It was one of the best compliments I've ever received.
The year was 1989, and I was the only Canadian selected to work at the L.A. Musclecamp, which was a huge deal back then. The experience changed several lives in this industry, and launched a dozen careers, mine included.
Once I settled in to life in Southern California, I started training regularly at Gold's Gym, but I didn't like it there. Even though I trained at 5:30 AM, I found the atmosphere too much like a party, and not conducive to my level of intensity and focus. I decided to try World Gym, just down the street. I'd heard the stories, but I wanted a change.
I loved World Gym! No music, no chrome, just the weights and the people coming and going, training hard, and of course Arnold's private parking spot!
Eddie Guiliani, Joe Gold and assorted World Gym denizens, from a bygone era.
The first day I was there, I was greeted by the well-known and always-smiling Ed Guiliani. He was very nice to me, and we were just in the middle of a conversation, when Joe Gold came up to us, looked me right in the eye and said, "You come to my gym, you drop my weights, you leave, got it?" That was all he had to say that day.
I saw Joe again about a week later. He walked up to me and greeted me, his attitude completely different from that first day. "You're that Canadian guy from a couple days ago," he said. I started to respond but he cut me off. "You know, kid, the best of the best train at my gym, and I gotta say that you've got about the best back that I've seen in here, in a long time. Keep it up."
I think I just stood there with my jaw hanging down, saying "Wow, an actual compliment from Joe Gold." That scene has stayed with me, vivid as ever, for nearly twenty years. I'd found my home, and Eddie sealed the deal by supplying me with the obligatory World Gym tanks and other attire.
Fast forward to now. A new era of training is upon us, yet in many ways nothing has changed. I realized a long time ago that Innervation Training went against the status quo, but the results have been undeniable for nearly three decades. Our most recent success is two class wins up here last weekend at the Canadian Nationals, and a pro card for young Lou Joseph.
Scott Abel's latest success story: Lou Joseph, new IFBB pro
Innervation Training is a viable bodybuilding methodology in an era where exercises are mistaken for programs, and programs are mistaken for a methodology. Both of these are based on faulty logic.
A Chinese proverb says, "To know the best way up the mountain, ask the man who travels it every day." In terms of back training, I've been going up the mountain most of my life, so in this article I'll show you the best way up, and touch on some of the principles of Innervation Training along the way.
Muscular Skeletal Bias
Researchers in the strength game who fail to acknowledge the neurological component to training adaptation can often miss important variables, or use them within a context that's illogical in the grand scheme.
One example is "exercise bias." There's currently a bias toward specific movements as the key exercises for development. The best thing that can be said of this bias is that it doesn't work on an individual basis. The worst thing that can be said is that it misses the point entirely.
A young lad recently wrote to me that he couldn't do a single chin-up. When I asked why he wanted a program to make him better at chins, he said that he wanted to build his back. I told him that in his case, his back development did not depend on his ability to do chins. My advice was to stop wasting valuable gym time in a futile attempt to master a single movement, and move on to a more appropriate and viable program.
Unless you're being tested on how many chins you can do, there's no reason to consider it a priority in your development. Your precious gym time is better served doing other movements to which your physique will be more responsive. Responsiveness is a neurological biofeedback mechanism of great importance to the training protocol.
Some Principles to Innervation Training
The following are well-recognized mechanisms of neural adaptations to training:
1. Increased agonist activation. This means becoming more efficient at recruiting the largest motor unit thresholds and increasing firing rates, within targeted agonists.
2. Selective recruitment of motor units within agonists. Specifically, rotation of motor units and PMS (pre-movement silence) are important neural adaptations in advanced trainees, indicative of this adaptive response.
3. Selective activation of agonists within a muscle group. Staying with the right exercises produces a neural response that I call "performance mastery," which is a good thing. This shouldn't be confused with habituation, which occurs when the same exercise is done in the same way, for the same reps, in the same sequence, all the time. This would be a bad thing.
These are quite general. There are other factors, such as increased firing frequency, motor unit synchronization, altering recruitment, reflex potentiation, cross education, and co-contraction of antagonists, which are more applicable to sports performance than to target training for bodybuilding purposes.
The picture gets cloudier when we consider many other studies yielding results that go against the grain of modern training approaches. Here are a few key points:
The biggest factor missed by most experts is the area of excitation thresholds of motor units and recruitment patterns. The fact is that motor units with lower excitation thresholds will be preferentially activated in a given movement, regardless of the intended targeted muscles. This goes beyond what most experts address in explaining weak muscles, unresponsive muscles, and the importance of exercises selection.
