The basic facts
In this page:
Plus information on hormone responses to training, modes of training and some fundamentals that should be included in all training regimes.
Resistance training is often a very misunderstood facet of overall health, fitness and vitality. It seems as though every “gym rat” claims expert status in this area. The truth is that even a lot of people with formal qualifications are not as correct as you may be led to believe.
When you embark on an exercise program, you will inevitably hear so much contradictory information that it makes your head spin. Some will tell you that resistance training is not necessary, especially in a weight loss program. There are those that recommend high repetitions of machine weights, others who recommend low repetitions of free weights, some people even suggest foregoing weights altogether and use body weight training as your primary source of resistance training.
In this article we will look at a few facts about resistance training. Of course, it’s pretty much impossible to cover everything in this one page but we will explore the basics and expel some of the misconceptions.
What is resistance training?
Resistance training is simple, it’s as the name suggests, training against resistance. Resistance training has many definitions but lets keep it simple…
Resistance training can be described simply as: effort performed against an opposing force.
There are many types of exercise that fit this description.
Free weights: Most people know what free weights are. Free weights are weighted devices, most often dumbells and barbells of a variation of weights. An example of free weight exercises are…
Bench press, military press, bent over row, clean and press, snatch, bicep barbell curl, squat and so on. Free weights include anything that is not supported by a machine and uses pure gravity as resistance.
Machine weights: These are pieces of equipment that you will find many of in gyms and health clubs. They consist of pin loaded machines, machines with weight plate stacks and so on. It is my opinion that machine weights are overused and you will find out why when we talk about functional training.
Calesthenics: This type of training is the use of your own body weight to facilitate resistance. Examples include, but are not limited to…
Push-ups, chin-ups, single leg squat, hand stand push-ups, lunges, crunches etc.
This sort of training is often overlooked by those who want to achieve super strength and massive muscle growth. The reason is most often because many believe that not enough resistance can be applied as strength increases because your body weight will remain relatively constant. The truth is that resistance can still be increased. I have many ways of increasing resistance to the point that a bulky body builder would not even be able to attempt. The answer is in the mechanically disadvantaged positions and increasingly difficult planes of movement.
Strange objects: Strange objects are called that because they are not as commonly used in resistance training as they should be.
The objects used can be literally anything that carries a little weight. To some industries the objects would not be strange because this is what they do for a living, such as construction workers and the like.
Basically by strange objects I mean anything that is not traditional training equipment. Things like sand bags, heavy drums/kegs, large stones, heavy boxes, large tyres, water filled exercise balls, gigantic heavy duty shipping chains, engine blocks and even other people.
Resistance training with strange objects is an awesome way to gain functional strength that can be used in the real world. I will explain more about functional strength training later.
Hydraulics, cables, springs, pullies and bands: I include all these forms of resistance training in one because most of them have a similar effect. I’m sure you have seen the hydraulic machines and cables in your local fitness centre. Lets begin with the hydraulics…
Hydraulic resistance training uses machines that have a constant level of resistance throughout the entire range of motion. This is unlike weights which vary in resistance due to gravitational forces, leverage etc. In my opinion hydraulics are unnatural in the way that they recruit motor units because they do not simulate anything that would occur in the real world, apart from other hydraulics machines. I believe you would be better off lifting the machine itself. Although they do have some applications that are useful.
Cables are just that, cables. They generally work on wheels with a pin loaded weight stack for resistance. These have their place but should not be overused.
Bands are great for rehabilitation and stretching but not much else. Most bands are pieces of rubber or other elastic material, either with handles attached or not. One of the problems with bands is that the resistance is stronger at the end of a repetition as the band increases it’s tension. This is not a natural movement. That’s not to say that they should be dismissed altogether, just ensure that they do not form the core of your exercise regime and get advice from a skilled professional.
Bands are popular among the ladies because they are fed the dillusion that they will be better for getting a long, lean and toned physique and free weights might make them bulky. I’m not even going to dignify that by arguing.
Now that you know what resistance training is and some of the ways it can be achieved, it’s time to move on to some facts, principles and methods.
Everyone should do resistance training
That’s right, you heard me, everyone. But what if I just want to lose weight without getting bulky? What about my bad back? I heard from a weight watchers lecturer that I just need to walk. Blah blah blah.
