In the previous installment of this series, we saw that:
- Athletes should always try to generate as much force as possible when they're lifting a weight. In other words, they should not only lift the load, but attempt to impart as much acceleration to it as possible. As the load becomes heavy or fatigue sets in, the actual speed of movement will decrease. However, the intent and effort to accelerate is as effective as the actual acceleration of the load when it comes to stimulating muscular and neural adaptations.
- Athletes should not only develop their strength in concentric/lifting/accelerating movements, but also in eccentric/lowering/braking and isometric/static/stopping actions.
- Athletes can maximize force production potential by working on the muscular, reflexive, and elastic factors involved in force production. The higher the force produced, the more high-threshold motor units are recruited and the more growth/strength gains can be stimulated.
Show Me The Methods!
Athletes should train every type of muscle contraction (isometric, concentric, and eccentric) as well as the three components of force production (muscular, elastic, and reflexive). With those goals in mind we can constitute a list of possible training methods.
Understand that not all of these methods should be used at the same time. Your selection will depend on the needs of your sport, your training phase, and your current level athleticism and experience.
Part I: Concentric Emphasis Methods
Concentric refers to a muscle action where the muscle produces strength while shortening. This is the phase of a movement commonly referred to as "lifting," which isn't always an accurate term. I personally call this phase of the movement the "overcoming" portion because your muscles contract with the intent of overcoming an external resistance.
Concentric-muscular method heavy emphasis: This refers to training methods where the muscular aspect of force production is emphasized. Here we're talking about regular lifting movements, preferably with a heavy weight.
By "heavy" we don't necessarily mean maximal (1-3 rep range) but a weight that's at least 80% of your maximum on a given lift. Obviously, we want to use money exercises for this type of training. Here's a short list of good movements:
Pectorals: Barbell bench press, barbell decline press, barbell incline press, weighted dips (if shoulders are healthy).
Upper back/lats emphasis: Weighted chins, weighted pull-ups, lat pulldown with a straight torso.
Upper back/mid back emphasis: Chest-supported dumbbell rowing, barbell rowing, one-arm dumbbell rowing, corner row.
Shoulders: Barbell military press, seated barbell press, seated dumbbell press, standing dumbbell press.
Quadriceps: Back squat, front squat, lumberjack squat (pictured below), leg press.
Hamstrings/hips: Barbell Romanian deadlift, Barbell stiff-leg deadlift, Sumo deadlift, leg press with feet high on platform.
Triceps: Close-grip bench press, rack lockouts (partial bench press), decline close-grip bench press, incline close-grip bench press.
Biceps: Standing barbell curl, preacher curl, hammer curl.
Concentric-muscular method explosive emphasis: Explosive exercises from a static start are also "muscular dominant" (while those starting with a countermovement are elastic in nature).
Yes, during the movement, momentum will take over (at some point, because of the acceleration, the load will be moving on its own) but it's the muscular component that must be used to produce the initial impulse necessary to propel the load upward.
In other words, yes, momentum eventually reduces the amount of work the muscles must do, but it's the muscles that must first create this momentum. This requires a very high and sharp force production.
Exercises in this category include:
1. Olympic lift variations from a static start
Here we're talking about either Olympic lifts starting from the floor or from blocks.
Note that we can also use lifts from the hang; however, it becomes necessary to pause the bar for at least two seconds in the starting position before lifting it to negate the myotatic reflex.
There are several variations of the Olympic lifts. The two major ones we can use are the power snatch and power clean. "Power" means that you're catching the bar without squatting too much under it, certainly not by bending the knees more than 90 degrees, and I'd recommend not bending them more than 135 degrees. Reasons?
- The bar must be lifted over a greater distance because it's caught higher. This requires a greater power production.
- Catching the bar in a full squat position is technically more difficult and requires a lot of flexibility. Some athletes will need a lot of time, even months, to be somewhat efficient at the full lifts. Waiting months before a movement becomes efficient enough to develop strength and power isn't an option for a lot of athletes who are on tight schedules.
I generally recommend sticking to lifts from the blocks or hang because the lifts from the floor are more technical and require the most flexibility. Most athletes will be somewhat efficient at the power movements from blocks or from the hang right off the bat, so these are better options.
