The main aim of any resistance-based program is to improve form and function of the muscular system- that being, to increase its size and strength. Any weight training session should optimize either the neural or structural systems- or perfectly a combination of both.
The unfortunate reality however is that preparing an effective combination of exercises isn’t as easy as painting by numbers. Following your favorite athlete’s program, buying an ‘off the shelf’ program from an on-line personal trainer, following magazine programs that false promise ’12 weeks to bigger arms and a smaller waist’ etc. won’t necessarily work for you. If it was as simple as grouping some arbitrary activities together with no regard for their effectiveness or potential consequences, and relying on effort, we’d all achieve our goals.
Adaptations to weight training can indeed be positive- increased cross sectional area of the muscle, strength and tolerance to resistance-based stimuli. Not only that, but also reduced body fat levels and fatigue. However not all adaptations are necessarily positive- a poorly constructed program can also have negative effects- namely DYSFUNCTIONS of the muscular, nervous, connective tissue and biochemical systems.
So what constitutes poor programming?
According to Ken Kinakin in his exceptional book ‘Optimal Muscle Training’ (Human Kinetics) weight training dysfunction can be caused by a number of factors:
- Poor lifting technique
- Lifting beyond one’s capabilities
- Training too often
- Performing the same exercises
- Training injured muscles
Let’s look in more detail…
Poor lifting technique- this is invariably either unsafe or ineffective lifting practices. Unsafe lifting can cause unnecessary strain due to inefficient posture or undue momentum/speed, and ineffective lifting does not target the intended muscle, meaning that it won’t be properly overloaded. Technique must always come first- you must always also ensure that you feel tension in the target muscle. If you are unsure then ask for a professional’s help- You’d do the same if you could’t work your car or your boiler, so don’t rely on watching others for assistance.
Lifting beyond one’s capabilities- ego is a big issue in the gym. Whilst lifting heavier loads helps to increase mechanical tension (one of the key contributors to muscle hypertrophy), it can also contribute to tissue or other structural failure if not properly introduced into the program. Excessive loading can also contribute to neurological fatigue which in turn requires longer recovery periods. Leave your ego at the door and lift clever. Introduce advanced load based training systems such as Berger, wave loading or clusters only when needed.
Training too often- the training-adaptation cycle requires sufficient recovery in order to be successful. Sometimes (particularly as an overeager beginner or someone cramming for an important date such as a wedding or holiday) it’s easy to do too much. Plan recovery days and de-loading periods and stick to them. Maximal strength won’t reduce much over a 21 day period of inactivity so the odd day off here is both clever, and much needed to allow positive changes to occur.
Performing the same exercises- you’ll often see that one person in the gym who follows their program religiously and never strays from it- it’s probably not changed in the last two years! Of course this person’s physique never changes as they are not providing the body with a much needed change of training stimulus. This would become particularly apparent with the over use of fixed resistance machines where the ‘pattern overload’ effect means that you’ll only be working through the same range of motion, at the same angle, excessively. This in turn can cause dysfunction. Interestingly, this can also cause an intra-muscular ‘STRENGTH DISPARITY’ where only certain muscle fibers within the muscle will be conditioned and not others. There’s an old saying- “the best training program is the one you’re not doing”. What is meant by this is that your body adapts extremely quickly to resistance training- ensure you change the load, volume, rest times and more importantly the type of exercise regularly- every two weeks at the latest.
Training injured muscles- overloading a muscle or other tissue structure will invariable prolong the recovery period needed to restore function and health. Whilst training around an injury is sometimes acceptable, direct training an injury will eventually lead to compensation patterns and ‘functional dysfunction’. Where pain is present always cease to complete an exercise. Seek the assistance of a sports therapist who can provide information on rehabilitation and recovery methods.
So there you have it- just a few pointers on how to ensure your programming is effective, and your adaptations are positive. In my following posts I’ll delve a little deeper into the intricate aspects of exercise section so watch this space!