Last week we discussed overarching principles of exercise, however this week we’re going to discuss those principles and how they are applied to resistance training in more detail. Remember, those principles include specificity, variability, overload, progression, recovery, reversibility, and periodization. It’s a lot to remember, but the key is to reflect and review when your training program isn’t working how you would like it to. This applies to all resistance training.
Factors Affecting Anaerobic/Resistance Training Performance
Keeping those exercise principles in mind, we can specifically manipulate the quality of our resistance training workouts by adjusting the following variables: exercise selection, exercise order, and volume of exercise (training load, repetitions, and rest breaks).
It is also extremely important to understand your needs from a physical perspective to achieve your goal. For example, the resistance training program that addresses your needs as a world class ballerina will be completely different from your needs as an offensive lineman in American football.
Training status and injury status are also extremely important and variables that I deal with on an everyday basis as a physical therapist. Here is a table outlining what that may look like:
Resistance Training Routine
Starting, < 2 months
Training 2-6 months
Training at least 1 year
At least 3x/wk
There are hundreds of resistance training exercises, but they each fall into specific categories based off of the primary muscle groups engaged. You can only move in so many ways!
The first way you can differentiate exercises is by categorizing them into core and assistive exercises.
Core exercises involve multiple joints and large muscle areas such as the back, chest, hips, etc. As the name suggests, these receive priority because they are the most applicable to functional movements performed in everyday life and in sports. Core exercises can be categorized into two additional groups: structural and power. Power involves performing an exercise quickly, thus generating a lot of power. You can perform a squat slowly and controlled as a structural exercise loading the spine and strengthening many joints, but if you perform it quickly it would be addressing the power aspect, which is important in sports and in older adults that have trouble performing functional transfers such as getting out of a deep chair.
Assistive exercises engage smaller muscle areas across one joint such as upper arm, lower arm, calf, neck, etc. These are more the focus with rehab and injury prevention when someone is weak in a specific area.
Muscle groups can also be paired into two different categories that oppose each other’s motions. For example, your biceps bend your arm and flex at the elbow joint, while the triceps extend the arm out straight. These muscles will either be the agonist muscle (muscle is contracting to perform the movement), or the antagonist (muscle is not performing the movement). In a pushup for example, you are pushing up and straightening out your arm to the top of the movement. In this case, the triceps are the agonist muscle group and the biceps are the antagonists. You want to make sure you are performing an opposing motion to match it to prevent large muscle strength disparities. A row would be a great opposing exercise because now you are pulling the weight back as you bend the elbow; therefore the biceps are the agonist muscle and the triceps are the antagonist.
This is why people perform “push” vs “pull” days for the upper body. Generally you will be able to train the opposing agonist muscles on back to back days while the antagonist muscles on each day are able to rest and recover. This is very important for exercise selection when creating a workout routine.
It is also important to note that adequate muscle balance in terms of strength does not mean that opposing muscle groups have equal strength, it’s more important that they have the proper ratio of strength relative to another muscle group.
A final important category of exercise is recovery exercise. This involves any exercise performed at a low intensity with increased number of repetitions that still results in very easy intensity. This can be used at the end of training sessions as a cooldown or on an active rest day to promote recovery back to the pre-exercise state so you can get back to your routine without increased risk of injury. The frequency of these days depends on your training status.
Exercise order is determined by the impact one exercise has on the quality of effort or technique of another exercise. In general, exercises that are more demanding and difficult to perform requiring more concentration should be performed first (power exercises).
Following a dynamic warmup that involves moving different joints into their available ranges of motion (this will be discussed in a separate blog), it’s important to perform power exercises first since they will be extremely difficult to perform if you’re already tired. They require quick movements with the most technique. They are also less fatiguing overall because they are performed quickly as opposed to the fatigue of the body after a run.
Core, Multi-Joint Exercise
These are the large muscle area exercises without a power component to them like a squat or deadlift for the lower extremities and bench/rows for the upper extremities. These will be more fatiguing than power exercises because the movements are slow and controlled with the focus on strength development. Performing these exercises in succession, particularly in beginners, will be significantly fatiguing. It has been shown that fatigued individuals have worse technique, less concentration, and are more susceptible to injury. This is why we want to perform power exercises and then heavier strength exercises first after a dynamic warmup.
