From the thirty years or so of observing people in the weight room at the gym there are several things that stand out for most people including:
- No logic to the sequence of the exercise routine.
- No documentation of the workout thus no goals or measurement of improvement.
- A lot of focus on small muscle groups, “bi’s and tri’s”, rather than larger muscles (hotter fat burning furnaces).
- Tens of thousands of dollars of weight machines that are rarely used.
- A lot of time spent doing ineffective and often dangerous exercises using Swiss balls, medicine balls, elastic bands, kettle bells, or performing lunges ad nauseam in the floor space (between the tens of thousands of dollars of weight machines).
- A lot of time spent demonstrating strength rather than building it (dangerous lifts, e.g. Olympic and Power lifts).
Although not in all cases, there is a total disregard for the science of what is required to reap the benefit of a resistance training program whether it’s for improving strength (athletic performance, aesthetics, occupational performance, rehabilitation), body composition (decreased fat mass, increased fat free mass, including bone mass), or metabolic function (reduced blood fats, improved blood sugar regulation, decreased resting blood pressure). The fact of the matter is that a properly executed resistance training program can yield all of these benefits.
So to characterize the time spent in the weight room by (based on my empirical observations and coupled with knowledge of physiologic fact), weight-lifting programs generally produce little or no benefit. The one exception is the ability to perform a highly specific lifting skill in olympic, power, or Crossfit type competitions, that is move the most amount of weight as possible to win the competition. These competitions employ highly specific weight-lifting skills that are often conveyed and perceived as being healthful and beneficial to average folks and athletes alike. That said, these and other similar weight-lifting practices can expose the joints to an increased risk of injury, i.e. rapid and explosive lifts done under load whether done with (however not limited to) barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, weight machines, sand bags, and/or medicine balls. Even if your form is perfect danger lurks when performing these types of exercises.
Why anyone at any age or level of conditioning wanting to improve “strength” needs to be swinging a kettlebell around is beyond good physiologic sense not to mention the dangerous forces that are transferred into the wrist, elbow, spine, and complex shoulder or knee joints. Unfortunately these are practices many trainers and fitness enthusiasts use who don’t properly discern the differences between weight-lifting and weight training. I’ll speak to the benefits of moving the weight in a slow and controlled manner later.
So where I am heading is that there are many reputable experts in the field of resistance training. I have had the pleasure of being mentored by a few of the best (Roger Schwab and Kevin Tolbert) and have studied many (Arthur Jones, Ellington Darden, Ken Leistner, Matt Brzycki, Dan Riley, Ken Mannie, and the list goes on). It is not my intent to go into a deep dive of the science. I really want to provide you with the fundamentals of a proven resistance training program so that you can easily execute in most gyms to get proven results and augment all the physical activity you perform in your life whether for health, athletic performance or performing activities of daily living more easily. This program is designed build a fitness for anything you do in your life, being a better golfer, football player, cheerleader, grandparent chasing grandkids, mowing the lawn, running the vacuum, you name it and your friends are going to wonder what is it that has you running circles around them.
The methodology I encourage is primarily based High Intensity Resistance Training commonly called HIT. HIT comes in many shapes and forms and an internet search can conjure many variants of this training methodology further complicated by the unrelated notion of HIIT or High Intensity Interval Training. Suffice it to say that the basic tenets of HIT from a physiologic perspective incorporates all of the proven variables for getting strong safely that have been published in the modern fitness era and are indisputable. So let’s have a look at a program that is proven, safe, and practical that can get anyone strong.
Proven Resistance Training Principles…
Simply stated, here is what you need to know to get strong and fit:
- Set a repetition goal.
- Perform a single set for each muscle group to fatigue.
- Use a weight that is sufficiently challenging.
- Move the weight in a slow and controlled manner.
- Perform exercises in a logical sequence.
- Transition from one exercise to the next without delay.
- Raise the weight when a goal is achieved.
- Allow adequate recovery between workouts.
- Write down every workout.
Undeniable Truths That Are Most Often Denied…
If you or your trainer does not incorporate any of the above-mentioned training principles of a properly performed resistance training program then there is a misunderstanding of the physiologic necessity or a denial of the practical application (a trainer may be more interested in your money than your health). As for the average gym member I extend a pass because in most cases the extent of their knowledge is handed down from high school coaches, fitness/self help magazines, fitness industry marketing, or the recommendations of self-anointed experts.
