Neuron Dance

The goal of a strength program is to teach your muscles to generate more force now, at their current size. Increased size down the road will be a bonus, but for now, these techniques are designed to utilize a couple of your body's methods for getting past your muscles' current limitations:

• Your body learns to "skip" motor units. Normally, when you attempt a heavy lift, your body calls on motor units in order of the size of the fibers. The small, slow-twitch fibers go first, then the medium-sized fibers, on up to the fibers reserved for max-effort lifts. But the muscles of the most experienced lifters can bypass the slow-twitch motor units and go straight to the motor units that contain the biggest, strongest muscle fibers. That allows you to lift heavier weights faster.

• Your body learns to "switch off" the mechanisms within muscles and connective tissues that inhibit force production. Whether you think about it or not, your body has braking systems that it can call into play if it thinks an action you're trying to perform will result in some kind of damage. The longer you lift, the farther these inhibitory mechanisms move to the background. The extreme case is the powerlifter or bodybuilder who lifts with such uninhibited force that he ruptures a muscle or tears a tendon away from the joint to which it's attached. Spend enough time with these guys, and you'll hear stories of triceps that scrolled up the arm like a window shade during deadlifts, pectorals that ripped apart in a sea of purple discoloration on bench presses, and biceps that imploded so spectacularly they simply ceased to exist. (I saw the aftermath of a detonated biceps with my own eyes. It was on a champion powerlifter, and he told me he didn't miss the muscle at all. To him, it was like losing an appendix or something.)

Those two phenomena—skipping motor units, bypassing strength inhibitors— happen unconsciously. You can also employ a few conscious tricks. In fact, Alwyn's workouts employ two variations on a technique called "wave-loading," which I'll explain in a moment.

But the big one, which you can go into the gym and start using today, is called "precontraction." You consciously activate the muscles opposite the ones you plan to use in the lift, and that helps deactivate the inhibitory mechanisms in your targeted muscles.

It's easier than it sounds. On a bench press, for example, you flex your lats and pull your shoulder blades together in back, activating your trapezius and rhomboids (middle-back muscles that assist your traps) before you lower the weight to your chest. Then, instead of passively lowering the weight, you actively pull it to your chest, as if you were doing a row. You should be able to push it back up with more force than you would otherwise.

Wave-loading is another bait-and-switch technique for your nervous system. In Strength I, after your warm-up, you'll start with six reps of an exercise— squats, say—and then in the next set do just one. Then you'll do another set of six, but with a heavier weight than you used for the first set. Because your body remembers how heavy the single rep was, the weight you use for six reps should feel relatively light, even though it may be more than you've ever used for six reps. Then you do your fourth set with one rep, using a heavier weight than on the previous single. It, too, should feel a little easier than it ordinarily would, since you know you just have to lift it once, as opposed to six times.

You'll try a different type of wave-loading in Strength III: Your first three sets will be three, two, and one rep. Then your next three sets repeat the wave, only with heavier weights for three, two, and one rep.

Focus on the numbers, and look for small improvements from workout to workout. If you make big jumps, you'll probably peak before you get to the end. Your goal is to finish with the biggest numbers. You're free to check yourself out in the mirror along the way—after all, Alwyn has included some higher-rep sets that should help you build bigger muscles while you're recording bigger numbers.

I should also mention a down-the-road benefit of lifting for pure strength: When you shift back to more conventional hypertrophy programs, you'll be able to do six or eight or ten or twelve reps with heavier weights than you used before. And it just stands to reason that being able to do eight bench presses with 205 instead of 195 will lead to a better result.

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