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Resistance Training Exercise Variables

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Learn how to choose exercises based on your goals and how to tailor these exercises to your body type and goals.

Before anyone jumps in to the gym and puts some weight on to a bar and tries to move the weight without knowing what they are doing, they are going to put their body at risk of some serious injury. You have to be aware that putting together a routine for specific training is more difficult than just doing a few of this and some of that. Each exercise that you chose for your routine should be specific to your personal goal from training. The exercises should produce the appropriate movement patterns, target the desired muscle groups and offer neuromuscular benefits.

Once your exercises have been chosen there are many choices that can be made with regard to varying that exercise. Such as the specific technique used, how much weight you use, how often the exercise is performed, what order you perform the exercises, how much rest is used between the sets, this article covers these choices? It’s a long article, but stick with me and at the end of this article your knowledge will elicit a much better and productive training routine. Good luck!

Exercise Technique

Ok, this one everyone knows, every gym expert knows how to perform the exercise, no swinging, full range of motion, no cheating. But how many times have you seen the cheat in the gym who just thinks more weight or fast repetitions is going to bring about bigger muscles. If only weight training was that simple. There is far more to the technique of an exercise or exercise repetition than most people think. The technique of an exercise is the most critical variable of your training routine. Several elements make up exercise technique and the way that these elements are performed, will dictate the overall performance of an exercise. There are seven distinct elements of exercise technique that can be varied to achieve certain goals or specific needs.

  1. Goal identification
  2. Exercise motion
  3. Alignment
  4. Positioning
  5. Stabilization
  6. Repetition tempo
  7. Breathing

1. Goal Identification.

Identifying the specific goal that you want to achieve from your training routine is the most important element of technique. To achieve your goals, attention should be placed on movement, tempo, alignment, positioning, and stabilization strategies. So no matter what your goals are, when modifying your technique for any exercise all biomechanical factors must still be considered and the technique must be kept within your anatomical limits and control abilities. There are normally two reasons for exercise selection; either performance or aesthetic based goals. Most weight training is performed for aesthetic goals. You must remember that your pursuit of a training goal should never necessitate an exercise or technique that compromises your safety or put you at risk of serious injury.

2. Exercise Motion.

The exercise motion varies the most in resistance training which is due to the exercise motion itself dictating the use of individual joints, the recruitment of all muscles involved in your training, and also the specific motor pattern that is to be learned. So the type, path, and tempo (speed) of motion are all critical factors in your training technique. The type and path of motion should be specific to your training goal, and normally is dependant on whether you require goals for performance or aesthetic reasons. The type and path of motion must match the movement pattern that has been targeted for accomplishing your specific goal.

2.1 Range of Motion.

Range of Motion (or ROM) describes joint and muscle performance and is described by body movements. Your specific training goals have an influence of determining your ROM for any exercise. Bones themselves limit ROM by their design and shape, allowing for certain degrees of movement only.

ROM is also limited by joint structures. A joint of the body is where two or more bones meet, the bones themselves are held together by ligaments and the muscles attach to bone via their tendons. The elastic properties of the ligament and tendons are low because they are not designed to stretch, but to stabilize and control joint movement. Significant stretching of a ligament or tendon may result in a tear or a deformity and reduce their ability to stabilize and control a joint. The joints of the body also have a ROM and are used to stabilize the joint and transfer forces from working muscles to the adjacent bone.

Joints are at risk of damage with ROM outside its prescribed limits. Muscle limits ROM in several ways, one is known as active insufficiency and describes a muscle that fails to produce active tension once shortened or lengthened too far. So be careful that if targeting a certain muscle that is part of your goal, then the ROM of the movement should be kept within the limits of where the muscle is able to maintain active tension and produce the necessary force. This is particularly true for the muscles that cross over two or more joints, these muscles are prone to active insufficiency when they are either shortened or lengthened over both joints simultaneously.

Muscles also become fatigued from training and produce less force on each subsequent repetition which decreases in ROM due to variation of the ROM when the muscle fatigues.

