Using lab based research to optimise your gains
– noun. A systematic program of exercises involving the exertion of force against a load. Used to develop strength, endurance, and/or hypertrophy of the muscular system.1
The term Resistance Training (RT) gained popularity during the “weight lifting revolution” of the 1980's, following the hugely successful documentary “Pumping Iron” that tracked the now infamous Arnold Schwarzenegger during his bid for a sixth straight Mr.Olympia bodybuilding title in 1977. Almost overnight, this largely unknown and poorly understood subculture of the fitness world was thrust into the media's spotlight, sparking imaginations all over the world – from scrawny teenagers and the overweight wanting to improve their physique, to research teams striving to understand the muscle physiology responsible for such impressive increases in size. Schwarzenegger-hysteria encouraged the research community to formulate RT studies, with emphasis on how dietary factors and training protocols contribute to muscular increases in mass and strength. Although there is always room for improvement, the general “rules” of dietary intake during any mass building programme have been established for many years:
at least four litres of water per day4,5
2. Eat six meals per day
, plus a Post Workout (PWO) shake 2
3. PWO Shake
: 40g Whey Protein and 80g Dextrose (simple carb)
in water. Take within 45mins of ending the workout in the “Anabolic Window” 3
4. Calorie requirement per da
Accurate Katch-McArdle formula: 21.6 x (Total Mass in Kg – body fat %) + 870
Rough: Mass in pounds x 18
5. Macronutrient requirements
Proven benefit: Whey protein, Dextrose sugar (PWO), Creatine (5g in PWO)9, DHA/EPA.
May have benefit: Glutamine (5g tds), Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAA’s), Multivitamin, Vitamin C (1000mg/day).
These guidelines are based upon decades of trial and error by professional bodybuilders and elite athletes, further supported by thousands of controlled studies. However, our understanding of optimal training protocols in different populations and the cellular mechanisms at work during RT is still very much in it's infancy. The approval of Sports and Exercise Medicine (SEM) as a medical speciality within the UK and other European countries will undoubtedly produce more academics with an interest in muscle physiology and, ultimately, produce findings that can be applied to the young, the old, the injured, and the able-bodied to achieve their specific goals – rehabilitation, increased functional ability and improved performance to name a few. Schwarzenegger's “Pumping Iron” was the catalyst for 25 years of research in this field, bringing us to the level of understanding we have today.
The purpose of this article is to provide a brief overview of the fundamentals required as an individual wishing to undertake a RT protocol and maximise his or her gains. Similarly, it is also for the physician who may be interested in correctly advising patients about any of the commonly discussed facets – such as volume, intensity or training splits. Various research publications on the topic of maximising one's gains through RT have been summarised.
Resistance Training For Size and Strength
When approaching a resistance training programme, it is important to have specific goals in mind. It's surprising that even regular gym-goers frequently lift randomly selected weights, using a randomly selected muscle group, with no objective in mind. Novices even more so. Are they trying to get bigger? Are they trying to get stronger? Are they trying to become more powerful? For many, the distinction between these three terms is blurred, which leads to the achievement of none. The unfortunate thing about these participants is that they simply fail to realise that their training is ineffective. An encouraging nudge in the right direction can give novices the self-confidence to persevere and likewise, give already trained participants the focus to continue improving. It is our responsibility as healthcare providers to ensure that when we rightfully advise our patients to become more active, that we also have the ability to advise them correctly on topics such as exercise choice, technique execution, how often they should lift (frequency), how much they should lift (intensity), how many repetitions and sets (lifts and groups of lifts) they should do, rest intervals between sets and even the speed of movement. Only once the participant is aware of how these factors contribute to inducing muscle hypertrophy and increasing strength, can they decide on an appropriate training protocol to fulfil their desired goals.
Universal Rules of Resistance Training
Correct technique is essential:
Not only does correct technique ensure that all muscle fibres are generating force in a correct and uniformed direction, but more importantly it greatly reduces the risk of injury to the connective tissue structures surrounding the active joints. Those particularly at risk include the novice who is yet to learn the correct posture and execution, and the trained participant who breaks form to try and squeeze out that final repetition. All novices should be advised to ask a gym instructor for demonstration, or be referred to any of the very informative websites that cover correct technique of RT exercises.10 In addition to improving motivation and adherence to sessions, a training partner can also “spot” to ensure correct form is maintained preventing unnecessary injury and also help complete the set.
