Strength training: more than big muscles

Strength training strengthens bones, muscles and joints and prevents repetitive strain injuries and osteoporosis. It strengthens the heart and lungs, giving you a better digestion, balance, night sleep, self-confidence and a better relationship with your own body. Moreover, it increases your metabolism, not only when exercising. (Norwegian Health Informatics (NHI))

Research shows that people at risk of lifestyle diseases can reduce the risk by 25 percent after just 20 workouts focusing on strength. It contributes to weight loss, prevents falls and osteoporosis. Additionally, strength training can even prevent cardiovascular disease, stroke, mental illness and substance abuse.

Why is it so good to be strong?

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Truls Raastad

“Every time a muscle is working to overcome heavy external resistance a sharp contraction within the muscles is created. The central nervous system then communicates with the active muscle by sending electrical impulses that create contraction,” Professor of Sports Physiology at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences, Truls Raastad, explains.

He goes on to say that the frequency of the electrical signals transmitted determines the power of the muscle contraction. The heavier you lift, the more frequent the signals are sent, and all the muscle fibres in the active muscle has to be involved.

“The muscle contraction generated by the electrical signals from the nervous system increases the calcium content in the muscle fibres. This causes the proteins that create shortening of muscle fibres, actin and myosin, to take hold of each other and pull the muscle together,” the professor says.

”There is a direct correlation between how frequently the electrical signals reach the muscle fibres, how much the concentration of calcium increases, and how powerful the muscle contractions are,” he continues.

For the muscle to relax in between each repetition, the calcium must be pumped back to where it came from.

“The force of muscle contraction is transmitted through tendons to bones, creating a rotation of the joint which the muscle passes over. This is the basis for the movement we see when we for example straighten the knee and hip joint on the way up from a deep squat.”

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Powel Active instructor, Victoria Schram, demonstrating a squat.

Why does this make you stronger?

When you work on building your strength, you expose muscle to a greater load than it is accustomed to. This forces the muscles to produce more power-producing proteins to cope with the load, which again leads to increased strength.

“The mechanical pull that is created in the muscle fibres and in the connective tissue between the muscle fibres sets a series of signals in motion. These signals increase the rate of muscle protein synthesis,” Raastad says.

“Therefore, we are able to measure that muscle protein synthesis happens faster in the hours and days after a strength workout. If we repeat this stimulation regularly, at least two to three times per week, muscle fibre gradually grows and becomes stronger for every workout we implement on the same muscle,” he continues.

The professor also says that we can increase the strength even more by improving our technique: By lifting in a more expedient and efficient manner and utilise our muscle mass better.

“The more challenging an exercise is to perform in terms of technique, the more your strength increases when you improve the technique,” he says.

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Powel Active instructor, Victoria Schram, demonstrating a bench press.

Heavy weights, few repetitions

According to Raastad, there are several ways to train effectively, but he thinks some of the most effective is to work with heavy weights and few repetitions.

“This is because a big pull in the muscles sends a signal to the muscle fibres that they need to grow,” he explains.

Raastad says you get the best effect if you vary the exercise resistance. In some sets you lift so heavy that you are only able to do around four repetitions, while in others you lift lighter so you are able to manage 10-12 repetitions. Varying like this will give you increased muscle mass as well as increased strength.

“If you are interested in increasing your strength in a specific exercise, it is important to include some very heavy lifts. This is because it is important to lift the heaviest weights while ensuring your technique is optimal,” says the sports physiologist.

Gradual progression

Finally, Raastad shares some advice on how to avoid damage and injury during strength training.

“You must ensure that you have reasonable progression in everything you do. When you first start with strength training, you should always be careful for the first sessions. Using relatively light weights, you should learn proper technique, gently enabling the muscles to withstand heavier weights and more repetitions.”

