Did you know that there is a lot more that goes into getting stronger than just getting bigger muscles? In fact, there are some people who would love to get stronger, but specifically do not want bigger muscles (for example if they compete in a sport with a weight category). Two critical factors to getting stronger that have nothing to do with bigger muscles are 1) strength of contraction, and 2) eliminating energy leaks. Read on to learn a bit more about each.
STRENGTH OF CONTRACTION
What is probably the most important aspect of strength training is teaching your muscles to contract harder. How hard your muscles can contract actually has almost nothing to do with how big they are. If you want to increase how hard you can contract your muscles it requires a few things, including mind-to-muscle connection, sufficient load, and of course effort.
It is hard to contract a muscle to its full potential if you have not developed a strong mind-to-muscle connection. It is easier to develop this connection for some muscle groups than it is for others. For example, your biceps tend to be pretty straight forward and most people have an easy time with mind-to-muscle connection. Your lats, on the other hand, are often more difficult. As a generalization the muscles you cannot see in the mirror tend to be a bit more difficult, and benefit from extra mindfulness during training.
Another important factor is having sufficient load. In most cases this means how much external weight you are lifting. If the load is too light you will never tap into your full potential when it comes to teaching your muscles to contract harder.
When you combine a good mind-muscle connection with sufficient load and a high effort level you will get two highly desirable outcomes:
First, you will build more contractile fibers inside of your muscles. This is known as myofibrillar hypertrophy. I will not go into a lot of detail on this, but myofibrillar hypertrophy is different than sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, which is what most people are familiar with. The latter is a development of physically bigger muscles, which actually has very little to do with how hard a muscle can contract. The former is the adaption of more contractile protein within the muscle and has everything to do with how strong of a contraction your muscles can produce.
A good way to think about this is as if your muscles were a bag of potato chips. Most brands of potato chips have a reputation for having a large bag that is only half-full of actual chips. Imagine that the bag itself is the outside layer of your muscle, the thing that holds it all together. The actual potato chips that are in the bag are the contractile fibers that make your muscles functional – the things that actually generate movement. If you were to take the same amount of potato chips and put them in an EVEN BIGGER bag you would have some really unhappy customers – that concept is akin to sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. If you were to take the original bag and fill it all the way up to capacity with potato chips you would have some very happy customers – and that is akin to myofibrillar hypertrophy … you get more of the good stuff in the same sized package.
By default, your muscles have a fair bit of room left inside of them which can be filled up with more functional contractile fibers. When you train with heavy weights on a regular basis it helps “fill up” your muscles with more of these functional fibers; this, in turn, helps you become stronger. This is incredibly important to understand for people who want to get stronger but may not want to get bigger – for example if they participate in a sport that has weight categories and they do not want to move up to a heavier category.
The other beneficial adaptation that happens is to your nerves. Your muscles are all controlled by your nerves, and just like your muscles adapt to the training you expose them to, so do your nerves. How hard your muscles can contract is largely regulated by your nervous system. When you consistently train with heavy weights your nerves will adapt by being able to send stronger and stronger signals to your muscles, telling them to contract harder than they used to be able to.
A quick summary up to this point:
- Myofibrillar hypertrophy –> increased POTENTIAL for stronger contractions because you have more contractile fibers in the muscle
- Nervous system adaptations –> increased ability to REACH YOUR POTENTIAL because you can contract existing fibers harder and stronger
- The combination of these two will give you impressive strength gains
Note that for both of these adaptations (myofibrillar hypertrophy and the nervous system adaptations) you need frequent exposure to heavy weight training. Lifting light weights for high reps, or circuit training / boot camp style workouts will not get the job done here. Those modalities may provide benefits in other areas, but not when it comes to these adaptations.
ELIMINATING ENERGY LEAKS
Imagine you are tasked with splitting a bunch of wood with an axe. Visualize the axe in your mind. I bet that you visualized the axe with a solid wood handle – which would make sense because that is how pretty much every axe is made. I doubt anyone would imagine an axe with a flimsy rubber handle – that would be a terrible, non-functional axe. You could not chop any wood at all with an axe that had a flimsy handle.
When you swing the axe powerfully it has a lot of kinetic energy behind it. If the axe had a sturdy wooden handle as it is supposed to, then all of that kinetic energy would be transferred into the wood, and the wood would split – you get the desired outcome. If, however, your axe had the flimsy rubber handle, then all that kinetic energy would be lost into the movement of the handle – and thus you would not achieve the desired outcome of actually splitting the wood.
In the fitness industry we call this concept of the flimsy axe handle an “energy leak.” The kinetic energy that you had intended to go to a certain purpose (splitting wood or lifting a weight) is lost somewhere in the kinetic chain, so the desired result is not achieved – or, at least it is more difficult to achieve the desired result due to the inefficiency.
In fitness the most common energy leaks are in the midsection – the muscles of the abdomen, sides, and lower back. We often call this area the “core” of the body. When your core cannot brace and stabilize enough to eliminate this unwanted movement – it cannot eliminate the energy leaks – then it puts a massive damper on your ability to display your strength in the same way the flimsy axe handle dampens your ability to split wood. So, the other key to getting stronger is to eliminate any energy leak in the kinetic chain. Again, the most common location for energy leaks is in the core.
Two big fixes for this can be A) direct core training, and B) using full body, compound, unsupported exercises.
Most people are familiar with direct core training. You can do your planks, deadbugs, hollow position, ab wheel roll outs and so on to strengthen your core muscles.
As far as the other one, it is a bit more info that is within the scope of this article. However, a brief synopsis is that it behooves you to do the lion’s share of your training in an “unsupported” environment. What I mean by this is not being reliant on using seated, selectorized machines like leg extensions, leg curls, leg press, seated chest press, seated biceps curl, and so on. All of these may work some of your “prime mover” muscles but they do not sufficiently integrate your core into the exercise. Without training your body to INTEGRATE your core into your exercises, you will never train yourself to eliminate the energy leaks.
When you train with us in person, in your very first session we’ll go over drills with you to help develop core strength and eliminate energy leaks. To learn more about how to start training with us click the button below: