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Max Contraction

Ultimate Intensity: Is There a Best Way to Train?

In my new book Max Contraction Training: The Scientifically Proven Program for Building Muscle Mass in Minimum Time (New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing, 2004) I present a revolutionary training system. The premise of the Max Contraction system is that there is one place in a muscle’s given range of motion that, coupled with adequate resistance, recruits more muscle fibers than any other position’the position of full, or maximum, contraction. When you put a muscle in the maximum-contracted position, it becomes stronger and can contract against much heavier resistance than is possible in its weaker range. According to the principle of orderly recruitment, this is the only relevant factor involved in stimulating maximum muscle growth.

I realize that what I am about to say is suspect. I advocate a particular training approach, one I’ll benefit from financially if you believe what I have to say and purchase my book or products. I want to be clear about that at the outset, lest you be misled into thinking that this is an impartial analysis of the various training approaches’which in this day and age I’m sure is no longer possible in a bodybuilding magazine.

Nonetheless, I’ve arrived at my conclusions after some 20 years in the trenches; I have worked alongside or with the best bodybuilders in the world, as well as with some of the leading researchers and training theorists. I have observed what’s required to build muscle mass as well as what is a waste of time. I have also observed the hype that takes the place of fact in the competition for the consumer’s dollar.

What Are the Criteria?

Commercialism aside, everyone will agree that there must be something about a workout that results in changes in the body. It’s obvious that as we expend energy, we grow fatigued and are forced to terminate a set and are less able at the end of a workout to lift the same resistance for the same number of repetitions that we could at the start of the workout.

Not everyone has productive workouts. Some trainees work out religiously several days a week with little or nothing to show for their efforts. What makes the difference between people who perform workouts that produce size and strength gains and those who do not? Some might suggest genetics as a possible answer’and to a large extent they would be correct. Most of us have known someone who was just naturally large, someone who had longer-than-average muscle length and a fair degree of natural strength. When such natural attributes get together with any form of progressive-resistance training, the result is a shocking degree of muscle mass and strength.

Yet even the genetically advantaged reach plateaus in their training, where it seems impossible to add even an extra pound of muscle to their frames or five pounds to their bench press. Many simply chalk it up to having ‘reached their genetic potential’ and just go through the motions in order to maintain the mass they’ve already built.

Nevertheless, it’s become apparent to me that nobody ever reaches the upper levels of his or her genetic potential. It’s always possible to build more size and strength (and I mean much more). Why don’t people ever realize their full genetic potential? It comes down to the disparity between productive and unproductive workouts. That brings us to a key question: What type of training is best for stimulating muscle growth?

You have two options here: 1) You can train for progressively longer periods of time, as most bodybuilders do, going from three workouts per week to the multiple-set split routines that are advocated by most champion bodybuilders; or 2) you can train intensely, briefly and infrequently. Why is high intensity the best choice? Because the more intense workouts drain your muscles more than less intensive workouts, so it takes longer to recover from an intense workout than it does from a less-intense workout. Hence the high-intensity trinity of ‘intense, brief and infrequent.’

Some trainees might be tempted to suggest a compromise: to train somewhat intensely and somewhat longer. But why would you want to combine an efficient system with an inefficient one? Of course, you can mix productive and unproductive training, but it only dilutes the productive effects you might be getting from your workouts.

Certainly, both options have their advocates, and the former approach is the most widely practiced’by the champions (who are few) and the failures (who are legion). If it was the most productive way to go, however, there would be no failures. Everyone would be guaranteed at least some success. That’s not what happens, though. Bodybuilders who use conventional training always hit a wall. They stop making gains from workout to workout, and their gains in size and strength typically plateau quite quickly. You can only work out for so long before you start pacing yourself in order to make it to the end of your routine. If you follow the longer approach to its logical conclusion, once you reach the upper limits of your genetic potential, you’d have to train four, five, six, 10 or more hours a day seven days a week. Your intensity at those workouts would be so low (for you to be able to put in all those hours) and the workouts themselves so frequent (not giving you ample time to recover from the energy output) that you’d make no progress. ALL How Many Sets?

