Here are terms you may not be familiar with – horizontal and vertical loading as they apply to weight training. These are two ways of structuring a weight-training workout. Most people use the former – horizontal loading – but that’s not the only option. Let’s look at the difference in each approach to structuring a weight training workout and the benefits of each.
Horizontal loading is the “classic” way of setting up a weight training session. With this approach, you choose an exercise and do the first set. Once you’ve completed the initial set, you rest for a specified and repeat the set until you’ve completed 3 or 4 sets of a single exercise. You complete each set before proceeding to the next exercise. For example, 3 sets of biceps curls before doing a set of chest flies. With this approach, you exhaust one group of muscles before working the next.
With horizontal loading, you can still vary the number of reps, number of sets, the rep tempo and the resistance you use. For example, if your primary goal is to build muscle strength, keep the resistance high and the number of reps low. At the other end of the spectrum, for muscle endurance, use a light weight and a high number of reps. Muscle hypertrophy would fall somewhere in between with moderate resistance and a moderate number of reps, usually, 6 to 12.
Vertical loading takes a different approach. With this type of workout structure, you move through each exercise in your routine one time, without repeating sets, before repeating the whole sequence of exercises 1 to 3 more times. You’re still doing 2 to 4 sets of each exercise but your muscles get to rest for a period of time while you’re working other muscles. You move up or down your body vertically as you work muscle groups, hence the name vertical loading.
For example, you might begin with a set of overhead presses to work your deltoids, then move to biceps curls followed by triceps kickbacks, then to bent-over rows to work the lats, then on to the lower body. Each exercise is done in sequence without repeating an exercise until you’ve done the entire sequence. However, this is not the approach most people take. Most people stick to horizontal loading.
Horizontal Loading vs. Vertical Loading; What Are the Advantages of Each?
Horizontal loading is fairly straightforward and the approach you’re probably most familiar with. The problem with this type of approach is you rest between sets. If you’re using a very heavy resistance for strength training, the rest between sets might be as long as 3 or even 5 minutes. Longer rest periods are important for maximizing your performance on the next set, yet the rest periods add time to your workout. In fact, you might spend a significant portion of your workout time resting between sets. That’s not very time efficient.
With vertical loading, you don’t need a long rest period. The muscle group you just worked recovers while you’re doing the next exercise in the vertical sequence. In fact, depending upon the intensity of your workout and your goals, you may not need to rest at all between exercises when you use a vertical loading scheme. It’s similar to a circuit workout. Vertical loading has the advantage of being a time saver since you’re reducing the rest between sets. Another benefit is your heart rate stays higher since you’re not resting long enough to let it come down. So, you also get cardiovascular benefits if you move quickly from exercise to exercise. This type of approach also burns more calories.
Which Approach is Better?
So far, there have been few studies comparing the two approaches in terms of strength, endurance, and hypertrophy gains. It really depends upon your goals. If you’re trying to maximize the calorie burn when you weight train, vertical loading offers an advantage since you’re moving rapidly from exercise to exercise with minimal rest. Vertical loading is also best for days when you’re time-strapped due to its efficiency. Using a vertical approach can chop a significant amount of time off your workout. Those rest periods between sets with traditional training really adds up!
We all know that plateaus are common in strength training. Switching from a horizontal to a vertical loading scheme is an effective way to “shock” your muscles and expose them to a new stimulus. As you know, periodic change is necessary to keep your muscles growing and responding to your efforts. Vertical loading is versatile too. You can change the exercises you do, the resistance, the order of the exercises, the tempo of the reps, and the number of complete vertical sets that you complete. You can also use dumbbells, barbells, resistance bands, or your own body weight, just as you can with a horizontal training scheme.
The benefit of vertical loading is your muscles are getting sufficient rest and recovery time between exercises because it’s built into the vertical training protocol. Some muscles rest while you’re working others. It shares some attributes of circuit training as it keeps your heart rate up and burns more calories. Switching from exercise to exercise with minimal rest also keeps you on your toes and reduces boredom.
The Bottom Line
Whether you’re looking for a more time expedient approach to weight training, trying to maximize fat burning while you lift, or attempting to break a plateau, vertical loading is an alternative approach. If you’ve been doing a split routine or performing a horizontal, total body workout each time you change, switching to a vertical loading total body workout will challenge your body differently and help you keep growing and becoming stronger.
As with any type of weight training workout, warm up beforehand, especially if you’re working with heavy weights. If you’re just starting out, begin with lighter weights and complete 1 or 2 vertical loading sets. As you build up your strength and fitness, increase the resistance and complete 3 or even 4 vertical sets. It’s a different approach to training but one that’s time expedient and adaptable to your goals, whether it be building muscle strength, size, or endurance. It’s also a plateau buster if your muscles have stopped responding.
NASM. “Utilizing a Total Body Vertical Loading Approach for Personal Training Results”
NASM Personal Trainer Exam Secrets Study Guide. Mometrix Test Preparation. (2016)
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