Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Dumbbell Curls vs Barbell Curls

One of the most well-known type of exercise to work the biceps is the curl. (A curl for the bicep involves rotating the upper and lower arms about the elbow joint.) Generally, there are two types of free weight equipment I use when performing a bicep curl: a set of dumbbells or a barbell.

Over the years, I have come to the conclusion that dumbbells are the more effective equipment to use to build my biceps. There are multiple reasons why I think this:
  1. Dumbbells allow me to use one arm or two arms.
  2. Dumbbells do not put as much stress on my forearms and wrists.
  3. Dumbbells allow me to rotate my wrist as I curl.
The first reason provides multiple benefits by itself. Consider that since I am able to perform a curl with only one arm, then I am able to use a different amount of weight for each arm. I will be able to train my weaker arm more than my stronger arm, allowing the weaker arm to "catch up" to the stronger arm. When using a barbell, I noticed that as I reach the end of a set, my stronger arm tends to "take over," minimizing the force applied on my weaker arm. A dumbbell also allows more variations to the bicep curl as I can perform a set with one arm, two arms simultaneously or two arms alternating. A barbell restricts me to using exercises that require using two arms simultaneously.

The second reason is an observation I made over many workouts. Whenever I finish a set that used a barbell, my forearms and wrists always felt more strained. I experienced the same consequences when using dumbbells, but to a much lesser extent. This is due to the fact that the grip for a barbell requires the forearms of both arms to remain stationary with respect to one another. This grip also prevents the wrist from rotating, which provides a good introduction to the third reason.

Dumbbells allow me to rotate my wrists as I perform a bicep curl. Why is this so significant? Well, the rotation of my wrist allows me to contract my biceps even more, allowing a more effective, efficient and intense workout. You can try this out for yourself. Take a dumbbell and let it hang at your side with your palm facing towards your side (this is the starting position). As you curl the dumbbell towards your shoulders, steadily rotate the dumbbell so that by the time the dumbbell is at its highest point, your palm is facing up and slightly outwards. To really feel the contraction, hold your bicep in the position where the dumbbell is at its highest point.

Anyway, these are just some of my thoughts I want to share. I am sure that barbells do have their benefits over using dumbbells, but in my opinion, using dumbbells provide the more effective workout for my biceps. Nowadays, I tend to design bicep workouts that use machines or dumbbells as much as possible, with a barbell exercise thrown in every once in a while.

    Tuesday, September 21, 2010

    Time Under Tension

    When I just started to workout, I followed a fitness routine with a structure that emphasized the number of reps per set. For example, my triceps workout would include ten reps of overhead dumbbell triceps extensions as a set. There is nothing wrong with following a workout with this type of structure and for a few years, that is exactly what I did. It was not until I was introduced to the idea of a maximum (max) set that my idea of a set was changed.

    First, let me provide a brief explanation of a max set. A max set is essentially a one rep set where you try to resist the force exerted by the weight on your muscles over a duration of time. Take for example the barbell bicep curl. A max set performed with the bicep curl involves starting with the barbell about shoulder level and resisting the force exerted by the barbell as the barbell drops towards the ground.

    The max set provided a new perspective on how I defined a set. Instead of defining a set as a finite number of reps performed without any rest between each rep, the definition can be extended to include a duration of time where my muscles were under tension, which I refer to as the time under tension. With this new perspective on the set, I started to think about how I can maximize the efficiency, effectiveness and intensity of a workout incorporating a muscle's time under tension.

    Luckily, my friend who introduced the idea of a max set to me also explained to me how to structure a workout to include sets that are represented by a duration of time instead of a finite number of reps. Basically, the contractions of all muscles are fueled by breaking down carbohydrates, fats and proteins. There are two mechanisms that your body uses to turn these nutrients into sources of energy, the aerobic metabolism and the anaerobic metabolism. The term "aerobic" means with oxygen and the term "anaerobic" means without oxygen. The aerobic metabolism is used to fuel "low" intensity workouts (such as jogging) and the anaerobic metabolism is used to fuel "high" intensity workouts (such as lifting weights...well usually).