The lifts from the blocks are a better option when focusing on the muscular aspect while the hang version will be more effective when focusing on the elastic component. Below are the power clean from blocks and power snatch from blocks.
2. Ballistic movements from a static start
We can also use simpler ballistic movements from a static start to create a peak in force and power production emphasizing the muscular aspect.
Understand that this method isn't really well suited as a primary hypertrophy method. But as an activation tool performed prior to a regular lifting movement it can be effective. It will "wake-up" (potentiate) the nervous system and will allow you to recruit the high-threshold motor units more easily in the subsequent lifting exercises, which means more muscle growth.
Ballistic means that there's an actual projection of the load. Classic examples include the jump squat, jump lunges, and bench throws. Remember that to emphasize the muscular aspect of force production you'll have to start the movement from a static start.
Shown above is the static jump squat. You hold the quarter squat position for 2-3 seconds before jumping. About 15-30% of your max squat can be used for this exercise.
Next is the static jump lunge. It's important to remember that there's no countermovement taking place prior to jumping: you initiate the upward thrust from the position you're starting in. You can use around 10-15% of your max squat on this movement.
In the static bench throw you start the bar on the chest to prevent any countermovement. Use 15 to 30% of your max bench press.
3. Max acceleration movements from a static start
This type of training is pretty similar to Westside's speed day. You're using a moderate load (45-55% of your maximum) and you lift it with maximum acceleration. Chains or bands (preferably bands) can be used.
The difference with the Westside speed lift is that you start the movement from a static position (much like in the ballistic exercises recommended above). For example, if you were to do a bench press this way, you'd lower the bar to the chest, pause it for two seconds, then lift it explosively.
Note: The main benefit of explosive lifting on muscle hypertrophy is more neural than anything. It'll allow the athlete to be able to stimulate his high-threshold motor units more easily. It could be said that explosive lifting "trains" the nervous system to recruit these fibers. The more efficient you become at recruiting them, the more growth you'll eventually be able to stimulate.
Concentric-elastic method heavy emphasis: This refers to lifting movements where the muscle is placed under a maximum loaded stretch at the end of the eccentric portion of the movement.
This isn't a plyometric movement; it's performed for relatively high reps (6-8 or 8-10 for athletes, 8-10 or 10-12 for aesthetic-minded individuals) with a controlled eccentric phase followed by a maximal muscular stretch prior to the concentric phase of the exercise. Good exercises to use with this method include:
Pectorals: Dumbbell decline press, dumbbell bench press, dumbbell incline press, dumbbell or cable flyes.
Upper back/lats emphasis: All the movements included in the concentric-muscular method plus straight-arm pulldowns, one-arm motorcycle rowing (shown below), high-pulley cross rowing, pullover (cable, dumbbell, barbell, or machine).
Upper back/mid back emphasis: All the movements included in the concentric-muscular method plus seated row to neck, high-pulley rhomboid pull, low-pulley one-arm cable rowing, low-pulley cross rowing.
Shoulders: Seated incline lateral raise, seated incline front raise, pulley behind the back, one-arm front raise, behind the back cable lateral raise.
Quadriceps: Any form of full squatting, frog stance hack squat, lunges with front foot elevated, split squat with front foot elevated, sissy squat.
Hamstrings/hips: All the movements included in the concentric-muscular method plus their dumbbell variations, reverse hyper, glute-ham raise, pull-through.
Triceps: Decline dumbbell triceps extension, decline barbell triceps extension, overhead triceps extension (dumbbell, cable or barbell), close-grip bench press with the elbows out.
Biceps: Seated incline curl, seated incline hammer curl, pulley behind the back one-arm cable curl, pulley behind the back one-arm hammer curl (with rope).
Concentric-elastic method explosive emphasis: Here we're talking about explosive movements preceded by a forceful stretch of the muscle. Basically all the exercises talked about in the concentric-muscular method explosive emphasis section will apply here, but without being performed from a static start.
1. Olympic lift variations with a pre-stretch
Here we're talking about lifts from the hang performed without a pause. In other words, you lower the bar down to the starting position and, as soon as you reach it, you explode upward.
