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Defying Strength-Training Convention

Should beginning strength-training clients start with three sets of 10 repetitions?

The common recommendation for beginners when first starting a strength-training program is to perform three sets of 10 repetitions (reps). Trainers instruct them to use the maximum weight that they can handle in each set for 10 reps, or as many reps as possible in the second and third set. If you closely examine most fitness magazines and books that deal with strength exercises, you will see that this routine is used most often and for almost all exercises. It is commonly believed that people need three sets of the exercise to gain its full benefits.

Too much strength training, too little time?

But is this the most effective routine for beginners? In my experiences, it is not. A beginner should be concerned with developing all of the major muscles and joints of the body to prepare for more intense training that will take place later. To fully develop all of the major muscles and joints, clients need to perform approximately 20 to 25 different exercises -- even more if the individual has problem areas (weak back, shoulder, wrists, etc.). Beginners should not strength train longer than 30 to 60 minutes. Therefore, if they were to perform three sets of 20 or more exercises, it would take more than 60 minutes. In addition, fatigue levels would be so great that the chances of injury would be increased, and the productiveness of each exercise would be decreased. The chances of going into an overtrained state would also be great.

Some trainers counter this argument by saying clients can perform compound exercises that use several major muscle groups at one time. But this is only partially true. For example, the squat is an exercise used mainly to develop the quadriceps muscle and strengthen the knee joint. The gluteus maximus and hamstrings, which are touted as also being involved, do not get involved unless exercisers go to thigh level or below in the down position while maintaining normal spinal curvature. However, most beginners do not have the hamstring flexibility or the back strength to do this with proper technique.

Stating that the squat strengthens the lower back muscles is also only partially true, since the strength that is developed is static strength, not dynamic strength. Static strength helps hold the spine in position, but does not allow exercisersto better execute spine extension movements through a full range of motion.

Since strength is specific to select joint angles, beginners should work the muscles and joints through the full range of motion for basic strengthening. Even though exercises such as the squat can involve the muscles of more than one joint, the involvement is not the same and will not produce the results needed by beginners.

Feeling the pressure

In addition to time limitations, performing two or three sets of 10 reps, or even eight to 12 reps (which is basically the same), is quite strenuous. Beginners are not prepared to handle such stress in the early stages. Those who get through this stage using three sets of 10 reps invariably experience soreness for the first or more weeks. This is not conducive to having them continue on an exercise program beyond the first few weeks. Beginners should have positive experiences and feel safe as they progress through their strength-training program. They should not have to fight soreness, pain and tightness.

When starting with a three-sets-of-10-reps routine, it will take some time before the person will be able to increase the weight to complete 10 repetitions in each set for all the exercises. Starting with a much lighter weight allows the person to make fast progress by gradually increasing the weight and, in time, will surpass the person who starts with three sets of 10.

Starting fresh

How, then, should beginners start? In my experiences, regardless of whether it is for fitness or recreation or sports, everyone should start in basically the same manner and follow the same progression leading up to three sets of 10 in select exercises, if called for.

Teach. Begin with one exercise for three to five repetitions with light resistance. This is needed to learn how to perform the exercises correctly, and for becoming comfortable and accustomed to the exercise movement. Technique is an important aspect that can be overlooked in strength-training programs, but it is critical for getting the desired development, as well as for preventing injury. This is why personal trainers must be well-versed in all nuances of each exercise, rather than just teaching the basic features.

Adapt. Each exercise must be adapted to the individual. If working out on their own when first getting started, exercisers should have access to a book (such as Kinesiology of Exercise), which has extensive details on how the exercises should be performed. They should read the instructions carefully.

Start slow. Strength workouts should take place three times per week, with the first week should be devoted to learning and familiarization with the exercises. The intensity should be low. They should not experience any soreness or pain at this time, as this will be a turnoff.

Keep progression slow and steady

As clients perform the exercises, they must concentrate on exactly how they are doing it and how it feels. This way, they gain a better feel for the movement and how it relates to the changes they would like to seein their bodies. After completing three to five reps, they should relax and then get ready for the next exercise. They should read a description or listen to the instructions, then perform several repetitions of the new exercise. Proceed in this manner until they perform all of the exercises selected for that day.

For the first day, performing only 10 exercises may be more than sufficient. For the second day, after the first 10 become more familiar, increase the number of exercises to 12 to 15, and gradually build up to 20 or more different exercises.

Keep adding one or two repetitions at each workout (or each week) to select exercises until 15 to 20 repetitions are attained. When 20, and often more, reps are repeatedly performed, it is time to increase resistance for that particular exercise. If 20 repetitions cannot be completed in the other exercises, they should remain at the same level.

After a few weeks, the clients become more comfortable with the exercises and have greater confidence. They will be able to handle more resistance and execute more repetitions without any discomfort or trepidation. If they experience soreness on any workout day or on the day after, it means too many repetitions or too much resistance was used. When this happens, use the same or less resistance in the next workout to help the body recover. When they feel good, they can gradually increase resistance or repetitions.

At this time, only one set of each exercise should be performed. For beginners, performing one set will bring about the same benefits as performing two or more sets of each exercise. More sets will be needed as they make progress and master the exercises.

Don't think performing 15 to 20 maximum reps is easy or only for endurance. For beginners, this is a most beneficial routine for strength and endurance, as the first 10 to 15 reps develop endurance, and the last five or so develop strength. Understand that they are performing the maximum number of repetitions possible. Thus, the intensity of the last repetitions is just as great as when they use more weight and perform fewer repetitions. As a result, they develop the same strength as with a higher-resistance, lower-rep routine.

At this time, greater endurance is more beneficial than greater strength, as it allows for increases in intensity without fear of injury. The main reason for this is that the higher repetitions for endurance bring about a greater increase in blood flow, which helps to strengthen the ligaments and tendons. As a result, clients then have stronger joints that are more capable of withstanding higher-intensity workouts. Since strength is also gained in this program, the clients will be able to handle increased weights without any problems.

When clients should graduate

How long clients stay on such a program depends on age, gender, previous experiences, level of fitness, mastery of exercises, etc. A true novice may stay on this program for three to four months. Those with some past experiences will probably make gains somewhat faster.

As they approach the end of this period, it is then necessary to look at their objectives and the year-round periodization plan that should now be established. Clients should never stay on any one program for extended periods of time. Not only will such workouts become boring, but they will hit a plateau and no longer receive gains. They must have a change in their exercise programs to bring about additional gains.

For example, after this base training -- in which clients learned how to perform all of the exercises and developed the basic strength and endurance needed of all of the major muscles and joints -- they are ready to pursue a higher-intensity training program. For more strength, they can increase the number of sets of some of the exercises. The number of repetitions can be cut down to eight to 12, and then to the three to five maximum repetitions.

Personalizing the approach

If clients are involved in sports and wish to improve their sports performance, then adjustments must be made to the program. Greater emphasis may be placed on endurance rather than strength or vice versa, or there may even be some adjustments to develop speed, strength or power. The strength should be specific to the requirements of the sport.

Starting with three sets of 10 reps does not allow for full individualization of the exercise program. Everyone is a unique individual, and will respond to the exercises differently. This is why clients should never copy what someone else is doing.This is especially true for older adults.

Also, if the client copies someone else's program, regardless of how successful it is, the risk of getting injured is increased. Not only may the resistance be greater than what the muscles and joints can handle, but the way the exercise is executed by another person may not fit the way another person's body is designed to move. In these instances, there is a high likelihood of injury.

Each program must be individualized to be most successful, and to bring about the greatest physical gains.

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