Why Do I Train the Way I Do?
A complete blast from the past…I came across it on Google Drive when I was in the process of editing the current Textbook. I discovered a lot from weightlifting to hypertrophy. I also discovered a blog written at a time when I was in the thick (pun intended) of things, as they pertain to the Iron Game, as they pertain to all things related to neuromusculoskeletal strength. I think I had written it for the Facebook page of the K11 School of Fitness Sciences, at least a decade back.
Being a Teacher
When it comes to understanding more deeply, maturing in the thought process, questioning the perspective, sometimes even questioning the very premise, a decade is a long time. It is a long time, especially if one has chosen the profession of being a teacher.
A teacher who understands his profession will understand that it is first and foremost more about constantly learning and questioning what you already know. Teaching is secondary to never stopping being a student of the subject that one teaches.
More often than not, when I come across my own writings from the past, I get embarrassed at the shallowness with which I understood exercise science. This one then becomes an exception. Even though I wrote this one a decade back, I see that it is still relevant and conceptually very representative of what we as teachers of the K11 School of Fitness Sciences teach in our classrooms and labs today. Now that puts a smile on my face.
Hence, with just a few edits, I wish to publish it again.
Weight Training Pointers
90% of the time I train with structural barbell lifts and compounds and iso-lateral dumbbell exercises. Machines are mainly used for curvilinear isolation movements. The only isolation movements that I incorporate are the ones that don’t have compound solutions. For instance, providing progressive overload resistance to the knee flexion function of the entire hamstring group does not have a compound solution. Hence, The Leg Curl becomes an essential part of lower body programming.
The form and technique implemented is based on what is the most optimal in terms of efficiency. This is done to ensure that any given level of effort applied in lifting results in the maximum load that can be lifted by me in any given exercise or lift.
The force applied by me can be optimally sufficient, only if I have ensured rock solid stability to my structure. Stability and force generation should not be made to go through a tug of war over an individual’s finite energy.
Lifting biomechanics (form and technique) are thus derived from the fundamental laws of physics, which pertain to gravity and stability of a structure under the influence of gravity. This is obvious; the weight of any object with a given mass is a product of the gravitational pull.
No object, animate or inanimate, on this planet can escape the gravitational forces of planet Earth. The obvious part is the fact that we use weights for strength training and our bodies also like any other object on this planet have weight.
There are laws of Physics, such as the relationship among the body’s center of gravity and its base of support, levers, line of resistance, pulleys, Cams, Loading Arms, etc. These are used as the guidelines to derive the most efficient technique.
Reps are always done in full range; anything less than full range does not make sense. Once the premise on why we weight train is no longer hypertrophy, it is corrected to become an increase in strength performance.
Reps are done as explosively as possible, irrespective of the exercise.
Explosiveness is achieved by focusing on achieving max speed (as much as the weight will allow) on the concentric phase.
This ensures that neurologically, maximal motor neuron units are recruited, and that rate coding of each motor unit keeps optimizing.
The first rep’s concentric speed is maintained on all subsequent reps. Whether I am doing a double, triple, 4 reps or 5 reps, I terminate the main sets at the rep where I feel that the next rep can no longer be done with the same speed established by the first rep. Concentric Failure was wrongly stated as the point at which the body can no longer move the weight in the concentric. The fact that you reached a point where no further movement is possible in the concentric means that the body went through increasing degrees of fatigue before reaching complete muscular failure in the concentric. Each increasing degree of fatigue reduces proportionately a degree of explosiveness. This messes with kinesthetic memory, as it pertains to explosiveness, and thus, it is counterproductive to gains in strength performance.
The first degree of fatigue is apparent, when one can no longer perform the repetition with the same speed. Many degrees of fatigue have to pass before a rep can no longer be completed in the concentric (for example, burns and partials). Further multiple degrees of fatigue have to pass before the muscle is unable to move the weight at all.
Romanticism is the only explanation as to why these extreme definitions of complete concentric failure appealed to the no pain, no gain brigade.
My rep ranges never go beyond 5 repetitions
It is extremely difficult, almost next to impossible, to maintain a constant threshold of explosiveness at par with the first rep, beyond 5 Repetitions. When it comes to strength, any volume that risks a drop in explosiveness is counterproductive in strength training. Staying away from fatigue is extremely important to optimal strength training leading to actual gains in strength performance.
All the above is done to ensure that strength training, which is popularly and more simply called weight training, actually ends up doing what it was meant to do: Increase strength performance
I haven’t Even Touched Yet Upon the Topic of Hypertrophy.
So Does This Kind of Training Lend Itself Well to Hypertrophy?
Well, I did some bodybuilding competitively and at a decent level. I did get the nod of approval from the crowd, and a few times from the judges too, and won some competitions at the state and national level too.
