ARTICLES: Training Related I - Basic Concepts by Casey Butt
- 12-06-2005, 12:55 AM
ARTICLES: Training Related I - Basic Concepts by Casey Butt
Casey Butt was a scientific-minded bodybuilder/researcher and for several years wrote for bodybuilding and strength training magazines such as HARDGAINER and MILO. He was different than many in that he seriously scrutinized medical, physiological and metabolism journals biochemistry, kinesiology, biomechanics and medical texts and books for anything relevant to weight training. He started his own now defunct publication "The WeighTrainer" from which the following articles are taken.
The articles posted here are meant to be read in order and should be preceded by a read of the Physiology Related articles posted here at: http://anabolicminds.com/forum/exerc...asey-butt.html At the very least the two part Muscular Growth: How Does A Muscle Grow? Physiology Related articles should be read first.
Also practical training routines built from the application of the physiology knowledge related in his articles and upon concepts discussed in these Basic Training Related articles are conveyed in Casey's Training Related - Making A Strength/Size Routine series posted at: http://anabolicminds.com/forum/exerc...asey-butt.html
The training articles (and FAQ) posted here are:
- Training To Failure: The Good, The Bad And The Reasons
- Volume: Set Volume And Frequency
- Progress: How To Measure It And What to Expect (for the advanced lifter)
- Variety: How Often Should You Change Your Routine?
- Range Of Motion Are Partial Range Movements Useful?
- The Weakest Link: Strengthening The Tendons
- 1 Rep Max Estimation Coefficients And Formulas That Predict Your 1 Rep Maximum
- FAQ Part 1 Frequently Asked Questions Part 1
- 12-06-2005, 12:55 AM
Training To Failure: The Good, The Bad And The Reasons
Training To Failure: The Good, The Bad And The Reasons
Years ago Arthur Jones said that training to the point of muscular failure was the necessary stimulus for optimum muscular supercompensation. Mike Mentzer was (still is) absolutely adament about it, repeatedly stating that if the muscle isn't pushed to the point of momentary concentric failure then no supercompensation will be stimulated. Bill Pearl holds the conviction that one should NOT train to the point of failure. Top Powerlifters seldom train to failure. Olympic Lifters rarely ever take sets to the point of failure. Note: By failure here I mean momentary concentric failure, i.e. the inability to complete another full repetition of the concentric phase of the lift (you could, however, continue to do static holds and negatives). Some people advocate doing negative only sets to the point of momentary eccentric failure (the inability to complete another full repetition of the eccentric phase of the lift - you are unable to stop the bar from crashing down on you).
So, is there a way of determining which of these methods have merit (without actually trying them all - possibly wasting a lot of time and even risking injury)? Yes, of course there is. If you haven't read the Neuromuscular System series and the article entitled Muscular Fatigue During Weight Training on the 'Physiology Related Articles' page, then I suggest that now would be a good time to have a look at them. A great deal of the knowledge that you need to analyze all of the above weight training approaches is there. Let's have a look at those approaches with the experience of others and muscle physiology in mind.
Training to Failure: Necessary or Not?
As I stated above, some high intensity training advocates have stated, point blank, that if you don't train to momentary concentric muscular failure then you will not grow. That's a pretty bold statement. The logic goes like this:
Your body responds to demands that you place on it. If you don't take your sets to failure, then the message your body gets is that it is already strong enough to perform the tasks being required of it (lifting that particular weight for the number of sets and reps that you performed). Similarly, in order for your body to respond by getting stronger and bigger, you must attempt the momentarily impossible, and take your reps to failure. This will send a clear signal to your body that it is presently insufficiently equipped to do the tasks that it is being presented with and your muscles will, therefore, adapt and grow/get stronger.
The logic seems bullet-proof. But you really don't have to look very far to dispell it. Top Powerlifters, Olympic-stlye Weightlifters and many Bodybuilders rarely, if ever, train to momentary concentric muscular failure, yet I probably don't have to tell you that they haven't had a problem with realizing muscular growth and/or strength increases. I recall reading an article by Ed Coan from about ten years ago in which he stated that he never went to failure on any of his sets. Bill Pearl says the same thing. "But they were on steroids", some of you will say. Well, of course they were. But most pre-steroid era bodybuilders didn't train to failure and they never had a problem with muscular growth either. "But they weren't that big" some more of you will say. That's precisely because they weren't on steroids. As most people can appreciate, the drug-bloated addicts that are now presented as bodybuilders have raised people's definition of 'heavily-muscled' to the point where any man less than 250 lbs. with 4% bodyfat is small and fat. If you really think that men such as George Eiferman, John Grimek and Steve Reeves weren't that big, maybe you should see them standing next to 'normal' men, or in more normal circumstances than oiled up on a posing dias. Take a look http://web.archive.org/web/200411130...e-steroid.html. If that doesn't convince you, compare your own overhead lifts to what the Olympic Lifters were doing years before the advent of steroids. 180 pound Weightlifters were routinely pressing well over 300 pounds overhead in the early 1950s! The level of strength that these men posessed was developed without steroids and without training to failure. The success of these people in building muscle, power and strength while not training to failure proves that such training is not necessary (at the very least, for some) to realize muscular conditioning and growth.
So now the question is clearly not whether training to momentary concentric failure is absolutely necessary (it may not be for you), but whether it is the most effective way to weight train.
Training To Failure: The Most Effective Way To Weight Train?
Physiologically, we need to consider what happens when a weight training movement is taken to failure. Muscles fail because they're firing patterns can no longer provide them with enough sufficiently rested fibers in order to continue to produce the necessary force. Taking a segment from the article The Neuromuscular System Part I: What A Weight Trainer Needs To Know About Muscle:
Muscle Fibers have two recruitment patterns. In the first pattern, units that innervate the same types of fibers are recruited at different times, so that some units are resting (recovering) while others are firing. Obviously, at high loads this pattern isn't possible because all available motor units will have to be fired at the same time to lift the load. In the second pattern, motor units that are more fatigue resistant are recruited before fibers that are more rapidly fatigued.
Since productive (not rehabilitative) weight training involves lifting weights that require the firing of the type I, IIA and type IIB fibers, the highest threshold fibers will cause failure when they fatigue. What I mean is that if you lift a load that requires the participation of the high threshold type IIB fibers, then this weight could not be lifted without them (although they may not develop their maximum tension by twitching at maximum frequency). If it could have been, the type IIBs would not have been recruited at all. When these fibers fatigue you can, therefore, no longer continue to lift the weight. And remember, even if the weight isn't initially heavy enough to recruit the highest threshold fibers, as the lower threshold fibers fatigue the higher threshold ones are gradually recruited to take up the slack. Oh yeah, the highest threshold fibers also happen to be the ones with the most potential for growth. So, by taking the set to failure you are exhausting more of these muscle fibers than if you stopped the set short of failure. Strong support for taking sets to the point of momentary concentric failure, if fiber exhaustion is indeed the stimulus for growth.
Muscle Fiber Considerations
So, what exactly is muscle fiber exhaustion? The causative factors of muscle fiber fatigue were covered extensively in the Muscular Fatigue During Weight Training article and somewhat in the Neuromuscular System series on the 'Physiology Related Articles' page. Taking some information from those sources we have:
From the phosphagen system:
Declining intramuscular ATP is thought to be a major cause of fatigue during high intensity exercise.
Creatine phosphate (CP) concentrations quickly decrease within the first few seconds of exercise and eventually decreasing to 5-10% of the pre-exercise concentration within 30 seconds. When this happens there is insufficient CP levels to replenish ATP stores at an optimal rate.
As contraction continues, there is not enough CP left to continue fueling the ADP -> ATP conversion and ATP stores get depleted also. This, along with the influence of some other occurances, brings a cease to muscular contraction.
And during the anaerobic glycolysis mechanism:
Lactic acid build-up in the muscle cells make the interior of the muscle more acidic. This acidic environment interferes with the chemical processes that expose actin cross-bridging sites and permit cross-bridging. It also interferes with ATP formation. So, these factors, along with depleted energy stores, cause the muscle fibers to become fatigued and contraction to cease.
...during muscle contraction, calcium ions (Ca++) are released from the sarcoplasmic reticulum by way of the T System and then returned to that organelle by way of the Ca-Pump. What would happen then, if all this didn't go as smoothly as anticipated?
Studies on isolated muscle fibers have, indeed, linked reduced sarcoplasmic Ca++ concentrations to fatigue. Specifically, repetitive 'tetanic' contractions of isolated muscles caused a gradual decline of force that was closely associated with a decline in sarcoplasmic Ca++ concentrations (Westerblad & Allen, 1991). After only 10-20 such contractions, sarcoplasmic calcium concentrations became insufficient for forceful contraction (Westerblad et al., 1991). The reason for this is simply because decreased Ca++ release for binding to troponin reduces the number of actin/myosin cross-bridges that can be formed.
Forceful contraction could be reestablished with extremely high doses of caffeine (which stimulates greater Ca++ release from the sarcoplasmic reticulum), but this required caffeine doses at physiologically dangerous levels. This does show, however, that the problem appears not to be with the Ca++ concentrations in the sarcoplasmic reticulum, or their release channels, but probably as a consequence of impaired T-tubule signaling. During repeated contractions of a muscle fiber, K+ begins 'pooling' in the T-tubules. This results from an inability of the Na+/K+ ATPase Pump to maintain the proper Na+/K+ balance on the sarcolemma (at the T-tubules). This disturbance of the membrane potential in the T-tubules inhibits the conduction of the action potential to the sarcoplasmic reticulum and Ca++ is not optimally released - and, thus, forceful contraction is not achieved.
In addition, lactic acid build-up factors in here also. Increased intracellular H+ concentrations (caused by lactic acid accumulation) slows the uptake of Ca++ by the sarcoplasmic reticulum. This occurs because H+ interferes with the operation of the Ca++/ATPase Pump. This reduces muscle contraction force by interfering with intracellular and sarcoplasmic reticulum Ca++ concentrations.
As ATP is broken down to provide energy for muscular contraction inorganic phosphate (Pi) accumulates in the cell. On the one hand this is 'good' because phosphate (Pi) is known to be an important stimulator of glycolysis (the breakdown of glucose to produce ATP) and glycogenolysis (the breakdown of glycogen to produce ATP) - thus stimulating the production of more ATP by these pathways. But the increased Pi levels also inhibit further cross-bridges from being formed between actin and myosin filaments. When ATP is used to fuel contraction Pi must be released from the myosin head. Elevated intracellular Pi concentrations impairs this process, resulting in reduced tension development - meaning that as Pi builds up, muscular force production goes down. This may be another contributing factor to muscle fatigue.
There's nothing magical in any of the above that implies that momentary muscular failure, itself, directly causes a subsequent increase in muscular strength/size. It may be possible that a lower blood pH (caused by the high muscular concentrations of lactic acid) causes growth hormone (GH) release which may, in turn, have anabolic effects - but only if several other factors are also in line. Anecdotal evidence, however, points out that growth hormone per se is not the major player when it comes to muscular growth/strengthening. When judging the merits of training to failure, though, this effect must be taken into account. This whole argument, of course, only applies if you are performing weight training with weights that cause the predominant utilization of the anaerobic glycolysis mechanism (weights that cause failure to occur in ~30 to ~60 seconds of beginning the set - around 75% to 85% of your 1 rep maximum - the bodybuilding mainstay).
If you've read the articles on this site about muscular growth you will, however, know that the build-up of phosphate and hydrogen ions as a muscle fatigues is thought to contribute to the growth stimulus. It is only logical to conclude that training to failure would result in a larger accumulation of these metabolites and, therefore, produce a greater growth response. But if these fatigue factors were the most potent stimulus for growth then Bodybuilding techniques such as compound sets, and drop sets (which create great fatigue in the muscles) would be known as the most powerful tools for promoting growth. Yet years of experience of thousands of Bodybuilders have shown that this is not necessarily the case - compounds sets, for sure, are considered to be used more for 'detailing' and 'refining' muscular development.
Still, it cannot be denied that these fatigue metabolites have their role in promoting muscle growth. But would two sets, not to failure, produce the same, or greater, result as one all-out set? Maybe. Maybe not. Other factors have yet to be considered.
From the perspective of tension and time: Since it is clear that muscles grow in response to tension and the time that they are required to produce this tension (resulting in microtrauma being done to the fibers), anything that prolongs the time under which they are contracting hard will also increase the growth stimulus. In this light, training to failure is definitely more efficient at stimulating muscular gains than stopping short of failure. The amount of time that the last failure rep extends a set has to be considered. If you did nine full reps in a set, reaching failure on the tenth rep and assuming that the tenth rep (which was only partially completed) lasted the same duration as the other reps (which it may or may not), then attempting that tenth rep extended the set ~10% longer than if you had stopped at the ninth rep. From only the perspective of time under muscular tension, which is a strong stimulus for muscular adaptation, training to failure is more efficient at stimulating muscular growth and strengthening than stopping sets short of failure.
