ISSUE #55           



-“How Training Hasn’t Changed in 20 Years”
-“Slow-twitch or Fast-twitch: Am I One or the Other, or Both?”
-“Is muscle damage necessary for muscle growth?”


1 How Training Hasn't Changed In 20 Years

A recently developed training program for maximal strength was designed to incorporate many new and advanced techniques (so it was thought), a variety of different “training focus” phases (i.e. strength and mass), an “undulating” periodization model, and some novel exercises. Unfortunately, a brief look through an old NSCA training journal made it clear that many of these techniques were hardly “new” yet they remain “advanced” even in the year 2000.


If you read abreast of the many training magazines and Internet sites you should be familiar with these names: Charles Poliquin, Ian King, Dave Tate, the NSCA, and CB ATHLETIC CONSULTING. Each of these strength coaches and the NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association) has their own basic training schedule that they prescribe (i.e. Poliquin has a 5 day training split and Ian King has a 4 day training split).


Unfortunately, the majority of the effective training methods discussed by elite coaches and athletes are not popularized in mainstream bodybuilding magazines. Are we in fact, like strength coach Dave Tate says, 30 years behind in strength training techniques in respect to other cultures?


Time and again athletes are recommended to do 3 sets of leg extensions and leg curls to better their leg strength and athletic ability, yet this regimen is not likely to enhance speed or agility. Why do magazines continue to “milk” the basics? Don’t athletes, bodybuilders, and even average trainees like myself deserve more sound information? Strength coaches and athletic development publications should make it a priority to popularize the most effective techniques so that we match the trainee’s exercise knowledge to their exercise effort!


Twenty years ago “undulating” periodization was being labeled as a new training breakthrough, however some coaches are still claiming this today! In “undulating” periodization, the trainee flip-flops (systematically, of course) between phases of high-volume, moderate-intensity training and phases of low-volume, high intensity training. Of course, the intensity is gradually increasing to allow for peak performance.


Techniques such as Pause-Rest (also known as “cluster sets”), training to failure, and forced reps, etc. have all been used by experienced lifters for decades. Some strength coaches have simply added their own “catch-word” to describe these methods (i.e. cluster sets), and there is nothing wrong with that, provided the strength coach has added a new and beneficial modification to the original training principle.


In cluster set training (or Pause-Rest technique), the trainee chooses to work with a load that is approximately 90-95% of their 1 RM. In each set, the trainee performs 1 repetition and then pauses for 15seconds and performs a second repetition, pauses 15s, performs a repetition, etc. for 4-5 reps. That way, the trainee gets more reps (5) than would be achieved with regular straight reps (2-3) at the same intensity. Thus a higher volume at a very high intensity is achieved!


Twenty years ago, and likely much longer before that, coaches were already instructing athletes to “shock” the neuromuscular system by changing workouts every 3 weeks or less! A lack of variety can kill the momentum and minimize the adaptations of a hard working individual regardless of their effort in the gym or their diligence at the training table in their nutrition. If you continue to demand the same effort from your body each and every training session then it will adapt to deliver with the least effort, and therefore the least adaptation. The human body is very efficient, thus it likely does require “shock” training.


Furthermore, coaches have always known that the legs are the “engines” behind power production and athletic performance. Program design based on this focus was evident in the 70’s and has persisted into the millennium. As well, it has long been recognized that there is more to performance than just leg strength. Athletes must be able to convert their strength into power, so they must be able to apply the force quickly. Even in the early 80’s this was recognized and Plyometrics were incorporated into the training programs. Don’t be fooled into thinking that Plyometrics are at all a new technique.


Twenty years ago the debate as to the optimal number of sets and reps was already in place. The conclusion of one author (in the NSCA journal) was that several sets to failure with heavy weights would be optimal for the advanced lifter to maximize strength gains. Nowadays the debate rages stronger than ever between proponents of single-set high-intensity training (HIT) programs and the multiple sets group.


There are many ways to train, both effectively and incorrectly. Fortunately, there are also strength coaches that are searching far and wide for new techniques and program designs. If you have specific training goals in mind, always seek out the best coach, the one that works hardest for you and the coach that knows that each training program should be specific to the client.





Many athletes succeed based on the characteristics of their muscles. For example, sprinters are often labeled as having a high percentage of fast-twitch fibers in their leg muscles, allowing them to be both fast and strong. By fast-twitch muscle, it means that the majority of muscle fibers, or at least more than the average, in a certain muscle are fast-twitch. In humans, no muscle group is composed of strictly fast- or slow-twitch fibers. For a review of fiber types and physiology, see ISSUES #50-52.


But if the sprinter has predominantly fast-twitch fibers in their legs, does this go without saying for the remainder of the muscles in the body? While at first glance this may not seem a pertinent issue to the sprinter (after all, they run on their legs, not with their biceps) it has relevance to designing strength-training programs.


