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A question of strength

Eine Frage Der Kraft

Q: One of your colleagues in the fitness industry talks about tonic and phasic muscles. What is the difference and how would this affect my training program?

A: This terminology is quite outdated. It originated in the 1970s and is now considered overly simplistic considering that there is a wide range of individual differences in muscle fiber composition. What my colleague is actually referring to is the assumed ratio between fast contracting and slow contracting muscle fibers per muscle group.

I refer to the "assumed ratio" because some time ago, for example, I tested the relative strength of two world-class athletes - a hammer thrower and a speed skater. Both held a world record in their respective disciplines at the time. The hammer thrower was only able to perform 3 repetitions with his neck extensions at 85% of his maximum weight, while the speed skater was able to perform over 200 repetitions at the same percentage of his 1RM weight. Of course, the hammer thrower was much stronger than the speed skater. It is self-explanatory that these physiological profiles were one of the main reasons why these athletes chose their respective disciplines.

So even if a specific muscle of an individual is considered phasic or tonic, it may be obvious that such a categorization does not reflect the actual muscle fiber composition of that muscle.

Tonic muscles, as they used to be called, are muscles that are known to have a higher proportion of slowly contracting muscle fibers. They are therefore better suited to endurance activities. A muscle with a high percentage of slowly contracting fibers usually requires a higher number of repetitions. For example, the soleus - one of the two large calf muscle heads - contains approximately 88% slow-contracting fibers, so a repetition range of 15 to 25 repetitions may be needed to give this muscle sufficient time under tension to achieve a stimulus for hypertrophy.

The soleus is also considered part of the antigravity muscle chain. These muscles are active when you are in a standing position. If they were not active, you would not be able to stand upright. Understandably, these muscles often have to maintain isometric tension over a longer period of time.

Phasic muscles have a higher proportion of rapidly contracting fibers and are primarily used for explosive activities. Muscles that fall into this category are the leg flexors and the gastrocnemius (the other muscle head of the calves). This illustrates Wolfe's Law of Physiology:

"Structure dictates function."

As a rule of thumb, the higher the proportion of rapidly contracting fibers, the lower the relative strength endurance of a muscle. In other words, the higher the proportion of fast-contracting fibers, the fewer repetitions the muscle can perform with a given percentage of maximum weight. Therefore, muscles that contain more fast-contracting fibers are usually trained with lower repetitions, more sets and short rest periods (one to three seconds) between sets.

As there is ample empirical evidence and scientific research to suggest that the development of maximal strength is best achieved by using weights equivalent to 70 to 100% of maximum weight, it is essential to determine the exact number of repetitions to be performed within this range. For individuals who have more rapidly contracting muscle fibers, the repetition range for optimal strength gains is 1 to 6 repetitions, while other individuals achieve gains in a range of 1 to 12 repetitions.

Q: During the break at a training seminar, I overheard two strength coaches talking about training with an undulating load and how well it worked. What exactly is this?

A: Wavelike load training is based on the principle of post-tetanic facilitation. Exercisers will find the first wave to be the heaviest, while the following waves seem lighter.

The following 3-2-1 undulating load program, which is excellent for athletes seeking greater relative strength, is intended as an example for an exerciser who can perform front squats at 300 pounds:

Wave 1

1) Three repetitions with 270 pounds
2) Four minutes rest
3) Two repetitions with 285 pounds
4) Four minutes rest
5) One repetition with 300 pounds

Wave 2

6) Four minutes rest
7) Three repetitions with 272.5 pounds
8) Four minutes rest
9) Two repetitions with 287.5 pounds
10) Four minutes rest
11) One repetition with 302.5 pounds

If successful, continue with wave 3.

Wave 3

12) Four minutes rest
13) Three repetitions with 275 pounds
14) Four minutes rest
15) Two repetitions with 290 pounds
16) Four minutes rest
17) One repetition with 305 pounds

If successful, continue with wave 4.

