Evidence-Based Resistance Training Recommendations: Part 5

The recent review by James Fisher, James Steele, Stewart Bruce-Low and Dave Smith should be on the “must read” list for everyone with an interest in exercise. In fact, you should download and read it before you read the rest of this post which is the fourth of several commentaries I will be writing on their review.

Click here to read part 1 on anti-HIT bias, intensity and one rep max testing

Click here to read part 2 on momentary muscular failure

Click here to read part 3 on rating of perceived exertion and load and repetition range

Click here to read part 4 on muscular endurance

Resistance Types, Free Weights and Machines

Over the past twenty years I have used and trained people with free weights, body weight, manual resistance, and a variety of plate-loaded, selectorized, and motorized machines, including some of the best and worst ever made. While each has it’s advantages and disadvantages and I have my preferences, in my experience how you train is far more important than the equipment you use. As long as you train hard, progressively, and consistently you can get good results using any of them. This isn’t just my experience or opinion, though. The Free Weights and Machines section of the paper begins,

Research has reported no significant difference in strength gains between groups training on resistance machines and undertaking free weight exercises [77-79]. Other research has utilized a leg extension machine but compared variable to constant resistance (by switching between a cam and a circular disc), once again reporting no significant difference in the strength increases between groups [80].

Whatever advantages different types of equipment may have, none can claim to produce better general strength gains (as opposed exercise specific skill improvements, which many people tend to confuse for increases in strength).

Contrary to the claims of free weight proponents the additional balance required during free weight exercises does not increase neural activation and exercise effectiveness.  One study mentioned showed force production in the target muscles may even be reduced when additional balance is required. It is also important to note that balance is not a general skill but specific to particular postures and movements, and improving the skill of maintaining balance during a free weight exercise does not transfer to improved balance in other activities.

Contrary to the claims of many machine proponents the balanced variable resistance provided by some machines may not provide better strength increases than constant resistance, or by extension other equipment and modalities which provide less “congruent” resistance curves (read Constant vs Variable Resistance Knee Extension Training). Some might argue either the repetition speed was too fast for meaningful loading with any cam (subjects followed the traditional Nautilus protocol of a two second lifting and four second lowering cadence) or the cam used wasn’t actually properly balanced to the resistance curve (they used a Nautilus Leg Extension machine which some people believe doesn’t provide enough of a resistance “fall-off” towards the end point when used with controlled speeds), or both. Speed of movement does affect resistance curve requirements – the faster the speed the less resistance needs to fall off because the extra is necessary to balance out the additional kinetic energy imparted during positive acceleration at the start of the positive.

The theory that using a machine or exercise technique which balances the resistance to the strength of the muscles over the full range of joint motion of an exercise is more effective is based on several premises. It is assumed that strength gains are specific to the positions or portions of the range of motion trained. It is assumed that continuous loading results in more efficient inroad thus faster motor unit recruitment, greater  metabolic demand, and more efficient achievement of momentary muscular failure (100% intensity). The effectiveness of isometrics and rest-pause training throws a huge wrench in this.

I’ve read different studies on isometrics which show a range of specificity of strength gains from within around fifteen to twenty degrees of the position trained to full range of motion. Some times the results varied significantly between individuals within a study. Based on my experiences with various isometric protocols over the years, including Mike Mentzer’s static holds, John Little’s static contraction training and Max Contraction, and Ken Hutchins timed static contraction, I believe strength gains from isometrics result in full range strength increases in most exercises. The exceptions might be exercises where the relative involvement of different muscle groups varies considerably over the full range of the exercise if the isometric exercise isn’t performed in a position where the majority of these are significantly involved. Even if this is the case for some exercises, as long as the overall routine effectively addresses all the major muscle groups it shouldn’t be a problem. I suspect the specificity has more to do with skill in the specific exercise performed and testing equipment and that if a muscle gets stronger in any position, it is proportionally stronger in all positions in general task performance.

