When Less Might Be Best
By Joan Westlake
Whether you are working out at high intensity or low intensity, posture is everything. Adam Dalen, PVCC personal training certified and degree student, illustrates the wrong way (back arched) and right way to lift.
In the more-longer-faster-harder world of sports training, sometimes you need to slow down and consider that less might be best. SWEAT sat down with Dale Heuser, Paradise Valley Community College Health and Exercise Science professor, to discuss where less might achieve better or equal results. Low-intensity resistance training, cardiac rehab and walking vs. running were three areas of recent research.
A study published in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research shows that low-intensity resistance training can produce the same muscle strength, size and tone gains as traditional high intensity [Tanimoto, M. et al 2008].
So who cares if athletes want to train at high intensity for bragging rights or to feel really challenged? One word – injury. There’s no avoiding the reality that you will find more rabbits in rehab than tortoises. And, because the load that we place on our joints over our life spans affects their long-term health, heavy weights aren’t the best idea.
The risks associated with resistance training (RT) have made many trainers wary of RT with clients that have risks factors such as previous injuries, high blood pressure and aortic dissection, which is as bad as it sounds.
RT intensity is determined by a percentage of the max you can lift one time (1RM). High-intensity RT is when you are lifting 80 to 100 percent of that one-rep max; low-intensity is 65 percent or less.
Research shows that low-intensity RT causes the same changes in the working muscle as high intensity. In fact, RT intensities as low as 40 percent have been shown to be equally as effective as pumping the big iron [Tanimoto and Ishii, 2006, Journal of Applied Physiology).
For low-intensity programs to be effective substitutes for high intensity RT, certain conditions must be met. Below are some guidelines published in the October/November 2009 Ace Certified News.
- Frequency: two training sessions per week for at least 13 weeks
- Intensity: 40 to 65 percent of 1RM
- Repetitions per set: eight
- Sets per exercise: one for beginners, three for more experienced
- Rest: 60 seconds between each set
- Speed: three seconds for the muscle shortening and three seconds for the lengthening with a one-second pause in between
- Extension: don’t fully extend arms or legs, keep a slight bend
To get the maximum benefits, your best bet is to choose a trainer with an exercise science education and, of course, a personal training certification. A custom program is always the most effective.
Interval training with a high intensity component vs. continuous moderate intensity aerobics for cardiac rehab is another area where there was no difference in results for key factors such as blood pressure and heart rate between the moderate and high intensity programs. However, improvements in cardiovascular endurance and overall fitness were noted for the more intense training. [Warburton, D.E.R., McKenzie D.C, Haykowsky, M.J., Taylor, A., Shoemaker, P., Ignaszewski, A.P., and Chan, S.Y. 2005, American Journal of Cardiology].
There exists a misunderstanding that has reached mythical proportions based on the fact that during lower intensity exercises, a higher percentage of calories are coming from fat, and during higher intensity exercises a higher percentage of calories are coming from carbohydrates. The misinterpretation of this is: if you walk for 20 minutes, you’ll burn more fat than if you run for 20 minutes. Wrong. What’s missing from this concept is the total number of calories burned during those 20 minutes.
Here’s an illustration: Male, 200 pounds, runs at 6 mph for 20 minutes and burns 324 calories. Or, he walks on a treadmill at 3 mph for 62 minutes and burns 325 calories. Even more important than the percent of the calories you burn from fat, is the total calories burned.
Heuser says, “To maximize fat burning, beginners need to start at lower intensities but as their bodies begins to function at higher levels, they gradually work toward higher intensity exercises. Rule of thumb, increase frequency or duration before intensity. Only increase one variable [frequency, duration or intensity] per week.”
Note: “slow” is a relative term. The slow heart rate of someone young and in good condition is rip roaring compared to someone who is neither. Subtract your age from 220 (226 for women) to calculate your Maximum Heart Rate or mhr.
Here’s an exercise program to get you started on the correct “less is more” foot (athletic shoe clad, of course). For strength training, start at 50 percent of 1 RM for one set, 12 to 15 reps. Increase the reps before intensity. Once you can lift 20 reps, increase the weight and decrease reps to 12.
- Week 1 3 times per week, 15 – 20 mins 65% of mhr
- Week 2 3 to 4 x per week 20 – 25 mins same
- Week 3 3 to 4 x per week 20 – 25 mins 70% of mhr
- Week 4 3 to 4 x per week 25 – 30 mins same
Heuser adds, “There are many benefits of high intensity training but it isn’t for everyone. It depends on your workout history, pre-existing conditions, health status and time you are able to devote to training. And, it is very individual. What works for one athlete may not work for another.”