Most people with a bodypart that's unresponsive to training usually have a highly responsive bodypart right next to it. Even though the trainee is targeting one area, the more neurologically dominant and responsive muscle takes on most of the work. The more responsive muscles have lower excitation thresholds, and will therefore act first. This is one reason you should exhaust your best body parts early in training so they'll be less likely to "take over" the work later on.
According to Paton and Brown, the nervous system has a marked ability to selectively activate segments of a muscle preferentially over the targeted intention. Their research clearly showed that angle of contraction, and joint angle, is more important than intensity to recruiting the segments of a muscle belly targeted in activity:
"... in the same study of latissimus segmented contribution to contraction at both 0 degrees, and 90 degrees abducted position of the shoulder, an increase in the level of contraction from 20% MVC to 70% MVC decreased the contribution of segment 1 latissimus and increased contribution of [the belly of the muscle]." (1995:306)
Different recruitment patterns are related more to central command (CNS) than sensory feedback (afferent neuronal system). "The recruitment thresholds of motor units of a muscle active in a movement may also be affected by changes in joint angle." (Tax et al 1989, Van Zulen et al 1988, Paton and Brown 1995, Romeny et al 1982, 1984)
What all of this suggests is that angle of contraction and exercise order are far more important than rep ranges and load variance.
The first mistake most trainees make and coaches ignore is that the latissimus, like any other muscle group, receives the most overload when the fibers are stretched with resistance. The reason so many people lack back development is that they don't know how to put this in to action. Whatever back movement you are doing, you must move counter to the movement of the weight. This means that leaning into back movements is a good thing, and leaning away is a bad thing.
Proper Rowing Technique
As important as all the variations of the row are to back development, it's sad that most trainees don't have a clue how to row properly. Even seemingly small mistakes invite other muscles to take over, negating the row's benefit for your back.
Consider, for example, the "Yates row," a 45-degree bent row popularized in the 1990s by Dorian Yates. Of course Dorian was a great champion, but this exercise was a mistake. Remember that range and plane of motion is everything. In that 45-degree angle, there's far too much trunk support to contraction base. So while you can row more weight this way (and be that much more impressed with yourself), your lats will not receive optimal overload.
Yates: great big back
The Yates row is the upper body equivalent of the half-squat or 1/3 bench. Sure, you might be able to move more weight that way, but hey, are we trying to build muscle here, or ego?
Yates row: great big mistake
Proper bent row technique means being bent in a parallel position to the floor, knees slightly bent to remove low back strain, and an elevated position standing on a block, box, or platform. This reduces trunk support and puts the body in a more favorable plane of motion to overload the muscles of the back. The reason you row off a block or a platform is that the bar should actually touch the toes at the bottom of the movement. This is what stretching the fibers with resistance is all about.
So stand on a block, and get that weight down to the bar touching the toes. You'll also need to shift weightto over the chest instead of back on your haunches. Again, the solution is to create less base support, or what I refer to as joint stress transfer, which I'll cover in a future article.
The following point is so important, you should print it out, underline it with a red marker, and pin it to your gym shorts: keep your elbows slightly bent at all times. If you unlock the arms at the elbow, then your initial pull on the weights will be with the brachioradialis and biceps muscles, negating the all-important pre-stretch of the targeted latissimus.
Using a reverse grip for rows just exacerbates this problem, and indeed, this is exactly how Dorian tore his biceps. The plane and range of motion of the 45-degree row, combined with unlocking the elbows with a reverse grip, was too much for the biceps in that plane and range of motion with that load.
We see this in the seated row as well. First off, the starting position of your torso should not be perpendicular to the ground. You need a much more exaggerated forward lean than that. If the foot plates of your seated row machine don't allow for leaning, then throw a box or a set of DB's in front of the foot plates to insure, more effective pre-stretch. (Watch my 5 Day MET Training DVD for an example). You must lean intothis movement. Remember, if you unlock the arms at the elbows, then the initial pull of the row will be centered in the arms, negating your targeted back work.
Scott Abel's MET Training DVD set, available at his website
I can hear the "experts" howling that leaning forward will risk damaging your lumbar vertebrae. To them I say, phooey. If you want results, then you must push the envelope of performance. I'm not recommending that you throw caution to the wind, but rather to engage yourself in proper lifting mechanics. Leaning into a lift is no more dangerous than deadlifting or squatting butt to heels.
