How to lift without “Getting Bulky”

paulromasco-com

 

My personal goals involve increasing muscle mass, reducing body fat, and performing heavy barbell lifts.

However, the majority of my clients do not share these goals. Most of my clients want to lose weight, regain function, improve posture, and reverse disease.

In fact, one of the most frequent concerns I hear from those trying to get in shape is that they “don’t want to get big muscles”.

For that reason, I’m going to discuss what causes muscle growth, and how you can avoid getting bulky muscles while still leaning out and improving performance.

The technical term for developing muscle size is “muscular hypertrophy”. Hypertrophy is merely the process of tissues increasing in volume. And the form of muscular hypertrophy that results in the largest muscular gains is “sarcoplasmic hypertrophy”.

Strictly speaking, 8 to 12 repetitions with a moderate weight is the protocol for hypertrophy training. However, intensity and volume are the real deciding factors.

Intensity is accomplished by working until the muscles can no longer perform the exercise properly, known as “failure”, and moving quickly between sets.

Volume is an equation of sets, reps, and weight. This means that 2 sets of 20 repetitions

Olympics_2012_Women's_75kg_Weightlifting.jpg

Female Olympian in the 165 lb. weight class. Does SHE look bulky?

with 5 pounds will result in more growth stimulus than 3 sets of 1 repetition with 50 pounds.

I personally perform an exercise for 4 sets of 15 repetitions if I am trying to increase muscle size. Almost any load can cause significant growth when performed for 15 slow and focused repetitions.

I bring up the topic of intensity to address those that avoid lifting heavy weights because they don’t want to bulk up. The classic bodybuilder approach of 8 to 12 repetitions means that “heavy weights” (relative to the individuals strength) cannot be used.

BulkyThe weights that bodybuilders handle may look heavy but this is merely because they are very strong and have been lifting, with regular improvement, for a long time. It may look like a bench press with two 75-pound dumbbells looks heavy, but if the individual is doing it for 8 or more reps, they could handle over 100-pound dumbbells for fewer reps.

Contrarily, lifting a massively heavy weight for fewer than 5 repetitions will actually train the mind more than the muscles. Yes, the body is getting a great workout, but lifting a maximum load for 1, 2, or 3 repetitions results in more neurological adaptations than muscular growth.

So, if any rep range can stimulate muscle growth, and 8 to 12 reps with a moderately-heavy weight is the most promising to grow muscles, what can you do to avoid “bulking up”?

  • Always feel like you could do 2 to 5 more repetitions with perfect form. The moment you go to failure, and technique breaks down, you are causing muscular damage that will result in the muscle growing larger during recovery.
  • Also, take the time you need to rest between sets. Many bodybuilder programs recommend timed recoveries under 60 seconds, sometimes as low as 15 seconds. Starting your next set before the muscles are ready is a surefire way to stimulate muscle growth.
  • Finally, don’t consume excess calories! One of the main goals of exercising is to increase lean body mass, but, if you don’t want your muscles to grow considerably larger, eat at, or even below, maintenance so your body replaces fat with lean mass.

One last point worth making is regarding “toning”. The same people that say they don’t want to “grow muscles” say that they “only want to tone”. Believe it or not, tone means muscle! There is no way to make fat or skin look “toned”. The definition or tone visible on a fit persons arms, legs, or torso, is actually their muscle.

This doesn’t mean that you have to train like a bodybuilder and put on 50 pounds of muscle to looked toned… but replacing body fat with lean body mass (also known as muscle) is necessary to achieve a fit physique.

The world of fitness, nutrition, and health is filled with mixed messages, preconceived notions, and bogus ideas. But please don’t give any mind to the false claims that lifting weights and increasing strength will make you bulky!

If you work within your limits, have a program structured to your goals, and don’t eat to excess, you will achieve a healthy and proportionate figure.

And as always, if you would like professional guidance, please don’t hesitate to e-mail me at paulromasco@hotmail.com !

 

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Recovery Weeks

Wow! It’s been awhile since I’ve posted. Sorry, I was on vacation visiting family throughout New England, and then snowboarding in Stowe, Vermont!

Had a few indulgences, definitely didn’t get as much sleep as normal, and didn’t get into the gym as much as I liked…but heck, it’s only 2 weeks out of the year. And believe me, after those 2 weeks, I couldn’t be happier to get back to pursuing this healthy lifestyle I love so much!

This week, I figured I’d talk about a fitness topic that is overlooked far too often – the importance of a regular, planned recovery week.

No matter what your focus is (fat loss, muscle or strength gain, improved endurance, etc) you can’t train at the same intensity week after week without serious damage to your body and even your mind!

There are many different ways to structure a recovery week. Some people take an entire week off while others just drop the volume of their workouts.

Since my main focus is increasing my strength using heavy powerlifts (squat, bench press, deadlift)  I take what I would call a “deload week” every 5th week. During this week, I drop all my weights or repetitions down so I am only doing about 50% of my normal workload.

I find that, still coming to the gym and going through the motions, but not struggling or pushing too hard, keeps me primed for the following week when I return to my normal intensity level, but offers me a much needed break from the constant stress of trying to handle new, heavier weights.

Even if you aren’t training by lifting heavy, your joints, connective tissues, bones, and muscles are being used in a way that is not typical in everyday life. It’s this imposed demand, and recovery from the demand, that causes the body to improve, getting stronger, faster, or fitter.

The part that most people overlook is the mental aspect of training. One thing I tell all my new clients is that the first 8-12 weeks of a new strength-training routine is where they’ll make the most progress. This isn’t due to increased muscle size but rather a neurological adaptation that improves how the body recruits and fires muscle fibers.

