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  • Tara Albright DPT

Transition to the gym Part IV

Updated: May 5, 2021

In the previous post we took some time to discuss nutrition, recovery and how to gauge exercise intensity. Below, we will expand on some of the fine points associated with fatigue management and exercise selection. Here again we take a broad overview of each topic. For greater depth of information, reach out to your physical therapist!

Peaks, tapers, deloads-> peaks, tapers and deloads are essential in the world of exercise in order to maximize training and continue making gains towards fitness goals. In high level athletics, “peaks” and “tapers” are used more often to prepare for a planned competition, whereas a “deload” is a strategy more applicable to those outside of elite athletic competition. The general idea here is to extrapolate your exercise program out so it can be surveyed over a period of a month or more, then assign periods of increasing training volume followed by a short period of intentionally decreased training volume. “Peak” refers to a period of steadily increasing training volume, whereas a “taper” refers to an intentional decrease in training volume. A “deload” is a more general term used to describe the inclusion of a deliberately low volume period to break up higher volume periods of training. This might go against fitness advice given where one has been told they need to constantly work out a high intensity to make maximum gains. What recent research has shown is the exact opposite – indiscriminately intense exercise day after day will lead to an accumulation of fatigue and a steady decrease in performance, which will mask fitness gains and oftentimes lead to a plateau in progress. A short recovery period (aka deload or taper) is necessary to achieve optimal athletic performance and promote continuous fitness gains. Let’s look at each in greater depth:

  • General principles -> to implement a deload/peak/taper into your exercise program, it is useful to organize your exercise regimen in blocks of 4-5 weeks. This will allow you to engage in 3-4 weeks of progressive peaking (aka steadily increasing training volume) followed by one week of tapering/deloading (aka deliberately reduced training volume). The length of time spent peaking is up to the individual; it takes more mental and physical effort to persist through 4 weeks of peaking than it does for 3 weeks, but the potential for gains is greater with 4 weeks. Traditionally the peaking period is limited to 4 weeks maximum, as fatigue accumulates rapidly past this point and can hinder one’s ability to put out maximum effort in the last weeks of a peak. The distinction between taper versus deload comes with the aim of the peak and taper/deload – is it in preparation for a competition or athletic event? A taper is the correct term, as one is timing the peak and taper specifically around a bout of athletic performance. This is common before events such as tournaments, performances where recruiters will be present and at draft combines. Is the peak and taper in preparation for the next block of general exercise? The proper term is a “deload” here as there is no competition or maximum effort performance being planned for.

  • Peak -> this is the period of your exercise program where you will be increasing your training volume. As discussed earlier, this can be by altering the weight used for exercises, the amount of repetitions/sets performed of a given exercise or by increasing the time spent performing a particular mode of exercise. For example – a weight lifter performs 4 exercises for his chest per session. Week one of the peak he performs 3 sets of 10 on the barbell bench press with 100lbs, then 3 sets of 10 of the other chest exercises. The following week, he performs 4 sets of 10 on the bench press at the same weight, and adds one additional set for each of the other exercises (also 4 sets of 10). The next week, he adds 5lbs to the bar (now 105lbs), performs 4 sets of 10 and finishes with a drop set (cut the weight in half and perform as many repetitions as possible before failure). He then performs 4 sets of 10 of the other exercises, adding small amounts of weight where he is able. This model allows the weight lifter to steadily increase his training volume with minimal alterations to his program, and he has added a significant amount of volume to his training during week 3 compared to week 1. Week 3 would be dubbed the “peak week”, where his training volume is highest and, therefore, fatigue levels are highest. Following the “peak week”, the weight lifter would be smart to implement a deload to mitigate the fatigue.

  • Taper -> following a period of peaking and the advent of “peak week”, a taper should be implemented. As most of our readers are not engaging in elite level athletics, the specifics about tapering can be found below under “deload.”

  • Deload -> this is the period of deliberate reductions in training volume to promote both recovery and gains consistent with one’s fitness goals. The aim here is to steadily reduce training volume over the period of a week to both avoid the accumulation of any more fatigue as well as recover from what fatigue has accumulated during the peaking portion of the exercise regimen. For example – our fictional weight lifter from above has just completed his “peak week” and is burned out from the effort. At the onset of training week 4 or 5 (depending on how long the peaking period took), the weight lifter will perform 3 sets of 10 on the bench press, but this time will press 50lbs instead of 100lbs. He will then perform 3 sets of 10 at 50% of his normal weight with the other exercises that day. This represents a 50% reduction in training volume compared to his first week of peaking. This reduction in weight would be repeated for all of his other weight lifting days, where normal reps/sets are done but weight is cut in half. If the exercise program is designed such that he would repeat those days again in the course of a week (example – the weight lifter performs 2 chest days, 2 back days and 2 leg days per week), the weight lifter would repeat his workout but with 3 sets of 5 reps at 50% of his normal weight. This would be 3 sets of 5 bench presses at 50lbs. The further reduction in training volume here is entirely dependent on how the weight lifter organizes his exercise days. Following the deload week, the weight lifter would resume his normal program modeled after week 1 of peaking, but this time attempting to work with slightly greater weight on each lift. Provision of an example for every scenario is again beyond the scope of this discussion; to learn more, discuss with your physical therapist.

