Your Muscles Are Amazing!
There are many reasons why people involved in regular fitness activities tend to be so much happier and more physiologically and emotionally resilient than people who do little or no exercise. As you exercise to the point that your body needs to build more muscle tissue, your metabolism and muscle physiology changes. That probably seems obvious, but the science behind this is very inspiring and motivating. Muscle cells need a lot of energy to grow. They require a lot of protein and growth hormones to rebuild themselves and make stronger muscles fibers, but they also need to burn a lot of glucose and fatty acids in the process.
When you exercise regularly, especially with resistance training, your muscle cells become hungry for your blood sugar (glucose) which regulates hypoglycemia. You may be familiar with those energy crashes that make us become the least friendly version of ourselves, especially around 3 or 4 in the afternoon. Regulating your blood sugar is essential to both physical and emotional health. In order to exercise vigorously, you will need to use your adrenal hormones, which literally burns off the feelings of nervousness and oppression that come from day-to-day stressors. This is a simplified description of some complicated physiology, but you are most likely aware of the benefits of burning off some adrenaline or “blowing off some steam”.
As you exercise more intensely, your body will also start secreting more Human Growth Hormone (HGH), which not only helps your muscles grow but tells your whole body and mind to feel energized, nourished and creative. Of course, you have to eat enough healthy, real food to support all of this positive chemistry. Regular resistance training has also been shown to lower cholesterol (muscle membranes are made of cholesterol), lower blood pressure, as well as improve sleep and libido (sex drive). Being in good shape alleviates depression and anxiety, as well as improves immunity and lymphatic function.
The most profound benefit of being physically fit is the change in your overall attitude. Once you have gained some momentum and are seeing some positive results you become the positive and empowered person you know is inside you; you become the person with enough self-love, creative energy and purpose to move towards what you want in life with a sense of confidence, enjoyment, and ease.
It is a common misconception that your muscles are just a contracting tissue that is made up of mostly proteins. As it turns out, your muscles, just like your liver, function as an organ that helps to regulate your mood, energy levels, and your metabolism. Their ability to regulate the rest of your metabolism, the rate at which you age, and your ability to recover from most illnesses will become amazing.
Your muscles are also a bit like a car engine. If you don’t get much exercise you could say that you are driving around with a small four-cylinder engine. If you are in good shape and are physically active you are getting around with a nice six-cylinder engine. If you are in the gym or at the pool or hiking in the mountains or running or cycling at least three times per week you are driving around with a powerful eight-cylinder gas burning engine. I feel compelled to acknowledge that this is a terrible metaphor with respect to the environment but my point is really about your metabolism. You will live longer and maintain a healthier lean muscle mass to body fat ratio if your muscle engine of the V8 variety.
A more scientific way to explain this essential aspect of muscle function is that each of your muscle cell’s available effort is limited by the number of mitochondria and the ratio of specific reflexive muscle fibers that it has. Muscle cells that have little exposure to regular effort will naturally have the minimum of mitochondria and reflex fibers. Before I get into this I want to make sure we are on the same page. Mitochondria are like the spark plugs in the engine of your car. They take oxygen and fuel and combust it into energy. The more mitochondria each cell has the more fuel it will burn. Each of your muscles has a few different kinds of reflexive fibers in them. There are slow twitch, fast twitch and very fast twitch fibers. Slow twitch fibers are used for long term activities like walking that can last for hours and very fast twitch fibers deal with intense physical reactions that can only be sustained for a few seconds.
Certain kinds of exercise, like high repetition resistance training, will increase the number of mitochondria in each of your muscle cells. The more spark plugs in the cell the more fuel it can burn every day. When you are trying to burn off some extra pounds this is a great way to get started. If you focus on high intensity resistance training where you try and exhaust each muscle in under a minute you will build those elusive very fast twitch muscle fibers. A funny thing about the different kinds of reflex fibers is that they all have a different cross sectional area. Let’s say that the slow twitch fibers are the size of your little finger and the fast twitch fibers are the size of your index and middle finger combined and the very fast twitch fibers are as big around as your wrist. As you build those very fast twitch fibers your muscles are going to start getting bigger pretty fast. As well, the process of building of those bigger muscles is going to use up a lot of energy. In fact, your body will continue to burn calories of glucose, protein and fat for at least 36 hours after a good workout.
If you decide to go hardcore and get into actual body building style exercise then you will need to focus on lower repetitions and higher weights. In fact, you will need to use weights so heavy that you can only lift them about ten times before you start losing control of your posture. This is what bodybuilders call being strict. If your form (posture and movement) begin to fail then you are at the limit of that exercise. I can honestly say that I have seen many people lifting a weight more times than they should have. Their backs are arched, their shoulders are lifted and their breathing is out of control. I am not being judgmental, I am just aware that your nervous system remembers the last three repetitions as your actual capacity as an athlete.
