How to Use Maximum Fibre Recruitment to Tap Into Your Superhuman Strength

By on July 14, 2014

superhuman strengthIf you’ve ever seen someone get electrocuted in a film, then you’ll have noticed that they’re always depicted as being thrown across the room incredible distances. You may have assumed that this was a result of the electricity itself – but it’s not. In fact what’s happening is that the current passing through them is causing their muscles to suddenly and forcefully contract, so much so that they fly through the air like Spider-Man. And this is really what happens. Incredible right?

That happens because electric current causes us to engage 100% of our muscle fibre; something that we normally can never accomplish. What this demonstrates is just how much of our potential strength and power we’re missing out on when we train normally in the gym. While you probably won’t ever be able to make 100% use of your muscle though; understanding a little bit about muscle fibre can help you to get a lot more power in every movement and to increase your potential by creating more powerful fibres too.

Just remember, with great power comes great responsibility…

The Importance of Training for Power

There are many reasons that we train at the gym, but one of the main goals should always be to try and improve strength and power. Not only is being incredibly strong and powerful awesome, but it also enables you to train more efficiently for size, speed and every other attribute you might possibly be aiming to improve on. It’s explosive power in your muscles that lets you jump higher, run faster, punch harder and lift more.

But what’s very interesting about power in the gym is that it is not always directly correlated with muscle size. Just take a look at Bruce Lee: here was a guy who had arms thinner than mine (his were about 12-13”) and yet could hold a 40KG barbell at arm’s length. That’s nuts right? It’s this sort of power that also enabled him to puncture closed cans of Cola and do one armed press ups.

Thing is, when it comes to power, it’s not the size that matters so much as what you do with it. So if you want to increase your bench press and punching through walls, you need to learn about the way your muscles work and how you can achieve ‘maximum fibre recruitment’.

What is Maximum Fibre Recruitment?

So what does this term mean? Essentially it means that you are using as many of your muscle fibres all at once to apply force in the same direction. Your muscle fibres are like tiny pistons, each one generating a tiny amount of force which all adds up to a kiloton punch or awesome lift.

Problem is that most of us are not highly efficient when it comes to recruiting those muscle fibres meaning that we aren’t directing all of that power in the same direction and aren’t engaging all the fibres at all even.

How do you recruit all your muscle fibres and ensure they’re on the same page? Oh boy, you had to ask didn’t you?

Types of Muscle Fibre

The first thing to recognise about your muscle fibre is that there are multiple types. In all likelihood you’re familiar with this concept, but just to recap you’ve got:

  • Type I (Slow Twitch)
  • Type IIa (Fast Twitch)
  • Type IIb (Super Fast Twitch)

Now essentially, Type I fibres are the ‘slow twitch’ (oxidative) kind, meaning that they generate less force but are capable of greater endurance. This is because they contain more mitochondria, myoglobin and capillaries ensuring a steady supply of oxygen for aerobic performance.

Then you have fast twitch muscle fibres, Type IIa and sometimes known as ‘intermediate fast-twitch’, which are capable of more speed and explosive force. This makes them much more useful for lifting heavy weights, punching or sprinting. Finally you have Type IIb or Type IIx muscle fibre which is the fastest of all. These aren’t capable of any aerobic function though, so they stop being useful immediately after that explosion of power.

What’s interesting is that different muscles contain different ratios of muscle fibre: the muscles in the back for instance contain more Type I fibres to ensure they can support you throughout the day. Meanwhile the muscles in the arms contain a comparatively high ratio of Type IIb fibre for more explosive movements. Also interesting is that different people have different ratios of slow to fast twitch muscle fibres which determines you ‘genetic advantage’ – whether you’re better suited to long-distance running or to power lifting. Bodybuilders, martial artists and sprinters would all do well to have a greater proportion of Type IIb.

Bear in mind that this is actually a slight oversimplification of muscle fibre. For starters there are multiple ways to classify twitch muscle fibre, and more interesting still is the fact that you can potentially convert different types of twitch muscle fibre (type IIa can become type IIb and vice versa, and there is discussion over whether type I can become type II). Another type of muscle fibre called ‘hybrid fibre’ exists which demonstrates characteristics of both types of muscle. And anyway, it appears that muscle fibre types exist on a continuum anyway rather than falling into strict categories (in other words you might have muscle fibres that are somewhere between type I and type II). This is all fascinating stuff and you can read more about it in this overview of the research, but for now you only really need to concentrate on the basics.

