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Strength Training 101

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Click for photo Physical conditioning, emotional strength, and mental focus are interrelated and natural precursors to one another.  A strong body drives intestinal fortitude and a focused mindset just as a clear, focused mindset can develop a strong body.  All three sides of the triangle are a requirement for the kind of focus this blog is all about; it’s hard to achieve self-actualization if you’re missing one of these prerequisites.  This counter-balance is often described as mind-body-spirit in various spiritual practices.

It’s clear that training the mind in various ways (NLP, visualization, meditation) can help develop physical skill as much or more than rehearsal of the activity itself.  But just as the mind drives the body, the body can drive the mind as well.  Confidence and real strength can be derived from physical activity whether it’s through enhanced coordination, a sense of empowerment and control over something, or as an avenue for achieving flow.

Looking at empowerment and control alone, it’s clear that overcoming challenges – small and large – can increase self-esteem and confidence.  And having confidence in your abilities in one area can translate to other areas of life, effectively parlaying success in one controlled arena to other potentially less controlled ones.  Tony Robbins has his conference attendees walk on fire on day one of a retreat to show them how their limiting beliefs have been holding them back, and once they’ve done something they previously thought was impossible, they’re more open to tackling more personal challenges.

In many ways building muscle has this same effect on people

If you can control your weight and build your physical strength, your ability to drive control over other areas of your life increases.  If you find yourself struggling to do so, this can equally be a negative influence on you.  Generally someone who’s able to overcome adversity with repeated success in a single environment will be ready to do so in an office, a relationship, or a classroom.  And someone who lives in equilibrium without a negative body image weighing on their conscience will have more inner strength and be ready to engage new challenges.

Getting there relies on some knowledge about strength training.

Why Strength Training?

It’s a common misconception that training with weights or cables with exercises that work against “resistance” will make you look “muscle-bound”, and that the only way to build a better body is to perform aerobic or cardiovascular exercise (defined as any exercise that requires oxygen).

The truth is that strength training is the best way to shape your body and lose unwanted bodyfat. Training with weights (and cables) is the only type of exercise you can perform that will permanently change your metabolism; that all-important rate at which your body burns calories for energy.  In just a few weeks or months, a regular resistance training program can help you add five or more pounds of muscle.  And with that extra five pounds of muscle, you’ll burn more than two hundred extra calories a day without changing your diet at all.

It may sound impossible, but it’s not.  Muscle is “metabolically active”, meaning that even during rest, muscle burns more calories than fat does.  Therefore the bigger the muscles, the more calories burned!  This is why resistance training to build muscle (and burn fat) is a great suggestion for everyone; male and female, young and old.

Does this mean that aerobic exercise should be abandoned completely in your quest for fitness domination?  Not necessarily – some level of aerobic exercise (like running, biking, and swimming) has a time and a place in most fitness programs.  However, it should be secondary to strength training for people interested in fat loss and overall strength gain.  Let me explain why.

The Aerobics Conundrum

The belief that aerobic exercise is the one and only way to burn fat has been promoted time and time again and is a classic example of “old habits die hard”.  Advocates in the aerobics-only camp believe that by entering the zone called “targeted heart rate”, basically when the heart is elevated to 60% of its maximum potential for over 20 minutes, the body will begin to burn fat like a furnace.  There are, however, a few problems with this theory.  Extensive forays into the aerobic zone can cause the body to lose muscle at an alarming rate.  If muscle is continually being sacrificed as fuel, it becomes close to impossible to keep your metabolism at the level required to burn unwanted calories.  In order to burn fat effectively, lean body mass (muscle!) must be added.  Since aerobic activity does not directly add muscle, but can actually strip the body of muscle if done in excess, it’s certainly not the only (nor the best) way to burn fat.  To make matters worse, gains in strength are severely hampered if you do too much aerobic work, and this can adversely affect performance in most sports.

Note however that aerobic activity can absolutely introduce the same types of challenges as strength training in terms of building character and overcoming obstacles.  Running a marathon isn’t easy by any means – and some of the best learning comes from the type of deep conflict within yourself you get through long-distance running.  But it’s still not the best way to get in the best physical shape on its own.

Strength Training as the Basis

Training for strength with resistance will give you that baseline of muscle to support your aerobic activity.  Without this lean body mass, your aerobic exercise will be counter-productive in the long-run, eventually stripping your body of the muscle it does have.  This will cause you to regain more weight than you originally lost once you reduce the intensity of your aerobic sessions – or stop exercising completely.