Core Strength is Essential
Your core muscles are basically all of the muscles between you ribcage and your femur, which is the bone of your upper leg. Your core muscles determine how much weight you can lift with your arms and legs safely. As well, a strong core ensures good posture and body mechanics when standing, walking and running. The opposite is also true; a weak core can allow the alignment and mechanics of your spine, pelvis and legs to become structurally out of balance, creating the conditions for many potentially painful and chronic problems. Strengthening your core muscles will radically decrease how prone you are to injury.
Increasing the strength of your muscles is probably the least complicated way to improve your health. Just pick things up and put them down. Simple and fun – eventually. Strength training improves your circulation and your metabolism; it is also a great way to assess the health of your internal organs, especially your liver and kidneys. If you start to strengthen your body and find that your recovery is slow and torturous then it is time to talk to your health care provider about why and what you can do about it. If you start training and recover after a few days of normal discomfort then you have the green light to commit to regular and thorough exercise.
When I begin training a new athlete, a patient or am going back into a cycle of training myself I use a process that is very effective and works very quickly for almost everyone. This process has three stages and takes about three months to implement. Besides resistance training it includes stretching, specific nutritional support and a lot of stretching, resting and sleeping. Below is a description of the strength training process I recommend.
Stage One – Interval Circuit Training
An average time for most people just getting back into shape should be about 20-40 minutes per workout. You will want to extend yourself in effort (appropriately) until you feel a satisfying sense of fatigue, not exhaustion. This should take at least 20 minutes, so don’t rush yourself or overdo it. Start with something you know that you can do and then focus your intention on breathing and coordination. Only add more to your routine if you are not noticeably and physically tired after each session.
Interval Circuit Training is a process of choosing a set amount of time of active and focused exercise and predetermined and consistent time of rest. For example, I recommend starting with 45 seconds of a specific exercise like biceps curls, bench presses or crunches and then allowing 15 seconds to rest and move on to the next exercise. A circuit is a pre-organized series of exercises that you have predetermined and planned out in a set order. If you are new to resistance training, especially circuit training, you will need to do some preparation. If you at a public Gym you will need to choose a time when it is not too crowded. To set up your circuit, go around the Gym with your list of exercises and set up the equipment to the weight you feel you can lift repeatedly, safely, but strenuously for 45 seconds. This only takes a few minutes.
Once you are ready to begin, warm up with some stretching, core strengthening exercises and a few minutes on a stationary bike or rowing machine. You want to get your body ready for some committed and focused training mentally while getting your blood flowing. Unless you want to watch the clock (or your wrist watch) for most of your workout you will also need to download and interval timer. Just search High Intensity Interval Timer and you will find several free options that you can load onto your phone.
Ideally you should focus on Interval Circuit Training for at least three weeks. If you feel that this is all you can do then keep it up.
Stage Two – Tabata Torsion Training
Tabata training was developed in Japan about 20 years ago. This kind of training improves stamina and strength profoundly with little risk of losing muscle mass. Tabata training follows a high intensity of effort for 20 seconds and then rest for 10 seconds. Repeat for eight sets or 4 minutes total. Wait at least 2 minutes before starting the next exercise. I like to use the Tabata system of high intensity interval training to not only build fast twitch muscle fibers, but to also for on the cross connections of the muscles of the whole body.
This brings up an interesting aspect of resistance training. When you are lifting weights you are either doing an isolated exercise or a compound exercise. An isolated exercise means you are only working one muscle which most likely to happen on the big machines that are designed specifically for that purpose. Isolated exercise is great when you are trying to make a certain muscle stronger. Compound exercises cover as many joints and muscles as possible and often require recovering the momentum of the weight you are lifting.
With Tabata Torsion Training the focus is on compound exercises that require torsion or twisting of your trunk and pelvis. This kind of training creates whole body coordination as well as amazing core strength. It is also exhausting and I wouldn’t recommend doing more than five exercises (20 minutes) of this kind of training. Below is a few examples.
Stage Three – Technical Body Building
So, let’s get into the basics of bodybuilding. Essentially, if you want to maximize muscular and metabolic growth you have to stress each muscle to failure consistently. In my opinion it is best to choose failure of strict and correct posture movements instead of failure of the ability to do another repetition.
A good warm up for each exercise starts with 15-20 reps with a weight that is about half of the weight you plan on lifting to failure. Then it is time to seriously train and strain (pain and gain) the muscle group you are focusing on. Choose a weight you can lift about 8 – 10 times with your upper body and 12 – 15 times with your lower body. Wait until you feel ready and then do another set to failure of form. Continue until you have completed 6-8 sets of that exercise. It should take you about two weeks to work up to 10 sets. When focusing on bodybuilding, if you can do 10 sets of 10 reps, it is time to increase the weight you are lifting.
Because of the intensity of this kind of training I only recommend doing two or three workouts per week at first, focusing mostly on major muscle groups and specifically the muscles that will improve overall symmetry and postural structure. Focus on five or six exercises
per region, about 6-8 sets for each. This will require at least 40 minutes in the Gym or at home. If your find that you feel shaky about 20 minutes after your workout, please reduce your number of sets. The “shakes” after a workout are due to excessive adrenaline, which can interfere with both muscle gain and fat loss.
For most people, it takes a couple workouts to figure out the weight for each exercise.