March 30, 2014

How To Maximize Muscle Fiber Recruitment And Fully Exhaust As Many Fibers As Possible - Stage Sets

The excellence of execution

It would be a challenging assignment to find anyone who doesn’t agree that what you do matters far less than how you do something. Anyone can put in the time necessary to be as prepared as humanly possible for any given situation, but if effective execution of the plan is less than optimal, it’s all for nothing. As it relates to strength training, one of the most, if not the most, underrated parameters when it comes to effectively executing an exercise is the tempo in which it’s performed.

Trainers are often nothing more than exercise instructors, for the lack of a better term, if they don’t emphasize the importance of execution. I’m not talking about alignment, and what would be considered proper form, but rather the tempo that is used to raise and lower the weight.

Can ya gimme a hand?

The law of motor unit recruitment states that motor units are recruited as needed based on the demand of the task at hand. The more force you intend to generate, the greater level of recruitment there will be. Greater motor unit activation means less work, relatively speaking, by each recruited motor unit.

Think of motor units as a group of friends which you can rely on to help with whatever physically demanding task you need to do (lifting weights). The more demanding the task (the heavier the weight is), or the faster in which you want the task completed, the more friends you will have to call upon to help out. If the task isn’t that physically demanding (the weight is light), or you don’t care if it takes a while to complete (slowly lifting), then the smaller, weaker friends who are more willing to help out are all you will need to call upon, and as long as you give them oxygen, and allow them to rest intermittently, they’ll continue to help out until the task is complete. However, if the task is beyond their level of strength, urgently needs to be completed (fast lifting), or you don’t allow them to rest and get the oxygen they need (by applying constant tension), then you’re going to have to call upon your larger, stronger friends, who are less willing to help. But, because they are your friends they will come by for a quick visit to do what they can, and make everybody else’s life easier because, the more friends that contribute, the less work each one has to do, but don’t expect them to stay long.

By deliberately lifting slower, you’re essentially telling your nervous system not to bother recruiting as many motor units, therefore making the task relatively harder to complete, as each motor unit recruited has to perform more work.

If the goal is to build strength, deliberately lifting slower is a bad idea! In that case you want to teach your brain to always recruit as many motor units as possible. However, if the goal is to build muscle, then there are numerous benefits to slowing things down, primarily that the tension placed upon the muscle remains constant, as long as you avoid resting at the top or bottom of the movement, which can be accomplished by simply avoiding the top and bottom range of certain movements.

Repetitive contractions combined with constant tension can create a great deal of metabolic stress by:

-          Creating a hypoxic intramuscular environment, restricting circulation and preventing oxygen from entering the cell (resulting in a greater level of high threshold motor unit activation by default of the slow twitch fibers basically ‘tapping out’ without oxygen)
-          Trapping blood/compressing blood vessels, impeding inflow and outflow (the veins taking blood out of working muscles are compressed by muscular contractions, while arteries continue delivering blood to the muscles, creating an increased amount of intramuscular blood plasma, which seeps out of the capillaries and into the area between muscle cells and blood vessels, termed interstitial space)
-          Buildup of metabolites/metabolic byproducts which reduces pH levels and stimulates blood flow (the buildup of fluid between the muscle cells and blood vessels along with the osmolytic properties of lactate increases an extracellular pressure gradient, causing a rush of plasma back into the muscle)

This results in blood pooling in the muscles, causing them to swell, which stretches the cell membrane, and stimulates protein synthesis and inhibits protein breakdown simultaneously.

While intending to lift as fast as you can initially leads to a greater level of motor unit recruitment, doing so also requires a considerable deceleration phase at the top of the range of motion due to excessive momentum, resulting in tension being released momentarily.

If it was easy, everyone would do it

The limiting factor in maintaining constant tension on the muscle is the burning sensation that often accompanies it. The longer the tension is kept without relaxation, the greater the burn that is felt, which also hinders strength by inhibiting further muscular contraction. Only when the muscle relaxes will the burning feeling begin to subside, at which point the muscle is able to sustain further contraction.

