- Your Body NEEDS Weight Training
- Effect of Exercise on Diet
- “Morning Starter” Exercise Program
- Training with Body Weight
- Abdominal Exercises
- Power Training to Release Growth Hormone
- 2-3-5, 7-11 Weight Training Program
- Avoid Overtraining
- A Short, 7-Day Workout Plan
- A Longer, 10-Day Program
- Keep a Training Record
Power Training can be extraordinarily effective for releasing the growth hormone that builds cartilage, sturdy bones, and strong muscle — if you do it in the right way, use the right exercises, and allow sufficient recovery time. This article shows you how to accomplish those goals.
Originally published 2004
Your body needs a variety of nutritional building blocks to build cartilage, muscle, and bone. So eating well and taking the right supplements is necessary, but it isn’t sufficient. To grow muscle and bone, the body needs work. Muscles grow in response to the demands that are placed on them. Bones grow in response to the stress that a muscle exerts on it. Without that muscular stress, neither the muscle nor the bone will grow. And, unless pushed, the body simply stops building cartilage after a certain age.
Release Human Growth Hormone (HGH)
I say, “unless pushed”, because serious resistance training (e.g. weight training) does seem to be effective, as long as the building blocks are present. The right kind of weight training triggers a release of growth hormone that tells your body to put those materials to work. It then builds muscle, bone, and even cartilage.
Somewhere along the line, I read that cartilage only grows when growth hormone is present. And growth hormone levels tend to drop off as we age — much more so if we don’t engage in the kinds of vigorous activities we used to do as kids. And from personal experience, I know that my knees improved after a serious bout of weight training. (I’ve had two knee surgeries on my right leg that removed about a quarter’s worth of cartilage, and one on my left that removed about a nickel’s worth, so I know how much pain a lack of cartilage can cause.)
When I stopped weight training, I lost much of the muscle mass I had gained, but the knees remained better. I was even able to get back to running, for example, something I had not been able to do for years. (At first, the “running” was very slow, believe me. I had to warm up for several minutes before I reached what I used to call the “survival shuffle” I typically fell into at the end of a very long run. See: 8 and 2 Makes Thinner You.)
To some extent, my renewed ability to engage in such activities stemmed from the stronger muscles I developed during my weight training. (When the knees are weak, the leg muscles have to be strong to take the shock.) I suspect that there was cartilage growth as well, but without a biopsy and accurate measurements, it’s difficult to know for sure.
But in practical terms, its immaterial whether the results come from cartilage growth or stronger muscles. Either way, the benefits of rigorous strength training are there in increased capacity to do the things you enjoy.
About “Growth Hormone” Supplements
It’s tempting to skip the weight training and get growth hormone (GH) by other means. The problem is, there isn’t any other way that really works.
If you get an injection, it works, all right. But it causes your normal GH-release mechanisms to shut down. So you’re dependent on the injections for the rest of your life. Not good.
If you take GH orally, it’s snake oil. It does nothing when you take it that way. Ditto for sublingual (under the tongue) products.
Or you can buy one of the “GH” products out there that are in reality herbs that provide essential nutrients. Some claim to stimulate GH release. They might be effective, but I’m unaware of any evidence that substantiates the claim. Others claim to be GH, when in reality they’re herbal supplements that might or might not be effective in promoting GH release.
Bottom line: Taking an herbal supplement might or might not be marginally effective in improving the results you see from weight training. But you need serious resistance training, if you want to see growth. Without it, all the supplements in the world probably won’t help a bit.
To stimulate growth hormone release, it’s very important to do the right kind of weight training. The only kind of work that spurs muscle growth (and the attendant release of growth hormone) is short-duration, high-intensity training. The way you achieve that intensity is by staying in the 3 to 5 repetition range, because three to five reps is the ideal range for growth. (For an explanation for why that’s true, see About Muscle Fiber, below.
When you perform power training exercises, you adjust the amount of resistance (weight) to stay in the 3 to 5 repetition (rep) range. Here are the rules:
- If you can do 3-5 reps with a given weight, that’s perfect. Use that weight the next time.
- If you can do 2 reps with a given weight, you’re on the bubble. If it felt good, stick with it. But if it was shaky, reduce the weight next time.
- If you can only do 1 rep with a given weight, it’s risky. You’re working at your absolute maximum, but you’re also on the edge of injury. If you’re an elite athlete with a fast recovery time, and you absolutely need to maximize your physical ability, this is a good place to be. For the other 99 percent of us, the risk of injury and the stress on our bodies isn’t worth it. Use less weight next time.