A note on negatives: Research has shown that negatives (eccentrics) produce more microtrauma to muscle fibers than concentrics or isometrics. This occurs not only because of complex biomechanical processes but also because fewer total fibers are recruited during the eccentric portion of a lift than during the concentric phase (the lifting part). Fewer fibers doing the job mean more tension is developed in each fiber and, therefore, more damage is sustained by each individual fiber. Recent studies have indicated that this does not necessarily translate into accelerated growth, though. As was covered in the articles on The WeighTrainer about muscular growth, muscle damage and muscle recovery and supercompensation are different processes. High levels of microtrauma (as caused by strong eccentric contractions) are known to interfere with glycogen replenishment and other metabolic processes in muscle after training - this may factor in. Before you decide to try to minimize the negative portions of your lifts, however, bear in mind that many other studies have indicated that the negative phase is, in fact, the most important phase of the lift for stimulating hypertrophy (growth). The lesson to be learned is that negative-accentuated training will stimulate growth - perhaps moreso than any other type of training - but because of the level of damage they do, and the resultant disruption of metabolic processes such as glycogen replenishment, negative-emphasis reps will impose a longer recovery period.
Peripheral Nervous System Considerations
Getting back on subject: It was covered in the Neuromuscular System series that contracting a muscle involves more than just what occurs in the muscle itself. The nervous system is intimately involved in the process. Taking another few lines from that series:
...as effort fractionally increases, so does the frequency of firing of each motor unit. A sudden increase in force requirement is met by the recruitment of more motor units.
So, extending this, as the muscle fibers exhaust, and you reach the point of failure, the nervous system will recruit all available motor units and fire them as frequently as is possible. It is a well-established fact, though, that as a maximum muscular contraction continues, the frequency of motor units firing decreases. In fact, one study showed that by the end of a 30 second maximum voluntary contraction the firing frequency decreased by 80%. Eventually the frequency of twitching of the high threshold fibers becomes insufficient to sustain the effort.
We know that each neuron must release the neurotransmitter acetylcholine (ACh) every time that it fires (or 'twitches') a motor unit. We also know that the neurons transmit impulses down the length of their axons by way of Sodium/Potassium transport and the Sodium/Potassium ATPase Pump. The signal is carried across the membrane of the muscle cell in the same manner. The whole process also relies heavily on optimum calcium levels and enzymes that are involved in the synthesis and breakdown of acetylcholine and numerous other substances. The frequency of motor unit firing decreases, therefore, as these substrates are exhausted - yet as failure approaches we continue our maximal effort to lift the weight. What kind of an impact does such a furious effort have on the nervous system?
Consideration of such matters really is nothing new, but it probably is to most weight trainers. Consider the fact that during the 1960s a man called Dr. John Ziegler designed a machine that he used to monitor overtraining by sending electric currents through muscle. The 'Isotron', as he called it (cheesy 60s name), would be used to induce a muscular contraction by supplying a small electrical impulse to the muscle being tested. It was found that an overtrained or recently trained muscle would require a higher current than a rested muscle for 'strong' contraction to be achieved. What does this tell us? It tells us that for a period after training a higher than normal activation threshold is needed to produce contraction.
Incidently, ~75 mA was the 'normal' current required to produce 'strong' contraction. Anything over ~100 mA was considered indicative of overtraining. You may also be wondering how accurate this is given the fact that type II fibers naturally have higher activation thresholds than type Is. Well, oddly enough, when it comes to external stimulation (such as the kind the Isotron applied) the type II fibers are actually easier to induce a contraction in than the type Is.
Regardless of all this - and whether signal transmission at the neuron or sarcolemma is responsible for the effects - this clearly illustrates that the peripheral nervous system requires its own recovery period after training!
In addition, from the Muscular Fatigue During Weight Training article:
There is evidence that fatigue during fast and powerful activities (such as some forms of weight training) occurs first at the neuromuscular junction. This would mean that failure during such an activity occurs not because of muscle fiber factors, but because of an inability on the part of the nervous system to innervate the muscle cells optimally. Precisely, the motor neurons cannot manufacture and release acetylcholine (ACh) fast enough to maintain transmission of the action potential from the motor neurons to the muscles.
This is another way in which failure can occur because of the peripheral nervous system.
Central Nervous System Considerations
Our nervous system arguments up to now have focused on the peripheral nervous system. But, as any experienced coach can tell you, the central nervous system has a large bearing on the failure point and the overtraining phenomenon. Taking another segment from the Muscular Fatigue During Weight Training article:
In order for a muscle fiber to twitch the central nervous system (CNS) must send a nerve impulse to the controlling motor unit. The innervating nerve cannot maintain its capacity to transmit this signal, with optimum frequency, speed and power for extended periods of time. Eventually concentrations of substrates such as sodium, potassium, calcium, neurotransmitters, enzymes, etc. decreases to the point where muscle contraction becomes markedly slower and weaker. If high discharge rates are continued the nerve cell will assume a state of inhibition to protect itself from further stimuli. The force of contraction, therefore, is directly related to the frequency, speed and power of the electrical 'signal' sent by the CNS.
Interestingly, though far from understood, is the fact that a trainee's motivation and emotional state can profoundly affect the discharge characteristics of the central nervous system.
Clearly, the central nervous system can play a pivotal role in the perception and reality of fatigue.
If these concepts seem a bit vague, just think of a lifter 'psyching up' for a big lift, or remember some time when you thought that you couldn't possibly get another rep, but somehow managed to 'dig deep' and force another one out. Both of those situations illustrate the manipulation of the central nervous system in order to allow the lifter to be stronger. Any experienced coach will tell you, however, that you shouldn't 'psyche up' all the time or you'll 'burn yourself out'. The 'old-timers' referred to this as using up too much 'nervous energy'. However you want to look at it, training too intensely, too often, will certainly lead to the nerve cells entering a state of inhibition. When that happens you can forget about making good progress until you take enough of a break to allow for central nervous system recovery.
NOTE: As a general rule, training to failure with low reps and heavy weights is much more taxing on the nervous system than training to failure with high reps and lighter weights. Keep this in mind when you're designing your training programs.
So, for heavy training, failure may not even occur because of exhaustion of the muscles at all, but because of exhaustion of the nervous system, so to speak. This would, assumably, take a large 'recovery' toll on the nervous system.
Special Considerations For The Olympic Lifts (and closely related lifts)
As anyone who practices these lifts knows, they are extremely complex, high-skill movements. Because of the very explosive nature of these lifts, the very fastest-twitch fibers must be recruited during their execution if the lifts are to be performed properly. Higher reps would require the use of training weights that would not be heavy enough to maximally stimulate these high threshold fibers - the ones that are used for the all-important maximum single attempts. For these reasons, Olympic lifters practice, almost exclusively, low reps on these style lifts. For an Olympic lifter, performing higher reps just wouldn't be a sensible training practice. All this means that the nervous system takes quite a beating on these lifts. Pertaining to failure (again from the Muscular Fatigue During Weight Training article) remember:
There is evidence that fatigue during fast and powerful activities (such as some forms of weight training) occurs first at the neuromuscular junction. This would mean that failure during such an activity occurs not because of muscular failure, but because of an inability on the part of the nervous system to innervate the muscle cells.
Combine this with the fact that muscular and neuromuscular fatigue quickly causes a deterioration of form on these complex lifts, and you have a strong case against taking sets of the Weightlifting-style lifts to failure. In fact, it is very rare for Olympic weightlifters to train the Olympic lifts to failure (unless, of course, they miss a maximum attempt); it just makes no sense.
For someone who wishes to practice these lifts (or, more likely, their 'power' versions) for strength development or athletic improvement, it still doesn't make sense to practice higher reps, as the very nature of these lifts require activation of the fastest of the fast twitch fibers. These fibers are, by nature, quickly fatigued. Don't forget that even the simpler 'power' versions of these lifts (the Power Clean, Power Jerk, Power Snatch), or even High Pulls, still qualify as high-skill movements and, therefore, are susceptible to form deterioration with fatigue. Slightly higher reps than with the full Olympic lifts may be employed though - up to 5 reps - but they should not be trained to failure.
What Really Makes A Muscle Grow And Strengthen
If you've read the Muscle Growth series, combined with what was discussed above, it's probably becoming obvious to you by now that training to muscular failure (concentrically, eccentrically or isometrically) is NOT the necessary stimulus for growth. Quite simply, tension, time and the build-up of fatigue products is. The fibers need to develop sufficient tension for long enough a period to damage themselves (incur microtrauma) - causing growth factors to be released in the cells and leached out into the surrounding area and intracellular calcium levels must rise to 'set off' both growth and destructive processes. Extra growth stimulus is also provided by the build-up of fatigue metabolites such as phosphate and hydrogen ions (caused by elevated lactic acid levels). None of this is dependent on reaching a point of momentary failure. In fact, depending on rep-range and overall training volume, the failure effort may prove to be an 'unreasonable' burden on the nervous (both central and peripheral) and signaling systems (primarily the T system). Time must then be given for the recovery and supercompensation processes to take place.
This isn't to say that training to failure can't have a place in a sensible training schedule, as it certainly can and, in fact, does. For people who possess above average nervous system recovery abilities it may even become a major mainstay of their training programs. The point is simply that the effects of such training and personal recovery patterns of all systems involved have to be considered before such a training approach is adopted.
I really hope this article has helped you sort out some of the confusion that surrounds the "you have to train to failure to make a muscle grow" mentality. By now, you should be seeing that those 'boring' physiology articles really do have a purpose.
Volume: Set Volume And Frequency
Volume: Set Volume And Frequency
Arthur Jones, Mike Mentzer, the HIT people, etc. have always was been very mindful of recovery between weight training sessions. In fact, they were some of the first people to popularize the term 'overtraining' in the Bodybuilding world. The fact is that after you perform a weight training session you must permit your body to recover and get stronger/grow (supercompensation). Along with several other factors, this process requires time. It has been observed many times that the greater the demands that you place on your muscular and nervous systems, the longer this recovery period will be. If you train again before that recovery and supercompensation has taken place then you will get nowhere. One part of Mentzer's solution to this is to perform your workouts infrequently, thus giving your body plenty of recovery time. In addition, Jones and Mentzer advocate utilizing only one 'all-out' set per exercise (excluding warm-ups). The purpose of this low-volume, low-frequency training is to stimulate muscular growth with the single set, while reducing strain on the recovery system by restricting the total number of intense sets performed.
Each set produces muscular damage. The damaged fiber components are removed from the cell and eliminated (via the nitrogen cycle). In fact, after a workout, protein breakdown is markedly accelerated. This protein degradation is offset by the fact that the cellular damage incurred also causes the body to increase it's protein synthesis rates at the same time. So, the growth process is a balance of protein degradation and synthesis - catabolism and anabolism. Now, it is a fact that the body is capable of increasing protein synthesis rates to only a certain point (limited by substrate and enzyme availability, nuclei number, etc). Therefore, there definitely appears to be a point where maximum growth stimulus has been achieved and the body's ability to synthesize protein has been stimulated to it's maximum. Any work beyond this point will contribute further to protein degradation but no further synthesis will be stimulated - the body simply is incapable of it.
The HIT approach is to stimulate as much damage to the cells as possible and stimulate as much growth as possible with one single set per exercise. This, the followers say, is sufficient to stimulate growth and any work in excess of this will only lead to diminishing returns. The logic clearly presents the argument that if one set is sufficient to stimulate supercompensation, then any sets in addition to that not only are unnecessary but also present an unneeded strain on the body's recovery mechanisms.
Opposing this camp are people such as Bill Pearl (ironically, one of Mike Mentzer's bodybuilding idols) who believe that rather than training to momentary muscular failure, and imposing on yourself the huge nervous system demands that training to failure entails, you should stop your sets short of momentary muscular failure and perform more total sets in order to provide the growth stimulus. In addition to utilizing more total sets, advocates of this philosophy often believe that because you are not imposing on yourself such large nervous system demands, then extended breaks for recovery are not necessary between workouts and you should, therefore, train more often. This allows for faster progress since you are filling a particular time period with more result-producing workouts. Again, a compellingly logical argument.
From the perspective of muscular tension and the time that the muscles are required to produce this tension, performing several sets is indeed more effective at providing the growth stimulus than one set. If it takes you 5 seconds to do a rep and you do a set of 9 reps, then, assuming no pause between reps, it will take you 45 seconds to complete the set. If failure would have occured at the tenth rep, and the effort to complete that rep also lasted 5 seconds, then a set to failure would take 50 seconds. Two sets of 9 reps would subject the muscle to tension for 90 seconds. It must be recognized that the ninth rep is the last full rep that you can complete, and is therefore, by no means, an easy rep. It must also be addressed that as the set progresses the motor units fire more frequently in order produce the necessary force in the fatiguing fibers. If maximum firing frequency is a strong stimulus for muscular supercompensation (which it appears to be), then a set to failure would certainly produce more growth stimulus than a set not taken to failure. But would two or more sets taken close, but not quite, to failure produce an even greater stimulus, or would the extra set(s) just unnecessarily increase protein degradation and deplete enzyme levels in the muscles? From the perspective of the nervous system, does one set taken to failure, with its maximal rate of motor unit firing and recruitment, place a greater demand on the nervous system than several sets taken only close to failure?
In considering these questions we have to realize that when a muscle contracts it actually releases chemicals such as nerve growth factor (NGF) and members of the TGF-b superfamily, among others, which actually promote neuron recuperation. These 'neurotrophic' factors are released from the sarcolemma, cross the synapse, and work their 'healing' magic on the innervating neuron. Each rep contributes to the release of these factors. So, since two sets contain more total reps than one and neither of these sets results in maximum neural discharge rates, it appears that multiple sets NOT to failure are more nervous system-friendly than one all-out set.
Let's take a look at the recovery rates of the various systems involved when training a muscle and see how they all fit together.