The power snatch from the hang and power clean from the hang are included as well as the push press and push jerk, which weren't included earlier because it's hard to perform these movements without a pre-stretch.
Above is the power clean from the hang. Notice that I'm so strong that I can actually change the weight during the performance of the movement! (Seriously, these were taken years ago without the benefit of a video camera, and we had to take several shots to make the exercise accurate.)
A push press (top) and a push jerk (bottom) are shown above. The difference between these two movements is that in the push press you only use a slight push off with the legs to get the weight started upward; the arms and shoulders still do most of the work.
In the push jerk you're actually using a powerful leg thrust to throw the bar in the air, which makes this exercise lower body dominant.
2. Ballistic exercises with a pre-stretch
No secrets here, these are the same movements as explained earlier (jump squat, jump lunges, bench throws) except that we now use a pre-stretch prior to the projection phase.
3. Max acceleration movements with a pre-stretch
This is your typical Westside speed work. Lower the bar relatively rapidly (but under control) and immediately as it reaches the low position, explode upward. Again, 45-55% of your max can be used.
Concentric-reflexive method: There aren't any true concentric-reflexive methods because the reflexive portion of the exercise is mostly an eccentric action. Plyometric drills such as depth jumps or depth push-ups could be included here; however, they're more of an eccentric-reflexive method.
Part II: Eccentric Emphasis Methods
Eccentric refers to a muscle action where the muscle produces strength while lengthening. This is the phase of a movement commonly referred to "lowering." I call this phase of the exercise the "yielding" portion because your muscles contract with the intent to let an external resistance go down while controlling its movement.
Eccentric-muscular method heavy emphasis: This includes most forms of "lifting" related eccentric training. We could divide it further into two subcategories of methods: maximal and sub-maximal.
The big difference between the two will be the load used. The actual execution of the movement (at least of the eccentric phase) should be pretty much the same: a controlled, tensed movement, lowering the load relatively slowly.
A rapid eccentric action is good to potentiate strength and power. But to stimulate hypertrophy as well as strengthening the muscular component of force production, a slower eccentric action is best.
Maximal Method I (eccentric/concentric contrast): This method consists of using a heavier weight for the eccentric portion of the movement and a lighter one for the concentric phase. This can be accomplished by using a set of weight releasers, a piece of equipment that allows you to add weight during the eccentric phase while "releasing it" as you reach the low position.
Or it can be accomplished by having your training partner manually apply additional pressure on the bar during the eccentric phase (releasing it as you start the concentric phase).
The bar weight should be around 70-80% of your maximum. In both cases the amount of resistance added during the exercise portion should be determined by the way you're lowering the weight: if you can lower it under control (in 4-5 seconds) you can add more eccentric resistance.
If the weight goes down fast, there's too much resistance. If you're using the manual version, your partner would simply apply less pressure. If you're using releasers, you'd take off some of the weight.
While I do love weight releasers and feel they're one of the better training tools you can invest in, when it comes to muscle hypertrophy I prefer the manual eccentrics version for two specific reasons:
- It allows you to perform sets of multiple reps more easily. With the releasers you have to rack the weight and have one or two partners re-attach the weight releasers. This will give you 3-5 seconds between reps, not to mention you'll have to un-rack the bar every time. Not very practical.
- It allows you to adjust the eccentric resistance to your level of fatigue. If you perform sets of 5 reps, chances are you'll become weaker as the set progresses because of fatigue. Your partner can simply reduce the amount of pressure he applies to the bar to allow you to continue on with the set.
For strength I prefer the releasers because it's easy to quantify the load used.
Maximal Method II (2/1 technique): In this technique you simply perform the concentric portion of the movement explosively with two limbs (both arms for example) and lower it slowly with only one limb. This allows you to really overload the eccentric portion of the exercise.
In most cases, machines are needed to perform this technique, so understand that it might not have as much "real-life" transfer as other eccentric methods performed with free-weights, but it's still effective at stimulating eccentric strength gains and muscle size. In fact, this method should predominantly be used to stimulate muscle growth.
Good examples of exercises include the leg press, leg curl, leg extension, machine curl, and calf raise.
