Manual Resistance: A Productive Alternative!

Manual Resistance is an alternative to the more conventional forms of resistance in the strength training program. The resistance is provided by a training partner, or spotter, rather than a bar or a machine. Read more!
** Note: The following excerpt from the Army Strength Manual is merely an explanation of manual resistance exercise. Therefore, coaches should not misrepresent, misinterpret, misinform or misquote the Army strength training program to football players they are recruiting (especially when speaking to the same football recruits as Army). In truth, the Army football players use many types of equipment in the weight room. And yes, this includes free weight exercises.

Manual Resistance is an alternative to the more conventional forms of resistance in the strength training program. The resistance is provided by a training partner, or spotter, rather than a bar or a machine. This style of training could be incorporated into your regular workouts or in situations where no equipment and/or facilities are available.

Here at ARMY we use Manual Resistance (MR) training extensively in all phases of our strength program. Whether as an exercise in our regular workouts or as the only available training "tool" out in the field during Infantry Week or at D.C.L.T., MR has definitely proven itself as a valuable form of strength training.


Advantages Of Manual Resistance

There are many advantages to using MR. Some of the more obvious reasons include:

  1. No equipment is required to perform the exercises. Since no equipment is needed these exercises can be performed any time and any place. A coach, for example, can administer the program on the field, court or diamond. The career person can perform the exercises during the lunch hour.

    The Physical Education instructor can hold his class indoors or outdoors. The point to be remembered is that MR exercises can be performed anywhere. Waiting to use equipment is no longer a problem with MR.

  2. Large numbers of individuals can be trained simultaneously. Two people or two hundred people can perform the exercises simultaneously. One person exercises while the other supplies the work load. To the coach or P.E. instructor who has experienced the frustration of overcrowded facilities, MR is a godsend.

  3. The muscles can be worked maximally each rep. Once an individual has been exposed to MR, conditioning the muscles can be a lifelong activity. No longer will a lack of equipment be an obstacle. Maximum resistance can be obtained during the raising and lowering phase of each rep. If the lifter can raise 80 pounds on the first rep, the spotter can apply 80 pounds worth of resistance.

    If the lifter can lift five pounds of resistance on the last rep, the spotter can accommodate this decreasing strength level accordingly. Why is this an advantage? Because it reduces the level of strength closer to the point of zero. More of the muscle is brought into play, thereby causing a greater overload.

  4. The speed of the MR exercise can be controlled. The rate of resistance during the raising phase will be dictated by the amount of resistance applied by the spotter. The lifter's partner or the instructor can decide upon the speed of exercise during the raising phase.


Disadvantages Of Manual Resistance

With all of its advantages, MR also has some distinct disadvantages. Every type of equipment available has advantages and disadvantages. By recognizing the limitations of MR, it can help provide a safer and more effective form of exercise.

A better understanding of the exercise will also be realized. The major limitations of MR include:

  1. Two people are needed to perform any MR exercise. A lifter and a training partner to apply the resistance are required to perform each exercise. This can be a problem for some fitness enthusiasts (e.g. The working person may want to work out during the lunch hour and perhaps a training partner is unavailable; A fitness class may have an odd number of students and this would leave one student without a partner.)

  2. The lifter must learn how to perform each exercise. Before maximum gains can be obtained, the lifter must learn how to perform each exercise. This is also a problem when any new exercise using equipment is performed, however, due to the uniqueness of the MR style of exercise, the learning process of performinng the exercise probably creates more problems for the inexperienced lifter than will a conventional exercise performed on equipment.

    The lifter must also learn to coordinate the exercise with the spotter,

  3. The spotter must learn how to safely and effectively apply the resistance. The spotter's job is even more difficult than the lifter's. The training partner is the key to any strength building program but the effectiveness of any MR exercise is totally dependent upon the abilities of the spotter. Equipment can help minimize the risk of injury occurring while an individual is performing an exercise.

    The risk increases whenever the lifter must rely entirely upon a partner to provide the resistance. Instructors can minimize the risk by taking the time to learn how to utilize this form of exercise and then educating their students sufficiently. It's just like teaching a student-athlete how to block, tackle, perform back somersaults, or to do other potentially dangerous skills.

