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:
- Change the order of exercises. Example: If you’ve doing full-body routines, working your back, chest, and legs in that order, try reversing the order to legs, chest, then back.
- Change the exercises. Yes, you’ll want to continue exercising all the same muscle groups, but try using different exercises. Example: If you’ve been doing leg-presses for your thighs and glutes, try doing dumbbell squats instead. Or, instead of performing leg presses using both legs at the same time (bi-lateral), try reducing the load to 50 percent of the bi-lateral resistance and do your leg presses as a separate set for each leg (unilateral) individually. There are many different exercises that can be used for every muscle group, so there is no need to always do the same exercises, the same way, all the time.
- Change the equipment. This is one of my favorite techniques for breaking through plateaus, as well as avoiding or delaying them altogether. By changing the equipment you not only continue working the same muscle groups, but you will recruit the same muscle fibers in a slightly different way, which will enhance the training effect of your workout and keep your workouts fresh and your progress moving forward.
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.
Where did those cool looking muscles go?
Ever notice that during and immediately following a strength training workout that your muscles look really good? So, where did they go?
Enlarging the size of muscles is called hypertrophy. Hypertrophy is the opposite of atrophy, which is when muscles shrink, either due to disuse or disease.
But, there are two kinds of hypertrophy: transient and chronic.
Transient hypertrophy occurs when muscle tissue swells from increased blood accumulation, also known as vasodialation. It is a temporary condition. Your swollen muscles will revert to their normal size as your body returns to its pre-exercise condition.
Chronic hypertrophy is the result of progressive resistance training. This is the process of regularly stressing your muscles by subjecting them to an overload, which is a resistance greater than what they are accustomed to. Over time, they adapt to the overload by becoming stronger, at which point the resistance is increased to create a new, "heavier," workload. Progressive resistance training is a planned process using overload, adaptation, and progression. Not only will the muscles become stronger, they will become bigger. Your larger muscles will remain larger, and even grow more, so long as you engage in progressive resistance training.
While transient hypertroply is only temporary, it is a reasonably accurate indication of what your muscles could look like if you engage in a program of progressive resistance training.
Those of us who are of an age will recall the utter frustration when reading the instruction manual that came with a new electronic product that had been written by someone using English words but who obviously didn’t speak the language well; you could recognize the words but the instructions were incoherent.
Fitness articles are sometimes like that. If you don’t understand most of what you’re reading, the article was not written for you. Read an article about headaches in the New England Journal of Medicine. If you’re not a doctor, you probably can’t even pronounce some of the words, let alone understand what they mean. But, read an article about the same subject on WebMD or MedlinePlus and you’ll probably learn what you need to know.
But even articles that present clear, concise consumer-use information often inadvertently stymie the reader as well, just by using a term or phrase without explaining what it really means.
Example: You should consume 15 calories per pound of desirable body weight if you regularly do moderate activity. Now, if you regularly consume more than 15 calories per pound of desirable body weight you will end up weighing more than your desirable body weight; makes sense. And if you regularly consume fewer than 15 calories you will not have sufficient energy to fuel your moderate activity. So the unanswered question becomes what is moderate activity?
These are some of the words that need clarification. For the most part, these are simple enough words, but because they are quantitative in nature they are only abstractions without some explanation.
Much of the information which follows is taken from the National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health. I find NIH information to always be thorough, reliable, and without ties to any commercial agenda.
WEIGHT MANAGEMENT (AND RELATED) TERMS
Your activity level is a major factor in determining how many calories you need each day to fuel your activities. Over-eat your caloric needs and you’ll gain weight. Under-eat your needs and you’ll lose weight.
Activity levels defined:
- Low: No planned, regular physical activity; occasional weekend or weekly activity (such as golf or recreational tennis) is the only type of physical activity. (NIH)
- Moderate: Participating in physical activities such as swimming, jogging, or fast walking for 30–60 minutes at a time. (NIH)
- Strenuous: Participating in vigorous physical activity for 60 minutes or more at least 4–5 days per week. (NIH)
Desirable Body Weight
It is common to reference caloric needs to desirable body-weight. So, how much should you weigh?
