Muscle Control – The Lost Secret of Old-Time Strength

By on October 31, 2022

There’s a story about Bruce Lee.

Apparently, he was out with a friend, when they noticed a huge bouncer, built like a bodybuilder.

“That guy has tons of muscle!” Said the friend.

“But can he use it?” Commented Bruce.

I’m paraphrasing, but that’s the gist of it.

Bruce Lee Statue

Decades earlier, strongmen Maxick (Max Sick) and Monte Saldo, devised a system of muscle building quite unlike anything we know today. One that didn’t require weights and that taught the practitioners – the Maxaldists – to take total conscious control over the major muscle groups of the body.

Followers such as Billy Ralph used this system to develop a physique that arguably rivalled that of some modern bodybuilders – long before steroids became freely available.

Billy Ralph

Others used the techniques to pull off incredible feats of superhuman strength. Even Harold Houdini may have used lessons passed on from Maxick, and contemporary Joseph “The Mighty Atom” Greenstein, to perform some of his more unusual displays.

While the precise methods have been lost, concepts survive to this day and are shared – in particular – among modern strongmen. Filming Stan Lee’s Superhumans, modern strongman and candidate for strongest man alive at the time, pound-for-pound, Denis Rogers, discovered that he was able to recruit more muscle fibers than the typical man when bending iron and expressing strength in other ways.

Muscle Control

So, what’s going on? And what can we learn from this to apply to our own training?

An Introduction to Maxalding and Muscle Control

As I’ve discussed on this site often in the past – having muscle is simply not enough. You must also have the ability to utilize that muscle. That means being able to send a strong enough signal from the brain to actively engage the motor units. It also means being able to utilize the correct muscles to move the body in the right way, for the job at hand.

See also: What Happens in the Brain When You Plan and Execute a Movement

Let’s start with that latter example, as it’s much quicker. This is proprioception: knowing where your body is in space and being able to move it mindfully. This is important when executing any movement properly. You cannot perform a deadlift or a kettlebell swing, for example, if you don’t understand how to hinge the hips. Do you know how to tilt your pelvis? Can you retract your scapula?

Maxalding System

These seemingly arbitrary requirements are crucial for being able to move confidently and to avoid injury. They’re also necessary for learning a host of new skills. Unfortunately, due to inactivity, may of us simply don’t know how to perform those actions – many people don’t even know what they mean!

The Muscle Control of Advanced Athletes

The next “level” of this, is being able to produce precise movements. When throwing a punch, for example, you must use a series of smaller movements in the correct sequence. That means driving through the foot, torquing the hips and core, and throwing the punch. You need to do this while relaxing the rest of the body – particularly the antagonist muscles. This is something I have difficulty with, likely thanks to decades of bench press and push ups!

Grant Kick
Grant Stevens throwing an awesome side kick

If you can relax the biceps while throwing a punch, it will be faster and stronger than if you’re fighting resistance from your own body. And if you can throw that punch in a straighter line, it will be more efficient, conserving more energy, and hitting harder.

Over time, we create engrams: mental maps of particular movements. The trained athlete will have a very clear set of connections with little “overspill.” Only the correct motor units are called into play. The untrained athlete’s mental map will include a lot more “noise.”

Can that same logic be applied to a deadlift or Olympic lift? Even a bicep curl? Of course it can!

And this way, you can generate more power from less muscle.

The “Mind Muscle Connection” In Bodybuilding

A related concept from bodybuilding is the “mind muscle connection.” This is the ability to sense which muscles are doing the work during a movement. By developing a sense of what a muscle contraction should feel like, a bodybuilder can ensure they create muscle damage, metabolic build-up, and mechanical tension in the desired muscle. This leads to greater growth and definition.

Curl Tempo Training

This might mean contracting the glutes during a kettlebell swing; or being sure to crunch the abs during leg raises – rather than flexing at the hip.

Muscle control takes this to another level. A Maxaldist can go so far as to “pop” individual muscles – contracting them while keeping every other muscle group completely relaxed. Watching displays of muscle control can be fascinating, as they will each muscle to contract and ripple and jolt.