    My friend continues on to tell me that since one of my goals when lifting weights is to increase the size and strength of my muscles, then the contractions of my muscles need to be of high intensity, which will be fueled by the anaerobic metabolism. This anaerobic metabolism can only fuel my muscle's high intensity contractions over a window of time between a few seconds to a few minutes. My friend concludes that from experience, a time interval ranging from 30 to 90 seconds works well.

    Given the above information, when I perform sets that are defined by an interval of time, I try to keep the duration of these sets from 30 to 90 seconds. Here is an example of a macro cycle I perform for the max set of the concentration curl:

    Week 1:     30 secs
    Week 2:     40 secs
    Week 3:     50 secs
    Week 4:     60 secs
    Week 5:     70 secs
    Week 6:     80 secs
    Week 7:     90 secs
    Week 8:     90 secs

    I start with a time interval of 30 seconds and by the end of the macro cycle, I should be working with a time interval of 90 seconds. Each week, I increase this time interval by 10 seconds.

    Monday, September 20, 2010

    Types of Repetitions

    In a previous post, I defined and introduced the idea of a rep. (I suggest reading that post before continuing on with this post, there are some concepts and terminology that are needed to understand this post.) Towards the end of that post, I mentioned that I will at some point go over in detail the listed types of repetitions. Well, this post will cover that. Here goes...

    Let's begin with the positive rep. A positive rep applies resistance to a muscle as the muscle shortens. In other words, a force is applied to the muscle from its stretched position to its contracted position. Take for example a barbell curl. A positive rep starts when the barbell is down at your thighs and ends when the barbell is up at your shoulders.

    A negative rep can be thought of as the opposite of a positive rep. Instead of applying resistance to a muscle as it shortens, the force is applied to the muscle as it is lengthened, i.e., from the contracted position to the stretched position. Expanding on the barbell example, a negative repetition starts when the barbell is up at your shoulders and ends when the barbell is down at your sides.

    A static-hold rep applies resistance to a muscle at a fixed point in its range of motion. There is no movement during a static-hold rep. Static-hold reps can be done in the contracted position of the muscle where the muscle is shortest in length, in the stretched position of the muscle where the muscle is longest in length or in some midrange position.

    Almost all other types of reps are some variation or combination of a positive, negative and static-hold rep. The most common type of rep is the full (or complete) rep. It is safe to assume that when I say rep, I am referring to the full rep. This rep consists of a positive rep followed by a static-hold rep and finishes with a negative rep.

    A partial rep consists of a positive rep followed by a negative rep so that there is little or no pause between these reps and the range of motion for both the positive rep and negative rep is less than a full range of motion. Partial reps can be used to pump a muscle or simply to work a muscle more intensely at a specific point in its range of motion.

    A forced rep consists of a positive rep where a partner helps you apply a small amount of force as the muscle's length shortens from its stretched position to its contracted position, followed by a slight pause in the contracted position and then followed by a negative rep which you perform without the help of your partner.

    A negative-accentuated rep consists of a positive rep that you perform with two limbs, followed by a slight pause and then followed by a negative rep that you perform with only one limb. For example, when you perform a negative-accentuated rep on a leg extension machine, you use both legs to move from the stretched position to the contracted position, pause and then use only one leg to move from the contracted position back to the stretched position.

    These types of reps are incorporated into my workouts to add effectiveness, efficiency and intensity. Of course, these are not the only types of reps that you can perform, but this will provide a good starting point and a diverse selection to construct a good workout.

    Friday, September 17, 2010

    Isolation and Compound Exercises

    Generally, an exercise can be categorized by the muscle or groups of muscles that are worked. For example, a dumbbell curl targets your biceps and the pec dec fly targets your chest muscles. Exercises can also be categorized in terms of the motion of your muscles when performing that exercise, i.e., as either an isolation or compound type exercise.

