by Kelly Baggett
With any discussion of athletic performance one topic that arises again and again without fail is the topic of muscle fiber type. So how important is muscle fiber type? If you are slow twitch dominant is it possible to make yourself fast twitch dominant? Or is your muscle type completely reliant on genetics? I believe that muscle fiber typing is both over-rated and under-rated. People and coaches tend to fall into one of 2 groups. They either say that muscle type determines just about “everything” when it comes to athletic ability, or they say that muscle type makes “no difference” whatsoever. This article will deal mainly with the 2nd argument, how muscle type is over-rated and how it gets more credit then it deserves. Let me say ahead of time that the vast majority of people should pay a lot more attention to this article as the 2nd will incorporate a lot of minutia and only apply to advanced athletes or those who really like to dive deeply into training science. That said lets get to it.
An Overview Of Muscle Fibers
There are three primary muscle fiber types in humans — Type I, Type IIA, and Type IIB. Type I are referred to as “slow twitch oxidative”, Type IIA are “fast twitch oxidative” and Type IIB are “fast twitch glycolytic” As their names suggest, each type has very different functional characteristics. Type one fibers are characterized by low force/power/speed production and high endurance, Type IIB by high force/power/speed production and low endurance, while Type IIA fall in between. These characteristics are a result, primarily, of the fiber’s Myosin Heavy Chain (MHC) composition, with Mysosin heavy chain isoforms I, IIa and IIx corresponding with muscle fiber types I, IIA, and IIB.
Individual muscles are made up of individual muscle fibers and these fibers are further organized into motor units grouped within each muscle. A motor unit is simply a bundle or grouping of muscle fibers. When you want to move the brain nearly instantaneously sends a signal or impulse through the spinal cord that reaches the motor unit. The impulse then tells that particular motor unit to contract it’s fibers. When a motor unit fires all the muscle cells in that particular motor unit then contract with 100% intensity. So, a muscle cell either contracts 100% or not at all. A motor unit is either recruited 100% or not at all. Therefore, there is no such thing as a partially firing motor unit or a partially contracted muscle fiber.
When you engage in very low intensity activities like lifting a spoon to your mouth, your brain recruits motor units that have a smaller number of muscle fibers and the fibers that make up these smaller motor units are slow twitch, meaning they don’t contract as fast or contract with the same level of force as type II fast twitch motor units and fibers. If they did you’d be knocking yourself in the head with a spoon everytime you sat down to eat!!
These smaller motor units are termed low threshold motor units. As the intensity needed to apply force increases, so does the number of motor units involved in the task, particularly the number of fast twitch or high threshold motor units. The main difference between a slow twitch motor unit and a fast twitch motor unit is the fast twitch motor unit controls more muscle fibers or cells and these cells are bigger. In much the same way, the main difference between a slow twitch muscle fiber and a fast twitch muscle fiber is the fast twitch fiber is larger and can thus produce more force. During an activity such as curling a dumbbell, not only does your body recruit the same motor units as it does when you lift a spoon, but, since curling a dumbbell requires more force, it recruits enough additional fast twitch motor units until enough have been recruited to do the job.
The body recruits the lower threshold motor units first (slow-twitch), followed by the higher threshold motor units (fast-twitch) and continues to recruit and fire motor units until you’ve applied enough force to do whatever it is you’re trying to do regarding movement. When you are lifting something extremely heavy or applying a lot of force your body will contract practically all the available motor units for that particular muscle.
When engaging in high intensity or high force activities you get lots of motor unit activation and thus a lot of force. So how does this relate to the fiber in the available motor units? Well type I muscle motor units contract less forcefully and a little slower then type II fast twitch motor units and they reach peak power slower. They are also highly resistant to fatigue so they have good endurance. This is why you can sit and eat all day or play Playstation all day and never get tired!
The type II motor units are divided into type IIA and type IIB. Both of these sub-groups are capable of greater levels of absolute force than type I and also fatigue a lot quicker. Type IIA and IIB are capable of roughly the same amount of peak force, but the IIA fibers take longer to reach their peak power in comparison to type IIB. Type IIA fibers reach peak power in about 50 milliseconds whereas type IIB reaches peak power in about 25 milliseconds. Because of their greater contraction speeds, the total peak power by IIB can be up to 5 times higher then the IIA’s.
