Wednesday, November 24, 2021

R.O.B.: The Unified Theory of Working Out, Part One - Rob Thoburn (2003)

'Higher volume' (more sets), 'low volume' (fewer sets), higher reps, lower reps, drop sets, forced reps, supersets, eccentric only training, isometric training,j plyometric training, etc., etc. 

In fact, just about any method of resistance training you can imagine can build muscle to some extent. However, some will work better than others. Furthermore, your muscles may grow more rapidly in response to any given approach than will those of the guy down the street (damn him). Or, the reverse could be true. 

Why is this? 
What's the common thread? 

The 'common thread' is The ROB Concept, the culmination of my 17-year obsession with answering the question "What makes muscles grow?"

To the extent that any training approach progressively satisfies the ROB Concept, it will build muscle. The better your workouts satisfy it, the more quickly your muscles will increase in size. 

"Think Lamppost"

That's me -- the 'lamppost'. Or, at least, that's how I started out back in the summer of 1986. I've added a fair bit of muscle tissue to my scrawny frame since I began bodybuilding some 17 years ago Right from the first workout -- conducted in the seclusion of my parents' basement, I had enourmous difficulty putting on size. I hindsight, it appears that I inherited a less-than-average number of muscle fibers. The muscle fibers I did receive, moreover, weren't all that interested in getting any bigger. They were 'growth-resistant'. Thus, every set and every rep i performed at the gym stimulated less muscle gowth than might be the case for a more genetically 'gifted' souls (Dorian Yates comes to mind). 

Take a look at my parents, and you'll see why. Neither my mother nor my father is, nor ever has been, the least bit 'buff' (don't take that the wrong way, Mom and Dad). Indeed, the Thoburns have always to work very hard to stay in shape; much, much harder still to builid muscle (the same goes for intelligence, it seems). 

Yes, when it came time to hand out the 'skinny genes', I must have thought they said 'pralines' and asked for several servings. I weighed just over 145 pounds at 6'1" in height when my battle for 'buffness' began.


Lots of people  experiment with their workouts. Some take it to an obsessive extreme. I'm one of them. In fact, I've yet to meet anyone who has experimented quite as excessively as have I. Some of my workouts have been frighteningly bizarre. 

I have tried virtually every method of weight training imaginable, and a few that aren't. Isometrice, partials, eccentric-only, concentric-onlyh, low sets, high sets, 1 workout per day, 2 workouts per day, 3 workouts per day, 4 workouts per day, yes . . . 5 workouts per day, high reps (including sets of over 100 reps), low reps, everything-in-between reps, stretching my muscles with ridiculously heavy weights for several minutes, 'slow motion' training, and much, much more.

Ridiculous, perhaps, by my 'Ripley's Believe it or Not' type workouts taught me some truly invaluable lessons. This article is about the most important of them all.

Ignoring Conventional 'Wisdom'

It was in about 1993 that I undertook a workout routine that started every morning at 4:30 a.m. and carried on, in essentially nonstop fashion through toe 8:30 a.m.

Each muscle group got hammered with a total of 30 sets, three times per week (yes, three). I rested 30 seconds between all sets (I used a stopwatch to enforce this rule). Each set was performed to momentrary muscular failure using a weight that permitted 8-10 reps.

'Over-training', right 

Right. Maybe that's why I grew muscle like never before.

I didn't keep that workout routine up for more than a few weeks. During that time, however, I experienced muscle growth at a pace I have never experienced before. My body ballooned up to 212 pounds, and I was shredded. Even my pectoralis minor could be seen bursting out from my torso, clear as day. This, on a guy that started out with a 33" chest and 10.5" arms! 

After several weeks of this routine I decided that if this is what it takes for me to build muscle, then . . . well, okay . . . but I'm not willing to do it. I guess I'll just have ot settle for being a dork. 

Of course, I didn't stop training. Quite the contrary, I have continued to experiment with my training extensively -- and frequently extremely -- over the years, as I have wigth diet. 

In regards to training, two things stick out time and time again: If I want to mask my 'skinny genes' and actually build muscle at a satisfactory rate, then I will have to do more sets than conventional 'wisdom' (i.e., that which touts 'less is more') dictates. Further, I will have to rest quite a bit less between sets than is typically prescribed (e.g. 2-3 minutes). Simply stated, my workouts cannot be overly brief, nor can they be leisurely paced. Neither will it suffice to train each muscle group one time a week. 

Talk about 'anti-conventional'! 

Indeed, when I finally started doing what others considered 'over-training', and when I finally stareted Resting Only Briefly ("ROB") between sets (in many cases, not at all), I finally started to add muscle to my lamppost-like frame. 

Thus, at least for this exceptionally hard gainer, more is . . . more.

The ROB Concept

It's taken me over a decade and a half to assemble the pieces of the puzzle. I've still got a few spaces to fill. Most of the clues have come from my own, admittedly crude, 'self-experiments'. Some have come from training 'extreme ectomorphs' like me, and watching how they respond. Still other insights I have derived from studying the basics of neuromuscular physiology, biomechanics, and physics, among other scientific disciplines.

