Last week, we discussed the many advantages of regular resistance training. While usually associated with heavy weight-lifting (which puts off many aspirants), resistance training actually comprises of several options.
The 3 common techniques are:
Let's go into these techniques one by one.
1. Weight lifting with Free Weights:
Increasingly popular amongst youngsters, weightlifting with free weights (unsupported by gadgets) is one of the best exercises one can perform in the quest for ultimate fitness. Its physical benefits apart, it acts as a mental de-stress as well.
The spin-off benefit of firming up one's will power is an add-on bonus: no one who persists in the painful task of lifting weights will lack the fortitude to perform any difficult task.
Free weight exercises are of two types: compound multi-joint exercises and isolation single joint exercises.
The first type includes slow powerlifting routines like the popular bench press (chest, shoulders, arms and hands), overhead press (shoulders, arms, hands, back and legs), and the less popular but more beneficial back squat (the whole body except a few arm muscles) and dead lift (the whole body except perhaps the biceps).
The quicker exercises performed with a jerk are the classical Olympic weightlifting exercises: the clean and jerk and the snatch (these two need specialised training from coaches, are best started in youth, and can’t be discussed in detail on a platform like this).
Isolation type exercises on the other hand are dedicated to particular muscle groups: biceps, triceps, deltoids etc.
As should be evident, the first group of compound exercises involves moving heavier weights using multiple muscle groups over multiple joints. These require greater effort, burn more calories, build more strength and release more anabolic hormones (testosterone, growth hormone etc.) than the lighter isolation exercises that move smaller weights across a single joint.
A visit to any gym illustrates that this simple fact is poorly understood by the vast majority of gym goers. Most people flock around the bench (for bench press) and the curl rods or dumb-bell stands, performing any number of biceps curls. The poor squat stand stands alone, for the few who wish to go further ahead. Hardly anyone performs the dead lift, perhaps the single greatest exercise for whole body strength. When I tried to learn the dead lift, I hit a brick wall in most gyms; I finally learned to do it from books, articles and YouTube (though this is not the best way).
2. Using Resistance Machines in Gyms:
Gyms are increasingly popular in India and worldwide; a rapid proliferation has occurred in the last couple of decades. They have the facility for lifting free weights, but the focus is usually more on using resistance machines.
They appear to be easier to use than free weights, with a reduced chance for injury, especially amongst beginners. Gradual progression is also convenient. These machines assist in conducting exercises similar to the aforementioned routines (chest press, overhead press, leg press, press downs, biceps curls, calf raises, and more), and grant the further advantage of providing flexibility in speed and intensity of movement.
These machines are thought to be especially useful in building strength and muscle.
However, free weights have the advantage of providing more stress to “the core" - since strength would be spent on balancing the weight as well as lifting it.
Furthermore, in free weight exercises, one can build a unique trajectory, as determined by one’s height, arm and leg length, etc., whereas machines are in that manner restrictive to a fixed trajectory. So it appears to be a toss up between two very useful modalities for strength training.
However, while more and more people are joining gyms, it is not clear if this has resulted in increasing fitness for our millions. Why should that be?
For one thing, the pace and order of training is often ill-advised.
Newbies often start with isolation exercises for dedicated musle groups, before achieving basic strength and reflexes using compound exercises, while in reality it should be the other way round.
Isolation exercises help in refining the shapes of muscles that are already heavy from a dedicated strength program, and don't help when little muscle exists.
Pavel Tsatsouline, the celebrated Russian strength coach and author, mentions in one of his books what Russian coaches tell young aspiring lifters on their first visit to a gym: come back in a year, when you can do a clean and press with a 48 kg kettle bell (a cannonball with a handle, simply put), i.e., lift it clean from the ground to the shoulder, and then press it overhead with one hand (and do this with both hands). Only then do they allow them to touch a barbell.
It is therefore suggested that all new entrants into a gym should focus initially on a basic compound exercise program for at least 6-12 months before getting a body part-type weight lifting schedule made.