But winning contests only means that the others on stage carried less muscle than me. Hence, the proof that strength training did not in any way come in the way of me achieving optimal hypertrophy (as per my genetic potential) is better represented by a photograph of me in competitive shape.
As you can see, I didn’t really suffer in the hypertrophy department.
I was 80 Kilograms at approximately 6% to 7% body fat, at a height of 5 Feet 4 inches.
Before anyone starts crediting anabolic androgenic steroids to the development, let me just state for the record that it is competitive bodybuilders on steroids that swear by the fact that one needs slow reps, many reps of isolation movements to do well for bodybuilding.
Well, I am not saying that you cannot do bodybuilding by training light, slow, and focusing on volume with isolation movements. You absolutely can, and that is the reason why the biggest bodybuilders on the planet are surprisingly weak, when it comes to strength performance.
This absurd combination of humongous muscles carrying embarrassingly small light weights, strangely enough, does not seem weird to the bodybuilding culture.
What I am saying is that training in the way that I have elaborated upon leads to the same kind of hypertrophy that isolation movements with light weights for many reps leads to.
The big difference lies in the fact that when you train the way I do; you get strong in every sense, and hypertrophy is the body bolstering its intrinsic strength as an adaptive response to the newfound strength performance of the body.
Hypertrophy follows increase in strength and is not the factor that leads to strength performance. It makes the body stronger in order to equip it to handle the increased loads that your newfound strength performance is capable of lifting.
When you make hypertrophy the goal, you can achieve it simply by increasing volume of work without any appreciable increase in strength performance. Once you hypertrophy your musculature, strength performance increase does not follow. Once you increase your strength performance, hypertrophy simply follows. (Of course, given that nutrition is correct and all sex hormones, related enzymes, gene signaling pathways, are physiological.)
It absolutely matters to me how big my arms look or how big my chest, shoulders, thighs, and calves look or how wide and thick my back looks or how compact my waist looks…in this regard, I am the same as any muscle head out there.
What matters most is that if my legs look big and muscular, they also squat big; if my shoulders are boulders and my pecs & arms are bursting outta my t-shirt, I should be capable of benching, over-head pressing, deadlifting, rowing, and chinning big.
Progressively lifting heavier weights is an end in itself…a goal in itself…
as simple a goal as someone who runs the marathon in 3 hours and now sets a goal to run it in 2 hours and 45 mins. In the pursuit of becoming more and more efficient at lifting heavier and heavier loads by establishing motor neurological pathways (neural learning) of the correct form & technique, given the correct nutrition, hypertrophy is inevitable and necessary.
Weight Training, Muscular Endurance, and High-Rep Training
Once you treat weight training as an end in itself, you realize that light, moderate, and heavy training is nothing more than a progression from beginner to intermediate to advanced. It’s just like graduating from brisk walking to jogging to running. A Runner never walks now, does he? Try telling a runner to brisk walk instead of running for a great workout and he will tell you to buzz off, and justifiably so.
Similarly, once I reach the level of neural efficiency to hit intensities higher than a 6 RM, why would I lower intensity to hit higher rep rangers???
Some might cite anaerobic muscular endurance as a reason to do high rep sets. That thinking is flawed. Muscular endurance is extremely specific, not just to the muscles involved but also to the kind of activity the muscles are involved in.
The muscular endurance needed to run 20K once achieved will not translate into muscular endurance needed while cycling, despite the fact that the same muscle groups are involved in both activities. This is due to the fact that the muscle groups are the same but the pattern of movement has changed.
Thus, weight training for strength, where the power related Olympic lifts, structural lifts such as squats, dead lifts, overhead presses, compound exercises such as bent over rows, etc. will have a carry over to a broad spectrum of activities requiring strength and power.
When it comes to muscular endurance, you need to repetitively do activities that mimic the action that you need the muscular endurance for. Doing a 100-rep free squat workout will not give you the muscular endurance needed to run or cycle long distances.
Doing 50-rep Push-ups will not give you the muscular endurance needed to punch through a 3-minute round of a boxing match. Working the Heavy Bag continuously for 5 minutes of punching will see to it that you gain the muscular endurance to keep punching hard throughout 3 minutes of a Boxing round.
A Tennis player similarly needs to face a ball machine spitting out 100 balls at a fast frequency to hit 100 forehands or back hands plus cross court running drills to build muscular endurance needed for his sport.
Hence high-rep weight training has nothing to offer when it comes to muscular endurance. It is just a good way to delude people via an elevated heart rate that they are having a very hard and productive workout.
