Commander's Fit Tip: Hurts so good...not in this case

  • Published
  • By Col. Michael Panarisi
So you've busted through a couple plateaus, wore out three pairs of running shoes, and had to change the batteries in your fancy new heart rate monitor.

By now you are wondering "What's next?"

Well, plenty. If you've been following along, and your aerobic engine is running better than ever; maybe it's time to add a few horsepower. In this edition, let's look at strength training, and how different techniques offer different outcomes.

As I mentioned earlier this year, before you consider a specific training regimen, you have to identify what you are trying to change in your performance or physique. In so many aspects of our lives, we set "goals" or "objectives," but in fitness training, often we just say "improve my fitness" or something relatively unfocused.

We can't fall into that trap ... if we aim at nothing, we'll hit it every time.

If you want to build muscle mass to "look better at the beach" you'll need a completely different regimen than if you want to win the upcoming Mach 10 Triathlon. For the USAF fitness test, you need a balance between strength and endurance, but unfortunately, there just isn't a great way to build both simultaneously.

So if "strength" is your weakness, a relatively new technique might be the change you need.

To understand why we need different regimens, let's review the physiological changes we can induce with exercise.

We can improve the signals going to the muscles, firing more fibers and getting more of them to "pull" at the same time. We can increase the size of the fibers. Or we can increase the blood flow, resulting in better oxygen delivery and waste removal.

While any challenge to the muscle will affect all three, we need specific routines to maximize results in one particular area. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the techniques we see are derived from "body building" where size is the goal. For strength training, getting all the fibers involved is the key. Sophisticates call this "recruitment."

We have two basic types of muscle fibers ... "slow twitch" and "fast twitch" and they work very differently. For optimum strength, we need to get both sets working together. For most of us, the "fast twitch" dominates, and the typical "three sets of 10 reps" training routines amplify this. If we want to get the slow twitch fibers in the game, we have to give them time. We're looking to maximize "time under tension," not time in the gym.
For this result, we need a very different routine. As many of us learned from Ken Mierke, the "long, slow and hard" method works very well. Instead of multiple reps, where the fast twitch fibers engage, rest and recover, this technique exhausts the fast twitch fibers in the first few seconds, and then puts the slow twitch fibers front and center.

In this technique, we replace "reps" with a single, slow, constant application of force.

But it's not a classic "isometric" technique where you press against an immovable resistance load (like a wall!); instead, we keep the muscle in motion, but very slowly. I think of it as "just above friction" level, and we keep going for just under a minute.

For a classic bench press application, you will still "press" the weight up and down, but in a minute, you might only get through three or four cycles. The load you will need to challenge the fibers will be MUCH higher than you can handle for "three sets of 10," so a spotter is an absolute must.

It will take some experimentation to find the right load. If you can keep the weight moving for more than a minute, you'll need to add some.

Under 40 seconds? A little too heavy.

You'll notice one difference right away ... your "perceived exertion" will be very high, but hang in there, in a minute you'll be done. That's right. One cycle is all you need. Then you move to the next exercise.

The real benefit of this technique is the "aches" so many of us suffer the next day become a distant memory.

Those aches are NOT an indicator of a "good workout," but rather an accumulation of tissue damage sometimes called "micro-tears." The rapid force applications and reversals associated with repetitive routines are the culprit.

In a "three sets of 10" technique, there's a tendency to move the weights quickly, and it's the acceleration/deceleration at each end that overloads the muscle fibers. Ken described it this way ... a 25-pound weight placed slowly on your foot will feel very different compared to a 3-pound weight dropped from 12 inches above your foot. We're going for the 25 pounder in this technique. This very different (and admittedly counter-intuitive!) technique will stress your patience, but hang in there!

Want proof?

Before you try it, do the "one minute push up" test. Ask Ron (our crack fitness center manager and resident exercise physiologist) to take you through the technique. Give this regimen six weeks at three times a week, and test again. The results will speak for themselves. Plus, all that time you'll save you can apply towards shopping for a newer and fancier heart rate monitor!

And you'll really appreciate how much you won't hurt in the process.

In this case, not hurting is good!