Compound before Isolation:
A compound resistance exercise is one that uses multiple joints and muscle groups to perform a movement. Classic examples include the Squat, the Deadlift and the Chest Press. Compound exercises are useful for simulating real-world activities of many power sports (rugby, judo) and have been shown to improve co-ordination, balance and stability at the active joints which may further improve sport performance.11
An isolation exercise is one that involves movement at only one joint and targets only one muscle group. Examples include the Bicep Curl, Lateral Raises and Leg Extensions. These exercises are useful for improving strength, size or power of specific muscle groups for sport-specific movements, or as part of a rehabilitation programme following injury. Bodybuilders particularly use isolation exercises when attempting to “sculpt” a specific muscle to a desired shape.
Evidence is strong that compound exercises improve global muscle size and strength far quicker than isolation exercises. This is due to recruitment of a larger population of muscle fibres from multiple muscle groups per repetition, and a subsequent spike in Testosterone and Growth Hormone that exceeds that seen in isolation movements.12 As a result, RT programmes should be focused on compound exercises early on in the session before force production is hindered by fatigue. This will maximise the anabolic hormone response, and therefore cause the greatest gains in the shortest time. Isolation exercises should be used at the end of sessions.13
Keep The Muscle Guessing:
Any progress made within the first six weeks of a new exercise is predominantly neural adaptations14, with muscle fibre, tendon and ligament changes occurring thereafter.15 These structures have been shown to adapt most efficiently using “Progressive Overload” and “Linear Periodisation” methods, ensuring adaptation continues long-term in response to varying levels of stimuli.
Progressive Overload gradually increases the volume of the work done by a muscle group from session to session until a repetition target is met over a specific number of sets. At this point the weight is increased by 5%, and the slow process begins again.16
Linear Periodisation varies both the intensity and volume of sessions throughout the year, as to train specifically for hypertrophy, strength and then power in a cyclical manner. This method is typically adopted by elite athletes.17,18
It is recommended in non-elite athletes to use Progressive Overload for 4-6 weeks, and then substitute exercises for new ones that target the same muscle group, encouraging further adaptations.
To ensure Progressive Overload, a detailed log is vital.
Keeping A Log:
It is important to keep an accurate log of sets, repetitions and intensity of every exercise performed. Not only does this allow the participant to monitor their own progression over time and ensure progressive overload is occurring, but it also serves as an important source of motivation. Being able to quantify one's progress over time provides a sense of achievement that further reinforces the participant's behaviour and encourages continued training.19
Sample training log:
NB. Volume = Total number of repetitions completed per exercise.
Once three sets of 10 repetitions are achieved, the weight is increased by 5%.
Popular Training Splits
A “training split” is effectively a training protocol that aims to split a full body workout over a set number of days, allowing adequate recovery time between muscle-group sessions and avoiding over-training. Training splits are often heavily influenced by the participant's amount of free time and level of experience. The most popular amongst novices and intermediates is the 3-day “push-pull” split, working each muscle group once per week and requiring only three gym sessions.20
Intermediates may extend this to a 4-day split, creating a “shoulders and trapezius day” allowing an entire session to focus on these smaller, yet functionally important, muscle groups.
Many resistance training studies have shown that working a muscle group twice per week causes a greater increase in cross-sectional area of muscle (CSA) compared to training only once, giving rise to the popular “2 on, 1 off” training split often used by intermediate to advanced lifters. For this to be effective, diet and technique must be in check to counter the reduced recovery time between sessions and so is generally not advised to the novice.
The first two weeks of the 2 on, 1 off split:
Goal Orientated Training - Hypertrophy v Strength
– An increase in tissue volume resulting from the enlargement of existing cells.
Hypertrophy has been shown to occur at a microscopic level as little as five weeks into a high volume training protocol. This occurs after the initial neural adaptations that serve to optimise motor unit recruitment within existing muscle tissue.21 High volume protocols have been shown to cause spikes in lactate not seen in other regimens. Lactate is believed to encourage hypertrophy via two mechanisms; 1.Inducing a transient rise in anabolic testosterone release 2.Inducing a transient rise in anabolic growth hormone, which itself amplifies the effect of testosterone.22 Trained athletes can tolerate training at higher levels of lactate, thus increasing their anabolic hormone response.