Cardio versus resistance training à this area of physical activity and fitness has the potential to get quite technical, so we will stick with a 10,000 foot view here. Generally speaking, exercise can be viewed in 2 main categories – aerobic versus anaerobic exercise. The former depends on a steady supply of oxygen to sustain a prolonged effort and uses one particular energy pathway in the body, while the latter does not utilize oxygen and drives more power-focused movements of short duration. For the sake of discussion, “cardio” and “aerobic exercise” will be used interchangeably, while “anaerobic exercise” and “resistance training” will be used interchangeably. Think back to the SAID principle. The body will make adaptations in accordance with the stresses imposed upon it. This is the major distinction that can be made with regards to choosing cardio exercise versus resistance training. There are some similarities between both modes of activity but generally speaking, your fitness goals should dictate how much you engage in each type of exercise. There is absolutely room for both types to be utilized in an exercise program simultaneously, but it is important to acknowledge the two might clash depending on fitness goals. General ideas pertinent to both:

  • Cardio/aerobic exercise -> “cardio” is the shortened form of “cardiovascular exercise.” The implication here is that cardio emphasizes the cardiovascular system over the other systems. This is partially true – cardiovascular exercise does depend on the heart’s ability to continually deliver oxygenated blood throughout the body, but also requires continuous activity of skeletal muscles to sustain the movement. Muscles can only generate movement as well as the heart can pump blood to them. Cardio, broadly speaking, is any mode of exercise that requires sustained uninterrupted movement greater than 2 minutes and utilizes oxygen to drive energy production. That is an intentionally broad definition and includes much more than just running, which is what we typically associate with cardio. Gardening, walking the dog and cleaning the house can all be forms of cardio exercise provided the intensity is high enough to raise the heart rate (refer back to post #3 for review) and involves a sustained effort greater than 2 minutes. Why two minutes? That is the relative amount of time it takes for the body to exhaust its local stores of energy (anaerobic metabolism within muscle tissue) and require a steady supply of oxygen (from the blood) in order to continue. This point is different depending on the individual and their fitness level, but we use 2 minutes as a rule of thumb. The gains typically made with a cardiovascular exercise emphasis are in cardiovascular endurance, muscular endurance and reduced resting heart rate. For further information (of which there is plenty), consult your physical therapist or exercise physiologist.

  • Resistance training/anaerobic exercise -> if aerobic exercise is exercise that takes place for longer than 2 continuous minutes, anaerobic exercise must be exercise lasting less than 2 minutes, right? You guessed correctly! Within muscle tissue, we humans are equipped with a finite amount of stored energy (glycogen, which is a collection of glucose molecules) that can drive short duration efforts without a steady supply of oxygen from blood. There is also some capacity for muscle tissue to make use of a primary metabolic waste product called lactic acid to create further amounts of useable energy. This is good news, as many physical tasks we face daily will require short duration muscle activity. This system, dubbed anaerobic metabolism, runs out of juice pretty quickly when taxed. Think of the way a weight lifter exercises – they move heavy weight several times in a row with relatively consistent tempo, then rest and wait for the next set. This is the anaerobic system in action; large force producing muscles are making use of glycogen stores and lactic acid buildup to drive muscle contraction for a short duration at near maximum effort. The burning sensation that comes with the latter repetitions of a weight lifting movement represents a buildup of metabolic waste products faster than can be used or eliminated from the body, and muscle contraction weakens. The anaerobic system, if not maximally taxed, can drive sustained efforts up to about 2 minutes, at which point the aerobic system takes over and sustains muscle activity. One key distinction here is that the anaerobic system is more prominent in larger, stronger muscles that generate power versus those muscles that maintain upright posture and continued low intensity effort. Anaerobic exercise includes high intensity efforts such as sprinting or high intensity interval training, as the large force producing muscles of the body are generating a brief but powerful output of movement and depend on anaerobic metabolism. Resistance training is also a mode of anaerobic exercise where external weight is applied to a given body movement and effort to create the movement is sustained less than 2 minutes. This can be with barbells and dumbbells, weighted vests, resistance bands or anything else that creates resistance to a movement that the individual must overcome. If an individual’s fitness goals are to gain power, speed and strength, resistance exercise or anaerobic exercise is the right choice. For further information (of which there is plenty), consult your physical therapist or exercise physiologist.

