November 16, 2014

Everything You Need To Know About How To Activate mTOR During Your Workout

Eccentrics, And Their Connection To mTOR

Activation of the mTOR pathway is the switch that triggers protein synthesis, and as far as mechanical tension is concerned, this switch is activated almost exclusively during muscle lengthening (eccentric) actions.

It was once thought that because eccentric loading inflicts the greatest micro-tearing to the muscles, muscle damage must be the main stimulus for growth, but this isn’t the case. In fact, excessive micro-trauma to the muscle fibers might even retard the growth process (partly because eccentrics reduce muscle insulin sensitivity).

It’s the cell signaling, via several pathways (ex. EPK and PKB pathways), as well as the activation of mTOR and the production of local growth factors (like IGF-1) in response to eccentrics which is the main stimulus for muscle growth. The micro-tears to the muscle are just a consequence of training, and are not necessary for growth to occur.

The external resistance needed to optimally activate mTOR is only 60% of maximum (a weight allows for roughly 20 reps to be performed), as it's the act of stretching the muscle under load which is responsible for the effect (and this effect is further magnified if the muscle being stretched is ‘pumped’, because performing a loaded stretch on a pumped muscle stretches the surrounding fascia, and increases the sensitivity of the IGF-1 receptors). Eccentrics performed in this manner, with such loads, aren't damaging and won't impair recovery, but will activate one of the main pathways involved in muscle growth.

Along with the cell signaling effect that low load, slow eccentrics have, is the occlusion effect (depriving the muscle of oxygen while it's doing mechanical work) that they can create, as long as constant tension is maintained – when a muscle is contracted, blood can't enter the muscle so oxygen isn't delivered, and if a muscle never relaxes during a set, blood will remain outside the muscle, and the muscle will go into an hypoxic state, increases the release of IGF-1. All of this positively affects both protein synthesis, and muscle growth.

Therefore, the 3 main principles to remember when it comes to activating mTOR are:

·         Accentuate the eccentric

·         Maximize the pump

·         Stretch the muscle under load

Practical Application – How To Structure A Workout Based On Maximizing mTOR

Begin each workout by performing 2-3 sets w/60-70% (a weight that can be performed for 12-20 reps normally), for 4-6 or 6-8 reps, lowering the weight for 5-8 seconds each time – these sets can be used as part of the warm-up as you work up to your training weight for that day. Or, begin by performing overloaded eccentrics for 3 sets of 1 rep (w/100-105% - w/70-80% on the bar if using weight releasers, or removing a percentage of the load after lowering the weight onto pins in a power rack) before the workout. Because accentuating the eccentric accomplishes maximum mTOR stimulation with less volume, not many sets are needed to be performed this way.

*If starting the workout with an isolation movement hold the peak contraction of each rep for 2-3 seconds before slowly lowering, to maximize the pump and load the muscle so it can be stretched at the end of the set by holding the stretch for 10 seconds when all reps are completed

Begin every set with an mTOR activation rep after you reach your training weight for that day, or any set above 70% – meaning to lower the weight for 5-6 seconds, force the stretch in the bottom position for 1-2 seconds, then explode up and proceed with the set as you normally would

Once the heavy work is complete, pump the muscles as best you can (minimal rest intervals, high reps – 3 sets, full reps + partials, or drop-/super-sets) to get nutrient rich blood into the muscles and increase GH and IGF-1 levels, before finishing with 2 sets w/50-60% (a weight that can be performed for more than 20 reps normally), for 5 or 8-10 reps, pausing in the stretched position for 2-3 seconds each time, or pausing for 10 seconds at the beginning and end of the set (or all 20 combined seconds at the beginning) instead, and then performing the reps without a pause but still using a slow eccentric

Depending on fatigue levels, there’s always the option of finishing the workout with 1-2 sets of eccentric overload (basically perform 1-2 supramaximal eccentric reps, since only one rep is possible per set – unless a spotter is available), using a load that is at, or above your momentary max (the maximum you can handle in that current state – not the maximum you can handle when fresh)

*Holding the stretch for 20-30, even up to 60 seconds, at the end of every set can also be applied, but this technique is best used after the heavy work has been performed, as the muscle becomes more and more pumped, so it does not interfere with performance the muscle is fully loaded to best benefit from the stretch