Assistive, Single-Joint Exercise
Once you’re tired and the muscles are more fatigued, it’s more appropriate to train with single joint exercise to conclude a workout routine. These are generally performed at lower resistance targeting smaller areas of the body.
This is an extremely helpful format for beginners or people with less time that need to be efficient with their workout routines, which I incorporate most often when working with my physical therapy patients. As I previously mentioned, people who are just starting a training program will fatigue quickly with sets in rapid succession. Therefore, circuit training is beneficial because you will be performing each set of an exercise at a time rather than performing all the sets of an exercise before proceeding to the next.
For example, let’s say I want to train my arms. I perform 10 biceps curls and then switch to 10 triceps extensions before going back to the biceps curls for the second set. This allows me to rest my biceps while I’m performing the triceps extensions and vice versa. Therefore you can reduce the rest breaks between sets, which are often 15-30 seconds or less with circuit training.
You can also perform an upper body exercise (pushups) and pair it with a lower body exercise (squats) so the arms can rest while the legs work. I like doing this with 2-4 exercises because it allows for shorter rest breaks and better efficiency. Technically speaking, pairing 2 exercises like that is referred to as a superset while a compound set involves performing 2 exercises that address the same muscle group. Compound set example: bicep curls then hammer curls.
Volume of Exercise: Training Load and Repetitions
Load refers to the amount of resistance with an exercise and is extremely important because it dictates how many repetitions will be performed. The typical relationship between load and repetition count is shown below:
Percentage of One Rep Maximum
Number of Repetitions Performed
This dictates the training effect of the exercise, which varies from high weight low reps (power and strength) to lower weight higher reps (hypertrophy and muscular endurance). These overlap and have a spectrum. It is also extremely important to note that this applies to core exercises in general, not assistive, single joint exercises.
Like I mentioned before, you have to perform a movement quickly and controlled for it to be considered a “power exercise”, so the rep range for power overlaps with strength quite a bit. If you are performing a single repetition quickly such as training for jump height, you would perform a squat motion with about 80-90% of your 1RM (one rep max) as quickly as possible for 1-2 reps. If you wanted to improve your ability to jump in quick succession such as an olympian performing the triple hop event, you would train with about 75-85% of your 1RM for about 3-5 repetitions.
In terms of sets performed, you would shoot for 3-5 sets of the exercise ideally with 2-5 minute rest breaks as this has been shown to have the best results. Again, this applies to core exercise only and not assistive exercises. This also does not include a warm-up set.
It’s important to note that your ability to perform an exercise won’t completely line up with the above table, because you can train for muscular endurance quite a bit but have under-developed strength. Exercise technique and experience can also have an effect.
In general, strength training as a goal would involve performing an exercise at least 85% of your 1RM and the amount of reps performed would be 6 repetitions or less. The goal is to shoot for 2-6 sets of the training with 2-5 minute rest breaks as well, which does not include a warm up set and only applies to core exercises.
The goal of hypertrophy training is to build muscle bulk and involves performing exercise 3-6 sets at 6-12 repetitions and 67-85% 1RM with relatively shorter rest breaks (30 to 90 seconds). This is because it has been shown that intense exercise at higher volumes can increase the amount of hormones in the body after a workout that favor muscle synthesis.
The goal of muscular endurance training is to improve the muscles’ ability to maintain their output over a sustained period of time, and therefore is optimal for endurance athletes and those recovering from an injury with significant weakness in the affected areas. You would shoot for at least 12 repetitions at 67% or less 1RM load with these exercises and perform 2-3 sets punctuated by 30 second or shorter rest breaks.
In general, it is best to limit increases in load to 2.5-10% between weeks to avoid injury and unintentional form deterioration. You want to be extremely careful that you are not compensating with other muscle groups that should be relaxed during an exercise.
Example: Bending the knees and pushing up with the neck tensed and shoulders up to perform the last few reps of a shoulder press. Not good!!!
Make sure you have access to someone who knows what they’re doing to help you determine proper progression with minimization of injury risk.
I hope that is useful and gives you guys an idea of what is required when building a resistance training program. In the future I’m going to create a sample exercise program for a fake athlete so you get an idea of how to apply this information. Remember, it’s extremely important to start slowly and have guidance from someone who knows what they’re doing to make sure your form is adequate when performing these exercises. Please let me know if you have any questions by messaging, emailing, DMing, or discovery call!