One of our core beliefs at HITuni is that some form of strength training needs to become a facet of every individual’s life and lifestyle. Its impact on wellbeing from the obvious… strength, to the unseen… myokine release and cellular health, is a boon. It is clear more people need to and can benefit from strength training. What often present as key barriers to benefitting from strength training for individuals who don’t yet train are: perceived complexity and equipment availability.
Most of us with a passion for resistance training relish exercising on well-designed exercise equipment and I have enjoyed using some of the most incredible, expensive, and rare pieces of exercise equipment on the planet.
I also cherish simplicity and the human body itself, which is why when I first read a research paper that specifically covered No Load Resistance Training three years ago it immediately captured my attention. You are likely now thinking, what is No Load Resistance Training? A very reasonable question as resistance training is traditionally performed with a load- be it free weights, a weight stack, motor-driven resistance, elastic bands, chains, bodyweight and in the case of isometric exercise an immovable “load”.
How on earth then, can resistance training possibly be performed without a load?
The answer to this question is: by maximally contracting a muscle group through the range of the joint action it is responsible for. No Load resistance training can stimulate high levels of muscular activation without the use of weights, bands or even bodyweight. Effort is key not load. The research paper that originally peaked my interest in No Load Resistance Training is: The Acute and Chronic Effects of “NO LOAD” Resistance Training by Counts et al. 2016. This paper revealed some initial key aspects of No-Load resistance training:
- High levels of EMG amplitude were shown in the working muscle group during No Load exercise. Meaning that muscle activation levels were high, high enough to bring about mechanotransduction and resulting muscular adaptations.
- Tested immediately after performing exercise, there were similar acute decreases in torque reported for both No Load Training versus traditional High Load training conditions. This suggests that the targeted muscles had been fatigued to a similar degree from both No Load and Traditional resistance training.
- Levels of acute swelling in the trained muscles were similar post-exercise for both No Load and traditional training. This again points towards a similarity in physiologic response from the two stimuli.
- At the culmination of the intervention, isometric strength increases were similar between No Load and High Load resistance training.
- Chronically, at the end of the research, muscle thickness adaptations were also similar between No Load and High-Load conditions.
The above findings suggest that maximal contractions without a load stimulate similar acute and chronic adaptations compared with traditional High-Load resistance training. Showing resistance training without load (without even bodyweight), stimulated a similar degree of muscular adaptation as training with a heavy load.
This paper immediately registered as significant. The potential for this approach to exercise is world-improving; especially for those that don’t live near a good gym, facility or personal trainer, are unable to afford ongoing gym membership, travel a lot, or simply want to enjoy the freedom to train anywhere, at any time. And indeed too, as a highly effective protocol for personal trainers who offer virtual online training to clients remotely. Beyond these pragmatic benefits I was also impressed by the underlying value of simplicity that No-Load Training has the potential to offer.
I went into digestion and assimilation mode, partly inspired by a second paper that focused on no load resistance training, published in 2017: Muscle activation during resistance training with no external load – effects of training status, movement velocity, dominance, and visual feedback by Gentil et al.
Visual EMG feedback is not required to optimize No Load training
This piece of research reinforced the first paper in showing that No Load resistance training results in high levels of muscle activation. Important from a practical perspective, it also showed that visual EMG feedback is not required to optimize No Load training. The researchers had hypothesized that if the individual training could see a live EMG readout of their muscle activity during an exercise it may provide an incentive to produce greater muscle activation levels. If this indeed were the case it would be potentially problematic for real-world application of No Load exercise… I doubt many of us would have the equipment and/or patience to rig up EMG for all our different muscle groups!
Indeed, if this research showed that without visual EMG feedback, muscle activation levels were significantly lower, that might make No Load training a non-starter. Happily, the research showed that both peak and mean EMG readings during No Load training were not significantly different with or without visual feedback. In fact, on average both peak and mean EMG readings were non-significantly higher without visual feedback. This tells us that No Load exercise can be practically applied and you won’t need an EMG device to ensure you are contracting your muscles hard enough!
Better muscle activation when performing the maximal contractions at a slower pace
A further detail to emerge from this research paper relates to velocity of movement during No Load training. The researchers found that mean EMG readings were marginally higher when a slower velocity during exercise was used. In other words, the subjects in the paper saw better muscle activation from performing the maximal contractions at a slower pace.
No Load training potentially twice as efficient as traditional weight training
The researchers also found that muscle activation levels between muscle groups on either side of a joint, that in traditional resistance training would be “agonist” and “antagonist” groups, were similar. During No Load resistance training effectively you have agonist muscle groups on either side of a joint during one exercise. This is significantly different from traditional training with weights, e.g. during a dumbbell biceps curl where the agonist, the biceps, will have a high level of activation throughout the exercise, but the antagonist triceps will have low levels of muscle activation throughout the exercise. During a No Load biceps exercise however, both the biceps and the triceps are equally activated, meaning muscles acting on either side of a joint are trained/stimulated at the same time, during the same exercise. A No Load biceps curl is also a triceps extension… a chest press is also a row, a pulldown is also a shoulder press, and so on. Two exercises in one, making No Load training potentially twice as efficient as traditional weight training- you could half the number of exercises in a routine and still work the same amount of muscle.
The authors of the paper also looked to see if there was any difference in muscle activity levels between dominant and non-dominant sides of the participant’s bodies. They found no difference in muscle activation levels between sides. This is useful information because research has shown that with mechanically loaded exercise, muscle activation levels can be higher in the dominant side vs. the non-dominant side. This was not the case with No Load exercise, meaning that we can train both sides bilaterally (at the same time) and both sides will be equally activated and receiving comparable stimuli. This can also be of special value, when an individual is starting to train again after rehabilitating an injury.
