Alternating Resistance Training
This is not always on my radar. It’s low on my effectiveness scale for building mass or strength.
Arguably two of the main reasons anyone lifts!
Why even do it at all?
Well all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.
Every once and a while you just gotta let loose and do things because they are different, novel and fun. A good way to at least mix things up. Also, people lift for other reasons too.
Turns out there are other really good reasons to mix it into your routine.
Enter Alternating Resistance Training
A great way to mix up your training, utilize circuit training or drive your heart rate up. Sometimes it’s just boring doing the same old, same old.
I introduced this as a fun little technique into a side project called Daily Training Session (DTS) in July 2020. This article was the follow up explaining the rationale and my recommended approach to this style of training.
We just done a phase of training focusing on unilateral training. This felt like an awesome option coming out of such a phase as part of a long-term approach for a Better Scientific Seven (Eight!) Minute Workout.
Alternating training and unilateral training simply feel connected and I often like to use them in tandem.
DTS was a short-lived experiment and the programming progressions I developed for what I prefer to call The Eight Minute Workout will be be released that all sometime in the near future.
The reasons to integrate alternating resistance training movements are surprisingly plentiful:
- You hate traditional methods of conditioning (biking, running, rowing, etc…etc…) and still want to train your heart i.e. it’s good for circuit training
- It can aid in recovery
- It can be done a lot
- It promotes rotational coordination and control
- It adds variety (and fun) while providing similar movement integration
If you’ve been a long-time reader of SBF, you know I have a bit of a beef with circuit training. Not all circuit training, just the fluff I see trying to be passed off as High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT).
I’m judgemental of the results online guru’s promise, not so much the circuits themselves. Anything that gets people moving is A-Okay in my books, but I like to paint my promises with a dash of realism.
Circuit training is not a replacement for HIIT. It is, it's own thing entirely.
Full disclosure: Most of the programs I write feature some kind of circuit, just a very specific kind of circuit. Most often paired sets or tri-sets but occasionally more. Circuits exist on a spectrum.
You can make them more conditioning oriented or you can make them more neuromuscular oriented.
If you absolutely hate doing any slow-distance traditional cardio of any kind — and believe me I go through my own phases of dislike — alternating resistance training circuits can be a godsend.
Alternating resistance training will tend to be more on the conditioning side of the spectrum. Making them more aerobic, so effective at training your heart/lungs without the boredom. It’s not as good at steady-state or traditional cardiovascular conditioning but it’s pretty darn close.
Plus any exercise you will do trumps the efficacy of any exercise you intended to do.
This is something I’ve been meaning to talk a lot more about on SBF, I’ve loosely mentioned it in a few articles in the past and I’m going to loosely mention it here once more.
The closer you take your resistance training to absolute failure, with an appropriate volume (# of sets) you increase recovery requirements.
The less volume you use and the further away from absolute failure you train — let’s say a 5 or a 6 RPE or below (meaning 5 reps in the tank or more) — the less stress is created and recovery is far easier.
If you can do 30 push-ups in one shot, but you only train a few sets to 15, you’ll move, utilize some energy but you won’t require the typical 48 hours of recovery I normally tell people to take when resistance training.
I’m usually telling them to train to technical failure (1 rep in the tank) at higher volumes though (3-5 sets per exercise).
If a circuit lasts 30 seconds and you do a double or single limbed exercise straight then it’s 30 seconds of focused stress.
Do the same exercise (a press, a row, a lunge, what have you) in an alternating resistance training fashion and you get a bit of an isometric break between reps.
You’re still moving for the entire 30 seconds, but the chances of you not completing the full 30 seconds of the movement have been cut in half*.
The chances of you hitting absolute or even technical failure have been dramatically lowered. Your heart, lungs and blood vessels still get taxed, but we’re not creating as much mechanical stress on your neuromuscular system.
Usually this translates into the ability to do alternating circuit training at a higher frequency during the week if we so choose. The tradeoff being we probably won’t build much lean mass (muscle, tendon or bone) while we do that.
*As long as we don’t double the length of the interval.
I know trainers that use continuous circuit training almost daily (Mon-Fri anyway) with clients because of this recovery advantage. Heck, there are entire gym business models built on the idea.
Repeat daily business is the best kind of business for these gyms and you can’t do that with intense resistance training or true HIIT. Even if you can convince your clientele that’s what they are doing.
I don’t think that’s the most time-efficient or effective way to train necessarily, but it is a way to train without crushing a person or causing overtraining.
When you don’t train near failure you can mix up the training more frequently without causing massive amounts of soreness*.
*Well, you can if you’re a sadist trainer or a masochist client who wants to be sore all the time simply make sure the circuits approach failure and do more than two sets per muscle group.
Providing a lot of variety like this can be a great way to keep a certain type of person interested and thus repeatedly coming back.
Moving daily at a lower intensity and lower proximity to failure will still be better for that individual than doing nothing or missing more intense workouts 2-4x a week. Intense workouts done less often aren't always the best for everyone.
Plus a lot of people like or even thrive on a daily routine. That’s why I experimented with the DTS.
At the same time, a variety of circuit training convinces clients they are working really hard because every workout feels hard — and new, because it is.