3. Alignment.

Alignment is correct matching of two forces, either a pushing force or a pulling force. Muscle physiology states that a muscle tendon unit can only contract or shorten and this action is classed as a pulling force. The only way to lengthen a muscle is from the active shortening of the antagonistic muscle or from an outside force. Muscles pull on bones which in turn act as a series of levers that can pull objects towards us, or through a combination of pulls that crates a pushing force to move objects, such as in the bench press. When alignment is used to obtain goals it should be stressed that the integrity of the musculo-skeletal system should not be compromised for the pursuit of your goals.

Joints have a purpose in the musculo-skeletal system and there is a risk of injury if putting joints through precarious positions in training. Alignment options are usually limited to small adjustments to target one muscle over another or to attempt a variation in recruitment pattern.

4. Positioning.

During resistance training you should be aware of your positioning of the body from the ground up. Especially the two parts of the body namely the pelvis and the spine. The spine is the main component of the skeleton along with the pelvis and rib cage, and provides the main support structure of the body and plays an important part for mobility through different movement planes. Body positioning also plays an important part of technique. The exact positioning and movement patterns of the spine that are strengthened during a resistance training program will determine which positions and movements it will perform best during sport and life activities.

5. Stabilization.

Stabilization of any joint may be defined as the internal ability to control all desired movement or non-movement of the body. Stabilization of any joint may be classified as either a static demand or a dynamic demand. All exercises require combinations of both and also have some level of balance demand. Without stabilization, positioning, alignment, and motion would all be compromised and stabilization requires the integrated function of all three systems involved in movement. The passive-skeletal system relies on active-muscular system for holding a joint position. The active system then in turn is reliant on its relationship with the control system.

6. Tempo.

This subject is one of the most overlooked elements of exercise technique. Tempo for weight training or resistance training is the actual speed of each repetition and can bring about different training adaptations. Our neuromuscular system not only adapts the type, range, and specificity of motion, but the speed of motion as well.

The human body has mechanoreceptors within the joints, connective tissues, and muscles that monitor the type, range, and specificity of motion, and also the speed of motion. The type of muscle force is not as important as the rate of force production. So there will be specific tempo’s to use for targeting specific types of strength gains.

Slower tempos with pauses at the eccentric-isometric phase (where muscles are lengthened) could be better for targeting maximum strength and isometric strength gains. So faster tempos with no pause at the eccentric-isometric phase that induce a stretch reflex would be more appropriate if training for explosive strength and increasing power.

There are also biomechanical factors that are associated with tempo and should be considered to match an exercise to your anatomical make up and abilities. For someone who has longer limb lengths, the joints and weight loads applied will be moving at a faster rate than someone who has shorter limbs. This is due to the larger ranges of joint motion incurred by longer limbed people to produce the same movement as their shorter counterparts. Therefore, slower tempos may be appropriate for these people to accomplish similar training goals.

6.1 Tempo Assignment.

You may find that some routines that are shown in magazines, or manuals will have a repetition speed given as a numerical number. Years ago this number was given as a two digit number; (e.g., 2-2) the first number expressed the eccentric or lowering phase of the exercise (as in the bench press). The second represented the concentric or lifting phase.

Later, a further number was added in between the above mentioned two figures, (e.g., 2-1-2) this third number referred to the isometric phase of the repetition, which would exist at some level between the eccentric and concentric phases.

Everett Aaberg developed a system that added a further digit (e.g., 2-1-2-1) that would occur at the end of the concentric phase and at the beginning of the following eccentric phase. So from this four digit number the phases are described as; the first number representing the eccentric phase, when the weight is lowered. The second number represents the eccentric-isometric phase and is the conversion point of the eccentric and concentric muscle action. (The assignment of this number is often the key for achieving different strength training adaptations and for different training goals). The third number represents the concentric phase of the repetition which is typically described as the lifting phase. The fourth number represents the concentric-isometric phase and is normally considered as a resting phase of the repetition.

