This topic has been covered in-depth by many more experts than me, yet I feel there is a disconnect between what someone might know and what they actually do. Especially us, ladies.
So consider this post half of a lecture to myself as well as me getting excited about what I am learning in physiology.
I am often asked: “Why should I train the big compound movements first if I am just starting to workout with weights? Why should I be concerned with strength progressions? Why can’t I just do all kinds of the other stuff too like spin classes, met-cons, sprints, 5 mile runs, body-weight circuits, or mix it all together?”
Because as a beginner, your muscles are in a state of unawareness.
Simply put, newbie muscles are stupid. That’s why you can get a response from any style of training in the beginning. Doesn’t mean you can’t do that stuff, just means if you really want to affect the “tone” and shape of your muscles and look good naked, you are better off starting with some lifting and fixing your diet (but we won’t get into the diet part for this post).
Your new muscles are kind of like a young guy trying to pick you up. They have no game because they don’t know the game. If you are just as young, anything works on you. For awhile.
Your muscles have no idea what you want from them in that semi-conscious state of beginner-hood. They function, but without a clear purpose because you are not giving them one. You can hit them with all kinds of cool and confusing programs and stuff, and they WILL make progress for a bit. But without giving them the right signals, your response is going to taper off, and your progress will stall while you still keep at it and expect different results.
Imagine trying to get it on with your sleepy girlfriend in the wee hours of the morning and expecting her to immediately go wildly hot in response to your flaccid poking. Not usually the case. She might stir and wiggle a bit, but then she’ll fall asleep again. She’s only half-awake and the stimulus isn’t strong enough. Doesn’t make for great performance responses out of her.
You need to give your muscles (and brain which controls them) clear orders with your training and get them used to working properly before you can manipulate the variety. Martin Berkhan came up with the lovely word of “fuckarounditis” to describe the obsession of doing everything except what is needed or effective.
You can’t go from complicated to simple. You must understand simple before you fiddle with complicated. And really, simple is all you need for the most part, unless your goals get more complicated as well. Complicated and varied is pretty useless in the beginning. Why? It’s dependent on context, and how can you know context without experience? Simple will always work. Why? Because it’s basic and NOT fully dependent on context (to a degree within individuals) and works under a variety of circumstances without much exception.
Training big movements like the squat, deadlift, presses (bench, military), and pulls (chins, rows) and their basic variations require lots of muscles to be forced to work. What makes a muscle work? It’s the motor neuron attached to it firing properly and telling it to contract. That signal comes from the brain in response to the stimulus (the weight and the movement). Small stimulus = small response. Big stimulus = big response.
Just like trying to wake that girlfriend up.
What we are actually training for when we start strength is better tension in the muscle: improving how it contracts so that we can affect its shape/size. We want the muscle to WAKE UP and fire so that it can adapt and get bigger/stronger. The best way to do this is to hit it with a big stimulus, not a small one; i.e., big exercises and strength progression. Make it work harder and require more tension. In a beginner, those motor neurons are hanging out with your muscle fibers, doing jack shit for the most part because you haven’t told them exactly what you want them to do. You tickle them with some Zumba, and tease them with sprints.
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Get started now But in your muscles’ “mind,” a bunch of bouncing around in a variety of ways does not equal a true change in muscular tension/contraction/force. You want them to contract and increase their ability to contract harder and harder = tension = change shape, size, strength = get tighter legs, a better ass or nicer shoulders.
This is what you need to be concerned with most in the beginning. You have to be giving your muscles the right stimulus.
“But I run for miles, and do circuits, aren’t my muscles contracting?” you ask.
That’s not contracting the muscle in the way that really causes it to change size and shape and get stronger. It’s physiology. All the fuckarounditis you spend so much time doing is not sending the right signal. Your muscles are still walking around in a kind of twilight zombie state. The neural signals you are sending are not strong enough to effect lasting change in the muscle. That’s what weights are for.
Note: Think of this also in relation to rehab work or muscular imbalances – when one muscle is “overfiring” or “underfiring.”
When your muscles are being told to fire in specific ways, they adapt to what you want. Those specific ways, “turn them on” and they are then responsive to more particular “commands.” Like speed, for instance. If you have ever tried running with/without any kind of strength base, you can instantly get the connection. Believe me, the difference for the same action once you have your muscles firing is incredible. All that other “exercise” stuff before the “turn-on” is again, like trying to hump your girlfriend when she’s sleeping and thinking that she’s really into it because you get a moan. You can technically “do it,” you might even get some response, but it’s not going to be a very involved process, and you are not going to create much of a lasting effect.
Disclaimer: We are strictly talking muscles here, not fat loss so that you can see said muscles. Just a reminder.
The best way to send the right signal is to start training for strength. Those big movements/lifts help you bypass the fact that your muscles are half-asleep because you can: use more muscles at once, move more weight, create more tension, instigate a bigger neural response, get proper gains that last/affect body composition effectively, and improve adaptation to explore a variety of training.
Train the correct response consistently through building your strength base. Then you can think about fooling around with your training style more.
All of that variety in training is possible and beneficial and ten times better once you have something to work with. That “something to work with” is your strength base.
Once your muscles know their role by contracting/ creating tension, because they have been trained to fire, you can then play around with the HOW of performance – not to mention how muscle strength preserves joint integrity during anything you care to indulge in.
So it’s 4 a.m., and you start doing the hand-in-the-dark on her leg. But this time, you take the time to wake her up a bit. Her trust has been built through your consistent performance over time, and she knows her satisfaction is guaranteed. She is willing and able to perform under a variety of circumstances. Including at 4 in the morning. You increase your stimulus, and she knows you mean business. Wild 4 a.m. sex. Regularly.
Or, you build a banging bod with toned muscles and skip years of frustration trying to get a body you envisioned doing all the other stuff, which was the original point. Turn those muscles on. Then fool around if you like.