Sub-Maximal Method I (super-slow eccentrics): This technique is fairly simple. Using a moderate-to-heavy load (60-85% of your max) execute a super-slow yielding phase while lifting (overcoming) the bar explosively. Lower the bar in 6-12 seconds depending on the weight.
When training for size, the number of reps per set will depend on your fiber makeup and lactate tolerance. Aim for technical muscle failure on each set.
Sub-Maximal Method II (Eccentric/isometric contrast): In this type of exercise, you find yourself slowly lowering a load equivalent to 60-80% of your maximum concentric strength in a movement, adding several isometric (static) pauses during the eccentric (lowering) portion. The longer the range of motion of an exercise, the more pauses you'll take.
Each of these pauses should last 3 to 6 seconds. Once the bar has been fully lowered (eccentric portion of the movement is completed) you lift the bar or have a partner lift it for you. Normally, sets of 1 to 5 reps are performed. The more pauses you use (or the longer they are) and the heavier the weight is, the less reps you'll perform.
For big range of motion (ROM) compound movements (squats, deadlifts, etc.) you should use 3-4 pauses. For medium ROM compound movements (bench press, rowing, military press, etc.) you should use 2-3 pauses. For short ROM exercises you should use two pauses.
Note that this method will also be used in the "isometric methods" section since it does emphasize both types of muscle actions.
Eccentric-muscular method explosive emphasis: This method is what I call "overshoot training." It consists of lowering a relatively heavy load somewhat fast (in 1-2 seconds while still controlling it) followed by an explosive movement with a lighter weight.
Overshoot refers to an activation of fast-twitch motor units during the eccentric portion of the lift allowing the athlete to be more explosive during the concentric portion. To perform an overshoot set you'll need to have a partner apply pressure on the bar during the lowering phase of the reps. At the end of the eccentric portion he releases the bar, you pause for a second, then explode upward.
This technique is similar to the eccentric/concentric contrast except that the bar weight used is lower (45-55% instead of 70-85%) and there's a 1-2 seconds pause prior to the explosive concentric movement.
Eccentric-reflexive method heavy emphasis: The main types of training in this category are the drop and catch as well as the "drop, catch, and lift." These are basically plyometric exercises with weights. I refer to this type of training as deceleration/breaking training (drop and catch) or breaking-overcoming (drop, catch, and lift) training.
The basic premise is the same as during plyometric work:
- You increase the external resistance by having a body accumulate kinetic energy as it falls down. In the case of plyos, the source of resistance is your own body, while with the drop and catch method it's a barbell.
- Then absorb its force by abruptly stopping its downward progression. You do so by making your muscles super stiff immediately upon reception.
- Then follow it by an explosive concentric/lifting action (if it's a drop, catch, and lift exercise).
The key point is that immediately as the bar touches your hands (during the reception), you must tense your muscles as hard as possible so that you stop the falling barbell as fast as possible.
In the drop and catch version you keep the biceps tensed hard with the elbows at 90 degrees for 3-5 seconds before returning to the starting position. In the drop, catch, and lift variation you explode back up to the starting position as soon as you catch the bar. Take your time between reps to make sure that the movement is of a high quality.
Below this method is illustrated using a barbell curl. First is the drop and catch method, then the drop, catch, and lift method.
Eccentric-reflexive method explosive emphasis: This is where plyometric work comes into play. The objective of this method is to increase concentric power and force output by stimulating the muscles and reflexes via "shock stretching" action preceding the overcoming portion of the movement.
This is accomplished by dropping from a certain height (typically 0.4m to 0.7m, although heights of up to 1.1m have been used by very advanced athletes) to elicit a powerful stretch activation, then jumping up as high as possible immediately upon landing.
The basic principle is to stand on an elevated surface and then let yourself fall off. Immediately as your feet (or hands) touch the floor, you rebound upward by jumping (propelling) yourself as high as possible.
To make this type of training maximally effective you should minimize ground-contact time while still being on the floor long enough to generate maximum force. Generally this means not spending more than one second on the floor.
Below are two examples of plyometric work: the depth jump and the depth push-up.
Remember the following when thinking about the drop and catch as well as plyometrics:
- Plyometric and breaking work has a training effect on the nervous system, on the muscle reflexes, and on the muscles/tendons themselves.
