Tag Archives: Strength

Do You Want to Look Better for 90 days, or Forever?

Probably the most common fitness related goal is weight loss, more specifically fat loss, and every one wants the fastest route there starting yesterday, I get that, but not many people pause to think that if they get there, how hard will it be to stay there and not rebound like the majority of flash-in-the-pan crash dieters and over-exercisers? Do I know how to do this without an all or nothing mentality?

Let’s clear the air really quickly: the fastest way to fat loss is through dietary restriction and through large energy expenditures. At the start this will mean a fairly radical dietary overhaul, and various weight training circuits, intervals and other high intensity methods that put out large amounts of energy in a relatively short period of time, BUT, is this the most sustainable way to transform your physique? Probably not.

Strength, Muscle and Habits are yours to keep

These three things are the most important long term predictors of a transformation that is yours to keep forever, not just rented for 90 days before your trip to Mexico or 10 year reunion, so let’s talk about each one of them in a little more detail.

Strength

“I don’t care how strong I am I just want to look better!”

At the base of this sentiment, I get it, you didn’t come into the gym to be the world’s strongest man or woman, you just want to look better, but, your strength has a whole lot to do with how quickly you’ll lose fat. Thanks to Greg Nuckols for highlighting this in one of his articles, but the energy expended during a workout is highly correlated to how much resistance you’re overcoming (aka how much weight is on the bar) and lifting a 300lb deadlift for 8 reps takes almost perfectly 2x as much energy to move as 150lbs for 8 reps, but they both take the same amount of time. So the person who is consistently getting stronger over time is actually expending progressively more and more energy in the same amount of time as the person who stays the same strength but just does endless circuits. The person getting stronger is also building muscle to boot, which brings us to the next key piece of the puzzle

Muscle

The more of it you have, the more energy you burn at rest, and the more energy you burn while you move. So long as you keep training, and don’t do any crazy starvation diets, the muscle you build is yours to keep, and there it will sit, silently pushing up your metabolic rate 24/7, and giving you better return on your workouts. Compare that to the person doing cardio and interval training only, who will likely be losing some muscle tissue and therefore slow their metabolism over time, and because of this they will have to train longer, or eat even less to maintain their fat loss efforts. Eventually this practice becomes prohibitively restrictive, downright unenjoyable, and unsustainable; you can’t eat nothing and run forever.

Habits

Building muscle takes time, actually significantly longer than it takes to gain or lose fat, and to do so takes consistency. You’re going to need to show up to the gym at least 3x per week and make that a habit, you’re going to need to eat enough of the right foods to recover from the muscle damage you created in your workouts and probably take care your hydration. You’re going to notice that sleep affects your strength, and that’s pretty damn important too.

The weight on the bar never lies to you, you can’t fake strength or pretend you’re working harder by grunting, if you’re hungover, eating poorly, and half-assing your workout, the weight won’t move, simple as that. By measuring your progress with objective numbers instead of subjective sensations, you take responsibility for your own progress and will have to look introspectively if something stops working – this is where true progress happens! It’s the same process and habit formation you can apply to your nutrition, your sleep, your health, and any other important facet of your fat loss/physique transformation journey.

We have had some incredible transformations at Blacksmith Fitness, people who have lost up to 100lbs and stayed there for months and counting, and every single one of those people are stronger, have more muscle, and better habits than they had one day 1 – it’s not a coincidence!

 

How Mirrors Make You Weaker and Ruin Your Fitness (Part 1)

“Why do you always have your athletes facing away from the mirror when they’re in the rack?” – Great question. Actually I often take this a step or two further and partially blindfold or have them close their eyes completely depending on the stability demands of the exercise. Here’s why, and how you can instantly improve your fitness by the simple act of turning around.