- If you can’t manage a full rep, then obviously you need to reduce the weight next time.
- If you can do 6 reps with the weight, then again you’re on the bubble. If it felt pretty strong, increase the weight next time. But if it was shaky (muscles quivering, poor form, barely made it), then stay at that weight the next time.
- If you can do more than 6 reps, you can use the weight to burn fat and increase muscular endurance, but the exercise isn’t triggering as much growth hormone release as it could to build muscle.
About Muscle Fiber
Muscle fiber comes in two types: fast twitch and slow twitch. Fast twitch fiber performs short-duration, high-intensity efforts like sprints and lifts. Slow twitch fiber carries out long-duration, lower-intensity efforts like walking and jogging.
Fast twitch muscle fiber is white, because it contains no oxygen-carrying blood. It performs the anaerobic (zero-oxygen) muscle contractions. Red fiber, on the other hand, carries out aerobic contractions. It’s red because it’s filled with blood, which carries the oxygen it needs.
Fast twitch fiber contains stored energy in the form of adenosine tri-phosphate (ATP). It has enough for a burst of effort lasting second or two. It then uses creatine to replenish its ATP supply. It has enough creatine allow another several seconds of effort, for a total of about 10 seconds.
After the creatine is gone, the body uses much less efficient energy pathways that are highly inefficient and highly polluting. It’s those pathways that are primarily responsible for muscle soreness. Using them increases a muscle’s size, because it stores more water to dilute the waste products. But it does virtually nothing to increase the muscle’s strength. In fact, it’s counter-productive.
The only other way you can sustain an activity for more than 10 seconds in duration is to use red fibers — the aerobic fibers. But exercising those fibers doesn’t build muscle. In fact, the opposite is true. Sustained aerobic exercise stimulates a catabolic reaction that burns muscle for energy. So unless you’re doing resistance training to stimulate muscle growth, you wind up with the thin physique of a long distance runner, rather than the muscular body of a sprinter.
That 10 second limit for maximum muscle exertion is the reason that the longest sprint is 100 meters, a distance which takes elite runners about 10 seconds to run. When you lift weights, you’re growing muscle for the first 10 seconds or so, until the creatine runs out. In that time, you can perform 5 or 6 repetitions of most weight lifting exercises. If you’re using less weight than you could be using in those 10 seconds, you’re making fewer gains than could, as well. Additional lifts after those 10 seconds serve to increase muscle soreness in ways that impede the recovery process, without materially increasing your strength.
Once the muscle’s energy supply is exhausted, it uses fat to recharge. That’s one reason that weight training is so good for burning fat — especially if you do multiple sets.
When you’re limiting yourself to 3 to 5 rep sets, you can do as many as you like. So instead of doing two 10-rep sets, you can do 4 5 rep sets, and each one will maximize muscle growth. Between 3 and 5 sets is generally the right number. To make sure that the work you do is as effective as possible, use the following East German set sequence:
- Start with a super-short warm-up set that’s about 50 percent of the weight you expect to use. A couple of reps. That’s it. Just to get some blood to the muscles and get them warmed up.
- Move to about 75 percent of the weight you expect to use. Anywhere in the 70 to 80 percent range is fine. One rep if it feels heavy. Two reps if it feels light. That’s all. You’re getting the muscles fully engaged now and ready to work.
- Move to 90% of the weight you expect to use. Do one rep. You’re getting you’re body used to the load and preparing yourself for the effort. You’re also gauging your strength and predicting how much weight to use.
- Move to your target weight. The one that keeps you in the 3 to 5 repetition range. Do from one to five sets at that weight, depending on how you feel and how quickly you recovered from your last workout. This is where the growth happens. Focus on your technique and make it happen.
With this sequence, the feedback you get as you work through the warm up process helps you dial into the optimum weight, because you can tell when a weight feels heavy or light. Most importantly, you don’t spend a lot of time and energy warming up. You warm up sufficiently to maximize performance and prevent injury, without wasting energy in unproductive lifts.
I don’t use that plan for every exercise I do. For exercises that work the smaller muscles of the body, I simply do a set with a reasonable weight, and I’m done. I use this set sequence for the major exercises — the ones that work the large muscles of the body. They’re the ones that provide the majority of your strength. They’re also the ones that are most responsible for growth hormone release, because the amount released is directly proportional to the quantity of muscle that was exercised, and to how hard it was worked.
