Spinning the Wheels
Gyms have the highest membership rates in January. Why? Guilt. People are guilty of all that crap they’ve been eating since November (Thanksgiving then Christmas or whatever cultural holidays). But next year, damn it, they’re going to take charge and make a difference! That’s what the new year’s resolution is all about!
Gym owners / managers love it. Especially if they can offer up a slightly discounted rate to lock somebody in for a 12 month deal. Then the new trainee shows up for a few sessions, or maybe a few weeks, before their schedule gets too busy and they stop making it in. Maybe next week, or next month – they still have the membership, so that’s what matters. It makes them feel better and it makes the gym owner feel better. The best thing a place like a gym can do is charge people to use its services and facilities when they don’t actually use them.
So why do they do that? Why get a gym membership and not go? For some people reading this they might turn a blind eye to it because they’ve done it themselves and secretly know their reason is not something worthy of accepting. Working out properly is hard work, after all. As if the rest of our lives wasn’t difficult enough, why do we put ourselves through more torture if we don’t need to?
And so the point of this is not to make fun of people who are wasting their money away. It’s about trying to explain how various movements (think exercises, not bowels) work and what can be gained by doing them. Mix in some timing options and different levels of volume and intensity and hopefully people can start to see better results in a more timely manner. This is for those people who give up after a few frustrating weeks at the gym because they don’t see the results from it.
First on timing. Timing is a simple concept, though it can refer to several aspects of lifting. I’m keeping it simple at this point and only referring to the rest period between exercises. More time spent resting means more recovery between exercises. More recovery time means a better performance and more muscle fiber and CNS (Central Nervous System, for those just joining us) activation. For training purposes rest periods should max out at five minutes. For an actual powerlifting meet a rest period between 5 and 10 minutes can be optimal. Maximizing rest time is for people trying to gain strength and muscle, not lose fat. Can you lose fat doing this? Yes, but that’s a matter of diet more than exercise at this point.
Less recovery time, on the other hand, prevents the muscles from recovering between sets. They get fatigued more easily and cause the ticker in your chest to work harder trying to supply energy (blood / glucose) to the muscles. Using shorter rest periods really boosts fat loss. Minimizing rest periods causes a boost in growth hormone released, and growth hormone is wonderful at burning fat. It’s not an overnight visible change, but what mechanic goes to work without taking all of their tools with them?
Now volume / intensity. When I refer to volume I’m talking to the amount of work being done. As in how many exercises per set. This is the amount of time you keep the muscles under tension and more is better, to a certain point. I have no opinion on this particular number but it was cited by a very successful training coach (Charles Poliquin, known for training Olympic medalists and professional sports teams). He recommend 40 seconds as time under tension. Not for each rep obviously, but amongst the entire set.
Intensity is how power is built. Naked force, driving that weight as hard as possible. There are two ways to do it, the one my experiences shows to be superior is in using heavy ass weights. Maximal or near-maximal loads. The alternative is explosive movements with lower weights, say 40% – 50% of the maximum amount you can lift. Exploding means you move that weight as fast as you possibly can. In theory you’re still using the maximum amount of muscle fibers even though the weight is less. So why don’t I lift like this anymore? Fast explosive movements don’t feel safe to me. Maybe I’m not stretching enough or maybe I’m just getting too damn old. Whatever the case, I get worried when I push as much weight as I weigh so fast it leaves my hands (e.g. bench press). My joints don’t feel safe when I suddenly explode like that and I’ve learned over the years to start listening to my body. Does that mean other people shouldn’t do it either? No – it means other people shouldn’t wreck their bodies like I have.
So with intensity you are pushing a lot of weight for you. It doesn’t matter if your best bench is 100 pounds or 300 pounds – in either case the number you are lifting is the same – 90% to 100%. It took 415 pounds to tear my pectoral away from my arm in 2009. In 2004 I had a minor mid-muscle pec tear benching 185 pounds. The pounds on the bar isn’t important, it’s the percentage of how much you can do that matters.
What’s also worth mentioning is that training for intensity requires less volume. If you’re lifting 90% of your maximum load it’s not possible to do a set of 8 reps. A rep, for the record, is one full range of motion on the exercise. Doing more than one without resting is called doing a set. And please, do the full range of motion. I get sick seeing people doing quarter squats and bench pressing only the upper 25% of the range.
So let’s combine the two concepts now. Using high rest periods with volume training allows for repeated abuse of the endurance muscle fibers. These are the slow twitch fibers, known as type 1. I have read that with steady training geared towards slow twitch fiber training type 2 muscles fibers (the fast twitch ones) can convert to type 1. Type 1 fibers do not convert to type 2. This will increase muscle size and endurance, which in turn also increases metabolism and triggers more growth hormone release for fat burning. Great stuff! Strength? Yes, some, but this style of trying is geared much towards the amount of work capacity versus work performance (e.g. more reps versus more weight).
Using low rest periods and volume training is going to kick your ass. It will wipe you out and trigger maximal amounts of growth hormone release. Without resting your ability to increase muscle mass will be impeded, as will any hopes of getting stronger. If you do this on a calorie restricted diet give up any hopes of anything aside from burning fat and losing as little muscle as possible. The working out helps to retain it, but the breakdown and calorie restriction chips away at it. Using a beta blocker can help retain muscle mass even more, but that’s for another time.
High rest with intensity training? That’s the bomb for the average powerlifter. You’re getting the best performance out of your muscles you can possibly get and pushing them to grow those type 2 muscle fibers. The type 1 fibers help out as well, don’t think they’re slacking. But when you hit the maximal training weights the type 2 fibers activate and give you the drive you need to get the weight up there. I’ve heard that type 2 fibers have more growth potential than type 1 fibers do, so activating them causes more growth and definitely more strength gain. Eating positive calories will cause growth (the good kind). Eating negative calories (under your maintenance amount) and you’ll plateau, plain and simple. Oh sure, there’s some potential for fat loss but it’s pretty even with the potential for muscle loss. The only real gains you stand to make come from CNS improvement (that means training your nervous system to recruit more muscle fibers.
Low rest with intensity training? Kind of a bad idea. Intensity and fat loss generally don’t get along together so well. Sure it’s doable, it’s just not very efficient and can easily lead to overtraining and injury. With that said sometimes it’s hard to wait 2+ minutes between sets. I get bored easy and I think I usually use about 90 seconds. When I wait longer I do better, but I just can’t seem to learn. So be smarter than me.
And now the really unfair part – I’m running out of time and I want to post this today so the section on movements (exercises) and what they can do for you will have to wait until (I hope) tomorrow.
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