20 December 2009

Strength to Weight Ratio: Does Weight Training Make Me Slower? Pt. I

I am pretty lean. I make no apologies for this, nor am I embarrassed to admit—although I often feel like I should be—that my body fat has fluctuated between  approximately 6-12% the last decade. For those of you who missed my post: "14 pounds until the New Year," that may have been the only exception to my lean body fat percentage days. A quick recap: One year, I successfully put on 14 pounds between Thanksgiving recess and New Years. A healthy diet of Guinness, Bailey's and  a second dinner around 11:00 p.m. should do it if you are looking to build up an extra "base" layer this winter. That is one feat that I will be cognizant not to repeat anytime soon. I always thought that my lean muscle mass and strength were a great thing. I thought that until I started training for triathlons. I am physically very strong. Until my mid-30's I was doing four sets of ten repetitions of bench press at 225 pounds (102.3 kg) but usually weighed between 190 and 195 pounds (86.4 kg.) I did this until I reached the self proclaimed "age of diminishing returns." I am learning, however, that those diminishing returns might only be a temporary plateau if you can discover new and inventive ways to mix up your strength training workouts. Some "experts" in the trade refer to this as "muscle confusion," but that is a topic for another post. What I am trying to illuminate is that my strength to weight ratio continues to be very favorable. However, I can not help to wonder if my muscle density is actually making me less buoyant and having to worker harder in the pool. Of course, the silver lining come race day is that I am often sporting a wetsuit on the swim—the great equalizer—making me much more buoyant and reflective in my open water swims versus my pool swims (thus far.)

I recently saw some posts by some top triathlon coaches and elite triathletes about wanting to lose muscle coming into the next race season. I have had several fellow triathletes suggest that I ought to lose some muscle in order to make myself a more efficient swimmer. I have been swimming the last year with the type of religious fervor that would make the most ardent church goers blush. I have made fairly significant gains, but I always feel that with my core strength and favorable strength to weight ratio that I could somehow will my way through the water. Of course, performing well in triathlon is also about cardiovascular endurance, and taking inventories of your physiognomy from one season to the next so that you can make the required changes in form. Curious whether there is any validity to this, I asked a former world class triathlete and triathlon coach Chuckie V whose blog provides  some of the most in-depth, and thought provoking takes on training that I have read thus far. Below is my question and answer from CV regarding muscle density:

TDOF: I have a question about muscle density. I come from a strength training background, and it has been suggested by some that I should consider losing muscle in order to make myself a more efficient swimmer. Any truth to this? I have even seen posts by coaches who talk about losing muscle. Do I back off from the weight training completely? 

CV: "I suppose those suggesting this are doing so for a reason. If you're a muscle-bound guy up top but swim poorly, then those muscles aren't really doing much for you, at least not in the water. This doesn't mean it's necessarily the muscles per se, but likely a stroke mechanic issue or a lack of flexibility, which isn't all that uncommon in bigger triathletes (I assume you're a triathlete). That said, having more muscle mass doesn't always equate to poorer flexibility. The fastest swimmers in the world, those sprinting, are big dudes. Of course, they're swimmers (and likely grew up as such) and are therefore likely more flexible than you.

All said, there probably is some truth that losing muscle mass might help you swim better, but that shouldn't be your focus. Swimming should be. In terms of importance, the weight room is well behind sport-specific training. To be a better swimmer, swim. The muscle mass will pattern itself based on the stress it incurs and, of course, genetic predisposition.

Mark, without seeing you swim or seeing your build I really can't say precisely what to do, but the weight room is only barely related to triathlon performance, and even less so for bigger strength training types. My guess, however, is that you should back off from the weights and work on swimming and flexibility. Plus, carrying around those muscles later in the race can be hard work; it certainly makes your lower half have to work harder than it should."

I have never really thought of myself as some big, muscle-bound guy. More lean and dense. I know that when I had to stop weight training over the summer because of my shoulder dislocation back in March, I felt svelte, like a 17-year old Swedish tennis player. It made me feel a little faster, I have to admit. Maybe there is something to it. I do know that training muscle endurance—especially leg workouts—during a season has been very beneficial for me. Three to four sets at 12-15 repetitions a piece at a light weight kept my legs feeling strong late into my long runs last season (12+ miles.) 

Okay, more soon. Don't set your weights down just yet!

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