Using Variable Resistance to Bust Through Plateaus

Variable resistance training, or VRT, has been a fixture in powerlifting for decades. In this context, VRT specifically refers to resistance training with elastic bands or chains attached to a barbell, mostly in the squat, bench press, and deadlift exercises. These are not thera-bands or machines with lumpy cams; we’re talking about real-deal exercises with bands or chains creating load in addition to the traditional plates. It is referred to as VRT because the resistance changes throughout the movement, increasing as the lifter approaches the lockout. VRT can also be called accommodating resistance, as the resistance is accommodating the “strength curve,” meaning the resistance is greater in the range of motion which the lifter is usually stronger.

You might be thinking, “but if I’m already stronger in that range of motion, why the hell am I training it? I don’t get stuck at the top!” There are two components to power generation, force and speed. We all know force is necessary for moving serious weight, but speed, and momentum, is often overlooked. If you get stuck about 3 inches off the chest in the bench press, then that 3 inches can be used to generate momentum to help press through the sticking point. VRT emphasizes maximal power generation through the entire range of motion – you have to work harder at the bottom to get through the top. This can be achieved by working both sides of the power equation, force and speed.

Speed training, or dynamic effort training a la Westside Barbell, uses submaximal loads with the goal of fast bar speed, and it is an underutilized tool for many intermediate level lifters. Everyone knows lifting heavy can make you stronger, but few realize lifting fast can make you stronger too. The first research study I ever conducted compared a traditional 6-week strength and conditioning program to the exact same program with bands added to the squat and bench press exercises once per week on the dynamic effort day. The group with added bands had greater increases in strength than the traditional training group.  More recently, Soria-Gila et al. found that in 10 out of 11 studies researching VRT, the VRT group experienced greater improvements than traditional training.

So how do we use bands or chains? First, load is important. Somewhere around 30% of 1RM from band tension currently seems ideal for speed training with 40-60% 1RM as traditional free weights. When I say 30%, I mean 30% at the top, or at the bands longest length during the lift. At the bottom of the lift, the band or chain ideally is providing very little to no tension. However, you do not want the band to go slack more than 1/2 inch from the bottom of the range of motion. If you do not know the tension of your bands at particular length. You can pull a MacGyver and figure it out by hanging a weight from the band and measuring its length with a tape measure. To fine tune the tension, you can wrap the band around the bar a few times. Second, great gyms will have squat racks and benches with band pegs, but other times you can secure them to a dumbbell or the bottom of the rack. Make sure it’s a heavy dumbbell; if it comes off of the floor, that’s called crazy bells, and that’s fun, but it’s not what we’re doing – get a heavier dumbbell. On the bench press, you can also wrap the band underneath the bench. It’s a bit more precarious and awkward, but it gets the job done. Third, always remember that this is SPEED TRAINING. Move the freaking bar like you mean it. For 2-5 reps, 3-8 sets.

For strength training (i.e. max effort method) with accommodating resistance, add 10-25% 1RM as band/chain tension to 80-95% free weight. 3-5 sets. 1-5 reps. This is the same setup, just a different application. For strength adaptations, both bands and chains are great, but I favor chains or chains with a light band. Conversely, I will always use bands over chains for speed training due to their multiplicative nature. Let me explain. Bands will get harder faster, and chains will get harder at a constant rate. For example, for every inch a band is stretched, it will increase in resistance by 1lb for the first inch, 1.5lbs for the second inch, 2.5lbs for the third inch, 4lbs for the fourth inch, etc. but chains will always add 2lbs per inch it is raised from the floor. Don’t quote me on the exact numbers, but you get the point. I also like bands because you can use them against gravity as well as with gravity.

What I’m talking about is called reverse bands. Not only does this get your ego yoked, but it’s a great tool for getting mentally and physically comfortable under near-max loads as well as work on power development out of the hole in a manner more akin to heavy lifting. It similarly accommodates a strength curve, but instead of adding variable resistance in the concentric, it variably removes load as you descend. For reverse bands, it should be obvious from the name, but you attach the bands to the top of the rack instead of the bottom. Then you toss another plate on the bar and legally change your name to Billy Badass. Use bands this way if you fail in the hole, off the chest, or off the ground. This means you suck at changing direction in the squat/bench or at initiating the pull in the deadlift and can help fix it with the reverse band exercise. That being said, if you have bad technique, then reverse bands will not help you much – fix your technique! The reverse band exercise is also great for improving bar speed with heavy loads, and leading up to a 1RM test or meet for building comfort with heavy, supramaximal weight.

Now we know VRT can help you get stronger and more powerful, but what about bigger? I’ll change the exercise here to meet a bodybuilding application and discuss the leg press. We all had a friend or classmate growing up that thought it was awesome to half-rep a few hundred pounds on the leg press. If you didn’t have one, you might need to check your range of motion next time you leg press. Anyway, the point is that the top half of a leg press is easy-peasy. As a result, we don’t really need to keep pressing very hard once we get out of the bottom to complete the lift, and in fact it is discouraged to press so hard that the sled flies off of our feet. What can we do? I think you know. We can accommodate the strength curve. Using bands, we can increase the load selectively at the easy range of motion to make it harder at the top and get a better contraction in the quads.

In short, bands make you faster, stronger, and bigger, and you should really start using them in your training.

References:

Joy, J. M., Lowery, R. P., Oliveira de Souza, E., & Wilson, J. M. (2013). Elastic bands as a component of periodized resistance training. J Strength Cond Res.

