A detailed look at muscle fiber types, and explains why you should be focusing on heavy and explosive lifts rather than time under tension.

Muscular sprinterIf you look at the athletes who have great powerful looking physiques, you may wonder how exactly do they train?  Weightlifters, sprinters, gymnasts, and even powerlifters have that powerful look to them.  The similarity in training throughout these athletes are very close, when you look at the type of muscle fibers they primarily train.

Be it a weightlifter who spends countless time perfecting the clean and jerk or snatch, a sprinter who focuses on producing maximum speed, a gymnast jumping up to perform a double tuck back flip, or a powerlifter who explodes out from the bottom of a squat...across the board, their movements deal with be being fast, strong, and explosive.

On the other hand, it’s interesting to see recreational lifters not catching on to this observation.  Instead most spend time counting the eccentric, isometric, and concentric portion of the lifts focusing on the time under tension (TUT theory).  They take a 25 lb dumbbell for shoulder presses and focus on the slow movements through each phase making sure they hit the targeted TUT, and get a great feel of the pump in their muscles.  I’ve personally have looked in to TUT and gave it a trial run, what I got from it was a headache from counting each phase of the lift and wondering if I was achieving the optimal time under tension.

Much of this changed when I surrounded myself with a few powerlifters who slapped me across the face and showed me how to really TRAIN.  I was doing max effort, dynamic effort, rep effort, bands, chains, boards and not once was there a mention of TUT.  It was about lifting the weight with control and authority, simple as that.  And with that, I got bigger, stronger, and faster...which is something we are all after.

I’ve been criticized by others at the current commercial gym I workout in for not doing enough volume, or because I should be using high reps at a slow tempo.  Supposedly I am being foolish, my form is horrible because of the explosive movement, and I am not focusing on the mind muscle connection.  But, recreational lifters are missing out on a whole other aspect of training and don’t fully understand the simple functions of the different types of muscle fibers.

Type I

Commonly known as slow twitch muscle fibers, these fibers have a low level of force output, contract at a slow rate, and are resistant to fatigue which allows them to function over a longer period of time.  Athletes with a higher concentration of Type I fibers would be triathletes, soccer players, marathon runners, and swimmers.

Type IIa & IIb

Commonly known as fast twitch muscle fibers, these fibers have a high level of force output, contract at a high rate, and fatigue much quicker than Type I fibers.  Type II fibers are used for powerful and explosive movements.  The main difference between Type IIa and Type IIb is that Type IIa fibers have a higher resistance to fatigue than that of Type IIb.  It is also important to note that research shows Type II fibers have a higher capacity for hypertrophy than Type I.  Athletes with a high concentration of Type II fibers would be sprinters, football players, Olympic weightlifters, and powerlifters.

Bodybuilder with chains

Some believe that as you exhaust the muscle, more muscle fibers will be called in to play.  This means, if you do high repetitions with a light weight you are relying on your larger Type II muscles to come in and give you a hand as you become more fatigued.  Not so.  Your big and strong fibers are going to stay on the sideline and wait for a chance to play.

So until you give them the motivation to get fired up, they are staying on the side.  The training style of explosive and powerful athletes are constantly calling upon those big strong fibers to come out onto the playing field.  So why aren’t you training that way?

Have you ever walked into a gym full of powerlifters?  Or a training session of Olympic weightlifters?  If you haven’t, I highly suggest it because it will open your eyes to a whole different world of training that you won’t find at most commercial gyms.  You will see guys lifting loads of weight.

Although the bar may not be moving at a fast and explosive pace, that’s not the important part.  The important part is that the large fast twitch motor units come into action to complete the lift.  You can’t expect a guy to deadlift 600lbs using a slow and easy contraction of the muscle.  Don’t just go on Youtube and look at videos, actually find a place and meet the people.

Complication vs. Heavy Training

Don’t get caught up in the mess of performing multiple drop sets, supersets, high volume, etc., because you feel the need to do more to get more.  Most recreational lifters throw weight progression out the window, and train more for the pump of the muscle.  What many need to do is take a step back and look at what exactly they are doing and not be afraid to venture off in to a different direction.

Especially if your routine isn’t getting to your goal to pack on as much muscle mass as possible, you should incorporate lifts that are heavy enough to have close to an all out effort anywhere from 1-5 reps for up to 3-6 sets as a start using compound lifts.  Continuing to focus on lighter weights and moving at a slow tempo, will cause you to miss out on the muscle growth you’ve been looking for.

Posted on: Mon, 06/20/2011 - 17:44

i'm a soccer player and i need as well endurance as speed and power. in offseason i have to start to go for a at least 60 min run 3 times a day for conditioning. is it counterproductive for me to train as you explained in your article? and would you mind giving me a training schedule that trains my body perfectly to be an athlete? :) great article by the way, i think it's great that you share your knowledge with us and don't keep it to yourself!

Posted on: Sat, 06/18/2011 - 22:05

Your comment about type II staying on the sideline isn't exactly true. Every time we lift, our type II fibers begin the process, but as the reps increase, that's when we start to tap into the type I fibers

Posted on: Tue, 06/07/2011 - 17:15

Do you have a workout you'd recommend for an intermediate lifter (~2 years exp)?