Unless stated in any given routine your exercise tempo should be that each exercise should be performed in a slow controlled movement with momentary pauses at the starting and ending points of each exercise. This would mean a one second eccentric-isometric phase and the same time for the concentric-isometric phase. This tempo is used to learn and master the movement pattern, stabilize the instructed alignment and positioning and also to integrate the breathing technique. However once you have mastered the repetition tempo, and the exercise and breathing technique then changes to your tempo is suggested to better match your training goals and training phases.

7. Breathing.

Breathing is normally another element of technique that is overlooked. The core of the body has dual roles that it must perform together, one role is the spinal and pelvic stabilization and another role is respiration. With a proper breathing method the mechanics and associated muscle actions of respiration will assist with control of the intra-abdominal pressure and also provide increased stabilization of the spine and pelvic girdle.

For most exercises, inhalation will begin as the movement begins, which is the eccentric phase of the repetition, inhalation is initiated by the contraction of the diaphragm. This creates a downward pressure on the viscera in the abdominal cavity while simultaneously helping the lungs to draw in more air. The downward pressure forces the contents of the abdominal cavity down, back and forward causing a slight distension and tightening of the abdominal wall. This results in increased intra-abdominal pressure and combines with neurological reactions of the other core muscles to create joint stiffness of the spine and increase the stabilization of the pelvis. As inhalation continues, there should be an expansion and elevation of the rib cage which allows for maximal lung volume and further straightens the spine and helps to stabilize posture.

Exhalation begins as the movement is reversed, which is typically during the concentric phase. To assist with maintenance of optimal posture and avoid the tendency to flex the spine upon exhalation you should activate a contraction of the transverse abdominis and draw the abdominal wall in slightly toward the spine. This helps to maintain higher levels of intra-abdominal and intrathoracic pressure, and again is linked to contractions of other core muscles that will assist in stabilizing the spine and pelvis. Note that full exhalation during most resistance exercises is not recommended.

Maintenance of some air in the lungs helps maintain intrathoracic pressure and keep the rib cage partially expanded and elevated which helps to continue stabilization of optimal pressure. At the concentric-isometric phase, a tight contraction of the transverse abdominis along with an isometric contraction of the outer abdominals and trunk muscles can often be felt. As inhalation and the eccentric movement begin, you should again initiate a contraction of the diaphragm and relax slightly the transverse abdominis, to allow for the slight distension of the abdominal wall to repeat the inhalation process.

Technique Relationships.

As stated, all elements of technique are interdependent and have what can even be considered co-dependent relationships. All elements of technique should be directly related to and affected by the training goals associated with any specific exercise. Only then can the movement itself-along with the alignment, positioning, and stabilization options be selected, even the tempo, and to a lesser degree the specific breathing method, is reliant on the identified training goal.

A change of any element of technique will in turn affect the others. For example, if the positioning option is changed, then the movement is altered and the alignment of forces is also automatically changed. Stabilization strategies will need to be modified, as will tempo and perhaps the breathing... Therefore, it is important to consider all elements of technique collectively and to realise the overall benefits or risks associated with any modifications.

Exercise Variations

Once an exercise has been chosen there are many choices for varying that exercise. Think of the almost infinite number of ways that you could vary any resistance exercise, such as the specific technique that is used, how much resistance is applied, how much and how often the exercise is performed, what order the exercises are arranged in and how much rest is planned between exercises. A well designed program will help dictate how all exercise variables should be selected. The following sections go through other variables for routine design.

  1. Intensity
  2. Volume
  3. Sets
  4. Duration
  5. Frequency
  6. Recovery
  7. Exercise order

1. Intensity.

An important part of any exercise is the intensity that is chosen to perform that exercise. Many people say that intensity can be more important than the technique of the exercise because an exercise that is performed at a high intensity can affect the technique of an exercise. Be aware that anytime that the intensity of an exercise causes body movement in any way, or causes incorrect breathing, or the changes the tempo of the exercise, then the intensity is too high.

