Archive for May, 2015

The Coming Revolution in Bodybuilding

Maximum Contraction Training

 [The Science Behind How Muscles Get Larger]



Today there is a revolution going on in bodybuilding. It isn’t always visible, but it is there nonetheless. People have assumed for many decades that building muscle successfully required one to be in the gym 6 days a week with 2-3 hour workouts. That assumption is no longer the case.

What revolution am I talking about? It is a revolution that propels all of us in the bodybuilding world to consider and take note of a more “science-based” approach to bodybuilding. Why? Because for decades opinions among bodybuilders, trainers, and others have varied so much (often without any scientific basis at all) as to the best way(s) for one to develop and achieve a ripped, lean and mean bodybuilding machine, a physique and healthy body one can be proud of.

These ideas that follow apply to both men and women. Our whole concept of how to achieve the best bodybuilding results has been turned up-side-down and on its head. To make things clear I will do several things:

  • I will provide an overview of Maximum Contraction Training, its origin and its principles
  • I will discuss how muscle fibers actually work to maximally increase muscle strength and size
  • I will provide a sample program one can use that effectively builds muscle in less time, and with greater results. In addition, I will discuss how often one should workout and the role that rest and recovery time plays in developing greater strength and muscle size.
  • Finally, I will discuss my own experience that will demonstrate that Maximum Contraction Training really does work, even for an older bodybuilder like me (age 72).

Overview of Maximum Contraction Training

Two important people contributed to the principles and refinement of Maximum Contraction Training. They are John Little (Max Contraction Training—The Scientifically Proven Program for Building Muscle Mass in Minimum Time, [Contemporary Books, McGraw Hill Companies, 2004] ) and Mike Mentzer, ([with John Little] High-Intensity Training the Mike Mentzer Way, McGraw Hill, 2003).

So what is Maximum Contraction Training?

“Maximum Contraction Training is based on one simple premise: there is one position in any muscle’s range of motion that is more productive than any other. This one position involves a muscle’s greatest amount of fibers—and when sufficient resistance is applied to a muscle when it’s in this position, more muscle fibers will be recruited and stimulated to grow bigger and stronger. Using a training approach that follows this premise will produce results many times greater than the growth stimulation imparted by conventional bodybuilding protocols, such as lifting a weight up and down.”[1]

One of the things to realize in Maximum Contraction Training is that intensity, not duration is the key point in understanding how one can get stronger and get better, quicker results.

“There are a host of ancillary benefits that attend training with Maximum Contraction apart from its power to dramatically increase muscle size and strength, including a reduction in body fat levels, stress release, and a huge savings in the time required to realize all of the above.”[2]

John Little went on to write that, “Ever since the public became seriously interested in bodybuilding during the fitness boom of the 1980s, hundreds of theories have been advanced on how best to proceed with the prospect of growing bigger and stronger muscles. Unfortunately, almost all of these approaches made the cardinal error of assuming that muscle building and strength training must be performed with an eye toward conditioning the body to tolerate longer and longer exercise sessions. However, science has revealed that it is not the duration but the intensity of the exercise that is solely responsible for effecting an increase in muscle size and strength and, hence, personal appearance. (Muscle is what gives both sexes their desirable shape, fat being formless.)  Intensity and duration exist in an inverse ratio to each other; thus, the higher the intensity, the briefer the workout must be.”[3]

In a nutshell, here are the critical conclusions drawn by John Little’s 20+ years of consulting exercise scientists and champion bodybuilders in developing an effective and scientifically sound bodybuilding program like Maximum Contraction Training:

