In my last article I shared three methodologies for gaining muscle quickly without making drastic changes to the current exercises in your training program. I talked about the different phases of motion and shared tactics on how to maximize strength and muscle growth for each.
Specifically, I talked about concentric, eccentric, and isometric phases of motion and how you can easily manipulate each to shock your body into new growth and burst through previous strength plateaus.
In this article, I’m going to share some new tactics for gaining muscle mass fast. Here’s what we’re going to talk about today:
- Combination Training
- Plyometric Training
- Bulgarian Complex Training
This form of training ties together the three previous forms of training I spoke about before. It’s where you manipulate concentric, isometric and eccentric durations in each rep of an exercise. It’s like the triple whammy of strength builders since you attain benefits from each type of motion.
Here’s an example of what a set might look like for a barbell bicep curl:
- 3 second concentric (lifting phase), 3 second isometric (hold), then 3 second eccentric (lowering phase)
You won’t be able to lift as much weight when performing a set like this, of course, as the time under tension will be tremendously higher than a standard set. But that’s part of why it is so effective for hypertrophy. Muscle hypertrophy (aka increase in size) is in large part correlated with time under tension.
This is why bodybuilders commonly do more sets in the 8-12 rep range with short rest periods (and things like supersets/tri-sets) versus strength athletes who are doing sets more in the ballpark of 1-5 reps with lots of rest between sets.
The physical adaptations to these forms of exercise are different. Although both bodybuilders and strength athletes are seeing muscle hypertrophy, the types of hypertrophy are different. With strength athletes, they are primarily benefitting from myofibril hypertrophy versus bodybuilders who are primarily benefitting from sarcoplasmic hypertrophy.
Sarcoplasmic vs Myofibrillar Hypertrophy
When most people talk about gaining muscle size, they are usually referring to muscle hypertrophy – which involves the increase in muscle size as well as the growth of its component cells. When I hear people talking about muscle hypertrophy, they usually don’t specify what type they are actually trying to achieve.
With muscle hypertrophy, you essentially have two primary forms: Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy and Myofibrillar hypertrophy. With sarcoplasmic hypertrophy your body becomes more efficient at storing muscle glycogen (carbohydrates) and is associated with an increase in the volume of sarcoplasmic fluid in the muscle cell. Myofibrillar hypertrophy, on the other hand, deals more with the increase in actin and myosin contractile proteins to increase strength, as well as a minor increase in muscle size.
As mentioned earlier, when you train with high volume or high time under tension, you are primarily creating sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. Whereas, when you train with heavy weight with a few reps (a maximal strength focus) and more explosive movements, you create more myofibrillar hypertrophy. It’s important to know the distinction between the two so you can set your goals more clearly.
I think all too often people have unclear goals of what they truly want to achieve with their health and fitness. If you can have clarity with the type of physique and function you desire, then you can create a program that will help you get there.
If you’re looking to get big (or at least grow the size of certain body parts like the arms), you may want to focus more on set and rep schemes that help facilitate sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. And if you’re looking for more of a leaner, toned physique with more functional strength, you may want to focus more on a set and rep scheme the helps facilitate myofibrillar hypertrophy. And, remember, nothing is set in stone – it’s ok to do a mix of both.
Plyometric training has a deep history in sports and fitness. The Russians have used this form of training for ages, and referred to it as “shock” training. Specifically, Soviet researcher Dr. Yuri Verkhoshansky was one of the first pioneers of this type of training which would involve jumping off a box, absorbing the shock of the landing, then rapidly jumping as high as possible.
And the method proved to be quite powerful for gains in strength. In one study, Dr. Verkhoshansky found that a group of highly trained athletes were able to increase their maximal strength output by 14%.1
There are a few ways this type of training works. The first deals with the nervous system. The so-called shock of the landing triggers muscle activation which excites the nervous system, giving your brain more horsepower to fire up the muscle to create strength. The second deals with the priming of the pre-motor cortex. Between the landing and the jumping is a cycle in which the muscle stretches and the subsequently shortens. As this cycle becomes shorter, the brain begins to adapt by anticipating the fall and priming the muscles to shorten faster (which produces strength more quickly and powerfully).
There is some research2 to suggest that focusing the sticking of the landing during the depth jump is most important to building lower body strength, is the landing portion of the movement puts the highest eccentric stress on the muscle (and as we discussed in my last article, eccentric training can trigger the greatest results for fast-twitch muscle fibers).
Another way to apply this form of training to the whole body, is with accelerated eccentrics. This form of training takes the concept of plyometrics and applies it to the weight room. With accelerated eccentrics, you are deliberately trying to move the weight quickly (with force) through the negative phase. For example, on a squat you would drop quickly into the squat position, almost as if you are forcing the bar down toward the ground trying to outpace gravity while still maintaining control of the weight.
You could apply this same concept to a bench press, where you would pull the bar toward your chest as fast as possible (without crushing yourself) and just before touching your chest try to stop the motion of the bar with precision and control before pressing back up.
Bulgarian Complex Training
There are many forms of complex training out there, from traditional supersets to circuits and a variety of rest period schemes, but out of all them I personally like the Bulgarian Complex method the most for the variety it provides and reduced risk for overuse injury.
With traditional supersets you would perform two exercises back to back with no rest in between exercises. With Bulgarian Complex training you are doing 4-5 exercises with ample rest between exercises. Also, the order of the exercises in the complex should go from heaviest to lightest. For example, an upper body complex might look like this (rest period should be 1-3 minutes minutes between sets):
- 3-5 Reps of Flat Bench Press with 90-95% of 1 rep max
- 6-8 Reps of Incline Dumbbell Press with 80-85% of 1 rep max
- 10-12 Reps of Flat Dumbbell Flyes with 70-75% of 1 rep max
- 12-15 reps of Dumbbell Pullovers with 60-65% of 1 rep max
- 10-12 Reps of Plyometric Push Ups
Aside from helping prevent overuse related injuries, this style of training also helps train a variety of energy systems, hypertrophy types (sarcoplasmic and myofibrillar), as well as muscle fiber types (Type IIa and Type IIb).
Bulgarian Complex training is also great for shocking the lower body. Here’s an example of what a lower body complex might look like:
- 3-5 Reps of Barbell Back Squat with 90-95% of 1 rep max
- 6-8 Reps of Leg Press with 80-85% of 1 rep max
- 10-12 Reps of Straight Leg Deadlift with 70-75% of 1 rep max
- 12-15 reps of Leg Extension with 60-65% of 1 rep max
- 10-12 Reps of Depth Jumps
As you can see, there are infinite ways you can put these ideas together to build a strength training program. Variety can be a key component to your growth, not only for breaking the monotony but also by providing a novel stimulus to the brain and body.
Remember, the brain is always trying to make predictions about your environment, and the gym is just another one of those environments. By providing a new stimulus you are creating salience, which is basically telling the brain “Hey, pay attention to this, it’s important!”
This increased level of attention helps drive neural plasticity which heightens your ability to generate strength and power. This novelty can also “shock” the system to stimulate a cascade of the release of muscle-building, fat-burning hormones.
Blood flow restriction training can also provide this type of novelty to help trigger muscle growth and strength gains. And for a limited time you can try this strength hack for free by grabbing a free pair of our Classic BFR Bands.
In the next article, I’m going to share a few more strength hacks to help you get more results in less time.
To your gains,
Kusha Karvandi, PES, CES, CSCS
- Kerin, David. “Achieving strength gains specific to the demands of jumping events.” Track Coach 2 (2002): 5109-5110.