21 Aug Resistance Training: What You Need To Know
Do you ever notice certain people at your gym, and you call them “regulars” because you see them a lot when you go, and despite how many times you see them every week, they continue to look the same, day after day, week after week, month after month? Now this has a lot to do with the fact that they simply are not following a proper nutrition program which would surely have them getting results, but it also has to do with the fact that they are not following a well programmed resistance training split, that has them breaking down certain muscle groups each day, with the most effective exercises, with the most optimal amount of volume, along with the proper amount of reps per set that will get them closer and closer to their goal, whatever that may be. I see these mistakes all the time and people will message, email me, or even come up to me in the gym, “I’m trying to gain some muscle.” And I’ll respond with, “Well, how many reps are you doing per set right now?” Then I’ll hear, “Around 20 to 25.” What? You’re trying to gain muscle, yet you’re performing exercises with the number of reps that target the type I muscle fibers and that aim to improve muscle endurance and oxygen delivery, rather than the type II muscle fibers which are mostly responsible for muscle hypertrophy (increase in size) and strength and are highly activated during sets performed with heavier weight with the rep range around 6-12 per set? Now, you guys may not even know what I just talked about right there and may be asking yourself, “Type I what? Type II huh?” but no worries. That is what this article is about.
Once you get the basics of resistance training down, you will see dramatic gains in your physique. Here are some of the things you need to know about resistance training.
First and foremost, our bodies are smart! One of the main reasons people do not continue to improve every week is because they continue to do the SAME thing every week! They perform the same exercises, with the same weight, for the same number of reps, on the same day of every week! Am I describing you? Our bodies adapt so quickly to the things we do and it wants to do that to make sure it can meet the desired needs and stimulus that you are putting it through and demanding of it. This form of adaptation that your body responds to is known as the general adaptation syndrome (GAS). Hans Selye, a Canadian physician, first described this general adaptation pattern. For your body to initiate some form of adaptation there has to be a stress or some form of stressor placed upon it that creates the need for a response. This stress that you’re placing on your body is resistance training. The weights you use during each set is a stress that your body has to adapt to in order to remain in homeostasis. That is your body’s goal; to remain in homeostasis, or an optimal state of physiologic balance. Truth be told, our bodies don’t want a lot of muscle mass. All our bodies want is enough nutrients every day to survive. That’s it. So for example, if on the day you are training your pectoral muscle (chest) and you perform 185 pounds on the barbell bench press for 10 reps, your body is in a state of homeostasis where it doesn’t have to struggle or feel like it is under too much stress to perform that number of reps with that amount of resistance. However, if one week you decide to increase the resistance to 195 pounds, and you perform the barbell bench press and get 8 reps which was very hard to complete, your body is now thinking (in the most general way possible), “What is this new stress that is being placed on my muscles? I’m going to rebuild more muscle fibers during my recovery to make sure I can do this weight for 8 reps every single time from now on.” And then the next week you push yourself even more, and decide to try for 10 reps instead of 8 with 195 pounds and you complete them. Your body now thinks, “Performing those 2 extra reps was very difficult. I’m only used to performing 8 reps with that amount of resistance (a new type of stress it hasn’t felt before). I’m going to rebuild more muscle fibers to make sure it isn’t that difficult ever again.” This is what your body does; it ADAPTS. That is why when you are following a well programmed resistance training split, you continue to get stronger, and increase your weights, while performing the same number of reps, because you are demanding more from your body every week, and it continues to adapt, until you reach a plateau, which is when you have to make a small change in your program to break through it. A small change could be the amount of rest you take between each set, or the number of reps you perform per set, or the order of the exercises you perform.
There are three different stages that Hans Selye outlined of the body’s response to stress: alarm reaction stage, resistance development stage, and exhaustion stage. The alarm reaction stage is the first step in gaining size and strength. You are placing a new form of stress on your body, and you are now forcing it to adapt to that stressor, which is another reason why you experience delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) 1-3 days after a workout. You want this to happen! During the resistance development stage, your body now increases its functional capacity to the stressor, which means the workout you did last week will not be as effective because your body has adapted. This is now when you have to increase the stress or overload on your body to produce a new response. Finally, you will hit the exhaustion stage. Prolonged stress or when you place a stressor on your body too often, without enough rest and recuperation, your body will experience distress, or exhaustion. This can lead to injury and make you more susceptible to muscle strains, stress fractures, emotional fatigue, joint pain, and more. This is why it is very important to cycle through phases of training and pay attention to your body.