Fiber Type–Contraction Speed—Time to Peak Power—Fatigue
I (slow twitch)——-slow————- 100 milliseconds——-slowly
IIA (fast twitch)—–fast—————50 milliseconds——-fast
IIB (fast twitch)—–very fast———–25 milliseconds——fast
Now, when we realize that sports movements usually occur in around 200 milliseconds or less, if you look at the time to peak power of the individual muscle fibers, it should then become obvious that each type (I,IIA,IIB) has enough time to reach peak power production. So, why the superiority in having more fast twitch II B fibers? Well, two things. Since they contract quicker, if you have an advantage for the first tenth (arbitrary) of the movement, it can result in superior performance. Since their total peak power is greater this could also give one an advantage when producing force under high velocity conditions.
This can be documented when you analyze a large group of athletes for vertical jump performance and their style of executing a vertical jump. Athletes with more FT fibers (A&B) change direction a bit quicker during their countermovement (down to up) switch and they tend to use less knee bend. (Bosco) These results can be confirmed by muscle biopsy and even by special force-plate analysis. This doesn’t mean that one with a lower FT fiber% can’t jump even higher, they just tend to do it a little slower and with a deeper knee bend.
Although having a high % of FT fibers may give one an advantage, there is little doubt that the nervous system is actually much more important and should take precedence.
Muscle fibers and nerves
You see, the type of fiber expressed as far as type I vs Type II is controlled by the nervous system. Nerves that control and connect to a group of motor units run from the brain to the motor unit and are hardwired in the brain. Fast twitch motor units are controlled by fast twitch nerves. Slow twitch motor units are controlled by slow twitch nerves.
In the laboratory you can take a nerve from a motor unit that supplies a slow twitch muscle fiber and replace it with one that supplies a fast twitch fiber and the slow twitch fiber will behave just like a fast twitch fiber! The reverse is also true. You can take a slow twitch nerve and connect it to a fast twitch motor unit and the fast twitch will behave like slow twitch. Unforunately, it’s impossible to change a slow twitch nerve into a fast twitch nerve and vice versa. However, you can make the Myosin Heavy chain expressed in a fast twitch fiber either more or less fast twitch or a slow twitch fiber more or less slow twitch but more on that later.
So, aside from muscle fiber involvement why is the nervous system so important? The majority of the time, the real limit to your performance is the number of motor units your nervous system can recruit in the short amount of time you have in a sporting movement and the amount of horsepower (size of the muscle cells) under control of those motor units, not the type of muscle fiber (slow twitch or fast) that comprises those motor units. Remember, the nervous system determines the degree of motor unit involvement.
It should also be noted that with regards to peak “force” production, the only real difference amongst the fibers is their size. Type II’s are bigger yet an equal volume of type I’s can produce roughly the same peak force. Therefore, for displays of maximum force (strength), fiber type is of little consequence.
Now this next part is important. Recall that the average person can only recruit around 50% of their muscle motor units anyway. It normally takes anywhere from .4-.6 seconds for the nervous system to call on all the available muscle motor units to contract. This is the same length of time it takes to demonstrate max strength or apply maximum force. However, it takes only .2 seconds to perform something like a vertical jump. So the main determining factor is how many of ALL the available muscle motor units one can get turned on in .2 seconds and not necessarily how much fast twitch fiber one has. Therefore, if one lacks fast twitch fiber but also has a very efficient nervous system capable of recruiting nearly all the FT fiber they do have, they will tend to have superior performance in comparison to someone with a less efficient nervous system and lots of fast twitch fiber.
Normally the body inhibits the contraction of all available muscle fibers as a protective mechanism. An example of this phenomenon in reverse can be seen when looking at weight-lifters. Often people can considerably increase their strength without any increase in muscle size. Why is this so? It’s simply because the body becomes more efficient at muscle recruitment and firing synchronisation. By engaging in the correct training programs over a period of time with an emphasis on speed, explosiveness, and power you can better teach your body and nervous system to recruit it’s FT fibers.
Slow to Fast conversions
Another reason that fiber typing may be largely disregarded is that studies in both man and animal have consistently shown a fast to slow conversion in response to training of any kind. That is, IIB fibers convert into the slower contracting and less powerful IIA. In fact, guess what group of people has the highest percentage of the fastest contracting IIB fibers?? COUCH POTATOES! With just about any type of training, the higher threshold fibers (IIB) change into slower contracting IIA fibers. When training is ceased these fibers once again revert back to IIB. The likely reason why this occurs is because of metabolic efficiency. The body will deal with stress in the most efficient manner possible and a slow transformation is metabolically more efficient while it still allows the body to adapt to stimuli.
