One of the questions that I asked James Steele to elaborate on during our recent interview was: if he were to lay out a template for personal trainers introducing clients to resistance training/HIT, how would such a template look today?
Let’s explore his answer, as well as James Fisher’s input into the elements that make up the template.
Steele starts out by highlighting that his template is best considered as a base that can be built on and experimented from, to fit the individual client and their needs or as James puts it “their context”.
The following is a pragmatic, low frequency, low volume, high intensity approach that works (1) and is suitable as an introduction to resistance training for the widest possible audience. Let’s get people resistance training, folks!
Build routines on a foundation of multi-joint exercises.
James Steele believes most muscles are adequately addressed through the performance of multi-joint movements alone. He states research shows that for the appendicular musculature, multi-joint and single-joint exercises produce similar adaptations and results. In other words, if a multi-joint exercise adequately involves a muscle group there is no need to go over the same ground with a single-joint exercise (2, 3, 4, 5, 6).
He suggests starting new clients out with a core set of multi-joint movements:
- An upper-body push (e.g. chest press)
- An upper-body pull (e.g. pulldown)
- A compound lower-body exercise (e.g. leg press)
- A trunk extension-based exercise (e.g. lumbar extension)
The last exercise above is effectively a single-joint exercise in medical rehab machines. However, in most commercial equipment or free-weight exercises that target lumbar extension, it can be more accurately described as a multi-joint exercise.
Steele points out that evidence (7) suggests that the lumbar musculature benefits most from a direct single-joint exercise, but that some benefit can still be attained from appropriate multi-joint exercises that intend to target the spinal musculature. Although yet to be proven in the research, he also believes that the neck musculature may require specific single-joint movements for optimal strength and hypertrophy.
James Fisher adds that although applying single-joint exercises to muscles that have already received stimulus from a multi-joint movement appears to provide little in the way of additional benefit (if any at all) in the research (2, 3, 4, 5, 6), he does use single-joint exercises in his own workouts.
Fisher favors using them for the peripheral musculature, for the limbs rather than the torso, with exercises such as knee extension, biceps curl and triceps extension added at the end of his routines. He views them as supplementary exercises to the core multi-joint exercises that remain the foundation of his routines. He candidly admits he can’t back up all his reasoning for using them with research, but feels they benefit him from experience and ultimately states… “I like to train arms!”
He points to other reasons a variety of exercises may be required including: individuals’ limb lengths, lever lengths, skill in performing different exercises and the intensity a person is capable of training with.
Primarily, he suggests focusing on the quality of exercises and exercise performance rather than quantity and likes Skyler Tanner’s approach of asking clients at the end of a workout “Is there anything else you want to finish the workout with, is there any muscle group we haven’t done enough on?”
For initial sessions, Steele’s starting template remains the base, when required and over time you can opt to add in a wider variety of movements including single-joint exercises. Think of multi-joint exercises as the cake and single-joint exercises as the icing, or as the steak and the sauce.
POINTS 2 AND 3
Adapt the range of motion of the exercises to suit the individual.
Use a rep duration that best represents good form in each exercise.
James Steele notes that it is important to select exercises appropriate to the individual and then to adapt those exercises as needed making sure the range of motion is suitable for the person you are working with. He cautions to also be aware of any injuries or other limitations the person may have.
When it comes to repetition duration, Steele advises that movement should reflect good exercise technique for each exercise.
- If the client moves too quickly and their form shows signs of degradation, have them slow down.
- If they are moving too slowly and the movement becomes a series of segmented stops and starts, have them move a little more quickly.
This probably subsumes a rep duration of anything from 2/2 up to 15/15 and even beyond, dependent on the skill and control demonstrated by the individual trainee. Indeed, a recent paper by Carlson et al. (8) showed no difference in outcomes between groups using 2/4, 10/10 and 30/30/30. Steele elaborates that so long as you are training to MMF, repetition duration does not impact the positive outcomes sought. Find and gravitate toward a repetition duration for each individual in each exercise that enables them to exercise with good form.
