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Minimalist Strength Training

By: William Wong ND, PhD, Member World Sports Medicine Hall of Fame

My wife has been after me to write an article on my strength training ideas for some months now and I’ve finally found (made) the time to sit and pen it down. We are often asked by folks who are pressed for time, have no energy to work out or are just not inclined to exercise what the minimum amount of strength exercise is to maintain muscle /bone density and the strength needed to do the all important activities of daily living. Remember my oft repeated warning that between 50 and 60 we lose 10% muscle mass per year until by 60 we have bare bones minimal muscle mass to move ourselves around. Walk thru any orthopedic rehab ward in a rehab hospital and you’ll see what I mean; folks with barely enough muscle to lift a comb and not enough to get out of bed or off the potty! You can keep from losing it by training and supplements (I touched on the supplements in my article “The Essentials Of Life and Wellness”). If you’ve already lost it, you can restore it. The only needed prerequisite is to be breathing. As long as you are breathing you can get stronger and better.

Most weight training advice repeats the dictum that there must be at least one exercise per body part. There are an awful lot of body parts and besides this preaching is not true strength training but watered down body building philosophy, which is way different than strength training. (Most body builders would not know real strength training if they saw it or fell over it). We are not looking to build kissably beautiful biceps useful only for posing on the beach and not much else! Most of us don’t need to compensate with muscle size for lack of size elsewhere – you get my drift. Nuff said on that.

We will pattern this workout after the work of Professor Emeritus of Exercise Physiology Dr. Philip Rasch. Dr. Rasch was the head of the Naval Human Performance Laboratory at MCB Quantico from it’s founding in the 1960’s and ran it through 70’s. He was the man who developed the workouts for the Marines, the Navy’s UDT and early SEALs. Today’s Marine physical fitness test still reflects the truths he taught. What are those truths? Simply this: Watch a baby crawl on the floor, he is pushing with his lower extremities and pulling with his uppers. The way the Creator made us, 70% of our pelvis and lower extremity muscles push and 70% of our torso and upper extremity muscles pull. That being the case he surmised if they find the most efficient lower extremity pushing exercise and the most efficient upper extremity pulling exercise we would have worked out 70% of our total body musculature in the most used aspects and ranges of motion! Simple! After that the main thing Dr. Rasch said needing attention was the abdominal girdle which included the lower back muscles. With this as a guide we can choose which exercises to perform. The next question is how much of them to do and against what resistance’s?

For that we turn to American researchers from the 60’s, the decade before all of the fad work out appeared on the scene. From Delorm and Watkins we learn that if the object of an exercise cannot be accomplished in 3 to 4 sets than the exercise is being improperly done or the exercise is not effective to achieve the desired ends. So now we have the number of sets, next to the resistance vs. the number of reps.

Many folks believe that lifting a moderate to light weight once for many reps will tone and strengthen a muscle the same as lifting a heavy one for few reps. This is a reincarnation of the old tonnage theory. That theory of muscle training basically said that lifting 1 pound 300 times was the same as lifting 300 pounds once. Do you think that doing 300 reps with 1 pound will ready you to lift 300 pounds once? Neither do I. And, as with all theories if the principle does not work out in the real world then the theory is proved false. Tonnage theory was proved false, much to the cost of a few Olympic lifters who lost potential births on the US team for the ‘68 or ‘72 games by training to such a silly proposition. Yet the myth persists especially among women lifters and trainers.

When you weight train you are choosing your place along a continuum. At one end you high resistance which will create great strength, great muscle density, great bone density, by training for something called muscle hyperplasia, (where a muscle bundle is worked to the point where to adapt to the work it has to split into two muscle bundles and overlap like ply wood). In the middle, using moderate resistance with higher sets and reps you have large size muscles and moderate strength produced by muscular hypertrophy. (In hypertrophy, muscles are basically water ballooned, bloated in their adaptation to the work. Some strength is had but it and the size are easily lost. This type of adaptation is not good for any kind of sport or activity at all except for posing and as you’ve heard me say before body building is NOT a contact sport). At the end of the spectrum you have low resistance with very high repetitions, this is like the marathon of weightlifting. Here you have great endurance but little strength, worst of all if you train like this too long for too many reps it becomes like marathoning and you lose muscle mass. So building plywood is better than water ballooning and both are better than losing muscle mass!

Again let me make another analogy: look at sprinters, they have beautiful muscles, sleek and strong bodies. They train very heavy for short duration’s. Look at the other end of the spectrum to the marathoners. No muscle mass, look like concentration camp victims, no strength, likely can’t open a jar of pickles with out help but they can run for 26 miles! Since there is nothing in the activities of daily living that requires a great level of endurance and nothing in the ADL’s requires posing ability, then it’s best to go with the type of training that has the greatest crossover into our daily lives – real strength training using heavy resistance, low reps and low sets.

What do we mean by heavy? Heavy is any weight that will barely allow you to get the last two reps out . So, if your repetition scheme says that you must do 5 reps then the last two reps should be doable but only just!

After playing with reps vs. resistance for the last 30 years plus, the number of reps that I believe have the greatest transference to the activities of daily life are 5 to 7. So, the work we do is 3 sets of 5 to 7 repetitions. It happens like this: Week # 1 with a new weight do 3 sets of 5 reps with a 2 minute rest in between (each set) for each exercise. Week #2 do 3 sets of 6 reps, week # 3 do 3 sets of 7 reps, week # 4 is actually week #1 all over again as you increase the resistance by 5 or 10 pounds and go back to doing 3 sets of 5. Easy!

