New research on resistance training shows that some methods are more effective than others for building muscle and decreasing fat. Here we look at a few tips to optimize your training methods and help your clients improve overall body composition. These training methods are:
- Dose-response training
- Mixed-intensity training
- Multijoint and single-joint exercise training
- Unilateral training for core muscles
Training volume (or how many sets and repetitions of an exercise are required to induce muscle change) is a long-standing debate in sports and fitness. To determine a dose effect, researchers used common exercises such as the bench press, lat pull-down, shoulder press and leg press to examine the effectiveness of one, three or five sets of exercise on body composition. After having participants perform the exercises three times per week for six months, the researchers concluded that doing one, three and five sets of exercises all decreased body-fat percentage and increased muscle mass. The effects, however, were greatest for the five-set group, confirming a dose-response effect for building muscle and reducing body-fat percentage (Radaelli et al., 2015).
If five sets are good, then 10 must be better, according to the logic behind German Volume Training (GVT). However, when researchers looked at the effects of GVT (10 sets of 10 repetitions) versus a traditional program of five sets of 10 repetitions on muscle growth and body composition, the results favored five sets. Both the 10- and five-set training methods increased muscle mass, but doing five sets actually increased muscle mass more than performing 10 sets (Amirthalingam et al., 2017).
The takeaway message about training volume (at least for the subjects involved in the above-referenced study) is clear: to maximize body composition changes, five sets of 10 repetitions per resistance exercise is the most effective approach.
Along with training volume, exercise intensity is arguably the most important resistance-training programming variable. Although high-intensity exercise is undoubtedly effective, recent research suggests mixed-intensity exercise is effective as well. To determine the effectiveness of mixed-intensity training on muscle hypertrophy, researchers examined the difference between three high-intensity (80% 1-RM) sets, three low-intensity (30% 1-RM) sets and a Overall, the results of the study showed that a single high-load set combined with a drop set can increase muscle cross-sectional area similarly when compared to three sets of either high- or low-intensity exercise. Even with less time spent training and lower training volumes, the data supported that a mixed-intensity protocol is an effective, time-saving training method for changing body composition (Ozaki et al., 2018).
Multijoint and Single-joint Exercise Training
Whether to do multijoint or single-joint exercises is another common debate in fitness. Multijoint exercises are recognized as more functional and use more muscle groups and as such require more energy to be expended, but single-joint exercises are effective for increasing muscle hypertrophy. One study compared the effects of equal-volume single-joint and multijoint resistance training on body composition. Participants performed either single-joint exercises (e.g., dumbbell fly, knee extension, knee flexion, pec deck, biceps curl, incline dumbbell fly, abdominal curl, lateral dumbbell raise, lat pull-over, rear deltoid fly, cable elbow extension and calf raise) or multijoint exercises (e.g., bench press, deadlift, squat, leg press, military press, lat pull-down and seated row). The results showed that when total work volume was equated, both multijoint and single-joint exercises decreased body fat and increased muscle mass, with no difference between them, suggesting the choice to use multijoint or single-joint exercises can be based on personal preference (Paoli et al., 2015).
Unilateral Training for Core Muscles
Unilateral training is a great way to work each side of the body equally. Additionally, some unilateral exercises work select core muscles as well. When researchers compared core muscle activation between the unilateral free-weight bent-over row and bilateral seated cable and machine rows, the results showed that the unilateral exercise activated the external oblique muscles up to 41% more than the bilateral exercises (Saeterbakken et al., 2015).
A sample unilateral workout is shown below. Note that it includes a unilateral row exercise and either a unilateral or bilateral exercise of choice. To stay within current programming guidelines, alternate and repeat each exercise set five times and make certain that resistance intensities and rest intervals are adjusted based on individual fitness levels.
Rest Between Sets
|Unilateral dumbbell bent-over row||10||
80% of 1RM
|0 to 60 seconds|
|Unilateral or bilateral lower- or upper-body exercise||10||
80% of 1RM
|0 to 60 seconds|
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Amirthalingam, T. et al. (2017). Effects of a modified German Volume Training program on muscular hypertrophy and strength. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 31, 11, 3109-3119.
Ozaki, H. et al. (2018). Effects of drop sets with resistance training on increases in muscle CSA, strength and endurance: A pilot study. Journal of Sports Sciences, 36, 6, 691-696.
Paoli, A. et al. (2015). Resistance training with single vs. multi-joint exercises at equal total load volume: Effects on body composition, cardiorespiratory fitness and muscle strength. Frontiers in Physiology, 8, 1105.
Radaelli, R. et al. (2015). Dose-response of 1, 3, and 5 sets of resistance exercise on strength, local muscular endurance and hypertrophy. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 29, 5, 1349-1358.
Saeterbakken, A. et al. (2015). The effect of performing bi- and unilateral row exercises on core muscle activation. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 36, 11, 900-905.