Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Weight Training (By Daniel)

This is Daniel.

Chelsea has nothing interesting to say today, so I'm stepping up and doing a guest post on lifting weights.  I've been lifting weights for more than ten years and I read all the important fitness sites, so I'm pretty much a completely trustworthy expert.

Today, I'll talk about some concepts and terms common to all weight training programs.  In a future post, I'll outline a basic program I've used successfully that can also work for runners.

The Big Picture
There are three reasons to lift weights:

  • Getting stronger (ideally in a way that aligns with other athletic goals).
  • Muscular hypertrophy (get huge, bro).
  • Injury prevention (by strengthening underused muscles).

All programs manipulate four different variables:
  • Frequency (how often you lift).
  • Volume (how many total lifts you perform in a session).
  • Intensity (how heavy you lift, relative to the most you could manage).
  • Exercise selection and variety.

These variables interact with each other.  Emphasizing one aspect requires cutting back on others.  For example, going heavy is hard, so programs that emphasize lifting near-maximal weights require limiting the number of lifts in each session and scheduling sessions with enough time to allow for recovery.

Most training plans can be categorized based on a few different features.

Full-body vs. Split
Should you train all the muscles of the body every time you lift, or should you dedicate each session to one particular group of muscles?  Almost all modern bodybuilders do the latter.  They will have dedicated days for each of the major parts of the body -- chest, legs, arms, back, and shoulders is a typical split.  Training with splits allows for more focused work and more volume on each muscle, but it requires more sessions per week to fit everything in.

Full-body plans use a mixture of exercises to hit every muscle in the body during each workout.  This is more demanding, so most full-body plans require only two or three hard sessions per week.  Full-body work was more popular in the early days of bodybuilding and has made a big comeback in recent years.  Some writers feel that full-body routines give faster results that splits.  On the other hand, traditional splits have more exercise variety, which can help prevent injury.

One other approach is the upper-lower split, where days are specifically dedicated to the upper body or lower body, but not to individual muscle groups.  This is technically a split routine, but often feels more like a full-body plan.

Isolation vs. Compound Exercises
Isolation exercises are those that move only a single joint, such as the biceps curl or the leg extension.  Compound exercises move multiple joints simultaneously, like the squat and the bench press.  Several current popular plans emphasize compound exercises and reduce or eliminate isolation, arguing that compound movements are important and productive, and isolation work is mostly unnecessary.

Isolation exercises are still useful for bringing up lagging muscles, training weak points in a particular lift, or balancing things out to prevent injuries.

Free Weights vs. Machines
Thousands, maybe millions, of lives have been lost over this issue. Basically, the arguments break down like this:

  • The most productive exercises (squats, bench, deadlift, etc.) use free weights.
  • Free weights require you to hold and stabilize the weight.  This develops many small "in-between" muscles.
  • Machines are designed for some "average" body, which may not be yours.
  • There are many useful exercises (pulldowns, leg press) that can't be done with free weights.
  • Machines can be designed to give even resistance through the entire exercise, eliminating sticking points.

The most important part of weight training is progression.  To get stronger, you have to actually add weight to the bar.  Deciding when to do this, and how much to add, is an important aspect of any program. Even the best program is worthless without progression.

Here are four popular approaches:

When you can perform a certain number of reps with your current weight, add 5-10 pounds then drop down to a lower number of reps and build back up.

Start with a moderate weight and add a fixed amount at every or every other session.  When the weights get too heavy to continue, drop down and begin building back up.  This approach works very well for new lifters, as long as the increases are reasonable.

Classic periodization
Start with light weights and high reps.  Over 12-16 weeks, gradually increase the weight and decrease the reps until you reach new personal best lifts at the end of the cycle.  These program are usually percentage-based, with the weights for each phase calculated based on your current personal best.

Exactly what it sounds like.  Build the weights up a little, then drop back, then build up again, with the goal of making each peak a little higher than the last.

There are other popular progression approaches that you're unlikely to encounter unless you train specifically for powerlifting (bench, squat, and deadlift) or Olympic lifting (the snatch and the clean and jerk).

That covers some of the basic differences between strength training programs.  Check back later for a post on a basic routine that's both useful and flexible.