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Why recreational athletes should train to their maximum strength

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Why recreational athletes should train to their maximum strength

Experts advise against strength endurance training in the gym – and instead recommend exercises with heavy weights and few repetitions.

The number of repetitions is crucial for training progress: woman with dumbbells.

Vitalii Kliuiev / Imago

Eight to twelve repetitions, two to three sets: This is the tried and tested formula that beginners learn in fitness centers around the world to see their muscles grow. This is also referred to as hypertrophy training: the aim is to force the tissue to adapt by challenging it.

At the beginning the successes are usually great. Even if you strictly follow your training plan, you will eventually reach a point where you can’t go any further. Effort and body have adapted to each other. In order to get past the plateau, new training stimuli are needed.

Burning, tired muscles

One way to vary is to increase the number of repetitions, to over 25 repetitions per set. This is called strength endurance training. However, the definition is not entirely clear.

Gommaar D’Hulst is a sports scientist at ETH Zurich and founder of “wod_science”, a platform dedicated to communicating science in the areas of fitness and sports nutrition. He says that the load in strength endurance training is typically 30 to 50 percent of the maximum strength, the One Repetition Max (1RM), and is therefore clearly lower than in classic hypertrophy training, which starts at around 80 percent of the 1RM.

Studies have shown that all repetition numbers lead to muscle growth. So does strength endurance. D’Hulst cites Crossfit, which he does himself, as a typical sport that promotes and requires strength endurance. However, he would not recommend strength endurance training in the studio. “Doing 25 repetitions per exercise, three times in a row, is very hard and creates a lot of lactate,” says D’Hulst. In other words: the muscles burn and tire. It is better to combine classic hypertrophy training with endurance.

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Jan Seiler, strength training expert at the Federal Office of Sport, also raises questions about strength endurance training. It’s about building resistance to fatigue or maintaining strength over a certain period of time. “The question is whether this is the right method for it.” Strength endurance is best trained by practicing the target sport itself. Training in the studio for this purpose is not efficient.

Improved coordination

Seiler’s assessment of maximum strength training is completely different, in which the number of repetitions is greatly reduced. If you succeed in increasing your maximum strength, this also indirectly promotes your strength endurance, says Seiler.

D’Hulst and Seiler both mention the improvement of neuromuscular coordination as a further advantage. This is the ability to activate as many motor units as possible at the same time. It is an essential factor in maximum strength. Another is muscle mass, which is correlated to muscle strength. However, mass alone is not the same as strength, as both experts note.

In practice, the maximum strength is often determined as the weight that can be pressed or lifted once. “That’s the common definition,” says D’Hulst. In science, measurements are taken differently. There is the isokinetic maximum force measurement, where maximum pressure is exerted against a barrier moving at a constant speed. This means that the maximum force can be measured at every angle of movement.

Maximum strength is not trained through single repetitions, but rather through low repetition numbers. Otherwise there would be a lack of volume, says Seiler. “If you do 6 repetitions 4 times, that’s 24. Doing just one 24 times would be extremely stressful and not efficient because of the breaks.”

In maximum strength training, a three-minute break between sets is the minimum; five is better. Those who train in supersets, i.e. switch between different exercises in order to shorten the breaks, train less effectively because the neural system is put under additional strain, says Seiler. In this case, he recommends at least combining upper and lower body exercises. In addition, you should always start training when you are as recovered as possible. After long endurance training, maximum strength training is not effective.

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In strength training, Seiler generally recommends favoring complex exercises and those that train the muscle over its entire length. This means, for example, preferring squats to leg presses.

However, this is not always possible with maximum strength training. For example, professional cyclists, whose legs can push far more than their torso can support. Safety should always be given priority when handling heavy weights. Anyone who switches from conventional hypertrophy training to maximum strength for the first time should approach it slowly by gradually increasing the load. It is also recommended to seek competent support.

Tips for efficient strength training

Without proteins there is no muscle building.

Westend61 / Imago

Training frequency: Strength training can be relatively easy. This is the most important result of a Canadian meta-study from 2023. Training frequency is the determining factor for muscle growth, with two training sessions per week proving to be clearly more effective than one. And according to the meta-study, a third strength training session per week only brought minimal benefits. The study authors conclude that you don’t have to worry too much about training programs. The downside: The knowledge is limited to amateur athletes without great ambitions.

Training partner: Even if you occasionally vary the exercises, strength training remains monotonous and a compulsory exercise. A training partner can help to maintain motivation and use the time between sets to have a chat. In addition, feedback from outside is sometimes more useful than a self-assessment of skills and limits. Above all, training in pairs increases safety during exercises such as bench presses and squats. Muscle failure with these exercises can have serious consequences. Training as a couple allows you to push yourself to the limit in a controlled manner and to give preference to complex exercises with free weights over exercises on the machine.

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Proteinzufuhr: Without proteins there is no muscle building, so far, so easy. Providing the body with protein is essential for training progress and its maintenance. But how much protein intake is enough? Opinions differ on this topic. In bodybuilding, 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight or more is recommended. That’s too much for popular sports. More recent recommendations recommend 1.4 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight. When taking it, please note that the body can only absorb 30 to 40 grams at a time. Diet planning therefore includes planning your protein intake over the course of the day.

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