In other words, the ROB concept has NOT been proven, and probably never will be. It may be wrong (way wrong), and it may be right. I can tell you this, though: It sure does explain an awful lot. 

Let's see what I'm talking about. 

The "ROB" Concept

To the extent that any workout makes your muscles and their consituent fibers sustain a 'critically high' product of Internal Work Rate x Duration it will make them grow. Doing so will cause those muscle fibers to sustain a 'critically high' product of Depolarization Magnitude x Duration immediately afterwards. This is the ultimate trigger of the cellular events responsible for producing muscle growth in the recovery period (i.e., hours and days) that follows. 

Now let's take a moment to define some of these terms.

Energy = the capacity to perform work (Adenosine Triphosphate, or ATP, is the ultimate source of energy for your muscle fibers and all other cells). 

Work = a force generated over a distance. in order to lift a weight, for instance, your muscles have to generate enough force to overcome the force of gravity acting on it. 

Thus, when you perform a full repetition of the squat, you are performing work. Let's assume it takes you 2 seconds to perform one complete squat. If the next time you do squats you lift a heavier weight in the same 2 seconds, then your quadriceps muscles will have sustained a higher overall work rate. Work rate is also known as 'power', by the way.

Now, if the weight is so heavy that your muscles can't overcome the force of gravity acting on it, the muscles are still working, aren't they? Indeed they are. The muscle fibers can't shorten, and the contraction is said to be isometric ('same length'). During an isometric contraction, no external work is done, but the muscle is still working internally. That is, its constituent fibers are sustaining membrane depolarization, consuming energy (ATP) and progressively fatiguing. 

'Relative Workload' = the amount of force generated by the recruited muscle mass relative to what it is capable of at that instant (as opposed to in the fully rested state). Though absolute workload, i.e., the actual amount of weight your are lifting, is important, it is only important insofar as it determines how hard the recruited muscle fibers are working relative to what they are capable of at that very moment.

"Duration" = how long the workload is sustained (i.e., how long the target muscle mass is trained for). 

Why a 'high internal work rate'?

In order for that lamp sitting on your desk to turn on, an electrical current needs to be transmitted from the power source to the light bulb. Then, presto, you will have light. 

Likewise, in order to turn your muscle fibers 'on' -- in order to make them generate force (contract) -- your nervous system needs to send them an electrical current. This particular current, in fact, is both electrical and chemical in nature. It is made up of impulses flurries of which bombard your muscle fibers aand signal them to contract.

Generally speaking, the more force that is required to perform a given task (i.e., the heavier your set of barbell squats), the greated needs to be the frequency and size (magnitude) of the electrochemical impulses transmitted to your muscle fibers.

Trains of impulses are carried down to your muscles via nerve cells, or neurons. Each muscle fiber is controlled by, or under the 'jurisdiction' of, at least one so-called motor neuron. When a motor neuron receives an impulse train of sufficient magnitutde, all of the muscle fibers it controls contract; the muscle fibers are thereby 'recruted' into action. A motor neuron plus the muscle fibers it controls is called a motor unit. 

It's All About Depolarization

When an electrochemical impulse reaches the surface of a muscle fiber, it causes the muscle fiber membrane to depolarize. Like the battery in your car, the membrane surrounding each muscle fiber carries aan electrical charge. If the charge in a car battery is dissipated, it can be eused to run the starter motor which in turn starts the engine, ultimately causing the drive train to rotate the wheels of the car. Thus, electrical potential energy (represented by the charge stored in the battery) is ultimately converted into mechanical (kinetic) energy -- the capacity to turn the wheel of the car.

The muscle fiber membrane behaves like a battery, too. During depolarization, the charge across the membrane is dissipated via its connection into the mechanical work of muscle contraction. Cross-bridges form between actin and myosin protein filaments, the filaments alongside one another, and force is generated as the muscle fibers attempt to shorten. (At least, that's how contractions is thought to happen.) 

This is What Triggers Muscle Growth

If you want your muscle fibers to generate a lot of force relative to whaat they are caapable of at that instant, then your nervous system needs to recurit a lot of muscle fibers, and it needs to signal each one to depolarize with a high frequency of impulses. If you don't rest much between sets (or not at all, as in a 'drop set'), the muscle fibers won't have much time to repolarize their membranes, and a sustained state of depolarization may be achieved in the period immediately following. THIS is what triggers muscle growth.

The last paragraph is extremely important. 

The last paragraph is extremely important. Indeed, if you understand its contents, then you can understand why it is NOT the absoulute load that matters most here, but the relative load; i.e., how hard you make your muscles work relative to what they are capable of right then and there. 

It's the relative load after all, that ultimately determines the maginitude of membrane depolarization -- which is ultimately the origin of the signals I believe lead to exercise-induced muscle fiber hypertrophy. It's the COMBINATION of the relative workload and the AMOUNT OF REST you give the recruited muscle fibers -- the rest between reps (barely any) and between sets (Rest Only Briefly - ROB) -- that determines the extent to which those fibers repolarize. These factors determine the extent of depolarization that the muscle fibers sustain after you're finished hammering them (i.e., once you're done training that particular muscle group). 

Continued in Part Two . . . 

Enjoy Your Lifting!   




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