People that kick ass in the gym usually do two things in training:
First, they train to improve performance, driving up strength, speed, and conditioning.
Second, they use specific hypertrophy work to support their training to look awesome naked.
Problem is, most people treat aesthetics and athleticism as mutually exclusive training components. It’s as if, you can’t look awesome naked and be a bad-ass athlete.
Well, that’s bullshit.
Save for the high-level bodybuilder, your training methodologies don’t need to be all that different.
In this article, I’ll break down how training for power drives improvements in your ability to build muscle, helping you look and perform like an athlete.
Imagine you’re in the gym…
You just wrapped up your warm-up and are preparing to squat first in your session, watching two separate lifters finish up in the racks.
Lifter A, we’ll call him Albus, is knocking out three or four fast, full effort repetitions. His sets are brief, explosive, and honestly, don’t look too brutal despite decent weight and fast rep speed.
Lifter B, Barry, is grinding through a set of ten squats, struggling and squirming like a teenager watching 50 Shades of Gray with his mother.
Despite his disgruntled expressions and obvious effort, who is doing more high-quality work, explosive Albus or grinding Barry?
While Barry is using more reps and appears to be under more anguish, Albus is nailing each lift with full speed and intensity. More importantly, by focusing on explosive rep quality he’s recruiting more muscle units and maximizing nervous system stimulation on reach rep.
When it comes to building muscle too many lifters focus simply on qualitative outcomes like training volume, load or reps over rep quality and optimal execution.
While training volume is a vital component of muscle building, a periodic focus on explosive rep quality and maximal motor unit recruitment maximizes your ability to build high-performance muscle.
The Nervous System and Your Muscles
At the expense or losing your attention, I’m going to keep this as simple as possible:
Your nervous system has two parts:
The central nervous system, composed of the brain and the spinal cord.
The peripheral nervous system, all the remaining nerves and ganglia outside of the brain and spinal cord.
Together, these components control both unconscious and conscious activities throughout your body.
To apply things to weight training, motor units consist of one motor neuron and all the muscle fibers it stimulates. When a signal is sent from the nervous system and activates the motor unit, all the muscle fibers innervated by the motor unit are stimulated and contract.
Fibers are composed of bundles consisting of few, to thousands of fibers. Basically, small muscle fibers end up in small bundles with small motor neurons, whereas big fibers end up in bigger bundles with big motor neurons.
Small bundles are responsible for small, finite movements that don’t generate much power like scanning this article on your laptop. On the flip side, big muscle fibers like the glutes and hamstrings perform explosive, powerful movements such as sprints or squats.
Rather than hammer endless terminology into your head, the basics are this:
Each motor unit consists of a bundle of muscle fibers and a motor neuron.
Small fibers are in small bundles and in control of smaller, finite movements.
Large muscle fibers are in bigger bundles to generate maximum power and strength.
Maximizing Motor Unit Recruitment
In 1965, Harvard physiology professor, Dr. Elwood Henneman released an awesome study on the important function of motor neurons.1
More specifically, his team found that smaller motor neurons require less input than bigger motor neurons, correlating directly with the size of the motor unit. Furthermore, muscle contractions begin with small motor units and recruit larger motor neurons based on the size of the input needed to cause a movement.
Here’s the Cut and Dry version: Low-level input from your brain recruits small motor neurons and muscle fibers, like hitting the down arrow while you read this. High level input recruits larger muscle fibers for more force, like when you pick up your laptop, put it in your bag, and step up out of your seat.
Taken into the context of training, when you un-rack a weight that is 95% 1-RM your nervous system goes into overdrive, sending massive signals to your body to increase muscular recruitment.
Motor neurons, and virtually every other nerve in your body, are constantly receiving information from other nerves, such as the descending neural tract from your brain. As a result, you’re nervous becomes super-charged, recruiting more muscle fibers to execute the near-max squat.
That means lifting heavy all the time is best, right?
Not quite—ask anyone who’s put themselves your high-volume, high intensity training for years and you’ll get an earful on how you can’t lift heavy each and every workout. Your nervous system, joints, and tissues would start screaming at you before too long. Luckily, there are two ways to maximize force when lifting:
Lift heavier weights.
Lift lighter weights (or move your body), faster.
Increased Neural Drive and Getting Yoked
Per the heavy squat example above, it’s easy to extrapolate that increased neural drive and motor unit recruitment is imperative to building strength, a sure-fire way to build muscle and work capacity. But, you already know that getting stronger builds muscle, I’m going to take it a step further.
To maximize muscle building the nervous system needs to be fire at full speed to maximize fast-twitch muscle fiber recruitment. After all, you can’t train the muscle fibers that aren’t “turned” on.
Increasing neural drive from heavy or explosive action improves muscle unit recruitment during the remainder of your workout, stimulating a greater number of muscle fibers for more growth.
Power Building Methods
Okay, enough science and theory—only jerks talk about ideas without a practical takeaway, and I ain’t no jerk, bruh.
