Tag Archives: Building muscle

How Muscle can help you burn fat!

This article is geared a little more towards female training but equally applies to men. Traditional weight training is linked with the development of bulky muscles, useful in contact sports where body mass and increased strength can be very beneficial. A muscular physique is usually associated with as being masculine and heavy. As a result many females avoid weight training like the plague. They favour cardio training as a means to stay fit and keep body fat down. In many cases female athletes have had great success reducing bodyfat as caloric expenditure did lead to fat loss.

Most people want to achieve a “toned” physique. They often believe weight loss to be the main mechanism in which to achieve this desired look. Instead they simply achieve a skinny flat appearance lacking in shape. This can be identified in the controversial zero size model physique. Recently people have realized that shape comes from muscle underlying the fat. Simply losing fat does not create the physique one may desire.

This physique is not quite what most people look for. It is the product of fat loss with little lean muscle!

This physique is not quite what most people look for. It is the product of fat loss with little lean muscle!

The good news is that building muscle helps to burn fat. Lean body mass is made up of muscles, bones and ligaments. Muscle is considered a metabolically active tissue. This means that it is a consumer of energy. The more muscle you have the more total energy expenditure you will create. In addition weight training, depending on intensity, can burn just as many calories in a given time period as cardio training. The bonus is that when recovering from weight training we consume extra calories as muscle cells repair and recover. Growth and repair of cells has an energetic cost. Thus our overall metabolism increases helping to keep bodyfat levels down

For those worried about the bulky physique, they must consider the amount of training required to build muscle. It is a relatively slow process to gain muscle. Most experts will agree that 1 lb increase per week of lean muscle mass is about as good as one can expect without chemical assistance. This increase is also not usually consistent; over a year one may not expect to gain 52 lbs. There is also an increased water content in the body which may account for extra “scale weight” which is not necessarily muscle. The point is that athletes spend years actively trying to gain muscle and in some cases bulk up. It requires a lot of hard work in the gym and in the kitchen. Genetics also play a major part in how easy it is to gain muscle. One will not simply become bulky because one lifts weights. It will require a very focused effort over a long period of time.

The main lesson here is that building muscle is a key component in achieving a lean aesthetic physique. Many may find their weight loss can stall when using only cardio methods to lose fat. This is because your body can adjust its metabolism to meet energy intake. Focusing on building lean muscle tissue and supplying the nutrients required to do so can influence a shift towards body fat utilization. While diet is a key component, anyone looking to lose weight or “Tone up” needs to put time into developing lean muscle. It has great benefits to overall lifestyle as well as appearance. It will help make daily tasks much easier as you will become stronger and more efficient. Body composition is often much more important than body weight when it comes to physique.

Many female and male athletes are subject to body mass restrictions and targets. Often they avoid weight training as it has been traditionally stereotyped as a weight gain strategy. This is not in fact the case. It can be the tool that allows an athlete to achieve their desired weight while actually having a positive influence on their performance. One should establish whether or not they need to lose weight or in fact change their body composition. In the case of physique, muscle provides the shape and fat loss allows the shape to be displayed. Never neglect the benefits of weight training and lean muscle mass.

Complexes for fat burning!

There are many solutions for burning fat. The general theory is the energy balance, in the form of calories in, calories out. An energy or calorie deficit will undoubtedly lead to weight loss. The question is, will it create fat loss? Weight loss and energy balance are tricky as we assume that weight loss is in the form of fat. This is not always the case; energy usage is fairly unselective meaning it will burn both fat and reduce muscle. In fact, some suggest that during chronic energy deficit, muscle may be lost as part of a survival mechanism. The body adopts a philosophy where it looks to reduce energy consumption via muscle and retain energy stores ie. fat. This leads to a reduction in overall bodyweight but a retention of body fat.

In order to lose fat we must create a mild calorie deficit so as to avoid this survival mechanism and promote or at least retain lean muscle. One great method is through the use of complexes. Complexes string together a number of resistance exercises as a form of superset. The involvement of multiple muscle groups with little rest creates a large metabolic demand. The resistance aspect also promotes muscle adaptations and potential hypertrophy. By switching through movements one can use a relatively heavy weight as local muscle fatigue is reduced. Overall it ticks the boxes of what we try to achieve when looking to specifically target fat.

A complex can be relatively short and completed within a 10minute timeframe. It can be used effectively as a finisher style exercise at the end of a regular training session. It can also be combined with some traditional cardio to create a conditioning session.

Here are some examples of complexes.

