High Intensity Strength Training For Better Body Composition

Submitted with permission by: Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D.

During the past several years we have learned a lot about the effects of strength training and body composition. For example, a carefully controlled study at Tufts University showed significant changes in body composition from a basic program of strength exercise (Campbell et al. 1994).

The subjects added three pounds of lean weight, lost four pounds of fat weight, increased their resting metabolic rate by seven percent and increased their daily energy requirements by 15 percent after 12 weeks of strength training.

Research with over 1100 previously sedentary adults revealed similar body composition improvements from eight weeks of standard strength training (Westcott and Guy 1996). The program participants increased their lean weight by 2.4 pounds and decreased their fat weight by 4.6 pounds.

Of course, unfit individuals tend to improve their body composition at faster rates than people who are presently doing strength exercise. Many people want to know if strength training can further enhance body composition in well-conditioned exercisers.

Previous studies have demonstrated that various high-intensity training techniques are more effective than standard training protocols for increasing muscle strength in both beginning and advanced participants (Westcott 1996, 1997a, 1997b; Westcott and La Rosa Loud 1997). As shown in Figures 1 and 2, slow training produced greater strength gains than standard training for both beginning and advanced trainees. As illustrated in Figures 3 and 4, breakdown training resulted in greater strength gains than standard training for both beginning and advanced exercisers. Likewise, assisted training generated greater strength gains than standard training for both beginning and advanced subjects (see Figures 5 and 6).

We have recently examined the effects of combined high-intensity training techniques on body composition changes in well-conditioned participants. The six-week advanced exercise program included slow training, breakdown training, assisted training, and pre-exhaustion training. The 48 subjects added 2.5 pounds of lean weight and lost 3.3 pounds of fat weight as a result of their training efforts, which represented more improvement than we expected from regular strength exercisers.

We have been pleased with our participants’ positive response to the combined approach of high-intensity strength training techniques. Our standard exercise protocol is outlined in Table I.

We observed that many program participants selected the pre-exhaustion technique for their sixth week of high intensity training. Although we do not have data that show this training method to be better than the others, there may be some benefit in performing more pre-exhaustion sessions. Psychologically, changing exercises at the point of muscle fatigue may be more appealing than performing more repetitions of the same movement pattern with less weight or with manual resistance. Physiologically, performing two different exercises for the target muscle group recruits more muscle fibers which may enhance the training stimulus. In addition to more exercises, pre-exhaustion programs require more training time and may therefore be the best high-intensity technique for burning calories.

Table I: Standard Exercise Protocol

Week Days

Training Technique

Total Exercises

Total Time

1. M & F Breakdown (10 reps to fatigue plus 3 reps with 10-20% less weight)


20 Minutes

2. M & F Assisted  (10 reps to fatigue plus 3 reps with  manual assistance)


20 Minutes

3. M & F Slow Positive  (5 reps to fatigue with 10 seconds lifting and 4 seconds lowering)


20 Minutes

4. M & F Slow Negative  (5 reps to fatigue  with 4 seconds lifting and 10 seconds lowering)


20 Minutes

5. M & F Pre-Exhaustion (10 reps to fatigue with first exercise plus 5 reps with second exercise)


25 Minutes

6. M & F Personal Preference  (Trainee chooses the technique that seemed most productive)


20-25 Minutes

As many of our intermediate level strength trainees want to improve their body composition, we presently provide high-intensity training programs with more emphasis on pre-exhaustion techniques (Table II). The results are encouraging, but we try to be cautious about overtraining. Our members seem to respond well to six weeks of high-intensity training followed by six weeks of standard training to maintain their new level of strength and fitness.

Although we have not previously provided nutritional counseling to our high-intensity training participants, this would undoubtedly be beneficial for clients who want to lose fat as well as build muscle. A combination of individualized high-intensity strength exercise and sound dietary guidelines should produce significant improvements in body composition.

Table II: High Intensity Training Techniques






Breakdown Training Perform about 10 reps to fatigue with standard weightload. Immediately  reduce resistance 10-20%  and perform about 3 more reps to second level of fatigue. Complete 10 leg extensions with 150 lbs., then 3 more reps with 120 lbs. Change resistance as quickly as possible  to maximize the training effect.
Assisted Training Perform about 10 reps to fatigue with standard weightload. Trainer assists with 3 post fatigue reps on lifting  phase only. Complete 10 leg extensions with 150 lbs., then 3 more reps – with manual assistance from trainer. Assistance is given only on the positive muscle action where it is necessary, but not on the stronger nega- tive muscle action when it’s unnecessary.
Slow Positive Training Perform about 5 reps to fatigue with 10% less than standard weight-load, taking 10 seconds for each positive muscle action and 4 seconds for each negative muscle action. Complete 5 leg extensions with 135 lbs., counting 10 secs up and 4 secs down for each rep. Be sure to breathe continuously throughout every repetition.
Slow Negative Training Perform about 5 reps to fatigue with 5% less than standard weightload, taking 4 seconds for each positive muscle action 10 seconds for each negative muscle action. Complete 5 leg extensions with 142.5 lbs., counting 4 secs up and 10 secs and down for each rep. Use smooth and continuous move- ments, rather than choppy stop and go movements.
Pre-Exhaustion Training Perform two successive exercises for target muscle groups, typically a rotary exercise followed immed- iately by a linear exercise. Use 10 reps to fatigue in the first exercise and 5 reps to fatigue in the second. Complete 10 leg extensions with 150 lbs., then 5 leg presses with 300 lbs. Take as little time as possible between the two successive exercises to maximize the

Table III: Examples of Pre-Exhaustion Exercise Combinations

1. Leg extension followed by leg press. 2. Leg curl followed by leg press. 3. Dumbbell lunge followed by barbell squat. 4. Dumbbell fly followed by barbell bench press. 5. Dumbbell pullover followed by lat pulldown. 6. Dumbbell lateral raise followed by dumbbell press. 7. Dumbbell curl followed by chin up. 8. Dumbbell overhead extension followed by bar dip.

Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., is fitness research director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, MA. Dr. Westcott has written the Muscular Strength And Endurance chapter for the ACE Personal Trainer Manual and has authored several textbooks on strength training.


Campbell, W., M. Crim, V. Young & W. Evans. (1994). Increased energy requirements and changes in body composition with resistance training in older adults. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 60: 167-175.

Westcott, W. (1996). Strength training for life: Make your method count. Nautilus Magazine, Spring 5: 2, 3-5.

Westcott, W. and Guy, J. (1996) A physical evolution: Sedentary adults see marked improvements in as little as two days a week. IDEA Today 14: 9, 58-65.

Westcott, W. (1997a). Research: Research on advanced strength training. American Fitness Quarterly, 15: 4, 15-18.

Westcott, W. (1997b). Strength training 201. Fitness Management, 13:7, 33-35.

Westcott, W. and La Rosa Loud, R. (1997). A better way to beef up strength workouts. Perspective, 23: 5, 32-34.

TAKU’s NOTE: This week I offer yet another excellent article from my friend and mentor Dr Wayne Westcott.

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