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Power Factor Training and Precision Training

Training With Precision
Understand what we are trying to do here! Try this experiment next workout!

By Pete Sisco
Lifetime Strength

(This is an article I wrote for Ironman magazine many years ago. You can see how the principles logically led to the development of Static Contraction Training a few years later.)

Have you ever seen this guy training at the gym? He walks over to the dumbbell rack, pulls off a couple, without noting the exact weight, does a dozen or so reps - without actually counting - then sets them down just when its getting difficult to continue. He does another set or two the same way then puts the weights back on the rack. Next he looks around for a piece of equipment that is not in use, anything will do, and sticks in the selector pin of the weight stack around the halfway mark of the stack. He bangs out twenty or so reps with the unknown weight, rests a bit, then does another set. He uses the same method of exercise throughout his entire workout, then heads for the change room.

This guy is positively doomed to failure; either by undertraining, overtraining or otherwise spinning his wheels until he gives up due to lack of progress. If he's really unlucky he'll spend a couple of thousand bucks on nutritional supplements thinking they will provide the gains his training will not deliver. If he is like most people he'll quit training within a few months, if he's really tough minded he'll train this way for years and chalk up his lack of progress to being a "hardgainer." The really sad fact is, this is how most people train!

The same used to be true in aerobics. Thirty years ago people would perform exercises like jumping jacks, twists with a pole or, my personal favorite, lie on their backs and pedal their legs in the air. They had no idea how long to perform these exercises, how to control the intensity of them or how to measure progress. All exercises, no matter how silly, were viewed as about equally beneficial. I said this was true - because something happened that changed everything. Dr. Kenneth Cooper wrote a book called "Aerobics". The main benefit of his book was it gave precision to cardiovascular training.

Suddenly, there were clear physiological objectives such as reaching the "aerobic threshold" and "age adjusted target heart rates" to be achieved and maintained for specified times. Now the relative effectiveness of different workouts could actually be measured. And guess what? Not all workouts were equally productive. Lying on your back pedaling was a joke compared to cross-country skiing and running. Precision is what made cardiovascular training a more perfect science just as precision makes medicine, engineering and space exploration more perfect sciences. It's what naturally happens to any science as time goes by and rational people try to improve the accuracy of their results.

What can be done to give strength training more precision? Well, for a start, we can examine the two physiological requisites involved in getting your body to increase its muscle size and strength. Firstly, the muscles must be worked and that work must involve a high intensity of muscular overload. That's why lifting weights builds new muscle, it creates a lot of overload per unit of time. Secondly, the muscular overload must be progressive from workout to workout. If it isn't progressive there is no reason for your body to grow more muscle. Itís the progression of overload that keeps triggering new growth.

How high is high intensity? Arthur Jones, the creator of Nautilus exercise equipment, defined intensity as "the percentage of momentary muscular effort being exerted." This definition has stood unimproved for over twenty years. While basically correct, this strikes me as both vague and subjective on Jones' part. A percentage is measured on a scale of 1 to 100, so the question is how do you know what 100% of your effort is? You can't, it's logically impossible. There is always the possibility that a person could have lifted more weight were it not for some unknown impediment or missing motivation. Also, 100% of your effort is irrelevant since when you are recovering from pneumonia, for example, your 100% effort will be quite insufficient to trigger muscle growth anyway. Even when you are tired from lack of sleep or from overtraining 100% of your effort is meaningless since it will be too low an intensity to trigger growth. Without an absolute standard for 100% what does 50% of effort mean? To compound this problem is the inherent vagueness of momentary. How momentary? A millisecond? A second? 14 seconds? Why wallow in all that vagueness?

There is a far better way to measure intensity. Muscular effort by intensity of lifting, like light, sound and heat, to name a few, can be precisely measured. Scientists measure the intensity of light, sound and heat by objective standards such as lumens, decibels and calories. Why not use the same precision when measuring the intensity of muscular output? Why used "perceived" effort when we can use absolute effort? Why use "momentary" when we can use seconds and minutes? According to the laws of Physics, the intensity of lifting is simply the amount of weight lifted per unit of time; measured in a unit I call the Power Factor (if distance were included we could use Horsepower or Watts as units). Lift 200 pounds 10 times in one minute and you have a Power Factor of 2,000 pounds per minute. That is the intensity of your lifting. Want to increase the intensity? Lift more pounds per minute. Not "perceived" pounds or "possible" pounds but real, objective pounds. Not for "moments" but for real, objective minutes.