So for all rows, lean into the movement, and keep a slight bend in the elbows and lock that position. You wouldn't hyperextend your knees when doing stiff-legged deadlifts, right? So don't hyperextend your elbows in the row. Remember my maxim: "Rowit, don't throwit!"
Finally, if you're biceps dominant, then chins more than likely are not for you. Once again, Innervation Training research means looking at "movements" and exercises differently. If you have very responsive low excitation thresholds in your biceps, then more than likely they will absorb or share too much of the load for you when doing chins. Once again, there are no special exercises (other than compounds); there are just exercises that work best for you. Technique and sequence become everything.
For me "tempo training" is a result of misinterpreted research, but that's for another article. Duration of overload implies that very low reps are useless for hypertrophy goals. (Behm 1995) Tempo training also negates individual "overload" and is faulty logic at best for hypertrophy concerns. I'm only concerned with two cadences: the explosive or power cadence, and the pumping or bodybuilding cadence.
Being explosive is all about how fast you are trying to move the bar, not how fast the bar actually moves. (See Behm 1995, and many others) Obviously the greater the load the slower it will move, but your intent should always be to move it as fast as possible. This means paying close attention to performance to insure not to use momentum, torque, or leverage to help lift the weight. Doing this will only bypass the crucial range of motion where overload is maximal. This is also another reason why no one, not your spotter, not your girlfriend, not even God, should be touching the bar while you're lifting it.
A bodybuilding cadence is just pumping reps without stopping at the bottom or top of a movement. The movement should be purposeful throughout the entire range of motion, and your intention should be full contraction of the muscles, not just completing the rep. The bodybuilding cadence is all about squeezing for every inch or every rep of every set, top to bottom with no pausing between reps. You can vary speed here as in going slower but it does not need to be gauged by a clock. This is all part of keeping the program alive, which we'll discuss in a bit.
The way my programs work is that the first two exercises (depending on level of development and intra workout biofeedback from exercise one) in a traditional program are done explosively using a weight to reach failure within the rep range indicated. From there, as you progress down the workout, you approach exercises with a bodybuilding cadence, which you can manipulate from workout to workout as part of keeping the program alive.
The first exercise on my programs are not determined by isolation vs. compound movements, which is limited thinking. Remember that Innervation training is all about joint angle, anatomical leverage, and speed considerations. So if a pulldown is the first movement of a workout, it will be done explosively. If it is last, or in the middle of the sequence, then it will be done with a constant tension cadence. This approach is simple and effective. It takes the thinking out and puts the concentration in!
All training for hypertrophy should involve some degree of oxygen debt. This is something misunderstood by most trainees who do a set, and then walk around and chat on their damned cell phones. It amazes me to see people without a drop of sweat on them at the end of a workout, thinking they're somehow building muscle.
Rest intervals are dictated by biofeedback, and two things need to be self-assessed. The first is oxygen debt recovery. When your breathing returns to "almost normal," then you're ready for your next set. The other factor is your psychological assessment of performance readiness. What this means is, if you can look at the bar, see the weight and feel you can perform the movement at least that well again, then do your next set, even before your breathing is totally back to resting level.
After that set, this is when load becomes informational. If you weren't able to do the same weight for the same reps, then you didn't rest long enough. This is how to gauge proper rest intervals using rep ranges as performance guidelines.
Lou Joseph assesses his performance readiness.
You can also keep the program alive by focusing on fewer rest intervals and proceeding to your next set further and further into oxygen debt. Mixing this up from workout to workout keeps the body guessing, but also keeps you honest about your own performance levels by gauging biofeedback, and not meaningless cues like your wrist watch or how much weight you lifted. Self-assessment is a key tool in the Innervation Training protocol.
Using traditional back training as an example, I'll give you a sample workout from one of the 700 or so template programs I've designed. Keep in mind this is not etched in stone. While this workout is geared more toward someone who'd benefit mostly from rowing, another program may be oriented toward various upright positions, pulldowns, chin variations, etc. It's important to not think one dimensionally. Remember, a workout does not constitute an entire program, nor does a collection of workouts.
What you do today for back should be based on what you did last time for back. It should also be based on your current needs state, on what you may have done yesterday in and out of the gym, and on what you'll do tomorrow. This is where the art of program design makes the difference.
The magic is not in fancy exercises with fancy names, and crazy tempos. It's all about the individual, and exercise sequencing, and proper rep ranges, which get bastardized all the time by so-called strength researchers.
