by Jason Tremblay, The Strength Guys Inc.
Exercise selection is a problem. Even worse, it’s a problem that is not anywhere close to being resolved.
Why does arguably the most important acute training variable receive such little consideration? My hypothesis is because we do what we are comfortable doing, and most of all, we do what we like. But what we like isn’t always conducive with making improvements to our physique. That’s where we come in, our goal here at The Strength Guys is to design periodized training programs with every word and every number in a program serving a greater purpose. The joint angle, velocity and EMG matter – we’re here to tell you why they matter, and most importantly, to tell you how you can begin the process of more purposeful exercise selection.
Our approach to hypertrophy training has been heavily influenced by the 2010 review on the Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy by Brad Schoenfeld. In line with what Schoenfeld concluded, we view programming for hypertrophy as a three-pronged attack. Mechanical stress, metabolic stress, and muscle damage are the three variables that we are looking to create during the process of building a hypertrophy program.
The benefit of looking at hypertrophy in this perspective is that it lays the foundation for more detailed and purposeful program design as a whole.
Certain intensities, rep velocities, rest times, rep ranges, set ranges and set structures can all be manipulated to vary the training response, and so can exercise type.
Tension is produced by force and stretch. (Goldspink, 2005) It has been postulated that tension disturbs the structural integrity of skeletal muscle, which causes responses within the cell that ultimately lead to new growth. (Toigo, 2006) There are two types of active tension, active shortening tension – which occurs during the concentric phase, and active lengthening tension – which occurs during the eccentric phase.
During the eccentric contraction, active lengthening occurs due to the tension developed by the contractile proteins actin and myosin, and has been theorized to enhance the hypertrophy response. (Toigo, 2006)
Let me throw you for a loop here, not all exercises are created equal. Well… you know that. But the question is why? The answer is that different exercises distribute load at different parts of the range of motion. This point is exemplified in the paper “Are All Hip
Extension Exercises Created Equal?” (Contreras et al., 2013), which was followed up by an informative video made on the very subject by Bret Contreras, and for the sake of simplicity I will use his example here since we will be expanding off of these concepts shortly. Compare a Roman Chair Back Extension, 45° Back Extension, and a Good Morning.
They all train the glutes and hamstrings, and they all provide the most load at different parts of the range of motion.
For instance, the glutes work there hardest near or in hip extension, therefore the Roman Chair Back Extension where the body is parallel to the ground at the top of the movement will offer the most resistance to the glutes when they are working the hardest. In contrast, a Goodmorning will offer the most resistance when the hamstrings and glutes are stretched. In between we have the 45° Back Extension, which is providing relatively similar amounts of load throughout the movement.
It is a common notion in bodybuilding circles to select exercises that will elicit the most amount of tension throughout the movement, but this notion may not be 100% complete. A study by Segal (1991) showed that there appears to be hypertrophy benefits to maximally shortening and maximally lengthening muscle.
Furthermore, if mechanical tension was all that mattered, why aren’t powerlifters and strongmen dominating the bodybuilding stage?
Mechanical tension is much higher in plyometric and maximal strength situations (Cote, 1988); this is the COMPLETE opposite of how bodybuilders traditionally go about training. Thus, the methods of more purposeful exercise selection run much deeper.
Metabolic stress is the accumulation of metabolites from anaerobic glycolysis such as lactate and hydrogen protons.
Although it is not definitively known whether they act in either a primary or secondary muscle building role, mechanisms such as the cAMP-mediated testosterone response from lactate, cell swelling, and the increased motor unit activation while training to fatigue have been cited as reasons to prioritize metabolic stress in hypertrophy programs (Willardson, 2006)
In addition to other factors that heavily influence metabolic stress build up such as rest times in between sets, reps, and total set volume – exercise selection plays a nice little role as well.
Type II muscle fibers are less fatigue resistant, but they produce more force as well.
What does that mean? It means that exercises that require more velocity will also produce fatigue more quickly. In systems such as CrossFit, Olympic Lifts are used heavily as a pillar for overall athlete development. Now am I going to go as far to say that bodybuilders should be doing Clean & Jerks, as well as the Snatch? No. But what about Clean Pulls, Snatch Pulls, Push Press, Weighted Jump Squats, Plyometric Push Ups and Push Jerks?
