Posted by on Sep 8, 2014

Thom Lamb retired from a ten year stint in the Canadian Military Engineers, to become a full time strength and conditioning coach in 2003. His athletes have set over 60 national and world records in powerlifting, however his real passion is to help people discover their inner athlete, and reconnect with their bodies, no matter what their level of fitness. Would you like to train with Coach Lamb? Check out his new Fitocracy Team, Rookie to Rockstar.

I’ve trained a lot of Rookies in my day, and I’ve turned many of them into Rockstars. Understanding the why behind what I am asking them to do is key to helping them to turn into Rockstars faster. It makes it a lot easier to be motivated, especially if I can tell them what they will experience along the way to being fit, lean and strong. For the purposes of this article, I’m going to assume that you are all Rookies. Don’t worry, you’ll be Rockstars soon enough.

The first thing I explain is the concept of phasic and postural muscles.

Here’s three reasons why I want to explain this to you.

  1. It helps YOU to connect what you are doing to what you want to achieve, i.e. activating explosive phasic muscles will increase metabolism because they burn more calories than postural muscles. If you understand that this is the fastest way to get results, then you will be motivated to do it.
  2. It helps you to understand why you might not feel an exercise in the right place, and know that eventually you will.
  3. It helps you understand why rest intervals and breaking the stretch shortening cycle are important queue to increase learning rate. More isn’t always better.

What are Postural and Phasic Muscles?

Muscles were originally classified as Postural and Phasic (or Tonic and Phasic if you ask Paul Chek) by Dr. Vladmir Janda. This summary on Wikipedia does a great job of explaining them:

Postural muscles act predominantly to sustain your posture in the gravity field. These muscles contain mostly slow-twitch muscle fibres and have a greater capacity for sustained work. They are prone to hyperactivity.

Phasic muscles contain mostly fast-twitch muscle fibers, and are therefore more suited to movement. They are prone to inhibition. They are also more easily fatiguable.

Postural muscles tend to shorten in response to over-use, under-use or trauma, whereas phasic muscles tend to lengthen and weaken in response to these types of stimuli. These effects can lead to musculo-skeletal imbalance and joint instability when postural and phasic muscles are located on opposing sides of the agonist-antagonist relationship.

These relationships are the key to understanding common patterns of postural imbalance such as the upper-crossed and lower-crossed syndromes. There you go, now you understand the term.

The problem is that the nature of our environment is most likely to favour the recruiting of postural muscles.

The body is a dynamic system (that just means it can change how it works), and it adapts to the things it is asked to do. If you are constantly asking it to sit at a desk and only squat when you need to go to the can, it’s going to begin to default towards using postural muscles.

business suit squat

Additional point – the body doesn’t understand that we got a desk job.  Evolution is playing catch up right now, if we are inactive the body interprets that as a sign something is amiss. As in we are living in a cave and there is no food kinda thing. So it also lowers mood, cognitive functions and sex drive to name just a few. Basically it slows everything down and gets good at being miserable and storing fat to conserve energy and help us “survive.” Sound like something you might want to reverse ?

Unfortunately this also means that the brain will, in effect, disconnect from the phasic muscles.

This is bad because when we begin to exercise again, we won’t be able to use these muscles. So as mentioned earlier joint stability will be poor, and furthermore, we will instead ask postural muscles to do things that phasic muscles should do.

An example of this is people trying to do push ups with their elbows up way too high, because their pecs are being recruited and their lats and triceps are not. Or even worse, the hams and glutes are phasic muscles (mostly) and the erector spinae (lower back muscles) are postural. This is why people claim deadlifts and squats are bad for their back. They can’t activate their glutes and hamstrings after years of sitting in a chair, so when the small back muscles contract over a bent over spine they get quite sore.

There are several more examples, and basically in any functional movement the body SHOULD attempt to recruit phasic muscles as the prime movers. That just makes sense. Maybe you tried to do resistance training in the past but got sidelined to the couch by knee, shoulder or back pain, and went back to safe happy cardio land.

