Are Submaximal Workouts Beneficial?
Posted July 12, 2022 by Matthew Romans
Most regular readers of this blog know that the Total Results exercise protocol is predicated upon the inroad theory of exercise. This means that we want to fatigue the musculature deeply enough to stimulate the growth mechanism that prompts the body to mobilize its resources to make physical improvements. The intensity of effort is a byproduct of strict form, proper speed of movement, and careful change of direction. For the sake of simplicity, we will define intensity as inroad/time. Inroad can be explained as the depth of fatigue of one's fresh level of strength. If you perform a bicep curl exercise, and you start with the ability to move 100 pounds, but after five repetitions you can only move 80 pounds, you have inroaded your biceps muscles by 20 percent. Our goal is to reach the point of momentary muscular failure within a time frame of 1 to 3 minutes per exercise. This ensures that we are using both the aerobic and anaerobic metabolic pathways, and are not merely performing steady-state activity that will provide little benefit.
It should be noted that some advanced clients will have a slightly shorter time under load (TUL). These clients may reach muscular failure in 1:15 to 1:30, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that. Some clients' performances are very consistent, and some vary wildly from workout to workout (there are many factors involved). A slightly shorter TUL can mean that you're a bit less recovered from your previous workout than usual, but it can also mean that you have inroaded slightly more efficiently as well. I should also add that one additional reason it is important to push to muscular failure is that it is the only way to effectively recruit and fatigue the fast-twitch muscle fibers that have the greatest capacity for growth.
Since intensity of effort is very important for achieving optimal results, I am occasionally asked if there are any benefits to performing submaximal workouts. The vast majority of the time, I prefer clients to push the limits of their capabilities, but the answer is yes, there are some situations that call precisely for a submaximal workout. Here are a few examples.
Injury rehabilitation. If a client has just had surgery or is returning from being injured, the prescription often calls for an initial lower intensity of effort. This could be for certain exercises, particularly for the involved body part/joint, or it could be for the entire workout. Regaining confidence is a very important part of injury rehabilitation, and we train the mind as well as the body at Total Results. Above anything, we want to avoid injurious pain and find a safe range of motion, so the first couple of sessions of a client's return are geared toward that. Also, depending upon the nature of the injury and how long the client has been out of action, there could be a significant loss of strength involved, so the weights are often greatly reduced initially.
Novice clients. It is neither desirable nor realistic to initially expect a beginning client to work with a high level of intensity. In fact, trying to do so is usually a recipe for disaster. During the first few sessions of a client's tenure, my focus is on teaching the protocol. This entails helping the trainee to get a feel for speed of movement, pace, turnarounds, and proper breathing. We also take the time to ensure that the seat settings for each machine are correct, based on axial alignment and positioning. We cannot expect an exercise subject to train full-tilt right away, as many clients would not come back for a second workout. Bad habits can be acquired very quickly, so the first four to five sessions (for most clients) are geared toward learning proper fundamentals using conservative poundages.
Returning from illness. I have had a few clients recently return from bouts with Covid. Every person's experience is slightly different, of course, but a handful of people were pretty sick and were out for a couple of weeks. Some lost more in terms of strength and conditioning than others. In these cases, I significantly reduced their resistance on all the exercises and had them stop at a designated point just short of muscular failure. This was only necessary for a workout or two. Remember, one's recovery ability can be fragile, especially in the case of illness, so we don't want to overload the immune system.
Reacquiring good habits and form. The right exercise mindset is quite important. We must remember that it's not about how much weight you are lifting or how long your TUL is, it is about proper form and a thorough stimulus. Sometimes people acquire the wrong mindset and their form becomes suboptimal. This increases the risk of injury and lessens muscular loading. Check your ego at the door! There is nothing wrong with reducing the weight on certain exercises and lessening the intensity of effort to re-establish proper form. Your joints will thank you and you will be rewarded with a much more thorough exercise stimulus when the workout is finished.
Rehabilitating Exercise-Induced Headache. This is a topic that is covered in great detail during the preliminary considerations portion of an initial consultation. While an exercise-induced headache is an unpleasant experience, it is not typically indicative of a medical problem. Sometimes it can be brought on by form discrepancies such as excessive gripping, facial grimacing, clenching of the jaw, and movement of the head and neck during exercise. Usually, if it happens once and is caught in time, it goes away and never again becomes an issue. In the rare case of a recurrence, we often lower the intensity of exercise by redefining the point of failure. This means we will stop the exercise at the very first sign of any head pain. Another strategy is to change the order of the exercise sequence so that the exercise that triggers the problem is performed last, or even avoided for a time. In over twenty years of exercise instruction, I can only think of one client that we were not successfully able to rehabilitate from a recurring exercise-induced headache.
As you can see, submaximal workouts can provide other benefits, even if they do not create an optimal metabolic effect. Sometimes you have to prioritize, and a submaximal workout is the right choice for the right situation. Naturally, the eventual goal is to get back to workouts performed at the highest intensity possible, but taking things a little easier for a short period of time can help you ultimately to get to where you want to go.