Friday, April 15, 2011

Paintball Fitness - Strength

As part of The Grey Ops 10k Challenge, Grey Ops will be running articles this week on how to improve your fitness level for Paintball. Bear in mind that the field of exercise science is vast, and mostly beyond the scope of our humble Milsim Paintball blog. These articles will be very generalized, but will provide enough information to get you started on the right track in your quest to become a fitter and more effective player. For a better understanding, conduct your own research into the concepts discussed in this series.

As always, consult a physician before engaging in any fitness program.

This article in the Paintball Fitness series will concentrate on how to develop your strength. Stronger muscles will make you more resistant to injury out on the field, allow you to move with stronger bursts of power, and allow you to carry more equipment on your person without becoming fatigued and weighed down.


Before delving further into how to best develop your strength for Paintball fitness, I'll cover how to have realistic expectations for the results you expect to achieve.

Like most aspects of human physical potential, strength is expressed across a very narrow range. The abilities of humans to demonstrate strength may vary from a toddler showing extreme weakness, to a professional strongman being able to lift the back end of a sedan. Although this may seem to be a pretty wide spectrum in-between, it's a relatively narrow and limited range of ability. You won't see even the strongest pro strongman lifting an SUV over his head for example, any more than you would expect to see an Olympic sprinter running at 60mph. Both of these feats are far beyond the capacity of any single person, no matter how much they may train.

With the strength range of human beings being this narrow, within individual people the capacity to increase their strength is even narrower. While everyone in good health is capable of building strength and larger muscles through training against resistance (weight, elastics, compressed air machines, etc), and experiencing better sports performance and quality of life from doing so, they can do so only within a very narrow range. Their potential isn't limitless.

The 2 greatest factors limiting humans' strength "ceiling" are gravity, and the design limitations of the human body. After this, at the individual level, the greatest limitations are genetic factors, which we don't have much control over. Things like your overall body type (ectomorph, mesomorph, endomorph), predominant muscle fiber type, and hormone levels affect and limit the amount of strength and muscle you can build, and these are determined by your parents' genes! Further limiting strength and muscle size gains are differences between the two sexes; testosterone is a hormone that's very important in building strength and size, and as males produce a lot more of it in their bodies, they generally have the advantage over females when seeing results from strength training.

Strength vs. Size

Another principle to keep in mind here is that in the same individual, a stronger muscle will also be a larger muscle. No one ever doubled the amount of weight they could squat, without also seeing some increases in the size of their leg, hip, and lower back muscles. Structurally, muscles need to increase in size to accomodate larger loads. This size increase doesn't necessarily correlate to the strength increase however, meaning that doubling a muscle's strength won't usually double its size. This is again determined by an individual trainee's genetic potential/limits.

On this topic, a lot of women avoid resistance training, as they're concerned that by training for strength they'll "bulk up" in size and look like female bodybuilders. They want to get "toned" or "firm up" instead.

There are two reasons why this concern is completely unwarranted: First, because of genetic limits, most people (male AND female) will never reach the level of muscularity of a female bodybuilder. Women at that level of development have well-above-average genetics, and aren't representative of the average woman AT ALL! The idea of a woman fearing that she'll look anything like the one above by going into a gym and lifting weights a few times is completely laughable, and demonstrates just how unrealistic people's expectations are when it comes to building stronger muscles.

Second, as I mentioned above, most women don't produce the necessary amount of testosterone to ever build muscle to a large degree. Without taking anabolic steroids (which are forms of synthetic testosterone) in conjunction with their training program, they'll never even come close to that level of muscularity. In fact, in most cases the best a steroid-free woman can expect after a program of months or years of intense training is something like this:

Now I ask you, female Paintball players, is THAT something to be afraid of??? Realize that "toning" and "firming up" are just cutesy marketing terms for muscular development, which is best achieved by resistance training. So get to the gym and hit those weights! At worst, if you happen to be some sort of genetic freak who starts to see big muscles after a month of training (not bloody likely at all), then all you have to do anyway is just STOP TRAINING, and they'll go away.

Exercise selection

In any resistance training program, the emphasis should be on compound exercises that work a lot of muscle mass simultaneously. Isolation exercises should be secondary in your workout. An example of a compound exercise would be squats, bench press, chinups/pullups, or any other exercise that involves multiple joints and muscle groups working together. Isolation exercises are movements like bicep curls, leg extensions, the "pec deck", and other exercises that isolate only a specific joint and muscle group.

Because in real world tasks muscles work together, and don't perform in isolation, the emphasis in your program should be on compound exercises. Also, because they work many muscles at once, they're more economical in terms of time. Always do the compound exercises at the start of your workout, when your energy and motivation is highest, and save the isolation exercises for later. If you need to cut your workout short for whatever reason, the isolation movements at the end will be the ones sacrificed.

