Jul 222010

This piece spun out of a conversation in the comments on our most recent guest column over at WoW.com, and it seems to be addressing a concern that many people of the geeky persuasion, fairly or unfairly, may have with the picking up of somewhat heavier things than they’re used to. Some folks are concerned about injury, or don’t want to bulk up, or simply have never considered themselves the weightlifting type.

Lifting heavy weights is not, in and of itself, unhealthy, as long as proper form is used. There are actually a lot of benefits to strength training – stronger bones, for instance, in addition to stronger and more balanced muscles. There are the aesthetic aspects, of course, even if you’re like me, and  have no designs on becoming a professional, or even amateur, bodybuilder. I just want to look good with my shirt off. 🙂

Also, being strong is its own reward, and frequently proves to be useful – rearranging furniture, cleaning the garage, carrying computer equipment at work, etc. Someone likened being known as the person who lifts weights as analogous to the friend who has a pickup truck; when someone’s buying a new washing machine or big-screen TV, whether they know it consciously or not, they’re thinking about who would be helpful picking it up. This is an excellent way to be fed by grateful members of your party. Nobody has ever accused me needing anything but the flimsiest of excuses to enjoy free beer and pizza.

The commenter to whom I was speaking made the point that they had enjoyed a certain degree of strength gain lifting the same weight, for the same number of sets and repetitions, for several workouts. This will work for a while, but in order to continue to make progress, you will eventually need to increase the weights (or reps), because the body will adapt to the stresses imposed on it. If you always do the same workout, that stops adding to the challenge your body faces. This can, of course, be done in any number of ways – by increasing weight, increasing the number of reps or sets, or changing the exercise (or angle of attack).

The analogy someone used was this:

Imagine you’re going to go on a vacation to Hawaii, so you want to get a base tan to avoid sunburn. You go home and lay out for 15 minutes at lunch every day. For the first few days, your skin gets darker, but then it stops. You’re still getting your 15 minutes of sun, but your skin has tanned enough to protect you from it. In order to tan more, you’d have to lay out for 16 minutes, or 20. If our skin just kept getting more and more tanned from every bit of exposure, everyone would have super-tan hands and faces from the five minutes of sun we get every day when we go outside to get in our car, or take out the garbage, or run errands.

Three sets of eight*, which is what our friend was using, is an absolutely fine set and rep plan – there are a lot of very smart and experienced people who recommend it, especially for folks who want to get noticeably stronger without getting too much bigger. Most people, especially when they’re new to strength training, respond very well to loads between twenty and thirty total reps, regardless of how that’s achieved – 3×8, 5×5, 10×2, or whatever. 5×5 is frequently touted as a good starting point (by some knowledgeable coaches who we’ve written about in fairly glowing terms) because it splits the difference between “long, lighter, endurance-focused” and “short, maximum-strength” sets.

The longer sets of more modest weight (~50-70% of your one-rep maximum (1RM)) engage more slow-twitch (Type-II) muscle fibers, as opposed to short sets of maximum or near-max weights, which trigger the fast-twitch (Type-I) ones. The Type-I fibers are the ones that are prone to greater hypertrophy (growth) as an adaptive response.

* Three sets of eight is commonly expressed as “3×8” – if you keep a training log (and you should!), this shorthand gets to be very handy, even though mine used to be nothing but a hideous, semi-legible scrawl. Nowadays, it’s slightly more organized, but no more legible. And people wonder why I don’t leave handwritten messages that won’t fit on a Post-It note…

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