Frequently Asked Questions
Hi Bob. No, and it's not a matter of preference, nor of being a "fan" or "non-fan". "Pre-exhaustion" is based on the incorrect assumption that fatigue builds muscle. Certainly, fatigue plans a small role in muscle growth, but if fatigue played a major role, then marathoners would have massive leg muscles. Muscle growth is primarily due to fiber recruitment, and that is much more related to percentage of maximum effort. The best way to train for muscle growth is by doing enough "volume" (sets) of 95% maximum effort, using weight that allows between 6 and 8 reps, with enough rest in between sets to reduce the exhaustion from the previous set (i.e., the opposite of pre-exhaustion), so that the next set is not compromised either in a muscle's strength or its ability to optimally contract.
Thank you for your response. But, we are still left with the age old question, when is enough enough. I could see someone with unlimited time spending hours training by just waiting until they felt rested enough to do another set. More is better seems to be an accepted philosophy with most people. Lack of progress for most seems to be I did do enough or I did not train hard enough. I think the ability to concentrate, stay focused is the best way to get the most out of a set.
This can be a lengthy conversation. There is much nuance to be considered. It is not a question that can be answered, perfectly, in a paragraph. In fact, it cannot even be answered very well in writing. Even training partners who witness me training, using a percentage of effort that is "enough", are not informed as well as I'd like for them to be, because they are not feeling what I'm feeling. Still, a lengthy conversation, combined with witnessing proper intensity, is much better than expecting to have your question be answered in the form of a paragraph.
People tend to ask “how many sets” and “how many reps”, but those questions cannot be answered simply, because they fail to identify the ideal percentage of max effort, the rest time between sets, the frequency of workouts, and the age and health of the person doing the exercise. If people don’t get the results they “expect” (want), they often make the incorrect assumption that they didn’t do enough, as you said. But it’s not a matter of quantity, although that is one factor. There needs to be a balance of the correct quantity, WITH the correct amount of intensity (not measured as “fatigue” or “burn” or even “pump”). It’s a very particular type of intensity, that involves range of motion, deliberate-ness, rep speed, amount of weight, number of reps, and amount of effort (measured as a percentage of max effort / proximity to failure). Anyone addressing this question that ignores these factors, either hasn’t read the research literature, or is oblivious to it all and has just been lucky in whatever success they’ve achieved.
Hello Ryan. There is always a compromise of sorts when we perform exercises without the best equipment. Calisthenics are exercises which are meant for use in large groups (i.e., school "PhysEd" classes, military settings, etc.) or "at home" (no gym availability). However, they are not a good substitute for having the "right" equipment.
For example, something as simple and prolific as "Push-Ups" -- although convenient because you can do them anywhere -- has some clear drawbacks. For starters, it's a bodyweight exercise, and bodyweight is excessive for most people. The average person might only be able to do 8 (deep) repetitions. Yet if you were in a gym setting and had access to a flat bench and a full set of dumbbells, you would not select the weight (certainly not as your first set, without a warm-up) that only allows you 8 reps. Instead, you would select a weight that allows you to do 20 reps, for your first set. The weight you select for your second set would allow you to perform 15 reps. The weight you select for your third set would allow you to get 10 reps. The weight for your fourth set would allow you to get 8. The weight you select for your fifth set would allow you to get 6.
And each of those sets, using dumbbells, would be performed with a full range of motion, which is not possible with Push-Ups. Using dumbbells allows you more range at the "bottom" (full elongation of the pectorals) and more range at the "top" (full contraction of the pectorals) because you are able to bring your hands all the way together at the midline of the body. You cannot bring your hands together, when doing Push-Ups.
Push-Ups do have some value, but they are generally less productive (for the Pecs), less safe and less comfortable, than doing Supine Dumbbell Press on a flat bench, using full range of motion, and the right amount of weight for each of the successive sets, regardless of your current strength level.
