“The Weight is a Tool, Many Had Just Mistaken it For The Goal” By Gregg Slater
For many, the lockdown and with it the inception of “remote coaching” has been a great opportunity to develop their coaching. Stripped of the go-to progression “let’s add 5Kg to that”, trainers have had to reassess what they are actually trying to achieve with their clients. For too long many have held the supposition that more load added to the bar, dumbbell or cable meant the client was moving towards their goals.
Except many weren’t, at least not as effectively as possible. Here comes an analogy (shock).
Putting a bigger engine in a car (tool) doesn’t always mean a faster lap (goal)! Go from a 1.0L to a 1.6L engine will probably see the lap time come down. We may see the same improvements by further increasing things to 2.0L. At this point, an increase in engine size is directly translating into faster lap times. The tool and the goal appear to be as one. Further increases in engine size from 2.0-2.5L sees improved, yet diminishing returns on lap times with the car taking on more damage as the driver struggles to keep the car on the track.
But what happens when we put a 3.0L engine in? We’re going to set a lap record for sure! Until you clock in slower than you did with the 2.0L. The improved engine size is only as useful as the brakes’ ability to control it, the steering’s ability to direct it and ultimately the driver’s ability to harness it. At this point, it becomes clear, the tool had been mistaken for the goal.
Strength v Hypertrophy
For the vast majority of clients with goals of toning, shaping, growing muscle and generally living a healthier lifestyle the majority of their training should focus around muscular CONTRACTION, not simply muscular movement!
This brings us to the crux of the issue.
Allow me to present a somewhat simplified “global”, comparison of training for strength and training for hypertrophy.
Strength is the skill of efficiency, moving the most load in the most economical way. This often means reducing the range of motion where possible and dissipating force/stress over as many joints and muscles as possible in order to “move the weight”. What moves it is somewhat inconsequential. In contrast, hypertrophy training can be thought of as the skill of resisting efficiency in the presence of fatigue. We look to methodically place stress on a particular muscle and resist the bodies attempt to make the exercise “easier” as we get more fatigued.
Need an example?
Pick one exercise, go to failure and notice how your body wants to change its position, cut ROM, use momentum, ANYTHING to move the weight. The body has no understanding of your desire to target a muscle, it simply understands that you are getting fatigued and there is an easier way to “get the job done”. This is the battle of hypertrophy training.
This comparison is, of course, a false dichotomy. A set of squats for example “moving the weight” to near failure is still going to tax the lower body musculature, maybe just not as efficiently or as specifically as we might hope.
What Actually is An Exercise?
The genius Tom Purvis of RTS defines exercise as “the internal force production (muscles) in response to external force application”.
*Please note three things about this definition. One, I added the parentheses, two, I have abbreviated this definition for the sake of simplicity, and three, when discussing internal force production in this context I am talking about muscular work, not passive tissue or joint stress that we would want to minimise.
Therefore, we may consider an exercise with the goal of strength as “efficient internal force production in order to maximise the external force application”. Whilst hypertrophy may look to “maximise the internal force production with efficient external force application”. One looks to maximise the external, the other (hypertrophy), the internal. So if we now have a rough understanding of what we mean by “exercise”, let me ask you, what is a repetition? Here’s my current best effort.
“Reps are the external score we keep in the hope we are achieving an internal stimulus”
We focus on the external score to provide a heuristic of our internal stimulus. Yet we all know, as discussed earlier, that not all reps are created equally. A repetition or load used (external) is only as good as the contraction it produces (internal) if our goal is hypertrophy. Therefore, it’s entirely possible you may improve your external score (weights or reps) and actually reduce your internal stimulus!
Once we understand this, once we place a premium on quality contractions over simply moving a weight from point A to point B, this can result in a seismic shift in our coaching practices. We are now free from the one-dimensional shackles of myopically “adding load”. In addition, we can focus on tempo, holds, control, quality and any number of the “micro-progressions”. We can look to maximise the internal in response to the efficient use of the external.
I hope this article was thought-provoking. Please don’t take this as me saying we should never have a focus on strength or external performance, I’m simply looking to provide more balance in what is currently a coaching culture that is, in my opinion, overly focused on external performance. As trainers it will behove us to remember that for many of our clients, the weight is the tool, it’s not always the goal.