Training on a RenEx Compound Row machine with adjustable cam timing

Training on a RenEx Compound Row machine with adjustable cam timing

I’ve had good results with rest-pause training and in an identical twin experiment I performed the twin who did rest-pause had a slightly greater strength increase than the one doing continuous repetitions. Unloading and resting the target muscles between repetitions didn’t hurt her progress at all. You can’t say it’s less effective. The only thing that might be considered a negative is significantly more weight is required to achieve momentary muscular failure with the same number of repetitions or in a similar duration, and this could be considered less efficient and also increases the stress on all the tissues involved (which is an important concern when you are working with frail or injured subjects).

We don’t need perfectly balanced variable resistance. We don’t need continuous muscular loading. While these things might provide an advantage over the long run in terms of efficiency or rate of progress it appears to be possible to achieve equally good results without them. Perhaps this is because as long as the effort is high enough and the load is adequate to achieve momentary muscular failure within a reasonable time frame it all averages out? Like many factors, there is probably a point of diminishing returns beyond which these things stop making a difference. Maybe, as long as the cam or technique used provides a resistance curve that roughly approximates the strength curve without any huge sticking points that’s all we need?

This doesn’t mean I don’t think there are advantages to training with properly designed machines. Since I plan to write a lot more about this elsewhere I’m not going to go into it in detail here, but a properly designed machine allows you to train more safely and more efficiently, and some muscles can only be worked directly with machines which is necessary when working with certain injuries, conditions, and physical limitations. I prefer machines for these and many other reasons. When it really comes down to it though, like I’ve been saying all along, how you train is far more important than the equipment you use.

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42 Responses to Evidence-Based Resistance Training Recommendations: Part 5

  1. Brian March 6, 2013 at 1:07 am #

    Another brilliant and amazing article Drew. I have long suspected that ‘ how you train is far more important than the equipment you use”. It is comforting to have a knowledgeable 3rd party confirm this for me.

    On another note – thanks for speaking out on the SPARTA issue. I was also considering the cert. Then I Googled it a bit and came to the conclusion it was not a smart move.

    Finally, I would really love to see you do a more in-depth, ‘meaty’ article on rep ranges, time under tension, and how to find what works best for you.

    • Drew Baye March 6, 2013 at 12:42 pm #

      Brian,

      Thanks. It all comes down to training hard, progressively, and consistently, and you can do this with a variety of equipment or none at all.

      I don’t recommend SPARTA, I’ve seen a few of their more recent certification exam videos online and they are still passing people who have no idea how to teach or instruct exercise.

      Once I’m finished with current writing projects the next book will go into adapting general principles based on individual response, including an entire chapter on rep ranges.

      • Brian March 6, 2013 at 2:32 pm #

        I look forward to your next book(s). I bought your 101 workouts book last year and loved it.

        • Drew Baye March 6, 2013 at 2:55 pm #

          Thanks Brian,

          I’m working on what I hope is the final rewrite of a book on exercise form right now, then I’ll be doing more general books on high intensity training for bodybuilding and sports/martial arts.

          • Scott Rhodes March 6, 2013 at 3:32 pm #

            Looks like I memorized the “Arthur Jones” rules for “full range/effective exercise” for naught! But, with most things in life, knowledge and “facts” are continuously evolving and one must use an active mind to incorporate this new information into one’s philosophy.
            I am looking forward to your book!
            Thanks for producing one of the best blogs in the biz!

            • Drew Baye March 6, 2013 at 3:52 pm #

              Thanks Scott,

              Arthur was a genius and got far more right than wrong. A lot of the things he said and wrote about training and equipment forty years ago have been repeatedly confirmed by studies, but he wasn’t omniscient and there is a lot we still don’t know and probably more than a few things we think we know that we’re wrong about. I think the important thing is to continue to ask questions, experiment, and follow the evidence wherever it points.

  2. Dave Blakemore March 6, 2013 at 5:26 am #

    Drew, In relation to what you say about strength curves, since Ive had access to vintage Nautilus, they have made me more aware of a few intresting things;

    1, In the past I have always needed to do exercises with a full range of movement, to get full range strentgh, Ie full squats v half squats BUT I have always got really got good size gains from doing half squats.

    2. Most people who can deadlift decent poundages have considerable back thickness and trap size, but for me even though my traps grow really well for what is in effect a static contraction again, I gain very little stength in the unworked range unless I do isolation exercises.