- Women: 100 pounds of body weight for the first 5 feet of height plus 5 pounds for each additional inch. (NIH)
- Men: 106 pounds of body weight for the first 5 feet of height plus 6 pounds for each additional inch. (NIH)
- Frame size adjustment: For a small body frame (see), subtract 10%. For a large frame, add 10%. (NIH)
Note: As a volume of muscle weighs 17.7% more than an equal volume of fat, athletes and others with muscular builds will usually weigh more than those with normal builds when all else is the same.
“Desirable Body Weight,” as discussed above, is based on a “normal” frame (bone) size. To determine what frame size you have, measure the diameter of your wrist and match the results as follows:
o S = less than 5.5”
o M = 5.5” to 5.75”
o L = over 5.75”
o S = less than 6”
o M = 6” to 6.25”
o L = over 6.25”
o S = less than 6.25”
o M = 6.25” to 6.5”
o L = over 6.5”
o S = 5.5” to 6.5”
o M = 6.5” to 7.5”
o L = over 7.5”
All of the above: (NIH)
Another popular technique for determining frame size is to wrap your middle finger and thumb around the smallest part of your wrist. If your finger and thumb overlap each other, you have a small frame; if they just touch, you have a medium frame; and if they don’t touch, you have a large frame. This method is less precise than the measurement technique, but is valid for the way most of us use the information.
Calories Needed for Weight Maintenance
Now that you know what your desirable body weight should be, and how to determine your activity level, use the following formula to determine how many daily calories you should consume to maintain your desirable weight. Consume more, and you’ll gain weight; consume less and you’ll lose weight.
Basis: Calories per pound of desirable body-weight (NIH)
- 10 calories if you are sedentary or very obese
- 13 calories if your activity level is low, or if you are over age 55
- 15 calories if you regularly do moderate activity
- 18 calories if you regularly do strenuous activity
Even though we are hard-wired to think about weight in terms of pounds as displayed on a scale, the real criteria for assessing your weight should not be pounds alone, but what percentage of your weight is fat. Many athletes, for example, are “overweight” based on the charts, but are not “over-fat” based on their body composition.
Body composition is the sum of your parts, as they relate to your body-weight. An assessment of your body composition is used to determine, on a percentage basis, how much fat you have versus lean body mass. Lean body mass is all of your weight that is not fat, and principally consists of muscle, bones, organs, and fluids.
As you age, it is normal that your body composition changes. These changes typically involve a gradual loss of muscle mass and an increased amount of body fat. But these changes are significantly influenced by lifestyle changes. Most people become less physically active as they get older, and these changes may be substantially mitigated by diet and exercise.
Most health clubs and gyms, as well as all personal trainers, can perform simple tests to determine your body composition. If you need to lose weight, it is much smarter to know how many pounds you should shed to arrive at a healthy body-fat percentage than simply picking a target number from a height-weight chart.
Following are age-adjusted body-fat recommendations for men and women. These data are especially useful as most body-fat recommendations found on the Internet do not adjust for age.
Source: Gallagher et al. Am J Clin Nut 2000; 72:694-701
Lean vs. Thin
Lean and thin don’t mean the same thing; indeed, it is possible to be “skinny-fat.” Lean has very positive health implications, whereas thin people often have unhealthy levels of body-fat – just less obvious when you see them with their clothes on. While skinny-fat people may not need to lose weight for aesthetic reasons, they do need to bring their body compositions in line with healthy norms, just the same as if they looked overweight, and for the same reasons.
A major concern for skinny-fat people is that because they don’t look fat with their clothes on, and because their scale-weight is not alarming, they feel little need to lose excess body fat. But, if their scale-weight is within a “normal” range and they have a body-fat percentage that classes them out of the healthy range, they almost certainly have too little muscle mass - not vanity muscles, but what they’ll need to avoid frailty in old age and the attendant impact on their ability to perform activities of daily living. In other words, they face a real likelihood of losing their physical independence. Bummer.
