Weightlifting Primer: Some Science Behind The Advice

try 2

I’ve written a lot of words about what’s going on inside the body during and after a weight workout.  Today, I want to finally take us into the gym.  However, I’m not going to talk about specific workout regimens– there are many, many of those to choose from, available on the web and in books and zeens.  What I want to do in this post is mention a few topics which don’t get that much press…


Let’s start with the question of free weights versus machines.  I won’t leave you in suspense… The winner is free weights.  There are several reasons…


1)   machines usually have you lifting weights in certain “grooves” of movements… great for those muscles used in that groove (at least at first), but not so great for the muscles being left out.


On the other hand, when you’re using free weights, your range of motion is wider and freer, and thus you are recruiting more muscle fibers.  Also, your “stabilizing” and gripping muscles are getting a workout, and you’re improving your balance and coordination to boot.


Consider…  when you raise that barbell over your chest for bench press– you’re using muscles to get the weight off the rack and muscles to hold it in place and muscles to bring it up and down without tilting one way or the other (lots of machines won’t LET you tilt the weight).  As our authors state, free-lifting “involves the more natural coordination of several muscle groups” than machine workouts can give you.


2) related to this greater and freer range of motion is another advantage of using free weights… your movements can more easily approximate realworld movements.  This is good for your sport or just for your life… and my suspicion is that such realworld movements in the weight room help to prevent injury outside the gym.  I reason it thusly… if you’re already used to moving heavy weight around in a variety of ways, seems to me that you’d be less likely to injure yourself with similar movements –and less weight– on the field or on the court or out in the world.


3) you have to support a free weight before you lift it… you have to manipulate it, get it in place.


Turns out, the small activities involved in getting the weight in place for the exercise primes the muscles and allows you to produce maximum force in the early range of motion.  This is called “pre-loading.”  Pre-loading’s benefit is due to the fact that it takes time for calcium ions in the muscle fibers to be released and begin binding actin filaments to the myosin heads (I posted already on this important process).  When you lift a free weight from rest to begin your set, you’re automatically pre-loading, and thus, already releasing the calcium ions which help you get the best force production, especially in the early part of the exercise’s range of motion.


4) with free weights the body typically takes on a larger weight-bearing role.  This promotes bone strengthening.



I was surprised to read that, according to our authors, pre-exercise stretches don’t do any good.  They claim that pre-workout stretching doesn’t even reduce the chance of injury.  In fact, they say that stretching can actually hurt muscle performance during an event or workout.  If flexibility is desired, the authors suggest stretching as a separate session– not right before the exercise event.


I can’t imagine I’ll ever stop doing a little stretching before I exercise, but part of me will now forever feel a little silly doing it… After all, since I’m going directly against science, my stubborn continuance of pre-exercise stretching will basically be a form of superstition… Then again, the world of sports is full of superstitions.


Now, that said, the authors ARE in favor of warm-ups.  Personally, I kinda mix-together stretching and warm-ups, so maybe I’m not quite as silly as I think.  Warm-ups start increasing temperature and blood flow– both good things for muscle contraction and oxygen delivery and release.  Also, warm-ups can “disrupt transient connective tissue bonds” that could limit your workout’s effectiveness.



When weight-lifting, you should handle loads of about 85% of your max on any given exercise, inhaling during the less strenuous part of the exercise, exhaling during the more strenuous part.  Lifting at roughtly 85% of max means that you should be able to lift the weight about six times in a set; if you’re lifting at 90%, you’ll probably be doing about four reps.  Elsewhere in the book, the authors suggest that if your going for muscle size (hypertrophy), then your rep range would increase to between 6 and 12 reps per set, and you should do between three and six sets per targeted muscle or muscle group (though I have to say, three sets is lower than most advice I’ve gotten).  In yet another part of the book, the authors acknowledge that evidence suggests “that performing three or more exercises per muscle group is the most effective strategy for increasing muscle size.”


Our authors recommend big, heavy-lifting exercises (such as squats, deadlifts… I think bench would qualify).  These big “structural” lifts are those which involve multiple joints and direct the force vectors through the core support structures of the spine and hip.  They will naturally involve weights heavier than what you could lift doing a single-joint exercise.  Big, structural exercises have several benefits…


The first reason to do the big exercises is that they are very good at causing bones to grow and become stronger.


