Over the years, we've encountered all types misconceptions as to what someone believes their athlete needs and how meeting those needs should be accomplished. Especially when it comes to certain sports, we often hear parents or athletes say they don't need to do strength movements, as they just need to focus on speed. I won't break down that misconception this time though, as we've already written on this topic before. Another common misconception that we often get, is that an athlete needs to only focus on speed because lifting weights will make them bulky, or that they just needing muscle toning.
Now, this misconception is one that was originally rooted in the fitness community as a method of selling gym memberships and training programs to an ill-informed general population. Unfortunately, this lingo and verbiage has seeped into the performance training realm and made people think that lifting weights will make someone bulky or slow. This isn't necessarily true, because there are multiple factors that go into gaining muscle mass that extends far beyond weights. With this in mind, I believe it to be valuable to understand what is actually happening at the biological level when your young athlete (or you, for that matter) starts weight training for their sport or general fitness.
It's important to remember that the goal of training is to elicit and adaptation from the body to meet the imposed demands on it.
Whether or not you believe in Charles Darwin's theory of Natural Selection, adaptation to a stimulus is a real thing that happens in all living organisms. Weight training merely seeks to achieve some level of adaptation, which happens in a specific order within the human body.
The first adaptation has more to do with the brain and nervous system than it does muscles. When the brain sends signals to the muscles to create motion, muscle fibers get stimulated and create the desired movement. The body also tries to conserve energy in this process, so the smallest and weakest muscle fibers get recruited first to create the motion. The faster or more forceful the movement, the greater the need for the bigger muscle fibers. As the smaller muscles fatigue or remain fatigued, the body starts to utilize bigger muscle fibers to accomplish the task. These muscle fibers then adapt to the smaller nervous system signal, therefore becoming more easily recruited in the future. What this means, is that as athletes sprint and lift weights they begin to recruit more muscle fibers with smaller signals from the brain, making them more efficient and capable of producing more force. This process can happen fairly quickly, and is responsible for a majority of the strength or speed gains that beginning trainees experience during their first few months.
The next process becomes the increase in muscle strength and hypertrophy, or gaining muscle mass. This process doesn't usually come very quickly if we're being honest. The gaining of muscle also seems to be a major concern for a lot of parents and athletes, and while I won't get into the social biases that many have, we do see a high tendency of concern from parents of female athletes in regards to this. There are two major factors that go into how much and how quickly muscle mass is added to a growing body: genetics and nutrition. I'll start with nutrition, because there is a saying that coaches and trainers use to describe the necessary nutritional guidelines for muscle building:
"You have to eat big to get big."
Essentially, if an athlete is not eating a total caloric intake that exceeds what they are expending, they will not add on mass very quickly. To truly know how much you're expending compared to consuming, keeping a food journal can be very helpful. There is, however, a genetic component to the gaining of muscle. Males will ultimately put on more mass at a faster rate than females. This has to do with hormone levels and typical body dimensions. Additionally, certain individuals have a higher genetic response to strength training than others. The only way to know what each individual's response to training will be is to train.
Now, to circle back to the question at hand that sparked this lesson: how does this knowledge play into muscle toning? Muscle toning, at least the common thought behind it, is to define the muscle instead of adding muscle size. Muscle burns calories, and then proper nutrition helps lean the body out by making sure we are in a calorie deficit to burn fat. It sounds counter-intuitive to most, because when we think muscle mass we think of bodybuilders, and not necessarily the ballerina (whose lean mass is usually through the charts). But in the words of Jen Widerstrom (Performance Coach, former NBC "The Biggest Loser" trainer):
"Muscle pays for the party."
Muscle allows you to eat more and perform at higher levels. The only time having muscle is a bad thing is when it slows you down (which is extremely hard to achieve, believe it or not).
The final thing I'll mention about this topic, is that while toning is not a bad thing, it's basis is usually an aesthetic goal and not performance. Aesthetics (or looks) does not always equate to performance. Leanness may look great in uniform, but it is not the driver of performance. In many sports, having some body fat can be a good thing. For example, look at a college football lineman or shotput throwers. When you see them on the street you may not think they are very athletic, but you'd be surprised at what some of those bigger athletes are capable of. Their size gives them an advantage in their sport.
Now, obviously there is much more to athletics and getting faster and stronger than just lifting weights. We need to sprint, jump, bound, and work on technical skills. We often just get questions regarding about or comments concerning this aspect of the weight training we do to enhance speed.