Another very important thing you need to remember when it comes to resistance training is that your body is going to specifically adapt to whatever type of stress you place upon it. In other words, however you design your resistance training program, the exercises, rep range, volume, and other variables should reflect what your ultimate goal and desired outcome is. For example, if your goal is to increase bench press strength, you should be performing the bench press exercise with heavy resistance and a lower rep range (4-6; we’re not talking maximal strength here). Another example, if you were looking to increase muscular endurance in your quadriceps, you would perform your lower body exercises with a lighter weight and a higher rep range (15-20+). What we are talking about here is known as the principle of specificity or the SAID (specific adaptation to imposed demands) principle. To describe it differently, if your main goal is to increase power output, you wouldn’t perform your exercises with a 3-2-3 rep cadence (concentric-peak-eccentric). To increase power, you perform your exercises explosively, moving the weight from point A to point B in the fastest way possible. Another general example, if your goal were to increase the size of your biceps, you wouldn’t be performing triceps pushdowns (biceps and triceps are two completely different muscles). You understand what I’m getting at here? Whatever your specific goals are, make sure that you are following a resistance-training program that is going to help you achieve those specific goals.
One thing we need to touch on here is that your body is made up of many different types of tissues and those tissues may respond differently even when the same stimulus is applied. We have many different types of muscle fibers, the two I mentioned in the introduction which are the type I and type II fibers, but we also have type IIa, type IIb, and type IIx fibers. For the sake of this article, we are going to solely concentrate on the type I and type II fibers. They are different in many ways and are targeted differently through the amount of resistance you use, number of reps you complete for each exercise, and other variables. Lets broaden our knowledge on these little things that have so much to do with how we move and function throughout our every day lives.
TYPE I Muscle Fibers
Also known as the slow-twitch muscle fibers, these fibers are smaller in diameter, slower to produce maximal tension, and fatigue much slower than the type II muscle fibers. Type I fibers are important for muscles that need to produce long-term contractions necessary for stabilization, endurance, and postural control. For example, when you perform an exercise for 15, 20, 25 reps or more, you are mainly focusing on the type I fibers, which are highly responsible for increasing muscular endurance. Muscular endurance is simply the ability to produce and maintain force production for a prolonged period of time. Studies have shown that resistance-training programs using high repetitions are the most effective way to improve muscular endurance. Research has also shown that developing muscular endurance helps to increase core and joint stabilization, which is the foundation on which hypertrophy, strength, and power are built. Notice how I did not mention anything about an increase in muscle size or strength when talking about the type I fibers. That is because when training to improve muscular endurance, that is what you are targeting to increase; muscular endurance! The type I fibers are not responsible for an increase in muscle size or strength, which is why you have to change up your style of training if your goal is to increase strength and size. This is where the type II muscle fibers come into play.
TYPE II Muscle Fibers
Also known as the fast-twitch muscle fibers, these fibers are larger in size, quicker to produce maximal tension, and fatigue much faster than the type II fibers. These fibers are highly recruited during exercises with heavy resistance and are very important for muscles producing movements requiring force and power, such as a power-clean or sprint. When training for muscle hypertrophy, which is when skeletal muscle fibers enlarge due to being recruited to develop increased levels of tension, you should be keeping your rep range between 8-12 per set and with a weight of heavy resistance. Research has shown that resistance-training programs that use low to intermediate repetition ranges (8-12) with progressive overload lead to muscular hypertrophy. When training to increase muscle strength, which is the ability of the neuromuscular system to produce internal tension to overcome an external force, you should be keeping your rep range between 1-6 per set and with a very heavy resistance, 85-100% of your 1RM (rep max). When training for maximal strength, sets of 1-3 reps are optimal. You are testing to see how strong you are on certain exercises where you can only perform 1 rep with a certain amount of resistance. Whatever resistance you can only complete 1 repetition with, that would be your 1RM for that exercise. Since muscle operates under the control of the central nervous system, strength needs to be thought of as a result of activating the neuromuscular system, not as a function of the muscle. To be honest, you will see the most dramatic strength gains at the beginning of starting your resistance-training program, mostly from the increased neural recruitment and muscle hypertrophy. Using heavier resistance increases the neural demand and recruitment of more muscle fibers until a recruitment plateau is reached. Once you reach a plateau, further increases in strength are a result of muscle fiber hypertrophy. Strength and increase in muscle size sometimes go hand in hand, but not always.
There are a lot of people out there who think they know what they are doing when they get to the gym, but why do they continue to look the same every single week? Every single month? Every single year? It could definitely be because they aren’t giving 100% effort towards their nutrition every day, but it also has a large part to do with the fact that they don’t understand human physiology and what is necessary for the muscles to grow stronger, bigger, more efficient at delivering oxygen, increased RMR (resting metabolic rate), and what will make your body like a well polished, functioning machine. Demand more from yourself. Go into the gym, push yourself, work harder each and every session, use a heavier weight and shoot for the same number of reps, sprint at a .5 increase in miles per hour; as you demand more from your body, it will respond by giving you the results you are working toward!
Paul Hovan Jr., B.S., NASM CPT, CSN
References: NASM Essentials of Personal Fitness Training, Fourth Edition