To make your body bigger, stronger, leaner or faster, the goal of your workouts is simple: recruit as many muscle fibers as possible with everyrepetition. Maybe you haven't heard it much, but it can't be denied.
If you perform a workout with crappy reps, your workouts will stink. There's no way around it. There's also no way you can have a workout that produces maximum results if you skimp on the science of muscle fiber recruitment.
When you get maximum muscle recruitment out of every repetition while making intelligent exercise choices, it turns into a kick-ass workout that will transform your body.
The Holy Triad
The relationship between speed and force in training should be extremely clear to anyone who's taken high school physics. Force equals mass times acceleration, so as the speed of your lift goes up, the force of your lift goes up. There's no way you can produce more force by slowing down a lift.
Just as force and speed are positively correlated, so is muscle fiber recruitment. The only way you can produce more force is by trying to lift a load faster, and the reason why you can produce more force is because you're recruiting more muscle fibers.
When anyone talks about training for any goal, the holy triad is force, speed, and muscle fiber recruitment. They're the gears that are driving the bus.
Of course, I'm not talking about the eccentric phase of a movement. There's indeed a point where a super fast eccentric won't yield the best results. It's obvious that your muscles are producing less force during the phase if you let gravity take over and drop the load. You must control the eccentric phase of a movement, but you shouldn't slow it down.
Eccentrics have become the Paris Hilton of the strength and conditioning world: they both get a lot of attention, but no one really knows why. I'll take a stab at it, though (eccentrics, not Paris).
1. You get sore
Eccentrics cause a lot of soreness, and because people often misconstrue extreme soreness as a sign of extreme results, it's a good selling point. However, your muscles don't need to be sore to get bigger and stronger. It's as simple as that.
I'm not saying that soreness is bad; it's an inevitable aspect of training. Any time you train with new parameters, you're going to get sore for the first week. But soreness isn't something you should seek. Sore muscles take longer to recover, and that's not good considering that the more you can train, the quicker you'll get results.
If you want bigger calves you need to train them often. If you bombard them with heavy eccentrics and a ton of volume, you won't be able to train them again for a week. And you'll spend that week walking around like the late Foster Brooks.
Foster Brooks was not noted for the development of his gastrocnemius.
2. You appear stronger
You're stronger in the eccentric (lowering) phase than you are in the concentric (lifting) phase. This is another good selling point since people typically want to train with heavier loads. Problem is, merely increasing your strength in the eccentric phase won't necessarily make you stronger in the concentric phase.
It looks good on paper, but the last time I checked, no organization was giving out trophies for the person who could lower the most weight.
Enough with this eccentric talk. Let's move on.
For maximum muscle fiber recruitment from every rep of every set, you only need to focus on three elements: speed, range of motion, and technique. These are the clearest indicators of muscle recruitment.
Let's start with speed. As mentioned, it's positively correlated with force and muscle fiber recruitment. You have three primary types of muscle fibers. For simplicity's sake I'll call them small, medium and large. There's a fixed, orderly recruitment of these fibers.
The smallest fibers have the highest endurance characteristics and they produce the least amount of force. The medium fibers have some endurance characteristics and they produce moderate amounts of force. The largest fibers have no endurance, but they're strong as hell.
If you curl the following loads for a count of two, here's how the muscle recruitment basically looks (as extrapolated from various pieces of research):
• A pencil = some of your small muscle fibers
• 50% of your one repetition maximum (1RM) = all of your small and some of your medium muscle fibers
• 100% of your 1RM = all of your small, medium and large muscle fibers
So the answer seems simple, doesn't it? Always train with 100% of your 1RM and you'll recruit all of your muscle fibers. That way, you won't have to worry about speed.
Unfortunately, you need to expose your muscles to a sufficient amount of volume (fatigue) in order for them to grow.
Training with 100% of your 1RM wreaks havoc on your recovery since it's so damn demanding. That's why it's necessary to drop the load so you can perform enough reps (volume) to induce growth. 85% of 1RM hits the sweet spot with most people. Many can train with loads up to 90% of 1RM and still get enough volume for growth, but it's difficult to sustain such intensity for more than 3 weeks.
The good news is that you don't need to always train with super heavy loads, if you focus on lifting as fast as possible. I'm going to loosely translate some neuroscience research and show you what happens if you attempt to curl the following three loads with maximum speed.
If you curl the following loads as fast as possible, here's how the muscle recruitment looks:
• A pencil = all of your small and some medium muscle fibers
• 50% of your one repetition maximum (1RM) = all of your small and medium muscle fibers and some of your large muscle fibers
• 85% of your 1RM = all of your small, medium and large muscle fibers
Again, the above scenario is not taken directly from research. It's a compilation of different parts of research rolled into an example that's easy to understand.
No matter how hard you try, you can't exert maximum force with a pencil as your resistance. This is true because you need a certain amount of time with sufficient load to recruit all of your muscle fibers. A pencil simply isn't heavy enough, and the time of contraction is very short, therefore you only recruit your small and some of your medium muscle fibers.
