Tuesday, May 29, 2012

How to Build Muscle and Strength, Part 2: More Exercise Strategy

Because there was so much interest in the last post of this series (it's now my most popular post!), I decided to add some more of the interesting muscle-building exercise strategies that I've discovered during my recent research. The body weight exercises are especially fun!

Overload Training
In an effort to experience maximum intensity, I use a method of overload called max contraction. (1) The basic idea of max contraction is to hold a weight that is between 110% to 120% of your 1-Rep Max (1RM) for no more than 6 seconds. While you are holding this weight, you are keeping it stationary at the most disadvantageous position (usually with a joint at 90 degrees). If a person can only hold a weight for a maximum of 1-2 seconds, then their target muscle group has experienced the most intensity possible.

There are two reasons that I use overload training:
  • Achieve maximum muscle fiber recruitment to build strength quickly. (2,3)
  • Overcome protection mechanisms in the brain that prevent a person from lifting more weight, preventing a plateau. (4)

Since I concentrate on one muscle group per day, my first exercise is overload. So, if I were doing chest, I would do a few reps of one-arm max contraction dumbbell bench presses (I use dumbbells so that I can spot myself). I take a single 110-pound dumbbell, lie down on the bench, and lower the weight with only one arm (assisted by the other) until my upper arm is parallel with the floor, and my elbow is bent at a 90-degree angle. I hold the dumbbell stationary for 6 seconds. I repeat this with the other arm to complete my set.

This is the one-arm dumbbell bench press. When the weight starts to get heavy, you will have to shift your weight to the center of the bench to maintain balance.

I only go up in weight if I can hold the weight for more than 6 seconds. If I can't, then I will use the same weight until I can hold it for 6 seconds.

This style of exercise is very intense, so you can't do too many of them. I limit myself to a maximum of three total reps per daily workout, giving myself 1-2 minutes of rest between each complete max contraction rep. For example, if I were exercising my back I would use the one-arm pull-up as my overload exercise. After I completed three max contraction reps (or 3 sets of 1 rep) I would then move on to a traditional, heavy, full-range back exercise (like weighted pull-ups).

Max contraction is only one part of my approach to building muscle. When I experimented with this style of exercise, I got stronger, but not bigger. So I use max contraction to help drag my traditional, heavy, full-range exercises up in weight. I then use these heavy exercises (as well as my volume training) to maximize hypertrophy (i.e., growing muscle).

High-Set/Low-Rep Volume Training
The conventional wisdom says that if you want to build muscle and strength, you should only use heavy weights and low reps (between 3-10 per set). This is true, but not the whole story. You can also build muscle and strength with low weights and high reps (from 20-150), it just won't be as much as what can be achieved with heavy/low-rep exercises. (5,6) The general idea of this style of exercise is to break up the total reps into many sets with a few reps per set. (7)

When using this kind of volume training you should know that there is a limit to how light your weight can be: The weight you lift should be no less than 20% of your 1RM. (6) For example, if you can curl 100 pounds, then you would not use a weight that is less than 20 pounds. You'll find it hard to sustain your volume if you do more than 50% of your 1RM.

As you get stronger, you can increase your workload by:
  • Completing more reps and/or lifting more weight within the same amount of time.
  • Completing the same amount of reps and/or lifting the same amount weight within less time.

To do this kind of volume training:
  • Pick an exercise (e.g., push-ups, pull-ups, hindu squats).
  • Select a work/rest time for each set (I usually start with 15 seconds of work and 30 seconds rest).
  • Select a number of sets to do (I usually do 10 sets of 10 reps; sometimes I'll do 10 sets of 5 reps with back and shoulder exercises).
  • When you can complete all of your target reps (20 to 100), then reduce your rest time by 5 seconds.

If you are just starting out with an exercise routine, pick a small number of target reps (e.g., 20-50), then break them up into several sets of 2-10 reps. The objective is to be able to do your selected number of reps for every set with perfect form.

