The Best Workouts I've Ever Had Shared these Common Factors

I've been reflecting on my personal workouts over the last 19 years and I've started to think about the common factors among the best workouts I've ever been through.  By "best" I mean those workouts that stand apart from the rest in terms of intensity, challenge, focus, and fatigue.  The list below sheds light on the commonalities in most of the best workouts I have ever experienced.  Collectively, they serve as a guideline for productive training not only for me, but also for almost anyone interested in engaging in intense, evidence-based resistance exercise.  Of course, this is not an all-encompassing list of evidence-based exercise tenets, but guidelines to maximize one's individual workouts.

Strengthening the Knee: Interesting Research on a Controversial Topic

The prevailing recommendation from orthopedists, physical therapists, and exercise professionals concerning the strengthening of the muscles that surround the knee is this:  “Closed chain” exercises (these include squats, leg presses, lunges, step-ups) are preferable to “open chain” exercises (these include leg extensions and leg curls) for individuals with knee pain or individuals who have undergone knee surgeries.  Some practitioners have gone so far to suggest that open chain movements such as leg extensions should be avoided completely as they may contribute to knee pain.  Investigators of a research study sought to answer the question: For patients with prolonged knee pain (patellofemoral pain), which form of exercise is more effective?  A team of researchers from Ghent University in Belgium hypothesized that the long-term benefits of closed chain movements would be more pronounced than opened chain movements.  Researchers separated individuals who had experienced long-term knee pain into two different groups: closed chain and open chain.  After a 5-year follow up, researchers were surprised by the results; patients performing open-chain exercise faired either equally as well or better than the closed chain group.  The researchers concluded that the prejudice toward closed chain movements is unfounded and recommend the inclusion of open chain exercises in order improve long-term pain reduction and enhanced functionality.  

The Most Important Question in Exercise

I will argue that most exercisers, even the most dedicated and hardworking fitness enthusiasts fail to ask a simple question before they commence an exercise program, an individual exercise, or a general mode of exercise.  

Stress and Recovery

For over 11 years, we at Discover Strength have gone against the conventional wisdom that "more is better" when it comes to strength training.  For years, we've taught the foundational tenet: You don't get stronger and reap the benefits of strength training WHILE we strength train; instead, we reap the benefits while we are RECOVERING from strength training.  Research now supports the notion that two workouts per week can optimize the myriad of benefits from strength training.
However, until recently, very little research existed examining how the various stressors in our lives impact our finite recovery ability.
Authors of a brand new research study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research provides a breakthrough in our understanding of how chronic mental stress impacts the recovery of our muscles.  The researchers concluded that "life event stress" significantly impacted one's ability to recovery from strength training.  The authors state, "In all analyses, higher stress was associated with worse recovery."  "Stress, whether assessed as life event stress or perceived stress, moderated the recovery trajectories of muscular function and somatic sensations in a 96-hour period after strenuous resistance exercise."
The take-home messages:
  • Our recovery and therefore our progress will be impacted by a variety of factors including our life stress. 
  • To optimize recovery and results, allow 2-3 days of recovery between strength training workouts; particularly during periods of high stress. 
  • To improve our results, seek to minimize life stress.
  • We don't walk into each and every workout in the same physiological (or psychological state) and this will impact our workout to workout progress

3 Research-Based Mental Health Benefits of Strength Training (and an amazing music video)

When we discuss the many benefits of strength training, we commonly focus on the physiological benefits: Increased muscle strength, enhanced resting metabolic rate, improved bone mineral density and reduced resting blood pressure to name just a few.  The aforementioned benefits are augmented by the equally important psychological benefits associated with strength training.  The oft heard and almost clichéd expression, "My workout just makes me feel better" actually has significant scientific credibility.  An ever-growing body of research points to three mental health benefits of strength training.  Researcher Wayne Westcott Ph.D. recently authored an article examining the mental health benefits of strength training.  I have included selected quotes below.  This is fascinating:
1. Cognitive ability
  • "In an excellent review titled, 'Strength Training as a Countermeasure to Aging Muscle and Chronic Disease,' Hurley, Hanson, and Sheoff described four studies that demonstrated an inverse relationship between muscular strength and mental decline/Alzheimer disease."
  • "O'Connor, Herring, and Caravalho's comprehensive review of the mental health benefits of strength training identified four studies that attained significant improvements in memory as a result of resistance exercise."
  • "A 2012 study by Nagamatsu and associates actually found resistance exercise to be more effective than aerobic activity for improving mental performance in 70 to 80 year old woman with mild cognitive impairment."
2. Self-Esteem
  • "Research has revealed enhanced self-esteem resulting from resistance training among younger adults, older adults, women, and cancer patients." 
  • "Based on their research review, O'Connor and colleagues concluded that 'strength training alone is associated with improvements in overall self-esteem.'"
3. Depression
  • "Strength training alone is associated with both large reductions in symptoms of depression among depressed patients with moderate reductions in depression symptoms among patients with fibromyalgia."
  • "More than 90% of the initially depressed elders in the resistance exercise group no longer met the criteria for depression after 10 weeks of training, compared to 40% of those in the health education group over the same time period."
If you are in for a laugh and you really want to acquire a deeper understanding of these psychological benefits, I encourage you to watch what is perhaps the worst (or best, depending on your taste) music video of all time.  

The Prophylactic for Aging

A team of researchers including our close colleagues Dr. James Fisher, Dr. James Steele (both of Southampton Solent University in the United Kingdom) and Dr. Wayne Westcott recently published one of the most important scientific papers in perhaps a decade on the topic of strength training and aging.  The paper, titled, "A minimal dose approach to resistance training for the older adult; the prophylactic for aging" appeared just three weeks ago in the Journal of Experimental Gerontology.  As the title suggests, the authors summarize the many health related benefits of resistance exercise (strength training) and state that despite the preponderance of evidence supporting the efficacy of resistance training in delaying the onset of biological aging, the vast majority of adults still do not engage in resistance training.  Thus, the focus of their paper was to introduce a prescription along with the benefits of performing a minimal dose of resistance training. Fisher and colleagues summarize their objective stating, " However, this article is intended to determine the approximate minimal necessary volume and frequency to identify a 'minimal dose' of RT for the evidenced health benefits."

The Most Intelligent, Effective, and Socially Unacceptable Approach to Improving Body Composition

Improving body composition, defined as the percentage of our body weight that is comprised of muscle versus fat, is a paramount goal for the clear majority of exercisers.  Whether our pursuit is bolstered health and the prevention of chronic disease or improved aesthetic appearance, improving our body composition is a central part of the equation.  With so much misinformation, confusion, and wasted effort in our quest of improved body composition, I thought I would share the ultimate success story that illustrates an evidence based, albeit unpopular approach to improving body composition. 

The 7th Habit: Sharpen the Saw

Author, teacher, and management consultant, Dr. Stephen Covey, died in 2012 due to complications related to a bicycle accident.  In 1996, Covey was named one of the top 25 most influential people in the country by Time magazine.

Iron Sharpens Iron

Rick and I are in East Lansing Michigan this weekend to attend our first ever Michigan State University football game.  We have an infinity for the Spartans because we've been influenced

Why Do I Strength Train?

Most people don't know the answer to this question (even people who are self-described fitness fanatics).  To be clear, they understand what drew them to strength training in the first place, but they really don't understand the benefits of a properly performed strength-training program.  This is true of "beginners" as well as most fitness zealots.

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