Written by: Kevin Cann
I have been asked this question frequently by other coaches over the course of the last couple of weeks, so I figured many more young coaches and athletes have similar questions regarding programming. Some great advice I got early on in my career was to mimic the ones that have done it well for a long period of time, understand why they do the things the way that they do, and then come up with your own twists.
I want to take this a step further. I think there is lots to be learned from the ones that have done it well for a period of time. The understanding why they do things a certain way comes down to learning the principles. The great coaches out there all have different ways to go about their program design, but they all share one thing in common, they follow the scientific principles. If they can’t explain those principles to you, perhaps they should not be the ones you are learning from.
There are two ways in which we can get stronger:
1. We can increase muscle cross-sectional area (csa)
2. We can increase central nervous system efficiency
There are a couple of ways in which our muscles can get larger. The one that we want to focus on is myofibrillar hypertrophy. This is when we get larger muscle fibers and more of the contractile proteins actin and myosin. We need to make our training geared at increasing muscle fiber size. Well, how do we do it?
We do this through resistance training. The goal of resistance training is to breakdown muscle proteins. Then we eat and sleep and our body builds new proteins. Continued stress of doing this leads our body to create more and more protein and we begin to build muscle mass. The mechanisms by which this occurs are poorly understood, but there are some theories.
The theory that makes the most amount of sense is the one involving our energy systems. The energy of the cell is limited. This energy is used for both mechanical work such as exercise and creating more protein (muscle mass). During resistance training the majority of the energy goes towards the mechanical work. This increases the demands of the system to synthesize more protein. Once we begin recovering from the resistance training, the energy demands shift to making up that debt in protein synthesis. This would also help to explain why nutrition and sleep are so important for recovery.
Regardless of how new muscle is created, we create it through manipulating intensity and volume of exercise. Before we get into how we do that I think it is important to understand the other component of strength gains, the nervous system.
A large part of increasing strength revolves around how efficient our nervous system is, specifically with our motor units. A motor unit is a motor neuron and all of the muscle fibers it comes into contact with. Resistance training helps us recruit more motor units, helps us recruit them faster, and helps us synchronize their recruitment more efficiently. This can especially be seen with a beginner in the gym. The first few weeks of training a beginner can see massive increases in strength. This is due to the motor units becoming more well trained.
For the sake of this article we will discuss two types of motor units, slow twitch and fast twitch. Slow twitch motor units are highly resistant to fatigue, but have a low output of power. Fast twitch motor units are the opposite. They possess more power, but they fatigue more quickly.
These motor units are either active or inactive. There are no levels to how hard they are working. The changes occur with how fast they react. This is known as rate coding. Rate coding is down through the size principle. The smaller motor units are recruited first and deactivated last while the larger motor units are recruited last and deactivated first. This is determined by the force required to perform the movement and not the speed of the movement.
One of my coaches, Boris Sheiko, talks about how skilled lifters know exactly how much force is necessary to move a given weight. This is a strategy to conserve energy. Basically, these experienced lifters are “in control” of their rate coding (certain aspects of rate coding are performed without direct involvement of the brain so we cannot be in control of this aspect, but for understanding purposes it works).
The motor unit recruitment is a fixed process, regardless of how fast we move the weight. In fact, it is predetermined in each muscle based upon the movement. The one way in which we can change it though is through varying movements. Understanding this is an important concept in program design.
With Sheiko, I do a lot of volume within the competition lifts. They all use a lot of the same muscles, but at different angles. Think of the squat and the deadlift. They both work the same exact muscles, but the hips are higher and the feet are usually closer in the deadlift and the bar placement changes leverages. Other programs use more volume in accessory work to accomplish the same thing. From here we manipulate the exercises through intensity and volume.
We discussed the cell’s energy playing a role in hypertrophy. We want to create enough metabolic stress to force the body to adapt. The best way to do this is to use a moderate weight and lift the weight multiple times. Reps between 5-10 have been shown to utilize the highest total of protein breakdown and energy directed towards mechanical work. A 1RM would be high for protein breakdown, but low for mechanical work, and vice versa for reps higher than 10.
Another important concept to consider is that a higher training volume (total weight lifted) will also pack on muscle mass. Sheiko uses more sets and lower reps to accumulate this training volume and the accessory work tends to be reps between 5 and 10. Of course higher reps can be performed in the competition lifts, but be careful when technique falls off. Technique in the competition lifts for strength athletes cannot be overlooked. The better the technique the greater ability to lift maximal weights. With poor technique you may get, or even be, really strong, but you can only beat physics for so long. This is an article for another day.
To improve the nervous system function in strength, we want to activate the highest number of motor units as possible. This is done through lifting maximal weights. Lifting heavy increases rate coding and motor unit synchronization as well. Dynamic effort training can also be utilized to improve the nervous system function for strength. This is where accommodating resistance such as bands and chains can come into play.
In the end, we need to apply all of these methods to have a good strength program. We need maximal efforts and dynamic efforts to improve motor unit coordination, and repeated efforts to build size and practice technique. Try to vary the loads and rep schemes as well as much as possible as we accommodate to an exercise after two weeks. This is where the variations of the exercises can come into play as well as the changing up the volume.
In the next installment we will go over what this all should look like with some dietary guidelines to follow, so stay tuned.