“Lift Heavy sh*t” is a phrase that I see is gaining more and more traction in the endurance world (which pleases me endlessly). It seems that more and more athletes and coaches are bringing heavy lifting into their mainstream workouts and this makes me very happy to see it. why? Because it provides many benefits other than the lift itself.
Related: Why (and How) Triathlon Athletes Should Lift Heavy
First, let’s talk about weightlifting. There is no set number of pounds that would be “heavy” for everyone. What might be heavy for someone lifting dumbbells for the first time may not register as a weight for a professional athlete. “Heavy” is just a designation for resistance training that is in a low repetition range and gets heavier over time. This type of resistance training is geared toward improving strength, not focusing on increasing muscle size (hypertrophy) – although you’ll get both. (Note: It’s very difficult for a woman to “grow up” especially if the primary focus is stamina.)
How heavy is it?
Strength training typically involves lifting over 85% of your maximum reps, for a range of 1 to 5 repetitions per set, aiming for four to five sets. The weight of each rep should be hard, to the point where you may not reach the full repetition range through the full (good) range of motion on your last set. The goal of weightlifting is to improve the neuromuscular connection to muscle contraction, which means increasing the recruitment of fibers for each contraction to improve the force your muscles can exert. By contrast, hypertrophic training (training to build mass) is directed to induce mechanical damage to muscle fibers and proteins to stimulate the repair response resulting in an increase in muscle size. This is usually through large size (multiple sets of 8-15 reps).
Related: The correct way to find and use the maximum lifting weight
As an athlete, why should you consider lifting weights? Well, when we discuss strength, we are looking at the ability to generate maximum force through muscle contraction. This ability to generate maximum levels of force depends on a few key factors, such as the central nervous system and the rate at which force is produced, which we’ll delve into a little bit below:
The central nervous system: The central nervous system is the control center for all motor and strenuous exercises. It is made up of your brain and spinal cord. When you train hard, you train your nervous system to handle heavy loads without hampering your ability to train hard (which means less interference with your basic triathlon training than swimming, cycling and running). The more prepared your nervous system is for heavy loads, the less likely you are to carry something and feel tired or exhausted immediately. This is one of the major benefits of strength training and one of the most defining results of intense training.
Force production rate: Faster force production rates equate to more force being produced simultaneously, which helps you to be more powerful, improves your ability to recover from race surges, and improves your overall running abilities.
How does this translate into training?
Strength training increases the ability of the central nervous system to send impulses to muscle fibers to contract. These impulses can improve the rate of muscle fiber contraction (the rate at which force is produced) as well as the number of contractions at once (the synchronization of firing). These two factors will improve your ability to drive larger gears on the bike, ride and run uphill, and push toward the finish line, but most importantly, they will allow you to be more injury resistant from the higher endurance training loads that come with triathlon. Another major advantage of strength training is that you can maintain or build strength with less time in the weight room, mainly due to the stimulation of the central nervous system under heavy loads.
Who Should Consider Lifting Weights?
The answer to that is easy: everyone! But most importantly, as we age, we need to prioritize resistance training. Normal aging is associated with decreased lean mass and muscle strength and function. We also lose bone mineral density (for both men and women). Long-term endurance training can exacerbate the declines in lean mass and bone density, due to the chronic catabolic state caused by endurance training and racing (often accompanied by a lack of fuel/low energy availability). Weight lifting is associated with enhanced anabolic hormonal profiles across age, which vary in hormone patterns and peaks as we age. For men, intense resistance training is associated with higher levels of total and free testosterone and IGF-1 (insulin growth factor-1, a hormone that has an anabolic effect on adults, similar to growth hormone). For women, estradiol, growth hormone, and IGF-1 increase post-resistance training, both in the pre- and post-menopausal groups. Increasing these anabolic hormones can counteract some of the catabolic effects of endurance exercise (such as increased cortisol, increased oxidative stress, and inflammation). Another important benefit of weight lifting is increased production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), the neurotransmitter associated with the production of new brain cells and improved cognitive function.
With the benefits of weightlifting complementing endurance performance, it’s no wonder the chatter of a “Lift Heavy $hit” is Take tours of the endurance space. The next time someone asks you PR, maybe you’ll answer in pounds, not race times.
Related: 5 common mistakes endurance athletes make in strength training