When you think about building muscle, what types of training come to mind?
High volume, high frequency training? Drop sets, extended sets, timed sets? Extended range of motion exercises? Or intra-set stretching?
Once you have a base of strength, these methods all work extraordinarily well. They induce tons of mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscular damage. These are the three most important mechanisms of muscular hypertrophy, according to expert Brad Schoenfeld2.
But what if I told you there was a way to make all of these proven methods even more effective? Well, I am. And it’s all predicated on your nervous system.
After all, building muscle requires you to recruit and fatigue as many muscle fibers as possible to stimulate growth.
Think back to your last lower body workout.
You guzzled down your pre-workout shake. Your skin tingled from the niacin rush. Your pupils dilated. And the bass is bumping in your headphones.
After your warm up, you banged out 4x8 on squats, followed by lunges, dumbbell RDL’s, and leg presses to burn out. Your legs quivered, your stomach lived in your throat for the next fifteen minutes, and you smashed your workout.
Now think back: How did you actually perform your squats? Were you completely focused in, accelerating the bar as hard as possible? Or did you just get by to your eight reps without maximizing each one?
So many lifters focus solely on training volume and weight, over the finer points like rep quality. Volume and overload are vital. But explosive rep quality and the subsequent motor unit recruitment are the most overlooked component to maximizing your muscle building training.
How To Maximize Your Muscle Building Workouts
You must refine your nervous system. Your nervous system is composed of the central nervous system (CNS). Your brain, spinal cord, and the all other nerves control every action in your body.
These motor units (think of them like an electrode hooked to a muscle) receive signals from your nervous system, telling that muscle to contract based on need. The bigger the signal, like a heavy or explosive lift, the more muscle fibers are recruited to produce the action.
Think of it this way: Your body has different sized muscles, such as your gluteus maximumus versus your flexor digitorum longus (that’s a finger muscle). Bigger muscles are made of bigger bundles of muscle fibers and need a bigger motor unit to generate a bigger contraction. Smaller muscle fibers have smaller motor units and control smaller movements.
This goal of motor unit recruitment is based on the Size Principle. a term based on the work of Harvard professor Dr. Hennemen. He observed that the smallest motor neurons, attached to smaller muscle fibers are recruited first. This is followed by progressively larger motor neurons.
We then tap into our most powerful motor neurons and biggest muscle fibers to maximize recruitment. Crazy, right?
The driving force behind refining your nervous system is lifting with explosive intent on each rep. This calls the maximum number of muscle fibers into play. In other words, lift each rep as if it’s your max bench. Crush it! Don’t let it crush you.
Why This Matters
Fatiguing muscles with training methods that provide mechanical tension, metabolic fatigue, and muscular damage are VITAL to building muscle. But you cannot train and fatigue a muscle fiber that is not turned on.
Once we’ve recruited as many muscle fibers as possible, we can then fatigue a greater number of muscle fibers through direct muscle building methods that stimulate metabolic stress, muscle damage, and tons of mechanical tension. That means we need to train to maximize recruitment of motor neurons and muscle fibers to unlock our greatest potential for muscle growth.
How to Recruit More Motor Units in Training
To get you as jacked as possible, we need to set up your training to recruit the maximum number of motor units. With the size principle serving as our foundation, we must target the largest, most powerful motor units to maximize your training.
Maximizing Motor Unit Recruitment happens through two training methods:
- Lifting very heavy weights.
- Lifting lighter weights (or no weight, faster).
Think back to the last time you really loaded up the bench to near-maximal numbers. As your spotter (you have a spotter, right?) helps lift the bar over your chest, you’re mentally locked in. Your eyes are filled with fire and hands wrapped so hard around the bar your knuckles are turning white. Hell, anything softer than steel and the bar would probably crumble beneath your hands.
Your feet pushing through the ground and your arms trembling as you lower the bar to your chest. You reach the bottom and instantly drive as much force into the bar as possible. Lockout. Boom. P.R. Successful.
Now, what would happen if you cut the weight down from say 275lbs to 205 lbs. (75%-1RM) and started banging out reps? 205 pounds on the bar would feel like nothing. Your bar speed would be unreal and you would probably get more reps than usual.
This near-maximum lift is a perfect example of how lifting heavy weights potentiates your body and recruits more muscle fibers. By lifting heavy weights, subsequent sets and exercises will have better motor unit recruitment to fatigue more muscle fibers and create a greater muscle building stress.
So, then logic says we should lift heavy all the time…right? Not quite.
Using that same logic, one could say that because one glass of wine has health benefits, then you should pound boxed wine for better heart health and antioxidant load.
I get it, you want to get strong and jacked, but just lifting heavy isn’t the best way to get there. It’s extremely stressful on your joints and CNS. So instead of just lifting heavy, we look to our second method of improved motor unit recruitment. Lifting lighter weights, faster.
