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The advanced training technique I want to share with you today is one that you may not associate with bodybuilding – if you know about it at all. In my last post, we talked a bit about the lactic energy system in regard to barbell clusters, but today we’re going to focus on increasing the capacity of your alactic system.
Alactic capacity sprints are part of a system called energy systems’ training, which is exactly what it sounds like; training specific to one of the three energy systems in your body. Even if you haven’t heard the term “energy systems training”, you’ve certainly heard the term “conditioning” and they’re actually the same thing.
We don’t talk a lot about conditioning in the bodybuilding world and that’s too bad because it’s a necessary component of every program. To understand why, you need to have a basic understanding of the energy systems and how they work.
Energy Systems 101
We have three separate energy systems and they each play a different role in regenerating ATP for muscle contraction. How well each of them does this depends on the duration of the exercise, the number of times it’s repeated and the length of the rest period.
The PCr/alactic energy system is what provides the first few seconds of explosive, immediate energy. PCr is phosphocreatine, which consists of one phosphate molecule and one creatine molecule, very weakly bonded together. Because that bond is so tenuous, the creatine releases the phosphate molecule very readily to help regenerate the ATP. This is why, if a guy can regenerate PCr more quickly, he then increases his alactic capacity. The PCr/alactic energy system is only able to produce enough ATP for the first few seconds of output, roughly ten seconds or less.
Next up is the glycolytic energy system. The glycolytic system produces ATP through glycolysis, and after the first ten seconds of output this system provides the bulk of the ATP for the rest of the exercise. It’s basically an intermediate energy source, though, as it can only produce enough ATP for another couple of minutes or so.
Once the ATP from glycolysis is depleted, the aerobic energy system becomes the predominant energy source. When you’re working at a maximum effort, the majority of ATP produced through the aerobic energy system happens during the rest or recovery period.
What’s cool is that the aerobic energy system helps produce ATP in two ways: first, it directly produces ATP during low-intensity work or your rest and recovery time. Second, it produces more phosphocreatine to replenish the PCr/alactic system’s ATP stores.
Until fairly recently, everyone thought that these energy systems worked in that order. In other words, the PCr/alactic shut off and the glycolytic turned on. The Glycolytic burned out and the aerobic came on. But now we know that they all start up the minute you lift that barbell or take the first step of a sprint. But, they each have a limited (but trainable) capacity. When one system reaches its capacity, the others take the lead.
Power versus Capacity
Each energy system has a power component and a capacity component.
The power of an energy system has to do with how fast it can switch on and start producing ATP. Because the PCr/alactic system is the fastest, it’s the lead system for those first few seconds of explosive activity.
The capacity of an energy system is how long it can keep producing ATPs at a certain level of energy expenditure (the intensity level of the work you’re doing). For instance, the PCr/alactic system can produce a ton of ATP during very intense exercise and do it very quickly, but only for a really short time. There’s a reason why your 1RM is your 1 RM and why you can’t do a full-out sprint for a mile.
On the other hand, the aerobic energy system can sustain a fairly even level of ATP production, but only during a low intensity or recovery period.
Why You Need to Increase Your Alactic Capacity
Increasing the power and capacity of all of your energy systems improves your overall cardiovascular health. But what do bodybuilders do? They put out very explosive, very intense, short bursts of energy and they do it repeatedly. By training to increase your alactic capacity, you stimulate adaptation that takes place on a muscular level as well as a neurological one.
All adaptation is a defense mechanism. You stress out your body by demanding it complete an explosive, intense movement, so it rushes to develop more explosive power. Athletes who do alactic capacity training have the most significant explosive power.
Alactic capacity sprints increase your tolerance for lactate, increase your resting levels of ATP, phosphocreatine, free creatine and glycogen and increase the sie of your fast-twitch muscle fibers.
The upshot is that alactic capacity sprint training results in you being able to work at a higher intensity during those explosive movements or to work at the same intensity but for longer periods. In other words, you can train harder. As a side benefit, this is an extreme metabolic stimulus, so you’ll be burning fat from this workout as well.