“Moreover, the variation in resistance training and training efforts is important. Muscle normally adapts to training faster than tendons, so it is recommended to be careful if you start feeling pain. Reduce the resistance for a period until the aches have disappeared, then gradually increase again,” he concludes.

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Picture from one of the education videos, demonstrating how to conduct a correct leg press.

The main exercise

One of the most important body parts to work on is your legs. They get the biggest impact throughout the day and need to be strong to keep you upright throughout life. Professors Jan Hoff and Jan Helgerud at NTNU have done a lot of research on training. They have reached the conclusion that the most efficient workout for your legs are leg presses or squats with heavy resistance, along with interval training.

Effective leg press/squat:

  • Four times four repetitions: You should not be able to manage more than four repetitions and four sets.
  • Squat down to 90 degrees in the knee joint, have a short stop and attempt to move the weights rapidly up again. Add 5 kg each time you manage to carry out four times four repetitions.
  • Strength and endurance training can be combined, and intervals provide a good warm up before the strength session.
  • You should also work on your back and stomach if you use a leg press. This is to avoid damage and injuries.

How to find your maximum heart rate

Your maximum heart rate is determined by heredity factors, and changes little during exercise. However, it does drop slightly with age. If you want to conduct effective endurance training you should know your maximum heart rate. This is true whether your goal is simply better health or if it is performing better at sports.

Did you know though, that you can find your maximum heart rate on your own, without any fancy equipment?

Interval training

It is a fact that 4×4 interval training is the best endurance training for your heart and your health, but you probably did not know that you could find your maximum heart rate by conducting a session of 4×4.

4×4 interval training is a form of training where you do four intervals of four minutes each, with a three-minute active rest between each interval. During the intervals, you should reach 85-95% of maximum heart rate after two minutes (it takes about two minutes to reach this zone). You should be able to feel it when your body enters this high intensity zone. It is up to you if your intervals consist of walking, jogging or running.

You know you are at 85-95% of maximum heart rate when you breathe heavily and have trouble speaking in whole sentences. At the same time though, you should not feel any pain or discomfort from accumulation of lactic acid.

Another way of finding the right intensity is that you should feel like you could run/walk one more minute, after completing one interval. When you are finished with all four intervals, you should feel like you could run/walk for another four minutes.

 4×4 intervals

– Set the treadmill at a 5% gradient minimum

– Start with a six-minute warm-up at a moderate pace

– Perform the intervals

– Remember the three-minute active breaks where you heart rate should be around 70% of the maximum, ensuring that any build-up of lactic acid disappears.

– Finish with a five-minute cool down.

If you struggle to reach the right heart rate zone during an interval, you can speed up or adjust the incline of the next interval. If you are gasping for breath and feel the lactic acid sneaking up on you after an interval, you need to reduce the speed or incline before the next interval. Continue making adjustments until you find the right intensity.

How to find your maximum heart rate:

Take your pulse at the end of the last interval and add 15 beats to find your maximum heart rate.

Double the effect of your strength training

That is the conclusion of a study by professors in Trondheim.

Eight untrained and moderately trained men participated in the study which lasted eight weeks. The study focused on participant’s leg muscles. The men conducted so-called “maximum strength training” on one leg, and traditional strength training on the other, with just as much work on each leg. This way, the professors could compare the effect of the different training types.

Give it your all

In this study, traditional strength training was defined as weight lifting with 8-12 repetitions. This is equivalent to using 60-70 percent of your maximum strength in one repetition. In maximal strength training, you should spend more than 85 percent of your strength in one repetition. Furthermore, you should not do more than five repetitions and five sets per exercise, with a three-minute rest between each set.

Previous studies on traditional strength training do exist, and one has concluded that it is an effective training method for increasing the strength of moderately trained individuals. However, professor Jan Hoff and his research colleagues believed it was important to compare it with other training methods.

“We conducted the study because we previously proved that maximal strength training with few repetitions and maximum mobilisation is especially effective in order to become stronger, faster and more economical in your training, without developing large muscles,” Hoff says.

