Resistance Training 102: Different Modalities for Different Results

If you have been following our posts, you know that we love prescribing resistance training to almost everyone that walks through our doors.  There are many ways that resistance training can be an effective treatment.  Health benefits include improved coordination, balance, stability, strength, which leads to injury prevention.  It can also help improve vital statistics including blood pressure and blood labs including glucose and insulin sensitivity.

 Often balance and coordination get overlooked as a goal for resistance training.  The truth is that most adaptations resulting from resistance training are come from the nervous system.  The brain becomes more efficient in sending signals to the muscles being used for a particular movement, translating to improved motor unit recruitment and greater force output.  This is commonly referred to as muscle memory.  As your nervous system becomes accustomed to the movement patterns trained, you become more efficient in your movement and are able to handle higher loads.  How does this help balance and coordination? Human movement is a complex sequence of concentric, isometric, and eccentric contraction and relaxation of multiple muscles and muscle groups (see Resistance Training 101 in our knowledge base for a refresher on the phases of muscle contraction).  Strength training can help isolate specific movement patterns that in turn should translate to activities of daily living, as well as sports performance and function.

A simple assessment of equipment and modalities can help explain some of the training differences and begin to write a prescription specific to your desired outcome:

Machines:  Because the weight is moved on a fixed track, the nervous system does not need to recruit the smaller synergist muscles as much.  Beginners can benefit greatly from using machines because they can begin to learn the movement patterns and make significant strength gains.  However, only using machines will ultimately limit motor recruitment of the synergists which might hinder stability and balance gains.

Barbells: An exceptional piece of free weight equipment that has many advantages.  The main advantage is that most lifts and movements with barbells are done bilaterally- meaning right and left sides work in unison.  The combination of free weight and bilateral contraction provide the nervous system greater motor recruitment, with an ample amount of stability because both sides work in harmony.  This translates to a very large amount of force production and greater motor recruitment compared to machines.  One of the downsides to training bilaterally, is that most individuals have dominant sides that can potentially cause compensation patterns to occur.  If the compensation becomes great enough, eventually an injury will occur

Dumbbells: Another fantastic free weight tool.  Unlike the barbell, most dumbbell lifts and movements are performed unilaterally- or one side at a time.  Because there is less stability, the nervous system is forced to recruit a high amount of synergistic muscles to help balance and stabilize the weight.  One of the draw backs to dumbbells is that the increased recruitment synergist decreases the emphasis on the prime movers.  Typically you will not be able to move the same amount of weight with dumbbells as you would with barbells or machines, but you will absolutely gain much more stability. 

Cables: Cable exercises have more range of motion than any of the previous modalities expressed.  An added benefit is that depending on the angle of the cable it is possible to provide different vectors of force and therefore provides a lot of options and ability to target specific muscle groups.  Ideally, a cable exercise should provide constant tension on the muscle, were as free weights and even machines might provide wiggle room for momentum to take tension of the exercise.  Lifting too fast with cable exercises can cause slack in line which translates to loss of muscle tension, which limits the training stimulus delivered to the muscle.  Lifting too heavy with cable exercises makes the eccentric phase extremely hard to target, which will also hinder muscular strength and endurance.

Resistance Bands: Bands offer a very unique dynamic to resistance training that is hard to replicate with any other type of equipment.  The longer the band gets stretched, the more tension and therefore more motor recruitment is required to overcome the elastic force of the band.  This can be exceptionally helpful for building power because it allows for changes in velocity (acceleration).  Resistance bands can also be used in infinite ways and provide the greatest range of motion while maintaining tension.  The greater range of motion with bands does have the draw back that ultimately you would have an extremely difficult time lifting an equivalent force for the same movement using any of the other modality

So which type of equipment is the best? Well, it’s a trick question.  Programming a comprehensive resistance training regimen would require a solid base of strength, power, stability, mobility and flexibility.  That means planning your periodization will involve multiple modalities of resistance training based on your ultimate goals and desires.  As a general rule, I prefer to have a variety of modalities to break up the monotony and keep me motivated and interested.  While one program might work for a certain person, individual results may vary based on genetics, hormones, diet, other physical activities outside of the gym and so on. 

For more information contact our office about scheduling your next exercise consolation and let us help you find a successful program and keep you on the path of progress!!



Alex Edwards, CEP

Exercise Physiologist



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