As noted, the main difference between IIA and IIB is their speed of contraction. They contract at about the same force but the IIB/IIx contract quicker and are better at creating force at high speeds. Therefore, with typical training schemes the relationship between IIA and IIB is also inconsequential. In fact the amount of either type II type only becomes even remotely important when a resistance is less than 30% of max.
Running a funny car on the highway
The fast to slow conversion may seem like paradoxical and obviously would be for a speed or power athlete but it makes sense when you consider survival. The body strives to be as efficient as possible in an effort to conserve energy. Fast twitch IIB fibers are fuel hungry machines. They are very strong, fire very quickly, burn a lot of energy per unit of activity, and recover slowly. Therefore they’re very inefficient. They’re much more like a funny car rather then a Honda Civic. If you tried to take an ultra high RPM funny car out on the highway and run it alongside the economy cars out there what would happen?? It would probably be a lot like taking a powerlifter, shotputter, olympic lifter, or sprinter and putting them out on the highway in a 26 mile marathon race with distance runners! They would cramp up, sputter and run out of gas!! The training that athletes engage in is much like this stress. A slow and economized Honda Civic would have a better chance of survival in the face of large volumes of work therefore this adaptation makes perfect sense even for those who might be engaged in speed training.
Fast twitch fibers don’t like high volumes or long durations of work. They don’t even like a high frequency of work. If we go back to our ancestral roots, in humans, fast twitch IIB fibers were used only in times of dire circumstances and stress or for “fight or flight” situations. These would include running away from a predator, fighting, chasing food, or other brief explosive muscle action. Therefore, they were only active for a few minutes per day at most. Since they weren’t used often the body had no real need to sacrifice them for a more efficient fiber. Sedentary people are the same way and have more fast twitch IIB muscle then athletes as the use of their fibers is limited and there is no need for their bodies to make more efficient adaptations. A faster muscular subtype (funny car) is advantageous for an organism whose main objective is to occassionally battle a predator or protect its children as it might be for a sedentary well fed human.
Fast to slow (IIB to IIA) transformations are also seen in hypothyroidism which is characteristic of the body being in a starved state. When in a food shortage the main thing the body wants is “survival.” Thus, the body sacrifices display of FT IIB fibers and adaptations related to the display of fight or flight are done away with because they would use up too much energy. This also partially explains why those who think they can shed a metric crapload of bodyfat in an effort to better display power are often met with less then satisfactory results. They may lose the weight yet, depending on the amount of weight they lose and how lean they get, they will eventually begin to lose speed-strength and strength-speed proficiency.
According to Caleb Stone the reverse is true of hyperthyroidism, hyperinsulinemia, and leptin administration – where slow to fast transformations are seen. What these all have in common is they are characteristic of the body being in an overfed state. Speed, power, and strength thrive off of the fed state! In these cases the need for metabolic efficiency is nonexistent leaving free to display muscular characteristics conducive to fight or flight situations.
Sprinters and fast to slow conversion
The fast to slow conversion has even been documented in elite level sprinters. During intensive training their IIB % actually decreased even though their sprint times improved. If fiber dominance is of such paramount importance how is it possible they still improved their sprint times?? Well you knew you’d hear this again didn’t you!? The nervous system! They became more efficient in the movements. Therefore the main limiting factor is the nervous system as it dictates the speed of motor unit recruitment and the amount of muscle that can be recruited. The next important factor would be how much horsepower is turned on when those motor units are recruited (size of the muscles in relationship to bodyweight), followed by how fast the horses run (muscle fiber type) when they get turned on. Thus in order of importance the main factors would be:
1. Body structure (muscle, tendon, and limb lengths and attachments)
2. Neural factors (muscle recruitment etc.)
3. Relative strength levels (strength per lb. of bodyweight)
4. Muscle fiber type
This is further illustrated if you compare the performance capabilities and physiques of top-level sprinters, powerlifters, bodybuilders, baseball pitchers etc. The research states that the largest, most powerful, and strongest fiber is the fast-twitch fiber. If this were ALL there was to it then an athlete with tremendous muscular size would also be proportionately strong, powerful, and fast. An athlete who could throw fast or run fast would also be big and strong. An athlete who is strong would also be fast and powerful. This is obviously not true.
