Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Not So Boring Rep - Will Brink

The Compiled Work of Scott Abel:

If you think about it, the rep is the most basic concept in all of bodybuilding, yet it's also the most important concept for growth. There are numerous theories on what the best routine is, volumes of research on how muscles grow and what the most effective number of reps for muscle growth is, and, of course, there are countless ways to increase intensity to stimulate the muscles. 

In the end, however, it comes down to the rep itself. If you reps are done incorrectly, what does it really matter which routine you're using? If each rep is done incorrectly, does it really matter which exercise you choose, theory you adhere to, or guru you follow in your quest for new muscle? If a person only gets a few "good" reps per set and the rest are a waste of time, could this slacker dramatically improve the efficiency and effectiveness of his workouts by making every rep a "good" rep?

I think you know the answers to these questions, so I won't answer them here. If you don't know the answers, then, friend, you're in the wrong sport, and your hands might be better suited for a large crayon and a Little Mermaid coloring book than a dumbbell.

With that introduction, let's get into what the ultimate growth rep is. I've also sandwiched in a little scientific mumbo-jumbo.

What Actually Causes Muscle Growth?

I a nutshell, to make a muscle grow larger, we need to apply the correct level of stimulation, right? Too little stimulus and the muscle won't grow. Too much stimulus and the same thing happens (or rather, doesn't). Or, worse yet, this leads to injury, and the muscle gets smaller. The proper stimulus within a given period of time is what we're looking for.

This brings me to another point. It isn't the actual amount of weight used that's the most important factor to muscle growth but the total amount of stress or tension the muscle has to endure during the rep. But some might say, "Doesn't using more weight mean more stress on the muscle?" The answer is, not necessarily. If you take 405 pounds off the rack when bench pressing and bring it down quickly without control, give it a little bounce off your chest and lock the elbows out hard at the top for one rep, are you creating more of a stimulus for growth to the muscles of the chest than if you took 300 pounds off the rack and brought it down with full control, pressed it up without any bounce or momentum, and didn't lock your elbows out at the top for 10 reps? Again, I think the answer to that question is obvious, and we'll examine this particular topic in the upcoming sections.

The point I'm trying to make here is, weight is only one factor among many variables regarding how the rep itself is performed. All things being equal (i.e., each rep is performed correctly using proper form for that exercise), weight does matter. The more weight you can use in a given exercise, with correct form, in a given period of time, for a specified number or reps, the more stimulus for growth. However, using more weight for the sheer sake of using more weight, not taking into account how the rep is performed, does not equal more stress on the muscle. More on this later.

When we train with weights using sufficient loads and intensity, we cause micro-trauma in muscle fibers. That is, at that level of the fiber itself, we've caused a certain amount of controlled damage to the fibers involved. However, eliciting muscle growth is far more involved than that.

This is the point in the article where we need to look at the concept known as "the metabolic cost of exercise." This concept, as  complex as it is if you map it all out, can still be reduced to its most basic and fundamental definition: muscle growth is not a local event that happens exclusively at the muscle fiber level. Rather, it is ultimately a systemic response to exercise that leads to muscle growth. So what exactly does all this mean?

When we lift a weight, several things happen. Within the working muscle, there's controlled damage to the myofibril during muscular contraction.[a basic rod-like unit of a muscle. Muscles are composed of tubular cells called myocytes, also known as muscle fibers, and these cells in turn contain many chains of myofibrils.] during muscular contraction. This particular type of damage (microtrauma) which leads to remodeling (growth) of the muscle takes place predominantly during the eccentric (negative) part of the rep. Simply put, it's the lowering part of the exercise that's responsible for most of the damage to the fiber that, hopefully, leads to muscle hypertrophy and increases in strength.

From this information we can conclude that the controlled lowering of a weight is a particularly important part of a properly executed rep. So this is what's happening at the local level of the muscle fiber, but as I said before, muscle growth is ultimately controlled by the effects exercise has on the entire system.         

For example, as any bodybuilder knows, growth hormone is one of several hormones that is essential for increasing muscle mass and shedding bodyfat. Growth hormone is a key anabolic and lipolytic (fat-mobilizing) hormone that many bodybuilders are injecting pre-peak and during the off-season to build additional mass and burn fat. However, growth hormone (GH), insulin, insulin-like growth factor one (IGF-1), and, to a lesser degree, testosterone can be partially manipulated by diet and exercise, so don't think an elephant pituitary extract is the only way you'll add more muscle!

