperplasia has been proven in some mammals, as far as I’m aware, it has not been proven conclusively in humans (you’d have to cut the muscle open to find out) but research indicates it may be possible in some cases, e.g., high dosages of anabolic steroids.
OVERLOAD + RECOVERY = GROWTH (HYPERTROPHY)
Muscles respond to stress (lifting weights is a severe stress, otherwise it wouldn’t f**king hurt) by adapting in such a way as to be able to cope more efficiently with that stress again – like developing a sun tan enables you to stay longer in the sun without burning. This adaptation could be increased mass if the muscles need to get stronger or improved stamina if the muscles need to get fitter. The bodies hormonal and central nervous systems will also adapt along similar lines. These adaptations are in direct response to the type of stress being applied, i.e., heavy weights/low reps = size & strength and light weights/high reps = stamina & fitness.
This is the amount of stress applied to the muscles & body, including the hormonal and central nervous systems (CNS) during exercise – number of reps, sets, rest, etc and level of intensity, ie, training to failure, forced reps, negatives, etc. Fatigue is the point at which ‘overload’ causes the muscle to fail and you can no longer perform the specific task involved, e.g., lifting the weight, sprinting the last 10yards, etc. Fatigue can be classed as either, ‘Peripheral’, which is the inability of the muscle to contract (think of your cars’ engine overheating) or ‘Central’, which is the inability of the CNS to activate the contraction (think of your car having a flat battery).
Overload can be measured by two criteria –
- The ‘intensity’ of the effort involved in each REP.
- The ‘intensity’ of the effort involved in each SET
1/ Maximum intensity for a rep is calculated by performing a 1Rep Max on any given exercise. This establishes a figure upon which you can base your ‘rep ranges’ for a desired adaptation. Training for increases in strength and power uses weights at over 85% of your 1RM (1 -6 reps) and increases in size (hypertrophy) between 70 and 85% (about 8-12reps). Generally, anything less than 70% of your 1RM for an experienced lifter is heading towards stamina and neuromuscular control (see diagram below).
2/ Intensity can also be measured by the amount of effort involved in each set, although this is much harder to actually calculate as it generally subjective to individual perceptions. However, it can be gauged as a percentage of your Muscular Failure Point (MFP). For example, if you can do 10 reps but no way on God’s earth and the threat of a red hot poker up your arse, could you do 11 without assistance or cheating, then your MFP at 10 reps is 100%. In other words, you’ve put in 100% effort to do 10reps. However, if you only do 9 reps, but could do 10 (with or without the poker), then you have trained at 90% of your MFP. Stopping short of MFP is called Sub-Maximal training and does not necessarily mean you’re a ‘wuss’ but is often an essential part of programme design, vital to avoid plateaus and over exerting the CNS, ie, over training.
The charts below give an approximation of adaptation to reps and sets.
- Time taken between sets
- Time taken between workouts
In both these cases, the greater the intensity in either reps or sets, the greater the recovery period. The old maxim in weight training is still valid – you can train long or you can train hard, but you can’t train long AND hard.
Time taken between sets can be complicated and warrants an article on its own, but generally, when applied to bodybuilding; lower reps = longer rest time (up 180 seconds) and higher reps = shorter rest time (45 –90 seconds).
Time between workouts includes the period of rest AND the amount of nutritional intake, (proteins, carbs, fats, vitamins & minerals, etc), from the point of fatigue, before either the same muscles, or the hormonal and CNS systems are stressed again. Sufficient recovery between workouts is absolutely vital to progress.
This is the biochemical adaptive process within the muscles and CNS following the above. The protein bands within every fibre will thicken, making the fibre bigger and stronger. The fibres will increase their levels of high-energy fuels, such as creatine and carbohydrates and also develop more Mitochondria, which are the tiny power-cells that utilise carbohydrates and fats for fuel within the fibres. The CNS becomes more efficient by increasing its’ control of motor neurons, thereby wasting less time and energy per contraction.
SPORT – Specific & Progressive Overload by Repetitive Training.
This is the application of the above principles whereby in order to increase strength or stamina (or both), a person needs to progressively add more stress to the body using a repetitive training pattern, i.e., lifting heavier weights or performing more repetitions within a specific repetition range for a specific task, e.g., Squat, Bench Press, Deadlift, etc.
Adaptation for muscular strength and size is proportionate to the intensity (maximum weight), NOT DURATION of the overload stress, followed by a period of recovery, whereas stamina is the opposite – duration rather than weight. These adaptations are not polar opposites, as each response will help the other – increased stamina helps strength and vice versa. In either case, if the amount of overload is not balanced by the correct amount of recovery, then little or no growth/adaptation will occur. The simple rule that applies is; the more overload placed, the more recovery needed. The same rule applies to either volume (no of sets, reps) and/or intensity (% of effort in each rep or set). However, and this is very important, don’t fall into the trap of thinking the longer and harder I train, or the more pump I get or lactic acid I produce, or the sorer my muscles are post workout, then the more growth I’ll get. It doesn’t work this way; once you’ve stimulated a muscle with sufficient stress to adapt, then further stress only increases recovery time, it does not produce more growth.
