Manipulating Body Composition – while definitely not easy to achieve – is accomplished using a very simple equation:
– Diet; which determines your body weight
– Strength; which determines your lean (muscle) mass
– Fat is what makes up the balance between how much you weigh and how much lean muscle mass you have.
So when it comes to affecting body composition there are only 2 elements to control: Diet and STRENGTH training. This is a vitally important distinction because it explains why there is no such thing as ‘fat burning exercise’.
Exercise for Fat Loss
That any activity TENDS to increase the bodies utilisation of a particular substrate (over a short period) is completely irrelevant to your body composition over time.
Your body is an ADAPTIVE ORGANISM; not a machine. So performing an activity for a mechanical effect – eg running to ‘burn calories’ – while completely ignoring the adaptive response to that activity will always lead to a very disappointing result. Just ask all those bodybuilders who run off 20kg of muscle to lose 2kg of fat!
Over time your bodyfat percentage will still always be that percentage of your weight that ISN’T Lean (muscle) Mass. So it doesn’t matter how many calories you burn during a finite activity. Where your body sends all the calories that you eat as a result of the adaptations you induced is what counts. And the treadmill never provided the body with a convincing argument to send more nutrients to your pecs and biceps!
If you look at the Body Composition Equation again you’ll realise that to be as lean as possible you need be as muscular as possible at your given bodyweight. This is a mathematical fact; not an opinion or interpretation of empirical data.
The point is: there is no such thing as fat burning exercise! Training for the positive alteration of body composition (more muscle and/or less fat) must be focused on maximising strength and muscle mass.
So lets look at training to induce muscle growth…
Exercising for Muscle Growth
Muscles ‘grow’ – measurably and cosmetically – in 2 ways.
1) by increases in the amount of contractile proteins (ie actual muscle tissue) and
2) increases in the amount of fluid and energy substrates (ie water, glycogen etc) stored within the muscle
Increases in contractile protein is ‘real’ muscle growth; it means there is more actual muscle tissue. More contractile tissue obviously means more contractile force which means more strength in the gym; you will be able to lift more. And, as fate and logic would have it, this type of muscle growth occurs as the logical adaptation to training focused on lifting ever heavier weights.
Increases in the amount of fluid and nutrients stored inside a muscle is temporary muscle growth. You can definitely see it and measure it so it is ‘real’, in a sense. In fact, just a few kilos of muscular ‘swelling’ from water will be far more visually obvious than the same weight of contractile tissue. But as soon as the quantity of nutrients is removed (like when you reduce your food intake), the muscles deflate. And the deflation is usually VERY visibly noticeable.
Higher training volume (more sets and reps) forces increases in energy-substrate storage and production. Its all about logical adaptations. If you train with a lot of sets and reps then your body will make the necessary adaptations to become efficient at performing lots of sets and reps. That is, it will produce more stored energy to perform the extra work. But it won’t necessarily get stronger, or produce more contractile protein, in response to training that doesn’t specifically require more strength.
Its WEIGHT Training, Stupid!
The operative variable in ‘weight training’ is the weight. Not ‘technique’; not ‘reps’; not ‘sets’; not ‘days/hours in the gym’. Weight!
As discussed above, no matter how you want to look at it, if your muscles actually ‘grow’ in terms of tissue, then you MUST be capable of lifting more weight! Therefore, if you cannot lift more you must conclude that you have not grown any ‘real’ muscle. You can make all the excuses in the world but at the end of the day: no more strength = no more muscle.
You cannot ‘fake’ weight. Despite the poetic postulations of pro-bodybuilder ghost writers, it doesn’t matter how much your muscles ‘believe’ they are lifting; it doesn’t matter how ‘hard’ you can make a light weight ‘feel’; it doesn’t matter how badly your muscles burn because of your superficial ‘squeezing’ of your muscles. If the weight isn’t sufficiently heavy (intense) to cause an adaptive strength response then your body has no reason to grow!
The Dual Factor Theory of Training
Most bodybuilders subscribe to what is known as the Single Factor ‘Supercompensation’ Theory. The basic jist of this theory is:
training causes damage which is then repaired (recovery) and then built upon to ‘supercompensate’ for the next time the training stress is encountered.
However, virtually all other strength sports subscribe to what is known as Dual Factor Theory. Dual Factor Theory is a far more sophisticated theory that was borne out of the recognition that the Single Factor Theory failed to explain many real world observations. Specifically, Single Factor Theory is contradicted by the consistent success of training programs that don’t allow for full recovery before reapplying training stress.
In simple terms, Dual Factor Theory says that training simultaneously invokes two responses within the body:
1) fatigue, which is negative
2) gain, which is positive
The goal of training, therefore, is to induce as significant and/or lasting gain as possible with as little and/or fleeting fatigue as possible. That way, you can sufficiently recover from the fatigue before losing significant gain and move forward in your training.
Another logical conclusion of Dual Factor Theory is to cycle your training between periods of high-gain/high-fatigue and periods of gain maintenance with fatigue recovery.
But the main difference between Dual Factor and Single Factor theories is that Dual Factor emphasises APPROPRIATE BALANCE between the intensity, volume and frequency of training stresses rather than the assumption that ‘recovery’ is the answer to all problems.
Balancing Intensity, Volume & Frequency
When planning a training routine are 3 main variables that describe the training stress:
Intensity = the load applied to the body ie the weight
Volume = the total number of sets and exercises
Frequency = how regularly training stress is applied
A lot of people will disagree with my definition of intensity even though it is the technically correct definition. To avoid argument, let me just say that I am describing the intensity of the training stress rather than the intensity of discomfort experienced by the trainer. And only when intensity is defined as ‘the weight load applied’ can proper emphasis be placed on those exercises that allow the use of the greatest poundages (eg Deadlifts, Squats and Presses). They are intrinsically intense and therefore induce the greatest adaptive response.
