How To Break Through Muscle Building Plateaus Using Explosive Lifting

Eric Bach
Written By: Eric Bach
April 26th, 2016
Updated: June 13th, 2020
Categories: Articles Training
16.2K Reads
How To Break Through Muscle Building Plateaus Using Explosive Lifting
Think you need to lift heavy every day to continue to break through those dreaded plateaus? This article gives a whole new meaning to explosive lifting.

When you think about building muscle, what types of training come to mind?

High volume, high frequency training? Drop sets, extended sets, timed sets? Extended range of motion exercises? Or intra-set stretching?

Once you have a base of strength, these methods all work extraordinarily well. They induce tons of mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and muscular damage. These are the three most important mechanisms of muscular hypertrophy, according to expert Brad Schoenfeld2.

But what if I told you there was a way to make all of these proven methods even more effective? Well, I am. And it’s all predicated on your nervous system.

After all, building muscle requires you to recruit and fatigue as many muscle fibers as possible to stimulate growth.

Think back to your last lower body workout. 

You guzzled down your pre-workout shake. Your skin tingled from the niacin rush. Your pupils dilated. And the bass is bumping in your headphones. 

After your warm up, you banged out 4x8 on squats, followed by lunges, dumbbell RDL’s, and leg presses to burn out. Your legs quivered, your stomach lived in your throat for the next fifteen minutes, and you smashed your workout.

Now think back: How did you actually perform your squats? Were you completely focused in, accelerating the bar as hard as possible? Or did you just get by to your eight reps without maximizing each one?

So many lifters focus solely on training volume and weight, over the finer points like rep quality. Volume and overload are vital. But explosive rep quality and the subsequent motor unit recruitment are the most overlooked component to maximizing your muscle building training.

Mass Building Leg Day

How To Maximize Your Muscle Building Workouts

You must refine your nervous system. Your nervous system is composed of the central nervous system (CNS). Your brain, spinal cord, and the all other nerves control every action in your body.

These motor units (think of them like an electrode hooked to a muscle) receive signals from your nervous system, telling that muscle to contract based on need. The bigger the signal, like a heavy or explosive lift, the more muscle fibers are recruited to produce the action.

Think of it this way: Your body has different sized muscles, such as your gluteus maximumus versus your flexor digitorum longus (that’s a finger muscle). Bigger muscles are made of bigger bundles of muscle fibers and need a bigger motor unit to generate a bigger contraction. Smaller muscle fibers have smaller motor units and control smaller movements.

Related: Boyce’s Choices - 3 Best Exercises for Glutes 

This goal of motor unit recruitment is based on the Size Principle. a term based on the work of Harvard professor Dr. Hennemen.  He observed that the smallest motor neurons, attached to smaller muscle fibers are recruited first. This is followed by progressively larger motor neurons.

We then tap into our most powerful motor neurons and biggest muscle fibers to maximize recruitment. Crazy, right?

The driving force behind refining your nervous system is lifting with explosive intent on each rep. This calls the maximum number of muscle fibers into play. In other words, lift each rep as if it’s your max bench. Crush it!  Don’t let it crush you.

Mass Building Max Deadlift

Why This Matters

Fatiguing muscles with training methods that provide mechanical tension, metabolic fatigue, and muscular damage are VITAL to building muscle. But you cannot train and fatigue a muscle fiber that is not turned on.

Once we’ve recruited as many muscle fibers as possible, we can then fatigue a greater number of muscle fibers through direct muscle building methods that stimulate metabolic stress, muscle damage, and tons of mechanical tension. That means we need to train to maximize recruitment of motor neurons and muscle fibers to unlock our greatest potential for muscle growth.

How to Recruit More Motor Units in Training

To get you as jacked as possible, we need to set up your training to recruit the maximum number of motor units. With the size principle serving as our foundation, we must target the largest, most powerful motor units to maximize your training.

Maximizing Motor Unit Recruitment happens through two training methods:

  1. Lifting very heavy weights.
  2. Lifting lighter weights (or no weight, faster).

Think back to the last time you really loaded up the bench to near-maximal numbers. As your spotter (you have a spotter, right?) helps lift the bar over your chest, you’re mentally locked in. Your eyes are filled with fire and hands wrapped so hard around the bar your knuckles are turning white. Hell, anything softer than steel and the bar would probably crumble beneath your hands.

Related: 20 Tips To Improve Your Bench Press Strength

Your feet pushing through the ground and your arms trembling as you lower the bar to your chest. You reach the bottom and instantly drive as much force into the bar as possible. Lockout. Boom. P.R. Successful.

Now, what would happen if you cut the weight down from say 275lbs to 205 lbs. (75%-1RM) and started banging out reps? 205 pounds on the bar would feel like nothing. Your bar speed would be unreal and you would probably get more reps than usual.