For example, if I decide to do 10 sets of 5 (for 50 total reps), but I can only accomplish 5 reps for the first six sets and 3 reps for the last 4 sets (for 42 total reps), then I will keep trying 10 sets of 5 until I can complete all 50 reps. Once I can do all 50 reps, I will increase the number of total reps (to 60 or 70) until I get to 100 total reps (or 10 sets of 10 reps). After I get to 100 total reps I will then find ways to make the exercise more challenging (e.g., doing push-ups with my legs elevated or switching to one-arm push-ups).

Volume training is deceivingly easy and may leave you very sore for a week or so after your first attempt. But, as you get used to this volume training, this soreness will go away after a couple of weeks. Promise!

Bodyweight Exercises
After tinkering with volume training, I started to branch out into hard core bodyweight exercises (e.g., front lever, planche, human flagpole, single-leg squats, muscle-ups). Let me tell you, while heavy exercises like the bench press and squat are difficult, they are nothing compared to these bodyweight gymnastics-style exercises.

For those who think that you can't get big and strong doing bodyweight exercises, look at male gymnasts. They get pretty big without doing a single weighted Olympic-style exercise. And female gymnasts are strong and agile without losing their femininity.

The muscle-building secret to bodyweight exercises is the degree of difficulty. The more perfect the form, the more mechanically disadvantaged the movement, the harder your muscles have to work to control and complete the movement. The harder your muscles work, the stronger (and bigger) they become.

Bodyweight exercises are also more dynamic than most weighted exercises (e.g., squat, dead lift, bench press). This helps to build the often-neglected smaller control muscles.

To learn more about the power of bodyweight exercises, get the exceptional book You are Your Own Gym by Mark Lauren. You can also check out the crazy stuff talked about at the Beast Skills website.

Never Train to Failure
Many exercise gurus and programs insist that you must fully exhaust your muscles to make them grow, but this isn't necessary. All you have to do to signal growth is exercise until just before your muscles fail, then stop. This goes for both heavy and volume exercises.

There are two reasons that exercising to failure can be problematic:
  • Poor Form: As your target muscle(s) begin to fail, you will start to compensate by breaking form. As you break form, you will no longer be exercising the target muscles, which will limit how much they will adapt/grow. Poor form can also cause injuries.  
  • Lack of Power Output: If you exercise until you can't move any more, your ability to output power and maintain intensity drops dramatically. These last few exhausted reps will not only be poorly executed (because you don't have much left in the gas tank), but you will be overly tired for later sets, limiting your ability to make your muscles adapt/grow.

So, if you feel like your target muscle group is about to fail then STOP EXERCISING until your next set. Personally, I use my explosion speed as a way of measuring fatigue. If I can't lift a weight with the same amount of speed, then I end my set, reserving power for my next set or exercise.

In this second post about interesting muscle-building exercise strategies, we learned that:
  • Overload training can be used to increase your strength and prevent plateaus. 
  • High-set/low-rep volume training can increase muscle strength and maximize hypertrophy. 
  • Bodyweight exercises are a very effective and convenient way to build muscle and strength.
  • Training to failure is counter-productive and no more effective at building strength and muscle than ending your sets just before your muscles fail.

If you use these exercise strategies with those mentioned in part one of this series, you will be well on your way to creating a very efficient, effective, and fun exercise program that you can use to build the muscle that will replace your body fat.

In the next post I will finally talk about how eating the correct nutrition at the right times can turbocharge your muscle growth!

1. Little, John. Max Contraction Training. New York : McGraw-Hill, 2003.
2. Intensity or Effort: Which is it? - Part 1. TrainingScience.net. [Online] [Cited: May 2012, 15.] http://trainingscience.net/?page_id=174.
3. Intensity or Effort – part 3. TrainingScience.net. [Online] 2011. [Cited: May 19, 2012.] http://trainingscience.net/?page_id=182.
4. Miller, Doug. Biology for Bodybuilders. s.l. : Self-Published, 2011.
5. Low-Load High Volume Resistance Exercise Stimulates. Burd, Nicholas A., et al. 8, s.l. : PLOS One, 2010, Vol. 5.
6. The Effect of High Rep Training on Strength and Size. TrainingScience.net. [Online] 2011. [Cited: May 19, 2012.] http://trainingscience.net/?page_id=301.
7. Bryda, Rich. The Effortless Exercise System For Men. s.l. : Self-Published, 2011.

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