    Everything demands proper instruction. The instructor should initially treat MR exercise as any other potentially dangerous activity. Remember, it is the ability of the spotter that dictates the quality of the exercise. There is a specific skill required.

    Some spotters develop a high skill level to spot effectively, while some develop lower skill levels. An educated lifter will immediately notice the skill level of the spotter. A lower skill level will obviously decrease the effectiveness of the exercise.

  4. The lifter may be significantly stronger than the spotter. When pairing off participants, it's possible that one training partner may be significantly stronger than the other. This can present a problem for the weaker individual. The spotter has four alternatives while applying resistance to a lifter who is significantly stronger than himself.

    1. If it is an exercise performed with the upper body, additional resistance can be held by the lifter. Books, paperweights, etc. can be held in the lifter's hands to make the spotter's job easier.

    2. The lifter can be required to allow more time for the raising of the exercise. Allow 2-4 seconds for the raising phase instead of 1-2 seconds.

    3. De-emphasize the lowering phase until the lifter has reached an adequate fatigue level. Allow 2 seconds to lower the resistance instead of 4 seconds.

    4. Perform the exercise one leg or arm at a time.

  5. Accountability. The lifter may ask, "How will I know how much strength I am gaining from workout to workout?" Unfortunately, accountability will always be a problem. With MR you cannot record and evaluate strength gains as you can with a barbell or machine. You are forced to rely upon your spotters to do their job. When they do the lifter will be assured of gaining strength.

Note: Sure, there are limitations to manual resistance. However, these limitations can be overcome by instructors who are willing to invest a little time in developing the ability to teach these exercises and in providing as much supervision as possible during their execution.


Responsibilites Of Instructor

  1. Thoroughly understand the responsibilities of the spotter and lifter. The instructor should develop an in-depth understanding of how to apply the MR concepts. These exercises can not be spotted and performed in a haphazard manner.

    Unfortunately, more often than not, this is the rule rather than the exception. If this occurs the potential results from the exercise will be reduced and the risk of injury to the lifter will be increased.

    Note: Thoroughly read the guidelines enclosed and develop a detailed understanding of how to safely and effectively spot and perform each exercise.

  2. Perform the exercises with another instructor in order to develop the skills needed to spot and perform each exercise. It's obvious to every coach and physical educator that doing something is better than talking about it. Unfortunately, few instructors are willing to actually practice doing the MR exercises. The exact skills to apply the resistance and perform the exercises will not be developed unless the instructor practices what he preaches.

    Note: There is nothing overly demanding about the skills needed to spot and perform each exercise. Something will be lost, however, from the instructor to the student if the instructor doesn't experience some of the problems encountered.

  3. Minimize the loss in the interpretation of this information from the instructor to the students. The instructor's first responsibility is to adhere to the aforementioned rules. The eventual quality of MR exercise performed by the participants will be determined by how well the instructor prepares himself/herself and by how well that information is taught to the students.

    This is not the type of information that is posted on the weight room bulletin board. Initially, constant supervision by the instructor is necessary to eliminate any confusion. Ideally, the instructor should discuss all of the concepts enclosed and then spot each student through the exercises until they have mastered the skills required.

    Note: The instructor can teach one thing and the student may interpret it differently. Instructors must realize the loss in translation to the students.


Responsibilities Of Lifter

For manual resistance to be safe and effective, the lifter must assume some responsibilities during the execution of each repetition. These responsibilities include the following four rules:

  1. Communication with the spotter is essential. Total cooperation and coordination between the lifter and the spotter are essential. For maximum gains and safety you may have to tell the spotter how to provide more efficient resistance.

    Cooperation with the spotter is needed for smooth and even resistance. Until the spotting and lifting skills have been mastered, the lifter may have to talk to the spotter. For example, "You're not giving me enough resistance," or "You're pulling to hard in the stretched position."

  2. Keep tension on the muscles. The relief of the tension for just an instant will allow the muscle to momentarily rest - and make the exercise less productive. Allowing the muscles to relax briefly is a common occurrence while performing an exercise similar to the lateral raise. When the exercise is properly performed the hands do not touch the legs in the starting position of each repetition.

    This exercise is performed incorrectly if the hands are allowed to touch the sides of the legs. When the hands touch the sides of the legs, the shoulder muscles are given a brief rest. This will make the exercise less productive. Another example would be the conventional push-up exercise.