Pure Complex

  • Barbell Deadlift
  • Barbell bent over row
  • Hang clean
  • Push press
  • Back squat

Rotate through the exercises for one rep and repeat 6 times for a full set

Conditioning Complex

Beastly circuits are a popular form created by ex Allblacks coach Ashley Jones

  • Barbell Deadlift
  • Barbell Row
  • Power Snatch
  • Overhead squat
  • Back squat

Complete 6 rounds then 3minutes on treadmill for one total set, repeat for 6 sets with no rest.

Excellent example of a barbell complex (Courtesy of www.defrancostraining.com)

Complexes are great for promoting lean muscle and muscular endurance. The fact that they burn a lot of calories is a major bonus. They should be used to promote fat burning where strength levels are a priority. Traditional cardio is also a popular method but may not support strength levels as effectively. Complexes can be a useful tool for athletes who must improve body composition but also maintain strength levels. They can also be used as a conditioning tool as it supports muscular power endurance which is beneficial to many sports.

A coach can be quite creative in structuring complexes but it must be noted that technique can be compromised under fatigue. Simple multi joint exercises are most effective; Olympic lifts and gymnastics should only be attempted with technically advanced athletes. They are an effective tool which can cover a lot of needs in a fairly time efficient manner.

HIIT, fat loss and muscle!

High intensity interval training (HIIT) is a very popular training method. When used correctly it effectively improves cardiovascular conditioning, burns fat and promotes new muscle growth. In addition a relatively short HIIT session is sufficient to elicit substantial performance gains. Like any training method, understanding the basic physiological principles will make a big help to using it effectively. This article will explain a bit about this type of training and some of the pitfalls to watch out for.

HIIT is popular because it is time effective. An individual can burn a lot of calories in a short space of time. As the name implies it is an intense form of exercise. Our energy systems function on a simple mechanism of energy charge. The rate of energy (Adenosine Triphosphate/ATP) utilization in the muscle cell must be matched by an energy supply system. Slow rate of energy expenditure during low intensity work is supported by oxidation. Oxidation supplies a lot of energy but at a slow rate. High intensity work is supplied by the glycolysis and phosphate systems which have a much faster supply. Supply must meet the demand. There is often a slight lag between utilization and supply. This means that even during rest intervals and post exercise energy consumption is still elevated. In simple terms our metabolism is increased and we continue to burn more calories than at normal rest conditions. For this reason even though a 20min session burns, for example 500kcals, energy expenditure is raised throughout the day. A low intensity session lasting one hour may burn 800kcal with minimal elevation in metabolisms for the rest of the day. For this reason HIIT may actually burn more calories on a daily basis. This is why it is so effective at fat burning.

HIIT can also be performed with a strength endurance element, supporting a leaner physique!

HIIT can also be performed with a strength endurance element, supporting a leaner physique!

In addition, the power output which is produced during the work period of HIIT is high. Higher power output during work periods are often effective in improving your conditioning. It also helps maintain strength and power simply by utilizing larger motor units. The main issue to consider with HIIT relates to energy supply. If we cannot supply the cells with adequate energy then they become damaged. This is known as metabolic stress. A certain degree of metabolic stress or damage can be reversed. This is what promotes new muscle growth. Moderate metabolic stress during training can, at times, be quite effective for promoting hypertrophy.

If we place too much stress on the muscle cells the damage can be irreparable. The cells will begin to die. When this happens on a regular basis muscle wastage can occur. It also places the body under larger amounts of general stress which will begin to impact on our immune system. There is a large list of potential health implications that this can eventually lead to.

Preventing this scenario is relatively easy but not always something we think about. One of the determinants to energy supply is our energy store. In the case of HIIT we need adequate stores of glycogen for an adequate supply of energy. If we do HIIT in a fasted state we are putting ourselves under severe metabolic stress, as there is little energy supply to fuel it. In addition the lack of energy will dramatically reduce performance so conditioning benefits may also be lost.

The take home message is this. Fuel up for intense exercise! Low intensity exercise can be done in a fasted state as the oxidative system works effectively to provide fuel. With intense exercise such as HIIT style training, you must have some glycogen stores or glucose in the bloodstream. If you are in a totally fasted, glycogen depleted state then consume some simple sugars close to training. By doing so you can maintain high intensity and reduce cell stress. You will still achieve an elevated metabolism that promotes fat burning. You also place the cells under just enough stress to help promote hypertrophy

It is important to understand training methods as the smallest oversight can cause more harm than good. HIIT is an effective tool but if it is not adequately fuelled it loses a lot of its benefits. It is a popular successful way to train and should be used in any program. Like any training method the process is the important part. It needs to be considered and managed properly in order to see the full benefit.