  • That only one set lasting a mere 1 to 6 seconds is required to effect increases in muscle size and strength (i.e., you do not need multiple sets of an exercises for any given body part).
  • That this same 1-6 second time of contraction (TOC) is more important than repetitions.
  • That movement through a full range motion is less valuable for size and strength increases than is a full or maximum contraction that is for the TOC indicated.
  • That only two workouts per week are required to make optimal (not minimal) progress—and even less training is required as you become bigger and stronger.
  • That an increase in lean body tissue will result in a substantial raise in your basal metabolism rate, allowing you to burn more calories at rest and lose more fat, thereby negating the need for deprivation dieting and hours of aerobic exercise each week.
  • That a well-balanced diet will provide all the nutrition your body requires to allow you to lose fat, build muscle, and have more energy (i.e., you do not need supplements; supplements have been over-emphasized for commercial reasons and do nothing to stimulate muscle growth, nor will they allow the body to build muscle or strength faster).
  • That a productive workout requires no more than 1 minute (maximum) and 10 seconds (minimum) of total training time to complete.
  • That you can improve “problem” body-parts and build impressive levels of muscle size and strength on virtually any type of progressive resistance equipment (from machines to free weights)—if you correctly employ this new protocol and its principles.
  • That you need only perform a 1-second maximum contraction once every two weeks to maintain the gains you make on this new system.
  • That you do not need to spend hours a day and multiple days per week in the gym to build a muscular body and to dramatically increase the size and strength of your muscles.[4]

How Muscle Fibers Grow

     While muscle strength and muscle mass do not have a direct one-to-one relationship, there is definitely a connection between the two. To understand exactly what that connection is and how big a role it plays, it helps to have a little background on the fundamentals of muscle physiology. This topic can get very detailed and complex, so I’ve opted to provide my cyber audience with a less complicated, less detailed description of muscle fibers and how they work.

     Muscles are composed of connected bundles of muscle fibers, of which there are two kinds: slow-twitch and fast-twitch. Slow-twitch fibers are considered the endurance fibers, because they are very resistant to fatigue but cannot contract as quickly or as strong as their counterpart.

     Fast-twitch fibers are considered the strength or power fibers because they fatigue quickly but have explosive speed and power. Most muscles are a mix of both slow and fast-twitch fibers (which in turn are made up of protein bundles called myofibrils).

The exact mixture of slow/fast is for the most part fixed at birth and varies depending on numerous factors including the muscle type and genetics. To make it clear how these types of fibers react during weightlifting, consider the following example from John Little’s book, Max Contraction Training :

“In conventional training methods, one performs repetitions or a series of contractions. A typical set of repetitions sees one initiate a given movement in a position of literally zero resistance. Then, as the weight is moved, the muscle shortens or contracts until it finally ascends to the position of full or maximal contraction. In this final position the greatest number of muscle fibers are brought into play and stimulated to grow bigger and stronger. And yet the conventional protocols, this position of Maximum Contraction is seldom, if ever emphasized, with the result that maximal growth stimulation is seldom, if ever, achieved. A perfect example of this is the leg extension exercise performed in the conventional manner (i.e., up and down). Looked at physiologically, this exercise will see the trainee initiate the movement using only the barest amount of muscle fibers required to do the job. At the halfway point, a few more muscle fibers will have been called into play and then, at the position of full muscular contraction or where the legs are fully extended, as many fibers as can possibly be recruited will be activated to keep the resistance in this fully contracted position. However, long before the fibers have been stressed maximally, the resistance is typically lowered (often dropped), giving the momentary stressed quadriceps muscles a chance to disengage (and recover to a certain extent), which is the very opposite effect of what you should be trying to accomplish.”[5]

John goes on to explain more on the timeframe for this type of muscle action:

“This means, in effect, that in a given 10-rep set which lasts about 60 seconds, maximum muscular involvement takes place for a total of only 10 seconds—only 1 second after every 5. So out of a possible 60 seconds’ worth of maximum muscle stimulation, the trainee is obtaining only 1/10 of the results he is capable of deriving from the movement. Viewed in this light, it becomes painfully obvious that the trainee is wasting the other 9/10 of the time he’s been employing on the exercise. Conversely, when a given muscle group is brought into a fully contracted position and made to contract maximally against a heavy resistance for a full sixty seconds, the maximum amount of muscle fibers that can be activated to assist in the task will be called into play and thoroughly stimulated until they are incapable of supporting the full contraction. As soon as the trainee can no longer hold the contraction, he will have effectively exhausted all of the muscle fibers involved in that contraction, that is, all of them.”[6]

Sample Max Training Program

In order to keep this blog a reasonable length, I suggest you learn the details of the following exercises, and the muscle or muscle groups involved, from other sources at your leisure. Reading John Little’s and Mike Mentzer’s book mentioned above is a good starting point. Another good source is simply the Internet.