    The muscles are allowed a brief rest if the chest, thighs, or mid-section touch the ground. Ideally, the hands should be elevated off the ground to prevent resting between repetitions.

  3. Pause momentarily in the contracted position. The lifter should hold the contracted position momentarily during the execution of each repetition. If the lifter doesn't hold this position momentarily, he will not maximally develop the muscle at each point during that range of motion.

    Also, because the lifter can lower more resistance than she/he can raise, she/he must give the spotter ample time to begin applying more resistance during the transition from the raising phase of the exercise to the lowering phase. An example of this concept is the bentover side lateral raise.

    The lifter must stop and hold the contracted position momentarily. A good guideline would be to hold the position for a count of 1001. If the lifter does not concentrate on pausing in the contracted position of any exercise, there will be a bouncing effect or recoil from the raising to the lowering phase.

    Note: Hold any contracted position for a count of 1001 and allow the muscles to develop maximally throughout their full range of motion.

  4. Exert an all-out effort. A submaximal effort will produce submaximal results. The lifter must work as hard as possible if maximum gains are to be obtained. If the lifter exerts an all out effort and the training partner applies the MR correctly, the lifter will be assured of obtaining maximum benefits.

  5. Allow only four seconds for the lowering phase. The lifter can lower more resistance than he can raise. During the lowering phase of some exercises, the lifter may be capable of exerting more force than the spotter can apply during the first few reps. The lifter must cooperate with the spotter and perform the lowering phase of the exercise evenly and smoothly, allowing only four seconds to complete this portion of the exercise.

    During the lowering phase of some exercises, the lifter could stop at any point, if he so desired, and hold that position, not allowing the spotter to push them down. This could invite injury and make the exercise less effective. Remember that in each succeeding repetition, the person exercising will grow weaker.

    Eventually the spotter will capable of applying more than enough resistance during the lowering phase. Until this point is reached, the exerciser must cooperate with the spotter during the lowering phase.


Responsibilities Of Spotter

It should be more than obvious to anyone interested in MR of the value of a properly educated training partner. The effectiveness of MR exercise is almost totally dependent on the abilities of the spotter.

It cannot be emphasized enough how important it is for the instructor to thoroughly educate the participants. For the exercise to be safe and effective, the spotter should strictly adhere to the guidelines outlines herein. The major responsibilities of the spotter include the following:

  1. Communication whenever necessary and constant coordination with the lifter. Pay attention to the execution of every repetition. The lifter's safety is the spotter's primary concern. How the spotter applies the MR dictates the quality and safety of the exercise.

    The spotter should make corrections if needed and provide verbal encouragement for motivation. If the lifter is not strictly adhering to the exact methods prescribed, the spotter should correct the lifter immediately.

  2. Do not apply maximum resistance during the first few reps. The first few reps of each exercise should be used to warm up the muscles involved. This will also help to begin gradually fatiguing the muscles involved so that when the lifter does exert an all out effort, the muscle will be adequately fatigued. This will decrease the potential for injury.

    Note: If maximum resistance is applied on the first few reps injury could result. Less than maximum resistance is required on the first few reps.

  3. Vary the resistance of each rep during the raising phase. Once the muscles are warmed up the spotter should learn to apply as much resistance as the lifter can safely and effectively handle at each point during the raising phase. All movements should be smooth and controlled.

    This is the most difficult aspect of manual resistance to master. The amount of resistance that a lifter needs during the raising phase of on rep will actually vary. The bones and musculature are a system of levers. The changing positions of the bones and muscles create leverage advantages and disadvantages. These advantages and disadvantages will require more or less resistance by the spotter.

    An example of the leverage system is the conventional push-up exercise. The lifter requires more resistance as the arms straighten. He requires less resistance as the arms bend. Another example of the leverage system can be observed while spotting the side lateral raise. It's obvious that the lifter gradually grows weaker (requires less resistance) as the arms are raised away from the body and weakest in the contracted position.

    The spotter should learn to gradually increase or decrease the resistance accordingly to accommodate these changing "strength curves." If the resistance is being applied correctly, the resistance should feel constant to the lifter.

