June 12, 2011

Drop Sets For Strength - How To Increase The Amount Of Maximal Voluntary Contractions Without Overtraining

What is a maximal voluntary contraction, and why is it important?
The term ‘maximal voluntary contraction’ (MVC) should be rather self-explanatory, but to clarify in case there is any misunderstanding, a maximal voluntary contraction is one in which another rep at a given intensity is not possible in that specific moment. Any set that is performed till failure typically consists on one maximal voluntary contraction - the last rep. Obviously if another rep can be performed without a brief period of rest to recuperate, then it cannot be classified as ‘maximal’.

Maximal voluntary contractions are essential for those looking to build as much muscle as possible, or gain the most amount of strength possible, as they are the ones in which the greatest amount of available motor units are recruited, therefore they are the ones in which increases the capacity of the nervous system to recruit them, raising the ceiling in terms of how much strength or size can be gained/built.

Maximal voluntary contractions are difference makers, and the reason why bodybuilders, and those who train with submaximal weights, are able to put on as much muscle as they do in the first place, and still gain strength, albeit in minimal increments, without lifting ‘heavy’. After all, the muscles don’t know how much they’re lifting, but rather how much stress they are under, as it’s the amount of stress the muscle/tissue is under that promotes the protein synthetic response, AKA growth, not the load. Therefore, nervous system intensity is more important than musculoskeletal strength.

One of the most popular, if not the most popular, ways in which bodybuilders increase the quantity of maximal voluntary contractions placed upon their muscles is with the use of the drop set. Since any given set only allows for one maximal voluntary contraction to be performed, the total amount of MVC’s per workout is limited to how many total sets are taken to failure. While you could perform more and more sets, the end result may be one of over working the body’s capacity to recover, thus pretty much defeating the purpose of training in the first place.

Even a traditional drop set can become problematic from a volume perspective, because several reps generally need to be performed to get to the point of momentary failure which allows for a maximal voluntary contraction to be performed. The repeated max effort method allows one to work around this by starting with your momentary maximum weight, and reducing just enough after each rep to allow for another rep to be performed (the sequence being repeated for up to 8 total reps per set).

Traditional vs. repeated max effort

Hypothetical one rep max = 315 lbs.

A load of roughly 270 lbs would generally allow for sets of 6 to be performed, given the appropriate amount of rest. In this case, a set would look like this:

Rep 1 – 270 lbs
Rep 2 – 270 lbs
Rep 3 – 270 lbs
Rep 4 – 270 lbs
Rep 5 – 270 lbs
Rep 6 – 270 lbs

Total volume = 1,620 lbs, and depending on the average tempo of each rep, the set could’ve taken roughly 30 seconds.

Compare that to a repeated max effort set, which looks like this:

Rep 1 – 315 lbs
Rep 2 – 300 lbs
Rep 3 – 285 lbs
Rep 4 – 270 lbs
Rep 5 – 255 lbs
Rep 6 – 240 lbs

Total volume = 1,665 lbs. and depending on the average tempo of each rep, the set could’ve taken roughly 45 seconds, the reason being because each rep would take longer to perform since each rep is an all out max, and maximum weights never move fast, regardless of intent.

While the difference in weight lifted between the two sets may be a minimal 45 lbs, it’s still 45 lbs. nonetheless, but the bigger difference is that one set provided one possible maximal voluntary contraction, compared to 6 with the repeated max effort drop set. On top of that, you achieve better neural drive and more efficient overload when you train to recruit high-threshold motor units in a fatigued state, which is exactly what is happening every time you reach momentary failure. And finally, the time under tension is upwards of 50% greater, and that in itself with have positive effects on both strength and hypertrophy.

In a perfect world you would have a good training partner on hand to prevent you from getting injured, especially when working with momentary maximal weights, but if you don’t have that luxury, you can get an almost identical effect with a slightly more conservative approach by starting your first exercise with your 2 rep max and the performing the desired amount of drops, and if you choose to use the same protocol for a second exercise you could start with your momentary 3 rep max and go from there.

If you have any questions about maximal voluntary contractions, or drop sets, feel free to contact me at ben@paramounttraining.ca. I'm available for online consulting and personalized program design, as well as one on one training if you are located in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).

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