“Do You Even Look Like You Lift?” by Nathan Holiday

“Do You Even Look Like You Lift?” by Nathan Holiday

Why do so many people look like they don’t lift after training for years? Why do some people remain weak and generally unfit?  Do YOU look like you lift?

I’ve seen plenty of shining examples of people who get shredded, powerful, and strong using fitness methodologies exclusively.  I’ve also seen a large number who – using all those same methodologies – fail to reach their goals for one reason or another.

In this article, we’ll look at why this happens, and what you can do to get a body that LOOKS as good as it performs!

Form Follows Function

Two phrases comprised my early thoughts about physical adaptation (aesthetics included):

  1. Performance is king.
  2. Form follows function.

There are elements of truth to both of these statements, but they aren’t hard set rules. Browsing through a popular physique magazine will reveal plenty of people who are ripped beyond comprehension but weak, uncoordinated, and unfit. Of course, there are exceptions, but the point is that looking good doesn’t guarantee you’ll perform well. Similarly, performing well doesn’t mean you’ll look good. Sorry, those are just the facts.

If you want to look like you lift but also perform at high level, what should you do?

Well, definitely KEEP doing fitness. The hormonal response is unmatched, but for many (most) people, it will have to be dosed carefully. Too much can be very, very bad.  The reason for that has to do with the adrenal glands, a small set of powerful glands that control a wide range of functions. As you get stressed, the adrenals get taxed and over time can lead to adrenal fatigue (imagine that!).

What does this mean? First, it means that you won’t get lean because a stress hormone called cortisol can get out of whack, preventing you from accessing stored bodyfat as fuel. Second, it means that you won’t sleep deeply and recover properly.  This initiates a cascade of bad stuff, including stressing the adrenals MORE, limiting accessible growth hormone, and increasing insulin resistance. This is all very bad if you want to get lean and strong.

The right dose is specific to you – I can’t tell you how many WODs at redline effort you should do per week.  Unless you have an extensive, high level athletic background, you shouldn’t  jump in too rapidly.  For all us ‘normies,’ work capacity should be built gradually over years.  

Luckily, there are a couple things you can do in the mean time to accelerate adaptation, increase performance, and make you increasingly bulletproof.

A Primer on Adaptation

Before we get too deep in what you should do, I need to give you a basic primer on two fundamental concepts: central nervous system (CNS) adaptation and cellular adaptation.

You can think of the CNS adaptation as the amount of electricity going through your wires – or how hard you can contract your muscles. You can bet the 130 lb. weightlifters that can squat 4x their bodyweight have a TON of electricity going through their bodies. You can also bet your ass those athletes are highly efficient and adapted on a CNS level.

Cellular adaptation is much more about the piping – the plumbing that fuels the muscles with oxygen, blood, etc. Have you ever seen someone do 75 kipping pullups? Those muscles have some serious plumbing so that as they’re working, the body can constantly pump in more fuel and offset fatigue. The same thing goes for a marathon runner, just on a different level.

Now, when you look at high-level fitness athletes, you’ll see someone who has built both systems to a fairly extensive degree, giving them massive capacity for all kinds of work. They can lift a lot, but also have all the plumbing to allow them to do it many times. What’s important to note is that as they build their plumbing to a more extensive level, they use utilize their CNS less and less! This allows for the amount of heavy volume they do because the majority of what they are doing is cellular based. That CNS potential has to be there though, behind the plumbing, to ensure they contract their muscles hard enough to snatch 300 lbs.

Build Your Base

Have you ever experienced deep lactate pain – the kind where you can’t help but writhe? That’s an easy example of extending past your plumbing capacity.  Put a marathon runner on an Airdyne and they will never get that lactate pain – they simply can’t move fast enough to tax their plumbing.

Many people who try to emulate high level athletes but LACK the plumbing necessary. What does that mean? They dip into their CNS too deeply and too often and can’t recover.  This taxes their adrenals, slows adaptation, and makes them fat.  They don’t look like they lift because they’re overwhelming their recovery ability.

