Understanding Different Muscle Contractions, and How to Design Workouts to Achieve Each One

Understanding Different Muscle Contractions, and How to Design Workouts to Achieve Each One

Five rounds of 15 touch-and-go deadlifts and 12 strict handstand push-ups. That’s metabolic conditioning, right?

The answer: It depends on the person.

For a high-level functional fitness athlete, the above can achieve a metabolic response and be aerobic muscle endurance; however, for someone who can only do one or two strict handstand push-ups before taking a rest, it most certainly would not achieve the intended metabolic stimulus.

The point is that just like anything else when it comes to programming the various types of muscle contractions for different types of athletes—muscle endurance, strength endurance, maximal contractions, aerobic muscle endurance, and battery—exercise selection is of utmost importance. 

Sidenote: Before you can even begin training any of the above types of contractions, something very important needs to have already been achieved: Motor Control. In other words, a client must achieve the basic mechanics of the movements before you can start turning it into endurance, strength, or aerobic-style training. 

OK, let’s take a close look at each type of muscle contraction.

 

Muscle endurance is essentially the ability to do work under tension. The tension, intensity and load, and volume will depend on the athlete’s abilities. What gets challenged here is motor control: Can the client maintain motor control while performing volume under load/tension?

For a general population type of client, it could be something like:

A1. Goblet Squat, @3131, 6-8 reps x 4 sets; Rest 2 minutes

A2. Bent-Over Barbell Row, @3131, 6-8 reps x 4 sets; rest 2 minutes

  • This puts the athlete under tension for a considerable amount of time—between 48 and 64 seconds on both movements, providing a muscle endurance stimulus.

For the higher functional fitness level athlete, it could be something like: 

5 Sets:

15 Touch and Go Deadlifts @65%

Rest 90 seconds

12 Strict Handstand Push-Up

Rest 90 seconds

9 Hang Power Cleans + Shoulder to Overhead @60%

Rest 2 minutes

  • Note: The above is still resistance training, but now we’re challenging muscle endurance inside of that. 

Strength Endurance

Strength endurance is similar to muscle endurance, only now the tension or load increases, while volume decreases. However, when training strength endurance, motor control is no longer the limiting factor. Instead, overcoming external load becomes the limiting factor. In this sense, you’re still training muscle endurance when you're training strength endurance, but now we’re adding another contraction: strength endurance. 

For the general population client, an example of training strength endurance could be: 

A1. Back Squats, @31x1, 6-8 reps x 4 sets; rest 2 minutes

A2. Barbell Prone Row, @31x1, 6-8 reps x 4 sets; rest 2 minutes

  • The movement has changed from a goblet squat to a back squat, which allows them to increase the load/intensity. Second, the tempo is less controlled as it was during muscle endurance training and now requires the athlete to have an explosive intent in each movement. 

For the more experienced functional fitness athlete, it could be:

5 sets:

12 Touch and Go Deadlift @75%

Rest 90 seconds

9 Strict Deficit Handstand Push-up

Rest 90 seconds

6 Touch and Go Power Clean @70 percent

Rest 2 minutes

  • Here the intensity/load increased from the muscle endurance example—the deadlift and power clean loads increased and the handstand push-up moved to a deficit handstand push-up—while volume went down. 

Maximal Contractions

Maximal contractions are at the highest level of fatigue, the highest level of tension, such as a one-rep max lift. To train this, the client must now have the ability to express both muscle endurance and strength endurance. If they cannot do that, there’s no point in trying to have them train a maximal contraction. 

Training a maximal contraction can look the exact same for the general population client as the high-level functional fitness athlete. An example would be:

A1.  Back Squat, @20X1, build to a 1 rep max

A2. Strict Weighted Pull-Up, @30X1, build to a one-rep max

Aerobic muscle endurance is the ability to make muscle endurance sustainable in an aerobic setting. For example, 100 air squats would fall into muscle endurance, and now turning that into aerobic muscle endurance could be 100 air squats, followed by a 400-meter run, followed by another 100 air squats.

An example of training aerobic muscle endurance for the general population client could be:

20-minute AMRAP:

50 calorie Row

30m Farmer’s Walk

10 Burpee Box Step-Overs

Rest 10 minutes

x 2 sets

  • The intention here is for the athlete to sustain the same pace throughout the entire 40 minutes of work. 

Meanwhile, for a competitive functional fitness athlete, it could look like:

For time @90% aerobic

5 Hang Squat Clean Thruster @75-80%

10 Muscle-Up

500m Row

Rest walk 3 minutes

x 5 sets

  • Similar to the general population client’s workout, the intention here is for the athlete to maintain the same pace throughout all five rounds of the workout.

Battery

Battery is the ability to lift higher loads based on that client’s one rep max over and over and over to essentially improve their strength battery. What is challenged here is the creatine phosphate system.

Note: A general population client does not need to train battery, as it’s a sport-specific characteristic. But for the mixed modal athlete, it’s a valuable contraction to train.

For the mixed modal athlete, an example of battery work could be:

10 minutes EMOM

3 Deadlift + 3 Hang Power Clean + 3 Shoulder to Overhead

*70-80% of 1 rep max Hang Power Clean + Shoulder to Overhead

The Bottom Line: While there are many ways to train each type of muscle contraction, the most important thing is to choose appropriate movements, tensions, loads, intensity, volume, and time under tension that consider the athlete’s abilities in a way that’s going to allow them to preserve the intended muscle contraction stimulus you’re after.

WANT TO WRITE EFFECTIVE EXERCISE PROGRAMS?

Identifying what muscle contractions your client is capable of is the first step to designing smarter strength training workouts. Novice clients will need to progress motor control and muscle endurance before they can move on to more advanced muscle contractions.

Sign up for our free Fitness Coaching Course and learn the OPEX Method of personalized fitness program design, so you can start writing effective exercise programs for any client, anywhere.

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