The future of strength training

This article originally appeared trail runner

Getting stronger is simple: Lift heavy things, put them down, and repeat. According to a new review led by researchers from the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, you should use heavy weights that you can lift one to five times through a full range of motion, and repeat for two to three few sets. times a week. That’s it. The rest is the details.

Of course, sometimes the details are interesting—especially if you’re really trying to maximize your performance, come back from an injury, or post somewhere far from your nearest gym. That’s what motivated the new review paper, which is Posted in Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research By a team led by Barry Spiering, who was at USARIEM but has since moved to a Principal Physiologist position in the Sports Research Laboratory at New Balance. He and his colleagues have tried to summarize what we currently know about how we can increase our strength in order to imagine how we can improve our performance.

What triggers strength gains?

The opening section looks at the root causes: What needs to happen in your body to increase strength? Surprisingly, the first thing they determine is maximum mental effort. The larger and clearer the signal your brain sends to your muscles, the more force they produce. This ability to send signals is trainable. again in 2021, I wrote about it An impressive study in which professional basketball players gained strength by doing 6 weeks of exercise Totally imagined Strength training three times a week. Likewise, lifting a lighter weight while imagining you’re lifting a heavier weight—that is, trying as hard as you can, even if you don’t need to—produces greater strength gains.

Related: Tired of Your Strength Program? Here are 4 ways to level up.

Of course, strength is not All in your head. At the other end of the spectrum, using electricity to stimulate powerful muscle contractions also leads to gains in strength, although it takes no mental effort at all. In this case, it is the muscle fibers and nerve cells themselves that adapt. So a training program that is mentally and physically challenging is the best of both worlds. Spiering also argues, based on the literature, that the exercises should include both lifting and lowering the weight, and should move through a full range of motion.

The last point is more controversial: Does metabolic stress in muscles lead to increased strength? Endurance athletes know that hard exercise causes their muscle lactate to rise, but this is just one example among many: By one count, at least 196 metabolites go up or down after exercise. One piece of evidence that metabolites matter: Blood flow restriction training, which involves placing a blood pressure cuff on your arm or leg while you lift, traps those metabolites in the limb and enhances the response to what could otherwise be easy exercises. Not everyone is convinced that metabolites are important to strength, but it is an active area of ​​research.

How can we transcend the current limits?

Given what we know about how to motivate strength gains, Spiering and his colleagues poured in some ideas for how to go beyond your usual heavy lifting.

One option is to lift weights heavier than your maximum. This may sound impossible by definition, but there are some possible solutions. You can use electrical stimulation, either to the brain or to the nerves that activate the muscles themselves, to put a little pressure on your muscles when you’re already pushing as hard as you can. You can take advantage of the fact that you can generate more eccentric force (when you lower a weight) than concentric (when you lift it) by rigging a system that gives you heavier weight on the way down than on the way up.

You can also discover ways to ramp up your mental effort during an elevator that is already at your physical limits. The weight itself isn’t heavier than the max, but the neural effort—and possibly the resulting adaptations and strength gains—are. Alternatively, you can use mental imagery to add complementary (but imaginary) exercises between physical workouts, without delaying your muscle recovery from the last workout.

Biofeedback is another hot topic. Wireless EEG electrodes can determine how hard your muscles are working, and show you the data on your phone in real time. This can help you push harder, or keep your effort in a target area. Other techniques like Muscle oxygen sensors It can set when you stop one set, or when you’ve recovered enough to start the next.

What can we do now?

Building on the ideas above, Spiering and colleagues propose a three-tiered approach to addressing specific strength-training challenges.

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 at all. One example, as mentioned above, is mental visualization exercises, where you imagine lifting weights in as much detail as possible. Another is contralateral training: If you’ve operated on your left leg, you’re doing exercises with your right leg. Because the brain signals to both limbs run along the same pathway, you get a “cross-education” effect that in part maintains the strength of the affected limb. Finally, restricting blood flow may help, possibly by increasing metabolic stress, even if you are unable to train the limb.

The second is low-load training, which again can come in handy during injury rehabilitation and also works well if you don’t have access to a lot of gym equipment. there Strong body of evidence That lifting light weights can produce similar strength gains as lifting heavy weights, with the basic caveat that you have to lift to near failure. In other words, you need low load but high effort. There may be other ways to get this effect, eg the above study Where people lifted a lighter weight but imagined they were lifting a heavier weight.

Related: 8-Minute Speed ​​Legs

Finally, there is a broad category of “complementary activities”: biofeedback based on EMG or other data; electrical stimulation; Restriction of blood flow. All have been the subject of promising research, but none are quite ready to be released for public consumption with simple guidelines.

Takeaway? I still think the basics of strength training are pretty straightforward. For most of us, in most situations, it’s probably a good idea not to overcomplicate it: lift heavy things and don’t worry about imaginary exercises or electric shock exercises. But the above ideas are worth remembering in situations when, for one reason or another, you cannot do a normal workout. And the one insight I will keep in mind for all of my workouts is the importance of mental effort. I’ve always felt this intuitively, but it’s nice to know that being there and trying your best, rather than letting your mind wander, is a research-backed path to greater strength.

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