Below is a sample of one of my 5-day programs, which I designed for a bodybuilding client with unique individual leverage advantages and disadvantages. Long arms mean one is better at deadlifts, and worse at chins. Or at best, chins are less efficient for back development. Chins, therefore, are eliminated from this program. This doesn't apply to everyone, of course. Once again, there are hundreds of variables and options, and it really takes experience and a good deal of knowledge to apply proper programming.
|Traditional Hypertrophy Program|
|1. Partial deadlifts, top 1/3||warm ups, then|
|2. Reverse grip pulldowns||1 warm up, then|
|1||6-8; 8-10; 12-15|
|3. One-arm dumbbell rows||4||12-15 (each side)|
|4. Supported seated rows||4||10-12|
|5. Pulldowns to front||4||10-12|
|1. Bent over rows||warm ups (3-4 sets), then|
|2. Close grip pulldowns||4||12-15|
|3. One-arm hammer rows||4||12-15 (each side)|
|4. Partial deadlifts (top 1/3)||4||8-10|
|5. Reverse grip pulldowns||4||15|
|1. Partial deadlifts||warm ups (3-4 sets), then|
|5||8 (constant weight)|
|2. Supported bent rows||5||12-15|
|3. One-arm hammer rows||4||12-15 (each side)|
|4. Reverse grip pulldowns||3||12-15|
|5. Seated cable rows||3||10-12|
|6. Straight arm pulldowns||3||15-20 (slow execution)|
|1. Bent rows||warm ups (3-4 sets) then|
|2. Reverse grip pulldowns||3||8-10|
|3. One-arm dumbbell rows||4||10-12 (each side)|
|4. Seated cable rows||4||10-12|
|5. Partial deadlifts (top 1/3)||4||12-15|
This is a five-day program, so this represents approximately one month's worth of workouts. As you see in this particular case, most of the exercises stay the same, but the sequence and rep schemes change constantly. Remember that with Innervation Training this will also determine rep cadence, which once again changes the training effect.
Changing sequence also means adhering to the importance of changing joint angles for better training effect. Doing one movement before another one week, then varying its sequence, cadence, and rep range the next week is the most efficient way to train for hypertrophy.
If I had a trainee with similar leverage structure, for example, but less development and muscular maturity, then I would modify every other back workout to look like this:
|1A. Dumbbell cleans||Warm ups (3-4 sets) then|
|1B. Straight-arm pulldowns||5||10-15|
|2A. Two-arm dumbbell snatch, stick lockout||4||10-12|
|2B. Straight-arm pulldowns||4||15-20|
|3A. Bent over rows||4||10-12|
|3B. Straight-arm pulldowns||4||10-12|
|4A. Deadlifts from floor||4||10-12|
|4B. Straight arm pulldowns||4||15-20 (slow execution)|
*cleans and snatches are done from the hang position
This alternating workout creates huge neural demand, and followed by straight arm pulldowns it concentrates recruitment in the fibers of the lats. The straight-arm pulldown shows that form follows function. It is a great movement to use in such supersets, because it demands low loads, and has specific recruitment with little systemic exhaustion.
So there are plenty of ways to modify any program based on the needs of any trainee, advanced or not. Which brings us to our next topic:
Keeping it Alive
I prefer biofeedback over periodization. Biofeedback training is a good way to keep a program alive by modifying it in three ways: First, the exercise sequence and rep sequences change. Next, rest periods can be altered, within reason, to change adaptive stimulus. Finally, within the actual program there's always room to maneuver and change things up. Remember that subtle changes are always better than grand ones, once you have a productive program suited to your own specific needs.
For example, in the workouts above you see ranges of 12 to 15 reps, which gives you plenty of options. You may want to train at the high end of that rep range for all sets. You may want to try to pyramid within that rep range for all sets. You may want to train at the low end of the rep range for all sets. Or you may want to stagger back and forth one set at 12, the next at 15, and then back to 12. You may want to go to failure or use a recovery day within the rep schemes indicated.
Combined with the above options and cadence changes, this allows a trainee to always keep a program alive and thereby avoid habituation. I have used "keeping it alive" to stay on one program for as long as 30 weeks, and still self-assess consistent progress.
We need to kill the notion that for a program to be brilliant, it must be complicated. There must be room to make a program your own at any time, during any phase of the training cycle. My coaching clients know this well, as their biofeedback reports always reflect which way they kept their programs alive, during the week or weeks of application.
So you can see that Innervation Training is a departure from the standard protocol. I've been employing this methodology for almost 20 years now, which is a long time to be going against the grain. I would like to expand on these concepts and principles in future articles. Give this back approach a try for one month as written. You'll feel the difference.