Building muscle is a key aim of many athletic performance programs, since muscle provides a foundation for increased strength and power, resistance to injury and enhanced ability to take and receive hits. Mechanical tension, metabolic stress and muscle damage are the keys that unlock your muscle-building doors.
Strength coaches and athletes often leave performance on the table, with workouts that neglect one or two of these mechanisms. An appreciation that all three can stimulate muscle growth will ensure that you reach your muscle-building potential.
1. Mechanical Tension
Put simply, mechanical tension is going heavy. It is creating near-maximal tension throughout your entire system and placing your body under an intense stress. This means low reps and weight at about 90 percent of your one-repetition maximum and above. Mechanical tension usually necessitates longer rest periods with multiple sets of two to five repetitions producing stronger and larger muscles.
Exercises that create mechanical tension:
Squats, Deadlifts, Presses, Weighted Chin-Ups, Rows and other compound movements.
2. Metabolic Stress
Ever gone for the maximum number of reps and felt that lovely burning sensation in your muscles? That's metabolic stress. Commonly referred to as "the pump," metabolic stress is associated with multiple sets (2 - 4) of higher repetitions (12 - 20), longer time under tension and shorter rest periods.
Best exercises for metabolic stress:
- Exercises that place the muscles under constant tension, such as Lateral Raises, Bicep Curls, Split Squats and exercises like Bench Press where you stop short of a full lock-out (thus keeping your muscles under tension).
- Exercises that place the muscles under the most tension when they are at their shortest (think about the "squeeze" part of certain movements). Exercises such as Hip Thrusts and Triceps Extensions are good examples.
- A set of 15 Front Squats will also work just fine.
3. Muscle Damage
Anyone who has trained will relate to the feeling of soreness a day or two after a tough, new or different session. This is muscle damage, and it can be brought about in several ways. Emphasizing the eccentric (lengthening) portion of a movement creates tension while a muscle is lengthening. This damages the muscle tissue, causing it to adapt and become larger and stronger.
Muscle damage can also occur from doing something completely new. If your body is unaccustomed to something, it gets a shock. Muscle fibers that have previously been snoozing will get a 4:00 a.m. wakeup call, and they'll complain to you about this for a day or two after.
Exercises for muscle damage:
Dumbbell Stiff-Legged Deadlifts, Eccentric Pull-Ups, Slow Eccentric Bench Presses, Reverse Lunges and any exercise you've never done or haven't done in a while.
There is a crossover between the three mechanisms. Manipulating movements and training variables such as volume and rest periods will build muscle via more than one mechanism. For example, a slow eccentric Supramaximal Bench Press will produce tremendous mechanical tension and muscle damage due to the heavy weight and eccentric component of the movement. High-rep Dumbbell Stiff-Legged Deadlifts will produce muscle damage and metabolic stress. A high volume of heavy loads with short rest periods could, potentially, tap into all three mechanisms—but that would be a TOUGH session and probably not smart in the short term.
Athletes and coaches should be smart about when they seek certain responses. Always clarify the goal and make the best use of time. What adaptation do you need to make you better at your sport? Then, program accordingly. Inducing muscle damage through heavy eccentrics a couple of days before a competition is not a smart idea. Similarly, placing your body under intense metabolic stress the day after a game probably isn't too clever, either.
The offseason is best for muscle damage, and the extent of the muscle damage should be monitored. Too much can compromise the next day's session.
Understanding the three mechanisms and how to manipulate movements and loads to elicit your desired responses will keep you progressing and open up new avenues of muscle growth. What you may have previously been missing can now be capitalized on, and your on-field performance will improve as a result.
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