To recap: so far four posts have been covered, (1) a primer on what you need to know (see here), (2) an introductory phase prepping the lifter for more specific training (see here), (3) the next phase focuses on hypertrophy training, that is, muscle-building (see here), (4) and finally a short post on an intermediate phase that preps the lifter for strength training (see here). Today will be focusing on strength training. Let us allow the authors to define it for us:
Maximum strength is developed by increasing load and in the process increasing the contractile capability of the muscle. Training loads higher than 80 percent increase the tension in the muscle and recruit the powerful fast twitch motor units. The result is higher protein content in the muscle via increased thickness of myosin filaments. Since motor units are recruited by size. beginning with slow twitch, loads greater than 80 percent are required to recruit the powerful fast twitch motor units. (Bompa et al, 2003, p.233)
The Physiology Behind Strength Training
In case what was mentioned is not enough detail let’s look at what the authors think strength depends on:
(1) The diameter, or cross-sectional area, of the muscle involved
More specifically the authors state they are referring to the diameter of the myosin filaments, including their cross bridges. They also state that muscle size will be largely determined by the length of the H phase/s, the diameter of the myosin filaments relates directly to the duration and volume of the Maximum Strength (hereafter “MxS”). The authors state the reason for this is due to the nature of MxS training, because of it’s intensity, the protein content of the muscle increase thereby increasing its size. (Bompa et al, 2003, p.234)
(2) The capacity to recruit FT [Fast Twitch] muscle fibers
Training content is what determines this variable; the use of maximum loads, which promote a high application of force against resistance is the only type of training the authors state that involves all of the powerful fast twitch motor units. (Bompa et al, 2003, p.234)
(3) The ability to successfully synchronize all of the muscles involved in the action
The authors state that this is a function of learning and such happens over time, which occurs by repetition of the same exercise, with heavy loads. Many lifters, particularly bodybuilder’s Bompa state only focus on H methods in their programming, neglecting programs that emphasize FT recruitment. This means that they neglect to “build high-density muscle, tight muscle tone, impressive muscle separation, and more visible muscle striations.” (p. 234) Although bodybuilders do admittedly put on muscle mass, their gains are not chronic, that is the growth is largely due to fluid displacement within the muscles rather than muscle fiber thickening. The MxS phase can correct this. (Bompa et al, 2003, p.234)
Scope of MxS Training:
Increases protein content of muscle, thereby inducing chronic hypertrophy and increasing muscle tone and density.
Increases thickness of the cross bridges and myosin filaments (this is the only way to induce chronic hypertrophy).
Conditions muscle fibers to recruit as many fast twitch fibers as possible, through the application of heavy loads; this develops maximum strength and improves muscle tone and density. (Bompa et al, 2003, p.234)
Training Methods and Duration for MxS
As mentioned in the M phase, strength exercises should be performed when fresh, that is muscles should be allowed to recover between training sessions and maximal sets. Due to the intensity, the maximum activation of the central nervous system (CNS), and high levels of arousal (not THAT kind of arousal) and concentration involved MxS training improves the link between the CNS and the muscle increasing coordination and synchronization. As strength depends not only on size ( and the total number of cross bridges), but also on the CNS’ ability to activate the muscle.
Maximum Load Method (MLM)
The authors claim this method is the sole reason for results during the MxS phase, but should only be performed by someone who has a minimum of two to three years training experience of general bodybuilding or strength training, due to the large weights lifted. Improvements occur due to motor learning, and coordination of muscles as they become more efficient. The authors list the benefits of the MLM method:
Increases motor unit activation, resulting in high recruitment and firing frequency of FT fibers.
Increases secretion of growth hormones and raises levels of catecholamines (compounds – primarily epinephrine and norepinephrine – that increase the strong physiological response of this type of training).
Improves coordination and synchronization of muscle groups during performance. The better the coordination and synchronization of the muscle involved in contraction and the more they learn to recruit FT muscles, the better will be performance.
Increases the diameter of the muscle’s contractile elements.
Raises the body’s testosterone level. (Bompa et al, 2003, p.235)
The authors state strength is the goal of the MLM with hypertrophy coming as a secondary benefit, they state large gains can occur in trainees who are new to MLM, but even in more advanced lifters this method sets the stage for future growth. There are three variables that need to be considered when performing the MLM:
As stated higher loads need to be lifted when utilizing the MLM to recruit FT fibers, this occurs at 85 percent (or higher) of 1 RM:
Maximum loads with lower repetitions result in significant nervous system adaptation, better synchronization of the muscles involved, and increased capacity to recruit FT fibers. (Bompa et al, 2003, p.236)
This variable is partially determined by the participants fitness level, and should also be calculated to allow for adequate recovery between sets (of the neuromuscular system). The MLM requires three-to-five minute RI due to CNS fatigue:
If the RI is too short, the nervous system participation – in the form of maximum concentration, motivation, and the power of the nerve impulses sent to the contracting muscle – could be less than optimal. In addition, complete restoration of the required fuel for contraction (ATP/PC) can also be jeopardized if the RI is too brief. (Bompa et al, 2003, p.236)
The authors state “speed of execution” plays a very important role in MLM; when using maximal loads athletes must exert as fast as possible, however, the load itself will limit the speed of contraction.
One method which can be optimal for strength trailing, but should be performed when returns from the MLM diminish is the “eccentric method”.
The Eccentric Method
Firstly perhaps some basic terminology:
Strength exercises, using either free weights or most basic isokinetic apparatuses, involve both concentric and eccentric types of contraction. During the eccentric phase, force is produced while the muscle shortens; during the concentric segment, force is produced while the muscle lengthens, or returns to the resting position. (Bompa et al, 2003, p.236)
The authors state the eccentric training creates a higher tension in the muscles than isometric (no change in the length of the muscle, with added tension. Think of a plank) or isotonic contractions (muscle length changes under tension, think of a bicep curl). Higher rates of tension are associated with greater strength development, hence why eccentric training is considered better. The load in eccentric training is much higher than the athletes 1RM (110 to 160 percent) so speed of performance is low. Due to the high loads lifted DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness) is more acute and can last up to 7 to 10 days, therefore athletes should use a step-type loading pattern (elaborated on here), to minimise pain.
Program Design for the MxS Phase
Due to the strenuous nature of using the eccentric method only athletes with a solid training background should use it, moreover the authors state it should generally be performed after the MLM has been performed, although it can be used in conjunction with the MLM for a short period of time. The athlete should perform two cycles of MxS training before attempting the eccentric method, not in any circumstances before then, and when you get to the eccentric method it is worthwhile having two spotters present as the weights are heavier than the athlete can lift concentrically.
Bompa, T.O., Pasquale, M.D., Conrnacchia, L.J. (2003). Serious Strength Training (Second Edition). Champaign, IL. Human Kinetics.