I just completed week four of my strength training routine…well, except for tomorrow’s abs and cardio session, but the lifts for the week are done.
As I have just finished one-third of my trial period with this program, I found myself wondering what I’m doing to my body. After this morning’s workout, as we were driving back to my place, my son David commented that he could see a difference in the size of my biceps.
The last exercise on today’s program besides 30 seconds of the underhand grip body hang, was three working sets of barbell curls, so I’m sure my biceps were still “pumped.” When I showered, I noticed that my quads seem to have gotten bigger, especially the muscle group on the outside of my upper thighs (the actual names of the jillions of muscles I see in various illustrations online are dizzying, so I can’t pinpoint it better than that).
I know that strength training doesn’t build the same sort of physique as bodybuilding, but what sort of body am I developing?
According to FitDay.com:
Unlike bodybuilders, the average strength trainee does NOT have a perfectly sculpted physique. They will usually have a higher body fat percentage, and their shape often tends to be blocky and solid rather than sleek and svelte. But when it comes time to use those muscles, they have much more functional strength and endurance than a bodybuilder.
There’s a guy, a regular morning person, at the gym who fits this description and his workout routine is a mystery to me, but this doesn’t describe my body or what I see it changing into.
I think the Mayo Clinic may have a more accurate picture of the benefits of strength training:
Strength training also helps you:
- Develop strong bones. By stressing your bones, strength training increases bone density and reduces the risk of osteoporosis.
- Control your weight. As you gain muscle, your body begins to burn calories more efficiently. The more toned your muscles, the easier it is to control your weight.
- Boost your stamina. As you get stronger, you won’t fatigue as easily. Building muscle also contributes to better balance, which can help you maintain independence as you age.
- Manage chronic conditions. Strength training can reduce the signs and symptoms of many chronic conditions, including back pain, arthritis, obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
- Sharpen your focus. Some research suggests that regular strength training helps improve attention for older adults.
Those are the goals I’m shooting for, and none of them say I have to be an unsculpted, blocky mess.
In describing the difference between bodybuilding and strength training at Muscle and Fitness, Arnold Schwarzenegger writes:
Working with heavy weights and low reps every once in a while can help you break out of your normal routine, which creates additional stimulation for growth. Of course, subjecting your body to this level of stress means you’ll require more time to fully recuperate, so don’t do this kind of training too often. After several days’ rest, I advise doing a much lighter, higher-rep workout the next time you train that bodypart.
Of course, Arnold, although he sometimes incorporated strength training into his routine, was focused on bodybuilding, so his goals aren’t necessarily my goals.
Bodybuilding is about stimulating hypertrophy, coaxing your muscles to get bigger and somewhat stronger. What strength training does is different. From PPOnline.co.uk:
Specifically, the nervous system can do a better job of recruiting muscle fibres and collections of muscle cells (motor units) within the muscle during an athlete’s sporting activity, thus producing more forceful movements. The nervous system might also become more accomplished at stimulating ‘synergists’, i. e., muscles which aid the primary muscle in carrying out its assigned function. Importantly, the nervous system can also enhance its ability to inhibit ‘antagonists’, i. e., muscles which produce forces counter to the desired direction of movement; when this ‘restraining order’ is put in place, prime movers and synergists can create considerably stronger movements.
Rather than necessarily retraining your muscles, you’re “reprogramming” your nervous system to become better at using the muscle fibers you’ve got to lift heavier loads.
Stronger fibres means fewer are needed
But here’s where things got really interesting: in the trained arm, the activation level (I EMG) linked with a particular quantity of force DECLINED, and the amount of force associated with a particular activation level (I EMG) INCREASED significantly. In other words, after training it took less nervous-system activity to create a specific force (since the individual muscle fibres were stronger, fewer needed to be recruited to generate a fixed amount of force), but for a given activation level (I EMG), greater force was automatically generated (since the nervous system was recruiting stronger individual muscle cells).
This explains why strength trainers can become as strong and stronger than bodybuilders, even if they don’t look as big. The conclusion at the end of this article confirms this:
To put it another way, you can beef up your muscles all you want, but you won’t necessarily be stronger in your sport unless you have done the right thing, i. e., focused on the necessary neural adaptations as well.
Eric Brown, MS, RCEP, CSCS, CCN writes at The Sweat Pit:
Both bodybuilding and strength training require resistance exercise, and to progress as a bodybuilder or strength athlete the level of resistance must increase. While increasing resistance bodybuilding programs focus on body parts and hypertrophy. This takes away from the focus of developing strength and power. While any decent bb’ing routine will allow you to get stronger, most of the strength gains are based around mass gains. Yes, to increase limit strength you must ultimately get bigger, as the strength of a muscle is directly proportional to its PCSA (peak cross-sectional area) however this is only one aspect of strength. Other aspects of strength, such as motor unit recruitment, rate of force development and inter- and intra-muscular coordination are best trained at high intensities (90%+ of your 1RM on a given lift) which rarely occurs in a bodybuilding program.
