The Best Training Techniques for Muscle Size & Strength
Optimal strength gains are typically achieved by high-intensity training requiring the use of heavy weights within a low repetition range, while the best hypertrophic response is ordinarily stimulated by the use of moderate weights at a higher volume involving an elevated repetition range.1 Heavier weights augment strength principally by inducing greater neuromuscular activation of fast-twitch muscle fibers, which contract more quickly than slow-twitch muscle fibers, producing more power. The increased activation of fast-twitch muscle fibers from high-intensity training ultimately leads to greater strength gains. On the other hand, higher volume training more specifically amplifies muscle growth, in large part by increasing muscle time under tension, which increases metabolic stress— encouraging muscle hypertrophy. Several studies highlight these differences, pointing out that training prescriptions for hypertrophy differ considerably from those that preferentially boost strength.2 In addition to these well-established guidelines on training volume and intensity, there are some very effective training techniques that also precisely improve muscle size or strength. The specific use of these techniques will increase capacity to preferentially pack on muscle size or increase strength.
Get Pumped for Muscle Growth
One of the more satisfying effects from intense weight training is the surplus of blood that rapidly fills your muscles as you train. This phenomenon, known as cellular swelling, or more commonly as “the pump,” creates an awesome feeling— primarily because it provides a considerable, albeit temporary, increase in size of the muscle being trained, giving a sense of accomplishment that strokes the ego just a bit.
Additionally, a deeper look into this phenomenon shows that the pump is more than just a short-term increase in muscle size and boost to your ego. According to several studies, the pump actually stimulates long-term adaptations within the muscle, promoting substantial gains in muscular hypertrophy.3 Research has shown that muscle cell swelling, the pump, stimulates muscle protein synthesis and decreases muscle protein breakdown, resulting in muscle growth.4,5 Although the underlying mechanisms are unclear, it has been suggested that cell swelling is perceived by the muscle cell as a threat to its structural integrity. This triggers the cell to increase the synthesis of certain structural proteins within the cell, which ultimately increases cellular stability as well as muscle size.6,7
Trigger Tremendous Muscle Growth With Kaatsu Training
In addition to pumping up for muscle growth, the remarkably potent technique known as Kaatsu-style training can also be used to produce astonishing amounts of muscle growth. Kaatsu training triggers greater muscle growth— despite using relatively lighter weights— by restricting blood flow and oxygen supply to the working muscle. The depletion of oxygen from Kaatsu training drives the muscle cell to produce energy anaerobically, or without oxygen. Since anaerobic respiration also produces lactic acid, which rapidly decreases the muscle cell’s ability to contract, additional muscle cells must be activated in order to maintain muscular contraction. The increased level of muscular activation ultimately results in greater muscle growth. Several studies have demonstrated this influence from Kaatsu training, where they show similar levels of muscle activation between groups performing Kaatsu training at low-intensity and high-intensity training without blood flow restriction.8,9,10 What’s more, studies have also shown that low oxygen levels from Kaatsu training also preferentially activate fast-twitch fibers over slow-twitch fibers, because fast-twitch muscle fibers prefer anaerobic respiration while slow-twitch muscle fibers favor aerobic respiration.11,12,13 Since fast-twitch fibers have the greatest potential for muscle growth, the ability of Kaatsu training to preferentially activate fast-twitch fibers results in significant muscle growth.
Use Chains for Strength Gains
Variable resistance work using chain-loaded training is one of the most effective ways to increase strength. The potent influence that chain-loaded training has on strength occurs because properly positioned chains on the barbell, that settle to the ground one link at a time during the descent portion of the movement, effectively decrease the resistance on the bar as more and more links in the chain rest on the ground. On the other hand, going in the upward direction lifts the chain off the ground one link at a time, increasing the resistance on the bar throughout the ascent phase of the lift. When the decrease in resistance from the chains during the descent adequately matches the decrease in muscular force that naturally occurs because of a reduction in the amount of interactions between the two muscle-contractile proteins actin and myosin— whose interaction generates muscular contraction— or when the increase in resistance from the loaded chains matches the increase in actor-myosin driven force production in the muscle, the chains effectively provide what is called accommodating resistance.
The primary result from accommodating resistance is a greater velocity on the bar throughout the entire movement, which is essential for maximizing strength— as greater velocity on the bar throughout the movement preferentially stimulates growth of the inherently stronger fast-twitch muscle fiber and increases neuromuscular efficiency, collectively enhancing strength gains.
Strength Gains With Chains
Taking into consideration all of the positive effects associated with chain-loaded training, it is no surprise that this form of training produces considerable strength gains. Indeed, studies have clearly shown significant gains in strength from the use of chain-loaded exercises. In one of these studies, McCurdy et al.14 investigated the influence of chain-loaded and plate-loaded bench pressing on strength in college athletes with many years of resistance-training experience. The athletes were split into either a chain-loaded or a plate-loaded training group. The results showed that both training groups displayed significant increases in strength. However, the researchers noted that the chain-loaded group improved to a greater extent in bench press strength.
Complex Training Will Simply Make You Stronger
Complex training is another remarkably effective training technique that brings about sensational strength gains. Complex training combines a relatively heavy weightlifting movement with an explosive movement that specifically targets the same muscle groups as the previously performed weightlifting movement. Many studies have shown that complex training can enhance strength.15,16 In fact, one study by Cormie et al.17 showed that standard complex training involving resistance training followed by an explosive movement actually resulted in greater improvements in maximal strength at the end of the study, when compared with explosive training or strength training alone.
In addition to the standard approach to complex training for strength gains, reversing the order of the complex set— with the explosive movement coming before the strength work— can also positively impact strength output but in a different way, where the positive impact on strength is felt immediately. This immediate effect was shown in an investigation by Spreuwenberg et al.18, where subjects performed high-velocity power exercises before the resistance movement (the squat) and immediately improved squat strength, compared to a second group that performed squats before the explosive movement. The instantaneous capacity to lift heavier weights is primarily caused by the induction of post-activation potentiation. So, this study demonstrates that reversing the order of complex training can also trigger post-activation potentiation for an immediate boost in strength production.
Interestingly, although the reversal in complex training order also produces post-activation potentiation, it has been shown that the potentiation effect does not last as long as it does when performing the standard complex training sequence, with a reduction in the time of potentiation dropping from five minutes to approximately one minute.19 As a result, in order to take full advantage of the potentiation when doing reverse complex training, make sure to perform the strength set within one minute of the explosive movement.
For most of Michael Rudolph’s career he has been engrossed in the exercise world as either an athlete (he played college football at Hofstra University), personal trainer or as a research scientist (he earned a B.Sc. in Exercise Science at Hofstra University and a Ph.D. in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from Stony Brook University). After earning his Ph.D., Michael investigated the molecular biology of exercise as a fellow at Harvard Medical School and Columbia University for over eight years. That research contributed seminally to understanding the function of the incredibly important cellular energy sensor AMPK— leading to numerous publications in peer-reviewed journals including the journal Nature. Michael is currently a scientist working at the New York Structural Biology Center doing contract work for the Department of Defense on a project involving national security.
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