11 Common Exercise Questions, Answered

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Jim Karas, the bestselling author of The Cardio-Free Diet, answers common questions about effective strength training, including whether you should be sore, how to breathe, and the benefits of yoga and Pilates.

How many reps should I perform of each exercise?
Most people use too light of a weight/tension and perform far too many reps. To optimally build long, lean muscles, you should never perform more than ten reps with proper form at full range of motion. If you aren’t hitting failure by the tenth rep, then the weight/tension is too light. You should increase by the smallest possible increment until you find a weight/tension that challenges you to hit failure on or before the tenth rep, without compromising your form or risking injury.

How many sets of each exercise should I perform?
That depends at what level you are starting. As a true beginner, one set (to failure) is all that you need to effectively build long, lean muscles (which is what you will do in Phase I of this plan). As you strength train consistently for two weeks and get more comfortable, I will ask you to go to two sets for one-half of the exercises in the program. You may either perform two sets in a row, one right after the other, or you may perform your entire series of exercises, then repeat to do the second set. Both styles get the job done effectively. As you progress to a more advanced strength and resistance program, you should be performing three sets of the exercises, but this will not be required in the eight-week plan.

What is the optimal speed for each repetition?
Ideally, a rep should take two counts on the way up and four counts on the way down. Using our original example of a bicep curl, that means counting “one, one thousand, two, one thousand,” as you curl the weight up, and four such counts on the way down. Researchers have found that eccentric training causes more microtrauma (which is the scientific term for tiny tears) to the muscle than concentric training, and it therefore more efficiently promotes muscle growth. The concentric part occurs as you contract (shorten) the muscle (curl up the bicep), and the eccentric part occurs as you lengthen it back out to starting position. Because you want to stress the muscle more on the movement that will get you better results, a slow two-count is perfect for the contraction, but you want to take twice as much time to lower the weight back to the starting position.

Can I perform strength training every day?
Yes, but you have to alternate body parts, because it takes twenty-four to forty-eight hours for a muscle to repair itself after strength training. If you plan to exercise on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, the best strategy is to do total body training all three days. You will have Tuesday, Thursday, and the weekend to repair and build the muscles. If very busy weekdays require you to do strength training on Saturday and Sunday, then you should work your upper body on one day (do two sets of each exercise, since you are cutting the number of exercises in half) and the lower body on the other. Your third workout should be on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday, and it should work the total body. An exception to this rule is your “core” — abdominals, obliques, and lower back. Because of the relatively small amount of muscle fiber in each, they can be worked every day.

Make sure you always take off one day a week. My program is only three days a week, but I know that some people get into an exercise program and give it all they’ve got right from the very start. While this type of motivation is great, it’s very important to make sure you take one complete day off each and every week. This enables your body to repair, and you will jump back into your program stronger than ever after the rest.

NOTE: Young men frequently go after their strength-training program so aggressively that they over-train and minimize the benefits of the exercise. Proper recovery and repair of the muscle are vital to achieving the best results.

Since I had been doing cardio for my lower body, can’t I just do strength training on my upper body?
No — cardio never really developed your lean muscle tissue in your lower body, and it may even have depleted it. I find that most women want to train only their lower body, while men want to train only their upperbody “beach” muscles. But you want to train all your muscles to maximize your whole body’s lean muscle tissue. What’s more, Men’s Health reports that Norwegian researchers have found that beginning lifters gain upperbody strength by doing lower-body exercises. When you strength train and place resistance against your muscles, you trigger a release of hormones, which will stimulate muscle growth throughout your body. Since your lower body uses the largest muscles, they release more muscle-building hormone, benefiting the entire body.

Should I feel sore after my workouts?
When beginners start an exercise program, they frequently complain of what’s known as delayed-onset soreness. Most researchers do not know why some people experience more soreness than others, and the whole science of soreness is a bit of a mystery. But if you are not sore, it does not mean your strength-training program has been ineffective. If your body weight and composition are changing, you are getting the job done. Let the scale and your clothes be your guides.

NOTE: “Good” soreness is “Oh, I worked my triceps yesterday, and when I squeeze them today, I can feel that they were worked.” “Bad” soreness is “I did some squats yesterday and my knee is bothering me.” Please, always be aware of which soreness you are experiencing, and if it is of the bad variety, see your doctor.

If I stop strength training, will my muscle turn to fat?
Muscle and fat are two totally different tissues in your body, with completely different purposes and therefore independent functionality. If, for whatever reason, you ceased strength training (which I hope never happens), then you will lose some of the muscle you have increased and preserved, and that will lead to a diminished metabolism. If you continue to consume approximately the same number of calories, the extra calories that you used to burn up to maintain your muscle will now not be burned up. They will be stored as fat. So the muscle does not actually turn into fat, but the reduction in your lean muscle tissue will lead you to a lower metabolism and result in you carrying more body fat.

