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Myths of Strength Training


What are the biggest misunderstandings that can sidetrack your weight training success?

Whether you’re just beginning strength training or have long made the weights part of your gym experience, you undoubtedly want to maximize the benefits of your efforts.

Getting the most out of your program involves so much more than the numbers you lift. It’s important to understand how your body responds to the physical stress imposed by the weight in a variety of training contexts and timing. Read on for top strength training misconceptions and the truth behind these assumptions.

Myth: Lifting heavy with low repetitions will build muscle and make you big.

Truth: Lifting with heavy to maximal intensities, with low repetitions and long rest periods emphasizes the nervous system, which increases the number and speed of muscle fibers firing. This causes a person to get stronger without increasing the size of the muscle. This is called Relative Strength.

The irony of this myth is that most of the workouts that prescribe high rep and short rest intervals are exactly the workouts that develop lactate and could cause people to increase in both size and weight. 

Let’s look at the term “neuro-muscular.” Simply put, it’s how the nervous and muscular systems work together to provide feedback and produce movement. The nervous system communicates with each muscle, or each muscle fiber more specifically, to tell it what to do. In the case of strength training, the nervous system tells the muscles to contract or relax. When you perform strength training, the strength of a muscle can increase in two ways: 1) by increasing the size of the muscle or 2) by increasing the efficiency of the nervous system. The first way will cause you to gain lean muscle and eventually make you bigger. The second will make you stronger without getting bigger. 

Think of it like this... For an engine to start, you need to have all the spark plugs firing to ignite the engine. If one of them is not firing or not firing at the right time, there won’t be enough energy for it to start. It is the same thing with your muscles. When you strength train, if your nervous system isn’t firing to enough muscle fibers and/or not fast enough, you will not complete the lift. This is also why mental focus is so important while strength training. If your mind is telling you the weight is heavy, your nervous system will not fire the way it needs to. This principle is evident when working with a spotter. The minute a spotter puts his/her hands on the bar, you complete one or two more repetitions because your mind thinks the person is helping you. Only afterward does the spotter tell you he/she didn’t help at all.

It’s not uncommon for a person in the first few months of strength training to see a significant increase in strength while not getting bigger or gaining any weight. One reason is due to the improvements in the nervous system's ability to fire to more muscle fibers. 

Myth: Lactic Acid makes your muscle sore. 

Truth: Lactic acid accumulates due to higher volume workouts with short rest.  The goal of these workouts is to bring the muscle to failure, not allow it to fully recover, and then work the muscle again. This causes the muscle tissues to break down due to repetitive efforts without recovery. This is what causes the muscles to become sore. Lactic acid is a by-product of working out this way. It’s not what directly causes the soreness.

Myth: Endurance athletes do not benefit from heavy strength training.

Truth: Heavy strength training, along with long rest intervals, done in the off-season will improve strength and result in fewer overuse injuries like stress fractures and the various conditions of “itis” like Plantar Fasciitis and Achilles Tendonitis. Additionally, focusing on improving Relative Strength will increase strength without gaining weight, which means there shouldn’t be any worry about slowing down due to an increase in weight.

The second component to understand is that there are roughly 15 different strength classifications. Let’s focus on four of them. First, keep in mind that strength is expressed by the force that’s generated by the neuro-muscular system. 

F = M x A (Force equals Mass times Acceleration.)

To increase strength (force), you can either work on increasing the weight (mass) or increasing the speed (acceleration). When you increase the mass, the exercise speed is slower because it’s harder to move the heavier weight fast and vice versa. Understanding this will help you understand the difference between the following four strength classifications.

Maximal Strength - This is the maximum force a muscle or muscle group is able to produce in a single “voluntary” contraction regardless of the speed of movement. An example of maximal strength would be performing a squat with a weight that only allows you to successfully complete one repetition, regardless of how long it takes you to perform it.

Absolute Strength - The ability to produce the greatest amount of force regardless of body weight and time. This type of strength is dictated by overall bodyweight. Think of the force a 350-pound football lineman who runs a 4.5 second 40-yard dash will generate vs. a 175-pound wide receiver who runs at the same speed. The overall mass of the 350-pound lineman will produce twice the force as the 175-pound receiver will because his weight (mass) is double at the same speed. 

