Strength Programs

Let's talk neurons. I know I've spent the past nineteen chapters focusing on the way lifting increases muscle mass and reduces body fat. But when the conversation shifts to strength, it helps to put an emphasis on your nerve cells, since much of your ability to lift ever-heavier objects starts there.

A bit of physiology:

Your skeletal muscles are organized as motor units. You may think of your biceps, for example, as a single entity that does your bidding when you bend your elbow, but in reality its hundreds of thousands of muscle cells are divided up into motor units— teams of fibers that follow the orders of a single nerve cell. A motor unit could, in theory, be as simple as one muscle fiber acting on the commands of a single nerve cell. The smaller the muscle (such as those in your eyes), the smaller the motor units. The bigger the muscle, the bigger the motor units, so nerve cells in your quadriceps and gluteals could control hundreds of fibers.

When you start a weight-lifting program, your body first has to learn how to do the exercises. It does that by calling in more and more motor units to help execute the lifts. In business schools, it's taught as the "Oh, crap, we need more help here" model.

(Just kidding. I have no idea what they teach in business schools, other than "Pay yourself more and everyone else less.")

That simple biceps curl might involve a weeks-long adaptation process for your body as it throws more and more motor units into action to make the exercise less of a strain on the motor units initially employed. You goose this along by using heavier and heavier weights. As soon as your body thinks it has the exercise figured out, it has to use more motor units because you've made the movement harder.

Finally, when your body has thrown every possible motor unit into action, it shifts to Plan B: making your muscles bigger. That's your goal, of course, but your body is going to do everything it can to resist it. Muscle tissue is metabolically expensive, and your body is designed for economy. You're thinking "Ferrari Testarossa" while it's thinking "Toyota Prius."

The book Designing Resistance Training Programs has a chart that explains it this way: During the first week or two of training, almost 100 percent of the gains you make on your lifts come from neural factors. Hypertrophy gradually comes into play; perhaps ten to twelve weeks into a program, increased muscle size accounts for about half your strength gains.

From that point, your size and strength improvements will have a rough correlation. You probably won't gain much strength unless you get bigger, although the converse isn't necessarily true. (It's possible to get bigger without getting stronger; exercise scientists call it "nonfunctional hypertrophy.")

But after about two years of hard and continuous training, added size will be much harder to attain. So, to continue gaining strength, your body will again look to its neural system.

Let me put that another way, and stray from the science a bit to put it in anecdotal terms:

When you're just starting out, you can use more weight week after week because your neural system keeps getting better at performing the exercises. Soon enough, your muscles will start getting bigger, and they'll continue getting bigger as you continue getting stronger.

And then your body hits a wall. It's gotten as big and strong as it can from the standard playbook. Let's say this occurs two years into a program for a serious, physically mature lifter. For a more recreational lifter, it might take five years. For me, it took almost thirty. (I think I mentioned my tragic aversion to squats and deadlifts.)

At that point, in my experience, it pays to focus on strength-building techniques— which is to say, pursue pure strength. It's possible to get stronger without gaining any more muscle mass; weight-class athletes do this all the time. But my guess, based on my own experience, is that most of us aren't really as maxed out as we think we are, in terms of size. We've gotten all the gains we can squeeze out of conventional bodybuilding programs, but pure strength is the undiscovered country. For most of us, that new strength will produce new muscle mass.

If you're an experienced lifter but haven't yet hit that wall, you can probably expect phenomenal muscle growth from Alwyn's Strength programs. Let the record show that I'm jealous.

Obviously, these aren't workouts for the meek or inexperienced. You'd be crazy to jump right into weight lifting with programs like these. But if you're one of the millions of lifters who've done everything but focused on pure strength, you're in for a very pleasant surprise.

The Basics Of Body Building

The Basics Of Body Building

Bodybuilding is the process of developing muscle fibers through various techniques. It is achieved through muscle conditioning, weight training, increased calorie intake, and resting your body as it repairs and heals itself, before restarting your workout routine.

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