I don’t mean to offend anyone here, I just want to make sure you understand that what you hear in the mainstream is often one-sided and you are being misled by uneducated “experts” (yes, even some of the PhD qualified people are uneducated, or at least undereducated, but of course it‘s not all of them).
Human beings are simply mammals, we were designed to be active and work for things to survive. Take a look around at the animal kingdom, do you see any other animals with completely sedentary lifestyles? Of course not because they would end up dying of starvation or being eaten.
Human beings are no different from any other animal in regard to physical activity. People are meant to be athletic, I would love to spread the word and turn every human being into an athlete, even if they don’t play sports. Modern lifestyles have us sitting around on our backsides eating cheetohs and drinking lattes. This is what causes obesity, but then you already know that so I want bore you with it all once again.
Why should everyone do resistance training? It’s only been a little over 100 years since we had to actually find, gather, hunt, make and prepare our own food and shelter. For tens or even hundreds of thousands of years we did some form of resistance training every single day. We climbed trees, carried dead animals, gathered building materials and so on just to survive.
Now days people pick and choose what sort of physical activity they will do, if any. Now that you hopefully understand that humans along with all other animals are designed to be athletic and perform resistance training of some sort, we can move on to some of the reasons behind it.
Weight loss: Yes, that’s right, it’s not a typo. I can’t recall how many people, especially women, have told me they don’t do resistance training because they want to remain feminine and that they don’t want bulky muscles. There are so many people who are afraid of training with weights or any other type of resistance training during a weight loss program. For most people it’s simply a matter of a lack of understanding.
Muscle is highly metabolically active. what this means for you is that muscles actually burn fat, in fact this is where fat utilisation begins. When a muscle contracts it requires energy to do so. This is in the form of Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP) at it’s most functional level. But to produce this ATP for muscle contraction you need other sources of energy first since ATP is not directly ingested in the diet.
The harder a muscle is forced to work, the more energy it requires, meaning more fat loss. This is because fat breaks down and eventually ends up as ATP just like every other energy source. But this isn’t all. Even at rest, just to survive, muscles need a lot of energy. This means that by performing resistance training you will be increasing your metabolism every time you increase the percentage of your body weight that is made up of muscle mass. But don’t worry ladies, this doesn’t mean a huge bulky increase, the increase can be quite small and still have the same effect. It will also make you look better.
But “weight” there’s more. The act of the training itself is extremely taxing on the body, which means that an intense resistance training session will use up much more energy than a slow aerobic session in a much shorter period of time. More energy burned = increased fat loss.
But there’s still more. During and after an aerobic workout such as a steady jog you will use energy but your body will also want to hold onto some just in case it needs to perform this task again in the near future. After a workout such as a jog, your body will stop burning fat at this rate almost immediately bringing you back to your resting metabolic rate.
On the other hand, when you perform a resistance training workout you will be burning a radical amount of energy, provided the intensity is sufficient. This will come in the form of carbohydrates during the workout with a smaller amount of fat being used. The exciting part comes after the workout has ceased. You will continue to burn energy at an increased rate for many hours after the workout has stopped, this energy will generally be evenly distributed between fat stores and carbohydrates (glucose). This means that your body is hard at work burning calories long after you have sat down to watch your favourite TV show.
Hopefully this is enough evidence to convince you not to overlook resistance training while you embark on your weight loss mission.
Posture and balance: In this day and age people at large are moving more and more away from their naturally intended movement patterns. The alarming thing is that this is happening rapidly, much too fast for us to effectively adapt to it. The result is extremely unbalanced physiology, terrible posture and many other health problems.
Postural problems are very evident yet do not receive much press attention. We sit at computers, a lot of people are overweight and just about every piece of ground we have to walk on is made of something hard as rock like concrete. This is not how human beings were meant to live.
Since this is an article on resistance training, lets address the issue of unbalanced muscles and lack of strength. Back in the old days people had to work physically, all people had to. They climbed trees, ran great distances, lifted logs etc. This combined with decent, natural food resulted in a pretty well balanced and healthy musculoskeletal system.
