Long, Lean and Toned
I’m gonna jump right in and bulldoze through a few myths about training that I’ve heard countless times over the past 11 years I’ve been a coach. *DISCLAIMER* If you are about to get offended because you have said/thought one of these things – don’t! I also believed these statements myself once upon a time, before I knew any better.
“I just want to get toned” – Cool. Muscle tone is the residual tension in a relaxed muscle. The more tension you are able to generate in a muscle, the more tone the muscle will have. So if you want tone, you have to build muscle. If you want to build muscle, you are going to have to lift some weight.
“I’d rather use lighter weights and just do more reps” Sure. But that is not going to produce the same results as lifting with a challenging load.
“Lifting heavy weights will make me bulky” Depends. The truth is that adding muscle mass (I’m not talking about adding fat) is often more challenging than shedding fat. It requires a lot of training hours, and a lot of nutritional work. This is good news for people who aren’t looking to add size, but tough on those who are.
To dig a little deeper here, you need to understand that muscle growth (known as hypertrophy) happens in two different ways: sarcoplasmic and myofibrillar. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy occurs when the number of capillaries in the muscles increase, and the muscle fills with glycogen. One glycogen molecule binds with three water molecules, and the result is a muscle that is filled with more fluid. It looks larger, but is not necessarily stronger, unless of course you are training in a way that also builds myofibrils. Sarcoplasmic growth occurs when training is done for more volume, at a lower intensity. So, more reps with relatively lighter weights. This type of muscle building usually doesn’t last as long, and you have to train pretty much constantly to maintain that “pump”.
Myofibrillar hypertrophy on the other hand, occurs with heavy resistance or high tension work of some kind. In this type of muscle growth, the contractile myofibrils in the muscle increase, resulting in a muscle that is stronger and harder, but not really much bigger. Because high tension and heavy loads can’t be sustained for long periods of time, you will typically do fewer reps. Intensity of exercise and volume most often have an inverse relationship, where when one goes up, the other goes down. Myofibrillar muscle growth typically hangs around longer, so if you go on vacation for a couple of weeks, you won’t really lose your strength or appearance.
We do have a few members who come to us to add size, and as you can hopefully now see, this requires lots of hours in the gym (and the kitchen). So if you are like most of our members who want to lose fat and/or build strength and tone without really adding size, have no fear, your three hours in the gym each week isn’t going to have you looking the way a bodybuilder or pro athlete does after spending several hours a day in training.
So how do you make the most of your training time to get the lean, strong and toned results you are looking for? Of course if you have fat to lose, we can’t ignore nutrition. But speaking just in terms of what you do in the gym, you need to train with the right level of intensity in your strength work.
For myofibrillar muscle growth, most of your training should be challenging, but not so difficult that you lose your technique or can’t complete all the reps. We know that the greatest strength gains come from spending the majority of your training year lifting loads somewhere between 70% to 80% of your perceived rate of exertion. Occasionally in the year you might go lighter for recovery and technique, or heavier for a peak or competition, but most of the time 70% – 80% is the intensity you want.
Intensity in strength training is easiest to figure out with exercises where we can get very specific with loads, like barbell lifts. We can make small adjustments of 5 pounds at a time to find the right load. And the longer you’ve been lifting, the more data we are able to collect so that we know just how much you can lift for a heavy single, and how many reps you can do at a given percentage. So if you can deadlift 300 pounds as your single rep max, you will get the biggest benefit from most of your reps being somewhere between 210 – 240 pounds (70% to 80%).
For those newer to training, and with less years of data collected, this can be harder to figure out, especially if you are using tools like kettlebells where the jumps between sizes are bigger. Let’s say your coach has assigned you 3 sets of 12 kettlebell goblet squats. How do you know if you performed them at the right intensity to build muscle myofibrils and get stronger? Remember your training should be challenging, but not too difficult. Here’s our rule of thumb: the last two or three reps of your set should feel hard, like you had to work to make them happen. If you felt like the whole set of 12 was hard the whole time and you weren’t sure you’d make it to the end, the weight is probably too heavy. If you felt like you could have done 5 more reps, or like you don’t need to rest before you do your next set, the weight is too light, or the intensity with which you were performing the exercise is not enough. This is where people often make a common mistake: I ask for a set of 12 squats with a 10kg bell, but once Susie got to 12 reps she felt like she could have done more, so she banged out another 10 reps. NO!!! I don’t want more reps, I want the prescribed reps to be at the appropriate level of challenge. The last 2 or 3 should be work, and maybe you could have done one more, but you leave that one in reserve. So, your 100 lunges with 5 pound dumbbells… it will make you sore, but won’t build the type of muscle you are looking for.
