The Art of Weight Lifting and Conditioning

Weightlifting and conditioning has been portrayed and advertised as a scientific process that has a specific regiment to gain significant results. Trainers and Strength and Conditioning specialists with extensive educational backgrounds depict a world of order and inevitability that frankly does not exist in practice. What they fail to tell you is that almost the entire curriculum for an Exercise Physiology, Strength and Conditioning, or Kinesiology degree is exclusively pertaining to the theoretical knowledge with no realistic application. Most of the classes go into great depth in regards to basic anatomy and physiology. An in-depth education into these topics is needed as a fundamental basis for the S & C world. Unfortunately for most programs, this is where a majority of the education gives way. The application of this knowledge to the training world is limited as laboratory settings are used to teach only the most basic techniques. They give few exercise examples and applications leaving the future trainers/strength specialists to have to go to outside sources or become “creative” to develop new exercises. A limited arsenal of exercises is fine for the basic client just looking to get into shape or drop a few pounds, but a more specialized regiment is needed for individualized or performance enhancing programs.

After ten years of intensive training with many different high profile trainers and coaches in the strength and conditioning world including two former head strength and conditioning coaches for the Anaheim Ducks NHL, the head strength and conditioning coaches at the University of Oregon, Washington State University and the University of Delaware, I have been exposed to radically different approaches to athletic performance enhancement using all the latest “fads” and “science”. The conclusion I have came to and many of my peers have realized is that although each program is completely based in science, the method in which it is performed is much more an art than most would believe. Many high tech programs are overblown, while many simple methods that have been around for fifty years are effective. Sifting through my extensive knowledge, I have noted several commonalities in successful training regimes. In the ensuing paragraphs, I will explain underlying themes and ideologies that should be part of any training program. I will try to keep the medical terminology relatively light for those who are less familiar with the topic.

10 Underlying Themes of a Successful Weight Training Program
1. Free Weights vs. Machines- The great debate for many newcomers to the weight room is whether it is better to use free weights (ie dumbbells, barbells, etc.) or machines that have a weight stack to the side. For the most part free weights are more beneficial primarily due to the additional planes of movement in comparison with the machines. The increased complexity of motion during the use of free weights forcing your muscles to respond to additional stress. Case in point, think of using a push press vs. squats. The motion of a push press machine requires the contraction of the glutes, quads, and hip muscles from a seated position in a similar manner as the squat. The difference is seen in the limited motion and extension that activates the muscles in a single motion that is “locked” into one plane. In comparison the motion of a squat forces the participant to balance the additional weight on her/his back as each repetition is completed. This additional stress forces leg and back muscles to stabilize the body in two planes in a process known as propriception. Thus unless recovering from an injury in which a protected range of motion is needed, it is advised to use free weights for a majority of the exercises in a given workout. The only exception to “the machine rule” is the use of cable-based machines. In the functionality spectrum (To be explained later, refer to Figure 1), cable-based machines are actually more closely related to the dumbbell exercises in how the body responds to their use.

Working through four planes of motion, DB incline on a swiss ball is an extremely functional exercise.

2. Functionality- In terms of sports training, functionality is by definition purposeful training. If you are to break down the movements of different sports, there are commonalities that carry over between them. Motions such as sprinting, running, jumping, cutting, and striking apply whether a person plays tennis or football. The functionality of strength and conditioning works to mimic these multiple-plane movements. The more functional an exercise is, the closer it imitates the movement on the playing field. Below is what I call the functionality spectrum. On the left hand side of the spectrum the exercises least mimic true “sport motion” counterparts with only one plane of motion activating muscle. On the right side are the exercises that best replicate the “sports motions” described above. To perform each repetition, these functional exercises work on four planes of motion causing all the stabilizer muscles and propriceptors to kick in. To exemplify this concept let’s consider chest exercises. A chest machine, as pictured below, forces the user to push the handles in a consistent motion up and down without any effort to stabilize the weight from shifting laterally side-to-side. Because of the single plane of motion, this exercise limits the muscles that are activated.

Exercises that have low functionality allow the user to lift more weight and also target specific muscles, but the overuse of these machines can cause muscle imbalances that can potentially lead to connective tissue problems. In contrast dumbbell incline on a ball is an extremely functional exercise. The user is forced to account for four planes of motion. Not only does each repetition require the up and down movement, but also side to side stabilization, isolated single arm stabilization, and also abdominal activation to keep balance on the swiss ball. Highly functional exercises are significantly more difficult to perform than their less functional cousins, because the dynamics allow for increased muscle stimulation leading to better results. Visualizing the difference between these two exercises that focus on the same muscle groups, it is easy to see how dumbbell incline on a ball is a more analogous exercise to the unpredictable motion through space used on the field.

