When training in the gym do you stick to a general rep range? Do you follow the 3 sets of 10 rule because it is the best range for muscle gain? Or do you perform sets of 25 reps or more for toning? Well, hopefully after reading this article that will change and so will your results in the gym!
The general accepted rule in exercise science is that reps of 1-4 result in primarily neural adaptions and reps of 10-15 or more result in primarily cellular or metabolic adaptions. This is true, to a point. What we need to realize is that all repetition ranges target both types of adaptions. If we can understand this and identify what adaptions are happening in what muscle fibers are what times we can improve the quality of our training and actually achieve our results!
When we lift weights there is a principle in neurology that we need to understand. It is called the size principle. What this principle tells us is that there is a certain ways that the nervous system recruits muscle fibers to perform any given task. For a task such as picking up a glass of milk your nervous system will only recruit a small portion of your muscle fibers, particularly your smaller, slow twitch fibers. This makes sense because using all your muscle fibers would cause you to throw the glass in the air! When you lift a heavy object, such as a heavy pot your nervous system will recruit all your muscle fibers for the task. This makes sense so as to make sure you do not injure yourself.
When we look at the size principle it states that the recruitment of muscle fibers will be dictated by both the load of the object and the speed of movement. If the load is light or the speed is slow the body will primarily recruit your type 1 muscle fibers which are smaller and more aerobic in nature, e.g. they can contract for a long time. If the load is heavy and the speed is fast the body will recruit the more explosive type 2B muscle fibers.
Now when we look at training this is interesting. We are told that the last few reps of any set are the most important as they are the ones that recruit all our muscle fibers. The size principle illustrates to us that it is clearly not the case. What actually happens at the end of the set we actually recruit less muscle fibers as the speed decreases and fatigue sets in. If we recruited more muscle fibers the weight would actually feel easier, not harder!
So how do we work with this principle? It is really quite simple and when you start using it your strength, power and movement ability will skyrocket! What we do is we focus on lifting heavy loads as fast as possible and we stop the set when either the speed or range of motion reduce. If this happens it indicates to us that our type 2B explosive muscle fibers have fatigued. These particular fibers are the ones that will develop more strength, are more metabolically active and grow bigger! These are the three most common reasons people train - to lose weight, get bigger and get stronger!
When we use this principle it also ensures good form as we stop each set before form breaks down. Also, in response to theories that fast lifting is dangerous when you run you absorb impact forces of 4-7 times body-weight! In sports we move explosively so our training should prepare you for the same!
When we know this our ideas of reps change. When we look at the size principle we can ascertain that sets of 1-5 reps can actually be very conductive to hypertrophy training. In fact it may be the best way! So when designing your program, one method I have found very useful is to flip around your sets and reps.
Some examples: 3 sets of 10 becomes 10 sets of 3
3 sets of 8 becomes 8 sets of 3
2 sets of 12 becomes 12 sets of 2
The combinations here are many. When we add up the weights that we will be using in this approach it is clear that this will lead to more muscle and strength gain due to the increased volume.
Example: 3 sets of 10 at 60 kg = 1800 total kg lifted
10 sets of 3 at 100 kg = 3000 total kg lifted - a difference of 1200 kg!!
So hopefully this article has inspired you with the knowledge and confidence to change around your program. Remember, if we do the opposite of what the majority is doing, we will probably be doing things better!!
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Paul Meldrum has been training clients for over 10 years. He specialises in fat loss, muscle gain and rehabilitation. He was the winner of the 05/06 Personal Trainer of the year award. To receive his 3 part video series on the 8 Things you need to know to lose fat visit his website at www.dchealthperformance.com.au
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