You can't exert maximum force by curling a pencil, especially in the squat rack.
With 50% of your 1RM, you can recruit almost all of your muscle fibers. But most research demonstrates that such loads aren't sufficient to recruit as many muscle fibers as heavier loads.
When training with 85% of your 1RM, you can recruit all your muscle fibers because the load and time are sufficient. You would not, however, recruit all of your muscle fibers with 85% of 1RM if you attempted to lift the load slower. Remember, the difference between a slower tempo compared to the fastest tempo is muscle recruitment: it increases as the speed of your lift increases. Whenever you slow down the lifting phase you do so at the expense of muscle fiber recruitment.
While you can't go wrong if you always monitor your reps with speed as the number one component, it's a little more difficult to judge speed with some exercises. That brings me to range of motion.
Range of Motion and Technique
Sometimes it's easiest to judge muscle recruitment based on your range of motion. After all, if you can no longer lift a load through its full range of motion it's because muscle fibers have dropped out of the task. Taken a step further, your technique is a good measure too.
Here are two examples that help get my point across.
1. Upper body pulling, leg curls, and biceps curls
With these three common exercises you typically lose your range of motion before you lose speed.
Let's use the lat pulldown as an example. Each repetition should consist of a full range of motion. Your arms and lats are fully stretched at the top, while the bottom consists of touching the bar to your upper chest.
When you fatigue, whether you realize it or not, you typically shorten your range of motion. Either you don't fully extend your arms at the top, or you can't touch the bar to your chest. The reason why you must shorten your range of motion is because muscle fibers have dropped out of the lift. Sometimes this occurs while the speed still remains relatively high.
This holds true for leg curls, biceps curls, and virtually any other exercise. I'm sure you've been unable to lock out a bench press, dip, or deadlift, so the concept is not limited to flexion-based exercises.
The bottom line is this: any time you must shorten your range of motion you should terminate the set because you're recruiting fewer muscle fibers.
Full range of motion is an indication that you're recruiting maximum muscle fibers.
2. Olympic Lifts
With Olympic lifts, it's difficult to judge speed because such a lift consists of many different phases and each phase has its own speed. It's easy to judge speed if you do nothing but pushes, pulls, squats and deadlifts: that's why they're mainstays in my programs.
Olympic lifts aren't so easy to judge. That doesn't mean you should avoid them: on the contrary, people should be doing more of them. Olympic lifts produce massive benefits and they should be part of your program at one time or another, regardless of your goal. The clean and jerk, for example, works nearly every muscle group in the body. That's a good thing, especially when you're short on time.
The key to getting maximum muscle fiber recruitment out of all Olympic lifts is to lift as fast as possible, but always think of your technique in terms of muscle activation. When your technique starts to break down, you should stop the set, regardless of the speed. Muscle fiber recruitment and good technique go hand-in-hand: as one lessens so does the other.
Remember that Maximum Recruitment Training revolves around three key factors: speed, range of motion, and technique. When any of those factors falter, it's time to terminate the set. Remember, we want to recruit as many muscle fibers as possible with each rep. Anything else will just add unnecessary fatigue.
Fatigue: A Double-Edged Sword
Fatigue has two faces. On one hand, a certain amount of fatigue is necessary for strength, growth, and fat loss. On the other hand, too much fatigue will wreak havoc on your recovery due to excessive stress, joint strain, and soreness.
So we must balance out the equation. Here's how you control fatigue.
1. Recruit as many muscle fibers as possible with each rep. This allows you to train with fewer total reps while still reaping all the benefits you desire.
2. Choose exercises that recruit as many muscles as possible in order to keep the number of exercises per session low. This shortens the amount of time you need to be in the gym.
3. Perform a specific number of reps with each workout in order to control volume.
4. Build up your frequency of training slowly and cut back every 4-6 weeks.
Nutrition and adequate sleep are paramount to controlling fatigue. You can't train your way out of a bad diet, unless you want to spend 3 hours of every day in the gym. And you'll never be healthy if you're constantly short on sleep.
Here are a few key factors that help keep fatigue at bay.
1. Sleep 8 hours every day. Take a 20-30 minute nap after every workout.
2. Eat six small meals per day and have a serving of fruit, vegetables, or both at every meal.
3. Focus your protein intake around eggs, grass fed beef, salmon, mackerel, chicken and turkey.
4. Reduce inflammation by supplementing with Flameout (4-6 per day), Carlson's liquid fish oil (1-2 tablespoons per day), and eat plenty of green vegetables.
5. Aid recovery by consuming 10 Branched Chain Amino Acids (BCAAs) with a 1/2 serving of Surge before and after your workouts. Add 5 grams of micronized creatine to your post-workout shake.
In Part 2 I'll outline the Maximum Recruitment Training programs. Get ready!