Why do we train? To get stronger, to become better, and to last longer
For us to stay on track and motivated toward a particular goal, we need to understand the hows and whys of things. Such is also the case with our body; if we’re able to grasp the inner workings of our body and how we’re able to influence it through exercise, we have a higher chance of being successful. Of course, different kinds of exercise stimulate our body in different ways. Let’s take a peek into the different ways training changes our body.
First, why do we train?
To get stronger
Let’s start with something more people are familiar with: strength training. When we ask ourselves why we lift weights, the answer is pretty straightforward—we want to get stronger and for us to do that, we need to overload our muscles such that microscopic damage is induced to our muscle fibers. Our body then repairs these breaks and reinforces them with new myofibrils, the building blocks of our muscles. As a result, they get denser, become larger and more powerful, and increase in quantity. The effect is quite simple: We get stronger.
Of course, strength training is not the only exercise that induces this physiological response—cardio, skill work, and various other exercises all introduce muscle fiber damage and, hence, muscle fiber adaptation to some degree.
To become better
The term “muscle memory” also gets thrown around rather frequently. We hear this when athletes participate in repetitive movements such as practicing a jump shot, performing drills, or even visualizing different scenarios in a game or event. In a simplistic sense, this type of training introduces something called neuromuscular adaptation.
The more we do a particular movement, the better our body becomes at doing it. Our body is able to control our body through neural pathways. As our brain sends signals to our muscles, these signals have to go through a superhighway of nerves. When the movement is new and foreign, these routes are not yet laid out properly. However, as we keep on performing these movements, our body becomes better at sending these signals such that our muscles are recruited better.
Think of it as Waze learning the best route from point A to point B with more data and experience. As a result, the movement also becomes smoother and more natural. This not only applies to specific movement (e.g. drills) but also to more robust types of movement such as lifting weights, cycling, or even sprinting.
To last longer
Finally, something we’re all familiar with: cardio. When we talk about cardiovascular or endurance training, we are led to believe that it’s all about logging in the miles or covering the distance. That is partially true, but there’s more to it than that. Intensity and efficiency are also important factors to consider.
When we do cardio, we perform what’s called aerobic exercise. This type of exercise needs oxygen to function; it needs oxygen to break down fuel into energy. Hence, to be better at aerobic exercise, our body should become more efficient in delivering oxygen into our cells and utilizing it.
Case in point, as we train more and get stronger, something called our VO2 max improves. This is the maximum amount of oxygen our body can utilize. A higher VO2 max usually points to better aerobic fitness and it does this through a multitude of adaptations to our cardiovascular system.
For one, lung capacity and oxygen absorption in the lungs improve. This opens the gates so our body has better access to oxygen. Secondly, oxygen delivery becomes more efficient with an increase in blood volume and red blood cell count. Larger capillaries also facilitate better blood flow to the cells. However, it doesn’t stop there.
The final step, and perhaps the most important, is metabolic efficiency.
When we talk about metabolism, it can be simplified as the breakdown of fuel (food) into energy; this also applies at the cellular level. Recapping our earlier definition, aerobic metabolism needs oxygen, hence, a high demand for energy (e.g. during exercise) means more oxygen is required by our cells. However, having an ample supply of oxygen isn’t enough. Our body should also be able to utilize this oxygen properly. This is where our cells’ mitochondria come in. These mitochondria are essentially power plants where aerobic metabolic processes are performed. These organelles perform the aforementioned energy conversion so our body can produce enough energy to perform movement.
When we introduce aerobic exercise, especially if it’s at the right intensity and duration, our cells’ mitochondria are gradually overloaded with the need to produce more energy. As a result, our body needs to adapt to the stress and it does this by increasing mitochondria size and density. This is what allows us to perform endurance tasks longer and at higher intensities.
What does it mean for training?
Of course, there are various ways our body adapts but for our purposes, this is a pretty good synopsis of the inner workings of our body. In fact, if we delve deeper into the processes mentioned, one recurring theme presents itself: overload and adaptation. For our body to get stronger and better, we need to introduce a stimulus that challenges the status quo. Without such stimulus, our body would have no need to adapt and get stronger.
That said, we need to gradually push ourselves so we can grow and break out of our shells. We need to be comfortable with being uncomfortable yet stay disciplined enough to know when things are getting out of hand. Remember, our body doesn’t get stronger during training, it gets stronger as we recover from training.
Think of training as a way to methodically build your body, cell by cell and piece by piece. We can’t overhaul our body in a single go. We need to have enough patience and the right mindset to stay the course as we constantly step out of our comfort zone.
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