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Frequently Asked Questions

Question: What is Core Training?

Answer: Every five or so years the fitness and bodybuilding industry that includes professional organizations has to invent some new things to keep people interested and sell some new products. Core training is one of a number of the latest examples.

What does core training actually mean?*

Its basic idea is a good one. People who are training should not neglect training 'core' muscle groups that should include abdominals, obliques, and lower-back muscles. In many ways, you are only as strong as your core muscles.

The question is how do you train these muscle groups? Do you need numerous, new and exotic exercises for many sets and a variety of repetition durations and range? Or, can you train these muscle groups as you would any other muscle group?

As you can see, if the correct answer is the second one, then training these muscle groups is really quite straightforward. You do not need special core training coaches or new exercises. And, training core muscle groups should not take much time let alone require special 30-60 minute classes.

Here is one example from my own training. I do each of these exercises for one set each, once per week: abdominal crunch on a machine (for the control and ability to effectively 'overload' this muscle group), dumbbell side bend, hanging reverse crunch with weight (which may or may not have a somewhat different effect than regular crunches), a rotary torso machine, stiff-leg deadlifts, a lower-back machine. Each set takes about 1 minute. Because the side bends and rotary torso machine are done in unilateral fashion, that's 8 sets. I do each of these movements once per week. That's 8 minutes of training time for my 'core training'.

Some data suggest that training the lower-back once per week is sufficient. I do all four abdominal and oblique exercises on the same day. Better outcomes may be produced by performing the crunch and side bend on one day and the reverse crunch and rotary torso movement on another day. However, the exercises are arranged, it will still only take 8 minutes per week- not 30-60 minutes two or three times per week.

Similar arguments can be made concerning 'functional' and 'stability' training. The basic assumptions are that training in a specific way transfers directly to a sport or activity of daily living and training in unstable environments activates more muscle fibers and also will better transfer to unstable 'real life tasks'.

The arguments made for this kind of training fall apart when the research literature is consulted. At best, studies suggest that transfer of training occurs very little or not at all. This is what is meant by these outcomes. Training in a certain way such as very rapid movements or jumping with weights does not enhance rapid movements or jumping, for example, in a sport, any more than conventional training enhances such performance.

The major outcomes of such studies suggest that the goal should be to gain strength in a safe, efficient, and effective way and then learn how to use that strength in a given sport. Trying to mimic the sport in training makes little or no sense.

As noted, stability ball training has two assumptions. The first assumption is that training in this unstable environment will activate more muscle fibers. The second assumption is that training in an unstable environment will transfer to everyday life for movements performed in unstable environments.

It's not clear what other muscle fibers will be activated. Some ads describe 'deep muscle fibers' that are reached by training with stability balls. The assumption then is that the term actually exists in exercise physiology and then one must assume we've only been training our 'superficial muscle fibers' all these years.

Which do you think would be a more effective way to train the chest muscles? You place yourself in a very secure position that is very safe and concentrate on contracting the pectoral muscles using a cable cross movement, or (as I saw in a gym with the trainer guiding the trainee), you perform the cable cross movement while standing on a stability ball? Which way of performing the cable cross movement will soon make any issue about training irrelevant because you are likely to severely hurt your shoulders?

I also do not belief that anyone would be stupid enough to perform some task of daily living in a way that resembles performing cable a cross-over while standing on a very unstable surface. What would be the point of that?

A critical issue both for functional training and for training in unstable environments pertains to what we are doing in our real life. Resistance training makes us strong to do lots of things pretty easily such as yard work, carrying groceries or luggage, or even moving lighter furniture. I have little interest much less need to move very heavy objects in my yard (that's what a hand truck or dolly is for) and I know enough as I'm sure you do that moving heavy furniture is not a matter of just brute strength but technique. That's better left to professional movers who know what they're doing and have the right equipment.

I also do not want to be in very unstable environments that require intricate balance. Do you want to purposely put yourself in a position where you're walking backwards down a flight of steps while holding a heavy object that weighs more on one side than the other? The point is we're all smart enough to avoid such situations, get help to carry unstable heavy objects, or perform the work in a way that makes an unstable environment more stable. But, even if somehow we had to perform these tasks in our daily life, training on a stability ball is not going to automatically transfer to these different real life circumstances.