How Alactic Capacity Sprints Work
Remember I explained that each energy system has a power component and a capacity component? If you were training for more alactic power, you would focus on maximum intensity or weight (like an uphill sprint, a 1RM squat press or a medicine ball throw) with very short, incomplete rest periods between reps.
When you’re training to increase alactic capacity, you use less weight or less intensity (like a flat sprint rather than uphill) and you take a longer rest period between exercises, in order to give your aerobic system time to replenish your alactic system’s ATP stores. But, you do as many of them as you can at each workout. For instance, you might do ten second sprints followed by 60 – 90 seconds rest.
The goal with alactic capacity sprints is to keep the heart rate between about 120-150BPM, both during your effort and during your rest period. What this does is keep your glycolytic system out of the equation, so that your aerobic system is producing phosphocreatine and ATP at a higher level.
What to Do Next
If you have a coach or mentor, talk to them about incorporating alactic capacity sprints once or twice a week. They can help you decide how to go about training by evaluating where you are right now as far as cardio fitness and your current alactic capacity.
If you don’t have a coach, I encourage you to check out our personal one-on-one coaching program. It’s just about at full capacity for the year, but registration is still open for a bit as we fill the last few spots. With our one-on-one coaching, you won’t just learn about this and other advanced techniques; you’ll actually be using them – and sometimes you’ll hate us for it.
None of the advanced training techniques that I’ve shared with you this month is easy. Some of them are downright grueling. In my last post, I explained Barbell Complexes, one of the most demanding workouts you can do, but also one of the most effective at tapping into the lactic energy system and maximizing its potential for helping you to burn fat and spur growth simultaneously.
This post, I’m going to share with you another technique that exploits this system but using different means. It’s called PHA or peripheral heart action training. You may have even heard it referred to as “death circuits” and that description is pretty accurate. This is not a beginner’s method by any means. Like barbell complexes, peripheral heart action training is for guys who are at the point where they need to make some pretty difficult demands on their bodies in order to keep getting results. This is another workout that guys tend to hate, but only for the few minutes it takes them to do it. If you’re ready to see serious fat loss results, you need to push through this one.
What is PHA?
Peripheral heart action training has been around for decades. Dr. Arthur Steinhaus introduced it back in the forties and in the 1960s, bodybuilding great Bob Gajda made it popular here in the US and Canada. Serious bodybuilders have been using it for decades, but it’s not something you see every day in the neighborhood gym.
The goal of peripheral heart action training is to use constant compound movements to force the heart to pump blood to the extremities. Obviously, this has good implications for both fat burning and cardio health, but it’s not that simple. If it were, we’d just call it circuit training.
Instead, peripheral heart action training combines fairly heavy loads, alternating upper and lower body moves and very short rest periods into several (usually 4-6) repeated circuits. This puts a huge demand on your heart, which has to continuously work harder to get enough blood volume to your arms and legs.
Why is Peripheral Heart Action so Effective?
This combination accomplishes several things at once. Because of the fairly high load (50-70% RPM is fairly standard), the rest period after each set and the fact that upper body moves are alternated with lower body moves, you’re able to complete a very demanding mechanical workload. This allows for a very serious lactic acid buildup, which in turn stimulates greater release of HGH (human growth hormone). That human growth hormone level then promotes greater fatty acid lipolysis and oxidation.
In other words, peripheral heart action training delivers incredible metabolic benefits while still growing your strength.
Peripheral heart action training is one of the best ways I know to get completely shredded for a competition or photo shoot and at the same time, it’s not straight cardio or even straight high-intensity interval cardio. You’re still moving a respectable amount of weight during the workout.
How is it Done?
There are as many ways to do peripheral heart action training as there are guys doing it. It’s an incredibly flexible training method. The only keys are to use a heavy enough load, to alternate upper and lower body movements, to stay in motion as much as possible and to rest as little as possible.
You can use anywhere from 4-8 different exercises and you can increase the intensity level by increasing reps, increasing the number of exercises, adding more weight or increasing the total number of circuits.
