Think of a favorite movie that is entertaining and can be enjoyed with frequent viewings, but as you learn the lines and know the scenes, the movie, while still enjoyable, is not nearly as entertaining as the first time you saw it because you know exactly what is going to happen and when. In a rough analogy, the human body adapts to exercise the same way the brain adapts to seeing the same movie over and over: the more often a particular exercise routine is performed at the same intensity, the body will become familiar with it and may stop experiencing results. As a personal trainer, one of the most challenging aspects of developing an exercise program for a client is determining the most effective routine to follow and for how long. Because the human body adapts quickly to exercise, an exercise program should be changed on a regular basis, about every eight to 16 weeks, based on the specific goals and training experience of the client.
Time is our most precious asset. It is the one thing we as humans are unable to manufacture. The late Mel Siff defined exercise as, “a problem solving task to perform a movement in the most efficient manner possible.” Following that theory, exercise program design becomes a task of developing a routine that uses the stress of exercise as the “problem” to challenge clients and stimulate the desired adaptation for their specific goals in the given amount of training time, which is usually limited to just one hour. The study of economics is how to satisfy unlimited demands with a limited, finite pool of resources, and time is our most limited resource.
When personal trainers design exercise programs for their clients, they attempt to achieve the greatest gains in the most efficient manner possible. In other words, we want to become exercise economists or “exer-conomists.” As an “exer-conomist,” a personal trainer has a limited supply of an hour with clients to achieve the demand of each client’s desired exercise goal, which can generally be summed up as “toning up and losing weight.” The question now becomes: what is an effective method of progressing an exercise program to a level of challenge that can provide the biggest return on the investment of the limited resource of time?
The purpose of this article is to learn an efficient method for increasing the total volume of training in an effort to maximize the efficient use of the client’s resource of time. If the goal of a specific exercise program is to help a client lose body fat and develop lean muscle mass, then the program should continue to progressively increase the training overload in the same 60 minute time frame (the training session) in order to increase energy expenditure and stimulate muscle growth.
In order to maximize training time and efficiency, it is important to think like an exer-conomist and progress a client’s exercise program to a time challenging, time efficient method of organization that applies the overload of power training, specifically complex training.
Complex training is also known as combination training, elastic equivalency training or post-activation potentiation (PAP). Complex training is an advanced system of resistance training that calls for performing two concurrent exercises for the same bodypart. Because of the intensity and the stress to the nervous and endocrine systems, this method is recommended for clients with training experience who are capable of performing advanced level exercises. Complex training is too stressful for a client with less than six months of training experience, but a client can be safely progressed to complex training by following a consistent progressive overload of program design variables.
A brief review of the variables of exercise program design that can be applied to create a progressive training overload are as follows:
- Exercise selection - The actual movements and exercises performed.
- Intensity - The amount of resistance or load used in an exercise expressed as a percentage of 1RM
- Repetitions - The complete ROM of the lengthening and shortening phase of the muscle action, expressed as the number of times the complete cycle is performed.
- Sets - The total amount of repetitions completed at one time.
- Tempo - The velocity at which the exercise is performed.
- Rest interval - The time period between exercises allowing the muscles to recover and refuel in order to perform more work.
- Volume - The combined total of the intensity, number of repetitions and sets completed in a workout.
In order to apply the concept of economics, to increase the efficiency of a workout program, the variables have to be progressively applied in order to provide an increase of training volume in the consistent training time of one hour.
Traditional exercise programs follow a guideline of a rest interval after each set of an exercise. For new clients, this is an efficient way to condition the muscles for exercise. However, as the muscles adapt, they will become more efficient at doing the work and will expend less energy. If the goal is to lose weight, than this might not be an efficient use of their exercise time. As the client improves his training experience, an advanced progression of exercise program design would be to have him perform multiple sets in a row before a rest period, allowing for a greater volume of work during the training session.
When designing your exercise programs, don’t break the laws!
The science behind the method of developing an efficient exercise program can be defined by using the famous three laws of Sir Isaac Newton along with some simple principles of physics. To develop a good understanding of the following basic concepts of physics and how they apply to exercise, consider the following:
Newton’s Laws of Gravity
A body will persist in its original state of rest or motion unless acted on by an external agency (such as a force). Otherwise known as momentum, this law states that a body at rest stays at rest unless acted on by an outside force. Applied to exercise, this law explains the fact that the mass of a weight will remain at a constant state of rest until another force such as a concentric muscle action is applied to create motion. As a muscle produces force, it accelerates an object from a state of rest while expending energy.
The rate of change of velocity is proportional to the resultant force acting on the body and is in the same direction as the force (F = MA). Force is the result of the Mass of the object being moved multiplied by the Acceleration (i.e., how fast the object is being moved from a state of rest, or a change in direction of constant motion).
When applied to exercise, this rule is consistent with the First Law and states that a muscular force must be applied in order to move and overcome a resistive force at rest. In the case of exercise, this is the weight being lifted. The heavier the mass being moved, the more force developed as it is accelerated.
