Physically Fit for Life Part 2: Resistance Training
In the last post, I covered the benefits of performing regular moderate intensity activity, specifically walking. As discussed in that post, walking is a form of exercise that helps to improve the first 7 factors on our list highlighting some of the most important benefits that can be attained through exercise.
In this post I am going to address another type of exercise, one that can stimulate positive adaptations in the remaining 9 factors for being Physically Fit for Life, namely:
- Muscle tissue mass
- Strength, across your entire muscular system
- Bone mass density and the strength and integrity of your joints, tendons and ligaments
- Flexibility across all of your joints. (For some individuals this can mean reducing hypermobility just as it can mean increasing a range of motion that is below normal for others)
- Protection against ageing and some chronic diseases; including certain cancers and coronary heart disease
- Protection against joint diseases and associated pain
- Body fat mass and metabolic health (via metabolic enhancement and excess post-exercise oxygen consumption)
- Cardiovascular fitness (via central and peripheral adaptations to high-intensity exercise)
Can one form of exercise have such a beneficial impact on human health?
Yes, the type of exercise that has the potential to do so is resistance training. What is resistance training? Think of calisthenic exercises like push ups or chin ups, exercises with free weights such as deadlifts or biceps curls, or gym machine exercises such as leg presses or pull-downs. These and other exercises that can practically and safely provide a degree of resistance that will induce temporary fatigue in the targeted musculature within a 45 second to 3 minute timeframe will provide the desired stimulus. When a muscle gets to a point of temporary fatigue during performance of an exercise it is referred to as reaching momentary muscular failure, or MMF.
What is MMF, in a bit more detail?
For our purposes here MMF refers to the point during an exercise where the muscle group that is primarily responsible for driving the particular movement (e.g. the chest musculature in a chest press) can no longer produce enough force to keep the source of resistance moving upward against gravity.
Watch an exercise being taken to MMF
Why is it important that it is possible to achieve MMF within a 45 second to 3 minute time frame when performing a resistance training exercise?
It appears that anything less than a total time of ~45 seconds spent exercising a muscle against significant resistance does not provide enough of a stimulus to provoke the changes that we desire (the 9 factors listed above). It is fine if that time is made up of smaller chunks or “sets” though: say for example you are new to doing push ups and you are only able to complete around 20 seconds worth at a time- you could repeat the exercise in three batches or “sets” to accumulate an appropriate total time under load. To expand, the first time around you may get 20 seconds, then after a short rest you are able to achieve 18 more seconds followed by another rest, after which you get a further 15 seconds. That gives us 20+18+15= a cumulative total of 53 seconds worth of push ups, bringing us inside the correct time frame. Alternatively, if you are strong enough and you are able to get, for example 85 seconds all in one set, that is great too (and more time efficient).
At the other end of the scale, you may ask why not any longer than 3 minutes? It simply is not necessary to perform an exercise for longer than 3 minutes to stimulate the results. In fact some people may prefer to go no longer than 90 seconds or 2 minutes in total time-length for an exercise. Practically speaking even if it were just as effective to perform an exercise for longer than 3 minutes it is likely to be boring at best and at worst the level of protracted muscular discomfort/burning experienced will be intolerable (and unnecessary) for all but the most masochistic of exercisers.
Is Momentary Muscular Failure Actually Necessary?
This is a very good question to which the most practical answer is: it is important to get within fairly close proximity of MMF toward the end of your sets. Each set of an exercise that you perform consists of a series of repetitions. In a set taken to MMF the last repetition or “rep” will only be partially completed before movement comes to a halt. This is true regardless of the fact that even at that very point your mental intent is to continue the movement. This point of MMF is typically the goal or set endpoint of an exercise for those who apply HIT or High Intensity Resistance Training.
Prior to movement stopping completely in a set to MMF, it will start to slow, certainly over the last repetition, if not at some point during the penultimate rep. Some consider this point at which movement begins to slow down as an appropriate endpoint for a set as opposed to exercising till movement stalls altogether . The likelihood is that the results stimulated from either of the two endpoints mentioned would ultimately be the same: of equivalent efficacy.
Some individuals suggest instead that shooting for an 8 or 9 out of 10 on a scale of perceived effort provides just as appropriate an endpoint for resistance training exercises. This is often the preferred level of intensity/effort for those who like to perform more than one set of each exercise. Some individuals enjoy performing ~4-5 shorter sets of an exercise, accumulating a total time under load that still falls within the parameters mentioned- it appears that this method can also work to stimulate the results we are after. Of course to make this approach work you will first have to know what a true 10/10 effort feels like before you are able to accurately back off just a notch or two.