Our top 5 finishers to a strength workout!

Following on with our offseason theme I have decided to give out some our favourite strength workout finishers. When we go into the offseason period usually our volume of gym based training increases. After a while sessions can become a bit boring and monotonous. We recommend using finishers as a way to add some fun into a workout and provide a challenge that benefits towards the athletes goals. Here are some great ones to use when you have an athlete undertaking a hypertrophy program.

1) Density circuits:

These look to add volume in a short space of time but also play off the competitiveness of an athlete. Step 1 Pick two or three multi joint excises. You can use complex exercises with more experienced athletes but generally the simpler the better. Step 2 choose a reasonable time frame. Anywhere form 3-10mins should be sufficient. Step 3 choose a simple rep scheme that allows you to perform multiple rounds of your chosen exercise before the time runs up. As always technique must be the priority and the athlete should perform the reps at a speed which does not compromise form. Here is an example.

8 minutes of as many rounds as possible: 5 deadlifts @100kg, 5 Chin ups and 10 Pressups.

2) Chipper

The chipper concept was made popular by crossfit but is a nice way to add some simple volume in a fun way especially with a group of athletes. All you have to do is choose a simple multijoint exercise and a perform a large number of reps for time. Keep it simple so the athlete can concentrate on form. Having a group to compete with makes this pretty effective. Here is an example.

For time: 100 BW squats & 100pressups

3) Mega Drop sets

Drop sets are popular in the bodybuilding world as they are fantastic ways to fully fatigue a muscle group. We use mega drop sets to do the same thing with the added benefit of providing a little cardiovascular work into the mix. Pick a simple exercise that can be done for high reps with load. Chose a very high amount of reps to complete. Try and complete these reps as quickly as possible reducing the weight as necessary to maintain the pace you complete reps. For example.

200 rep leg press dropping 20kg every 50 reps.

4) The pyramid

This is one of our most utilized finishers. Usually done at the end of upper body sessions. The athlete performs one pressup and holds at the top for two seconds. He then performs 2 pressups and holds at the top for 2 seconds, then three reps and so on up to ten reps and back to zero, holding for 2 seconds between each rep cluster. Seems simple but will often be quite humbling to an elite athlete when they fail to do a pressup. We’ve never seen an athlete get to ten reps!!

5) Tabata medley

Tabata is 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off for 8 reps. A total of 4mins work. We chose 4 exercises and simply rotate through following the tabata timing so they are all completed twice. For example

Tabata of Pressups, Situps, Inverted row and Air squats.

While these options are pretty simple they can have a significant contribution to improvements made by an athlete. As long as the majority of they’re program follows a strict progression plan, small finishers will do no harm. Most of the time athletes look forward to these as it provides them with a little competition to keep them going in a non competitive portion of their annual program.

Stalled progress!!!!

There are times in our training when no matter how much effort we put in, progress seems to stall. Our natural inclination is to do more work. This is rarely the solution. We know that the body adapts well to stress stimuli. We use progressive overload programs to take advantage of this to make us stronger and fitter. If we use one training program for too long the abilities it focuses on will improve significantly up to a point. Over time weak links can appear as some abilities greatly exceed others. It may simply be caused by a lack of practice or perhaps a more physiological based reason.

There is an expression that says the best training program is the one you are not doing. We naturally tend to focus on the skills we have an aptitude for. We become addicted to progress and we generally progress best at things we have a natural disposition for, largely  because we enjoy doing them. The things we avoid or neglect do have a tendency to catch up to us and often hold us back.

For example an athlete may be training specifically for strength. They have a low rep high load program to do so. Initially there is great neural response and they become stronger without significant increases in muscle mass. Progress then stalls. They may try to force weight onto the bar during his lifts but does not successfully achieve the reps. They become frustrated because they are seeing no progress. The problem is not with the rep scheme. The problem lies in that they may have achieved maximum strength for their current muscle mass. Contractile strength is largely determined by the cross sectional mass of a given muscle. At this point they should look to increase mass and raise the level of force that they can produce. After addressing this they could return to a strength program and once again see steady progress.

In the case of endurance athletes it is not uncommon for them to perform large volume at low intensity early in a season to build stamina. When they go to race they may find that while they do possess good stamina, they lack high end pace for faster races and at the finish. Some assume this is a lack of fitness when it is in fact a lack of both power and sprint capacity. Spending some time focused on shorter sprints will allow them to have a higher ceiling of power that they can utilize during more intense stages of a race.

While these scenarios seem obvious on paper they are rarely easily identified by an athlete. When there is an emotional attachment to the training and performance it is easy to become distracted from the obvious. Coaches and athletes all have certain styles they favour and rarely venture too far from what they are used to. Often stagnation occurs due to lack of variety in their training.

The best way to overcome this is to have an appropriate testing procedure. Athletes and coaches must be analytical and honest with where they are and where they need to be. Things are often quite clear and the solution quite simple when regular testing is implemented. What is difficult is having the confidence to leave their comfort zone of training to address the problem. Endurance athletes in particular can be extremely hesitant to utilize strength training despite the benefits, which have been detailed in a previous article https://hamiltonsport.com/2015/03/16/weight-training-and-endurance-athletes/. A good athlete and coach need to have the confidence to address an issue even if it does not fit with their current training methodology. It is simply a waste of effort to continue when there is no progress being made. Identify what is missing and improving it will often jump start progress all round. So if you think your progress is stalled stop and think what your program is missing.

Clear goals, Clear Progress!

Our body has a remarkable abilty to adapt. There are hundreds of processes and systems which work in unison to keep us functioning. When we apply stimuli or stress to our body, it responds in such a way that allows it to effectively continue to function under that stress. This response is what we use to become faster, stronger or fitter. The downside of this adaptation is that there is usually a tradeoff between the systems. It is extremely difficult to train all capabilities at once. This is the main challenge for any coach or trainer. They must construct an appropriate training program which achieves an improvement in certain capabilities while not negatively affecting the others.

One common scenario is related to body composition. Often an athlete will need to increase body mass while simultaneously reducing body fat. These goals directly conflict with each other. To increase body mass we need a calorie surplus but to reduce body fat we need a calorie deficit. It is contradictory. Many athletes attempt this believing that if they increase muscle mass there will be an increase in energy expenditure associated with greater muscle mass. While in theory this is possible it is a very difficult task to achieve in a real world scenario. A more effective strategy would be to alternate between periods of surplus and deficit, carefully monitoring both variables to ensure gradual progress in both. This would result in small body mass fluctuations but over time it would achieve the goal.

Another example is the athlete who wishes to improve both aerobic and strength capabilities simultaneously. While it is completely achievable, progress will be relatively slow. This is simply because while one promotes the development of type 2 fibres, the other is promoting development of type 1 fibres. This is not the most efficient approach to the task. Depending on time frame it may be necessary, but it is not as effective as partitioning the goals and focusing directly on one capability.

There are many training program designs and methodologies which look to solve the challenge of training multiple abilities at once. The problem is that combining certain training goals can be extremely counterproductive. The strategy for an athlete should be to always look for maximum gains with minimal effort and interference with other capabilities. This is not to advocate a lazy athlete. Instead it advocates a smart athlete who looks to effectively promote some qualities without negatively impacting others.

In terms of programming for an athlete, it is important to keep things as simple as possible. Athletes should have few but specific targets to work towards. Often high level athletes have so many targets to hit that they get lost. A wheelspin effect is created where their efforts counteract each other leading to very little progress. As simple as it sounds athletes should have a clear goal and stick to the process which achieves it. When they achieve this goal, they should identify their next weakness and follow the process to improve it and so on. Keeping goals clear and simple is the most effective way to make solid and consistent progress.

The critical factor to gaining muscle!

There are thousands of young athletes desperately trying to increase lean muscle mass. There are also an equal amount of training programs, diets and supplements which promise results. With these distractions it can be easy to overlook the basics. In the end the basics are what will get real results.

Most of us are now familiar with the concept of hypertrophy. When we lift a heavy weight, the tension placed on the muscle fiber during a contraction causes microscopic tears. The body reacts to this by repairing these tears and increases the size of the fibers. This adaptation allows us to react to, and survive the stress placed on us. This cycle can be repeated with training, eventually producing noticeably bigger, stronger muscle. As we adapt to a level of training we must progressively increase the level of stress to continue to progress.

The body can only repair itself when at rest. Structural repair will also take a certain amount of time to occur. If we apply further stress too soon after a session we only cause more trauma, not adaptation. When looking to increase muscle mass it is important to be well recovered on a regular basis. If we train too frequently without rest, results will be mediocre. Generally, because we see reasonable progress from training we assume more will be better. There comes a point where we are doing too much and lose sight of the process we are trying to promote.

The fact is that there is only so much the body can cope with. New muscle is created during rest, not during training. If we train too frequently there is no opportunity for the growth to take place. An athlete must be aware of this and schedule rest days as part of a hypertrophy program.

