Last month I discussed the problem of anabolic steroids and the fact that we know too little of their effects to make it worth your while to turn yourself into an anabolic guinea pig. Besides, take a look at the sort of physique that steroids produce, and ask yourself if looking bloated; undergoing frequent liver, blood and serum testosterone tests, which steroid users should; and forking over $300 a month, which is a conservative figure (I knew of a competitor who spent more than $40,000 on anabolics while preparing for the Masters Mr. Olympia), really justifies the final result. Then look at someone like Steve Reeves, with his flawless proportions and bona-fide drug-free 18 1/2-inch arms’which he obtained by training properly’and tell me if there’s really any comparison.
That’s not to take anything away from our current crop of champions. I just think they’d look much better if they dropped the synthetic chemicals that have made them look like something other than human and tried to look the best they could with their own natural physiologies via proper training.
This month I present a new system of proper training, which I believe is the most effective ever devised. I call it the Max Contraction System (MCS), and, as the name implies, it involves firing as many muscle fibers as possible from a position of maximum contraction. It’s not just a static hold, where you hold the resistance randomly at some point in a muscle’s range of motion, and it’s not simply the effort made to support heavy weights statically. I’m referring to a maximum effort to hold the resistance in a position of full muscular contraction for 45 to 60 seconds. The point is to use the anaerobic pathways exclusively and not, as in some high-set routines, the aerobic pathways, which work wonders at improving your endurance but precious little in the way of improving your muscle mass.
Remember that intensity and duration have an inverse relationship: You can train hard (intensely) or you can train long, but you can’t do both. The fact is, it takes brutally hard training to develop massive muscles, and this system is the hardest that you will ever use’ipso facto, it’s the most result-producing routine you’ll ever use.
In their efforts to apply the results of their research on intensity to bodybuilding, exercise physiologists have defined the term as ‘increased work per unit of time.’ In order to increase the work per unit of time, bodybuilders seeking to grow progressively larger and stronger muscles must therefore make regular attempts to increase their muscles’ involvement in a given exercise performed over a given unit of time; for example, the duration of a set. That causes the body to dip into its muscular reserve ability, and since it has only a relatively small amount of that reserve to draw on before a catabolic, or breakdown, effect occurs, it will protect itself from future assaults by enlarging its existing supply of muscle mass. That, stripped of all the academic and theoretical palaver, is the ‘secret’ to all successful bodybuilding.
It’s imperative that you train hard enough to trigger the adaptive response from the body to stimulate compensatory growth. And that’s where traditional bodybuilding methods have failed. When you perform set upon set of an arbitrary number of repetitions, you repeat tasks that are easy and well within your body’s ability to handle. As a result, there’s absolutely no reason for your body to alter its existing level of muscle mass. No demand, no supply.
To stimulate muscle mass increases, and I mean to really train with an eye toward noticing progress after almost every workout, you have to take every set you do for a given bodypart to the point where 100 percent of a given muscle’s fibers’or as near to that number as you can come’have been recruited and stimulated. Intensity of effort is, quite simply, the most important factor in increasing size and strength. Training to what has been labeled the point of failure, where another second of contraction is impossible despite your greatest effort, ensures that you pass the break-over point, which is the point in a set below which you cannot stimulate growth and above which you will.
Once you can transcend that break-over point, there will be a dramatic reduction in the amount of time you’re able to spend training at such a high level of intensity. That means your workouts will of necessity get shorter as you adapt to higher and higher levels of intensity.
Toward a New Perspective
So you understand the nature of adaptation, which is simply a variant of the law of cause and effect, as well as the supreme importance of intensity and its effects on muscle mass and workout length. What, then, is the training method that will let you generate maximum muscle fiber involvement and, as a result, maximum muscle growth?
The answer is a method that focuses on stressing each individual muscle group in the position that involves the maximum amount of muscle fibers over a 45-to-60-second time span. When using the MCS, you must throw out all preconceived notions of training methodology. You’ll no longer gauge your progress in terms of repetitions; from now on you’ll count seconds. You’ll no longer use a variety of exercises to tax various muscle groups; instead, you’ll use only one exercise per bodypart, choosing a movement that calls into play all of that muscle group’s fibers’and you’ll contract that muscle group maximally for the prescribed time until each fiber is spent and you can no longer hold the resistance in the max, or fully, contracted position.
