Brandon's Notepad

February 1, 2013

Weightlifting / Weight Training

Home > My Research > Improvement > Weightlifting / Weight Training


Weight training is a fun and (arguably) essential component of any exercise regimen. A few months ago, I started training in earnest at the recommendation of a friend. His claim that it becomes addictive is totally spot on. I started doing research on the subject immediately, and decided to start building this page to help organize the information.


The Body

You can’t build anything without first understanding something about the materials at hand. This is no less true for muscle than it is for wood, clay, steel, or paint and canvas. At a minimum, it is important to know the (short) names for various muscles. This makes it much easier to select exercises that work each muscle (group), either in isolation or in combination with others. Here are a few useful muscle maps:

Technique

Call them what you will: mindsets, theories, philosophies, schools of thought. Serious lifters often latch on to one or another. The better ones are backed by science, but some are heavily steeped in tradition and lore. I’ve attempted to extract what I feel is the best advice from a variety of sources.

The Big Picture. There are several theories on how this works biologically, but the big picture is tha muscles grow when subjected to periods of stress followed by relaxation. Break it down, then let the body repair it.

Form. Good form is the key to success in weightlifting. This is the first thing my friend told me when started training together. Bad form will reduce the effectiveness of an exercise and increase the risk of injury.

Big Muscles First. This is the second thing he told me, and his advice has been backed up by several authors and sources. Big muscles burn more calories in post-workout repair as well as in day-to-day operation. Also, you cannot tone (or sculpt) muscle material that isn’t there (yet). Burning more calories means (potentially) burning more fat, which in turn makes the growing muscle tissue more visible — and then focusing on muscle tone makes a little more sense. (Note, this does not mean to exercise the biggest/strongest muscles first during a workout; in fact, doing so will tap a lot of the energy and motivation to exercise smaller/weaker muscles at the end of the workout.)

Progressive Resistance/Overload. Muscles can only grow if they work harder in each successive workout. One strategy is to keep the same number of reps and sets, but increase weight by 5%-10% or by a fixed amount of weight, say, 10 lbs.

Intensity. Workout intensity is more important than workout duration. In fact, the two are inversely related. This is a core concept behind John Little’s “Max Contraction” methodology. Mike Chang of “Sixpack Shortcuts” fame advocates intense workouts to maximize the “afterburn effect”, what scientists call excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC).

Don’t Overtrain. The neophyte should focus on form (as mentioned above) and not on weight for the first few workouts. See what it fells like after a day or two and then (if you can still move) step it up a little the next time. The body will get used to the stress and the recovery phase will become shorter and less painful. Beginner programs usually last three to four months. By that time, the (now intermediate) lifter will know his training limits. Don’t confuse “take it to the next level” with “take it to the extreme”.

Rest Between Sets. Reducing the rest time between sets increases intensity. If muscle fibers haven’t fully recovered, then other fibers are recruited.

Rest Between Workouts. Muscles grow while at rest in response to the stress imposed by lifting. The body is preparing for another potential load. Minimum rest time should be sufficient that the muscles are not sore from the previous workout.

Frequency. In traditional workout programs and regimens, beginners may work out three times a week and then the frequency increases. Some of the newer protocols call for more rest between workouts (e.g. see Max Contraction Training below).

Training Logs. Keep track of progress by logging any number of variables: exercises used, weight, sets/reps, etc. Don’t skip qualitative data, such as post-exercise and post-workout assessments and commentary. Keep records electronically to facilitate charting and tinkering with ratios, but make sure that you are comparing apples with apples. Logs are only useful if you analyze the data later. Besides tracking progress in general, logs reveal the effectiveness of various exercises (specific to your body), which aids the creation and modifyication of routines, including decisions about which exercises should be retained or abandoned.

Cheating. It’s discouraged in general, but cheating on good form can help squeak out that last rep or two. For example, body motion can provide a little leverage to swing that last dumbbell bicep curl up into position.

Experimentation. Never stop learning what works for your body. What does work can change over time. Try new things frequently.

Exercises

Exercises are selected based on your training goals. For general health, it is usually enough to choose basic weight exercises that work major muscle groups, but serious bodybuilders isolate specific muscles to build and tone. Some exercises work combinations of muscles, which may increase or decrease the effectiveness of a planned workout. In these cases and many others, it is useful to have a fairly exhaustive guide to various weight exercises on hand. In my opinion, the most frustrating thing about these exercise guides is the lack of standard naming — a specific exercise may be called by different names based on a number of factors, some as arbitrary as author’s preference.

Isolation vs. Compound Exercises. Isolating a muscle (group) focuses the intensity of an exercise, whereas performing compound exercises that involve multiple muscles (groups) distributes it. An exercise isolates a muscle group if the movement is rotation around a single point (e.g. curls rotate around the elbow). In contrast, compound exercises invlove multiple rotation points (e.g. bench presses involve movement of the shoulder, elbow, and to a much lesser extent, the wrist).

Indirect Effect. The nervous system responds to stimuli holistically. Even though an exercise focuses on a single location (i.e. an isolation exercise), the whole body benefits.

Joint Variance. Suplinating, pronating, or otherwise rotating joints to vary the position of hands, arms, feet, legs, and even fingers will change the part of the muscle being worked. For example, a wide grip bench press works the outside pecs, but a close grip moves the focus to the inside pecs. Some muscles are connected to bone in multiple locations (e.g. delts have three tendons), so this sort of variance is needed to work the full muscle.

Incline vs. Decline. There are actually four positions to mention here: laying flat, laying back with head more elevated than pelvis (incline), laying back with head less elevated than the pelvis (decline), and sitting stright up. Changing this orientation can change the part of the muscle worked or even the muscle group altogether. A good example is bench presses: decline presses work the lower pecs, flat works the middle, and incline the upper pecs; however, doing presses sitting straight up (also called military presses) shifts focus to the delts.

Exercise Listings. As stated above, it is very helpful to understand the major muscle groups when selecting exercises. This is vital if you want to focus on certain body parts. Exercise variants are seemingly endless, so here are some links to sites that describe various exercises.

Tactics

When it comes to planning a workout routine, there are lots of tactical options available.

  • Muscle Confusion. Workout variances prevent the body from adapting to a workout routine
  • Split System. Focus each workout on an area of the body (arms, legs, chest, back, etc.)
  • Supersetting. Exercise opposing muscle groups in tandem with minimal rest between sets; balances agonist/antagonist pairs
  • Series Sets. Series of three to six exercises for one muscle group, one set each, performed without rest
  • Pyramids. A steady increase and then decrease in intensity/weight from set to set
  • Descending/Drop Sets. Like pyramids, but with decreases only; also called Stripping
  • Cycle Training. Changing focus between mass, strength, and tone with cycles lasting weeks/months
  • Flexing/Isotension. Feel the contraction of the muscle while not under a load
  • Holds. Stop moving and hold the weight for a few seconds at some point during each rep
  • Negatives. Move slowly on the tail end of reps; also called Reverse Gravity
  • Train Weaknesses. Focus either on weakest body parts or on weakest points in an exercise
  • Pre-Exhaustion. Fatigue a muscle with isolation movement, then immediately superset as secondary muscle
  • Partial Reps. Squeeze out some partial reps between sets or after positive failure
  • Forced Reps. Squeeze out some extra reps after positive failure with the help of a partner

Circuit Weight Training

Circuit weight training combines strength/resistance training and endurance training. Quick movement from one exercise to the next along the circuit with little or no rest in between produces an aerobic effect. The time spent at any one “station” may be based on real time (seconds/minutes) or on the completion of a certain number of reps. Light weights are usually used to maximize the number of reps per minute if real time is used. The exercises can also be supersetted, alternating between the upper and lower body, thereby working one while resting the other. The number and intensity of circuit exercises involving weights can vary greatly.

Circuit Training (Wikipedia)
Military.com

Nutrition

Weightlifting (and any type of exercise for that matter) is in essence the control over how the body processes nutrients.

  • A balanced diet is sufficient to provide the nutrients required to increase muscle mass.
  • Carbs should supply most of the bodybuilder’s energy, but should be limited for most people seeking only general health. Complex carbs should be preferred over simple carbs in most cases. Low-carb diets may result in flattened muscles due to water bonded to unreplaced glycogen.
  • Muscle is made of water and protein, but consuming additional amounts of either will not grow muscle. Once your daily protein requirement has been met (1g+ per pound of body weight), growth comes from carbs.
  • Caloric intake must be marginally higher than maintenance.
  • Stay hydrated! Recommendations range from 0.5 to 1 gallon of water daily, just not at once or at meal time.
  • Supplements are just that. They cannot replace nutrients from food.
  • Meal replacement products are a convenience and should be the exception, not the rule.
  • The conventional wisdom of eating several small but frequent meals throughout the day is currently being scientifically disproven.