*Those training for strength, using sets of 1-3 reps, can concurrently stimulate size gains to make up for the lack of volume, time under tension, and lesser IGF-1/growth factor response, as long as 25-30 reps are performed with a slow eccentric to activate mTOR

*Pauses can also be used during the eccentric to activate mTOR and increase the time under tension at ranges of motion where you may be relatively weak and want to get stronger, as it is the intent to yield which is what triggers mTOR. Use eccentric pauses to turn on mTOR at the beginning, or to finish off a muscle at the end of a workout

Here’s an example of a bicep workout which adheres to the workout structure above based around maximizing mTOR activation:

A)   Eccentric overload chins (lowering, with added resistance if possible), 3 x 3-5

B)   Slow eccentric (6 seconds) incline dumbell curls, 3 x 6-8

C)   Standing alternating hammer curls, 5 x 5

D)   Constant tension (3 seconds up, 3 seconds down) preacher curls, 3 x 6-8

E)   Bicep loaded stretch (picture the bottom range of a dumbell flye), 3, 1 minute holds

Weights aren’t needed to activate mTOR either. Here’s an example of a quad workout without weights based around activating mTOR:

A)   Slow motion lunges, holding the stretch at the bottom for 1-2 seconds, and stopping just short of lockout at the top, never allowing the muscle to relax, 4 x 10

B)   Bulgarian split squat, 3 x 10-10-10 (10 bottom partials, 10 full range, 10 top partials)

C)   Bulgarian split squat quad loaded stretch, 1 min each side

The Hidden Gem Within The Eccentric/mTOR Connection

Perhaps the best thing about the fact that low loads can be used eccentrically to activate mTOR is, not only do they not (further) damage the muscle and/or interfere with its recovery, but they can actually enhance your rate of recovery, and thus increase the rate at which you progress – and they do this by training the muscle MORE frequently, not less!

It can take 72 hours for our muscles to repair from intensive training, but the protein synthetic response tapers off and returns to baseline roughly 24 hours after it is spiked. However, the duration of the period in which protein synthesis is upregulated is extended every time the same muscle is trained – and this is where the true beauty lies, because as long as the second workout is not neurologically demanding (AKA not too heavy, explosive, or pushed till failure) it can speed up recovery.

Our ability to progress is limited by our ability to recover, therefore the faster we recover, the faster we progress. This means that a second workout for the same muscle group can facilitate growth and recovery by extending and amplifying the protein synthetic response, as long as low loads, which allow you to feel the muscle under constant tension and never letting it relax during the set, are used.

Practical Application – How To Train The Same Muscle Back To Back For Maximal Results

The same muscle can be trained either twice in one day, or once each day for two consecutive days (since mTOR is upregulated for 24 hours anyway). In either case, it’s important to avoid overworking the body’s ability to recover by doing too much work – essentially the goal is to divide the total workload over 2 sessions, NOT perform 2 full sessions and doubling the current amount of work being performed.

The purpose of the first workout is to recruit as many muscle fibers as possible, and this is generally best done with the use of heavy weights and compound movements (which naturally allow for the greatest loads to be used). A muscle fiber cannot be exhausted if it is not first recruited, so that’s why it’s important to go relatively heavy during the first session. A good way to kickstart mTOR activation AND muscle activation, is to perform 1-3 eccentric overload sets/reps with a supramaximal weight (see above for how to ‘begin each workout’).

The purpose of the second workout, which shouldn’t be performed for at least 6 hours after the first workout, is to facilitate growth and recovery by extending and amplifying protein synthesis in the trained muscles, NOT to further smash the trained muscle into the ground. This is generally best done with low loads and isolation movements combined with super slow eccentrics, never locking out or pausing at ANY point in the movement – using a weight that’s heavy enough that 10 reps performed in this manner is the limit. This workout is NOT meant to take your body to failure and beyond, nor is it an opportunity to attempt to break personal records.

Training the same muscle back to back can quickly become exhausting if the volume isn’t kept in check, therefore it’s best to start off performing only one primary lift in the first workout, followed by volume work for the primary muscle groups involved in the primary lift from the previous workout.

Using the triceps as an example, a close-grip bench press could be used during the first workout for 5 sets of 1-3 or 4-6 reps depending on the goal, while 4-5 sets of 8-12 and 12-15 respectively could be used as part of a superset consisting of decline dumbell extensions and rope pressdowns either later in the day, or the day after.

