Resistance Training the Right Way: Part 3
by Fred Dimenna, CSCS

Understanding the difference between lifting weights and training with weights is critical for reaping the health-related benefits associated with progressive resistance training. It all boils down to one basic fact: Simply going through the motions in the weight room won’t cut it and when you begin to feel comfortable performing a particular movement, it’s time to change your approach to keep your muscles and nervous system guessing.

Once the body becomes accustomed to a challenge it has routinely faced, that challenge no longer presents a threat to its internal constancy (homeostasis). If you’re trying to reduce the physical and psychological stress associated with the activities you perform throughout your day, that’s great news because if you condition your muscles to lift a heavy barbell in the gym, carrying a box from your basement will be little more than an inconvenience. Specifically, your risk of injury will be reduced, your sympathetic nervous system (and the cardiovascular drive that accompanies its arousal) won’t be activated as much and you’ll be less taxed in general. But with this perk comes a drawback if your goal is to take your body to the next level. The same positive adaptations make further accommodative change under the iron more difficult to induce.

To continue to improve musculoskeletal and neuromuscular capacity once functional adaptations have occurred, you must focus attention exclusively on the degree of effort associated with the weight training exercises you perform. This is where resistance training differs from aerobic exercise designed to pare body fat. If you’ve currently established the negative energy balance required to lose body fat by incorporating aerobic activity like jogging or stair climbing into your exercise mix, continuing with the same intensity, duration and frequency scheme once your condition improves will precipitate continued fat loss, assuming intake remains constant. Energy expenditure is simply a function of these three variables, so if you want to enjoy the ease at which you can now perform previously challenging efforts once you’re in better shape, you can do so and still get "paid" with the same calorie burn for your effort.

Even better, if your objective is to expend more energy once your condition improves, you can do so without having to continue to put yourself through the ringer. In other words, you aren’t relegated to having to increase the intensity at which you’re working (increasing the speed at which you run, for example, so that the effort is as difficult as it was when you worked at a slower speed when you were less conditioned). Instead, you can opt to increase duration and/or frequency, using time as your ally. In this case, you will burn the same calories per minute because you’re working at the same exercise pace, but by exercising longer or more frequently, your overall energy outlay will be greater. And because the same absolute intensity no longer presents the same relative challenge, the aerobic bouts you perform will be much easier.

Unfortunately, resistance training does not involve a similar "easy way out." Once your capacity improves, you cannot induce continued gains simply by doing more of what you had been doing. Training a muscle more times per week (four days versus three, for example) or packing more into each session (four sets of each exercise versus two) simply doesn’t challenge the system in a way it interprets as necessitating change. The only way to keep adaptations coming is to ensure you’re working at the same degree of effort, no matter how capable you get. That means you’ll always have to be working hard.

If progression is applied correctly, resistance-training workouts will never get any easier compared to what you experienced as a rank beginner. This is contrary to most things we do in life. After all, one of the benefits associated with "putting your nose to the grindstone" in most endeavors is accrued proficiency that equates to a reduced degree of effort associated with the same task in the future. With weight training, no such luck!

In addition to not providing a viable avenue to progress the overload once adaptive changes have occurred, frequency increases can actually have negative repercussions in the weight room. Unlike energy use, which happens as you perform the actual aerobic exercise session, resistance training benefits are based on an adaptive response the body enacts in response to training efforts. These actions involve rebuilding the muscle’s protein backbone, which is disrupted when the proper stimulus overload is applied. These recuperative measures take two days to complete, so applying a resistance-training stimulus to the same muscle group within 48 hours of the last application is not conducive to positive change.

If you want to continue to improve from lifting weights, you have to challenge your muscles with an all-out degree of effort. That means no matter what level you’re at, when you terminate your set, you should be incapable of performing many more reps with good form. On the other hand, doing more easy sets or doing the same workout more frequently will not elicit a similar response.

Fred DiMenna, a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and Lifestyle and Weight Management Consultant is a two-time Natural Mr. United States and a WNBF drug-free professional bodybuilder. Visit him at or email: