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Building Muscle Strength – Do Your Workouts Have What It Takes?

These days, there are so many options when it comes to at-home workouts. Of course, this is a good thing; I am always a proponent of moving, because ALL movement is beneficial.

BUT if you have strength-based aspirations, your workouts may not be helping you to reach your goals. Or worse yet, they may be sabotaging your progress.

In order to increase or maintain strength, we must be overloading the muscle enough to induce a change. Simply put – a workout muscle provide a large enough stimulus to lead to adaptation. Muscle “strength” and adaptation is dependent upon the following two factors:

1). Structural, or the size of the muscle (specifically, the diameter and number of muscle fibers)

2). Neurological, or the number of nerves that innervate a muscle

Did you know most research indicates that in order to increase muscle strength, muscles must be overloaded with the equivalent of at least 70% 1 rep max (1 RM). That’s a lot of load, especially if you’re a fit and strong person. Most untrained women can deadlift at least their body weight, and trained women can often deadlift twice their body weight. In my case, that over 300lb! So, doing 4 sets of 30 seconds of deadlifts with 10lb dumbbells is NOT going to induce strength changes in my body. Sure, it will burn calories, but it’s simply not enough stimulus to lead to strength gains.

In fact, research has shown that any training below this 70% threshold only induces neurological changes (read: coordination changes). And of course, these changes are still beneficial, but they aren’t going to lead to muscle growth or strength gains, per se. Think about it this way – before you start to deadlift heavy weight, it is important to have the motor pattern so that the deadlift movement feels more “automatic” and requires less conscious thought to perform.

If you’re someone that is just a “beginner” when it comes to training, it’s going to be much easier to overload a muscle to induce both neurological and structural change. This is why so many people see results early on and then plateau – they get stronger and build muscle relatively quickly since their muscles are easily overloaded. But, as they get stronger they require a larger stimulus to make further changes.

Now here’s where it’s important to get specific about your goals.

Are your goals performance-based? For example, if you’re someone that wants to get stronger so that you can improve your marathon time, you will want to work higher reps (>12). Or, perhaps you’re wanting to increase your 1RM, in which case you’re going to have lower reps.

But maybe your goals are more aesthetic-based, meaning you want to gain visible muscle mass or “tone” your muscles. In this case, you’re going to be focusing on increasing the size of a muscle (referred to as “hypertrophy”) and this typically involves mid-range reps (8-12). I’m not ashamed to admit that I started lifting weights in my early 20’s with one goal – to improve my appearance. Of course I know that having more muscle mass allows me to be more able-bodied when doing things I love, I also know that it prevents injury and helps to ward off bone loss. But, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that my primary motivator is rooted in vanity.

It’s important to note that strength gains aren’t always synonymous with hypertrophy. For example, if your goal is to improve your performance (e.g. increase your 1 RM), you may experience some hypertrophy, but not necessarily.

What do all strength-based goals have in common? They all must overload the muscle. Which means that no matter what your rep range is, you must be challenged and struggle to complete your last 1-2 reps.

All of that information is well and good, but what about the practicality of resistance training during this time when many of us don’t have access to the gym? Can we maintain or gain strength during this time? Absolutely! You don’t necessarily have to be lifting heavy weight to induce strength gains (even though that is the simplest way). Here are a list of some ways that you can overload your muscles to induce adaptation, especially when you have limited equipment and muscle hypertrophy (aesthetics) is your goal.

  • Load
    • Plain and simple, more weight = more challenge. If you don’t have heavy weight, you can always add a band to increase the load. But, if you don’t have adequate weight, consider the following…
  • More reps
    • Remember, we want to feel like the last few reps are a challenge to complete. So, perhaps this means that instead of doing your normal 4 sets of 8 reps of bicep curls, you increase this to 4 sets of 16 bicep curls, or…
  • More volume
    • Adding sets. Going off of the earlier example, maybe you go for 6 sets of 12 reps. Again, we want to feel like the muscle is challenged for the last few reps.
  • Larger range of motion
    • Putting stretch on a muscle has been shown to be a valuable method to induce muscle hypertrophy. For example, when doing a calf raise, you want to let your heel drop below parallel, which puts a stretch on the calf. This principle can also be applied when doing RDL’s or reverse hypers, where the hamstrings and glutes get stretched and lengthened before they contract.
  • Eccentrics
    • Muscles contract eccentrically when they lengthen. Let me explain: think about a bicep curl. When you perform the curl, the biceps shorten. You can let the weight fall as your arm lengthens, or you can slowly control its descent. That slow, controlled lowering of the muscle ensures that the bicep is engaged as it lengthens, which is an eccentric muscle contraction. Eccentric training is one of the most effective ways to gain strength. I like to incorporate eccentric training by performing step-downs, and tempo movements (e.g. slowly lowering your descent into a squat).
  • Time under tension
    • Look at any body building forum and you will see this term. And it really does mean just that – if you load the muscle for longer periods of time, it’s getting more stimulus to change. Here are some ways to increase the “accumulation” or “time under tension”:
      • Drop sets: This involves starting at a high load and working until you reach momentary muscle fatigue, then dropping some load and continuing until failure.
      • Forced reps: This technique involves assistance to complete your last few reps. Obviously, this requires an adept partner, and may not be appropriate for home training.
      • Pre-exhaustion: This is method has you pre-fatigue a muscle, ideally isolated to a single joint prior to performing a compound movement. For example, performing single leg extensions/quad sets prior to performing a heavy squat. This technique could absolutely be applied to at home workouts, for example pre-fatiguing your glutes with a set of banded bridges prior to a set of squats.
  • Improved muscle recruitment
    • Recall that part of strength is neurological. So, if you really focus on the muscle (feel it contract and really squeeze it at the end of the range), you will activate more muscle fibers. If it sounds simple, it is! But so few people actually employ this technique.

One more thing – have you considered that the intensity of your training could be impairing your gains? Because that’s a possibility. In fact, I can speak from personal experience that I didn’t start to see any visible changes in my body composition until I scaled back my high-intensity workouts. And if you know me personally, you probably know that I love a workout that leaves me breathless and exhausted.

So here’s the deal without getting too deep into the science: if we combine strength training with intense cardio approaching >70% VO2 max (read: approaching breathless) there is physiological cascade that can inhibit anabolism (muscle growth). So, if your goal is muscle hypertrophy, you could be impairing your ability to really grow your muscle tissue if you’re doing your resistance training and intense cardio concurrently.

That means that while your HIIT workouts can be a great way to scorch calories and do some cardiovascular training, they are NOT the best way to gain strength. That’s not to say that I discourage HIIT training, because I think it has its place in a well-balanced fitness regimen. But again, we have to come back to your goals. If your main goal is muscle gain, more often than not, the answer is to train smarter and not harder. Remember, getting your muscle to the point that it is overloaded is key, but you also don’t have to work so hard that you can hardly move the next day.

Obviously, there are a lot of variables when it comes developing an effective resistance training program, but it doesn’t have to be complicated. Remember that consistency is key. Design a program that you can stick with, and one that allows you to gradually increase the difficulty. When in doubt, pick 6-8 exercises, and go for 4 sets of 8-12 reps at a resistance that challenges you for the last 1-2 reps and implement some of the strategies listed above!

Want to know more about how to optimize your training to reach your goals? Send me a message!

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