Wave 4

18) Four minutes rest
19) Three repetitions with 277.5 pounds
20) Four minutes rest
21) Two repetitions with 292.5 pounds
22) Four minutes rest
23) One repetition with 307.5 pounds

Note: Most exercisers will perform two waves - and perhaps a third wave on an exceptionally good day - but it takes four waves for truly genetically blessed athletes to reach their maximum potential for the day.

The following 7-5-3 undulating load program (which is appropriate for athletes looking to move up a weight class) is an example of an exerciser who can bench press 350 pounds on the incline bench:

Wave 1

1) Seven repetitions with 280 pounds
2) Four minutes rest
3) Five repetitions with 295 pounds
4) Four minutes rest
5) Three repetitions with 315 pounds

Wave 2

6) Four minutes rest
7) Seven repetitions with 282.5 pounds
8) Four minutes rest
9) Five repetitions with 297.5 pounds
10) Four minutes rest
11) Three repetitions with 317.5 pounds

Note: Regardless of the athlete's strength profile, two waves in this intensity zone will be sufficient.

Try it out and see if you like it.

Q: Considering that this exercise does not train the stabilizers, does it even make sense to do butterflies?

A: As someone who is not interested in functional strength (such as a bodybuilder), you can use butterflies sporadically as a source of some variety.

However, you should make sure that the machine you are using has some sort of pedal that allows you to push the weight up to bring your arms into a pre-extended position for the exercise execution. When performing the exercise, you should also ensure that your palms are facing the floor during the exercise. If you perform the standard version of this exercise with your palms facing each other, your upper extremities will be in an outwardly rotated position, which will signal your brain to activate the pec major muscle - one of the internal rotators of the humerus. This results in poor recruitment of the actual target muscles.

Q: In one of your books you mentioned one-arm pull-ups. Is this just a show-off exercise or does it have any value for a bodybuilder? And what about one-arm push-ups? Is the same true for them?

A: One-arm pull-ups are not really a show-off exercise and there are very few people who can even dream of performing this exercise. It is estimated that only one in 100,000 exercisers has the genetic potential to perform even a single one-arm pull-up. The athletes who are able to perform multiple one-arm pull-ups are mostly gymnasts or mountain climbers/free climbers.

A bodyguard of one of my clients, who was also a passionate mountain climber, was able to perform a one-arm pull-up with a concentric phase lasting 20 seconds and an eccentric phase lasting 20 seconds. Even more impressive was the fact that he only held on to the bar with his middle finger.

Another climber who worked for our national ski team once performed 23 one-arm pull-ups in front of me while holding on to a diving board of a drained swimming pool with one hand.

Both of these athletes, however, were quite thin and did not have exceptionally muscular arms. However, they clearly had exceptional abilities to recruit their motor units. The direct applications of one-arm pull-ups are therefore very limited due to genetic factors. Furthermore, this exercise would be even harder for the average bodybuilder, as their body is generally much more massive and therefore heavier than the body of the average mountain climber or gymnast.

One-armed push-ups, on the other hand, are much easier to achieve for the average exerciser as they require much less strength. Even Sylvester Stallone can do them...

A more impressive variation of one-armed push-ups is to keep only the opposite foot on the floor while performing them. When performing one-arm push-ups with your right hand, extend your left arm forward in front of your body and lift your right foot a few centimetres off the floor.

What I like about this more advanced form of one-arm push-ups is that they involve a much larger range of motion than the classic rocky version and you also have to activate a greater amount of motor units to stabilize yourself.

Q: What is the best time of day to exercise? I once read something about working out in the morning because natural growth hormone levels are supposed to be higher at this time of day. I tried this, but my performance during training was abysmal. Others say that you should train in the afternoon. What is your opinion?

A: This is a classic case of people looking at one factor and basing all their decisions on that factor. As far as growth hormone levels are concerned, this is somewhat overrated. Going to the sauna also increases growth hormone levels - and the same goes for low temperatures. I'm actually surprised that Ellington Darden or Joe Weider haven't already presented something like a temperature contrast principle, where you do squats in the sauna in superset with leg curls in the cold room.

