Combining resistance training with periodisation

Altering the sequence of exercises and varying rest times will boost strength and power gains

Most athletes in search of that elusive extra edge in strength and power look to resistance training in one form or another. Often they think they need a new exercise to sharpen them up. But what they may not realise is that considerable improvements in training outcomes can be achieved without changing the content of their routines but simply by altering the sequence of exercises and varying the rest times between exercises. James Marshall.

In this article I want to expand on the potentiation effect in relation to inter-session periodisation and recent research on complex and contrast training of how different sessions can be devised with specific outcomes in mind by changing the sequence and rest times between sets. All the sessions I will describe are based on just five exercises: bench press, bench throw, bench pull, the squat and the squat jump.

How much rest is enough?

So far research has not come up with a definitive answer to this question. This is partly due to the varied training levels of subjects used in the studies. In a study of untrained college students, rest periods of 30 and 90 seconds between sets were compared to determine which was most effective at increasing strength or muscle mass (1). After 12 weeks of training, both groups were found to have increased strength and muscle mass by comparison with non-training ‘controls’, but the improvements in strength were most marked in those who rested for just 30 seconds.

By contrast, a study on trained subjects found that five minutes rest was better than one or two minutes for increasing the amount of total weight that could be lifted over four sets of the squat and bench press at an 8RM load (2).

Of course, an increase in strength is desirable, but another study found that the downside of short rest intervals (one minute compared with three minutes) when doing heavy training sessions (10 sets of 10 reps at 65%1RM) may lead to greater muscle damage, affecting the athletes’ ability to perform on the following day, and may also affect the immune system in such a way as to increase susceptibility to illness (3).

Yet another group of researchers compared the effects of rest intervals of one, two, three, four and five minutes on three sets of bench press performance at 90% 1RM and 60% 1RM, and also of one, two, five, seven, 12 and 15 minutes at 85% 1RM (4,5,6). They considered not just the objective impact of the rest intervals on performance but also the athletes’ subjective preferences.

The rest intervals of one and two minutes led to a significant reduction in performance by comparison with the longer intervals. And, interestingly, the intervals of 3-6 minutes, which resulted in most improved performance, were also those most preferred by the athletes. The researchers concluded that trained subjects might be best placed to identify the optimal amount of recovery needed for the work they perform.

However, while a longer rest interval seems best for trained subjects performing high-volume, strength-based workouts, a shorter rest may be appropriate when performing complex training sets, where an explosive exercise like the squat jump is performed after a strength exercise like the squat.

No significant differences in jump performance were found after intervals of one, two and four minutes in a study of 21 US college athletes who performed sets of 5RM squats followed by five countermovement jumps (7). This has practical implications in terms of fitting sets into training sessions. If too much rest is taken between exercises, then less overall work can be performed within the time available.

Those same researchers also found that one- minute rest intervals were best for trained subjects performing two sets of 1RM squats (7). So it appears that briefer rest intervals may be appropriate for some power sessions using lighter loads, such as body weight, or when performing very low-volume, but high-intensity lifts.

Technical guidance

All the exercises described in this article should be performed with care and not without prior coaching.

  • Bench press Lie face up on an exercise bench, lower the exercise bar to your chest and then push up;
  • Bench pulls Lie face down on a higher-than-normal exercise bench, pull the exercise bar up to your chest from the floor, then lower it;
  • Bench throws Using a Smith machine or other guided tracking device for safety, lie face up on the exercise bench, lower the exercise bar to your chest, then throw it up as quickly as possible, catching it as it comes back down;
  • Squat Standing up, place the exercise bar across the back of your neck on your shoulders, bend your knees until your thighs are parallel with the floor, then return to start position;
  • Squat jump As for the squat, but instead of returning to a standing position, jump up as high as possible and land safely.

Does sequencing matter?

How important is the order in which the exercises are performed? Very – if you are trying to achieve the most effective workout with the least amount of work.

For example, performing squat jumps after squats makes for effective training in experienced athletes, but not their recreational counterparts (8). This is because recreational athletes find the squats tiring and are less able than trained athletes to activate the potentiation response, whereby one exercise enhances the impact of the next one.

That same effect has been demonstrated, again for trained subjects, with upper body exercises using the bench press and bench throws (9). This study, involving strength trained rugby players, used six reps of 65%1RM bench press, followed by three minutes’ rest, then five bench throws of 50kg. Power output was shown to have increased after the bench press, by comparison with a control group who just performed the bench throws.

But what happens if you put plyometric exercises (eg jumps) before strength exercises (eg squats)? That’s what a team of US researchers set out to consider with 12 experienced subjects who performed 1RM squats after a warm-up of five submaximal sets of squats (10). The study compared the effects of three different sessions: in the first, the subjects performed the normal warm-up, and in the second and third they performed either two depth jumps or two countermovement jumps after the warm-up and 30 seconds before attempting their 1RM.