The take home point here is that the level of intensity or effort needs to be fairly high at the end of the performance of a set to stimulate all possible positive adaptations. Make sure that if you prefer to not go to absolute MMF, that you are at least getting close (one or two reps away at most). Which brings us on to the question of how best to perform the individual repetitions of which your sets comprise.
How fast or slow should you perform your repetitions?
If your goal is to get all the benefits of resistance training as safely as possible and you intend to be able to do this over a lifetime of exercising, it is wise to perform your repetitions in a controlled manner.
A repetition typically consists of a lifting portion and a lowering portion (and of course the turns or transitions between each). It is important to remain in control of the given load (resistance) during an exercise. I suggest that those new to resistance training aim to move at a cadence of ~4 seconds up and ~4 seconds down, or even a shade slower, during their exercises. The goal is to be in complete control of the resistance you are moving, with your focus being almost exclusively on the muscle group that you intend to target and fatigue with the particular exercise. You need to know which the target muscle group is, what happens when that muscle group contracts and when it stretches- how it feels as it produces movement and how it feels as it fatigues. You need to learn to do all this whilst keeping the rest of your body in an appropriate position- in either a supporting or a deliberately relaxed role. To have the time to learn to focus on all of this during a repetition, you need to be moving fairly slowly as suggested above.
Those who are more advanced and who have all the above down pat can experiment with moving both more quickly and more slowly than the suggested 4/4 cadence. The key is being able to keep your focus on engaging the target musculature at all times, whilst not producing excessive forces that put you at risk of injury to any quantifiable degree.
A quick note on the importance of breathing during exercise, do breathe during resistance training exercises, in and out… and do so continuously throughout each exercise. As the exercise gets more challenging toward the end of the set (as you approach MMF) it will get more and more tempting to hold your breath, or to grunt and strain. It is best to override this desire and to increase your rate of inspiration to match the increasing intensity. Holding your breath will spike blood pressure and may even lessen the amount of work that the targeted musculature is performing. Keep it safe and effective and remember your ABC… Always Breathe Continuously.
Anatomy of a workout
There are 8 major areas of the body that we will want our workouts to cover:
4. Torso (chest, upper back and shoulders)
5. Upper Arms
8. Rotator Cuff (small muscles of the shoulders)
I have a preference for performing full body workouts, meaning that every time I perform a resistance training workout I choose to exercise the body as a whole unit- here’s an example of a recent bodyweight workout I completed:
Neck Lateral Flexion
Rear Deltoid exercise
Triceps Push Ups
External Shoulder Rotation
A workout consisting of somewhere in the region of 10 exercises provides for a comprehensive full body workout. I usually complete this above routine within 20-30 minutes which is a reasonable amount of time to stay focused and productive for during resistance training as well as keeping things nicely time efficient and effective.
Some individuals may prefer to split their workouts up and rather than exercising the whole body in a workout they will perform a “split” routine. For example, on one day John may do upper body exercises only and on another day he will perform lower body exercises only. There are myriad ways in which to appropriately split the body if you choose to go down that route, ultimately results are likely no better or worse than performing a full body routine.
A whole article can easily be written on full body vs. split routines. Needless to say all appropriately structured approaches can work well, ultimately the choice comes down to preference. Most of the time I prefer the efficiency and holistic nature of full body routines and yet I experiment with split routines from time to time too.
Rest periods between exercises in a workout
I do not tend to rest for a protracted amount of time between the exercises performed in a routine, maybe 20-30 seconds to gather my thoughts and focus in on the next exercise before cracking on with it. When you initially start out, if you are new to resistance training, you may want to take a little longer between exercises to catch your breath and spend a bit of time reminding yourself of how to perform the next exercise and which muscle group you will be specifically targeting.
Moving very quickly between exercises, if you are not used to doing so, can cause the onset of nausea. This is not beneficial or something you want to have happen: it will detract from the remainder of your workout as well as being generally unpleasant. Build up to shortening the rest period between exercises over the course of several weeks to avoid this issue arising altogether.
Compound and isolation exercises
There are two main types of resistance training exercises: compound and isolation.
A compound rowing exercise represents the former, and a knee flexion (leg curl) represents the latter. Compound exercises involve significant movement at more than one joint and significant force production across multiple muscle groups. In our example of the compound row there is movement at the shoulder joint and at the elbow joint, many muscles across the upper back, shoulder and arm are significantly involved in producing force.
The knee flexion, our example of an isolation exercise, involves significant movement only at the knee joint and only the hamstrings musculature of the leg is focused on. Note that isolation exercises do not truly isolate a muscle group. Even in so-called isolation exercises other muscles have to contribute some effort or force even if only to help stabilize a joint during the exercise. What is really meant by the term “isolation”, is that only one muscle group is being deliberately targeted to perform work of a demanding enough nature to act as a stimulus for hypertrophy. In the knee flexion exercise only the hamstrings musculature is targeted.
