I am cautious about recommending explosive strength training due to a higher risk of injury compared with slow and steady training. That being said, it is an effective way to gain strength quickly when done properly. I haven’t dug in deep into this topic on my blog so far, so I wanted to take the time to do this now. The same weight can generate a different amount of tension to the muscles worked, depending upon the speed at which that weight is lifted. This is what I plan on talking about in detail in this post, along with a way to include this technique into your workout routine.
[Insert cheesy trivia that “ants can lift 50 times their body weight” here. Another awesome piece of trivia for you? A polecat is not a cat. It is a nocturnal European weasel 🙂 Very important life-changing info for free, brought to you by FBB!]
Strength Training vs Building Muscle
So I won’t go into crazy amounts of detail here, but in my opinion the best way to build muscle is to aim for for fatigue. There are numerous ways to fatigue the muscle, but most include some variation of lifting a few sets to failure or a higher volume of sets which creates “cumulative fatigue”. Both of these methods break down the muscle to a certain extent and fatigue the muscle. The quickest way to gain strength, however is to aim for a maximum amount of tension without fatiguing the muscle. Obviously there are a countless number of ways to build muscle and gain strength, but you will see why the “fatigue vs tension” model works so well.
3 Sets of 10…Using 225 Pounds…or 10 Sets of 3?
Let’s say you can bench press 225 pounds for 3 sets of 10 reps. That is 30 total reps using 225 pounds. What if you decided to do 10 sets of 3 reps using 225 pounds instead? That is 30 total reps as well…but it would feel quite a bit different, right? In the first example, using 3 sets close to failure, your muscles would be fatigued. You wouldn’t be as strong as before you began. I like to call this cumulative fatigue, because each set builds upon the fatigue of the previous set. In the second example, you are stopping well short of failure…so your muscles aren’t building up fatigue. In fact, you might actually feel a little stronger after your final set with 225 pounds.
Same Weight, Same Total Reps, and Vastly Different Effects
If you were to use the basic equation of volume lifted it would come out the same…6,750 pounds (30 total reps x 225 pounds). The reason the effect is different is mainly due to 2 factors…fatigue and tension. The first example lifted in a way that maximized fatigue and the second example lifted in a way that maximized tension. In the second example the “average force per rep” was higher. I will discuss that in more detail in a bit.
Faster Rep Speed = More Force Generated to the Bar
In order to bench press 225 rapidly, you need to generate much more than 225 pounds of force to the bar. Does that make sense? If you put exactly 225 pounds of force on the bar it wouldn’t budge…a little more than 225 pounds of force to get it moving slowly…a lot more than 225 pounds of force to get it moving rapidly. This type of explosive strength training is another way to generate maximum tension in the muscles. Although I do believe in lifting in a slow and controlled manner a lot of the time, this is a good supplementary technique.
Average Force Per Rep…Is An Interesting Variable!
So this is really “geeking out”, but helps explain why the 10 sets of 3 reps will make someone gain strength quicker than 3 sets of 10 reps with the same weight. Let’s look at the force generated during a set of 10 reps. The actual numbers of force generated aren’t crucial…it is just for example.
Rep #1: 285 pounds of force <---bar moves quickly
Rep #2: 280 pounds of force
Rep #3: 270 pounds of force
Rep #4: 265 pounds of force
Rep #5: 260 pounds of force
Rep #6: 255 pounds of force
Rep #7: 240 pounds of force
Rep #8: 236 pounds of force
Rep #9: 232 pounds of force
Rep #10: 228 pounds of force <---bar slows down
So the Average Pound of Force Per Rep on This Set?: The way to figure this out would be to add each number up and divide by 10. It would come out to 255 pounds of force on average.
What if this same person stopped at 3 reps? Well then to figure out the average pound of force per rep, you would just add the first 3 reps and divide by 3. So in his case it would be 278 pounds of force.
Training Your Nervous System to Generate More Force
I’ve discussed this a bunch of times on this site, but let’s go over the basics a bit…The nervous system is what causes the muscles to contract. Stronger signals from the nervous system create harder muscle contractions, which leads to greater strength. The nervous system reacts best to positive feedback. In order to increase the ability of the nervous system to send stronger signals to the muscles you must avoid failing in a lift. Succeeding over and over again creates a positive feedback loop. The less fatigued a muscle is the greater amount of force it can generate.
Bad 80’s Movie -or- Brilliant?
[An instructional video on generating force from the 80’s…also known as “the glow”. You think this music is funny…you should be glad I didn’t put up video of the main song from The Last Dragon DeBarge – Rythm of the Night! <---click at your own risk!]
The majority of the population equates bigger muscles with more strength. No doubt that larger muscles have the potential to generate more force, but this is a small part of the strength equation. Developing an efficient nervous system can increase strength (and muscle tone) dramatically without adding muscle size. The way to do this is to train the nervous system by lifting in a way that delivers stronger and stronger impulses to the muscles without fatiguing the muscles.
Explosive Strength Training, Short of Failure
Explosive strength training, done short of failure, is a fantastic way to create a positive feedback loop. You wind up generating high amounts of average force per rep…without approaching fatigue. This is a winning combination if strength training is your main goal. So how do we incorporate this into our routines? Well, my suggestion is to just use this for 6-8 weeks at a time maybe twice per year. Another alternative would be to simply use this method on one body part or even one exercise.
I’ll Setup an 8 Week Example Using Bench Press
Let’s say you can bench press 185 pounds 10 times to failure. So using the example above, we would use 10 sets of 3 reps using 185 pounds. My suggestion would be to begin your 8 week schedule at a little lighter than 185 pounds. This is a periodization approach of taking one step back in order to take 3 steps forward. If you start too close to your limit, you will often hit a sticking point early on. In the following example, I am going to assume that each body part gets worked 2 times per week. So you would bench two times per week. Their would be 16 total chest workouts over an 8 week period.
Workout 1: 175
Workout 2: 180
Workout 3: 185
Workout 4: 180<--- one step back
Workout 5: 185
Workout 6: 190
Workout 7: 195
Workout 8: 200
Workout 9: 195<--- one step back
Workout 10: 200
Workout 11: 205
Workout 12: 210
Workout 13: 205<--- one step back
Workout 14: 210
Workout 15: 215
Workout 16: 220
Notes: Using 10 sets of 3 reps, lifting the weight up with maximum velocity. Lower the weight at a steady speed, don’t drop the weight. This workout uses a “one step back” method of progression to help avoid a sticking point. In this example, if it was easy to complete all 10 sets of 3 reps using 220 pounds, we would step back to 215 and add in a few more workouts to this cycle. In my experience someone who can bench 185 pounds 10 times, has a 1 Rep Max of 225-230 pounds. So benching 10 sets of 3 with 220 pounds is a significant strength gain.
Just Another Technique to Use as You See Fit
So this is simply a fitness tip and technique to add to your workout to spice it up a little. You can get creative with this as well. You could use this technique with body weight exercises such as chin ups or with dips, etc. If it makes sense to add in explosive strength training into your routine then give it a try. The funny thing is that it is the opposite of using irradiation, but works as well. Fitness is funny in that so many techniques work, if you know how to implement them into your routine.
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