Muscles are stupid
Your muscles don’t know and don’t care what kind of equipment is used to exercise them. They simply respond to exercise stresses placed upon them in terms of intensity throughout a movement range. In simple terms, intensity means how hard the exercise is to perform, especially as measured against a muscle’s maximum ability.
There are several ways of understanding and expressing what “maximum ability” means. To the casual exerciser, the idea of maximum ability is a self-described perception of difficulty. The standard term for this is Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE), which asks the exerciser to use a numerical scale to describe the intensity.
There are several REP scales in use. The traditional RPE protocol measures intensity on a scale of 6to 20, with 6 meaning a perceived difficulty equating to very, very light and 20 meaning very,very hard. (For an in-depth discussion about RPE, see my blog posting Exercise: Measuring Intensity).
Serious, dedicated exercisers and fitness professionals measure strength-exercise intensity in relation to - and as a percentage of - the heaviest load an exerciser can “lift” one time, using proper form, tempo, and moving through the full movement range. This is called the 1 repetition maximum (1RM). If an exerciser can, say, bench press 100 pounds one time, then they would perform their exercise routine using a percentage of their 1RM for their multiple-repetition set. Example: if 100 lbs is your 1RM, than 80 lbs would be 80% of your 1RM, and is a measurable standard for performing a multiple-repetition set. In this regard, less than 70% of 1RM is considered low intensity, 70-80% is moderate intensity, and 80-100% of 1RM is high intensity. Low intensity training is appropriate for developing muscularendurance; moderate intensity is best for developing muscular strength and size; and high intensity develops maximum strength and power.
Back to your stupid muscles. Because your stupid muscles don’t know if they are bench-pressing an 80 pound barbell, two 40 pound dumbbells, or an equivalent weight on a bench press machine, the load factor is basically the same. (Yes, there are some nuanced differences between different kinds of equipment, but they hardly matter in the context of a single exercise session.)
Muscles are smart
Your muscles quickly figure out the amount of stress placed upon them on a regular basis and adapt by becoming stronger to accommodate those stresses. Indeed, adaptation is the cornerstone of how we survive as a species – whether it’s adapting to a climate, available foods, necessary skills, societal roles, or anything else that allows us to be viable under circumstances that have changed, or that may be different from the circumstances of other people.
Because your muscles are smart and adapt (by becoming stronger) to repeated exercise sessions using the same equipment and the same loads, over time they end up working less hard to perform those exercises. This is what is commonly known as reaching a plateau, or stall, and your progress stalls, as well.
Outsmarting your muscles
There are several strategies for breaking through the dreaded plateau, but all of them involve changing what you’re doing, and none of them involve continuing to do the same thing. Typical changes may include all or some of the following:
By the way, making the kinds of periodic changes to your workouts as discussed above can done be with home-based workouts, as well as at the gym. If you are doing home-based training, you probably have some basic equipment – perhaps a pair of dumbbells, a stability ball, and a pair of ankle weights. Add an inexpensive set of resistance tubes and you’re well on your way to being able to perform numerous exercises for every muscle group, and at varying intensity levels.
More to come about great home-based workouts with minimal investment.