This is me a couple of years back when I was in a particularly 'hulking' phase of my training...

This is me a couple of years back when I was in a particularly ‘hulking’ phase of my training…

Recruiting All the Twitch Muscle Fibres

So what has this got to do with your training? Well the aim if you want to generate maximum power and maximum hypertrophy (muscle growth) is to recruit all the different types of muscle fibre or as many as possible in each movement.

What’s critical to bear in mind here is that not every exercise will cause you to recruit every type of muscle fibre. Rather your body only tells the muscle fibres to fire as they are needed: if you lift a light weight then you will only fire the Type I muscle fibres because that’s all you’re need. On the other hand though, if you lift heavier, your body will require all your muscles to fire at once just to shift the weight. So that’s why a power lifter will train with super heavy weight and only perform a couple of repetitions.

Here’s the caveat: in order to gain size you need to increase your ‘time under tension’ – i.e. the amount of time you spend trying to move the weight. Problem is that you can’t do this if you’re only able to perform one repetition with the weights. So what’s the solution?

Well one possible answer is to increase the speed of your weight lifting. This is because speed requires more force – so if you tell your body to go faster it will need to fire more of those fast twitch muscle fibres. This is one of the tricks that Bruce Lee used not only to get lightning fast reflexes (Bruce Lee could allegedly steel a coin from your hand and swap it for another coin before you could close it), but also to develop the raw power he demonstrated (you can read about Bruce Lee’s weight training in this awesome book).

When training with explosive speed (plyometric training) you can lift around 85% of your 1RM (one rep max) and still recruit 100% of your muscle fibre.

And then by using a drop set, or forced reps of any kind (getting a spotter to help you past failure for instance) you’ll be able to fatigue the slow twitch muscle fibre as well at the end of the movement.

‘Pre-exhaust sets’ are another way you can recruit all of your muscle fibres if you start with a slow cadence and lighter weight to fatigue the slow twitch muscle fibres and then move on immediately to more explosive movements with a heavier weight when your muscles will have no choice but to use the fast twitch muscle fibre.

Not only will getting all your muscle fibres to work this way mean more microtears leading to more muscle being rebuilt to be thicker and stronger, but it will also potentially lead to an increase in your number of super-fast (and possibly your fast) twitch fibre types.

Dennis Rogers’ Real Super Human Strength

Dennis Rogers is a man with genuine super strength. In ‘Stan Lee’s Superhuman’ he bends wrenches (requiring over 500lbs of force) and holds back Harley’s by simply gripping onto a chain (1,350lbs of force). The guy doesn’t even look strong at just 5’6” and under 170lbs. He is pound for pound the world’s strongest man, and it’s all down to his ability to get greater acceleration out of his muscle fibres and to recruit more muscle fibres for every movement.

Presumably Dennis Rogers is a genetic anomaly – a real life X-Man. So unfortunately you’re just going to have to bow to him as your superior.

However it does show us the huge difference that muscle fibre can make, and just how important it is for us to focus on the acceleration of our muscles and integrate plyometric exercises into our training.

Static Contraction for Huge Strength Gains

Another of Bruce Lee’s strength training secrets was his use of static contraction AKA isometric. Here Bruce would pull or push against an immovable force – such as a chain attached to the floor – in order to create the maximum number of muscle fibres. Presumably this is because it is functionally equivalent to lifting 100% of your RPM. In one study by Weir (1995), it was found that isometric training could increase strength for a particular exercise (leg extensions in this case) by 27% over a six week period (training three times a week).

The problem with isometric training is that it only increases strength at particular angles and involves no ‘range of motion’. Apparently you’ll gain extra strength within an arc of 15-20 degrees, but the power is not as ‘functional’ as it would be using compound exercises or even regular resistance training.

A solution? Add isometric training at the end or beginning of your routine as well, once you’ve already fatigued as many muscles as possible with the regular routine.

