Resistance Training Part 7

Every year, I deliver a lecture to second-year exercise physiology students for the Exercise Programming module here at our university. The title is “Resistance Training for Hypertrophy” and early in the session, I pose a multiple-choice question and ask (read demand!) that everyone register a vote. The question is: What is the stimulus overload that makes muscles grow bigger and stronger? The selections for the answer are: (a) sets; (b) reps; (c) weight; (d) all of the above; (e) none of the above.

Hopefully, after last month’s column, all of my faithful readers will be able to select the right answer with nary a second thought. But the same can’t be said for the students. Typically, the consensus selection prior to the lecture is “(d),” which appears to be reasonable because sets, reps and weight are all important aspects of a resistance training program. But in reality, they are only tools we use to construct the ultimate stimulus overload that we should be striving for when training with weights. That stimulus overload is intensity, which requires the right combination of sets, reps and weight, but does not necessarily depend upon any of these factors, per se.

As I have explained previously, motor units (nervous system communication pathways and the muscle fibers they command) are called into action in a hierarchical manner when a muscle is asked to perform work. The objective during a resistance training set is to force a drive through a significant portion of this hierarchy such that motor units with high activation thresholds are recruited. In other words, your muscles must be challenged to the point where your nervous system decides it’s all hands on deck. And the critical stimulus that presents this challenge is not mentioned in the selections presented above. Don’t tell next year’s students, but simply stated, it is the degree of effort associated with a task. So, the bottom line is you don’t have to lift heavy to make your muscles respond, but you do have to lift hard. And this brings up an important distinction. Those in the know in the weight room train with weights as opposed to simply lifting them. It all has to do with mindset and if you’re not concentrating on making your muscles work hard when you’re lifting, you might just as well stay home. The only individuals that should adopt the “lifting” mindset are those who compete in sports where the weight they lift dictates their competitive success (for example, weight lifters and powerlifters). However, even these athletes should spend a good portion of their time training with weights in addition to practicing the lifts they must perform.

To exemplify the difference between lifting and training, consider having to take your garbage can to the curb for the next day’s early morning collection after a hard day at work. Obviously, this is not an activity that you are intending to derive a training effect from and you’re also very tired so you just want to get it over as quick and painlessly as possible. Consequently, without consciously deciding to do so, you invoke any and all mechanisms at your disposal to facilitate the task. In essence, you strive to lift the weight in as efficient manner as is possible, which is wise under these circumstances. However, this is exactly the opposite of what you should do in the gym. This means that you must circumvent the natural tendencies to perform muscular work efficiently (lift) when you want to make your muscles stand up and take notice (train).

One of the mechanisms that facilitates lifting is a common movement pattern known as the stretch shortening cycle. Simply stated, a muscle’s performance is enhanced when a concentric muscle action (muscle shortening that happens, for example, when you curl a dumbbell up with your biceps) is immediately preceded by an eccentric (lengthening) muscle action. And a rapid transition from one to the other amplifies the effect. So, a baseball pitcher who wants to throw the ball as fast as possible thrusts his arm back rapidly (winds up) before hurling it forward and releasing the ball. And a bench presser would be well-advised to invoke the same mechanism if the goal is to complete the lift with as much weight as possible. But this will actually decrease the degree of effort associated with the movement, so if you’re trying to make your chest muscles bigger and stronger, you should defeat the natural tendency to incorporate this mechanism so that your muscles do not receive this assistance.

Stretch shortening facilitation provides “outside input” that actually decreases your muscles’ degree of effort when you’re lifting. The same can be said for knee wraps, which allow you to squat more weight because of an ancillary form of assistance to the muscle. But there are some supplementary accouterments that can augment your ability to train. For example, if you are performing chin-ups for your back muscles and find that your grip gives out before you can achieve the requisite degree of effort by your back, augmenting your grip with lifting straps will allow you to circumvent the weak link and train your back muscles effectively. 

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






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