The most important thing that you need to remember about strength training, however, is intensity. Just going to the gym and doing time pass activities like running around with a weight in hand, or doing endless crunches, or using very light weights and working on only selective muscles, etc., will not lead to any of the benefits of an anaerobic workout. A gym workout needs to be planned properly.
3 Rules to plan the correct weight training sequence
There are certain rules that need to be followed so that your time spent in the gym is most effective.
- A warm-up should be specific to the main workout
- Exercise should recruit the maximum number of muscle fibers
- Duration of workout should never exceed 60 minutes
Based on these rules, a correct sequence of strength or weight training has been evolved which is followed world over, though I’m not sure if it’s being followed in the gym you go to.
The three basic rules to plan a weight training sequence in detail:
Rule 1 – Specific warm-ups
A common mistake in gyms is either a complete lack of warm-up or doing a completely non-specific warm-up. A complete lack of warm-up will very obviously jolt the joints and use momentum versus technique to bring about movement, which will lead to an injury if not now then definitely by the next session. There is basic awareness nowadays, so most people do a ‘warm-up’, but really in a time pass manner.
Some common examples:
Walking/jogging for 10 to 20 minutes on the treadmill before performing weight training exercises (ya, that’s wrong even if you are doing legs and no upper body).
Running 5 or 20 times or whatever random number your coach barked out to you today around the tennis court before picking up your racquet.
Ok, so only weight training example, then. The right warm-up allows the blood flow to move through the specific muscle groups and warms up the specific joints that will be trained that day. Other than saving time, this saves another precious entity, muscle glycogen. So on a day when you squat, you should warm up using less than 50% of the weight, you will squat with; the same goes for back or chest. And once you have warmed up on the multiple-joint exercises, you don’t need to warm up when you move to single-joint exercises.
Follow these instructions for a correct warm-up:
i. Perform a warm-up set of 12 to 15 reps before starting your training
ii. Use 50% of the main workout weight
iii. Rest for 30 seconds to 3 minutes before starting the main workout set
This leads to muscles and joints being warmed up with the exact mechanics that will be performed on the workout set. It reduces the chances of using momentum to lift weights, allows you to lift maximum weight in the main set, makes muscles less susceptible to injury and provides for a sort of dress rehearsal for breathing and motor skill.
Rule 2 – Maximum muscle fiber recruitment
This is the golden principle of weight training — the more muscle fibers you recruit, the more you can lift. The more you lift, the more calories you burn both during exercise and as after-burn.
To recruit maximum muscle fibers, the chosen exercise should:
iv. Involve the maximum number of joints, as moving through more joints means the recruitment of more muscle fibers versus moving through a single joint.
v. Train larger muscle groups before the smaller muscle groups as they have a higher ability to employ muscle fibers.
Other than training bigger muscle groups first and movement through multiple joints, there is another factor that influences the ‘muscle fiber recruitment’ — it’s called the ‘substrate availability’, or in simple words, the fuel available to fire (employ) these muscle fibers.
Fuel for strength training
Now, as we know, weight training uses the anaerobic system, more specifically the glycogen lactic acid system. The muscles contract and therefore perform exercises using their stored glycogen stores. Muscle glycogen is not just short in supply but takes a long time to replenish once its stores are exhausted. With regular exercise, our body adapts and responds by increasing its ability to store muscle glycogen. But for beginners or even trained athletes, the sequence of exercise is of paramount importance because you don’t want to run out of fuel before you reach the main task or perform the big calorie-burning exercises.
This fuel limitation has led to one more instruction being added to make your exercise more efficient, both in burning calories as well as improving on the strength and bone mineral density. This is:
vi. Perform higher intensity before lower intensity exercises.
If you apply these rules, then you would work out in the following order — legs, back, chest, shoulders, arms. And within legs, you would prioritize multiple joints exercises like squats before leg extension. And with the chest you would chest press (higher intensity, more exhausting) before doing the flies. And with the back, you would want to do a bent-over row, which is done using ‘free weights’ like the barbell and is of higher intensity, before doing a seated row. The use of machines reduces the intensity (and so the exhaustion) even if the muscle group employed is the same as in a bent-over row and seated row.
This whole prioritizing of exercises is not just to make optimum use of glycogen but also because the sequence of exercise has a profound effect on fat-burning.
When larger muscles are employed using multiple joints and the intensity is kept challenging or high, then it does not just result in maximum calories burnt in that one hour of exercise but it also gives you more after-burn. After-burn is when the body, at rest, burns calories at a higher rate post-exercise as compared to what it would normally have.
A very important consequence of after-burn or EPOC is that the anaerobic pathways can take up to 48 hours to recover, so never plan weight training or sprinting sessions on consecutive days. Without adequate recovery, no anabolism and therefore no fat loss can take place. Also, what you should keep in mind is that lactic acid, which is a by-product of anaerobic metabolism, can be used as a fuel by the aerobic pathway. It makes sense then to plan an aerobic workout on the day after the anaerobic; it helps achieve two things: the aerobic pathway can use lactic acid as fuel and lactic acid can get used up quickly (removed from muscle), leading to better recovery from the anaerobic workout.
So you should pay close attention to the exercise sequence, not just what you do on any given day, but what you plan to do a day prior to or after the exercise. So let’s add one more to the instructions:
vii. Allow for adequate recuperation (two days at least) between two weight training sessions (to allow the body to repay oxygen debt, re-synthesize glycogen, and repair wear and tear to the muscle tissue). This rule is applicable even if you are training two different body parts in consecutive sessions.
Rule 3 – Duration not more than 60 minutes
Well, actually, with the glycogen stores most of us have, we will run out of fuel in as little as 30 minutes. So other than following all the rules above, we must remember that once the glycogen stores are over, then the body will burn its proteins to keep up with the exercise. This will lead to both drop-in exercise intensity and a higher risk of injury. Wasting protein or burning it for metabolic processes like producing energy for muscle fiber contraction is the exact opposite of the goal of weight training.
More than 60 minutes spent in the gym is also a major factor in the drop – out rate. Given our ‘ lifestyles ’ — caught in traffic, caught in lifts, caught in relationships, caught in jobs, etc . — we shouldn’t be caught wasting muscle protein or breaking down amino acids in the gym. This leads to the breakdown of more muscle than our lifestyle allows us to repair or recover from.
An important point to remember – If you are into losing weight and get trimmed you should workout on bigger muscles like legs, back, chest etc instead of working always with smaller muscle groups like biceps and triceps.