Chapter 15: Resistance Training Protocols and Systems

Fitness professionals must have in-depth knowledge of the various training protocols and systems for improving strength and fitness. Professionals should be particularly familiar with the equipment in their facility, and the modalities they plan to use with their clients.

Introduction to Resistance Training

Each modality has its pros and cons. While certain populations may benefit from the proper use of these styles more than others, nearly all populations can find an intelligent use for each modality and receive positive results. Two of the fundamental parameters discussed here are set training and exercise implements.

Single Set

Single set training utilizes one set per exercise before moving on to another movement. For example, if an individual performed one set of 20 repetitions and moved on to another exercise, that would be considered a single set-style of training.

Single sets are most appropriate for novice clients and can be effective at inducing muscular development.24 Additionally, single set training can be used as a method to test muscular endurance and anaerobic capacity.22

Clients who have already completed several months of resistance training will need to add multiple sets or other means of increasing volume in order to see continued results.

Multiple Sets

Multiple set training calls for performing more than 1 set of an exercise in an individual workout. Multiple set training is one of the most used methods when programming resistance workouts in order to create the best muscular adaptations. For example, performing three sets of ten (3×10) for hypertrophy or five sets of five (5×5) for strength would constitute examples of multiple sets.

Research has consistently shown multiple set training to be superior to single set training when it comes to strength and hypertrophy adaptations.25, 26

Pyramid Sets

Pyramid sets are a common method used by old-school bodybuilders and strength athletes. This is a style where the weights increase with each set. Typically, as a heavier weight is being used, the number of repetitions performed will decrease; however this concept follows the increase in the weight to reach the “peak” of the pyramid and then back down.

An example of Pyramid Sets may include (reps x % of 1RM): “10×50%, 8×60%; 6×70%, 4×80%, 2×90%, 1×100%, 2×90%, 4×80%, 6×70%, 8×60%, 10×50%.”

Superset

A superset, commonly spelled using one word, is when two exercises are performed back to back. “Supersetting” exercises is a useful programming method for a multitude of different reasons. Performing supersets reduces the total time to complete a given number of sets, making it an effective way to reduce workout time and/or increase workout volume and intensity without increasing total time.

The specific training goal will determine the exact superset structure. For strength focused training, opposing or unrelated muscle groups can be exercised in quick succession followed by a moderate rest period between each superset. For example, performing lat pulldowns followed by overhead presses.

As the latissimus dorsi muscles recover from the set of pullups, the deltoids are performing their work on the overhead press. The deltoids then rest during the full rest period and during the pull up set, before being tasked with the second set of overhead presses.

Supersets can also be performed using the same muscle group twice in a row with a different exercise, which increases the volume performed by that muscle group. Due to the increased fatigue and subsequent decrease in total weight required, supersetting the same muscle group is most appropriate for muscular endurance and hypertrophy.

For example, a person who performs hamstring curls could then follow up with a set of 45-degree back extensions. By performing the two exercises back to back, the hamstring muscles are being worked in quick succession and by targeting both of its purposes, flexion at the knee and torso extension at the hip.

Drop Set

Drop sets are a technique that involves performing a relatively heavy set, then immediately removing some of the weight and performing another set.

For example, a client performing drop sets on the bench press exercise might perform a set using 80% of their 1-repetition maximum and then immediately reduce the weight to 65% 1RM and complete the next set. The client repeats the process without resting in between sets until the target number of drop sets has been reached.

Drop sets are an excellent choice to promote quick exhaustion, hypertrophy and to save time as little to no rest periods are used. Some lifters will utilize a drop set as a ‘burnout’, which would be performing as many repetitions as possible (AMRAP) on the very last set of the exercise.

The client could perform a normal 3×10 multiple set method at 75% 1RM on the bench press and then perform maximal repetitions to failure on a final set, followed by decreasing the weight to 50% and again performing maximum repetitions. They could then continue by reducing the weight after the client reaches muscular failure on each set and move on to the next.

Circuit Training

Circuit training involves performing a single set of one exercise followed by a single set of a different exercise and continuing on through a series of exercises to complete the full circuit. At the end of the circuit, the exerciser would then go back and repeat the circuit if performing another set.