With body weight exercises this can be even harder to decipher since we might have to make an exercise more or less challenging, but now we don’t have the benefit of a load to vary. Using the same method as above, we might take push ups as an example. If your program calls for 4 sets of 6, the last two or three of each set should feel challenging. If doing all 6 with full range of motion and perfect technique is a struggle, I need to use an incline or a band for support. If I do 6 and feel like I could do 4 more with no real struggle, maybe I need to raise my feet on a box, or practice dead stop push ups. What about exercises done for time, like core work? These need to be intense as well, generally in the range of something you can do for no more than 20 reps (like a hollow rocker or dead bug), or for no longer than 20 seconds. A plank done for a minute straight has to be done at low intensity to sustain it that long, whereas a plank held for maximal muscle tension (hardstyle) can only be held for 20 seconds tops. Guess which one is going to help you produce myofibrillar muscle growth? Even if you do have a goal to add size, my guess is that puffy, liquid filled abdominal muscles isn’t really the look you are going for.
Personal brief aside – “the terrible ab workout.” About 6 years ago, I used to take aerial silk classes and had so much fun using this outlet to express my strength. I was able to learn exercises that required lots of strength fairly quickly because I knew how to use my lats and core muscles, and how to generate tension because of my strength training, which some of the other class participants were surprised at. The only downside was that the class ended with 5 to 10 minutes of not so smart “ab work”. 20 sit ups, 20 hollow rocks, 20 bicycles etc… all with no rest, basically no instruction in technique, lots of burn but no strength gained, and certainly no 6 pack. I had no intention of burning out my abs with such nonsense and not being able to do my other training later in the week. To leave the class early would have been rude, so for the better part of a year I just hid in the back and tried to do fewer reps with higher intensity, and modify the exercises, but eventually I just got tired of it and ended up discontinuing the class, even though it was really fun. Caleb has had similar experiences in martial arts classes, where the “warm up” consists of a gazillion crunches and push ups done in not full range of motion, also usually with little to no coaching, and not really a great prep for the class to come… But I digress…
What about cardio and interval training? This depends a little bit on what your goals are, but generally if you are doing interval training this should also be done with intensity on the work interval, followed by a big rest for recovery, so you can go hard again. Just like with strength training, the longer the effort, or the more reps, the less intensity you will be able to generate. Typically the interval is around 15 seconds to just under a minute, and the rest… well let’s just say your rest interval should probably be a lot longer than many people think. For example, in our current Endurance classes right now, we are doing intervals of high intensity for between 30 to 45 seconds, followed by a rest interval of 3 minutes. Yes, that’s a long rest! But the long rest is what enables a truly intense burst during the work interval. Unfortunately explaining the science behind why the rest intervals need to be so long is outside the scope of what we have time for in this article… you’ll just have to stay tuned for an article on Strong Endurance in the future!
Here are a few other elements to consider for cultivating long and vibrant muscles:
Train through full range of motion as often as you can. For example, in squats, try to get your hips below parallel if there is no injury preventing you. If you are doing push ups, take your chest to the deck. In your pull ups, start from a dead hang. If you are working up to full range of motion and you are not yet strong enough- that’s ok – you have to start somewhere and you will get there eventually. If you are lacking mobility… that leads me to the next point…
Don’t skip mobility work. This should include a combination of self massage with balls/rollers, stretching and more dynamic mobility drills.
Make sure you train the muscles fairly evenly, especially antagonists. If you like to do lots of biceps curls to build up those guns, you’d better include some triceps extensions too.
Ignoring the above can lead to muscles that are short, tight and don’t perform as well as you’d like. But hey, since your training sessions are likely to be shorter since you are doing fewer reps and training with more intensely, you should have plenty of time!
Strength & Love,
PS – If building muscles that are lean and strong sounds like something you are interested in, we’d love to see you next Saturday 2/15 at our Stronger in Seconds Seminar! We will be sharing all sorts of cool high tension techniques that you can practice in just seconds a day, as well as companion relaxation techniques. No doubt you will walk away stronger!