Despite previous studies, the professors reached a surprising result:

You can get twice as much out of your workout with maximum strength training than from traditional strength training.

Professor at NTNU, Jan Hoff, says you can live up to 15 years longer if you are more physically active.
Jan Hoff, Professor of Medicine.

A definite improvement

After eight weeks, the participants showed a clear improvement on several points, both by traditional strength training and by maximum strength training. However, heavier weights and few repetitions had the most notable effect; increased efficiency in the participant’s workout, their overall strength and their power.

“Maximum strength training was almost twice as effective as traditional strength training in developing both strength, speed and work economy. With a better work economy you need less energy to perform the same job, for example running. Maximum strength increased participant’s strength by about 50 percent during the eight weeks – without the muscle increasing in size,” Hoff explains.

Important for your everyday life

Hoff has studied endurance training for many years and during this time he has collaborated with several top athletes. He now works at the Department of Circulation and Medical Imaging, in addition to being an advisor for physical training to a number of sports stars and teams.

Everybody uses this type of strength training,” Hoff says.

“Amongst other things, it is the most effective treatment for osteoporosis and for COPD patients. It is also an effective way to increase speed and agility, which could be a big advantage for football players. When work economy improves, endurance improves as well, both in football and in other endurance sports. Therefore, we recommend this type of training to all the players and teams we advise. This type of training is used by players in top teams like Barcelona, ​​Manchester United, Celtic, Hertha Berlin and several Norwegian teams,” he continues.

In other words: If you want quick results and an effective workout, the answer is maximal strength training. Hoff says this kind of workout is important to perform, not only for those aiming high in sports, but also in everyday life.

However, Hoff points out one thing:

“For the best results, weight lifting must be combined with endurance training.”

Enlarge your heart…

At gyms across the world there is one piece of equipment you always find, and there are always plenty of them – treadmills. We run and run, both indoors and outside, hoping to improve our endurance. Do you know why working on your endurance is so incredibly good for your body though? And do you know how to increase your endurance most efficiently? I will answer these questions for you during this article.

Firstly though: What is endurance training?

Endurance is the muscles ability to perform over a certain period of time. When you work on endurance, your muscles burn energy, preferably in the form of carbohydrates and fats, using oxygen. Oxygen flow to your muscles is therefore the most important factor affecting your endurance.

If your muscle receives too little oxygen, it will lead to an accumulation of lactic acid. This causes muscles to stiffen, and forces you to stop working out. This is called anaerobic endurance. If your muscles get enough oxygen, on the other hand, it is called aerobic endurance: you keep lactic acid from piling up and are able to endure a much longer workout.

Pumping capacity

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Professor of Medicine, Jan Hoff.

What determines whether you are able to get enough oxygen to the muscles?

Your heart!

Professor of Medicine, Jan Hoff, says the whole purpose of endurance training is to increase the size and elasticity of the heart and blood vessels. This increases the maximum oxygen uptake.

“The average 20-year-old man’s pumping capacity is approximately 20 litres per minute. A top endurance athlete’s capacity, however, is twice that, equalling four kitchens taps turned on fully,” Hoff says.

“Our heart, which is the size of a fist, is a highly efficient pump,” he adds.

According to Hoff, it is only very untrained individuals who have limitation in aerobic endurance related to matters outside the body’s muscles and not the heart’s pumping capacity.

Maximum heart rate

The highest heart rate you are able to achieve is called your maximum heart rate. It is determined by heredity conditions and cannot get any higher, no matter how much you exercise. However, it does decrease slightly with age. The heart’s ability to pump blood is therefore dependent on the amount of blood that can be pumped at each heart beat, so-called stroke volume.

“Stroke volume increases when your heart becomes larger following exercise, challenges cardiac volume and becomes more elastic,” Hoff says.

