Exercise: The New Revolution in Strength Training

Peter Dickinson, MS, PT, SCS

There is a revolution in strength training. New techniques now give us the ability to keep in shape, and tolerate the changing seasons of activity (and age). It’s called: progressive overload strength training. It’s perfect for anyone with a short attention span since it’s always changing. Maintaining good strength will allow for better tolerance of our busy and hectic lives. It keeps the tendons strong and ready to do new things. It provides the underpinnings of support for the weekend warrior, or enduro stud/studette to succeed.

It used to be that you would go to the gym and lift a weight for 12 repetitions, rest, then repeat again for a total of three ‘sets’. This was actually pretty good since it increased muscle mass, strength, and endurance. The dark side of this picture is that after 4 weeks, the changes stop and you are basically treading water with no additional gains after the first 4 weeks. Yes, you still get benefit in reducing the risk of heart disease, diabetes, colon cancer, and osteoporosis. But what I really want is bigger biceps, and to beat my buddy in the next race.

Progressive overload gradually increases the stress of the body by never letting the muscle get used to the demands placed on it. This forces constant change and improvement in strength and endurance. The same principles apply to endurance activities as well, but this article will deal mostly with strength training. As with any fitness program, consult your physician if you have heart disease, hypertension, or other complicating conditions.

How heavy and how many repetitions?

Light, moderate, and heavy resistances can be used in a strength program. A lighter weight is one that you can lift 20 times before failure, a moderate weight is 12 lifts before failure, and a heavy weight is one you can lift 8 times before failure. You can perform these in sets of three with 1-3 minutes between sets. The heavier the weight, the longer the rest period. If you are starting a weight program from scratch, I recommend performing just one set. Studies have shown a 40% increase in strength in 4 weeks from an untrained initial starting point. You can also get away with less heavy resistance in order to give your muscles an opportunity to adapt, and not wake up feeling like that 80 year old. More experienced individuals will benefit from multiple sets. Typical descriptions of this training would look like 3×20, 3×12, or 3×8. Remember that there is not much left in the tank at the end of a set. Near failure in the exercise is important.

When do I change the resistance?

There are two very popular models for changing the weight-training program. The monthly model changes the set and repetition scheme every month. You would typically start with the lighter weights at 3×20 repetitions, and proceed the second month to 3×12 reps (moderate), and 3×8 reps (heavy) on the third month.

The second method of change is called the undulating model of training. This is perfect for the attention deficit crowd in the gym. Each day of lifting in the week you use a different resistance scheme. Monday is the heavy day with 3x8reps, Wednesday is moderate with 3×1 2, and Friday is getting ready for the weekend with 3×20 repetitions. You can even mix up the days during the week. This is perfect for when you can’t remember, “what was I supposed to do today”. Anything works with this model.

How often and how fast?

Optimal training frequencies have been closely looked at in studies. Beginners can benefit from as little as 2 days per week. As usual, more is better with 3-4 for advanced trainers. You could even alternate frequency with 2 one week, and 3 strength workouts the next. Don’t neglect aerobic activity! Include it in your strength routine if you can’t make it out for a separate workout.

The speed of the lifting can also benefit from change. Beginners should concentrate on a slow steady movement. Power training for advanced trainers can include high-speed movements with lighter resistance. As always, safety is important and it is better to err on the side of slower speeds to protect your­self. There is a super slow movement afloat which does an excellent job of making very slow lifting fun and interesting. While you can get strong, you also get slow! I recommend this to all my biking buddies.

Machines or free weights?

Machines for resistance training are considered very easy and safe, perfect for the novice strength trainer. The advantage of free weights (barbells, dumbbells) is that the trunk and support­ing muscles are more involved in steadying the weight. Activities with free weights can be blended into a program over time to create more change. Other fun activities to keep your muscles guessing are medicine balls, balance and agility aids, and large ‘Swiss’ balls.

In closing, the new method of progressive overload training emphasizes change. It’s the perfect method to use in adapting to the wonderful and varying seasons.

Putting it all together

This is a lot of information, so how do I start? At your local gym, start by warm­ing up for 15 minutes on the bike or treadmill. Then go to the chest press machine and perform 20 repetitions of a weight that is mildly fatiguing by the end. Repeat this 2 more times after resting a minute or two between sets. Move to the next machine and repeat the process. Try to divide the work between 4 upper body exercises, and 3-4 lower body exercises. Start with easy weights since you will be surprised how tiring this is at the end of the workout. Once you have mastered the 20 repetitions, you are ready to start changing the workout!

What about aerobic fitness?

The performance of your aerobic engine also declines with age. The maximum heart rate that you can achieve slows as you age. In the inactive population cardiovascular function declines due to inactivity (when you rest you rot), and increased body weight. The good news is that with training to maintain strength and aerobic abilities the decrease due to aging is halved. It’s recommended that you try for at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise most, if not every day, of the week. The pace of this exercise can be light to moderate (60-80% of your maximum abilities).

Follow the 10% RULE. Increase your mileage and intensity slowly, but don’t overdo it. Don’t exceed your current length or speed of running or biking by more than 10% in a week. Your tendons and joints are unable to adapt to the increase in load if you try to build your mileage or intensity too quickly.

Peter Dickinson is a former director of rehabilitation for the US Ski Team, he conducts seminars nationally on topics in Injury Prevention, Personal Wellness, and Sports Nutrition. Peter has instructed groups as diverse as Olympic athletes to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

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