How are you working out?
Are you a runner? Tennis player? Rower? Basketball player? Based on your sport and what you are trying to do you, you can tailor how you lift or strengthen. Building muscle is important to increase your outcomes, but it only helps if you are working out according to your sport. For instance: as a sprinter, you want to work on power and speed, if you go to the gym and do 20reps at a lower weight you are working on endurance muscles and thus it won’t help you increase your speed. So then how do you exercise?
To break it down your muscles are built up of different fibers. Type 1a, IIa, and IIb are the most commonly discussed muscle fibers. Type Ia fibers are your slower onset more tonic (endurance/stabilization) muscle fibers. Type IIa and IIb(IIX) are your rapid onset of strong contractile fibers. These fibers help with power, quick movements and sudden changes in weight. Studies have shown that sprinters have a much higher concentration of type IIa and IIb muscle fibers, and long-distance athletes have a higher concentration of type Ia fibers(1). As you age you also lose more type IIa and IIb muscle fibers–hence why older people generally are slower to react and do not have as much power(2). So then how do you know how much weight you should lift?
All the following categories (strength, power, endurance, and muscle size) are based on 1RM which is the maximum weight you can lift in one rep while maintaining the correct positioning. This may be a little hard to determine at first so see below how I explain each category differently.
Strength(3): the max amount of force a muscle can exert
Strength is what you think of when you are purely lifting weights. Here you want a heavier weight almost the max amount you can lift, and you are performing a small number of reps. How I determine this is I pick up a weight, If I can hit the 8 reps then it’s too light, If I can barely do one with the correct posture–it’s too heavy! Therefore I aim in the middle making sure that when I am lifting I’m not doing any compensations. As for the rest period, I either switch to another muscle or do the opposite side prior to continuing. For sets, my happy medium is 4, but If I feel like pushing myself more I’ll do 6. When you are working out, make sure that you are bringing the weight through your entire range of motion. Due to muscle length-tension, the center of your motion is the strongest but you want the end ranges to be strong as well! For example with a biceps curl make sure you bring the weight in your hand all the way to your shoulder and back down to where your arm is fully extended (NOT hyperextended for those of you with joint laxity-myself included). When doing reps count them out slowly! The slower you go the harder it is. I’ve seen quite a few people crank out their reps going very quickly, which actually reduces the amount of strength required and is a form of compensation (it makes it easier). A good pace is 2 counts up and 2 counts down. It keeps a good rhythm and makes sure you are not going too quickly.
Power(3): the optimal amount of work in a given time frame
Power is what you use on a regular basis in most of your activities. It means that you are lifting or moving around in a specific amount of time. For power the resistance is lower, you should be able to complete 3-6 reps fairly comfortably. The difference with power is the pacing as well. You want a quick concentric contraction (when the muscle is shortening ex: biceps curl bringing your hand to your shoulder) and a longer eccentric contraction (muscle lengthening: when you extend your arm in a biceps curl). Eccentric muscle contractions are much harder and require more strength! So for the power, you can do a quick concentric contraction for time component and a longer eccentric contraction. Count 1 up, 3 down.
Endurance: repeated sub-maximal contractions
Endurance is an easier concept to grasp. Your goal here is to perform many repetitions at a lower weight level. Any endurance athletes like runners, bikers, swimmer etc need a lot of endurance not only cardiovascularly but muscularly. With endurance, however, we tend to think only of your legs, arms, etc but you need really good core stabilization (abdominals and back). Whenever you are moving your upper extremity or lower extremity your abdominals contract–even prior to the movement. Thus you can imagine that if you are biking for 2 hours you need those abdominals to be working the entire time. What happens if your abdominals are not working? Then your body relies on the passive structures–ligaments, bones, capsules which can increase joint degradation(osteoarthritis) as we age. With endurance, you also shorten the resting period between sets.
Muscle Size: or muscular hypertrophy
This is basically just making your muscles bigger, more so than the previous categories. If you think of fitness models they all work on muscle size to make their muscles more prominent. Women do not build up muscles nearly as much as men due to our hormones. If a woman and a man are on the same exercise program (same weights etc), the man will have significant muscle hypertrophy and will look much bulkier compared to the woman, however, the woman will maintain her muscle mass longer(4). For muscle hypertrophy, you want slightly higher reps and weight with a 2-3minute rest period. I generally focus on performing the 8 reps without compensations. If I am unable to do that then the weight is too heavy; however if I can do 15 reps, then the weight is too light.
With any exercise listen to your body! If the exercise is painful you are problem doing something wrong. These are strength building so it should be challenging but you should be able to perform the exercise identically with each repetition. If you start to experience muscle shaking or spasms this may indicate fatigue and you may want to take a break. A side effect of strength training is delayed onset muscle soreness. You may feel some discomfort and tightness in your muscles after working out. This is normal but should not last more than 48hours. To help relieve the soreness do a low resistance exercise such as biking to get the blood flow to those muscles. When you build up new muscle you are actually causing micro-tears in the fibers. Your body needs to heal itself. Wait at least 2 days prior to lifting on the same muscle group again. Stretching is also important in helping to re-align those muscle fibers. As stated earlier you need an ideal muscle-length tension to be able to produce the most force. If your muscle fibers are shortened you won’t be able to produce the same amount of force, the same thing occurs with lengthening. This is why sprinters do not stretch prior to a race but do dynamic warm-ups. They want to warm up their muscles but don’t want to lengthen them so that they can create more power.
(1) Andersen, J. L. and Aagaard, P. (2010), Effects of strength training on muscle fiber types and size; consequences for athletes training for high-intensity sport. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 20: 32–38. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0838.2010.01196.x
(2) Jones TE, Stephenson KW, King JG et al. Sarcopenia- mechanism and treatments. Journal of Geriatric Physical Therapy, vol 32;2:09.
(3) Escho, MR. Resistance training for health and fitness.(2013) American College of Sports Medicine. Available at: www.acsm.org
(4)Delmonico MJ , Kostek MC, Doldo NA et al. Effects of moderate-velocity strength training on peak muscle power and movement velocity: do women respond differently than men? Journal of Applied Physiology Nov 2005, 99 (5) 1712-1718; DOI: 10.1152/japplphysiol.01204.2004