Why Your Personal Trainer is Full of it – and what you can do about it

If you’ve been to the gym in the last 10 years you’ve undoubtedly seen countless patrons slaving away doing hundreds of crunches, triceps kickbacks, and as many different “thigh sculpting” contortions as you can think of, possibly all while standing on a Bosu ball on top of a balance board while strapped to the wall by elastic bands. In my experience most of these strange permutations of exercise are inspired by someone’s personal trainer/fitness trainer/health and wellness coach or by an article published in any random men’s health or fitness magazine written by one of the aforementioned “fitness experts”. They throw around terms like “functional fitness” and “core strength” and my favorite… “toning”. Of course these guys must know what they’re talking about… look at them – they’re ripped! They also have certifications! Yup, you heard that right. They are officially certified by accrediting bodies which obviously settle for no less than the most up-to-date, cutting-edge science to support these amazing core-strengthening, arm flab-toning, six pack-chiseling methods. Or maybe not. Maybe it’s all an elaborate rouse that is self-perpetuating because there is a lot of money to be made in constantly changing approach with infinite numbers of exercise equipment and the latest new crunch that you’re not doing that will fortify your fragile back, strengthen your feeble “core” or maybe even get you those six pack abs you’ve been lusting after.

In 2002 The American College of Sports Medicine published a Position Stand entitled Progression Models in Resistance Training for Healthy Adults. Why should we care about what the ACSM says? Well according to their own website the “ACSM is the largest sports medicine and exercise science organization in the world. With more than 45,000 members and certified professionals worldwide, ACSM is dedicated to advancing and integrating scientific research to provide educational and practical applications of exercise science and sports medicine.” In other words, the claims of the ACSM carry some weight in the world at large and influence the way the public understands exercise and physical health. The reason for this publication was to espouse the ACSM’s claims that the manipulation of the training modality utilized, (free weights vs machines vs elastic bands vs bags of sand etc) repetition duration, repetition range, number of sets, and frequency of training will affect specific physiological adaptations such as muscular strength, hypertrophy, power, and endurance differently. They go on to further assert that different training protocols are needed for novices, intermediate, advanced and elite trainees. Lucky for us some researchers have already examined these claims and they have something to say about them.

Well for starters, a review of the literature concerning resistance training published in the Journal of Exercise Physiology (Online) in 2004 states that “the preponderance of resistance-training studies suggest that simple, low-volume, time-efficient, resistance training is just as effective for increasing muscular strength, hypertrophy, power, and endurance—regardless of training experience—as are the complex, high-volume, time-consuming protocols that are recommended in the Position Stand”. [2] As deceivingly simple as it sounds even the idea that multiple sets are necessary to maximize strength gains had to come from somewhere, right?

The supposed genesis of the multiple set theory was an experiment conducted by Berger in 1962. The basic set up of this study was to have 9 different training groups of about 20 college-aged men each performing either single or varying numbers of multiple sets of the bench press. At the end of the study it was found that the group that performed 3 sets had about a 3% increase in strength compared to the single set group. So for 300% more work you can gain an additional 3% in strength. This might not be the best use of your time. This original study has been criticized for various reporting and methodological errors such as a lack of a control group or randomization of participants, no description of the participants’ regular weight training protocols that were being performed in addition to the experimental bench press protocol being tested, as well as typographical errors published in the original study. For those not well-versed in research methodologies, that’s basically a fancy way of saying that the experiment was so poorly designed that it would be damned near impossible to draw any type of useful conclusions from it. Thirteen subsequent papers have referenced this original paper, with other prominent authors such as Kraemer and Fleck referencing three of those original thirteen papers and then again cross referencing themselves in later papers.[3] Oh the tangled webs we weave.

Another review published in 2004 in the the Journal of Exercise Physiology (Online) critiques 4 recent meta-analysis analyses claiming that multiple sets (high volume) training is superior to a single set of each exercise in producing strength gains in experienced trainees. According to the authors of this literature review, the 4 recent meta-analyses were fraught with confounders, methodological errors, errors of exclusion (leaving out studies which met the inclusion criteria of the meta-analyses, but disputed the claims of the authors), as well as questionable statistical analyses. One meta-analysis by Rhea et al covered in the review actually had 12 of the 16 studies reporting no significant differences between single and multiple sets even though Rhea et al concluded that multiple set training was superior to single set training. Let me repeat that again for emphasis – Rhea et al concluded that multiple set training was superior to single set training even though 12 of the 16 studies they used did not support their claim. [4]

