Yesterday we had the pleasure of hosting Greg Nuckols for a seminar at Bang Fitness.
Greg covered most of the things you’d expect from an elite powerlifter but he went further than that. He also produced several gems outside of the traditional emphasis on technique and exercise selection. Given our focus on training longevity, I wanted to provide a quick recap on the subject of training over a lifetime.
Training Frequency vs. Ability to Recover
When we look at strength training over a lifetime, there’s an exchange point between the ability to train well and the ability to train a lot. A graph would look something like this:
This is simple (well, it’s ridiculously oversimplified here but you get the point). When you’re young (or even relatively young and new to lifting) your technique will be at its weakest point. For that reason, frequent practice is the order of the day, “If you want to get to Carnegie Hall” and all that.
We’ve often observed that new lifters don’t have the depth of intramuscular coordination to create true fatigue – even if they want to. (I’m not referring to the impossibility of getting injured; obviously technique can’t be a hot mess here.)
As you mature – both physically and technically – there will be a point where your technical ability outstrips your ability to recover. As you approach this point, training frequency will begin to drop and more will have to be taken from individual training sessions for continued improvement.
Some people improve their recovery abilities with steroids (this is actually their intended use; not a sudden, magical jump in strength) but this can also be done with nature’s steroids. Namely sleep, nutrition and excellent stress management.
Since people at this phase of training should be highly competent with the basics of training, the emphasis shifts away from frequency of practice and toward actualizing technical skill through the simple act of getting stronger. And the best way to get stronger? Build muscle.
Telling people to build muscle is deceptive in its simplicity. I don’t mean that it seems simple but will actually open up a rift in the space-time continuum if you examine it. I just mean that many people tend to overcomplicate the discussion. They talk about different kinds of lean mass, or how bodybuilders have a different type of cosmetic muscle, or anything else that muddies the connection between muscle and strength.
The truth is that if two people train, eat and recover in the same way, the odds are that the person with bigger muscles will be stronger. This is very clear to most people who don’t know anything about strength training but, ironically, knowledge starts to confuse the point.
If you’re thinking that you don’t want to sacrifice your mobility for strength, remember that you don’t have to. Greg can drop into the splits without any prior warm-up.
There are absolutely some details that go far deeper, specifically fast vs. slow-twitch fibres, but most of these details don’t actually count for powerlifters. While a sprinter’s proportion of Type 2 (fast-twitch) muscles is absolutely relevant, powerlifting takes place at a far slower movement speed than pretty much any other sport. This means that any and all muscle fibre types contribute to performance. Once again, with everything else being equal, the more muscular lifter will be the stronger lifter.
“I don’t want to get too big.”
This is not something that typically comes up with powerlifters. However, we work with all kinds of people and this is a common sentiment. We’re not going to tell anyone to do anything they don’t want to, but if you’re prioritizing longevity over genetics, there are some other things to consider.
Imagine that you meet two healthy 30-year-old men. One weighs 170 lb. The other weighs 134 lb and they both have about 15 lb of fat. Nobody would be surprised that the first guy has a far higher degree of function and athletic ability than the second one. Most people would agree that the second guy would probably benefit from some strength training. Yet if we showed you the same numbers and told you that the second guy was 80, you might think, “Of course. He’s old and it’s really that simple. There’s nothing to be done.”
While there may not be much to be done in your 80s beyond managing muscle loss, you’re able to gain muscle up into your 40s. After this point, loss of lean mass is estimated at somewhere between 3 and 8% per year.
Since muscle loss is associated with functional age and will eventually go bye-bye, increasing muscle for as long as practically possible should be a strong consideration for anyone with plans other than going gently into that good night.
Finally, while other qualities like speed and power diminish at faster rates, lean mass and “slower” strength are reasonably sticky. Given the relatively modest bar speeds required for powerlifting, it becomes one of the few sports that you can continue improving into middle age. This becomes doubly apparent when you compare the injury statistics for bodybuilding and powerlifting (0.24 to 4.4 injuries per 1,000 hours of practice) to, say, indoor soccer (11 to 50.4 injuries per 1,000 hours).
Greg is defining advanced here as a combination of technical ability in training and having maximized potential for lean mass. Once these qualities have been achieved, the focus shifts to mastery of technique and the skill of competing itself. This ensures that the level of performance you can create in training is consistent and reproducible in competition. Mindset is essential here and about removing barriers to consistent success. One of the most significant barriers is the limits we impose on ourselves. For more on that, you can read about the hilarious and fascinating results on placebo steroid studies here.
Ladies and Gentlemen
It’s worth noting that there are some sex differences in training but they’re not what you might expect. While women will statistically carry a higher percentage of body fat than men, when you equalize for lean mass, force production is pretty much the same. The differences lie in the fact that estrogen has a number of protective qualities and actually allows for quicker recovery. That means that women can train harder than men and they can do so more frequently. The only advantage that guys seem to have is medium duration bursts of force.
So let’s sum up. Across your lifespan as a lifter, train frequently enough to get good. Next, maximize your lean mass and chase mastery through daily habits that promote consistent performance. And if you’re a woman, you might just find that you can out-hustle your male counterparts on your way to the top.
For information on training and distance coaching programs, visit us at at bangfitness.com.