Selecting the best possible set of exercises is very important. Not all exercises lend themselves easily to Maximum Contraction Training. “Certain exercises performed with conventional equipment don’t incorporate the proper physics to provide maximum resistance in the fully contracted position. I’m thinking here of movements such as squats, standing barbell curls, and most types of pressing movements wherein the resistance falls off once you’re past the halfway point of the movement. It is this lack of resistance in the fully contracted position that makes these exercises inefficient for Maximum Contraction Training. Exercises must be selected that enable a targeted muscle group to be moved into a position of full muscular contraction against resistance and held there for 1 to 6 seconds. Experience has revealed the following exercises to be perfect for Max Contraction Training, as they fulfill the criteria just described and, thus, allow for maximum muscle growth stimulation:

Exercise                                               Muscle Group

  1. Leg Extensions                             Quadriceps
  2. Leg Curls                                      Hamstrings
  3. Standing Calf Raises                    Gastrocnemius
  4. Max Straps Pull downs                  Latissimus Dorsi
  5. Shrugs                                           Trapezius
  6. Pec Deck                                       Pectorals
  7. Lateral Raises—Side and Rear     Deltoids
  8. Bent-over Laterals                         Rear Deltoids
  9. Max Straps Kickbacks                   Triceps
  10. Palms-under, Close-Grip

Chins or Steep-Angle

Preacher Curls                              Biceps

  1. Max Straps Crunches                      Abdominals”[7]


Workouts—How Often?

The answer to this can be highly individualistic because people of different ages, weight, gender, experience and fitness level—would all differ.                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Also, It is very important to point out that the amount of recovery and rest needed also may differ. However, here are some tips or key points to remember:

  • Beginners should work out no more than three times per week; intermediates should train only twice a week; and advanced trainees should limit their training to only once a week.
  • Beginners may sustain their Maximum Contractions for up to 60 seconds; intermediates and advanced trainees should increase their resistance and aim for 1 to 6 seconds.
  • Train your whole body each session.
  • Never perform more than 12 sets in any given workout. (Intermediates should perform only 10 total sets in any given workout).
  • When specializing, beginners should perform only 5 sets for the body part being specialized on, with each set being a legitimate all-out effort. Intermediates should reduce their sets for the targeted muscle group to a maximum of 3.
  • Work the specialized body part first in the workout (when your energy levels are highest) and then your other body parts in descending order (i.e., from the largest to the smallest).
  • Take one full week off from weight training every 10 weeks.
  • When not specializing, select a different body part every month. This ensures balanced development and prevents overtraining of any one muscle group.[8]


My Own Experience

I decided in November 2013 to join a gym with my wife. I was a kidney cancer survivor. I was also at that time a 70 year old Type II diabetic (diagnosed in 1991), overweight sedentary person with high blood pressure. Consequently, I was long overdue to get my act together and dramatically change my lifestyle.

The decision to get serious about getting into shape was one of the best decisions of my life; I have never looked back.

At that time I started working out three days a week doing 35 minutes cardio, along with additionally spending 1 hour, 10 minutes in the weight room each workout session. I chose the stationary bike to do my cardio, and began a full body workout (8 machines and a few free-weights at first). During that first year I fine-tuned my weight room program that included more free-weights. I made a transition to include more compound exercises (e.g., bench press, deadlifts, squats, leg presses, leg extensions etc.). In the weight room I soon added 5 warm-up and 5 cool-down exercises to my program. I studied all the time to improve my program.

Results for Year 1

During that first year I lost 23 lbs., took 6 inches off my waistline (from 47 ½ inches down to 41 ½ inches) and my chest size increased from (45 inches up to 49 inches). My neck size decreased from 18 inches down to  17 ½  inches.  I also went from a 32.5% BMI (Body Mass Index) down to a comfortable 14-16% BMI.

People noticed my physical changes and were very complimentary. Ten reps per exercise and 2 sets each was my typical effort. And, in general, I did 15 different weight room exercises per workout altogether, not including my 5 warm-ups and 5 cool down exercises.

