Big and Strong. That is the goal. More quality hypertrophy on our frame and more poundage moved on the platform and in the power-rack. In order to physically dominate in your chosen field you have to get stronger. In order to get stronger we design our training so that means and methods used drive adaptations which will give our body the ability to produce more force. This is strength training. The fundamental physiological element of the training process that drives these strength adaptations is Motor Unit Recruitment and its maximization and optimization.
What are Motor Units?
So what is a motoneuron?
The Brain and the spinal cord and the make up our central nervous system. The Nervous system controls engagement of motoneurons which controls the recruitment of motor units. This is how all movement happens. Any time a muscle contracts it does so because nervous system engaged a group of motoneurons to do it. If we want to produce more force, and do it more powerfully we have more motoneurons to fire when we want them to. This is the primary goal of all training.
How to do it
A. The Means
The best means for maximizing motor unit recruitment are major barbell lifts: Back Squat, Deadlift, Bench Press, and Olympic Press. The Snatch and Clean & Jerk are also best for building explosive strength in advanced trainees.
The barbell is the only object in existence which allows us to get the center of it’s mass over the our point of balance (the center of our foot) which is the only way we can produce maximal force and power. The major exercises work all the levers of the body through large ranges of motion in ways similar to how they move in sports and everyday life. The combination of the perfect physics of the barbell and the mechanical rationality of the major exercises enables us to use our body as an integrated force producing system. This is the only way to produce continual (for the specific training purposes) neural adaptations.
For the purpose of this article, we will focus how to use the major strength lifts to do this: Squats, Deadlifts, and Presses.
B. The Methods
There are 3 methods for developing maximal motor recruitment in training. They are:
- The Maximal Effort Method: Lifting a maximal load once. Imagine doing a single-repetition maximum for the deadlift, this is the M.E. method.
- The Repeated Effort Method: Lifting a non-maximal load to failure, so that during the final repetitions the muscles develop the maximum force possible in a fatigued state. Imagine doing 80% of your single rep max for a set of 5-8 on the deadlift, this is the R.E. method.
- The Dynamic Effort Method: Lifting a non-maximal load with the highest possible speed. Imagine deadlifting 60% of your single rep max for 2 explosive reps, this is the D.E. method.
The D.E. method is more effective for training the rate of motor unit recruitment rather than the magnitude of it. The D.E. method is best for developing power and velocity capabilities which is very useful in late off-season and in-season training for competitive athletes.
The focus of this article is on Maximum Strength and Hypertrophy. So, the focus will be kept on the M.E. and R.E. methods. Using both the M.E. and R.E. methods simultaneously in a training program,will bring about the best improvements in M.U. recruitment. Lets look deeper into both to find out why.
The Maximal Effort Method (M.E.)
The M.E. method is the superior method for improving both intramuscular and intermuscular coordination; since the muscles and the CNS only adapt to the load placed on them, and there no load greater than your maximum. The M.E. method is also the most effective method for reduced CNS inhibition, which is critical for increasing strength and power. Weights from 95%-100% of your one repetition maximum must be used for the M.E. method. Lifting weights of this intensity is the most effective way to reduce what is called the strength deficit. The Strength Deficit (see Fig. 1) is the difference between an athlete’s Absolute Strength and Maximum Strength.
Fig 1. The Strength Deficit: AS – MS.
For every person is a best version of their self that exists in the abstract. The very essence of personal development is moving in a vertical direction towards this version of the self. The reduction of the strength deficit one of the most straight-forward ways to ascend on this path.
Drawbacks to the M.E. method
Even though M.E. is the supreme method for strength gains, it has its own drawbacks. One drawback is that the M.E. method cannot be used by beginners because the technical ability on the lifts must be highly proficient and sufficient trunk strength must be developed before maximal attempts can be safe or even executed at all.
Repetitive use of M.E. could also easily lead to burnout due to the high level of volition needed to lift maximal weights often, this is not an issue for elite strength-sport athletes but it can be others.
Lastly, only sets of 1-3 reps can be done with maximal weights, so relatively little muscular hypertrophy is induced with this method alone. This is due to the fact that only a minor amount of mechanical work is performed and the amount of degraded contractile proteins in turn is limited. For hypertrophy development we must turn another method…
The Repeated Effort Method (R.E.)
The R.E. method is highly effective at augmenting strength gains when coupled with the M.E. method. The R.E. method works best with weights in the range of 70-90% of your one repetition maximum. When using weights between 70-80%, sets of 5-10 or even 12 can be done, which provides plenty of mechanical work and protein degradation to achieve optimal muscular hypertrophy gains. (sub maximal bench press)
The R.E. Method and Size Principle
The process by which the R.E. method improves strength development can be explained by referring to the Size Principle of motor unit recruitment:
If strength is the goal of training and the R.E. method is used, the aim must be to train the MUs that are highest in the recruitment order, those MUs that are enervated by the largest motoneurons; the strongest and fastest high-threshold MUs, these are the units engage only when the work is very difficult (see fig. 2). To activate these high-threshold units, you must give your best effort and lift the weight to failure. With the R.E. method, the last few reps in which a maximal number of MUs are recruited are the most useful. The term “No pain, no gain” originates from this fact.
Fig. 2: The Size Principle of Motor Recruitment. Notice how as MU recruitment increases the size of units recruited increases.
The take away here is that if you are going to use the R.E. method to gain strength you need to take all or at least one set for each lift to failure or near to it. If the current training purpose is orientated mainly towards muscle mass gain rather than strength, then going to failure of very near to it is not as important.
Putting it all Together
Coupling the M.E. and R.E. methods concurrently in a program has a greater advantage over using either of them in isolation. By combining them, you will get the absolute maximal MU recruitment possible in any program. The M.E. lifts will ensure that you train the system to deal with absolute maximal loads and with maximal external forces, while the R.E. involves a greater sub-population of trained motor units because the sets last longer. The combination ensures that you have maximally trained all MUs in your training cycle. The M.E. work optimizes muscular coordination, and the rep work ensures that plenty of performance hypertrophy is built.
Here is how it could be intelligently put together for in seven-week advanced mesocycle (all intensities are based on a given athlete’s training maxes for the exercises):
Table 1: An example of 7 week mesocycle using the M.E. and R.E. methods concurrently.
This particular program prescribes optimal sets and reps with weights varying from 70-95% percent, thus covering a nice mixture of intensities with the sub 90% work being geared toward rep work, and work of 90% and above being the in maximal area.
Notice each week one upper and one lower body lift is done closer to the M.E. end of the scale, while the other upper body and lower body lift is done on the R.E. end of the scale. This is done so the athlete would only have to deal with weights 85% or above twice per week, or once on the upper-body lifts and once on the lowers. This is a way to vary the internal load on your body physically as well as psychologically.
Using the M.E. and R.E. methods together is the most scientifically sound way to reduce the Strength Deficit. Reducing the strength deficit is the most straight-forward to improve athletic performance, and just get big and strong in general.
On a deeper level the reducing the strength deficit is part of the path of finding one’s own personal golden fleece, the pinnacle of self-mastery. Becoming big, strong, and self-mastered is about the best three reasons I can imagine for doing something. It’s time to get under the bar.