Circuit training is often constructed using a set time performing each exercise with a submaximal resistance level. A client could perform 30 seconds of goblet squats using 20% 1RM, performing them as quickly as possible, followed by a quick transition to 30 seconds of V-ups, and continuing on through a variety of exercises.

Circuit training can improve cardiovascular development, anaerobic capacity, and improve body composition, depending on the programming in the circuit.27, 28

Peripheral Heart Action (PHA)

Peripheral heart action (PHA) is similar to circuit training and involves performing a series of exercises in quick succession. Rather than allowing for any exercises in random order, PHA requires the lifter to alternate from upper body to lower body movements.

The alternation between upper to lower body movements in quick succession causes a dramatic increase in cardiovascular activity.

When exercises are being performed, an influx of blood is delivered to that body part which has a higher demand for oxygen, energy, and nutrients.

When the movements are alternating between upper and lower body, that flux of blood is rotating between whichever side of the body is in highest demand, while the previous section of the body is still recovering.

When performed with high intensity, PHA style training can burn calories at a rapid rate.

Vertical Loading

A vertical loading routine will utilize multiple supersets in a circuit-like fashion. The intent behind this style of routine is to order the exercises by the proximity of the muscles that they work. For example, a lifter may perform shrugs, dumbbell side raises, dumbbell rows and situps all in succession to one another, resting in between sets if the goal is hypertrophy or strength.

When the last exercise is completed, repeat the same series of exercises until the desired number of sets is completed. The intent behind this style of routine is to provide more rest for a muscle group while other muscle groups are being worked on compared to performing back-to-back sets of the same exercises.

In the above example, the athlete would be rotating between the muscles of the trapezius, deltoids, latissimus dorsi, and abdominals prior to restarting the circuit at trapezius or shrugs again.

Horizontal Loading

Horizontal loading is the opposite of vertical loading. While vertical loading rotates the muscles being worked on each set, horizontal loading ensures that all prescribed sets of an exercise are completed prior to moving on to another exercise.

This is used in conjunction with the multiple sets method and is most commonly utilized by strength athletes. Remember that the multiple sets method is simply performing more than one set on any exercise, whereas horizontal loading specifically prevents the utilization of supersets.

resistance training systems

Resistance Training Implements

Bodyweight / Calisthenics

Using the weight of one’s own body as resistance for exercises is called calisthenics. Many people refer to this style of exercise as simply ‘bodyweight exercise,’ but the two are synonymous and can be used interchangeably depending on the populations within the conversation.

Bodyweight-style exercises have been a favorite of an incredibly wide variety of populations due to the convenience of performing the movements.

To achieve an effective bodyweight workout, one can perform many exercises within the comforts of their own home or outside on a playground, especially if there is access to an overhead pullup bar of some variety.

Bodyweight training encompasses straightforward movements such as glute bridges, push-ups, pull-ups, and squats as well as advanced calisthenics such as handstand pushups, high-intensity plyometrics, and gymnastic-style exercises.

Nearly every population can benefit from bodyweight exercises. The intensity of bodyweight training depends on the exercises performed as well as the individual body mass of the person performing the exercise. Bodyweight movements are progressively more difficult if the weight of the body is heavier.

Bodyweight exercises are common within rehab clinics. Oftentimes these movements are used to recover from an injury or preserve quality of life.

An elderly individual may perform sets of ‘squats’ by sitting in a chair and standing back up without the use of their hands. Another individual recovering from an ankle injury may perform calf raises in an effort to rebuild mobility and coordination. 

These movements can also be regressed by using bands to help take off some of the load on the body, or with added weight to increase the difficulty of the movements.

Barbell

Barbells are a mainstay of most resistance training equipment setups. A normal bar is referred to as a “power bar” and weighs a standard 45 pounds or 20 kilograms (44.2 pounds). Entire training programs can be created by using a straight bar as nearly every muscle in the body can be activated with a properly formulated barbell routine. There are aspects of resistance training that can be accomplished more effectively by using other methods of training, but a straight bar is the bread and butter for many athletes of all levels.

Exercises such as the squat, bench press, deadlift, snatch, clean and jerk, overhead press and curls are staples in most strength training regiments, and they all utilize the straight bar. It is common to have strength programs centered around the squat, bench press, deadlift, and overhead press where lifters workout several times per week, performing one of those movements at the start of each workout. 