Those of you who have ever trained in a hardcore gym, athlete specific weight room, or spent some significant time in a good physiotherapist’s training room will probably have noticed one of the biggest differences between these facilities and a commercial gym (aside from the lack of redundant machines) is the lack of mirrors, but unless you’ve asked, you probably don’t know why. So here’s the slightly watered down technical explanation and some common sense examples

Lifting with your brain, attention pools, the visual system, the power of proprioception, and the blind man that can hear exactly where you are:

The first myth that needs to be dispelled is that you lift weights with your muscles. Sure they actually provide the force to overcome the inertia, but muscle tissue is actually pretty dumb tissue, it’ll respond to pretty much any electrical impulse, like a electrostim machine, a taser, or sticking a fork into an electrical socket (seriously why in this day and age do I actually have to tell you not to do this?). However, we’re going to assume you’re not hooking yourself up to your car battery every time you want to move the couch, so in everyday life the “battery” creating the electrical impulses that command your muscles to contract is actually your brain. Without the brain and spinal cord sending small electrical impulses to the muscles at all times you are literally reduced to a glorified immobile puddle of flesh that is being held together by your ligaments and bones.

Ok so the brain is pretty important; however you may have heard it doesn’t multi-task very well. Which is partially true. I don’t want to get too much into multi vs central attention pools and their effects on motor performance, but one thing we can agree on is that the more complex the task, and the more options we have, the less likely it is that we will be able to do anything else at the same time with any shred of competence. For example, If I take you out to the driving range and ask you hit a few balls, whether or not you suck to begin with, you will suck way more if you’re asked to recite the alphabet backwards while setting up and taking your shots, or you will slow significantly in your reciting while you hit the ball, but without fail, you will suck more at one of the tasks than if you were to do them separately. Now what the hell does this have to do with squatting in a mirror?

Vision is extremely complex; not only does visual information come in upside down, but it must be broken down and then reconstructed before it is interpreted and the brain makes its best guess as to what’s out there – and make no mistake, it is a guess; our visual systems are easily fooled. How complex is the system? The process is so specific that some neurons respond to lines that are exactly 45 degrees, but not to ones that are 44 or 46 degrees. So needless to say your vision is taking a lot of cognitive energy (about 30% of the cortex is dedicated to this task vs 8% for touch and 3% for hearing), and when you look in the mirror you’re inverting the image again, and your brain thinks you’re an asshole for making the process even harder. Consequently, you must focus more of your attention on processing visual information and less on the task of coordinating those millions of electrical impulses that are controlling the muscles involved in your squat. Just like when you were 10 and playing with your remote control car, when the battery dies the car gets slower and reacts poorly; your muscles are no different. So by simply looking in the mirror to improve your form, you’ve actually made yourself worse at the task, and made yourself slower and weaker. You’re also taking away some of the attention from a very powerful system of motor coordination: the proprioceptive system.

Unlike the visual system that focuses on the external environment and how you relate to it, the proprioceptive system is an internal system that communicates positions of joints in relation to each other and muscular tension differentials, among other things, and it just so happens to be way faster and more accurate than the visual system for coordinating movement. The problem is that we’re hard wired to accept visual information as more important and more accurate; however, if you just turn around and face away from the mirror, you never give your brain the chance to override proprioceptive input with doubly inverted visual information,  and you’ll instantly starting moving better. A common phenomenon that occurs when you turn someone around and face away from the mirror is that previously painful movements are suddenly pain free; this occurs by correcting small, visually imperceptible, movement errors that cause tissue to be overloaded.

So this proprioceptive system is pretty bad ass, but can we make it even better? What about the blind man that can hear exactly where you are in a room, how does he fit into all this? Well he provides a real world example of how you can hack the visual system to improve the other sensory systems. Most of us know that blind people have better developed sense of smell, hearing, and touch to respond to their external environment, and this is partially due to the attention that is not being used to run the visual system. We can take advantage of the same effect and increase the sensitivity of the proprioceptive systems by partially blindfolding athletes or asking them to close their eyes. There are specific instances as to when to apply one over the other, more on that in part 2.

