Strength or Endurance?

There many ways to train the body, in terms of which energy systems are being used and what type of mental toughness are to be developed. I am speaking of the intensity of the workout, the ends of the intensity spectrum are high and low. 

An example of high intensity work is a 1 rep max squat attempt, or 1RM. This means this is the highest amount of weight an individual can squat for one repetition. The 1RM is very heavy weight, varying from individual to individual, and is carried out over the course of a few seconds. Mentally, the 1RM attempt is scary. It is enough weight to cripple you if you allow your form to fail significantly. It is a painful experience starting from feeling the bar dig into your back, your blood pressure skyrocketing, and your eyes bulging out as you slowly grind the weight out of the bottom position back to the top and safely in the rack. It is satisfying to complete but daunting to do.

Kirk Karwoski squatting HEAVY.
The low intensity work example is a walk or jog. The walk or jog can be done by anyone for long period of time. A completely untrained individual can walk for an hour or jog for 5 minutes if they were determined. A marathoner walks and jogs for hours. A long distance contest like a marathon requires mental preparation as well. The individual must be able to withstand the monotony of the course, unless your jogging down Blacksmith Fork Canyon which is beautiful. As a long run progresses more body pains creep in, often as cramps from dehydration, and the runner questions why they signed up for this.

Part of a long run in Blacksmith Fork Canyon
I have squatted heavy enough to make my eyes bulge and have ran long distances. So I have personally tasted the good and bad of high and low intensity work. High and low intensity work regimes are very different experiences and elicit different physiological responses. 

Lets talk about high intensity work using weights. In completing heavy sets with one of the big lifts in a properly designed program the muscles are pushed to and a bit beyond the current potential of the tissue. This is called overload and results in some tissue damage. The body then repairs the damage and like a paranoid property owner, builds it bit stronger than before for insurance purposes. By putting a little more weight on the bar at the next workout the process is repeated and progress is made. Progress in lifting performance is facilitated by muscle growth and a little bit by increased familiarity with the lifts. Lifting proficiency, meaning familiarity with the lifts, plateaus rapidly before performance increases do. This means the increase in weight lifted is largely due to increased muscle mass.

Low intensity work is completely different. Because the muscle is not challenged to its capacity it does not grow in the same way. Initially, a low intensity workout plan like running or lifting light weights for high repetitions (more than 20) will produce growth. This is not because the program is the most effective at growing muscle but because the trainee is not adapted to that type of work. During high rep sets you often "feel the burn" which is lactic acid building up in the muscle tissue. The burn subsides during a few minutes of rest as the lactic acid is further oxidized and consumed by the body. The result of this type of training is mental and muscular toughness. The ability to withstand the pain of the workout.

High rep low weight types of programs are often touted as "toning" programs. The idea commonly referred to as "toning" really has nothing to do with the hardness of the muscles but more with the visibility of muscles. I claim this because I often hear people talking about pictures of people and saying things like "boy she is really toned up." If toned referred to hardness of muscles a picture clearly would not allow one to estimate the "toneness" (not a word) of someones musculature. A picture does allow one to estimate definition, although only in a qualitative way. Muscle definition if magnified by having larger muscles and low body fat levels. So I ask, "does a high rep low weight, or low intensity workout, promote muscle growth and fat loss better than any other program?" My answer would be no.

The reason I say low intensity workouts do not produce definition better than any other type of fitness programming is shown in the picture below.

Marathoner vs Sprinter
A marathoner is trained to perform at low intensities for very long periods of time. A sprinter trains to perform high intensity work for short periods of time. The best result in muscle definition is clearly the one who trains at high intensity. I understand the pairing of athletes in the above photos is biased, but we have all seen other examples that support this pairing. This summer watch the Olympics and look at the sprinters and the marathoners and then disagree with me. The truth is, in order to develop muscle definition or "tone" one must grow muscles. Low intensity work does not provide sufficient stress to cause muscle growth. In fact training long periods of low intensity stress causes the body to adapt in a way that makes the muscles do that work more efficiently at even small mass or volume. So low intensity work actually will shrink muscles in time. In addition to muscle growth via high intensity training, more body fat will be metabolized to support the large muscles. Then, even higher intensity work can be done and even larger muscles will grow and more fat will be burned to support them.

So in case I have understated it, fat loss and muscle development (not to be construed at bulkiness by the ladies) will occur at high intensity level training.

One last nagging argument for low weight high rep type of workouts is the idea that muscle endurance is more important than muscular strength. I used to think this way, I am sure others have too. I was never really strong but I could get along alright doing chores or any types of manual labor. In fact I worked in construction and in the shipping industry, which required me to lift a lot of stuff and put it places, so I wasn't worthless but I certainly did not consider myself strong. Since I was not really muscular but I could endure chores I thought I should emphasize my strengths and plan to workout using lower weights and higher reps (10-12 to be exact). I justified this to myself because I didn't want to be associated with those meatheads and narcissistic bodybuilders. I was on a higher plane. I was training to be more useful not to fulfill some fantasy of becoming the next Arnold. On the other hand I thought to myself, "if I train for endurance than I ought to get ripped since that tones people up," but we have already dealt with the toning myth.

I was a walking contradiction, and in reality just didn't sit and think about what I was doing. If I trained to bench press 95 pounds for 30 reps I would be good at that, absolutely true. But, if I trained to bench press 225 for 3 sets of 5, my current status, 95 is merely a warm up and I would kill 30 reps and have room for more. So yes you can train for endurance and be good at pressing 10 pound dumbbells or you could focus on strength, reap all the benefits of doing so and become even better and endurance work. Think about it, who can press (push a weighted bar overhead) 45 pounds for more reps (a) Bill Starr, who pressed 365 overhead; (b) Me, I press 150 for 5 reps; or (c) my daughter, who presses a 5 pound dumbbell overhead quite well? The answer is (a) Bill Starr, because he is the strongest. So if you still think that endurance is better for some silly illogical reasons like I did, do as my Mom always says "get over yourself," and start training for strength. It just makes sense.