    An isolation exercise targets the movement of your muscles around only one joint, allowing you to concentrate your effort in working one particular muscle group. Some common isolation exercises include dumbbell flies, leg extensions, leg curls, lateral raises, calf raises and wrist curls. Conversely, a compound exercise requires movement around more than one joint, often working multiple muscle groups when performed. Common compound exercises include squats, deadlifts, barbell rows, chin-ups, dips, bench presses and military presses.

    So why categorize exercises as isolation type or compound type if these exercises can already be categorized by the muscles worked?

    One benefit deals with the efficiency and effectiveness of a workout. It is probably obvious that you have the most energy when performing the first set of a workout session and as you execute more and more sets, this energy reserve becomes more and more depleted. The exercises you perform towards the end of a workout become less and less effective as your form deteriorates and the speed at which you perform the reps increases (for example, you start to "drop" the weights instead of controlling them during descent).

    To counter this ineffectiveness, for each muscle group that I workout during a session, I try to organize the exercises such that the isolation type exercises are performed during the start of the session and the compound type exercises are performed during the end of the session. The logic behind this is determined by the definition of a compound exercise itself. A compound exercise utilizes more than one muscle group to perform a set, decreasing the amount of work each muscle has to exert. Simply, I use the unused, "fresh" muscles in a compound exercise to help work the target muscle even further.

    For example, consider my chest workout. During this session, I structure the exercises such that sets of the pec dec fly (an isolation exercise) are performed before sets of the decline press (a compound exercise). My triceps are used in the decline press to help push my chest muscles further into exhaustion.

    Thursday, September 16, 2010

    An Intro to Repetitions and Sets

    A friend once asked me what was the purpose of incorporating a variety of different types of repetitions and sets into a workout. I do not remember exactly what I told him, but I do remember that it was not a legitimate response and hovered around a point that stated variety is good in a workout. I cannot think of a more vague response that avoided the question. So in this post I will attempt to explain the motivation behind the different types of sets and repetitions, with more clarity!

    First, let me get some terminology out of the way. A workout session is a series of sets performed over a duration of time. For example, the workout session for my back includes sets performed on exercises such as the straight-leg deadlift, hyper-extension, dumbbell row and dumbbell pullover. A set is a series of repetitions (I usually use the short hand terminology "rep") that are performed back to back with no rest in between each rep. A rep can be broken down even further into three stages: a positive portion, a static portion and a negative portion.

    The positive portion is defined to be the range of motion where the muscle fibers transform from a stretched position to a contracted position (in other words, the muscles shorten). On the other hand, the negative portion is defined to be the range of motion where the muscle fibers transform from a contracted position to a stretched position (the muscles lengthen). The static portion can be thought of as the transition between the positive portion to the negative portion, but with a short duration where the muscle fibers are statically held.

    Take for example the bicep curl. The positive portion of one rep starts with the dumbbell hanging by the side. As you curl the dumbbell towards your shoulder, the highest point represents the end of the positive rep. The static portion is represented when you hold the dumbbell at this highest position for a small amount of time. The negative portion is represented by bringing the dumbbell back to the starting position of the exercise.

    Keeping the three portions of a repetition in mind, a variety of repetitions can be defined from them. Take for example a "full rep," (this terminology is synonymous with the term "rep"), which is essentially a positive portion, followed by a static portion and finally a negative portion. Another type of rep, called the negative rep, focuses on the negative portion of a repetition. Here is a list of different types of repetitions that I will cover in a future post:
    1. full rep
    2. partial rep
    3. positive rep
    4. negative rep
    5. static-hold rep
    6. forced rep
    7. negative-accentuated rep
    From these reps, different types of sets can be defined. For example, the most common type of set is the work set. A work set is a series of full reps performed back to back with no rest in between reps. A work set for me ranges anywhere from six to ten reps. Another example is the superset, which is two work sets performed back to back with no rest in between sets. Here is a list of different types of sets that I will also cover in a future post:
    1. work set
    2. superset
    3. pre-exhaust superset
    4. max set
    5. pump set
    6. static-hold set
    7. triset
    8. giant set
    9. negative-only set
    10. rest-pause set
    11. Supremum set
    So to answer the question at hand, I incorporate different types of reps and sets into my workouts because each type targets a different portion of a muscle's range of motion. Some focus on the portion when the muscle fibers shorten (positive) whereas some focus on the portion when the muscle fibers lengthen (negative). To create a more effective and efficient (as well as add intensity) workout, different types of reps and sets are utilized.

