March 16, 2014

A Holistic Approach You Need To Know If You Want To Build Maximum Muscle - Omni-Reps

What’s the best way to build muscle?

Training to build muscle is unique in that the acceptable range for the training parameters with which one ought to follow vary greatly compared to those who simply want to improve a physical attribute like strength, power/explosiveness, or endurance. When training to improve those physical attributes, the parameters are very strict, and there’s not much room for variation. For example, those training to develop strength or power/explosiveness don’t have much use for performing high reps with minimal rest, and those training to improve their endurance have little use for using heavy weights, as neither pertains to the rule of specificity.

Process of elimination – remove what you know you do not want, and you’ll realize what you do want

For the individual wanting to increase strength and/or power/explosiveness, using submaximal loads for repetitive efforts can result in a breakdown in technique as fatigue accumulates, which could negatively affect the continuous development of the most efficient motor pattern. This does not mean lighter loads have no place in strength or power/explosiveness development, as they are very effective for patterning (beating the pattern into your head), it means that lighter loads combined with high rep sets which induce fatigue negatively affect the execution of the movement, which is counterproductive. Performing reps with less than optimal technique will make you worse, not better, at performing a movement. If you train like shit, you’ll perform like shit (sorry, but it is, what it is). Higher reps could also train your nervous system to favor the recruitment of low threshold motor units, and associated fatigue resistant slow twitch muscle fibers which don’t generate nearly as much force as their fast twitch counterparts.

For the individual training to improve their muscular endurance/stamina, they have the opposite concerns, as lifting heavy weights may train their nervous system to become more prone to recruiting the high threshold motor units, and associated fast twitch muscle fibers. This is counterproductive because, if the brain is recruiting the muscle fibers which generate the most force, but are most susceptible to fatigue, your ability to generate force over a sustained period of time will most definitely be jeopardized. Even if your first few efforts may be of greater force, it’s of little benefit if you can’t maintain that pace. Basically you don’t want to blow your load too early (sorry for the graphic detail, but it gets the point across), which is what happens if you come out of the gate too strong, and not pace yourself.

So, what’s better, heavy weight and low reps, or light weight and high reps?

Building muscle is about recruiting and fatiguing as many muscle fibers as absolutely possible, without overworking your body’s ability to recover, as all muscle fibers, fast twitch and slow twitch, contribute to overall development. While training for strength heavily favors the recruitment of the high threshold motor units, and relatively larger, superficial, fast twitch muscle fibers, at the expense of the low threshold motor units, and training for endurance heavily relies on the recruitment of the low threshold motor units, and relatively smaller, slow twitch muscle fibers which lie beneath the superficial fast twitch fibers, training for hypertrophy relies on the preferential recruitment and fatigue of both!

Because of the nature of the goal, there’s really no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way when it comes to trying to build muscle, as long as enough mechanical tension, muscle damage, and metabolic stress takes place, as possible. This is why people from different walks of life can build a substantial amount of muscle while adhering to drastically different loading parameters for their training. For instance, there’s a huge following of people who believe lifting heavy (80-85% of max, or above) is the only way to go, but there’s an equally huge following of people who vow that lifting heavy is unnecessary to build muscle, since a positive hormonal response (GH, IGF-1) can be triggered lifting lighter loads (50-60% of max, or slightly lower, while keeping the tension constant) as long as you get a ‘pump’ (more on that later). Based on the fact that believers of either methodology have the results, in terms of muscular development, to prove their way is effective, suggests that various styles of training can result in building muscle.

Bodybuilders have known this for as long as weights have been used to build muscle. They realize that muscles respond to tension, and that there’s various ways to apply varying amounts of tension. It’s not uncommon at all for a bodybuilder to try to incorporate as many different ways to stimulate muscle as possible within one workout for the same muscle group to ensure as many of the fibers receive an adequate amount of stimulation needed to grow.

The status quo

Generally a workout designed to build muscle will start with an exercise that allows the most amount of weight to be used. The heavier the weight, the more force that is needed to lift the weight, which means there’s a greater level of intramuscular tension (how hard the muscle is contracted), resulting in a greater rate of protein degradation. The more force that is needed to lift the weight, the greater the recruitment of the high threshold motor units, which stay active for a brief period of time, which sets the tone for the rest of the workout. This is a good thing! However, greater levels of tension are associated with shorter durations in which that tension can be sustained, so even though there may be a great deal of muscle damage occurring, the time spent doing so may not be great enough to elicit a positive hypertrophic response.

To combat this lack of tension, a workout designed to build muscle generally shifts gears after the first exercise, and the amount of weight lifted takes a back seat to the greater amount of desired time under tension. A positive side effect of the heavy weight used at the beginning is the potentiating effect it has on the nervous system, meaning more weight can be used, or the same weight can be used for greater durations, during the later exercises.