Soria-Gila, M. A., Chirosa, I. J., Bautista, I. J., Chirosa, L. J., & Salvador, B. (2015). EFFECTS OF VARIABLE RESISTANCE TRAINING ON MAXIMAL STRENGTH: A META-ANALYSIS. Journal of strength and conditioning research/National Strength & Conditioning Association.

http://www.westside-barbell.com/articles-by-louie-simmons/articles-published-in-2004/359-training-methods-part-1-speed-day
http://www.westside-barbell.com/articles-by-louie-simmons/articles-published-in-2004/360-training-methods-part-2-max-effort-day
http://www.westside-barbell.com/articles-by-louie-simmons/articles-published-in-2004/367-chains-and-bands

Concurrent Training

Concurrent training is inclusion of both resistance and endurance training within the same training program. For example, if you lift weights on Monday and run a few miles on Tuesday, then repeat this pattern throughout the week or in the same day, you are training concurrently. This can be advantageous for reducing body fat compared to resistance or endurance training alone, as strength training typically does not yield decrements in body fat, and endurance training reduces lean body mass, strength, and power in trained individuals. However, concurrent training does not produce as great of an increase in muscle mass or strength as resistance training alone, nor does it produce as great of a loss of body fat as endurance training alone.

Progress may be halted by the large volume of work necessary to perform both modalities simultaneously by pushing the athlete into an overreached or overtrained status. However, those accustomed to higher workloads should be able to handle high volume. Therefore, it is more likely that stalled progress is due to competing adaptations. Wherein, resistance training adaptations (i.e. increased muscle mass, strength, power, and maintained oxygen consumption) compete with endurance training adaptations (i.e. reduced muscle mass, strength, power, and increased oxygen consumption). Much of this difference can be attributed to muscle size. It is advantageous for strength and power athletes to have large muscles, as larger muscles have higher force output, yet they also increase the diffusion distance for oxygen, making it more difficult for the mitochondria to receive oxygen to produce ATP (energy). Thus, it is beneficial for endurance athletes to have smaller muscles to oxygenate, and the longer duration you perform steady state cardio, the more muscle and strength you lose! Reduced muscle also reduces basal metabolic rate, making long term fat loss more difficult. At this point, you might be wondering, “what the hell do I do then? Concurrent training is bogus!”

For primarily anaerobic athletes such as football players, or those who just want to be huge and ripped, it is not worthwhile to perform much steady state cardio for the reasons listed above. Instead, cardiovascular activity for these sports should be primarily of very high intensity (90-100+ %) and short duration (10-30 sec) with fairly long rest periods (2-4 min). This type of cardio (also known as HIIT, or high intensity interval training) will impede resistance training adaptations less than steady state cardio. Of course, these athletes should weight train often, 3-7 days/week depending on training status.

For anaerobic and aerobic athletes such as basketball or soccer players who are active for a long duration, but also intermittently sprint, limited steady state cardio can be helpful. Although keep in mind that it will blunt increases in power from resistance training – don’t overdo it; once per week is sufficient for most individuals. The cardio train doesn’t stop there. Perform HIIT 2-5 days/week in addition to the steady state cardio depending on your sport and training status… then run through people like a train (this requires 3-5 days/week of resistance training).

For purely aerobic athletes such as marathoners, concurrent training is highly preferred! Rejoice! However, long duration steady state cardio should still only be performed once or twice per week with a focus on technique. HIIT, and other forms of higher intensity training such as fartlek and pace training, alone is very capable of increasing endurance, not only via increased oxygen consumption, but increased lactate threshold and/or lactate clearance. The maximal lactate steady state (MLSS) is arguably more important than maximal oxygen consumption for endurance athletes. MLSS can also be positively influenced by resistance training. Moreover, resistance training increases muscular tone. Increased muscular tone, when running, reduces energy lost to “rebounding” off the pavement, for example. In lax muscles, energy is required to absorb the force of contact with each step, yet tense muscles will absorb the force without expending as much energy. Weight training will also not blunt endurance adaptations if performed at a high intensity with low volume (i.e. without inducing muscle growth).

In summary, concurrent training reduces increases in strength, power, and muscle associated with resistance training. On the flip side, it enhances strength, power, muscle, and basal metabolic rate for endurance training alone. HIIT is recommended to reap the benefits of concurrent training without the drawbacks associated with steady state cardio.

References
Alabini, C. P., Psarakis, C. H., Moukas, M., Assiliou, M. P., & Behrakis, P. K. (2003). Early phase changes by concurrent endurance and strength training. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 17(2), 393-401.
Dolezal, B. A., & Potteiger, J. A. (1998). Concurrent resistance and endurance training influence basal metabolic rate in nondieting individuals. Journal of applied physiology, 85(2), 695-700.
Hickson, R. C. (1980). Interference of strength development by simultaneously training for strength and endurance. European journal of applied physiology and occupational physiology, 45(2-3), 255-263.
Lowery, R. P., Joy, J. M., Brown, L. E., de Souza, E. O., Wistocki, D. R., Davis, G. S., … & Wilson, J. M. (2014). Effects of static stretching on 1-mile uphill run performance. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 28(1), 161-167.
Wilson, J. M., Marin, P. J., Rhea, M. R., Wilson, S. M., Loenneke, J. P., & Anderson, J. C. (2012). Concurrent training: a meta-analysis examining interference of aerobic and resistance exercises. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 26(8), 2293-2307.