This concept of strength vs. aerobic training is best exemplified in the Olympics in an example that’s been used time and time again in recent years.  There’s a distinct difference between the marathon runner and the sprinter in terms of their physique (male or female).  The marathon runner looks emaciated, almost like skin and bones, with little to no apparent muscle tone. In contrast, the sprinter (think Michael Johnson or Usain Bolt) is muscular and lean, with skin that looks paper thin due to his or her low amount of bodyfat. The training methods of the marathoner and the sprinter are very different and contribute greatly to their physiques.  The marathoner spends an inordinate amount of time in the aerobic zone, so much so that his or her body starts breaking down muscle tissue in an effort to become more efficient and conserve energy for long bouts of running.  The sprinter on the other hand, is the product of repeated (yet short) bursts of explosive energy, such as weight training and 100m sprints, and therefore has additional lean muscle with a very small percentage of bodyfat.

Making strength training the basis of your exercise routine also makes practical sense.  Life is a series of sudden, explosive activities just like strength training.  Strength training is preparing you to lift your groceries, chase your kids, and throw a softball. As you age, and your body starts to lose muscle mass at a shocking rate (fact of life, unfortunately), the addition of muscle will keep you from becoming frail and weak.

Aerobic exercise, on the other hand, resembles close to nothing you would ask your body to do on a regular basis (I don’t know many people who jog around the copy machine at the office for 45 minutes!)  Aerobic training trains your body for efficiency in long, steady, repetitive activity, not for sudden bursts of energy.

Last but not least: the Chief Rule!

When training with weights or cables, there is one rule I would like you to follow all the time. I call it the “chief rule of strength training” and it will help you determine how much weight you need to lift every time you exercise. Far too regularly, I see people (most often women, in fear of bulking up!) using weights they could probably throw fifty yards if asked to.  I also see people (most often men, in a desire to bulk up) lifting weight they can barely move without the help of three people. Both of these strategies are self-defeating!  Lifting weight that you can lift 100 times will not give your muscles enough resistance to stimulate growth, and lifting a weight just once with the help of three people doesn’t give your muscles adequate time under tension!

Forget the adage that "more reps, less weight" will tone you up.  It’ll train your muscles for endurance, but it won’t necessarily stimulate adequate muscle growth.  Moreover, the myth that “more weight, fewer reps” will add muscle mass is equally unsound.  This is the way to build maximal strength, not muscle mass.  Muscle growth is best achieved when all rep ranges are used in a systematic manner to build strength and size as well as endurance.

So what does this mean when you’re in the gym?  It means you should follow the chief rule of strength training: Always, in every situation, use a weight that you can lift at least twice yet no more than 25 times. When training for muscle growth and fat loss, spend 60-70% of your time in the 6-12 rep range and 30-40% of your time training for strength and endurance. Train for strength by lifting heavier weights fewer than 6 times, and for endurance by lifting lighter weights 12 or more times, but always stay within the 2-25 rep range!

Note: Just as important as those guidelines: change your routine regularly. Exactly how often will depend on such factors as your age and workout history – but every 4 to 6 weeks is a good guideline.

Thoughts or comments?  Let me know!

Written by Mike Torres

April 15th, 2009 at 8:15 pm

Posted in Exercise

Tagged with , ,

  • Rick

    Good stuff. I would throw in a few more “rules.”

    Change you workout every six weeks or so. Your body can get used to what you’re doing and growth stops. Change it up.
    Mix it up with some metabolic training. Think supersets, think step-ups and more functional exercises that are not just concentrated lifting, but rather more functional versions.
    Spend some time doing just the basics. Squats (which you should never stop doing), deadlifts, cleans…the basics do a ton.
    Try 5×5. Butt kicking, and great results.

    Those are my thoughts!

  • Mike Torres

    Thanks Rick – I had the “change your workout” stuff at the end in a note, but it’s definitely important enough to be called out specifically.

    The other stuff is great too. The basics are *critical*!

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  • im not trying to be a smartass or jackass either, and I do appreciate you taking the time to advise me, but I am not going the physician route with it, and besides my question is about the exercise itself.

  • Rick

    Good stuff. I would throw in a few more “rules.”

    Change you workout every six weeks or so. Your body can get used to what you're doing and growth stops. Change it up.
    Mix it up with some metabolic training. Think supersets, think step-ups and more functional exercises that are not just concentrated lifting, but rather more functional versions.
    Spend some time doing just the basics. Squats (which you should never stop doing), deadlifts, cleans…the basics do a ton.
    Try 5×5. Butt kicking, and great results.

    Those are my thoughts!

  • You do not need to belong to a gym to be in shape since there are plenty of home cardio exercises that you can do. There are conflicting opinions of how much cardio you need to do every week so you should forget the rules and just do it for your health. After a good workout your muscles are warm, blood is pumping hard through your body and your body just feels good.