One of the virtues of peripheral heart action training is that it might be incredibly demanding to do, but it’s very easy to keep it simple.
For instance, you might do something like this:
A1. Standing Barbell Good Morning – 8-10 reps – Rest 60 seconds
A2. Wide Grip Pull Up – 8-10 reps – Rest 60 seconds
A3. Leg Press – 20-25 reps – Rest 60 seconds
A4. Barbell Military Press – 10-12 reps – Rest 60 seconds
Repeat three times for a total of four circuits.
One thing I do strongly suggest is that you run through a workout once with a fairly light load before you decide how much weight to use and how many total sets you’re going to do. They don’t call these “death circuits” for nothing. If you’re doing it correctly, this workout will convince you that you’re dying.
Also, this is a great method to use during a cutting phase, during a planned deloading week or once a week or so as a replacement for regular cardio. This is not a day in, day out, long term training method. It’s not interchangeable with protocols that are focused more on hypertrophy and less on fat burning.
What to Do Next
While these workouts are fairly simple and straightforward to design and tweak, they’re not simple to do. It’s really helpful to have help from someone who’s used this method successfully in his own training. It’s also a really good idea to have a partner for this workout. Believe me, you’re going to want to quit in the middle of this one. Having someone pushing you onward can make a huge difference in the outcome.
I would also encourage you to check out our one-on-one personal training before registration closes. We use peripheral heart action and about 35 other advanced training techniques with our one-on-one clients, constantly changing the variables and upping the ante so that plateaus are a non-issue and results are dead on, week after week.
It’s not generally a program that I recommend for guys who aren’t yet at an intermediate level of lifting (with at least a year or so under their belts), although we’re certainly open to talking to you about your specific situation. However, if you’re willing to learn, willing to implement new methods and to put in a lot of hard work, the results are dramatic.
I want to introduce you to Mitch. Mitch has an amazing story. Like me Mitch stared out skinny and worked hard to reach the level of success he enjoys today.
What are your stats?
Tell us about your transformation story since you got started?
I was the typical ectomorph athlete growing up. Coming from a sports family, it was to be expected that I’d play every traditional sport under the sun until I found one that fit – then make a career out of it. Long story short, that didn’t happen; although I loved every single minute of the competition. I was skinny, small, frail and basically not much to look at during most of my teen years. I remember walking to my apartment fitness center when I was about 16 year’s old thinking that one day I’ll look just like those guys in the magazines. I’ll be big and shredded and have the respect of the other guys around me.
I thought to myself how much I HATED being skinny. There’s nothing I wanted more from that moment on than to achieve the greatest masculine look that I could. I wanted to command attention everywhere I went and build a physique that other guys would kill to have. I wanted to do it right though – never cutting corners, always learning new things, and maybe THIS would be the sport that gave me a career at the same time. A big influence came from my cousin Jonathan, who was four years ahead of me and had the craziest looking abs, chest and shoulders I’ve ever seen. I wanted that, I wanted to look just like him, so I got to work.
From that first pumped feeling I had in my biceps, I knew things would never be the same. I fell in love with the weight, the struggle, the intensity, and the rewards. I believed that each day was another opportunity to become better so I would sit at my computer desk and soak in as much information as possible – watching YouTube videos before every workout and preparing my mind for muscle domination! This is where Vince Del Monte came into the picture…
After finding his channel I made it a habit – a ritual to learn everything I could from him. I trusted his experience and his knowledge and did the most important part: APPLIED the information to my fitness lifestyle. I made a commitment to myself to never look back, and over the next year of learning, adapting, applying the information and growing, I exploded from my small insecure frame of 160 pounds to over 200 pounds of solid muscle! That skinny kid was history.
