IMAGINE YOU’RE A FOOTBALL COACH and it’s the first week of training camp. You have one group of players who look great in practice—they do all the drills just the way you want and have terrific stamina. They aren’t particularly fast or strong, but they sure make it easy to run a practice.
Then there’s another group. They suck at running laps, and their form in drills breaks down after 10 seconds. But when they line up against the first group, it’s like the opening act at the Roman Colosseum. They’re so much bigger, stronger, faster, and more explosive that the high-stamina guys don’t stand a chance.
Needless to say, the men in this second group are your starters come kickoff time on Saturday afternoon.
Your muscles are a lot like those football players. You have a lot of slow-twitch, type I muscle fibers designed for endurance. You also have some fast-twitch, type IIb fibers designed for all-or-nothing jumps, sprints, and lifts. And you have some that fall in between—fast-twitch, type IIa fibers that can stay on task for minutes at a time.
Those limited-edition type IIb fibers not only are the biggest but are also the ones with the most potential to grow even bigger.
That’s why as a strength coach I make them my focus. I want to help my athletes develop the explosive power that sets the champions apart from everyone else.
I have three distinct ways to train the high-performance muscle fibers. But before I show you the techniques, I’ll explain how and why these fibers work.
Target the right type Your body doesn’t use its type IIb fibers unless it has to. No matter how hard you try, you can’t force those fibers into action for a task as simple as walking across the room or picking up a pencil. You’d have to sprint across the room or pick up a huge crate of pencils for the type IIbs to fire.
To produce movement, your body recruits muscle fibers in an orderly progression from smallest to largest. Type I fibers, the smallest, have the least strength and the most endurance. So if you’re walking at a leisurely pace, your type I fibers do almost all the work. You could walk along like this for hours, if you didn’t die of boredom first.
But if you pick up the pace, you send larger fibers into action—starting with the type IIa kind. Most guys can engage a good number of type IIa fibers for about a minute before the fibers start to drop off, forcing a slowdown. A well-trained athlete—an 800-meter Olympic sprinter, say—might be able to keep quite a few of these fibers firing for 2 minutes at a time.
The IIb fibers don’t figure into the mix until you’re working at about two-thirds of your maximum capacity–the equivalent of a fast run or a moderately heavy weightlifting set. Even then they don’t go all in until you’re going all out. If you’re running as fast or lifting as much as you can, you’re using every muscle fiber your body can possibly call into action: Think full-effort activity.
When your goal is to target IIb fibers and make them bigger and stronger as a result, you have two options:
- Lifting a near-max weight
- Lifting a lighter weight as fast as possible
Picture a simple muscle like your biceps. Let’s say you can curl 40-pound dumbbells once, but on your second rep you have to contort your body like a drunken pole-vaulter. By using 35-pound weights and doing 3-rep sets with good form, you’re probably training every available muscle fiber.
Another option is to curl 20-or 25-pounders as quickly as possible for 3 or 4 reps. This would bring your IIb fibers into action too.
What won’t work is grinding out sets of 10 to 12 reps at a steady, deliberate speed. It’ll feel difficult, and you might be sore a day or two later, but exercise science tells us you aren’t reaching as many muscle fibers as you would if you lifted as much weight as possible or lifted a lighter weight as quickly as possible.
There’s also a third way to recruit your IIb fibers into the game: balance exercises. The scientific term is sensorimotor training. Doctors prescribe this in rehab settings for patients who are relearning basic movements after an illness or injury.
Researchers have discovered that sensorimotor training does more than improve balance. It also improves what scientists call rate of force development, or RFD—the speed at which patients can make their muscles perform. The faster you can develop force, the harder you can train and the faster you can build strength and muscle size.
At first glance, this might not seem logical. How can you make muscles work faster when the goal of a balance exercise is to prevent them from moving at all?
The answer can be found within your body’s nervous system.
Add balance to your workout One aspect of your nervous system is simple to understand. You decide you’re going to jump as high as you can, and then your brain sends direct messages through your nerves to your muscles to make that happen. It takes just a fraction of a second for your lower-body muscle fibers—from smallest to largest—to respond and produce that jump.
