Tuesday, September 13, 2011

H-A Strength Training Recommendations

Recently I have posted a blog showing and discussing my workout routine [1].  This has led to several questions regarding my recommendations for strength training (ST) and how they may be different from some things I have said on here in the past.  To clear up confusion, here are the guidelines I follow with my clients and myself:

1.  Sets: One set per exercise to muscular failure.
Discussion: There have been many studies comparing one set vs. multiple sets and the results generally don't show a statistically significant difference between the two [2].  For me to adapt a multiple set routine, there would have to be a difference in the results so great that it warrants a much larger time commitment.  Working to failure ensures an effort intense and controls the variable of effort, allowing for a more quantifiable measure of workout performance (for progress tracking).

2. Rep Cadence: Lift and lower the weight in roughly 4-5 seconds each.  More importantly, start the first inch of each direction as gradual as possible. 
Discussion: Starting slowly ensures safety and minimizes momentum/maximizes muscular work.  After the first inch on the positive (lifting phase), move at a speed where movement is controlled, fluid, and continuous.  After the first inch on the negative, allow the weight to keep moving, but use added effort to slow down at the parts when the resistance seems to increase.

3. Weight Selection/Set Duration: Use a weight that will bring you to muscular failure in about 60-90 seconds.
Discussion: Aiming for this range should lead to using weights that are challenging from the start without being too heavy to the point where form is compromised.  The equipment used makes a huge difference here: some machines (i.e. MedX) are easier to use at heavier resistances, while some equipment is best for time ranges closer to 90 seconds.  

4. Frequency: 2-3 times per week for each muscle group on nonconsecutive days.
Discussion: I believe twice per week is optimal for most people.  This allows for adequate recovery time after each workout session.  In my experience, three times per week does work for some people on a permanent basis.  Most commonly, I use it for people at the start of their routines who want to see results quicker and then cut back to twice per week when they experience short-term signs of overtraining (muscle burning during simple daily activities like walking the stairs, general fatigue, noticeable drops in ST performance).  I have found that sustaining a three-times-per-week approach comes with a strong commitment to eating more calories and protein.

The one stance that I have changed over time is my view on once-weekly training.  I realize this is advocated by several of my colleagues, but I no longer believe this frequency is enough for the majority of people who aren't genetically gifted for building muscle and can stand to gain from the health advantages of ST.

5. Split Routines: Train either the full body or split the body into upper and lower halves for workout days.
Discussion: I'm against the very segmented split routines that many bodybuilders use.  Their workouts are created to isolate areas like the chest, shoulders, and back on different days.  However, these workouts dynamically involve smaller muscle groups each day, such as the biceps, triceps, deltoids, and rotator cuff muscles.  In my opinion, this is a recipe for long term injury.  I do favor and often use half-body split routines for myself.  These splits allow for shorter workouts and therefore allow for an increase in intensity.  Split routines follow the same frequency recommended above: 2-3 times per week for each muscle group.

One note of caution with upper and lower body splits: if you are doing them on consecutive days, I advise training core muscles like the abs and lower back on the second day.  They are stabilizers in just about all exercises, so exhausting them the day before another intense workout could increase injury risk.

6. Progression: Increase the resistance as frequently as possible without compromising form.  
Discussion: An increase of at least five seconds in an exercise is a good indication of when to increase resistance.  These increases are larger for people in the first few months of their workout routine and may be as small as 1-2.5 lbs. for experienced lifters.  The frequent increases in resistance will provide continual stimulus for your body to make positive adaptations.

7. Exercises Per Workout: Do 3-6 for Half-Body Splits, 7-11 for Full Body.
Discussion: This is a topic that is highly dependent on both the individual and the workout intensity.  For myself, I can not do more than nine exercises per workout, at least not with any meaningful intensity on the last few.  However, I have clients who work hard and can do 10+.  My usual full body workout is seven or eight.

8. Exercise Selection and Order: Mostly Compound Movements, Large to Small, Start with Your Target Half.
Discussion:  Compound movements, exercises where the movement is straight as opposed to rotational, involve more joints and more muscles. Using these exercises increases the efficiency of the workout.  All muscles should be trained regularly, regardless of specific target areas. However, feel free to adjust the quantity of exercises in each area to reflect those goals. 

In general, work from largest to smallest muscle groups (hips, thighs, back, chest, lower legs, shoulders, abs, arms, etc.).  For those targeting upper body muscles, start with upper and work in the lower body at some point.


Floriana said...

Sean, thank you. It's nice to have your recommendations all in one place so neatly laid out and explained.

In the case of three times per week approach - how many calories/protein more? Obviously, this will be individual, but can you give us an estimate?

Is it necessary to train abs and lower back intentionally since they are consistently used as stabilizers in other exercises?

How about exercise order? Does it matter? What do you think about the largest to smallest muscle rule?

Anonymous said...

Sean, I stumbled on your blog looking for weight lifting and low carb info. I am starting this to help with weight loss and bone health. I am much older than you (and female) but am interested in your opinion as to 3 times a week for an older person (60+) and how many calories a person should have a day? You seem to do your research, bravo. Eleanor

Dr. Sean Preuss said...


In regards to protein, a lot of people follow the 1 to 1.2 grams per pound of lean mass. I was usually at .8 to 1 and just added in an extra meal per day to decrease the overtraining effects. My extra meal during that phase of my diet would have been at least 300 cals and 30 grams of protein, but honestly, adjusting protein and caloric intake to training is not a strong area of mine - anything specific I suggest would be a guess.

Yes, it is necessary to work abs and lower back. There is a difference between static, stabilizing contraction and dynamic contraction. However, with the abs, they are often dynamically worked in exercises like the pullover or pull-ups.

I'll add a section to the post about exercise order. Thanks for the idea/suggestion!

Hi Eleanor,

Thanks for the compliment and for checking out H-A. If you want to talk in detail about what you are looking to do, feel free to email me: spreuss40 (at) yahoo.com. A large number of my clients have been in the 60+ and female demographic. I think three times per week is fine to start with - just pay attention to your body (for signs of prolonged fatigue) and, as with anyone, make sure to learn proper form before cranking up the intensity. I can't recommend a daily caloric goal, but if you are eating a diet full of real, unprocessed foods, your carb and caloric intakes should be fine.