Indeed, this training system is different, but ever since I published the preliminary results of my research on it back in 1984, it has put more muscle mass on more trainees than any other training system I’ve ever seen.
Most of the material on which the Max Contraction System is based is empirically validated data that goes back more than 100 years in some instances. What has worked in experiments and physiology labs can be repeated with equal, if not better, success by you, should you apply yourself diligently to the task at hand, be open-minded enough to throw off the shackles of traditional training wisdom and follow the tenets I put forth here. I guarantee that if you do, you will make muscular progress in the space of a month that would otherwise have taken you years to achieve.
When embarking on a system such as MCS, it’s essential to understand the basic physiological principle of all or nothing with regard to muscle fiber contraction. It states, in effect, that when a muscle contracts, a small percentage of its fibers will contract as forcefully as possible, while the rest of its fibers won’t contract at all’as opposed to all of the fibers contracting at once but to a lesser degree. A muscle fiber contracts maximally or not at all. That’s an immutable fact. So it stands to reason that the surest way to involve the most muscle fibers in a given contraction is to engage the muscle group at the part of the exercise at which all its muscle fibers will be activated.
In a normal set, in which you start an exercise from a position of zero resistance, move into a position of slightly greater resistance and, finally, ascend to a position of maximum resistance, the problem is that the final position, the one that puts the most stress on the target muscles and on a given muscle group and so generates the most muscle fiber involvement and intensity, is over almost before it starts.
On leg extensions, for example, you start the movement using only the smallest amount of muscle fibers that are required to do the job; at the halfway point you’re activating a few more muscle fibers; and then, at the position of full muscular contraction, you’re activating as many fibers as possible to hold the resistance there. But then, long before you stress the fibers maximally, you lower the resistance (often it’s dropped), giving the momentarily stressed quadriceps a chance to disengage and recover’the very opposite what you’re trying to accomplish. In effect, the maximum muscular involvement for a 10-rep set, which lasts a total of about 60 seconds, is only about 10 seconds, so you get only about a sixth of the results you could be generating. In effect, you’re wasting the rest of the time you spend performing the exercise.
Conversely, when a given muscle group is made to contract fully against resistance, the body will activate the most muscle fibers it can activate to assist with the task, and they’ll subsequently become fatigued until, finally, they’re all spent. At that point the muscles can no longer support the resistance, and the contraction must be broken, so you return the resistance very slowly to the position of full extension.
As soon as you can no longer hold the contraction, you have effectively exhausted all the fibers involved in that contraction, which would be all’or at least most’of them. Remember that with MCS you initiate the rep in a position of full muscular contraction, which separates this method from other motionless-exercise systems such as isometrics, in which you initiate contraction when the fewest fibers are activated’i.e., at the beginning of most movements’and never progresses beyond that minimum level of fiber involvement.
The Max Contraction System uses complete and absolute concentric contraction’with added resistance’and advanced trainees can use the strip-off method. For example, on an exercise such as lat pulldowns, when it becomes impossible to hold your elbows at the level of your lower ribs, which is the lats’ position of full muscular contraction’and your elbows start to return to the top, you can have someone remove, or strip off, some of the weight, which would enable you to hold another maximum contraction for another 45 to 60 seconds until it’s broken again. You continue to strip off weight until even holding a very light weight becomes impossible. That will effectively stimulate every available muscle fiber. Drilling your reserves that deeply could well require up to 72 hours of rest’and perhaps much more’to allow for full recovery and growth in the form of overcompensation.
In most cases you’ll stimulate maximum growth by performing just one Max Contraction set. Recently, I supervised a subject who trained but three days a week on a Max Contraction program of one 45-to-60-second set each of 11 different exercises. His training took a total of between eight minutes and 55 seconds and 11 minutes per whole-body workout, or 25.5 to 33 total minutes per week. At the end of five weeks the subject’s strength had improved at least 100 percent over his starting levels on all exercises, and, more important for our purposes, his lean body mass increase was 16 pounds. When was the last time you gained 16 pounds of pure muscle tissue over a five-week period? Now you can begin to appreciate just how effective the Max Contraction System is.
