Volume 2, Number 1

Second Year of Publication

December 10, 2006

Newsletter Archive


The Science and Practice of Strength Training

What a difference two weeks can make! What happened? I read the book on strength training by Vladimir Zatsiorsky and William Kraemer. The link is to the publisher's web site which provides a fair and accurate description of the book: The Science and Practice of Strength Training.

Why Read a Book Like This?

So much of what we read on the internet is designed to promote the author's products and/or services. Almost every author tells us that the information provided by other authors is worthless. Frankly, I don't know who to believe. That's why I turned to Drs. Zatsiorsky and William Kraemer, two professors who have, "Together...trained more than 1,000 elite athletes, including Olympic, world, continental, and national champions and record holders." Although the book was written as a university text, only a few passages require several readings and review of the basic concepts provided by the authors. Most of the book relates to strength training for sports, including weight lifting.

Since not much text is devoted to muscle hypertrophy, which is what I wanted to learn, I thought at first that I had wasted my money. But by the time I had digested the whole book, I realized that what the authors have done is this: They have placed muscular hypertrophy within the overall context of strength training. This allows the reader to understand how a certain kind of training maximizes strength and another kind of training maximizes muscle mass.

Certain Key Ideas Form the Foundation for Strength Training

The most fundamental idea is Specificity: If we want a certain result, we need to train in a specific way. Different training protocols give different results. For each exercise, to achieve a specific goal, we must combine the load with the appropriate number of repetitions of the exercise. We also need to match the volume with the goal. Zatsiorsky and Kraemer explain how to do this.

Nerves control muscle fibers. More precisely, motor neurons control motor units. If the load is too light, some motor units will not be recruited (activated). If the motor units are recruited, but with too few repetitions, they will not be fatigued. Motor units that have not been activated and fatigued have not been trained.

The diagram below illustrates the basic concepts.

Motor Unit Recruitment

  • In the center: The red bars show the trained motor units (MUs). These MUs have been exercised with a medium load a moderate number of times. These MUs have been so fatigued that they need rest before being able to function again with the same loads. The vertical bars represent the motor units.
  • On the left are the slowest-twitch motor units that cannot bear much load but resist fatigue. These MUs have been recruited, but the number of repetitions was not enough to fatigue them. They were not trained.
  • On the far right are the fastest-twitch MUs that are strong but easily fatigued. The load was not heavy enough to recruit these MUs, thus they were not trained.
  • Motor unit recruitment: To train a motor unit, we have to recruit it and fatigue it. Fatigue ensures that protein is degraded, the first step in remodeling muscle.
  • Endurance training: To train for endurance, we need many repetitions to fatigue the slow-twitch motor units. To do many repetitions the loads must be light in relation to the maximum load that we can lift once, our 1RM (one repetition maximum). If we can lift 22 pounds (10 kg) once, for endurance training, we would aim to lift a load 13 pounds (6 kg) or lighter 15 or more times.
  • Strength training: To train for maximum strength, about 98% of the time elite athletes lift 90% or more of their 1RM (one repetition maximum) 4 times or less.
  • Muscle Hypertrophy: To gain muscle mass, we train in the range 75% to 85% of our 1RM, with 5 to 10 repetitions.
  • Ineffective workouts: Loads that do not recruit and fatigue MUs are not effective for training.

Motor Units

Sidebar Next time you are in the gym look around. You can spot people who are lifting loads that look like 50% or less of their 1RM (the maximum load that they could lift once). At 50% of the 1RM for an exercise, a person needs 35 repetitions to get a training effect. This is the way to spend years in a gym and not get anywhere: lift weights that are too light for the number of repetitions or do too few repetitions for the light weights used.

The way to establish our loads is to aim for a load that we can lift 15 times and no more. We count that as our 15RM, 60% of 1RM. We now calculate our 1RM as 1.67 times our 15RM. To get our 10RM, we take 75% of our 1RM. To get our 5RM, we take 85% of our 1RM.

If the 15RM load is 10 kg (22 lb), the 1RM load will be about 16.7 kg (37 lb). The 10RM load will be about 12.5 kg (27.5 lb). And the 5RM load about 14.2 kg (31 lb). A rough approximation can be obtained by increasing the 15RM load by 20% to get the 10RM load and then increasing by another 20% to get the 5RM load.

This is not rocket science, so rough approximations are good enough to get started. If the load feels too light, add a kilo or so and try again or if the load feels too heavy, drop a kilo and try again. Each week, add 5% or so more weight so that you are always up against your limit. You will know when to increase the load when you can lift a 10RM load 12 times.

What I Got from Reading this Book

After I read this book, including reading some passages 3 or 4 times, I found that I could then read statements by internet gurus and understand where their ideas fit into the overall scheme of strength training.

For example, I subscribed to the free e-mail course provided by Sean Nalewanyj to promote his approach to bodybuilding. One of the things Sean says is that we should aim for strength, because size follows strength. Sean's program emphasizes using the 5RM (five-repetition maximum) and training to failure. Further, he proposes that we train each muscle group only once per week.