Here is the Functionality Spectrum illustrated with example exercises

3. “Core” Lifts are best for Adding Strength- For those athletes looking to increase their numbers and strength sticking to the main basic lifts as the core of their workout is compulsory. Even though the base lifts of squatting for legs, barbell benching for chest, and pull-ups for back may not sound as sexy as kettle bell training or “cross-fit”, they are the most practical and useful method to increase strength. It is analogous to the thinking that if you want to become more proficient at calculus, you need to do more calculus problems to best improve your skills. Now just doing the core basic lifts will only help to a certain degree, but when combined with additional lifts and auxiliary lifts strength can increase dramatically. At a certain point for most people that are training seriously, a plateau is reached in which additional strength gains are difficult to obtain. When this occurs alternative exercises and workouts need to be used to break through to the next level. Cross-Training and the “6-Week Change Up” can help to the athlete push through.

4. High Reps to Cut, High Weight for Mass- A general consensus that I have seen through the sports world is that working out with high repetitions and low weight will result in a more toned body over time. The high repetition sets will work endurance of the muscle fibers in a similar way to long-distance running. Much of the time high endurance sets will work in the 8-15+ rep range at 50-75% of the maximum weight for one repetition. It is also true that heavy sets with few repetitions will add more strength and increase muscle bulk. The heavy sets work in a primarily anaerobic state, equivalent to sprinting, pushing the fibers to their limit. Heavy sets will usually work in the 3-8 repetition range at 75-95% of the max. Be aware that many regimens mix both “endurance” and “bulk” sets in a given workout to produce the desired effect. (Future articles will give sample sets and workouts that I have done during lifting regimens in the past.)

5. Six-Week Change Up- Another rule of thumb of successful weight training and conditioning programs is what I like to call the Six-Week Change Up. A lifting routine should have the exercises changed every six to eight weeks. During the sixth to eighth week, the human body begins to accommodate the repetitive stresses. When this occurs the gains of strength/weight loss/toneness usually plateau. The most effective solution is to “change up” the lifts exerting different loads on the exercised muscles. The nascent stresses help to create different dynamics that in turn help to better overload the muscular tissue. After the first few workouts following the “Change-Up”, it is common to feel the muscle soreness that was common during weeks one and two of the training cycle. This is again due to the fact that the muscles are not accustomed to the exercises that they are required to perform. An example of this method would be to do an eight week program that used barbell bench as the main exercise to work out the chest. The “Change-Up” would be to modify this core lift to dumbbell bench or an analogous lift.

6. Muscle Balance- Muscle balance is critical to muscular development whether the athlete is a high schooler or a geriatric just trying to increase their exercise. Over development of certain muscles is one of the most significant and common flaws of a poorly constructed lifting program. Not only will the imbalances affect the quality of a workout, but will more crucially increase the risk of injury. Two of the most common injuries that I have seen in the wake of a poorly constructed program are anterior cruciate ligament tears of the knee and shoulder labrum tears. Though a majority of the injuries happen outside of the weight room, there is a significant correlation between muscle imbalances and the incidence of these two injuries. Here is one anecdotal example; I was a part of a college program in the past that this became a significant issue during an off-season. The strength staff created work outs that required us to perform a significant amount of leg work including squatting, cleaning, box jumps, etc. but absolutely no hamstring work. Once we began the intense 5AM sprinting and agility sessions about one month later (trust me these are about the most physically demanding workouts of your life!), several players immediately went down with hamstring pulls with more frequency than I had experienced in the past. There were also four ACL tears over the ensuing weeks. Because of the frequency of injuries, the coaching staff took notice and the strength staff was in hot water. The workouts were adjusted accordingly to focus more on hamstring development in the weight room, and surprise, by the end of the school year, there were no new lower body injuries.

Generally it is agreed upon that hamstring strength should have a minimum of 60% of the strength of the quadriceps. The push vs. pull muscles of the upper body (ie. the chest muscles vs. upper back muscles) should be relatively equal. Balance of the upper body will not only help your overall upper body strength, but also your running form and flexibility. Upper body balance is especially important for those that regularly play golf and baseball, because upper back and shoulder strains are commonplace. At the biomechanical level muscular balance helps evenly distribute the strain that motion causes on the human body.

