Strength Training 101: Training Economy

For somebody who is new at strength training, the first few months hold a significant amount of opportunity to see radical changes in the body, including increased lean mass, reduced bodyfat, increased strength, and improved cardiovascular conditioning. However, it is critical that these first few months, where the body reacts rapidly to change, are handled correctly, because once this opportunity is gone, it is gone for good.

There are many components to a sound fitness program, including resistance training, cardiovascular exercise, nutrition, flexibility, recovery, and supplementation. Because most people do not have multiple hours in a given day to devote to these components it is my job to teach someone how to get the most out of their program in the least amount of time. This is especially true for resistance training.

In my experience, the average gymgoer (this excludes gym rats who essentially live at the gym for multiple hours each day) has roughly 1-1 1/2 hours a day, 2-4 days a week to spend at the gym without it creating difficulty in other areas of their life. This means that the big in-gym activities (resistance training, cardio and flexibility) have to all be addressed in this short window. In other words, making the right choices on what to do is crucial to get the most out of your time.

In short, training economy simply means selecting movements that provide the most benefit in the shortest amount of time. A movement that recruits twenty muscles in various proportions is more economical than one that isolates a single muscle. Focus should be on compound exercises (movements that require moving more than one joint) over isolation exercises (movement at only one joint). Let me provide a few examples.

Compound Exercises vs. Isolation Exercises

Let’s look at a common target area for a female – the legs. Usually the goal is to shape and define the legs while at the same time reducing their size. Now, we know that in general to make your body smaller you have to lose bodyfat, which means cardio and nutrition are vital to getting the results you want. However, let’s put those aside and focus solely on using the workout floor. The legs are composed of several areas – the quadriceps (front of the leg), the hamstrings (back of the leg), the glutes, the hips, and the calves.

Now let’s look at some leg exercises and compare them in terms of training economy.

Comparison #1: Leg Extension vs. Leg Press

Leg Extension – beginners, for whatever reason, tend to gravitate toward this machine for the bulk of their leg training. From an economical standpoint, however, it only targets the quadriceps. Beyond that, the majority of the stress is only on a very small portion of the quadriceps in general – the vastus lateralus, which is basically the small section of muscle just above and to the inside of the knee that looks like a big teardrop when it’s fully developed. Let’s day you do 3 sets of 15 and rest for a minute in between sets. On average, you’ll spend a minimum of five minutes to have targeted maybe what, 5% of the entire leg? This makes little sense for someone who is pressed for time.

Leg Press – this is another machine that a lot of beginners, especially guys, tend to spend a lot of time on, in this case because it allows you to pile on the plates and boost the ego by moving a weight that’s 2-3 times that of your bodyweight. In terms of training economy, this is a good choice – the entire quadriceps is active, and if you move through a full range of motion by striving to lower the weight down so that the knee is bent at less than 90 degrees, the glutes and hamstrings also become heavily recruited. The calves, hips and abdominals are also involved as stabilizers. So far so good, right? Right, as long as the movement is performed properly, through a full range of motion. The problem is that, as I stated earlier, most guys use this machine to pump their ego and not their legs, so they’ll slap 800lbs on the sled and move through a 3 inch range of motion, at best. This is useless. Full range of motion is vital in almost every instance, with few exceptions.

Comparison #2: Lying Leg Curl vs. Stiff-Leg Deadlift

Lying Leg Curl – just like the leg extension, this is a very popular piece of equipment with beginners. However, again, in terms of bang for your buck, it falls short. For starters, it works only the hamstrings with little to no support from any other muscles. Secondly, the hamstring is a muscle that requires movement at both the hip and the knee to be worked completely, and the leg curl only has movement at the knee.

Stiff-Leg Deadlift – stiff-leg deadlifts not only hit the hamstrings with hip movement, which is not possible with any leg curling variation, but it also involves the glutes and lower back as major movers, and the lats and upper back as supporting muscles. Heavier weights can also be used, which, when coupled with the need to stand when performing this movement, equals more calories burned.

Chuck Vogelpohl deadlifting

Now, there are certain instances where more isolation movements are needed: when working around an injury or rehabilitating an injury, and when there is a muscular imbalance present, either in stength or size. However, 90% of beginning trainees do not have either of these issues and should focus on compound movements done from a standing position.

Here are some of the most economical movements for the beginner and the muscles targeted (in order from most to least involvement):

  • Bench Press (chest/shoulders/triceps)
  • Pushup (chest/shoulders/triceps/core)
  • Standing Military Press (shoulders/triceps/core)
  • Deadlift (lower back/glutes/hamstrings/lats/upper back/core)
  • Squat (quadriceps/hamstrings/glutes/lower back/calves/core)
  • Lunge (quadriceps/hamstrings/glutes/hips/core)
  • Pullup/Chinup (upper back/lats/biceps/core)
  • Row (upper back/lats/biceps/core)

Weight is less important than proper technique on these movements – in fact, many can and should be done with bodyweight only until proper form is learned.

You’ll notice there are no direct movements for the biceps and triceps. This is because these movements are by nature isolation movements – all the movement is at the elbow joint only. Most beginners do not need direct arm work if the focus is on presses, rows and pullups for the upper body.

If you are struggling to get the results you are looking for, I encourage you to take a look at your own program and evaluate its training economy. I promise you’ll notice an immediate difference and spend less time in the gym to boot. And as we all know, time is money. And that’s economical.