I lie down on the bench, set my feet, squeeze my upper back, and grab the bar that's resting six inches above my chest. Explode, I remind myself. Push that sucker as hard as you can.
I tense my entire body, take a deep breath, and...nothing.
The bar doesn't budge.
"Is there a problem?" asks Christian Thibaudeau who's standing behind me. "Lift it!"
Easy for him to say.
I set myself again and push. My eyes bulge. The bar moves maybe an inch and then falls, clanging on the support pins.
"That's screwed up," I say, defeated. "I'm way stronger than this."
"Maybe you're not using your muscles," says Thibaudeau.
It's my third day of training at the Biotest headquarters in Colorado Springs with Thibaudeau as my coach, and I'm still trying to get used to his riddles.
Not using my muscles? Just yesterday I lifted more weight than this on the regular bench press.
What the hell is going on?
According to Thibaudeau, there are three factors that contribute to the amount of force you can produce when you lift a weight:
- The contraction of the muscle fibers.
- The elasticity of the muscle tissue.
- The stretch-shortening cycle (SSC).
And there's my problem. (And, most likely, your problem.)
I'm incredibly efficient at using the SSC, but when it's eliminated – like doing pin presses from a dead start – I'm weaker than a kitten.
Some guys are the opposite. Because they're efficient at using their muscles, they're stronger from a dead start.
No big deal, right?
"Are you kidding me?" says Thibaudeau. "By not working on your weakness you're leaving pounds of muscle untapped."
Bodybuilders, athletes, (and apparently journalists), have something in common: their egos. We just don't like to find something we're bad at. But Thibaudeau's an optimist.
"When you find a weakness it's the best news you can hear because it's something that can really improve your performance and your growth."
And according to him, you and I are weak sauce.
The SSC is comprised of the eccentric (lowering the weight), the stretch reflex (the "turnaround point"), and the concentric (lifting the weight). You're stretching the muscle and then contracting it as fast as possible to produce more force. In fact, if you're very efficient at using the SSC, the first four inches of the lift may be pure stretch reflex and very little muscle contraction. (That's what Thibaudeau meant when he told me I wasn't "using my muscles.")
So doing a regular bench press and exploding from the bottom when your muscle is stretched would make use of the SSC. Starting from pins, when your chest isn't stretched, would eliminate it.
"If you want maximum growth, you have to be efficient at using the SSC and the muscle contraction," says Thibaudeau. "They're two different qualities that are equally important."
If you're too good at using the SSC, it'll take away from the actual muscles that need to be worked and will make the exercise less effective at building muscle mass.
If you're not good at using it, you won't be able to generate as much force and will most likely have a poor performance.
"You become good at what you train," explains Thibaudeau, "So guys who are naturally athletic and are used to sprinting, jumping, and throwing stuff are usually very efficient at using the SSC. Guys who've been training more like bodybuilders and using mostly controlled contractions usually aren't."
Do you need to work on the SSC or would you be better served by eliminating it? Here are two tests to determine what you're good at and what you should work on to tap into your muscle reserves.
Test one: The bench press test
Work up to a set of three reps on the regular bench press. Make sure to focus on pushing as hard as possible, especially at the "turnaround point" at the bottom of the lift. In other words, take advantage of the SSC.
Once you hit your 3RM, take a few minutes of rest. Next, walk up to the power rack and load the bar with around 20 pounds less than you ended up with on the bench. Make sure to place the pins four to six inches above your chest. "That's where the normal SSC would wear out on a normal bench," says Thibaudeau.
Work up to your 3RM.
If you were significantly stronger on your regular bench press than you were from pins, you're very efficient at using the SSC. If you're much stronger from pins, you're efficient at using muscle contraction and need to work on the SSC.
Test two: Depth jump to broad jump
Set up a box that's at knee-height. Stack some aerobics steps if you need to. "Drop" off the box to the floor, then immediately jump forward as far as you can. Measure how far you jumped.
Remove the box, stand in the same spot, and try the broad jump again. If you jump farther from the box, you're not efficient at using the SSC.
Because it's possible to be good at one and not the other.
"There's a central and localized component to the SSC," says Thibaudeau. "Hockey players are the best example. They'll train their lower body functionally and the upper body for show. So they're very efficient at using the SSC on lower body movements but not on upper body."
