Practical training tips from research in 2012

There was a huge amount that the fitness industry learned from research this year and there is no way we can cover it all in a single blog post. However, just based on the research covered on this blog, Chris Beardsley (@SandCResearch) sets out some practical implications for your training.


How can we best use partial squats and full squats?

Research says: partial squats with high loads are optimal for developing strength and power, while deeper squats with low loads are optimal for developing speed.

Tip: A combination of partial squats with high loads and parallel squats with low loads but a focus on speed could be a potent combination for developing both speed and strength qualities for athletes.

Research says: deeper squats with high loads over a number of sets are optimal for performing high volumes of work.

Tip: For body composition programs requiring muscle gain, work output (and therefore mechanical tension, which leads to hypertrophy) can be maximized using deeper squats with heavier loads.

(see how are partial and full squats different?)


Should we squat heavy or deep?

Research says: Squat depth is a more significant factor than load for the force required of the knee extensors.

Tip: If you want to develop vertical jump height and have a knee-dominant jumping strategy, you should squat deeper in order to maximize the stress on the quadriceps.  Similarly, if you want to increase the size of your quadriceps, reduce the weight and squat deeper, so long as you can do safely.

(see how does squat depth affect how hard the various leg muscles are working?)


Should you sit back when you squat?

Research says: Olympic-style (i.e. not sitting back) squats likely lead to a greater contribution of the knee extensors and therefore greater activation of the quadriceps. However, they also place greater shear forces on the knee.

Tip: If you are blessed with the ability to squat Olympic-style without knee pain and you want to develop your quadriceps, the Olympic-style squat could be a good tool to develop these muscles.  Any sign of knee pain and you should probably back off, though.

Research says: Squats where you sit back likely lead to greater contribution of the hip extensors and therefore greater activation of the gluteus maximus (and the hamstrings to a lesser degreee).

Tip: So, if you find it comfortable to squat sitting back and you want to develop your glutes and hamstrings, then the restricted squat could be used (although there are certainly better choices for developing the hamstrings than the squat pattern).

(see should the shin remain close to vertical during squats?)


Is the forward lunge a good exercise for the quadriceps or the hamstrings?

Research says: Increasing the external load during an anterior lunge does not increase the moments at the ankle, knee, and hip joints equally but rather the hip moment is increased by more than the ankle, and the knee moments.

Tip: To increase the work that is done proportionally by the gluteals and hamstrings during lunges, use heavier weights and fewer repetitions per set, subject to safety and avoiding knee pain.

Research says: Eccentric work is greater than concentric work at the knee during forward lunges. This implies that the knee extensors (quadriceps) are more involved in decelerating the leg’s increasing knee flexion as the center of mass descends. This may explain why many people find lunges so painful for the quadriceps, as eccentric contractions lead to greater muscle soreness.

Tip: To use forward lunges more effectively for the quadriceps, use lighter weights and higher repetitions per set (think Ronnie Coleman parking-lot lunges).

(see how does the weight used change the effect of lunges?)


Are rows better than pull-downs for latissimus development?

Research says: Seated rows produce greater latissimus dorsi and middle trapezius/rhomboid activity than pull-downs of any kind.  So, the idea that we can divide back exercises into “back width” and “back thickness” exercises is not supported by research.

Tip: As a bodybuilder or someone concerned primarily with physique development, it probably makes sense to build your back routine around rows rather than lat pull-downs.  And don’t bother splitting your back routine into “back wdith” and “back thickness” days, just train your back twice, it can probably take it.

Research says: Seated rows tend to produce greater latissimus dorsi and middle trapezius/rhomboid activity when performed with scapular retraction.

Tip: When performing seated rows, make sure to perform scapular retraction at the end of each repetition to improve muscle activity.  It’s very likely good for your shoulder health to improve range-of-motion anyway.

Research says: Pronated and supinated pull-downs (and possibly also therefore chins and pull-ups) only differ slightly in respect of the relative activity of the latissimus and biceps muscles. These differences are therefore unlikely to make a significant difference to the beginner or intermediate trainee.

Tip: Whether you use chins or pull-ups is likely not going to make or break your training routine, so you should probably go with what you prefer or mix it up to prevent things getting stale.  If pushed, the chin is probably slightly better because more weight can be used.

(see rows or pull-downs for back width?)


Which rowing exercise is best?