It’s this same neuromuscular connection that fatigues the central nervous system during exercise. There are even anecdotal reports of athletes becoming physically ill the night before squatting, or overtraining with another form of exercise.

For this reason, I recommend everyone take a recovery week every 4 to 12 weeks. The exact frequency, and what to do during this off week, is totally up to the individual, their program, and their goals.

If you are training for general fitness, making slow and steady progress but never pushing too hard to set personal records, working out at a moderate intensity 2 to 5 days a week, a recovery week every 8 weeks or so is perfectly sufficient. If you are lifting very heavy, training the muscles to failure, or constantly trying to beat your previous records, a recovery week every 4 weeks or so may be more useful.

The best thing I’ve done for my training, long-term, was to include a recovery week every 8 weeks. Then, once I started powerlifting a few years ago, I increased the frequency of that recovery week to every 5th week.  As an individual with serious lifting goals, it can be tough to force myself to not lift heavy week in and week out…but I know, as soon as I return the next week, the recovery was worth it.

So give it a try! Maybe time your recovery week with a trip you may be taking, or take a short recovery next time you come down with a cold, or just plan a regular week as a light week. I promise the benefits for your body and mind will be worthwhile.

Insulin Resistance

Two phrases I’ve used quite a lot, and never fully explained, are “insulin resistance” and “insulin sensitivity”. If you know what these terms mean, and how to alter them, you can drastically improve your metabolism, and by extension, your health.

Perhaps you’ve heard the term insulin resistance before as it is commonly understood as a part of diabetes. This is a rather limited view of a complex process.

Whenever food is consumed, the pancreas releases insulin to notify the cells of the body to absorb and store nutrients. This process is particularly active whenever sugars are consumed because they must be used immediately or stored to prevent their toxic characteristics from damaging the body. However, if glycogen stores are already full, cells become resistant to this insulin, meaning they can’t absorb more, and the sugars ends up flooding the bloodstream. This starts a dangerous cycle where the pancreas continues to produce more insulin in an attempt to clear the sugars from the bloodstream and, eventually, the sugars are forced into fat storage.

An important detail to note is that, for average people, fat accumulation in the body is not attributable to consumption of dietary fat, but rather the overconsumption of carbohydrates that are all broken down into sugars.

This process of insulin release is repeated until the cells in the body cannot utilize fat as energy and the entire metabolic system becomes dependent on constant sugar feedings or insulin injections…also known as Type II diabetes.

During this process, the arteries harden from the inflammatory and toxic nature of sugars, causing atherosclerosis. Nerve damage can ensue, leading to blindness. Also, the cells become resistant to amino acids so the muscles can’t even use protein.

Some symptoms of insulin resistance include:

  • An energy crash, feeling of low-blood sugar, brain-fog, or fatigue within a few hours of consuming a large carb meal.
  • Increased hunger and sugar cravings.
  • Weight accumulation, particularly around the midsection and hips.
  • Elevated triglycerides, blood pressure, and blood sugar.

Insulin and carbs are not inherently bad. They both serve an important purpose of storing energy for intense activity or times of stress and famine. However, it is estimated that for the first 200,000 years of our existence, humans consumed about 80 grams of carbs a day (varying by location). These carb were in the form of tough, fibrous vegetables and roots. The insulin release would be so minor that the cells of the body would stay primed to receive glucose.

Insulin sensitivity is the exact opposite of insulin resistance. Insulin sensitivity suggests that the muscles are prepared to absorb glucose from the bloodstream with the aid of insulin.

I will list the most effective ways of promoting insulin sensitivity:

  • Moderating carb intake based on activity level.
  • Short periods of fasting where the body is encouraged to use fat as energy and break sugar dependence.
  • Consuming nutritious carbs such as fruits and vegetables that also contain fiber, mitigating insulin release.
  • Eating enough fat with every meal to blunt insulin secretion.
  • High-intensity interval training during which the body can only use glycogen as fuel.
  • Weight-lifting and other forms of exercise that place a demand upon the muscles and trains the metabolism to partition nutrients.

To put these tactics into a real-world context, I will explain my approach to maintaining insulin sensitivity:

On days I don’t work out, I limit my carb intake to a couple pieces of fruit and fibrous carbs. On my training days, I consume a large carb meal within 30 minutes of my workout to replenish glycogen stores.

On Friday, I have my last meal around 8 PM. On Saturday, around 11 AM, I walk to a steep hill where I do 10 to 15 sprint intervals in a fasted state. I walk home, stretch, shower, and have breakfast about an hour after my workout. In all, I fast about 16 hours. I’ll discuss fasting in another post because it can be a very effective, but potentially risky, method of improving health.

There are many other factors that can contribute to insulin resistance including vitamin D deficiency, heightened cortisol, highly acidic diets (building meals around grains instead of vegetables), consumption of trans-fats and oxidized poly-fats, and omega-3 deficiency.

Some studies suggest high-fat diets are a leading cause of insulin resistance but these studies merely replaced each gram of carbs with a gram of fat, resulting in an enormous calorie excess due to the fact that fats have 9 calories per gram and carbs only have 4. The most reliable study I have come across shows that after 12 weeks of replacing grains and dairy with vegetables and fruits, a type 2 diabetes diagnosis was completely reversed…meaning the body became insulin sensitive again.

So, if you experience sugar cravings or a blood sugar crash after eating, maybe try eating lower carb on the days you aren’t as active. Also, try to substitute nutritious carbs, such as vegetables and fruits, for less nutritious foods such as soda and snack bars filled with sugars and grains. Finally, throw in a tough workout every few days to create a demand within the muscles for any carbs you consume.

If you’d like me to recommend a more specific carb intake for your activity level, let me know!