In other words, just because you kicked ass on the bench doesn't mean your jump isn't going to suck. So make sure to test both.
Now that you know what kind of guy you are, what should you do?
This movement allows you to learn to use the SSC while still focusing on muscular contractions.
To do it, pick an exercise that uses the SSC, like a dumbbell bench press. Grab some dumbbells you can press for six reps. When you begin your set, do one rep with a fast turn-around (using the SSC) and follow that with a rep where you pause for two seconds at the bottom before exploding up (eliminating the SSC). Keep alternating until you hit six reps.
Here's how it should look:
- Rep 1: Fast turnaround
- Rep 2: Pause for two seconds in the bottom stretched position
- Rep 3: Fast turnaround
- Rep 4: Pause for two seconds in the bottom stretched position
- Rep 5: Fast turnaround
- Rep 6: Pause for two seconds in the bottom stretched position
You don't need to do these all the time; just employ them during various training cycles throughout the year.
"Because you lose focus," says Thibaudeau. "I really emphasize the lower rep range since you're able to produce maximal force on every single rep, which will lead to more growth."
According to him, every rep must be lifted like it was the only thing you're allowed to do that day to stimulate growth.
"Every rep should be done with maximal effort regardless of weight or fatigue level," he says.
It's time to focus on movements that eliminate the SSC. "If your goal is to become better at 'using your muscles,' the first exercise for a muscle group or movement pattern should be from a dead start," says Thibaudeau. "It'll serve as an activation."
Remember to keep your sets under six reps. From there, you can do your normal exercises and reps.
Exercises to choose from:
- Shoulders and Chest: Pin presses (4-6 inches above to avoid the stretch). Floor presses.
- Quads: Squat from pins. Box squats with a slight pause on the box.
- Hamstrings: Deadlift from pins set just below the knees. Olympic lifts from blocks set just above your knees.
- Back: Chin-up from a dead stop with each rep. (Either find a chin-up bar that's low enough to grab while still touching your feet to the floor, or grab a high box, set it under the pull-up bar, and do it off your knees. Be careful not to push off with your feet.)
It's time to focus on movements that use the SSC. Again, the first exercise for a muscle group or movement pattern should concentrate on using the SSC for activation. Remember to keep your sets under six reps. You can do whatever exercises and reps you like after the activation.
Exercises to choose from:
- Shoulders: Push press with dumbbells. According to Thibaudeau, you should use dumbbells since you can get a greater stretch in the shoulder.
- Chest: Incline or flat dumbbell bench press with a very fast "turnaround" at the bottom of the movement. "It doesn't need to be a violent stretch," says Thibaudeau. "Just don't spend a lot of time in the stretch position."
- Quads: Depth jump to vertical jump. To do it, set up a box that's at knee-height. "Drop" off the box to the floor, then immediately jump as high as you can.
- Hamstrings, Glutes: Depth jump to broad jump. To do it, set up a box that's at knee-height. "Drop" off the box to the floor, then immediately jump as far as you can. Jumping for distance increases the involvement of your posterior chain.
- Back: Flying pull-ups. Yep, it's exactly what it sounds like. Grab a pull-up bar and lower yourself under control. Complete a fast turnaround at the bottom, explode up, and throw yourself in the air, letting go of the bar if you can. Catch yourself under control and repeat. Take a bow for the small crowd that has gathered to watch.
"You should see significant gains within two weeks," says Thibaudeau. "If you do it for a few workouts and don't feel like you're 'in the groove,' then you may need to switch to a different exercise."
The bottom line: if after two weeks you aren't lifting more weight or pushing the weight faster, its time to move on. But let's say it is working well. When do you stop?
"Most guys will see a drop-off in performance in four to six weeks," says Thibaudeau. "When that happens, simply choose a different exercise. So if you were doing the incline bench press from pins, moving to a flat bench press would be a good idea."
But his best advice?
"As long as it's working, don't switch it up too early. Don't stop till you get enough."
And it looks like I'm finally catching on to Thibaudeau's wordplay.
"That's a Michael Jackson song," I tell him.
Nevermind. It seems like I've got more to figure out.
Editor's Note: Please note that the I, Bodybuilder program liberally employs exercises from the dead stop as well as exercises that employ the SSC, thereby going a long way in assuring a balanced approach to building muscle.