NOTES FROM MY NOVEMBER 2014 WORKSHOP: COMMON STRENGTH TRAINING MYTHS & MYSCONCEPTIONS
Offered by trainer, Roy Cohen
The largest misconceptions I address on a regular basis have to do with gaining muscle mass – or not. The example I most often use is that of a female bodybuilder I coached for a couple of years. She was not in the best of shape. A middle-aged mother of four, she had been roughly 40 pounds overweight, and a cookie addict. She was doing group fitness classes, losing weight, and making good progress. She and I met when she decided to add strength training into her workout regimen. She had a good work ethic in the gym, and an absolute commitment to changing her eating habits. Within a year, not only had she lost a great deal of weight, but she developed an admirable physique.
Why this should be of interest: When I first began working with her, she was weighed hydrostatically (underwater) to establish her body fat percentage. It was 26% at that time. Her lean body mass was 119 lbs. After two years of rigorous workouts, and with the physique of a competitive bodybuilder, she was weighed underwater again; 121.5 lbs. In two years’ time, after all that weight training, she had only gained 2.5 pounds of muscle.
LESSON: Strength training for women, even using the highest level of intensity, you won’t get big, bulky, or man-like. Strength training takes the muscle that you already have and helps you harden it, clarify it, enhance its shape, and get MUCH better at using it – outside of the gym where it matters most.
I often address the misconception that strength training causes people to lose their flexibility. This concern arises from one group more than any other; those who practice yoga. It’s simply untrue. Strength training done properly, has as much utility, and can enhance flexibility as much, if not more than most traditional yogas. Strength training is simply the act of stretching – with weights in your hands or at the ends of your legs. Using appropriate weights slowly, through a complete range of motion, will enhance your flexibility. Simultaneously, it can serve a person much better than yoga in slowing down the inevitable loss of bone density.
Strength Training is simply the act of stretching; with weights in your hands or at the ends of your legs…
The Knee/Toe Line…
There is a popular axiom in fitness; that if one were to draw an imaginary vertical line from the tip of one’s toe to the ceiling, that when one is doing squats or lunges their knees should not cross that imaginary line. Nope. Here’s why: This is relative thing. Everybody has different proportional length to their feet, tib/fibs, and femurs. For example, I have medium sized feet, short tib/fibs, and relatively log femurs. This means that my knees will cross the knee toe line every time – even when I am using my best, most upright squat or lunge form.
Conversely, a person with long feet and a shorter femur, might be squatting in horrible form, yet still never cross the knee/toe line. What matters most is that when one squats, lunges, or uses a leg press machine, they maintain a flat-footed posture, but bare weight and stress over the heels. By baring weight over heels, the stress is applied to the high profile muscles of the thighs, hips, and glutes, and not putting excessive stress on the knees.
Frequency & Recovery…
“I did weights yesterday, so I shouldn’t do them today – I need recovery time.” This is another one I hear too often. For people training with moderate weights, with moderate fitness goals, and with moderate intensity, they will be fully recovered biologically from their workout within about 6-8 hours.
The idea of necessary recovery day in-between strength training sessions has grown to a mythic size in fitness culture. Unless you are a bodybuilder and performing a high volume of work with heavy weights, 2-3 days recovery time after a workout is not needed. If you are a mom seeking to better manage your toddler, or a carpenter wanting to better manage the positioning of plywood on the job, strength training daily and even duplicating the same exercises in a 24 hour period won’t hold you back – it may actually help. This relates to another often frequently asked question; “how often should I be strength training…?” That is a relative question and can only be answered after answering these two questions:
- What are your boundaries…? The would-be perimeters of work, family, job and community.
- What are your goals…?
Only after those two questions have been answered, can one begin to assemble a plan of how much time per workout, how many days per week, and so-on. Once that is determined, then an exercise schedule which fits within one’s boundaries can be assembled.
The sexy term in fitness these days is core. When people speak of core it is most often in relation to sit-ups, crunches, and six-pack abs. Your actual physical core is not your abs. It’s the broad base of your low-back (including your spinal erectors) and extends down to your high gluteal area. This is your geographical center for strength. More on that in the next works shop. The abdominal muscles (and tendons) exist, along with muscles of the low and middle back, to stabilize your torso when your body is under strain. That is, they are meant to flex much more often than they are meant to move.
As lists of the top 5 ab exercises get thrown around the internet, the gym, the office, and the TV set, the most relevant and functional of all abdominal exercises never seem to make those lists. If you’re a regular strength trainer, skier, runner, cyclist, or just an active person, you’re probably already offering your abdominals all the functional training they need. My two favorite examples of exercises which strengthen and condition the abs are deadlifts and squats. Without realizing it, flexing your abs and low-back during such exercises is what keeps you from scattering your vertebrae all over the floor.
Flexing your abdominal muscles is a natural involuntary response during most strenuous movement, including strength training, running, skiing, cycling, and even gardening or carrying laundry. In strength training for example, regardless of whether the exercises are performed on machines, with dumbbells, while seated or standing, your abdominal muscles continually flex while you are lifting, doing what they are supposed to do – stabilize your spine. Notwithstanding, kinetic abdominal exercises such as sit-ups, crunches, and leg raises do not determine or influence the shape of the abdominal muscle – AT ALL.
Genetic predisposition does that. The only tendons in your body that fuse muscle to muscle, and not muscle to bone, are the tendons of the abdominal group. Those tendons are what create those lines between the muscular sections of your would-be six-pack. Your mom and dad dealt you those tendons and their shape, and no exercise you choose will influence that genetic predisposition.
Yes, the abdominals do allow one to sit-up and to crunch, but movement is a secondary responsibility for the abs. Flexion for the sake of stability is their main mission. If you do any amount of regular lunging, deadlifting or squatting, then your abdominals are getting their share of functional work.