What Recovers Faster, The Muscular System Or The Nervous System
As was eluded to in the article Training To Failure: The Good, The Bad And The Reasons, the nervous system and muscular systems may indeed require different recover times after heavy work. In particular, firing the type IIB fibers (utilizing weights above ~85% of your 1 rep maximum (1RM)) presents quite a strain on the nervous system. A strain which often imposes 7 or more days to recover from. Training the type IIB fibers again before this nervous system recovery has taken place will not stress those type IIB fibers maximally because the nervous will not have the capability to fire them frequently enough to produce maximum tension. The additional workout will not provide worthwhile stress to the muscle but will drive the nervous system further into the recovery zone, requiring even more recovery time. Many Powerlifters and Olympic Weightlifters have learned this aspect of training through experience and they do their heavy work on an exercise only once a week (though they may perform a second, or even third, lighter session between the heavy ones, being careful not to heavily tax themselves by using heavy weights).
On the other hand, significant data exists that indicates anabolic processes within a muscle may be fully completed within 36 to 72 hours of bodybuilding type work (~80% of 1RM) - among other things, protein synthesis has ceased within the muscle - though this does not guarantee such things as complete recovery of connective tissues in and around the muscles. The nervous system once stressed with ~80 (or greater) of 1RM weights may indeed take longer than the course of these processes to recover if the set(s) was/were taken to failure or close to it. In that situation the trainee has a few choices:
- Wait and train only when all systems have completed the recovery process.
- Train again when muscle hypertrophy has ceased but before the nervous system has recovered and possibly before intramuscular glycogen and enzyme levels have been replenished.
- Train again when intramuscular glycogen and enzyme levels have been replenished but before the nervous system has recovered and possibly before muscle hypertrophy has ceased.
The first option suffers from the problem that once protein synthesis has ceased within the muscle it may detrain (muscle atrophy - shrinkage!) slightly before the nervous system has recovered and intramuscular glycogen and enzyme levels have been replenished - assuming, of course, that these systems take longer to recover than the growth process takes to complete itself. Given that the onset of detraining is not something that would logically happen immediately after supercompensation has ceased, or would happen at a very slow pace (what good would an adaptation be to an organism if it were reversed as soon as it occured?), this probably isn't much of a problem. But it would be ideal if training could be repeated as soon as the muscle has completed supercompensation, if muscular growth/strengthening is the goal.
Obviously, based on previous arguments, the second option isn't a very wise choice if the training session is done with heavy weights or is done too intensely. As stated above, many Weightlifters and Powerlifters have learned through experience that they can train lightly between heavy sessions with no ill-effects. The goal on those days is to practice form and technique but not heavily tax the muscles or nervous system - though some attempt to use weights heavy enough to stave off any muscle catabolism that may take place during the break. The problem with this approach, as it pertains to muscular growth/strength increases, is that using light weights may not provide the necessary stimulus to fire the higher threshold type II fibers frequently enough to tax them sufficiently. If this is the case, the light session would do no more to prevent the atrophy of these fibers than not training at all (it is, however, very useful in practicing high skill movements such as the Olympic lifts). If too heavy weights are used it might impede nervous system recovery and glycogen replenishment. The key with making this approach work lies in the selection of weights heavy enough to stimulate a muscular adaptative response but not heavy enough to impede nervous system recovery and significantly further decrease glycogen stores.
The third option is illogical because of the arguments presented earlier on nervous system fatigue. It also, generally, makes no sense to train a muscle before its supercompensation processes (hypertrophy) have been completed because supercompensation is what we are trying to stimulate in the first place - although there are 'periodized' programs that deliberately manipulate this situation. Generally, unless part of a consciensciously planned periodized program, this would be shooting yourself in the foot.
Clearly, the ideal program for building muscular size and strength would include prescribing the training volume, frequency, and intensity level that stimulates the maximum muscular supercompensation, while also permitting the nervous system to recover, and intramuscular glycogen and enzyme levels to be replenished, as soon after (or before) muscular hypertrophy has ceased as possible. This would allow for the maximum amount of strength/growth producing workouts to be performed within a given time span.
Rational and Irrational Hypertrophy
Taking a section from the Muscle Growth Part II: Why, And How, Does A Muscle Grow And Get Stronger article:
Metabolic processes within the cell require ATP to "fuel" them (remember, ATP is the body's primary source for all of its energy). If enough ATP isn't present then a host of cellular processes slow down (including protein synthesis) resulting in the operations of the cell being compromised. That means, among other things, slower removal of waste products, slower recovery from training and slower or less protein synthesis. Research done in the former Soviet Union by Zalessky and Burkhanov has shown that if the contractile components of the cell continue to grow (sarcomere hypertrophy) without a concurrent increase in the energy supplying systems of the cell (i.e. the mitochondria, etc. - sarcoplasmic hypertrophy) then such a situation will develop. Essentially the motor has become too big for the fuel injection system. In addition, fellow Soviet researchers, Nikituk and Samoilov have demonstrated that such a condition can be brought about through poorly planned training.
Once such a situation is achieved progess, as far as metabolic processes in the muscle is concerned, will come to a halt. Training may stimulate growth and strengthening but the cell simply lacks the means to support any additional hypertrophy. It can't produce the ATP necessary to fuel the synthesis and maintenance of new protein (muscle protein is constantly being broken down and rebuilt - a process of "maintenance"). In layman's terms, you hit one helluva plateau.
Such a condition is called irrational hypertrophy because the situation just doesn't make any sense from an adaptative standpoint. The defining characteristic of this kind of growth is cells that contain much larger mitochondria than before, but much fewer of them. The net result is an ATP shortage in the cell.
On the other hand, if training results in proportionate vascular improvements within the cell (mitochondrial density increases - the total number of mitochondria also increases as the existing mitochondria get bigger), such a plateau will not be encountered and training-invoked hypertrophy can continue as normal. This is called rational hypertrophy, for obvious reasons.
So, what causes irrational hypertrophy? Essentially, it is caused by high loading of the muscle fibers but a volume of that loading which is too low. Such a scheme means that sufficient damage is done to the fibers to elicit sarcomere hypertrophy but training volume is too low to elicit an increase in mitochondrial number. What is produced is increased individual mitochondria size but a decrease in total mitochondrial number leading to an overall intracellular ATP deficiency - irrational hypertrophy. This is what I consider to be the strongest argument against very low-volume, very high-intensity training on a long-term basis. Once this condition is established the only solution is to decrease training intensity and increase training volume.
Special Considerations For The Olympic Lifts (and closely related lifts)
It was established in the Training To Failure: The Good, The Bad And The Reasons article that these lifts should, generally, not be trained to failure and that low reps must, necessarily, be performed. Furthermore, consider that some research has indicated that an intense set of 5 reps may involve more fibers than an intense set of only 1 rep (depending on the muscle group in question) and that when using weights ~90% of 1RM and above, acetylcholine processes (in the nervous system) may falter and/or ATP depletion may occur before sufficient muscular "damage" has been realized to induce a significant growth response. These facts combine to imply that in order to stimulate a training response practitioners of the Olympic-style lifts usually have to perform more sets than someone who performs higher reps. This higher set volume also has the benefit of allowing more practice in the complex techniques of these lifts. It has also been observed that when working at loads above 90% of 1RM the nervous system is strongly stimulated to improve it's efficiency for producing power and peak strength. This, itself, results in added strength and is, therefore, of benefit to the Weightlifter. For experienced Olympic Lifters it is recommended that several sets of low reps (1-3 reps) with submaximal, but not easy, weights be used. For learning the proper execution of the lifts in the first place it is recommended that several sets with light weights (which cause no fatigue during the execution of the sets) and slightly higher reps (3-5) be employed.
From The Powerlifter's Perspective
The lifts that comprise the Powerlifts - the Squat, Bench Press and Deadlift - are not performed quickly (especially during maximum single attempts) as are the Olympic lifts. They are also not nearly as complex. For these reasons, the Powerlifts are not nearly as susceptible to form deterioration with fatigue as are the Olympic lifts. Hence, it is common practice for Powerlifters to perform higher reps during their training; and for them to take these sets much closer to the point of momentary concentric muscular failure. Since these type of lifts are not performed quickly, they do not have the same intrinsic dependence on the highest threshold fibers for their successful execution as do the Olympic-style lifts. From the Neuromuscular System series on the 'Physiology Related Articles' page:
In the second pattern, motor units that are more fatigue resistant are recruited before fibers that are more rapidly fatigued.
Both types of FT fibers have significantly larger innervating neurons than STs and, therefore, have a higher activation threshold than STs. They are activated only after the STs have been fired, but they can twitch faster and more often.
What this tells us is that if the highest threshold fast-twitch fibers are firing to lift a load then the lower threshold fast-twich fibers and the slow-twitch (type I) fibers must have also fired. In addition, if the lower threshold fibers were stronger, then the higher threshold ones might not have been needed at all. By this logic, it makes sense for Powerlifters to also include specific training for the lower threshold fibers, and not just the highest threshold ones exclusively (as an Olympic Lifter does).
By these physiological facts, the Powerlifter is subject to all of the considerations dealt with earlier in this article. But it must be kept in mind that a Powerlifter's main concern is still the 1RM, and, therefore, training of the very highest threshold fibers must not be neglected. In addition to the strengthening of these fibers with low rep work, there is also an improvement in the efficiency of the nervous system in recruiting these fibers which, in itself, results in increased strength. Multiple sets of low reps (~90% of 1RM and above) would be the accepted way of elliciting this response. In addition, exclusive work in the 6-20 rep range causes the IIB fibers to acceleratedly become more IIA-like - potentially losing some of their ability for maximum force production!
Since the Powerlifts are relatively non-complex and a Powerlifter is, therefore, more apt to train close to the muscular failure point, the effect that such intense sets have on the nervous system must always be considered.
So, When Its All Said And Done...
From this, and the Training To Failure: The Good, The Bad And The Reasons article, we can start to piece together that it may not be such a great idea to train along one-set-to-failure lines - at least for extended periods of time, for sure. Other than that, when it comes to making a decision on set volume and frequency, unless you're training the Olympic lifts (or their cousins), you're essentially on your own. Am I implying that you should adopt the high-volume approach of the drug-assisted multitudes? Hardly! But there simply are few clear-cut answers as everyone has different recovery abilities ('tolerance to exercise', as Arthur Jones called it). That's not to say that there isn't a universally sound way to approach the matter. In fact, back on the Training Related Articles page there are articles to help you design your own programs based on the things covered in this article (among other considerations, of course). I sincerely hope that I have given you some knowledge to help guide you.
Progress: How To Measure It And What to Expect & Variety: How Often Should You Change
Progress: How To Measure It And What to Expect (for the advanced lifter)
So much confusion and inaccuracy exists in people's minds when it comes to weight training progress. I can just about guarantee that if I asked a random sample of people in the gym how much progress they expected each week, the vast majority (if not all) of them would either look at me like I had ten heads, or they would say something absolutely ridiculous. Some people concerned with only muscle size would say that muscle grows at too slow a pace to see weekly increases. The people concerned primarily with strength would probably say something similar. People just have not been taught to ask such questions as, "How much progress should I see each week?". It's almost as if this is a ridiculous question or something. I can't figure out what it is people expect to happen. Is it that progress is so unpredictable that you can't possibly expect to place bounds on it? Is it that they believe you just go to the gym consistently and pay your dues and one day you just wake up big and strong?
In bodybuilding anyway, I believe a lot of people's lack of concrete expectations come from the fact that they believe a person can get substantially bigger without getting stronger. If you haven't read the series Muscle Growth: Why, And How, Does A Muscle Grow And Get Stronger?, then let me suggest you have a look at it now. It will get rid of that fallacy here and now. After people accept (albeit incorrectly) that they can in fact get appreciably bigger without getting stronger, they then convince themselves that they shouldn't be concerned with strength at all. For many, years then pass; no strength being gained, but who cares - they're training for size. Years down the road they look in the mirror and talk themselves into believing that they've really grown - even though they haven't gotten stronger in the Bench Press, Squat, Overhead Press, etc. in all that time. Some people wake up, some don't. I've seen the same old faces in the gym, doing the same old workouts for years, yet they haven't improved one iota. I was one of them; but, as fate should have it, I woke up - most people don't. They either plug along getting nowhere or they realize that they're not progressing and then quit training altogether.
Now is the time for the cold hard slap of reality: If you are one of those people who's lifts haven't gone up in a long while, then your training is NOT working. But rather than get frustrated, do something about it.
The Nature Of Progress
Now that the above mentioned article has made you realize that you have to get stronger in order to get bigger, you are faced with the only logical conclusion: you MUST train for strength. Forget all the irrelevant crap that has, no doubt, been injected into your brain by the muscle mags. Sure there may be some truth in some of what they say, but what does all the isolation movements and champion's routines mean when you still can't bench 225 lbs. properly? Ever met someone with huge shoulders, who can't press 100 pounds over head? First off, GET YOUR PRIORITIES STRAIGHT!
How Much Strength Should You Expect To Gain And How Regularly?
You go to the gym to cause a response: strength gain (and if the rep range is right, muscle size increases). That means that, if your timing's right, the next time you return to the gym you will be stronger. The NEXT time. You won't stay the same for 6 months and then wake up one morning to find that your Squat has increased by 50 lbs. over night. Each time you return to the gym you should be stronger. If you're not, then either you're overtraining or you're undertraining (of course, overtraining can be caused by factors such as inadequate nutrition and rest, but it is still overtraining nonetheless). It truely is that simple, yet so many people think that it's ludicrous to expect such regular progress. NOTE: There are certain periodized aproaches that deliberately manipulate both the overtrained and undertrained states to produce more intermittent gains.