So you really can become functionally stronger using a strength training routine than a classic bodybuilding workout.
Tied to what the Mayo Clinic, quoted above, said about the benefits of strength training, especially for older folks, and it seems like I’ve backed the right horse.
Now let’s see how my lifting worked out for today. I tried to keep my rest around 90 seconds between sets, but on presses and curls, I can usually recover in the 60-75 second range, while for hack squats and deadlifts, it’s more like 2 minutes, or nearly so, between sets.
Interestingly enough, one of the strength training articles I read recently said that resting between 2 to 3 minutes between sets could be considered the norm in order to not overtax your nervous system. If my workouts start to significantly deteriorate, I might have to consider that option.
Barbell Hack Squats 5×5
5x 140lbs/63.5kg (warm up)
Barbell Close Grip Bench Press 3×5-8
6x 115lbs/52.16kg (warm up)
Barbell Bent Leg Deadlifts 1×5
5x 135lbs/61.23kg (warm up)
5x 155lbs/70.3kg (warm up)
5x 185lbs/83.91kg (warm up)
5x 205lbs/92.98kg (warm up)
Overhead Barbell Press 5×5
5x 45lbs20.41kg (warm up)
Straight Barbell Curl 3×8
8x 50lbs/22.67kg (warm up)
Underhand grip body hang w/shoulders engaged (bodyweight)
I’ve been using the same working weight for hack squats for all three lifting days this week, although I bumped the warm up weight by five pounds to 140 just for giggles. I didn’t lose my balance today (thankfully) and made sure I was going down low enough to where my thighs were parallel to the floor at the bottom of the squat.
I’m probably going to nudge up the working weight for squats to 200 pounds even starting next Monday. I know, not a lot, but given my recent instability at 195, I’d rather be a little cautious.
I dropped the weight on the close grip presses back to 125 pounds for my working sets in order to focus on keeping my elbows as close to my torso as possible in order to work my triceps more. Oh man, was that difficult, but I could tell I was engaging my upper triceps head more than I was my chest or delts.
I kept the warm up and working weights for my deadlifts the same as they were on Monday and felt some real success at deadlifting 220 pounds for 5 reps with good form. For my next plan B workout, which is next Wednesday, I’ll set my working weight to 225 pounds. That’s two big 45 pound plates on each side of the bar.
That will also officially put my up past lifting 100kg, a personal goal of mine. Specifically, 225lbs is 102.058kg, although I’ll probably just knock off the last digit and make it 102.05kg in my blog posts and exercise log.
I had all around success in the next two exercises. After the warm up set, I did 5 reps for all 5 sets of overhead presses at 65 pounds. I duplicated my work on the barbell curls from last Monday, performing 8 reps for all 3 sets at 70 pounds.
I’ll likely keep the weight the same for next Wednesday’s plan B and try to push them up by 5 pounds each the following week.
I was almost out of time when I got around to doing my body hang exercise, and I forced myself to hang there with shoulders and biceps engaged for the full 30 seconds.
I remarked to my son on the drive home that I was feeling an odd duality. On the one hand, that sort of workout really mobilizes a lot of testosterone, providing a power surge of aggressive feelings. On the other hand, my muscles are so tired that I couldn’t successfully arm wrestle a kitten.
All in all, I still feel pretty good about what I’m doing. Yesterday was my daughter’s birthday, and being the consummate foodie that she is, she made her own birthday dinner consisting of falafel pitas (they aren’t exactly pitas, but I can’t recall the exact name of this middle eastern dish) with veggies and homemade hummus, homemade ice cream, and some sort of chocolate (kind of) cupcake that was a massive cocoa rush.
That put me up almost a pound this morning on the bathroom scales but interestingly enough my jeans have been a little loose for the past couple of days.
I’m not sure exactly how my body is going to “turn out” at the end of 12 weeks, but so far, I can’t really complain.
Oh, from the “anything I can do, you can do better” department, here’s a link to an article called 6 Reasons Women Should Strength Train. This isn’t just for men and it’s not just for young people. Barring specific medical circumstances, anyone can get stronger at any age. Just how strong as far as my body goes, remains to be seen.
Being on the right track is not enough; one must be on the train.
–Rabbi Shraga Silverstein