Throughout the last few years I have learned that there are no secrets to hard work. Muscle does not come easy, but then again, nothing great ever does. That’s what makes this bodybuilding game so enjoyable: the pain, the hardship, the success and the achievement. Isn’t that what we all strive for in the end? This process over the last seven years has been nothing short of incredible, but with all honesty I have to say that with any large goal, you are bound to hit a road block or two. Finances of a young college student always provided an extra hoop to jump through to get enough food and of course to pay the gym membership. At the end of the day though, nothing was going to keep me from my dream. I believe that in times of hardship we are molded into the stronger versions of ourselves, and if we want something bad enough, there is always a way.
Since adding 40 pounds to my frame and getting my body fat below seven percent, I honestly have never felt better in my life! I look back at that skinny kid who only had a hope and a dream and a set of 10 pound dumbbells, and it’s been quite the journey to say the least. I learned so much in these last years that it gets exciting thinking about what the next seven years will bring. I am now a personal trainer along-side my identical twin brother Matt, a business owner and a national level men’s physique athlete. I want to give a big thanks to him for being my best friend and best workout partner ever. Through business, workouts and everyday life altogether, we bring the best out of one another and as a team – nothing can stop us!
Why did you decide to start competing?
Truth be told, the idea of competing on stage was never something that I had dreamed about doing from an early age. My competitive side had more to do with wanting to hit the game-winning shot or catching a touchdown in the Super Bowl. But in late summer 2013 after switching gyms from a big box gym to a smaller training facility, I was introduced quickly to the bodybuilding competitive atmosphere. I would get questioned every day about whether I competed or not with more surprised looks than I can count when I mentioned that I’ve never have before. This reaction really sparked my interest in the sport and made me question myself as to the success I could gain, if in fact I would do well on stage.
I guess it was the “skinny man” syndrome I had on lockdown in my head with the fear that I wasn’t big enough or that I couldn’t compare to the other guys up there in Men’s Physique. But with more research and the inner drive to want to prove my fear wrong, I decided to commit 100% to the process – to the posing, to the dieting, to the long sessions of cardio and late nights at the gym. At the end of the day I just wanted something to work for. My training up to this point was to improve my physique and get as big and ripped as possible, but then what? It was time to step out of my shell and break free into something new. I put my doubt and fear aside and I decided that competing on stage would help me release the inner athlete that had been locked up.
How did you do at your most recent show [[NPC Natural Western USA]]?
I took first in my class in both the NPC Natural Outlaw and the NPC Natural Western USA which were held within a week of each other here in Arizona. I chose to do the first show as a mental and physical preparation for the much larger show a week later. The Natural Western USA was also a national qualifier so this helped me secure a spot to nationals later this year! Overall, the experience of both shows surpassed my expectations tenfold – the contacts I was able to meet, the friends I made and the amazing feeling of being on stage in front of hundreds of people made it an experience worth pursuing again, especially at a higher level.
What is next year’s goal?
By next year I made it a personal goal to become and IFBB Pro Men’s Physique competitor. I know that the only thing that could hold me back from achieving this goal is myself, and right now I don’t even thing I can stop me.
What inspires you to keep going and to train harder?
Honestly I have made it a personal goal of mine to keep God at the center of all I do and everything I accomplish. I believe deep down that I was put in the position I am in to inspire others to seek faith and become the best person they can be, both inside and outside of the gym. Yes, I do have very large and seemingly impossible goals to the average person looking on, but with that aside I aim to be much more than ordinary. My inspiration comes from inspiring others. I always believed that when my motivation seemed to be lagging on a particular day or when I just wasn’t “feeling it” in my life or in my training, that I would find someone else that I could help motivate to reach their goals. There is nothing more motivating than to get a big hug from a client or to read an email when I first get up in the morning about the impact that I have made on someone’s life. Even if I only inspired one person to make themselves better inside and outside of the gym, it would be worth it.
I believe that I train hard and with a purpose for the main reason of pure desire to improve. Noticing that all the hard work is paying off and especially being rewarded for that hard work (winning shows), has sparked the fire of desire inside me to reach beyond my comfort zone; to break through all mental barriers and to say to myself at the end of the day, “I’ve done everything I could to be better than yesterday.”
How have Vince’s No Nonsense Muscle Building and Stage Shredded Status workouts and ideas shaped your training philosophy?