*For a more detailed explanation, subscribe to Master Trainer and read the JUNE, 2005 issue.

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Question: In a recent piece in a popular bodybuilding magazine, a well-known author reviewed a recent study that showed the superiority of multiple set to single set training. He seemed to support the authors' of the study's contention that one way multiple sets are superior to single sets is that they allow for greater fatigue of muscle fibers. The author noted that most people will not go all-out on their first set in a routine and that they pace themselves through a workout. Perhaps, after a set or two for one movement with some fatigue, a hard set was done on the subsequent set, leading to enough fatigue and fiber recruitment. It seemed that the point was that this is then a better way to train than one all-out set per movement.

Answer: If that's the way multiple sets are supposed to be superior to single set training than the root of the problem is in the author's explanation of how multiple sets work. What could be the point of holding back on many sets in a workout?

Further, in the answer to the question we have some inkling on what is an effective stimulus, i.e., the one set where the maximum effort is made. If pacing and essentially lackluster performance in many sets is at the heart of multiple set training (or any other kind of training) than the problem is in the methodology and execution of sets not in how many sets are done.

If making a maximum effort is what's required than it's simply a matter of following the correct methodology. A person can then do one great set per movement and perhaps use a different exercise for the same muscle group for one maximum set to fatigue any muscle fibers not fatigued by the first movement.

It's also important to note that of about 65 peer reviewed studies that have compared using more volume (i.e., sets) to less volume, only 15% of those studies show any additional benefit to more volume. These research findings across the last 40 years suggest that volume per se is not the critical stimulus for strength or muscular hypertrophy (despite recent pronouncements by the ACSM - see our site).

Interestingly, one can liken the multiple set pacing methodology and repeating the same exercise over and over in a lackluster way to how many people study, and certainly how I used to study before I learned the right methodology. I used to study as a kid while lying down, listening to the radio, and at best half paying attention to what I was doing. Presumably to keep myself awake, I'd underline important sections but it seemed I often underlined most of the books I looked at. I would "read" the material over and over again and still not really "get it".

Over time, because I became motivated to get good grades, I learned to study with tremendous focus for long periods of time. I actually sat upright and took detailed notes on what I read. I found with this approach that I just read the material once and then studied my notes for a test. It was harder than my old style to be sure but I became a straight "A" student.

Think about it. There's really nothing you would want to do in a lackluster way that you care about and certainly that includes training.

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Question: Many of the routines you've recommended including your "favorite routine" contain many exercises, especially machine-based exercises. I train in a bare bones home gym and do not have much equipment. What should I do?

Answer: There's certainly no evidence that your overall outcomes will be better or worse if you just use free weights compared to machines, or some combination of machines and free weights.

Before I acquired lots of machines (and that took years) I too trained in a basic home gym that then was added to over many years.

Consider that by simply adding more dumbbells or powerblocks you can conveniently do numerous exercises in a very minimal space. It's also quite easy to make your own chin/dip area with all the supplies you need in a hardware and plumbing supply store. A basic power rack or step-back rack is important but need not cost very much. I had one made for me that works great 16 years later and cost very little. The reason it works great is that all the heights on the rack were made to my specifications.

You can also easily add a pulldown device. Actually, when all is said and done, about the best upper back movement I've done was a modified pulldown where I'd be pulling from a high pulley but sat back enough so that I was pulling at about a 45 degree angle. That pulley and wire cost about $25. Similarly, probably the best calf exercise is a one-leg calf raise standing on a block or stairs and holding a dumbbell.

If you have room, it's also easy to gradually add pieces without spending a lot of money. You can always pick up more plates and benches for minimum money. Some stores and online places feature good used equipment. And, believe it or not, you can acquire used Nautilus pieces in good working order for about 20% of their original cost. Yes, you do have to arrange shipping but if you consider that these machines are in good working order and provide movements that are just as good if not better than many current brand name machines, they're a true find.