I know a lot of you will say that this consistent improvement is just not possible. But if that is your immediate reaction to what I said above then ask yourself why it isn't possible. Why would the body not respond for five workouts in a row (or any other number) and then just suddenly decide to get stronger?
A big part of the problem is the fact that, after you make some initial quick gains on a new exercise/routine, muscle strengthening/growth takes place at a slower pace than the weight graduations that are available in most gyms. While it is totally reasonable to expect that your Bench Press will be higher this workout than it was at your last, it is generally NOT reasonable to expect it to have gone up by 5 lbs. - the smallest weight increase that you can add to the bar in most gyms. Do you really expect that if it took all you had to Bench Press 225 lbs. for 7 at your last workout that you will be able to Bench Press 230 for 7 this time? Even if you could realize this kind of gain every now and then, you would never be able to keep it up for long. If so, in a year you would be benching 485 lbs. for 7. That just doesn't happen.
So what is a reasonable rate of progress? Well, from my own experience (and from the experience of many weight trainees down through the years), you can add about 1 lb. to your Bench Press and 2.5 lbs. to your Squat and Deadlift each workout. Exercises in which you handle a relatively light weight would probably only see 1/2 lb. or less increase from one workout to the next. All the basic movements in your routine should proceed like this. Big weight exercises (Squats, Deadlifts, etc.) would increase by around 2.5 lbs., medium weight exercises (Bench Presses, Bent-Over Rows, etc.) would increase by around 1 lb., and light weight exercises (Barbell Curls, etc.) would increase by around 1/2 lb. each session. Exercises aimed at the stabilizing muscle groups, such as the rotator cuff, would progress much slower because of the relatively light weights handled. In these cases trying to implement small weight increments may be impractical.
"But my gym doesn't have any plates smaller than 2.5 lbs." a lot of you will say. "I can't add 1 lb. to the bar every workout." Well, you have a couple of choices:
- You can buy small plates yourself, or you can have them made.
- You can make do with what you have.
There are at least a few companies making small plates. The most popular such company is Piedmont Design Associates http://www.fractionalplates.com/index.html. If you want to add weight to dumbbells you will likely have to get magnetic plates that stick to the sides of the 'bells. "PlateMates" is the most popular brand for this purpose - you can buy them from several online suppliers. If you wish to have your own plates made you should get in contact with a local metal shop, this can be much cheaper than buying them from a ready-made supplier. And you don't even have to do that; you could make your own out of wood (or any other suitable material) if it suited you.
Buying special plates, or having them made, probably isn't even necessary. Chances are your gym has several different weight collars for barbells. For instance, where I train the spring-type collars weigh ~1/2 lb. each, the larger screw-on type collars weigh ~1.5 lbs. each, and the Olympic-style collars weigh 5.5 lbs. each. If I want 201 lbs. on the bar I just load it up to 200 and put a spring-type collar on each side. 202 lbs. would need two spring-type collars on each side. For 203 lbs. I would use one screw-on type collar on each side, and so on. This, obviously, allows me to keep adding as little as 1 lb. to the bar each workout. For dumbbells you have to be a little more imaginative, but it's no real problem. Find something that weighs the amount that you want and securely tape it to the sides of the dumbbell with some good strong tape.
If you're as analytical as I am you're probably thinking to yourself that the discrepancy between weight plates can add up to more than the little amounts that I'm proposing you add to the bar. This can be very true. Some 45 lb. plates can be off by several pounds - weighing as little as 42 lbs. or as much as 48 (depending on the quality of the plates). All I can say to this is weigh the plates, just like you did the collars, and mark them. Most gyms have somewhat accurate weighing scales (at least the scales will be consistent, if not accurate). If the gym won't allow you to mark the true weight of the plates on them, then you'll have to take them at face value. I haven't weighed the plates at the gym where I work out, but I've yet to miss my projected reps when adding weight in this fractional fashion. Maybe the plates at my gym just happen to be dead on.
"That Doesn't Seem Like A Lot Of Weight To Add"
Well, it is, and it isn't. If you kept adding 1 lb. to your bench press sets a week, in a year you would have added 52 lbs. to your working bench press sets. For an advanced drug-free trainer that's phenomenal. Beginners, of course, can gain much faster than this, but this article isn't aimed at them. It isn't a lot of weight to add because the body can't percieve such small percentage increments in weight. Research indicates that weight trainers are unable to discern weight graduations smaller than ~1% of the weight they are using. This means that 201 lbs. this week will feel no heavier than 200 lbs. did last week (assuming, of course, that you ate and rested properly between workouts). If you keep this up you can add respectable amounts of weight to your lifts without perceiving that you added anything. Sound too good to be true? Well, maybe; but it is true.
All Good Things Must Come To An End
I have probably given you the impression that you can keep this kind of weight progression up forever; well, sorry to say, you can't. Eventually the body will have had enough and even these fractional gains will come to a halt (this is a manifestation of what a biologist would call the phenomenon of 'accomodation'). What do you do then? You have a couple of choices.
1) You can simply back off for a few workouts (to give your body a rest) and start at it again. Stuart McRobert (the most popular current champion of this approach) recommends that for your first "easy" workout you drop the weight of your work sets back to about 90% of what you peaked at. At your next workout you would use ~95%, then ~97.5% at the next. From there you would start adding weight incrementally again, at each workout, until you get to, and then surpass, your previous top weights. Does this work? ...it sure does. And you can keep gaining sometimes for months on end before having to back off (more advanced trainees will plateau sooner than less advanced ones). If you've been stuck at the same weights for some time (or have even slid backwards) imagine breaking your previous bests just about every time you go to the gym. There's no reason why you can't.
2) If you feel "burnt out" on any exercise, you could switch to another effective exercise that targets the same bodypart and do a cycle (or several) for that lift. This would be more along the lines of what the former Soviet Union countries have been doing for the past 15 years or so. The important thing is to choose your exercises wisely. If you do, you may acheive your fastest gains ever like this.
This Is Ridiculous
To be honest, it's a sad state of affairs when I have to promote regular progress as if it's some wonder breakthrough in weight training. But for me (after years of stagnation), it really was. This small per-workout rate of progression is the key for many less-than-genetically-gifted trainers to getting strong (and like I said, if the rep range is right, big).
First and foremost, if you don't expect to gain strength every workout, start changing your expectations! Deluding yourself into thinking that weekly gains are impossible is not only incorrect, it will also set you up for years of stagnation and frustration. It just so happens that you have to measure gains in the "small" quantities discussed above.
And To End With Some Historical Significance: Milo Of Crotona
As legend has it, the father of progressive resistance was the famous wrestler and champion of six Olympic games: Milo of Crotona. Milo wanted to get stronger and more powerful, so he decided to carry a calf on his shoulders for the same distance each "workout". Months passed and as the calf grew, so did Milo. Soon he was the strongest wrestler in all of Greece. Now, if the Ancient Greeks had a handle on this simple concept, how is it that so many modern-day weight trainers don't?
A Note About Periodization
A lot of you may be thinking that my arguments above are in direct opposition to the tenets of periodization. This is not at all the case. Periodized approaches prescribe training loads and volumes with the intent of fostering the fastest possible gains. Expecting fractional increases in strength on a regular basis in no way conflicts with this methodology of training.
Most good periodization routines focus on the acquisition of certain traits at specific periods in the athletes training. At the end of the training period these traits come together to produce demonstratable increases in strength and size (if that was the training goal). For example, a particular period may focus on sarcoplasmic hypertrophy while a subsequent one may target sarcomere hypertrophy (if you are unfamiliar with these terms go back and read the Muscle Growth Part I: Why, And How, Does A Muscle Grow And Get Stronger? article). It may be true that, because of certain design factors, strength appears to have been suddenly and mysteriously developed at the end of the cycle, but the truth is that it's foundation was developed over the whole cycle's duration. If it were not, then only the last few weeks of the cycle would be worth doing as the rest served no purpose.
In reality, the process I presented of "backing off" for a few weeks and then ramping back up into difficult poundages again is, in fact, a form of periodization. Perhaps a more unsophisticated approach, but periodization nonetheless. And it is my belief that for increasing basic strength and size (not necessarily for sport-specific training such as in certain Weightlifting and Powerlifting schemes) it is one of the best.
Variety: How Often Should You Change Your Routine?
There are basically two camps in strength training when it comes to exercise variety. One group says that you should change your routine every three to four weeks, the other says that if your program is working you should stick with it indefinitely. Let's look at both and see if we can make some sense out of it all.
The Case For Changing Your Routine Regularly
This concept became popular in Bodybuilding and Weightlifting circles some years ago. The argument is that the body quickly gets complacent when subjected to the same stress repeatedly and eventually no supercompensation will be stimulated. The ex-Soviets called this the process of 'accomodation'. Physiologically, it is argued that the muscle fibers align more favorably and on exaggerated angles in response to work at specific angles. When this occurs to a substantial degree the rate of strength gains will decrease. In order to avoid this situation one should change their workout routine frequently. This change can be a change in rep range, exercise form, the number of sets performed, rep cadence, exercise order or the exercises themselves, depending on who you're talking to. But the general idea is to keep the body 'receptive' by constantly mixing things up.
Much of this thinking was substantiated by the Bulgarian and Soviet Weightlifting Teams' observations that strength and power seems to peak in three week minicycles - the coaches noticed that the lifters seemed to be stronger every third week or so. When this information was presented in the west (primarily by Bulgarian Team head coach Ivan Abadjiev) it was explained with the above argument. Combine this with the, then in vogue, concepts of Soviet periodization (changing the focus of the training routine every few weeks, months or even yearly) and you have an ideal environment for the embracing of the concept of frequent routine changes.
Let's look at the most common ways of introducing variety into exercise routines and examine their effects.
Changing The Rep Range Or Cadence
It was established in the series The Neuromuscular System on the 'Physiology Related Articles' page that different muscle fibers are optimized for performing different tasks. Of the two types of muscle fibers comprising human skeletal muscle (types I and II) the type II fibers generate the most force and have the highest potential for growth. They also require heavier weights in order to activate them. And because these fibers are designed for powerful contractions, they are optimized to use the phosphagen and anaerobic glycolysis systems of energy production. Type I fibers, on the other hand, have a lower potential for growth and predominantly use the oxidative phosphorylation system of energy production.
This tells us pretty clearly that if it's strength and size that we're after then we should target the type II fibers - this requires lifting at least moderately heavy weight. The type II fibers, as you already know, are further broken into subcategories, the most prominant of which are the type IIAs and the type IIBs. Generally speaking, the type IIBs require heavier weights to recruit them than the type IIAs - remember that in order for the next higher threshold fibers to be recruited all of the lower threshold fibers must already have been. In addition, the type IIA and type IIB fibers are also recruited when the need arises for 'fast' movements - the higher the speed required the more likely that not only the type IIAs will be recruited but also the type IIBs. So, overall, a general rep, weight and speed of lifting scheme can be identified indicating the best rep numbers, weights and rep cadences to train each of these fiber types. Such a rep scheme would roughly be:
fiber type - rep range - %age of 1RM required - rep cadence (neg-pause-pos)
type I ....... 15 + ........... - 70% ......................... 2 - 0 - 1
type IIA ..... 6 - 12 ........ 75 - 85% ..................... 4 - 0 - 3
type IIB ..... 1 - 3 .......... 90% + ......................... 3 - 1 - 1
Of course, these numbers are only rough guidelines. It is not reasonable, after all, to assume that the negative, positive and concentric phases of the Squat would be of the same duration as the Bench Press - the squatting motion takes place over a much greater range of motion than the Bench Press. But the general concepts hold.
In relation to exercise variety, the above clearly shows that changing rep schemes may, in fact, recruit different muscle fibers in different patterns. For both Bodybuilders and strength and power athletes this has some significance. Clearly, strength and power athletes will benefit most from training with heavier weights in order to maximally train the IIB fibers. Let's take a closer look at what happens when training in different rep ranges...
It has been established that, for small muscles, all available muscle fibers will be recruited at loads above 50% of 1 rep max; for larger muscle groups it may take loads of 80% of 1 rep max, or more, before all available fibers are recruited. How does this sit with the above suggested rep/fiber schemes? Well, with submaximal loads (i.e. less than 1 rep max), the highest threshold fibers (the IIBs) may, in fact, be recruited but the nervous system will not twitch them at their maximum frequency and they, therefore, will not develop their maximum tensions.
So, working the IIBs with non-explosive reps in the 3-5 range will not force the IIBs to twitch at maximum frequency and synchronization, so it will not produce maximum peak strength gains due to nervous system optimization. It may cause the IIBs to hypertrophy, which would result in increased strength - especially if a phase of heavier training followed (thereby, optimizing the nervous system), allowing the newly hypertrophied fibers to exert their full force potential. It is commonly thought that even training in the 3-5 rep range, however, may eventually cause the endurance aspects of the IIBs to become more prominent until the IIBs lose some of their abilities to generate their previous maximum tensions and, therefore, become more IIA-like. Recent research has indicated that while this is clearly the case in other mammals, it doesn't seem to occur in humans. For us it appears that the IIBs gain endurance, but they do not lose their abilities to produce maximum force. It may also be that the studies with human subjects simply were not long enough to see this happening.
