This article originally appeared on trail runner
Getting stronger is simple: lift heavy objects, put them down, and repeat. According to a new study by researchers at the US Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, you should use heavy weights that you are able to lift one to five times in a full range of motion, and repeat for two to three sets a few times per week. That’s it. The rest is just details.
Sure, the details are sometimes interesting, especially if you’re really trying to max out your performance, or if you’re coming back from an injury, or deployed somewhere far from the nearest gym. This is what motivated the new summary document, which is published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research by a team led by Barry Spiering, who was at USARIEM but has since served as chief physiologist at New Balance’s Sports Research Lab. He and his colleagues tried to summarize what we currently know about how to get stronger in order to imagine how we could do better.
What drives strength gains?
The opening section explores the root causes: what needs to happen in your body to increase your strength? Surprisingly, the first thing they identify is to put in maximum mental effort. The louder and clearer the signal your brain sends to your muscles, the more force you produce. And this ability to send signals can be trained. Back in 2021, I wrote about a fascinating study in which cooped-up professional basketball players gained strength by doing six weeks of completely imagined strength exercises three times a week. Similarly, lifting a light weight while imagining that you are lifting a heavier one, i.e. trying as hard as you can, even if you don’t need to, produces greater strength gains. .
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Of course, strength is not all in the head. At the other end of the spectrum, using electricity to stimulate strong muscle contractions also results in strength gains, even if it requires no mental effort. In this case, it is the muscle fibers and the neurons themselves that adapt. So, a mentally and physically challenging workout program is the best of both worlds. Spiering also argues, based on the literature, that exercises should include both lifting and lowering of weight, and should move through a full range of motion.
The last point is more controversial: does metabolic stress in muscles trigger strength gains? Endurance athletes know that intense exercise triggers an increase in lactate in their muscles, but this is just one example among many: suddenly, at least 196 metabolites increase or decrease after a coaching. One source of evidence that metabolites are important: blood flow restriction training, which involves putting a blood pressure cuff on your arm or leg while you lift, traps these metabolites in the limb and improves response to what would otherwise be easy exercises. Not everyone is convinced that metabolites matter for strength, but it is an area of active research.
How can we overcome the current limits?
Given what we know about how to boost strength gains, Spiering and his colleagues have tossed around some ideas on how to go beyond the usual heavy lifting.
One option is to lift weights heavier than the maximum. This may seem impossible by definition, but there are a few possible workarounds. You can use electrical stimulation, either of the brain or of the nerves that activate the muscles themselves, to squeeze a little more out of your muscles when you’re already pushing as hard as you can. You can take advantage of the fact that you can generate more force eccentrically (when lowering a weight) than concentrically (when raising it) by installing a system that gives you heavier weight on the way down than the way up. to the top.
You can also find ways to increase your mental effort during a lift that’s already at your physical limit. The weight itself is not heavier than the maximum, but the neural effort – and perhaps the resulting adaptations and strength gains – are. Alternatively, you can use mental imagery to add extra (but imaginary) workouts between your physical workouts, without delaying your muscle recovery from the last workout.
Biofeedback is another hot topic. Wireless EEG electrodes can quantify your muscle working strength and show you the data on your phone in real time. It could help you push harder or keep your effort in a target zone. Other technologies like muscle oxygen sensors could fine-tune when to stop a streak, or when you’ve recovered enough to start the next streak.
What can we do now?
Based on the ideas above, Spiering and colleagues suggest a three-tiered approach to dealing with specific challenges in strength training.
The first level is no-load training, which is most relevant if you are rehabilitating an injury that prevents you from doing any physical training. An example, as mentioned above, is mental imagery workouts, where you imagine lifting weights in as much detail as possible. Another is opposite limb training: if you are having surgery on your left leg, you do exercises with your right leg. Because brain signals from both limbs follow the same pathways, you get a “cross-education” effect that partially maintains the strength of the injured limb. Finally, restricting blood flow might help, perhaps by increasing metabolic stress, even if you’re unable to train the limb.
The second is a low-load workout, which again could be useful during injury rehabilitation and also works well if you don’t have access to a lot of gym equipment. There are a strong body of evidence that lifting light weights can produce strength gains similar to lifting heavy weights, with the key caveat that you must lift until near failure. In other words, you need low load but high effort. There may be other ways to achieve this effect, such as the study mentioned above where subjects lifted a light weight but imagined they were lifting a heavier one.
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Finally, there is the broad category of “complementary activities”: biofeedback based on EMG or other data; electrical stimulation; restriction of blood flow. All have been researched promisingly, but none are quite ready to roll out for general consumption with straightforward guidelines.
Take-out? I still think the basics of strength training are simple. For most of us, in most situations, it’s probably a good idea to keep things simple: lift heavy things and don’t worry about imaginary exercises or electroshock workouts. But the above ideas are worth remembering for those situations when for one reason or another you cannot do normal training. And the one idea that I will keep in mind for all my training is the importance of mental effort. I’ve always felt this intuitively, but it’s good to know that being present and doing your best, rather than letting your mind wander, is a research-supported path to greater strength.
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