Curl When They Least Expect It

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, August 1995

Curl When They Least Expect It

Just when your muscles are getting the hang of a weight-lifting regimen, it's time to shake things up
By Ken McAlpine

Three days a week for a year now, I've ducked into my garage to lift weights. Amid scattered boxes and dried oil stains, I've finally gotten serious about my lifting, clanking my way through the sets in hopes of gaining fitness, power, muscle, and the ability to show off my pecs. Yet my diligence and determination have been rewarded with disappointing strength gains. In fact, the most noticeable change occurred when a weight slipped and came crashing down on my face, raising a puffy welt around my left eye.

As it turns out, my regimen stymied the very results that I thought it was designed to achieve. It wasn't a matter of dedication so much as variety: Following weight training's standard decree, I changed my routine every few months or so, but I've since learned that that isn't often enough. It seems that our muscles, and the nerves that fire them, adapt remarkably quickly to the stress of lifting, so quickly that even the most dedicated weight-room denizens are performing their lifts without receiving everlasting stimulation. To get stronger, you need to make weekly, even daily alterations in your gym routine. Put simply, you've got to keep your muscles on their toes.

"Shock the body with something new and it will stimulate growth," says Harvey Newton, a strength and conditioning specialist in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and director of program development for the National Strength and Conditioning Association. "You should always be trying to fool your muscles--when they're not sure what's coming next, they continue to undergo positive changes."

Newton knows how to cultivate strength. He lifted competitively for 17 years and has coached both the national and Olympic weight-lifting teams. He has also seen many a weight-training program fizzle for lack of results. The problem is that athletes myopically adhere to one of weight training's hoariest dicta: Consistency is the key to improvement. Indeed, consistency is essential to improving muscular strength, says Newton, but for the greatest gains you need constant change within a consistent framework.

"If you don't make changes," says Newton, "not only will your muscles stall, but the results you've worked so hard to get could actually be reduced."

Avoid Muscle-Fiber Idle Time
To understand how lifting can actually make your muscles atrophy, you need to know a little about your muscular and nervous systems. Every muscle cell is filled with muscle fibers, hairlike structures that in turn are made up of other structures called myofibrils and myofilaments. The motion of weight training and the stress of the weights on your body parts combine to stimulate the myofibrils and myofilaments, which respond by thickening. That's pretty straightforward. As these fine elements get bigger and stronger, so do your muscles.

Meanwhile, the nervous system is responsible for learning how to recruit the greatest number of appropriate muscle fibers for specific tasks, and while your neuromuscular machinery is busy sorting out the most efficient firing order, you become stronger. This learning process, of course, takes time--about six weeks for the experienced lifter, as long as three months for the beginner--and devotion: Do one biceps curl once a week and your nervous system will never figure out how to stimulate all the muscle fibers at its disposal. Stimulate fewer muscle fibers, and--right-o--you'll have less muscle growth.

Unfortunately, your nervous system can get too smart for your muscles' good. Perform your umpteenth set of biceps curls, and your nerves know from experience that only a specific group of muscle fibers needs to be called into play. That group is bigger than it would be if you lifted only on rare occasions, but it doesn't include all the fibers in that particular muscle. The fibers that don't have to be recruited are standing idly by, getting weaker all the time.

So you're faced with what appears to be a daunting task: simultaneously mixing variety and consistency in your regimen. Actually, Newton says, the solution is simple: "Make small daily changes in your program without altering the big picture, and you get the best of both worlds," he says. "Your muscles get maximum stimulation without depriving your nervous system of the consistency it needs."

Fatigue Yourself More Thoroughly
There are lots of ways to do this. One is to try coming at your muscles from different angles. For example, if Monday's biceps workout is barbell curls, do dumbbell curls on Wednesday and reverse curls on Friday. Or, instead of performing squats three days a week, you might do leg extensions on Monday, squats on Wednesday, and lunges on Friday. Hitting the biceps or thighs--or for that matter the triceps, shoulders, or abs (see "Building Your Muscles by Surprise")--in slightly different ways shocks different muscle fibers, but because all three days' exercises still involve the same general area, you're not neglecting the oiling of your neuromuscular equipment.

Another approach is to toss in some "breakdown training." Add enough weight to your exercises so that a set of ten reps takes you to fatigue, meaning you can't lift anymore. Then immediately reduce the weight by 20 percent and do five more reps. "By squeezing out a few more efforts, you'll fatigue more muscle fibers," says Wayne Westcott, a strength training consultant for the national organization of the YMCA. "It hurts, but it also gives you as highly productive a set as you could ask for."

According to Westcott, subtler means to variety can be effective, too. Changing the speed of an exercise--for example, exploding while coming up on your push-ups --provides a different stimulus to the muscles. "Such changes might not seem like much," says Westcott, "but you're altering both the muscle emphasis and the activation pattern of the muscles. And that provides greater stimulus."

Alternatively, instead of working different muscle fibers, work the same muscle fibers differently. The best way to do that is by consistently changing the amount of weight you lift and the number of reps you perform. If you get to the gym three days a week, you might lift heavy loads on one day (four to six reps with a weight that's 85 percent of your maximum single-lift effort), go light on another (12 to 15 reps, 65 percent), and moderate on day three (eight to 12 reps, 75 percent). What you're doing is spicing things up with a regimen that's equal parts power and endurance.

One final addendum to your weight-lifting strategies: Try shortening your rest periods between sets. Recent research indicates that taking breaks of 30 seconds instead of two or three minutes promotes greater muscle growth, possibly by spurring the body to produce more human growth hormone.

Both Westcott and Newton add that such tweaks in your gym sessions can also make you healthier, since you're not stressing the same fibers and tendons again and again, and can provide a salve for the most important body part of all. "If you're bored, you're not going to be putting a lot into your training," remarks Newton. "It never hurts to make things as interesting as possible." Both caution that constant change in a regimen should come only after you've spent two months familiarizing your nerves and muscles with a more consistent program.

Which returns us to my grease-stained garage and the one-year-old regimen that's now ancient history. In the last few months I've taken Newton's and Westcott's advice--and I have noticed a difference. I feel stronger, and my enthusiasm has received a lift. I haven't swelled up like a blowfish, but that suits my face just fine. That kind of shock I don't need.

Ken McAlpine wrote about active rest in the March Bodywork.

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