The catch being that training high-end speed movements with low reps will predominantly involve the ATP-PC energy system, which is alactic. In order to create fatigue byproducts such as lactate, we need to be using anaerobic glycolytic metabolism. Therefore, that means we need to add more reps to these movements. The way that I go about doing this is not by performing Clean Pulls for sets of 10 or 15 reps, but instead, by using exercise complexes. I may start with 6 reps of clean pulls, and then finish the set off with 6 reps of deadlifts. Or I may start with 6 reps of Strict Overhead Press, transition into 4 reps of Push Press, and then 2 reps of Push Jerks with the same weight. Through my own coaching practice, I have noticed that this makes a significant difference in the response to higher rep training.
When positioned in the right part of a training session, using movements that increase rep velocity will theoretically also increase fatigue. This may be beneficial for enhancing the training response.
Furthermore, exercises that place a muscle in a maximally contracted position may also offer a natural occlusion effect. Creating a local hypoxic environment in a muscle is another way to drive fatigue byproduct accumulation upwards. An example of this would be the Behind the Head variation of a Cable Curl. The biceps brachii is not only responsible for elbow flexion and supination, but since it originates on the shoulder blade, it is also a shoulder flexor. Want to maximally shorten the bicep? You need supination, elbow flexion, and shoulder flexion. Training the bicep in this position with the goal of fatigue byproduct buildup is a method that we use commonly with our bodybuilders and physique athletes.
So far we’ve covered the distribution of load throughout the range of motion, rep velocity, and joint angle positioning on creating different adaptations.
Now it’s time to look at the third hypothesized mechanism of hypertrophy, muscle damage.
Now, let’s revert back to the earlier example from Bret Contreras on exercise selection. Roman Chair Back Extensions provide the most torque in a shortened position, 45 degree Back Extensions distribute the torque relatively evenly, and the Good Morning provides the most torque in a stretched position.
The stretched position is important because training a muscle in its stretched position is a powerful trigger for muscle damage, so too is eccentric exercise. (Schoenfeld, 2010)
Putting the Puzzle Together
We have examined the science and evidence behind selecting exercises to create a different hypertrophy stimulus, now it’s time to put it all together. Is there a specific exercise type that you should be working with? In my opinion, there isn’t. In addition to the factors outlined above, EMG research also plays an integral role in our exercise selection. So too does safety, does the exercise pass the simple risk vs. benefit test? If not, don’t use it. Certain exercises are better for certain training objectives, and that’s how we structure our hypertrophy workouts.
Here’s a sample arm workout along with basic descriptors so that you can give this method of more purposeful exercise selection a try.
A1. Close Grip Bench Press with Bands – 5 x 6 & move on to second half of superset
Goal: Compound movement with load relatively evenly distributed throughout the range of motion.
A2. Dumbbell Curl with Full Supination – 5 x 6 with 90 seconds rest
Goal: Involve 2 of the 3 major actions of the biceps brachii, distribute load throughout the middle of the range of motion.
B1. Overhead Rope Triceps Extension – 4 x 12 & move on to second half of superset
Goal: Place the Triceps in a stretched position to trigger muscle damage
B2. Behind the Head Cable Curl – 4 x 12 with 90 seconds rest once both exercises are completed
Goal: Place the Biceps in a maximally shortened position to increase metabolic stress
C1. Cable Triceps Kickbacks – 3 x 12 & move on to second half of superset
Goal: Place the Triceps in a maximally shortened position to increase metabolic stress
C2. Cable Shoulder Extension Bicep Curl – 3 x 12 with 60 seconds rest
Goal: Place the Biceps in a stretched position to trigger muscle damage
Although this is just a simple arm day, and we wouldn’t recommend training arms on their own day exclusively – this concept can be applied on a much larger scale. Enough with the, “it works for me” logic. We have a reason for reps, sets and everything else in the program, why not exercise selection as well?
Author: The Strength Guys
An online coaching and performance group who strive to follow an evidence-based practice. In addition to coaching, The Strength Guys provide content on a regular basis via Twitter & Instagram, and Facebook.
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