You gasp for air more. Your muscles burn in novel ways. You’re not as familiar with the exercises so they feel harder to do. There is no familiarity.
Feeling harder seems like a good thing. As if you’re working harder and therefore more deserving of the result.
But are you improving ‘fitness?’ Are you getting the adaptation you want?
To a degree…
A person participating in this random cesspool of exercise variety at timed intervals will be ‘fitter’ than your average couch potato, and possibly as fit or more fit than more inconsistent trainees even when those trainees are on better programs.
Consistency will trump a lot of other factors.
Circuit training is a great approach for most beginners but I’d argue within a few months of this type of training most people have adapted as much as they’ll adapt. At that point, if they want to continue to improve, they’ll need to up the intensity.
As a result, they'll need recovery days.
Low and behold, alternating resistance training can easily be implemented on recovery-oriented circuit training days between more intense training days!
It's a great option between true resistance training or true HIIT sessions. So long as you don’t train near failure and make the work more aerobic.
I’ve been planning to write an article on recovery training for many years so maybe I’ll finally get around to that now.
Coordination and Rotational Control
An oft overlooked component of resistance training is coordination. And look, I’m not anti-machine or anything, but resistance training in ways that better mimic some of the things you’ll encounter in everyday life can promote a higher quality of life.
Most of the traditional lifts in the gym emphasize the sagittal plane — forward and back, or straight up and down movements. Squats, deadlifts, swings, push-ups, chin-ups, etc… etc…
Generalized strength is good, but a lot of your life is on one leg or rotational in nature. Walking and running are both rotationally. Throwing. Kicking.
And it’s not just moving on oblique angles, it’s stabilizing while rotation is created. Pushing into a door to open it. Pulling a door open. Taking lids off pickle jars.
There is a coordination benefit to periodically training alternating resistance patterns of movement.
Not enough to make it a focal point of the programs I write 12 months out of the year but enough for me to do some of it a few times a year or add a bunch of it to warm-ups to varying degrees.
Single limb training can also handle that nicely to an extent but I think there is value in having to hold something solid in one hand while you create movement with the other.
It’s an almost ideal way to train isometrics, which is also it's own beast entirely.
Doing the same thing all the time is more than a little boring. I get it, by week 4 of any phase of most exercise programs I’m sure people are aching to move onto something new.
What I usually tell people is rather than focus on what (i.e. the exercises) you’re doing over the entire month, focus on how you’ve improved.
When you focus on how much you improve from week 1 of a program to week 4 of a program, you can see the result. Provided you track it.
Even still, I can completely understand why many people lose interest in a routine by this point.
You want some variety and you don’t want training to be serious and ‘goal-driven’ 100% of the time. Building some flexibility, fun and variety into a program is essential to maintain your sanity.
The real reason most of the programs I write are for ~4 weeks is that’s usually the length of time I have before consistent people are mentally ready for something new. Not everyone but most.
Doing alternating resistance training is a good way to integrate the same stuff but from a fresh angle. You’re still doing a lunge or a press or a row, it’s just slightly different and therefore interesting.
The aim is a renewed sense of interest, without sacrificing the long-term payoff by drifting too far away from the exercises you were doing the phase before or are planned for the phase to follow. You don't want to lose progress in other exercises, and you won't even with some alternating training in the mix.
There are lots of fun ways to integrate alternating resistance training:
- In the warm-up
- In the first week of a phase
- As one or two of many exercises
- For coordination-driven, circuit, or conditioning-oriented training sessions
- As the dominant theme for an entire phase
Most of the time alternating training forces people to pay closer attention to technique and naturally won’t get done to failure.
An alternating lunge as part of the warm-up for a training session that will later feature a lunge is a great integration. Or as warm-up set #1 too.
Whenever you introduce a new phase of training I want to limit muscle damage and soreness to encourage adequate recovery. This can be done in a variety of ways:
- Reduce the volume (Most common, I often start at 2 sets and add sets weekly)
- Reduce the proximity to failure (start with low RPE’s, like a 4 or 5 out of 10 even and ramp up the RPE to 9 or even 10)
- Use concentric exercises and progress to more eccentric ones (a step-up in week one, then a split squat, then a lunge)
- Use exercises in an alternating fashion to naturally reduce proximity to failure
- A combination…
Alternating resistance training can be a great option in the first week or two of a new phase of training because people tend not to take them to failure. At least one side will break down before the other which tends to balance things out anyway.
Then progress to single or double-limbed exercises with closer proximity to failure.
An alternating dumbbell press isn’t that different from a two-limbed or single-limbed dumbbell press. It leads in rather nicely. Maybe you’re just maxed out on a more typical one-arm or two-armed press and need a mental break?
Circuit training is a great introduction to resistance training. It builds coordination and work capacity for tolerating more intense forms of resistance training later.
It can also improve your technique and focus. You have to focus on more than one thing at a time. Executing an action on one side, while you maintain the position of another.
I really like the coordination factor, it’s a great option for beginners to really groove technique on any given exercise. As a trainee, you really have to be mindful of your approach.
If you’re not using circuits, alternating training sets will draw out the length of time it takes to complete each set. This theoretically leads to more energy burn and more muscular endurance.
Yes, at the expense of muscle building or strength, but this is still a nice mix-in if you want more conditioning and work capacity for a phase.