Higher-rep training for the IIAs would result in them hypertrophying and becoming stronger, but the strength gain would be more prominent in the higher rep ranges because the nervous system would not be optimized for low-rep training. During these sets, as the IIAs fatigue, the IIBs would gradually be recruited, but they would not twitch at maximum frequency and, therefore, develop endurance adaptations more rapidly. This tells us that this type of training is ideal for a Bodybuilder because, in addition to making the IIAs grow (see the Muscle Growth Part II: Why, And How, Does A Muscle Grow And Get Stronger? article), it also allows the IIBs to quickly take on charateristics that will allow for their maximum hypertrophy.
Changing Exercise Volume
If you've read the article Volume: Set Volume And Frequency you'll realize that increasing or decreasing exercise volume solely for the sake of change is a bit of a foolish idea. Taking a segment from that article:
Clearly, the ideal program for building muscular size and strength would include prescribing the training volume, frequency, and intensity level that stimulates the maximum muscular supercompensation, while also permitting the nervous system to recover, and intramuscular glycogen and enzyme levels to be replenished, as soon after (or before) muscular hypertrophy has ceased as possible. This would allow for the maximum amount of strength/growth producing workouts to be performed within a given time span.
If you change your rep range or cadence and find that this modification dictates that you increase or decrease your training volume and/or frequency then this would be a sound path to follow. Changing the exercise volume of a program that has been optimized for maximum results would not produce any additional gains unless the program was not optimal in the first place.
The only time changing exercise volume would be advised is when overtraining or undertraining occurs or if it is part of a periodized program designed with proper loading and recovery in mind. It is not a random hit-or-miss process.
Changing Exercises Or Exercise Form
This is a relatively simple one. Changing exercises will obviously stress the muscular and nervous systems differently. If you change your form you will be stressing the muscles, tendons, ligaments and nervous system in different ways also. By changing your form you are essentially no longer performing the same exercise; why would you not expect the recruitment patterns to change? Any alteration in your form, however, must be 'eased' into, allowing the body to adapt gradually to the new stresses. If you don't do it this way you're asking for injury. Even then care must be taken that the new form isn't detrimental to your body.
The important point here, though, is that the new exercise, or exercise form, must be as efficient as the one it's replacing at producing the effect you desire. It wouldn't be a very wise move to replace Squats with Leg Extensions if developing strength, size and power is your goal.
Changing Exercise Order
This involves switching around the order in which you perform the exercises. The effect obtained would be that the muscular and nervous systems would be in different states of fatigue when you perform the rearranged sequence of exercises as compared to when you performed them before. An adaptation of this is the basis for pre-exhaustion. If you do Leg Extensions before Squats you won't be able to Squat as much because your quads will already be tired.
From a variety perspective this may indeed provide new stress to the muscles worked because a different neuromuscular recruitment pattern may be elicited by exercising the muscle in a fatigued state. But again the question has to arise that is the new sequence of exercises as beneficial as the old one. Sometimes this may not be true; sometimes it may be. Performing Dips before Incline Presses may be just as beneficial as the other way around, but performing Deadlifts before Squats would not be a good idea. For more on proper exercise sequence see the article entitled Making A Strength/Size Routine Part II: Exercise Sequence.
Clearly the above methods can produce differing stresses to muscles, tendons, ligaments and the nervous system. So, if the original proposal that the body quickly gets complacent when subjected to the same stress repeatedly and that eventually no supercompensation will be stimulated is true, then the above methods of producing exercise variety may indeed have merit. Let's look at the case against frequently changing your routine.
The Case Against Changing Your Routine Regularly
From a Bodybuilding perspective, the case against frequent routine changes can be summed up succinctly by the typical argument that once you find the exercises, volume, rep ranges and cadences that work for you, you should not change them. People on this side of the fence will argue that you will never get good gains out of a routine if you don't stick to it long enough to realize them. Sounds reasonable.
Strength and power athletes (and their coaches) competing in sports where specific lifts are contested will contend that they must continuously perform the competition lifts or they will lose the ability to perform them optimally. This comes from the fact that the body 'fine tunes' itself for those lifts by optimizing intra- and intermuscular coordination, as well as specific muscle hypertrophy, when constant practice is performed. This is pretty much the 'use it or lose it' principle of weight training. It is analogous to the 'practice makes perfect' wisdom of skill training - if an activity is not continued detraining will occur. This argument, in fact, is one of the main rebuttals against the concept of exercise-based periodization: If an athlete wishes to perform a certain task then he should practice that task; while he is devoting his attention to other activities he will lose his ability to perform the required events optimally.
But what about the contention that the body quickly gets complacent when subjected to the same stress repeatedly and that eventually no supercompensation will be stimulated? Let's look a little closer at the physiological basis for this argument.
The Physiological Responses To Changes In Exercise Routines
When the body is first presented with a new muscular stress a few key things happen. Immediately following the exercise the nervous system will begin 'optimizing' itself for the new task required of it. It will alter it's intra- and intermuscular recruitment patterns so that it can produce more force, more efficiently. A prime example of this would be how shakey your balance was the first time you did Squats. Your first set was probably very bad, your next set a bit better and if you did any more sets your balance likely improved (up to a certain point) on each one. When you returned to the gym for your next workout you probably found your balance had vastly improved over your first session. You were also likely much stronger in the lift than you were in the first workout. This is essentially the same thing that occurs when you learn any new sports activity. After a few sessions the neuromuscular system will have improved its efficiency pretty much as far as it's going to, without extended practice, and your strength gains will slow down dramatically (this neuromuscular optimization will take much longer with more complex exercises such as the Olympic Lifts).
I know I've said that I don't want to get into the fashion of quoting studies to back everything I say but, since this subject is one of such hot debate, consider the following:
NEURAL TRAINING IN STRENGTH Bosco, C., Rusko, H., & Hirvonen, J. (1984). The effect of extra-load conditioning on muscle performance in athletes. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 18, 415-419.
Two groups of seven subjects, one a control and the other an experimental group whose members wore a weighted vest (7-8% body weight) all day including training except when skill acquisition activities occurred. All subjects were sprinters who no longer were improving.
After three weeks, control subjects showed not changes in either physical or mechanical properties. The experimental group's force-velocity curve shifted to the right, meaning that they were able to exert more force at original speeds. Performance changes occurred in 15 sec jumping and the drop jump test.
This investigation showed biological adaptation to strength training occurs in both neurogenic and myogenic muscle components. Neural changes appear first and improve technique, increase the firing rate of motor units, recruit additional motor units, and improve the synchronization of motor units. Morphological [muscle growth] adaptations occur later and only after neural adaptations are exhausted.
Implication: Initial strength training is purely a motor skill development activity where the central nervous system harnesses existing resources to perform the strength activities more efficiently and to exploit the structures of muscle more effectively. Discrete skill learning of this nature will not transfer/generalize to other activities in highly skilled performers.
Of course, because of the more intense muscular stresses involved, we might expect to see more of an initial growth response with weight training, but when you change around your routine essentially the same thing happens - with nervous system adaptation being the main producer of initial strength increases. After a few weeks the strength gains slow down considerably. What is happening in response to exercise from that point on? Since neuromuscular adaptation is no longer the main producer of strength gains, from this point on the vast majority of strength gained has to be in the form of muscular supercompensation. This is clear support for the you'll - never - get - good - gains - out - of - a - routine - if - you - don't - stick - to - it - long - enough - to - realize - them crowd.
So what about the contention that the rate of strength gains will decrease as muscle fibers more optimally align themselves in response to exercise stress? Well, several recent studies have shown that this alignment change does, in fact, take place - it happens so that more force may be developed during the movement (duh!). So, it may be argued that this 'new' alignment would more successfully resist damage during high tension contactions - thus affecting the growth stimulus. My contention would be that this would only be a factor if you did not increase the weights you were lifting. If you did, then the improved ability of the muscle to more efficiently generate tension, and therefore be less susceptible to damage, would be offset by the fact that you are now lifting more weight. If you maintained your intensity of effort then I see no reason why this adaptation would decrease the growth stimulus. Of course, it is possible that changes such as these do affect the growth process more substantially than I am aware of. But I know of no research or theory, to date, which has indicated that.
All these arguments notwithstanding, the true thorn in the side of the case against regularly changing one's exercise routine has been the fact that after the initial dramatic optimization of the neuromuscular system gains in strength are not dramatic enough to enable the trainee to lift 5 lbs. more each session (the minimum amount of weight you can add in most gyms) or to get an additional rep on each set. Because the lifter can't seem to increase his weight or reps over several workouts a plateau is assumed and the lifter concludes that he has gotten 'stale' on his routine. The logical solution, given these conclusions, is to change the routine.
The problem with the whole process is not usually 'staleness' or a plateau. The problem is the inadequate measuring devices of progress - a minimum of 5 lb. weight jumps and rep increases. Using very small weight increments (no more than than 2.5 lbs. on 'heavy' exercises and 1 lb. or less on 'lighter' ones) strength progress from session to session can be maintained for much longer periods of time than three weeks. The conclusion that because your strength isn't progressing as quickly as it was is not sound reason to conclude that the routine is not as effective as it used to be. Look to your expectations of sustainable strength gains first and consider the fact that early dramatic gains are due largely to nervous system optimization. If you haven't read the article entitled Progress: How To Measure It And What to Expect (for the advanced lifter) then I strongly suggest that you have a look at it.
So how do the Bulgarians themselves deal with these three-week 'bio-rhythms'? They don't change their routines to any great extent, they simply perform less volume and train with slightly less intensity every four weeks. They, therefore, perform three intense weeks (usually progressing in volume slightly) and then perform one volume-reduced 'unloading' week.
How Frequent Change Can Be Utilized
It was stated above that during the first few sessions of performing an exercise the neuromuscular system optimizes itself greatly for the task. What this means is that after a few workouts the body has become very efficient at generating maximum force in the movement, but it also means that during the first few workouts the body isn't really that 'good' at doing them. This fact has been used by some trainers (most notably Louie Simmons of the Westside Barbell Club) to avoid 'unloading' weeks altogether by changing exercises every 2-3 weeks. If the nervous system isn't capable of 'firing' the muscles maximally during the first few workouts then constant change would keep the body from entering an overtrained state because the nervous system would never get a chance to operate the musculature on all 8 cylinders, so to speak. This would also have the benefit of allowing the trainee to work extremely heavy all the time, thus subjecting the tendons and ligaments to heavy loading regularly. In addition, all the potential strength-building benefits of performing many different exercises can be realized (though these exercises must be carefully chosen for optimum effectiveness).
This style of training lends itself most effectively to the development of absolute strength because the frequent cycling of exercises allows lifters to choose exercises that specifically target weak ranges in their lifts and to work the supporting structure (tendons, ligaments, etc.) with constantly heavy weights. In order to maintain neuromuscular efficiency in the contested events the lifter must perform regular training sessions on those lifts, but Westside Barbell-style trainees contend that these sessions can be performed with very submaximal weights and still allow the trainee to maintain the desired intra- and intermuscular coordination. In the case of Powerlifting programs, the Bench Press and Squat (off a box) would be performed weekly, but very lightly. Incidently, they would also be performed very explosively to 'teach' the nervous system to voluntarily recruit the high threshold fibers more efficiently and to alter the response threshold of the Golgi Tendon Organs.
If you go back to the section on 'Changing The Rep Range Or Cadence' you'll see another way that frequent change can be used by strength and power athletes in order to target different goals. A very productive approach is to perform a period of IIB fiber hypertophy training (3-5 reps), followed by a period of lower-rep training (1-3) aimed at increasing limit strength through nervous system optimization. This allows the trainee to increase the cross-sectional area of the IIB fibers (thus making them stronger) while avoiding the rapid plateauing that occurs with continued very low-rep training (1-3). It also allows the trainee to maintain neuromuscular efficiency for the contested events because low-rep training is never abandoned for very long. Extended further, this approach involves a period of training aimed at sarcoplasmic hypertrophy of the IIBs (8-12 rep sets), a period aimed at sarcomere hypertropy of the IIBs (3-5 rep sets), and then a period of training aimed at increasing neuromuscular efficiency (1-3 reps).
From a Bodybuilding perspective, the frequent changing of exercises approach may have much less practical application. The curious Bodybuilder could, however, experiment with rotating major exercises every 2-4 weeks, or so, and see what happens. I believe that, in the vast majority of cases, the drug-free Bodybuilder will find that he's better off sticking with the most effective compound exercises and incrementally increasing the weight each workout until a plateau is reached. At that point, the exercises may be switched for other, equally effective, compound exercises.
Periodically focusing on different rep ranges may be of more benefit to the Bodybuilder. Intense, low volume, lower-rep training (3 rep sets and less) may produce rapid sarcomere hypertrophy but may, over time, potentially lead to a state of irrational adaptation. At the onset of this condition, a change to higher rep sets (and possibly a higher set volume and/or training frequency) may produce the necessary sarcoplasmic hypertrophy to allow for continued size gains.
Clear As Mud
I've probably provided you with no clear-cut answer as to whether it's better for you to constantly change your routine or whether you're better off sticking to essentially the same one (with constant volume and intensity modifications based on strength gains, of course). But I hope I have helped clear up some of the confusion that exists pertaining to supposed strength plateaus. If you're a strength athlete, I suggest that you try both approaches and decide which method you feel works best for you. It should only take a few weeks for you to decide whether the approach is working or not - if in doubt, test your maximum after, say, a month.
Range Of Motion Are Partial Range Movements Useful?
Range Of Motion Are Partial Range Movements Useful?
