This article originally appeared at MuscleDevelopment.com.
Sleep loss effects are more mental than physical in weightlifters
Most athletes have trouble sleeping the night before a big competition or championship. Sleep problems are particularly serious when changing time zones.
In a recent study led by Peter Blumert, a team of researchers from five different American universities found that 24 hours of sleep deprivation had no effect on volume load, training intensity, and overall workout volume load in national caliber collegiate weightlifters doing a workout consisting of sets of snatches, clean and jerks, and front squats. The athletes performed the workout after a normal night’s sleep and again following 24 hours without sleep. The order of the workouts was randomized and separated by seven days. The sleep deprived athletes reported decreased vigor, fatigue, confusion, mood disturbance, and sleepiness during the workout. The study showed that short-term sleep deprivation did not affect weightlifting performance but had significant psychological effects.
Athletes should focus on their mental status when competing without sleep because they are physically capable of achieving peak performance (Journal Strength Conditioning Research 21:1146–54, 2007).
Squatting on unstable surfaces changes technique
Squatting on unstable surfaces (stability training) causes increased muscle activation in the supporting muscles of the spine, hips, legs, and shoulders. Stability training might prevent sports injuries, help rehabilitate injured joints and muscles, and improve balance.
Several studies reported that stability training enhanced neuromuscular control and vertical jump height and prevented ankle injuries but was less effective than training on stable surfaces for generating force and gaining strength. Australian researchers showed that squatting on unstable surfaces caused a progressive breakdown in technique with repeated repetitions. Young men did three repetitions of the squat on a stable surface, foam surface, or BOSU ball (exercise ball on platform). Force generating capacity and squat depth decreased progressively as the surface became less stable.
Squats are safe and effective as long as you maintain proper technique. Squatting on unstable surfaces could cause a breakdown in technique as well as injury during rehabilitation and training, particularly in people with marginal leg strength (International Journal Sports Physiology Performance, 2:400–13, 2007).
Eccentric muscle contractions trigger rapid muscle growth
Tension builds muscle! No type of training creates muscle tension better than eccentric training (also called negatives). Curiously, many bodybuilders and strength athletes don’t include this awesome training method in their workouts. When used correctly, negatives or eccentric training builds muscle size, strength, and power incredibly quickly. As they lengthen, muscles contract eccentrically when they exert force. For example, the pecs, deltoids, and triceps contract eccentrically as you lower the bar to your chest during a bench press.
Swedish researchers, including Per Tesch, found that eccentric training caused more rapid increases in strength and muscle cross-sectional areas than concentric training during a five-week study. This was a small but sophisticated study that showed the potential of negatives for bodybuilders and strength athletes (European Journal Applied Physiology 102: 271–81, 2008).
Alanine does not enhance strength or muscle mass during weight training
Alanine and carnosine are important chemicals found in muscle that affect strength, muscle size, and metabolism. Alanine is an amino acid that provides energy during exercise and prevents neuromuscular fatigue by increasing tissue carnosine levels. Carnosine is a dipeptide (combination of two amino acids) found in meat that is composed of the amino acids alanine and histidine. It is incorporated into many tissues, including skeletal muscles and smooth muscles in the arteries. Carnosine is also an important antioxidant that protects cells from destruction and buffers acids that cause fatigue. It is critical for protein synthesis and breakdown and may help prevent nerve degeneration and diabetes.
Several months ago, we reported that supplementing the diet with beta-alanine increased isometric endurance capacity of the thigh muscles by boosting carnosine levels (Amino Acids, 32: 225–33, 2007). A British study found that alanine supplements (6.4 grams per day for ten weeks) did not have any effect on strength, muscle endurance, or body composition in young men who trained with weights for ten weeks. Also, alanine did not have any effect on muscle carnosine levels. We need more research to assess the effectiveness of alanine supplements for bodybuilders and strength trained athletes (Amino Acids, in press; published online January 4, 2008).