For now, the take home points are:

  1. When you look in the mirror you make form worse and your output is weaker
  2. Turn the hell around.

Make sure you don’t miss part 2 by subscribing to the Blacksmith Fitness Facebook page, and for many other fitness/athletic training articles ranging from elite hockey training to cutting up for summer

Q&A Part 2: How Long-lasting and Beneficial is Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy? Where Does Volume Training Fall into a Training Regime for Performance and Aesthetics?

Q: How long-lasting and beneficial is sarcoplasmic hypertrophy? Where (if at all) does volume training fall into a training regime for performance and aesthetics?

First a couple definitions to make this a little more reader-friendly. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is the growth of muscle cell due to enzymatic adaptions and swelling of the cytoplasm – It’s considered to be “show muscle” in that it doesn’t lead to much strength gain, and tends to skew the strength to weight ratio in the weight direction. Myofibrillar hypertrophy, also known as “functional hypertrophy” is the creation of new cross-bridges- the part of the muscle fiber that actually actively contracts. Myofibrillar hypertrophy skews the strength to weight ratio in the strength direction, but will not lead to as much size

A: Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is stable for 16 +/- 4 days; individual drop off rate will vary but after 6 weeks most will be back to baseline. Myofibrillar hypertrophy is considered to be “permanent” for the most part, but still subject to loss due to inactivity, age, or cortisol regulated pathways. High volume training absolutely has it’s place in both a regime for performance and aesthetics. Many very effective eastern block programs employ a high-volume approach towards myofibrillar hypertrophy: German volume training, Russian fatigue cycling, block training and it’s variants (Vladimir Issurin) all use an incredibly high sub-maximal workload to accumulate structural changes that will be transformed and transmutated (a fancy word transferred) to other special-strength performance factors like starting strength, top end speed, speed endurance etc etc. Whereas routines like Sheiko, Smolov, ladders and reverse pyramiding use incredible frequency and volume to force adaptation before neurological peaking to attain maximum strength.

High volume can be used to create myofibrillar hypertrophy, the determining factors are going to be the predominant energy system used, the relative intensity of the contraction in comparison to a 1rep max, and the repetition reserve. To make an easy illustration of this let’s take an athlete with a 100LB squat. A standard (predominantly sarcoplasmic) hypertrophy program would have this athlete squat 70lbs for 3 sets of 10 reps where for most athletes 12 reps would be the maximum possible and each set would be taken to failure or near failure. For myofibrillar hypertrophy the same athlete would take 85lbs for 6¬†sets of 4 reps where 6 reps would be maximum possible if taken to failure.

To quickly illustrate the factors: 70lbs vs 85lbs = 70% vs 85% relative intensity, 10 of 12 reps vs 4 of 6 reps = 17% vs 33% repetition reserve

Although the loads are similar 2100lbs (sarcoplasmic) vs 2040lbs (myofibrillar) because the myofibrillar group used a relatively short contraction duration >10s and the sets are not taken to failure, the limiting factors will be size of creatine phosphate stores, the amount of cross bridges within the muscle-fiber, and the neurological recruitment of high threshold muscle-fibers (motor units) therefore the adaptations will be predominantly to these systems. The sarcoplasmic hypertrophy program has medium duration contraction >25s and the sets are taken to failure – the predominant energy system is the anaerobic-lactic system (also known as the fast glycolytic system) and although cross bridging is a limiting factor, metabolic fatigue comes into play, therefore some of the adaptation will be to an increase in the glycolytic enzymes to provide adequate energy for a medium intensity contraction.

So how does this all fit into a plan for performance? Use the myofibrillar hypertrophy style during the off season before undertaking neurological peaking and sport specific training.

For aesthetics, use a combination of both but focus on myofibrillar hypertrophy in the earlier off season and a combination as the season approaches, with a slight shift towards sarcoplasmic hypertrophy as a competition nears: the main reason being that enzymatic adaptations are attained faster and peak around 6 weeks of training. For non competitive aesthetic training use a combination of both always or alternate between the two styles with planned blocks.