The former should stress all major muscle groups (or at least, half the major groups) in every workout, aiming for 3 workouts every week on non-consecutive days. The reason for the breaks is obvious: we want the stressed muscles to recover and re-build in the ensuing interval (EPOC and its benefits have been discussed earlier).
3. Body Weight Exercises (Callisthenics):
All the above should not imply that one cannot perform resistance exercise without going to the gym. Body weight training can be performed with minimal equipment anywhere. All you need is dedication.
Here, the options are all compound exercises (push-ups, squats and pull-ups, and their multiple variants), which is a big advantage. Only pull-ups need a bar (one can use a doorway pull-up bar), though even these can be performed by dedicated athletes hanging from anything solid. Graded exercises are also possible, there being 8-10 levels of increasing difficulty in all these exercises from the beginner to the expert levels.
For instance, one can start from wall pushes or table push-ups if one is not strong enough to do a regular push-up, and then graduate to the elite one arm push-up; for squats, one can start from table sits and supported squats and strive for the nearly impossible one legged squat (‘pistol’). Similarly, as pull-ups are harder than both the previous exercises, one can start from body rows, go on to full pull-ups and dream about (I wish) the one-arm pull-ups.
Other less commonly done (but equally useful) exercises are the bridge (the Chakrasana from Yoga), the handstand and hanging leg raises. Some nearly impossible feats are the front lever, back lever and the human flag (Priyanka Chopra does one supported flag in the movie, Mary Kom).
Done carefully, injuries are also less frequent, as it is nearly impossible to perform an exercise which your body is not yet ready to do (contrast it with no limits to the amount of weight one can load on a bar). Flexibility is also better maintained with callisthenics, as well as imparting a lean, muscular look rather than the bulky, bodybuilder look associated with lifting very heavy weights and overeating. And of course, the major plus of being able to perform these anywhere and any time.
It is not necessary to restrict oneself to any one of these three exercise systems. Best results can probably be achieved by a combination of 2 or all 3 of them. Many gyms encourage push-ups before doing bench presses and pull-ups on back day. Another good idea is to do weights and resistance machines in one-workout and body weight exercises in another.
Kettle bells (also called “the gym in the palm of your hand”) are another useful tool: it is possible to do a heavy full body workout using just body weights and a kettle bell. These were available earlier in poods (the Russian unit, 1 pood=16 Kg), now they are made in multiples of 4 kg for us beginners (4, 8, 12, 16 kg etc. upto 48 kg-euphemistically called the Beast, obviously). These can be used to provide a rapid full body workout using swings, cleans, presses and snatches while also being useful to augment the body weight exercises (weighted pull-ups, goblet squats, weighted pistols, Turkish get-ups and others).
The next issue is the type of workout. Let’s discuss the basics first. There are two types of plans to achieve strength gains: volume based and intensity based.
Volume based plans stress on the total volume for work performed using total number of repetitions performed per set (reps) and total sets of a particular exercise (sets), e.g., 5 sets of 5 reps each of bench press, and so on for every exercise done in a particular workout. This entails devoting a substantial amount of time per day: for instance, if the aim is to do bench press, squat and pull-ups on a particular day, it will take at least 1 to 1.5 hours to complete the schedule (with warm up and cool down stretching being different for each exercise). If this is to be done 3 times a week, the total time to be dedicated to the fitness program is 3-5 hours per week, not including the time spent in going to the gym and coming back. This is a heavy investment for busy professionals, students and housewives alike. But there is no other option, apparently! Or, is there?
Intensity based plans work differently. They focus on achieving higher intensity; more tiring workouts done in a much shorter time period, with longer recovery periods (that means less frequent visits to the gym). But can spending 30 min exercising per week (High Intensity Interval training or HIIT) be even half as good as the traditional volume training?
Next week, we shall discuss HIIT at length. Stay tuned.