Whereas in a compound exercise there is the prime mover or primarily targeted musculature, in the compound row this is the trapezius and rhomboids, then there are also the synergist muscles that also contribute to and receive some stimulus from the exercise. In the compound row the latissimus dorsi, teres major, posterior deltoid, teres minor, brachialis and brachioradialis are synergist muscles.
Some think that when a compound exercise is performed to MMF the synergist muscles receive enough of a stimulus that no additional or isolation exercises are required for them. Others are of the opinion that if a muscle is not a prime mover in an exercise it does not receive an ideal degree of stimulus.
It is entirely possible to perform a routine that consists only of compound exercises and to omit isolation exercises altogether. This certainly simplifies things, a full body routine consisting only of compound movements could go:
These five exercises work all the major muscle groups of the body in a most efficient manner. In fact for those new to resistance training this makes for a fantastic starting routine- simple, easy to learn and effective.
There is however some evidence to suggest that a greater degree of variety over time including performing different variations of appropriate exercises for the same muscle group, utilizing differing body positions and varying hand grips and so on may improve the hypertrophic response. I suggest that adding biomechanically correct “isolation” exercises to the various routines you do over time may well also have a beneficial effect. There is no reason to limit yourself to just compound exercises and definitely not to just isolation exercises when you can have the best of both worlds. Make sure the foundations of your routine are compound exercises then as you progress sprinkle a handful of isolation exercises in to round out the routines you perform.
To be able to fit all the different exercises that I consider valuable in to my resistance training program I currently have 4 different full body routines, each consisting of ~10 exercises. I cycle through these four routines one after the other until I am back at the first and the cycle starts again, which brings us on to…
How often do you need to perform resistance training workouts? The answer to this question is contextual- for starters are we talking about full body routines or split? Split routines often mean that you can train somewhat more frequently as the systemic demand from a single split routine workout is typically less than from a single full body workout.
Each muscle group needs to receive a stimulus between 1-3 times per week. This means if you are performing full body workouts, you will want to resistance train 1-3 times a week. When choosing whether you are going to exercise 1, 2 or 3 times each week you will then need to look past the localized stimulus and recovery of the muscle tissue, to the overall systemic stress your physiology experiences. By this I mean the summation of all the stressors you endure in day-to-day life, not only that contributed by your workouts. Think: work, relationships, nutrition, sleep quantity and quality, illnesses and so on.
With the stressors that I currently typically experience in my everyday life, combined with all the things I do to balance those out; walking, sleeping, good nutrition, meditation, qi gong, juggling etc., I find that the optimal frequency for my full body routines is once every 72 hours, or every third day. At this time in my life, more frequent resistance training appears to place excessive stress on my autonomic nervous system.
If my sleep discipline, nutrition and other practices are off-base for a period then the likelihood is that I would need to train less frequently, otherwise the resistance training workouts will begin to cause excessive systemic stress (a negative). I would likely drop to resistance training once every fourth or fifth day under these circumstances.
There is a very good reason that the Body By Science frequency of once a week works so well for so many people. It not only fits conveniently into a busy schedule, it also is recoverable from at the systemic level for just about everybody, even if all their other lifestyle ducks are not quite in a row. At the other end of the recovery spectrum, a young athlete who is lucky and/or talented enough to do nothing other than “train, eat, sleep, repeat”, will likely flourish on 3 full body workouts per week. This is why frequency to a large degree is contextual: what works for the young athlete may not work best for the busy, successful professional adult with a full life and three kids.
I personally use HRV technology to track my response to the sum total of all the stressors in my life to make sure that I don’t stray too far from balance, too often. Use HRV and/or learn to listen well to your body and its response to resistance training to find a frequency that works best for you and your current lifestyle.
Putting it all together
To get the most out of resistance training:
- Perform each exercise for a total time of somewhere between 45 seconds- 3 minutes, you can do this all in one single set or split it over a handful of sets if you prefer
- Exercise to momentary muscular failure, or close to it
- Perform your repetitions with control, focusing on the targeted muscle group
- Always Breathe Continuously during exercise
- Work all 8 major areas of the body
- Use full body or split routines, or a mix: your preference
- Rest long enough between exercises in a workout to avoid nausea. Rest periods can be contracted as you become conditioned to resistance training
- Use both compound and isolation exercises as you progress
- If you are performing full body routines train 1-3 times a week. The actual number of times you resistance train in a given week needs to be based on your ability to recover from both local and systemic stressors.
The first image in the article is by Louish Pixel on Flickr. It’s shared under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
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