Now that people are less active we have to simulate that same workload by going to the gym, jogging, doing pilates etc. On one hand we have the problem of those who don’t use their musculature enough and this results in postural weaknesses and on the other hand we have people who attend the gym and cause a pattern overload due to misguided information on how to train the body.
First of all for those who don’t perform resistance training, there is obviously going to be weakened muscles and it’s your muscles that determine your posture for the most part. So just to say briefly, you need to perform resistance training of some sort because that’s how your body was intended to be used. I won’t go into the science of posture and all the technical stuff about muscle imbalances, all you need to know to start with is that you need to do some form of resistance training because you are likely not getting enough of it in your daily life.
Now for the second group of people it can become much more frustrating and tedious trying to explain to them why they experience pain, lack of energy, illness etc. So many people are under the assumption that all they need to do to achieve ultimate health is attend the gym, jump on a few machines and voila, they’re healthy. Since when did our bodies naturally move in the same patterns as machines force them to?
So we have these people who attend their local health club and some production line trainer prescribes a bunch of machine weights, probably because they are the easiest to teach because they don’t need to really be taught much in order to use a chest press or hack squat. Now here’s the problem, we were meant to lift things that used gravity as resistance and we have synergist muscles designed to stabilise the body while the prime movers did their thing. Now with machines the prime movers get to work alone without the need for stabilisation.
By repeating this type of thing over the long term we train the body to be a very static, tight and unbalanced machine. You see, when you perform a certain movement repetitively you train the nervous system to move that way. So what happens to all these muscles that would otherwise be stabilising the posture during resistance efforts? They are trained into not responding because they are not needed. The truth is that they are not needed for these patterned movements on the machines but they are needed for daily activity.
So the end result is great big bulky prime movers and very poor posture because each muscle ends up being trained in isolation from all others.
So what’s my advice for this second group of individuals? Get a proper trainer and educate yourself. A simple rule of thumb is to train movements, not individual muscle groups, this is how they are meant to function. Since when do you ever use a single muscle in any given task?
There are many things I could write about posture here but this is about the need for effective resistance training to balance the physique and musculoskeletal system. Simply put, everyone needs to do resistance training in a balanced fashion and train a large variety of different movement patterns with large, compound exercises, calesthenics and arkward objects.
Hormone and natural chemical production: This could become a very technical conversation but I will keep it simple so that everyone can understand. As you would most likely already know, hormones are produced naturally in the body and act as messengers to cells. Under a microscope hormones appear like a key that locks into a particular receptor site and unlocks or locks certain actions. Hormones are affected by pretty much anything and everything from food to physical activity and even emotions.
If the body is put under abnormal conditions then hormone production is altered. For now lets look at resistance training’s effects on hormones and natural body chemistry…
Testosterone: This one is well known, most people know what testosterone is to some degree. This is a hormone that is produced quite significantly in men and to a smaller degree in women. Testosterone is responsible for male sex characteristics and reproduction. It is also responsible for a lot of secondary characteristics such as facial hair, muscle size and function, sex drive etc.
When a man neglects resistance training he slows the production of testosterone, which leads to many health problems. Testosterone is probably one of the most important hormones in males and is stimulated to a large degree through resistance training.
Much of the research suggests that heavy, low repetition, compound movements like squats and dead lifts have a major stimulating effect on testosterone production. Knowing this, it makes me wonder why people resort to steroids before they have even explored the limit of their natural testosterone production as stimulated by resistance training.
Human Growth Hormone (HGH): This one is interesting, there are some very encouraging health benefits through the stimulation of HGH release, especially concerning aging and longevity. When you perform resistance training you stimulate the release of human growth hormone.
Lets look at this a little more in-depth…
While we are young we produce a significant amount of growth hormone because this is when we grow the most. As we age the growth hormone production slows down and our bodies attempt to stay in homeostasis, meaning that the internal environment attempts to remain relatively constant.
HGH is responsible for the regeneration/production of new cells. As most will know, body cells are continually dying, causing a need for new cells to take their place to continue the life cycle. Growth hormone is responsible for this new cell production for the most part. So without HGH we would basically die because new cells would not be created and we would literally wither away to a mass of dead cells.
