Why do we lift? BECAUSE I SAID SO! Blog over, conversation done. We’ll see you on the internet some other time…
I’m currently writing a series of posts on the reasons resistance training is a staple in both our group and individual program designs at MSP Fitness. Far too often the conversation around the water cooler (i.e. internet forums), is less concerned with WHY people ought to lift and more focused on, “shut up and do it already!”, or something to that effect.We’ve done three posts so far:
In today’s post, we’ll continue down the rabbit hole of pumping iron, explaining the importance of tissue resiliency. Without further adieu, Why We LIFT: Connective Tissue Health.
The Connective Tissue Issue.
While it’s not the most obvious reason, an incredibly important case can be made for using resistance training to improve connective tissue health and performance. We showcased in previous articles that we lift to get strong and increase muscle mass, all equating to a more resilient human being. One seldom discussed component of that resiliency has nothing to do with the muscle itself, but much, much more to do with what ties the muscle together and to other things.
The term “connective tissue” can and has been misused by many individuals. In an attempt to NOT do that, I’ll be identifying the medical/scientific terminology initially, then predominately using the umbrella term “connective tissue” thereafter. More along the lines of something you’d see in Gray’s Anatomy the Television drama than what you’d find in Gray’s Anatomy the textbook. I hope you won’t mind.
So from now on when I say connective tissue I’m predominantly referring to connective tissue proper and connective tissue specialized. More specifically, dense regular connective tissue proper and connective tissue specialized. More colloquially, ligaments, tendons, and bone.
Ligaments and Tendons. Lightning and Thunder.
While a majority of us who subscribe to the iron game do so to get stronger, look better, and improve performance, the impact of kettlebells, barbells, bands, and dumbbells goes far beyond those initial training goals. When you perform an arm curl, you aren’t just contracting the muscle belly, a whole gelatinous matrix comprised of collagen fibers is equally stimulated, allowing us to impact our ligaments and tendons. So what’s a ligament? What’s a tendon? Simply put, ligaments connect bone to bone and tendons connect muscle to bone.
In the adjacent image, you’ll see that the tendon ties into the outer sheath of the muscle called the epimysium. What you don’t see is that the tendon additionally incorporates into the perimysium and endomysium, wrapping bundles of muscle fibers together first, then subsequently into the bone. Picture it this way: say you’re holding a massive bundle of balloons. Each balloon is tied to a string that is ultimately held in your hand. The strength and endurance of your grip, along with the size of your hand, are determining factors in whether or not the balloons will stay together as one bundle. Your ability to hold the strings would be made substantially easier if you had a hand the size of a catcher’s mitt, the grip endurance of an elite rock climber, or the grip strength of farmer who’s carried a lifetime of pails and bales. When we resistance train, we are giving these qualities to our tendons, not only improving their ability to resist injury, but improve performance and function as well.
For ligaments, the benefits that come from lifting weight are similar, however the function of a ligament is far different. Since ligaments connect bone to bone, they are overwhelmingly found at the bodily junctions known as joints. If you’re a sports fan, the most notorious ligament is none other than the anterior cruciate ligament — ACL for short. Ruining fantasy sport line ups on a routine basis, the ACL has risen to chief of the ligaments. While it may be the most infamous, it is certainly not the only ligament found in the knee. In the picture to the left you’ll see a couple of the other major players in knee anatomy; however, unpictured, there are ten ligaments in total that attach parts of your lower thigh to your knee cap and onward to your lower leg. Similar to tendons, resistance training is the only thing that can increase the ligament’s mass and strength, making some form of lifting a needed staple in your training routine.
I Have a Feeling in My Bones This Lifting Thing is Important.
Just as with ligaments and tendons, bones are a type of connective tissue. Connective tissue specialized to be specific. When we lift, it isn’t just the tendons and ligaments that become more resilient, but your bones get stronger as well. This is exceptionally important for anyone planning to live past their 30’s because humans lose bone density with each decade after early adulthood.
When we move, the muscles pulls on the tendons, which transmits force to the bone, which dissipates outside the body as movement. Some form of external load is the only thing that will boost bone growth meaning that resistance training is the go to for a better, stronger skeleton.
So How do I lift to Improve My Bones and Connective Tissue?
I’ve established the importance of improving connective tissue resiliency and now we’ll dive into exactly how to extrapolate the benefits of the barbell. As part of this blog series on ‘Why We Lift” I wrote an article explaining why lifting ought to be added to your exercise program for variation. In that article I stated that variation was just one of the key principles of training. In addition to variation I defined the principle of overload: doing more than you did last time (generally speaking). So that’s it! Make your connective tissue stronger by doing more. Easy right?!? Okay, okay, I’ll explain myself further, but buckle up because we’re hopping aboard the Magic School Bus weight training edition!