They think it’s just a matter of doing the work, but instead they burn themselves out – failing to realize that they need various kinds of BASE work to fuel their endeavor – to recover them as well as build all that good plumbing.

I’ve seen many people switch to a 3-4x a week strength program and BOOM, body fat melts strength drastically improves. Done properly and intelligently, you can bypass all that mess by incorporating the right training. Additionally, you can improve recovery by doing specific work that has the ADDED benefit of making you look better, delivering more muscle mass, and a leaner physique.

So, what should you do?

A: Incorporate both bodybuilding (BB) training and long endurance (LE) based training in addition to, and sometimes in place of, your fitness training.

There are several important reasons to incorporate BB and LE work:

  1. Plumbing and Cellular Adaptation.  This lays a solid fuel delivery system and foundation and as you now know, is important for building capacity, allowing for more work to be done by the fueling systems instead of the electrical system (CNS).  Aerobic based (LE) work provides systemic fueling, or the ability to move oxygen (and other things) efficiently through the whole body. While BB work offers increased fueling in specific body parts. Using LE work can make you virtually bulletproof by laying down a thick layer of body support, keeping you fueled and accelerating the recovery process.
  2. Recovery. Easy aerobic work has been used for decades by high-level coaches to aid in recovery. The 100m sprinter Michael Johnson was known to do 5-6 mile runs on his off days to help support his hard sprint training. Flushing the muscles with easy work relaxes the sympathetic nervous system, delivers nutrients and accelerates recovery.  When it comes supporting hard training, rest is important, but recovery is more important. Rest is pointless if you aren’t recovering while resting.
  3. Muscle Sensitivity, Body Comp and Glycogen.  Of course, increased sensitivity happens with most training, but BB work can specifically help train your body to preferentially replete muscle glycogen. That’s a fancy way of saying your body learns to put sugars into muscle instead of fat – which is very good for staying lean.There’s a lot of cool science around this, and it can get pretty complicated.Basically, when you contract a muscle, you’ll deplete glycogen (muscle sugar) and activate glucose transporters (tGLUT) within the muscle. The next time your body takes in some sugar, tGLUT is there, and that muscle will be more likely to suck up that sugar.If you never work out (never contract muscles) you won’t deplete any glycogen or activate tGLUT, and all that extra sugar you eat will go to your fat, or give you diabetes.  That’s why low-processed-sugar diets work so well to drop bodyfat – you no longer provide your body with a quick absorbing exogenous sugar-fuel. You force yourself to use more stored bodyfat as fuel – but taken to the extreme (ultra-low and low-carb) this process can be taxing, causing adrenal/cortisol derangement.  You need carbs, preferably post training in a dose appropriate for you.
  4. Building in long recovery work done in the AM, on an empty stomach, can help further access stored bodyfat. Your body is primed to use fat as a fuel source  in the AM on an empty stomach and with low(er) blood sugar – as long as the effort remains easy to moderate.
  5. Accessory Work and Hitting Weaknesses.  In BB accessory work describes the ‘after’ exercises – the things you do at the end of your training to support the smaller muscles that may be (aesthetically) lagging behind.For our purposes, we are using accessory work to focus on muscles that will support our training.  Specifically working triceps to aid in your press or push-press endurance, for example.The same mentality goes when focusing on weaknesses.  Do you constantly burn out and fail on handstand pushups? Localized shoulder work can provide needed support to prevent this from happening – as you build all the plumbing structures that give you what you need. Most of us don’t think about doing specific accessory work for lagging bodyparts, but it can drastically increase the time-to-fatigue of individual muscles, which means you can access more of your ‘engine,’ and accelerate adaptation.

There you have it.  After incorporating these concepts on a regular basis, not only will you LOOK like you lift, but you’ll also perform better and make better progress over the long term.

Nathan Holiday is the head coach at Next Level CF.  He also has a lot of similar information to this on his website so check it out when you get a chance.