Both of these programs combined together gave me a complete arsenal of tools to help destroy fat and build the insane amount of muscle that I’ve developed. Vince uses the philosophy a lot that a gradual and continuous approach towards building muscle and losing fat will not only help your mind with the mental preparation that it takes to adhere to such a program, but will also steer your hard work directly towards success.
My personal philosophy about building muscle and losing fat has so much influence from Vince’s programs, but to add to the reason above, a defining characteristic of these programs is to create a specific goal that I wished to achieve, and to create daily action plans in order to accomplish this goal. Nothing was ever achieved completely over night. He helped me to understand that small improvements, committed to day-in and day-out would bring that enormous goal I set for myself over time; that nothing worth working for comes easy.
I am also a firm believer in intensity. The majority of guys that I’ve seen in the gym lack this important ingredient in their muscle-building and fat loss approach, and Vince taught me to never settle for going through the motions. Just showing up at the gym for my workouts was not enough. My intensity directly influenced my success and therefore, my ability to pack on more size and to get more shredded than anyone at my gym.
What is your nutritional approach?
I like to keep all of my nutrition very simple. I’m a big fan of learning new things and reading new research that comes out each year on this topic, so it’s safe to say that my nutrition could change from time to time, but with the purpose of taking a more optimal approach towards my goals. The principle of metabolic flexibility or “nutrient programming” is something that I’ve used over this past contest prep to get extremely lean, and without being starving all the time in the process. Basically this term refers to helping your body to become flexible in using the fuel sources that you want it to use, rather than whatever you eat from meal to meal. In an application, this meant that I would have a lean protein source and healthy fats in my first meal of the day, rather than the popular high amount of carbohydrates. This made my body more “flexible” to using FAT as fuel throughout the entire day as opposed to carbohydrates. Carbs were only to be taken in around the time I needed fuel – being my workouts.
A typical day for me consists of six food meals split up about every 2 ½ hours, and with my post workout shake considered as my seventh meal, or whenever my workout happens during the day. Carbs are only taken in moderation as mentioned above and fats are consumed three times per day mixed with veggies and protein sources. I’m also very careful to not mix carbohydrates and fats in the same meal due to possible unwanted storage of fat! Cheat meat meals excluded of course…
What kind of cardio do you get best?
Just like Vince has said many times in his videos, there are many ways to get from Destination A to Destination B – you could walk, run, bike, drive or fly. All of these ways of transportation will get you there, but some take longer than others. I believe that cardio is the same. I’ve tried low intensity steady state cardio which has worked great in the early stages of my fat loss, however high intensity interval cardio is by far my most favorite. The reason for this is because it’s never boring and it’s over with in a shorter amount of time. I’m the type of guy who loves to work extremely hard in the gym, but I don’t want to be there all day. High intensity cardio allows me to do that, and with insanely fast results. My best results have come from HIIT workouts lasting no more than 20 minutes at a time after my regular training sessions.
What’s been your greatest achievement in fitness so far?
Given my recent success in placing first in my first two Men’s Physique shows, I would love to say that they were my best achievements right now in fitness, but honestly the success that I’m proud of more than anything I’ve done up to this point has been the creation of MindsetFitness.net. The site encompasses the idea of using faith to build up men to have such a strong mental approach towards fitness and achieving their goals that it carries into every aspect of their lives; Boys become men and men become leaders. These leaders then go on to impact the lives of their families, communities and businesses in the areas of both faith and fitness. I learned so much of the life lessons that I apply and teach today simply from the quiet mental focus of the gym setting, first. That focus then spread like wildfire into not only feeling strong and empowered physically, but to be strong mentally as well. The idea was just too big to keep inside, so Mindset Fitness was born and it’s been blessed with tremendous growth ever since.
What is your top tip to a skinny guy who wants to gain lots of muscle?