There are many ways to do power training, but I want to encourage you to train using free weights (dumbbells and the like) and cable machines (a cable with weights on one end, a handle at the other, and pulleys in between) rather than weight machines. You can also use kettlebells, clubbells, surgical tubing, or medicine balls to create resistance. Or you can use rocks and logs. Anything that provides weight and/or resistance will do.
Except machines. You really don’t want to use machines, for a number of reasons:
- You don’t work stabilizing muscles–the surrounding muscles that maintain balance and prevent injuries.
- You work a single muscle, instead of a muscle chain–so you don’t build the kind of neuromuscular coordination you need to generate maximum effort in real life. You get big muscles that look good, but you can’t use them for anything. (That’s overstated. But you get the idea.)
- You limit your growth–because working fewer muscles.
For the purposes of the present discussion, that last reason is the most important one. The amount of growth hormone you release is directly proportional to the number of muscle fibers you’re exercising. When you’re using a machine, you’re not working the stabilizing muscles, and you’re not working the muscles that work before or after it in a typical chain.
For example, throwing a baseball involves the legs, a torso twist, a shoulder rotation, arm carry, arm rotation, and a wrist snap. A weight machine works precisely one of those at any one time. It does nothing to build coordination, so your throw won’t improve anywhere near as it could with a coordination exercise. And it does nothing to strengthen the stabilizing muscles you need to balance yourself on one leg as you throw, so any any extra power you generate makes you that much more likely to incur an injury.
The “Big 3” exercises among body builders for growth hormone release are:
- Bench press
The deadlift works the lower back, hamstrings (back of leg), and trapezius (neck). Get coached by someone before you do it, to prevent injury. The squat works the quadriceps (thighs) and glutes (butt). The bench press works the chest and arms.
Those exercises not only work the major muscles, they work multiple sets of muscles at the same time, for the absolute maximum in muscle mass exercised (MME). Of these, the deadlift has the highest MME rating. The squat is close behind. The bench press is good, too, but it’s quite a bit farther down the list in terms of total MME, so I do it on the same day as my squat.
The other exercises that work multiple major groups are the traditional “power training” exercises:
- Power Clean
Both of these exercises are “coordination” exercises that require a good deal of skill, as well as strength. So get some coaching to learn how to do them properly, and always do them before other strength training exercises, so your coordination and strength are
where they need to be to perform them properly. Otherwise, you risk injury. (See Sequencing and Scheduling for more tips.)
The snatch exercise works the shoulder in addition to the legs and ham strings. The shoulder doesn’t have a lot of muscle mass, so it doesn’t produce a lot of growth. You can ignore it for that reason, unless your goal is improve general strength and athletic ability. (Because it works the shoulders, I recently added it to my workout on my deadlift days. Since I finish the deadlift with shoulder shrugs, that concentrates the shoulder work on one day.)
The power clean is a great leg strengthener that works plyometrically. When you lift the weight and drop under it, that drop creates a momentary overload of weight+gravity that you’re working against. I do it just before my squat.
Putting it all together, produces a power training routine centered around the following exercises:
Day One Day Two (4 to 5 days later)
- Power Clean
- Bench Press
- Shoulder Shrug
Day One is about the legs and chest. Since the Power Clean is a coordination exercise, it comes first. (For details on such sequencing principles, Sequencing and Scheduling.) On that day, I also include a plyometric explosion exercise that works the calves, as well. I’ll be writing about that exercise in a future article. Then comes the squat and bench press. [Future Link: Article on plyometric leg exercise.]
I’ve recently become a fan of kettlebells and clubbells, as well. They’re a great addition to a fitness regimen that I’ll be writing about in another article. [Future Link: Article on kettlebells and clubbells.]
Day Two is a back and shoulder day. The Snatch comes first since it, too, is a coordination exercise. It works the legs as well, but because the shoulders are involved, it uses much less weight than other leg exercises. The Shoulder Shrug there because about the only time you put together enough weight to work them effectively is when you’re doing the deadlift, and it doesn’t make much sense to load up that much weight twice.
Day Two comes 4 to 5 days after Day One. That interval gives your body’s general recovery system plenty of time to overcome the stress of intense training before you have another session. That prevents general, systemic overtraining, where you’re using different muscle groups, but stressing yourself so continually that your body can’t adapt. And you have 9 to 10 days before you come back to the same muscle groups, so they are allowed to fully recover and complete their strength-adaptation before you target them again. That prevents specific overtraining, where a muscle hasn’t completed its recovery and growth process before you hit again. (For an explanation on the length of the interval, see Sequencing and Scheduling.)