The beauty of HIT principles is that they are simple to execute, the downside is few people ever apply them. The principles described are characteristic of a one set to fatigue total body workout. Application of these principles has proven success in professional and collegiate training rooms, in physical medicine settings, and in gyms. That is to say athletes, average Joe’s, mature populations, men, women, youth, and almost anyone can benefit from a structured program of this nature. Why? Because no matter who you are we’re all made of the same stuff (don’t let anyone tell you different unless you really are from Mars).
Let’s take a closer look at each of the above-mentioned principles to be clear as to how to execute a safe, sensible, and meaningful resistance program.
Set A Repetition Goal
An exercise shouldn’t last all day and neither should your workout. I would recommend for simplicity’s sake find a weight that causes you to fatigue between a goal range of 7 to 10 repetitions. For each repetition raise the weight to a count of two, pause for one second at the midpoint and then lower the weight to a 4 count. There are plenty of other repetition schemes however I suggest you simply start with one set of 7 to 10 reps per exercise (just a suggestion as a start, there are many rep schemes that work as well). Move from one exercise to the next minimizing rest. ONE SET…you say? Yes, there is plenty of research that clearly demonstrates that one set vs multiple set routines will yield similar results. So why do more?
Use A Weight That Is Sufficiently Challenging
Select a weight that will cause you to fatigue within your repetition goal range. If you’re not sure where to start then be conservative in selecting the weight. If you hit your repetition goal then the next time you perform that exercise raise the weight, if you fall short of the lower end of the goal range then reduce the weight. Do not perform 1 repetition maximum lifts to determine a starting point! Unsafe and unnecessary.
There’s plenty of time to get strong and see benefit. My personal bias is to use machines. Machines allow you to work to fatigue safely with a very reproducible movement, without a spotter, without having to balance a weight, and thus minimize risk of injury. There are those that will argue the virtues of free-weights and to be clear I’m not against them. I’m more interested in your staying healthy and injury free and frankly your muscles don’t know the difference between free weights, machines, or buckets of nails.
Move The Weight In A Slow And Controlled Manner
Olympic, Power*, or any other lifting practices that involve high velocity movements of weight are not safe regardless of how good your form is. I cannot emphasize this enough, speed increases risk of injury. (*Power lifts can be done in a manner that may be explosive however without high velocity).
If your goal is performance power then I think you should consider Michigan State Spartans Strength & Conditioning Coach Ken Mannie’s position:
“Speed and “explosive” type training should be worked on in the proper setting – by performing skills, running programs, drills, etc., at the appropriate task-specific speed with correct techniques. Again, this is in line with the principle of specificity. Proper strength training programs, which incorporate safe movements and a system of progressive overload coupled with “speed-specific” work in the field setting, will accomplish the goal of developing athletes within the boundaries of their genetic potential. Ballistic lifting movements are not requisites to speed and/or power development, performance enhancement of skill acquisition.” http://strongerathletes.com/nsca_rebuttal.html
Performance power is the product of muscular force developed with a “proper strength training program” and speed, that is “speed specific work done in the field.” You simply cannot ball these two vectors together by performing ballistic lifts as proposed by some “training experts” without endangering the health of the athlete (or anyone for that matter) beyond the risks of normal participation in a sport or activity at any level of competition.
You don’t know the tensile strength of muscle or connective tissue until it’s too late! Additionally, the faster you move the weight the less force a muscle produces. If there is no tension or force being produced in the muscle then how can you get stronger? You simply won’t! This is not just a physiological fact, it’s a physical fact explained by the Force-Velocity curve. I would dare to say (as have my mentors) that most injuries occurring in high school or collegiate sports were likely predisposed in a weight room where ballistic training under load is encouraged. If you don’t believe it check out Dan Geraci’s well documented review paper.
High force/low velocity movements produce longer periods of continuous muscle tension during both the concentric (muscle shortening) and eccentric (muscle lengthening) phases of the lift, thereby placing heavier demands on the target muscles in a manner that is significantly less likely to cause an injury. This means more muscle involvement and as a bonus your furnace is going to run hotter (increased metabolic rate) for many hours long after the training session is over, therefore MORE CALORIES EXPENDED. Always work to fatigue (without sacrificing form).
