Being strong and with muscular definition has been a source of admiration and awe for a long time. In days gone by when free weight rooms or even the concept of gyms were but a mere pipe dream, strongmen would be paraded around at circus events to the bemusement of an astonished crowd. It seems amazing, particularly when you consider that these men would invariably be no bigger than many members of any gym now. But in fact this fascination still exists. Powerlifting, weightlifting strongman and bodybuilding events are still very popular. The only difference seems to be that the physical capabilities have increased more through diet, science and greater provision.
The interesting thing about strength training is that whilst so many people do it, few have a programme. In fact, many churn out sessions for year upon year, simply lifting the same weights for the same rep range but then complain endlessly that they are seeing no results. When performing any weight training, it’s the manipulation of variables such as the number of sets, repetitions, resistance applied and choice of exercise that will determine a successful outcome.
It can be frustrating when you train with a partner and their results – particularly aesthetically – are quicker and more effective than yours. You are working at the same intensity but your results are different. Why? The truth is that there are a number of reasons. Some of which we are in control of and others we are not – but the important thing to remember within our training programmes is to control the controllable. Naturally we all have a range of slow twitch, fast twitch type-2a and fast twitch type-2b muscle fibres. Those who are proficient marathon runners will have a higher degree of slow twitch fibres whilst sprinters will have a greater number of fast twitch fibres. Though there can be small alterations through training, these percentages will ultimately remain the same, regardless of the training. But what you can do is make the best of what you’ve got by ensuring that the percentage of fast twitch fibres are as efficient and trained as possible. Therefore by following a well-structured programme which encompasses specific tension overload, it will help you to produce the desired response.
When anyone starts on a training programme, the initial strength gains are quite noticeable yet there is no hypertrophy (size gain). This is because neural adaptations play an important role in these dramatic early rises, due to a greater efficiency in neural recruitment patterns, increased central nervous system activation and improved motor unit synchronisation. Essentially it’s the body’s ability to wake up all of the muscle fibres at one time and to halt the natural protection mechanisms which prevent certain muscular movements through fear of injury.
Whilst neural factors play a part in the early stages of a training programme, the ultimate strength capacity depends on the physiological capability within a joint and muscle. Following a strength training programme increases in the sizes and strength of muscle fibres, ligament and tendon strength improvements and a decrease in the muscle twitch contraction time have all been noted. By training with heavy weights, sufficient to cause overload, the muscular system triggers signalling proteins to activate the genes that stimulate protein synthesis – leading to bigger muscles.
‘I don’t want to get big’. Find me a personal trainer who has never heard that from a female client upon undertaking a strength training workout, and I’ll show you a personal trainer who is neglecting their duty by simply avoiding this training protocol. Sport England’s excellent #ThisGirlCan campaign has actively promoted the perception of women sweating and pushing themselves in order to get to a goal. CrossFit, for all its sins, has also promoted heavy weight training amongst females. Another popular hashtag amongst this demographic is #liftlikeagirl. It’s refreshing to see these changes. However, the fear still exists among clients that they will become the next Arnold Schwarzenegger. For some, even the stunning physique of a Jessica Ennis-Hill would be too muscular.
So let’s debunk the myth. Unless you are an athlete undertaking 4-5 hours of training daily, or have testosterone injections or worst still, anabolic steroids, females simply won’t get ‘big and muscly’. The hormone testosterone is responsible for the large increases in muscle mass seen when men lift weights. Women’s testosterone levels are a fraction of men’s testosterone levels. Normal testosterone levels in men are 270-1070 ng/dl while 15-70 ng/dl are normal in women. As you can see, men’s testosterone levels are hugely higher than women’s. If testosterone levels are the main factor in muscle mass increases, then you can see that bulking up for females is very unlikely to occur.
Another important reason for following a training programme is to prevent the risk of overtraining. Overtraining is a process of excessive exercise training that if unchecked can lead to negative effects on your workouts and life. It can be brought on by a variety of factors, such as; a sudden increase in training volume, monotonous training, a lack of recovery time and stress levels. This can cause problems with sleep, reduced ability to perform high intensity exercises and a reduction in general physiological performance. Therefore no matter how keen you are to get the ‘beach body’ or to get strong in time for the new rugby season, do so in a structured and periodised manner.
About the autor
This blog article has been written by Darren O’Toole, founder and lead personal trainer of Dynamic Fitness Training. To put the theory into practice, contact Darren to kick start you strength training programme.