A straight bar has many inherent advantages and disadvantages. Because weight is directly loaded to the bar it is easy to calculate how much resistance is being used and easy to increase the load by small increments over time.

One of the major disadvantages to utilizing a straight bar only in training is that over extended periods of time, barbell training can result in the development of muscle imbalances if coaches do not properly program a variety of movements using other equipment or even just other styles of barbell.

There are many styles of barbells to use in a training program. Note that for beginner, intermediate, and even advanced clients, most standard barbells are sufficient when included in a balanced training program, and specialty bars for each lift are not necessary until the weight being lifted is substantially beyond the capabilities of most fitness clients. However, it is still important for personal trainers to have knowledge of the types of barbells given their prevalence in strength and conditioning programs

A non-exhaustive list of bars to utilize in training includes:

  • the squat bar
  • bench press bar
  • deadlift bar
  • Olympic bar
  • safety squat bar (Hatfield bar)
  • cambered bar
  • bow bar
  • multi grip bar

The squat, bench press, and deadlift bars are specialized for elite level powerlifters who require bars that accommodate their lifts. Most gyms are equipped with a standard barbell typically weighing 45 pounds without added weight, with moderate knurling.

Squat Bar

A squat bar is thicker and heavier than a 45 pound bar, with a larger loading sleeve. This allows the bar to hold more plates than a standard bar and reduces the amount of whip, or vibrations that occur within the bar.

When lifters approach heavy weights, such as 700 pounds or greater, standard bars tend to flex and bend uncontrollably which can be hazardous for stability and can cause serious injuries. Bars must be capable of handling the weights that they are put through. Squat bars tend to weigh between 55 to 65 pounds.

Bench Press Bar

Bench press bars are a medium between a power bar and a squat bar. They can maintain rigidity with more weight than a power bar, they are thinner than a squat bar, and they have more loading area on the sleeve than a power bar. The bench press bar isn’t necessary until the lifter is performing over 800 pounds.

Due to the contact points of the hands on the bar being wider during a bench press than the shoulders when they support the bar during the squat, bars tend to flex less under equivalent weight during a bench press as opposed to a squat. A bench press bar typically weighs between 50 to 55 pounds.

Deadlift Bar

Deadlift bars are the opposite to the previous two bars. Deadlifts bars are made slightly longer and thinner than a standard power bar. They weigh 45 pounds and the intent of them is to flex more than normal off the floor, while being easier to hold onto.

If the bar flexes one inch before the end plates break from the floor, that means the range of motion for the deadlift has decreased by one inch.  Utilizing this bar is most helpful for individuals with an ultra-wide sumo deadlift stance, those with very small hands and people with a short range of motion to begin with.

Note: Specialized squat, bench press and deadlift bars are only necessary for elite level powerlifters.

Olympic Bar

An Olympic bar has specs modified for Olympic weightlifting, which consists of the snatch and the clean and jerk. This bar typically has smaller and softer knurling which reduces the likelihood of the skin on the thumbs ripping when forcefully pulling with a hook grip.

Olympics bars do not have a center knurling on them. This smoothness allows for the bar to hit the thighs during the high-pull portion of the Olympic lifts, without it snagging on the lifter’s clothing. The sleeves of an Olympic bar use ‘needle bearings’ which when well-greased, allows the sleeves to spin several seconds longer than a typical power bar – which may not spin at all sometimes.

Lastly, Olympic bars are made with lower tensile strength to allow the bar to flex or whip, much like a deadlift bar.

Safety Squat Bar

The safety squat bar (SSB) was originally called the “Hatfield Bar” after Dr. Fred Hatfield who designed the first model. This bar is one that should be utilized by coaches and trainers as their default, prioritizing it beyond a straight bar for squats.

The SSB is denoted by large, foam pads that sit atop the shoulders and behind the neck. It has handles that jet forward and two forward facing pads are diagonally facing downward. The bar has a slight camber to it and the slides sit forward rather than straight down.

The diagonal angle of the handles causes the pads to press into the upper chest of the lifter while the angle of the sleeves shifts the center of gravity of the bar forward. This combination encourages the lifter to round their upper back.