Some people advise doing only the last few inches of weight training movements (the lockout) so that maximum weights can be used. Some advocate partial movements or isometric holds in your weak range of the lift so as to strengthen that area. Some people say you can make a muscle longer by stimulating it in the stretched position (e.g. preacher curls). And, of course, for all of these practices you have people who swear they've worked minor miracles by practicing them. You also have people who bitterly dispute them and claim these training techniques are useless. So, physiologically, let's look at these concepts to see which may be sound - once again, if you haven't already done so, I encourage you to read the series on the 'Physiology Related Articles' page entitled The Neuromuscular System.
Strongest Range Partials
The logic here is simple: By only moving the weight a few inches in your strongest position (usually the lockout) you can use much heavier weights. Heavier weights = bigger muscles. A few years back Peter Sisco and John Little wrote a book that espoused this entitled Power Factor Training: A Scientific Approach to Building Lean Muscle Mass. They even got "scientific" in the title to assure you that they knew what they were talking about. The book was so successful (as a seller anyway) that it spawned a bunch of spinoffs on Power Factor specialization. The logic was simple and sound, right? Not so fast. No matter how many big words the authors managed to cram into these books we're still left with a few basic facts that tear their whole premise apart. They are:
The only reason that you are stronger in the lockout position is because of favorable mechanics, not because the muscle is contracting harder.
The muscle may even be contracting less forcefully in the lockout position because of physiological factors.
From the standpoint of mechanics, you are usually stronger in the lockout position because of favorable leverage. This is simple physics; remember the lever?
Lever A & Lever B
Click to enlarge
If you imagine the figures above as bones with a muscle connecting them, you will probably see intuitively that figure B is a much more effective position from which force can be applied to rotate the two bones around the joint towards each other. In figure A the muscle wastes much of its energy in just compressing the two bones together at the joint rather than rotating them around it. While these figures may seem to over-simplify a muscle/joint system, the principles governing them are identical.
Merely by leverage you would be stronger in the lockout position - and this is usually the strongest range of the movement. The extra weight used, however, would not cause the muscle to contract any harder than it would at a different mechanical position. Logically, that type of evolutionary trait wouldn't make sense. Why would your muscles contract hardest in the range of motion in which they have the greatest mechanical advantage? In fact they don't, which leads us to point number two.
Taking some sections from the series The Neuromuscular System:
...each muscle fiber has a ideal length at which it generates maximum force when contracting. The force generated is directly influenced by the amount of elogation (contraction or extension) that the fiber is under at the start of the contraction.
When the muscle is contracted to a shorter length than opimal, less force can be developed for a few reasons. For one, the normal chemical processes taking place within the fiber become altered so that fewer actin cross-bridge attachment sites are uncovered and available for cross-bridging (the reason this happens is unknown at present). In addition, filaments from the opposite ends of the sarcomere overlap and cover some actin cross-bridge attachment sites, further reducing the number of possible cross-bridges. Still further, the myosin filaments come up against the ends of each individual sarcomere (what's referred to as the z-lines), impeding any further shortening.
How much strength is lost when the muscle contracts at some other length than optimum? Well, at the extreme points of a muscle's extension or contraction (extended ~30% longer and contracted ~30% shorter than optimal) a muscle has the ability to contract only ~50% as forcefully as it can at the optimal length. Keep in mind, though, that you may still demonstrate more strength in these positions (usually in the contracted position) than at the position of optimal muscular force because of mechanical factors such as leverage. The muscle itself, however, will be contracting with less force.
In a nutshell, this tells us that the muscle simply is not capable of generating maximum force in a position in which it is contracted more than its optimum length. Since the lockout position of many exercises coincides with the major muscles involved being contracted more than this length, less force would be developed by the muscles in this position - regardless of how much weight they were subjected to. Of course, this is not true for all lockout positions (such as the bench press, for example).
As a stand-alone training method for developing strength, size or power heavy lockouts are severely flawed; and so therefore, is Power Factor Training. For some other people's takes on the subject, check out the following links.
George Chen's analysis of Power Factor Training http://web.archive.org/web/200210070...werFactor.html
Power Factor Training: Precision or Confusion? by Andrew M. Baye http://www.highintensity.net/Forums/...p?topic_id=346
Partial Movements And Isometric Holds In Your Weak Range Of The Lift
Back in the late 1960's the people at the York Barbell Company began producing and selling power racks. The power rack was invented primarily as a way for Olympic lifters to increase their strength. At the front of their sales campaign for this type of training (and equipment) was a man called Bill March. Mr. March was an accomplished Olympic lifter who just happened to be one of the strongest overhead pressers in history (still is) - he officially pressed 390 lbs. overhead at a bodyweight of 224 lbs. It was claimed that much of his strength was due to his extensive use of isometric holds - done inside a power rack - in his training. Was there any truth to this or was it just a marketing ploy?
Well, very simply, there is strong research and anecdotal evidence to suggest that a muscle can be made stronger in a very specific position by training it in that position (as you can no doubt deduce, partial movements and isometric holds are governed by a very similar argument intramuscularly, so I have lumped the two together here). The research also indicates, however, that for most people the transfer of any strength developed in this range to the full contraction range of the muscle will not be great. Even the people who do transfer greater than average strength from strength gained in the limited range to their full range would more greatly increase their full range strength by using full range movements (incidently, there is evidence that experienced trainers experience more of a transfer than beginners). It should also be mentioned that the greatest carry-over would be seen within 15 degrees of the training range. For this reason, this type of training does not fare well as a stand-alone weight training method. However, it can be very useful in training sticking points in lifts.
Lengthening A Muscle By Stimulating It In The Stretched Position
This has been debated in bodybuilding circles for years. On the one hand you have people who've claimed they have done this (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Larry Scott, etc.) and people who've claimed they have trained thousands who have achieved longer muscles through its practice (Vince Gironda, George Turner, etc.). On the other hand you have people who say that lengthening a muscle through training is physiologically impossible (Arthur Jones, most of the "scientific" crop). Who's right?
I've read hundreds of times that a muscle can't get any longer through training because you can't change the length of your tendons. Tendons attach muscles to bones (the epimysium surrounding the muscle narrows into tendon). In order to lengthen a muscle you have to shorten at least one of its tendons. Short of surgery, this just isn't possible. As for the muscle, where there is tendon there are no muscle cells. Where there are no muscle cells you can't make muscle grow. There is no doubt that these arguments are correct.
But what about the people who are adamant that they did lengthen their muscles through training? They had to have noticed something going on with their muscles in order to prompt them to make those claims. Several studies have shown that a muscle immobilized in the elongated position (such as in a cast) lengthens its myofibrils by adding more sarcomeres, in series, to the existing sarcomere filaments. This occurs, apparently, because of the stretch that the muscle is under. When the myofibrils are longer, the muscle appears 'fuller' at the ends where the epimysium narrows into tendon - although in the case of an immobilized limb the muscle would overall be smaller because of atrophy (shrinking) due to inactivity. I'm not aware of any specific studies done on this, but if elongation over time can cause this, wouldn't it be reasonable to suspect that stressing the muscle in the elongated position - albeit for much shorter time periods - would also have this effect? In such a situation, training a muscle in its stretched position would result in a fuller looking muscle down near its insertion point. This would have the visual effect of a lengthened muscle.
It should also be mentioned that several bodybuilding and strength coaches (John Parillo and Torbjorn Akerfeldt, for example) have claimed for years that stretching the epimysium (fascial stretching and planning, as John Parillo teaches) creates a larger, fuller muscle. The theory is that by stretching the epimysium, you give the muscle more room to expand and grow. Many bodybuilders, in fact, have noticed this effect when they begin such a fascial stretching program. Akerfeldt recommends training the muscle in the stretched position - when it is already "pumped" so as to maximally stretch the epimysium - to achieve this effect. He sites Arnold Schwarzenegger's "full" chest in his prime - he was always fond of performing very deep dumbell flyes. Could 'bench presser's pecs' ('bunched-up' looking pectoral muscles) be due to a lack of weight in the stretched position - as the range of motion of bench presses does not deliver weight in the stretched position. Incidently, I've read some authors claim that you can't change the shape of a muscle in one article, only to claim elsewhere that an over-reliance on bench presses will give you 'bunched-up' pecs. If an over-reliance on bench presses can give you 'bunched-up' pecs, isn't that implicitly saying that other exercises can give you 'not bunched-up pecs'?
There also may be something to the fact that stretching a muscle causes a similar local prostaglandin release to weight training itself - though to a much lesser extent. In response to these mechanical conditions PGE2 and PGF2-alpha are released within the muscle cell and, as was covered in the Muscle Growth series, these two prostaglandins play a role in the muscle break-down/build-up process.
As for Larry Scott's claim that preacher curls give you fuller biceps down by the forearm, another factor must be considered. By placing the backs of your arms across a preacher bench you are forcing your shoulders forward. This effectively places the biceps brachii in a weaker position, while placing most of the stress on the brachialis. The brachialis is a small muscle that runs from around halfway down your upper arm to your elbow. Specifically, it originates about midway down the humerus and inserts at the coronoid process of the ulna. Its function is to flex the elbow. Enlarging this muscle certainly would give the appearance that the biceps were thicker down by the forearm, despite the many claims that have been made as to the uselessness of preacher curls for achieving this effect. It is also worthy of note that performing preacher curls by curling the weight all the way up to the shoulders reduces the stress on this muscle. For intense stimulation of the brachialis the curls should only be done from the arms-straightened position (but not hyperextended at the elbow) to a point about a third of the way curled up - making the motion a partial range movement.
The Weakest Link: Strengthening The Tendons
The Weakest Link: Strengthening The Tendons
Tendon and ligament training doesn't really appeal to a lot of people. I, myself, was once one of those people. I thought that "it's the muscle that does the lifting so why should I concern myself with the tendon?" And if you don't know some of the more intricate details behind tendon and ligament structure that seems like a very sensible argument (if you'd really like to learn more about the physiological makeup and mechanical properties of tendons and ligaments take a look at this article http://www.engin.umich.edu/class/bme...ten/ligten.htm by Scott J. Hollister, PhD Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering, Surgery, and Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics, University of Michigan - it may help you follow the rest of this article).
Before you go dismissing the importance of connective tissue (i.e. tendons and ligaments) training consider this: Tendons are subject to mechanical deformation - and they directly transfer energy from muscle to bone, so the amount of deformation they experience directly influences how efficiently force will be transmitted. The more 'rigid' tendons are the less force will be dissipated during the transmission. That clearly tells us that it would be nice if we could somehow make our tendons more 'rigid'.
Repeating myself, tendons simply connect muscle to bone (ligaments connect bone to bone - securing joints). Therefore, anytime a muscle contracts it automatically places a load on the tendon. When a load is suddenly applied to the tendon, proprioceptive receptors in the tendon (namely the golgi tendon organs) are stretched. As a safety response to this sudden stretch the golgi tendon organs signal the nervous system to halt any further contraction of the prime movers of the movement. In simple terms that means you can't lift the weight. Ever shake uncontrollably when hitting the sticking point in a one rep max? Well, there's a good chance that the golgi tendon organs were at work there. As you can no doubt appreciate, if we could make our tendons more 'rigid' they would not stretch as much under a certain load and, therefore, the golgi tendon organs wouldn't 'shut down' the contraction. We can also train our golgi tendon organs/central nervous system to more readily 'accept' this sudden stretch, thereby changing the threshold at which they cause the contraction to be inhibited.
So, as you can see, tendon training can have a profound effect on your ability to lift heavy weights. If you're a strength and power athlete there is no need to state the importance of that.
As was stated above, when subjected to sudden heavy loading the tendons deform (stretch) quickly, causing the proprioceptive receptors to signal a state of sudden stretch. It is this condition that is also the stimulus for the reformation of the collagen matrix inside the tendons, resulting in increased fibroblast number, and making them more resistant to deformation. So tendon strengthening can be achieved - the key is quickly applying a heavy load to the tendon. Incidently, this is the exact same form of training that can extend the golgi tendon organ threshold. There are three accepted ways of approaching the task:
NOTE: To make this article easier to both read and write, the following arguments are aimed specifically at tendon strengthening and golgi tendon organ threshold/nervous system reprograming. Please understand that, because of their role in supporting joint stability, the following methods also serve to strengthen the ligaments.
'Plyometrics, in the true American sense (technically 'pliometric' means the lengthening of a muscle - a negative) refers to any rapid reversal of contraction from eccentric (the lowering phase) to concentric (the lifting phase). This is a sub-category of what is often referred to as explosive training (though it is quite possible that an explosive contraction can start from a complete stop with no previous eccentric phase). Westside Barbell-style speed days would, therefore, fall under this category - as would the transition from Squat Clean to Front Squat in the Clean (if it's done properly), or the dip to drive in the Jerk. People have misconstrued the term 'plyometric' to mean that the muscle must necessarily be in a stretched position before the contraction - it doesn't. I think it's because people wrongly confuse muscle stretch with tendon stretch. This simply is not accurate. The stretch state of the tendon in weight training has little to do with the stretch state of the muscle. Tendons stretch simply because they are subjected to loading - the only way that the stretch state of the muscle affects tendon stretch is if the elongation of the muscle affects its ability to exert force (which it does, and that will be considered later).
As an example of how to perform a plyometric I'll use the Bench Press: Take the bar off the rack and allow it to fall somewhat rapidly (but under full control) as soon as it gets to the point where it touches your chest explode it upwards very quickly. The whole rep shouldn't take much more than a second. Obviously, I have left a lot of the details of a power-style Bench Press out but the plyometric technique should be clear.