Machine vs. barbell vs. dumbbell vs. cables -> another realm of fitness with great depth is in choice of resistance training equipment. This choice can come down to personal preference at the most simple level, but there does exist pros and cons for each. It is completely appropriate to include some mixture of each in a given exercise regimen. Generally speaking, the major variables here include the influence of gravity, the activity of stabilizing muscles and variance in resistance through range of motion. It is also worth noting here that, generally speaking, muscles are not either on or off. They are active in a graded fashion with many muscles acting simultaneously to provide tensile force to a joint and promote three dimensional stability. Depending on the movement in question, muscles can adopt roles as prime movers (muscle producing the greatest force to create movement), stabilizers (muscles eliminating extraneous movement during motion) and as antagonists (muscles acting opposite the prime mover). Your choice of resistance training equipment will alter these roles based on available range of motion, orientation relative to gravity and the physics of lever systems. The amount of depth needed to cover all relevant information is beyond the scope of this discussion, however a brief summary is provided below:

  • Machines -> this is the gym equipment that moves through a well-defined range of motion with usually one movement possible, and tends to emphasize a particular muscle group with its action. Examples would be the leg extension machine, the pectoral fly machine and the bicep curl machine. The advantages here would include the ability to isolate particular muscles groups and precisely quantify the amount of weight used. These machines also tend to be a bit easier to move with a given motion compared to free weights (dumbbells and barbells) due to their discrete range of motion and elimination of gravity’s pull in many cases. Downsides here include loss of significant need for stabilizing muscles and thus grossly reduced muscle activity, and limited versatility of the machine for other exercises. Overall, machines are optimal for folks looking to isolate particular muscles and decrease the difficulty of the movement in question by reducing need for stabilizing muscles.

  • Barbells and dumbbells -> often referred to as “free weights”, barbells and dumbbells are probably the most recognizable pieces of gym equipment. The main difference between the two is in their use, where barbells can be loaded up with weighted plates to create any amount of weight desired and are often used to perform movements involving such weight. The barbell is most often used with two hands and requires slightly less stabilizing musculature than dumbbells partially for this reason. The main advantage of the barbell is in its versatility, durability and customization. It is possible to apply hundreds of pounds to a barbell safely and make massive gains in strength by moving these large amounts of weight. It is also possible to perform dozens of different exercises with a single barbell and a set of weighted plates. Dumbbells, on the other hand, boast the same versatility as a barbell but tend to be weighted at a set amount of weight. There are plate-loaded dumbbells out there, but this is seen less than pre-weighted ones. Dumbbells make use of significantly greater stabilizing musculature as they tend to be useable only by one hand at a time and thus have greater 3 dimensional instability (therefore using more energy!). The common features of both include greater available range of motion compared to machines, which tend to eliminate extraneous movement based on design. “Free weights” also offer varying resistance based on body and weight positioning. The fine points here can get messy, but generally speaking the further away the weight is from the axis of rotation (aka the joint that is moving) the greater the resistance is. Additionally, dumbbells and barbells are always subject to gravity’s pull, unlike machines where the resistance is generated with pulley and lever systems. The take away point here is that the resistance of a dumbbell or barbell is somewhat more variable than that of a machine, and tends to be more effective to train the muscles of the body that resist gravity’s pull. They also offer significantly greater durability and versatility compared to machines. Dumbbells and barbells are appropriate for anyone in the gym looking to get stronger or expend calories in order to drop some weight.

  • Cable columns -> this type of exercise equipment is somewhat of a crossover between free weights and machines. “Cables” refers to the columns with a pulley system and stacked plates with interchangeable handles and adjustable height. These are seldom seen outside of commercial gyms, but in the gym cable columns are very popular. They offer significant versatility by way of interchangeable handles and adjustable height of the pulley, and make possible exercises of all varieties. A full run down of this piece of equipment is beyond the scope of this post, but the takeaways are that cable columns operate similarly to other machines (stacked plates provide resistance through a pulley system) but have the advantage of versatility. Both compound and isolation exercise is possible with a cable column, though sometimes it requires some creativity to figure out how to best perform an exercise on it!

The above segments take a broad overview of the topics discussed, but should serve as an introduction to some of the finer details associated with building an exercise program. General ideas here are to make considerations for managing fatigue with peaks, tapers and deloads, and to consider the SAID principle when deciding what mode and equipment to

use for exercise. For greater detail on any of the above topics, feel free to reach out to your physical therapist. Our next and final post will provide an overview of a sample exercise program in order to make tangible some of these concepts. Until then – stay healthy, safe and happy!

- Dorian Campisi, PT, DPT

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Nov 18, 2021

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