It should also be noted that having good neural factors correlates with having lots of fast twitch fiber (both type IIA&B). Fast twitch muscle percentage correlates with reaction time. Therefore,when you see studies showing fast twitch fiber to be correlated to displays of sports power what those studies are mainly showing is that good neural factors correlate with displays of sports power.
The point to take home is that if you have less then 3 years of consistent training experience you should be “aware” of muscle fiber type and give it consideration, but don’t obsess about it. Don’t put the cart before the horse! Simply learn how to correctly train for performance and your body will take care of the rest as a natural adaptation to your training.
If you’ve followed solid training systematics and have stagnated and you feel you’re ready to obsess about it then read the next installment, “Becoming a Fast Twitch Machine”, where I will do a complete 180 and provide you with plenty of information for that purpose.
Becoming a Fast Twitch Machine
Having warned you ahead of time that muscle typing is often overrated and less important then other factors, I still believe it is of significance for those who have everything dialed in. What I mean is, with all things being equal it is “usually” advantageous to have a greater preponderance of fast twitch muscle fibers, particularly IIB, because they do produce greater peak power and more force at higher velocities. The advantages of a certain fiber composition on performance in various sports is both obvious and well established — For example, marathon runners have 75% slow twitch fibers while sprinters have 75% fast twitch fiber (both IIA &B combined).
The ratio of your fiber type is a result of:
(1) What you were born with
(2) Transformation of slow to fast or fast to slow through training influence.
If you were to look at a muscle biopsy you’d see both red and white along with various shades of each. The white being pure fast twitch and the red being pure slow twitch. Think of eating chicken, the white meat (breast) is fast twitch. The dark meat (legs and thigh) is slow twitch. Chickens don’t fly around very often yet when they do those muscles have to fire quicker, thus, their breast meat is fast twitch. Chickens walk around on their feet all day long thus their legs are slow twitch and better suited for endurance.
As mentioned before you can’t take a completely red (pure endurance fiber) and turn it into a completely white (fast twitch) fiber but the intermediate fibers (IIA), which would be the various shades you see in a muscle biopsy are plastic and you can transform them into more of a red (slow twitch) version or more of a white (fast twitch) version. You can also take a pure white fiber and make it a little redder, or take a pure red fiber and make it a little whiter.
Canadian scientists, Drs. J. Simoneau and C. Bouchard, have estimated that 40% of the variance of fiber type is due to environmental influences (i.e. exercise) while 45% is associated with genetic factors. So that means you have about 40% control of your muscle fiber type, the other 45% you can do nothing about.
Real World Application
So how can you use this information and apply it in the real world? Well take someone who is say 50/50 fast vs slow-twitch. Over time and with proper training if he trains his nervous system to utilize 90% of all those available FT fibers and also increases the size of them he well then be able to outperform someone who has say an 80:20 fast to slow-twitch ratio.
In training you can accomplish this by focusing your training on strength, power, and speed dominant activities. By doing so you train your nervous system and all your muscle fibers to behave in more of a fast twitch manner. The reverse can also occur. For example, if one is blessed with a high % of FT fibers and starts marathon training the opposite will occur. I haven’t talked much about endurance training but let me mention that it causes a rapid fast to slow transformation (IIb to IIa and IIa to I) without any increases in strength or power, and thus should be minimized by those wishing to maximize speed and power.
Now, for those who really want to zero in on ultra fast twitch muscle conversion there is plenty of ammo out there to use.
First a little background…
Proficiency vs Efficiency
There is a big difference between increased proficiency and increased efficiency. As mentioned in the previous article, a IIB to IIA conversion is more efficient when it comes to meeting metabolic demands. So if the body can get the job done with IIA then it will. Therefore, if you want your body to increase IIB content you need to make sure that the adaptive signals you’re sending deem it necessary.
As an athlete you stress your fast twitch fibers a lot. Therefore, your body already perceives that it’s a funny car and you’re trying to run it on the highway. If your body needs more efficiency what do you think it’s gonna do? It’s gonna try to find away to make the funny car either run at a low RPM or quit burning up so much gas!! It’s gonna make your engine more efficient if it can. How does it do that? One way it does that is by making your fast twitch IIB muscle fibers more endurance oriented.