According to some limited research - most of which was conducted by German strength physiologist Hettinger - the best time to train seems to be 3 to 11 hours after waking up - assuming, of course, that you always wake up at the same time.

But in my personal experience, you can train yourself to perform optimal workouts at any time of the day, as long as you are disciplined enough to always exercise at the same time. In the summer, when I'm at my busiest, I train at 11pm. However, it takes me about a week and a half to get used to it. In the fall, I prefer to train at 10 am.

Regardless of this, you shouldn't be too pedantic about your training time. My schedule changes frequently in the fall and winter and I still always have good workouts as long as my blood sugar is normal or slightly elevated. I know where the 24 hour gyms are in every city. I've worked out arms at 1am and I've also gotten up at 3am to "enjoy" a leg workout at Golds Gym in Las Vegas at 5am because I had a full schedule starting at 7am.

The most important thing is to keep an accurate training log and beat your previous performances. The rest is irrelevant. Seminar participants often ask me if they can train with me and unless they are complete idiots or pain in the ass, I tell them they can meet me in the weight room at 11pm. This tells me how important it is for them to train with me. To their surprise, they have an excellent training session and the time of day doesn't really matter as long as they have the right mental attitude.

Many exercisers don't make progress because they use all kinds of excuses. You can dream about gains in the gym or you can stay awake and actually make gains.

Q: What do you think of those strange looking shoes that are supposed to increase your vertical jump height? There are a few models on the market. Are they worth the money?

A: These shoes are actually copies of a development by a Spanish high jumper from the thirties of the 20th century. He was ahead of his time and had discovered that raising the front part of the shoe generated a faster and stronger stretching of the ankle extensors and thus enabled better jumping performance.

As a result, he was able to outclass all his opponents when he used these shoes for the first time in a competition. As they were not covered in any rule book, he was able to use them. However, at the end of the competition, the officials got together and these shoes were officially banned from competition.

Based on the research I have seen, these shoes only allow the user to jump higher when wearing them. Training with these shoes also does not appear to improve plyometric ability over a longer period of time compared to training with conventional shoes.

So you can save yourself the money for these shoes. Your calves will grow stronger if you invest the money in nutritious food or high quality supplements.

Q: When performing power cleans and deadlifts, some exercisers pause at the lowest point of the movement and take a few deep breaths in and out between repetitions, while others barely let the weight touch the ground - in fact, they let the weight bounce off the ground to get a boost on the restart. Are the latter simply using poor form or is this another variation of these exercises?

A: I prefer the first technique, where the bar pauses briefly on the floor before the next concentric phase because it overloads the posterior chain better. Those who use the approach of bouncing the weight off the floor usually do so because they have a weak lower back.

A short pause, even if the weight is lower than the second approach, provides a better stimulus as it forces you to overcome inertia with each repetition. Finally, pausing between repetitions is a much safer approach for the spine.

Stick to the full range of motion and pause between repetitions. You will be rewarded with better strength gains and a healthy spine.

Q: In your books, you rarely mention barbell rowing when it comes to upper back training. Sure, most exercisers don't perform this exercise correctly, but is this a reason to ignore an excellent exercise?

A: The reason I don't mention barbell rowing in this context is because I don't think it's a great exercise for the upper back - even when performed correctly. Why? Because too much neural drive is spent on contracting the muscles involved in maintaining the correct body position for this exercise. The body and mind are working at full speed because they have to activate the back extensors, gluteus and leg flexors simultaneously - to such an extent that the level of muscle recruitment ultimately left for the latissimus is too minimal to be worth it.

That's the reason I'd rather stick with variations of single-arm rowing exercises. I can already hear the "functionalists" arguing "What about function? This is a primary exercise." My answer to this is this: Why overtrain the posterior chain of muscles when you've done a good job with the load parameters for squats and deadlifts?


By Charles Poliquin

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