The FOUR Ways We Grow Stronger

In this video, we discuss the four ways in which we can grow stronger: muscle growth, improved technique, INTER muscular coordination, and INTRA muscular coordination. We explain the different kinds of hypertrophy and how they impact strength. Lastly, we examine practical implications for each method and how they impact your training, and vice versa. So, if you’re looking to improve your strength and understand the science behind it, this video is for you. Enjoy!

00:00 Introduction
01:33 Muscle Growth
06:47 Improved Technique
08:40 INTER Muscular Coordination
10:45 INTRA Muscular Coordination
13:15 Practical Considerations

Transcript: Alright, in this episode we’re going to be talking about the four ways in which we grow stronger. And by that we mean, what are the physical mechanisms that occur in the body that allow us to gain strength?

What do we mean by strength? We’re going to use, in this case, to illustrate things, we’ll make it an arbitrary lift. Why don’t we call it a bench press since that seems to be a pretty common standard in the strength world for how strong you are, especially if you’re a guy, you tell somebody you’re working out.

The first question you get is, how much ya bench? Just re-watched Good Will Hunting the other weekend, and Matt Damon asks Robin Williams that question in therapy. So, it’s seemingly arbitrary, but we can use a particular lift to illustrate our point. And again, how do you know you’re getting stronger? You’re able to lift more weight.

So, our contents today, we’ve got each of the four methods that we’re going to talk about. There is muscle growth, there is improved technique, intermuscular coordination, intramuscular coordination, and then the overlap and practical training considerations that we’re going to run into here. It’s impossible to train one mechanism at a time, there’s always going to be some overlap, it’s just a matter of how do we sort of bias our training to focus on one of these aspects as opposed to others, is that even possible? That’s what we’re going to answer.

So, the first thing we’re going to get into is muscle growth. We also call it hypertrophy and there are two kinds. There is sarcoplasmic hypertrophy and myofibrillar hypertrophy. You guys don’t really need to remember these names, but it is an important distinction. And training protocols are going to be a little bit different for each, and we can look at various types of athletes and kind of see the difference.

So, in the first we’ve got sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. Basically, you’ve got an increase in the muscle glycogen storage. So, glycogen is the storage form of carbohydrates. We break that down and we burn that as fuel in high intensity exercise. So, you know, the reason that people tend to lose weight when they cut out carbs is they deplete their glycogen stores and there’s always water associated with glycogen. So essentially you’re dehydrating your muscles, and you look leaner for it. When you eat a particularly high carb meal, and you drink water, and you feel puffy afterwards that’s because of the glycogen storage.

So, sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. We’re doing over 12 reps in training with very light weights. Bodybuilders call that the pump, and that is what they’re training for. And it just helps increase the glycogen storage which in turn helps increase the amount of water you can hold in your muscles. So, your muscles look bigger. They’re not necessarily any stronger but they are bigger. And where you see this kind of come into play is if you look at these massive bodybuilders we’re not going to say they’re not strong, but maybe they’re not as strong as you think they would be for somebody that size.

So, you know, the two examples that come to mind are Arnold and Ronnie Coleman and they’re probably the exceptions because they were both brutally strong in addition to being big. But you see a lot of people, with, we call them show muscles rather than go muscles. They look big but they’re not that strong. They’ve mostly focused on sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.

The other one is the myofibrillar hypertrophy which we can call strength hypertrophy. A contractile unit in the muscle is called myofibril and we’ll see that on the next slide. Think of it as a fiber in a rope. That’s  a good way to think of it. Granted a rope can’t really flex but that’s what myofibril is, and we can increase the number of them by performing roughly six to twelve reps with somewhere in the sixty five to eighty five percent range. So, if we’re doing bench press for higher rep sets. And the reason, you know, is we’re not exceeding twelve reps but we’re going for bigger sets somewhere in that percentage range. You’re going to build the number of contractile units in that muscle or in the muscles used for the bench press so your pecs, and actually, primarily your triceps. So how does muscle growth make us stronger? Well, hopefully it’s a little bit obvious with the myofibrillar hypertrophy. The more contractile units I have, the more I am able to contract. That should seem pretty obvious. The other way that it makes us stronger is it increases the cross sectional area across the joint. And from a physics perspective, that gives us more leverage. So, there’s greater leverage across the joint, and more units that can actually contract. So that’s how muscle growth helps us grow stronger.