(Note: I am not "ignoring" the claim that the Abs, Quads and Hip Flexors also work isometrically during Push Ups. But isometric muscle contraction is significantly less productive than dynamic muscle contraction. There are far better exercises for these other muscles. Spending effort without maximum benefit (i.e., cost / reward) is not the best strategy for optimizing fitness benefit with the least wasted effort and the least risk of injury.)
So it is with all Calisthenic exercises -- Pull-Ups, Parallel Bar Dips, Abdominal Crunches on the floor -- etc. Glute Bridges are no exception. They do have some value, but they are not "ideal".
For starters, Glute Bridges are "end phase loaded", which means that the resistance increases (on the Glutes) at the end of the range of motion - where the Gluteus contracts. This is because the femur, which is the operating lever of the Glutes, reaches the horizontal position (i.e., perpendicular with gravity) at that point. Then, the resistance diminishes as you descent - where the Gluteus elongates. This is because the femur approaches a more vertical (neutral) angle with gravity. However, the "strength curve" of most skeletal muscles is the opposite of that -- they are stronger in the "early phase", when the muscle is elongated, and weaker in the "end phase", when the muscle is shortened / contracted. So, Glute bridges provide insufficient resistance in the early phase of the Glutes' range of motion, and too much resistance (relatively speaking) at the end of the Glutes' range of motion.
As you stated, they are also not comfortable on the back (spine) or the shoulders. Adding a weight onto your pelvis strains the back and shoulders more, and -- even though it increases the resistance on the Glutes -- does not improve the "resistance curve". The degree (ratio) of resistance provided at the beginning and the end of the movement is the same.
A better alternative for working the Glutes is a "Back Lunge", where you keep the weight on the front leg, and step back with the other leg (alternating legs, of course). It's best to hold onto a rail of sorts for balance. This provides more resistance at the early phase of the range of motion, and less at the end of the range of motion -- consistent with the strength curve of the muscle. However, you still have the issue of having to use bodyweight. You are not able to use less than your bodyweight (which is excessive for most people). You could add weight, if necessary, but that would require you to hold dumbbells in your hands, and not hold onto a rail for balance. This makes the exercise a bit less stable, which is not a big problem, but it is less comfortable.
The ideal exercise for the Glutes (which is the primary "Hip Extension" muscle), is Hip Extensions on a Multi-Hip Machine. This exercise allows you to have continuous resistance on the Glutes. You'd have resistance at the beginning of the range of motion, and also at the end of the range of motion. Another advantage is that it does not require you to load your spine at all -- neither with pressure from a Glute Bridge exercise, nor compression from holding a pair of dumbbells during a Lunge. It also allows you to use one leg at a time, which avoids "bi-lateral deficit" -- which is the natural weakness (i.e., "deficit") that occurs when both sides are working at the same time, as compared with working individually. This deficit is about a 15% reduction of maximum strength potential -- not a lot, but not insignificant either. And the Multi-Hip machine allows you to use as much weight as you want, without any spinal load.
Another dis-advantage, which you may have discovered when doing Glute Bridges, is that your Hamstrings may cramp up. Have you noticed that? There a reason for it -- it's called "reciprocal innervation". That's when one muscle is forced to relax, while the opposing ("antagonist") muscle is working. For example, when you do dumbbell curls, your Triceps are forced to relax while your Biceps are loaded and contracting. Of course, when you do Curls, this does not present a problem. However, during certain "compound" exercises, it does present a problem. As you push your pelvis up, during Glute Bridges, you inevitably engage the Quadriceps a bit. This is because there is a slight pushing forward of your feet against the ground, which causes a degree of "friction force". Engagement of the Quadriceps naturally causes the opposing muscle -- the Hamstrings -- to "relax", so as to not interfere with the activation of the Quads. However, the Hamstrings usually assist the Glutes in Hip Extension, and they are "trying" to do so during Glute Bridges. So they are conflicted. The Glutes are telling the Hamstrings to engage, but the Quadriceps are telling them to dis-engage. Hence, the cramping.