For a training program to result in a positive adaptation then there must be a positive balance between intensity, volume and frequency. (NOTE: For this article we will consider nutrient intake a constant). If any one or more of these variables is excessive then fatigue will outweigh gain and a positive adaptation will not result (read my article on ‘Dual Factor Theory’ here…)
The really, REALLY bad news when it comes to balancing intensity, volume and frequency is that you can never get it right for long. If you succeed in getting stronger then you lift greater weights so the intensity is increased and the balance will be lost. If that doesn’t occur then you eventually achieve a chronic adaptation to any routine anyway. Chronic adaptations refer to the situation where the body no longer needs to change to accommodate the stress. In fact, the stress is required to stay the same. Bugger!
Targeting Intensity, Volume and Frequency
Because training for muscle gain and/or improved body composition should be directed toward STRENGTH gain then by nature Intensity should always be on the high side. Which means Volume and/or Frequency will typically need to be relatively low.
High volume training is appropriate for quick increases in muscle size due to increased substrate storage but not specifically strength gain (though strength gain might occur). For strength gain, volume need not be elevated for any reason. Better to use the intensity (weight load) to invoke the gain, the minimal volume to minimise the fatigue, and hit the body with a heavier weight again as soon as possible (higher frequency)!
There is a LOT of research that indicates that the body makes most significant and rapid strength and muscularity gains in response to INCREASING intensity. That is, training weight loads that increase very regularly.
Obviously it is unrealistic to keep adding weight to an exercise every workout, forever. Eventually you are going to be unable to lift a heavier weight. But as Dual Factor Theory recognises, we should alternate periods of ‘overreaching’ with periods of ‘backing off’ to allow fatigue to dissipate.
So the ideal structure underpinning the most effective strength training programs is to start a training ‘cycle’ with moderate loads and build up over a period of weeks to new personal-best, maximum loads. Once you achieve the new maximums, you ‘back off’ for a period to recover. Then you start another cycle building up over weeks to all new maximums again.
The primary difference here is that effective training focuses on the WEIGHT load (intensity) and not the reps and sets. Reps are the result of the weights being used; not the other way around. You should always do as many reps as you can with whatever weight you are forecast to lift.
Bodybuilders use a variety of techniques to extend the length of a set or lift more weight. Because intensity is weight, the only true ‘intensity’ techniques are:
1) Negative Reps – where you resist the lowering phase of an exercise with a weight that exceeds your maximum ability
2) Partial Reps – where you do short repetitions in an exercises strongest range with a weight that exceeds your full range strength
3) Cheat Reps – where you swing or bounce a weight that exceeds your ability in a strict fashion.
These are all highly productive strength training techniques that you should use to help break into new WEIGHT territory in your training.
Drop-Sets, Super-Sets, Forced Reps etc do not induce strength specific adaptations. They cause fatigue with little additional contribution in terms of strength specific gain. This doesn’t make such techniques useless. But you do need to recognise their true effect.
What NOT To Do
Before I deliver Nlightenments recommendations for effective training I’d like to quickly discuss some of the worst training mistakes I see. Based on everything written above, these should need no further explanation:
1) nothing magical happens at the 10th rep. 1 rep sets and 20 rep sets have equal validity and application in your training. The obsession with 10-rep sets has got to be the most limiting training mistake you can make. Get over it!
2) Training a muscle once per week or less is universally the least effective training frequency you could use. The only time this frequency is effective is BRIEFLY when recovering from a period of high gain/high fatigue, higher frequency training. Otherwise, try doing less so that you can train more often!
3) Slow, ultra-strict technique does not stimulate muscle growth no matter how much it hurts. WEIGHT stress stimulates muscle growth.
4) If you can voluntarily squeeze and flex your muscles during an exercise that merely proves you are using significantly less weight than your muscles are capable of. If a weight is truly stressful, there would not be any available capacity for additional contrived ‘squeezing’ of the muscle.
5) You don’t need to hit a muscle from various ‘angles’ with multiple exercises. Nobody has ever had a ‘hole’ in their muscles because they failed to move their limbs through a particular plane under load.
6) There is no such thing as a ‘shaping exercise’. See my blog on Shape Training
7) You don’t NEED to do multiple sets of an exercise.
8) ‘Cardio’ activity is contributing NOTHING positive to your strength/bodybuilding training program.
Putting It All Together
In another article I will give some more specific advice on structuring a training program. In the mean time:
Step 1: Start by setting some specific, short term training ‘task’ goals that you want to achieve. Eg Squat 200kg for 4 reps when your current max is 195kg for 3 reps.
Step 2: Pre-plan a training cycle of 2-12 weeks. Typically, training 2-4 days per week using fullbody or 2-way split workouts are most effective.
Step 3: Pre-plan the weights you are going to lift on each exercise, at each workout, building up from around 60-75% of your current maximum to the goal you set in Step 1 above.
Step 4: When in the gym, warm up as minimally as necessary on each exercise and do as many reps as physically possible with your pre-defined weight load.
Step 5: Record EXACTLY how you performed on the set. Record forced, cheat or partial reps aside from good reps. State whether the set was wobbly, hard, easy etc. You need to know exactly how you performed as an objective target to beat next time.
Step 6: Rest as long as necessary between sets. You are there to lift weight; not get puffed and sweaty.