Having said that, you can take almost any routine discussed in Master Trainer, or for that matter any place else, and with some ingenuity and changes do pretty much the same routine and derive equivalent results in a bare bones home gym.

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Question: Judging by your recent articles, it seems that you've completely stopped lifting heavy weights and any attempt at progression. Since you were pretty good at the lifting side of training and seemed to enjoy it, how do you get any satisfaction from your current training? It also seems that now that you're older you've really changed how you train. Do you suggest a different training approach as you get older?

Answer: I haven't really given up on lifting what for most people would be heavy weights or for that matter trying in some selected way to get stronger. That was my original fascination with training, the thing that I was most good at doing, and the thing that provided the greatest satisfaction. So, to completely abandon some semblance of lifting would be the equivalent of anyone else giving up something they loved such as playing a violin or bowling or gardening for no reason except that it was hard to see improvement. Of course, with lifting heavy weights, there's also the possibility of injury, and perhaps especially so, as you get older and when you are at the edge of whatever genetic potential you have.

Regardless of the kind of routine I'm doing, I do what I call "controlled lifting", frankly using a direct analogy to "controlled drinking". That is, I find that the process of trying to lift heavier and heavier weights has many of the addicting qualities as alcohol does for other people. Once I enter into the lifting process, over a few weeks and months, unless I'm very guarded and use a lot of self-regulation strategies, I will be back to doing quicker speed repetitions and compromised range of motion simply to reach some "numbers" and that approach has a great likelihood of injury. In addition, and as I and others have noted before, once you start to change how you do an exercise than there really is no longer any comparison base for assessing strength increases.

So, my "controlled lifting" with self-regulation tactics involves:
  • setting challenging but realistic goals for many exercise movements and starting a cycle about 5% to 10% below a given resistance and repetition goal.
  • watching wherever possible my range of motion and trying to keep that ideal for me and the same on each movement workout by workout.
  • keeping track of repetition speed with a metronome and time under load for the set. After all, it's not much of a trick to suddenly be lifting more weight if your repetitions become 2 up and 2 down, much less, 1, 1, and a set is only lasting 20 seconds.
  • training hard and progressively for about 6 weeks and then either backing off on some resistance, changing some exercises, changing some resistance and repetition goals, or all of these changes. This simple "cycle" approach works extremely well.
The only "liberty" that I take is allowing myself to do a 4,4 speed on such movements as the squat, leg press, deadlift, and sometimes chins, and dips so that I can enjoy seeing myself demonstrate my strength (still far slower than how most people do these movements). Everything else is about an 8,4 speed except for calf raises and forearm curls that are 4,4 because of the small range of motion.

Clearly, the approach is simply a combination of elements - a hybrid - from slower rep training, high intensity training, and the use of cycles in training (See, for example, My Favorite Routine on this site).

Unless, you have some major injury or simply are bored with your training and want to tackle some other kind of goal, why change anything in an overall approach that has worked so well over so many years?

Now you can see from my description of my self-regulation tactics that I'm a lot more careful about training and remaining injury free than I was years ago. Perhaps, that's a concession to age or simply an example of getting a bit wiser. That is, there's nothing really age bound about those tactics and they are ones that I should have used decades ago. In fact, considering that this more precise way of training increases intensity, you could say that I'm training harder than years ago.

It is clearly the case, however, that as you get older you can't get the same response as far as muscular hypertrophy as when you're younger. Chalk that one up to changes in hormones.

But, you can actually maintain a great percentage of your muscle mass while your age cohort is losing muscle mass and gaining fat.

And, what to me is even more remarkable is that by training hard and training consistently, the loss in strength and fitness at least at this point (57) is virtually nonexistent.

In some ways, maintaining muscle, strength, and fitness as we get older is a greater accomplishment than the initial gains we made when we were younger. In fact, the initial gains were quite easy to make.

So, I do not see at this time the point in changing training methods when it's possible to stick with an approach that's worked for decades and is still challenging, great fun, and very satisfying.

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