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Building Smarter and Stronger Muscles

By Adam Hodges | Sept. 23, 2014, 5:57 p.m. (ET)

Excerpted from “The Triathlete's Training Guide: How to Train Systematically to Achieve Your Goals”

When most people think of strength training, they think of making their muscles stronger. But strong muscles aren’t worth much if they don’t fire when needed or coordinate with each other during sport-specific movements. For endurance athletes engaged in strength training, it is important to recognize that stronger muscles form only part of the equation for enhanced performance. You also need to have good neuromuscular control over those muscles.

Any time a muscle contracts, it requires a signal from the nervous system. This is why we talk about neuromuscular movement (as opposed to just muscular movement). A great deal of the work done by the nervous system occurs more or less automatically as a result of patterns set down over time. We call this “muscle memory.”

If you play the guitar, your fingers seem to know where to go to play a C chord, for example, without consciously placing them on the strings. Of course, it takes a while to build up mastery of those movement patterns. In general, it takes about 4,000-6,000 repetitions to change or develop new muscle memory patterns.

As athletes, the movements we make are built up over time in the same way. Poor form — and resulting injuries — can be a result of weak muscles, inhibition of muscles needed for a movement or a combination of weak muscles that don’t fire when needed. Functional strength work targets typical areas of muscular imbalances while teaching you to use those muscles in ways that carry over into your sport-specific activities.

So to say we want to make our muscles “smart” as well as strong means that we’re aiming to develop neuromuscular control in addition to strength. This is why it is always essential to perform the exercises — as well as your endurance sports (running, swimming, cycling) — with proper form. You want to ingrain positive habits into your muscle memory.

Endurance athletes are eager to find ways to improve their performance, and many embrace strength training. Yet some of those who embrace strength training view it from a one-sided perspective. For them, it is all about making muscles stronger without regard to function. If strength training doesn’t involve heavy weights that target isolated muscle groups (e.g. machine weights); then they don’t feel like they’re getting a good workout. Likewise, they see suggestions to incorporate supplemental functional work into daily activities in short spurts of a few minutes as too little or inconsequential to constitute a good workout. For them, it is easy to blow off that daily 10-minute functional strength session. 

But if you shift your perspective on functional strength training to take in the broader picture of what you’re trying to accomplish — stronger and smarter muscles — then it is easier to see the benefit of the supplemental work.

Let’s return to the analogy of learning to play the guitar.

Imagine this scenario. Let’s say you show up for your two-hour guitar lesson once a week without picking up the guitar in between those weekly sessions. It takes the first part of the lesson to remember what you’ve forgotten over the past week. And by the end of the session, brain fatigue sets in and limits your ability to effectively practice the assigned chords. But you definitely walk away from the session feeling like you got the equivalent of a good workout. Your fingers hurt, you’re tired, etc.

Now imagine this scenario. You still dedicate two hours a week to practicing your guitar, but now your weekly lesson takes one hour and you spend ten minutes each day in between the weekly lessons practicing the movement patterns for the chords assigned that week. In each of those 10-minute daily sessions, you may not feel like you’re getting the equivalent of a good workout, but you gradually begin to learn the chords. And you do so sooner than in the first scenario.

Contrasting these two scenarios underscores the point that making your muscles smarter benefits from consistent, frequent reinforcement of the neuromuscular patterns that contribute to muscle memory. If it takes 4,000-6,000 repetitions to ingrain movement patterns into muscle memory, it is best to spread those repetitions out in short but frequent sessions rather than lumping them all together in longer but infrequent sessions.

The bottom line? Don’t think it is inconsequential to incorporate short but frequent functional strength sessions or neuromuscular drills into your daily activities. Step away from the desk during the workday to do a few minutes of planks or donkey kicks or balance drills, for example.

It may seem like nothing when you are training up to eight, 12, 15 or more hours a week in multisport endurance activities. But attention to this supplemental work will help you reinforce movement patterns needed for good neuromuscular control.

When it comes to optimal performance come race day, your muscles need to be more than strong. They also need to be smart.

Adam Hodges, Ph.D., is a USA Triathlon Certified Coach and an American College of Sports Medicine certified personal trainer. He has worked with masters swimmers, high school runners and triathletes of various ability levels. He has been drawn to the multisport lifestyle since he began running at age 10 and competing in triathlons at age 16. As a USA Triathlon All-American triathlete, he has competed in the ITU World Triathlon Championships, the ITU World Duathlon Championships and the Ironman World Championship in Hawaii. Visit www.alpfitness.com for books, articles and videos to help you train smart. Find “The Triathlete’s Training Guide: How to Train Systematically to Achieve Your Goals” on Amazon.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the practices of USA Triathlon. Before starting any new diet or exercise program, you should check with your physician and/or coach.