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Avoid Strength Plateaus in Your Weight Training Program for Muscle Building or General Fitness

Anybody who has achieved a little success with their weight training is always bombarded by the same question: How did you build that physique…. high weight or high reps? Naturally, the majority of trainees who have been in a training plateau for the last several months (or years), seek advice from those who have proven to be successful. There are two types of people who just can't seem to stop gaining muscle: those with those one-in a million genetics that allow them to put on muscle with any haphazard training program, and those who have intelligently manipulated their weight training program to keep their training dynamic and the muscle gains coming. If you are one of those genetic freaks that respond to anything, then this article is not for you. If you are a person who religiously hits the gym like an animal with a good nutritional plan, but still seems to be merely spinning their wheels instead of making the progress they want, then this article will be extremely helpful.
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of manipulating your weight workouts to avoid training plateaus, three important points need to be emphasized:

1. 99% of trainees are over-trained on volume and under-trained on intensity. More is not always better.

2.The human body will respond to any acute stimulus, but quickly adapts to maintain homeostasis. The workout that did wonders for the first few weeks will surely stall if no changes are made.

3. In order to keep the body adapting in a positive way to our training efforts, we must:

  • increase the intensity of the training stimulus

  • or
  • change the training stimulus all together

While the three principles above are fundamental to program design, The following points also need to be considered in designing the any weight training/fitness program...

The all or nothing principle
Muscle fibers fire on an all-or nothing principle-the magnitude or strength of the contraction is dictated by the number of fibers that simultaneously fire. Heavier weights activate more muscle fibers/ rep. (although this is not the only means to influence the amount of fibers exhausted during a workout ) The more fibers exhausted the greater the overload, the greater the overload the greater the gains.

There can be too much of a good thing
There is such thing as too much of a good thing; with increasing amounts of overload in a given workout and decreasing amounts of recovery time there is a point of diminishing returns. The average trainee will see that things are working well and in an effort to keep the gains coming, they reason that if a little bit is good, then a lot must be better so they add more sets and reps and use heavier weights. Most people are constantly flirting with over training because of this. The actual weight workout is only a stimulus for muscle growth…..muscles grow when we are resting. In order to be efficient, we must perform just enough work, but not too much to send the message for the muscles to grow and change in response to the weight training workout. We need to create maximum overload with a minimal demand on the recovery ability to achieve maximum gains.

It’s all about the CNS!
Our central nervous system controls the muscle groups of every body part that we train, yet little attention is given to the large effect that this has on recovery. Anybody who has had a great weight training workout on one day, only to be disappointed on the next can attest to the fact that there is an aspect to the recovery ability that is independent of the body part trained during the previous workout.

We have covered many important points regarding muscle physiology and exercise….so what does all of this mean in the context of an actual workout??? For example, imagine that you have just had the best leg workout ever and you feel great. You even achieved a personal best on a ten-rep max set of squats. Fired up for the next workout, you attempt to tackle the gym with equal fervor the next day-only to find that your bench press has decreased by about 20%! Common sense would tell us that if we have just trained legs and will train chest the next day, then we will be fine-even if the leg workout was very intense. The problem with this logic is that the CNS controls the ability of these muscle groups to contract. As stated above, muscles contract on an all-or nothing principle-the more fibers that contract the stronger the contraction. The CNS, after having been stressed during an intense leg workout, is still recovering and not able to fire up all those muscle fibers needed in the chest for maximum strength. The ramifications of this situation are extremely important: a fatigued CNS will not be able to generate the required workload to cause an overload in the target muscle. Translation: YOU WILL NOT GROW! This illustrates the very reasons that most people do not experience the progress with their weight training that they should. Your nutrition may be great, you may be getting plenty of rest, but you are still not gaining due to a dysfunctional training protocol that does not allow sufficient recovery.

We’ve all been in this situation before and pondered endlessly to the cause of the sudden decrease in strength….Was it the diet? Possibly stress? Or maybe you just forgot to wear your lucky underwear? The answer, of course is that all other things being equal (and of course you did not forget the lucky underwear), the CNS is still fatigued from the previous workout. If our pectoral muscles are capable of pushing 20% more than our CNS will actually allow on this particular day, it is no wonder that the chest workout will be unproductive…. In order for a muscle to grow it must be overloaded, in order to achieve overload we must contract the muscles against heavy weights and these contractions controlled by the CNS. If the CNS is not recovered from the day before we cannot possibly hope to have a chest workout that will produce the desired results. We would be much better suited to have a day of complete rest and to train the chest (or whatever the next scheduled workout happens to be) when we are actually capable of doing so productively. Of course the reasoning of most serious trainees is that if they were not strong on chest day, then they simply need more chest work. Additional sets, reps, and possibly an additional training day during the week are then added-this only contributes to the problem in the first place, ensuring that with all that extra hard work we are breaking even, at best. It should also be noted that this is a cumulative problem, the deeper the ditch we dig into our recovery ability, the harder it is to get out.