Secondly, really heavy lifting convinces more hormones to go to work for you in building muscle.  “The magnitude of Testosterone, Cortisol, and Growth Hormone elevation,” say the authors, “is greatest when large muscle mass exercises are performed.”  Our authors state what “when large muscle mass exercises are performed early in a workout they have a positive effect” […] “on smaller muscle mass exercises performed later.”  Some of this positive effect is due to the enhanced hormonal response generated by the heavy duty lifts.  To squeeze the most hormones into your hot-blooded internal cocktail, you’ll also want to keep your workout:

1. high intensity (that 85% or higher of max already mentions)

2. relatively high volume of sets (that three to six we talked of earlier)

3. relatively short rest intervals (we should probably quantify this “relatively short” business…)



In case I haven’t stressed it enough in my other posts, if you want your muscles to keep growing stronger, you must lift heavier and heavier weights.  In the gym-jargon this is called “overloading” or “progressive overload.”  If you practice overloading, our authors tell us that you will continually be recruiting “the optimal amount of muscle tissue.”


“Although muscle hypertrophy eventually plateaus,” state the authors, “if the athlete includes variation and progressive overload in training, neural adaptations will contribute to subsequent performance improvements.”



Muscle growth, also called “hypertrophy,” becomes noticeable, according to our authors, after about sixteen workouts.  That’s really not that long to wait for results… The sad part is that “initial gains in hypertrophy are the greatest.”  After the initial burst of growth, the rate of muscle growth lessens over time.  I think every weightlifter has had to suffer through a plateau of muscle gain.



Only rest between 30 and 90 seconds between sets if you’re going for hypertrophy (muscle size increase).  If your main concern is getting stronger, the authors suggest rest periods between two and five minutes.  [Five minutes!  And I always thought those guys were just being lazy.]  Apparently, “the heavier the loads lifted, the longer the rest periods the athlete will need between sets.”


Personally, I like the minute-give-or-take range, just because it feels good to me.  I don’t like to get too cold between sets.  I also don’t time my rest periods very exactly– I figure it’s all part of keeping the body guessing, right?


If you’re going for endurance (I’m thinking they’re talking mostly about running here), you want to rest less than thirty seconds before starting back up.


The authors have nothing disparaging to say against doing heavy-weights during one session, followed by a light-weight day the next time you hit that muscle group.  In fact, they suggest it might “counterbalance” possible over-training on those heavy load days.



So you want to go big, and you want to push your body to the max in the gym… but you also have to respect the body’s need for recuperation.  The goal is to stress the body for a short time– and then back off.  As our authors put it so scientifically, a successful weightlifting routine plans for “the timely removal of the stimulus so that the organism’s functions can recover.”


There is sort of a halfway step between a perfectly calibrated workout regimen and overtraining… this is called “overreaching.”  Overreaching can be a purposeful scheduling of “excessive training” on a short-term basis.


Over-working the body every now and again is rationalized by the theory that muscles will build up a “tolerance” to a short-term bout of over-work.  After the “over-reaching” period, the weightlifter then backs off, giving the muscles time-out for recuperation.  Then when he hits the muscles hard again, he will experience a “rebound” in the form of improved performance.  “In fact,” state our authors, “…short-term overreaching followed by a tapering period can result in substantial strength and power gains.”



After working out, our authors advise us to make sure to keep ingesting carbs every two hours or so following exercise.  This is so you can replenish the glycogen stores your body needs to continue the post-workout recovery.  “Muscle glycogen can be completely replenished within 24 hours provided that sufficient carbohydrate is ingested,” write the authors– though they give an awfully big range concerning how much carbohyrate to consume– something between 0.7 and 3.0 gram of carbs per 2.2 pounds of body weight.


Our authors tell us that evidence suggests that it takes longer to recover from a multiple joing exercise than a single joint one.  And it takes more days to recover from a leg workout than from an upper body workout.  This sounds reasonable to me… I’ve heard many weightlifters complain that they are actually sorer the second day after a leg workout.




It’s good sometimes to really concentrate on moving weight explosively (just make sure not to risk injury or other silliness by sacrificing form to thrust-speed).  Explosive acceleration, our authors tell us, provides a greater resistance to the muscles which are involved early in the range of motion (though it will likely reduce the resistance for muscle fibers utilized at the end of the range).  Remember– it’s all part of keeping the body guessing and off-balance.  The body is adaptable in the extreme, and can grow what were once stresses become mundane.  That’s not good– muscles only grow if stressed.  That’s why you must keep changing the routine… altering the types of lifts done, the number of reps accomplished, the number of sets worked-through, the rest-time between reps, and the days off between whole sessions.  Periodically using explosive movement is a method of varying the way you lift.


Another technique in the gym that is not frequently mentioned is the “bracketing technique.”  This is mostly for athletes training for a certain sport or movement within their sport, but I find it interesting…  Using bracketing means using “real-world” (or real-sport) movements in the gym– but sometimes with greater than real world resistance and sometimes with less.  One of the classic examples of bracketing is running… some runs are done with a parachute behind you (greater than real-world resistance) while other runs are done with you being slightly pulled forward (for less than real-world resistance).  Using greater than normal resistance develops more power, while lighter than normal resistance develops greater acceleration (by training the neuromuscular system to operate at higher accelerations and speeds than they are normally pushed to accommodate).



