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 over-extension. 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.
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 over-extension and over-training. 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.
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