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Tales from the Texan!

All things being equal, strength training is better

Travis Burkybile

 From the Masters Weightlifting Championship in Dallas this week

From the Masters Weightlifting Championship in Dallas this week

Hello friends!

After a small layoff, we are back in action with new topics for you. I hope you have had a great summer so far. As school season ramps up, so does all the sports that come with it. I want to dive right in on this important topic. Let's get to it!

For many of us, organized and recreational sports and activities are a huge part of our lives. Incredible amounts of time, resources, and information influences our physical fitness as a society. Yet as a whole, we are a very overweight, injury prone, and out of shape culture. What gives?

I think a few things need to be understood. First, nutrition and lifestyle choices are without question the largest influences on our health. There is plenty of information in those areas to warrant discussion, but this blog will stick only to the exercise side of things. Second, no workout, no matter how well planned and executed can make up for an existence of inactivity. If your entire week consists of 2 workouts of 30 minutes or less, it isn't reasonable to expect some miraculous transformation. You must become less sedentary in your daily life as well. That being said, some points to consider.

As I was watching a pickup soccer game yesterday, I was reminded of something. No matter what the activity, we cannot judge the physical appearance of those doing it at the highest level as the sole determining factor in its ability to produce a similar result in average populations. The game I watched consisted of people ranging in age from approximately 15-45 years old. Not a single one of the many shirtless men had a low bodyfat percentage, even though most of them were "in shape" by the average definition, and clearly avid players based on their skill level. The athletes who are the best of the best in any endeavor will be genetic outliers to varying degrees. The activity itself is not the only reason for their incredible cardiovascular capacity or rippling six pack. Doing that activity for 45 minutes twice a week and expecting similar results is a fast track to disappointment. That would be discounting not only that those athletes have above the norm genetics, but also their lifestyle, dietary choices, other training methods (including weights-see Ronaldo, Cristiano) and recovery strategies enhance the process. If you enjoy any pursuit, do it for the personal gratification first and foremost, not because you think it holds some magic secret that no other method of training possesses. Even most recreational weight training devotees don't look like Arnold simply because they do curls. I am definitely a believer that doing something is almost always better than nothing, but if we want optimal results I have some points to consider for why strength training gives you the most bang for your buck.

1. Strength training is not only about gaining muscle. Strength is the foundation of other fitness qualities. 

We still too often hear at this point that people, especially female trainees don't want to "bulk up." If I could drag one fitness myth out back and put it down forever, this one would be in the top few to consider. Let me give you an example. I have worked with many female clients over the years. Some had never done any formal training prior to our work together. Dance, pilates, tennis, but no bodyweight or weight training activity at all. A few of them even made a kitten appear to have otherworldly levels of strength. They always ask for "long lean muscles." If you take a person like this, get them to eat human portions of food, and lift something heavier than a lululemon headband or pumpkin spice latte, what do you think might happen to them? After an initial period of their nervous system adapting; which will result in little to no mass gain, she can get what is for her a significant "bump" in muscle mass and bone density. That gain might be 3-5 lbs, but is enough to convince her that she will be a freakish, cartoon level of muscularity in no time flat. This will plateau very quickly in most females. Even though she was feeling stronger, had less back pain, and so on, she drops the weight training and goes back to the old routine. You can guess what happens next; she loses those beginning gains. The merry go round begins every time our heroine is convinced by someone to give it another go. Lose, gain, repeat. The biggest shame of all of this is that strength can be developed without adding huge amounts of muscle mass. It becomes easier to stay lean, improve your conditioning, or develop explosive athletic qualities. Most fitness enthusiasts has a desire to improve at least one if not all of these qualities. Strength is the foundation to it all. If you don't work toward developing it, every other quality will be limited in how much progress you can make. The optimal level for each person or athlete obviously varies, just make sure not to overlook this point.

Sidebar- long, lean, muscles; another fitness myth worthy of being put down. You are lean, or you aren't. You can change this. Eat accordingly and train hard. You can't change the fact you weren't born to be 5'9" with a pelvis that fits Barbie clothes. If I put a bunch of NBA players in a room and said they were tall and lean because they played basketball, people would laugh. If I put a bunch of elite ballet dancers in a room and told people they were tall and lean because of pilates + a new vibrating and oscillating surfboard/firehose/recliner, I now have the hottest fitness studio in town and a book deal. Choose your parents wisely. End rant/sidebar.

2. Strength training is one of the best forms of cardio.

Wait what? Is that a joke to see if you are still reading? No, very true. More people are aware of this fact now with the popularity of Crossfit, HIIT classes (High Intensity Interval Training), and other popular group exercise platforms. If all you know of strength training is 3 sets of 10-12 reps with rest breaks as long as it takes me to find another good track on my playlist of 4000 songs, you might not be getting this benefit. If your set only lasts 10-15 seconds and you rest 5-10x as long as you work, you probably won't see much benefit in this regard. On the other hand, if you work 40-90 seconds and rest 30-60 seconds it becomes very apparent how much cardio benefit you can get while strength training. One of the most overlooked parts of cardiovascular health relating to fitness is stroke volume. This is how much blood you can pump with a single heartbeat. Not only is it more efficient when your heart pumps less frequently, but that is only possible when it can pump a large amount of blood with each stroke. Intense strength training can increase stroke volume quite a bit. Stroke volume and heart rate go together, but since your finger or a Fitbit can't exactly measure it, everyone fixates on heart rate instead. Your heart doesn't really care if you are doing the elliptical or bicep curls. All it knows is that more blood and oxygen is needed, so keep pumping. If doing repetitive, mind numbing cardio on machines is not your thing, or you have repetitive strain and overuse injuries, look to point #3.

3. Strength training can help improve flexibility, posture, and orthopedic dysfunction.

Again, not a check to see if you are still paying attention. Done poorly strength training will negatively affect all three of those aforementioned situations. Done correctly it will improve them. A few months back I read a statement by Ido Portal, a well known bodyweight strength training coach/personality. Paraphrasing, he said that every form of training comes with a price. Basketball, triathalons, water polo and the list goes on. It may be a high volume of impacts, repetitive shoulder stress, or depleting nutrients due to incredibly high demand from training. Just something we have to accept. Weight training is no different. However, it is the most scalable, and one of the safest for all populations when executed correctly. If a person is always using poor technique and very short range of motion of course they will be more likely to have achy joints and terrible flexibility. It is like playing a piano with your elbows; you can make some noise, but Beethoven it ain't. A good program or coach will identify any limiting factors, choose appropriate movements and loading parameters to maximize the results the trainee can make. A great program with specific execution can be magic when applied correctly. My clients range in ages 13-88. Quite a few of them have had non specific low back pain. Almost every one of them had asymmetry, and weakness in the posterior chain. When it improved, their pain did as well. I know when clients do their homework- they feel better and move better. Their posture improves. As for flexibility, when was the last time you added a pause at the bottom or stretched position of a lift? Were Hammer pants in style? This strategy can do wonders for flexibility if the limitation isn't due to soft tissue quality, but strength and stability at the end range. That's right- you aren't always "tight" because your muscles are bound up. It can be because your body perceives it as a threat to allow you to move in any range of motion that you do not have the strength and stability to control. (Check out my posts on Should I Stretch if you haven't seen them yet). Knowing when and how to apply these strategies doesn't come from a magazine article. Find a good coach/mentor who can guide you with this.

If you have decided to improve your health and fitness, there are an abundance of activities to choose from. Always start with something you can enjoy- just remember that strength training can make everything else better with the right coaching! If you don't know where to start contact me about online or in person programs. 

Until next time,

The Texan