Q: I’m 17, and over the past three months I’ve found a strong interest in weightlifting. I’ve been increasing my weights on nearly everything I’ve done. I started benching 95 pounds for each set back in November, and now I’m benching 145 on each of my three sets. My curls started out at 65 pounds, and now I’m curling 95 pounds. The thing is, I have no dramatic increases in size. My arms started out at 14 inches and have increased by only a quarter inch. If there are any tips you could give me, I’d appreciate them.
A: First of all, congratulations on your newfound passion—weightlifting. It sounds as if you’re off to a great start, and you really increased your strength in a very short period. Adding 50 pounds to your bench press and 30 pounds to your curls in three months is very impressive.
What typically happens with someone who begins training is that strength increases first followed by muscle size. Because your muscles are unaccustomed to weight training, they adapt very quickly by learning how to do the exercise. The first measurable effect is the neural drive showing the muscle fibers how to contract.
When I’m training people new to weightlifting, I often ask where they felt the exercise that I just demonstrated. If they’re doing a bench press for the chest, they’ll tell me that they feel it in their triceps or their shoulders or even their biceps. If they do a one-arm dumbbell row for the lats, they usually wave their hand over their arm and shoulder and say, “All of this.”
The reason people new to weight training can’t focus on the muscle they’re working is that they haven’t yet developed the mind/muscle connection that comes with training experience. They’re still working on the nerve connections to the muscles, which cause them to contract against the resistance.
You’ve been training only for a very short time, so your strength is increasing very quickly as your body adapts to learning how to make your muscles contract against increasing amounts of resistance. As your body becomes more efficient at neural adaptation, you’ll develop a feeling for the muscles.
Very advanced trainees can pump up their muscles with little to no resistance. Many bodybuilders get a great pump in the warmup room by doing some very light training or even just posing. Arnold often said at his competitive peak that he could force blood into a muscle group just by thinking about it and flexing it.
As your muscles begin to adapt to the increasing loads you place on them, they respond by increasing in size. The sarcoplasmic fluid in the muscle cell begins to increase in size, thus increasing the size of your muscles. The muscle cells themselves get bigger in addition to the strength you’re quickly developing.
One recommendation I can make to you at this stage of the game is to not try lifting too heavy yet. If you train with a resistance that enables you to do 10 to 12 repetitions, you’ll quickly develop the neural capacity to contract the muscle fibers as well as build up the sarcoplasmic portion of the muscle cells. If you use so much weight that you can do only a few reps—one to five—you’ll build your strength more quickly, but it will take longer to develop the muscles.
In my first year of training I used a higher-repetition scheme—10 to 12—because I liked the feeling of getting a good pump in the muscles I was working. I even began supersetting bodyparts like chest and back during my initial year of training because of the great pump I would get. That really helped increase my muscle size in the beginning.
Get a feel for the muscles first by using increasing amounts of resistance for eight to 12 reps. That will enable you to build strength and muscle size while perfecting exercise form. As you get older, you can begin to use heavier weights to advance even more.
Editor’s note: John Hansen has won the Mr. Natural Olympia and is a two-time Natural Mr. Universe winner. Check out his Web site at www.NaturalOlympia.com, or send questions or comments to John@NaturalOlympia.com or at P.O. Box 3003, Darien, IL 60561. Look for John’s DVD, “Natural Bodybuilding Seminar and Competitions,” along with his book, Natural Bodybuilding, and his training DVD, “Real Muscle,” at his Web site or at Home Gym Warehouse, www.Home-Gym.com. Listen to John’s new radio show, “Natural Bodybuilding Radio,” at www.NaturalBodybuildingRadio.com. IM