Some of the latest strength training research may inspire health club members to continue pumping iron rather than cancelling their gym membership. The world of strength training research is constantly evolving, and by keeping up on the latest research studies, club owners can help their members get results.

“Fitness professionals who read studies and stay on top of research are best positioned to provide their clients or members with the best experience possible,” says Cedric Bryant, chief science officer for the American Council on Exercise (ACE).

Over the last year, researchers have explored how exercisers can derive the maximum benefit from resistance training. Specifically, they have investigated functional training as it relates to fall prevention, the effectiveness of online weight training and the adverse effects of stress on performance.

Fall Prevention

As the Baby Boomer generation continues to age, health clubs can pull them into their doors by offering classes in fall prevention, say experts. According to a March 2008 literature review done by Christian Thompson at the University of San Francisco, more than one-third of adults over the age of 65 fall each year.

Thompson is working to change this trend with his ongoing research on fall protection, which he says will be useful for fitness facilities nationwide. The three-year research study is investigating the effect of functional training on fall prevention for older adults.

“At this point, there is nothing out there like this,” he says. “We're filling a significant gap in the literature and in the programming world.”

His research study, which began in early 2007 and will be completed in 2010, consists of a 12-week exercise program that follows a logical, built-in progression using basic resistance equipment. As part of his research, his trainers and he visit about 10 senior centers in San Francisco.

The trainers train the seniors using a variety of equipment, such as dumbbells, elastic cables, playground balls and mobility ladders. The seniors are divided into two groups — a control group that does not have the functional training sessions, and the experimental group, which trains twice a week.

All of the research subjects are over the age of 65, and the average age is 76. To qualify for the study, the seniors must have had a fall in the last six months. Thompson says about 45 people have gone through the program so far, and about 20 of them are recurrent fallers.

“Most people who fall will fall again,” he says. “Sometimes, they get lucky the first time and don't have an injury or a fracture, but it eventually catches up to them.”

By doing basic functional and resistance training exercises, the seniors are minimizing their fall risk, the researchers found. In fact, the seniors in the experimental group improved their static and dynamic balance by 14 percent to 22 percent. By contrast, the seniors in the control group did not see an improvement in their fall risk factors, which are an indication of lower body strength.

Thompson hopes to design a program based upon his evidence-based research that can be implemented in any setting — from a health club to a YMCA to a senior center. To make it appeal more to the masses, he used simple equipment in his research, but he concedes that a creative trainer could get even better results with different equipment and exercise techniques.

“There is a real need as we continue to age as a population for there to be proven evidence-based programming strategies that can be adapted to work with this very important special population,” he says.

In fact, two fitness organizations and some online programming portals have already expressed interest in the research, and some personal trainers involved in the study are applying their knowledge to their relationships with their clients.

Eric Simmons, the owner of the personal training business Evolution in Motion, helped with the research project a year-and-a-half ago. One of his colleagues at the San Francisco Bay Club who was also involved in the study launched a fall prevention class at the club. Simmons has applied this knowledge when working with his own clients, including a 78-year-old woman.

“She had a hard time walking forward, and her strides were getting shorter and shorter,” he says. “Three weeks ago, she said, ‘Look how long my strides are,’ and sure enough, she was stepping two-and-a-half-foot strides rather than shuffling along.”

The woman has had so much success with the functional training exercises that she has not fallen since starting the training. She can also join a more advanced group class and can lift her foot up for 10 seconds, which she couldn't do before.

“You can take someone who is 65 or 70 and barely walk, has osteoporosis and a broken hip, and you can change the course of their future by teaching them to move their body,” he says.

The Muscatine Community YMCA is also helping its members to protect themselves against falls. Andy Brabson, head personal trainer at the Y, says his facility is considering offering a “no fall” class to help its senior members improve their balance and perform everyday activities.

“A lot of the studies I've seen on strength training are about seniors nowadays,” he says. “We don't have anything special for seniors right now, but we've been talking about adding it into our programming.”

Bryant of ACE commends clubs that are offering specialty programming, such as fall protection and balance training. By offering specialty programming, clubs can attract a new segment to their facilities and appeal to the senior market, he says.