After all, for those with an advanced interest in strength training and bodybuilding, they will recognize that some strength coaches and personal training experts have based entire workouts and training programs on their beliefs of the client’s predominant fiber type. Thus they are making the assumption that if my quads are fast-twitch, then my biceps are as well.


So what better way to solve the problem than to go to an expert for the answer? Well, who better to ask than an expert in neuro-muscular physiology, Dr. Digby Sale at McMaster University.


Here’s what Dr. Sale had to say, “It's a good question that, to my knowledge, has not been systematically examined. The only study that I am aware of is one by Tesch and colleagues, which showed that trained cyclists had an above average % of slow-twitch fibers in their legs but had an average % of slow-twitch fibers in their deltoid muscles. In contrast, for kayakers it was the reverse (higher % slow-twitch in the deltoid and average % of slow-twitch in the legs).

These data could be interpreted in two ways: 1) inherited extremes in fiber type distribution are muscle specific; 2) years of endurance training caused a fast-twitch to slow-twitch conversion in the trained muscles, but not the untrained muscles of the athletes were unaffected.” Basically Dr. Sale has outlined the cause of an age-old debate, “Athletes are born, not made.” or vice-versa.


There may be cadaver studies available in a medical journal that has addressed this question indirectly, but those studies likely don’t address our issue specifically. Because cadaver biopsy studies generally use “average” individuals as subjects, we still don’t know if athletes in particular have a variance in their fiber type proportions between muscles.


Hypothetically, in obvious contrast of the data provided by Dr. Sale, one should expect to see the same fiber proportions in all muscles of an individual (disregarding any influence of activity). For example, if you do have a higher than normal % of fast-twitch fibers in your quadriceps, you should expect to see a higher % of fast-twitch fibers in your deltoid. Unfortunately, our daily activity levels may be a confounding factor (as seen in the data mentioned by Dr. Sale).


Why should all muscles be the same? If you are familiar with human biology, and more specifically human embryology, you know that the mesoderm differentiates into muscle tissue. Thus all the muscles come from the same “germ” layer of cells, therefore an individual may genetically have a “fast-twitch” germ layer from which all muscles will develop with a fast-twitch bias. Is this the determining step? Unfortunately, this argument is beyond the scope of my expertise and probably requires a Ph.D. to answer with merit, but it does give you something to think about before following a program designed for “fast-twitch” muscles…





A bright, young colleague recently brought up a paradox in resistance training. In our discussion, Fernando Fraraccio correctly noted the importance of muscle damage in the muscle growth process. It is odd that the goal of resistance training is muscle growth and getting bigger, however the initial result of a workout is damage to the muscle fiber.


Weight train --> muscle tissue damage --> tissue healing & adaptation to stimulus --> resulting in bigger muscles adapted to handle this stress if applied in the future. Think about it using this analogy: You manage a marketing department with 3 employees but you are assigned a task that requires 4 workers. You might scrape by, but after its over, you adapt your department to handle tasks of this magnitude in the future by adding more employees, right?


However, Freddie wondered that if a trainee attempted to reduce or prevent muscle damage from weight training, would this subsequently impair muscle growth? Freddie is certainly not out in left field, but rather he is definitely on the right track. However, there must be a threshold that your muscle damage can return from. The difficulty is in training and causing the optimal amount of muscle damage that you inflict.


Some studies have correlated muscle breakdown to the amount of muscle synthesis, but you can go too far. After extreme eccentric exercise, muscle fibers (cells) can breakdown to a point that they die, but on the other hand, you want to damage the muscle to the level that will provide maximal adaptation. Some excellent muscle damage research by Nicole Stupka, Stuart Lowther and others has come out of the prestigious lab of Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky at McMaster University. These researchers induced muscle damage with eccentric training and found that this routine could stimulate the expression of proteins involved in apoptosis (cell death) in skeletal muscle.


It is a fine line between effective training and overtraining (for lack of a better word). Put simply, you must train & induce an optimal level of damage (stimulus) --> then you must provide rest so that adaptation (repair) can occur in the muscle cell (repair) --> and by the provision of nutrients you can further promote optimal adaptation.


Can you reduce damage and still grow? Likely, but one estimate the magnitude of impairment. In fact, by providing excess calories or by taking steroids you can add muscle without even training! But practically, with respect to training, how does one reduce damage yet still provide an optimal stimulus to the muscle? Perhaps by providing immediate post-workout nutrition you can prevent further protein breakdown, but the mechanical damage from training has already been done, therefore the nutritional intervention will not prevent muscle damage or soreness.


Freddie agreed that some muscle damage must occur, but the damage should occur only in response to training, and even that should not be excessive. Furthermore, proper post-workout nutrition should be incorporated to prevent further breakdown of proteins. Unfortunately, determining the optimal amount of damage (and thus the optimal training program) is an elusive goal and is what separates the best from the rest.


Stupka, N. et al. Gender differences in muscle inflammation after eccentric exercise. J. Appl. Physiol. December, 2000.


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