Some might cite the size principle of motor unit (MU) recruitment as a reason for training through all kinds of rep ranges ranging from 50 Reppers to 10 reppers in order to hit all your MU’s from the slowest twitch Type-I to the fastest Twitch Type-IIB’s. If you purely go by this physiological principle of MU recruitment called the size principle, then this claim of hitting all the types of MU’s would be correct. One needs to question whether this is the most efficient way of hitting all MU’s. Well the answer is an emphatic NO. To understand this lets first understand the size principle.
There are lots of subtypes of muscle fiber types, but for simplicity, let’s just state the 3 broad categories
- Type-I/Slow Twitch:
The endurance fibers that are recruited in very low intensity contractions that are carried on continuously for long durations. These MU’s cannot generate much force but have a lot of endurance in continually contracting over a very long duration.
Jogging for 20 minutes would be using predominantly the Type-I.
- Type-IIA/Fast Twitch:
These are fibers with a low but reasonable amount of endurance that have a greater ability to generate force than the Type-I and a lesser endurance ability than the Type-I’s. A 400 meter sprint or a 30-40 Rep Max set would recruit predominantly the Type-IIA.
- Type-IIB/Super-Fast Twitch:
These are the fibers that have explosive strength abilities but almost no endurance. These are the fibers that would be predominantly recruited in 1-4 RM Set or during a 100 meter dash, Long Jump, High Jump, Shot Put, Powerlifting, and Weight Lifting.
Well, the size principle states that even if you were to do a 20 RM set to failure, which would predominantly use the Type-IIA, as we approach genuine concentric failure, the body would essentially call upon all the muscle fibers at its disposal, including the Type-IIB. Type-I’s are always the first to be recruited irrespective of the rep ranges.
This principle is being misused by propagators of high-rep training to convince people that progressing on to heavier loads that restricts one to lower reps and thereby increasing intensity is somehow not required or worse yet, will not include the stimulation of Type-II’s and Type-I’s. This theorization is flawed on 2 counts. First, it is flawed because the size principle also states that when doing the 1-4 RM’s, the body again predominantly uses the Type-IIB, but by the time you approach failure, you will call upon all muscle fibers including the Type-II’s and Type-I’s, as it is will be the first to get recruited.
Hence, it is possible to train all the fiber types by going to failure with a 20RM weight and even with a 4RM weight. So now in the interest of efficiency, why would you trudge along a 20 repper when the same can be achieved in a much shorter duration.
The only valid reason for this is if you just do not have the mental make-up needed to heave weights that need the 4RM type of effort on every rep. Since I do have the mental make-up needed and I want my past 20 plus years of training to show progression in Intensity; I will stick to what I have graduated to, which is a 1-4RM Intensity.
Second, the size principle is flawed because the premise of the high-rep training protocols and them referring to the size principle is hypertrophy. The one crucial fact that the propagators of the high-rep training seem totally ignorant about is the fact that Type-I’s do not hypertrophy.
The so-called high rep ranges are not nearly as voluminous as is needed to create the adaptations with regards to endurance of the Type-I’s.
Hence when it comes to weight training/strength training, high-rep training only achieves meaningless hypertrophy that is only of use on a bodybuilding stage. This is extremely sad.
Once my motor neurological pathways are set as per the most efficient biomechanics, I should stay true to the philosophy of strength training by progressing in intensity towards the 3-4 RM’s in order to get stronger. I have immense pride in the strength of my body. The musculature looks good and I am happy to see that as well, because it represents the fact that my body is ready and equipped to handle the tonnage I am capable of unleashing on it. (This was a decade back; unfortunately cannot say that today)
This blog is more about PURPOSE, than anything else. Engaging in any activity will yield optimal rewards, only if the purpose is correct.
Weight train to gain strength. Get on a strength gain program, not a muscle gain program.
Muscle gain does not need a program. If your strength training program is as per the above guidelines that I follow, your strength performance will increase, literally forcing your body to reinforce itself by a gain in skeletal muscles.
Eradicating the term muscle gain from your brain will not stop the body from adapting to your newfound strength performance, by an increase in skeletal muscle mass.
When you want strength and are willing to work for it, you get it
Once you get the strength and are performing at a higher level, your body then needs more muscle, and it knows how to get it, you will get it.
If the body is physiologically sound and fed correct nutrition, hypertrophy of skeletal muscles will happen as certainly and as automatically, as the calluses on your palms that have formed from the years of lifting knurled bars and dumbbells.
Want Is Always a Higher Calling Than Need.
You should want Strength. Once you get it, enjoy conquering weights heavier than you ever imagined. Once you start lifting seriously heavy, the same body that now lifts those weights, needs to be made of superior grade material to be able to handle the heavier loads the body is capable of lifting. Muscle gain thus becomes a need of the stronger body. The body then upgrades its intrinsic strength by increasing the size of the muscle fibers. (Physiological state and correct nutrition have to be assumed when verifying the right approach)