Intensity can be defined as the amount of effort produced compared to the amount of effort possible. In weight training intensity is related to the load or resistance used. Intensity is also expressed as a percentage of a one-repetition maximum effort (1-RM) it is not necessary to perform a 1RM on every exercise to determine the intensity of that exercise. One way to estimate the working intensity is by using an estimate of a six rep maximum lift which would equal approx 85% of a persons 1RM but this estimate can vary person to person and is normally not used to obtain the training intensity.

When selecting a weight for a new exercise always start with a low weight to first practice the technique and movement pattern, then increase the weight to your given working rep range for the goal of your training. Remember that you may also need to lower the weight if you can not complete the repetition range with proper technique.

1.1 Intensity and its Relationship with Volume.

The relationship between intensity and volume is quite probably the most critical to understand because there are so many components of training volume. Most experts agree that there are strong reasons to decrease total volumes as training intensity increases. There are many opinions as to just how much volume should be decreased, and how it should be done. Volume consists of more than just the number of repetitions and the tempo of speed in which they are performed. The number of sets in a given routine, and the duration and frequency of the routines themselves, will also need to be considered. The following sections summarize how intensity relates to each component of training volume.

1.2 Intensity and Repetitions.

One part of the training routine that is quite easy to change is the amount of repetitions that are performed. The amount of repetitions is normally regulated by neuromuscular ability. As your intensity increases, then normally the amount of repetitions that you are able to perform normally goes down, this leads to a decrease in the amount of total work done in your routine. But if the intensity is decreased then more repetitions would be able to be performed and would result in an increase in the total amount of work performed in your routine.

1.3 Intensity and Tempo.

Tempo has already been covered above in this article, but the intensity of a routine should also influence the amount of time taken to perform your repetition. The norm is that the greater the weight the faster the weight will move as it is lowered, and will move slower as you raise the weight due to heavier loads being more difficult to decelerate and accelerate. But the time taken for your repetitions can have an effect on the specific type of strength adaptation that you will achieve. So using the information above, the specific speed of the repetition should be predetermined by your training programme, rather than by the weight that you are lifting. Although the rep timing will be influenced by the weight increases, particularly as your weight increases due to the higher weight being more difficult to control. Your repetition timing should be reduced when the weight used is higher. Although the above does not apply to power lifters or to power training due to the technique required to perform the lifts is reliant on higher speed of the lift. Although remember that lifting heavier weight at a faster speed always carries the extra risk of an injury.

1.4 Intensity and Sets.

The number of sets that you do in your routine is entirely your choice, but you should give the routine some thought, The training principle states; as your intensity increases and your repetitions decrease then your number of sets should increase, this is important if your goals are to grow muscle (hypertrophy). Muscle size accompanies muscle tissue adaptation to the stress created from the combination of your training intensity and the amount of weight lifted in your training programme. The combination of your intensity and amount lifted is critical for muscle growth to happen. If you do not add sets to offset the reduction of repetitions in response to your use of higher weight, then the amount of total weight lifted makes it difficult to gain or even maintain your muscle size.

1.5 Intensity, Duration, and Frequency.

The intensity of your routine should also have an effect of the duration and frequency of your routine. Duration and frequency have an inverse relationship. The duration of your routine will be determined by the amount of weight lifted in a session. As the amount of time spent training increases, then more recovery time is required, so this would decrease the amount of time lifted. So if you increase your sets as your intensity is increased for each of your exercises in your routine the duration will of course also be increased and the amount of sessions decreased. But be aware that this may not be a wise choice as you will be limited into how long and how often you train.

Also another thing that needs to be considered when putting together a routine is the amount of exercises in your training program. If your intention is to increase the amount lifted in a set, decreasing the amount of sets or increasing sets using slower lifting speeds, it is prudent to reduce the number of exercises performed per body part. This maintains proper ratios of the amount lifted and intensity, but also allows extra recovery time needed when working with heavier weights. It also will allow for adherence to duration and frequency of your routine schedules. People who perform routines that are too long with training intensities to high can or will experience overtraining, which leads to fatigue, a decrease in your performance, health problems and above all is a very high risk of injury.

