March 14, 2012

My Lazy and Forgetful Muscles

Last night, I had a blast taking a Refine Method class with a lot of other fun NYC fitness bloggers. I had no idea what Refine was going into it – I thought it was going to be a barre class, and according to Theodora’s blog about the class, it was most definitely not (though I still don’t know what a barre class is either). We did a lot of different interval circuits – some body weight, some with cable pulley systems, and one or two with kettlebells (though we just used those as weights; we didn’t swing them around). For example, jumping jacks followed by shadowboxing; lateral lunges followed by tricep pushdowns; pushups followed by squats.

My left Achilles was bugging me the whole day (annoying!), so anything with jumping was kind of tricky for me, and I looked like an idiot hopping on my right leg instead of on both legs… but the instructor luckily didn’t say anything to me about that. However, being a total people pleaser and achiever, I was disappointed that I didn’t earn some of the praise that the instructor gave to other people (Ashley had awesome form throughout the whole class). I know that getting corrected is not a bad thing, but I want to be the best, darn it! Heap praise upon me!

Taking a realistic look at my performance and putting my perfectionism aside, though, I did not really do a great job. I tried hard and I was sweating buckets throughout (yay!) – but really, I was not happy with how I did. I’ve been neglecting my weight lifting a bit for the past two weeks, and while my legs are still awesomely strong from hiking and running, I feel like I’ve regressed quite a bit when it comes to arm strength. For example, when we did a pushup series, I could barely eke out two full body pushups before switching to my knees (careful to keep good form and a stiff core/upper body when I did so) – and I felt a bit pathetic. But I went home happy that night – everyone has their off days, and clearly this one of mine. Despite being a bit weak, I had still worked my butt off, and I had a great time meeting new and old friends and getting to share a cool class.

Apparently I didn’t push myself as hard as I should have though. My legs were pretty sore both Monday and Tuesday from my hike and long run on the weekend, and while this morning I was pleasantly surprised to wake up and find that soreness gone… I got on Twitter and saw that everyone else was sore from last night’s class. Whaaaaa? Oops. To give myself that burn anyway, I headed for the gym to lift some weights. Time to work those arms!

When it came for the legwork (barbell squats, single leg Russian deadlifts), I did fine – even bumping my deadlifts up to 40lb dumbbells from the 35lb dumbbells I used last time. But when it came to arms, it was rough. For my incline dumbbell press, I used 25lb dumbbells, but had trouble with the bicep curl needed to get my arms into the starting position. For my dumbbell rows, I had to drop down to 25lb dumbbells from the 35lb dumbbells I usually use – and even with that free 10lbs, I still had trouble moving at a reasonable speed and keeping good form througout. But worst of all, when I did my military press, I had to go all the way down to 15lb dumbbells – and I still struggled to keep pace with my usual speed of lifting! Seriously, arms, what is up with you??

Perusing the web, I found that there had been many studies conducted on how long it takes to lose aerobic fitness, and the answer there was about 2-3 months. That makes sense to me – I’ve gone about 3 months without running and set a new PR on my return. (Warning: though I’ve done that, I don’t necessarily recommend it).

When it came to strength training, though, it was a lot harder to find conclusive data. After such research around the web using highly credible sources like Yahoo Answers, I didn’t really get anywhere – people conjectured that it was anywhere from one week to one month, and that it differed a lot from person to person. (Yahoo Answers was also responsible for telling me that my muscle will “turn to fat” – because apparently some dumb people still believe that myth). But finally, I found an academic paper from Jack H. Wilmore and David L. Costill, Physiology Adaptations to Physical Training, which breaks down the effects of detraining (detraining is what you call the loss of muscle after taking a break from training). While Wilmore and Costill addressed four major areas that detraining affects, there were two in particular that I found most interesting.

Muscle strength and power: strength is usually not lost in the first four weeks of detraining, but power decreases substantially with just one week of detraining! That makes sense to me – as I went through some of my exercises, I found that I could still do them with the same weights, but I went a lot slower than usual. That loss of power is killer!

I really liked this quote: “Any loss in strength or power may be caused by a loss of ability to activate some muscle fibers. This theory is supported by the fact that a sizable strength gain is achieved with only a few training sessions, a period too brief to accommodate any significant structural development. These losses may be interpreted better by considering them as neuromuscular forgetting and reminiscence.” That makes absolute sense to me – my weight lifting workouts are built around seeking constant improvement (i.e., trying to use heavier weights every time), so it’s not surprising that after just a short break, my muscles wouldn’t be able to do what they did last time. They didn’t learn it fully yet!

Muscle endurance: while this doesn’t directly relate to my strength training (my lifting sessions are only 25-40 minutes, so not anything too terribly long), I still thought it was interesting to learn that you’ll lose endurance here in just two weeks. This is because endurance has to do with how your body uses oxygen for exercising. If you let the muscle get lazy, it forgets surprisingly quickly how to do that efficiently (kind of like how when I get a long vacation and can lounge around in bed all the time, I very quickly forget how to do things like make a quick breakfast or get showered and dressed for work in 20 minutes – which comes easily to me other times). As it relates to running, this is why I think it’s very important to make sure you’re doing your long (endurance) run every week, and also the key to why I was able to do marathons every weekend without getting burned out. I trained my body well for the endurance factor!

For all of the areas (including cardiovascular endurance and speed, agility, and flexibility), detraining occurs faster for “highly trained individuals” than for “exercise neophytes.” I wouldn’t necessarily say that I’m “highly trained,” but the point is well-taken that those who are more experienced are probably going to lose that edge a bit faster. Wilmore and Costill’s study showed that “functional strength” (aka very specific exercises) can be lost very quickly even while “general strength” is retained – and I would think that a “highly trained individual” would probably be drawing a lot more from that functional strength bucket.

So the answer? I need to get more consistent in my weight lifting efforts, but I probably shouldn’t panic just yet. Every study I found emphasized that after detraining, you can actually get back to your high performing level of fitness even faster than it took you to get there in the first place – and after reading Willmore and Costill, it would seem that it’s a matter of just reminding your muscles what they forgot.

Did you hear that, muscles? Time for some remedial workouts!


5 thoughts on “My Lazy and Forgetful Muscles”

  1. I just emailed Refine last night about going to their classes – how funny! I haven’t done any strength training (unless you count yoga) in ooooh, 6 mths. I know, disaster. I’m kind of scared, to be honest. I’m hoping my muscles rebound quickly to their former glory, but it’s going to be tough getting there! Your research has given me hope that the rebound thing won’t take too long …

  2. I like that you were confronted with a problem and you sought out immediate answers…so typical. In the end, it’s the seeking that leads to growth. No doubt you’ll emerge stronger than ever in short order. Nice work!

  3. Fiona – I’ll definitely go with you on a weekend sometime! I also have some great strength training routines posted back in my archives – check out the Kara Goucher one.

    Laura – lifting date confirmed!

    Megan – great to meet you too!!!

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