Reconciling Body-fat % vs. Desirable Weight
It may seem that the three preceding sections – Desirable Body Weight, Calories Needed for Weight Management, and Body-fat Percentage - are at odds with each other. But they’re not. Taken separately, each component typically leads to desirable outcomes for the rest. If you regularly consume the calories needed for maintaining your desirable body weight, you will arrive at your desirable body weight, if you’re not already there. Because the components of body composition cannot exceed 100%, when your body-fat percentage is within the healthy range, your lean mass is automatically within the healthy range, too. Exercise contributes to calories burned, which eases the burden of calorie restriction using diet alone.
STRENGTH TRAINING TERMS
“Strength training” applies to various modalities, but they all have one thing in common: applying the force of your muscles against a resistance workload that imposes a challenge. Resistance can be in the following forms:
- free-weights (barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, etc.)
- resistance machines that mimic the movements and workload of free-weights
- resistance bands or tubes that create resistance by stretching them
- body-weight exercises, such as push-ups, pull-ups, and sit-ups
Weightlifting or “lifting” are terms that apply specifically to free-weights (“weights”), and resistance/weight machines.
Lifting is also a generic term that applies to working with weights and weight machines, regardless of the nature of the movement. In this regard, “lifting” may be equally applied to any movement that involves pushing or pulling movements against resistance. Examples: a biceps curl is a pulling movement, whereas a chest-press is a pushing movement.
Core is too often misunderstood to mean the abdominals; the core is much more than that, and is perhaps the most important group of muscles in the body. The core muscles run through the length of the trunk and torso, and they act to transfer power between the extremities - both side to side, and upper to lower - by stabilizing movement through the spine, pelvis and shoulder girdle.
When you think about hitting, swinging and lifting actions, it’s easy to class them as arm movements. Now, picture yourself going through the full range of motions involved in hitting a homerun, or driving a golf ball 300 yards down the fairway, or serving an ace, or bowling a strike. Not an athlete? The same principle applies to lifting a child or placing your carry-on in the overhead bin, or putting away the groceries. None of these activities are possible without engaging the core muscles, and any weakness or impairment in the core will limit your ability to do these things well.
The core muscles include:
- Abdominals, (rectus abdominis, internal and external obliques, and transverse abdominis)
- Erector spinae (along the spine, neck through lower back)
- Hip flexors (front of the pelvis and top of the thighs)
- Hip adductors (inner thigh)
- Gluteals (uppermost hamstrings, back and side of the hips, buttocks)
The good news about core training is that because multiple muscles become engaged during many of the core-related exercises, only a few exercises are necessary to exercise the entire core.
With regard to strength training, exercise guidelines usually specify the intensity to be used. A typical strength training guideline for someone with coronary artery disease (CAD) will feature low (light) resistance and high repetitions. Someone working to add muscle size and strength will use a moderate resistance, and when absolute strength and power is the goal, high (heavy) resistance is the mode.
But, what do these intensities really mean and, more importantly, how do you know how much resistance you should use to match a light, moderate, or heavy workload?
There are two ways for measuring resistance training intensity:
1RM is shorthand for how much weight you can lift one time, but not more, or your “one repetition maximum.” Once you have determined your 1RM, you can gauge your exercise intensity by using a percentage of your 1RM as follows:
Workload % of 1RM
Low/light less than 70%
Cautionary note: There is a real risk of injury when attempting to lift an absolute maximum amount of weight, especially without the assistance and supervision of a qualified trainer.
RPE is a subjective way of self-describing your “rating of perceived exertion.” It is less precise than a true 1RM-based resistance workload, but it is unapologetically sufficient for all but the most serious hardcore exercisers seeking maximum results.
For an in-depth discussion about intensity, with special emphasis on RPE, see my earlier article on this blog, Exercise: Measuring Intensity.
Got a question . . .
If there are other fitness terms for which you would like clarification, post a comment and I'll do my best to explain.