Pushing your limits

As I explained in the introductory article to Paintball Fitness, your body won't waste resources making any improvements unless you give it a reason to. If you can bench press 150lbs of weight/resistance 10 times, but only lift the weight 9 times, then your strength will never increase, because your existing ability is enough for the demands you're placing on it. This is why the girl in make-up you see at the gym putting the pin on the top plate of the leg extension machine, and doing 30 repetitions (while talking on her cell phone), never gets any stronger. This is also why the guy who curls a light weight for a few repetitions, and puts it down when it starts to feel a little heavy, is seen training with the same weight 6 months later. Neither of these people are pushing themselves beyond what they can already do, and as a result they see NO results.

The take-home lesson from this is that like a lot of things in life, the more effort you put into resistance training, the more you'll get out of it. When you're doing that 9th or 10th chinup and your biceps are on fire, use everything you've got to crank out that 11th one! This will send a clear signal to your body that the muscles involved in doing those chinups need to be strengthened/improved.


Although you may get a "pump" and be able to lift more as you warm up during your workout, in the grand scheme of things you don't get stronger WHILE training. The improvements happen when you back off and recover out of the gym.

Once you've pushed your muscles really hard, get the hell out of the gym and go home. There's no need to spend 2 hours a day in the weight room if you're working hard, and in fact that's a bad idea anyway. Doing too much exercise, while pushing your limits and training hard, can overload your body's capacity to recover from exercise and improve. Done repeatedly, this can actually wear you down, weaken your immune system, fry your motivation, and make you want to abandon your training program entirely.

To avoid burning out your motivation (and your body's ability to cope with the demands), keep your training sessions short (30-45 minutes maximum, depending on how much rest time you take between exercises). Also leave a minimum of 48 hours between workouts, to allow your body to recover from exercise and improve your strength. If you see that your strength isn't improving, it's likely that you're not leaving enough time between workouts for recovery. Your body first has to repair itself and recover from the brutal workout you put it through (Step 1), THEN increase your strength (Step 2). If you interrupt the process before Step 2 is done by working out again too soon, you won't see any improvement.


Resistance training differs from cardiovascular (endurance) training, in that resistance training uses short bouts of exercise as a stressor on your body. Using the my article on Endurance Training as a reference, you'll recognize because of this that resistance training is mostly anaerobic in nature.

To keep bouts of resistance training exercise short, the activity is done in sets. A set is a collection of repetitions of an exercise. Breaking it down further, a repetition is the execution of one full exercise movement (squat, chinup, curl, etc). A good, safe speed/cadence to load the muscles with resistance (and keep them safe from tears and sprains) is to lift the resistance in 4 seconds, and lower it in 4 seconds. For most people, a set should last around the one-minute mark to see a benefit. If the set is much shorter than this, your muscles might not be warmed up enough to see the full benefit of resistance training, and if it's longer than a minute, the set will start to become more of an endurance exercise, and activate the aerobic pathway. In practice this means that using a 4/4 cadence, ideally your set should be within the 6-10 repetition range.

To progress/improve in your resistance training program, at each workout always push yourself and attempt to perform one or more additional repetition(s) in your set. When you get to the point where you can perform 10 or more repetitions, at the next workout add more weight/resistance to the exercise. If the weight you chose allows you to do less than 6 repetitions, it's probably too heavy for you, and you should lower it a bit at your next session.

The amount of resistance you should be adding depends on a lot of factors, but a good guideline is to add 5% more resistance at the next session. Some people may progress faster (or slower) than this though, so fine-tune this guideline to your personal experience.

Specific programs

You'll notice in this article that I don't make any specific recommendations as to what routine to use, what exercises to do, or what "split" to follow. I've left this very vague, because there are a bazillion programs out there that all claim to be the best, and each program's fans will rabidly defend why their program is best.

Some people prefer to do a full-body workout of one high-intensity "work" set of each exercise, 2-3 times a week; GoodLife Fitness members will recognize this system as the "Fit Fix", while at times in the past few decades it's been known as The Nautilus System, High-Intensity Training, or SuperSlow. Other people prefer to do 3-4 sets of each exercise, with the first 2-3 sets being "warmup sets", and the last set being their high-intensity "work set", where they push themselves to do that extra rep. Other people prefer a system that has them not really pushing their limits, but working up close to them, and making up for it by doing more sets of the exercise. There are many exercise systems out there, especially freely available on the Internet, and it's up to you to choose what best suits your level of intensity tolerance, time availability, and goals.

Whichever program you come across, you can evaluate it using the common-sense principles I discussed in this article. Good luck!!!

For a list of some common resistance training exercises, with demonstrations, click here.

In the next installment in the Paintball Fitness series, we'll look at how muscle and joint flexibility impacts our sport, and how to improve it.

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