That takes care of the principles involved, now to the actual work, and why these exercise have been chosen. First lets look over two very good pelvis and lower extremity exercises. The Squat and the Leg Press. Wait, you heard squats were bad – that was a rumor based on an invalid study done by one self serving orthopedist who wanted to prove theory and so concocted a study in which his forgone conclusion was a foregone conclusion. In other words he ran an invalid study! If squats like most all exercises, are performed with proper bio mechanics the likely hood of injury is as low as with any other form of compound lower extremity / pelvis movement. The only truly unsafe exercise I can think of are called Good Mornings and Straight Leg Dead LIfts. We need not go into those. Now to the advantage of squats: this movement not only strengthens the muscles of the pelvis and lower extremities but in putting compression pressure on the spine also creates the stimulus to increase bone density there. Remember the law that governs bone density (Wolfs Law) states “Mineralization is laid into bone along axial lines of stress”.

Now let’s leave the squat hating weenies behind and look at what it takes to do a squat safely. First of all rank beginners and those with shoulder problems limiting the ability to hold a bar on your shoulders, there are plenty of machines that will help a person to do squats without having to hold a bar. Smith machines, Power Tech squat machines and plenty more. Just as an example we’ll use the Power Tech which my Marine son tells me are widely available in gyms and that the Corps has them in it’s gyms.

For all squatting and leg press movements we need to optimize the biomechanics of the movement. In squatting and leg pressing the feet need to be wider than shoulder width apart but not exaggeratedly wide. Next, outwardly rotate the feet and knees to about a 40 degree angle from pointing straight forward. (See Picture). This creates a position where the lines of force coming up through the thigh bone converge in the sacrum creating a vector and this increases strength and aids lifting.

We are only going to go down half way to about a 90 degree angle at the knee not so much because going lower creates injury (only so if you bounce off the bottom) but because for strength reasons there is no need to go down that low. The partial or half range of motion will strengthen the entire ROM very well without having to go all the way down which many of us because of the wear to our knees cannot do. (See Pictures 1 & 2).

Squat Squat End
Squat Start Squat End

In the Leg Press again we take the wide stance with toes and knees rotated out. As in the squat we only go down half way to about a 90 degree angle of bend then we push up. (See Pictures 3 & 4). Try both of the lower body exercises and decide which one you prefer and use that one, there is no need to do both.

LegPress Start LegPress End
Leg Press Start Leg Press End

Next for the most efficient Upper Body exercise the Front Pulldown. There are many variations of the pulldown but the most biomechanical efficient and thorough is the one where your palms are facing your face (supinated) and are placed shoulder width apart on the bar. (See Pictures 5 & 6). Wider grips endanger the rotator cuff of the shoulder as do the palms facing away (pronated) grip. As soon as you turn the palms away from you two bad things happen 1) You’ve just cut your range of motion in half from 160 degrees to 80 by changing the plane of motion you are working on as the palms out grip forces your arms out to work in the Frontal Plane instead of the Sagittal (front to back) plane. 2) In forcing resistance against the shoulder at the outward angels of the Frontal plane the tendons of the rotator cuff suffer strains and tears. It is from these wide grip and pronated grip pulldowns and pullups that most older weight trainers trash out their shoulders. Although it must be said that wide grip full Range Of Motion bench presses have as much to do with creating shoulder cuff damage as the wide grip pulldowns.

PullDown Start Pulldown End
Pulldown Start Pulldown End

Now for the midsection. Here we have two things to do. We will not get fancy as these are basic bare bones exercises so instead of dealing with muscle groups we’ll deal with sides such as: Front and back. For the front most of the abb machines will do nicely though my preference is for the bio mechanics of the abb machine designed by Dr. Fred Hatfield known affectionately in the power lifting world as Dr. Squat. Again here we will go against the conventional wisdom and work the abdomen for strength and not so much to develop pretty but weak beach boy abbs so we’ll keep the reps down and the resistance up instead of the way body builders do it with light resistance and hundreds of reps.

For the back of the midsection the best and safest exercise is the 45 degree prone back extension. For this a suitable bench is needed and while a regular Roman Chair bench and movement is okay I’ve found the 45 degree angle to be best. To increase resistance here you simply hold onto a plate or dumbbell(s). Do not hyper extend or arch as this may overly compress the posterior aspects of the lumbar discs. Try to stop the movement when your shoulders and knees are in line.

If you are restricted for time or must work out but really don’t want to, these 4 exercises will have you covered in terms of maintaining and increasing both muscle mass and bone density as well as maintaining and increasing your strength to keep your ADL’s easy.

What about aerobic work? Aerobic work does not transfer to the ADL’s!!! It’s that simple. Some minimal amount of it is needed to maintain the strength of the heart but not anywhere as much as “experts” are saying you need. 7 to 24 min. tops with the average being 8 to 16 min. is all anyone needs. Interval work of 2 min. work and 1 to 2 min. rest for 12 to 24 min. is even better and strengthens the heart better against shock. Read my article How To Avoid A Heart Attack – Do Less Aerobic Exercise and read the book The Doctors Heart Cure by cardiologist John Sears; seems some MD’s have finally caught on with what the European exercise physiologists have been trying to tell them for the last 30 years!


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