Consider the research of physiologist Ralph N. Carpinelli, Ed.D., who teaches the neuromuscular aspects of strength training at Adelphi University. He performed an extensive review of the scientific literature, and, as reported in the December ’97 issue of Master Trainer, he concluded that ’24 out of 25 strength-training studies reported that there was no significant difference in the magnitude of muscular strength or hypertrophy between training with single vs. multiple sets.’ There is no evidence that a greater volume of exercise will elicit a greater response.’ Carpinelli also discussed the results of a study comparing muscle-fiber enlargement in bodybuilders who perform multiple sets with brief rest periods and competitive weightlifters and powerlifters, who typically perform high-intensity, low-volume training with longer rest periods. Again, no significant difference in size. Carpinelli reviewed more than 60 studies, comparing single-set to multiple-set training in subjects who had various training goals and used various protocols, and he concluded that the results in approximately 90 percent of the studies showed no difference between the two approaches.

Consider also that in 1997, physiologists K.J. Ostrowski, G.J. Wilson, R. Weatherby, P.W. Murphy and A.D. Lyttle reported that one set per exercise was as effective as two sets and four sets for improving muscular size, strength and upper-body power in recreational weightlifters during a 10-week total-body training program (Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 11:148-154).

With each passing decade, the scientific literature supports the conclusion that one set of one maximum contraction is all that is required to stimulate gains in size and strength and that performing more sets and reps is simply a waste of time. Having trained hundreds of clients, I know that one set is all that’s required to set the body’s growth mechanism into motion. So additional sets, which require lighter weights and thus diminish fiber recruitment, have no place in a workout engineered solely to stimulate size and strength increases.

It’s a conclusion that many former volume advocates are only now reluctantly conceding’even former Mr. Olympia winner Frank Zane, in a recent IRON MAN column (April ’04), indicated that he was training with less volume and frequency these days after years of championing the high-volume approach.

While I list all of the science supporting high-intensity exercise in Max Contraction Training, the reason for its success is simply that high-intensity muscular contraction is the only factor relevant in building bigger and stronger muscles.

Intensity vs. Duration

As early as 1905 a physiologist by the name of Roux observed that the muscles of various athletes were different and that not all muscles in one athlete were equally large. He advanced the position that the size and strength of human muscles was the result not of the total amount of work they were made to perform but rather the amount of work they were made to perform ‘in a unit of time’; i.e., the intensity. As physiologist Arthur Steinhaus later pointed out:

This is well illustrated in the muscles of the miler and sprinter. The miler does more work than the sprinter, but, in comparing intensities, the 10-second man runs 30 feet per second and the four-minute miler only 22 feet per second. Therefore, the sprinter has larger muscles.

According to Petow and Siebert, a physiologist named Lange, who was a student of Roux’s, expressed Roux’s views on stimulating muscle growth thusly:

Only when a muscle performs with greatest power’i.e., through the overcoming of a greater resistance in a unit of time than before’would its functional cross section need to increase…. If, however, the muscle performance is increased merely by working against the same resistance as before for a longer time, no increase in its contractile substance is necessary…. Hypertrophy is seen only in muscles that must perform a great amount of work in a unit of time. The athlete who in a few seconds generates great power in lifting a weight’possesses massive musculature. Distance runners, walkers or swimmers lack the same.

Petow and Siebert then went on to restate the Roux-Lange generalizations more precisely: ‘Hypertrophy results from an increase in the intensity of work done (increase of work in a unit time) whereas the total amount of work done is without significance.’ Petow and Siebert were able to demonstrate experimentally that skeletal muscles grew in size in direct proportion to the intensity of the work demanded of them’in other words, the greater the intensity, the greater the muscle growth. Or, as Dr. Steinhaus concluded, ‘Only when the intensity is increased (overload) does hypertrophy follow.’

Intensity, then, is related to the ‘overcoming of a greater resistance in a unit of time than before’in other words, having your muscles contract against a greater weight in a given time span’and Max Contraction fulfills that formula perfectly. The time frame is one to six seconds, and you can increase the resistance as your muscles adapt and become stronger, which makes it possible to continue inducing hypertrophy (within certain genetically prescribed limits).

You can train with moderate intensity, with high intensity or with maximum intensity, and with each turning up of the intensity dial, you stimulate more muscle fibers to grow bigger and stronger. Mike Mentzer once made the point that ‘high-intensity training is really about high-intensity muscular contraction; the harder that the muscle is made to work, the more severe the contraction and the greater the growth stimulation.’ That leads to a series of questions:

1) When is a muscle contracting hardest, when it’s contracting against a maximum weight or a submaximum weight? Against a weight heavy enough that it can only manage one repetition or one that allows from two to 12 reps?

