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Another Look at the Need for Resistance Based Cross Training: Part II

Several posts ago, I introduced and reviewed the need for resistance based cross training.  Discussed at that point were multiple matters, but the following were probably most vital: the Spinning® program, even as wonderful as it is, cannot fulfill all of our fitness needs due to its being essentially one pattern of motion (among other reasons); underuse of muscle groups versus overuse of opposing ones can lead to imbalances and ultimately injury; and resistance training allows one way to address these problems among others.  Here is a brief list of further advantages to resistance training: more muscular substance equals more energy expenditure (an important objective for most individuals); it assists with better body composition (lean-fat mass balance); related to the former, it decelerates or stops lean mass losses that may occur for the sedentary or with merely cardiovascular exercise in play; it improves bone mineral density; it improves joint range of motion and performance; and there are certainly other health and fitness benefits.  If this is not enough, just remember what Mark Allen once claimed: one may well expect improvement in endurance-related performance with up to a 25% decrease in cardiovascular training volume, so long as this is replaced by resistance training.

Now that we have adequately provided something of a rationale for resistance training, let us review some of the more common approaches to resistance training: the traditional, homogeneous approach, the split routine approach, circuit training and muscle confusion formats, and strength classes.  The purpose here is not to exhaustively review matters such as technique, or even what exact movements should be done and when, but rather to set forth some options as to what might be best for the reader to implement given his or her needs.

Traditional
Some decades back, certainly by the 1950s or 60s, some of the first commonly implemented traditional, 3-set per exercise routines began to surface (e.g., bench press: 3 sets of 10, military press: 3 sets of 10, and so forth).  Each set would have been followed by a relatively brief rest interval of 1-2 minutes, and for this reason and others, this approach has been somewhat criticized as of late.  Unfortunately, one common misstep in the health and fitness industry is to unfairly and without just cause marginalize an approach to training.  While there may be reasons why this type of approach is not warranted for certain people; it remains sound for people who require these: simplicity, a highly formulaic routine to get established, or a program that presumes upon limited access to advanced equipment.  What are some disadvantages?  This approach tends to be time consuming (all in one day); it tends to not be multi-planar enough (variety of motions), and it may also lead to the misunderstanding that routine is by definition an ally.  The traditional approach may actually be done with virtually any type of equipment, running the gamut from: weight stack apparatuses, body weight, suspension (also known as TRX®) training, free weights, tubing, medicine balls, or really any weighted object(s).  The core issue is that one performs the same basic movements for 2-4 sets; with perhaps some progressions like set count, added weight or pyramids, supersets, or tempo/repetition changes.  That is, on each day, there may be minor changes in structure, but the basic format remains the same for the most part.  Here is an example: one would target chest, shoulders, back, abdominals, biceps, triceps, quadriceps, glutes and hamstrings, and calves: 2-4 sets of 1-3 exercises lasting 8-12 repetitions.  These are some of the more common generalities that have been evolving since the 1950s, and they can be beneficial in themselves while also providing a base from which to launch other, more advanced platforms. 

Split Routine
Again, this method may be handled utilizing a variety of equipment or resistance types; however, the main element here is that on at least two separate days, two separate routines are being undertaken.  A simple example might entail: Days 1 and 3 – chest, shoulders, triceps, and abdominals (one to  three sets of one to three exercises at 8-12 or 6-10 repetitions with heavier weight); and Days 2 and 4 – back, biceps, and legs (same basic layout as days one and three).  Split routines present many other options, too, such as: four-day split routine (i.e., dividing the above 2-day routine in two); push-pull routine (i.e., exercises that are scheduled according to whether they feature pushing or pulling movements); 3-day split routine; upper and lower body; integrated and isolated; and certainly others.  What are some advantages?  If one has the time to devote, this approach can offer a thorough and varied attack that will probably yield more gains than the traditional approach (by virtue of more ways to fatigue both major and minor muscle groups).  What is one disadvantage?  Quite simply, it would have to be time constraints, or possibly that this approach requires careful planning and therefore may not be appropriate for novices.

Circuit Training and Muscle Confusion
Recently, formats such as CrossFit, P90X, Insanity, and some other examples of training have surfaced.  While they offer newer and perhaps more thoroughly challenging methods than that which circuit training plans of yesteryear have done, they hold this idea in common: one may indeed enjoy tremendous strength benefits in surprisingly brief amounts of time, even as paired with noteworthy gains in heart health and cardiovascular performance (due to the limited recoveries/rest periods).  Indeed, while traditional and split routines have often been associated (even if not absolutely) with the simple pairing of set, recover for :30 to 1:30, set , recover; circuit training and muscle confusion formats may instead be structured to offer limited to no recovery time (depending on one’s fitness level).  This not only allows for considerable health and fitness gains, but it allows busy people to insert a highly effective workout into 30 minutes or perhaps less!  One simply moves from exercise to exercise with limited to no break.  Bring a water bottle – no time for walks to the fountain!  What are some potential drawbacks to this approach?  Personally, I would not recommend a fitness novice to begin this way – particularly in the case of muscle confusion – unless there has been some very careful attention paid to how some of the more difficult movements/exercises may be modified.  I would further not steer someone with cardiovascular problems or joint problems to this method first.  Lastly, given the often high energy expenditure associated with this approach, it may not always be the best choice for certain strength athletes looking to increase muscle mass; when one builds muscle via training and protein synthesis, one must maintain a positive energy balance (i.e., more calories ingested than expended).

Strength Classes
In virtually every fitness facility, there is a group exercise class schedule made available.  Among other options such as Spinning, there are often strength classes listed.  Some common ones are barbell classes, Bosu or Swiss ball classes, circuit classes (similar to circuit training), boot camp, and many others.  Some of them fuse cardiovascular and strength exercises together.  Even yoga and Pilates classes’ benefits may coincide with strength gains, or at least they form the stability required in order to train to gain more strength.  How do the classes compare with the above systems?  It would seem that the classes give an attendee some strength benefits without having to concern him or herself with the structure of the workout.  What may on the one hand be an advantage, though, may also become a hindrance: it may well be that there are many out there who actually need to monitor their fitness program(s) in a more thoughtful manner.  That is to say that a class environment may not be providing them with the most optimal individualized options, and these individuals would be best served by seeking guidance from a trainer or carefully researching what may be best for them personally.  An easy solution here, too, would be to take one or two classes per week and train on one’s own with other resistance exercises on the other day(s).

A Few Final Thoughts
The foregoing have been but a few of the most commonly practiced options that have enjoyed currency both in the past and in the present.  We have clearly outlined the need for resistance training – whatever one’s current fitness profile may be, and it truly must be a part of one’s fitness program if it is not already.  I have been careful not to insist on precise movements due to the vast differences that exist between all of us.  However, there remain some practical essentials: 1.) keep the plan from becoming too embedded in routine (e.g., this may only take 4-6 weeks); 2.) do not neglect stretching and/or flexibility work (subject for another piece for sure); 3.) make sure, even if with modifications, that some attention is paid to integrated movements (e.g., trunk rotation, stepping-up/down, lunging, squatting, pushing/push-up, pulling/pull-up), because these are the most like our movements in life; 4.) remember to warm-up and cool-down; and 5.) try not to obsess too much, because making it fun and allowing for some degree of imperfection will make this whole prospect of resistance training (and fitness as a whole) much more tenable!

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