If the second workout is performed the day after, it can be performed at the beginning of the workout – essentially as a warm up for the heavy work to follow for an unrelated bodypart since light weights are to be used anyway, at the end of the workout – after the heavy work for an unrelated bodypart is completed, or staggered in between the heavy work for the unrelated bodypart.

Staggering sort of defeats the purpose, as the goal is to maximize the pump, but it comes with its own benefits as well, including:

-          Psychologically it can enhance performance because it provides a break between physically demanding work, while still keeping the body warm – when you know that you’ll get a break after this next heavy set, it’s easier to mentally push through it, as opposed to knowing you have several grueling sets left AND THEN you have to perform more work.

-          The contrast between the heavy work with the light work can make the light work feel really easy, or even allow for slightly greater loads to be used due to the potentiating effect – although the goal is NOT to use the heaviest loads possible, if you feel like you can manage a greater amount of weight without going overboard, it can be beneficial to go for it every now and again.

Blueprint Of A Heavy/Light Workout

To reiterate, a workout in this manner consists of performing one heavy lift for a completed unrelated muscle group either before, during, or after the training of muscle groups that were heavily involved in the heavy lift from your previous workout. Let’s say chest was trained heavy in the last workout, and legs are being trained heavy in this workout – therefore this workout will consist of:

-          8-10 sets for 3-5 reps of 1 exercise for the heavy leg work

-          2-3 sets for 3-4 different exercises, each exercise isolating a muscle involved in previous workouts heavy work

Heavy set 1: 4-6 reps w/60%, 6-8 second eccentric – to turn on mTOR
Light set 1: 6-8 reps, 6 second eccentric, followed by 5 partials – exercise 1

Heavy set 2: 4-6 reps w/70%, 6-8 second eccentric – to turn on mTOR
Light set 2: 6-8 reps, 6 second eccentric, followed by 5 partials – exercise 1

Heavy set 3: 3 reps w/80%
Light set 3: 6-8 reps, 6 second eccentric, followed by 5 partials – exercise 1

Heavy set 4: 3 reps w/82.5%
Light set 4: 6-8 reps, 6 second eccentric, followed by 5 partials – exercise 2

Heavy set 5: 3 reps w/85%
Light set 5: 6-8 reps, 6 second eccentric, followed by 5 partials – exercise 2

Heavy set 6: 3 reps w/87.5%
Light set 6: 6-8 reps, 6 second eccentric, followed by 5 partials – exercise 2

Heavy set 7: 3 reps w/70-75%, 4 second eccentric, 3 second pause at the bottom – loaded stretch to further activate mTOR
Light set 7: 6-8 reps, 6 second eccentric, followed by 5 partials – exercise 3

Heavy set 8: 3 reps w/70-75%, 4 second eccentric, 3 second pause at the bottom – loaded stretch to further activate mTOR
Light set 8: 6-8 reps, 6 second eccentric, followed by 5 partials – exercise 3

Light set 9: 4 second eccentric, 3 second pause at the bottom – exercise 4

Light set 10: 4 second eccentric, 3 second pause at the bottom – exercise 4

*In this case the heavy work is completed after 8 sets, but the isolation work continues for 2 additional sets using the same method that was used to finish off the heavy work – compound movement involving each of the trained muscles, 4 second eccentric with a 3 second loaded stretch pause for 2 sets of 3.

If you chose to perform the light work either before, or after, the heavy work for an unrelated bodypart, you could pair each isolation movement together as part of a tri-set, taking roughly 15-20 seconds between movements (and 90-120 between rounds), or simply completing each exercise before moving onto the next.

mTOR Specialization Program

For those with very specific goals, in terms of fast tracking the development of a certain bodypart, the back to back approach can work wonders. Since there are only so many days a week, and to avoid spreading yourself too thin, there’s room for 2 muscle groups to be specialized at any given time, although focusing on 1 at a time is a worthy possibility as well. The training split for something like this is as such:

Day 1 Heavy/Bodypart 1
Day 2 Light/Bodypart 1
Day 3 Heavy/Bodypart 2
Day 4 Light/Bodypart 2

*Perform all other work on a separate day, and rest days can be taken as needed, but try to avoid taking off a the day after a heavy day for a bodypart being specialized, as that sort of defeats the whole point

*If only one bodypart is being specialized, simply remove the ‘bodypart 2’ days, and divide the work for the rest of your body over those days

Regardless of whether or not you care about strength, at the end of the day, progress is limited by how strong you are, therefore you should have some sort of progression model to follow for your heavy days – after all, if you’re putting more weight on the bar, you’re potential to build muscle is heightened.