    3, Using the old Nautilus, I adapted quite well to the resistance curves of the machines and the ” full Range ” strength has made it easier to maul round heavy objects in every day life, ie taking apart old cars!

    4, I have found using the Nautilus enables me to make much deeper inroad into my strength and as a result takes me a longer time to recover than doing non variable resistance exercises. This could cause real problems for a person with poor recovery, ie a stereotypical hard gainer.

    5, One of the biggest advantages of a correctly designed machine is that it will track joint function accuratly. Since using the Nautilus any little minor joint niggles ive had have disappeared and I can work my muscles through a full range of movement. Taking care of your joints is of prime importance if you want to maintain size and strength in the long term.

    In general I really like your approach, Drew, It reminds me of a more refined version of Stuart Mcroberts way, which is a good thing in my opinion.

    • Drew Baye March 6, 2013 at 1:17 pm #

      Dave,

      A lot of these things are specific to the exercises and most people will probably find partial range and isometric training improves full range strength in general movement provided exercises are done for all the major muscle groups. RenEx are doing interesting work with their iMachines which I think will shed more light on this.

      When used correctly a properly designed machine is definitely safer for the joints. If a properly designed machine is not available free weights or body weight exercises are better than using an improperly designed machine which may force the user to follow a path of movement harmful to the joints.

  3. Will March 6, 2013 at 3:01 pm #

    What criteria do you use to judge whether a machine is “properly designed” or not? And, are you willing to identify those that you have judged to be improperly designed? Given what you’ve said, I take it all of us should be able to spot/feel the difference between proper and improper design fairly easily.

    • Drew Baye March 6, 2013 at 3:39 pm #

      Will,

      If it were that easy there wouldn’t be so many poorly designed machines.

      There are about two dozen general considerations for exercise equipment design and many more considerations specific to individual exercises. Ken Hutchins wrote a detailed article on this titled Exercise Equipment Design Principles which explains the following twenty three general considerations:

      Track muscle/joint function(s).
      Maintain coaxial alignment on rotary movements.
      Exceed the body’s range of motion.
      Provide both positive and negative work potential.
      Arrest reactionary force.
      Minimize friction.
      Cancel or minimize apparatus torque factors.
      Cancel or minimize body torque.
      Obey sufficiency principles.
      Avoid compression of contracting muscular structures.
      Avoid positioning the head lower than the remainder of the body.
      Avoid on-the-side trunk positions.
      Provide for a relatively flat resistance curve in most compound pushing movements, either a positive or negative cam is appropriate. A cam and follower mechanism is also appropriate.
      Provide an exponential resistance decrease in most compound pulling and most rotary movements. This requires a positive cam or a cam-and-follower mechanism.
      Avoid weight stack placement within reach of user while equipment is in use.
      Keep visual alignment of apparatus in the sagittal plane.
      Provide head support to allow for neutral positioning of the neck and head.
      Avoid non-fused movement arms whenever possible.
      Avoid excessive shielding.
      Keep equipment at a height for easy entry/exit.
      Provide direct resistance.

      I looked but could not find the article online, but RenEx might make reprints available if enough people are interested. I wouldn’t be surprised if they include it in one of the upcoming volumes of The Renaissance of Exercise. I’m not going to go into this in detail here, but may address this in the forum or in a future post.

      • Rob Brenner March 7, 2013 at 3:18 pm #

        Will,

        I think to a large degree, it’s subjective. If a machine is uncomfortable to use or does not feel like the it’s targeting the desired muscle, it’s poorly designed for you.

        There are no doubt universally compromised machines, but even some built with a high degree of attention to biomechanics, effective loading and joint protection may not work for you personally. I get next to no stimulation in the chest from Hammer Incline Presses, Hoist Roc It Shoulder Press causes pressure in my collar bone at the bottom the lowering portion, the Nautilus Duo Squat virtually crushed me into the shoulder pads. I guess my body was just outside the bell curve of soma-types considered by the designers of these otherwise highly praised machines.

        If it produces results without discomfort, it’s well designed – not much more to it than that.