When a muscle is overloaded through resistance training, the body starts synthesizing protein at a higher rate and amount. Connective tissue reacts in a similar way by adding more collagen fibers to your ligaments and tendons, and more osteocytes (bone cells) to your skeleton. This increased mass and density equates to improved tensile strength. It’s sort of like when you get a callus from repeated rubbing or contact in a similar area. The skin builds up in the opposite direction of the applied stimulus, providing you a buffer for the work repeatedly being done. Likewise, the body’s tendons, ligaments, and bones will become heartier in the face of repeat overload.
The level to which connective tissue increases in strength is directly proportionate to the level of overload. What this means for you and your training is that lifting small loads and light weights will not be enough – you have to sufficiently stress the body by overloading it. Simply put, when you finish lifting, you need to walk away feeling like you actually worked. For far too long the celebrity fitness complex (did I just make that up? You betcha!) has been propagating training for lean, long muscles by utilizing really light weights at ridiculously high reps. While this is a fine way to polish your technique and start training for the very first time, you have to move past beginner reps and beginner weights, taxing yourself with additional load each time you perform the movement in question.
In order to clear that minimum work threshold, you must start within your abilities and then progress. For a sedentary, untrained person, walking or lighter weight training will likely be enough, especially if they are starting from scratch. However with trained individuals, we need to see an increase in the intensity of the lifting. Contrary to what you might feel when you hear the word intensity, this doesn’t mean faster or for time. It implies that we select weight bearing exercises which incorporate multiple parts of the body. Compound lifts like squats, deadlifts, other hinge movements, lunges, bench press, and overhead press are the most effective ways to create bulletproof tissues (not literally, don’t try that at home). Once we adapt to that new intensity/stimulus, we must continue to increase the load to foster continued connective tissue growth.
Here at MSP Fitness, we start out by teaching and coaching technique, consistency, and confidence first in a one on one setting. Building on that solid base and standards for excellence, we freely encourage, if not demand, that the final few reps of every set they perform feel like a 7-9 on a scale of 1-10. This way we can ensure they are exerting force that matches their individual ability levels AND checks the box on daily overload, all equating to improved connective tissue resiliency and performance. The research supports this by suggesting that the bang for buck work starts when the external load enters 80+% of a person’s single repetition maximum. I will note that coaching this progressive overload is only possible if the participant’s form doesn’t make people go blind with its atrociousness.
These Paragraphs are Brought to You by Eccentrics and Isometrics.
Furthermore and lastly, recent research has shown that there are untapped connective tissue benefits not only when you lift, but when you lift with a specific focus on eccentric and isometric training. Every muscle action has three phases: eccentric, isometric, and concentric. When I lower my body into the bottom of a squat, that’s the eccentric phase. Holding the bottom position of said squat, I’m actively contracting isometrically. Simply put, the concentric portion is the drive phase, or in our example, standing up from the squat. When we focus on a slow entry into that squat’s bottom position, or an intentional pause once we are there, the connective tissue in the working muscle groups get an extra stimulus[1,2] compared to the same exercise performed with no time restraints.
At our gym, our clients train the eccentric and isometric phase of their lifts. For example, when performing bicep curls and tricep extensions I’ll tack on a :3-5 forced let down. With this, we are logging some important accessory movements while at the same time encouraging strength gains in the ligaments and tendons of the shoulder and elbow. Furthermore, many of our clients and patrons “enjoy” when we utilize pauses in the bottom of the squat position, at the end of an overhead movement, or one of my personal favorites, at individual moments midway through a turkish get up. While an eccentric emphasis, an isometric emphasis, or both are not the entire breadth and width of our program, they are mainstays and will always be stimulus is we add to improve our population’s connective tissue. This all ties back into our philosophy of training for a lifetime. Sure we aim for aesthetics and performance, but all the while building bones, ligaments, and tendons that will keep people on their feet for longer.
- Go lift. Today we’ve shown that you need to be lifting from a tissue resiliency perspective.
- Your tendons, ligaments, and bones need love too. The weight room isn’t reserved for the biceps alone.
- Utilize overload. Lifting pink dumbbells that weigh less than a soup can might be a great place to start, but you better not stop there if you want serious results and seriously strong connective tissue.
- Start controlling the eccentric and isometric portion of a few exercises each week. It does not have to be every lift, every day, every time you’re in the gym. Pick a main exercise, say deadlift, squat, or bench and control the lowering or add a pause in every other week.
Find a coach. Implementing sage training principles is tough when you have neither the time nor the knowledge. We take the desire and determination you bring to the table and apply sound programing with the highest level of coaching. If you’re looking to get back into training and have a true professional to work with, or looking for the best place to learn how to move well, MSP Fitness is your gym. Whether you are interested in group fitness or individualized coaching, we have the resources to help you meet your fitness and/or health goals. Come stop by our facility in St. Louis Park, Minnesota or schedule a free strategy session by entering your information below. We can’t wait to see what you’ll accomplish! CONTACT US TODAY!