Technique and the Kinetic Chain

What’s also important if you want to develop maximum explosive power is to ensure your whole body is working towards the same goal when generating force. Again going back to Bruce Lee, this is how he would manage to deliver his awesome ‘One Inch Punch’: he didn’t need a long distance to generate force because he was channelling it from his feet and from the torque of his body. If you use the correct punching technique then you won’t just be hitting with the power from your arms, but also with the power from your legs, your core, your shoulders and your pecs.

The same goes for the bench press and especially for bodyweight movements. They say that a chain is only as strong as the weakest link and this is very true for performing a movement: even tensing your core slightly more during a bench press can actually help you to lift more. Likewise you need to make sure that all the muscles in your upper body (pecs, triceps, forearms, traps, serratus etc.) are working together to create force in the same direction at the same time.

One way to accomplish this is to focus on technique and to practice over and over again the same movement. This will strengthen the neuronal pathways in the motor cortex and nervous system in order to improve efficiency and power. Practicing the movement with light weights then just to get the technique down perfectly can greatly help you to make the most efficient movement possible thus ensuring that when you come to use it in the gym, you aren’t wasting even a tiny bit of force. In athletic training this process of repeatedly practicing the same movement over and over again is what’s known as ‘greasing the groove‘. It’s also how I’m currently improving my handstand ability.

Likewise you can also use a technique that comes from powerlifting/Olympic lifting. Here you are going to break the movements down into their individual component parts and practice each bit over and over before eventually linking them up into one movement. For the bench press this could mean using partial reps (lifting the weight only half-way for instance) or it could mean keeping your arms locked out and lifting the weight simply by rolling the shoulders forward to engage the serratus muscles that come into play right at the end of the movement. This will not only ensure that all your muscles are all equally strong, but it will also really enable you to make each part of the movement completely natural so that you have perfect form every time. By the way, one of the most common weak links in any movement is the forearms and the grip. That’s why I wrote THIS DIATRIBE on developing forearm and grip strength.

Lastly, one more way to improve control is to practice the movement very slowly while making sure to consciously recruit each muscle group evenly throughout the movement. This is something every athlete should try from time to time in order to remove bad habits that might be creeping into their technique. This is also one of the central concepts of training in Tai Chi.

Crisis Strength and the Mind-Muscle Connection

The above section has hopefully brought your attention to the importance of… attention. Your mind plays a big role in generating power and the more you focus on the movement the more you’ll be able to direct your energy there, to recruit all your muscle fibres and to ensure perfect technique. This is something that classic bodybuilders have known for a long time – which is why Arnie would often visualise his muscles getting bigger while he trained. If you’re listening to a podcast or thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner, then you’re losing out on some of your potential strength. You need to be like a laser.

Bodybuilders call this the ‘mind-muscle’ connection, and while there isn’t much research on the topic, some studies do seem to show that bodybuilders are capable of increasing muscle activation with their thoughts as indicated by EMGs.

The Role of Emotions

One more interesting consideration here is what we call ‘crisis strength’ or more technically termed ‘hysterical strength’. This is the term used to describe situations where Mothers lift cars off of their children and do other incredible things when the fight or flight response really kicks in.

Again, there’s not much research on this topic, but what we do know is that adrenaline can help to increase blood flow to the muscles and convert glycogen into glucose to provide them with more energy. There is also speculation however that it could have to do with our body engaging even more muscle fibre as a response to the release of ’emergency’ hormones and neurotransmitters.

Summary – How to Train for True Power

Of course you can try imagining that you’re trapped under a landslide next time you’re on the bench press, but I don’t think it’s going to drastically alter your performance. For now the best strategy for developing power is as follows:

  • Train with fast plyometric bursts of speed to engage the Type IIb fibre and hopefully convert more Type IIa to Type IIb
  • (And add in slower cadence exercises at the end to fatigue the Type I muscle fibres so you still get muscle growth)
  • Use static contraction to mimic the effect of 100% RPM
  • Make sure to develop all the muscles involved equally and to practice each part of the movement
  • Concentrate during your workouts

Do all this, and you should be able to maximise the true potential power of your muscles in every movement.


About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

One Comment

  1. Peta Smartz says:

    I have a question:
    if electrical current passing through the muscles causes them to suddenly and forcefully contract, why not just use those EMS machines to build muscle?

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