What Cirque du Soleil Can Teach You About How to Build Muscle
Written on June 28, 2014 at 3:34 am, by Eric Cressey
I'm in Chicago to speak at the Perform Better Summit this weekend, but fortunately, my good friend Chad Waterbury provided this guest post for today. Enjoy! -EC
In 2001, I went with a buddy to Vegas. I wish I could say the trip was replete with all the temptations that Sin City had to offer, but it was strictly business.
At the time, I had a packed personal training calendar that kept me busy from dawn to dusk. Most of my clients were guys that wanted to build muscle, so I had them do a combination of heavy and high-rep training to failure.
That’s how bodybuilding protocols worked back then, and most of them still do today. I made my clients work hard and they trained each major muscle group about twice per week.
Now this is where my Vegas trip comes in.
That year I went to see the Cirque du Soleil show, Mystere. Many of my clients had seen the popular show and they mentioned that I should make a point to attend, mainly because of two heavily-muscled gymnastics that display mind-blowing feats of strength: the Alexis Brothers.
As my brain assimilated what I was seeing. I remember feeling blown away. What astonished me most weren’t the incredible routines they did, even though they were the coolest and most impressive things I’d ever seen.
Nope, I was absolutely shocked by the frequency they had to perform that routine. These guys were doing 10 shows per week!
What the Alexis brothers were doing defied all the “laws” of training and recovery I’d been taught in college, textbooks, and online write-ups. That moment I had an epiphany, if you will: I was going to have my clients train their underdeveloped muscles with a higher frequency. I was determined to figure out just how often a person with average genetics could stimulate a muscle group and still recover.
Eleven years later, in 2012, I had accumulated a huge amount of data on frequent training that I was ready to share. So, I released my High Frequency Training (HFT) training system to teach my audience how to build muscle using this approach.
My approach for HFT was pretty simple. First, you would choose an exercise you could do for anywhere from 12-20 reps before failure. Then you would perform a target number of total reps each day, say, 50. Finally, you would add a rep each day over the course of a few months.
It was a very good system, especially with exercises such as the pull-up, and many people gained a lot of muscle from it.
However, I still felt I could make HFT better. So over the last two years I continued to experiment with different training protocols while taking in the feedback from those who were following HFT.
What did I learn? A whole lot. Now my frequent training plans are shorter, and more specialized for each major muscle group. There are three components for making a frequent training plan work for you.
1. Understand whether a muscle responds best to high or low reps: The biceps won’t grow with high rep training; if they did, collegiate rowers would have massive guns. The quadriceps, however, will definitely grow with high reps – just ask any cyclist.
2. Stimulate the muscle group as quickly as possible: When you start working a muscle more often the last thing you want to do is spend more time in the gym. Plus, if the extra workouts are too long you’ll burn out fast. You must stimulate that muscle as quickly as possible, and it doesn’t take long if you know what to do.
Here’s one example for the pecs:
Push-up Iso-Squeeze: Get in the top position of a push-up, then attempt to pull your hands together as intensely as possible for 10 seconds (any longer than that and you won’t be recruiting the largest motor units).
Do 5 sets of that iso-squeeze with two minutes rest between sets every other day. It works!
3. Spare the joints: All forms of exercise stress the joints, but some do more than others. If you start doing an overhead triceps extension or leg curl every day, you’ll run into joint problems in a hurry. That’s why my latest muscle-building system, HFT2, incorporates instructional videos so you can learn how to best spare the joints and target the muscles.
As an example. Here’s how I spare the knees for the Goblet Squat:
Keep these three points in mind as you train with a higher frequency and you’ll get much better results.
Note from EC: we've already started experimenting with some of Chad's ideas on the high frequency training front, and I think it has tremendous merit. If you're looking for some direction to take the guesswork out of these applications, I'd encourage you to check out Chad's new resource, High Frequency Training 2, which is on sale through Tuesday at midnight.
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