Also in relation to the above, a routine that is performed with low intensity and low total weight lifted in the routine will result in a lack of work for muscle growth and wont allow for enough stimulation for neural adaptations, which is crucial for increases in strength or to benefit hormonal responses which are conducive to muscle gains and an increase in metabolic activity.

1.6 Intensity and Recovery.

When you increase the workout intensity, you not only stress your joints and tissues but also stress the neural structures of the muscle control system. Nerve cells take five or six times longer to recover than muscle cells do. In very high intensity training phases (Olympic lifts, power lifting lifts) rest times can be as high as 6-8 minutes between sets. This allows for complete neural and metabolic recovery. Rest periods between sets are not set into stone and can vary often with active recovery such as performing supersets with exercises that are opposite to the previous exercise is an option for complete rest; such as in super-setting bicep curls and tricep pushdowns. This allows for adequate recovery of the specific motor units previously recruited and also gives more opportunity for an increase of overall work.

1.7 Intensity and Exercise Choice.

The intensity of your exercise will dictate where in your routine you put it. The higher the intensity of an exercise the more the neural demand that is put on the muscle. So normally a high intensity exercise is placed at the top of the routine. But certain biomechanical factors such as the effect on stabilizers needed for subsequent movements or the priority of your goals may need a change of the normal sequence of your routine. You can spread intense exercises throughout your routine rather than place them all at the beginning. This would require a more consistent level of effort throughout the routine and would also promote a more consistent hormonal response as well to your routine. You should also remember that the later in the routine that you put high intensity exercises the worse your performance is likely to be.

2. Volume.

Volume describes the total amount of time a muscle is under tension. Initial volume is the total amount of time under tension for the muscle during a single set, and total volume. Initial volume is calculated by multiplying the number of repetitions by the number of seconds and then by the tempo of each repetition. Each exercise for that are would also need to be considered for determining initial volume. Total volume is calculated for a given phase namely a macrocycle or a microcycle by multiplying the initial volume by the frequency it was performed during the phase or cycle. Disciplined record keeping with a training log is a simple method of tracking your volume of training. Normally a pre-planned training routine will already have the training volume calculated in advance.

3. Sets.

The number of sets performed is a personal choice normally ranging from 1-12 sets per body part, depending on your personal goals. As already discussed previously in this article there should be an inverse relationship between the number of sets and the number of repetitions that are performed, and a correlating relationship of sets with the intensity used. The overall body mass, muscle size, muscle type, gender and level of conditioning all influence the number of sets that you perform. Larger framed people who weight train tend to get a greater benefit with more training sets then smaller framed people. The fast twitch muscles develop better with more sets and heavier weights, while slower twitch muscles develop better with fewer sets and with lighter weights. Females respond better to less sets then the average male.

Once you become more experienced to weight training then you will find that you can tolerate more sets and more weight to see progress. But beginners would not recover properly from using higher training loads, but can benefit with less sets, sometimes a complete beginner would benefit with just one set. As always stated the quality of your training set is better than the quantity.

4. Duration.

The duration can be any part of your routine like a set, a repetition, routine, or cycle. The duration of a repetition is the time that a muscle is under tension and should be determined by the type of strength gains that is required. The duration of a set is based on the neural-metabolic adaptations needed to achieve your goal, strength, and endurance or muscle growth. Duration of a routine is based on the total number of sets and the recovery time taken between the sets, and can vary due to your level of conditioning or the time you have available for your training. The recommended time for a routine or single session is normally 30-60 minutes the reason for this is that the normal levels of glycogen stores will quite likely be almost depleted by the end of this time.