The best approach is to start with a simple hypertrophy focused program and progress things slowly. The trick is to remain patient and stick to a plan. It is very easy to get excited and add extra sessions, thinking it will accelerate progress. Recovery needs to be as much a priority as the training itself. If an athlete neglects recovery and rest they will put themselves at a great disadvantage.

When looking to gain lean tissue an athlete must follow a gradual progressive overload program. They must ensure rest and adequate nutrition. Hypertrophy is a slow process and patience is key. There are no magical programs. A coach must monitor the athlete to ensure that he sticks to the process. Young athletes must be especially careful as their inexperience can create insecurities with the program. In a competitive environment, where team selection may be a factor, athletes must learn to trust the program and commit to it.

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Blueprint for big legs!

My old coaches used to say “The legs feed the wolf! There are few sports where having big, strong legs does not carry over into performance. Many people struggle to build leg size and strength while others have no issues at all. This post will discuss some factors which can influence growth of the leg musculature and how one can use this knowledge to their advantage.

Muscle is not all the same; there are several types and subgroups with different characteristics. Mostly when dealing with skeletal muscle we define the fibers as either Type 1 (Oxidative or Slow twitch) or Type 2 (Glycolytic or Fast twitch). Every muscle is made up of bundles of muscle fibers. Each bundle is from all of the same fiber type and innervated by a single nerve. The bundle and nerve assembly is known as a Motor Unit (MU).

Type 1 fibers tend to be smaller in size and produce less force. They also have excellent blood supply and mitochondrial density which makes them very efficient at oxidative metabolism. This means they don’t fatigue easily. Type 2 fibers are larger in size and more powerful. Unlike Type one they are not so efficient at oxidation and rely heavily on glycolysis, intramuscular ATP and Creatine Phosphate stores for energy. They are much more fatiguable than Type 1 fibers.

The recruitment of the muscle fibers is in order of size, from small to large. The rate and quantity of recruitment will depend on the activity. Slow, low force movements may only require a small recruitment of some type 1 fibers, whereas a heavy lift or sprint will additionally recruit a large portion of type 2 fibers.

When we are born we are genetically predisposed to having a larger distribution of one fiber type over another. With training we can influence a switch over, from one fiber type to another. The fibers will be persuaded to take on new characteristics rather than switch totally. In our earlier years of training and sport we have a large influence on the muscle fibers as they develop. In addition, our genetic makeup will naturally direct us into sports we are suited to physiologically as we are more likely to have success.

When we look at body parts and muscles, the fiber distribution can be influenced by the function. For example forearm muscles contain higher amounts of type one fibers, as grip endurance is required for relatively constant movement of hands and fingers. Legs are similar because we spend relatively large durations of time on our legs, walking and standing etc. For this reason legs will always have a relatively large amount of type 1 fibers.

Micro trauma to the fibers is the catalyst for growth. When we recover, micro tears in the fibers are repaired and the fibers become larger and stronger. Tension and metabolic stress are the two things that will cause stress and trauma. Time under tension (TUT) has long been regarded as a key factor in muscle growth. The more time a fiber is placed under tension the more damage created. In addition metabolic stress can also be quite effective at creating trauma. All we have to do is look at a track cyclist or sprinters legs to demonstrate this.

Putting this knowledge into practice is pretty simple. In order to successfully create hypertrophy in the musculature we must stimulate and cause trauma to both sets of fibers. The challenge with type 1 fibers is that they are harder to fatigue. They need higher volume to do this, and so a higher rep strategy should be employed. The challenge with the type 2 fibers is activation. Heavier and more explosive lifts are needed to activate and fatigue them. Lower reps with heavier weight, combined with some power and sprint training will be needed to promote growth of these fibers.

Tom Platz was famous for utilising high reps sets to produce bodybuildings most famous legs.

Tom Platz was famous for utilising high rep sets to produce bodybuilding’s most famous legs.

This not only applies to athletes but also to bodybuilders. The secret to growth is to cover all your bases and keep things simple and consistent. Using a combination of high and low rep training will provide a good overall stimulation making sure you are covering everything. When used as a part of a simple progressive training plan and combined with adequate recovery any athlete will build bigger stronger legs. The key point is to target the fibers effectively so they respond. If you rely on one technique exclusively it is unlikely that you will have long term success.

As with most training, athletes must try and learn their weakness and how to fix them. They can then target the issues with a balanced program to give them a well rounded base. The more familiar they are with the physiological factors involved the more effective a training program can be!

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