Everything Is Easier If You’re Stronger

Posted on January 5, 2014

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pull-ups

Quick update: The lack of posts here has been directly correlated to the work that went into my buy-out of a partner to make me sole owner of my gym, ProKine, the coordination of my online strength training program that is starting now, and the remake of this website into something I’m hugely proud of…it rolls out sometime soon…no idea when though as I’ve let go of attachment to deadlines 😉 Hope you’re well as 2014 starts! And now, a little something regarding fitness…
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To get physically strong, your muscles must receive resistance, then respond to it. Imagine trying to cover the distance required on the race day of an Ironman triathlon or squat the maximum weight needed for 1st place in a lifting competition on Day 1 of training. It would be impossible! But if you create the right progressions in your training, almost as if by magic (except not, because, science) you steadily become more and more capable of performing the ‘competition day’ requirements. Adaptation, FTW!

Having worked with a heavy rotation of endurance athletes in the last five years, I wanted to discuss here what is required to build the work capacity to perform an endurance event on race day. It may seem clear already, but the training for an endurance event is such that work capacity can go up, way up, from where it is at the start of training. So what is the work capacity of a muscle dependent on?  A few things:

1) The ability of the muscle to contract for an extreme amount of repetitions at a very low resistance

One would assume then that the ideal way to strengthen the body for such activities is to do only strength training that is bodyweight and high-rep endurance in nature. I can totally see how one would think that, but the reality is, it’s not true, as Brian Tabor so eloquently puts it in his post on the topic:

Training in lower rep ranges will allow an athlete to develop strength without hypertrophy because the training is predominantly neurological. The athlete begins to learn to contract the working muscle groups with greater force and efficiency, getting stronger without getting bigger or heavier.

And on why an endurance athlete needs to be stronger, Brian continues:

Simply said, the harder the athlete is running the greater the cost. So if two endurance athletes are identical in all skills, qualities, and attributes, but one athlete is stronger, the stronger athlete will be able to produce the same levels of force, but at a lower energy cost and thus has better economy. It takes less effort relative to their maximum effort to perform each stride they make in the race. This means that if the two athletes were to run at the same speed the stronger athlete will be able to perform longer before they are exhausted, or if they both run for the same time the stronger athlete will be able to run faster for the given time. [Brian’s full post on the this topic]

2) A dialed in nervous system & coordinated interplay between opposing muscle groups

I cannot say it any better than my friend Jamie does here:

Muscles are entirely a slave to the nervous system, in the same way that the brightness of a light bulb is a slave to having electricity supplied to it.  On the basis of neuromuscular adaptations(ie the brain’s connection to the muscle), as opposed to simply making muscles bigger, we can exact large increases in strength and power by the way the nervous system co-ordinates and fires a muscle (or group of muscles) with minimal increases in muscle size.

For example, the quads provide a significant amount of power to each pedal stroke on a bike (not as much as the glutes, which hardly anyone seems to have these days [yet another rant for another time]).  If the quads contract at high forces, repetitively, without a good co-contraction from the hamstring group of muscles, this can create an imbalance of forces across the knee joint and cause problems.  Your nervous system understands and monitors this better than you do and will put the handbrake on how hard you can fire your quads if your hamstrings aren’t up to spec to balance the power out.  If you want more power out of your quads, you need to strengthen your hamstrings (see reciprocal inhibition).  So exercises such as heavy deadlifts become better options than simply performing leg extensions.  All of this is manipulation of the neuromuscular system.
 [Jamie’s full article on the topic, plus more on cycling]

 

3) Having durable soft tissue, ligaments, tendons & bones helps ensure your body holds up to the forces that months of training and the rigors of competition day produce

Strength training doesn’t just strengthen your muscles – it also strengthens every part of your skeleton, and having a strong structure means less risk of breaking the structure. The waters are murky when trying to absolutely correlate ‘muscular weakness’ to ‘body breakdowns’, due to the vast array of factors that could contribute to why breakdowns and ‘itis’-type issues arise. However, it’s my personal observation that things break down quicker on weaker bodies.

Think about it – if you have a strong body, then you have the structural support to move through your required movements for sport and life, and thus you’re going to have more reps of said movement available before you start exhausting the system. An exhausted system is one that will cheat the movement, and when the body cheats a movement, it’s the soft tissue, ligaments, tendons, and bones that take the brunt of it. Stress fractures, plantar fasciitis, ITB syndrome, low back pain, herniated discs…these are just a few injuries that, I believe, have some connection to having continued doing work when the muscular system wasn’t supporting things optimally anymore and the body looked elsewhere to generate movement, power, and support.

To wrap-up this post on the merits of strength training, in particular for endurance athletes:

  • We’ve covered the reasons why high-rep (and yes, 10 reps is considered ‘high-rep’ in the studies I looked at) strength work isn’t the best option for building work capacity.
  • We’ve looked at why areas opposite to the ones you’d think you need the most strength may actually be the ones that need more focused strength work.
  • And we’ve noted the value of having ideal joint range of motion for reducing excessive work just to move the joint and excessive wear & tear on the joints themselves.

And now, in a throwback to most of my grade-school book reports…I end with this simple conclusion –

In summary: everything is easier if you’re stronger.

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Posted in: fitness