To give you an idea of how this works, I’ll use the analogy of digging a hole in your garden. If it took you an hour to dig a hole 3’ deep (workout) and then an hour to fill it back in (recovery), you are left with a small mound on top (growth). If you were to dig the hole 9’ deep it would take you three hours; filling it back in would also be three times longer but you’d still have the same small mound left on top, it will not be three times bigger. Unfortunately, working out how deep you’ll need to dig your hole warrants an entire article by itself but if you’re not making progress in weights and/or reps at every workout then you are either, digging too deep or digging too often and therefore, over training.
Bear in mind though, that, regardless of rep ranges, sets, etc., the body will eventually adapt to every type of training and there will come a point beyond which it is not worth sticking to the same programme.
MUSCULAR CONTRACTION 101
I’ll just explain a bit more about how muscles actually contract, so you should be able to put it all into perspective.
The subconscious part of your brain, in other words, the bit that does the ‘doing,’ not the thinking, is responsible for controlling movement. It knows the position, length and current load of every muscle in the body. It knows this because it receives information from millions of tiny cells found in and on the surface of every muscle called PROPRIOCEPTORS. These tiny cells send signals via the Central Nervous System (CNS), which are processed and interpreted by the subconscious brain. Then, if movement is necessary, a signal is returned via the CNS to initiate a muscular contraction (more on that later).
We’ll take, for example, performing a barbell curl for the biceps, aiming for about 10 reps to failure. The first thing you do is pick up the bar; immediately, the brain senses the weight and tightens the muscles of the arms and fingers to hold onto the bar and also the shoulders, back and legs to keep you upright. The conscious part of your brain tells the subconscious part that it wants to lift the weight. In a space of microseconds, the subconscious part works out the required movement, which muscles fibres will need to be activated and in which specific order for you to perform the task. It then initiates a cascade of electrical and biochemical reactions via the CNS to perform the necessary contraction. As the bar is going through its prescribed range of motion the load will change slightly due to gravity and leverages. During the movement, feedback from the proprioceptors in ALL the muscles involved in lifting the bar and holding the body upright flash signals to the brain to tell it the state of play and it responds by making minor postural adjustments to keep you steady. It also increases or decreases the tension/contraction in the biceps, forearms, grip, etc as the bar reaches the top of the movement. If it didn’t, you’d end up sat on your arse when the bar gets to the top of its arc and knocks you over!
The bar then returns to the beginning and rep 2 starts. At this point, the bar feels a little heavier because some of the fibres have used all their energy in performing the first rep and have not quite recovered, so the brain has to reassess the situation and utilise fibres that still have sufficient energy to contract. Rep 2 is then completed and so is 3, 4, 5 & 6 without too much of a problem. By rep 7 the muscle is now becoming extremely tired and is running out of energy but the ‘thinking’ brain still has 10 reps in mind. So, the subconscious brain goes into full overload mode for the last few reps and floods the muscle with more chemicals (adrenaline, etc) and the CNS is now working serious overtime to keep up. You ignore the pain within the muscle as lactic acid builds up and the fibres begin to tear due to the stress (but that’s the point) and eventually, you get to rep 10 and mission is accomplished.
Bear in mind that the subconscious part of the brain ALAWAYS takes the path of least resistance. It only knows you want to lift the weight from point A to point B; it doesn’t realise you are trying to build your arms and will always endeavour to utilise other muscles to make the lift easier, usually by creating momentum to get the weight moving or altering the posture to allow the load to be shared with other muscles; hence the need for good form and ensuring you work the muscle and not just lift the weight.
One last, final bit.
TO BUILD OR CUT?
Most of the guys that come into the gym are looking for a supplement or advice on how to bulk up on muscle and cut fat at the same time, ie, putting on 20lbs of muscle whilst shedding 30lbs of fat. Well, here’s the bad news; it would take a ‘natural’ athlete at least a year of pretty much perfect diet and training to accomplish this. That’s not just my opinion –it’s fact. Apart from rewriting the 1st and 2nd Laws of thermodynamics regarding energy balances (something which the world’s greatest physicists can’t do), it’s also how your cells respond to certain hormones.
The main hormones (testosterone and insulin) in your body responsible for putting on muscle also put fat on and the main hormone (cortisol) that burns fat off, also burns off muscle tissue. The body cannot let the same tissue build and cut at the same time. The body builds a bit, then cuts bit, builds a bit, cuts a bit, etc, hence it takes time and consistency. It’s not, however, impossible to develop a toned muscular physique, whilst burning fat in a few months but you still have to very consistent with your diet and training and there’s little room for error.
Generally, this is overcome by alternating cycles of building and then cutting (or vice versa). It’s so much easier to focus on one then the other, rather than both at the same time. When on a building cycle, you concentrate on eating plenty of food but watch the waistline, and when cutting, you focus on losing the waistline without losing too much muscle.
Again, this warrants an article all by itself and hopefully one will be forthcoming.