My psychological self-esteem increased and I was becoming more confident with every workout session as I continued to improve. But, while some experts may disagree with what I’m about to say, I believe that the greatest mark or indicator of fitness is Physical Strength. However, it really depends on your goal. If your goal is to build muscle size and strength, then strength is really your measure of fitness. If your goal is to run 26 miles in a long distance race, then endurance is your fitness measure. Sprinters have large muscular bodies (the mesomorph look) due to the high intensity, and activation during training, of fast twitch muscle fibers. Conversely, long distance runners tend to have smaller leg muscles, thinner bodies (the ectomorph look) due to greater use of slow twitch muscle fibers.

If your goal in later life is to ward off the ravages of frailty, then give greater priority to weight training and muscle development. It turns out that weight training gives you both a good cardio workout at the same time as one lifts weights for muscle mass. Emphasizing cardio alone does only one thing; weight training however does both.    

With every exercise added during that first year, I increased my ability to add more and more weight or additional reps almost all the time. For example, I started out with only 45 lbs. doing 10 reps for chest exercises. In a few months I was able to increase that weight to 100 lbs.

It’s an individual thing but I found out over the months that my leg and back muscles were getting really strong.  On the calf machine I started with 100 lbs. and worked my way up to 150 lbs. doing 2 sets of 10 reps.

I started out at the beginning on the back machine doing 10 reps of 90 lbs.; long before the end of the first year I was pulling down 8-10 reps of 245 lbs.

Enter 2015 and Maximum Contraction Training

My good progress during my first year in the gym was due, I think now, to the fact that I constantly was adding more and more resistance to every exercise. However, I was still doing lots of reps, not using maximum weight resistance, nor holding the weight 1-6 seconds. But in 2015 all that changed.

In January 2015, I started a new program of Maximum Contraction Training. I thought of this program initially as experimental because, like many of my fellow bodybuilders and trainers, I was still locked into the conventional way of thinking about exercise and the notion that I had to stay in the gym as long as possible in order to maximize or achieve good results.

The length of time required to do my cardio remained the same; however, in the weight room I’m now going through 9-10 exercises (I consider myself an intermediate) in less than 45 minutes which includes set-up time, in addition to the time I exercise with high intensity for each exercise. What I achieved in my first year (using conventional bodybuilding approaches) in terms of physical strength increased dramatically in as short a period as 10 weeks. The following are some of the highlights of this effort:

While I started the New Year utilizing 120 lbs. on the Peck Deck (chest) machine, I’m now able to hold 200 lbs. at maximum contraction for 30 seconds. In order to use enough resistance, so I can only hold the weight for 1-6 seconds, I will have to increase the weights on this machine somewhere well north of 200 lbs.

I can now leg press 1,060 lbs. for 6 seconds. I now can do a traditional deadlift of 200 lbs. and can do a stronger-range deadlift of 250 lbs. My leg extensions went from 60 lbs. to 250 lbs. My leg curls went from 40 lbs. to 210 lbs. I won’t bore you with the rest.

So the question remains, besides strength did I achieve in 10 weeks better bodybuilding measurements with Maximum Contraction Training?

     The answer is a resounding “Yes.” Here is the data:

Initially in November 2013 I had 16” biceps. And, in that first year it was reduced in size to 15 ¼” because fat covered the muscles. I took my measurements at the beginning of Maximum Contraction Training. Here are the results after 10 weeks:

Beginning                                           After 10 weeks

Neck         17 ¾ inches                                    17 ¾ inches

Biceps       15 ¼ inches                                    15 ½ inches

Chest         49     inches                                     49 ½ inches

Waist         41 ½ inches                                     41     inches

Quads         22 ¾ inches                                     23     inches



Post Script

     My improvement in bodybuilding measurements indicated that I (increased or decreased) in the right direction ¼ inch to ½ inch on 4 out of 5 measurements. You may not think this is an extraordinary improvement— until you realize these results were obtained in only 10 weeks by a 72-year old bodybuilder.

     Needless to say I am very happy with the results and am now continuing to exclusively use the exercise protocols of Maximum Contraction Training. I expect this new revolution in bodybuilding to continue. Maximum Contraction Training is scientifically sound and simply too good to pass up.

[1] John Little, Max Contraction Training, , p. xii

[2] Ibid. p. xiii

[3] Ibid. p. xii

[4] Ibid. p. xiii

[5]  Ibid. p.94

[6] Ibid. p. 94-95  

[7] Ibid. p. 103

[8] Ibid., p. 114

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