That is yet another advantage to working the Glutes with a Hip Extension machine - it does not require the Quadriceps to engage at the same time. This avoids the disengagement of the Hamstrings, so they are free to participate in Hip Extension, without any neurological conflict of interest / interference.
Which brings me to your comment about "posterior chain". This term is meant to represent the group of muscles that work "posteriorly" - the Erector spinae, the Glutes and the Hamstrings.
Needless to say, it's important for all three of these muscles to be strong. Exercising those muscles is essential in making them strong. However, working two or three of these muscles simultaneously, as occurs during a DeadLift (for example) is not the only way, nor the best way, to stimulate them for strength increase.
A muscle that is challenged (with resistance) increases its ability to handle that challenge -- it gets stronger. It does not matter if that "challenge" happens in isolation (one muscle working alone) or at the same time as other muscles (during a compound exercise). A Gluteus does not get "more strong" if it is challenged at the same time as the Hamstrings and a Quadriceps. However, as pointed out above, due to "reciprocal innervation", a muscle you intend to target with a particular exercise, may actually be compromised by the simultaneous activation of another muscle.
Exercising at home (Calisthenics) has clear advantages, especially now -- during this pandemic when most gyms are closed. But it's important to realize that the absence of having the ideal equipment at our disposal does compromise our ability to stimulate our muscles to an optimal degree. It's always better to have access to the ideal equipment.
People all over the world, who are involved in a fitness program, have different degrees of access to exercise equipment.
Some people have access to a gym that is thoroughly equipped, while others have nothing at all—not even a few pairs of dumbbells. Some people only have elastic bands. Others only have a chin-up bar. Despite all the possible circumstances, in terms of equipment availability, people often ask “which exercises do you recommend, given the limited availability of equipment I have?”.
Answering that question is impossible, since there are so many different sets of circumstances. More importantly, it is wrong for a person to assume that the exercises identified in Physics of Resistance Exercise as “ideal”, can be substituted with other compromised exercises, and the result will be the same. That would be like saying “if don’t have access to a particular medication, just take aspirin.”
The primary goal of the book is to identify what is “ideal”, in terms of exercise selection, and “why” that is so. There is—in fact—an ideal direction of anatomical motion for each skeletal muscle, and there is—in fact—an ideal direction of resistance, for each of those anatomical motions. That information IS worth knowing, and understanding, regardless of how extensive, or how limited, one’s access to equipment is.
Limited equipment access does not change what “ideal” anatomical motion is, nor what an “ideal” direction of resistance is.
In The Physics of Resistance Exercise, every primary skeletal muscle is addressed. The exercises that are “ideal” are identified and explained, and other exercises (for each muscle)—which might be considered “second best” and “third best”—are also identified.
Along the way, the book explains that the farther away from an ideal anatomical motion an exercise is, the less productive it is for that particular target muscle—also, the more it might increase the risk of injury. Therefore, if you do not have access to an exercise (or machine) which allows you to do the ideal exercise—and you also cannot do the exercises that are “second best” or “third best”—then you should try to simulate what the “ideal” exercise would be, given your individual circumstances and limitations. You might have to get creative, to a degree.
Physics of Resistance Exercise is a book that explains how biomechanics works, and how that allows you to determine the value of each exercise. It is not meant to provide an exercise program that is individually tailored to everyone’s specific circumstances, equipment availability or individual orthopedic issues.
The book may motivate you to change your perspective, if that is possible. Instead of trying to find a workout program that allows you to do “a workout” (compromised as it may be) with the limited equipment you now have, maybe you can try to accommodate the equipment needs of a program that would give you the absolute best results, with the least amount of wasted effort, and the least risk of injury.
In life, there are always choices to be made or consequences to accept. This is true in regards to exercise selection, as well.