The lifter must maintain an upright posture throughout this movement. The advantages to squatting with the SSB is that maintaining the upright posture uses the muscles of the upper back to a much greater degree than a straight bar does. The pads of the SSB sit the bar higher on the shoulders which shifts the point on the lifter with the most structural stress to be on the upper back, as opposed to the lower back with a straight bar.

Lastly and arguably most significantly, the SSB allows lifters to squat without applying stress to their shoulders or elbows like a straight bar does.  Consider replacing straight bar squats with SSB squats. This bar can be used by anyone who is capable of performing a weighted squat.

Cambered Bar

A cambered bar is rarer to find in gyms than a SSB is. The cambered bar is identified by two vertical bars that drop down from the horizontal centerpiece. The lowered center of gravity means that this bar stimulates the muscles of the lower back much harder than other bars would.

When using the cambered bar, the plates sway forward and backwards which causes a sense of instability. This instability forces the lifter to practice proper bracing techniques otherwise the risk of injury heightens significantly. Lastly, since this bar has vertical uprights along the sides of it, the lifter may place their hands lower on the uprights to reduce stress on the shoulder joints.

Bow Bar

The bow bar is most commonly called a “Buffalo Bar” named after the first company to create a curved bar. This bar functions similarly to a straight bar, but has a curve to it. The curve allows a gradual reduction in height from the peak of the bar, down to the sleeves, and typically has a 4 inch difference in height. The bow bar is used to mimic a straight bar, but reduce tension on the shoulders. Many lifters with shoulder mobility issues due to injuries, age or muscle mass will squat with a bow bar instead of a straight bar. 

Dumbbells

Dumbbells (DBs) are weights in the form of short handles with added weight attached to either side. Dumbbells are arguably the most versatile piece of equipment within a gym.

They are predominantly used for work that requires weight to be held in a single hand but exceptions can be made for exercises such as weighted sit ups or pull ups, where the DB is held between the feet.

Common exercises with DBs are DB press, DB rows, DB Romanian deadlifts, DB side raises, DB triceps extensions, and DB curls. There are thousands of exercises that can be performed with DBs. The largest benefit of using DBs comes from the ability to work muscles unilaterally. DBs are a consistent tool to utilize for gym goers of all ages and ability levels. 

Machines

Machines are a standard class of equipment in any facility that promotes exercise. Machines may be pin loaded, or plate loaded. Pin-loaded machines have stacks of weights with a hole in the center, both a vertical hole and a horizontal hole.

A post with horizontal holes is stuck through the center of the weight stack and the holes of that post align with each hole of the plates in the stack. When a pin is pushed through a plate, it locks into the center post and the lifter may move the selected amount of weight. 

A plate loaded machine is much simpler in design. Rather than moving a predetermined amount of weight from a convenient stack, the machine has empty sleeves where plates may be put on to. The number of plates on the sleeve will determine the amount of weight being moved.

There are thousands of different variations of machines to work all the different muscle groups in the human body and it is impossible to cover them all.

The key constant between every machine is that the machines are built onto a fixed track. There is one motion that can be used with that machine and when under proper working order, the machines will not deviate from the predetermined track. This decreases the stabilization requirements for the movements compared to free-weight exercises.

The biggest notable exception to the fixed motion are cable machines, which offer some instability as well as a constant angle of resistance across the full range of motion. Common exercises on the cable machine include lat pulldowns, triceps extensions, face pulls, and cable curls.

Alternative Implements

Alternative implements are effectively any device or tool used to provide resistance for a training stimulus that falls outside the traditionally used bodybuilding tools such as barbells, dumbbells, and weight machines. Nevertheless, alternative implements of a variety of types are becoming increasingly common in commercial gyms due to their popularity and versatility towards a variety of fitness goals.

Kettlebells

Kettlebells are incredibly versatile and useful to a wide variety of populations. Some athletes choose to compete in kettlebell competitions which perform various kettlebell based movements for maximum repetitions within a set time typically.

Kettlebells may be found in 5-70 pounds typically, but some retailers carry up to 200 pound kettlebells. The most popular movement is the “kettlebell swing” which is similar to the initial motion in a Romanian deadlift. The athlete adopts a shoulder or wider width stance, holds the kettlebell with both hands, and gets a swinging start.