2) When is the contraction of a muscle most severe: When it’s overloaded maximally in the position of maximum contraction, or when it’s subjected to a submaximal load and made to contract through an exaggerated or full range of motion? When a contraction is so intense that any more than one to six seconds is impossible or in a set that can last from one to two minutes?

The answers lie in the definition of intensity used by Mike Mentzer and Arthur Jones: ‘the percentage of possible momentary muscular effort.’ If the percentage of your possible momentary muscular effort used is low, so is the intensity. If it’s high, so is the intensity. And if the percentage of your possible momentary muscular effort used is maximal, again, so is the intensity.

If that definition is valid, then the greatest possible momentary muscular effort takes place during a set performed with the heaviest possible weight your muscles are capable of contracting against and in a position that involves the greatest number of muscle fibers; in other words, a position of maximum contraction’a contraction that is so severe, it can only last one to six seconds.

Just as there is one type of training that can stimulate maximum muscle growth, there’s also one point in a muscle’s range of motion that can give you maximum growth stimulation’a point in the range of motion that has been known by exercise physiologists for more than 50 years and was pointed out by Nautilus creator Arthur Jones in 1971:

It should be plain that the muscle could be in no position except its shortest, fully contracted position if all of the muscle fibers were contracted at the same time. The individual fibers must grow shorter in order to perform work, and if all of the fibers were shortened at the same time, then the muscle as a whole would have to be in a position of full contraction’no other position is even possible with full muscular contraction’. But it does not follow that even a position of full contraction will involve the working of all of the individual fibers because only the actual number of fibers that are required to meet a momentarily imposed load will be called into play. Thus, in order to involve 100 percent of the fibers in a particular movement, two conditions are prerequisites: The muscle (and its related bodypart) must be in a position of full contraction, and a load must be imposed in that position that is heavy enough to require the work of all the individual fibers.

Since a full range of motion requires you to reduce the amount of weight that your muscles are capable of contracting against in the fully contracted position, then the weights are, by definition, submaximal, and the intensity of the contraction will be diminished. Only Max Contraction allows for a truly maximum muscular contraction and, hence, the greatest growth stimulation. The question arises: Of what value for building muscle would any exercise be that did not involve the position of full contraction? The answer: Very little. Moreover, if you have to contract as many as possible of the available fibers in order to induce maximum growth stimulation, then the position of full contraction is the only position where that’s possible. In which case, why move out of it? And if a load was then imposed that was, as Jones recommended, ‘heavy enough to require the work of all of the individual fibers,’ then those are the two requisite conditions for maximum stimulation of 100 percent of any given skeletal muscle.

The concept of Max Contraction holds immense appeal. After all, most of us got into the iron game not to become endurance athletes but to get bigger and stronger. Our objective was not to see how many sets and reps we could endure nor how exaggerated a range of motion we could move our muscles through nor how long we could make a workout last but rather to find a method that would stimulate the greatest muscle growth. If a position of maximum contraction and sufficient overload are the two most important considerations in the recruitment and stimulation of muscle fibers, then all other training considerations are superfluous.

The point is that you really don’t need multiple sets, angle training with different exercises or the host of other protocols that have become accepted by the bodybuilding orthodoxy over the years. Ironically, Jones did not go on to make what seems to me the logical conclusion: that a new training protocol could (and should) be created that would take as its premise the two conditions he described some 33 years ago. Indeed, while Jones went on to create a whole line of Nautilus exercise machines that incorporated an offset cam in order to provide maximum resistance in the position of full muscular contraction, he typically advised trainees not to keep the muscle in that position but to use a full range of motion’in effect, compromising fiber involvement with each repetition performed.

Building Muscle Without Wasting Time

Over my years of working closely alongside top bodybuilders, I’ve observed an interesting phenomenon: Their posing routines took more out of them than their actual workouts. I’ve seen strong bodybuilders grind out set after set of heavy bench presses and squats’yet still have sufficient energy to engage in several more exercises for additional bodyparts. In contrast, I’ve seen bodybuilders perform a one-minute posing routine and be so exhausted afterward that they had to sit down to avoid falling down. It occurred to me that when bodybuilders train in a gym, they typically perform a full range of motion, seldom contracting their muscles maximally for any appreciable period of time; for example, pressing a weight up to the top and then letting it down again. Posing, on the other hand, required them to contract muscles maximally and to sustain the full contraction for several seconds, thereby illustrating the Maximum Contraction principle.