This format generally works extremely well for building muscle as the heavy work stresses the muscle, priming it to receive the extra nutritive blood flow that high reps induce. If one strictly trains heavy though, they miss out on this effect in which the low reps create the need (cause), and the high reps activate the feed (effect). Low rep training followed by high rep training creates a pump, which can happen solely from high rep training, but is best activated after the need is induced from low rep training.

Oh, you didn’t know?

Just a quick refresher on what a ‘pump’ is, and why it’s beneficial for building muscle, in case there’s any confusion as to why it’s so necessary/beneficial.

During a dynamic contraction the muscles contract as they shorten, and slightly relax as they lengthen (like a heart ‘pumping’, get it? Pump!). Metabolites/metabolic waste like potassium, and adenosine, leak out of the muscle between bouts of intense muscular contraction and slight relaxation. This stimulates blood flow (hyperemia) to the muscle (which is desired), to clear away the waste, which brings nutrients with it (to feed the muscle, which also maintains strength and stimulates growth). Creating as much metabolite accretion as possible is the most effective way to stimulate the pump.

Maximal contractions, in which you do not allow the muscle to relax and apply constant tension, prevents blood from entering the cell, and metabolites from exiting the cell and being cleared away. This is why it’s not completely necessary to lift heavy weights to build muscle, although the low reps create the need, while the high reps activate the feed, which makes the combination of the two as effective as it is.

Unfortunately, metabolite build up negatively affects strength levels because it hinders muscular contraction, which is why the status quo is to go heavy before light, not the other way around. Over time the body’s ability to buffer (remove inhibitory effect), or clear metabolic waste, is improved, which facilitates strength by delaying the onset of fatigue.

What’s the best exercise for (name a bodypart)?

No single exercise exists for any muscle group that fully recruits all the muscle fibers throughout a muscle to the same degree. If it did, there’d be no need to modify exercises to further recruit hard to develop areas like the upper pec, lower lat, inner bicep, lateral triceps, you get the picture. While some exercises definitely provide more bang for your buck, none fully recruit all the muscle fibers throughout a given muscle. Because muscles (or compartments of them) generally have more than one function, an assortment of exercises are needed to ensure maximal recruitment and fatigue.

Challenge the status quo – does it have to be this way?

Take a look at the parameters for a workout designed to build muscle:

A (compound movement) – 4-5 sets, 4-6 reps, 90-120 seconds rest
B (compound movement) – 3 sets, 8-10 reps, 75 seconds rest
C (isolation movement) – 3 sets, 12-15 reps, 60 seconds rest
*D (isolation movement) – 3 sets, 8-12 reps, 45 seconds rest
*by applying constant tension there’s no way you can expect to get the same amount of reps, or more, but that’s ok since the purpose is to maximize the time under tension, not rep total

Starting heavy, and reducing the weight in favor of higher reps and constant tension as a workout progresses is great and all, but like everything, it has its pros (which have already been discussed) and cons. With this approach, the first exercise receives maximal attention, and as a result performance for each and every exercise after suffers, compared to if you had performed them first. Since performing multiple exercises and rep ranges is ideal for hypertrophy, why then is it ideal, or has it become the status quo to perform only one exercise at a time before moving on to the next? Knowing that there’s no exercise that maximizes recruitment throughout any muscles entirety, why only perform one exercise while you are fresh, and perform other exercises that ultimately play a huge role in the results you get (as long as you select ones that generally recruit areas of the same muscle that receive the lower amounts of stimulation during the first movement), while battling fatigue?

A rose with any other name would smell just as sweet

A ‘holistic’ approach, which in this case refers to a wide array of physical capacities, would be to cycle through your movements, not as one big giant superset (a completely separate, but extremely effective concept), but as separate sets of their own. This way each movement is performed with a higher average amount of weight, than it would in a traditional manner (except the first one obviously, but the trade off for multiple movements performed with heavier weight is more than worth it from a hypertrophy standpoint).

Take a look at what a more holistic approach would be:

A (compound movement) – 6 reps
B (compound movement) – 6 reps
C (compound/isolation movement) – 6 reps
A (compound movement) – 8 reps
B (compound movement) – 8 reps
C (compound/isolation movement) – 8 reps
A (compound movement) – 12 reps
B (compound movement) – 12 reps
*C (compound/isolation movement) – 12 reps
*if you really want to push the envelope, go for 20-25 reps on the very last set

Based on the rep goal, you can plainly see that each movement is performed with relatively heavier weights, as opposed to just one movement being performed with relatively heavy weight. Each movement is then performed with lighter weights to increase the time under tension, followed by even lighter weights as the goal becomes to apply constant tension. This is an example of what could also be termed ‘omni-reps’. But don’t get caught up on the terminology, whether you call it omni-reps, or holistic training, the point is it’s a very effective way to trash as many motor units from the motor-unit pool as possible by exposing the muscles to multiple movements, with varying levels of intensity.