And you can see it here. We’ve got the myofibril is a little bit of rope in here inside of the muscle fiber, which is a muscle cell. Well, you can bundle those together and then you put them together in the muscle. The more myofibrils we can build right here, the bigger the cell we’ll have, and the more, bigger cells we have in the bundle, the bigger the cell bund. And you can see the cross-section right here. Again, across the joint. It’s going to just make it stronger.

But again, that’s an important distinction. When you’re just starting out training, you’re going to see a fair amount of overlap between sarcoplasmic and myofibrillar hypertrophy. As you become a more advanced lifter and you’ve been doing this longer, you get less overlap. So, in the beginning, even if I’m lifting for strength because it’s a new stimulus to my body, my body is going to build muscle. As you get more advanced, we need to specialize a little bit more and that’s why you’ll see bodybuilding routines for more advanced bodybuilders that are just a ton of volume to try to get you to grow sarcoplasmic glycogen storage and you’ll see a mix of exercises, some are designed to grow the myofibrils, some are designed for sarcoplasmic and again, the rep ranges that you’re going to choose are going to be different depending and we’ll get into that a little bit more as we go on.

Next method is improved technique. We call this the more productive application of force. So, if I’m doing a bench press and my bar path is incorrect and I can’t help but pushing the bar towards my hips instead of straight up and towards my head, I’m wasting energy and my use of the force that I’m able to generate is not productive. I have to expend more energy to stabilize the bar and correct the bar path pushing in the wrong direction. So, the more that I practice repetitions, the bench press, the more I can dial in my technique. I think a better example of this would be the Olympic lifts. You know, the more technical lifts: snatch, clean, and jerk. There’s a lot of moving pieces in that and so the more that I’m able to practice those in particular and improve my technique, the better I’m going to be able to do. So, maybe I didn’t grow any new muscle mass and I failed an attempt and then I do it again and I correct something, and my technique is better on a subsequent lift and now I’m successful. You know, I’ve moved more weight. So technically I’m stronger, but really it was the technique that was the difference there.

When we go back to the power lifts, we go back to the bench press. We’re talking about your best possible leverages for the individual. Maybe I am adjusting my grip. Maybe I am arching my back a little bit more. I’m using what I have in my own body to create a better leverage so I can lift more weight.

That’ll make me stronger. And again, the most important thing to realize here is that you build it through practice. This is a neurological improvement, not a physiological one.

And we’ll see that again with improved intermuscular coordination. So, inter is different muscle groups working together and firing them in the correct sequence. Are my muscles working together? I should say are my muscle groups working together to finish the lift? So, in the bench press, am I engaging my lats to try to bend the bar? This is the cue we give people – try to bend the bar in your hands – to help them engage their lats. It locks my shoulders in place and it’s going to make sure that I’m keeping the bar path where I want it. It’s going to prevent my elbows from flaring out to the sides, and it’s going to allow me to effectively fire my triceps next which are the prime movers in the bench press. If I can’t engage my lats and I end up flaring my elbows out to the sides and I’m going to get less effective drive from my triceps. I’m going to end up compensating with other muscle groups that are weaker than my lats and I’m less likely to be successful in the lift so I will not have as strong of a push.

Again, this comes through practice. It is another neurological adaptation. So, repetition, repetition, repetition. You learn how to engage the proper muscles. You learn how to fire them in the correct order. Another good example is when we get people squatting. We’ll frequently tell our athletes to push their hips through as they’re standing up. That’s a good way to think of it. And basically, you’re trying to remember to engage your glutes – the function of the glutes is to extend the hips. And that’s how we know “okay, okay, good. I’m using these muscles in addition to my quads and my hamstrings. And I’m going to be stronger for it.” The more muscle groups that I can involve in a lift, the more contractile potential that I’ve involved in the lift, the stronger I’m going to be.

 And then the fourth way is intramuscular coordination. And that means that we’re using more of the myofibrils within a given muscle. So just because, and again, we go back to muscle growth, just because I’ve built the muscle doesn’t mean I know how to use it. So, I need to be able to contract all of those myofibrils, all of those contractile units in order to generate as much force as possible. That is another neurological adaptation. Building the muscle is physiological. Learning to use it is neurological. And the best way to improve your intramuscular coordination is through what we’re going to call impulse training.