When we lift weights, we cause lactic acid levels to elevate. It just so happens that the signal to the body to release growth hormone in response to exercise is related to the level of lactic acid in the blood. This is an example of the metabolic cost of exercise. It's a system-wide response to training (i.e., the increasing level of lactic acid in the blood) that causes growth hormone to be released. In fact, the body produces many metabolites and metabolic byproducts in response to weight lifting that are directly and indirectly responsible for the growth of the muscles being trained.

What does this tell us?

It tells us that the way we perform a rep for bodybuilding purposes shouldn't just cause controlled damage to the muscle fiber to stimulate growth, but it should also have a high metabolic cost that stimulates the entire body to respond to the exercise in a positive way. Growth is clearly not a local event. The metabolic cost of exercise probably plays as crucial a role in muscle growth as does the local stimulation to he muscles (i.e., myofiber damage caused by intense muscle contraction).

How Do We Improve the Quality of the Reps?

What style of rep causes an adequate stimulation for growth (i.e., microtrauma) and has a high metabolic cost? It would be the continuous tension non-lockout rep. It really isn't all that sexy or high-tech, but like I said earlier, it is the one of the most fundamental concepts in all of bodybuilding.

Our goal of using continuous tension, non-lockout style reps is to keep, as the name implies, the most amount of tension (stress) possible on the muscles being targeted. Continuous tension, non-lockout reps (let's just call them CTNL reps from now on) are probably the most metabolically costly reps you can do, especially if they're done in moderate to high numbers. The systematic effects (the amount of exercise-induced metabolites such as lactate) are generated more quickly and at higher levels with this than with any other style of training. The amount of actual time the muscle is under tension is greatest when the reps are done in a CTNL fashion. Many people slop through, chop through, rush through their workouts, totally lacking intensity for most of the reps in each set of an exercise. If you think about it, how much of the time is the muscle under tension when you train like this? 30% of the time? 50? At most, possibly 80%? Sure, training like that will allow you to use more weight, but is the muscle truly under more stress? Is the muscle and the entire system being stimulated to a greater degree when you slop and hack through your reps in an attempt to use 'big' weights? No.

The amount of tension and the length of time the muscle is actually under that tension are key. When CTNL reps uses properly in a set, the muscles are under tension 100% of the time in every rep of every set. It's one of the most grueling ways you can train.

Incorporating CTNL Reps into a Workout

So how do we use this seemingly simple rep style in a workout?

A properly executed CTNL rep has a cadence or rhythm to it. When a person is doing CTNL reps the right way, the first rep looks almost identical to the last. When doing the CTNL rep, you should take about three to four seconds for the eccentric (negative) part of the movement and two seconds for the concentric (positive) part of the movement. And, as your body adapts to this type of training, you can even vary the cadence, perhaps taking up to five seconds for the eccentric portion of the lift and three seconds for the concentric.) If you look at the typical sets of typical aspiring bodybuilders, you will notice they usually start the set out by doing the reps one way, and as the set progresses, the reps get faster and faster and looser and looser in form. This is the result of their brains going into a self-preservation mode, trying to force them to finish the set as fast as possible. You have to override this natural response to get the most benefit from a set.

The real challenge of doing an entire set in the CTNL-rep fashion is to keep the same pace or rhythm on each and every rep. This is a lot easier said than done. As the lactic acid starts to build up your mind starts to scream at you to speed up the reps or to use some body English to take the stress off the muscle and make the task of moving the weight as easy on your system as possible. As the pH of the blood drops (from the rise in lactic acid), it becomes more and more difficult for the nerves to fire. Practice, however, makes perfect.

Being able to do the reps in the CTNL style, aside from dramatically improving nervous system efficiency, forces other adaptations as well. People usually notice a big drop in their poundages when they first begin using this style of training. However, as time goes by, their nervous system, buffering systems, and enzymatic pathways rise to the challenge, and in a short time they're able to use their heavier weights again. Only now they're putting far more stress on the targeted muscles. People who train this way find they need to do fewer sets per bodypart and are sore for several days after their workouts quite often.

Now let's take a look at an exercise like the Squat and see how a typical set done in CTNL rep style would be performed.