I didn’t really know what “interval training” was before reading Strength Training, but according to our authors, the concept has been established for 45 years, with much of yesteryear’s Soviet bloc countries being early adopters.


In what I believe is the most typical type of interval training, work-to-rest periods are precisely calculated in an effort to optimize the amount of force produced over the entire set of work-periods.  This usually involves knowing which energy system the exercise will primarily be utilizing.  This is because each of the body’s different energy systems (four that I know of) require different precursors and fuels.  These different sets of precursors and fuels take differing amounts of time to be replenished and be used.


If your exercise or set requires less than 10 seconds of work (which means you’re probably approaching max exertion), then you’ll mainly be using the anaerobic Phosphogen system, which requires a relatively long period to replenish its substrate stores.  The work-to-rest ratio in this case is between 1-to-12 and 1-to-20!  Just to be clear, that means your rest period will be at least twelve times as long as your exercise period.


If you’re working out at about 75% to 90% of max, and going for 30 seconds give-or-take, then you’ll be relying on the other type of anaerobic energy production… fast glycolysis.  The work-to-rest ratio here is between 1-to-3 and 1-to-5.


For these short bursts of energy, the anaerobic system is mainly used, which means your supply of Creatine Phosphate will be an important consideration.  Since Creatine Phosphate stores are depleted quickly and takes about eight minutes to fully replenish, the work-to-rest ratios must be relatively long.  But apparently the down time is time will spent…. According to our authors, when the interval technique is properly followed, studies have shown increases in both muscle activation and total work-output.


Activities lasting between one minute and three minutes will rely primarily on aerobic energy sources.  Their work-to-rest ratios are 1-to-3 or 1-to-4.  When you get over three minutes, those using the interval technique will use ratios of between 1:1 and 1:3.


“Theoretically,” state our authors, “properly spaced work-to-rest intervals allow more work to be accomplished at higher exercise intensities, with the same or less fatigue than during continuous training at the same relative intensity.”


According to the text, though the concept of interval training has long been accepted, no one has really proved what the exact work-to-rest ratios should be for the different exercises.



Although aerobic activity is universally acknowledged as a good thing for most healthy people, the unfortunate truth is that aerobic exercise performed too near the time of one’s anaerobic workout (like weightlifting) appears to harm performance in the anaerobic workout, although “the exact mechanism is not known.”  On the other hand, anaerobic work doesn’t seem to hurt aerobic workouts at all.



SEX IN THE WEIGHT ROOM (uhm, I mean Gender)


As our authors point out, “before puberty there are essentially no differences in height, weight, and body size between boys and girls.”


Boys begin to have the advantage in the weight room with the onset of puberty (testosterone!).  Also, boys get bigger than girls– not because they grow faster, but because they have a longer growth period.


“Women generally have about two-thirds the strength of men,” our authors tell us.  However, the average women’s lower body strength approaches that of the typical male.


It is important to note that there is zero difference in muscle quality between the genders… it’s simply that men have bigger muscles.  If muscle-cross-sectional area were equal, women and men would be of about equal strength.  Because muscle is muscle whether one is male or female, training strategies are roughly the same for both genders.  “The only real difference between training programs for men and women is generally the amount of resistance used for a given exercise.”


I always wondered if women can grow muscle as fast as men, and I’ve finally gotten my answer.  According to the authors, women can increase strength at about the same rate as men.  I find this surprising since they operate at such a testosterone disadvantage, but that’s the claim.


And here’s an odd fact I’ll just throw out there… female athletes have relatively more knee injuries then their male counterparts.  No one knows why.  They just do.





Sadly, our authors tell us that “even the most highly trained athletes experience some decline in performance after age thirty,” with strength declines of about one to one-and-a-half percent per year until age seventy– when the bottom falls out and strength losses become dramatic.  Quite depressing.


Bone strength also reduces with age…  “Bones become fragile with age because of a decrease in bone mineral content that causes an increase in bone porosity.”  Thus… weaker, more breakable bones.


Also, older people can develop fibrosis— in which muscle fibers degenerate and are replaced–not by new muscle fibers– but by fibrous connective tissue!  Our authors seem to hold out hope that this problem can be at least partly remedied by maintaining an active lifestyle and by making sure to use muscles in their full range of motion.



“Resistance training has a residual effect”… a “muscle memory.”  Even if you stop working out, “the amount of muscle strength retained is rarely lower than the pre-training values”



According to our authors… “Training only one limb can result in an increase in strength in the untrained limb”…  “A central neural adaptation accounts for most of the strength gain.”



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s