Previously it was difficult to measure the heart’s stroke volume, and it was believed that full stroke volume was reached by running at an intensity of about 70 percent of maximum heart rate. This was however refuted, when research showed that stroke volume increases up to an intensity corresponding with maximum oxygen uptake. If you work at a higher intensity than this, lactic acid gathers and leads to a fall in stroke volume.

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How to exercise most effectively

Aerobic exercise is not only important if you are training to run a marathon in the shortest possible time, according to Hoff. If performed regularly, it also has a big impact on your health.

“The right type of endurance training is the most effective way to prevent lifestyle diseases such as obesity, hypertension, high cholesterol, reduced circulation and type 2 diabetes,” Hoff says.

So what is “the right” endurance training”?

Hoff, together with colleague and fellow Professor of Medicine Jan Helgerud have through their research revealed the most efficient training methods for health and endurance.

The professors say four by four-minute intervals are the best type of exercise for your body. The intervals should be performed uphill, either walking or running, outdoors or on a treadmill. You must however, combine it with strength training. Interval training is not limited to running or walking though, skiing outdoors, using a rowing machine or a bike (standing up on the pedals during intervals) are other options.

Sessions must start with a six-minute warm up at moderate intensity, followed by the four intervals. Each interval consists of four minutes at high intensity, with a three-minute active rest between each interval. In order to get the most effect out of the training, you have to be at 85 to 95 percent of your maximum heart rate at the end of the first interval, and reach the same intensity after one minute in the remaining intervals.

“You know you have reached the right level when, after two minutes, you breathe heavily, but do not experience any discomfort or stiffness in the legs,” Hoff says.

During the breaks, your heart rate should drop down to 70 percent of maximum.

“Finally, after the four intervals, you should have a five-minute cool down to finish.”

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How to find your maximum heart rate?

If you do not have a pulse watch or advanced gadgets like ear buds that register your pulse, but would like to know your maximum heart rate, keep reading!

As I said, your maximum heart rate is determined by hereditary conditions and is therefore individual. To find your maximum heart rate, you can perform a workout consisting of four four-minute intervals, and then take your pulse at the end of the last one. Add 15 strokes to the pulse to determine your maximum heart rate.

Another way of finding the right intensity is to listen to your body: When you have worked hard for four minutes, you should be able to continue for one more minute. When you have completed four intervals lasting four minutes each, you should be able to complete one more.

“If you manage to keep a conversation going during the interval, the intensity is too low,” Hoff says.

Some final inspiration: If you do this four times four-minutes interval training more than once a week, you will improve your endurance with half a percent weekly. If you do endurance exercise twice a week, you will keep your physiological age at 20 years until you are 80. So what are you waiting for?

Adults spend most of their day being inactive

Yet seven out of ten adults in Norway are too inactive, according to the public health report of 2014.

The level of physical activity among Norwegians has dropped in recent years. The report blames sedentary work, driving and less demanding chores.

“This is a development that has we have seen progressing for a long time. The main reason is that we have built a society that more and more eliminates the need to use our bodies,” says Jakob Linhave. He is the Deputy Director in the Directorate of Health.

Linhave explains that in the past we used to walk almost regardless of how far we were going, Additionally, most work in and around the home used to be manual and often physically heavy.

“Today, machines or technology do all the work for us, which means it is increasingly up to each individual to keep their body physically fit,” he says.

Jakob Linhave
Jakob Linhave

The worst in the world

Compared with other countries, Norway is at the bottom of the charts when it comes to activity level. Seven out of ten adults are less physically active than recommended and use roughly 60 percent of their waking hours sitting down.

“Norwegians and residents from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia and Japan are the groups that spend the most time sitting still. It is also partly due to that we can buy our way out of tasks because we are a riche country,” Linhave explains.

Professor of Medicine at NTNU in Trondheim, Jan Hoff, think it would be beneficial if the Health Directorate get the population to be active for the recommended 150 minutes a week. However, he has more faith in shorter, but more effective training.