Relative Strength - The ability to produce the greatest amount of force regardless of time and takes into consideration body weight. This means being as strong as possible at a specific body weight. This type of strength gets you stronger without increasing muscle or “getting bigger.” 

Strength Endurance - The ability of a muscle or muscle group to perform strength exercises of long duration. Most bodybuilding workouts, boot camps and popular programs like P90X, insanity and Crossfit develop this type of strength. 

The Key Variables in Strength Training Program

When you can put aside these myths, you can look more clearly at the specific exercise variables that comprise an exercise program. These variables will dictate the type of strength that you will develop in your program and the results that you’ll achieve. Let’s focus on the two most important variables for strength training.

•   Volume (repetitions to failure, sets, and intensity)  

•   Rest intervals 

Repetitions to failure means the total number of repetitions you complete when your muscles come to momentary failure and you are unable to complete another rep in proper form. A key point to remember: the lower the number of repetitions (1-6 rep range), the more nervous system adaptations occur. The higher the repetitions, the more muscle tissue adaptations occur.  

Sets are the total number of times you perform a specific number of exercises.

Intensity is typically indicated by the weight that is used, but this is incorrect. In strength training, it’s dictated by what strength expert Charles Poliquin calls your “one repetition maximum continuum”. Your 1RM is the weight at which you can complete only one repetition to failure. The 1RM continuum is “the relationship between the total number of repetitions completed to your 1 repetition maximum.” The closer you work toward your 1 RM, the more intense the workout. What’s important to understand here is that the weight is not as important as the repetitions to failure. For example, if someone could lift 10,000 lbs. 12-15 times, the weight would not be considered heavy or “intense.”

Rest periods consist of the total time you rest between sets of an exercise. The amount of time chosen dictates the specific goal you are trying to achieve with your exercise program. When trying to increase the size of a muscle, you want to use shorter rest periods (1 minute or less) between sets. When trying to increase strength without increasing the size of the muscle, you want to rest longer (3-5 minutes). 

Customizing a Program for Desired Results

When trying to increase the size of a muscle, you need to bring the muscle to momentary failure (most commonly between 10-12 repetitions), allow for minimal recovery (short rest periods), then fatigue the muscle again. This causes a breakdown of the muscle tissue, causing it to repair itself and become bigger.

Second, the shorter the rest period (30-60 seconds) between sets, the more the body will produce lactate (what causes the tightness or burn when you work out). The longer the rest period (3-5 minutes), the less lactate will be produced. This is important because studies have shown that the more lactate that accumulates, the more the body will naturally increase muscle building and fat burning hormones (e.g. testosterone and growth hormone) post-workout. As a side note, women do not get the same amount of testosterone release but do experience similar growth hormone production.

Note that the nervous system takes five to six times longer to recover than the muscular system. This is the main reason why you want to rest longer (3-5 minutes) between sets when you are lifting heavy to maximal (1-5 repetitions to failure) intensities. If you don’t rest long enough, lactate will develop, causing your muscles to fatigue and your nervous system to fire inefficiently.

Choosing appropriate rest intervals and changing the number of repetitions to failure are the two most commonly underestimated components of workouts! This is why a structured, periodized program that takes people through various repetition ranges, progressing through the various strength classifications will always allow the body to maximize results and get you to the specific goals you want! It’s exactly the thought process behind the structured Alpha Training workouts.

Finally, do not begin a heavy strength training workout without first mastering the movements and building up the necessary tolerance over time. It’s highly recommended that you reach out to a health and fitness professional to make sure you're ready! If you have been resistance training for over a year and doing the same workouts or repetition ranges for extended periods, you may want to change it up a bit. Try lifting some heavy weight for a few weeks. You’ll be surprised at what might happen!

Are you interested in developing your resistance training program for better results? Talk to a health and fitness professional today!

In health, Jason Stella, National Brand Developer--Fitness

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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