Mindful vs. Mindless Repetitions

In regards to resistance training, practice doesn’t lead to perfect.

There is a difference between practicing an exercise and practicing an exercise well.  The latter allows true neuro-muscular development.  For optimal muscular adaptations you must be aware of your body mechanics and how you are executing each repetition.

As a personal trainer going on six years now, it has been my observation that many individuals who are performing resistance exercise do too many repetitions. The classic example is the guy on the decline abdominal bench slamming his back down then popping up with an arched spine 100 times.  Another one is the girl on the stretching mats reading a magazine while doing every hip mobility exercise in the book countless times.  My theory behind too many reps, poor form, and reading magazines is that people lose focus on what they are doing and why they are doing it.  You must be critical of exercises you see, analyze each exercise you like to do, and ask yourself several questions.

  • Why am I doing this particular exercise?
  • What are my specific goals for performing resistance exercise?
  • Do I want to be stronger in my legs, arms, back, chest?
  • Do I want bigger, more developed muscles?
  • Do I want more endurance?
  • Why am I not flexing and extending my limbs through my full range of motion?
  • Is the weight too heavy or too light?
  • Why am I doing 100 sit-ups all at the same time..are my abs contracting or am I using momentum?
  • Are my muscles actually contracting or is this movement occurring because I’m using momentum?
  • Why do I do a lot of isolation exercises for small muscles when I can burn more calories doing bigger movements and working bigger muscles?

When the intensity is light it is possible to perform many repetitions well, and this would increase the muscle’s endurance, but not its size or its strength.  To improve strength we must increase the intensity so that we can recruit the higher order motor units (fast twitch), and stimulate the anabolic hormones to synthesize protein.

What Happens When You Train With Poor Form?

  • Injury: This is obvious, you can injure yourself acutely by not paying attention to your spine, or knees…etc. But more subtly, when you repeatedly practice an exercise with incorrect motor pathways you learn inefficient movement patterns which would lead to muscle imbalances and injuries.
  • Loss of Coordination: When you repeatedly continue to perform a movement without concentration just so you can get to 30+ repetitions you end up retarding your ability to coordinate motor pathways and synchronize the motor unit recruitment patterns that allow you to perform the skill well.  This also applies to any isolation exercise.  If you only exercised each muscle individually without letting it work with the other muscles then you would lose quite a bit of coordination.  How would an orchestra sound if each musician practiced individually and not together before a performance?

Learning Correct Form = Correct Motor Pathways.

Resistance exercise has as much of a muscular component as it has a neurological component.  To perform a multi-jointed resistance exercise correctly requires the development of motor pathways necessary to execute a complex movement, as well as synchronistic motor unit recruitment patterns.  The recruitment of motor units can occur synchronisticly or asynchronisticly.  Synchronistic recruitment occurs when many motor units receive impulses at the same time, as in a 1-RM when you need to recruit as many higher order motor units as you can to produce enough force to lift the heaviest weight you can.  Asynchronistic recruitment occurs during repeated light efforts (muscular endurance), when some motor units are working while others are resting.

Your trainer can help teach you the correct movement patterns and have you practice with light loads perfectly until you master the sequence of movements in each complex exercise. When you have learned correct motor pathways then weight can be added to the lift, which would stimulate strength and hypertrophy gains.  The whole process of performing an exercise correctly requires mindfulness (body awareness), concentration on the sequence of muscle actions, and repetitions in short increments of effort (< 20 perfect repetitions) so you don’t lose your concentration.  The actual number of reps depends on the intensity of the exercise and what your goals are (See Table).

Here is a simple breakdown of each muscular asset to help you organize a resistance training program:

Component Intensity         (% 1-RM) Sets x Reps Rest Interval
Endurance Light (50%) 3 x 20 ~30 seconds
Hypertrophy Moderate (70 – 80%) 3-6 x 10 ~1 min
Strength Heavy (80 – 100%) 4-8 x 1-5 3 – 5min
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