Resistance training has seen some pretty huge advancements in equipment, technology, techniques, and even exercise innovation over the years. From bands and chains, to post-activation potentiation, or the literal invention of the hip thrust, it seems like there’s an endless supply of new tricks of the trade.
When everything gets stripped away and all the bells and whistles are out of the equation, manual resistance training has always been there, patiently waiting to be rediscovered as a means of unlocking new gains or kickstarting fresh progress if you’ve been stranded atop a training plateau.
The question is, how can something so straightforward provide any benefits when compared to clanging and banging heavy weights — is manual resistance training actually effective?
- What Is Manual Resistance Training?
- Benefits of Manual Resistance Training
- Who Should Use Manual Resistance Training?
- How to Use Manual Resistance Training
- How Often Should You Use Manual Resistance Training?
- Frequently Asked Questions
Manual resistance makes use of your training partner to become the machine, free weight, or any other resistance type that you can creatively simulate. Manual resistance training will mimic the exercise technique typically used by more traditional equipment options (for example, the lateral raise), but instead employs the physical resistance of your training partner to act as the weight. (1)
In the lateral raise example, your training partner would place their hands on your arms and resist you raising them through the normal range of motion. In this sense, you can think of manual resistance training as a variation on the accommodating resistance concept popularized by the use of bands and chains. (1)
Instead of customizing your setup with additional equipment, manual resistance delivers a similar end result — providing a more consistent challenge for you as the lifter. Depending on how much resistance is applied by your training partner, you can make any exercise potentially more challenging than its machine or free weight counterpart.
A main benefit of manual resistance is the ease of applying the technique with no equipment needed. It’s also extremely sensitive to subjective scaling of difficulty and offers a much more diverse range of exercises than the more commonly applied accommodating resistance techniques.
No Equipment Needed
The entire premise surrounding manual resistance training is that you won’t be needing much, if any, equipment to perform your exercises. The main goal is for you to mimic the exercise motion with just your own body and your training partner to apply external resistance instead of (or sometimes in addition to) whatever training implement you’d normally rely on.
While the concept of accommodating resistance is sound, it can still be difficult for you to consistently apply throughout your training. With manual resistance, you can give immediate feedback to your training partner to ratchet up or down the challenge they’re providing.
In this respect, you will likely be able to tailor your workouts a bit more seamlessly than having to add or subtract total resistance or modifying to accommodate resistance tools.
Versatility in Exercise Selection
One of the biggest advantages of applying manual resistance is that it can be used across a much broader range of exercises than other forms of training implements or accommodating resistance tools. Anything that you can mimic with your body and brace your training partner against can be applied to your manual resistance repertoire — from lateral raises to leg curls and almost everything in-between.
By comparison, it’s a lot more difficult (and dangerous) to creatively apply bands or chains to the certain exercise options.
Manual resistance training has a great deal of potential applicability, but it isn’t right for everyone all the time. Here’s how to tell the difference so you’re making good use of your energy in the gym.
As a beginner, the longer amount of time you can spend using any exercise, the better. The main goal of any training program is to help you build as much strength and muscle as possible before transitioning to a new set of exercises or an updated training style.
Normally, these progressions are only viewed from the perspective of sets, repetitions, rest periods, and load — but manual resistance can introduce a new criteria in addition to progression options for your exercises.
By starting with manual resistance, you can “scale” up your workout intensity for a lot longer before having to use dumbbell or machine variations — in addition, you can prolong the so-called usefulness lifespan of those same exercises once you get there.
As an intermediate lifter, you will likely begin to employ intensification techniques such as drop-sets or supersets. Choosing exercises that can be enhanced by manual resistance is a great choice here to improve your time efficiency and combine these concepts. Grab your training partner as both a spotter for intense drop-sets with manual resistance before rapidly transitioning to the second exercise.
As an advanced lifter. you will more than likely have an expansive skillset in the gym. The amount of exercises you can safely perform using both intensification techniques and manual resistance as a form of overload will be a huge advantage. Using a long drop set that both starts and finishes with manual resistance will be a great way to smash each muscle for the greatest growth stimulus possible.
There are a few key components to safely and effectively employing manual resistance. You can use it to mimic the same exercise you would typically use with free weights or machines, pair it within a superset or drop set, or even use it as the main exercise of the day.
The Drop Set
A drop set is an intensification technique that requires you to complete one normal set to a prescribed repetition count (or failure), before dropping weight off of the exercise and continuing with a lighter load. Manual resistance is a great tool for this job, minimizing the transition between one set and the beginning of the second prong by simply dropping the load and having your partner jump in.
