Imagine this: you’re training in the gym, let’s say it’s leg day, and you walk over confidently to the squat rack. You’re feeling strong that day, so you decide to load the bar up with, say, approximately zero pounds.
You take the empty bar, and as you prepare to squat, you flex your leg muscles. In fact, they flex so hard that your femur snaps or your hip dislocates, and your leg day comes to an abrupt end in the ER.
Not ideal, huh? Or possible you say, but the muscles in your body actually have enough contractile strength to break the bones they’re tethered to, or at least dislocate a joint.
I actually know someone who fractured his spine and pulled his quadriceps muscle from having a seizure. He wasn’t a professional athlete, though he was rather fit and played lacrosse. No, his body simply bypassed the limiters that usually govern our prioproception and protect us from ourselves.
You see, there are a few ways that humans can access a level of strength that they already have, yet don’t know how to use.
Adrenaline is one surefire way, as I’m sure you’ve all heard the variations of the story of a mother lifting a 2000lbs car off her trapped baby.
Adrenaline seems to be an internal tonic that removes the psychological inhibitors that control our strength and bloodflow...but doing so can be highly damaging to your body if you’re forcing yourself to recruit more strength than your body is equipped to handle (although it is believed that adrenaline doesn’t increase tetanic [constant] force).
You see, there are different kinds of strength that your body can produce. The above is known as hysterical strength, only accessed in life or death situations and which can result in muscle tears.
The strength that we are more regularly acquainted with is maximum strength vs. absolute strength. Maximum strength is the highest level of strength we can consciously recruit from our muscles, whereas absolute strength is the highest level of strength our muscles can produce.
On a grand scale, there is a huge gap between the level of strength our muscles can produce, and the level of strength we can access.
An untrained, averagely fit person may be able to consciously use roughly 65% of their absolute strength. Powerlifters and professional athletes are generally thought to be able to use 80% and upwards.
Now wait a minute...if you’re putting on more muscle, doesn’t that increase the amount of muscle you’d have to have conscious control over for absolute strength?
And your muscles are growing, but what about your tendons and ligaments? The strength of your contractions are often limited by the strength of your connective tissue to avoid a muscle detaching from the bone by pure contraction.
Well, this brings me to my second solution to accessing a level of strength we don’t know how to use: isometric and dynamic tension.
I’m sorry, but if you didn’t see that coming, you don’t read enough of my articles.
Isometric tension is one of the best ways to be able to consciously access your absolute strength.
Think about it: the human nervous system uses electrical impulses to stimulate muscle contractions. This has been shown with electrical muscle stimulation devices, which can be used to contract a muscle with a shock.
Furthermore, the optimal amount of electric stimulation in a muscle exerts maximum tetanic force.
Well, a tetanic contraction happens when multiple stimuli cause a muscle to contract in quick succession, as opposed to a twitch, when the muscle would contract once, then relax.
Isometric exercise is one of the best ways, if not the best, to elicit a tetanic contraction in the body. After all, the force is constant, the length of the muscle doesn’t move, and you can continually apply maximum force without worrying about tearing a muscle like you were lifting a car.
That efficiency increases if you’re doing a static contraction along with the isometric contraction. What I mean is, if you’re, for instance, pushing your hands together in front of you to work your chest, but then also flex your chest as hard as you can, you’re increasing the neural stimulus that your muscle receives, and thus your ability to increase your maximum strength.
Plus, it develops your connective tissue strength beyond most levels of training. Your tendons and ligaments don't regularly get a high level of blood flow compared to your muscles, but training high reps (100+ reps) and doing isometric exercises get a sufficient level of blood flowing through your tendons and ligaments, coupled with a progressive level of tension.
In fact, isometrics have been proven to increase the tensile strength of connective tissue, like changing a bridge tether from ropes to steel cables. Stronger cables means stronger force output -- ask Bruce Lee.
There are men and women who are heralded in the strength world for being able to access more of their own physical strength than the rest of the population. That begins in the nerves, not the muscles; the nerves are like the steering of a car, whereas the muscles are the gas pedal.
What you’ll find is that, the next time you do that same chest contraction, you can contract your chest just a bit harder than you could before. That comes from developing both the strength of your muscles and connective tissue, but most importantly, increasing your control of your nervous system, and thus your contractions.
Dynamic tension is the same principle, though lacking the maximal component that isometrics has because you’re moving with dynamic tension. Nevertheless, the benefits are equally stellar, helping you to strengthen connective tissue and have a higher degree of control over your muscle contractions.
Both isometric training and dynamic tension increase the thickness of your myelin sheath (a fatty covering on your nerves that helps conserve heat and increase the speed of your nerve signals).
Think of it this way: a well insulated wire has better conductivity than one that isn’t insulated, right? (If you disagree, try stripping the rubber coating from a computer charger and test its effectiveness.)
So by increasing the thickness of the coating, your signals may not only increase in speed but in strength, allowing you to have a greater degree of control over the strength of your muscle contractions.
Who knows, maybe your maximum strength and absolute strength could be one and the same with sufficient training.
Then, once you find yourself in complete control of all the strength at your disposal...feel free to go forth, build even more, and spread the word.
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