        • Drew Baye March 8, 2013 at 10:08 am #

          Rob,

          Since individuals vary considerably in size, bodily proportions, etc. it is difficult to design a machine which is perfect for every possible user, but this is not a matter of subjectivity but practical design constraints. Unfortunately, if you are at the extreme ends of the bell curve for height or size or have unusual proportions or certain joint deformities you may some machines difficult to fit or position yourself in correctly or to use.

          Also, it is possible for a person to use very poorly designed machines without discomfort (other than the expected muscular burning and metabolic stress). Often, this has as much to do with how well the user knows how to position or align themselves in and use the machine as it does with the design.

      • Ben Tucker March 15, 2013 at 9:46 pm #

        Drew,

        I found that any of the “Dumpers” series goes into this subject quite extensively at RenEx:

        http://www.renaissanceexercise.com/dumpers-part-iii/

        Oh Yeah! That’s right! I forgot that you were part of those machine tests. I remember seeing a vid of you on one of those “trash compactor” squat racks.

        Did these manufacturers know who you guys were? ( Like, Oh Christ! Here comes the RenEx team).

        • Drew Baye March 17, 2013 at 1:44 pm #

          Ben,

          I had not planned to visit Dr. MacMillan when I was in Gainesville, and was not involved with RenEx at the time. I was visiting Regeneration Equipment, who manufacture my UXS bodyweight multi-exercise station, and we stopped over there. The video was originally intended for a blog post for this site I ended up not writing. Having spent a lot of time discussing these things with people on both side of the arguments around negative-emphasized training and equipment that hyperloads the negative I have a different perspective on this, but it’s something I’m going to write about more some other time.

  4. Will March 6, 2013 at 6:27 pm #

    Thanks – I’ll take a look at the RenEx site as well. I would love to be able to find a place that has good machines. I have some Hammer Strength available, but that’s about it. Some of their equipment is ok, others not so good. As far as I know, the greater Ann Arbor area has no MedX or RenEx, or even much Nautilus, for that matter.

    • Drew Baye March 7, 2013 at 2:46 pm #

      Will,

      You’re unlikely to find RenEx or MedX machines outside of very high-end personal training studios, rehab clinics, or research facilities. Unfortunately a lot of gyms don’t have Nautilus either, opting for cheaper, poorly designed stuff instead.

      • Andy March 10, 2013 at 7:41 am #

        Drew,
        For 3 months now I have trained on MedX equipment using a nearly 10/10 rep cadence. I was really amazed to find the effect being less than on more conventional equipment…GYM 80 equipment which is not common in the US I think. By the effect being less I mean a weaker cardiovascular effect and a weaker pumping effect after nearly each exercise. Now I train again at the GYM 80 studio. Maybe my personal experience has something to do with your experience with 10/10 reps where you reported on being able to endure longer in a set compared to e.g. 3/3 cadence.? Maybe MedX resistance curves aren’t that advantageous on all exercises.?

        • Drew Baye March 11, 2013 at 9:58 am #

          Andy,

          I’ve never used the other brand you mention so I can’t compare directly, but producing a considerable cardiovascular and metabolic demand has never been a problem with MedX equipment. Assuming you are positioned in and using the machines properly and with an appropriate amount of resistance you should be able to achieve a similar effect.

    • Tom Kalbfleisch March 10, 2013 at 6:34 am #

      @Will

      There is a superslow facility in Northville MI that has MedX equipment. It’s about a 20 mile drive from Ann Arbor.

      I drove about 20 miles from my home once a week for a few years to train there. Using a superslow protocol on “proper” equipment was one of the few exercise methodologies I had not experimented with. I found this to be a worthwhile experience, and the trainer at this facility does a great job.

      For what it’s worth, I have since reverted back to training in my basement, with a simple free weight set-up. I’ve just been lifting hard, like my old man taught me to when I first started out. . .

  5. garymar March 8, 2013 at 2:00 am #

    Avoid weight stack placement within reach of user while equipment is in use.

    This is a funny requirement. Personally I want to have the weight stack close so I can change the weight on the fly.

    But then, I’m doing Max Pyramid these days in which this is a necessary requirement. But even if I weren’t, I’d like it close to be able to adjust. Any idea why Ken thought this important?

    • Drew Baye March 8, 2013 at 10:12 am #

      Gary,

      Machines should be designed that way so people can’t get their hands or fingers crushed by the weight stack if they try something stupid. It’s to protect both the users and the company.

