You’re only as strong as your weakest link. It is an old cliché; but to someone who trains hard, it holds true.
Think about it: What is your weakest link? Is it calves? Obliques? Traps?
Before you think of weak links in terms of muscle, consider this: If you exhaust a muscle, you can wait a few days or so and then train it to the max again. Even if you tear a muscle, you can train around it while you wait a few weeks for it to heal. But, if you’ve got a weak or injured tendon or ligament, then you’ve really got problems. Connective tissue builds and heals slowly. A partial tear can take four or more months to heal; sometimes it never does. A complete tear will undoubtedly need surgery. Then you are looking at more than nine months of healing, plus atrophy in surrounding muscles because they can’t be worked while adjacent connective tissue is recuperating from going under the knife.
In many obvious ways – and some which are not so obvious – your connective tissue is your weakest link. After all, muscle strength is limited by the ability of the tendon to handle the force generated by the muscle, and the muscle system is affected by the strength of the ligaments to stabilize the joints involved in the lift.
That’s why building the muscles without conditioning the connective tissue leaves you open to injury, weakness and pains, which can turn chronic, limiting your range of motion. Common sense dictates a simple solution: Make the tendons and ligaments stronger. The question is, how?
Like any aspect of resistance training, the answer requires knowledge of the basics. Without knowing how the body works, it is impossible to reach high and achieve your training goals. So, let’s start with the most basic question: What are tendons and ligaments and how do they get stronger?
Every muscle has a tendon on each end that attaches the muscles to the bone. Tendons are made of thick, rubbery white tissue. Any kind of skeletal movement, from walking to lifting weights, happens because the muscle contracts and pulls on the tendon, which in turn pulls on the bone and moves it.
Ligaments are also attachment tissues; they connect one bone to another. They hold the joints together. Ligaments are thinner and less elastic than tendons. They also are white.
The whiteness of these tissues reveal the major reason for their slowness to grow and/or heal. Unlike the red, juicy muscle tissue, tendons and ligaments have very little blood supply. Even bones have more blood than connective tissue, which is why a broken bone can heal in four to six week, versus nine months for tendons and ligaments.
This is because the bloodstream supplies the oxygen and nutrients needed for growth, repair and function. It flushes out waste products and toxins and carries them away. Obviously, getting the maximum possible blood supply into these tissues is a good idea.
Two kinds of vascularization are important in building the connective tissue. You may be familiar with one of them already: The Pump. When a muscle is contracted over and over again, it uses a lot of energy. In turn, it requires large and immediate amounts of oxygen and nutrients. Using energy also produces waste products that need to be quickly removed in order for the muscle to continue working.
The body responds by sending a greater supply of blood surging through the blood vessels of the muscle, to feed it and flush it. You feel this as heat and swelling. But there’s also another response and adaptation process. The vessels of that muscle will get bigger as you continue pumping it; new capillaries will start to branch out so that even more blood can be sent to the muscle. This greater blood supply allows the muscle to grow in response to training. The increased muscle mass creates the need for more blood supply, and the two adaptive processes complement each other right up to the limit of your genetic potential – or discipline, whichever comes first.
Building Up the White Tissue
Although ligaments and tendons don’t have the capacity to build a large network of blood vessels, you can still manipulate the adaptation process to push them to their greatest possible development. Don’t think, “if it doesn’t show, it doesn’t matter.” It has a profound effect on what shows.
Vascularized connective tissue is far less likely to tear or rupture under extreme stress. Studies show that the loss of elasticity, which is the major sign of aging in white tissue, can be delayed and/or minimized by proper conditioning. In addition, if a maximally vascularized tendon or ligament is injured, it will heal a lot better, and full function will return much faster than less conditioned white tissue.
Most athletes need more information on the care and building of white tissue.
The first part of any tendon/ligament conditioning program should begin with a proper warm-up. It’s essential that stretching comes after. People sometimes get confused about the difference between warming up and stretching. They think that if they stretch, they’re warming up. That’s not correct. You need to increase the core temperature of your body. Whether that’s through a brisk walk or a session on the stationary bike, you have to get your core temperature up before stretching. It makes tissues more pliable.
You’re warmed up sufficiently if you notice a light sweat, because that shows that your temperature has come up and the body is trying to cool itself.
While the work you do for your muscles will provide some conditioning for the tendons and ligaments, it will be less efficient than a workout designed specifically for these tissues. The program that will let you achieve your desired result will involve flexion and a high number of reps with minimal resistance. Paulos explains: “As you exercise and stress the joint, the ligament will respond to being stretched. And the more it’s stretched, the more it will respond by laying down cells and collagen, making it stronger.”
“when you strengthen a ligament, you actually add to its blood supply. In order for the ligament to get larger, it has to have more blood. The blood is interspersed between the collagen fibers.”
When you repetitively contract a muscle, it automatically vascularizes the tendons within its limits. So Paulos suggests that two types of workout be integrated into your program:
“Your workout routines designed to give flexibility and/or definition to muscle groups should be interspersed with overloading types of routines that actually load the muscle beyond its capacity. Low weights with lots of reps (20-30) will stretch the muscle and stimulate blood flow. But unless you overload the muscle, it won’t build build and it probably won’t build blood vessels. You have to overload tissue to get it to respond by laying down more tissue, whether it is blood vessels, ligaments or bulk,” says Paulos.
However, even strong tissues can be injured if their owner doesn’t know the mechanisms of trauma. The most traumatic damage, of course, is a tear.
The most common kinds of tears are usually ballistic tears which happen when a person changes direction in a hurry or makes a sudden motion in a hurry, or makes a sudden motion like in Olympic lifts or stop-and-go sports, like basketball.
Strength is a crucial factor in preventing the tissue from tearing in two due to injury, you would rather it tear from the bone than to tear in two (also making surgery easier because otherwise you can’t get a good suture hold, but a surgeon can more easily repair if it has a chunk of bone attached to it).
Check out Part Two of this Article.