My experience with NXL (No External Load) training
Throughout all of 2018 and 2019 about 60% of my workouts were purely based on No Load, or as we have come to call it at HITuni: NXL (No External Load) principles. I experimented with different exercises, various applications and aspects of the protocol and worked on refining a methodology for applying NXL training in practice. During those two years about 40% of my own workouts continued to be on exercise machines, however I also peppered NXL exercises into those machine-based routines too. Specifically, for muscle groups that were not covered effectively by the equipment I had to hand during a given workout. This by the way, is another useful facet of NXL exercise, not everyone has the perfect tool to stimulate every muscle group- perhaps you don’t have machines for the neck musculature or the rotator cuffs- you can then simply substitute in NXL exercises to address those specific areas.
By the start of 2020, I had shaped NXL training essentially into the form that you will read about and see throughout HITuni’s new NXL course. In my own workouts I switched to performing NXL routines almost exclusively. I did so primarily because I enjoy NXL exercise immensely: I relish the zen-like focus of wilfully maximally contracting a muscle group, whilst moving a joint through its range of motion: brain, nervous system, muscle focused in unity, with zero distractions or outside influences to consider. The keys behind NXL training are liberating. Oftentimes I am travelling or away from equipment I enjoy using. Previously in these circumstances, I have long done bodyweight routines, used elastic resistance, and even taken TRX type kits and anchor points around with me on my travels. However, I dislike complexity and crave effective simplicity in application, especially when travelling. Now I travel light. NXL workouts are done whenever and wherever I want: in the office, in the garden, on the beach or in a hotel room. NXL training states, “Your body is your gym” wherever you are.
The moment that the Covid-19 pandemic reared its head, stay-in-place or lockdown orders were put in place and gyms were shutdown worldwide, it became apparent that NXL training is of a particular value in a post-Covid world. Not only can individuals choose to use NXL exercise when they can’t get to a gym or their facility is closed, personal trainers can continue to work with clients virtually with a protocol that is both effective and doesn’t require equipment or “having to make do” with substandard equipment or household items.
What is NXL Training?
- The simplest description of NXL Training: performing maximal contractions of a muscle group through joint range of motion without the use of an external load.
- NXL training is a method of exercising the musculoskeletal system without any exercise equipment required at all. Research has demonstrated that it is capable of stimulating hypertrophy and strength increases to a similar extent as traditional resistance training.
- NXL training stimulates muscle growth via mechanotransduction. NXL provides a high effort stimulus and the research shows that in comparison to free weights and resistance bands No Load Resistance Training is “equally effective to improve muscular size and functionality.”
What NXL is not
- Bodyweight training, although NXL techniques can be used to enhance bodyweight training.
- Isometrics- isometric refers to muscular contractions where no movement take place. This is not the case with NXL exercise as you are maximally contracting through a muscle’s range of motion.
- Low-effort exercise. Despite the fact no external loads are used, NXL exercise is high-effort or high intensity exercise and needs to be performed in a high effort manner to stimulate optimal physical transformation.
Advantages of NXL Exercise
- The ability to exercise anytime, anywhere with optimal intensity and without the need for equipment.
- Personal trainers and facilities can offer effective and convenient online virtual training to clients all over the globe. Useful too, for helping clients who are hesitant to return to your facility in-person after the Covid-19 pandemic, to continue training with you.
- If you have limited exercise equipment, you can round out and complete your routines by adding in NXL exercises to fill “equipment gaps”.
- NXL exercise does not have some of the disadvantages associated with bodyweight training; such as exercises being too hard, too easy, or actually requiring equipment (chins, dips, dips, rows, biceps etc). Nor the disadvantages of having to mess around setting up straps or elastic resistance bands in the case of other home-equipment options.
Other key reasons to NXL
- NXL training can help reconnect you with your joints and muscles and forces you to purely experience and drive their movements and contractions. Without an external load to rely on your focus needs to be in your muscles. Your appreciation of joint movements and muscle actions will likely deepen and expand.
- If you have sustained an injury, NXL exercises can make for a great protocol to use. If you are unable to exercise one limb you can still train the other side unilaterally. And when you are ready to start training the side that has recovered from injury, you can apply a level of contraction effort and range of motion that is appropriate.
- With NXL exercises there is a freedom to fully mimic joint movement potentials without equipment restraining you in anyway. This freedom means you can perform exercises that fully encompass the movement that a muscle/joint has evolved to perform without limitation, without the strength curve of free weights being incorrect or the set movement plane and path of a machine.
Why would a facility/trainer want to do it?
- If you are a personal trainer who offers online virtual training, you will need (at least sometimes) a protocol that doesn’t rely on the client having any resistance training exercise equipment to hand. And you won’t have to ask these clients to use of often inadequate sources of resistance such as milk bottles, wine bottles and the like. NXL exercise is a fantastic option for online training making for great workouts that trainers can instruct remotely with their clients.
- If you are using bodyweight exercises with a client, but some bodyweight exercises are too easy or too hard you can replace those specific bodyweight exercises with NXL exercises for the relevant muscle groups. E.g. squats may be too easy and chins may be too hard for a client.
- If a client is going away travelling on business or vacation and wont be seeing you in person for an extended period of time you can teach them an NXL routine to perform whilst they are away to avoid detraining and ensure the exercise habit remains.
- If a client expresses fear of using weights or certain exercises you can use NXL exercises instead at the outset.
- If a client can only afford or can only make time to come to you once a week, you can teach them an NXL routine to perform themselves at home, in between their in-facility workouts with you.
- When stay-in-place, lockdown orders or other public health legislation (such as during the Covid-19 pandemic) means that your facility has to temporarily close you can use NXL virtual workouts as an alternative with your clients until your facility can open once again.