Hypertrophy to the power of 3

Ideally, when taking a holistic approach and performing omni-reps you want to select three different exercises, and three different rep brackets (ex. 4-6, 8-10, 12-15) that target different strength qualities (ex. strength, hypertrophy, endurance), for a total of 9 sets per bodypart. Because training to build muscle has no set limits as far as parameters go (there really just guidelines more than anything), you could use more, or less, exercises and rep brackets, but three is ideal, because there are only three rep brackets which are best suited for hypertrophy.

Remember, if the load is too light, the amount of tension won’t be great enough to promote a hypertrophic response, so the weight should always be challenging enough that you fail between 15-20 reps (and even that’s pushing it a bit).

Worth noting, the volume can begin to get out of hand if you start adding either exercises, or additional rep brackets. With three of each, you’re performing nine total sets. Adding one exercise, or rep bracket, brings the total up to 12. While you can give to one, and take from the other, by adding an exercise and removing a rep bracket (or vice versa), three of each seems to be the perfect remedy for hypertrophy.

The method to the madness

As far as exercise selection is concerned, you always want to pick exercises that provide the most bang for your buck, and have a similar movement pattern (ex. wide-grip pull-up, chin-up, neutral-grip pull-up). Don’t worry about the exercises being too alike, because every minor change that you make will assist in knocking off as many motor units from the motor-unit pool as possible.

The sequencing in which you perform each movement is vitally important as well. One sequence is to perform movements that maximize tension when the muscle is in a shortened position first, and finish with a movement that maximizes tension when the muscle is in a stretched position. This will help stretch the surrounding fascia, facilitating muscle growth. This is because the beginning of the sequence will pump the muscle, and end of the sequence will stretch the muscle under load, and this loaded stretch has very positive effects on growth factors (ex. increased sensitivity of IGF-1 receptors).

The opposite, ‘lengthen before strengthen’ approach, works as well, in which you perform exercises that provide the greatest stretch first in sequence, and finish the sequence with exercises that provide the greatest amount of tension when the muscle is in a shortened position.

Finally, you could perform the movement in which you are strongest either first, or last, in sequence. The benefit of performing your strongest movement first, is for the same reasons listed above in wanting to start the workout heavy. The benefit of performing your strongest movement last however is so you don’t have to reduce the amount of weight used from your first movement, you simply make a mechanical change which places you in a more advantageous position to lift max weight. This way you can get in more volume at a given intensity, albeit a lower intensity than if you performed the movement you are strongest in first, instead of having to adjust the weight every single time to ensure you hit your rep total.

If performing bodyweight movements or have limited equipment in which you simply cannot go lower than a certain amount of weight for whatever reason, a density approach in omni-rep fashion (cycling between movements) works well. The two ways to apply a density protocol are to either have a set rep goal, in which you time how long it takes you to perform all your reps, or a set time in which you perform as many reps as possible within that timeframe.

An example of a rep goal would be to aim for a predetermined amount of reps (ex. 60), and cycle through the three (or however many exercises you choose to perform) movements, resting as little as possible, but long enough to ensure you at least get a few reps (ex. 45 seconds) until you reach your rep total. Then next time, try to beat your time. If you rather work within a certain timeframe, you simply set a timer and perform as many reps as you can, while cycling through the movements. Record how many reps you got, and aim to beat that total the next time.

As for the rep bracket sequencing, ideally you want to follow a hierarchy as far as intensity is concerned, and progress from heavy to light for the same reasons as listed above, but you can reverse the pattern and ramp up to heavier weights by using the lighter loads as valuable rehearsals. The only major drawback for using higher reps first to warm up for the heavier weights is that, by the time you get to the heavier weights, the amount of weight you’ll be able to use will be substantially lower due to the high volume of work the preceded it.

Where have you been all my life?

The major reason this type of training lacks the popularity that it deserves is likely because it’s hard to pull off this kind of a workout in a commercial gym, without having someone take your bench, or weights, or machine, etc. This is why it’s best to try to perform movements with as similar a movement pattern as possible. If you want to perform dissimilar movements for the same muscle, try to bring your bench, dumbells, or barbell(s) to the same area, or cable station, that you will be using, so that your workout isn’t thrown off track due to external factors like other people taking the equipment your about to use while performing a set.

Break out of the rut

The summation of mechanical tension, muscle damage, and metabolic stress is maximum hypertrophy. Therefore, to build the most amount of muscle, we need to apply as much mechanical tension, muscle damage, and metabolic stress to as much of the muscle as possible. This simply doesn’t happen when you perform all your sets for one exercise before moving on to the next, and then doing it again until the workout is over. If you want to build as much muscle as possible, then a more holistic approach is needed, and omni-reps is just that approach.

If you have any questions about holistic training, omni-reps, or how to apply this approach to your current routine, feel free to contact at 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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