Using this absolute standard you can measure the intensity of your muscular output to discover that 100% of your effort can vary immensely. Speaking for myself, I once foolishly ate a bag of peanut M&M's before a workout and quickly discovered that 100% of my effort (momentary and otherwise) was about 70% of my known capability. Exercising to momentary muscular failure with a bag of M&M's under my belt was meaningless, and a waste of time, even though it met Arthur Jones' definition of high intensity. Identifying poor workout performance because of a bonehead move like eating M&M's just before a workout is easy, but more subtle stresses like overtraining, lack of concentration, lack of sleep, personal or work-related stress and a host of other factors can and will rob you of intensity. Without an objective measurement of that intensity you'll never know the whole truth regarding the two most important factors of your training; high intensity and progressive overload.

The precision inherent in this measurement puts many of bodybuilding's vague intangibles right on graph paper where they can be analyzed. Objective measurements lead to objectively verifiable progress, or lack thereof, and provide a means to compare the relative efficiency of training systems. High intensity and progressive overload, the two indispensable conditions of muscular hypertrophy, can be measured mathematically. Now, just as in aerobics, specific objectives and goals, measured in all-important intensity and progressive overload, can be set and achieved. And, importantly, the various strength training and bodybuilding "systems" can be accurately and fairly measured to determine the intensity of overload they deliver to individual muscles, their rate of progression, and their ability to avoid and compensate for overtraining. The effect of nutritional supplements can be measured the same way

Getting back to our man in the gym, now you can see how blindly he is operating. This guy is a ship with no rudder doing figure eights in the open sea. He doesn't know his intensity from his last workout, where it is today or where it should be next workout. In order to measure the intensity of his muscular overload he needs to keep track of the exact amount of weight that he is lifting and the exact amount of time it takes him to lift it -- remember, that's a law of Physics. He knows neither. To ensure he is creating progressive overload he must engineer his next workout in such a way that his intensity increases. This requires knowing the inter-relationship of the weight on the bar, the number of times he can lift it and the time it takes him to do it. Operating blindly he doesn't have a prayer of making consistent progress. He might as well lie on his back and pedal in the air

Try this experiment on your next workout: pick one exercise, say the Bench Press, and time exactly how long it takes you to complete the exercise from the first rep of the first set to the last rep of the last set. For example, suppose that you performed 4 sets of 10 reps all with 200 pounds. Each set took 45 seconds to complete and you rested 60 seconds between sets. That's a total time of 360 seconds or 6 minutes. In that 6 minutes you lifted 200 pounds a total of 40 times (4 sets of 10) producing a total weight lifted of 8,000 pounds. The intensity of your lifting was 1,333 pounds per minute. That's a precise measurement

Now you've got a benchmark of your performance. You know you are capable of benching 1,333 pounds per minute, so if you want to make progress you need to increase that number. If you come back to the gym too soon the number won't increase because your body didnít have time to recover and grow. Keep coming back to the gym too soon and that number will actually decrease because of the energy debt created by chronic overtraining. Think about that - when you are overtraining you can work out with "100% of momentary muscular effort being exerted" and yet you will not be able to bench 1,333 pounds per minute. Even though at the end of your last set you went to total muscular failure, you were "pumped," and you "felt the burn." You met Jones' definition of high intensity yet you have zero chance of making progress because you are operating at an output that is less than what you already have identified as your capability. No progressive overload, no progress. Period. But once you have precise benchmarks of your muscular ability in every exercise you can immediately determine whether or not you are making real, objective, measurable progress or just spinning your wheels. That's how itís done in aerobic training, thanks to Kenneth Cooper, and now the same is true of strength training.

Train Smart.

Pete Sisco
Lifetime Strength

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