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“Effective resistance training simply requires the selection of a reasonable range of repetitions (based on a personal preference)…and a progression of the resistance to stay within the desired range of repetitions.” Sandee Jungblut, Human Performance Laboratory, Adelphi University, Garden City, NY (Medicina Sportiva 13 (4): 203-209, 2009) 

Some will be skeptical regarding the many options that work. Nevertheless, the science is there for all to see. Those who understand and act will be liberated.

Lifting—Many Ways that Work

Practical Applications of the Basic Principle of Resistance Training

There is only one basic principle of resistance training: Progressive Overload. The options, however, are many.

Progressive overload simply says to increase strength and muscle mass you must keep challenging yourself. Continue lifting until effort is required; the last rep or two should be taxing. Progression means resistance increases along with strength. Effort, however, remains constant. Keep challenging yourself in this way—and you grow leaner and stronger.

A story from Greek mythology illustrates the principle. We told the story last month and it bears repeating. The mythical hero Milo of Croton became the strongest man in the world by lifting and carrying a calf every day until it grew into a full-grown bull. Milo, perhaps unwittingly, achieved the pinnacle of strength by applying the principle of progressive overload.

The critical first step was starting with a manageable load. At the beginning, it took effort to lift the calf. Effort triggered the magic of overload. Growth of the calf kept the process going. Milo became stronger by continuing to lift the calf as it slowly grew in size and weight. By starting with the calf and continuing to hoist the animal as it gradually gained in size and weight his body was able to adapt to the load.

Successful resistance training works the same way. You begin with moderately hard resistance. Like Milo, you then increase the resistance as you grow stronger. It’s logical and, with persistence and patience, it works wonders.

The story of Milo has been known for centuries. Here’s what’s often misunderstood.

New Light on Overload

Dr. Ralph Carpinelli, who teaches exercise physiology at Adelphi University in Garden City, NY, shed light on an obscure principle called the size principle. (The size principle and progressive overload go hand in hand.) His incisive analysis has the potential to broaden the appeal of resistance training beyond anything previously imagined.

As we explained here a few months back, Carpinelli concluded after exhaustive review that the size principle (and progressive overload) does not mandate the lifting of off-putting and intimidating poundages. It simply means that effort is required. See Forget Heavy, Think Effort http://www.cbass.com/Carpinelli.htm .

Fortunately, that can be accomplished in many ways.

In our last update, we promised to discussion a new review article explaining the practical application of effort-based training. We said you’d be amazed at the options available. That’s true; there’s a way to suit practically everyone.

The review article (Medicina Sportiva 13 (4): 203-209, 2009) is by Sandee Jungblut, an associate of Dr. Carpinelli at the Adelphi University Human Performance Laboratory. As just indicated, Carpinelli wrote a landmark review of studies interpreting the size principle. (Technically speaking, the size principle says that muscle fibers contract in order of size, from small to large, and that maximum effort elicits maximum activation; again, see link above.)

Sandee Jungblut is a gerontological nurse practitioner with 25 years of personal involvement in resistance training. As a fitness consultant, she assisted in supervising the strength and conditioning of over 400 participants in the Long Island Lighting Company's fitness program.

Jungblut combed the literature for practical applications of the size principle, or effort-based training. We’ll summarize her findings, and then add an idea or two of our own. Some will be skeptical regarding the many options that work. Nevertheless, the science is there for all to see. Those who understand and act will be liberated.

Jungblut examined two lines of research with different end points. The first group of studies used muscle fiber activation level (AL) to compare training methods. (For an explanation of the interpolated twitch technique used to measure activation level, see Forget Heavy link above.)  The second line of studies used strength gain to compare the effectiveness of training techniques. Both end points provide an objective assessment of training methods. Objective assessment is more reliable than opinion.

Count the Ways

Activation level (AL) studies support the direct relationship between effort—the degree of difficulty in performing the exercise—and nerve and muscle activity. “A maximum effort elicits maximal or near maximal activation of motor units,” Jungblut writes.

One AL study in particular drives home the “profound practical application” of this finding for resistance training generally.

Young males who had been lifting for at least one year were tested for AL after performing 5RM, 10RM, and 20RM dumbbell curls (RM = repetition maximum). Repetition duration was 3 seconds positive, 1 second pause, and 3 seconds negative. In other words, each rep, up and down, took 5 seconds. Total time under load (TUL) was therefore 35, 70, and 140 seconds for 5, 10, and 20 reps, respectively. The resistance was, of necessity, substantially different for each rep range. More weight can be lifted 5 times than 10 or 20 times.

Think about it. Low reps, mid-range reps, high reps; heavy, medium, light. That about covers the usual options, doesn’t it? (As we will see, there are more.)

As Dr. Carpinelli—and the size principle—would predict, AL was essentially the same for all three rep ranges. “The three different amounts of resistance (and the different TUL) elicited similar activation levels of motor units (93.5 to 95.5%),” Jungblut reports, “because there was a maximal effort (RM) on the last repetition of each protocol.” (Emphasis mine)

The researchers concluded that the popular opinion that a 5RM would produce greater muscle fiber response was not supported. “In fact,” Jungblut adds, “their study shows that it was the degree of effort in performing the final repetition that determined motor unit activation and not the resistance or time-under-load (TUL).”

So, the choice is yours. You can lift heavy or light. Your muscles will respond the same—as long as the last rep or so challenges you level of strength.

Jungblut is not done, however.

She moves on to two noteworthy resistance training studies.

In the first study, the variable is TUL (and poundage lifted). The end points are strength gain and increase in muscle thickness. Young males new to lifting performed one warm-up set and three regulars sets of five machine exercises (squat, chest press, pull-down, ab crunch, and back extension). They trained twice a week for 13 weeks with progressively increasing resistance allowing 8 reps (8RM).  One group performed relatively fast reps (1s positive and 1s negative), and the other group did slower reps (3s up and 3s down). More weight can be lifted with a fast cadence than slow. The fast-rep group, therefore, used heavier resistance to achieve 8-rep max than did the slow-lifting group.

The authors observed that almost all muscle fibers were recruited on the final rep of all sets. (Electromyographic signals provided confirmation.) Both groups, fast and slow, performed all sets to exhaustion. As a result, both groups significantly increased 1RM strength (all five exercises) and muscle thickness (ultrasound measurement). Importantly, there was no significant difference in results between groups.

Jungblut commented: “The large difference in the amount of resistance used [and TUL] for training did not produce a significant difference in strength gains or muscle thickness between the training groups because the effort at the end of each set was similar (maximal).” (Emphasis mine)

Fast and slow reps are equally effective. The choice is yours.

The second resistance training study will probably surprise you, as it did me. It compared traditional weight resistance training (WRT) and manual resistance training (MRT). The results suggest that resistance-training options are almost limitless. It appears that any form of resistance that requires maximum or near maximum effort will build strength and muscle.

Here are the details.

Healthy college students (46 males and 38 females) were assigned to either a traditional weight training group (WRT) or a manual resistance group (MRT). The amount of resistance can’t be quantified with MRT, because the resistance is “provided manually by another person (a spotter)” rather than by barbells, dumbbells, or machines. “By targeting comparable muscle groups and exercise movements as closely as possible” the MRT exercises were similar to the WRT exercises. Both groups performed 2-4 sets of 8-12RM for 6-9 “large muscle group exercises” three times a week for 14 weeks, with identical rest intervals between sets and exercises.

Free weight 1RM bench press and squat exercises were used to measure strength gain in both groups. The authors of the study noted: “The WRT group had an apparent advantage in the free weight 1RM testing because the same equipment was used for training and assessment, whereas the MRT group did not use any free weights or exercise machines during the 14 week program.”

Nevertheless, both groups showed similar and significant increases in muscular strength for both the bench press and the squat.

Jungblut explains how that could happen: “[While] the amount of resistance applied by the spotters…was not know in the MRT group…the stimulus for similar strength gains in both groups was most likely the same degree of effort—maximal.”

There’s more, but you get the idea loud and clear. The overwhelming weight of the evidence (82 out of 90 studies) is that any mode of resistance training that elicits a high degree of effort builds strength.

This concept may have been misunderstood—or ignored—in recent times, but it is not new. Jungblut says it has been known for many years that effort is the key to strength gains.

“A half century ago [Science 1957],” she writes, “Henneman published his research on the size principle and explained that increasingly larger motor units require progressively greater increases in the intensity of the stimulus.” Greater intensity, not poundage. 

What’s more, Jungblut relates that Digby G. Sale, PhD, published a lengthy review on the practical application of resistance training in Exercise Sport Science Review (1987) explaining that “the trainee may execute a single maximum repetition; or…perform repetitions to muscular fatigue with five repetitions or 10 repetitions.” Sale further observed “that motor unit activation would not be maximal at the beginning of the 5RM or 10RM sets but would be maximal at the termination of either set and similar to the 1RM motor unit activation.”

Dr. Sale, a respected professor of neuromuscular exercise physiology at McMaster University in Canada, nailed it. He deserves a long overdue pat on the back--as Terry Todd might say, an attaboy. He’s entitled to say, “I told you so.” (He's too polite, of course.)

Final Thoughts

Jungblut points out that none of the motor unit activation studies speculate on the minimum activation threshold required for optimal strength gains. The activation level required to increase muscular strength is unknown. It may be less than the activation levels reported in the interpolated twitch studies. “A maximal or near maximal effort simply ensures maximal or near maximal voluntary unit activation,” Jungblut specifies.

You can’t go wrong with maximum effort, of course. That way, you’ll be sure you have crossed the activation threshold. But it’s perfectly alright--a good idea, actually--to back off on the intensity when you feel tired or over-trained. Set yourself free. Push your limits from time to time and you’ll be fine. Just don’t forget “use it or lose it.” If you never challenge yourself, you will slowly grow weaker. Overload is necessary, but not every workout.

Legendary coach Bill Bowerman’s “hard-day, easy-day” system is a proven recipe for success. In my opinion, no one has ever put it better than Bowerman: “Take a primitive organism, say a freshman. Make it lift, or jump or run. Let it rest. What happens? A little miracle. It gets a little better. It gets a little stronger or faster or more enduring. That’s all training is. Stress. Recover. Improve. You’d think any damn fool could do it. But you don’t. You work too hard and rest too little and get hurt.” (Bowerman by Kenny Moore, Rodale, 2006) For more details: http://www.cbass.com/Bowerman.htm

Experiment. Find the type of resistance training that suits you best—the one you enjoy. Remember: There are many ways. Find the one that works best for you. And keep training.

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