Friday, August 27, 2010

Work out smarter not harder

When you think of working out do images of grunting, straining, vein bulging hard work come to mind? Isn't fitness training all about working this hard? Well, I'm going to go out on a limb and say not necessarily. Now, before you slack off, or completely bale out of  your next workout, I'm clarifying that the working smarter not harder concept of fitness training doesn't mean doing either.

So, what does training smarter mean? Well, for one, it means beginning with the design of an exercise program that takes you and your goals into consideration. This may seem obvious. Unfortunately this step is often neglected. Without goals how do you know where to begin, change direction or end a phase and move into the next?  This is where SMART goal setting comes in.

SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic/Relevant and Timely. When it comes to goal setting this is the gold standard.  If you're considering taking a stab at designing your own fitness program, I encourage you NOT to skip the goal setting step.  This is because when it comes to success, all too often failing to plan means planning to fail. After all, how do we know where we are going if we don't know where we are or where we've been? Hopefully I haven't overstated the importance of the goal setting step to training smarter.  If you're ready to take a stab at it, way to go! You can find a SMART goal worksheet here.

Another aspect of training smarter has to to with working at a level that is suitable to your skill, experience and abilities. Deciding to try the latest, greatest workout routine torn out of a magazine or taken from the internet usually isn't the smartest way to work out. Whether your a novice or an elite exerciser, it's absolutely critical to success to workout at an appropriate level. If you're wondering what your level is, you're not alone.  That's why many people seek the expertise of a trainer. Wisdom about fitness training is constantly evolving. Old school thinking about strength training is the no pain, no gain mentality. Current understanding is train, don't strain. This perspective is being underscored by some emerging research.

Recently, a study conducted by researchers at McMaster University found that study participants were able to build muscle size (hypertrophy) by training in a way that was previously not associated with this result. You can view the published paper here. It can be a little surprising, but exciting as well, to learn that conventional wisdom may be changing in light of new scientific discovery.  That's exactly what the McMaster study has done. It has shed light on a potentially new way of thinking about resistance training. Thankfully discovery happens frequently in the health industry. Otherwise we might still be using those vibrating belt machines for weight loss like the women in the photo above.

One way that fitness trainers determine the ideal amount of training weight to be lifted is by predicting a client's one rep (short for repetition) max.  This is where the client is asked to lift an average amount of weight until they can't perform any more repetitions of the exercise. In other words, until they reach the point of fatigue.  Then the trainer can calculate or refer to a table to estimate the percentage of one rep max. If you're interested, you can find a chart here. Conventional wisdom regarding resistance training has been that to build muscle it is necessary to lift approximately 85% of one rep max for 4-8 reps (American College of Sports Medicine's 2002 guidelines).  This is some pretty heavy lifting and results in the ability to perform less repetitions.

So, what does all this have to do with the McMaster University study? Well, their research results surprisingly suggest that using significantly lighter weights, those that were 30% of one rep max, while performing a higher number of repetitions (known as low-load, high volume training), was actually more effective at building muscle than the traditional high-load, low volume resistance training method. Their study findings are equivalent to the world turning upside down, at least the fitness world. Okay, I exaggerate, but only a little.

Why are these study findings important? For one, the ability to build muscle with this type of training protocol has the potential to reach a wider population. In particular, the low-load, high volume training will become practical for "people with compromised skeletal muscle mass, such as the elderly, patients with cancer, or those who are recovering from trauma, surgery or even stroke" (McMaster Univ.). As we move into the second decade of the new millennium, it's exciting to see scientific research underscoring a training protocol that is suitable for a larger, more diverse group of people.  It will be interesting to see where this paradigm shift in resistance training leads. After all, this is a small initial study in this area of research. In the meantime, I'm still going to train smarter not harder. Now let's go pump some, er, lighter iron? 

American College of Sports Medicine -
Centers for Disease Control -
McMaster University -

1 comment:

  1. So it seems this McMaster research recommends a training program that is more suited to someone with a goal of building up muscle mass? I remember in high-school before we headed out to Foster Ave Beach in Chicago, my football buddies and I would opt for the low weight/high rep (we called them super-sets) to get "all pumped up". Our goal for this day was to be pre-flexed. But our normal goal was to build strength so we'd be stronger than the guy across the line of scrimmage. Using the SMART approach, if one wanted to continually build strength (or even maintain a level of strength) and wanted to increase muscle mass, would that result in a kind of hybrid strength training progra?