With a better looking physique being arguably the moston common goal in the fitness industry, this blog assesses the role of strength training in improving aesthetics.
One thing is clear: The path is the goal.
THE FOUNDATION FOR MUSCLE SHAPING
If we take a little dive into the depths of training physiology, we are going to find that force production is directly related to how much tension is created in our muscles. A person lifting a 50kg barbell is therefore creating greater tension than a person lifting a 20kg weight. The stronger we are, the greater the force we produce, the greater the tension to which our muscles are exposed to.
Greater tension leads to greater microtears in the smallest units of our muscle fibres. This “damage” sends signals to our brain to heal those tears.
How does it do that?
The body a) creates better nervous system connections to the “damaged” area so next time a higher amount of muscle fibres can be recruited to handle higher loads. And b) it lays down more muscle tissue, as a greater surface area of musculature can handle higher loads. The body as such “anticipates” new, heavier loads for the following workout, and makes preparations for it accordingly.
This is the very foundation of eliciting aesthetic changes through strength training.
In summary: the stronger we are, the greater our potential for shaping our physique.
WHAT'S IN THE TOOLBOX?
The barbell is undoubtedly the most useful tool to increase strength. It allows for the absolute heaviest loads to be lifted in what we call the five major lifts in strength training: squats, deadlifts, overhead presses, horizontal presses (such as bench press), and pulling motions.
Take this as an example: If a person can overhead press 80kg for 3 sets of 5 with a barbell, chances are all but zero that the same person can press an equivalent weight of 80kg split over two dumbbells of 40kg each. Pressing a dumbbell (or two) with 40kg in each hand would definitely qualify someone for the world’s strongest men (or women) competition. I think you get what I mean.
The question therefore begs: which tool allows us to lift the absolute highest weight possible?
The answer is - short and simple - the barbell.
Can we get stronger with dumbbells, bands, or other equipment? We can. If we are able to chest press a pair of 10kg dumbbells in each hand on day x, and on day z we are advancing to a pair of 20kg dumbbells, we have technically gotten stronger.
However, strength is the APPLICATION OF FORCE AGAINST EXTERNAL RESISTANCE. The greater the external resistance, the greater the force we have to produce to move the object, the stronger we get. Therefore, pushing a 120kg weight in the bench press bears a force that is impossible to resemble with a pair of dumbbells as they would have to weigh 60k apiece as an equivalent stimulus (again, something which less than 1% of the global population are able to do).
In summary: the barbell is the most useful tool we have to get stronger.
I argue that there is more to aesthetics than how much (or how little) fat our body carries.
Take two different scenarios: one, a female with 10% body fat and visible abs, but no clear visibility of a strength-developed musculature on her body. In short: just lean, or skinny.
Two, a female with 20% body fat and no abs popping out, but with a visible musculature “in the right areas” demonstrating the person’s history and ability of lifting weights.
Which one, in your eyes, displays “better” aesthetics, and looks like the person has undergone serious strength training? Which one would YOU like to look like?
The topic of aesthetics, I believe, reaches far more than numbers showing up on our scales or at a body composition assessment (that is, the amount of muscle mass, body fat, water, and skeletal body weight we have).
Aesthetics involves not just a person’s visibility of musculature, but also the uprightness of their posture, their “zest” in the way they walk, their confidence in dealing with every-day situations, as well as the overall energy they display (do they appear “lush” or “charged”?).
This goes for both genders. When males undergo a classic “bodybuilding” program, their physique appears “wide”, “bulky”, “built”, and “voluminous”. When males strength train, their physique appears in similar qualities – though you can see that their appearance is a by-product of their training, rather than the sole goal of “looking the part”.
When females undergo a classic “fat-burning” HIIT-regime, their physique may look lean and low in body fat. When they lift heavy weights regularly, you can see in their musculature visibly shaping, combined with a “stronger” appearance that kills of any presumptions we might have about them being the “weaker” gender.
In summary: An aesthetic physique is displayed by the person's body shape, posture, energy, and way of dealing with their environment.
If it’s easy, it doesn’t work
We have seen many occasions (and probably caught ourselves doing it) of "Today I’m just gonna take it easy and do higher reps with less weight." Because it’s “more comfortable”. And "easier".
The barbell, however, as the main tool for our strength progress, doesn’t care how we feel. It doesn’t care about “easy”. In fact, it doesn’t even like “easy”.
The bar likes being loaded. With weights. HEAVY weights. That’s what it’s there for. If it were meant to be easy, we wouldn’t need a barbell. Neither would there be a need to strength train.
Operating with heavy weights allows us to get out of this self-comforting trap of "Today I don’t feel like it."
It allows us to PUSH. Literally, PUSH: weights, barbells. Ourselves.
To achieve new levels in our physique, we need to constantly provide “a shock to the system” for our mind and body to advance to the next level.
Strength training does just that.
That’s why, in addition of moving better and feeling better, strength-trained people also look better than ever before.