This law supports the benefit of performing exercises that require rapid force development. A standard or traditional tempo of exercise is a steady cadence, usually one to three seconds on each of the eccentric and concentric phases of muscle action. While this is an effective overload for a new client, as the client adapts to the work load, the variables of program design need to be made more challenging. A normal exercise tempo moving in a straight line at a constant rate of speed utilizes less energy and generates less force then when muscles are challenged to generate a high velocity with rapid acceleration. The faster the Acceleration of the Mass, the greater the Forces produced.
Think of it like driving a car in the city versus driving on the highway: when starting and stopping in the city, more gas is used because the car has to constantly accelerate and decelerate. Conversely, driving at the same pace is much more efficient and uses less gas. When the body is being challenged to perform work at a high rate of speed, muscles will be required to work harder and will burn more calories than they would just moving at a steady, slow tempo. Examples of explosive exercises are squat jumps (either loaded or unloaded) or medicine ball chest passes. Both require the muscles to generate force at a high rate of velocity to rapidly accelerate the mass of the weight.
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. When applied to exercise program design, this law becomes the SAID Principle (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands), which means the body will adapt (reaction) to the method in which it is trained (action). For example, when training on machines where the range of motion is dictated by the machine, the body does not have to account for the constant force of gravity and will react by becoming strong specifically for the ROM of that machine, causing the body to be unprepared when placed in an environment where it now has to stabilize a resistive force against the constant pull of gravity.
Additional Physics Principles
Besides Newton’s Laws, it is important to understand some other basic principles of physics:
- Velocity = Distance X Time (meters per second—m/s) is the rate at which an object travels a certain distance in a certain time period. Velocity is determined by the speed of the exercise to complete a specific joint ROM.
- Acceleration = Meters per Second per Second (m/s2) is the rate at which an object increases in velocity with every additional second. Acceleration is determined by the rate at which the mass of the weight transitions from rest to moving through the ROM. The acceleration of mass due to gravity is a constant 9.81 m/sec2. All free weight exercises require muscles to work against this constant, downward force of acceleration.
- Work = Force X Distance (W = FD) is the amount of force required to move an object a certain distance and is measured in Newtons X Meters, or Joules. The Distance a weight travels (usually dictated by the joint ROM or the path of motion on the machine) determines the amount of work performed. For example, in a squat, the bar travels from the standing (beginning) position to the squat (end) position and is accelerated by gravity. Work is the amount of Force the muscles produced to control that downward acceleration as the bar traveled the distance from the beginning to the end positions.
- Power = Work / Time (P = W/T, or P = FD/T). The quicker you can apply a Force to move an object with a determined Mass over a certain Distance, the more work performed and the more power expended. Power is measured in Watts, which is Joules per second (J/s). If P=W/T, then the variable of time is fixed at the length of the training session, usually one hour (P=W/1 hour). If a client has weight loss as a primary training goal and "toning up" as a secondary goal, then it is important to find an effective and efficient method of performing the most work in that hour by either maximizing the amount of Force produced or increasing the number of exercises performed to maximize the distance over which muscle force is produced.
In complex training, the first exercise is focused on developing the ability of the muscle to produce a maximal force, and the second exercise is for the same muscle group and emphasizes training the speed of movement or rate of force development. The first exercise of a complex set begins with heavy resistance and conditions the muscles to produce force in the concentric, shortening muscle action. This is the application of the second law of physics, F=MA, which trains pure muscular force development without any consideration for the rate at which that force is developed. The distance that the weight travels (the limb length of the weightlifter) determines the work (remember, W=FD) performed.
The explosive action in the second exercise is performed after the strength exercise and places an emphasis on the eccentric muscle action. The second set of a complex specifically trains the muscle how to rapidly transform from lengthening to shortening in order to achieve a high rate of force development. The faster the muscle can stretch in the eccentric phase of the muscle action, the faster or more explosively it can shorten in the concentric phase. This is an application of Newton’s Third Law (Action:Reaction).
A recommended rest interval between the first and second exercise varies anywhere from one to eight minutes. However, a client’s training experience and performance capability will determine his individual rest interval between the first and second set. The rest between exercises is again dependent on the client’s experience and goals. complex training is extremely effective when performed as a circuit. However, if following this method, rest at least three to four minutes between circuits.
Roughly speaking, the mechanical property of a muscle is like the spring in a pinball machine. If the spring is pulled back and held in a shortened position, it won’t produce the same amount of explosive force as when the spring is rapidly pulled and released. Once again, Physics explains this action in that the faster the Acceleration of a Mass, then a higher amount of net Force is produced (F=MA). If the muscles can explosively Accelerate a Mass over a certain Distance, then the greater the Force generated and the higher amount of Work performed (W=FD). The shorter the period of Time to Accelerate a Mass over a certain Distance, then the greater the amount of Force produced and more Power is expended (P=W/T, or P=FD/T).