So how do you get around this and what exactly does send a signal for an increase in IIB?? Well, as mentioned in the earlier article, detraining or “sitting on your butt” is one. With detraining the muscular expression reverts back to its default “fight or flight” readiness. Yet another is hyperthyroidism or overeating.
Complete detraining is not much of an option because you lose more neural efficiency and muscle cross sectional size then can be made up for by any enhanced muscular subtype. Partial detraining and tapering may be an option and I’ll get into that one in just a minute. But what about training? Well, if one were to analyze the IIB fiber and MHC IIX expression he could easily come to the conclusion that this fiber type is made for dealing with simultaneous high forces and high speeds.
Some studies show IIa fibers to produce equal force at low velocities compared with IIb, so a rep done under typical strength training conditions (loads only as high as the concentric 1 RM and low velocities) can be adequately handled by IIa. Maybe if the velocity component was increased, and force was maintained or increased, and performed at a volume low enough not to signal the need for more efficiency, we’d see an increase in IIB.
From here one could logically conclude that a training program incorporating movements with a premium on creating a lot of force at high velocities would preferentially induce more expression of these fibers. Thus far, there are a few studies that have looked at this and found this hypothesis to be true. Training methods that duplicate a lot of the tasks seen in gymnasts do exactly this.
Exercises That Increase IIB Expression
plyometrics utilizing loads, plyometrics, “drop and catch movements”, jump squats, olympic lifts, drop jumps, depth jumps, speed squats, speed benches, Reactive squats, as well as most ballistic type activities in which either high speeds, and or supramaximal forces are employed.
The force from a “drop and catch” type movement utilizing loads, or a plyometric type movement, exceeds that which is created with weight training. More importantly, the velocity component and the speed that force must be created is much greater. Put into practice one could start from the top and perform a quick “drop and explode” in a chinup, dip, squat, or olympic lifting movement. The force created at the reversal from eccentric to concentric is great and must be applied extremely quickly or progress will not occur.
Another option would be to simply perform the drop and attempt to stabilize the load towards the bottom as quickly as possible. Yet another option would be to simply de-emphasize the lowering phase of a movement by letting the load come down fairly quickly yet still under control. From here you’d then concentrate on an explosive positive phase. Fred Hatfield stated he used to train like this when he set his world record squat of 1014 lbs. and said it made him 15% stronger.
Short duration heavy isometrics (<10 seconds) in the weakest joint angle of a movement may also be useful to create strength gains without causing negative fast to slow conversions but the jury is still out here. The one thing that should be avoided at all costs is any eccentric movement incorporating loads below 100% of 1rm done at low speeds such as done under typical bodybuilding protocols and/or normal regular paced repetitions. This type of training induces the type of damage that signals the exact adaptations we’re trying to avoid. With the aforementioned “high force” methods if the body wants to increase the true “proficiency” of the movement it has no choice but to create a more effective and faster muscle to do it with. TADA!!
Here are a couple of studies providing evidence for the potential effectiveness of this training:
Faster adaptions with computer guided eccentric overload
Effect of high velocity eccentrics on type IIB fiber
The percentage of type I slow twitch fibres in the FAST eccentric group decreased from 53.8 to 39.1%, while type IIb fibre percentage increased from 5.8 to 12.9%. Although the increase may seem small what’s more important is that you would normally see a ~15% decrease in IIB expression, therefore, the fast eccentric training could be deemed as 20% more effective for inducing fast muscle characteristics.
Sprint training would also seem like a viable option and would be when used at low enough volume as some studies demonstrate.
Type II increase with sprint training
However, the volumes of training used by sprinters are often enough to signal the need for increased efficiency. For instance, sprinters run maximally about 3 days per week, they run endurance runs in between their speed days to stay lean and maintain conditioning, and they also lift weights at least 2 days per week in addition to plyos. Is it any wonder?
Stimulate Don’t Annihilate
There is one caveat with this training and that is it must be prescribed in a dose so as to induce better proficiency without inducing efficiency. In other words, you don’t want to be sending any signals to the body that would cause it to think it has to create adaptations just to better deal with the “volume” of training you’re throwing at it. You also wouldn’t want to send a signal that the body is under a lot of stress or food shortage, thus dieting is a no no. The message you’re sending needs to be loud and clear but “stimulating” not “annihilating”. Whether you’re creating the proper adaptations should be manifested in your results.