“I recommend two days of four times four minute intervals and four times four repetitions strength training. If you combine this workout routine with outdoor activity during the weekend, it will be better for your health and take a minimum of time to carry out,” he says.

“We have proven that with this type of activity, you can keep your biological age at 20 until you are 70,” he adds.

With four times four-minute intervals, Hoff means that you should walk, jog or run uphill for four minutes, followed by a three-minute active pause. Thereafter, you repeat until you have carried out four intervals. That is a mere 16 minutes of activity.

With four times four repetition strength training, the professor means that you should conduct the exercises in four sets, where each set consists of four repetitions. It is important to have such heavy resistance that you only manage four repetitions in one set, and no more than four sets all together.

Professor at NTNU, Jan Hoff, says you can live up to 15 years longer if you are more physically active.
Jan Hoff

Health Gains

According to the public health report 2014, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has estimated that we can prevent 80 percent of heart attacks, 90 percent of type-2 diabetes and over 30 percent of cancer cases only by changes in diet, physical activity and smoking habits.

“Research shows a clear correlation between the amount of physical activity and health. Already by light muscular activity we see positive effects in the body; it increases blood flow, and blood sugars are regulated better than when you rest. The rewards are simply formidable,” Linhave says.

“Regular physical activity prevents a total of 30 diseases, and can even cure mild depression, high blood pressure and high cholesterol,” he adds.

Professor of Medicine Hoff says that in addition, you will live a considerably longer life if you train regularly:

“Training versus sitting still means an average of 15 years of healthy life.”

How to be more active

Linhave says that something must be done to activate the 70 percent who are too inactive today, but he points out that you cannot put the whole workload on each individual.

“When such a high percentage fails to be active for 30 minutes a day, we must look at our social structures. Naturally, everyone has a personal responsibility, but we believe that we must ‘rebuild’ society so that choosing to be active becomes easier” he says.

He thinks that it should be easier and safer to walk and cycle. In addition, there must be better access to green areas for recreation and outdoor activities locally.

“Workplaces, businesses, volunteers, communities and associations must contribute. We need innovative thinking to come up with better ways to motivate and inspire more people to choose activity over inactivity,” Linhave says.

“We need everyone, and we believe good interaction between the public and commercial and voluntary sectors is the way to go,” he concludes.

The advice Martin Ødegaard should listen to

This morning he was brought by private plane from a snowy airport in Moss to sunny Spain, where he is about to start a new chapter in his life. He is only 16 years old, but has already achieved more in the sports world than most can hope for, Martin Ødegaard is kicking his way out in the world in record time.

Jan Hoff is Professor of Medicine at NTNU in Trondheim, and has previously worked with both Real Madrid and Ødegaard’s former club, Strømsgodset. He says the youngster’s new teammates are on a different level than what he is used to.

“Training sessions in the two football clubs are not very different. It has been a few years since we worked with Strømsgodset, but the skill related exercises we have observed in Real Madrid, Barcelona, ​​Celtic, or Rosenborg for that matter, are not substantially different. Primarily, the difference comes down to the players just being better, so they are both much faster and more accurate, he says.

Jan Hoff
Jan Hoff

A lot of self-training

Hoff is with his research colleague, Jan Helgerud, known for his leading research on training, especially in connection with physical training in football. He says Ødegaard is going to face much tougher resistance with his new club.

“Norwegian football teams train as much as Real Madrid during the pre-season period, but Real Madrid play more matches against better opposition throughout the season, and players who are part of these teams develop faster.”

In Norway, Ødegaard is seen as the best of the best, but Hoff says he has a long way to go before he is as good as his new teammates.

“Martin Ødegaard has to train as much as Cristiano Ronaldo has done over the last ten years to become as good as him. If he continues individual practice with a ball as well as physical training for better endurance and better strength, that is. He has to do this two to three hours a week for years, only then he can get to his level,” the researcher explains.

