Exercise Analysis - Lifting vs. Training

I recently introduced what appears to be a relatively simple question during a lecture to students of exercise physiology at the university where I am conducting my research. I asked them what stimulus overload was responsible for making muscles grow bigger and stronger. And to further simplify matters, I presented this question in a multiple-choice format, providing five selections – “sets,” “reps,” “weight,” “all of the above” and “none of the above.” Interestingly, I have raised this issue during previous semesters and the common consensus this time was no different than in the past: Most students registered a vote for “all of the above.” But just like in prior years, after sitting through 45 minutes of my subsequent lecture, a show of hands revealed that opinions had changed considerably.

Deriving positive change from resistance training is straight-forward: Lift more weight than the amount to which your body is accustomed and your neurological, muscular and skeletal systems will adapt to higher levels of development. Specifically, your nervous system will communicate signals better, your muscles will house more contractile proteins to contribute to tension development and your bones will become denser. Put it all together and you will be bigger, stronger, healthier and able to perform better in the weight room during future visits. So, we initiate this series of events by lifting a challenging weight for a number of repetitions (i.e., performing a set) and increase the weight when changes occur. Therefore, it is not difficult to understand why “all of the above” (weight, sets and reps) was the answer of choice. But wait for the lecture before you register your vote!

Research has shown that if blood flow to working muscles is occluded during resistance training, dramatic adaptations will take place, even though the quantity of weight that can be lifted is significantly reduced. This occurs because fatigue-related metabolites accumulate as they typically would if heavier weights were used with normal circulation. Lifting under these circumstances makes the exercise harder to perform and it is that degree of difficulty that is required to make your neuromuscular system adapt. So, it is not weight, sets or reps, per se, that sets the series of events in motion. It is degree of effort, and sets, reps and weight are simply tools we employ to ensure that the appropriate amount is present.

There are a number of problems associated with degree of effort as the facilitator of resistance-training gains. First, unlike sets, reps and weight, there is no numerical way to quantify this commodity. Consequently, even the most knowledgeable trainer cannot ensure that your target muscle is being overloaded sufficiently as you perform the exercises he has prescribed. But this problem pales in comparison to the biggest dilemma you’ll encounter when using degree of effort as your formula for resistance training success. Making lifting tasks as difficult as possible flies directly in the face of what your body finds most natural.

If you are faced with a physical task (lifting a challenging weight, for example), your body will do all it can to complete the task as effortlessly as possible. That means once your brain decides to put the wheels in motion, your nervous system will recruit the muscular players that it deems most capable. That is why they are the stronger ones to begin with. It is also likely that you will incorporate as many muscles as you can into the lift to decrease the stress on any particular group. And finally, it’s a good bet that a natural lifting tendency will take center stage when the going really gets tough. Initiating any lift directly after rapidly stretching the muscle responsible for the lift incorporates a stretch reflex and elastic recoil that help to get the weight moving. These are performance enhancement mechanisms typically used in the world of sport (a pitcher winds up before throwing a fastball, for example) and in that context, they are appropriately applied. But when you’re trying to maximize the degree of effort associated with a lift, they are completely contrary to your objective.

The take-home message is that if you want to exercise safely and effectively in the weight room, you should train with weights, as opposed to simply lifting them. That means your goal should not be to lift the most weight you can in conjunction with the mindset you employ when tackling lifting tasks outside the gym. Instead, to train with weights, you must concentrate on the muscle you are trying to isolate and do everything you can to ensure it is the one that is bearing the brunt of the effort. Strict form is a must and you should defeat the temptation to incorporate other muscle groups to facilitate the lift. In addition, you should initiate lifts slowly and in a controlled manner, work through a full range of motion and dispatch the notion that the quantity of weight you lift is the ultimate determinant of how successful your efforts have been.

This article was originally published in New Living Magazine, which can be accessed on-line at www.newliving.com.





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