When you understand the physiology of the pump, you can manipulate the way in which you perform your reps to get the most out of your time and effort.

The stage is set

On a rep for rep basis, lifting slow is significantly harder than lifting fast, which means it’s not possible to lift as much weight as you can with a faster tempo for the same amount of reps. To lift slow you’re either going to have to accept a decrease in reps, or weight, should you want to maintain continuous tension. Regardless of what variable you choose to sacrifice (lowering the load or rep count), the constant tension will ultimately become a limiting factor in terms of how long the tension can be maintained. However, just because you can’t keep the tension constant doesn’t mean the set has to be discontinued.

When the burning sensation in the muscle becomes overwhelming, and it is physically impossible to perform another rep due to the inhibitory effects that the metabolite buildup has on the muscles, there’s no rule that says you can’t briefly disengage, and continue performing reps in a more traditional manner in which the muscles intermittently relax at the top, and bottom, range of motion to allow at the very least, minimal clearance of the metabolic waste. While the pain may make you want to quit, and thought of continuing is unbearable, removing the tension intermittently enables you to bang out a few more reps using a more forgiving faster tempo.

Manipulating the way you perform a set in which you transition from performing the movement in the most challenging way (in this case, lifting slow), to a less challenging way (in this case, lifting faster), without modifying the movement itself (which would be a mechanical drop set), or changing the amount of resistance (lowering the weight, AKA drop set) is referred to as a stage set. The more challenging slower reps performed at the beginning are part of a ‘stage’. When no further reps can be performed in this manner, you move on to the next ‘stage’, and lift at a faster tempo. Basically the only change that takes place is the tempo, and manner (range of motion), in which the reps are performed.

The stage is yours

The purpose of the stage is to maximize the time under tension by transitioning from the hardest way of performing a movement, to the easiest way of performing a movement, without putting the weight down, or modifying the way in which it’s performed to give you a mechanical advantage (although that would be very effective, and you could if you wanted to it just wouldn’t be a true stage set).

Stage sets are not limited to transitioning from a slow tempo, to a fast tempo only. If you really want to push the envelope you can transition from a very slow tempo (ex. 10 seconds per rep, 5 up/5 down), to a less slow tempo (ex. 5-6 seconds per rep, 3 up/3 down), and then moving on to a faster tempo (ex. 2 seconds per rep, 1 up/1 down). The amount of stages you choose to go through is entirely up to you, and your ability to tolerate extreme burning pain.

Staging can also be implemented to a movement’s range of motion, in which you perform as many reps as you can through the most challenging range of motion, then transitioning to a less challenging range to get more reps (albeit, at a limited range) and prolong the time under tension. This is the underlying theme to which the infamous 21’s were developed.

21’s traditionally consist of three stages in which you perform 7 reps through the most challenging range of motion, 7 reps through the least challenging range of motion, and 7 reps through a full range of motion. A more logical sequence would be to perform the full range reps in between the least challenging, and most challenging range. By performing the full range reps last in sequence, you essentially have to limit yourself during the preceding stages, because if you don’t, you may not have enough left in the tank to complete all 7 reps at the end. By sequencing it so that you transition from hardest to easiest, there’s no need to limit yourself to a certain amount of reps so that you can match it in the upcoming stage. You can essentially go to failure, transition to the next phase and go to failure again, and then do it again. This way you get more than 21 staged reps with an identical amount of weight, or you could use more weight! Either way, the return on investment will be greater.

When the stars align

Tempo and range of motion can be staged together to create the ultimate set. Ideally you’d start with full range reps, performed at a slow tempo, transition to a faster tempo, and when it’s no longer possible to perform a full range of motion you perform partials throughout the most challenging range of motion, and finishing with partials performed through the least challenging range of motion.

However you decide to stage your sets is entirely up to you, and only limited by your creativity. The only disclaimer, if there was one, is that stage sets are generally suited as ‘finishers’ for those looking to build muscle, due to the limited amount of weight that can be used with slower tempos, or high rep sets like 21’s.