To illustrate, if you do highly intense plyometrics everyday you’ll soon get to the point where you can do them practically all day without getting tired as your legs will “adapt” to handle the volume. You’ll probably see an immediate VJ increase as you become accustomed yet over time the magnitude of performance that you can demonstrate, or the maximum height you jump, will either stagnate or be negatively effected as the body adapts to the excessive volume. Therefore, performance should take precedence over junk volume.
To better describe this think of a movement like the jump rope. Say the goal is to perform 6 consecutive 3 minute rounds. Initially there is a learning period as one learns how to swing the rope and how to coordinate the feet and arms etc. After this, the main limiting factor is the ability of the feet and lower legs to tolerate the lactic acid induced from the repetitive jumps. In someone who jump ropes chronically, (eg. 30 minutes 4-5 days per week), all things such as bodyweight and strength being equal, you will tend to see a decrease in maximal vertical jump as this adaptation sets in. The opposite is also true. Lower the volume down to 1 day of jump rope per week and you’ll see an improvement in VJ as muscular efficiency lowers.
A Sample Cycle
If one wanted to put together a short mini-cycle strictly to focus on this one could set up something like this.
fairly low volume – 2x per week per bodypart
progress at every session (If you’re not improving then take an extra day of rest)
No lactic acid
No Cardio (dynamic warm-ups, easy gpp, walking, and very easy intervals are ok)
Eat at least enough to maintain bodyweight **(some fat loss will be ok but once you have to substantially restrict food intake as opposed to simply engaging in better eating habits you’re gonna reach a point where you start to shoot yourself in the foot)
Get plenty of sleep
Rest Intervals should be fairly long (2-5 minutes)
All movements should be performed at relatively high velocities
**If one wanted to go Balco and gain a lot of muscular bodyweight then “supplementation” and eating would be superior to performing extra bodybuilding training to induce exercise induced muscle damage (seriously). Drug users could also add in 12.5-25 mcg cytomel (thyroid) per day for enhanced effectiveness.
**Note: I am not advocating drug use but I feel it would be foolish not to mention it, especially considering the studies that demonstrate testosterone stimulates exercise independent muscle growth. Users sitting on their butt doing absolutely nothing still gain nearly twice as much muscle as natural trainees who train their butt off. Now you know why there aren’t many innocent olympians.
Some of the systematics previously written about by Mel Siff, DB Hammer/Jay Schroeder, Westside barbell, and others are ideal for this task, particularly if implemented along with the other guidelines. If you want you can easily make up your own but here is a sample.
Lower Body I
Box Squat – 50-60% x 3-5 (drop quickly to parallel with your butt off the box, sit back and explode up – use bands for increased effectiveness)
Jump Squat (full) – 30-40% x 3-5 (drop into the bottom and immediately rebound out and jump)
Speed glute ham or Dimel Deadlift x 5-15 (drop into the bottom of a glute ham and rebound up)
Upper Body I
Drop and Catch Dip x 5 (Add enough additional load to make the movement challenging)
Speed Bench – 50-60% x 5
Drop and Catch Row x 5 (70-80%)
Explosive row x 5
Lower Body II
Depth Drop into squat x 3
Depth jump x 3
40 yard dash x 3
Hang snatch (or underhand medicine ball toss) 80-85% x 3-5
Upper Body II
Med ball chest pass x 5
Upper body pushup depth drop x 5
Push Jerk (80-85%) x 3
Explosive pullup x 5
bicep curl barbell throws x 8-10
Volume would be based on feel and performance with generally 4-8 sets per exercise. One could train on a one day on / one day off format cycling through the 4 workouts or train on a mon,tues,thurs, fri format hitting each workout once per week.
The workout would last 4-6 weeks. At the conclusion of the phase most will find they are more explosive, faster, as well as stronger.
Note: Not to be rude but if you can’t figure out a simple workout utilizing the above principles you probably aren’t advanced enough to be worrying about this stuff anyway.
The above routine sends a clear and consistent message. It says “you need to adapt to creating force quickly both neurally and metabolically”. It’s also worth noting that high intensity EmS may have a positive effect in this regard but the jury is still out on that one.
One problem with the above plan is it obviously neglects other components of fitness needed for ongoing performance such as general conditioning, work capacity, and size. Therefore, a plan that encompasses development of all the necessary motor qualities over a longer period of time would obviously be superior even if we can’t always have everything perfect. In other words, with the long term plan it’s necessary to take a step back and build up qualities that will enhance long term results.