CTNL reps are best done for moderate to high reps because this causes the greatest metabolic demand and greatest generation of exercise-induced metabolites (along with the damage at the muscle fiber level). One additional note: CTNL reps are most effective when full-range movements are performed.

Okay, back to the squat.

After warming up, pick a moderate weight -- one that you could normally do 10 reps with. Descend into the rep, concentrating on keeping full tension on the muscles of the legs, taking three to four seconds. After bottoming out, come back up strong but controlled over the course of two to three seconds. Obviously you won't be using a clock or stopwatch while doing this, but you get the idea.

This is where we come to the non-lockout portion of the rep. When you approach the top, don't come up all the way to an upright position and stand holding the weight. Why? Because this takes the tension off of the target muscles. You'll basically be resting! Instead, as you approach the top of the rep, in a controlled fashion, immediately reverse direction, and again descend to the bottom. For a fleeting second you get close to standing upright with the weight, but you never quite do it.

Now this might seem amazingly simple, but as the set continues for 5, 8, 10, or 12 reps your muscles will start to scream at you to either speed up the tempo of the reps, stand up fully with the weight and rest, or just dump the weight and end the set. This is where you have to dig down deep and force yourself not only to complete the required reps, but also to maintain the tempo you started with, never releasing the tension on the target muscles.

This is where things get tough, and CTNL reps have a way of making larger people out of smaller people. When you get good at it, you should be able to get 12-15 reps in this style. Most people fail miserably the first time. Their nervous systems just conk out on them. Their lactic acid buffering systems aren't up to the task yet, and their brains won't tolerate it. However, as time goes by you'll be amazed by how strong you'll get, but don't look for monster poundages when training like this, at least not in the beginning. CTNL training is a skill that must be practiced regularly to be mastered, so be PATIENT.

CTNL reps aren't best suited for increases in strength, although you can get quite strong using them. They are, in my view, best suited for increasing muscle size. CTNL reps are a very focused and mentally demanding way of training, but the results are well worth it.

Some of you may be saying, "Damn, how could something as simple as changing the way I do my reps have evaded me for this long?" while others might just blow off this article, assuming what I've said here is too basic to be of any use to them. Let me offer a little advice . . .

The stupidest bodybuilders are the ones who think they know it all.
Don't be a blockhead.
Give this idea a try!
Use it always, or from time to time when your workouts need an intensity boost.

Tips for Success Using CTNL Reps

1) Always strive to use progressive resistance; that is, try to achieve a personal best whenever possible. Many people misinterpret the concept of progressive resistance to mean constantly using more weight. Obviously you won't be able to add more weight to every workout indefinitely. Sometimes progressive resistance means 2 sets of 10 with a weight you could only do 1 set of 10 with previously. Sometimes it's doing 11 reps with a weight you could only get 10 reps with the week before. Or it can mean doing 2 sets of 12 with less rest between the sets than before, thus increasing the stress on the muscles.

Weight is important, but making it your one and only focus will ultimately lead you down the road to bodybuilding disappointment. There are so many ways to increase the stress on the targeted muscles. For instance, what do you do at the end of the set, when you absolutely, positively cannot do one more rep in the CTNL fashion? At this point you can do several things:

- just be done with the set
- do a few forced reps
- do a few negative reps
- do a few cheat reps, depending on the exercise
- reduce the weight and continue with the set in CTNL style

Most of the time you'll just be done with the set, because this kind of training can be quite intense. However, throwing in one of the above intensity-enhancing techniques once in a while is fine. Just be sure not to overdo it.

2) For the upper body, 8 to 12 reps in this style seem optimal for muscle building purposes. For lower body exercises higher reps can and should be used. After getting a few sets of 8 to 10 reps on, say, squats in this style, a set or 2 at 15-20 reps will definitely do the trick. Believe me, you haven't lived (or rather, died) until you've done a set of squats for 15-20 reps in this style with maximum weight!

3) This style of reps works equally well with any exercise: deadlifts, leg extensions, overhead presses, you name it. I wouldn't recommend any more than 8 to 10 sets per body part on the larger muscle groups (legs, back, chest), and no more than 6 to 8 for smaller groups like biceps, triceps, and delts. This style of training is very intense when done correctly, so keep recuperation in mind.

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