Training to add mass sounds simple: Recruit and exhaust as many muscle fibers as possible. Unfortunately, the most common methods of training usually fail to exhaust one or another group of muscle fibers. To understand that, let’s look at how muscle fibers differ in recruitment and vulnerability to fatigue.
More Than Two Types
Ask any fitness buff to define the different muscle fibers, and you’ll usually hear fast and slow twitch. The more reading you’ve done, the more likely you are to cite the slow (type 1), fast oxidative (type 2a) and fast glycolytic (type 2b). That’s correct, but there are up to seven classifications of muscle fibers—type 1, 1c, 2c, 2ac, 2a, 2ab, 2b—and they act in sequence, from slowest to fastest.
The slower the fiber, the lower the threshold of recruitment—meaning the easier it is to activate the fiber—and the more fatigue resistant it is. As the sequence continues, the fibers’ recruitment threshold increases, but their fatigue resistance decreases. During muscle contraction, fibers are recruited in an orderly manner—what’s known as the size principle. Basically, the small, slow-twitch fibers with low-recruitment thresholds are recruited first, and as increasing force is required, the larger, fast-twitch fibers are recruited.
So the slow-twitch fibers are recruited first, and the fast-twitch get recruited with greater effort and loads. In order to recruit fast fibers, you need to lift greater loads, yet lifting greater loads means you spend less time lifting [less tension time with heavy weights and fewer reps]. That means the fatigue-resistant slower fibers aren’t exhausted.
As a practical matter, therefore, higher-repetition programs miss training the faster-twitch fibers, while lower-rep, strength-style training does not exhaust the slower-twitch fibers. In either case potential hypertrophy remains untapped. So most people periodize their workouts, doing strength training for so many weeks followed by another number of weeks of higher-rep work. That approach has some drawbacks in that as one motor ability, strength, is developed, the other motor ability, muscular endurance, starts to diminish.
It’s much more effective to use a program that recruits and possibly exhausts all fiber types. This one is aimed at individuals who wish to add as much size as is possible in the quickest time possible.
This program is built on what are called holistic sets. (Don’t worry, you don’t have to use crystals and funky chants, unless that’s your cup of tea.) It’s basically a heavy-to-light program in which you do specific sets, starting with heavy loads and low reps. On subsequent sets you decrease the load and correspondingly increase the reps. Combine those loading parameters with specific tempos, and you have the basis of the program.
You do only three work sets per exercise:
The first work set is heavy, so you should start with warmup sets. Gradually increase the poundage with low reps to avoid fatigue. A format like the one here should work fine. Figure the weights as percentages of the weight you will use on your first work set.
Warmup 1 50% of work weight x 3
Warmup 2 70% of work weight x 3
Warmup 3 80% of work weight x 2
Warmup 4 80% of work weight x 1
The first work set aims to recruit the fast-twitch fibers. So the load is high (95 percent of 3RM) with the eccentric performed relatively fast (one second); that’s been shown to preferentially recruit the fast-twitch fibers with relative safety. The speed of the concentric, or positive, stroke should be fast. Considering the load, it will move at a slower pace.
After two minutes of rest do your second set, which is a standard bodybuilding affair—eight repetitions performed with a three-second eccentric, a one-second pause in the down position and a two-second concentric. The overall time under tension should be about 50 seconds, which will exhaust all of the intermediate fibers with an endurance time under 50 seconds.
Perform the third set after a minute of rest. You’re aiming to exhaust a reasonable number of slow-twitch fibers. The repetitions should be slow—four seconds each for the eccentric, pause and the concentric. There should be no rest, so the reps are performed in continuous-tension style.
The last set should feel like hell as the lactate buildup becomes unbearable. You’ll need to grit your teeth, but you’ll also have to swallow your pride because the weight you’re going to be using is almost laughable. ALL Exercise Choice
Because the purpose of the program is to recruit as many fibers as possible, the exercises you use should be the big, multijoint ones. You’re looking at bench presses for chest, bent-over rows and pullups for back, squats for quads, stiff-legged deadlifts for hamstrings, and so on.
Do only one round of the three sets for each exercise. Performing a second round will defeat the purpose. In other words, the fibers should be exhausted, and it would be impossible to develop levels of force that would recruit the high-threshold fibers again. Perform two workouts for a given muscle group within a week, using two different motor patterns—for example, bench presses at your first chest workout and incline presses at your second. The clavicular heads of the pectorals are recruited during movements in which you raise your arms toward your head, like incline presses, as opposed to raising them straight out in front of your body, as in bench presses. A similar example would be bent-over rows and pullups for the back.
Remember, this style of training is aimed at developing maximal hypertrophy in a short period of time. If your goal is pure strength, then a strength-training program will be more suitable. As long as you address the underlying principles of progressive overload and adequate nutrition, holistic-hypertrophy training should create exceptional mass gains over a 12-week period.
3 reps x 95% of 3RM
Rep cadence: 1/0/X
Rest: 120 seconds
8 reps x 8RM
Rep cadence: 3/2/1
Rest: 60 seconds
20 reps x 20RM
Rep cadence: 4/4/4
Note: Rep cadence is expressed as eccentric/isometric pause/concentric in seconds; X means to explode with a controlled but fast movement.
Holistic-Hypertrophy Training: Additional Benefits
As well as aiming to recruit and exhaust as many potential fibers as possible, this program has other strength and growth benefits:
• Post-tetanic potentiation. As the three-rep set employs near maximal contractions with minimal fatigue, there should be an increase in strength during subsequent sets due to increased neural output and increased calcium levels within the muscle.
• Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. Higher-repetition training—as in work set 3—can increase stored energy and the cytoplasm within muscle cells. Although that doesn’t aid in strength, it will increase muscle size.
• Increased capillarization. The higher-repetition training will increase the number of small blood vessels—capillaries—in a muscle. That increases the muscle’s overall size and endurance and aids in recovery between sets.
Editor’s note: Glen Danbury has an honors degree in sports science and human nutrition and is currently working toward his master’s degree in sports nutrition. For more of his articles, visit www.bodybuilding.com. IM