Remember above when I mentioned that the only way that the elongation state of the muscle affects the amount of load placed on the tendon is if it affects the muscles ability to exert force? Well, as you'll know from the series The Neuromuscular System on the 'Physiology Related Articles' page, this is definitely the case. Borrowing a section:
Particularly relevant to muscle building is the fact that each muscle fiber has a ideal length at which it generates maximum force when contracting. The force generated is directly influenced by the amount of elogation (contraction or extension) that the fiber is under at the start of the contraction. Going back to the sliding filament theory, this optimum length is the point at which the actin & myosin filaments line up in such a way that allows maximum cross-bridge formation. When the muscle is extended more than this the actin filaments cannot make contact with as many myosin cross-bridges - they have slid past each other, so to speak. When the muscle is contracted to a shorter length than opimal, less force can be developed for a few reasons. For one, the normal chemical processes taking place within the fiber become altered so that fewer actin cross-bridge attachment sites are uncovered and available for cross-bridging (the reason this happens is unknown at present). In addition, filaments from the opposite ends of the sacromere overlap and cover some actin cross-bridge attachment sites, further reducing the number of possible cross-bridges. Still further, the myosin filaments come up against the ends of each individual sacromere (what's referred to as the z-lines), impeding any further shortening.
So what is a muscle's optimum length for generating force? Well, generally, it is the length of the muscle while in its relaxed state. How much strength is lost when the muscle contracts at some other length than optimum? Well, at the extreme points of a muscle's extension or contraction (extended ~30% longer and contracted ~30% shorter than optimal) a muscle has the ability to contract only ~50% as forcefully as it can at the optimal length. Keep in mind, though, that you may still demonstrate more strength in these positions (usually in the contracted position) than at the position of optimal muscular force because of mechanical factors such as leverage. The muscle itself, however, will be contracting with less force.
So, in the case of the Bench Press, the muscle has the ability to contract harder at a point roughly halfway through the range of motion than at the top or bottom. Therefore, if you really wanted to apply maximum load to the tendons you would stop the bar around halfway down and then suddenly drive it back up.
The key to plyometrics lie in the speed, as the force you exert on the bar is determined not only by the weight that you're lifting but also by how fast you're lifting it. Consider the basic physics:
If you lift 100 kg at an acceleration of 1 m/s^2 then you are producing 100 x 1 = 100 N of force.
If you lift 50 kg at an acceleration of 2 m/s^2 then you are producing 50 x 2 = 100 N of force.
So you can lift a light weight faster than you can a heavy one, but if the bar speed is high enough with the light weight the force applied will be the same. The point is if you accelerate the weight quickly you are dramatically increasing the force that the muscle is required to produce. If you think about a yo-yo you'll get an intuitive idea of how this works - when the yo-yo is at the bottom you yank up suddenly, drawing the rope tight. The yo-yo feels much heavier at that point than it actually is. That's a plyometric. For the above speed reasons plyometrics are usually done with weights around only 60% of your one rep maximum.
From a tendon strengthening perspective, if bar speed can be kept sufficiently high, high reps in these sets would provide more of an adaptative stimulation than low reps. This is probably where the false theory that the performance of high reps itself can strengthen tendons comes from. The fact is that high reps, with a quick reversal from eccentric to concentric on each rep, simply provide more repeated stress to the tendons than low reps. High reps with a slow rep cadence, which eliminates the sudden application of force anywhere along the range of motion (e.g. 'Superslow' training), would do little to strengthen the tendons. But, if you are able to perform 10 reps plyometrically with 60% of your one rep maximum while keeping bar speed high on all reps then this would stimulate more tendon strengthening than a 3 rep set. For a power athlete, however, it might make more sense to just do several 3 rep sets. This would allow the trainee to avoid neurological fatigue and glycogen depletion and effectively target the high-threshold fibers while still providing the strengthening stimulus to the tendons. And, realistically, you wouldn't be able to maintain the necessary bar speed for 10 reps anyway.
Another benefit of plyometric reps should also be mentioned: By accelerating the weight as quickly as possible you are 'teaching' your nervous system to voluntarily recruit as many of the highest threshold fibers as possible and to fire these fibers with maximum frequency. This could be extremely beneficial in power training.
This discussion of forces produced and bar speeds leads me to the next method of strengthening tendons: Isometrics.
These are when you simply hold the bar in one place. Pushing against a wall would also be an example. The key is that you suddenly exert maximum force against the object. In the above Bench Press example you would perform them in a power rack and push the bar as hard as you could against the pins. Once again the tendon goes suddenly from a state of having no load (practically) placed upon it to maximum load in a matter of milliseconds. Since the bar is being pushed against the immovable pins you wouldn't even need to place any weight on the bar (although you might want to do this in order to mimic the 'feel' of a regular Bench Press). And as far as range of motion is concerned, because tendons don't contract they don't need to be trained through the muscle's full range of motion.
Once again, for maximum loading of the tendons it would be wise to do this at the involved muscle's point of optimum force production (roughly halfway up the Bench Press range of motion).
How long should you hold an isometric? Well, it's the sudden tendon stretch that we're after, NOT the total amount of tendon stretch, so 2-3 seconds should suffice. In fact, any longer than this and the phenomenon of creep may occur in the tendon and, while this may result in more flexibility (think yoga), it won't do anything for strength and power (the same situation would also occur in the 'Superslow' training method mentioned above).
A word of warning: This type of training can cause dangerous increases in blood pressure. For this reason, it is not recommended that isometrics be held any more than six seconds. This increase in blood pressure is due, at least in part, to holding one's breath during the exertion.
Heavy negatives don't allow the trainee to as suddenly place loading on the tendons as do the above methods. For this reason they are not as effective a tendon strengthener as plyometrics and isometrics. As with plyometrics, they do have the benefit of allowing you to track your progress, though. With an isometric you don't really have a quantitative way of measuring your efforts. Negatives and plyometrics allow you to measure the amount of weight on the bar this session as compared to the last.
Their execution is relatively simple: Load the bar with more weight than you can lift concentrically (you are usually about 20% - 40% stronger in the negative than the concentric) and lower the bar under control. Use enough weight so that the bar forces its way down relatively quickly (after all, we're after tendon strength here) but not so much that you can't maintain full control.
Another thing that should be realized is that negatives have been shown to do substantial 'damage' to the muscle cell and, therefore, markedly lengthen recovery time.
Incorporating One Of The Keys To Strength And Power
I hope I've convinced you of the importance of tendon strengthening here. And it doesn't have to take up much of your training time. Keep in mind that isometrics and negatives are done at force levels exceeding your full-range, concentric, one rep maximum. This means that your nervous system will be going crazy during the exertion (remember the Training To Failure: The Good, The Bad And The Reasons article?). This type of training, therefore, must only be done infrequently. On the other hand, if the weight is kept low (~60% of your one rep max.) and the reps low also (2-3), you can probably get away with plyometrics twice a week (the amount of contractile force you will be able to produce will be limited by your nervous system's ability to voluntarily recruit and twitch the higher threshold fibers - the sudden reversal of motion, however, still delivers a very high impulsive force to the tendons).
But before you dismiss isometrics in favour of plyometrics totally, consider this section from the article Are Partial Range Movements Useful?:
...there is strong research and anecdotal evidence to suggest that a muscle can be made stronger in a very specific position by training it in that position...
...it can be very useful in training sticking points in lifts.
So if you wanted to kill two birds with one stone you could use isometrics to strengthen sticking points and also enjoy the carry-over effect of increased tendon strength. Keep in mind, though, that it's not necessarily true that your sticking point will be at the muscle's optimum force production point and that, in order for maximum muscular stress, the isometrics for training this range should be closer to 6 seconds than 2-3.
As far as the plyometrics are concerned I believe Louie Simmons' method of performing a second 'light', 'speed' day between heavy sessions in certain exercises is a very efficient idea. This method allows you to train the nervous and muscular systems for sudden force production (as needed in all power events) and to practice the specific skill of the lift while also providing a good adaptative stress to the tendons. One could always perform this style of lifting after your other sets on your 'heavy' day, however, and skip the 'light' day - this would be very beneficial for lifters who train an exercise heavily more frequently than once every seven days.
A word of warning: Due to the sudden force applications these forms of training can be dangerous! If great care isn't taken to warm up properly and to practice STRICT exercise form it is quite likely that you'll strain or tear a muscle! Overtraining will also increase this likelihood.
1 Rep Max Estimation Coefficients And Formulas That Predict Your 1 Rep Maximum
1 Rep Max Estimation Coefficients And Formulas That Predict Your 1 Rep Maximum
TO BE POSTED
FAQ Part 1 Frequently Asked Questions Part 1
FAQ Part 1 Frequently Asked Questions Part 1
QUESTION: You say that there is a length at which a muscle produces the most force and in the article "Are Partial Range Movements Useful?" you conclude (well, not really, but I think that everything suggests so) that partials are pretty much useless for building mass. But don't you think that to conclude that a partial is useless we would need to know where that optimum point is? I mean, who says that we ever pass that point on say a bench press? Maybe a bar intentionally bent that would allow us to go deeper would reach it? Or maybe we do, but then why going to the chest, why not stopping at that point (which reminds me of some experts recommending to go only to 1-2 inches from the chest)?
ANSWER: I understand your question about partials. I think the evidence shows that they are ideal for training a certain range of a lift (the weak point) and perhaps tendon strengthening, but aren't very well suited to general mass training.
If you look closely at the 'What A Weight Trainer Needs To Know About Muscle' article you'll notice that it was stated that the muscle's optimum length for exerting force generally coincides roughly with its length in its relaxed state (actually it's when the muscle is elongated a small bit past this point). For the pecs that would be when you're sitting or standing with your arms hanging down at your sides. If you sit that way (like you probably are right now) and rotate your arms out from your sides, then that would be the optimum length for the pec's contraction. Maybe a better way to illustrate it would be to lie on the floor and do a 'Bench Press' (well, sort of, really it's a Floor Press) - when the backs of your arms hit the floor that would roughly be the point of optimum force production of the pecs.
The reason some people recommend reversing the bar a few inches before it reaches the chest is generally to avoid placing excessive stress on the connective tissues of the shoulder capsule.
From a muscle building point of view, it's better to work the muscle through a full range of motion rather than just doing partials at it's optimum length for producing force because, even though that is the most effective range for producing size, it isn't the full story. Working a muscle in the stretched position results in sacromeres being added in series inside the muscle fibers, giving the muscle a 'fuller' look. That's, at least, part of the reason why a lot of people claim that Bench Presses give people 'bunched up' pecs - they don't effectively train the stretched position.
The problem with using the campered Bench Press bar is that, while it allows you to stretch the pecs further on the Bench Press, giving the pecs a fuller range of motion, it may also "overstretch" the connective tissues of the shoulder capsule, resulting in acute injury or eventual loss of proper functioning. Dumbell Presses are better in that respect because they afford the tendency to keep your elbows closer to you sides at the bottom (which is safer) and they also don't encourage you to go excessively deep (with a campered bar there's a tendency to try to touch the bar to your chest, even if that may be too deep for your shoulder structure). With dumbells you just go as deep as you find comfortable.
QUESTION: Thanks for your answer. I hope I am not bothering you, but you have not completely answered it. Who says that the full range of motion is to the chest? You said that the campered bar would not be good because of the shoulders, but is it good to go all the way down to the chest even with a straight bar? The reason why I ask this is that I experience a strange feeling in my shoulders when I go to the chest, but again would hate not to do it properly.
ANSWER: The full range of motion of the pecs is much further than the Bench Press provides, so even at best a Bench Press is only a partial movement. Dumbell Flyes or Presses would better represent the full range.
If your shoulders are feeling unstable or impinged at the bottom of the Bench Press it's probably because of inflexiblilty in the shoulder joint, weak external shoulder rotators (the infraspinatus and teres minor, most likely), chronic overtraining of the shoulders or unsafe form (or any combination of the four). I've seen a lot of people who claim that the Bench Press hurts their shoulders at the bottom. It's often because they hold their elbows out too far from their bodies at the bottom. If your doing that try keeping your elbows in closer to your body on the descent and don't let them start to drift out until you press the bar up about 1/3 of the way. Start doing Lying L-Flyes for your external rotator cuff muscles and do some shoulder dislocates (you know the Olympic-style Weightlifting standard where you grab a broomstick with a wide grip and rotate your arms over your head and behind your back). You might also want to restructure your routine to give your shoulders more rest time.
QUESTION: The most revolutionary article for me on your web page was actually the one about failure. Still I am not sure that there are no mistakes in the article. First of all is failure actually "real failure"? By that I mean, do you really think that you could not do one more rep if your life depended on it? Therefore the failure was only psychological, not on a muscular and/or neural level.
ANSWER: True, but we have to assume that experienced lifters can summon the necessary psyche in training to go to true failure. Ofcourse, if your life depended on it, you would probably loosen your form and 'cheat' more reps. In that case the target muscle probably was at true failure. But don't forget that extremely high arousal levels will also exhaust the central nervous system.
QUESTION: I was wondering, what kind of effect would this have: doing some # of reps with a certain weight (not to failure), then immediately decreasing the weight and doing some more reps (again, not to failure). Looks like a 'drop' set, but failure was never reached and therefore the neural system was not 'too' stressed and the muscle was more worked. Sound reasonable?