I used to be in much better shape. Will that help when I go on the Cardio-Free exercise plan?
If you performed strength training in the past, or held a job that required you to lift and carry heavy things, your body, at one time, possessed more lean muscle tissue. When you begin the Cardio-Free exercise plan, your body will remember what you are telling it to do, and you will increase your lean muscle tissue faster than a true beginner. They call this muscle memory. But true beginners, don’t let this fact discourage you. You too will see drastic changes in your body in a very short period of time.

I find that I hold my breath when performing strength training. What is the optimal way to breathe?
There is a general rule that works very effectively: Exhale on the contraction, or exertion, and inhale when returning to the starting position. Please make sure never to hold your breath. Breathe slowly, as if you are sipping the air in and blowing it out through a straw. When you breathe in slowly, you optimally fill up your lungs with oxygen, which is in demand as you challenge your muscles. Proper breathing also provides you with core stability, helps you to align your body, and, as an end result, prevents injury.

Should I stretch before or after strength training?
The answer is neither. Stretching before exercise is never recommended. Think of your muscles as cold rubber bands. What happens when you try to stretch the cold band? Odds are, it’s going to possibly break or, at the very least, tear. The exact same thing occurs when you attempt to stretch a cold muscle. Now, the benefits of post-exercise stretching are hotly debated. One group says you must stretch your muscles out after strength training. They believe that in order to build long, lean muscles, you must stretch them out before the tiny tears repair over the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours. The other side believes that a properly balanced strength-training program effectively stretches out the body. Let’s again use the example of a bicep curl. When you curl up, you are simultaneously lengthening and stretching the triceps muscles. Right now, curl your arm up. Do you see how the triceps lengthened? When you perform strength training in a safe, controlled manner while working a full range of motion, you are effectively stretching the muscle opposite the one you are training. This is called reciprocal inhibition, and it is my recommendation. Do you remember when I said that performing strength training gave you heart-health benefits and an increased metabolism? I referred to it as a “two birds with one stone” solution. When you add flexibility as one more benefit, it truly becomes a “three birds with one stone” phenomenon.

What about Pilates and yoga?
I have a love-hate relationship with both Pilates and yoga. Let’s start with Pilates. I don’t like the mat classes. It’s just another class asking you to perform way too many repetitions without failure. Pilates performed on the Reformer and the Cadillac equipment can be an effective strength-training tool and can enhance posture and core strength, but the instructor must apply significant progression for it to be effective. The majority of instructors I have observed don’t make the exercises hard enough to shock your muscles into growth.

Yoga has become extremely popular. For a true beginner, there is some benefit to your muscles when holding the poses. Similar to Pilates, there are also benefits to your posture. The problem comes when applying progression, since the only option is to hold the pose longer. You can’t increase the weight or tension, because all the moves are done against your own body weight. Therefore, unless you are willing to increase the duration (find a longer class or double up) or the frequency (go more often each week), yoga alone won’t get the job done. Both Pilates and yoga are good complements to a strength-training program, but on their own, they are not solutions for losing weight.

On a final note, celebrities (many of whom are paid) have been huge advocates of Pilates and yoga and have endlessly preached their benefits in print and in infomercials. The vast majority of these young women were very thin in the first place. How many women do you know who have truly lost weight simply with Pilates or yoga? I’m in the industry, and I don’t know of any.

Glamour magazine reported the results of a Chicago versus New York versus Los Angeles challenge in its February 2005 issue. Every woman was placed on the same eating plan, but there were three different exercise plans. In L.A. it was Yoga Booty Balance class, which “combines fun, heart-pumping moves with a dash of yoga;” Pilates was the exercise in New York, led by a guru who has worked with the likes of Madonna and Uma Thurman; and in Chicago it was yours truly and strength training. Who won? Come on, would I mention this article if I didn’t win? My group took it in a virtual landslide, with a total of fifty pounds and a whopping eighty-four inches lost. What was the secret? They performed heavy-duty strength training. And to this day, they have kept almost all of it off. One of the women just had her second baby and weighs less than she did before the first baby, and her pre-pregnancy jeans — before the first baby — are falling off.

Named one of the best personal trainers in the country by Allure magazine, Jim Karas is the author of The Cardio-Free Diet (Copyright © 2007 by Jim Karas), as well as the New York Times bestseller The Business Plan for the Body and Flip the Switch. He is a graduate of the Wharton School and the founder of Jim Karas Personal Training, LLC, which has trained more than five hundred clients in Chicago and New York.



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