The same thing happens when you’re deadlifting a maximum weight. As soon as your brain tells your muscles what to do, they at least try to do it.
But let’s say you’re trying to keep your balance while standing on one leg on an unstable surface, like a squishy pad or a Bosu balance trainer. Direct commands from your brain aren’t very helpful here. Instead, your body relies on feedback from loops of nerves that travel from your muscles to your spinal cord and back again. (No brain needed.) These spinal circuits allow you to react and adjust your movements without consciously deciding what you’re going to move next.
That’s why you see better results by training your nervous system to respond both directly and indirectly than you would by simply focusing on the most straightforward ways to increase strength, speed, and power. Balance exercises help you develop force faster, which means you can activate those powerhouse muscle fibers sooner, which in turn helps you grow bigger and stronger.
Put it all together My system works best if you focus on one movement pattern at a time—for instance, s a lower-body hip-dominant movement or an upper body pushing movement. Below you’ll find a lower-body example. It’s the same workout that I used when training mixed martial artist Ralek Gracie. It was designed to build his explosive lower body strength so that he could jump higher and kick harder. But it also works great to add muscle to your thighs. You’ll see that the first exercise is a single-leg balance on an unstable surface. Then you move on to a power exercise, the jump shrug, followed by a traditional strength exercise—in this case the wide-grip deadlift—using the heaviest load you can handle with good form.
Directions: Do the exercises in the order shown. Complete all sets of each exercise before moving on to the next. After you do all your sets of an exercise, rest one to two minutes before moving on to the next exercise.
Exercise 1. Single-leg partial squat hold on a Bosu ball Sets: 3 Duration: 15-second hold Rest: 30 seconds between each set Load: Use only your body-weight. How to do it: Stand on a Bosu ball with your right leg. Push your hips back a few inches so your right knee bends slightly. Hold that position for 15 seconds. Your right leg should be shaking. Without resting, perform a 15-second hold while standing on your left leg. That’s one set. Rest for the prescribed amount of time and repeat.
Exercise 2: Barbell Jump Shrug Sets: 3 Reps: 4 Rest: 30 seconds between each set Load: Use a weight in which you could do 10 to 12 reps at most. (It will be “light” for your 4-rep sets, but that’s because you want to perform the movement quickly.) How to do it: Grab a barbell with an overhand, shoulder-width grip. Bend at your hips and knees until the barbell hangs just below your knees. (Your arms should be straight.) Simultaneously thrust your hips forward, shrug your shoulders forcefully, and jump as high as you can. Land softly, and reset. That’s one rep. Do all your reps, then rest for the prescribed period of time and repeat.
Exercise 3: Barbell Wide-Grip Deadlift Sets: 4 Reps: 3 Rest: 60 seconds Load: The heaviest weight you can handle for 3 reps. If you think you could have done a couple of more reps, you need to increase the load. How to do it: Load a barbell and roll it against your shins. Bend at your hips an knees and grab the bar with an overhand grip that’s about twice shoulder width. Your arms should be straight and your lower back should be slightly arched, not rounded. Tense your glutes and abs, then stand up with the bar by pulling your torso back and up and thrusting your hips forward. (Squeeze your glutes hard at the top of the movement.) Reverse the movement, and lower the bar to the floor. That’s one rep. Do all your reps, then rest for the prescribed period of time and repeat.
If you think this mini-workout is interesting, you’ll love The Type IIb Muscle Plan I created for Men’s Health Personal Trainer. It’s a complete 4-week workout program that trains your entire body.
I’ll tell you up front: It’s a challenging program, since it’s similar to what I use for training elite athletes. (They’ll balance for up to 45 seconds, instead of the 15-second holds you start with here.) Everyone sees similar results: By priming their nervous systems to recruit the biggest muscle fibers as quickly as possible, they take the most they can out of the power-and strength-building exercises that follow.
If you really were a football coach, you’d take those results in a heartbeat.