Supplements

As stated above, supplements are not a replacement for good nutrition. There are a lot of them out there too, and they aren’t cheap! This is not an area of focus for me, but here is a selective list:

  • Whey protein power is a mainstream supplement that has broad appeal based on the notion that muscles are made of protein, therefore one can grow by consuming large amounts of it. This is true to an extent. If you are looking for extra calories, whey protein seems to be a fairly clean way to get them; however, it moves through the system so quickly, large servings of whey go mostly unused. Some recommend spreading consumption of whey throughout the day, but others claim that is doesn’t really matter.
  • Casein, the protein found in milk, reportedly provides additional time to absorb, but its a lot tougher to choke down. Also, (it’s true, look it up) homemade glue can be made from milk by separating the casein and that does not sound very appetizing in my humble opinion.
  • Creatine is an acid that helps deliver energy (ATP) to muscles. It is generally considered safe, though numerous side effects have been reported (and refuted). It is not essential to sustain life, and a sufficient level of creatine is produced naturally in the body when the diet contains adequate portions of meat. Most supplemental forms require a loading phase (~25g/day for 3-5 days), maintenance (~5g/day), and (according to some package labels) cycling (e.g. 6-12 weeks on, 4-6 weeks off). There is a buffered form that does not require a loading phase; however, clinical studies (like this one from the NIH) do not show a significant difference between the two forms.

Injury

No pain, no gain, right? The burning pain that comes from muscle fatigue is fine and may take a day or two to fully develop. Sharp pains, especially during the workout, are the sign that injury has or it about to occur.

Steroids

Just don’t. Do some research and discover how many professional body builders and weightlifters have died young. Be the seventy-five-year-old that still brags about how much he can bench.

Genetics

Success in bodybuilding is due in part to genetics. Some people have a greater genetic potential for growing and toning muscle tissue. The three basic body types are: endomorph (heavy), ectomorph (slim), and mesomorph (bodybuilder). Each type benefits most from different exercise routines (e.g. endomorphs should focus on improving metabolism, ectomorphs should lift heavy and rest longer, and mesomorphs must minimize aerobic exercise).

High Intensity Programs

Max Contraction Training. This program was created by trainer and author John Little based on his research in the field of physiology. The premise is that muscle growth is triggered most effectively and efficiently when all of the fibers in the muscle are fully contracted under a sufficiently heavy load. [Read my detailed write-up].

X-Rep. Body builders Steve Holman and Johnathan Lawson have authored several e-books (which I have not read and cannot yet endorse) laying out a protocol that involves progressive increases in force and tension. The underlying principle — maximum muscle fiber recruitment through isometric contraction — is basically the same as for Max Contraction above, except that they advocate doing this at the end of a regular set instead of the contraction being the sole focus of each exercise. [X-Rep.com]

The Gym

Good gyms will have sufficient equipment (number and variety of machines, lots of plates and dumbbells, etc.) and plenty of space. The machines should be organized such that they are easy to find and transition from one exercise to the next easy.

Training partners provide encouragement and motivation, instruction, safety, and new training ideas. But, not everyone wants to train with a partner. Partners have their own priorities, schedules, training goals, and rates of progress.

It is embarrassing to know that gym etiquette a ubiquitous problem. Based on what I’ve read and heard, rules in this category fall into three basic categories: courtesy, hygiene, and safety. The number one complaint is that some patrons don’t “rack the weights” (i.e. unmount the plates from the machines, put the dumbbells back on the racks, etc.).

Motivation

Getting into “the zone” is important if you want to get the most out of a workout and the process for doing that is different for everyone. Actually, some people need extra motivation just to get to the gym in the first place. Here are some motivating factors:

Music. This is probably the #1 motivating factor in exercise, and it’s not limited to the weight room. Pop in the earbuds and listen to music that will keep you moving. I actually try to avoid listening to music in the gym now, myself, because it breaks my concentration. I listen to a lot of techno/electronica/dance music during the workday to drown out distractions in the office, and it works for the gym as well — the more repetitive and mind-numbing the better. I know a number of guys who listen to rock music of various types, but I know that it would be a serious distraction for me.

Television. Watching a good game or even a movie on the gym’s TV can make the time on the treadmill fly, but I don’t like to watch while lifting for the same reason I don’t listen to music — it’s distracting to me. What I really don’t understand is why so many people watch cooking shows in our gym. Kinda defeats the purpose, don’t you think?

Preworkout Videos. I do like to watch workout videos on YouTube prior to my own workout. I find the Train with Kai (Greene) videos to be particular motivating, as well as Mike Chang’s videos (even if he is “just a slick salesman” as some claim). Just listening to them while I work helps get me in the mood for the gym.

Costume. I’m borrowing this one from personal management guru David Allen. In his book, Getting Things Done, he says that just putting on the costume — jogging sweats, for example — gets him in the mood to run. I feel the same way about my lifting gloves and wrist straps.

Sources

Books. Details found in the bibliography:

  • N.Evans-1
  • Little-1
  • Little-3
  • Wolff-1

Websites. In no particular order:
http://stronglifts.com/how-to-build-muscle-mass-guide/
http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/issa7.htm
http://www.bodybuildingpro.com/principles.html
http://www.t-nation.com


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