Intense exercise stresses the immune system
Regular, moderate intensity exercise strengthens the immune system, but intense exercise is another story. Short-term, maximal exercise—such as an unusually intense workout— can temporarily weaken the immune system and increase the risk of colds and flu.
A study from the National Yang-Ming University School of Medicine in Taiwan showed that an intense endurance exercise session (85 percent of maximum effort for 30 minutes) disrupted immune system function, destroyed some white blood cells, and triggered whole body inflammation. The effects lasted 72 hours. The purpose of exercise training is to stress the body so that it adapts and improves its function. Fitness does not improve if you don’t work hard enough. However, you’ll get sick or injured if you do too much. The ideal volume and intensity is different for each bodybuilder. For the best results, work as hard as you can without getting sick or injured (British Journal Sports Medicine 42: 11–5, 2006).
Bodybuilding workouts increase testosterone more than speed or strength training
Muscles hypertrophy is in direct proportion to blood testosterone levels. The more testosterone you have, the easier it is to increase muscle size. Cortisol is a stress hormone that helps remodel muscle after intense exercise. The structure of a weight training program influences testosterone and cortisol levels.
Australian researchers found that a bodybuilding type workout (ten sets of ten reps, controlled movements, weights at 75 percent of a one repetition maximum with two minutes rest) increased testosterone and cortisol while a speed workout (eight sets of six repetitions, explosive training, weights at 45 percent of a one repetition maximum with two minutes rest) or strength workout (eight sets of four repetitions, explosive lifting, weights at 88 percent of a one repetition maximum) had no effect.
While the results were interesting, this was a small study (eleven males) that measured testosterone and cortisol in saliva, which is a crude and unreliable method of measuring hormones. Also, we don’t know the effects of short-term increases in hormones on changes in muscle mass and strength. It makes sense that increased testosterone levels following training promote gains in strength and muscle mass, but a cause and effect relationship has never been proven (Journal Strength Conditioning Research 22: 250–55, 2008).
Static stretching decreases muscle strength
Until recently, static stretching was considered an essential part of a warm up for training and competition in almost all sports. During the past ten years, many studies showed that static stretching decreased strength, power, and neuromuscular control. It decreased performance in power and strength athletes and might actually increase the risk of injury.
An interesting study from Greece found that static stretching longer than 30 seconds caused substantial decreases in static and dynamic strength. They measured the effects of stretch duration (no stretch and stretches lasting ten, 20, 30, and 60 seconds) and static stretches of the quadriceps (thigh) on isometric strength and force capacity at slow and fast speeds. Stretches lasting less than 30 seconds had no effect on strength, but 30- or 60-second stretches decreased isometric strength by 8.5 percent and 16 percent. Stretching also decreased strength during movement. Appropriate flexibility is important for athletes, but excessive flexibility can make joints unstable. The appropriateness of flexibility training depends on the sport and the athlete. Static stretching before practice or competition in power sports is not recommended (Journal Strength Conditioning Research 22: 40–6, 2008).
Rest intervals between sets do not affect strength gains
Most bodybuilders and weightlifters consider heavy squats the most difficult and exhausting exercises in their programs. Conventional wisdom is that long recovery time is critical for maximizing strength gains in the lift.
Jeffrey Willardson and Lee Burkett from Arizona State University found that athletes might not need as much rest between squat sets as they think. They compared the effects of resting two minutes or four minutes between sets on squat strength and training volume in experienced weight trainers during a thirteen-week study. The squat program varied the volume and intensity of each workout, but the schedule included one heavy and one light squat workout per week. At the end of the study, they found no difference in maximum squat strength between groups, but the four-minute rest group completed a greater overall training volume. The study showed that experienced lifters could gain squat strength with minimal rest (two minutes) between sets. However, the long rest group lifted more weight (particularly on heavy days), so they might get stronger in the long run. Training studies using experienced subjects are extremely difficult, and this study provided important information (Journal Strength Conditioning Research 22: 146–52, 2008)