In addition to offering functional training classes for seniors, clubs should also consider encouraging their senior members to do standard resistance training, says Wayne Wescott, senior fitness executive at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, MA. William Kraemer of the University of Connecticut agrees that functional training should be part of, rather than a replacement for, a resistance training program for older adults.

Technology and Strength Training

Personal trainers often rely on the latest technology to educate their clients and maximize their workouts. In a July 2008 study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, however, four researchers discovered that workouts still need a personal touch.

The researchers compared a traditional weight training class to nontraditional classes with online training technology. During the 16-week class, the researchers tried to determine whether or not students could learn resistance training exercises simply by watching videos on the Internet.

The researchers divided the 79 college students into three groups: traditional, online and hybrid. All three groups had the same curriculum and workout requirements, but they differed significantly when it came to the requirements for attendance. The online group could use the Internet and complete their workouts at any gym that was convenient for them, while the traditional group was supervised by trainers and required to attend the sessions in a monitored facility. The students in the hybrid group were able to train independently in class, and they were monitored by an instructor, who corrected improper techniques. These students had access to a Web-based video archive as well as PowerPoint lectures. They also attended in-class demonstrations followed by a traditional class lecture or assigned online reading.

At the beginning and the end of the study, the researchers tested the subjects' upper body strength through a bench press, their lower body strength through a back squat and their knowledge about resistance training through a written exam.

All three groups — online, hybrid and traditional — improved their knowledge about weight training, but the online weight training course did not lead to increased strength. The researchers attributed this finding to the fact that these students had less motivation and less accountability and weren't accurately reporting their results. As a result, the researchers concluded that technology has its limits in a weight training class, and it is necessary to implement a monitoring system to ensure students are completing their workouts.

Although online weight training can serve a certain population and help some people get interested in fitness, it's not the answer for everyone, says Simmons of Evolution in Motion.

“You're told what to do instead of asked to critically think about what you're doing with online training,” he says. “In a gym, the client can interact with a trainer or group exercise instructor, but that's often not the case online. While it is an option for some people, I don't think it will work for most, and I'm 100 percent sure that it's not as effective as face-to-face training.”

Technology, however, can play an important role in helping Americans to adhere to their exercise program, Bryant says. Individuals can use the technology 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and they're not restricted by club hours of operation or personal trainers' availability.

Stress and Strength Gains

Stressful life events can have a negative effect on strength gains, according to a July 2008 study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. The researchers studied the link between stress and performance in 135 undergraduate students who enrolled in a 1 1/2-hour class that met twice a week for 12 weeks.

After completing a social support inventory and performing one repetition max lifts for the bench press and squat, the students were split into a low-stress and a high-stress group. The researchers discovered that the low-stress participants achieved superior results in the bench press and squat. They concluded that a high amount of stress can make it more difficult to adapt to weight training.

These findings did not surprise Simmons, who says that stress definitely affects a person's ability to make performance gains. To help members get the most from their workout, personal trainers and club owners need to make their fitness facility a relaxing destination. From the minute their members step through the doors, they must allow them to unwind, let go of their daily stress and focus on their workout, he says.

“They need to make their club a third place where members go apart from their work and home,” Simmons says.

Consider These Training Tidbits

  • Free-form weight training provides optimal benefits

    A January 2008 study by Globe University, Woodbury, MN, found that subjects in the study improved their balance and strength and had less pain when working out on free-form exercise equipment compared to fixed weight training equipment. The participants improved their strength by 58 percent and their balance by 196 percent.

  • Women should lift heavier weights

    A study by the University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT, advised women to lift heavier weights during one of their workout days. Although women tend to shy away from heavier weights because they fear getting bulky muscles, they must challenge their muscles to get the optimum benefit from resistance training, says William Kraemer of the University of Connecticut.

  • Shorter-duration weight training programs have higher retention rates

    The South Shore YMCA in Quincy, MA, conducted a study at Town Sports International on weight training. One group was required to do 15 minutes of training twice a week, and another group did 50 minutes of training twice a week over an eight-week period. The group with the longer duration session had twice the dropout rate of the group with the shorter duration session.

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