      Wednesday, September 15, 2010

      Micro and Macro Cycles

      In a previous post, I mentioned the idea of structuring a workout based on micro and macro cycles. In this post, I will go more in depth and explain the motivation behind structuring my workout like so.

      To start things off, I'll give the definitions of a micro and macro cycle. A micro cycle can be thought of as the day to day structure of a workout routine. For example, the workout regimen I am following right now implements a seven day micro cycle with the following structure:
      • Day 1: Back
      • Day 2: Chest
      • Day 3: Biceps
      • Day 4: Triceps
      • Day 5: Shoulders
      • Day 6: Rest
      • Day 7: Rest
       In the past I have also implemented a workout structure like so:
      • Day 1: Pull
      • Day 2: Rest
      • Day 3: Lower Body
      • Day 4: Rest
      • Day 5: Push
      • Day 6: Rest
      • Day 7: Rest
      (If you have not noticed, my workouts tend to structure themselves around the seven day week, with the weekends off. There is no particular reason I do this other than that it fits my schedule right now. You can have micro cycles that span over a few days to a couple of weeks, it all boils down to how you can fit your workouts into your schedule.)

      A macro cycle is essentially a series of micro cycles performed back to back (my current routine uses six micro cycles) with an additional period (usually lasting from half a week to a week) of rest added to the end.

      There are two main reasons why I follow such a structure for my workout routines:
      1. I like organization in my workouts and this is easier for me to set goals for myself.
      2. I want to steadily increase my strength throughout my lifetime, minimizing the consequences of overtraining and plateaus.
      Having a workout with the "mechanics" worked out allows me to set realistic goals for myself as well as track my progress. For example, if I am able to curl 35 pounds right now, I will be able to predict what I should be able to curl in a week, a month, a year, etc... (Of course the accuracy of the predication decreases as I try to make predictions farther and farther into the future.) I will also be able to tell in what areas I am falling behind in and what areas need more effort. One final benefit of being so meticulous about my workout structure is that I am able to diagnose symptoms of overtraining. Usually, when I am continuously not able to reach the desired number of reps per set, I know that it is probably a good idea to take a few days off and let my muscles recover.

      Speaking of overtraining, the built-in rest period in each macro cycle is used as a preventative method to minimize the effects of overtraining. I know that sometimes it is hard to get into the mentality that working out too much will hinder muscle growth (this was especially prevalent when I just started to workout...sometimes I would go months without taking a break or perform too many exercises during a workout session), but keep in mind that if adequate rest is not supplied to the body, muscle growth will stop. I emphasize adequate recovery time that my micro cycles usually include one or two days of rest.

      In summary, macro and micro cycles are tools of organization that I use to help track and analyze my progress as well as look for signs of overtraining.

      Tuesday, September 14, 2010

      Increasing Intensity

      Often when I workout with a partner, I like to discuss the different techniques and aspects of strength training with that person. Somehow, the topic of intensity always seems to work its way into the discussion at some point or another during the session. I have heard of many techniques to increase the intensity and I have also experimented with many of the techniques. I have come to the conclusion that there are essentially three principles that govern the intensity of a workout. To increase the intensity of a workout, at least one of the following criteria must be met:
      1. The amount of resistance applied to the target muscle must be increased.
      2. The duration that a muscle is under stress must be increased.
      3. The amount of rest that a muscle is allowed must be decreased.
      The first criteria refers to increasing the amount of weight used for an exercise. An example of this criteria is increasing the dumbbell weight from 30 pounds to 35 pounds when performing a curl. The second criteria refers to increasing the number of repetitions performed during each set or more general, the amount of time a set lasts. The final criteria refers to the amount of rest allowed between each set. A superset (which is essentially two exercises performed back to back without any rest) takes advantage of the third criteria by eliminating the amount of rest between sets.