- For those interested primarily in gaining muscle mass, the main advantage of plyometric and breaking work is the increase in HTMUs activation it can lead to.
- Low-intensity plyometric work (bounding and simple jumps) can be performed for long periods of time while the high-intensity versions should be limited to blocks of 2-4 weeks at a time.
Part III: Isometric Emphasis Methods
Isometric means "same measure" or "same length." So an isometric action occurs when a muscle produces force without changing the length of the involved muscle(s). In other words, you're tensing your muscles but no movement occurs.
There are several ways of using isometric contractions in a training program and I'll describe them in a minute. But first let's review the benefits of isometric training (list adapted from my latest book, High-Threshold Muscle Building):
- Isometric work can help you improve the capacity to recruit high threshold motor units over time, especially in beginners and individuals with an inefficient CNS. This is because you normally recruit 5-10% more MUs during a maximal isometric action than during a concentric one.
- Isometric exercises are characterized by a high level of force production which can be used to stimulate HTMUs into growth and strengthening.
- You can use isometric movements to potentiate regular lifting exercises by performing a maximal isometric contraction lasting 5-10 seconds, 2-3 minutes prior to your regular lifting set.
- If you have a specific weak point in a certain lift, you can rely on isometric exercises performed at that sticking point to correct the problem. This is because the training effect on strength is highly angle-specific.
- Isometric work is much less energy-costly than regular lifting. It won't cause much muscle damage either. So you can recover faster from isometric work than from other types of training.
- Several athletic actions require isometric strength. It's especially important for individuals participating in sports where a fixed body position is used or where frequent changes of direction are required.
There are three main types of isometric exercises: overcoming-isometric, yielding-isometric, and functional isometrics. Understand that in the first two cases this doesn't mean that you're combining a concentric/overcoming or eccentric/yielding action along with the isometric action. The actual external outcome of the exercise is the same: there's no movement at all. However, the intent during the exercise changes.
Overcoming-isometric: You're pushing or pulling against an immovable resistance. There's no external movement, but your intent is to move the resistance (even though it's impossible).
Here you can see the three training positions for the squat in the overcoming-isometric method.
Yielding-isometric: You're holding a weight and your objective is to prevent it from moving down. So once again, there's no external movement. However, your intent is no longer to move the resistance, but to stop its movement.
Below you can see three types of yielding-isometrics: a) holding a barbell, b) supporting your bodyweight plus a dumbbell, and c) supporting your body weight.
It's important to understand that both techniques won't have the same effect. For one thing, the neural patterns used in both cases will be different. Overcoming-isometrics may have a bigger impact on concentric strength than yielding-isometrics.
Normally we use overcoming-isometrics for short sets (5-10 seconds) in order to produce a lot of force and stimulate the HTMUs as much as possible. Yielding-isometrics are utilized mostly for longer sets (20-30 seconds) and have a greater effect on size and strength-endurance than strength.
Functional isometrics: These aren't 100% isometric in its purest sense since there's some movement involved, but for the most part it's considered an isometric method. Of all the three major methods, this one is probably the most effective at stimulating strength gains. It's also much easier to measure progress in this method than with regular overcoming-isometrics, which makes it more motivating.
Functional-isometrics combine a very short range of motion concentric (lifting) action with a maximum overcoming isometric action. It requires the use of a power rack and two sets of safety pins. The bar is set between the two sets of pins (it sits on the first/bottom set of pins in the starting position) and is loaded with a heavy weight. There's 2-4" between both sets of safety pins.
The exercise consists of lifting the bar off of the first set and driving it into the second set of pins. Once the bar hits the second set, you push (or pull depending on the movement) against the pins for 5-10 seconds.
Below is an illustration of how to set up the rack for functional isometric work:
Okay, with that out of the way we can now discuss the various applications of isometric training:
Isometric-muscular method high intensity emphasis: In this type of isometric training you're producing a maximal contraction over a short duration. Beyond 7 seconds the force production will start to decrease, so sets of high intensity isometrics should last around 5-7 seconds. We can use all three types of isometric exercises (overcoming, yielding, and functional) although the overcoming and functional variations are better suited to this method.