This is a 35 page article. It is both the part 2 strength training follow up to my earlier article about calories burned during walking, and a general primer on the subject of strength training as an important component of physical fitness.
I have written this article as a pdf document as it contains various charts and tables which are easier to navigate in that format.
If you are only interested in reading the calories burned portion of the article, skip to page 29. Either way, I hope that you find the article interesting and informative.
During the strength training primer portion I have attempted to demystify much of the misunderstandings about strength training. When discussing or writing about exotic subjects there is a tendency to be overly brief so as to not bore your audience, or to be overly detailed so as to win peer approval. This article was written for you. I hope that it has struck the right balance.
Here's to a stronger, fitter you,
Exercise intensity is a measure of how hard you are working while performing any exercise task. Intensity applies both to cardiorespiratory ("cardio") exercise and to strength training.
Cardio exercise takes many forms - walking, running, and biking are the most common forms that don't require specialized equipment. Equipment-based cardio includes treadmills, stair-climbers, elliptical trainers, and stationary bikes, such as those found in gyms.
Regardless of how you do your cardio, it is really how much oxygen you consume, and your heart-rate response to the exercise that matters - not the equipment you use. In other words, it's all about the physical stress your body experiences during your exercise session.
Programming for exercise intensity is how you or your trainer should structure your exercise program to meet your personal goals.
There are several ways for measuring intensity. In a clinical setting, you can take a graded exercise test ("GXT"), commonly known as a "stress test." It requires special equipment, and should only be performed by a doctor or a specially trained technician.
But stress tests are expensive, and unless you are an elite athlete or your doctor has ordered a GXT because of a specific concern, there are user-friendly tests which most trainers recommend to their clients which not only measure intensity, but serve to create a baseline against which progress over time can be measured.
Ratings of Perceived Exertion
The most popular of the non-clinical tests is called Rating of Perceived Exertion, or "RPE." RPE is a subjective test, wherein the exerciser self-describes their perceived level of intensity based on a numeric scale.
The original RPE model uses a scale of 6 to 20. Many people have trouble relating to a 15-level scale, especially when the first level is 6, and not 1.
A revised RPE model was developed later, and this uses a 10-level scale. Except the first level is not 1, it is 0, and there is a level greater than 10, which is an asterisk (*).
To compound the difficulty in using these "easy-to-use" models is the fact that a same-degree of difficulty may be used in conjunction with more than one numerical value. For instance, in the revised model, a perceived exertion of "very strong" can be rated as a 7, 8, or 9.
Confused? Me too, and I do this for a living.
My Ratings of Perceived Exertion
I have developed my own RPE, which I think you may find useful. It uses a simple 8-level scale, with straightforward descriptions. It can be used for both cardio work and strength training. (Be sure to scroll down to see the second and third pages, which give appropriate examples.) Click on this link to go to my RPE:
If you are curious about the differences between my Modified RPE and the 6-20 and 0-10(+*) models, click on this link to view a comparison chart.
Using an RPE
Muscles, including the heart muscle, must be worked inefficiently to receive the benefits of exercise. A central theme of exercise is the principle of adaptation. This means that by exercising your muscles at an intensity which is achievable, but which is more than what those muscles are accustomed to, after a while those muscles adapt to the unaccustomed intensity by becoming stronger. Once the muscles have become stronger, they become efficient at exercising at what was once a challenging intensity.
But you don't want your muscles to exercise efficiently. So every time your muscles become stronger by adapting to the present workload, its time to increase the intensity.
If you are self-directing your exercise program, remember this simple rule: increase time before increasing speed (cardio), and increase repetitions before increasing resistance (strength).
Example 1: If you are jogging at an 8-minute-per-mile pace for 20 minutes, increase your time to 30 minutes at the same pace before increasing speed, or before introducing hills, etc. And don't expect to go from 20 minutes directly to 30 minutes. The more likely scenario is that you will be able to increase your time from 20 minutes to 22 minutes, then to 25 minutes, etc.