With Max Contraction you make a supreme effort to maintain a maximum contraction for one to six seconds. Why does it work? Let’s compare it to a typical bodybuilding set. Let’s say you do a set of 10 reps in 20 seconds. Although it seems as if you’re working hard, your muscle is at its peak contraction for only about 2.5 seconds out of the 20. With Max Contraction you have the muscle working its hardest for the entire duration of the set, giving your muscle in this example well over five times the training stimulation.

The Problem With Repetitions

In conventional training you start a set in a position where there is zero resistance against the target muscle. Then, as you move the weight, the muscle shortens until it finally gets to the position of full contraction. Most people don’t even emphasize the maximum contraction, which is the reason that they seldom stimulate maximum growth.

For example, take the pec deck. In conventional training you place your arms against the pads and draw them toward the midline of your body until the pads touch and then return the pads to the starting position. Note that at the beginning of the movement only a minimum of muscle fibers are working. At the halfway point a few more get called into play. Then, when you get to the position of full muscular contraction, you’ve accomplished what you set out to do’stimulate the greatest number of muscle fibers’but instead of holding it, stressing the fibers to the max, you back off the resistance (perhaps even dropping it), returning to the starting position and giving the momentarily stressed pectoral muscles a chance to disengage and recover. In a typical program you repeat the procedure for 10 to 15 repetitions, or until you achieve a ‘pump.’

So, basically, you’re not getting maximum muscular involvement, which is the very reason you were able to perform 10 to 15 repetitions through a full range of motion. You hit the fully contracted position for a total of perhaps one second’but, again, with a weight that was too light to recruit anywhere near enough muscle fibers.

By contrast, when a muscle spends the entire duration of a set in a position of max contraction, it’s working maximally to contract against the heaviest weight it is capable of holding there, activating all the fibers to assist with the task. The contraction is continuous and longer than what you get in the 10-to-15-rep set.

That’s what makes Max Contraction methodology so effective and what separates separates it from all other training systems. How Should You Train?

Moving the muscle through a full range of motion is neither desirable nor necessary. In fact, you can get more than four times the muscle stimulation by placing the muscle into a position of full contraction and exposing it to the maximum resistance it can hold in that position. The results I’ve gotten training hundreds of individuals on this method have included some astounding data:

‘You only need one one-second set to stimulate maximum increases in muscle size and strength; consequently, you don’t need multiple sets of an exercise.

‘Your time under load’one to six seconds per set’is more important than repetitions.

‘Getting a a full range of motion is less valuable than getting a maximum contraction that is sustained for one to six seconds.

‘You only need one workout per week to make optimal (not minimal) progress’and even less as you become stronger.

‘A productive workout requires a maximum of 50 seconds of total training time to complete and a minimum of 10 seconds.

‘You can build maximum muscle size and strength on virtually any type of progressive-resistance equipment’from Bowflex to free weights’if you use the correct training protocol and principles.

‘You can maintain your size and strength increases indefinitely by performing one one-second max contraction every two weeks.

‘You don’t need to spend hours a day, multiple days per week in the gym to build a muscular body and dramatically increase your strength. One Set of One Rep

Richard Winnet, Ph.D., the publisher of Master Trainer newsletter and a longtime IRON MAN contributor, brought to my attention the studies of a physiologist named R.A. Berger, conducted more than 40 years ago, which tested various training protocols to determine superiority and effectiveness in stimulating size and strength increases (Research Quarterly. 36:141-146; 1963). Berger experimented with untrained male students.

After a three-week break-in period, in which his subjects learned how to perform squats and developed the neuromuscular paths for it, they were randomly assigned to seven experimental groups. Each group trained with a variation of the one-rep-max protocol for six weeks, performing a single repetition of the squat:

Group 1: 66 percent of 1RM twice per week
Group 2: 80 percent of 1RM twice per week
Group 3: 90 percent of 1RM twice per week
Group 4: 100 percent of 1RM twice per week
Group 5: 66 percent of 1RM three times per week
Group 6: 1RM once per week
Group 7: untrained control group

Berger concluded that training once weekly with a 1RM was as effective for increasing strength as the other variations. How can one rep of one set be so productive? The answer has to do with the means by which muscle fibers are recruited.

The Principle of All or None

In The Physiology of Exercise, Herbert A. DeVries of the University of Southern California states, ‘If a muscle fiber (or motor unit) is stimulated by a single impulse at or above threshold value, it responds by a contraction, or twitch, that is maximal for any given set of conditions of nutrition, temperature, etc. In other words, stimulation by impulses much larger than threshold value will result in no increase in either the shortening or the force of contraction. The muscle fiber contracts maximally, or it does not contract at all, and this fact is referred to as the all-or-none law of muscle contraction.’