The idea would be that they could then take this kind of muscle control and apply it to their training – so that they truly would be able to isolate those muscles. What’s more, is that by isolating muscle control, they could exert much greater, more efficient force.

Punch Muscle Control

Try contracting your tricep without contracting your bicep and you’ll find it’s very hard to do. The reverse is also true. This shows how you’re fighting against self-resistance during movements like pull ups and tricep kick-backs. When throwing a ball, or a punch.

But if you can completely relax the antagonist, you can deliver much more force while expending much less energy.

In muscle control, the ability to fully relax a muscle is just as important as the ability to fully contract it. And this is arguably even more difficult to accomplish. Take a moment right now to observe how much tension you’re currently carrying unnecessarily. How much energy is being wasted as a result?

Muscle Fiber Recruitment

But true muscle control goes further beyond.

Because it’s not just about engaging and relaxing the correct muscles – it’s also about the extent to which you contract those muscles.

Because a muscle is made up of hundreds of thousands of muscle fibers, grouped together as “motor units.” A motor unit is a group of muscle fibers controlled by a single nerve. Motor units vary in size, from small to large, with the smaller motor units containing more of the slow-twitch muscle fibers that are significantly more energy efficient and don’t tire out as quickly. The larger motor units are primarily comprised of fast and superfast fibers but are rapidly fatigued.

Muscle Fiber Recruitment

When you send a signal from your brain to engage the muscle, the strength of that neural drive will determine the percentage of motor units that will be used. But the order always remains the same: small to large. This is Henneman’s Size Principle.

In other words, you ALWAYS use the slowest, most efficient motor units. You only add the larger ones as needed.

Imagine a selection of small and large ball bearings on a table. If you blow the ball bearings gently, only the small ones will roll. Blow a little harder and the small AND large balls will move!

The issue? Most people can only recruit around 30% of their motor units. Trained athletes take this up to around 50%. That means the lion’s share of the power available in a muscle is left on the table.

Peak Contractions

Unless you train your muscle control and learn to move your muscles individually. Without knowing it, this is what a lot modern strongmen achieve with their training; it’s how Denis Rogers is able to perform his incredible feats.

Think of it this way: just as you might currently be unable to get your tricep to contract on its own, you likely ALSO can’t get the whole tricep to contract during movements. You’ve seen that it’s possible to create a better connection with the muscle. There is much more room for growth.

Is Muscle Control Really the Key to Unlocking Greater Strength?

This post is not intended to offer practical, useful strategy. Instead, I wanted to provide a peek into an entirely different approach to training and a potential source of additional power. It’s worth noting that Maxick and his ilk were marketers and businessmen. They promoted strategies, in part, to sell books.

And even those that reportedly had success with these methods openly admit that they combined the strategies with heavy weight training.

But the entire concept is founded in sound logic and has some very interesting parallels with other practices. In particular, muscle control has a lot in common with internal martial arts: such as Qi Gong and even Tai Chi.

Tai Chi

External martial arts teach this as well, to a lesser degree.

Sometimes these practices can seem esoteric to outsiders but, in truth, they teach very similar concepts. It’s not about the way the movement looks from the outside: it’s about the movements of the muscles and the way the exercise is executed.

Tai Chi, Qi Gong, and Muscle Control

For example, in Tai Chi, you have the “four Tai Chi energies:” Peng, Liu, Ji, and An. These describe four ways of what amounts to pushing. “Peng” is an “uprooting force” that comes as though from a spring. Imagine the way you might get underneath a heavy ball to throw it. The upper body is relaxed and the force comes from the legs, which must maintain structure. Imagine the way that an Olympic lifter stands up into the weight after the final catch with arms locked overhead.

“Ji” is pressing energy. Imagine the moment that you release a light ball from one hand to throw it: you expand the fingers explosively to propel the ball. This example, like the others on this list, come from a blog post by Dan Kleiman – I’ll link his blog below.

“Lu” is “absorbing energy.” Here, you remain just out of reach by releasing all tension: just as the willow blows in the wind.

