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Mini Pause #10: How to Grow Muscles Without Lifting Heavier

Injury Prevention, Part 2

TL,DR (too long, didn’t read)

In last week’s Mini Pause #9, I talked about ways you can maximize muscle growth and simultaneously prevent injury. Today’s issue continues to explore how to maximize muscle growth without lifting heavier.

Full range of motion—defined as your range of motion that is not restricted and is pain-free—is one of the most effective ways to maximize muscle gains and future-proof your body for injury. Other variables like increasing volume (both in rep and set number), as well as decreasing the time in between sets, are other ways to increase the intensity of the exercise without lifting heavy weights.

WHY

In Mini Pause #9, we discussed the similarities between injury prevention and muscle hypertrophy, and, like most things, it turns out I have more to say about it.

In addition to doing a sport-specific warm-up, working the eccentric and the longest point of the muscle there are a few other variables I’d like to discuss that will help you on your muscle-building journey to becoming comfortable with lifting without injury.

We often hear online that women should lift heavy sh*t. I agree. And, I recognize that many women our age grew up on cardio machines and may not have the neuromechanical integrity or muscle memory to do this well without getting injured.

We must think about improving our strength before we work on power [*].

So, here are a few more ways you can think about growing muscle without adding on weight.

Your goal, eventually, is to progress and lift heavier with time. The key word is eventually. There is no rush, and you can take your sweet time learning. Learn the movement pattern the right way the first time and you will enjoy muscle mommy injury-free status.

WHAT

Full ROM

Building on Mini Pause #9’s idea of working the muscle at its weakest point, your range of motion both for the muscle and the joint is an imperative tool for staying in the gym. You want to get all those muscle gains and prevent injury.

Said another way, if you cannot perform the full range of motion as God and your joints intended, you are missing out on a lot of potential muscle gains [*], as well as future-proofing your body for injury.

This isn’t rehab my Bettys; this is even better. It’s prehab—getting the movement patterning right the first time so that you evade injury and grow the muscle in a safe and controlled way.

If you are dealing with osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, or any other arthritide [*] for that matter, full range of motion to preserve the joints [*] in question is the absolute name of the game.

In treating my patients with rheumatoid arthritis, the weight on the bar was the least important aspect of working out. It was not important at all. My focus was all about answering the question: What range of motion can this person do without restriction and pain? Then, building on range from there.

Whether you’re a beginner in the gym or someone with 10,000 hours clocked, exploring your range of motion can be how you tweak your routine to stimulate muscle growth AND improve capsular and joint integrity.

Let’s explore this with shoulder training.

Photo 1: Dumbbell lateral raise parallel.

If you’re like me and want glute-sized delts, most of your shoulder work should be focused on the side deltoid muscle, because that is what gives presence to the shoulders when looking at them head-on. (Plus, if you’ve set up your programming correctly, your front and rear delts are going to be hit during chest and back days).

What does full range of motion look like for the lateral deltoid? This is going to, in part, depend on the health of your shoulders.

Let’s assume this is a dumbbell lateral raise. If you are dealing with an injury, you might aim to lift them to about parallel. Something like photo 1.

As you nurse the injury, or if lifting to parallel becomes easier and you feel ready to progress, instead of graduating to a higher weight, keep the same weight, but lift it higher than parallel.

In photo 2, my arms are abducting now to greater than 120 degrees. This is incredibly difficult, and in doing this, you may even need to drop the weights to do the motion properly.

You can continue the movement arc to the top. You want to think about the range of motion for the muscle, and not just simply the movement. You lift until you don’t feel your delts anymore, and it’s all upper traps (this will usually happen north of 120 degrees of abduction with the elevation of the arm shifting from primarily the deltoid to the traps).

Photo 2: Dumbbell lateral raise abduction more than 120 degrees.

Volume

Another way you can accelerate injury recovery and muscle growth without lifting heavy weights is through increasing volume [*]. Meaning, either increasing the repetitions per set or increasing the total number of sets performed.

When intensity is equated [*], we see similar gains in both individuals repping out heavy weights for fewer reps or sets compared with lighter weights with more reps and/or sets.

The signal to the muscle is similar [*] when lifting heavy weights vs. lifting lighter but for many more reps. As long as you get close to failure, you’re going to achieve a similar result.

I often do this in week 4 of my cycle. In my book, The Betty Body [*], I talk about reps in the 15- to 30-rep range with lighter weights to accommodate some of the inflammation many women feel around their cycle.

Truth be told, I will also do this when I haven’t slept well or just am not in the mental space to lift heavy.

Rest Time Between Sets

Another way to manipulate the intensity of your workout without adding weights is to decrease the rest time in between your sets. This works well (read: you will feel the burn!) if you are increasing your volume of the reps in the set.

The burn you feel in the muscle toward the end of a set is an accumulation of metabolic debris and stress. We often rest between sets to allow for this debris to clear and for the muscle to be fresh and ready for its next set.