Basically short, very high intensity efforts. So max effort jumps as opposed to repeatedly bounding, which is plyometric training and has its own place. If I was doing a single max effort vertical jump or a standing broad jump, something like that, that helps me improve my intramuscular coordination. Near max effort lifts and this can either take the form of max weight, so somewhere in the 90, call it 85 to 95 to 100% range, a max effort lift is going to force me to use all of the motor units that I can recruit. I’m going to be successful if I can recruit them, I’m going to fail if I can’t. So out of necessity your body kind of learns to do that.

The other way we can do it is through what we call dynamic effort lifts. It’s kind of a similar idea to a max effort jump. You know box squats or speed squats come to mind. Where you’re using a sub-maximal load usually in the range of 60 to 70% for Olympic lifts. Maybe a little bit heavier than that. And you’re trying to move that weight as fast as possible. So, force equals mass times acceleration. That’s the physics definition of force. We can either increase the mass, which is the near max effort lift. Or we can increase the acceleration, which is the dynamic piece. We use lighter weights. We just try to move it faster. And it’s all about bar speed. So those are the four ways the four mechanisms by which we’re able to get stronger.

Why do we care? What are practical considerations here? Number one, I hope it’s become clear that three of these mechanisms are neurological and adaptation and one is physiological. So, all four of them are going to happen to some degree simultaneously. There’s a little bit of overlap. But your focus needs to shift as you progress.

If we go to our learning curve, and I’m brand new to lifting, it’s probably best that I use higher rep ranges somewhere in the realm of three to ten. And those repetitions are going to give us fair amount practice will be able to improve our technique and we will be able to improve our intermuscular coordination. And as you’re doing those repetitions, you’re going to get some degree of muscle growth as well. Again, when you’re brand new to training, you’re not going to have a whole lot of intramuscular coordination,

so, you’re not really going to be able to hit a max effort lift. You’re going to be limited by technique.

So, trying to do super heavy singles is not really going to give you any benefit when you’re just starting out. You need to develop enough technique so that’s no longer your limiting factor. You make tremendous progress in a very short amount of time and then we see it start slowing down and taper off and the question becomes “how do we continue to improve now that we’ve been training for a while?”

And that’s where your training protocols are going to start to differ and it’s going to depend on your individual goals.

If I’m a bodybuilder, I want to focus on muscular growth and muscular hypertrophy. What’s going to give me the most bang for my body? The biggest size is going to be the sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, so I want to do things in the realm of 12 to 25 reps for probably the vast majority of my training. I do want to include some myofibrillar hypertrophy in there that’s going to allow me to have improved recovery from everything that I’m doing. So, a training session might involve four to five lifts. A lot of, call it single joint movements like biceps curl.

The bench press is actually a pretty awful exercise when it comes to muscle growth with a barbell at least, because you’re limited in your range motion as soon as the bar touches your chest. If I’m arching my back, that’s going to make the bar touch my chest even earlier. But if I switch to dumbbells, arching my back increases the range of motion that I can stretch my pecs. And a dumbbell bench press is actually a great option for building muscle mass. So, the Individual lifts are going to change and the rep schemes and weights that I’m using are going to change depending on my goal the more advanced that I get. So that would be a good example of muscular growth.

If my goal is to lift as much weight as I possibly can, I’m going to want to mostly focus on intramuscular coordination. So, I want to be lifting on the heavier side and again there’s a spectrum. From there I can do speed work. I can do another day where I’m doing max effort or near max effort work. And then we want to look at where your technique starts to break down. Yeah, you’re going to do drills to practice that particular situation, that sticking point of the lift. So, if I know that my technique starts to break down around the middle of my bench press, I can get it off my chest and then I start to get stuck, I’ll be doing board presses or floor presses. Somewhere where I’m shortening that range of motion just to work through that particular sticking point is a good way to build technique.

We can also look at what muscle groups might be holding us back if I am weak in a particular area and that’s affecting my life. When I’m going to program specific exercises to target those lagging muscle groups and I’m going to use strategic muscle growth to build up those muscle groups in particular.