7. Cross-Training- Cross-training is the use of multiple training platforms that are seemingly unrelated to a specific sport as part of a regimen. Even for those athletes that play exclusively one sport, study after study has shown that cross-training significantly improves athletic performance and reduces injury in comparison to the use of solely sport specific activities. Here is one such study Most injuries occur when the body is contorted into strange positions with similarly strange impacts and loads. Crossing-training is one solution to injury prevention, because at a fundamental level it forces muscular tissue to adapt and improves an athlete’s propriception. Muscle fibers have to support loads that would otherwise not be faced. Cross training also helps to break up the monotony of workouts and keeps the mind stimulated. My personal example would be the use of cross-training in the off-season for college football. In addition to the heavy lifting and difficult running, I loved to cross train. The three main exercises I used were boxing, basketball, and swimming. The former two have many parallels to football specific motions. Boxing helped develop the quick twitch needed to deliver the blow to an opposing player, and basketball helped to develop hand-eye coordination along with calf strength. Although superficially it does not seem to have much relevance, swimming was my favorite form of cross training for football . The unique motion used for swimming would challenge my endurance regardless of the running shape I was in. Water presents a medium that allows for continuous resistance allowing for strength development through the entire range of motion while also working out the lactic acid “kinks” that the normal workouts would cause. (Growing up in Southern California, I grew up loving the water, thus on those cold stormy winter days thousands of miles from home, swimming would help to bring a little sunshine into my life!) During the season I noticed an increased flexibility and stamina thanks to the swimming that helped to get me out of tight situations on the field. This is just one example, but it applies to also sports whether it is cross country and weight training or hockey cross-trained with tennis. The more diverse of a skill set you have athletically, the better chance you have of performing to your full potential on game day.

Be realistic, don't try to become the ex-govenator over night!

8. Stay Away from Unknown/ Olympic Lifts- This is one piece of advice I cannot emphasize enough. If you want to stay healthy avoid any lift that you have not received proper training in, and if you take part in recreational athletics stay away from Olympic lifts altogether. Olympic lifts include snatches, cleans, push jerks and their many related variations. I cannot tell you how many times I have gone to the gym and seen some weekend warrior trying to become the next Arnold Schwarzenegger doing power cleans with improper form. Not only do you look ridiculous to your peers, it is EXTREMELY easy to get injured. When the exercise is done properly little strength gain comes from it, because the lift is used mostly for explosive movement and triple point extension of the main joints. Since I hung up the cleats, I have not performed any Olympic lifts except for demonstration purposes only.

9. Flexibility- Whether you are a professional power lifter or a rock climber, the single fastest way to improve you athletic ability is to improve your flexibility. This can be done with a simple routine of less than five minutes once per day. Diligence is essential for consistent improvement. If you are a runner increased flexibility will increase your stride. If you are a swimmer, increased flexibility will act to lengthen your stoke, and for all sports increased flexibility will help prevent injury when the body is contorted in an awkward manner. Even if nature has endowed you with the flexibility of a rock (I definitely fell in this category not even being able to touch my toes entering high school), it can be dramatically improved. Today I can do a full regular split (Russian splits are another story!), a night and day improvement from what I once was. This flexibility allowed me to make crisper cuts out of routes and out run safeties with my large stride.

Stretching is a secret to injury prevention and improved athletic performance

10. Listen to Your Body- Last but not least, listen to your body. No one knows your body better than you. Learn to distinguish the difference between muscle soreness caused by the buildup of lactic acid after a great work out and connective tissue soreness due to inflammation that signifies overuse or a potential injury. Work through muscle soreness, but when things just don’t feel right take it into account and change your workouts accordingly.

Incorporating these themes into your workout will help in route to achieving your goal. At the end of the day the old adage, “No Pain, no gain” is omnipotent. Training to shed the pounds or add strength takes months and years, not days. Keep that in mind to form realistic and achievable expectations. Stay positive and mentally strong and I promise that you will see results. Good luck!

If you have any questions, feel free to post them in the comments section, and I will be more than happy to answer them ASAP.


Boyle, Michael. Functional Training for Sports. Champaign: Human Kinetics, 2004.

Effects of specific versus cross-training on running performance

Trevor Mooney played at the University of Delaware as a Tight End #84 


About trevormooney
A longtime resident of Mission Viejo, California, Trevor Mooney is a former Division I ESPN Academic All-Region Student Athlete at the University of Delaware.

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