Many studies have shown that training a muscle group twice per week is far superior to only once, but evidence is lacking as to whether training three times provides any further significant growth.23
The consensus amongst researchers is to work at 70-85% of 1RM (One Maximum Repetition) ie. If an individual's maximal bicep curl is 10Kg, then they should be curling with a 7-8.5Kg dumbell. At 70% 1RM one shouldn't be able to manage more than 12 repetitions, and at 85% no more than 6 repetitions.24 A recent study showed 75% 1RM to have the strongest correlation with increases in muscle mass.23
It has been repeatedly shown that if lifting at optimal intensity (~75%), then one should be aiming for 30-60 repetitions per muscle group per workout to maximise hypertrophy. As 75% 1RM typically allows 10 repetitions before failure, three sets of 10 repetitions are advised on 1-2 different exercises.23,25 More repetitions can be tolerated by advanced lifters, causing a greater lactate induced anabolic hormone spike.
Rest Between Sets
As lactate levels are linked to the degree of anabolic hormone spike, the amount of rest between work is an important, yet frequently overlooked, variable. With intensities <90%, maximal motor unit recruitment is only seen in the presence of fatigue26 , again showing the importance of timed rest. Current literature suggests rest intervals ranging from 60-180 seconds when lifting at an intensity of 75% 1RM, with the majority advising 60-120 seconds, allowing adequate recovery but maintaining an appropriate background level of fatigue and lactate.27,28
Speed of Movement
Muscle tension during contraction has been shown to be a key factor in the induction of hypertrophy29. It is known that eccentric contraction creates more tension than concentric contraction at the same intensity, therefore concentric contractions need to be slower in order to create maximal stimulation. High intensity (>85% 1RM) eccentric contractions however should be avoided as to prevent excessive tension injuries.
- A muscle's ability to resist and overcome an applied force.
The untrained athlete can expect to experience a 40% increase in strength over the initial eight weeks of a structured strength training protocol, while a trained lifter will experience only a 2% increase over the same time period.30 This increase in strength is largely due to optimisation of motor unit activation within the nervous system and increasing the output force of anaerobic type II muscle fibres rather than stimulating significant hypertrophy.31,32
As in hypertrophy training, strength training studies unanimously agree that two sessions per muscle group per week is optimal.33
The literature shows that trained lifters experience optimal strength increases at an intensity of 80-90% of 1RM (4-8 repetitions before failure)34 whereas the untrained athlete's strength improves most rapidly when lifting at 60% of 1RM (15 repetitions).35
The emphasis of strength training is to stress the nervous system and Type II muscle fibres at almost maximal intensities (80-90%), inducing optimisation of motor recruitment.36 These intensities do not physically allow the high volumes required in hypertrophy training. Strength training literature suggests completing 9-25 repetitions per muscle group per session depending on the intensity and experience of the athlete. Impressive gains have been recorded at 90% 1RM completing three sets of three repetitions,37 but also at 80% 1RM completing five sets of five repetitions.38 With such a wide range of proven training volumes, the one to be adopted is largely personal preference based on a detailed log of progress over various intensities.
Rest Between Sets
At such high intensities, each set of repetitions causes significant fatigue which consequently requires more recovery time between sets. Whereas a background level of lactate and fatigue is required to maximise hypertrophy, studies have shown this to not be the case in strength training. Ample time of anywhere between 3-5 minutes is required to oxidise accumulated lactate, enabling volume to be maintained.39
Development of an appropriate RT protocol first requires one to appreciate the different adaptations muscle can undergo in response to varying stimuli, as summarised below.
As healthcare providers and trainers, exercise prescription of RT needs to be delivered with a patient-centred approach, individualised to the patient based on their specific goals, previous experience and safe use of available training equipment. The development of such a protocol should be constructed holistically by exercise physicians, physiotherapists and strength conditioning coaches alongside the individual. Although the guidance outlined by this article will be effective in most individuals, it must be stressed that the vast majority of research was conducted on young, healthy adults. Future research needs to focus on how RT protocols can be modified to best suit the needs of other populations such as the elderly or those in injury rehabilitation.
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