So again, six to twelve, reps, and then maybe another exercise. You have another set of twelve to twenty-five of a different exercise and as I grow those muscles, I go back to that lift and practice the intramuscular coordination so I can build muscle and learn to use it.

And again, the longer I’ve been training the more specialized I’m going to need to get, and I can start diagnosing lagging muscle groups and bringing those up and then see where that takes me and then find the next lagging muscle group and build that up. And that’ll help me improve my strength over time. So, we want to bear in mind, again, all four of these are going to happen to some degree simultaneously and if I’m brand new to training, I don’t need super specific training. I can make some great progress with general training. And then when I start to stagnate, that’s where we use these different strategies.

 So why do we care about all this in the long run? Everybody hits plateaus and it’s frustrating and it’s easy to get demoralized and want to quit training. If you can understand these considerations, you can better structure a training program to help yourself break through these plateaus. And most importantly, since we know that three of these mechanisms are neurological, we talked last time about how the body actually adapts to training and how it can only handle so much stress. Your nerves, if they get fried, are going to hold you back from lifting heavy. So, if three of the mechanisms by which I get stronger are neurological and I’m under chronic stress, there is a good chance that I’m going to see problems. The progress starts to stall.

On the flip side, it’s if we use certain metrics to kind of gauge where I’m at in terms of stress, we can be a little bit more strategic about individual training sessions or training weeks. That would be a better option. So, for example, if I have a high level competitive athlete, and I’ve done this with competitive CrossFit athletes –  I had one competitive athlete that was a realtor. He ran his own team. He was highly stressed by his daily life between work, between kids, and we’re trying to pile on a fair amount of training volume as a competitive CrossFit athlete. We want to see where he is at the beginning of each week, and so we wanted to test his recovery. There’s a couple of ways you do that. You can do that through lifts and exercises that are very neurological in nature.

 I used a standing broad jump. We would have him set up to a baseline and standing broad jump. That’s his max distance. And then at the beginning of each training week, he gets three attempts to do one. If he’s well below the baseline, then we know he’s stressed and he’s not recovered. If he’s well beyond the baseline, then we know that he’s super compensated. And he’s adapted and he’s stronger and ready to go. And if he’s rated at baseline, then we know neurologically he’s pretty recovered and is going to have a decent training week.

Grip training, grip strength is another way to do this. I know of several Olympic lifting coaches that use a grip tester as a way to gauge recovery in their athletes.

And then if you guys don’t follow Alex Viada, he is a phenomenal person to listen to. His whole training business is based on what they call hybrid training. How do I become a powerlifting endurance athlete? Or how do I become an endurance trained powerlifter? So, if I’m powerlifter and I decide I want to start competing in 5k’s, how do I layer my training in such a way that I’m not going to blow myself up by overdoing it with both of them? Very, very smart guy, but for his own training and he is an elite level powerlifter, you know, – I think his most popular video of all time is him deadlifting, 600 pounds. He does a single, chugs a beer, does a single, chugs a beer, does it four times. And we’re not talking  Coors Light, we’re talking Belgian triples and victory golden monkey, which is a I think that’s about 8% by volume.

 So, he does it four times in immediate succession. But his metric for measuring how recovered he is, is the deadlift. And he’ll start out every Monday, not trying to necessarily max out. He uses a set weight; I think somewhere around 600 pounds. And depending on how it moves off the floor and how it feels, if it feels fast and easy, he’s ready to go. If it feels sluggish and it’s a grind, then he knows he’s not very well recovered. So again, our nerves and our neurological system play a huge, huge factor in how we’re feeling, how we recover. And it’s important to monitor that. And I think looking at the three mechanisms by which we grow stronger, that really shows.

 So, if you’re having a really crappy week in the gym and everything feels heavy, you may very well be overstressed. And it’s important to adapt your training and maybe a little bit lighter, maybe back off to compensate for that. Anyway, I hope you guys enjoyed this. I hope it made sense and we didn’t overdo it on the technical jargon. And yeah, get out there and adjust your training as you need to based on your goals. We’ll see you next week. You can use these mechanisms to see kind of where we want to be. So, if you like this video, give us a like, give us a subscribe, and we’ll catch you guys next time.


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