My research-based strength training program

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Guest post by Pat Costigan

I think that being strong will help me live independently longer and I’m lucky that I actually enjoy strength training. I am always looking to find training programs that will help me get stronger. I now do complex lifts such as deadlifts, squats and presses and try to increase what I lift through the principle of progressive resistance. I track sets, reps, exercises, rest times and keep changing up my program to avoid getting stale.

However, a scientific review of strength training research by a group from the United Kingdom has me considering my current approach to training. Their conclusions, supported by research, run counter to common practice.

For example, their summary shows that similar strength gains can be made with any combination of reps, sets and loads. So a single set (not including a warm up) is as effective as multiple sets and the load lifted is not a factor if one lifts until they experience ‘momentary muscle failure.’ At the point of ‘momentary muscle failure’ the whole muscle has been exercised to its maximum and additional work does not lead to additional strength gains. They also report no difference in strength gains using free weights or machines, regardless of the type of machine. Here they also point out that plyometric exercises, like drop jumps, which have the potential to overload the joint structures, are no more beneficial than standard weight training. Also, lifts that use momentum, such as the Olympic lifts, remove tension from the muscle momentarily and cause greater forces to be applied to the joints increasing the potential for injury. Finally, research shows no difference in strength gains between working out 1, 2 or 3 times a week.

To be clear, this is an approach to one aspect of fitness, which is absolute strength, but a weight lifting program based on these research findings would look something like this:

– A warm up followed by one set at any percent of your maximum to momentary muscle failure
– Any exercise style (free weights, any type of machine)
– Work each muscle group once per week
– Only workout when fully rested, physically and mentally
– Keep a steady/constant lifting speed and do not use momentum

There are other aspects of fitness you might consider that were not addressed. The similarity in strength gains between free weights and weight machines does not mean that these modes are the same for all aspects of fitness and health. For example, increasing the weight lifted using a leg extension machine increases the stress on the knee ligaments but when squatting with free weights, the added compressive load (not present in the machine) reduces the ligament stress regardless of the load squatted. Also, when comparing Smith Machine squatting to free weight squatting, researchers saw increased muscle activity in the ankle plantar flexors and knee flexors when squatting with free weights.

Finally, and perhaps most important, is the idea of momentary muscle failure (MMF). The authors define MMF as, ‘the inability to perform any more concentric contractions, without significant change to posture or repetition duration, against a given resistance.’ Many people call this, ‘form failure.’ If you cannot lift with correct form or at the same speed as the previous repetition then you have achieved MMF. I know I often perform several additional reps after a speed drop, especially in the deadlift and squat, so MMF is not the point at which you can no longer lift and be safe, it occurs well before that point.

I am definitely going to give this weight lifting program a try. It will be more efficient, so I may actually be able to do more work. Perhaps I’ll use that time to add more cardio or mobility training to my routine.

Thanks for reading,

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