This is consistent with Zatsiorsky and Kraemer who propose a range for muscular hypertrophy from 5 to 12 repetitions. Thus, training with five repetitions is at the lowest boundary for muscular hypertrophy and approaches training to maximize strength. So Sean's approach is self-consistent. In my opinion, this is one of the better conceived and better written courses. However, because of the emphasis on heavier loads, Sean's approach seems more suited to people under age 40.

After reading Zatsiorsky and Kraemer, I will continue to train at both 10RM and 5RM, following their practical advice by "lifting with sincere efforts to failure". If I achieve only 8 repetitions, I will not fret about it.

Why Not Always to Failure?

First, it's unscientific to believe that there is much difference between 9 or 10 repetitions, like the children's game where you skip along the pavement avoiding the cracks.

Second, it's dangerous unless you have an experienced spotter whose attention never strays. With true failure, the muscle fails and the load falls. The spotter should catch the weight before it strikes you. But will he?

Even without reaching true failure, our nervous systems can be trained to recruit enough strength to separate muscle from the bone. Or cause tendonitis by placing excessive stress on the tendons. Or pop the bursa, the little sacs that cushion the joints. Or squeeze out the contents of your spinal disks.

That's why I like the way Zatsiorsky and Kraemer put it, we should be "lifting with sincere efforts to failure". I have no desire to make work for the surgeons so I stop one repetition before failure or when I can do only a partial repetition.

For most people, the instinct for self-preservation makes them stop one repetition before true failure.

What happens when I am lifting 20 kg (44 lb) at my 10RM and after a week I feel strong enough to lift 12 times instead of 10 times? I increase the weight. That's what happens. But the weights in my gym are provided in 2.5 kg (5.5 lb) increments. So I have to increase the weight from 20 kg to 22.5 kg, (12.5%). Now I have a weight that I can lift only 7 times. Repeat this with all your exercises and you end up with a whole range from 5RM to about 12RM. Hard to remember how many times to lift for each exercise, unless you have a written program to guide you.

I do have a written program every time I step onto the gym floor and it tells me three weights for every exercise:
  • Warmup weight (15RM but performed only 10 times)
  • Working sets (10RM)
  • Working sets (5RM)
I maintain an awareness that some of the 10RM weights are too heavy for 10 repetitions. So I give my sincere efforts, trying to squeeze out at least 8, knowing that in a week or so I'll be back up to 12 reps on that exercise and ready to increase the load again.

My 5RM loads are calculated at 20% more than the 5RM loads. Some 5RM weights may be too light or too heavy, which I completely ignore, squeezing out 3, 4, 5 or 6 repetitions giving it my best shot. For me, it's the 10RMs that count, believing that strength will follow hypertrophy. And if not, so what!

Work Volume

Zatsiorsky and Kraemer point out that training for muscle mass (hypertrophy) typically involves about 5 times the training volume as training for strength. The work done is the measure of volume. So we should calculate the total weight lifted times the number of repetitions, including not only the weight of the plates, but also the weight of the bar and body weight.

Athletes training for mass gains typically "amass a training volume in one workout of 20 to 30 tons and, in some cases, over 50 tons a day". Such athletes do not use the heaviest loads for the simple reason that loads above the 5RM cannot be lifted often enough to achieve a volume sufficient to force maximum hypertrophy. Such athletes do not use light loads because such loads do not degrade much muscle protein. Moderately high volume with medium loads is the most efficient way to generate hypertrophy. We can do it using only 5RM loads as Sean says. But it is safer to direct sincere efforts to failure in the broad range of 5RM to 12RM loads, emphasizing the center of this range.

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Overtraining and Under-Training?

I use a spreadsheet to set up my program. So it's fairly easy to calculate the total volume per workout. Warmup on a treadmill is for 20 minutes, followed by strength training for 60 minutes. Training is split between upper body (Mondays and Thursdays) and lower body (Tuesdays and Fridays).

For upper body, volume is 20 tons per workout of one hour. For lower body/abdominals it's 25 tons per workout in one hour. (US tons, not metric tonnes.)

This is a huge volume of work, which is a good reason to watch carefully for symptoms of over-training. After the first four weeks, I skipped a whole week. After the second four weeks, I skipped one Thursday and Friday. A week later, I shortened the Friday lower-body session to 45-minutes because my abdominal muscles had not recovered from the previous Tuesday.

With this level of training, I can ease off if I feel it's the right thing to do, "playing by ear", adding a little weight here and there as strength increases, and easing off on the volume when recovery seems delayed. For certain, I will skip the first Thursday and Friday of every month to ensure complete recovery.

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With this level of training, I can safely gain weight without putting on a lot of fat. Zatsiorsky and Kraemer recommend taking high-glycemic index carbohydrate with a protein drink before and after workouts. They claim that the carbohydrate boosts insulin and that the insulin boosts protein use by the damaged muscles.