As a recommended rule of thumb for lifting and lowering the weights, lift weight for a count of 2 seconds / Pause 1 second at mid-point (not for “pressing exercises” do a slow turn around) / Lower weight to a count of 4 seconds. Move the weight through the full range of motion. When lowering the weight bring it to a comfortable stretch from where you originally started or if you can (in some cases and maintaining proper form) let the weight stack lightly touch at the starting position and slowly start the next repetition. NO CLANKING! If you can’t set the weight down quietly even on the last rep, then don’t pick it up. Please don’t be the knucklehead that screams across the gym and lets the weight crash violently down after the last rep to let everyone know how “big and strong” they are. This behaviour breaks equipment and then inconveniences everyone until the repair is done. If you are ever in doubt about how fast you’re moving the weight, slow down and ease back.
Maintain good form right through the last rep. Don’t squirm or dig your head into a seat pad to finish the last hard reps. Keep the head and neck neutral and for heaven’s sake don’t turn your head while lifting to catch a mirror shot of yourself. If you feel compelled, save your personal pose-down for the mirror after the workout.
Remember to breathe! Any time you are lifting the weight you should be breathing out (exhaling) keeping your face relaxed, without grunting, groaning, eye squinting, or face-making. Catch your breath (inhale) as you lower the weight back to the starting point. Breath-holding on exertion can cause what is called a valsalva manoeuvre, i.e a tremendous rise in pressure in the chest cavity that decreases the amount of oxygen rich blood pumped out of the heart thus less blood getting to the brain causing light-headedness, dizziness, or fainting. If there is any underlying heart disease, breath-holding under load could precipitate a heart problem, e.g. dysrhythmia, angina, or heart attack. As a practice in everyday life when you are lifting something heavy, breathe out upon exertion.
Perform A Single Set For Each Muscle Group To Fatigue
One set to fatigue (momentary muscle failure) per muscle group is all that is needed. There are those who will argue the merits of doing multiple sets and I’ll be the first to tell you that with the application of appropriate training principles that multiple sets will make you stronger. However, it has been clearly demonstrated in the scientific literature that one set of a strength training exercise to fatigue will yield similar benefits to performing multiple sets of the same exercise.
Why do more? If you’re like me time is precious and the less time I spend in the gym the more time I have to fulfil my other commitments for family, work, and personal enjoyment. If you are an athlete you’ll be able to spend more time developing your craft by performing sport specific drills and activities and developing the neuromuscular pathways into the newfound force producing muscle fibers that have been awakened through sensible weight training.
Let me reiterate, do each repetition of the set with impeccable form (especially the last few). On every rep of the set do not wriggle or squirm, keep your face relaxed, and keep your grip relaxed on upper body pushes. Keep your head and neck in an upright neutral position, i.e. do not dig or leverage your head and neck against a seat pad to complete a repetition.
One set is enough.
Perform Exercises In A Logical Sequence
More often than not, I see people meandering through the gym with no real sense of purpose. Often doing set upon set upon set of one exercise and 9 out of 10 times it a bicep curl of some sort. The downside of focusing on small muscle groups first is if fatigued will limit your ability to perform exercises that involve larger muscle groups, e.g. bicep curls will limit your ability to work your back effectively (the pulls, i.e. seated rows, lat pulldowns, and assorted variants). The bicep muscle will fatigue before the significantly larger latissimus dorsi when performing pulls because it is the weak link when performing this multiple joint motion. The idea here is to engage the large muscle groups, work a deep inroad into the muscle, make them stronger, and rev-up the metabolism for several hours after the workout is over! Save the small muscle groups for towards the end of the workout, especially those of the jaw.
If you really want to work deep into a muscle try a pre-fatigue exercise sequence, i.e. do a single joint exercise followed by a multiple joint exercise. For example, a chest fly followed by a chest press (no rest in between). Fatigue the large pectorals with a single joint fly motion then work the muscle group a bit deeper with a multiple joint motion press, i.e. with the assistance of fresh triceps. Remember the more muscle you get involved the hotter your furnace is going run.
Perform exercises that involve large muscle groups first and work your way out to the small muscles. For example, legs-back-chest-arms-abdominals. Always work the abdominals last as these muscle stabilize the torso (core) as you perform your other exercises and assist in helping you maintain form. Believe or not your “core” is involved in every exercise you perform as you must stabilize your torso when performing lifts.