The Long Term Plan
Before getting into the long term plan it’s first necessary to talk about the muscular changes that occur with detraining. The paradox of IIB expression and training is that the overall volume and type of training needed by an athlete would and do deter it’s display, yet paradoxically it’s display would seem to be a huge benefit. It turns out that the practice of tapering, unloading, and taking time off, also likely work by increasing IIB expression.
Type IIB Overshoot and detraining
As stated before, with training, IIB fibers convert into the slower contracting IIA. What is really interesting is that with detraining or tapering there is a IIA to IIB overshoot conversion that occurs. That is, IIA fibers “reconvert” into IIB and that reconversion occurs at a greater than expected rate.
For instance, a group of athletes started out with 9.3% FTIIB muscle which decreased to 2.0% during a 3 month resistance training period. During this time there was a corresponding increase in IIA from 42.4% to 49.6%. After a detraining period of 3 months, the amount of IIB reached values of 26%, which was nearly 3 times higher then before training was initiated. After this 3 month break training was reintroduced and there was less of a tendency to sacrifice IIB fibers.
Tapering and Unloading
This seems to explain the numerous performance records that are set when an individual comes back from a layoff. This also seems to suggest that if an athlete wishes to increase the relative amounts of fast muscle fibers a logical method would be to decrease the training load and allow the fastest fibres to express themselves a few weeks later. This finding appears to lend some support to the practice of “tapering” that has been implemented for many years among strength and sprint athletes. Athletes in many sports willl dramatically lower volume 7-14 days prior to a competition and find they get huge performance benefits from this. It is important to note that the above detraining study was carried out on sedentary subjects. An athlete can most likely benefit from a much shorter or less dramatic detraining or tapering period as they already have the ability to adapt to demanding stimuli and for them a reduction in loading would mimick complete unloading in sedentary people. As is, some studies indicate a tendency towards more IIb expression after only 7-10 days of unloading.
On a personal note, in the past 13 years I have always trained a minimum of 5 days per week. I only had one period of time 6 years ago where I was forced to layoff from training for 6 months due to medical reasons. when I came back I had completely obliterated all previous performance bests within 3 months and those bests were maintained. I always thought there was something to that and as long as the deconditioning isn’t too extreme (a 50 lb gain in lard) I have observed the same in others providing they were chronically trained to begin with. I’ve also used the above training methods with regularity on a wide variety of athletes and the consistent results seem to confirm the validity of what I’m talking about here.
If one were to combine the above knowledge it would be fairly easy to design a longer training cycle to take advantage of this phenomenon.
Block 1- 4-6 weeks – GPP – Get In Shape (increase basic fitness, lower bodyfat if necessary)
Block II- 7-12 weeks – Strength – 3 weeks high volume/1 week low – repeat 2-3 times
Sample program: Designer Athletes
cut volume in 1/2 every 4th week.
Block III- 2 weeks – GPP – Recovery – Strength maintenance (Train with 1/2 the normal volume and engage in some sports like basketball, tennis, flag football for fun)
*Block IV- 3-4 weeks – Shock loading – force drops – depth drops -strength maintenance – (basically a repeat of the mini-cycle I outlined above)
*Block V – 3-4 weeks – Shock loading – depth jumps – (similar to the mini-cycle above but with more bodyweight movements, sprints and less barbell movements – A general guideline would be 120 ground contacts per week of lower body depth jump variations, 120 reps of upper body plyometric and medicine ball variations and 900 meters of speed work per week)
Block VI – Unload 10 days – (Volume lowered 50%)
*= During blocks IV and V one would still perform enough basic strength training to maintain strength. One day per week per bodypart would suffice.
1. Anything that improves “neural factors” will also generally improve the characteristics of FT expression, particularly in a beginner. These include any general strength and power/speed training methods.
2. Beginners and intermediates should train generally and avoid overcomplicating things.
3. An upper intermediate or advanced athlete can gain substantial short term results with a program as outlined earlier.
4. You can’t have everything all the time. In a long term setup one will have to take steps back in order to build up the necessary levels of conditioning, strength, and size. These attributes will then serve as a foundation when it does come time to really get into the focused speed/power training.
So there you have it. If your progress has stalled consider implementing a few of these ideas to your current plan. Let me know how your results unfold.
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