Weight Training Basics: Moving Beyond Plateaus and Beyond..

Training Plateaus

Articulate Research on Weight Training Theories

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Continuing progress is the main goal of all serious bodybuilders. Three time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates and the ongoing improvements made to his physique are prime examples of this ideal. It's very possible, however, that few other professional bodybuilders can match the annual physical improvement this man has made. As Mr. Yates will surely attest, even the most disciplined of us eventually experience a lapse in progress. When that happens, one of the first questions we ask is, what now? To understand the answer, you must first know something about what caused the plateau in the first place.

Scientists are becoming increasingly aware of the incredible plasticity of human skeletal muscle. Ask this tissue to perform repeated, high-intensity contractions, for example, and its fibers can respond not only by increasing in size but also by altering their internal architecture and biochemistry. The objective, it would seem, is to leave muscle fibers better able to deal with subsequent bouts of high-intensity exercise.


These cellular adaptations can make it increasingly difficult to elicit further increases in muscle size. As a result your progress suffers unless you make changes. The following are some techniques you can use to keep your physique perpetually improving.

1. Use different exercises.

Several factors appear to play important roles in the connection between resistance training and muscle growth. One is energy-specifically, the rate at which the muscle fibers use energy during contraction. Any muscular adaptations that cause the muscle fibers to use energy more efficiently should be countered whenever possible. For instance, research has found evidence to suggest that muscle hypertrophy, or growth, can be accompanied by an increase in muscle fiber angles. One 1993 study showed that in normal subjects groups of muscle fibers, known as fascicles, were arranged linearly, at similar angles whereas in highly trained bodybuilders with hypertrophied muscles fascicles were arranged curvilinearly, with fibers arising from the attachments at steeper angles.

Although it's still not clear how these architectural adaptations affect muscle function, they could represent the muscle's attempt to increase its load-bearing efficiency during certain types of movement-with the result of reducing the growth-stimulating capacity of those circumstances.

Another important factor in the muscle-building equation is force. The amount of force, or active tension, developed by a muscle during a series of contractions appears to play a major part in determining the ability of those contractions to signal increases in muscle fiber size. Consequently, we must remember that muscle groups such as the elbow flexors or knee extensors are made up of a number of separate muscles, each with its own set of anatomical characteristics and contractile properties.

Barbell curls, for instance involve not only the biceps brachii but also the hrachialis and coracobrachialis. Leg extensions require the involvement of all four muscles of the quadriceps: the vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, vastus intermedius and rectus femoris. The angle-tension relationships of these muscle groups-that is, the amount of contractile force they can develop at a given angle-are therefore determined by the individual length tensions of the component muscles, which means the amount of contractile force that can be developed by each muscle at a given length.

Basically, the lengths at which the different muscles of a bodypart can develop maximum contractile force may take place at different joint angles-which could extend the range of motion over which you should work the muscles. Furthermore, if, as a result of resistance training, one muscle in a group grew proportionately larger than the others, it could alter the composite angle-tension relationship of the whole group so that the training response would further favor that particular muscle.

Studies involving nuclear magnetic resonance imaging (NMR) of the quadriceps have suggested that there can be different degrees of hypertrophy among the four muscles, and this may indeed apply to other muscle groups as well. The point is that if you perform only one exercise, such as leg extensions, for the quadriceps, you could end up stimulating some muscles of this complex group, like the vastus medialis, more strongly than others, due to differences in length-tension relationships.

Both of these adaptations - changes in fiber architecture and changes in angle-tension relationships-could be the factor that causes a given exercise to lose its growth-stimulating potency. This would provide one scientific basis for the popular theory that you should train each muscle group through a number of different angles. The simple solution is to choose a variety of movements for each muscle group and change them periodically; for example, performing two to four exercises for quadriceps and changing the routine very two weeks.

2. Train harder.

When most bodybuilders experience their first training plateau, the initial instinct is often to increase the severity of their training. Although the current trend seems to be toward backing off-the less-is-more school of thought-this is one circumstance where a teduction in severity may actually he counterproductive. The major contractile proteins of muscle fibers are actin and myosin, the latter of which plays an important role in dictating the functions of a muscle fiber and exists in a number of different isoforms, as they're called. The composition of myosm isoforms in skeletal muscle fibers is subject to a number of different factors.

A 1990 study showed a different composition of myosin heavy-chain isoforms in the biceps brachii of bodybuilders than was found in sedentary control subjects- The authors suggested that resistance training may have caused an increase of inyosin heavy-chain type ha fibers at the expense of type Jib. This adaptation to resistance training has been confirmed by many researchers and appears to occur quite rapidly once subjects begin a resistance-training program. What's more, it also reverses rapidly after subjects stop training. The type Jib-to-type Ha conversion may represent the body's way of shifting toward a less energetically costly muscle fiber in response to an increased workload. As might be expected, this adaptation, as with those discussed earlier, could have significant implications for your training.

Once the above changes in myosin isoform composition have occurred, its conceivable that training at the same intensity level will produce less in the way of muscle hypertrophy. Consequently, if you increase the intensity of the workload slightly by performing a few additional sets, drop sets, forced repetitions or similar techniques, you can substantially decrease the likelihood that you'll hit a plateau.

