Exercise Research Update Nov '14 (1/2): Planking in Slings, Burpees for the Ultimate HIIT Experience, the Different Motors of Strength Gains in Young & Old Chaps + More!

There is a good reason drill-instructors love their burpees ;-)
Today's installment of the short news is a collection of shorter news items that deal with what's really important in life... well, maybe we should say some of the things that are really important in life: Building muscle, strength and a better physique.

That being said, we will take a look at the efficacy of sling-based planking, lean mass vs. neuromuscular efficacy as drivers of strength gains in young men and women and burpee-based high intensity interval training (HIIT) vs. classic ergometer / spinning based HIIT sessions and the changes the bodies of college students will undergo within one semester of conditioning training.
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  • Old vs. young - 1:1 for strength. Study shows similar increases in strength after short-term resistance training due to different neuromuscular adaptations in young and older Men... or put simply: The mechanisms by which the strength of the 23 young (29 ± 9 years) and 26 older men (64 ± 8 years) who completed 10 weeks of high-volume, medium load “hypertrophic” resistance training with low frequency (twice per week) with 10 young (34 ± 11 years) and 11 older men (65 ± 3 years) acting as nontraining control subjects, was different, the strength increase, on the other hand, was identical.

    More specifically, the training regimen led to significant increases in 1 repetition maximum (1RM) leg press performance in both training groups (young: 13 ± 7%, p < 0.001; older: 14 ± 9%, p < 0.001), who had been advised to consume ~20 g of protein within 1 hour of training and make sure to get a total ~1.5–1.8 g of protein per kg body mass per day, to optimize the muscle hypertrophy response.
    Figure 1: Lower-limb lean mass (upper left), vastus lateralis cross-sectional area (lower left), and voluntary activation level (lower right) before and after training in young and older men, as well as relationship between changes in 1RM performance and lower-limb lean mass during training in young men (upper right). ** p , 0.01 compared with before training. C = p # 0.05 compared with control group; YT = p # 0.05 compared with young training group (Walker. 2014).
    In that, the performance improvement, however, was accompanied by increased muscle activation, assessed by voluntary activation level (29 ± 51%, p ≤ 0.05) and electromyography amplitude (35 ± 51%, p < 0.01) in older men only. In the young men, on the other hand, the increase in strength was mediated by increases in lean mass (2.4 ± 2.5%, p < 0.01), not increased muscle activation.

    As Walker & Häkinnen point out, the study clearly indicated this form of "resistance training may induce similar improvements in strength between young and older men, it appears that different mechanisms underpin these improvements" (Walker. 2014)... unfortunately, for the old guys, their way of becoming stronger is very limited. In the end, continuous strength gains can only be achieved, when they are driven by skeletal muscle hypertrophy. Accordingly, the results would probably have looked much different, if the guys in the "old trainees" group had been resistance training and not endurance training regularly before.
  • Plank(ing) in slings is highly effective (edited). While conlusion of the abstract misleading says that Jeanette Byrne et al. (2014) didn't find an increase in the abdominal muscle activation during planks, when they were done in slings, a closer look at the full-text of the study reveals that doing your planks in slings is a very useful way to increase the activation of the rectus femoris, the external obliques and the serratus anterior (see Figure 2).
    Figure 2: Root mean square (RMS) muscle activation recorded from (A) rectus abdominis and external oblique (B) rectus femoris and serratus anterior during each 3-second plank. Significant difference in activation between the plank type indicated by a, b, c, d, e ( p < 0.05). Norm—plank on floor; FeetIn—feet suspended; ArmsIn—forearms suspended; Full—forearms and feet suspended. MVC = maximal voluntary contraction (Byrne. 2014).
    As mentioned previously in context of the study by Snarr & Esco, "caution should be taken for those individuals with a previous history or weakness in the lumbar region due to the increases in erector spinae activation during instability planks." (Snarr. 2014 | learn more in the corresponding SuppVersity Facebook news)
  • Alternate interval training for superior results. Scientists from the University of Georgia conducted an experiment to determine the cardiorespiratory, metabolic, and perceptual responses to a low-volume, high-intensity protocol of calisthenic exercise.
    "The purpose of the study was to document and compare the physiological responses to 2 high-intensity intermittent exercise protocols: repeated bouts of sprint interval cycling (SIC) and repeated bouts of high-intensity intermittent calisthenics (HIC)" (Gist. 2014)
    The authors of the corresponding paper hypothesized that HIC would elicit physiological responses similar to SIC and of sufficient cardiovascular strain to classify its peak responses as vigorous... and guess what?

