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Facts and Fallacies: Resistance Training and Body Composition

Written by: Jason Stella, Program Manager, Life Time Academy, CPT

Have you ever heard the term “Gym Science” Gym science is the term used for so called proven philosophies about exercise that are derived more from folklore at the gym, than in actual science.  This series of articles is planned to help you understand where these commonly held beliefs come from and to inform you about the reality of what you need to do to get results from your workouts.  So let’s get right to it! 

Hands down, the most commonly used phrases in the gym are:

“If I lift heavy weights, I am going to get big,” and “I have to lift light weights and more repetitions so I don’t get big.”

Let’s set the story straight. These statements have some validity.  It’s the misinterpretation of them that pose the issue and are the biggest reasons why people do not get sustained results when using resistance training for body composition.

In order to understand where the misinterpretation occurs, I’ll start by explaining the most important principle behind any exercise routine: The “Principle of Specificity.  This is also referred to as the S.A.I.D. Principle (Specific Adaptations to Imposed Demands). What it means is that the body will adapt to whatever stress you impose on it. Yes, exercise is a stress!  Now let’s talk about how one manipulates the demand placed on the body.

Listed below are five key terms that fitness professionals use to design a program;

  1. Repetitions:  The number of times you perform an exercise
  2. Volume (Reps + Sets): The total number of repetitions completed throughout the workout session
  3. Time under tension: The total duration of time the muscles stays under tension during a set
  4. Load: The external force being applied to the muscles during an exercise
  5. Rest intervals: The amount of down time between sets

Now that we have described these vital components of a quality workout program, I want to break down were the “Gym Science” comes from. It starts with the question What dictates if a weight is heavy or not?”  It’s not the number listed on the piece of equipment (load) you are using.  That number is relative, based on each individual, but is always based on the same thing —the number of repetitions you can perform at that load to failure. 

That said, if you can lift 2000 pounds 10-15 times, then the weight is not heavy  Likewise, if you can only lift 1 pound, one time, then that weight is heavy!  So, rule number one.  Do not get caught up on the number listed on the piece of equipment, because it doesn’t dictate how heavy the resistance is.   

What dictates how heavy the load is, and ultimately the specific result you will achieve is the number of repetitions to failure.

Here is another example.  Someone starts their training program using 30 pounds for a particular exercise.  Six months later, they are still using the same pounds on that exercise. His or her perception is that 40 or 50 pounds is heavy and if they life that weight they will get burly.

Going back to the previously mentioned, Principle of Specificity.  It states your body will respond to the stress you place on it.  So the weight you choose for 15 repetitions when you started working out should not be the same weight you are using for 15 repetitions 6-8 weeks later.  You have to keep changing the stress you place on the body or you will not give it a reason to continually change.

For beginners (less than one year of training experience), the main reason someone will be able to increase the load fairly quickly is not because the muscles are getting bigger. It is because the nervous system is starting to function more efficiently to the muscles being stressed. This increase in neuromuscular efficiency is why you typically can see a large increase the load in a relatively short period of time (in beginners).    

In closing, please remember these two statements:

  1. The repetitions to failure is what dictates if a load is heavy, not the number on the weight.
  2. The number of repetitions to failure is going to be one of the main factors that will determine the response your body will have. (We will discuss the other factors in the next article.)

Be sure to follow facts around resistance training and get ready to see consistent results with your workouts!

Post questions and comments below.

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.

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Reader Comments (3)

What will achieve the best result. Increasing the weight to failure while holding the repetitions constant or simply increasing the repetitions to failure?
I have been instructed only stress muscle groups every other day. Do muscles require 48 hours to adjust or does the nervous system?
For five times , in the last four months, I have repeated my resistance 'routine' on consecutive days and have noticed no detrimental effect. Is this rule relative to the individual or is it just good policy?

September 25, 2011 | Unregistered Commenters foster

To answer your question... I will partially ask another question. Are you doing exactly the same workout every other day? Or are you doing a completely different workout everyday?