Now as mentioned, HGH release slows down as we age, this is one of the major contributing factors to aging, frailty and mortality. Resistance training has been shown in many studies to stimulate the release of HGH and prolong this mechanism throughout later life with the end result being that the slowing of growth hormone release is delayed. What this means is that later in life while your friends in their 60s 70s and 80s are deteriorating because they can’t produce new cells as fast as old ones are dying, you will seem to have the health of someone much younger due to your resistance training efforts.
This is also important for people of all ages because the immune system is greatly benefited by this increase in HGH production because when you get injured there is a need to regenerate the injured part of the body and yes, you guessed it, growth hormone is responsible for a large part of this.
So the message here is that resistance training stimulates HGH otherwise known as Human Growth Hormone, which results in increased new cell production, slowing of the aging process, increased immune function in response to injury and a host of other benefits.
Don’t worry ladies, you may be wondering about all this HGH increase and thinking that it may end up in huge bulky muscles but the fact is that females already produce larger amounts of HGH than males and still don’t have huge muscles. This is because muscle growth requires other hormones for increased protein synthesis and other mechanisms. But the fact that females have more HGH than males may help explain why women have a higher life expectancy than men.
Insulin: This is the hormone effected by diabetes. Insulin is responsible for the regulation of blood sugar levels. This means that insulin has a major effect on energy levels, performance, body composition and many other things.
Recent studies have shown that insulin sensitivity is affected by all forms of exercise, however endurance training and resistance training effect insulin by different mechanisms. As we have discussed already, resistance training has a significant effect on blood sugar, which has been shown to be somewhat related to insulin levels.
The message is that resistance training is beneficial in regulating insulin. This transfers into a lowered risk of type two diabetes, increased effective management of type one diabetes, effectively regulated metabolism and a bunch of other benefits.
“Feel good” hormones/chemicals: Resistance training combined with other forms of exercise have been shown to elevate mood by way of increasing hormones and chemicals in the body such as seretonin, endorphins and others. Have you heard of the runner’s high? Runners often experience a feeling that is almost drug-like, this is caused by such increases in hormone and neurotransmitter levels.
The above mentioned are just a few of the reasons that everyone should do resistance training, of course, there are many others but they are too numerous to mention in this article.
Principles of Resistance Training
Just like any other science, resistance training has certain principles and theories that have been found to be most effective in producing certain results. There are so many people that just go out there, hit the gym and hope for the best, or even worse, they get all their advice from bodybuilding magazines or muscle-bound lunatics at the gym.
Here are a few of the simple principles of resistance training to take into account when you embark on your physical health goals…
Progressive Overload: This one deserves mentioning right away because it’s something that so many people simply don’t understand. I like to believe that progressive overload was discovered with Milo and his bull. Milo would walk briskly around a paddock with a small bull calf on his shoulders in order to condition his body for wrestling.
As Milo’s bull grew slowly larger and heavier, so did Milo’s strength. He did this every day until he was able to carry a full grown bull on his shoulders. I’m not sure of the accuracy of this claim as it is said to have happened between 600-500 BC but it does illustrate a good point about the need for progressive, incremental increase.
Before I go into progressive overload in resistance training, I would like to also mention the principle of kaizen. This is a Japanese principle of continuous improvement that came about due to the teachings of an American academic. Simply put, kaizen is based on the notion that massive progress will occur if a person or an organisation commits to a consistent but small increment of improvement on a daily basis. Makes sense right?
Progressive overload works in much the same way. If you can squat 100kg and all of a sudden try and double that weight, you are in for a shock because your body has had no time to adapt and will simply be unable to do it. However, if you add a small amount to that weight on a regular basis and let your body adapt each time then over the long term you will produce some massive results.
In order for any increase to occur in physical fitness, the body must be placed under more stress than it is used to. If you continually perform the same effort then you will be stuck at that level. This is where the overload part comes in. You must overload the body only slightly in order for it to respond by increasing it’s capacity. Once you overload it and stay at that level for a while it will eventually get used to it and you will have to overload it again on a progressive basis. This is progressive overload.
Ways to progressively overload during a resistance training program…
Increase the weight you are lifting.
Increase the number of repetitions in each set.
Increase the volume of exercise, meaning that you can increase the number of sets you perform in a workout.
Decrease the rest period between sets.
Increase the difficulty of the exercises you perform.