      I will illustrate how I incorporate these three criteria into my fitness routines. My workouts are structured into macro cycles. Simply, a macro cycle is a duration of time that includes a period of working out and a period of rest. My macro cycles are structured such that I work out for about six to eight weeks before allowing my body to rest from half a week to one week. During the start of each new macro cycle (this is right after my rest period), I tend to increase the weight used for all my exercises, satisfying the condition of the first criteria.

      My workouts are broken down even further into micro cycles (a macro cycle can also be thought of as a series of micro cycles with a rest period at the end). A micro cycle establishes the day to day structure of my workout routine. Right now I am following a micro cycle that lasts seven days, with five days of working out and two days of rest:
      • Day 1: Back
      • Day 2: Chest
      • Day 3: Biceps
      • Day 4: Triceps
      • Day 5: Shoulders
      • Day 6: Rest
      • Day 7: Rest
      This cycle is often repeated six to eight times per macro cycle. Micro cycles usually take advantage of the second criteria. During the start of each new micro cycle, I try to increase the number of reps per exercise by one, hence increasing the time under tension of the targeted muscle. Examples of the third criteria is found within the techniques that I utilize within my workouts, such as supersetting exercises.

      Monday, September 13, 2010


      I started a new workout cycle today after taking a week off to recover. With each new cycle, I like to take an overview of my past workouts and make any necessary tweaks. I like to structure my exercises so that I can get the most effective, efficient and intense workout possible. One of my favorite techniques I incorporate into my workouts to attain that extra boost of intensity is the superset. (For those of you unfamiliar with supersets, they are essentially two exercises performed without any rest between sets.) One problem I have noticed with supersets deals with the nature of this technique itself. I find it difficult to perform the first set of the superset without unintentionally (sometimes intentionally...I know, I know) "saving" energy to perform the second set of the superset, degrading the effectiveness of the first exercise.

      Over the years I have not been able to figure out a way to eliminate this problem, but rather suppress this problem. In my opinion, there are two ways to minimize this consequence of the superset:
      1. Be more disciplined during a workout
      2. Superset compatible exercises together to minimize this effect as much as possible
      The first solution is not as practical as it requires me to operate on a higher level of mental discipline when I workout. On some days, I'm just not as energetic and thus will hinder the effectiveness of the workout. I always viewed this solution as the end result of working out for many, many years. In essence, this first solution should come naturally as I progress with my fitness routines.

      The second solution is the more practical solution. The first exercise of the superset should target the desired muscle group with minimal help from other muscle groups. A lot of these exercises are isolation type exercises, i.e., the range of motion of the exercise only requires the rotation or pivoting about one joint. The second exercise should supplement the first exercise by using other muscles to help workout the target muscle even further. A lot of these exercises are compound type exercises, i.e., the range of motion of the exercise rotates or pivots about more than one joint. Generally, compound type exercises uses more than one muscle group.

      To illustrate this, consider one of my all time favorite superset exercise combos: the pec dec fly and the decline barbell press. For the first set of my superset, I would normally perform approximately 6-10 reps for the pec dec fly. For the most part, this exercise targets my chest muscles effectively and I can feel a nice burn towards the end of the set. I would then push my chest muscles even further by immediately performing a set of decline barbell presses, which utilizes my fresh, unused triceps to help my chest muscles.

      For now, this solution is sufficient for my workouts and has provided good results. Any thoughts?

      Sunday, September 12, 2010

      Welcome to my fitness blog!!

      Hey there!

      My name is Xiao Yao and I can always appreciate a great workout! I have been spending time at the gym regularly since 2007. Welcome to my fitness blog. I'll be posting my thoughts about my workout experiences, as well as any knowledge I pickup as I progress in my workouts!

      Besides working out, I also develop applications for the iOS and this blog is named after my first two healthcare and fitness applications. If you're interested, you can check them out on my website or look for them on the App Store!

      I have never blogged before, but I do hope that you can find some of these topics interesting, insightful or helpful. Enjoy!