I was down in the dumps this last summer. I felt like I wasn’t making any headway in life, or doing anything particularly noteworthy that would change that situation. I don’t know how other people deal with depression, but whenever it happens to me I usually start looking up new subjects and reading my way out of it.
Coincidentally however, what I read in those books reinforced a hobby of mine I had pursued only intermittently – weight training. By focusing more on that, it helped me make huge leaps and strides elsewhere in my life (which is the topic of another article).
Until that point though, whenever I went to the gym it was always as an amateur. I’d lift weights but with no real technique, strategy or plan in mind. Since I was so undirected, I’d always stop as soon as life became a bit inconvenient and lose all my gains. This time around I decided to do some research, and I think a high level overview could benefit other people too!
First, there are three types of training, with results documented in individual studies led by doctors Schoenfeld (2014, 2015), Weiss (2000) and Campos (2002).
- Strength Training
- Muscle Gain Training (Hypertrophic training)
- Endurance Training
As the name suggests, strength training focuses on increasing your power. You do fewer repetitions of any given exercise (3-5 reps per attempt) but at a higher weight, waiting around 3-5 minutes between attempt. This is great for increasing the total amount of weight that you can move, and it can be faster than other methods as you are doing fewer reps. If you are training for a strongman competition or the Olympics, this is the technique you would use.
The primary issue with strength training is the risk of injury. If you try lifting a lot of weight and have bad form, you are very likely to hurt yourself and be forced to take months off for recovery. This is why you should avoid ever finding out what your 1 rep max limit is – i.e. how much can you lift only once. While its often mentioned online, people who try training at that threshold often tear muscles and ligaments and end up at the hospital getting surgery to fix them. Be smart about your lifting!
A second form of strength training is for muscle size, also known as hypertrophic training. This is where you lift a moderate amount of weight for a max of 8-12 repetitions, with a 1-2 minute break in between. This is the form of training used by body builders and has a variety of benefits.
First, the size and tone of your muscles will grow as this technique maximizes the time spent under significant muscular tension – the key words there being the amount of time and the amount of tension. Strength training has a lot of tension but low time, and endurance training has a lot of time, but low tension. Hypertrophic training is in the sweet spot between the two and best triggers your body to release the blood and nutrients needed for muscles to grow.
Second, since you are lifting less weight you are less likely to hurt yourself if your form isn’t perfect. This is the form of training that I use and I can personally state that I’ve only hurt myself once in the last seven months of lifting 6-7x a week.*
Third, this method also maximizes the amount of weight that you lift – not per attempt, but over an entire series. For example, if you can lift 100lbs three times, then the total weight you’ve lifted is 300lbs. However, if you can lift 80lbs five times, then you’ve lifted 400lbs total. Hypertrophic training then is the safest, most effective way to lift a large amount of weight.
There are only two major drawbacks associated with this technique as far as I can tell. The first is that it takes a LOT of time in the gym. You can become really strong with this technique and can train for a long time…but it will require you to fill those hours. This technique is great, but can require some lifestyle changes. **
Secondly, by repeating the same exercise more frequently, your muscles will eventually adapt to the stress and stop growing. You need to vary up your exercises so that you can keep tricking your body into believing that it is stressed out and needs to build more muscle for you to survive your environment.
The final technique is endurance training. With this technique you use a light weight to perform a large number of repetitions (12+) of any given exercise. This method is great if you are focusing on performing an activity at a high level for specific lengths of time. It’s also useful for situations where you need to outlast the competition, or are in life or death event.
For example, a boxer fighting in a ring for 12 rounds, at 3 minutes a round, can be in combat for 36 minutes. If you can’t knock someone out, then whoever tires first will get their butt kicked when their opponent still has the energy to outmaneuver and outpunch them. This holds true in many other martial arts.
The only real downside of this technique is that you will be spending a lot of time in the gym without seeing significant strength gain or muscle size gain. That said, if you are more concerned about scaling a mountain than looking good in a mirror, that may be the ideal you want anyways. Strength is important for everybody to have, but the amount you need is really up to your vision of your ideal self. ***
Another key part of weight training – and one I personally need the most work on! – is the dietary requirements. The average person needs .7 grams of protein per pound of body weight every day to maintain muscles mass. You need 1g of protein per pound every day to actually put on muscle. That sounds straightforward enough, but it’s MUCH harder to achieve in practice than you’d expect.
I am 5’10” and if my goal is to weigh 180lbs I would need to eat 180g of protein every day. You can get 8g of protein from every ounce of lean meat that you eat, but even eating meat for lunch and dinner only gets me about ½ to 2/3 of the way there. You need to fight for protein from every source. You need to drink milk. You need to eat eggs, nuts, and nutrient heavy vegetables like broccoli. Protein shakes (using whey) are an absolute necessity to hit the mark.
Ironically enough then, the hardest part of weight training isn’t in the gym, but in the kitchen. You need to fight to get enough protein as possible, and fight to get rid of as much fat as possible. You can do a million sit-ups, but if you’re eating ice cream every night you will never get six pack abs. To get the most out of weight training, you really need to stop eating processed foods and go for their natural or low fat equivalents
(fruit, nuts, vegetables). In my effort I’ve stopped eating muffins for breakfast, ice cream for dessert and candy for whenever I felt like it. I switched over to zero calorie soda and dropped my 1% milk for skim milk. When I let myself cheat, it’s with carefully measured low fat potato chips. Even if I can’t eliminate fat entirely from my diet, I can minimize it, and over time my body will burn off the fat and shrink.
Knowing this information my weight training & life has made tremendous gains. When I look at my records I can lift 2-3x as much now as I could 6 months ago. I actually feel powerful, that I have way more strength than I actually need in my everyday life, and that sense of abundance is a fantastic feeling. It may take some work, but everyone should have it if they can.
*That injury came in the first week or two that I started, as I was doing a decline dumbbell press. I just didn’t know how to correctly move weights into position.
** To put it in perspective, when Arnold Schwarzenneger was lifting weights competitively he would train for two hours in the morning, 2 hours in the evening, for 6 days a week. That’s 24 hours in the gym every week for months on end before a contest. That’s huge! It’s also a big reason why you should never worry about becoming too muscular like Arnold. It doesn’t just happen by “accident”.
***Please note: regardless of your personal goals, all men should have some hypertrophic training in their repertoire. Why do this if you’re not planning on being a body builder? Because it’s the body type women are most attracted to. This is the subject for another post, but if you don’t believe me just do a google image search for “women’s romance novels”.