Make sure your nutrition is on point before you ever worry about supplements or even training for that matter. The way I see it, there’s no point to build a house on sand when you know that it’ll just fall down eventually. You must learn to establish your nutritional foundation in order to build the solid physique of your dreams. Build your house upon the rock and watch the growth happen before your eyes. After all, muscle doesn’t just pop up out of nowhere!
What is your top advice to someone who wants to compete?
My biggest advice is to first select your show. This will give you a specific date in order to plan your competition meal prep for. Be sure to do your homework on what the judges are looking for in your particular show and event. So many guys go into their first show trying to look like “pros” right away. Make the most of your contest prep and find a coach to teach you the correct posing. This will make or break your stage presence. I beat a lot of guys who looked much better than I did simply because I out-posed them. If you have the physique the judges will notice. Your job is to present that physique with the MOST confidence you’ve ever felt in your life! Relax, have a blast, and OWN IT before you ever walk on stage.
What’s your favorite quote?
This is on a poster above my desk:
“When a new day begins, dare to smile gratefully. When there is darkness, dare to be the first to shine a light. When there is injustice, dare to be the first to condemn it. When something seems difficult, dare to do it anyway. When life seems to beat you down, dare to fight back. When there seems to be no hope, dare to find some. When you are feeling tired, dare to keep going. When times are tough, dare to be tougher. When love hurts you, dare to love again. When someone is hurting, dare to help them heal. When another is lost, dare to help them find a way. When a friend falls, dare to be the first to extend a hand. When you cross paths with another, dare to make them smile. When you feel great, dare to help someone else feel great too. When the day has ended, dare to feel as you’ve done your best. Dare to be the best you can at all times, DARE to be! – Steve Maraboli
This month is all about introducing you to several of our favorite advanced training techniques; techniques that you may not have heard of or may not know much about. While the techniques vary greatly in their objectives, they all have one thing in common: they absolutely destroy plateaus or help you avoid them altogether.
None of the techniques I’ve shared with you the last few weeks is easy. Some of them are far more challenging (and far more effective) than anything you’ve been doing. But of all the advanced training techniques I’ve brought to you so far, this week’s technique is probably the most demanding. Guys that know what they’re doing implement this technique because it’s incredibly rewarding, even though they hate it. It’s that tough. The training technique I’m talking about is barbell complexes.
What are Barbell Complexes?
Complexes are a series of circuits, usually with five to seven exercises in each circuit. All of the exercises are done with a weighted barbell. Instead of doing three sets of each exercise as you would in a normal routine, you do one set of each exercise, without stopping, resting, or putting down the barbell. At the end of the circuit, you rest for ninety seconds to two-minutes and then start all over again. Most barbell complexes are over and done with in fifteen minutes or less, but they’ll be some of the hardest minutes you’ve ever lived through.
There are several variations on barbell complexes, and I’ll share some of those with you in a few minutes. But first I want to explain why barbell complexes are one of the best techniques you can use to turbo-charge your metabolism, burn fat, increase endurance, stimulate the CNS and increase muscle fiber recruitment.
Why Barbell Complexes are So Effective
Barbell complexes are about two things, really: taxing your lactic energy system and increasing your EPOC (excess post-workout oxygen consumption). In a way, it combines the principles and results of high intensity interval training and supersets.
First let me give you a brief rundown on how your lactic energy system functions and how complexes affect that process.
There are two parts to your lactic energy system: the alactic anaerobic energy system and the lactate system. Both are anaerobic. In other words, they kick in when the work you’re doing is too intense to be fueled aerobically.
Our muscle cells store energy in the form of ATP, but they only store enough for a few seconds of truly maximal work, like your max sprint. But your cells also store creatine phosphate, which can work very quickly to replenish that cell’s store of ATP. This two-compound process is what makes up your alactic anaerobic energy system. Together, ATP and creatine phosphate can power you through about ten seconds of contraction. Once you’ve used that up, you have to replenish the store, either aerobically or through the lactate system. If you’re still working at max effort, it’s up to the lactate system.