Research says: For targeting the lats and upper back, the inverted row is superior to the bent-over row. The bent-over row produces greater overall (i.e. upper as well as lower) back muscle activity and challenges spinal stability the most.

Tip: To make sure you can train well into old age, build your upper back and latissimus routine around weighted inverted rows rather than bent-over rows or one-arm cable rows.

(see how do rowing exercises differ?)


Are sumo deadlifts better than conventional deadlifts for hypertrophy?

Research says: The main muscles used in sumo deadlifting are the gluteus maximus, hamstrings, quadriceps and tibialis anterior. The primary lower body muscles used for conventional deadlifting are the hamstrings, gluteus maximus, gastrocnemius, and soleus.

Tips: Training to improve both deadlift variants should of course involve significant amounts of gluteus maximus and hamstrings work.  However, the sumo deadlift should also include a greater emphasis on quadriceps and tibialis anterior strength, while the conventional deadlift will require greater calf muscle strength.

Research says: The time spent in the acceleration phase is much greater in the sumo deadlift than in the conventional deadlift.  This may indicate that it leads to greater muscular adaptations.

Tips: The sumo deadlift may be superior to the conventional deadlift when training for increasing muscular size, particularly as it is very likely that the same volume of work involves a smaller amount of lower back loading but similar hip extension moments.

(see comparing the biomechanics of conventional and sumo deadlifts)


How do straight-bar and hex-bar deadlifts differ?

Research says: The ratio of hip-to-knee extension moments increases with increasing load in the straight-bar deadlift but not in the hex-bar deadlift. This means that the straight-bar deadlift becomes an even more hip-dominant exercise with increasing load but the hex-bar deadlift does not.

Tips: Training to improve the straight-bar deadlift by using the hex-bar deadlift may not produce optimal carry-over if the weak point is hip extension torque, which will very likely be the case, given that the importance of hip extension torque increases with increasing load in the straight-bar deadlift. Exercises that develop greater hip extension torque may be a better choice.

Research says: Deadlifts of both variations produce as much power at sub-maximal loads as the Olympic lifts and their variations.

Tips: If you are training for maximal power for your sport but are very uncomfortable with the Olympic lifts, there is no reason to spend years trying to develop the skills to use them safely. Submaximal deadlifts using both the hex-bar and straight-bar produce similar power outputs (use 30% of 1RM for the straight-bar and at 40% for the hex-bar but 50-60% for the squat).

(see a comparison of hex-bar and straight-bar deadlifts)


Does foam rolling improve mobility?

Research says: when subjects used a foam roller on their legs before a workout, they were able to move their knee joint through a greater range of motion afterwards.  However, unlike static stretching, foam rolling does not cause the subjects to lose strength directly afterwards.

Tip: Use a foam roller to help lengthen muscles prior to a workout that contains exercises that work joints through large ranges of motion, such as deep squats, split squats or deficit deadlifts.

(see research shows how to improve strength and mobility)


Do You Have to Stretch Every Day to Become More Flexible?

Research says: In a hamstring-stretching experiment, the researchers found that stretching for a couple of minutes daily and stretching for a couple of minutes 3-4 times a week produced similar gains in range of motion (18.1 ± 6.3 degrees).

Tip: If stretching is a high priority, doing it every day will lead to faster improvements. However, if you are short of time, then just 3–4 times a week for a couple of minutes will provide results that are almost as good.  You don’t need to stretch for hours every day.

(see boost strength, endurance and flexibility)


Does Bar Speed Affect Strength Gains?

Research says: A faster bar speed can lead to significantly better strength gains than a self-selected bar speed.

Tip: If you habitually do not control bar speed during your workouts, experiment with using a faster bar speed for a period of time.  You may find that you experience greater improvements.

(see research shows how to improve strength and mobility)


Can We Combine Resistance and Endurance Training?

Research says: Combining both resistance and endurance training (called concurrent training) does not impede strength gains but it does decrease power gains, which may be as a result of decreased rate of force development.

Tip: If you are an athlete whose livelihood depends on maximizing power for your sport, it’s probably worth keeping any endurance training to an absolute minimum for what may be required.

(see boost strength, endurance and flexibility)


Can combining strength and endurance training lead to better muscle gains?

Research says: Performing concurrent training actually increases the extent of muscular size increases, contrary to what is popularly believed.

Tip: If you are carrying out resistance training for your physique, some endurance training could actually enhance your results.

(see bigger muscle gains and better workout plans)