Lift Heavy: The most obvious of all methods, increased training intensity (%1-RM), requires a greater signal from your body to muscles to execute the action.
What to Do: Lift Heavy early in your workout, using heavy weights with fast bursts, such as 3×3 at 90% 1-RM two times per with maximal muscular effort to improve RFD.2
Lift Submaximal Loads, AFAHP
AFAHP, pronounced AFF-APP, is a popular acronym, popularized in #sciencez literature for lifting…as “freakin” fast as humanly possible.
You can’t train heavy all of the time, sooner or later, something will give. Fortunately, explosive lifting bridges the gap to give you the iron fix while sparing your body.
Training with submaximal loads, even as low as 40-60% 1-RM will emphasize speed-strength and strength speed.
These explosive exercises with lighter loads will help you increase neural drive to your muscles, recruit more/activate dormant muscle fibers, and maximize the efficiency of your central nervous system.
Bottom Line: Smaller training loads lifted as fast as possible allow supercharged neural recruitment without excessive stress on the CNS and tissues. Rather than lifting heavy each day, alternate or de-load from heavy strength work while maximizing rep speed on each lift.
I’m an athlete at heart and most of my clients are either athletes or ex-athletes looking to maintain explosive movement even with increasing age.
With that in mind, ATHLETES MOVE, not just from the squat rack to the bubbler (translation: water fountain, It’s a Wisconsin thing), but through space jumping, running, cutting, throwing, and the like.
Nothing done in training is more transferrable to athletic performance than movement skill training to maximize biomechanical efficiency, coordination, and timing.
I understand your primary goal is looking awesome naked, not winning the Heisman, but I refuse to leave you without options of improving your performance at the same time.
To improve speed, movement, and explosiveness jumps, throws, and plyometric variations with bodyweight or very light resistance will hammer the speed-strength and speed portions of the force-velocity curve.
What to Do: Plyometrics and advanced movement skills are too complicated to recommend without a better understanding of your skills, so keep it simple.
Option Two: Before hitting the weights, perform the following:
1a. Single Response Squat Jumps 3×5 Reps
1b. Plyo push up on bench 3×5
…or plyo push-up from the knees
Warning, Advanced Method: PAP
Before I dive into the sexy details of PAP hear me out—this is an advanced method.
You must have a significant base level of strength and proficiency in all these movements before attempting, otherwise you’re doing three big, bad things:
Risking extreme neural fatigue
Risking injury due to technical breakdown of your exercises
Looking like an idiot squatting 95-185 lbs then trying to be explosive with a jump.
Abbreviated “PAP”, post activation potentiation is a physiological adaptation describes the immediate enhancement of muscle force during explosive movements after a heavy resistance exercise.3
For PAP, an athlete performs a heavy strength training exercise followed by an explosive exercise that mimics the biomechanics of the strength training exercise.
Sample P.A.P. Exercise Pairings
The first exercise is a heavy compound movement, which is then paired with an explosive movement.
Bench press + Clap push-up or Medicine ball chest pass
Shoulder press + Overhead medicine ball slam/ throw
Squat + Jump squat, vertical jump, box jump
Deadlift + Broad jump or Kettlebell swing
After the heavy exercise neural drive increases, allowing for greater power output in the ballistic exercise. The complex pair is then repeated for a number of sets. Over time, this improved neuromuscular efficiency improves the muscles ability to generate power.
Here’s a sample of me using a clean from blocks immediately followed by jumps here and here.
What to Do: First, make sure you’re strong already—this method won’t work unless you have a significant base of strength to generate power. PAP without strength and technique is akin to giving a 17-year-old a Bugatti loaded with Nitrous Oxide and a gallon of Vodka Red Bull—stupid.
That said, complex pairs when applied in 3-4 week blocks with a full deload can increase your power and muscle building potential. Use two exercises that are biomechanically similar, lifting the weight as fast as possible for 3-4 sets of 3-5 reps.
Then, move to your explosive movement (say a bench press and clap push-up) and perform the same number of sets and reps.
Rest 3-5 minutes between sets to allow recovery and repeat.
Nervous system activation for performance and muscle gain aren’t mutually exclusive; when properly applied, they’re two faces of the same coin. After all, you can’t train the muscle fibers that aren’t “turned” on.
Think about your training over the last few months or even years…have you really improved your physiological capabilities and built high performance muscle?
If not, it’s time to take action.
If you’re looking for a short-term plan of attack, I recommend checking out my resource the Four Week Power Primer, a four-week plan to increase your power for high performance muscle and a leaner, more athletic body. If you’re a coach, you should absolutely own this to understand the science of power and how to apply it to your clients training. If you’re a fitness junkie, this could be the force multiplier to help you make massive jumps in progress and unleash your inner athlete.
Seriously, why would you wait? Grab the Power Primer during the limited time sale, and leave Eric any questions you have below.