I’ve been pretty busy over the last week doing various things and haven’t managed to write many posts, but I thought I’d take some time out to write about something I found recently and have adopted into my routine…
I always take interest in people who employ non-traditional methods of training or nutrition, that seem to fly in the face of conventional training. That’s why topics like intermittent fasting, reverse pyramid training, and my latest craze – synaptic facilitation – capture my attention. And I’m a little pedantic in that when something captures my attention, I give it the full nine yards. The three topics I just mentioned are things that don’t necessary make much sense at first glance, and could easily be discounted as rubbish – but that actually have genuine results and benefits when you dig deeper. I’ve already discussed in varying detail RPT and IF in other posts, and today it’s the turn of synaptic facilitation.
What Is It?
Synaptic Facilitation is something I came across when looking into the benefits of training to failure (doing reps until you can’t no more). In any course of weight training there’s always this toss up between strength and hypertrophy. Do you focus on getting bigger, stronger or combine a bit of both? I have to be honest, and say that strength training isn’t something I have given much thought to in the past – but when I came upon an article about Russian and Bulgarian Olympic weight-lifting champions during my travels, my interest was renewed…
These guys have traditionally cleaned up at the Olympics, not just beating – but wiping the floor with their competitors. Some of the lifters weigh in the region of 150 pounds, and yet can pull off 350+ pound snatches, and 430+ pound clean & jerks. Those kind of stats seem ridiculous, and yet it’s been that way for generations of lifters. Suddenly being skinny and strong has a lot more appeal. These champions would train heavy 2-3 or more times a day. And when I say heavy, I mean maximum poundage in a small number of exercises – working up to failure – in movements like the snatch, clean & jerk, and the front squat.
But hang on a minute… didn’t I just write an article on over-training, and how training intense and often is not optimal for muscle size and strength? Yes I did, and I stand by it. These guys aren’t average gym goers, they would be genetic monsters in the first place, and then they’ve spent years working up to the capacity and stamina needed to benefit from this style of training – they are elite athletes. Their training is entirely focussed on strength, they don’t care about getting bigger, only stronger.
Still doing something over and over again, isn’t that what all professional athletes do to get better? It’s a fairly basic idea that when you do something often enough, you get better at it – every golfer spends hours perfecting his swing – and the nerd name for that is synaptic facilitation. The scientific gist is that repeating a movement will increase intramuscular coordination (strengthening neural pathways) and thus potentiate the nervous system, which induces strength gains.
This philosophy was applied to the training of Russian special forces by a man called Pavel Tsatsouline, with remarkable results.
The special forces required their men to be capable of 18 dead hang pull-ups wearing a 10-kilo (22 pound) bullet-proof vest, and Pavel believed synaptic facilitation was the answer to achieving this. His approach involved doing an awful lot of pull-ups in a short amount of time, but never going near failure – to prevent muscle fatigue. It’s sometimes referred to as ‘greasing the groove’ or ‘GTG’ – repeating a movement over and over again, without causing muscle fatigue resulting in unnecessary recovery. One way to generate the volume required is to do a couple of sets of pull-ups every couple of hours, staying a couple of reps (or more) short of failure every time.
Or, what Pavel did was employ a technique referred to as ‘Pavel’s Ladder‘:
He had his charges pair up and share a pull-up bar – the first trainee would do 1 rep, then 2 reps, then 3, and so on until just before failure, and the second trainee matched the first guy when he rested between sets. Every time they approached their maximum, the trainees would start at 1 rep again and ‘climb the ladder’ back up to maximum reps just before failure. When it came to the test, it was ridiculously easy for the trainees.
The system works. You can perform hundreds of repetitions of an exercise per day and not burn-out.
I really feel inspired by this idea, and my focus is to try and incorporate it into my current regime.
I’m in the middle of a (very) lean bulk, aimed at both size and strength, but because this type of training requires little to no recovery I think I can get away with applying the methods to one muscle group. The exercise I’ve chosen is the push-up because I used to do them a lot when I was younger, and I figure I can measure the effectiveness of synaptic facilitation by how quickly I get back to the ability of doing very high numbers, or even break my PRs.
I am however, not using Pavel’s Ladder technique – but performing 3 sets at morning, noon, and night (9 sets in total, time scales may vary). Simply because of personal preference, and because I know how much I’m tempted to go to failure. On days I bench (and probably the day after) I will not do push-ups, but all other days I will.
So far it’s going well, and I’m tempted to say that when benching today the bar felt lighter… but it’s early doors. I also train shoulders on separate days to chest, so I’m going to have to be careful I don’t end up overloading them with crap push-up technique!