Does “strength” really come from the muscle? This is why you should care.

I’ve been reading quite a bit of the time-course of adaptations to exercise, and one aspect has stuck out above all: most of the initial strength gains that we make when we subject a muscle system to exercise is due to neurological adaptations, not muscle growth. In fact, muscle growth only begins to happen in significant measure 4-6 weeks after exercise.

As regards our cultural obsession with musculature, this opens up a huge can of worms. If a big part of getting fit is in the brain—which it is—why do we appraise people as “fit” or “athletes” given their visual muscle tone? Why does our appraisal not typically include the finesse of their biomechanics?

Maybe, when we say we want to get fit, we don’t really know what we’re talking about. (I certainly think that this is the case). And since we don’t know what we’re talking about, our only choice is to center on the obvious: muscle size, and for those budding connoisseurs, muscle tone.

But like most problems with a social component, the buck doesn’t stop there. If we think that the majority of fitness resides in the muscle, when it actually resides in the brain, then our strategies to get fit will reflect our flawed idea of the body, rather than the body itself. Consequently, the only people really getting fit will be those who pierce the social veil—sidestepping the social obsession with musculature—to focus their efforts in training that actually improves the body’s functioning.

And you find yourself in a situation where majority of people at gyms and health clubs, going there to “get fit” only end up spinning their wheels.

Many get discouraged, and only a scant few end up “getting fit” after all.

Those who did, it was likely because they learned something along the way, and their idea of how to exercise changed fundamentally.

Changed into what? You might ask.

Into this philosophy, best condensed by The Gait Guys in this post:

Skill, Endurance, Strength; in that order.

Why? Skill requires the largest diameter afferent (sensory) nerves to accomplish (Ia and Ib afferents from muscle and joint mechanoreceptors); they are the fastest pathways; Endurance comes from larger sized Type I (and sometimes Type IIa) endurance muscle, which are oxygen dependent (aerobic) and are rich in myoglobin, glycogen, mitochondria and capillaries; Strength last, because it comes from smaller, Type IIb fibers, and is largely glycolytic (depends on anaerobic respiration) and is dependent on the other 2 (skill and endurance).

The brain comes first.

If you get skill, you’ll end up with endurance, and then you’ll be prepared to develop strength. The training programs of a wide variety of athletes demonstrate this philosophy, both in the macro and the micro levels. Runners start their training year doing long, slow runs, building skill at a relatively low level of intensity, and getting all the muscles accustomed to moving with each other. Martial artists, throughout their careers, drill first. Focus on form is paramount, and only until the form of a particular movement can be accomplished perfectly does work on speed actually begin.

This is similarly expressed in the layout of a training session: first you do aerobic warm-ups, getting all the muscles up to speed and the brain to a high level of alertness, and then you up the intensity. In martial arts, first you warm up, then you stretch, then you drill, and at the end you apply the training in combat. Not the other way around. Never.

This philosophy works because it observes the realities of the body. Cut back to the gym, where you see a majority with their focus on their strength progression: how fast am I improving my ability to lift?

Now consider that most started out doing bench-presses wrong. They’re lifting more and more, and at a certain point, sooner or later, they’re going to plateau—or they’re going to get hurt. That’s because, instead of working out the skill, which, as stated above, largely resides in the brain and nervous system, they worked out the strength of those muscles which were already skilled.

Had they worked on their form first, their odds of becoming injured would be that much lower.

Runners, consider this: genetics aside, it might be that good runners are good not because they “have good form,” but because they worked on their form first, and their endurance and strength emerged in function of that development of skill.

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