We all know that lifting weights leads to bigger muscles, harder muscles, and more definition. But just how does weight lifting do that? What is the physiology of weight lifting?
Basically, weight lifting is a method of strength training. Lifting weights uses the force of gravity to oppose muscle contraction. Overcoming that opposition increases strength and builds muscle. The concept was simply and elegantly summed up by Hippocrates centuries ago – “That which is used develops, and that which is unused wastes away.”
He was correct – and his contemporaries while not sure of the anatomical science behind it, also understood the basic weight lifting and strength training concept of progressive resistance. It’s been said that ancient Greek wrestlers when training for the early Olympic Games carried a new born calf on their back every day until it was grown. While that may not go over very well at your local gym, the concept is sound.
Weight lifting builds strength and muscle mass through progressive resistance. The reason our muscles grow and become stronger when we work out with weights is due to the body’s response to injury. Muscle growth from weight lifting is basically a healing process. When we lift weights, we do (when done correctly) a small amount of micro-trauma to our muscle tissue. The body’s response to the trauma is to rebuild the weakened or torn muscle fibers, and in doing so build them even bigger and stronger than they were prior to the micro-trauma, so as to prevent repeat of the injury.
So that is how progressive resistance works in weight lifting and weight training. We add more weight do more reps, and teardown more muscle fiber, and the body keeps responding by healing the muscle, eventually pushing the muscle to its ultimate limit, which is genetically determined.
Professional power lifters, other athletes, and experienced weightlifters will use this concept when training or working out with weights by adding weight to the point they cannot lift – and then backing off just a bit and then push the maximum weight possible. This is called progressive overload and it forces the muscles to grow stronger and larger to lift the heavier weight. However working out by lifting weights at the ultimate limit of your strength is not recommended for novice weight lifters.
Professionals say beginners can achieve the same results a lot safer, by progressively adding repetitions to the workout, and not lifting heavier weights. This will still fatigue muscles, wear down fibers, and result in the progressive micro-trauma required to build muscle, strength, and stamina.
You Cannot Build Up Without Down Time
So what does all this mean? In order for weight lifting to result in building muscle and increasing strength, you must allow the body some down time to “heal”. Because it is this “healing” that is really the process of building renewed and strengthened muscle tissue. What that means is that you should not lift every day – especially in the beginning of your weight lifting regimen.
Muscle growth can take anywhere from 2 to 4 days. So beginners generally should work out every other day. The more experienced you are the longer the recovery period actually can be. Professional or very experienced weight lifters require more strength to push the limit, and so will cause more damage when they do, and therefore require more time to build and repair muscles to greater strength.
The pros will use a weight lifting routine that works any given specific muscle group only every 4 days.