No load training = big gains down the road

Most people underestimate the importance of isometric muscle contraction in helping to build muscle. It is very beneficial to learn how to consciously contract a muscle because it will improve the underlying neural function needed to generate the near 100% muscle activation. This improves gains because the more muscle fibers that fired during a lift, the greater the strength and size gain potential.

One thing you should keep in mind when thinking about the body is that all muscle is basically the same. There are speed differences and different ratios of fast and slow twitch fibers, but by in large, if a fiber receives the signal to fire it will fire. If it doesn’t, it won’t. This process is an all or nothing thing so individual fibers will never contract at a force of 50%. Such a binary approach is successful because there are millions of muscle fibers that we can learn to control more or less individually. If you need to lift something with your biceps that requires 25% of its strength, your nervous system will recruit about 25% of your biceps muscle fibers to fire and contract to get the job done. This is a fantastic system because it allows for very precise effort control while eliminating a lot of wasted energy that 100% muscle firing would require.

Control of the motor units requires some adaptive changes from the nervous system. For the purpose of building muscle, the level of change is not extremely high because you are trying to fire as many motor units as possible in an attempt to work the entire muscle. This being said, neural tissues grow very slowly so it takes time to develop the appropriate pathways to allow for increasing numbers of motor units to be triggered. Whether or not we do develop this nervous system control dependents on our need to do so. This is where practice comes into play as it demonstrates this need and it forces the body to grow the enhanced neural pathways to allow for the improved control. Over time and with practice you will develop the ability to fire a larger and larger percentage of the muscle motor units.

Think back to a time when you were learning a new exercise or when you first started working out. If you are like most people, you probably noticed a dramatic increase in strength in the first few weeks of performing the new movements. Many people report up to 100% strength increases in their first 6 weeks of working out. This strength however, is not accompanied by a 100% increase in size, which is what you would expect to see. In fact, you gain a lot of strength before you notice any change in muscle size. These initial strength increases are the result of more motor units firing when the muscle contracts and not because each motor unit is contracting any harder. The practice helped your body learn how to improve muscle fiber recruitment.

The lesson is that you can learn to recruit more motor units for a muscle contraction if you practice. The more you practice, the faster the skill will develop. People who understand this are the ones how make flexing or posing part of their workout routine. They are the ones learning how to recruit as many muscle fibers as they can when they flex because they know that conscious control of the process is only possible if they have the ability to engage all of the motor units. The skill you are working to acquire is to be able to contract all of the muscle fibers when you are lifting a load since that is what is going to make the fibers grow in size and strength. It is only when you are able to engage all of the muscle fibers when you are lifting that you will be working the entire muscle and forcing maximum growth. Isometric muscle contraction during flexing or posing is a great way to learn how to get this control.

Is bulking up to gain muscle a good idea?

Bulking and cutting are bodybuilding terms that describe the deliberate over-eating and under-eating to increase and decrease body weight with the goal of increasing muscle building ability during the bulking phase. This pattern is widely accept in the body building community as the best long term way to add muscle mass.

Christian Thibaudeau tells the truth about bulking as he tries to answers the question is bulking up to gain muscle a good idea? He puts forward a convincing case for going against the flow and draws the following conclusions:

  1. Bulking up won’t lead to any more muscle growth than ingesting an ideal amount of nutrients. You can’t force your body to grow muscle by feeding it more and more.
  2. By bulking up you’re actually reducing the amount of time per year where you can add muscle because you have to diet for a longer period of time to remove the gained fat.
  3. Bulking up will, over time, improve your body’s capacity to store fat and reduce its capacity to lose it.

They can’t prove it

The Testosterone Nation regulars lay down 8 training ideas that they think are true, but they can’t prove.

Two in particular got my attention.

In part one, Christian Thibaudeau really got me thinking about the role that childhood activity plays on determining our best body parts for muscle growth later on. When we are young, our play helps us to learn how to contract our muscles more completely. As a consequence, if we don’t use particular muscles when we are younger, we never gain the body awareness that leads to more complete neural firing.

In part two, Chad Waterbury goes out on a limb and endorses high frequency training (working a body part more than 4 times a week) as a fantastic way to increase muscle growth, provided you keep the volume of each workout low.

I think that the increased frequency would dramatically improve the neural coordination for activating the muscles; maybe this could make up for that lethargic childhood?

Choosing A Fitness Club

There are many things to consider when you are deciding on which gym to join. Here are a few that I have learned to look for.

Broken car glass in the parking lot. Gym parking lots are a haven for car break-ins. A thief needs about 20 seconds to get in your car and take anything of value that you left.

A scripted greeting. This tends to indicate that there are systems in place at the club. A good sign, for the most part, but be ready for the sales pitch. The control that systems offer a club pay off as consistent experiences for members and increase revenue in tanning and personal training sales.

“Broken windows” throughout the club. These are things other than cleanliness that don’t necessarily pop out at you, but which tend to impact the behavior of the staff and members. They are things that give people the impression that you can get away with stuff, or at least doing the same thing. These include weights not being put away, plates trees being misfilled, dumbbells not being paired, lifting accessories lying around, and paper towels on the floor. Since people tend to leave things how they found them, noticing these things can help you predict the future.

Empty paper towel, soap and shampoo dispensers, or disinfectant spray bottles that need to be filled up. These are things that the members need and should never be empty. A decent gym will bit the bullet and replace almost empty paper towel rolls with fresh ones to make sure they don’t run out. Staff at a bad gym may not even notice until someone points them out.

Bad attitude from any of the staff. I firmly believe that a positive attitude is the one thing that everyone should bring to work because it’s the only thing that EVERYONE can bring to work. A gym that allows its staff to air their grievances in ear shot of the members is one that lacks appropriate leadership. Any gym that has staff who are self-focused will never see you as the person who pays their bills and they’ll make you earn their respect if you want their help.

What did you learn last year?

Here is lesson 6 from the 13 things that Eric Cressey learned in 2006:

You see, goodwill — the willingness to help others — never runs out unless you allow it to by your own ignorance. These guys offered me tremendous information and expected nothing in return, but now that I’m in more of a position to help them out, their goodwill has paid off.