Raise The Weight When Goal Is Achieved
Once you hit your repetition goal (the upper end of the repetition range) then you know a couple of things:
- You are getting stronger!
- You must raise the weight to continue improving.*
*Strength gains over a period of time will start to decrease, i.e. the point of diminishing return. It is possible to reduce training frequency, the time it takes to perform a repetition, or changing exercises to facilitate further gains. Additionally you could try advanced training techniques, e.g. pre-fatigue, super-sets, breakdown sets etc…However, there is nothing wrong with a maintenance program once you have reached a plateau.
Upon hitting your goal raise the weight approximately 5 to 10 percent the next time you perform that exercise and start the process again. This is what is known as “progressive overload. If you’re saying to yourself “this is hard,” then you’re on the right track…IT’S SUPPOSED TO BE HARD.
Allow Adequate Recovery Between Workouts
Acutely a workout produces nothing of value. Resistance training tears down tissue and depletes energy stores. RECOVERY ALLOWS THE RESPONSE, i.e. the muscle adapting to the load and in such away that the next time you impose the same challenge you will be able to perform the exercise more easily and with less fatigue. In other words, training effect!
You should not perform not more than three routines done on non-consecutive days each week. As you get stronger and your strength will eventually start to plateau you may need to reduce your resistance training frequency to twice per week. Mike Mentzer had shared 3 brief workouts over a period of 2 weeks and as a well-trained man found new strength gains. The stronger you get the deeper you are able to work into a muscle therefore more recovery time may be required.
On a side note split routines are not recommended and impede muscle recovery. All of your body’s systems are important to the recovery of the muscle tissue, so don’t distract from what you accomplished the day before by keeping your body in a chronic state of distress by weight training on a daily basis. Resistance training every day will likely wear you down and likely leave you discouraged if you don’t get the much needed rest between the workouts. Remember you’re not just weight-lifting anymore and you’re not doing cosmetic workouts (like wow my muscles feel so swollen and pumped dude), you’re performing a proven resistance training program. REMEMBER PUMP AND FEEL DOESN’T MEAN ANYTHING, which leads to the next topic on why you must use objectivity when training.
Write Down Every Workout
This is where the rubber hits the road and where most folks fall flat to get the full benefit out of a resistance training program. If you don’t bring objectivity to your training by writing down your workouts then it is impossible to know if you are getting stronger. One of the biggest disservices I see in the gym is personal trainers that don’t write workouts down for their clients. If you’re paying for that service you should expect that the trainer should write every workout down and be able to demonstrate to you that you are getting stronger in black and white. There is a difference between feeling like you had a good workout and knowing that your workout is effective. I said it once and I’ll say it again pump and feel doesn’t mean anything.
Workouts must be objective to be beneficial. Documenting your workouts in a log can not only tell you when you are getting stronger however also tell you when it’s time for a change. Recognized plateau’s or even decreases in strength may indicate that you need to change things up. Perhaps you need to change the type of exercise you performing, reduce your training frequency, change your repetition schema or perhaps alter your nutritional intake. Seeing trends can help you to fine tune your training.
I have used composition books for as long as I can remember to document my workouts. I keep it in the car ready for the gym, jot my exercises/weights down just prior to the workout, and record repetitions as I progress through the exercises. I encourage you to do the same or use a app on your mobile device that allows you to:
- Document each exercise
- Document the amount of weight being lifted
- Document the number of repetitions achieved in good form
An example of of what your log should look like:
|Exercise||Weight / Reps||Weight / Reps|
|MedX Leg Press||600 / 10||630 / 8|
|Nautilus Pullover||180 / 9||180 / 10|
|Nautilus Lat Pull||245 / 7||245 / 7|
|Nautilus Chest Fly||165 / 10||175 / 7|
|Nautilus Incline Press||200 / 8||200 / 9|
|Nautilus Bicep Curl||145 / 8||145 / 9|
|Nautilus Tricep Extension||135 / 7||135 / 8|
|Nautilus Abdominal||65 / 9||165 / 10|
….and so on!
Remember once you hit the repetition goal you should raise the weight no more than 5 to 10 percent the next time you perform that exercise.