It has been suggested by some that controlled rep duration resistance training does not improve power adequately because movement is not fast enough. James questions this referring to a paper by Behm and Sale (9) that shows power, or more accurately impulsivity, is enhanced by the intention to move fast, rather than actually moving fast.
What does this practically mean for those of us who use a controlled rep duration? Steele suggests that we can start out the set deliberately slow and then as fatigue builds up attempt/ have the intention to move more quickly, at the point that it is impossible to speed up. Indeed, in the final (partial) rep of a set to MMF one could have the intent to move as quickly as possible even as the movement continues to slow to a halt. This would help to ensure full motor unit recruitment and quite possibly optimize impulsivity adaptations too. Steele notes that more research needs to be done to bear this working theory out. This is also beyond the need and scope for initial sessions with a new trainee too, but an interesting idea when thinking of intermediate and advanced trainees.
POINTS 4 AND 5
Exercise to a High Intensity of Effort.
Perform single sets of each exercise.
Steele and Fisher both recommend performing single sets per exercise taken to momentary muscular failure as evidenced in their research (10, 11, 12, 13, 14). There does not appear to be much if any benefit at all to additional sets on top of one well performed set.
Fisher suggests that the main downside to performing multiple sets of an exercise is the amount of additional time added to the workout. Other than that, it is unlikely there is any downside to performing a second set. Indeed, he points out there may be cases when a second set can be worthwhile: for instance, individuals training alone without supervision of a trainer may well not be able to achieve MMF, in which case a second set may get them closer to it and provide a greater stimulus.
Personal trainers would do well to focus on the goal of full motor unit recruitment and ensuring their clients are capable of safely reaching MMF within one set, first and foremost. A second set is there if you need it.
Use a moderate load for initial workouts.
The advantage to starting out new clients with a moderate load is at one end of the spectrum they won’t feel too threatened by the weight at the outset and at the other end, the set will not go on so long as to result in excessive discomfort. In real world terms this would equate to a load that means the set would terminate in the ballpark of 60-90 seconds.
Once the client has experience under their belt they can opt to gravitate toward a moderately heavy load and shorter TULs or a moderately light load and longer TULs based on personal preference. Read our full analysis of load and time under load (TUL).
Perform 2 workouts per week when possible.
James Steele states that one workout per week is sufficient. Two workouts per week provide similar results, as for that matter so does three. Although once per week training can be a good starting point for frequency of workouts, James points to twice per week probably being more pragmatic.
The reason he gives is that with once a week training, if a client misses a session (and this can happen for varied and legitimate reasons; illness, family emergency, work deadlines, transportation issues etc) there is then a likely going to be a 2 week break between sessions. Long enough to make it feel harder to get back into exercise, or even question the worth of training altogether, making it easier for the new trainee to break the habit altogether. Whereas, if a client is training 2x per week and they need to miss a session, the next workout is coming around in two or three days anyway and ultimately, they will still have got in one weekly workout.
James Fisher highlights research (15) he and Steele were involved in published in 2018 comparing a volume matched frequency of 1x per week against 2x per week. The once a week group got as good results as the twice a week group, and only the once a week group saw an increase in muscle thickness. As the authors point out, this muscle thickness improvement could be for reasons other than frequency (such as change in training stimuli from their previous workout routines). Nevertheless, the study still shows the efficacy of once a week training, something valuable when time issues are frequently cited as a barrier to engaging in exercise.
As Fisher points out, when muscle damage has occurred we likely need longer recovery times between workouts to see muscle thickness adaptations (16). This is especially true for new trainees who are more susceptible to muscle damage, making training muscles more than 2x a week undesirable.
Fisher doesn’t believe there is any real-world benefit to training a muscle group more than twice a week and that pragmatically resistance training needs to fit in with the individuals lifestyle: if once a week RT is the only practical option this is fine. He does add that once a week workouts will need to be of high quality and probably have a slightly higher volume of exercises too, whereas with more frequent training the per workout volume can be reduced somewhat.
There you have it! A template for introducing novice clients to resistance training. Simple, effective, backed by research and recommended by HITuni. Following this approach will give your new clients every reason to stick around and gain the benefits that resistance training has to offer over the long-term, helping you help them to live stronger.