Through the process of glycolysis, your muscle cells store carbs in the form of pyruvate. If your muscles have enough oxygen available, they can break the pyruvate down aerobically and use it to make some ATP. If you don’t have enough oxygen available, the pyruvate will have to be converted into lactic acid, which then becomes lactate. That lactate can then be used to create much more ATP and faster than is possible through glycolysis.
The problem with lactic buildup, as you probably already know, is that it’s followed very quickly by muscle fatigue. Your workout has to be quick enough to tap into that lactate system and utilize it before your muscles just quit. If you can do that, though, you end up with a workout that has an extremely high mechanical workload (stimulating more muscle fiber recruitment) and very high metabolic stress (for fat burning).
Also, when lactic acid levels are elevated, hydrogen ions in your blood are also elevated. This stimulates the pituitary gland to secrete somatropin (human growth hormone) naturally. A lot of bodybuilders illegally inject somatropin to get shredded for contests, but you can increase it naturally and safely by doing barbell complexes.
The normal rest periods are absent in barbell complexes and you never put the barbell down or pause between exercises. One flows right into the next until you’ve done a complete circuit. The short rest between circuits gives your body a chance to replenish just enough oxygen before you move right on to the next circuit, but not enough that you can work aerobically for more than a few seconds once you start the next circuit.
How It’s Done
Like I said, this workout is very flexible. You can do it with any exercises you choose, as long as they are barbell moves and as long as one move can flow seamlessly into the next without pause.
However, there are several different methods for doing barbell complexes. Some guys do 6-8 reps each of six different exercises per circuit and repeat that circuit 4-6 times. Other guys prefer to reduce the number of reps with each circuit until by the last circuit they’re only doing one or two reps of each move.
Either method (and several others) will achieve the same purpose, as long as the workout is done correctly, with constant movement (and perfect form) until the proper rest period between circuits.
I’ll mention here that barbell complexes are done with one load throughout. You can’t change plates out between exercises, so you’re working with the same weight for several different exercises. This means you need to use (at most) your normal max load for the most demanding move. Even truly phenomenal lifters will do barbell complexes with a 95-lb max weight, including the barbell. And those guys will be dying by the end of the workout. I’ve seen guys close to tears after doing this workout with half that weight.
What to do Next
I need to stress again that this is a grueling workout. It is not for the faint of heart and it is not for the beginner. It is not an everyday workout, but something you can alternate in with your normal routine, use during a deloading week or use short-term during a cutting phase.
Because there are so many right ways (and wrong ways) to perform a barbell complex, you really need to have some supervision and guidance while you’re learning. Without it, you’re probably not going to know how to maximize your results and you could very well overdo it.
If you don’t have a personal coach who understands barbell complexes, I would really encourage you to check out our personal one-on-one training program. The annual registration is going on right now and when places are full, that’s it for the year. There’s no pressure but I would just love for guys who haven’t experienced professional one-on-one training to be able to take advantage of that this year.
Guys, you will hate barbell complexes. Halfway through the workout, you’ll hate complexes. Three-quarters through, you’ll hate me, everybody in the gym and even bodybuilding itself. But it’s over in just a few minutes, and when you see the results, you’ll keep doing what you hate.
If you’ve been following the blog for the last couple of weeks, you know that my focus this month is on blasting plateaus by varying the stimuli to your muscles and central nervous system. You do this by changing up the methods and intensity levels of your workouts frequently.
This not only improves the efficiency of your neuromuscular communication, it also helps you to completely sidestep plateaus. By changing up your workout you change the stimulus before your body has a chance to fully adapt to it.
This post, I want to share with you one of my favorite advanced training techniques: doing myotatic reflex reps. Before I tell you what they are and how they’re done, I need to explain the myotatic reflex itself.
What is the Myotatic Reflex?
I’m not going to bore you with a lengthy scientific explanation, but you do need to know a little bit about what happens when you stretch and contract a muscle. Within your muscles are specialized fibers called the muscle spindles. Muscle spindles primarily determine the length of your muscle. When you stretch the muscle, the spindles stretch as well, and they release motor-neurons that prompt the contraction reflex. This process is called the stretch-shortening cycle or SSC.
