Science Summary: Strength and Power (Cardio or Weights Part 6)

This post is a continuation on my series through Alex Hutchinson’s Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights? All of the following questions are taken from this book and the answers are paraphrased from the authors words with my interpretations and thoughts added in.


Do I need strength training if I just want to be lean and fit?

Short Answer: Yes, strength training has health benefits aerobic exercise doesn’t.

Long Answer:  Strength training helps prevent a number of health condition such as diabetes, muscle loss, and bone density loss.  Additionally, increased muscle mass results in higher metabolic rates during both rest and exercise.

How much weight should I lift and how many times?

Short Answer:  Starting out aim for high reps (~10) and as you become stronger specialize more based on desired results.  Low reps for strength, high reps for endurance.

Long Answer:  The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) recommends starting with a lifting program utilizing sets of 8-12 reps for the first few months.  During this time, your body is primarily making gains in the Central Nervous System as it learns how to recruit muscle more efficiently.  After this CNS activation period is when muscle fiber growth begins in full which is where specialization has a real effect.

At Catalyst, I utilize an approach called daily undulating periodization  where I vary the number of rep (anywhere from 3-10 reps with 5 sets consistently) every day with my clients.  Rather than specializing, this approach creates gains in both strength and endurance.  The main reason I do this is because my clients are often on inconsistent schedules where traditional linear periodization is less effective. Here’s a journal article by the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in support of DUP.

How do I tone my muscles without bulking up?

Short Answer: Muscle tone = visible muscles, the only ways to achieve this are bigger muscles of less fat covering the muscles.

Long Answer:  You have two options to increase “muscle tone.”  The first is a strength training program which will increase muscle size.  This means lifting weights above 50-60% of your one rep max on a consistent basis, doing 50 curls with 5lb hand weights won’t get you there.  According to a study of women in New Jersey gyms, many (38% of) female gym goers are likely to be concerned about gaining too much muscle mass with this approach and avoid using an appropriate weight.  Option two is to burn the layer of fat covering the muscles which is an equally difficult process.  Fat loss cannot be targeted to any one area so fat burning is an effective way to tone the entire body.

What’s the difference between strength and power?

Short Answer: Strength is how much weight you can move and power is how much weight you can move multiplied by how fast you can move it.

Long Answer:  Power is described as explosiveness which is required for rapid movements such as jumping and sprinting.  Power training is different from strength training in that the goal is to go faster rather than heavier.  The ACSM recommends using 60% or one rep max with quick movements for power training with a focus on movements that translate well to their intended application.  For athletic performance, a 2008 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that strength training actually reduced athletic performance where power was required as the athletes moved slower.

Free weights or machines: what’s the difference and which should I use?

Short Answer:  Machines are good for strict isolation exercise but free weights recruit a much broader assortment of muscles on any given exercise.  Machines work well in rehab scenarios where stability and isolation are essential but do not translate well to real world application.

Long Answer:  Weight machines are excellent at isolating the targeted muscle group and providing assistance on proper form.  This is both a blessing and a curse.  When it comes to real world application, movements rarely isolate specific muscle groups in a stable, controlled manner.  From a CNS perspective, your body accustoms itself to using each muscle group individually rather than with the rest of your body.  Free weights reduce stability and require the usage of other muscle groups in addition to the targeted group.  This makes the strength gains more applicable to daily life, but also allows for “cheating” the target muscle group with bad form.

Can body weight exercises like push-ups and sit-ups be as effective as lifting weights?

Short Answer:  Body weight programs can be good for achieving some specific goals but are not a perfect substitute for weight training.

Long Answer:  Because body weight training uses a fixed weight (that of your body), it is easy for progression to plateau.  Body weight movements can be complicated to increase difficulty once plateaus are encountered but there is a definite cap to strength gains possible.  That being said for the goals of most casual athletes interested in purely aesthetic and health benefits rather than performance benefits, body weight training is a viable option.  For more information I’d recommend looking into Ido Portal, a modern proponent of body weight exercise, and American Parkour, a group promoting movement as exercise.

Can lifting weights fix my lower-back pain?

Short Answer: In most cases, yes.

Long Answer:  Back pain has such a wide number of potential causes, it is impossible to speak with certainty about the condition as a whole.  In most cases however, researchers at the University of Alberta found that resistance training is the most effective way to reduce experienced pain with a direct correlation between the amount of weight and effectiveness. Another study presented at the ACSM annual meeting in 2009 reported finding a direct correlation between pain reduction and number of days exercising per week.

Will I get a better workout if I hire a personal trainer?

Short Answer:  Yes!  We are currently accepting new clients if you want to see the results for yourself!

Long Answer:  According to a study done by Ball State University, which can be found here, participants exercising with a trainer showed nearly 50% greater progress over a 12 week period.  The presence of a personal trainer pushed the participant to go past their perceived limits and increased workout effectiveness while inspiring confidence.  Another study conducted by the College of New Jersey found women exercising without a trainer would use weight that was, on average, just 42% of their one rep max, far too little to see results.  A third study done by the University of Brasilia discovered a correlation between the degree of exclusivity and the benefits of having a trainer.  Participants were divided into groups of 5 or 25 and each assigned a single trainer.  The smaller group showed remarkably greater improvements than the larger group.

Do I need extra protein to build muscle?

Short Answer: No, but it helps.  Extra protein also plays a significant role in maintaining muscle mass while dieting.

Long Answer:  Protein usage is greatest in athletes rapidly adding muscle mass.  Even in these cases though, their bodies are not using anywhere close to the amount of protein some fitness advertising recommends.  Research recommends 1g protien per kilogram of body weight which is already less than the average 1.6g/kg North Americans consume on a daily basis.  However, increased protein intake combined with resistance training while dieting has been shown to preserve muscle mass while total mass is dropping.