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 1RM 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 to 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 size 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.
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