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Train Hard. Train Smart.

Mary Kay

Recently, I had the pleasure of getting to know Canadian strength coach Christian Thibaudeau. If you read the online magazine Testosterone Nation (TNation), you're probably very familiar with his work. Anyway, in one of our conversations I asked him, "What's something about strength that most mature adults know but aren't taking to heart?"  He said people forget that the more muscle you have, the greater the function and work capacity you have to live a full life.  For example, it's estimated that only 1 out of 100 adults over 40 are working at 80-85% of their available work capacity. Think about that for a second. If you can work at 85% of your capacity, you’re going to be physically better than 99% of the people around you. That's pretty good, right?  Here are a few more things he says adults should know: 

#1:  What You Believe Matters.  Coach Thibaudeau Quote: “The reason something works for a person is because he/she either believes in a coach, a program or a scientific principle.” This is reassuring for all of us normal folk. It basically means you can have the best coach, the best methods, the best equipment or even the best genetics, but none of those things guarantee success. It’s only when a person DECIDES to do something that good things happen. He says psychology is so important that he has his clients complete a psychological assessment at the beginning so that he can understand what motivates a person, what drives their decision making and how they’ll respond to training. For example, some people are motivated by the accomplishment of goals (aka podium wins, personal records, skills for time, etc.) while others get satisfaction by working harder or longer than anyone else in the gym. You have to know those sorts of things in order to create workouts that align with a person’s basic psychological nature. That’s what keeps them motivated and growing.

#2:  Strength is an "Inside-Out" Job. Coach Thibaudeau Quote: “People tend to measure the effectiveness of a method, product or program by the changes that appear on the outside of the body. When the truth is real change…and the benefits that happen to the body are completely invisible to the eye.” Growth happens very slowly. He says if a person does everything right, maybe he/she will gain .5 pounds of muscle a week, and that’s only if he/she works hard, eats the right diet, stays on top of any nutrient and hormone deficiencies and takes time to recover. But that’s not what most people do. Most are focused on hitting a number on the scale or how they look in the mirror which causes them to do the opposite of those things. So, they completely miss the mark. Hence, he often recommends fitness-minded adults don’t measure weight or even their muscle to fat ratio and just focus on eating well and building muscle. It’s like drinking one green smoothie every day. You don’t necessarily know how it’s helping your body, but you do it anyway. Building muscle strength is the same. It’s the consistency of effort that adds up over the long run.

#3:  If it Doesn't Challenge the Muscle, it Doesn't Change the Muscle. Coach Thibaudeau Quote: “Always use methods that maximize the muscle contraction. If you can’t feel it, it’s not working.”  Muscles change (aka get bigger, denser, stronger, etc.) when they are challenged. The key is the challenge has to be hard enough to a) cause small tears in the muscles and b) trigger protein synthesis so that that repaired muscle fibers become thicker. Today, researchers like to study whether eccentric movements (contractions that lengthen the muscle) or concentric movements (contractions that shorten the muscle) are best for muscle hypertrophy (growth), but Coach Thibaudeau keeps it simple. He’s says they’re both useful.

Instead, he says most people who do weightlifting either a) don’t know what a good muscle contraction FEELS like in the body or b) don’t know how to tell when the contraction is challenging enough to reap the benefits. Personally, I like to use the analogy of blowing up a balloon. Most people focus on the movement of slowly taking in air, holding it in the lungs for a second or two and then slowly exhaling to blow up the balloon. That’s the correct movement, but that has nothing to do with the contraction. The contraction is when you bring the air into your mouth, squeeze it against your cheeks…slowly building up rigidity and pressure until you have to push the air from your mouth into the balloon. That’s the contraction, and that’s the sensation you should strive for in the muscles you are working.

Not surprising, Coach Thibaudeau says if there are 2 things that every adult needs to start doing today to get better results from their strength training, it’s 1) learn what a good muscle contraction feels like in your body and 2) if you can’t feel the contraction, stop and figure out why or find a different method.  Always pick the method you feel the contraction the most.