Mass Building Bench Press

This near-maximum lift is a perfect example of how lifting heavy weights potentiates your body and recruits more muscle fibers. By lifting heavy weights, subsequent sets and exercises will have better motor unit recruitment to fatigue more muscle fibers and create a greater muscle building stress.

So, then logic says we should lift heavy all the time…right? Not quite.

Using that same logic, one could say that because one glass of wine has health benefits, then you should pound boxed wine for better heart health and antioxidant load. 

I get it, you want to get strong and jacked, but just lifting heavy isn’t the best way to get there. It’s extremely stressful on your joints and CNS.  So instead of just lifting heavy, we look to our second method of improved motor unit recruitment. Lifting lighter weights, faster.

Lifting Lighter Weights, Faster

To spare your body from endless near-maximal loading, lifting weights faster should make an appearance in your training. By using lighter loads performed with the intent of a max lift, you’ll supercharge your central nervous system and recruit more muscle fibers. In this case, we look at a few training methods:

1. Dynamic Effort (DE) Training

Popularized by Russian texts and Westside Barbell’s Louis Simmons, DE training involves lifting submaximal weight with as much force as possible. DE was designed to help powerlifters improve their rate of force development and allow greater training frequency without the stress of max-effort lifting.  DE training also has implications for building muscle.

Related: Never Stop Making Gains-Microprogressions for Non-Stop Growth!

Since the weight is lighter, there is less CNS and joint stress, which lets you train more frequently. Training frequently allows for a potentially higher training volume and progressive overload to build muscle. Equally important, the dynamic effort uses maximum explosive effort on each rep. With adequate rest, this hits a ton of high-threshold motor units.

2. Lighter, More Explosive Bodyweight Movements

Un-weighted movements are important to muscle building picture. As with heavy and dynamic effort exercises, un-weighted movements are performed as explosive as possible. Your nervous system is forced to generate strength even faster, improving intramuscular coordination, or the firing of motor units within a single muscle.

Mass Building Pullup

There are 3 Components that drive this improvement1,3:

  1. Synchronization: Helping muscle units contract simultaneously.
  2. Muscle Unit Recruitment: Abbreviated MUR, this refers to calling more motor units to the party. Basically, one would agree that using 90% of motor units in a muscle would make for a more powerful muscle than using 75%.
  3. Rate Coding: Increasing firing rate to express strength, faster.

By improving intramuscular coordination your muscles fire up faster, with more motor units, and together for better performance. So, what’s with all this performance stuff?

Related: 4 Killer Pushup Variations for Explosive Power

Optimizing Muscle Fiber Recruitment

You can’t fatigue a muscle that’s not activated. So we’re left with a handful of methods to activate as many muscle fibers possible. Here are the changes to make to your training:

Lift Heavy: Crush the occasional near-max attempt on your big movement patterns, like squats on your lower body days or the bench on a chest day. Ramp up one big lift for the upper body and lower body every four weeks, using weights from 80-95% of your max for 3-6 sets of 1-5 reps.

Then, continue on with your given workout and higher volume methods to build mass.

Exercise Sets Reps Rest
1. Bench Press* 4 4 3 min
2a. Dumbbell Neutral Grip Bench 4 8 -
2b. Pec Doorway Stretch 4 45sec 30 secs between supersets
3a. Dips 3 10-12 60 secs
3b. Cable Face Pull 3 10-12 60 secs
4a. Cable Chest Fly 3 15 -
4b. Tricep Overhead Split Extension 3 15 60-90 secs
5a. Feet Elevated Pushup 3 10 -
5b. Pushup 3 10 -
5c. Hands Elevated Pushup 3 failure 2 min

*Perform sets at 85% 1RM

Lift Explosively: To keep the joints and CNS healthy, you can’t always go heavy. Use some dynamic effort lifts, like submaximal deadlifting or pressing variations for 5-8 sets of 2-4 reps with 30-70% of your max. Stronger lifters can lift with the lower end of the spectrum, whereas weaker lifters would be best staying between 50-70%.

Exercise Sets Reps Rest
1. Deadlift* 5 3 60-90 secs
2a. Chinup 4 8 60 secs
2b. Plank 4 60sec 60 secs
3. Barbell Hip Thrust 3 10 60-90 secs
4a. Seated Wide Grip Cable Row 3 15 60 secs
4b. Back Extension 3 15 60 secs
5a. Bent Over Lateral Raise 3 10 30 secs
5b. Incline Dumbbell Bicep Curl 3 10 30 secs
5c Farmers Walk 3 50ft 30 secs

*Perform Deadlifts at 35% 1RM

Move Explosively: To build more athleticism into your training, learn to move your body explosively against very little resistance. With the exception for pre-existing injuries and technique, this is less stressful on the body, yet activates a ton of muscle fibers due to the explosive movement. Use 2-4 sets of 3-5 reps on explosive exercises like jump squats, broad jumps, and explosive push-ups.