This is why explaining to them the concept of phasic and postural muscles is so important. It will reassure them that because of your knowledge in how to turn these muscles back on this time they will get results, not injuries.

OK so you understand WHAT is happening. Now we have to address HOW we fix it.

How Can We Fix It?

As we mentioned earlier, phasic and postural muscles have some different properties.

Postural muscles contract slowly and have great endurance. They also are prone to over activity and finally the tend to tighten when they are overactive.

Phasic muscles contract quickly (yes this is due to fibre distribution) and have poor endurance. The are prone to lengthening when they are weak, again this coupled with the tightening of an overactive antagonistic postural muscle about a joint can cause misalignment in the joint. Fixing this can have a massive impact on alleviating joint pain. Failing too fix it will result in you losing a client to injury.

Based on this we should do the following:

Break up the shortening cycle of exercises

When at all possible break up the stretch shortening cycle of exercises. This will more quickly teach explosiveness, in lieu of stored energy, and thus send a stronger message to the brain that it should fire up the big phasic muscles. Relaxing also helps to shut OFF the postural muscles which tend to like to stay kinda contracted the whole time.

  • When doing pushups or incline push ups  pause and actually let your chest rest on the bar in between reps.
  • In the squat, use a box. Yes I know box squats are out of favour right now, but for a lot of reasons I use them with new clients. One, I can control range, and two, I can break up the stretch shortening cycle and cue explosiveness.
  • In deadlifts use a rack and reset every rep. On dumbbell rows, set the dumbbell down in the bottom position.

I’m sure with some imagination you can see how to implement this in lots of exercises.

Use rest intervals that allow the neuromuscular system time to process

When we exercise, we aren’t just burning calories, or building muscle. Both of those things are great, however the most transformative aspect of the first phase of training is the change in the stimulus we send the body.  We are sending it a message that even though we sat in an office chair all day, we still want to connect to our explosive phasic muscles.  What this means is that we should allow for enough rest between sets so that we see performance of the exercise improving, because we have allowed the fuel systems to replenish adequately, and we have allowed the neuromuscular system time to change. The brain is dynamic and powerful and learns quickly, however it’s not instantaneous.

In order to gauge this I cue one change per set, and if they are able to make improvements I know I’ve allowed for enough recovery time. Initially it’s less than a minute, as you gain strength from neural adaptions you use more fuel and need a bit longer.

Understand the mantra of powerful contractions are preceded by powerful relaxations

When you break the stretch shortening cycle apart cue (remind yourself verbally) relaxing the muscle. In between sets try to keep yourself calm and focused on the next set and what they need to work on. I find a lot of people that have struggled the hardest to lose weight will be constantly dancing around and trying to fit extra calorie burning in.  This is just distracting the brain from the transformative task that it needs as much energy as possible to perform, so  focus don’t  fluster.

Pro tip – The process of reconstructing neural connections is extremely calorically expensive.

This is why your head is so warm – all those busy little neurons. Often times I will ask a client to do a superman and they will begin sweating profusely. These are usually people that sit A LOT and a superman isn’t the hardest exercise they will do as far as work output, however  because it is EXACT opposite of what I ask them to do all day its the one exercise that causes the most neural reconstruction.

This process of neural reconstruction is a lot like a moment I had while studying at the Royal Military College of Canada when I was training to become a Combat Engineer (for those of you that think that sounds pretty bad ass it is, we were kinda like Ninjas  but we could do math) …

Anyways I was writing my 9th 3 hour exam in 8 days, and I had just turned a page and realized I’d forgotten the entire section in my studying. What did I do ?

I started sweating.

I was sitting there not moving a muscle, but my brain was burning through calories trying to find where the neurons for Partial Derivatives…

When we talk about building a new neural pathway versus doing cardio and using one we already have I always say “What’s gonna be harder, to build a brand new highway, or drive down an existing one?”

I hope these examples help you to visualize the changes that need to happen in your body to rekindle your metabolism and revitalize your body.  Please be sure to check out my new Team Fitness Rookie to Rockstar Program.

Featured image courtesy of euskalanato and used under a Creative Commons License.


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