Training muscles to increase their net power output will then, according to the laws of physics, condition them to be able to do more work in less time, maximizing the return on the time invested in an exercise program, hence an economically efficient allocation of resources. This is the benefit of applying the laws of physics and the science of economics to exercise program design: it creates a strategy for progressing a client to a challenging, energy burning exercise program.
There are two general theories of how complex training works to condition the muscles to act explosively. The theories apply to how both the mechanical and the neural properties react to the action of power training. Both theories deal with maximizing the efficiency of force production within a given muscle for a specific movement. For example, when the weight is right above the chest in a bench press, the pecs are in a lengthened position loaded for work (with the elastic properties of the muscle being stretched by the mass of the weight). When the weight is at the top of the bench press, the pecs are shortened and unloaded. The first exercise would be heavy bench presses followed by explosive chest passes with a medicine ball or explosive push ups. The combination of the two exercises performed one after the other would condition the muscles to have the ability to load and unload explosively and with a lot of force. The first theory is that the pre-stimulation of the heavy resistance in the first exercise enhances the motor neuron excitability in the muscles that allows for a more rapid rate of force development in the second exercise, thereby taking advantage of the elastic or mechanical properties of muscle action as it transitions from a lengthened pre-loaded state.
The second theory is that the heavier load of the first exercise stimulates more motor units to send signals to a muscle telling it to shorten. (A motor unit is the motor neuron and the fibers it causes to contract. It can be compared to a spark plug, which fires to cause an engine to run.) This is known as motor unit synchronization. When motor unit synchronization is improved, there are a higher number of muscle fibers shortening to move the load during the concentric phase of the exercise. The explosive action of the second exercise (power) trains the increased number of recruited motor units to shorten at a faster rate of speed, known as rate coding. Complex training is then the programming of the muscles to contract at a faster speed. It doesn’t matter which theory is the “right” one. The net result of increased motor unit synchronization and rate coding is that the working muscles will increase the efficiency at which they operate.
A sample of how to systematically progress an exercise program for a new client with no acute health or musculo-skeletal issues and minimal training experience up to the challenge of complex training would be as follows:
|Weeks of Experience
|| Training Outcome
||~ 70-80% 1RM
||~ 75-95% 1RM
80-95% 1RM first
30% 1RM or <10% Bodyweight (medicine ball)
|1st set: 4/3/fast/none
Rest at least 1min
2nd set: 8/3/explosive
|Maximum power output
Complex training combines the program design variables used for traditional maximum strength training with the variables used for plyometric or power training in an attempt to transfer muscle strength gains into explosive power. The variables of the first exercise follow the guidelines for max strength training: an intensity of 85 to 100 percent of 1RM for one to five repetitions. The second exercise uses the variables for explosive power training: an intensity of 30 to 50 percent of 1RM for six to eight repetitions. The exercise of the second set should place an emphasis on accelerating all the way through a ROM such as a throw or jump.
Using an intense organization of exercise like complex training requires a full body dynamic warm up that includes movement in all planes with some light SAQ or plyometric work. A complete dynamic warm up should last about 20 to 25 minutes and includes movements for all major joints: ankles, knees, hips, thoracic spine/trunk, shoulders and neck.
Examples of complex training would be a set of heavy barbell chest presses with 90 percent of 1RM for four reps, followed by a set of explosive barbell throws with 50 percent 1RM or explosive hand-clap push ups for six to eight reps or medicine ball chest passes for six to eight reps. Another example would be heavy squats for five reps, followed by explosive squat jumps. A third example would be heavy lat pull-downs or barbell rows for three to five reps followed by straight-armed medicine ball throws for six to eight reps. The rest interval would take place after the completion of both sets and would be long enough to allow for proper recovery of the energy and nervous systems, about two to four minutes.
Once the client is conditioned to do complex training, it is recommended to use three to four sets of complex training per bodypart. The combination of the strength exercises followed immediately by the power exercise is considered one set, with the compound (multi-joint) exercises for the larger muscle groups of the legs, chest, back and shoulders. Since two exercises are performed back to back, there is a much higher volume of training in terms of total sets, reps and intensity.
A complex training workout does not take a lot of time to generate a large amount of work. A sample complex routine for a client with one year of training experience and a goal of lean muscle development is listed below (the consideration is that the client has progressed to the appropriate level of ability and performs a 20 to 25 minute dynamic warm up before executing the complex sets):
|| 2nd Exercise
| Tempo 1st
||6/3/3-4min between circuits
Following the above tempo and rest intervals, this client could complete 18 sets of explosive training in approximately 27 minutes, give or take a couple of minutes for extra recovery. Complex training is an organization of the training variables that can be used to help a client progress to performing a maximum amount of work in a short period of time. If the goal of an exercise program is to enhance strength and muscular definition without wasting the precious resource of time, then it might be worth approaching program design as an exer-conomist and use complex training to do more work in less time.
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