Since we're focusing on the muscular aspect, the position of the isometric action must not be at a joint angle where the muscle is maximally stretched. The mid-range point or close to the completion of the concentric phase are better choices.
Isometric-muscular method duration emphasis: In this second type of isometric training the objective is to maintain a relatively intense (although not maximal) static muscle contraction for a longer period of time. About 20 to 30 seconds is optimal when hypertrophy is the primary objective. You can also use all three types of isometric work here, but the overcoming variation is the better choice.
Once again, because we're focusing on the muscular aspect of force production, we don't want to use the stretch position, but either the mid-range or peak contraction positions depending on the exercise of choice. The following table gives you the position of the static hold on various exercises.
Isometric-reflexive method high intensity emphasis: This method originates from coach Charles Poliquin. It consists of adding a "surprise" contraction during the course of an isometric exercise.
To do so, the athlete will perform the movement with his eyes closed and the partner/coach will hit the bar during the set, which will cause a reflexive muscle contraction to occur.
For example, the athlete might be holding a barbell curl at a 90 degree angle and during the execution of the set the partner will suddenly hit the bar. The athlete should try to prevent the bar from moving down. This reflexive action will enhance the amount of high threshold motor units being brought into play.
Again, all three types of isometric work can be used, but the functional and overcoming variations are the better choices.
Isometric-reflexive method explosive emphasis: This is a method called depth landings. It's pretty similar to plyometric exercises but you're only performing the landing phase (you don't jump back up). The key is to "stick the landing" (i.e. immediately breaking the downward movement as soon as you hit the ground).
In other words, as soon as you land you must tense your muscles as hard as possible to avoid falling down. You then hold the landing position for 2-3 seconds. You can use higher drop heights than with depth jumps (up to 0.75-1.25m), however, if you can't stick the landing, the dropping height is excessive.
The key point is to land directly in a position specific to your sport. For example, football linemen and linebackers should stick the landing with the knees bent at approximately 90-110 degrees. You should already be in that position as you hit the ground; don't land and then drop down to it.
Isometric-elastic method high intensity emphasis: This method is exactly the same as the isometric-muscular high intensity method discussed earlier with one difference: in the previous application, the position of the isometric action was either at the mid-range or close to the end of the concentric phase (because we didn't want to work on the elastic aspect). In this new method, we'll use the fully stretched position of a movement.
For example, if you choose the bench press, you'll push from the lowest position in the range of motion using a wide grip (to maximize the stretch of the pectorals). Since we're focusing on high-intensity contractions, a "set" should last 5-7 seconds. We can use all three types of isometric exercises although the overcoming and yielding variations are better suited to this method.
Isometric-elastic method duration emphasis: Again, this is the same thing as the isometric-muscular duration method with the difference that we do the isometric work at a position where the target muscle group is fully stretched (or at the end of the eccentric phase of a movement).
We should use sets of 20-30 seconds to maximize hypertrophy (although it's possible to go up to 50-70 seconds when training strength-endurance) and the yielding isometrics method should be our choice.
How These Methods Affect Muscle Growth
For some of the training techniques described above, it's fairly easy to see how hypertrophy is being stimulated. For others it might not be so obvious. That's because some of them don't directly stimulate hypertrophy but rather increase your body's capacity to respond to a certain hypertrophy stimulus.
For example, some methods increase high threshold motor unit recruitment. As your body becomes more efficient at recruiting these growth-producing muscle fibers you'll begin to benefit more from typical hypertrophy-inducing methods because the HTMUs will come into play more easily and you'll be more effective at stimulating them.
The methods presented above can increase muscle gains by:
- Increasing your CNS's capacity to activate HTMUs.
- Stimulating the HTMUs via the production of a high level of muscle tension (high force production).
- Stimulating the HTMUs via the cumulative fatigue effect.
The following table illustrates the contribution of each of the methods discussed earlier in the article. Obviously, this is only to give you a broad idea of the way each method works; it isn't 100% accurate, but it's sufficient for the objective served here.
The first two installments of this series have been pretty dense in information; you might even be confused at this point. Fear not! Part III will show you how to fit all these methods into a logical and progressive training program. Stay tuned!