#4:  High Frequency + Variety of Methods = Strong, Youthful Body for Life. Coach Thibaudeau Quote: “I typically don’t recommend doing strength training and cardio in the same workout…or even on the same day because you need to maximize the benefits of mTOR and AMPK in the body.” One of my first questions was what’s more important … frequency or variety. What I learned is frequency is king, and variety is queen because the two TOGETHER allow you to sustain a high level of “trainability”…or the continued ability to adapt to a new training stimulus. Let me explain. In the body, there are many chemical reactions going on in the body at the same time, but they can have opposing results if you don’t know what you’re doing. mTOR and AMPK are two of them.

mTOR is a chemical reaction that signals protein synthesis and muscle growth and is triggered by resistance exercise. If mTOR gets too high, however it speeds up cellular aging. AMPK helps mobilize and burn fat and is triggered by steady state, low intensity cardio such as walking or jogging for 40-60 minutes. If AMPK gets high, it decreases cellular aging, but it also inhibits mTOR. Therein lies the dilemma … how to increase muscle and burn fat without accelerating aging. Coach Thibaudeau says for mature adults there’s a couple of easy rules to follow.

  • Rule #1 – Become a High Frequency Exerciser – To become one of the top 1% of the physically fit, you need to do some form of challenging work almost every day. Hence, it's much better to do some form of resistance exercise (with weight or just bodyweight) 30 minutes 6x a week versus 1 hour 3x time a week.
  • Rule #2 – Vary Methods – In order to maintain a high level of trainability or the ability to continually adjust to new stimuli, use a variety of resistance methods. For adults, this is a really important concept because we mistakenly believe we’re only improving if our numbers are changing. Yes, strength numbers tell you if you’re building muscle, but the way you build up to 80-85% of your work capacity is by doing a bunch of hard things…lift, push, pull or carry something heavy or over a distance. And the more you mix it up and keep the intensity high, the better. That’s what enables you to build whole body strength and function at an optimal level.
  • Rule #3 – Train for Cardiovascular Benefits – Make time for low intensity cardio…just 45-60 minutes 2x a week for the fat burning and cardiovascular benefits. If you like to jog or bike long distances, do those things, but walking is enough for most adults.

#5:  Reduce Inflammation. Coach Thibaudeau Quote: “The body always wins.” Whatever choices (good or bad) you made in your youth are magnified when you’re in your 40s and older. It’s like a chink in the armor that slowly gets bigger until you can’t ignore it any longer. Unfortunately, the most common way it manifests is in illness or injury…something major that takes a person out of the game for months at a time. Coach himself revealed how some of his own choices led to some serious health problems in his 30s, but he says you don’t have to wait for things to fall apart. Instead, pay attention to your body…especially to clues when inflammation is present and then figure out what’s causing it and remove it. I’m not talking about when you get a cold or get bruised. It’s all the little things … allergies, asthma, headaches, forgetfulness, inability to concentrate, pain in the joints, fatigue, digestive issues, irritable bowel…and the list goes on. If it’s happening once in a while, it’s probably not a big deal, but if a symptom is recurring or persisting, then it’s a sign that something is irritating the body. With adults, the most common irritants to watch out for include: chemicals, food sensitivities, inadequate nutrients or hormones (which naturally decline with age) … even the wrong kind of exercise.

#6:  Experiment. Coach Thibaudeau Quote: “Not everything that works follows scientific principles or proven methods.” Another question I asked is whether the construct of goal, program and progression is helpful or hurtful, and he gave me a very insightful “it depends” answer. He said for someone who isn’t in touch with their body, they need a map to follow that essentially reduces the thousands of exercises to a few they can focus on. For someone who needs reassurance, they need a program and the discipline of tracking before/after pictures or before/after strength numbers to see improvement occurring. Even someone who follows science needs a framework to compare if “x” methods works better” then “y”, but those are all constructs that are essentially measuring things external to the body. They may be helpful at first, but not in the long run.

The reality is strength and work capacity ebb and flow, accelerate and decelerate or have periods where they stay the same. In other words, they don’t always respond to what’s written in a program, but that doesn’t mean it’s not working. The trick is knowing what NEEDS TO BE DONE today for the benefits that come somewhere down the road. Yes, everyone must develop the same basic skills, but beyond that, building up to and working at 80-85% of your capacity takes continual experimentation, seeking out knowledge from new sources and fine tuning what works best for your  body.

Interestingly, Coach revealed that when he writes a program for himself, he says he can never write it for more than 2 weeks in advance because he can’t predict what his capacity will be. Likewise, he doesn’t count reps any more. He just stops when he’s reached the maximum tension for that muscle. Ideally, he’d like everybody to strive to that level of proficiency, but that’s the art part of strength training.

So, there you have it… a few pearls on how to train harder and smarter from Coach Thibaudeau. If you want to take your strength training to the next level and aren’t sure how, head over to his website at ThibArmy.com. There, you’ll find his bio, programs along with a treasure trove of videos and articles.

Until next time, seek strength!

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