  6. Bill DeSimone March 8, 2013 at 3:29 pm #

    You and I are probably going to disagree on the equipment (you think?;), but I think you’re completely right in this article. Especially : “Like many factors, there is probably a point of diminishing returns beyond which these things stop making a difference. Maybe, as long as the cam or technique used provides a resistance curve that roughly approximates the strength curve without any huge sticking points that’s all we need?”

    One point I would make about “Congruent” resistance and muscle torque (catchy term, btw), ie no sticking points in an exercise/machine, is that I just prefer it, in terms of the “feel” of the exercise. I’m not tempted to add an exercise for the skipped area, or train in zones or stages, to make up for the easy part of the exercise. But to your point, it may not make a difference in result, just in effect, which is enough for me.

    • James Steele II March 9, 2013 at 5:27 pm #

      My sentiment also Bill. Likely has no impact on results but does personally ‘feel’ better when it’s as close to congruent as can be.

  7. Steven Turner March 10, 2013 at 6:53 am #

    Hi Drew,

    Your exactly right when you say, “how you train is more important than the equipment that you use”. To look it another way even when people have the best machine equipment to train on they misuse it. Bill has given us Moment Arm exercise which greatly improved my use of free weight equipment but how many people do you see misusing free weight equipment. Good equipment can be easily misused I think that Arthur Jones mentioned this when he owned Nautilus. I know what you’re saying though.

  8. Craig March 11, 2013 at 9:15 am #

    “Provide for a relatively flat resistance curve in most compound pushing movements.”

    This is quite interesting, coming from someone who has invested a lot of time tweaking cams to optimize exercise results. It suggests that the flat resistance curve of a free weight compound pushing movement isn’t much of a disadvantage (and the absence of friction is a plus), relative to even the best machine.

    • Donnie Hunt March 15, 2013 at 10:36 pm #

      I am curious about this as well, Drew.

      • Drew Baye March 17, 2013 at 2:10 pm #

        There are important differences between a machine with a flat resistance curve and a barbell, and between using a barbell and a dumbbell for the same exercise. These have to do with constraints on the path of movement and how it affects muscular input. The the more the path of movement is constrained the more effort can be put into contracting against the resistance rather than trying balancing the weight, which requires certain muscles contract with less rather than more force.

        • Donnie Hunt March 17, 2013 at 11:07 pm #

          Thank you for the explanation, Drew.

  9. marklloyd March 13, 2013 at 4:03 pm #

    I’ve alway been given the impression that slow protocols don’t claim greater strength & muscular gains, but rather, greater safety & more accurate record keeping. Specifically, a flatter resistance curve allows a slower cadence , which is safer & more accurately measurable. More specifically on the last point: If a 2-second rep speeds-up to 1.5, it’s 25% faster, allowing a false appearance of strength increase. If the speed-up’s 10 to 9.5 seconds, the 5% speed-up’s unlikely to throw record-keeping off. (Add to this: Trainers who advocate faster reps tend to disregard speed variances completely.)

    • Drew Baye March 13, 2013 at 7:01 pm #

      Mark,

      People’s rep speed and the resulting cadence will vary from rep to rep, from workout to workout, but as long as they are attempting to maintain a consistent average cadence and not deliberately speeding up I don’t think this is as big a problem as some people have suggested. When in doubt, use a metronome or have someone with a watch or stopwatch cadence count for you.

  10. Brian March 13, 2013 at 5:06 pm #

    Drew,

    Will you be going into more detail on timed static contraction exercise in any articles/books? Since your TSC hip belt squat article I’ve incorporated it into my routine by alternating TSC workouts with my gym HIT routines. I’ve experienced good gains & would love to hear more on it!

    • Drew Baye March 13, 2013 at 7:02 pm #

      Brian,

      When I’m done with the book I’m writing now I’m going to write something on home training which will have a lot on TSC.

  11. Ben Tucker March 15, 2013 at 9:27 pm #

    Drew,

    I may be reading this the wrong way, but is this a divorcing of the SuperSlow and RenEx protocol?