THIS IS PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD AND IS WHAT MAKES YOU STRONGER!
“Suggested” Beginning Workout Routines
The three routines below are designed to be performed alternatively in the same week, for example perform Routine 1 on Monday, Routine 2 on Wednesday, and Routine 3 on Friday. You may choose to start with two routines per week and add the third one at a later date, for example perform Routine 1 on Monday and Routine 2 on Thursday. Each workout should take no more than 15 to 20 minutes to perform.
|Routine 1||Routine 2||Routine 3|
|Knee Extension||Knee Extension||Hip Extension or Abduction|
|Leg Press||Leg Press||Leg Press|
|Seated Knee Curl||Prone Knee Curl||Hip Adduction|
|Lat Pulldown||Seated Row||Assisted Chin|
|Shoulder Fly||Pec Fly||Pec Fly|
|Shoulder Press||Incline Chest Press||Chest Press|
|Dumbbell Arm Curl*||Arm Curl||Arm Curl Cable|
|Seated Dip||Tricep Extension||Tricep Extension Cable|
*Designates a free weight exercise
- Document for each exercise: Exercise, Weight/Repetitions.
- Start with a goal of 7 -10 reps per exercise.
- Lift weight for a count of 2 seconds / Pause 1 second at mid-point (not for “pressing exercises” see next bullet point) / Lower weight to a count of 4 seconds. Move the weight through the full range of motion. When lowering the weight bring it to a comfortable stretch from where you originally started or if you can (in some cases and maintaining proper form) let the weight stack lightly touch at the starting position and slowly start the next repetition. NO CLANKING! If you can’t set the weight down quietly even on the last rep, then don’t bother to pick it up to start.
- No pauses on any of the “pressing exercises.” Presses are across multiple joints and are known as compound or closed chain exercises. For example, the Leg Press works muscles across the hip and knee joints and in the case of the Chest Press you work muscles across the chest and elbow. The idea here is just before reaching full extension to not to lock out the elbows or knees. Once you reach that point just shy of full extension perform a slow turnaround and lower the weight. The rationale is to protect the joint and secondly keep the muscle groups under load.
- Work to fatigue on each exercise.
- No rest between exercises.
- If you achieve a goal of 10 reps then raise weight approximately 5-10% next time you do that exercise and start the process over again!
Beginner? Is time an issue? Then use these quick and effective workouts:
|Routine 1||Routine 2||Routine 3|
|Leg Press||Leg Press||Leg Press|
|Lat Pulldown||Seated Row||Assisted Chin|
|Shoulder Press||Incline Chest Press||Chest Press|
|Dumbbell Arm Curl*||Arm Curl||Cable Arm Curl|
|Seated Dip||Tricep Extension||Cable Tricep Extension|
*Designates a free weight exercise
Consult with your doctor before starting any exercise program. All opinions expressed in this paper are solely my own. Always seek professional advice before engaging in any physical activity.
Don’t just take my word about HIT or think that this is all there is to know. This is the tip of the iceberg and intended for newbies or gym rats that are ready to try something new and meaningful.
There are numerous credible resources on the subject. A great cache of information can be found on Corporate Warrior. Also, one of my favorite reads is Maximize Your Training, edited by Matt Brzycki, is a great compilation of information from knowledgeable HIT contributors. Lastly, Strength of a Woman: The Truth about Training the Female Body, by Roger Schwab is the definitive HIT guide for women.
Train Brief, Train Hard, and Live Life to Your Full Potential
For Chuck Bixby his introduction to HIT was set in a small circuit based gym in western Pennsylvania equipped in blue and black Nautilus. In the late 80’s while working as an exercise physiologist in a hospital based Human Performance Center in the Philadelphia suburbs he was introduced to the MedX Lumbar Extension Machine. Subsequently, he met Roger Schwab of Main Line Health & Fitness (MLHF) at the University of Florida training on MedX Rehabilitative Exercise Equipment and that’s where his real education began to marry science with “sensible exercise,” HIT. Eventually he went on to spend six years working with and training with Roger and the MLHF staff. Today, Chuck is a Business Development Director for an organization that encourages workforce development of technology professionals, however 15 years since MLHF still lives and breathes HIT through writing, consulting, and training. Please feel free to reach out to Chuck by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.