In a review by Smith and Bruce-Low reviewing the work of Arthur Jones, inventor of Nautilus exercise equipment and all-around mad scientist of exercise physiology, as it relates to the current published literature it was concluded that “(t)he weight of scientific evidence … does not support the idea that different numbers of repetitions have differential effects on muscular strength and endurance. A low to moderate number of repetitions has been shown to produce optimal increases in muscular strength and size, with no specific repetition range proving superior. Increases in muscular strength are accompanied by increases in absolute muscular endurance, with no advantage accruing in this regard from the use of a high number of repetitions”. According to the authors of this review, this is in direct opposition to guidelines suggested by many prominent exercise physiology textbooks, the National Strength and Conditioning Association, and the American College of Sports Medicine. Smith and Bruce-Low covered four main topics in their review: single vs multiple sets, optimal training frequency, speed of movement during exercise, and optimal repetition ranges for increasing muscular strength and endurance. For each topic Smith and Bruce-Low concluded that the literature supports training protocols in direct opposition to the Position Stand issued by the American College of Sports Medicine and many prominent exercise physiology texts books. [5]

The following table (Table 2) is a compendium of the recommendations for maximally increasing muscular strength, endurance, and power for trained and untrained subjects of the reviews and meta-analyses discussed in this review. In my opinion this is the best of what science can tell us about general strength training principals.

Variable

Recommendation

Exercise modality

Choose the most comfortable modality for a given exercise that allows for a full range of motion. There is no evidence that supports the superiority of using free weights or machines for increasing muscular strength, hypertrophy, power, or endurance. [2]

Cadence (amount of time during movement)

Use a tempo that is slow enough to move the resistance in a controlled manner while maintaining efficient form. There is currently no evidence that definitively shows the superiority of manipulating the time under tension or the use of explosive movements to improve strength, power, or muscular endurance [2,5]

Numbers of reps

Use a moderate number of repetitions for each exercise (3-15). No studies show an advantage to using a lower or higher number of repetitions to elicit a specific training response such as increased strength, hypertrophy, power, or endurance. [2,5]

Number of sets and intensity

Perform one set to volitional fatigue. Current well-controlled studies show no advantage in outcomes when performing additional sets. There is no evidence to support the use of accentuated eccentric movement or supramaximal contractions to improve strength, hypertrophy, power or endurance. [1,2,5]

Rest time between exercises

Allow enough time between exercises to adequately recover so as to perform the next exercise with proper form. There is little evidence to support varying rest times in order to specifically affect strength, hypertrophy, power or endurance. [2]

Frequency of training

Perform full body workouts 1-2 times per week depending the the individual’s recuperative capabilities. The majority of studies support the use of full body workouts as being as effective as traditional split routines or additional sessions in a week. Many participants showed improved results using only one session per week. The exception to this is in trunk torsional muscles where studies have shown a significant benefit to performing these movements twice per week as opposed to once but no additional benefit to performing these movements three times compared to twice per week. [2,5]

I know, I know. The guy at the gym who benches like 400 lbs told you that he got that strong with forced negatives and/or super-drop sets and/or explosive plyometric training and/or whatever. I say try a sample workout for 4 weeks and write down your results.

Warm up till you break a sweat – no static stretching!
1. Bent-over barbell rows
2. Flat bench barbell press
3. Chin ups
4. Squats
5. Standing barbell shoulder press
6. Barbell curl
7. Triceps press/skull crushers
8. Standing Calf Raise
9. Russian twists

Do one set of each exercise aiming for 10-12 reps to failure, meaning you can’t do another rep with good form. Do them in order and take enough time between exercises to do the next exercise well. This whole workout should take around an hour or less. This workout alone should get you squatting around 1.5 times you body weight for at least 10 reps, and benching 1.25 times your body weight for 10 reps. Unless you can do 10 dead-hang chin ups with no swinging you should probably skip the super set cable curls and your day dedicated to sculpting your six pack.

1. Carpinelli R N, Otto R M. Strength training single versus multiple sets. Sports Med 1998 Aug; 26 (2): 73-84.
2. Carpinelli R N, Otto R M, Winett R A. A critical analysis of the ACSM position stand on resistance trainings: insufficient evidence to support recommended training protocols. JEPonline 2004;7(3):1-60.
3. Carpinelli R N. Berger in retrospect: effect of varied weight training programmes on strength. Br J Sports Med. 2002 October; 36(5): 319–324. doi: 10.1136/bjsm.36.5.319.
4. Winett R A. Meta-analyses do not support performance of multiple sets or high volume resistance training. JEPonline. 2004;7(5):10-20.
5. Smith D, Bruce-Low S. Strength training methods and the work of Arthur Jones. JEPonline. 2004;7(6):52-68.

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3 thoughts on “Why Your Personal Trainer is Full of it – and what you can do about it

  1. I’m glad to hear it! feel free to check out the actual studies – you can go to google scholar or just copy and paste into your search bar and you should have no trouble finding them. I’d be interested in hearing what your trainer has to say.

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