Lifting Lighter Weights, Faster
To spare your body from endless near-maximal loading, lifting weights faster should make an appearance in your training. By using lighter loads performed with the intent of a max lift, you’ll supercharge your central nervous system and recruit more muscle fibers. In this case, we look at a few training methods:
1. Dynamic Effort (DE) Training
Popularized by Russian texts and Westside Barbell’s Louis Simmons, DE training involves lifting submaximal weight with as much force as possible. DE was designed to help powerlifters improve their rate of force development and allow greater training frequency without the stress of max-effort lifting. DE training also has implications for building muscle.
Since the weight is lighter, there is less CNS and joint stress, which lets you train more frequently. Training frequently allows for a potentially higher training volume and progressive overload to build muscle. Equally important, the dynamic effort uses maximum explosive effort on each rep. With adequate rest, this hits a ton of high-threshold motor units.
2. Lighter, More Explosive Bodyweight Movements
Un-weighted movements are important to muscle building picture. As with heavy and dynamic effort exercises, un-weighted movements are performed as explosive as possible. Your nervous system is forced to generate strength even faster, improving intramuscular coordination, or the firing of motor units within a single muscle.
There are 3 Components that drive this improvement1,3:
- Synchronization: Helping muscle units contract simultaneously.
- Muscle Unit Recruitment: Abbreviated MUR, this refers to calling more motor units to the party. Basically, one would agree that using 90% of motor units in a muscle would make for a more powerful muscle than using 75%.
- Rate Coding: Increasing firing rate to express strength, faster.
By improving intramuscular coordination your muscles fire up faster, with more motor units, and together for better performance. So, what’s with all this performance stuff?
Optimizing Muscle Fiber Recruitment
You can’t fatigue a muscle that’s not activated. So we’re left with a handful of methods to activate as many muscle fibers possible. Here are the changes to make to your training:
Lift Heavy: Crush the occasional near-max attempt on your big movement patterns, like squats on your lower body days or the bench on a chest day. Ramp up one big lift for the upper body and lower body every four weeks, using weights from 80-95% of your max for 3-6 sets of 1-5 reps.
Then, continue on with your given workout and higher volume methods to build mass.
|1. Bench Press*||4||4||3 min|
|2a. Dumbbell Neutral Grip Bench||4||8||-|
|2b. Pec Doorway Stretch||4||45sec||30 secs between supersets|
|3a. Dips||3||10-12||60 secs|
|3b. Cable Face Pull||3||10-12||60 secs|
|4a. Cable Chest Fly||3||15||-|
|4b. Tricep Overhead Split Extension||3||15||60-90 secs|
|5a. Feet Elevated Pushup||3||10||-|
|5c. Hands Elevated Pushup||3||failure||2 min|
*Perform sets at 85% 1RM
Lift Explosively: To keep the joints and CNS healthy, you can’t always go heavy. Use some dynamic effort lifts, like submaximal deadlifting or pressing variations for 5-8 sets of 2-4 reps with 30-70% of your max. Stronger lifters can lift with the lower end of the spectrum, whereas weaker lifters would be best staying between 50-70%.
|1. Deadlift*||5||3||60-90 secs|
|2a. Chinup||4||8||60 secs|
|2b. Plank||4||60sec||60 secs|
|3. Barbell Hip Thrust||3||10||60-90 secs|
|4a. Seated Wide Grip Cable Row||3||15||60 secs|
|4b. Back Extension||3||15||60 secs|
|5a. Bent Over Lateral Raise||3||10||30 secs|
|5b. Incline Dumbbell Bicep Curl||3||10||30 secs|
|5c Farmers Walk||3||50ft||30 secs|
*Perform Deadlifts at 35% 1RM
Move Explosively: To build more athleticism into your training, learn to move your body explosively against very little resistance. With the exception for pre-existing injuries and technique, this is less stressful on the body, yet activates a ton of muscle fibers due to the explosive movement. Use 2-4 sets of 3-5 reps on explosive exercises like jump squats, broad jumps, and explosive push-ups.
|1a. Dumbbell Jump Squat||3||5||30 secs|
|1b. 1/2 Kneeling Pallof Press||3||10||90 secs|
|2. Front Squat||4||10, 8, 6, 6||2 mins|
|3a. Barbell RDL||3||12||60 secs|
|3b. Single Leg Calf Raise||3||12||60 secs|
|4a. Goblet Walking Lunge||3||10 per leg||60 secs|
|4b. Ab Wheel Rollout||3||10||60 secs|
The key to unlocking your ultimate lean muscle gains is first activating as many muscle fibers as humanly possible. Once your body is supercharged for performance, break the muscle down to stimulate a huge anabolic response and massive growth.
Next Steps: The Power Primer 2.0
Have you been doing enough to maximize your training by recruiting more muscle? For 99% of lifters, the clear cut answer is “no.” That’s the problem I’ve addressed in the Power Primer 2.0.
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The Power Primer 2.0
Eric Bach, BS, CSCS
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- Kawamori, N, and Newton, RU. Velocity Specificity of Resistance Training: Actual Movement Velocity versus Intention to Move Explosively. Strength Cond. J. 28 (2): 86-91, 2006.
- Schoenfeld, Brad. "The Mechanisms of Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training." Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 24.10 (2010): 2857. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.
- Siff, M., and Y. Verkhoshansky. Supertraining. (6th ed) Rome: Verkhoshansky, 2009.