At the same time, when you are in the stretched position, kinetic energy is stored up in your muscle fibers to give you an explosive burst of power to fuel the subsequent contraction.
This ensures that your muscle can return to its normal length and it’s helped along by the Golgi tendons, which are located at the point where your muscles and tendons connect. The Golgi tendon’s job is to protect your muscles and tendons from injury caused by excessive exertion and overextension. When the Golgi tendon thinks your muscle is in trouble, contraction is inhibited.
The key to taking advantage of the stretch-shorten cycle is to use that kinetic energy and burst of power to contract the muscle before your Golgi tendon starts freaking out.
So What are Myotatic Reflex Reps?
Myotatic reflex reps use the same principles of position of flexion training and take advantage of the same CNS responses. In myotatic reflex reps, you maximize the stretch position of the movement (safely, of course) but instead of pausing before contracting the muscle again, you immediately and quickly contract. There are two reasons for this: 1) you don’t want the Golgi tendons to inhibit the contraction and 2) that kinetic energy stored up by stretching the muscle will disappear if you don’t use it immediately. It is there simply to make sure you can contract from such an extended position. If you wait a few seconds, it will dissipate as body heat.
Why are Myotatic Reflex reps so Effective?
Because I’ve been talking about kinetic energy, you might think that accessing that energy for a more explosive movement is the goal. But actually, that’s just the means to the end. There are several really important benefits to this type of exercise.
First, as I said earlier, this type of movement strengthens your neuromuscular communication, making your muscles faster and more efficient at sending and receiving messages. This means more muscle fiber recruitment while you’re working out and also means that your CNS will be even more responsive at the next workout.
Second, this type of exercise recruits more Type 2 or fast-twitch muscle fibers than most traditional protocols. Once guys are at an intermediate level, they’re using increasingly heavier loads and that usually means slower movement and longer pauses. Those aren’t bad things, but they generally recruit only the slow-twitch fibers of the muscle. The continuous movement, constant tension and accelerated contraction involved in a myotatic reflex rep require the recruitment of more fast-twitch fibers. That means increased gains in both size and strength.
How It’s Done
There are several ways to perform a myotatic reflex exercise. Some guys like to do the exercises on an incline to increase the force needed to contract and make it easier to stretch fully. However, you can incorporate myotatic reflex reps into a number of different exercises, inclined or not.
For instance, with a barbell bench press, you would start with the arms extended fully and the barbell straight up above your chest. You would lower the barbell at your normal rate of speed, but before you hit the bottom of the movement or fully contract, you would quickly push the weight back up to the top of the movement.
Some guys do two sets of regular lifts, followed by all but two or three reps of the final set, with those final reps being the myotatic reflex reps. Other guys prefer to do only the myotatic reflex reps for one specific muscle each workout. For instance, during Monday’s arm workout, they may limit the biceps to myotatic reflex reps but do their normal workout for the rest of their arms. On Wednesday, they may subject their triceps to myotatic reflex reps.
Still another group of guys may prefer to do myotatic reflex reps at the end of every exercise for each muscle they’re working that day.
What to Do Next
Myotatic reflex reps are so effective because they’re so demanding. They involve not only constant tension but explosive movement from a stretched position. Because they’re so demanding, it’s easy to overdo it.
Many guys get really excited at the potential for fast hypertrophy gains and completely fry their central nervous systems. Then they’re forced to recuperate or deal with lighter loads/few reps for a while until they recover.
Before you run to the gym to incorporate myotatic reflex reps, you need to educate yourself about the different methods and understand how to protect yourself from overextension and overtraining. Ideally, you need to find a mentor at the gym who has significantly more experience than you do, preferably with myotatic reflex training.
If you don’t know someone who can coach you through this in the beginning, I really encourage you to hire a personal trainer or coach for a short time to get some much-needed supervision, both of your plan and your workout. Or, you can also check out our one-on-one personal coaching program.
Myotatic reflex reps are one of the most effective advanced techniques I know for incredible gains. But you need to do them safely and correctly.