Exercise Sets Reps Rest
1a. Dumbbell Jump Squat 3 5 30 secs
1b. 1/2 Kneeling Pallof Press 3 10 90 secs
2. Front Squat 4 10, 8, 6, 6 2 mins
3a. Barbell RDL 3 12 60 secs
3b. Single Leg Calf Raise 3 12 60 secs
4a. Goblet Walking Lunge 3 10 per leg 60 secs
4b. Ab Wheel Rollout 3 10 60 secs

The key to unlocking your ultimate lean muscle gains is first activating as many muscle fibers as humanly possible.  Once your body is supercharged for performance, break the muscle down to stimulate a huge anabolic response and massive growth.

Next Steps: The Power Primer 2.0

Have you been doing enough to maximize your training by recruiting more muscle? For 99% of lifters, the clear cut answer is “no.” That’s the problem I’ve addressed in the Power Primer 2.0. 

Drawing on my experience with thousands of lifters of all ability levels, this brand new 12- week program uses the power of your nervous system to optimize your body for massive muscle growth. And that’s just one feature. Beyond the 12-Week Power Primer hypertrophy guide, there is:

• A complete 12 Week fat loss guide. You’ll maximize your athleticism, retain lean mass, and get shredded.

• A Comprehensive 12-week athletic strength building program. -  You’ll get both strong and explosive. And you’ll improve your performance in the gym and out in the real world.

• Videos of every exercise in every workout.  You’ll train safely and optimally. And you’ll find out how to substitute exercises when required.

• A detailed nutrition guide. You’ll discover how to eat right.  You’ll take control of your diet once and for all thanks to this all-inclusive guide that even comes complete with recipes. .

Power Primer 2.0 bridges the gap between your performance and your physique. With 36 weeks of programming and over 200 pages of top-notch info, you’ll be set up for success in becoming your best self. Step back and ask yourself:

Am I sick of trying other workouts that just leave me battered and sore, rather than shredded and muscular? Am I sick of feeling that I can lift weights, but never feel athletic enough to play a sport? Am I trying to train six days per week, but never make all the workouts and then train unbalanced? Do I want to build 10+ lbs. of lean mass, feeling athletic enough to play basketball with my buddies and keep up with my kids?

Build Mass Dumbbell Row

The Power Primer 2.0 helps you become the total package: strong, shredded, and athletic. The Power Primer 2.0 is being released today.  For seven days only, it is being offered to you at a 50% off, which is probably less than you spend on protein each month. Think about that for a minute. 

36 weeks of training, a full nutrition guide, and free access to my internet video library...all for a fraction of your monthly supplement costs. This sale only last this week, then the price doubles. 

The Power Primer will give you the strength and power you need, tools to make changes to fit your busy lifestyle, and complete programming to get the body that looks and performs like a muscular high-performance athlete.

Power Primer 2.0 eliminates the guesswork. No more program hopping and no more information overload. Stop wondering, “can I combine this and this to make my own mass building workout?” All you need to do is follow the workout that matches your goals, put in the work, and reap the rewards of a truly muscular and powerful body.

You deserve a plan that gets you the best results, and the Power Primer 2.0 Delivers.

The Power Primer 2.0

Eric Bach, BS, CSCS

Eric Bach Power Primer 2.0

What are you waiting for? Take advantage of Eric Bach's limited time offer and get your very own copy of The Power Primer 2.0. With comprehensive work out programs, meal plans and recipes, and exercise guides, you will have all the tools you need to get shredded and build strength. Don't wait another moment to start your journey to the body that you want!

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It’s time to build the total package.

  1. Kawamori, N, and Newton, RU. Velocity Specificity of Resistance Training: Actual Movement Velocity versus Intention to Move Explosively. Strength Cond. J. 28 (2): 86-91, 2006.
  2. Schoenfeld, Brad. "The Mechanisms of Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training." Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 24.10 (2010): 2857. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.
  3. Siff, M., and Y. Verkhoshansky. Supertraining. (6th ed) Rome: Verkhoshansky, 2009.
Posted on: Thu, 04/28/2016 - 00:09

For real M&S? I read 10 paragraphs of info that I was actually buying into just to find out it's a sales pitch for a damn ebook.

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Posted on: Thu, 04/28/2016 - 09:20

The article provides examples on how to implement all of the individual factors into your training. If you want to take things a bit more in-depth, then purchase the ebook.

Eric is an incredibly smart individual and most would benefit from picking up his ebook. Either take the time to invest in yourself and your training or learn to be satisfied with the status quo. Your choice.