5. Frequency.

Frequency relates to how often an exercise is performed. The frequency of an exercise is dependent on your experience, how hard it is to perform, or its requirement to achieve a certain goal. An exercise must be performed often enough, particularly when new or highly complex. In order to develop and store the various specific stimuli of the new or modified motor units. Frequently; new exercises are not properly performed with the correct technique or with enough frequency which results in faulty motor patterns that are inefficient and involve compensation. On the other hand when the same new exercise is performed too frequently this can result in muscle imbalances, connective tissue strain, and the increased wear of the surfaces of the joint. Frequency of a routine is dependant on several factors. One main one is recovery, frequency of the training routines can also be set by which training phase it is in a training cycle, which may mean that the frequency of the routine may vary throughout the training year. That said most trainers perform the frequency of their training routine to how many days they are free to train as opposed to scientific reasons.

6. Recovery.

Recovery is a crucial variable for your performance of a set, or your entire routine. Recovery is also influenced by intensity and should be correlated with initial and overall volume. Recovery is also required for the adaptation process and tissue repair may take two to ten days depending on the individual, the levels of intensity and volume and also the muscles physiological make up. All muscles recover at different rates with the larger ones taking longer than the smaller ones. Fast twitch fibers recovery takes longer than the slow twitch fibers. Larger people may also take longer to recover than smaller people, depending on the present condition, experience to training and genetics. Exercise routines for larger people that include high intensity – low repetition training that targets the fast twitch muscle fibers will require more recovery than a smaller person performing low intensity, high repetition training that targets the slow twitch muscle fibers. You should always remember that your muscles only become stronger, bigger or develop more stamina on your non-training rest days.

Lack of adequate recovery between workout routines leads to exhaustion and possibly overtraining. Exhaustion is the short term imbalances of stress and recovery. Whereas overtraining is the long term result. Overtraining causes a decrease in tissue repair and central nervous system function; it can also create hormonal imbalances and leads to an impaired immune system, which leads to you becoming weaker, chronically fatigued, mentally and physically drained and prone to illness and possible injury.

The amount of recovery time between your sets should be pre-planned into your routine, and should be strictly adhered to, no sloping off to read a magazine or chatting, or trying to get your sets done quickly as the rest time is as important as the exercise intensity itself for achieving the neural and metabolic adaptations required for your training. Remember that the higher intensity sets which require greater neural drive requires more rest time than lower intensity workouts that are more dependent on metabolic factors for recovery.

7. Exercise Order.

Once you have planned the order of your exercises then stick to that order. You may find that you have to change the order in which you perform the exercises possibly due that particular station being out of order, or no time to complete the routine, a recent injury, or having to work around someone who is using that piece of equipment. Anytime that a specific exercise is moved from its position in your routine it will affect and be affected by all the following exercises. Make sure that if this happens that you keep with the normal training parameters to achieve the proper neural-metabolic adaptations.

There are numerous guidelines given in books or on the internet that will help in your routine design but remember that these are only guidelines and can be changed to suit you personally. The more experience you get with higher levels of neuromuscular efficiency you will normally be able to go outside the guidelines to obtain different training effects.

Some guidelines for your routine design:

  • Place exercises of high neurological demand and challenge (stability and balance exercises) before those of low demand
  • Place exercises of high priority (compound exercises) before isolation exercises.
  • Place newer exercises with higher motor learning requirements before ones you are more experienced with.
  • Place lower intensity exercises after the more complex higher intensity ones.
  • Place the exercises for stabilizer muscles at the end of your routine (such as specific core work)

"Well if you got this far reading then you deserve a medal!"

The subject of routine design will follow at sometime in the future when my little fingers have recovered from typing this article, Hope you enjoyed reading it.

References:
ACSM Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription: 6th edition
Exercise Physiology: McArdle, Katch and Katch. Fifth edition.
Muscle Mechanics: Everett Aaberg. Second edition
Physiology of Sport and Exercise: Wilmore and Costill. Third edition.

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  • About The Author
    Doug is an ex-competitive bodybuilder with over 20 years fitness experience, specifically diet & nutrition, weight management and training techniques.
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