Knowledge is power, strength and muscle!
Things you need to know before you read on;
Concentric muscle contraction- This contraction shortens and tightens the muscle. E.g. the lifting phase of a Bicep curl.
Eccentric muscle contraction- This contraction lengthens the muscle. E.g. the lowering phase of a Bicep curl.
Compound exercise- An exercise that moves two or more joints and muscle groups through their range of motion. E.g. The squat.
Isolation exercise- Used to isolate a single muscle (although other muscle will also be working too) using the movement of a single joint. E.g. Bicep curl.
Motor units- A Motor unit is made up of a motor neuron and the muscle fibres stimulated by that motor neuron. Some are larger than other and vice versa.
There are two forms of muscular hypertrophy:
Myofibrillar hypertrophy- refers to an actual increase in size of the muscle fibers (myo means “muscle” and a fibril is a threadlike cellular structure) resulting in a greater cross sectional area.Generally associated with lower repetition, maximal strength training.
Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy- an increase in the volume of the fluid, non-contractile components of the muscle (glycogen, water, minerals, etc.). Sarco means “flesh” and plasmic refers to plasma, which is a gel-like substance in a cell containing various important particles for life.Generally associated with mid-high repetition bodybuilding style training.
Note: For the sake of this article I will refer to Myofibrillar hypertrophy as strength and Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy simply as hypertrophy or muscular hypertrophy.
There are a billion and one articles on the internet about different training methods to build muscle and strength, as many workout routines and a world of conflicting information.
-Never train to failure
-Always lock out
-High reps for muscle growth, low reps for strength
-Lighter loads VS heavier loads for hypertrophy
These are just a few of the common topics of debate we see all over the web on a daily basis; every guru has their own magic formula, preferred rep and set ranges or particular method that holds a place in their heart.
We are bombarded by a wealth of knowledge as well as a vast expanse of rubbish, and it can make the muscle and strength building world a very confusing place to be.
We’re lucky really though; we live in a time where all the hard work has been done for us, it’s just a matter of sifting through the crap.
There are years and years of results and findings that support the main training principals and methods best served to piling on muscle that you’d be hard pushed to argue with, despite the anecdotal nature of the evidence.
Back in his day, Arnold Schwarzenegger and his training partner Franco Columbu compiled a list of exercises for every single body part, trialing each one for its usefulness in building and shaping different parts of each muscle.
Imagine the time and dedication that goes into creating such an encyclopedia, especially one as big as this one...trust me; you could build muscle with this thing alone!
So we mustn't complain really, we have all the answers on a plate in front of us.
The problem arises however when we try to differentiate between what is a proven training principal or method and something that Joe Blogs thinks isn’t or is a good idea but yet has conveniently left all and any context at the door.
You see, context is key when it comes to discussing how one should go about building muscle or strength.
Let me give you an example of how truth and context can become easily mislaid. Take one of the statements above;
“Never train to failure- it’s dangerous and counterproductive!”
The problem with this statement is that it would be very easy for someone new (or not) to strength training or muscle building to see those words and hold onto the sentiment without having been exposed to the CONTEXT.
That statement with added context might read something like this...
“In some instances, yes, training to failure can become dangerous and/or counterproductive ifthe method is used incorrectly, in the wrong setting; when training for maximal strength (Heavy, low repetition work) taking your big lifts to failure could be a sure fire way to get hurt.
That said there is definitely a place for failure work when training for muscular hypertrophy in the mid-upper rep ranges; research suggests that lifting lighter (yet significant) loads past fatigue and into concentric failure causes your nervous system to recruit the larger motor units- typically associated with heavy load lifting- to allow you to continue lifting the weight. The premise being that greater motor unit recruitment is ideal for increased hypertrophy”
That wasn’t very sexy though was it!
But my point is that simply by applying some context you get a better idea of how this method could actually be utilised to someone’s advantage when trying to build muscle. But all too often that context is left behind and we end up with these statements floating around the fitness world of little use to anyone.
So how do we safely navigate the Matrix and the ever increasing onslaught of confusing information?
All we need to do really is look to the different groups of people that do what we want to do best.
Look at the specialists; Powerlifters, Bodybuilders and Strongmen. If you take their respective training programmes you will notice that they all have one thing in common: They all take advantage of multiple training intensities (load) applied to multiple repetition ranges, with the emphasis on the work within their programmes differing in relation to their chosen sport.
A powerlifter’s programme will centre around the big three lifts (Squat, Bench press and Deadlift), the emphasis on lower repetition, maximal strength work and mastering those lifts to compete for the heaviest single lift (1 repetition). However it would be rare these days to find a powerlifter that didn't take advantage of different rep ranges and loading intensities in order to pack on muscle mass.
A bodybuilder’s task on the other hand is to build and sculpt the body, the emphasis on size, definition and symmetry. For this they generally rely on mid range repetition work (8-12+) in order to ‘pump’ up the muscles and increase overall size and shape. It is not uncommon however to see bodybuilders Squatting, Benching and Dealifting big numbers in the lower rep ranges as this can add thickness and density to musculature but also by increasing strength they simultaneously increase the amount of weight they can lift in their upper rep range work.
A strongman or strongwoman of course will work on maximal strength, event specific strength which could incorporate multiple repetitions as well as higher repetition work for size and increased work capacity/ conditioning.
You can see from this look at some of the biggest and strongest groups of people on the planet that a more holistic, all encompassing approach to strength and hypertrophy training is clearly a winning formula. By manipulating the different loading intensities and repetition ranges within your training sessions, including both compound and isolation work as well as slow and fast tempo work you can take advantage of the different stimuli and optimise strength and hypertrophy within a well rounded program.
In part 2, I’ll be showing you exactly how you can integrate all these variables into a training programme for maximum strength and size gains.
Go lift stuff!