Debunking the ‘Muscle Makes You Slow’ Myth

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Usain Bolt. Barry Sanders. Evander Holyfield. AC Slater. What do they have in common?

They were all exceptional athletes. Most have a good amount of muscle too.  I mean, AC was the captain of the football and the wrestling team. Last time I checked, Usain Bolt was the greatest sprinter in the world, and he’s showing no signs of slowing down. Here in Michigan, Barry Sanders is still talked about and he retired 20 years ago. You can do a quick YouTube search to see fan made videos of him dodging tackle after tackle. These guys were great athletes, and depending on the sport, great athletes happen to be mountains of muscle too.

To this day, there’s still a prevailing notion that muscle makes you slow. Muscle, since it’s tissue that burns energy, hardly makes you sluggish. It’s active tissue. It’s responsible for movement. Train it to be fast, and you’ll be fast. But we still see it to this day: the image of a muscle bound and uncoordinated bodybuilder unable to touch his toes. Nothing could be further from the truth. It also really burns me up to hear this, since the athletes that train at UEFP make considerable progress in their sport after adding some lean tissue.

Want to be fast and explosive? Then follow these guidelines:

  1. Bodyfat makes you slow. The sad truth is that a lot of lifters don’t eat well. Some also don’t focus on their conditioning. So when you talk about muscle making you slow, you need to root out those with a high level of bodyfat. It’s possible to have both a high level of muscle and fat at the same time. But fat will make you slow – it’s the complete opposite of muscle. Where muscle creates movement, bodyfat makes life more difficult. It’s shedding the disposable stuff that makes you a better athlete. This is usually the toughest thing to deal with, because most athletes don’t want to accept the fact that they have to lose weight. There’s even athletes who are skinny fat- guys who appear small but have a high amount of abdominal fat. Adding 15 pounds of muscle to their frame would do wonders for their performance.
  2. Muscle fiber type. Your body has different forms of muscle cells, referred to in the science community as fibers. For the sake of this post, there’s slow twitch and fast twitch. A marathon runner has a high level of slow twitch – muscle that allows you to do a repeat effort but at a low intensity. Then there’s fast twitch muscle, which forces movement to happen quickly. The muscle that makes you fast and explosive is partly determined by genetics, but…
  3. The way you train. Training slow makes you slow. Lifting weights without much force (i.e. slowly) doesn’t tap into those fast twitch muscle fibers. So if you practice slow, you’ll be slow on gameday. Using tempos like a two or three second negative with a lifting portion that’s as fast as possible will allow your muscles to “learn” how to be fast. You can also do things like Olympic lifts, medicine ball throws, and plyometrics to train that fast twitch muscle.
  4. The way you train, part 2. As a personal trainer, my athletes need to focus on functional hypetrophy. This means that we train with movements that can carry over to the real world. A front squat will do more for you than a leg extension. Sprinting outside is better than running on a treadmill. Unless you’re athletic event is running on a treadmill. Doing chest flyes might make your chest bigger but you won’t do much for an MMA fighter. All it requires is just smart exercise programming. Deadlifts, squats, push presses, and Olympic lifts are just a few places to start.
  5. Specific conditioning. Jogging slows you down. And unless your sport is running, it won’t do much for you. If your sport is jiu-jitsu, then rolling, partner drills, and tumbling will make you better. Training those muscle, regardless of how big they are, helps deliver oxygen and nutrients to those muscles while making them better at getting rid of acid. Muscles that accumulate a lot of acid can lead to fatigue quicker.
  6. Injury prevention. Ask any strength coach and they’ll tell you – muscle is your armor. Whether you’re constantly making tackles or getting your thighs kicked in a sparring session, your muscle acts as a shield and barrier to prevent you from injury. It can also help balance out overuse injuries that you may acquire during sports practice.

Since muscle is what allows us to move, it’s hard to point the finger at it and say it’s what causes us to be slow. Usually, it’s due to a higher level of bodyfat, but the way you train plays a huge role. I can tell you firsthand, from starting jiu-jitsu at 182 pounds and then getting up to a current 195,that I’m better conditioned for it now (and I’m older too). If you want to be fast, then stop trying to stay small and start training to be fast.

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