Virtual Trainer: Training the Female Athlete, Part 2Thursday, May 18, 2006 | 8:47 AM
In an effort to bring Racer X Online readers the best information available regarding MX fitness, postings on this website are open to anyone with a specific and proven expertise in the fitness field. I came across one such person as I was surfing the net one day for MX-related fitness articles. Normally, when I visit so-called MX fitness websites, I am greeted with the same old stuff: outdated articles, files that don’t load, poor writing skills, and testimonials about guys they trained in the early '90s. Steven Bubel’s website is none of that and a whole lot more, and according to the bio page, he has more degrees than a thermometer. That’s nothing new, but what is new and refreshing is that Steve is good at getting his thoughts from his head to the paper, a rare gift. His training expertise is based not only on real-world experience but, more importantly, on cutting-edge scientific research. Virtual Trainer contacted Steve and he agreed to work on a few articles with us. Look for more articles from Steve in the future, but until then, be sure and check out his website at www.mxconditioning.com. This is part two of his series on Training the Female Athlete.
Although it has unnecessarily biased a generation of exercisers against intense cardiovascular exercise, given the scope of the research upon which it is based, it is understandable how such conclusions were drawn. Part II, on the other hand, looks at another popular myth that is based on nothing more than anecdote and unsubstantiated rumor.
Myth #2: Lifting heavy weights will make you big and bulky
The idea that women who lift heavy weights will develop the same degree of muscularity as men violates basic physiology. Still, it remains the most common fear among female trainees beginning a resistance training program. Where this idea originated is unknown, but I speculate that someone, somewhere, witnessed a drug-using female athlete lifting weights (most likely a bodybuilder) and drew their erroneous conclusion. It wasn't long before the media popularized this as fact, coining words such as "toning" and "sculpting" and frightening women into an exercise world of step aerobics and light-weight, high-repetition weight training.
Unfortunately, the female athlete is no less susceptible to this bias. Here is a quote from a recent interview with Sarah Whitmore: "... when I do lift weights, I use really light weights and high reps. But it stinks because I look kind of funny when I’m at the gym lifting five-pound weights....” Five-pound weights! How is someone going to get stronger using five-pound weights? I mention this not to single her out, but to make the point of how pervasive this thinking has become.
The beautiful thing is that, despite lower absolute strength levels, research has shown that women experience the same relative increases in strength following training. In other words, while women may never be as strong as their male weight-training counterparts, they typically see an identical percentage increase from training.
For example, let's say that at the start of a training program Subject 1 (male) can bench press 150 pounds and Subject 2 (female) can bench press 75 pounds. Subject 1 has an absolute strength advantage twice that of Subject 2 (150 = 2 x 75). After several weeks of training, Subject 1 can now bench press 165 pounds and Subject 2 can now bench press 82.5 pounds. Subject 2 is still not as strong as Subject 1 but both experienced a 10 percent gain from training.
To allay your fears, these early increases in strength (first 6-8 weeks) are not accomplished by increasing muscle mass but rather by adaptations within the nervous system - primarily through improvements in coordination within and between muscles. In essence, trainees get better at recruiting existing muscle fiber. Only later does a strength increase arise from muscle hypertrophy and, even then, the onset and degree varies with the complexity of the exercises, the structure of the workouts and, as we've already discussed, gender.
An infinite number of strength-training programs can be designed by manipulating these variables:
Choice of exercises
Order of exercises
Number of sets
Number of repetitions
Resistance used (percentage of 1RM*)
Rest periods between sets and exercises
*1RM (one-repetition maximum) refers to the amount of weight that can be lifted only once for a given exercise.
Programs designed to induce muscle hypertrophy traditionally rely heavily on machines to isolate muscle groups, utilize more than one exercise to target the same muscle group in a given session, use 3 to 4 sets of 8 to 12 repetitions per exercise at approximately 60-75 percent 1RM, and prescribe short rest periods of one to two minutes between sets.
Programs designed for maximal strength, on the other hand, emphasize free-weights, focus on movements rather than muscles, utilize fewer exercises, use 5 to 10 sets of 1 to 5 repetitions at approximately 75-100 percent 1RM, with long rest periods of two to five minutes between sets.
Taken together, you can see that, contrary to popular belief, the program that maximizes muscle size does not necessarily employ the heaviest weights. Rather, hypertrophy-oriented programs maximize the amount of work done which, in turn, maximizes the amount of protein degraded (i.e. broken down) in a given workout. The greater the amount of protein broken down, the greater the amount of protein resynthesized.
Protein Breakdown and Protein Synthesis
According to popular theory, what determines whether a muscle "grows" is the total amount of muscle that is broken down during a workout. This is a function of both the rate of protein breakdown and the total weight lifted. The rate of protein breakdown is determined by the load (i.e. the heavier the weight, the higher the rate of protein degradation) whereas, total weight lifted is calculated by multiplying sets x reps x weight.
Granted, while the rate of protein breakdown is high when training heavy, the total weight lifted is usually small due to the fewer number of repetitions performed. The opposite is true when using very light loads (>20 reps). The total weight lifted is high but, given the low resistance, the rate of protein breakdown is low. However, when training with moderate loads (8-12 reps) the rate of breakdown is average, the mechanical work is average, but taken together they result in a large amount of degraded protein. Given adequate rest and proper nutrition, such a program will yield the greatest amount of muscle gain.
Based on the above theory, we can now see why high-repetition resistance training minimizes the possibility of inducing muscle hypertrophy. Unfortunately, given the relatively light loads, these same programs also minimize gains in strength - a quality underdeveloped yet so vital to the female athlete.
So, what's a girl to do?
Concentrate on complex, multi-joint movements (i.e. squat, deadlift, bench press, pullups, etc.)
Don't be afraid to lift heavy (75-100 percent 1RM)
Keep the circuits
Ditch the machines
One of my preferred methods is to begin a training session with one or more compound movements and finish with a full-body circuit. Use your imagination.
On a final note, studies have shown that combining both strength and endurance training in a given program diminishes the hypertrophy response observed when performing strength training alone. As most motocross athletes engage in some form of endurance training (as they should), you can feel safe knowing that your chances of getting big and bulky are slim.
Good luck with your training and as always, VT can be reached anytime at [email protected]. In addition, be sure and check out the Racer X archives section, your complete one-stop information zone for motocross fitness. Archives before November, 2005 can be found here.