There is always going to be a cumulative affect when it comes to resistance training. A person has a ton of different muscle fibers in each muscle... you may not see a problem for a week or ten days, straight, of the same workout. But that is something that you may not want to endure. If your goal is to lose weight and build muscle, starting slow is always best. That is unless you are working with a good personal trainer, who should challenge your entire body every time you see them, in a different way than before.

For example... I met a young man a while ago and every time I saw him he was working out his chest. Someone had told him that was a great way to kick start muscle growth. When I talked to him about this, he had told me that he was on his 10th day straight of working his chest out. He told me he was always sore, could not sleep due to the pain, he told me he was getting weaker and weaker. I told him to try a different approach, and take some time off. I told him when he took a week off, to contact me and I would show him some different exercises for the entire body.

When I am training my clients, even if it is everyday, I will take into consideration what we did in the last week and adjust the workout accordingly. If your muscles are not tired from the previous workout, you may not be challenging yourself enough in the first place. The goal is to make gains and keep getting stronger, more muscle and less fat... as the story says... our body's adapt quickly to new stimuli.

The statement that a person needs 48 hours to recover is more for people that train body parts and / or train with high intensity. Even then... 48 hours may be a little short for recovering from that. I know from experience.


September 25, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMBryan

Great question! I will start by saying the "best Result" is based on several things.
1) What specific result are you looking for? As stated in the article, the SAID principle states that your body will adapt to what you give it, so if you have been doing as many repetitions as possible to failure, your body will adapt at some point (Some research states your body will adapt to the number of repetitions to failure, given the tempo and time under tension is constant (these concepts will be discussed in next week’s article) within 5 workouts. That said, if you are doing the same workout everyday or every other day, you may adapt to that number of repetitions within a week or 2!
2) The time needed between workouts depends on many factors. The first one is type of workout you are performing. I would not recommend completing the same exact movements every day. This will lead to pattern overload injuries. This basically means performing the same movement patterns everyday causing the muscles and joints to wear. The second factor is too much volume (sets x reps x total days working out) Too much volume is the leading cause of over-reaching and over-training. Another caution I have with is basing your ability to work out that day on “Feeling OK”. I would use one of three different assessments.
1) RMR and/or EMR assessments –LifeTime calls them Cardio and Calorie Point. A good technician will be able to tell if you are over reaching or training based on those results.
2) Do a stress and resilience assessment. This would be the best recommendation for two reasons. 1) Because it will show you if your body is in a Chronic Stress Crisis. If you are overtraining, your body will release cortisol, not allowing your body to make DHEA. This will affect your ability to recover from workouts. Also, if you are constantly releasing cortisol, (cortisol is an energy hormone (increases energy when released) as well as a catabolic hormone – breaks down muscle tissue) this may lead to the adrenal gland(what releases cortisol) to fatigue. This will lead you to feeling very tired throughout the day, getting sick on a regular basis and a host of other issues.
3) Lastly, you could take your resting pulse rate first thing in the morning. You would have to take this for 2-3 days in a row. I recommend not putting yourself through any strenuous workouts during this time. This will get you a baseline for your resting HR. Then, each morning you wake up, take your resting pulse and if your HR is 5% higher, I would recommend lowering the intensity of the workout. If it is 10% higher than your original, I would not do your normal workout that day at all. I would recommend just doing a recovery and regeneration workout. This would include things like contrast temperature baths. You can sit in the hot tube for 5 minutes, and then jump in the colder pool. Do this for 15-20 minutes. Other options are massage, power plate workouts for recovery and regeneration and sitting in the dry sauna.

3) Your reference to the nervous system was very insightful! The nervous system does take longer to recover than the muscles. So, if you are really taxing your nervous system (Heavier Weight, lower Reps tax the nervous system more than higher reps and lighter weights) then you should have longer rest intervals between reps and/or sessions.

Be proactive and Healthy,


September 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJason Stella

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