There’s a lot of discussion about the ideal time to rest between sets, but generally, here are a few good indicators:

  • Your heart rate has returned to baseline or near baseline (I use a polar heart rate monitor for this).
  • Any accessory muscles used in the movement also feel good (e.g., the lower back muscles during a squat, the biceps during a pull-up, or the triceps during a chest press).
  • The target muscles themselves feel ready to work again.

This is probably going to fall in the one- to five-minute range depending on the recovery items above. Decreasing your rest time is another way to elevate the intensity [*] of the workout.

HOW & NOW

  • Keep your training program the same—no need to change anything!
  • Drop the weights (and your ego telling you not to try anything new!) and explore your current range of motion with every movement. Your range is going to be defined as the most movement through an arc that is not restricted or is pain-free.
  • Work your current range of motion with lighter weights while dialing up your volume. Increase your reps from anywhere from 15-30 reps. For example, if your current reps are 15, bump it up to 20. You also can add one more set to your current set split. If you’re currently doing three sets, make it four.
  • One more way to ramp up your intensity is to decrease the rest time between sets. To do this, use your phone as a timer and just see what your current rest time is with your workouts this week. You can start by decreasing this time by 30 seconds next week.

Question of the Week

Q: How can women avoid dyslipidemia during menopause?

If you are starting to see your lipid levels start to climb in menopause, there are a few ways to help improve this. First, we can think about the variables we can control and then perhaps the variables we cannot.

VARIABLES YOU CAN CONTROL

In the Mini Pause #6, I discussed the changes we see in body composition in our 40s through menopause. Some of the suggestions I outlined were:

Consider the composition of your calories.

  • In my book, The Betty Body, I detail a female-centric ketogenic diet for women looking to lose weight, and more specifically, lose visceral fat.
  • The ketogenic diet (high fat, moderate protein, and low carbohydrate) has been shown to improve all measures of body composition including body weight, body mass index, waist circumference, fat mass, fat-free mass, lean body mass, visceral adipose tissue, and body fat percentage

Lift weights with the intention of putting on muscle mass.

  • As we have been discussing, you can lift heavy, or you can lift lighter while controlling the eccentric, increasing the volume of reps and sets, and working the weakest part of the muscle to maximize muscle gain.
  • Work until the muscle is done like dinner.

Exercise snack your way through the day.

  • We are designed to have a lot of low-grade activity throughout the day. If you are someone who sits at a desk for several hours a day, consider investing in an under-desk treadmill and a convertible desktop stand to be able to get some consistent walking through the day. It doesn’t need to be fast: 1.0 to 1.5 mph is plenty!

For improving lipids specifically, I have a few more recommendations that have a good amount of robust literature to support them:

  • Consume phytoestrogenic foods [*]. Once demonized, phytoestrogens are a great choice for peri and postmenopausal women alike. Phytoestrogens can potentially reduce atherosclerosis and atherosclerosis-related diseases through multiple mechanisms like regulating lipid metabolism, lowering cytokine levels, and improving the coagulation/fibrinolysis system.
  • Dose up your Omega 3s. It’s well established that Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory, cardioprotective, and sensitize the body to insulin [*]. I like a minimum dose of 2g, and I often take experimental doses much higher than this. (Check out BodyBio, my new favorite Omega 3s. Use code DRSTEPHANIE for a discount.)
  • Take antioxidants like dark berries and green leafy vegetables to combat oxidative stress. The highest antioxidant content is found in almonds, artichokes, blackberries, blueberries, cherries (sour), chocolate (yay!), cloves, coffee (double yay!), cranberries, grape juice, cranberry juice, pomegranate juice, pecans, raspberries, spinach, strawberries, and walnuts.

VARIABLES YOU CANNOT CONTROL

For the things you cannot control, this is most obviously going to be the amount of sex hormones you produce as you age. Specifically, estradiol.

During a woman’s fertile life, the average level of total estrogen is 100–250 pg/mL. Estrogens are produced primarily in the ovaries via a process that uses low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C) as a substrate. In menopause circulatory LDL-C can no longer be utilized to synthesize estrogen. This is, in part, why menopause is associated with increased blood LDL-C levels and enhanced cardiovascular risk.

Speaking to your doctor about hormone replacement therapy is a great (dare I say necessary) option for regulating lipids in our postmenopausal life.

I can tell you with certainty that when my hormone levels begin to drop, or I am symptomatic, I will be seeking this out in addition to the lifestyle factors I teach and write about.

YOUR TURN!

I’ll be answering your questions every week right here in the Mini Pause! Let me know what’s on your mind. I’ll be checking for both questions and feedback at support@drstephanieestima.com.

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P.S.

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Hey There!

I’m Dr. Stephanie

I’m part geek, part magic and it’s my mission to be a voice for women who just aren’t getting the answers they need about their health - whether that’s from their friends, their family or their primary health providers.

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