Many subjects have recorded similar results over the 18 years since I first devised the system, and the lowest muscle mass increase was eight pounds’on a highly advanced bodybuilder who was already very close to the upper limits of his genetic potential. Even then he hadn’t gained a pound of muscle in more than four years of training on his previous system.
You can expect to see similar results, give or take a few pounds, when you embark on the Max Contraction System. The reason for its dramatic success rate is simple: Anything involving the positive and negative resistance will of necessity have fluctuating levels of intensity. The closer the resistance is to the fully contracted position, the more muscle fibers are activated by the stressor. In a Max Contraction exercise all of the fibers are under constant stress of the highest order from the moment you initiate the contraction until you complete it 45 to 60 seconds later.
In order to derive the most benefit from MCS training, it’s vital to select exercises that allow you to activate the maximum number of the target muscle’s fibers in the fully contracted position. Certain exercises performed with conventional equipment don’t incorporate the proper physics to provide resistance in that position. I’m thinking of squats, barbell curls (where the resistance falls off once you pass through the halfway point) and most types of pressing movements. That lack of direct resistance in the position of complete muscular contraction makes them inefficient in an MCS training program.
Choose exercises that will enable you to completely contract a targeted muscle group with maximum resistance for 45 to 60 seconds. The following exercises are the best for stimulating maximum muscle fiber involvement and maximum muscle growth:
Quadriceps: Leg extensions
Hamstring: Leg curls
Calves: Standing calf raises
Lats: Nautilus pullovers or lat pulldowns performed with special lat isolator straps
Traps: Barbell or dumbbell shrugs
Delts: Raises (front, side or rear)
Pecs: Pec deck or cable crossovers
Triceps: Dumbbell kickbacks, Nautilus plate-loaded machine extensions
Biceps: Chins (flexed-arm hang) or steep-angle preacher curls
Forearms: Barbell wrist curls
Abs: Weighted crunches
They all place a constant tension on the target muscle group from beginning to end and are, therefore, the most productive exercises possible.
Remember, you don’t do repetitions with this program; you think only in terms of seconds’with 45 to 60 seconds representing the time it takes to perform a regular set of 10 reps. Instead of the intensity level varying throughout the range of motion, in MCS you get 45 to 60 seconds of the highest possible intensity, thus allowing greater growth stimulation to actually take place.
When you perform any exercise MCS style, lift the resistance slowly’so as not to damage any ligaments or muscle tissue’up to the position of full muscular contraction, as you would if you were performing a regular set. Instead of lowering the weight, however, hold that fully contracted position for a minimum of 45 seconds (shoot for 60) or until you can no longer hold the contraction (whichever comes first).
If you can hold the resistance for more than 45 seconds, then the weight is too light and you should up it by 5 percent at the next workout. If you can’t hold the contraction for a full 45 seconds, then it’s too heavy and you should reduce the resistance by 5 percent until you can.
Some of you may require a spotter (or two) to lift the weight into the fully contracted position for you. Make sure they don’t just drop the weight, as the sudden shock to the joint of articulation could prove traumatic. Every movement must be done slowly, particularly your settling into the fully contracted position. Your target muscle group may begin to shake violently at the 30-to-40-second mark, but that’s fine. It’s an indicator that your muscles are firing more and more fibers to maintain the contraction, and the more they use, the greater the growth stimulation.
After an MCS workout your limbs will feel as if they’re made of Jell-O, owing to the high volume of activated muscle fibers. If you wish to reap maximum growth gains from this system, you must rest completely’engaging in no other forms of strenuous exercise’until your next workout some 48 hours later. Schedule your workouts 48 hours apart, such as Monday, Wednesday and Friday, taking Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday off for recovery and growth. Eat a proper diet, get adequate rest and train as hard as you possibly can on this program. You can do two MCS sets of an exercise if you feel so inclined, but remember that the relationship between intensity and duration is inverse, and always strive for increased intensity via additional seconds of full contraction. Do all that, and you should realize the best gains of your bodybuilding career.
Editor’s note: John Little is a leading innovator of bodybuilding training. Watch for his latest book, Fast Mass: The Max Contraction System. IM