How strength training makes you weaker

There is no denying that strength training, i.e. lifting heavy stuff, has numerous health benefits. It increases bone density and thus helps prevent osteoporosis. It activates human growth hormone which helps to heal tissue lesions. It improves cardio-vascular endurance (more than jogging does) and … well helps you look better.

While it is sensible to workout on a regular basis to gain and / or preserve muscle mass ,often the question arises when it is enough. Some proponents suggest that you should strive for ever-increasing muscle mass.

I beg to differ.

What some proponents do not realise is that extensive strength training might make you even weaker the more muscles you put on.

Weaker through strength training?

You may be shocked when I tell you that muscles are performance inhibitors par excellence. The more muscle training you do — and the bigger you become — the less power you will have.

How is it that strength training and growing muscles make you weaker? Don’t we see that the biggest guys in weightlifting move the biggest weights? There is a reason why there are different weight classes, right?

This certainly is true. But moving a bigger weight in absolute terms does not mean that you are now stronger from a relative perspective. In fact, it is easy to show that your strength per kg bodyweight drops the bigger you are.

Just look at the following table. These are worldrecord-numbers taken from the website of the International Weightlifting Federation (at http://www.iwf.net/results/world-records/):

You can clearly see that while absolute strength goes up, relative strength per kg bodyweight goes continually down. From 2.48 kg per 1.86kg per kg bodyweight is a reduction of about 25%.

Please consider that I am being nice here: For the heavyweight class, I have estimated an exact 115kg bodyweight while in reality, I suppose that they are way heavier. This is also true for the other classes — for my calculations, I have always assumed the maximum body weight. So real differences might be even bigger.

Why is it that you get relatively weaker with respect to weight moved per kg bodyweight?

Everything in you body is wrapped in fascia. Fascia are the largest part of your connective tissue. There is not a single muscle, muscle fiber, no organ, not even a single nerve that is not surrounded by fascial tissue. And all these fascial tissues are connected. In fact, the fascia system is itself your biggest organ and consists of trillions of cells. If I took away all your bones, organs and nerves, a hull would remain that’s not only recognizable as a human body but as YOUR specific human body. In exaggeration, one could say that you are a fascia. Without fascia, a normal functioning of muscles, joints, tendons, and organs is simply not possible.

If this sounds somehow weird then lookup a picture of a dissection done by Gil Hedley entitled “Entire superficial fascia of female form off body as autonomous organ”:

http://www.gilhedley.com/ghgallery.php

To make things short this fascial net is responsible for conveying forces across your body (which is only one of its many tasks in the body). Think of your muscle as ground meet wrapped in clear film.

When you start lifting weights your muscles get bigger. What will happen to the “clear film” — i.e. the fascial tissue around your muscle? Think about it — tension on the surrounding fascial tissue is increased. It is as if you were inflating a balloon. At a certain point — more sooner than later — the fascial tissue will lose its ability to store forces. It will lose its rubber band characteristics. Also, the ability to convey forces across bodyparts is reduced.

This is why weightlifters get weaker in relative terms. Interruptions of force conveyance in one part of the body weaken the body as a whole — because the weakest chain link determines the strength of the whole chain.

What is “reasonably muscled”?

I think it was Alexander J.A Cortes who recently used the expression “reasonably muscled”. My definition of “reasonably muscled” is that you get stronger in absolute terms while also increasing your strength relative to your body weight. Should that go down you are “overmuscled”.

Being overmuscled is oftentimes ridiculed by the image of a heavyweight bodybuilder trying to dance as smooth as a ballerina (“Like a gazelle! … or what’s again the name of the animal with the trunk?”).

In indigenous people you will never see Arnold Schwarzenegger like bodies. Think of the Massai or tribes in the Amazon jungle. Just because it is possible does not mean you should.

Tips for your strength training

  • If you lift stuff, do compound exercises, i.e. exercises which train whole chains of muscles, like: squats, deadlifts, push-ups, pull-ups (well that’s in principle all you need).
  • Avoid isolated exercises (except for rehab)
  • I recommend doing kettlebell or clubbell training as they stretch and lengthen the fascial net instead of compressing the body. Also all exercises are always full-body exercises.