    Table 1: Physiological VO2 & heart rat (HR) response to cycling (SIC) and calisthenics (HIC) training in the study at hand (Gist. 2014)
    The physiological response to the calisthenics vs. cycling trial was more or less identical (see Table 1). A statistical significant difference in the cardiovascular response of the 11 (8 men and 3 women) normal-weightmoderately trained, college-aged participants was observed only at the onset of the exercise, where the VO2peak increased to a significantly greater extend in the cycling vs. calisthenics group, in which the subjects performed as many burpees as possible for 30 seconds followed by 4 minutes of active recovery (stepping in place at self-selected pace).

    Overall, the results of the study at hand do thus suggest that those of you who hate cycling can as well do their burpees to elicit a similar physiological response. And while we would theoretically have to confirm that the long-term outcomes of both training protocols will be identical, as well. I personally believe that the burpee protocol will have significantly more pronounced effects in the body composition and overall conditioning domain. Previous studies have after all suggested that exercises that involve the whole body are generally more effective than exercises like cycling where only one muscle group is working.
  • 14 weeks of regular exercise will improve some health markers, but won't have college students lose weight or fat. That's the relatively unsurprising finding of a recent study from the George Washington University.

    The authors of the corresponding papers measured whether the college “activity” courses that are designed to give participants exposure to, and practice with, safe exercise techniques will also alter physiological characteristics, such as blood pressure or strength. The study involved 79 students from several sections of exercise and conditioning classes at our university. The classes included a variety of fitness- and strength-oriented exercises. Physiological and performance measurements were collected in weeks 2 (pretest) and 14 (posttest), and compared pre with post using paired t-tests subject to Bonferroni correction (significant p < 0.0055).
    Table 2: Pre and post values for the measured parameter | *HR = heart rate; SBP = systolic blood pressure; DBP = diastolic blood pressure; BW = body weight; %BF = percent body fat; HG = hand grip strength; PU = push-ups; SU = sit-ups; HRrec = HR recovery (Danoff. 2014)
    As you can see in Table 2, there were significant improvements in resting heart rate (HR) (73 vs. 70 b·min-1, p < 0.002), hand grip strength (250 vs. 272 N, p < 0.001), push-ups (29 vs 37, p < 0.001), sit-ups (32 vs. 35, p < 0.001), and step test HR recovery (122 vs. 110 b·min-1, p < 0.001).

    What did not change, though were systolic and diastolic blood pressures, body weight, and percent body fat did not change - a typical result for any low(er) intensity exercise only (no dietary component) intervention.
If you are looking to increase your bench, you may want to try training with elastic bands | learn why.
Come back tomorrow! If you liked today's research update, I highly suggest you come back tomorrow for more news from the realms of exercise science, including the effects of interval, strength and combined training on muscle fiber size and myostatin expression, the surprisingly pronounced increase in lower body muscle mass in response to six weeks of vibration training, the differential effects of caffeine on large and small muscle groups and much more... and while you are waiting for part II of this research update to be published, I recommend doing a couple of sets of burpees | Post video evidence on FB ;-)
  • Byrne et al. "Effect of Using a Suspension Training System on Muscle Activation During the Performance of a Front Plank Exercise." Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 28.11 (2014): 3049–3055.
  • Danoff & Raupers. "Effect of a One-Semester Conditioning Class on Physiological Characteristics of College Students." Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 28.11 (2014):3115–3120.
  • Gist, et al.  "Comparison of Responses to Two High-Intensity Intermittent Exercise Protocols." Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 28.11 (2014): 3033–3040.
  • Snarr & Esco. "Electromyographical Comparison Of Plank Variations Performed With And Without Instability Devices." Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: Post Acceptance: September 26, 2014 
  • Walker & Hakinnen. "Similar Increases in Strength After Short-Term Resistance Training Due to Different Neuromuscular Adaptations in Young and Older Men." Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research 28.11 (2014): 3041–3048.
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