For almost any fitness related goal or question, the answer begins with getting stronger. The one caveat is diet, because you will not be able to out-train a poor diet, no matter how hard you work. But for most problems, the answer lies in strength.
If your goal is:
- losing fat
- increasing strength
- gaining muscle mass
- improving body composition
then your butt needs to get stronger. Not just your butt, but everything. Plus your butt.
What follows is a defense of resistance training and proper rest in order to increase muscle mass and improve body composition. It applies to women and men.
Raising (Metabolic) Rates Is Good For Business
Let’s say you make it to the gym 2-3 days a week. You want the most bang for their buck during the time you’re in, so check this out. Energy requirements (amount of calories you need to eat) is determined by your resting metabolic rate, physical activity, and the thermic effect of food (calories it takes to digest food). Resting metabolic rate accounts for 60-75% of caloric demand, 7-10% of caloric demand is from thermic effect of food, and the remainder is from physical activity. Exercise is huge (up to 30% of the equation). However if you are working out 2-3 times a week, resting metabolic rate is going to be the biggest bang for your buck. It is literally a 24/7 calorie burner.
So how do you manipulate resting metabolic rate?
Factors that increase:
- lean body mass
- thyroid function
Factors that decrease:
- low caloric intake
- loss of lean tissue
- thyroid function
So you increase lean body mass, you increase the resting metabolic rate, and you are burning more calories 24/7, not just while you’re in the gym.
If your workouts currently consist of circuit training with high repetitions and little rest, you will run into a problem. Aside from absolutely brutalizing yourself into quivering puddle of sweat, you won’t be building as much muscle (lean mass) as you might otherwise. Circuit/resistance training with very little rest and recovery is fine,but the rested movements are also essential if you want to capitalize on the benefits of increasing lean muscle mass.
You may notice an increase strength even without the rest periods I’m talking about, but any initial gains in strength are almost always due to increased efficiency of neuromuscular recruitment. In other words, strength increases because you are recruiting more of your existing muscle fibers, NOT because you are increasing muscle mass. The change in body composition occurs after the initial increase in neuromuscular efficiency.
Adding lean mass (hypertrophy) requires training with repetitions around 8-12 rep range at a specific percentage of your max. Repetitions beyond this fall into the range of muscular endurance, which, in general:
A) will not reap the same hypertrophy (increasing lean mass) gains
B) will not translate to increase in resting metabolic rate, and
C) does not maximize the calories burned throughout the week.
Yes, high intensity resistance training with minimal rest/recovery can build muscle mass. However, it is not, in isolation, the most efficient, safe, or effective way to do this. Any weight that can be safely moved in a state of near-fatigue is going to be MUCH less than what an individual could move if he/she had recovery between efforts. Therefore, at some point in the workout, you should be moving weight that would be impossible for you to lift if you were in a state of fatigue or near-fatigue.
In other words, in order to gain lean mass, you need to lift some heavy weights and take a break between sets.
If I lunge with 25lb dumbbells for 20 repetitions on each leg with good form, then at some point I should be training this movement with MUCH more weight and the necessary recovery in between sets. Failure to do so is failing to maximize my potential for increasing lean mass, which is another lost opportunity to increase my resting metabolic rate.
Once you master movements with an increased load, get past the point of increasing neuromuscular efficiency, and begin increasing hypertrophy and strength, you will also see immediate improvements in your capacity to perform workouts that allow little rest and recovery. Stronger individuals can exert more force and can complete increasingly demanding workouts.
Take the lunge example: Now that my legs are so jacked from doing heavy lunges with recovery, I can obliterate my old record of 20 repetitions with good form. Using the same weight, I’ll now be able to do 30 or more repetitions with good form, which will increase the metabolic demands of my circuit/elevated heart-rate workout, and I’m getting even MORE FIT. I have morphed into a hypertrophic, cardiovascular hybrid SPECIMEN with no identifiable weaknesses. I am destroying both the anaerobic and aerobic components of the workouts, and it’s all because I rested for 45 seconds between my sets of squats, deadlifts, and presses. :)
The Tale of Two Trainees: Henry Heartrate Vs. Holly Hypertrophy
Every time Henry trains, he kills it. He takes one or two short breaks throughout the entire workout, and his heart rate is through the roof for the whole hour. He’s pressing, squatting, deadlifting, swinging, jumping, and pressing like a maniac. 10 seconds rest here, 15 there, 5 more over here. He’s seen some good gains in his strength due to increased muscle fiber recruitment. He shows up week after week, but he doesn’t track the weight he’s using. He grabs what the trainer gives him, and then attacks the workout with a vengeance. The other day, Henry and Holly worked out together. Henry’s superior aerobic capacity and solid strength base helped him demolish Holly Hypertrophy, who was sucking wind after the first five minutes.
Henry’s still getting killer workouts three months later, but he’s noticed that his gains in body composition and strength have hit a plateau.
Holly Hypertrophy systematically trains 3-5 movements each week in the 8-12 rep range with 30-60 seconds of recovery. The last rep on each set is tough, but she squeezes it out with good form. She had to take a week to safely master the movements, but once she got them down she has been increasing weight. This takes Holly about 20-30 minutes each workout, and then she works on metabolic conditioning and increasing her aerobic capacity, much the same as Henry Heartrate. Holly has been lagging behind Henry on these circuit-based workouts, because she’s not devoting as much time and her aerobic capacity is at a deficit. However, she has been increasing her muscle mass, and the circuit training is becoming easier each week.
Three months later, Holly is exceptionally stronger in her deadlift, squat, and press and she is seeing a direct carryover to the speed and effort she is able to exert in the circuits. Just a month ago, Henry Heartrate left her in the dust, but today, three months later, Holly went pound for pound, rep for rep with Henry on the exact same workout. Holly is ready to increase her weight and repetitions on the circuit, and she barely needs the short breaks in between circuits.
She can now perform more taxing workouts while reaping even more gains both aerobically and anaerobically as improvement in both domains of fitness continue to snowball.
Henry is unable to match these gains, because he has not been training to increase hypertrophy and strength. He’s limited by deficiencies in strength, and his resting metabolic rate is remaining stable because he continues to neglect training that biases hypertrophy and strength.
This is a long-winded defense of why I think it’s a good idea to devote at least 20-30 minutes of an hour-long workout to increasing hypertrophy and strength. You increase resting metabolic rate, which sticks with you 24/7. It’s like having a mini trainer sitting on your shoulder flogging the calories out of you morning/evening/night.
The circuit training that makes my you throw up and pee brown might be your thing, but I think 15-20 minutes of that brutality is sufficient to meet goals of increased muscular endurance and cardiovascular fitness. 50-60 minutes of circuit training with little rest might be fun once in awhile, but not if it crowds out the only opportunity that many people will have to specifically target the increase of lean muscle mass.
If you are only in the gym 2-3 days a week, you needs to increase lean mass in order to get that metabolic rate pumping all week long. This means devoting some of the workout to heavy lifting with adequate recovery.
When you get stronger:
- you get more lean mass.
- your resting metabolic rate goes up.
- you burn more calories at rest.
- you can complete more demanding workouts, which provides more stimulus for positive change.
The most efficient and sustainable method of increasing strength is to perform resistance training with weights, allowing for enough recovery that allows you to use the heaviest weights (with good form).
It’s not a fancy, profound, or complex answer. It’s a simple answer, and it’s the right answer. Get strong.