Example 2: If you are performing, say, a biceps curl, using an 8 to 12 repetition (rep) range, start with a weight that you can correctly curl 8 times, but not nine. Stay with that same weight as you become stronger, and can perform more than 8 reps. Once you can curl that same weight more than 12 times, increase the weight to a resistance that you can only curl 8 times, and begin the process anew.
By practicing this type of overload, adaptation, and progression you will become stronger over time, but you won't actually be working any harder.
That's right, you won't be working any harder. That's because when you increase the workload as part of your progression plan, the new work-
load will stay at the same perceived exertion. For example, on my Modified RPE scale, a productive intensity is between levels 4 ("somewhat hard") and 5 ("hard). So as you get stronger, what had been a level 4 becomes a level 3 ("easy"). At this point, you will just adjust your workload back to an intensity which you perceive as a 4. Get it: more intensity, same effort, stronger you.
Using a Rating of Perceived Exertion scale is an excellent way to make sure that you are exercising in a productive zone. By the way, it doesn't matter which RPE scale you use, so long as you use the same one consistently.
I know, real men don't tweet, and execise warm-ups and cool-downs are just a waste of time. You're a Type-A, and your motto is "do it, get it done, and move on to the next thing." But you're treading on dangerous ground, and here's why:
The warm-up is simply a brief period of slow, rhythmic aerobic activity involving the large muscle groups of the body, like the arms, legs and back, as well as other muscle groups that will be used during the exercise session which follows.
And the warm-up does just that - it raises the temperature of the muscles which, in turn, makes them more pliable and delivers an increased oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood supply to them. The oft-used analogy is to that of a piece of taffy: sit on it for a while, or warm it in your hands for a few minutes, and you can bend it; otherwise, try bending it and it will break.
By taking a few minutes to properly prepare your muscles for the training which follows is the best way to minimize the risk for soft tissue (muscles, tendons) injury, as well as psychologically preparing you for the exercise session to follow.
The cool-down is similar to the warm-up phase in that it is performed the same way - slow, rhythmic movement of the large muscle groups.
As important as the warm-up is, the cool-down is at least as important, and perhaps even more so.
The cool-down prevents post-exercise blood pooling in the lower body. It also prevents a too sudden drop in blood pressure, which could otherwise lead to lightheadedness and even fainting.
Other important reasons for an adequate cool-down are to prevent or reduce muscle cramping and spasms, and reducing the risk of post-exercise disturbances in cardiac rhythm.
What to do
For cardio sessions, the best warm-up and cool-down is to perform the same or similiar activites, but at a much lower intensity. For instance, walking is a great warm-up and cool-down activity for jogging; low-intensity cycling is best before and after cardio-intensive cycling, etc.
For resistance training, spend five minutes before and after your workout doing low-intensity cardio (cycling, walking, etc.).
There are no exceptions for performing warm-ups and cool-downs. However, while five minutes of doing these activities before and after is appropriate for most people, some health and/or physical conditions call for longer warm-up and cool-down periods. This applies especially to pregnant women, and to people with asthma, high blood pressure, heart disease, and arthritis.
Stretching will be discussed more thoroughly in other articles under the heading of Flexibility. However, it is rightfully mentioned here as well, albeit for different reasons.
Admittedely, there is some debate within the fitness community as to the need for stretching before, after, or before and after cardio or strength training. I am definitely in favor of stretching both before and after.
Stretching the principle muscles that will be used during the exercise session acts to loosen the associated muscle tissue, enhancing the fluidity and range of motion during the exercise activity.
Pre-exercise stretching should always be done after the warm-up and before the exercise component. This way, the muscle tissue is already warm and pliable.
Post-exercise stretching should be done following the cool-down. It helps return exercised muscles to their normal length, and facilitates removal of waste products which have accumulated in the tissue during the exercise session.
On a final note
Not warming-up and cooling-down is the single biggest mistake we trainers see people make. It is an invitation to musculoskeletal injury or worse. It's like driving home drunk; you may not have an accident any one day, but do it every day and chances are good that some day you will.