ANSWER: Angel Spassov (the legendary Bulgarian Weightlifting coach) actually devised a plan something like this (except the trainee went to failure with the reduced weight). Actually, he advocated 3 reps at 90% of 1RM and then, after 30 seconds rest, going to failure with 50-60% of 1RM. Fred Hatfield also recommends something similar to bodybuilders (he calls them 'hollistic sets'). In both their approaches the idea was to target the type IIB fibers with the first 3 reps and then the type IIAs with the reduced weights (Hatfield then goes on to target the type Is). If you did both weights within the same rep range (say 8 and then 8) you would be hitting the one type of fiber in greater proportion but the second set would still, by necessity, have to include a greater percentage of lower threshold fibers. I wouldn't do more than 2 sets like that tough, or you're inviting overtraining.
QUESTION: I was always going to the failure, psychologically it was much easier (?) for me that I know that I have done my best and that my intensity was highest. Today was the first day (legs) that I have tried not going to the failure. Feels strange to rack the bar back on the Squat Although now I understand the mechanism behind all that, I still have some problems with designing my training. Before it was easy, intensity is high, you can not do too much, but now I am puzzled as I have not done this. If you have some time, I would appreciate your comments on this routine.
MONDAY (quads & hams) - 40 minutes
Squat : 3 sets
Leg press : 2 sets
Leg ext. : 3 sets
Leg curls : 3 sets
Stiff Legged DL : 3 sets
TUESDAY (chest & calves) - 35 minutes
Bench press : 3 sets
Inclined BP : 3 sets
Dips or pullover : 3 sets
Standing calf raises: 6 sets
WEDNESDAY (back & abs) - 45 minutes
DL : 3 sets
One arm DB row : 3 sets
barbell row : 3 sets
Pull-ups : 3 sets
Crunches : 6 sets
THURSDAY (Shoulders & traps) - 35 minutes
Shoulder BB press : 3 sets
DB press : 3 sets
bent over raises : 3 sets
Shrugs : 3 sets
FRIDAY (Arms) - 35 minutes
Scull crushers : 3 sets
Bench dips : 3 sets
Extension : 3 sets
Standing BB curls : 3 sets
DB curls : 3 sets
Forearms : 2 sets
As you can see it is a split where I basically have a day for each muscle, but with short and intense trainings. While I was doing everything to the failure the # of sets on each exercise was 2/3 of this. The selection is as I have always done almost all the basic movements.
ANSWER: Unless you are very genetically gifted or on drugs I think this is way too much work. I know what it's like to have the high volume thing pounded into your brain from all sides but you really need to experiment with what gets you the strongest fastest. If you aren't stronger just about every session (even if it's only fractionally) then something's wrong. I'm going to assume that you're drug-free and training for overall mass and propose some things that I guarantee you will work. Do yourself a favour and try the following:
Start working out only 3 times a week.
Power Cleans 5 x 5
Stiff-Legged Deadlifts 2 x 8 (first set a warm-up)
Chin-Ups or Bent-Over Rows 3 x 8-12
Barbell Curls 3 x 8-12
Incline (30 degrees or less) Presses 5 x 6-8
Donkey Calf Raises 3 x 8-12
Pre-Stretch Crunches 2 x 10-12
Lying L-Flyes 2 x 12-15
Military Presses 5 x 6-8
Squats 5 x 5 (or 2 x 5, 1 x 20)
Forearms 2 x 10-12
Reverse Hypers 2 x 10-12
On exercises where you're doing 5 sets the first 2 or 3 should be progressively heavier warm-ups. On exercises where you're doing 3 sets the first one should be a warm-up. For the first two weeks stick to fairly light weights - stop 2 reps short of failure the first week and use about 97.5% of what you can handle for the second week. In week three you can pull out all the stops but still stop 1 rep short of failure on all your hard sets (you probably wouldn't be able to do another full rep). Each week from there on try to add 1 pound to the exercises that you're using over 100 lbs (roughly) in and 2 lbs to the exercises that you're using over 250 lbs (again, roughly) in or try to get more reps than last week (but don't push to failure). You may find that you can add 5 lbs each session to Squats and maybe even Bent-Over Rows, Power Cleans and Bench Presses - if your strength increases so fast that you end up doing too many reps just increase the amount of weight that you add weekly to get them back down.
Remember, you don't necessarily need to train to failure to stimulate an adaptative response. Once again the shoulders are worked every session (albeit sometimes indirectly) in this routine, but the total volume is low enough that you should be okay. If you find your pressing exercises stagnating switch around Donkey Calf Raises and Military Presses so that Military Presses are on Wednesdays and Donkeys on Fridays (but do the Donkeys after Squats not before)
I know this routine represents quite a change for you, but believe me, you don't need all those sets and days in the gym. I was stuck in that frame of mind for a long time myself. Trust me, try the routine I gave you. If you haven't already done so, read over the 'Making A Strength/Size Routine' series on The WeighTrainer - you'll see where this advice is coming from. Try it. What have you got to lose? Give it a month and if it doesn't get you stronger faster then you can always go back to the higher volume approach.
QUESTION: I was wondering, do you think it would be good to do 5 sets of Squats and get rid of Leg Presses completely? The thing is that there are not many free weight exercises for legs (Lunges are a bit risky after being tired by Squats). I mean, what is the magic behind 1-3 sets per exercise? Wouldn't it be more logical to say the number of sets per workout?
ANSWER: After Squats the Leg Presses are redundant (unless you Squat with poor form). There is certainly nothing magical about 1-3 sets and you're right, it would be more logical to say the number of sets per workout. But unless you're training for power (low reps with slightly submaximal weights), and limiting the number of other exercises that you do, there's also no need to do 5 sets either.
QUESTION: My goal is pure Bodybuilding. And I am not joking or doing it to "look like a model". Everything I do is with utmost effort. My nutrition is flawless, absolutely no refined sugar (except post workout glucose), little sat. fat, a lot of essential ones, very high protein, low GI carbohydrates, lots of vitamins etc. And... I NEVER cheat. And I mean NEVER. I've been eating this way for 3 years, have no periods where I am unmotivated, no chocolate, no bread, no sugar, no white rice etc. I just wanted to explain how much I put into this and how serious I am. I am a student and I still eat 8 perfect meals a day, never miss workouts! Generally, I like the routine you suggested. Still, I would like to alter it a bit, so please give me your comments on this version.
Squats 5 x 5
Military presses 5 x 6-8
SLDLs 2 x 8
Calf raises 3 x 8-12
Flat BP 3 x 6-8
Inclined BP 2 x 6-8
Lying L-Flyes 2 x 12-15
Scull crushers 2 x 6-10
Bent-over rows 3 x 8-12
Chin-ups 3 x 8-12
Barbell curls 3 x 8-12
Abs 4 x 10-20
The routine you have suggested seem of very little volume. Seems quite like HIT (not all HIT routines suggest only 1 set). I was never for great volume, but rather moderate. The modifications that I have made is:
put all lower body exercises on one day
split 5 sets of inclined to 3 flat and 2 inclined BP
added one direct triceps exercise
excluded Power Cleans (not really a bodybuilding exercise, afraid of injuries without any special benefits that I would have of them) and Reverse Hypers and added one back exercise
Do you think this is OK as well?
ANSWER: Seems like a good plan to me. You may find that the Military Presses on Mondays will leave your shoulders weakened for the chest work on Wednesday, though - that's why I had the MPs on Friday. The reason I had the MPs before Squats was because Squatting will take quite a toll on your traps; that may affect your performance in the Presses (doing MPs before Squats shouldn't be a problem though).
Donkeys stretch the gastrocnemius more than standard Calf Raises but still stress the muscle maximally in it's optimum range for producing force (as do Calf Raises), so they are a superior exercise.
The Power Cleans were a substitute for Deadlifts and Shrugs. They hit your traps and lower back hard but they won't take the same toll on your body as Deadlifts. Because of their explosive nature, they also strengthen the tendons of your entire posterior chain.
Reverse hypers decompress the spine and also strengthen the very low lower back (where most injuries occur). They are very theraputic in nature and can strengthen your lower back rather than contribute to 'tearing it down'.
QUESTION: You said that for the first two weeks to stick to fairly light weights. Why is that? I am not sure, but it seems to me that you think that I am a beginner. I have been training for two years and in the last year made quite a remarkable progress (~15kg of LBM) so you do not need to be "gentle"
ANSWER: I see where you could get that impression but I wasn't assuming that at all. The reason is that, after training 5 days a week and going to failure so often, your body needs the systemic recovery afforded by the 'transition' period. That's one of the key tenets of periodization. Even top level athletes need to let their tanks refill after a while. You won't loose any muscle or strength working at 95-97.5% for a few weeks. If anything, you will get stronger and fuller. When you do get back into the heavier stuff your body will have a much easier time gaining when it doesn't have a systemic deficit to battle against. It may be a hard pill to swallow, but once you get past the mental barrier, you'll be glad you did it.
QUESTION: The only thing I am afraid of is loss of time. The way I see it, if I am giving my best, organizing so well, eating well, training with the whole heart, I really want to focus all that energy in the right direction.
ANSWER: That's an entirely logical approach. But that seemingly positive energy can also be your downfall. I know dozens of people (myself included) who have let their own enthusiasm cloud their ability to approach training in a scientific manner. Your dedication coaxes you into that extra set, the extra effort to reach failure, the extra day in the gym, and so on - pretty soon you're a slave to what Arnold, Ronnie, Dorian, or whoever, says. In the meantime you've forgotten to listen to your own body and progress. It may seem unimportant but the most crucial step in successful, drug-free weight training is letting patience temper your desire.
Write down everything you do in the gym and compare it to what you did last week. Do that every week. And then experiment with factors such as training frequency, intensity and volume. Each week you're either happy with your progress or you're making changes that will take you one step closer to your fastest possible rate of gain. Not only is that not wasting time, but it is the most efficient use of time possible.
Let me tell you a story from my own experience. I have a friend who is a very gifted physicist; he approaches everything in a 'scientific' manner. About two years ago he became fascinated with developing his grip strength. From day one he wrote down everything he did and modified his training according to his fastest possible rate of strength gain. Eventually he settled on training his grip with 1-2 sets (usually 1) once every five days.
On a similar note, I was once doing chest once a week. I did Bench Press - 3 sets, Incline Press - 3 sets and DB Pullovers - 3 sets with all sets to failure (very similar to your previous routine). My strength went practically nowhere on this routine, but, instead of increasing the volume, I knocked all the exercises from 3 sets back to 2. My strength still didn't improve so I took a further 'leap of faith' and dropped the DB Pullovers altogether. Now I was doing Bench Press - 2 sets and Incline Press - 2 sets. To my delight, my strength started improving! But after another few weeks my strength plateaued again so I dropped the Inclines back to 1 set. My strength went up again. After another few weeks of this my strength once again levelled off, but rather than drop the Inclines I decided to stop going quite to failure (I was very reluctant to drop the Inclines altogether because I thought Bench Presses alone would give me 'droopy' pecs). Sure enough, my strength increased for another few weeks and then plateaued. This time, however, I decided that the Inclines had to stay and that I was not going to do less than 3 sets for chest a week. My strength actually slipped backwards slightly over the next few weeks so I, once again, started pushing to failure (in frustration) and lost even more strength.
Then one day I was rushed in the gym and was forced to skip the Inclines altogether. I was astonished when my strength had gone through the roof the following week. Eventually I settled on 2 sets of Bench Presses (not quite to failure) once every 6 days as my most efficient chest routine for that stage of my training life. If somebody had told me that 10 years ago I would have laughed at them.
To be complete, I should also tell you that there have been times in my training career that increasing volume and frequency has resulted in visible increases in muscle mass.
The point is: Don't let any preconceived notions cloud your judgement. Your body will lead you to the most effective routine for you. But you are definitely taking a step in the right direction by backing your workload down and seeing what happens.
QUESTION: You have established that there is a certain threshhold level of tension that must be exceeded in order to activate types IIA and IIB muscles fibers. If I train with the two day split that you have outlined, keeping my reps in the 8 to 12 range, how much endurance training will my body tolerate before becoming catabolic? It seems like endurance training will activate only type I fibers. What is the mechanism that would cause this to interfere with the development of the fast twitch fibers?
ANSWER: You're dead on that endurance training will only significantly affect the type I fibers directly. How much of it you can do can only be discovered by you. Keep in mind that it's not possible for you to leave your glycogen stores 'untouched' when you do endurance activities, so it will impact that, and the depleted type Is will then demand their share of blood-borne glucose to replenish themselves (thus competing with the IIAs and IIBs). Excessive endurance training will also lower androgen levels (testosterone!).
It will depend on how long the activity is and what your diet is like (composition and timing wise). Why don't you try say 2-3 endurance sessions a week (less than 45 mins.) and keep plenty of complex carbs in your diet. And take in some high glycemic index carbs after your training sessions (both endurance and strength sessions) - I'm going to post an article on post-exercise nutrition soon.
Above all, let your strength guide you. If you're not getting stronger regularly (even though it may only be very slight) then something's wrong.
It has been shown that performing certain rep numbers, %age of 1RM, rep cadences and volumes can cause type IIA and IIB fibers to 'interchange', actually partially 'turning into' the other type (there are actually, at least, four types of fast twitch fibers but most people lump them into two categories). This doesn't happen between the type Is and IIs so the reason that excessive endurance training impedes strength training has to be due to the fact that endurance training affects the above mentioned glycogen (and enzyme) and hormonal levels along with the fact that excessive endurance training results in some protein being used as fuel as carbohydrate levels are depleted (and probably other factors as well). As liver glycogen becomes depleted, and there isn't enough available blood-glucose to replenish it, amino acids are taken from the unused muscle fibers (in this case the type IIs) in order to produce it (glycogen can't leave the muscle cells after it's stored). Essentially, your body begins to eat itself.
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