Muscle on Weight or Weight on Muscle?

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I’m sure I’m not the first have this thought. I have no doubt many others have looked around a gym and noticed that almost everyone models their workouts as if they were machines designed to do as much work as possible. Should the muscle move the weight or should the weight move the muscle? Let me explain.

If our goal is to move more weight, more reps or work out longer, the weight is just along for the ride. We’ve taken a mechanical approach to getting stronger. More work means more results. And there is no doubt that this method works, but when you take a mechanical view of lifting, the way to make progress is to get both strong and more efficient. Efficient in the mechanical view is not about the most efficient way to target muscle fibers, but it is about the most efficient way to lift more weight or do more reps.

Efficiency in a mechanical approach is all about making the exercise as easy as possible. For someone lifting A LOT of weight, that might sound blasphemous, but it is true. Remember the goal with the mechanical approach is to lift more weight or knock out more reps. Anything that causes fatigue to set in earlier will prevent the mechanical lifter from reaching their number. Delaying muscular fatigue until the work volume is reached becomes the goal. By changing the rep speed and where the lifter takes pauses, one can do more work.

If you look across the gym, you will see most of the people doing two second reps. One second up, one second down. They use momentum to push up quickly past the sticking point, lock out briefly at the top, which allows a little recovery time and then control the weight as it falls, which allows more recovery time. At the bottom, they bounce the weight back up. This is the mechanical recipe for lifting. Minimizing the time spent on the targeted muscles will delay fatigue.

As the weight increases, the positive rep speed decreases, but it is still the optimal efficient speed, because to do anything less than optimal would reduce the weight or reps. Or in the case of heavy free weights, jeopardize safety.

chest press

Incline Press by ARC Equipment

The opposite of the mechanical approach is High Intensity Training (HIT). Here the goal is not to efficiently lift more weight or knock out more reps, but to efficiently target and fatigue muscle fibers and then leave the gym. The weight is strictly a tool used to trigger a biological process efficiently and with minimal risk of injury. The work is not moving the weight around. The work is what the weight is doing to the muscle. This means the rep speed is purposely inefficient. We aren’t trying to do more work, we are trying to get the weight to do more work.

The most inefficient set from a mechanical point of view would be a static hold workout like the one used in the book Hillfit. Here no work is getting done, but the muscle fibers are being effectively fatigued.

Today when I sit down at a chest press machine I have no rep or weight goals. Where the pin is at on the rack is not that important to me. The lighter the weight feels, the less efficient my rep speed will be. My goal is muscular fatigue not a specific amount of weight or reps. Once I’ve hit that level of fatigue, the workout is over. That might take as little as 5-10 minutes. But that is OK. I no longer have any interest in learning how to efficiently move more weights at the gym. The weights are tools to serve me.

Before I get push back in the comments, let me be clear: BOTH METHODS WORK. Whatever motivates you and is in line with your fitness values is the best approach.

13 thoughts on “Muscle on Weight or Weight on Muscle?

  1. Bryce

    “Do you want to do something to the weight with your muscles, or something to your muscles with the weight?”
    -Jones, Mentzer, or some other HIT guy whose name eludes me.

  2. Robert

    I’m sympathetic to HIT and I think most exercisers could benefit from reducing risk in their training. On the other hand, I currently try to accumulate volume in my training as I find that I like the metabolic effects better than doing the equivalent amount of LISS bike or rowing, and the hypertrophy effects of that volume. Exercise isn’t one size fits all, and while HIT is science backed I think some advocates suffer from confirmation bias. Even though I currently follow a bro split, I have done Darden and BBS style HIT in the past at various globo gyms, and I can tell you I am one of maybe 3-4 other humans that I have ever observed in the wild using slow rep speeds and working sets to MMF.

  3. @Robert – I do a higher volume approach to HIT myself. In other posts I mention how the higher temperatures in commercial gyms have hindered my ability to generate intensity. I get exertion headaches easily. So I just dial down the intensity and up the volume. I still get to where I need to go. It just takes a little longer.

  4. Bryce

    The “high vs low” volume debate is really a sub-debate of hit. The first question is what I paraphrased (and Michael said) about muscle vs weight. The second is, do you want to fatigue yourself deeply a handful of times in a set, or in a week, OR do you want to fatigue yourself ENORMOUSLY once every 1 or 2 weeks. John Little, in his corporate warrior interview recently, said that Intensity is just like volume and frequency – benefits can come if you increase it, but it’s easy to over do it if you increase that variable too much.

  5. Arthur

    My only issue with HIT is the difficulty to linearly increase dificulty every workout. It’s easier to record workouts lifting free weights. But once I reach my desired fitness goals, I’ll switch to HIT.

    I actually think about this and other thing that you said in other post: strength is a skill. I might add 30 lbs to my bench press by merely changing my technique and not necessarily cause more stress to the muscle. While that is true, if you stick to a certain technique and add 200 lbs to your incline bench over the years using that technique, I doubt you’d have no pecs. I can’t recall a single time in my life where I saw a 2 plate bench presser @ 160-170 lbs with no pecs.

    My point is that even if strength is a skill, you can still measure progress somewhat effectively. After I hit certain lifting goals I’ll switch to HIT because you bought me into it. Seems like a very good idea!

  6. @Arthur – A few thoughts.

    1- There are many ways to get pecs. Barbell bench is just one. Herschel Walker just did pushups.

    2- You speak of skill as if it were a constant variable. That is a variation of the theme I refer to as “the myth of the perfect rep”. But fatigue will reduce skill. Both physical and mental fatigue. We are human. There is nothing wrong with that. It just means there are more variables at play.

    3- I’m sure a HIT trainer could linearly increase the difficulty each workout. They track weight, TUL, seat seatings. time between exercises. Personally I don’t track anything.

  7. Hey MAS,

    Interesting post. Really deconstructs some concepts that people take for granted.

    Question: What do you think about certain *minimum* fitness skills. Let me tell you what I mean. I do Pilates (which is yet again a whole other world of fitness that has been effective for me), and sometimes we do pushups in class, and almost none of the women can do a full rep. A lot of guys and gals can’t do a full pullup rep.

    Yes, both of those have some skill aspects to them, but in my view, if one is aiming for fitness, one should definitely be able to do a full pushup and one should probably be able to do a pullup or two (although it seems some pretty fit and jacked women still can’t do one…).

    By the way, your blog has influenced me! I read what you said about static holds, so on my “back day” I now have adopted a row with 25 lb. kettlebells in which I hold them as high as possible for 10 seconds, then 9, then 8, down to 1. I just kinda invented that myself but based it on the principles you have espoused hereon. 🙂

  8. Rita

    Hey Matt – I think fitness goals are highly subjective. For example, my 2 current goals are to be able to do 3 pull ups and to take at least 2 strokes off of my 25 meter swim, thereby improving efficiency. Plenty of fitness enthusiasts wouldn’t give a rat’s arse about either one of those goals, but they’re good for me. You only need to impress yourself. Also, here’s an interesting article about pull-ups: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/the-mechanics-of-the-pull-up-and-why-women-can-absolutely-do-them/

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