Curl When They Least Expect It
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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
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,
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
“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
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
“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
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
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
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
Fatigue Yourself More Thoroughly
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
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
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
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
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.