So far, the exercises I’ve mentioned work every large muscle in the body, except one: the latisimus dorsimus (lats). The lats are fairly thin, but they cover a very large area, starting under the arms, running down the edges of the back, and fanning out to attach to the spine in your lower back. When you do pull ups, you’re using the lats. When you’re twisting, you’re also using the lats, in addition to the abdominal obliques.
So twisting exercises and pullups work the lats. So does the side press. (You press one arm “overhead”, more by lowering your body to the side than by extending the arm. Then you straighten up. Lowering to the side stretches the lats, and straightening up strengthens them.) These exercises aren’t major growth hormone releasers because the lats, for all their size, aren’t that massive. But they help. And working your lats is way more important and effective than, say, your biceps. Those exercises fall under the heading of general strength training and core conditioning, both of which are covered in Sequencing and Scheduling.
Be sure to stretch between sets and after you’ve finished. Stretching does several important things:
- It squeezes the muscle, which moves the lactic acid and waste products out of the muscle tissue and through the lymph system. (Basically, it initiates garbage collection.)
- It increases blood flow, which increases the supply of nutrients to the muscle, so it can grow. In effect, the squeezing cleared the streets, moving all the traffic to the side, so the ambulance and freeway crew could get through to begin patching things up.
- It lets you stretch when your muscles are fully warmed up and ready for it, so you can maximize the stretch safely — unlike “warm up” stretching which tends to tear the muscle instead of stretching it, especially when done in a vigorous, bouncing fashion, and when you haven’t moved around yet.
As a result of these actions, stretching helps you recover more quickly and grow faster. But it may also improve the amount of growth you experience. Pavel Tsatsouline reports a 10-week study conducted by Dr. Wayne Westcott in which weight lifters who stretched the muscle they had just worked for 20 seconds gained 20% more strength than their counterparts in the control group.[Tsatsouline, p. 83]
To help you understand why, here’s a 10-second introduction to muscle mechanics:
- Muscle strands are like two centipedes lying next to one another. To contract, they reach out, grab each other’s hands, and pull. That moves them a fraction of an inch, so they reach out and grab the next hand they can reach, and so on.
- The number of “overlapping hands” determines the amount of strength that a muscle can exert. That’s why a muscle is strongest when it is close to fully contracted, and weakest when it is fully extended.
- A muscle grows stronger by increasing the length of the muscle fibers — in effect, by making longer centipedes that have more hands to reach out and grab with.
Now you know why it’s important to fully extend a muscle when you’re working against resistance. The muscles are weakest at the beginning of the movement (fewer hands overlapping). So exercise in that position produces the signals that say “we need more hands”. Those signals are still not fully understood by modern science, but whatever it is, that’s the signal that triggers growth hormone release, which produces growth.
That’s also why “range of motion” is such an important concept in resistance exercise. If you consistently work a muscle short of its full range of motion, it becomes shorter. It will become thicker and fatter, mostly as result of water retention to deal with soreness, but you’ll have a hard time making it any stronger.
Stretching moves the muscle strands away from each other so that their ends are barely touching. It’s possible that doing so assists in the rebuilding process. It may be that the muscles have to overcome enough of their soreness to relax and lengthen before over-building can occur. (It’s during the overbuilding process that fibers lengthen and the muscle increases its strength.) Perhaps the lengthening process can only take place when the fibers are fully extended.
Or perhaps the increased strength results from the increased blood flow, which allows the muscle to fully recover and complete it’s adaptation before the next training session. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that stretching is an important part of your Power Training routine.
The take-home message is to make sure you stretch during and after your weight-training sessions. Doing so reduces soreness, improves your recovery time, and promotes strength gains.
- For basic principles and nutritional support for stretching, see Stretching Basics.
Power Training can be extraordinarily effective for releasing growth hormone to build cartilage, sturdy bones, and strong muscle. You need to do it in the right way, using the right exercises, and allow sufficient recovery time. To achieve those goals, you need to:
- Do extremely short warm-up sets (1-2 reps), and one or more power sets of 3-5 reps each.
- Adjust the weight to stay in your ideal repetition range.
- Schedule Power Training workouts 4 to 5 days apart.
- Split your training into 2 stages, so you don’t come back to the same muscle group for 9 to 10 days.
- Stretch between sets and after training.
- New Power Program, by Dr. Michael Colgan.
An engaging, highly readable explanation of all the latest findings in strength training and exercise science.
- Power to the People, Pavel Tsatsouline.
Interesting book with a variety of useful exercises and training principles.
- Kinesiology of Exercise. Masters Press, Dr. Michael Yessis.
A fantastic book that describes the physiological mechanics of the body.
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