The curtain call

There’s no rule stating that tempo and/or range of motion can’t be alternated back and forth within the same set as well. For example, you could perform a set of ‘contrast reps’, in which you pair a stage of slow reps with a stage of faster reps, and alternate between stages of slow and fast reps until fatigue limits further performance. The slow reps favor the recruitment of the slow twitch muscle fibers, while the fast reps favor the recruitment of the fast twitch muscle fibers (which by contrast make the slow reps easier). The excessive momentum from the fast reps allows the muscles to slightly relax during the deceleration phase, preventing the tension from remaining constant, therefore prolonging the rate of fatigue. An example of this would be to perform 2 reps at a time for each tempo (slow and fast), taking 10 seconds for the slow reps (5 up/5 down), and performing the fast reps as explosively as possible. The weight should be adjusted so that the duration of the slow reps equates to roughly 40 seconds of time under tension (since the fast reps are being performed explosively, it’s hard to quantify exactly how much time under tension they add on to the set).

The only real major drawback to alternating stages of slow and fast contrast reps would be that it’s nearly impossible to quantify progress. Because of the drastic change in execution, each stage can affect performance of each succeeding stage, but if you’re training to build muscle, progress is measured more with a measuring tape, and less with how much weight was lifted for a certain amount of sets and reps.

But there is just one last thing...

Exercises performed unilaterally have the added benefit of increased motor unit activation in the working muscle (because it’s a lot easier to focus on exerting force with one limb, as opposed to diluting your focus by lifting with two), therefore facilitating recruitment and stimulation of a greater amount of muscle fibers. This combined with the goal of applying as continuous tension as possible opens up the door for an even greater amount of possibilities in terms of exercise execution is concerned.

Traditionally unilateral exercises are performed in alternating fashion (alternating dumbell curl, front raise, etc), and while one arm/leg is working, the other is pretty much relaxed. The benefit to executing movements in this manner is that the tension is momentarily relieved, and therefore the metabolite buildup that hinders sustained contraction is minimized, which permits the usage of heavier weights, or allows for more total reps to be performed. On the flip side, this also allows blood and oxygen to enter the nonworking arm which means the increased production of (local growth factors) IGF-1, MGF, and (systemic growth factors) HGH is not maximized as much as it could be if you modified the way in which the movement was performed.

By starting a unilateral movement with both limbs in the fully contracted position you enhance the potential production of local and systemic growth factors, and as fatigue begins to limit performance the amount of tension can be favorably altered to prolong the time under tension by enabling more reps to be performed.

For example, when performing alternating dumbell curls, instead of having the nonworking arm in a relaxed position, keep it in a fully contracted position, and alternate arms with each repetition. This way the muscle never gets a chance to relax between reps. When fatigue limits your ability to continue performing reps in this manner, perform the reps with each arm simultaneously, as it is a lot easier to use a little body English if necessary, to help get additional reps and prolong the time under tension when using both arms. Then, when it’s necessary to allow the muscles to briefly relax, switch to performing reps in a traditional manner in which the nonworking arm is relaxed. This would be referred to as a ‘tension alteration stage set’, because it is the tension that is altered to permit more repetitions to be performed.

As you can see, there are many ways in which you can modify the way in which you execute a set into different stages, transitioning from the most challenging way, to the least. Whether you choose to modify the tempo, range of motion, or alter the amount of tension from a position of constant tension to intermittently allowing the muscles to relax while performing a unilateral movement, is entirely up to you, and its only limitation is your creativity. You certainly could try to implement each variable into one set, but I wouldn’t recommend it, simply because it dilutes the effectiveness of each type of stage. After all, there is such thing as too much of a good thing (or is there?...).

If you have any questions about stage sets, feel free to contact me 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).

1 comment:

  1. Should there be another persuasive post you can share next time, I’ll be surely waiting for it.
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