    The lifter is adding exactly as much resistance as the spotter can raise at each point during the raising phase. If too much resistance is applied at any point, the lifter will be unable to move momentarily. He will be forced to stop the exercise, jerk, or use cheating movements to continue the exercise. If not enough resistance is applied the exercise win be less productive than it could be.

    The spotter should also be aware that the lifter is gradually fatiguing with each succeeding repetition. If the resistance is properly applied the amount of resistance will decrease with each rep.

    If the spotter applies the resistance correctly, she/he may only have to apply a few pounds of resistance on the last rep or two. On some exercises, the lifter may be unable to even raise the weight of his arms.

    Note: It is the spotter's job to apply just the right amount of resistance a each point during the raising phase.

  4. Smooth transition from the raising phase to the lowering phase. The person applying the resistance should adjust the amount of resistance at the point of transition from the raising phase to the lowering phase. It should be realized that the lifter can lower more weight than she/he can raise.

    That's why it's important for the lifter to pause momentarily in the contracted position. This gives the spotter ample opportunity to begin smoothly applying the additional work load for the lowering phase.

    Spotters can't make a sudden change from the raising to the lowering phase or the lifter will be unable to hold the contracted position momentarily. She/he won't make a smooth transition. There will be a sudden drop which wouldn't allow the muscle to be exercised maximally at each point. It may also invite possible injury.

  5. Add more resistance during the lowering phase. Due primarily to friction, the lifter can lower more weight than she/he can raise. The spotter should learn to apply more resistance during the lowering phase. If too much resistance is added the fifter won't be able to resist in the down phase for four seconds.

    If too little resistance is applied the lifter could stop at any point during the lowering phase and hold that position for several seconds. Because the lifter is so much stronger during the lowering phase there must be mutual cooperation between the lifter and spotter.

    The same leverage advantages and disadvantages that exist during the raising phase of each exercise apply to the lowering phase. The person applying the MR must also remember that the lifter is gradually fatiguing each rep. The spotter should learn to apply as much resistance as the lifter can resist while allowing four seconds to lower the weight.

    If too much resistance is applied during the lowering phase the lifter would be unable to allow four seconds to perform the lowering movement. This could invite possible injury.

  6. Change the angle of resistance being applied. Most movements in the body are rotary in nature. Most muscles contract about an axis of rotation. They pull on the bones to form movements that form an arc. For the muscle to be most effectively exercised the angle of resistance must change through the execution of each repetition.

    This must be done to accommodate the changing angle that the muscle is pulling on the bone, The MR must be supplied to coincide with the changing angles of each arc formed by the muscles involved. The changing angle of resistance applied can be observed while performing the side lateral raise.

    In the starting position the angle of resistance will be almost perpendicular to the floor. As the lifter raises his/her arms, the spotter should gradually adjust the angle of resistance. This concept will apply almost any time a single muscle group is isolated.

    The spotter should develop the ability to recognize the correct angle of resistance.

  7. Provide enough resistance to stimulate strength gains. For maximum gains the spotter needs to apply as much resistance as the lifter can exert during the execution of each exercise both during the raising and lowering phase of each repetition.

  8. Do not apply maximum resistance for any exercise in an all out manner during the first few workouts. Gradually increase the intensity of exercise in each succeeding workout until the techniques required for each exercise have been mastered.

  9. When necessary, apply less resistance as the lifter approaches the muscle's stretched position. While performing some exercises, the spotter should learn to gradually decrease the amount of MR being applied as the lifter approaches and eventually reaches the muscle's stretched position. Injury could result if too much resistance is applied in the stretched position of the muscles being exercised.

    The spotter should sacrifice the application of maximum resistance to gain maximum stretching and prevent injury. A good example is the neck flexion exercise. The lifter will not relax and stretch the neck if too much resistance is applied.

    To get the lifter into a relaxed and stretched position safety, the spotter should begin to gradually decrease the amount of manual resistance as the lifter approaches the neck stretched position. It should be a smooth and gradual transition. The spotter is applying too much resistance near or at the stretched position if the lifter:

    1. Doesn't reach a completely relaxed and stretched position at the end of each rep.

    2. Stops short of the stretched position.

    3. Feels the need to pull back in the stretched position to prevent hyper- stretching.

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