So now that we have identified the problem what do we do now???

Unfortunately, there is not one answer to this question, but there are a few general strategies to manipulate your training program to keep the gains coming. The most fundamental rule here is that the human body responds very quickly to change. It is not adequate, however to simply change the workout in an arbitrary manner-we must have a systematic way of manipulating our weight training workouts to produce the desired results. Training an exercise from a different angle, or changing the order in which the exercises in a workout are performed are both good ways to achieve this end in the context of your more general weight training plan. This is not enough, however to avoid a training plateau-the overall volume and intensity of the workout must be cycled in a systematic manner.

Volume, Intensity and Overload Explained
With the countless ways in which the words volume and intensity are thrown around in the muscle magazines and popular books on weight training and fitness, the lack of consensus on exactly what these terms mean is not surprising. So you had a tough workout- was it high-intensity? or was high- volume? The formal definition of training volume is the overall amount of work that was performed during the workout; take all the sets that you performed and multiply the weights x reps….add these numbers together and you have your overall training volume. Intensity is defined by the percentage of your one-rep max in which the exercises were performed; the higher percentage of one-rep max a set is performed at, the higher the intensity. It should then make sense that there is an intrinsic equilibrium between volume and intensity. If you are performing heavier sets at a greater percentage of your one rep-max, then you will necessarily be doing less repetitions and the overall volume will go down. Like-wise, with a ton of sets and reps we will not be able to train as heavy-volume increases and intensity drops.
The cycling of volume and intensity keeps the gains coming by keeping the CNS off-balance. Our CNS is lazy by nature-the first time we perform and exercise we use the most muscle-each successive time the exercise is performed the CNS “learns” how to contract that muscle more efficiently by the way in which it recruits the muscle fibers to contract. Many strength gains, for this reason, are due to the CNS becoming more efficient, rather than the muscle actually growing. When the CNS becomes more efficient, the same weights, sets, and reps that caused an overload in previous workouts will fail to do so indefinitely. Hence the fundamental rule of overload: In order to keep the gains coming we must either increase the intensity of the stimulus (use progressively heavier weights), or change the stimulus all together by:

  • implementing different exercises

  • changing the angle or rep-tempo of existing exercises

  • (most importantly) changing in volume and intensity over time in a planned, systematic manner

The most profound way to change the nature of the training stimulus is to change volume/intensity of the workout- in this way we are ensuring that any adaptations are due to muscular gains rather than a CNS that has learned how to do more work with less fatigue on the muscle. Unfortunately, there is no magical formula to accomplish this, but as a general rule of thumb, workouts should be organized into two phases of training lasting 4-6 weeks. Phase I is the higher volume workout which lasts 4-6 weeks, then after a one-week “break-in” period, begin increasing the weights and intensity while dropping training volume during phase II training. Additionally, within the individual phases of your workout, changes in exercises themselves, rep tempo, angle of execution, etc should be further utilized to keep your body guessing (and gaining). Most any popular training system is compatible with this; during the high-volume phase “German volume” training works extremely well, while any high-intensity protocol such as “heavy duty” or otherwise will work great.

So now you know the “secret” to making muscle building is really just intelligent program design. Think twice before jumping on the latest fad-workout bandwagon or wasting time by trying out the latest workout in a magazine, as described by a pro-bodybuilder. The best training protocol is dynamic and custom –designed to the goals, lifestyle and schedule of the trainee. While many people respond great to a new training program, lack of a planned cycling of volume and intensity to keep the workouts productive leads inevitably to a training plateau. Those who have been and continue to be successful in this game have become expert at manipulating their weight training and fitness workouts to keep the progress coming.

About the Author: Personal fitness trainer Bill Willis, BSc has been active in the fitness and bodybuilding industry for several years. Bill is part of Pinnacle Fitness, which offers Columbus Ohio Fitness Training - both group and one-on-one fitness training services at World Gym.

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