Heavy Day Blueprint

Pick one movement pattern based on whichever muscles are being specialized, ex. squat pattern for quads, overhead press pattern for shoulders, etc

Perform the main movement as a standalone, following whichever progression model best suits you

When all sets are completed, move on to a complex in which the same movement is performed with a slow eccentric to activate mTOR, followed by the same movement performed with an explosive nature

Here’s an example of the heavy day using the bench press as the main lift for a chest specialization:

A)   Bench press

B1 + B2) Slow eccentric bench press + explosive bench press

C)   Incline dumbell press

An effective progression model for the main lift chosen (exercise ‘A’), depending on the length in which you want to prioritize the specialized muscle group(s) is an adaptation of the Soviet Squat Cycle, in which the amount of weight used for each workout is pre-planned, an example of a 10 week progression looking like this:

Week 1 5 x 4 w/80%
Week 2 5 x 5 w/80%
Week 3 5 x 6 w/80%
Week 4 3 x 3 w/90%
Week 5 5 x 3 w/90%
Week 6 6 x 3 w/90%
Week 7 3 x 3 w/95%
Week 8 3 x 2 w/100%
Week 9 3 x 3 w/100%
Week 10 test max

The same progression model can be adapted for the secondary movements (exercise’B1 + B2’) as well, or another model could be used. If using the same model, make sure to adjust the intensities accordingly, an example looking like:

Week 1 5 x 4 w/60% + 20%
Week 2 5 x 5 w/60% + 25%
Week 3 5 x 6 w/60% + 30%
Week 4 3 x 3 w/70% + 20%
Week 5 5 x 3 w/70% + 25%
Week 6 6 x 3 w/70% + 30%
Week 7 3 x 3 w/75% + 20%
Week 8 3 x 2 w/80% + 25%
Week 9 3 x 3 w/80% + 30%
Week 10 – no secondary movements

Or, if you don’t want to use a fixed progression model in which the weights are pre-planned, you could always pick a rep bracket, and focus on hitting the upper range of that bracket for all your sets, at which point you increase the weight. An example looking like:

Rep bracket – 6-8 reps, 5 sets: when all 5 sets can be performed for 8 reps, marginally increase the weight. This way the progression is based on what you are currently capable of doing. This model can also be used for the last movement of the day (exercise ‘C’). If using this model, make sure to adjust the volume accordingly to allow for slight periods of recovery, an example looking like this:

Week 1 4 sets
Week 2 4 sets
Week 3 4 sets
Week 4 2 sets
Week 5 4 sets
Week 6 5 sets
Week 7 6 sets
Week 8 3 sets
Week 9 2 sets

Light Day Blueprint

Pick 3 isolation movements targeting the muscles involved in the main lift from the previous day and perform them back to back to back, for 10-15 reps each, as part of a tri-set. The amount of tri-sets each week should vary as well to allow for slight periods of recovery as well, an example looking like this:

Week 1 3 tri-sets
Week 2 4 tri-sets
Week 3 5 tri-sets
Week 4 2 tri-sets
Week 5 4 tri-sets
Week 6 5 tri-sets
Week 7 6 tri-sets
Week 8 3 tri-sets
Week 9 5 tri-sets
Week 10 2 tri-sets

Stubborn Bodyparts No More

Because of the minimal impact that mTOR training can have on the body, it’s possible to perform additional work for a lagging bodypart to enhance it’s development, without having to reduce its workload or removing the day in which it is traditionally trained.

The weight used in most cases is irrelevant, as the goal is simply to induce the greatest pump possible with the least amount of effort. This is done by constantly contracting the targeted muscle group as hard as possible, flexing the muscle as hard as possible while doing the exercise, never allowing the muscle to release the tension (which has an occlusion effect on the muscle, leading to an accumulation of waste product and edema, followed by a large rush of blood flow to the muscle at the end of the set, causing a big pump with minimal muscle damage), for sets of 8-10 reps. These can easily be staggered in between sets of your primary work for the day, and are best suited the day AFTER you trained the muscle group with greater intensity, as the constant tension technique, won't cause significant muscle damage and shouldn't interfere with your regular training.

If you have any questions about any of the strategies presented in this article, 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).

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