So I take 20 grams of protein powder before and 20 grams of protein powder after each workout. (To make the drink, I blend a cup of prune juice and half a cup of dried fruit with the protein powder.) The workout is followed with an orange, an apple and a banana. Fructose, the sugar in fruit, is not exactly a "high glycemic index" food, but the highest I feel comfortable taking.

My work-out days are high-carbohydrate days and rest days are low-carbohydrate days. So that gives four-high carb days and three low-carb days per week. In a month, I have put back on all the weight I lost during November, about 5 pounds (2.5 kg). But my waistline is smaller than it was before.

Maybe it's the protein that is making recovery possible with only 72 hours rest for each muscle group. I must be doing something right and since whatever it is appears to be working, I will keep doing it.

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Varicose Veins

Long ago, I developed varicose veins in my lower legs. Recently, night cramps have been coming without warning. Sometimes, a lower leg becomes rigid from knee to toes and I have to jump out of bed and stamp the foot on the floor to loosen up the muscles. Fortunately, the floor is ceramic tile over concrete, so there is little sound and no fear of falling down through the ceiling of the neighbors downstairs. All I need is a long nightgown and a cap with a tassel to look like a right fool.

I went to see the vascular surgeon to ask what can be done. I had to climb up on a stool while he ran a wand over my legs front and back, top to toes. Arteries all OK. Right veins not so good, but not bad enough to do anything. Left lower veins a mess, like a tangle of worms.

On the day after tomorrow, he will perform a procedure with a laser device guided by ultrasound. He will feed the laser into the vein, judging its position with the ultrasound device. Then, as he withdraws the laser, he will zap the vein with heat, destroying the vein.

The whole operation takes less than an hour and I can go home immediately because he will make only a few little slits. When the leg heals, the blood will return to the heart via the deeper veins instead of collecting in the lower leg where it causes cramps and other unpleasant feelings.

So tomorrow, I will do lower-body exercises and on Friday, only upper-body exercises, skipping Tuesday and Thursday. On Thursday and Friday, I will walk in the park.

I did have a couple of smiles. First, when he told me that he could not find any fat in my legs. Second, when he advised me to give up weight training and take up walking instead. I said that I did not want to exchange the possible risks of weight training for the certainty of sarcopenia (age-related muscle loss) and osteopenia (bone loss). I said that I prefer to take my chances with weight training.

(In Malaysia, where I live, the retirement age is 55. So someone aged 75 is supposed to have one foot in the grave, not using both feet to pump 135 kg (300 lb) up and down on a leg press.)

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Measuring the Effect of Training on Muscle and Fat

You might think that the only ways to determine change in body composition (muscle and fat) are by skin calipers and electronic devices (hand-held or stand-on food pads). Not so. I just learned that ultrasound can find fat too. How do methods of measuring body composition compare?

Skin calipers use a two-compartment model: fat and lean body mass. The look-up tables stop at age 50 because after age 50, the loss of collagen (skin connective tissue) is no longer so closely correlated with age. For people over age 50, this biases the results.

Electronic devices also use the two-compartment model. While these devices typically have errors of plus or minus 3%, most overestimate fat by 3%. Moreover, they measure surface fat. As people age, internal fat increases, especially muscle and organ fat. Think back to when you visited the beef section of the supermarket. Did you see all those fat streaks in the meat and the wedges of lard with the organ meat? Humans have them too, unless they reduce their fat levels to those of our ancestors who lived in the wild, or to fat levels of champion runners or body builders.

The doctor could not find any fat in my legs, but my legs are the same dimensions as before I started weight training. How can this be explained? The muscles have grown visibly larger in size as the fat has been lost, leaving the dimensions measured by tape almost the same. Odd thing too: while the dimensions of legs and arms are the same, they appear more rounded because there is no sag and the hollows have filled in. This is probably what people mean by "toning", a term that has no scientific meaning.

Unlike skin calipers and electronic devices, DEXA scans use a three-compartment model. DEXA measures the amount of fat more accurately than calipers or electronic devices. But its main purpose is to measure bone mass. I had my first DEXA in December 2004, when it was discovered that I had suffered bone loss from the spine, called osteopenia, the stage of bone loss prior to full blown osteoporosis. In December 2007, I will go for a follow-up DEXA to find out if weight training has reversed the bone loss. If so, I will do more of the same exercises. If not and bone loss has continued during the three-year period, I will have to take advice on how to correct it and report back in this newsletter.

What do I expect? Lacking the stress of gravity, astronauts lose bone mass through the urine. Bodies under stress of weights in the gym gain bone mass. Sounds simple and my three-year experiment will test whether or not it works for me. I expect that the gain in bone mass will be more impressive than the gain in muscle mass because weight training stresses the bones directly through compression and indirectly through tension. The tendons and ligaments that pull on the muscles flex the bones. The bones adapt by adding mass to resist the forces placed on them.

Factoid: While only 40% of hip fractures occur among men, the result is more often fatal than with women, making osteoporosis in elderly men more risky than prostate cancer.

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Bye until December 24.
Fred Colbourne, It's never too late!
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