It can also be used to prolong the drop set by having your training partner scale their resistance down over time — making each repetition as agonizing as possible.
The Mechanical Drop Set
A mechanical drop set follows a similar concept as the traditional drop set. The key difference is that you’re going to swap to a different exercise for the same muscle group. A great example of this would be to perform a set of dumbbell bench press before transitioning to a pec fly.
While intensification techniques are fun (and awful in the best way), in a pinch you can perform manual resistance techniques as your main exercise style all on its own.
If equipment is sparse or you’re just looking to try something new, manual resistance can be just the ticket. While demanding on positional awareness and proprioception, exercises like a lying leg curl can be performed exclusively using manual resistance.
While manual resistance is a great tool to have, it doesn’t mean that it should be your main method all the time. While more common training methods such as cables, free weights, and even bodyweight can be conveniently employed without needing a second person — manual resistance can be a great tool for learning an exercise, intensifying your sets, or filling the gap in times of low or no equipment availability.
Learning An Exercise
When you’re first learning an exercise, developing an awareness of proprioception and the ability to maintain tension on the spots you’re trying to target are essential skills. Manual resistance training can be used to find more accurate levels of load for each particular muscle and exercise to best learn the correct techniques under an appropriate resistance.
Where free weight or machine incremental increases may overwhelm the learning experience, coaching a training partner to find the sweet spot of resistance can be very effective if you’re patient enough.
Using manual resistance is an excellent form of intensifying an exercise towards the tail end of your program. As an exercise begins to run its course through all traditional progressions (load, sets, repetitions, or rest periods), spiking it with one last technique can really get the most out of it before changing to something new.
For the last session or two before revamping your program, try adding a bit of manual resistance as a drop set to the last set of an exercise.
Sometimes you’re traveling or in a busy gym and equipment is scarce. You’re still looking to get a great workout in, but it’s looking less and less likely. Manual resistance is your solution. In case of emergency, break the proverbial glass — grab your training partner and go to town.
A Hands-On Approach
In the bodybuilding days of old, manual resistance training was once a staple way of taking a set to the limit. When the machine or free weight version had done its job, a nice dose of manual resistance allowed you as the lifter to really take a muscle group all the way to the wall.
Building muscle is all about getting your sets as close to true muscular fatigue as you can, and when a machine or free weight makes it hard to solely target your muscle of interest — manual resistance can help fill that gap.
Grab your training partner and fine-tune your program to include some high intensity sets with manual resistance. Set the trend in your gym and see how fast manual resistance becomes a mainstay technique in your workout routine all over again.
While the concept itself is simple, the devil is in the details when it comes to execution. Here are a few common questions about manual resistance training addressed and unpacked.
What are the best exercises to use with manual resistance training?
Exercises such as pec flyes, lateral raises, biceps curls, quad extensions, or hamstring curls are very easy to apply manual resistance techniques to. The common denominator here is that you’re using exercises that already take advantage of “long levers”. Exercises that are hard already due to long ranges of motion are your best bet to employ manual resistance.
What are the best set and repetition schemes to use with manual resistance training?
Manual resistance, when combined with a “long lever” style of exercise benefits the most from medium to higher repetitions. Since you’ll be using a training partner to generate resistance, you can also very easily reduce the challenge as the set progresses for even higher repetition sets. 3-4 sets of 12-15 are a great place to start.
Is manual resistance safe?
Manual resistance has been shown to be safe and effective to various degrees depending on training age when performed by adolescent, resistance-trained young men, and elderly populations. (2)(3)(4) With constant communication between you and your training partner and the right exercise selection, you should never be in any danger while making gains.
1. Dorgo, S., King, G. A., & Rice, C. A. (2009). The effects of manual resistance training on improving muscular strength and endurance. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 23(1), 293–303.
2. Dorgo, S., King, G. A., Candelaria, N. G., Bader, J. O., Brickey, G. D., & Adams, C. E. (2009). Effects of manual resistance training on fitness in adolescents. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 23(8), 2287–2294.
3. Chulvi-Medrano, I., Rial, T., Cortell-Tormo, J. M., Alakhdar, Y., La Scala Teixeira, C. V., Masiá-Tortosa, L., & Dorgo, S. (2017). Manual Resistance versus Conventional Resistance Training: Impact on Strength and Muscular Endurance in Recreationally Trained Men. Journal of sports science & medicine, 16(3), 343–349.
4. Katsura, Y., Takeda, N., Hara, T., Takahashi, S., & Nosaka, K. (2019). Comparison between eccentric and concentric resistance exercise training without equipment for changes in muscle strength and functional fitness of older adults. European journal of applied physiology, 119(7), 1581–1590.
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