    • Drew Baye March 17, 2013 at 1:37 pm #

      Ben,

      I think the SS/RenEx protocol is a very safe and effective one, and the RenEx machines are very good. What this paper shows is you can get good results training with a lot of different types of equipment and with a variety of protocols as long as your train consistently and progressively with a high level of effort and reasonably safe form, and address all the major muscle groups without chronically exceeding a volume or frequency of exercise your body can not recover from and adapt to.

  12. Vanner March 17, 2013 at 12:21 pm #

    This whole series of posts is great Drew. The review written by Fisher, Steele, Bruce-Low and Smith is very interesting, and opens up a lot of questions on what has and has not been tested in terms of the efficacy of different training methods.

    The one thing I cannot wrap my head around is the suggestion that “to increase bone mineral density (BMD) training loads need to be 80% 1 RM or greater”. This is based on the study performed by Vincent and Braith comparing training at 50% 1 RM (~13 reps) to training at 80% 1 RM (~8 reps).

    13 reps vs 8 reps seems like a really minimal difference to me in a single workout; however, in the study the elderly folks were working out 3 x per week — so maybe it’s cumulative effort? I’m not sure. Also, I’m not sure (based on the abstract) if these folks were training to failure; I’m guessing they weren’t. Training to failure could also have an impact on BMD due to the increased intensity of muscle contractions. Of course I’m just theorizing here.

    The BMD suggestion seems to indicate that the load on the muscles needs to be at a certain percentage in order to effectively increase BMD. Since I use Isometric contractions as a part of my workout, the load is really the percentage of how hard I’m contracting my muscles against an immovable object (i.e. 100% = as hard as I can). Alternatively, if I did a barbell bench press to failure with a calculated load (based on 1 RM like the study) of 60%, I would be contracting my muscles at 100% by the end of the set.

    This leads me to the question of: is it the intensity of the muscle contraction that leads to greater BMD regardless of 1 RM percentage, and does the intensity of the muscle contraction need to be high at the beginning of the set, or is training to failure enough.

    Thoughts?

    • Drew Baye March 17, 2013 at 2:20 pm #

      Vanner,

      Someone asked a similar question about this in part four. I responded, “Consider most of these studies were done with older, previously untrained subjects, who were probably not very strong and one repetition maximum tests are skill dependent and initial tests often understate actual strength. A smaller percentage is probably required, and as a person gets stronger and becomes capable of using more resistance they will reach a level that is effective for stimulating improvements in bone density and bone mineral content.”

      I don’t know what is optimal, but I think any normal, healthy person who consistently trains with an at least enough resistance to achieve momentary muscle failure within a few minutes can effectively improve their bone density.

      • Vanner March 17, 2013 at 7:39 pm #

        Thanks for the response. My earlier searches didn’t pull up Johnny C’s question for some reason — likely a problem between the chair and the keyboard on my side.

        I like the idea of time-boxing MMF. I’ve set it at 30-90 seconds which I believe falls into your recommendations.

      • Craig March 21, 2013 at 12:24 pm #

        I know from a strength training perspective, explosive movements that produce impact stresses on the joints and connective tissues may not be such a great idea. But for most of our evolutionary past, a lot of the stresses that triggered adaptive responses must have come from activities like running. I do wonder if the bones of the legs and spine aren’t built to respond best to the repetitive short duration, high force impacts that running produces?

        • Drew Baye March 22, 2013 at 7:50 pm #

          Craig,

          If that was the case sprinting and plyometrics would produce better strength gains than conventional strength training at slow to moderate speeds, but they don’t, so it’s not.

  13. Bill Sekerak March 18, 2013 at 8:58 pm #

    Very well said. MedX distributed a paper entitled ” Muscle ” which describes on page 276 the effects of IM training at 7 different angles of ROM on a MedX medical low back machine in comparison to the effects of full ROM training. They found no difference in the effects of both types of training as far as tested gains in strength were concerned.
    Just thought you might like to know.

    Bill

    • Drew Baye March 22, 2013 at 7:45 pm #

      Thanks Bill,

      I have the paper around here somewhere but it’s been years since I’ve read it. I also remember Arthur mentioning this during a conversation, although if I remember correctly he said something about some people having a more specific and others a more general response.

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