3. Train more frequently.

Recent studies have indirectly suggested that the protein anabolic response to resistance training is complete within approximately 48 hours following exercise. Generally speaking, glycogen replenishment also appears to he complete well within that time frame. If this is the case, then what's the point in waiting five, six, seven or more days before specifically working a given muscle group again? What if the muscles actually begin to atrophy when you schedule training sessions too far apart?

These are difficult questions to answer. Scientists currently know very little about the mechanisms responsible for muscle protein turnovet. Nevertheless, we must do our best to interpret the available data. Among the points we don't know for sure is whether catabolic hormones, such as cortisol, are involved in muscle protein breakdown.

It's also unclear how long newly added contractile proteins remain in a muscle fiber before the fiber begins to atrophy. It's interesting to note that as anabolic steroid use has increased among bodybuilders over the years, the average training frequency appears to have fallen somewhat. This may be partly explained by the apparent anticatabolic effect of anabolic steroids and other pharmaceutical agents: The steroids could be slowing down the rate at which muscle proteins are normally degraded, thereby enabling bodybuilders to train less frequently.

Although the type II, or fast- twitch, muscle fibers appear to show the greatest potential for hypertrophy, type I, or slow-twitch, fibers can also increase in size. While some investigators have found evidence for preferential hypertrophy of type II fibers, this is clearly not always the case. Nevertheless, the type I fibers may be more resistant to hypertrophy when compared to their type U counterparts.

In the February '95 issue of Muscular Development, William J. Kraemet, Ph.D., cited a 1994 study that examined the effects of androgen receptor binding in rat skeletal muscle, androgens being male sex hormones, like testosterone. The researchers used a ladder-climbing exercise in which weights were attached to the animals to stimulate leg muscle growth.

Over the 10-week program both type I and type II muscle fibers showed an increase in size. Interestingly, there was a decrease in maximum binding or number of androgen receptors in the type I fibers, while there was an increase in the type II fibers.

Kraenier remarked that the results of this study indicated that the type I muscle fibers were fighting" hypertrophy by attempting to shut down the body's own anabolic signals to the muscle cell. This would not be surprising, since the type I muscle fiber is designed for longduration, low-intensity contractions Hypertrophy would, therefore, be rather counterproductive for this fiber type.

These experimental findings may also help to explain my own empirical observation that bodybuilders have generally decreased their training frequency for most muscle groups as they've increased their use of anabolic steroids. The exogenous, or outside, supply of male hormones may reduce the type I muscle fibers' resistance to growth, (hereby reducing the need for more frequent (raining of this fiber type. Drug-free athletes, however, will obviously not enjoy these benefits.

Many bodybuilders tend to work their calf muscles more frequently than other muscle groups. Some may even train their calves every day. The theory is that the calf musculature is more stubborn and so requires more frequent stimulation to make it grow The fact is, the soleus, one of the major calf muscles, is dominated by type I muscle fibers. It would be interesting to determine whether the type II fibers of that calf display a lower-than-normal androgen receptor number and binding capacity when compared to the type 11 fibers of other muscle groups. Indeed, there may be some scientific basis to the popular belief that you should train your calves more frequently.

The suggestion is often made that if you're not improving, you should increase your recovery time. As indicated above, this may not always be appropriate. Perhaps the problem lies in the fact that you're allowing too much rest between workouts and must therefore make up for any gains lost between training sessions.

4. Take shorter rests between sets.

Yet another way to counter some of the adaptations that hider your growth is to reduce your rest time between sets. This will give the muscle fibers less time to reestablish homeostasis, the normal balance of elements, and will therefore encourage more hypertrophy. It will be of particular use in stimulating the resistant type I muscle fibers.

5. Change your aerobics program.

The concept of changing exercises applies not only to resistance work but to aerobics as well. When all other things are constant, as the body becomes increasingly efficient at performing a given aerobic activity, the amount of energy expended during that activity will drop. Thus, by periodically changing the type of aerobic activity you engage in-say, every three or four workouts-you may be able to reduce this tendency thereby ensuring you burn as many calories as possible at each session.

6. Keep your motivation high. In some cases progress suffers only because you can't motivate yourself. An unchanging training environment can become monotonous and lead to staleness. You can take any of the aforementioned steps to institute a change of pace and renew your interest in training. You might even try working out at a different gym on occasion. Goal setting can also prove beneficial. Remember the saying, "Goals are dreams with a deadline." Write down your goals and their respective deadlines and announce them to your peers.

This will put positive pressure on you to achieve them by the stated deadlines-or else end up looking like a fool. A training journal will enable you to monitor your progress. Record the details of every workout, along with your measurements, in a journal. Bring it to the gym every day.This is also a good place to write down your goals so you're continually reminded of them. Last but not least, don't fall into the trap of mistaking your training plateau for the limit of your genetic potential. Chances are you're far from it.

In Conclusion

Occasional training plateaus are inevitable, and this is particularly true for beginners. When a normally sedentary individual first begins resistance training, the gains in strength and size may come quickly at first and then slow down considerably. What we often fail to consider is that certain muscle fibers are going from near-zero to near-maximal contractile activity. From then on, however, the change in activity is much less dramatic, as is the growth stimulation. Numerous biochemical and structure adaptations may be to blame, but by taking some of the steps discussed above.





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