Once a small amount of momentum has occurred, the athlete forcefully pushes their hips back, and then extends them forward while relaxing the shoulder joint. The force from the hips at the catch, or bottom position of the kettlebell swing will carry the kettlebell to shoulder height. When performed correctly, kettlebell swings provide a plyometric-type stimulus for the posterior chain.

Heavy kettlebell swings can build strength, power, and explosiveness through the glutes, hips and hamstring muscles. Other common exercises with kettlebells include overhead press, overhead squats, suitcase carries, Turkish get ups, and overhead throws if performed on grass.

Strongman’s Yoke

The yoke is a standard strongman implement. Yokes look like old style squat stands with a bar welded in the center. Weights are placed on sleeves that stick vertically on the base of all four corners. The athlete assumes an athletic position under the center of the yoke, braces properly and squats the yoke off the ground. The athlete will carry the yoke a predetermined distance. The instability and bulk of the yoke makes it awkward to carry.

With light weights the yoke may be used with a normal, healthy adult population as it promotes abdominal stability and mobility. Due to the swinging of the implement, the yoke can be potentially dangerous to the lumbar spine of an ill-prepared individual.

Farmer’s Handles

Farmer’s handles are becoming more common within the general population, but especially popular within tactical athletes. Farmer’s handles are a pair of handles that allows plates to be loaded on both the front and back side of the implement.

The handle only has enough room to be gripped with one hand. The athlete carries both handles, with equal load on either side, and hastily walks the handles a predetermined distance. This exercise may be used with the general population with light weights but is especially useful for competitive athletes of nearly all disciplines.

The farmer’s carry promotes trunk stability, grip strength and mobility. Consider using a farmer’s carry for general preparedness or conditioning with a variety of athletes.

Logs

Logs are a tool that are nearly exclusively used by strongman athletes. A log can be made from a metal mold or cut from real wood. It is an implement that typically ranges from 8-12” in diameter and is intended for the log clean and overhead press. There are large holes carved into it where the handles are solidified in place. The handles span vertically so that the athlete presses overhead with a neutral, or a hammer style grip.

The Log Clean and Press is a common event within strongman competitions. A log is more of a niche tool and has specific techniques associated with it. Logs are not typically used by athletes outside of the strongman sport, however there is merit to overhead pressing with a neutral grip as opposed to a pronated grip which is used with a typical barbell.

Sandbags

Sandbags consist of a heavy fabric sack filled with sand that may or may not have handles sewn-on. Sandbags are a dynamic way to train strength and power. They are frequently used by combat sports athletes such as MMA fighters and wrestlers.

Sandbags are also used by strength athletes such as strongmen and powerlifters as well as in obstacle course races. 

Common exercises with sandbags include throws, where the individual picks the sandbag off the ground and throws it over their shoulder, sandbag clean and presses, and sandbag squats. 

Sandbag workouts are often structured around performing the repetitions of each exercise for a set amount of time or completing a certain number of repetitions using a submaximal weight, but can also be done for maximum weight with careful attention to form.

When the weight is selected appropriately, sandbags are a fun and effective tool for improving the strength and conditioning of a healthy, adult population.

Suspension Trainers

Suspension trainers are adjustable-length straps suspended from the ceiling or high rack with handles or loops on the bottom that allow a variety of upper and lower body exercises to be performed. Suspension trainers effectively add instability to bodyweight movements when an individual places their feet or hands in the straps. Suspension trainers include gymnastic rings, TRX equipment, and other similar implements. 

Suspension trainers also allow decreased intensity on a variety of bodyweight movements when gripping the handles with the hands. For example, they can be used for assisted squats in elderly populations who cannot safely perform standard bodyweight squats.

Common exercises on the suspension trainers include pushups, dips, knees-to-chest in a plank, planks, rear flies, and assisted squat variations.

five common training implements

Summary

While there are nearly endless varieties of training systems, equipment and modalities available to fitness professionals, the vast majority of training programs for general fitness clients follow some variation of the resistance training protocols and equipment discussed in this chapter.

When using equipment, trainers must ensure clients follow proper form protocols and are familiar with the equipment they are utilizing.

Given the key role of fitness equipment in most training programs, trainers should spend substantial time using and familiarizing themselves with any and all equipment they use with clients.

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