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Playing with muscles

In a departure from my norm, I've been working on building some arm muscles lately. It's a really interesting process and while I'm only a few weeks in, I've already had some revelations (and sick gains bro) that I wanted to write about.

Now we all know that I love functional strength training. I'm not really into weight training for aesthetics and I "never" bicep curl - my biceps get all their training from pull ups and rows. In fact my husband is now making fun of me for the fact that I am doing bicep curls in my current programme...

[I'm not totally anti-bicep curl to be fair, I've recently been working on bi and tri stuff with a client who has an old elbow injury - it has its place....]

But anyhow, a couple of months back I listened to this awesome interview on The Fitcast. I loved hearing Jen and Kourtney talk about hypertrophy from this amazing place of body positivity and empowerment. Previously I had always though of hypertrophy in women as being a thing for physique and bodybuilding competitions, which is great if its your thing, but it's not mine.

But The Bigness Project comes from a very different place, I could try and describe it, but I'm just going to show you this:


How much fun does that look? So my interest was piqued. When I saw the offer of a free "taster" programme, focusing just on arms and shoulders, it was a no brainer. Sign up and see what the fuss is all about.

Now, I normally train in what would be conventionally considered the "hypertrophy range". 3-4 sets of 6-8 reps is fairly usual for me. But my goal isn't hypertrophy, my goal is strength in good form with full ROM, which can become compromised by very low reps. I don't build a lot of muscle size on this, while my strength gains are frankly magnificent. There's been studies that show that strength gains can be attributed to effort, rather than weight alone - that is to say that during the last few reps of a longer set, the type IIa muscle fibres (usually attributed to lifting weights) kick in to give the rest of the muscle a bit of support; at about the point where you start to feel that tremble as you work to complete those last reps. But that doesn't really explain the "difference" between strength and hypertrophy.

So FOR SCIENCE! And with the war cry of "SUNS OUT GUNS OUT", I introduced the arms and shoulder bigness into my programme - one extra workout a week of pure arms, and 2 little add-ons for the end of my regular workouts.

Kourtney's programming is great, I'm seeing results surprisingly fast, and I think I am finding the answer to my question.

Hypertrophy is all about the pump - that burning sensation deep in the muscle. In the Fitcast interview Jen (I think it was Jen) describes connecting to this feeling as an almost meditative experience - being truly present and feeling the muscle doing its thing (and you have plenty of time to do that with a long set of slow reps).

In Pumping Iron Arnold says something along the lines of: what sets a champion body builder apart is his willingness to keep lifting through the burn.

And I think that's the key. In my strength training, were I to train to failure (I try to keep a little in the tank generally, but I've been there by accident a few times) it is the muscle that gives in. There is no more strength there, my energy resources are depleted and that weight isn't going anywhere. In hypertrophy the burn sets in long before that. The sets are restricted by the mental effort of working through the discomfort. The numbers aren't much different - a slightly lighter weight for a few more reps, a slightly slower tempo - but the experience is very different. This is why I like to try lots of different types of fitness programmes and nutrition ideas - there really is nothing like lived experience.

I'm also starting to be interested in how hypertrophy might be a useful tool for living with EDS. In the same way that my client with the elbow issue is benefitting from isolated training around the area, I wonder if hypertrophy training would be a viable alternative for those who, like me, find the standard joint stability therapeutic exercises too dull to bother with, but might find motivation with a more empowering goal.

I'm also really interested in whether the increased time under tension might actually be a better way to strengthen connective tissue - but that's my new geek project to look into.

I'd also like to reassert that building muscle as a woman is not something that happens by accident when you get strong. It takes persistence. You need to do a lot of volume, far more regularly than feels sensible. Just adding arms and shoulders has put an extra 2 hours a week on my regular training. I'm lifting less weight for the overhead press in this programme than I do in my regular strength workouts, but my shoulders are growing for it.

Ultimately, this has been a fun experiment, and I am seriously considering signing up for the next Bigness Project intake for my next "bus bench" phase. It's a toss up between that and trying out Unapologetically Powerful because I would also like to make my big lifts bigger. Watch this space!

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