A few days ago, I received a question via Facebook from a friend I used to work with. He asked the following:
“Hey Aqil. Liking the site – referred it to my friends and family who are in to body building. I have a question if you could help (via your site): I’ve never really wanted to put on much size, but rather increase my muscles’ efficiency – almost like a gymnast, being slim and flexible, but able to lift the heaviest of weights with ease. What would be the best way to this, specifically with reference to arms, shoulders and core strength. Cheers buddy. [sic]”
Thank you for your question, and also the referral – I appreciate it! You can read my response after the cut.
So, let me get this straight – muscle-wise, you don’t want to get bigger? Somehow I don’t believe you; gymnasts are pretty built!
If I’m correct, your question is in regards to how you can improve your strength-to-weight ratio. By that, I mean pound-for-pound you want to get stronger.
Firstly, let me just say this: there is a very very very fine line between getting stronger and getting bigger. In fact, some may even argue that the two go hand in hand and if that argument was to ever come about, I personally wouldn’t get involved. The reason for this is adaptation; the human body is designed to adapt to the stress that we place upon it. Muscle hypertrophy, whereby the muscle cell increases in size, is an example of adaptation.
Imagine that your muscles are a castle that is being attacked. After the battle, the castle is severely damaged. Therefore, the logical thing to do would be to rebuild the castle stronger than it was before. The same applies for your muscles; through the rigours of strength training (the battle), we create microtrauma (microscopic tears in the muscle fibers) in our muscle tissue. Our body responds accordingly, by rebuilding and upgrading the muscle fibers so that they are bigger, stronger and altogether better equipped for the next battle.
There are a few techniques which you can include in your training regimen that can help you improve your strength-to-weight ratio.
Without a doubt, the rest-pause is my favourite technique. I learnt this from WBFF PRO fitness model Rob Riches, when we trained at Hooks Gym last summer. The great thing about the rest-pause is that it allows you to surpass your intensity threshold without the need of a spotter! You begin by reaching muscle failure on an exercise, which is then followed by a super short rest period – 10 seconds. After the 10 seconds is up, you will then resume the exercise until you reach failure again. Here’s an example of how you would perform the rest-pause technique for biceps:
Standing Barbell Curls
1st: 50kg x 6 reps [REST-PAUSE] + 4 reps
This method of training will allow you to lift heavier, since the reps performed before and after the rest-pause will tally up, giving you a respectable rep range.
Isometric and isokinetic contractions aside, muscle contractions fall into two categories: concentric and eccentric or “positives” and “negatives” or, to take it one step further, lifting and lowering. Unlike “positives”, “negatives” involve the lengthening of the muscle fibre and accordingly, are the focus of this post.
Believe it or not, lowering a weight imposes a greater demand on your muscle fibres than lifting it does – but only on the conditions that:
- You control the speed of the eccentric movement.
- You train heavy.
Indeed, “negatives” will allow you to train using a slightly heavier weight, so take advantage of this! This style of training will fatigue your muscles beyond previous experience, while also stimulating and encouraging the fibers within to grow. Moreover, the “fatigue” causes what is known as a compensation effect. In other words, your muscle fibres undergo an upgrade – they strengthen and thicken to accommodate for the increased levels of stress placed upon them. For that reason, training eccentrically has also helped me tackle stubborn and lagging muscle groups. That’s pretty impressive, eh?
Plyometric exercises involve explosive movements. If done correctly, they can help improve both speed and power. An example of a plyometric exercise would be a clapping press-up or a squat jump. This method of training is perhaps more relevant to your question; instead of increasing muscle tissue, plyometric exercises increase the efficiency of the neuromuscular system and therefore, make us more efficient at recruiting the muscles that we already have.
Finally, in your question, you state “specifically with reference to arms, shoulders and core strength” – but what about legs? After all, they are the foundation to your castle and as we all know, a building without a foundation is like a tree without roots! Much of our “muscle efficiency” comes from our legs, even in exercises such as the bench press! Neglect your legs, and I promise you that you’ll get punished for it. Furthermore, exercises such as squats and deadlifts help develop core strength and stability!