This principle is in opposition to the idea that you can contract all a muscle’s fibers at once but to a lesser degree. So, it stands to reason that if you want to involve more muscle fibers, you must put the muscle in the position where it can contract the maximum number of fibers. But is it really possible to recruit all the fibers in a muscle? The answer, as you’ll see shortly, is a resounding yes. The Principle of Orderly Recruitment

Your brain recruits your fibers solely as it perceives the need for them. It does that via the central nervous system: The motor nerves, as directed by the brain, follow a relatively fixed order in the recruitment process. The process involves sending the precise amount of electrical current necessary to activate the precise number of muscle fibers required to generate a precise amount of force.

Putting the muscle in a position of maximum contraction is only half of the equation, however. The other half is the amount of weight, or the load, the fibers are made to contract against. If the load is maximal and the contraction is maximum, then the fiber recruitment will, in turn, be maximum. Conversely, if the load is minimal and the contraction is minimal, the fiber recruitment will be likewise.

In fact, the position of max contraction is the only position where it’s even possible to achieve a maximum load (or overload) on the muscle. Any other position’even a full range of motion’results in submaximal loading, as described above. That and disadvantageous leverage factors reduce the muscle’s potential strength. When those two factors’point of contraction and optimum overload’are properly aligned, as they are in Max Contraction training, it is possible to stimulate all of a given muscle’s fibers thoroughly. Those two factors are, in fact, the only relevant factors in the formula for inducing maximum size and strength increases.

For more than 10 years I’ve been pointing out that muscle fibers are recruited by the intensity of the contraction, which, in turn, is regulated by the amount of weight they’re required to contract against. I certainly did not think up that idea’as it’s a principle of physiology’but to my knowledge I’m the only person in bodybuilding circles who has called attention to it. Its ramifications are truly significant, as it immediately does away with much of the myth and nonsense that have pervaded bodybuilding training over the years. I refer to this phenomenon as the ‘law of muscle fiber recruitment’: If you need to contract your muscles against a heavier weight, your brain activates more muscle fibers to create the required force necessary to perform the contraction. More force equals more fiber involvement.

The points to remember in all of this are that muscle fibers have to be stimulated in order to grow larger, that they’re stimulated by being used, and that they are used by being required to create force. Therefore, if you want to create bigger, stronger muscles as quickly and efficiently as possible, you need to use as many fibers as possible in your exercises. You need to generate the highest intensity of contraction of which you are capable. That’s the reason the 1RM protocol that Dr. Berger’s studies advocated more than 40 years ago proved so successful when compared to the lower-force, submaximal weight, multiset protocols.

Mike Mentzer used to say that the last rep of a 10-rep set was the most productive for stimulating growth because it was the hardest. If you were capable of 10 reps but put the bar down before you got that far, you wouldn’t grow bigger and stronger because you’d be missing out on the last rep’the hardest rep’the one that was the most intense and that tripped the growth mechanism into motion. So why perform the other nine reps at all? Moreover, if a single maximum contraction is all it takes to activate the body’s growth mechanism, then no other factor holds significance in terms of stimulating muscle growth.

The data also reveal that intensity of effort is the key factor in stimulating muscle growth. Mentzer was right when he said, ‘There is only one valid theory of bodybuilding training, and that theory is high-intensity training.’ Remember that it wasn’t repetitions, it wasn’t a pump, it wasn’t long workouts or training the muscle from a host of different angles that made the test subjects’ muscles bigger and stronger. It was but a single maximum contraction. Even if Max Contraction training yielded the same results as conventional training protocols, the single Max Contraction protocol’being briefer’would clearly be the more efficient way to train, as nowhere does the scientific literature reveal that training three to four times more will get you three to four times better results.

Max Contraction takes everything you know about conventional bodybuilding training and throws it out the window. More than two decades of research and refinement, along with thousands of individual case studies, have contributed to the first legitimate 21st-century approach to bodybuilding exercise.

Editor’s note: John Little is a leading innovator of bodybuilding training. His latest book, Max Contraction Training: The Scientifically Proven Program for Building Muscle Mass in Minimum Time, is now available from Home Gym Warehouse for $18.95 plus shipping and handling. Call 1-800-447-0008 to order or visit IM

‘ 2004 Northern River Productions.

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