The researchers found that performing the depth jumps increased the 1RM by an average of 3.5% by comparison with the countermovement jump or no jump at all. The explanation for this improvement is speculative (because no measurements of neuromuscular activity were made), but it is likely that the prime muscles involved in the squat exercise were prepared for maximal effort by the depth jump.

This enhancement is likely to have taken the form of increased muscle fibre recruitment and rehearsal of movement patterns. The fact that only two jumps were performed ensured that fatigue was not a factor.

It is important to note that no similar research has been carried out with untrained subjects, and care should be taken before extrapolating these results to them.

Interestingly, further research has shown that power may be enhanced by working the antagonist muscles before the agonist muscles. The researchers found that performing the bench pull immediately before the bench throw lent more power to the latter movement (11). It seems that when a power exercise is preceded by an opposite movement, the antagonist muscles can be educated into relaxing more during the subsequent exercise. Again, however, this effect has been observed in only one study, and this was on trained subjects.

One further factor to consider when deciding the order of exercises in a session is the impact of overall fatigue. The order of exercises may be carefully designed to promote power or strength and you may have planned in rest periods at the optimum times, but if the session lasts as long as 45 –60 minutes the quality of work at the end is likely to be lower than at the beginning.

In a study looking at a sequence of six different exercises, using three sets to failure, with a 10RM load and two minutes’ rest between sets, the researchers found that the last two exercises produced significantly fewer reps, an effect which persisted when the sequence of exercises was reversed (12). In other words, of the six exercises performed, only four were performed with sufficient load; the last two had fewer reps, so less work was done and less strength gained as a result.

One implication of this finding is that, when designing your sequence of work, it is important to put the most important movements at the beginning of the session. If all the movements are considered important, it is probably better to split them into different sessions, allowing for adequate recovery and adaptation between sessions.

So, a power training session for experienced trainers might look something like table 1, below, with one set of squats followed by one set of squat jumps, repeated twice more, then the bench pull, bench press and bench throw performed as a sequence, then repeated twice more.

Table 1: power training session for experienced
Exercise Load Reps Sets Recovery (mins)
Squat 60% 1RM 5 3 1
Squat jumps 30% 1RM 5 3 4
Bench pull 85% 1RM 3 3 3
Bench press 60% 1RM 5 3 1
Bench throw 10% 1RM 5 3 3

And a strength training session for experienced trainers might look like table 2, below, with the squat jumps and squat performed in sequence, then the bench pull, bench throw and bench press as the final sequence.

Table 2: strength training session for experienced trainers
Exercise Load Reps Sets Recovery (mins)
Squat jumps 30% 1RM 5 4 1
Squat 80% 1RM 5 4 3
Bench pull 80% 1RM 5 4 3
Bench throw 10% 1RM 5 4 0.5
Bench press 80% 1RM 5 4 3

Less experienced trainers would benefit from establishing a strength base before performing explosive exercises with weights. A good rule of thumb is that you should be able to squat your own body weight before considering progression to more advanced leg exercises. Failure to establish a strength base could not only put you at risk of injury but also hinder long-term gains in power.

As a starting point, you could use the strength session set out in table 2, but leaving out the squat jumps and the bench throw.

In conclusion

  • Research has yet to come up with definitive answers on the amount of rest required within a session and the ideal sequence of exercises.
  • What is known is that experienced strength-trained subjects are better able to produce power than untrained subjects.
  • Therefore coaches should ensure that their athletes have a solid strength base before introducing more varied and complex training methods.
  • If time permits, the athletes themselves may be the best judges of how much rest they need within a session.
  • Sequencing strength exercises before plyometric exercises, and vice versa, will provide an added training stimulus that will ultimately produce stronger, more powerful athletes.

James Marshall MSc, CSCS, ACSM/HFI, runs Excelsior, a sports training company

References

  1. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 1998; 30(5), Supplement abstract 939
  2. Journal of strength and conditioning research (JSCR) 2005; 19, 1:23-26
  3. JSCR 2005; 19, 1:16-22
  4. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 2001; 33(5), Supplement abstract 1828
  5. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 2001; 33(5), Supplement abstract 1829
  6. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 2000; 32(5), Supplement abstract 646
  7. JSCR 2003; 17,4:634-637
  8. JSCR 2003; 17, 4:671-677
  9. JSCR 2003; 17, 3:493-497
  10. JSCR 2003; 17, 1:68-71
  11. JSCR 2005; 19, 1:202-205
  12. JSCR 2005; 19, 1:152-156

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