– Yoda, Jedi Master
Is your workout working?
Are you making progress? Specifically, are you moving forward in your health and fitness goals? Are you even aware of what progress looks like? I ask these questions because a lot of people do the same thing over and over again yet they wonder why they’re not getting in some sort of better shape. Weight loss has stalled. Muscles aren’t growing. Racing times aren’t dropping…
I think everyone wants to see evidence of some sort of progress in the gym. Otherwise, why bother? How might we observe this progress? Here are a few ideas:
Body weight: What does the scale tell you?
Body composition: How much body fat are you carrying?
Speed: Are you able to run, bike, swim, ski, etc. faster over a particular distance?
Endurance: Can you walk, swim, run, bike or ski further/longer than you used to?
Mobility: Can you move better than you used to? Can you reach over head? Squat below parallel? Touch your toes? Look behind you as you back out the car?
Skills: Have you learned anything new? Can you clean a barbell or swing a kettlebell? Has your swim stroke improved? Can you perform a 1-leg squat, catch and throw a frisbee or shoot a free throw? Are you able to get down on the ground and stand back up? (By the way, everything on this list is a skill!)
Strength: Have your lifting numbers gone up? Have you added weight to the bar? Can you lift for more reps? Can you do a full push-up and/or pull-up?
Size/Girth: Have you lost or gained in size? Are your arms, thighs, calves or shoulders bigger? Is your waist smaller?
People often lump the last two metrics together. We often think strength equals size. Not so fast. There’s more here than you might think and that’s what this series is about.
“I don’t want to get too big.”
Every personal trainer has heard a client say, “I don’t want to get too big.” If you’ve ever said those words then it’s your lucky day! You, dear reader cannot get “too big.” You. Can’t. Do It.
Saying you don’t want to get “too big” is akin to saying, “I’d like to make some money but I don’t want to get too rich.” Neither situation arises by accident. I have yet to encounter the gym goer who woke up one morning, looked in the mirror and exclaimed, “My word!! Where did those huge muscles come from?!”
In fact, if you said to me that you want to build very large muscles (get “too big”) I would tell you you’re going to have a very hard time doing it. You’re going to have to change your life a lot. You’re going to have to eat like a grizzly bear because muscle growth is determined very much by what you eat. (BTW, weight loss is also determined mostly by what you do or don’t eat.) You may even need to take illegal drugs.
If you’re an endurance athlete who wants to put on noticeable muscle mass then you’ll have to cut way back on the riding, running, swimming, etc. It’s practically impossible for a dedicated endurance athlete to grow big muscles. Too much energy and resources go to fueling your activity and rebuilding worn down tissues. Plus, slow-twitch muscle fibers (endurance muscle fibers) don’t grow much.
Are you a woman? Then you’re really in luck! Women who don’t want to look “too big” were dealt a great hand of genetic cards simply by being born female. Testosterone is a major component of big muscles. Women don’t have much of it. Women who do look “too big” are very likely on drugs.
Finally, building giant slabs of muscle takes time. It simply can’t happen quickly. So in addition to all the stuff I’ve already mentioned, the process of becoming “too big” takes a wealth of patience.
My point? Building huge muscles is very difficult! It takes a lot of difficult dedicated work, lots of food, lots of time and maybe some drugs. In other words, don’t worry about it. You can get very aggressive with weights, get very strong and you’ll still be very safe from too-big syndrome.
Stronger, Not Bigger
The majority of sports actually don’t require athletes to be particularly big. American football linemen need to be big in order to shove opponents out of the way. It’s a similar situation with sumo wrestlers. Shot putters need to be big so they can put a lot of mass against the shot. Beyond that, very large athletes are often at a disadvantage. They can’t generate as much power relative to their body weight. They can’t endure as well. Thus, for many athletes, some degree of increased muscle mass may be a good thing, but being “too big” is not an advantage. Strength however is always in demand.
Most sports involve sprinting of some sort. More strength helps an athlete sprint faster. Does more bulk help? Only up to a point. A massively muscle-bound body doesn’t help.
Weight class athletes such as boxers, weightlifters, martial artists, and wrestlers must stay within a certain weight range to compete. Now, we’ve all seen the stereotypical massive superheavyweight weightlifter or powerlifter. Look at the lighter weight classes of these sports though and you won’t see such hulking physiques. You’ll see lean, strong athletic physiques. These people are always looking to get stronger and more powerful without getting bigger.
Gymnasts are excellent examples of athletes who must be very strong and powerful yet clearly don’t benefit much at all from enormous amounts of muscle bulk. Have you ever seen a gymnast that was “too big?”
So there are numerous examples of people who require great strength but have no need of excessive muscle. How exactly do they get there? We’ll get into that in the next post. Get Parts II and III here!