“We met Ronaldo in Manchester United approximately ten years ago and he had surprisingly similar starting point to what Ødegaard has today,” he adds.

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Jan Helgerud together with Cristiano Ronaldo

200 kg squat

If Ødegaard wants to make a name for himself among the world’s best players in his new Spanish league, La Liga, he must become stronger, and preferably be able to lift 200 kilograms or more while doing a 90 degree squat. However, in order for Ødegaard to run significantly faster, he can start off a little lighter.

“We have shown in research that an increase of approximately 50 kilo in 90 degree squats allows players to run almost a metre faster per every ten metres. This, in addition to the fact that increased strength reduces energy costs, they can run almost a kilometre more per game.”

It is not only Ødegaard’s strength that needs improvement though. He must also work on his endurance to keep up with his new opponents, and according to Hoff interval training is the key to success.

“Approximately 20 sessions with four times four-minute intervals allow players to run 1.7 kilometres longer during a game. Additionally, it can double the number of sprints and increase number of involvements with the ball by 30 percent. Work capacity is important for footballers as well.”

Hoff believes that Ødegaard will be followed up closely, and that personal trainers will most likely be at his disposal. In an interview with the newspaper “VG” yesterday Hoff said that “many” of Real Madrid players have personal trainers for strength, endurance and flexibility training. Not only to run faster and longer, but to help prevent injuries and strengthen muscles and bones as well.

The best of the best

Normally, Hoff works as a professor at NTNU in Trondheim, but together with colleague Helgerud he has acted as responsible advisor for physical training for a wide range of Olympic champions, world champions and World Cup winners. Furthermore, they have been consultants for a variety of professional football players and teams. They have published well over a hundred research papers on Pubmed, the world’s largest database in medicine, nursing, dentistry, veterinary medicine, health care and preclinical sciences. Today, they are also partners in Myworkout, contributing with training advice and guidance, in order for us to provide the best training to our customers.

Kettlebells are for everyone

“Kettlebells originated in Russia, and the special weights were originally used as grain weights in the countryside. Additionally, it was also used among workers to “show muscles”.

This according to Allan Fallrø, one of the best coaches within functional training, a type of training that focuses on exercises involving the entire body.

He goes on to say that “more and more people started seeing the benefits of using kettlebells as exercise equipment”. The added exercise meant that they were in even better shape to perform the physically demanding work in the countryside.

“Eventually it became somewhat of a “national sport” in Russia, and by 1970 several kettlebell sporting competitions were arranged. 20 years later, kettlebells found their way into the gyms in the United States and across the world.

Allan Fallrø

Who can work out with kettlebells?

Fallrø is a former top athlete and manager of The International Kettlebells and Fitness Federation Norway (IKFF Norway). He also arranges level 1 courses for kettlebell instructors. In other words, an experienced man. We cannot think of anyone better to explain who this type of training benefits.

“First and foremost, I have experienced myself how great and effective kettlebell workouts are. I have seen incredible improvement in both my strength and endurance. It is efficient and thereby timesaving, meaning I can spend less time on training while still reaching my goals. I also think it is fun, challenging and motivating mastering new exercises,” the former national boxer says.

However, Fallrø is keen to point out that kettlebells are not only for former athletes.

“Kettlebells are a great form of exercise for top athletes who wish to strengthen their weak areas, such as the core and supporting musculature around shoulders, hips and knees, as well as grip strength. On the other hand, it is equally suitable for anyone who has the desire for a dynamic body that is that is fit and functional for everyday life. 

Technique, technique, technique

If you are thinking about starting with this type of workout for the first time, it is important to focus on technique and master some basic exercises before advancing to more complicated variations.

– It is just as important to have the right technique in kettlebells as in any other sport or exercise. With the right technique you can safely increase the weight of the kettlebells, quantity of repetitions and time spent performing the exercise.