Reversibility: Use it or lose it. If you don’t use a muscle at the capacity it is conditioned to then it will cease to function at that level and will atrophy in size and all functional gains such as strength will decrease until they reach the newly conditioned requirements.
Specificity: In order to train effectively for the goal you wish to achieve, the training needs to be specific. In resistance training this is rarely even considered by the general public and even overlooked by athletes and coaches from time to time.
If you want to be a champion shot putter then it would be futile performing dumbell flyes, if you want to be a weight lifter then you would never benefit from that silly leg extension machine, if you work in an office then you would be misguided if you trained with isolation machines that totally disregard balance and postural muscles.
For athletes, specificity means to closely resemble the actions required for the particular sport or event they are participating in. For everyone else it just simply means that you need to train specifically for your goal or your lifestyle.
Intensity: Intensity can be measured in various ways and will have a different effect depending on what the intensity is. Increasing the intensity may mean increasing the weight that you lift and decreasing the reps, decreasing the rest time between sets etc. Pick the right intensity for your desired goal.
Duration: I don’t place too much emphasis on being precise right down to the second on this one. Duration is simply the length of time it takes to complete a workout or a particular aspect of a workout. Check out some of my work on energy systems to get a greater understanding of your duration requirements, in fact, that applies to intensity too.
Frequency: This refers to how often you actually work out. Resistance training can be tricky in that the frequency recommendations can vary depending on a range of factors…
Your age. Age determines your recovery requirements to a certain degree, the older you are, the more recovery time you need between workouts.
Gender. Males and females are obviously built differently and therefore they have different exercise and recovery requirements. Males have a higher level of testosterone, which is largely responsible for protein synthesis. This will result in faster recovery and allow for more frequent resistance training sessions.
Type of training. Depending on what you’re training for, you will need different recovery periods and a different frequency of resistance training.
Other lifestyle and activity factors. If you work on a building site then obviously you will need more recovery time between workouts than someone who works in an office due to the fact that you are putting more stress on the muscles even between workouts.
Those are the basic fitness principles that apply to resistance training. By now you should be on your way to getting started with resistance training.
I guess you’ve probably heard the term “functional training” floating around and it may sound like just another buzz word. I can assure you it’s not, well it’s not when it’s used to describe the right thing anyway.
Functional training simply refers to any training which increases the body’s ability to perform a particular task. Non functional training is training that puts the physiology out of balance and can actually hinder your ability to do certain things.
Lets take a look at all the non functional training going on in health clubs and everywhere else these days…
The overuse of unnatural movements such as machine weights: As I have previously mentioned, machine weights teach your body to move in ways that are not natural. Lets use the chest press as an example. When you sit down to do a chest press movement you are in a comfortable, seated position. You grip the handles and simply press forward, the plane of movement is identical on each repetition. There is no need for stabilisation, balance or adjusting the load from one group of motor units to others once you get fatigued.
This causes a pattern overload and leads to overuse injuries. On the non functional side of things, because there is no stabilisation going on your body is trained to use only the major prime mover. This does not transfer very well into other activities, this is why it is not very functional. It can also hinder your functionality because certain muscles are way too strong compared to the neglected ones and it causes the load to be unevenly distributed based on strength. Not only that but the recruitment on motor units in this pattern will cause you to only be strong through this plane of motion and will actually reduce your effectiveness through other planes.
There’s much more to be said about non functional training but since this is an article designed to give you the basics of resistance training then we won’t be covering everything on that topic.
So how was the body meant to function? The human body is a very complex machine, there are many tiny muscle contractions going on at any one time just to hold posture and tone. When you lift something like a heavy box there is an amazing coordination of many muscles contracting at exactly the right time in order to collectively lift the object. All this coordinated effort occurs unconsciously, all you have to do is think of the overall chunk of information required, which is simply to lift the box and then your muscles will cooperate.
But this is getting more difficult due to either lack of resistance training where the muscles become underused and begin to atrophy and lose their coordinating abilities and the overuse of unnatural patterns of movements that train the muscles not to coordinate properly.
What is functional training? Functional resistance training is training the body to perform increasingly difficult movements that require the most natural movement patterns and allow for totally coordinated effort. It is simply training to actually perform certain tasks more effectively rather than being concerned with a six pack or big biceps.
The following is a few tips on functional training…