Finally, “An” is a “condensing” energy. The perfect example Dan gives here is the way you push yourself up from a chair using your hands on its arms behind you. You aren’t just pressing down as hard as you can: you’re creating a tension throughout your entire back, such that you are able to lift yourself upward.

Kung fu has structure in its punches. Qi Gong goes far deeper and uses seemingly static poses with concentrated breath work to gain greater control over the body. I won’t pretend to understand a lot of this, but practitioners claim they can even take control over their organs and their hormones.

Hey, if Whim Hoff can control his sympathetic nervous system, why not?

It’s been speculated that control over the fascia is what enables some of the more impressive body hardening techniques.

Houdini and Muscle Control

And this is where the Houdini connection comes in. Houdini learned how to regurgitate specific objects by swallowing them on a string and then pulling them back up – using this opportunity to feel the muscles of the stomach working and to gradually take control over them. This is how all performers achieve this act.

A similar technique, taught by the Mighty Atom, is what enabled him to contract his abs hard enough to take a punch.

Houdini boxing
Houdini taking punches

Like a Shaolin Monk.

Yet another connection can be seen in the way that Houdini and others escape handcuffs. This trick can be performed by contracting the muscles of the forearm in order to make it thicker when the cuffs are applied. The performer can then relax their forearms in order to slip them out during the performance.

Coincidentally, Bruce Lee also demonstrated the ability to contract individual muscles in his forearm at will. Once again, this suggests that Bruce was at least aware of Maxalding and similar techniques.

Qi Gong

Getting Started With Maxalding and Muscle Control

So, how do you go about developing this muscle control? Well, we’re now 1,800 words in and it’s getting late…

So, how about you subscribe and I’ll make a follow up video?

Meanwhile, I’ll also share a post over at my blog for you to check out.

But for now, I’ll say this: muscle control as demonstrated by the Maxalding System is extremely impressive, but I actually think it’s just scratching the surface. I think that by applying a more modern understanding to these concepts, we could take it further.

Likewise, it would be fantastic if some of the ideas from Qi Gong and elsewhere were communicated more freely in a way more congruent with modern sensibilities. I think Vahva Fitness is doing some really interesting work in this area.

Maxalding techniques involve placing a hand on the muscles during movement to get a better idea for how they feel when contracting. Muscle control is then practiced in front of a mirror, in many cases. More gentle muscle control is combined with peak contractions. Body leveraging exercises – a form of calisthenics – are then performed very mindfully to put this control into practice.

Handstand

The original texts by Maxick, Otto Arco, and others are available freely and are out of copyright. I also recommend the YouTube channel, Golden Era Bookworm.

Isometrics can also be highly effective to this end. Overcoming isometrics are a perfect tool for increasing neural drive, as they allow for a much longer maximum contraction. Ballistic isometrics can also be powerful to this end, and you can see my old video on this subject.

Overcoming Isometrics for Muscle Fiber Recruitment

Meanwhile, quasi isometrics – extremely slow repetitions – are useful for teaching much finer, more precise control over the amount of force you wish to exert. This is about adding just the right number of motor units to create tiny alterations in force production. What I call “strength finesse.”

In a passive quasi-isometric, you contact ONLY those muscles strictly necessary for the movement, relaxing everything else. Sound familiar?

See also: Advanced Isometric Training: Ballistic and Quasi Isometrics

Also: simply practice being more mindful of your precise movements during exercise. Next time you perform a push up, ask which areas are contracting and whether they need to be for the most efficient performance.

And I will say that in order to truly make the most of all this, you also need to develop your working memory – to allow for greater awareness of multiple muscle parts working in unison.

Again, I’ll come back to this.

The point of this post was to act as an introduction to what I believe is a very unexplored avenue for enhancing human performance. To becoming, SuperFunctional.

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. Haris javed says:

    Hi Adam.You mentioned in your post that the original texts by Maxick, Otto Arco, and others are available freely and are out of copyright. Does that mean that Muscle control by maxick is also out of copyright

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