If you want to gain muscle mass, this article on muscle fibers will tell you what is the most effective workout to gain muscle.

Are Muscle Fibers all the same?

Since it was discovered that all the muscle fibers were not identical (some being fast-twitch and others slow-twitch) athletes and coaches of course seek to use this information to improve training. Beyond the years, the practice of bodybuilding has evolved and today we have the chance to take advantage of this difference to develop our muscles, combining endurance training (which strengthens the slow fibers) with the power training (which develops fast fibers). In other words, we understood that it was possible to apply some type of training to develop the fast fibers and some other to touch slow fibers. If this sounds logical, does it corresponds to a reality so far? Is this really the best way to achieve maximum muscle development potential? Before delving into the issue, and to understand what these discoveries have taught us, we must return to a few points.

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Muscle Fibers Types

The muscle fiber is the basic contractile unit that makes up muscle mass. Generally we associate fast fiber to strength and power, while the slow fibers are associated with endurance and improved oxygen utilization. Endurance runners, for instance, have such a high percentage of slow fibers. The difference between fast and slow fibers is measured in thousandths of seconds. There are no really slow fibers, and everything is relative. Observed microscopically, the fast fibers appear in a lighter shade than slow fibers. That is why they are called “white fiber”. Slow fibers appearing in red, being logically called “red fiber”. Slow fibers owe their coloration to myoglobin, a substance involved in the oxidation of the cell functions.

Scientists also use other classifications. Thus, rapid or white fibers are called “Type II fibers” and slow or red fibers “Type I fibers.” All muscles almost consist of a combination of fiber type 1 and type 2 and at the microscope, we see them arranged side by side. The white fibers are faster, larger and have a higher growth potential than red fibers.

It is no secret that since studies on animals have shown a greater sensitivity of white fibers to testosterone, a sensitivity probably due to the greater number of androgen receptors (male hormone), which are located on the cell membrane of white fibers. From there, some scientists and coaches have thought it would be wise to focus on the development of fast fibers, because that is where the greatest potential for development lies. The approach seems logical, but, once again, the reality turns out to be a little more complex. This strategy in fact is naturally limited.

By developing and using more sophisticated technologies, scientists have focused more on the complexity of muscle development and they eventually find that genetics plays a much larger role than previously thought in the beginning. In short: you can always transform your body but from the point of view of the fiber distribution, you will never get better than what you have. You can increase the size of fast fibers, but scientists have discovered that there was nothing in the world any kind of training that can help to change the distribution of white and red fibers. The discovery was surprising. By performing muscle biopsies, the researchers indeed found that sprinters, weightlifters and other athletes providing explosive force had high proportions of fast fibers. Logically, they assumed that this proportion comes from the training type followed by the athlete. Error. We now know that if these athletes had more fast fibers, because they were born with. These individuals endowed with a larger force had been naturally attracted to this type of sport.\

The strength training effects on fibers

You know now that no one can increase the proportion of fast fibers. Know that you can however make changes at the muscle fiber. A recent study confirmed that training with additional loads produced significant changes, not at the level of the distribution of white and red fibers, but of the two types of fast fibers: “IIa” and “IIb” fibers. Working against resistance and using heavy loads results in reduced fast fibers “IIb” type and a concomitant increase in type “IIa” fibers. The type “IIa” fast fibers have some similarities with the slow fibers, in the sense that they also rely on anaerobic processes to break down glycogen, a substance synthesized from eating carbohydrates to produce ATP (adenosine triphosphate), real muscle contraction fuel. By putting more glycogen available to the muscles, “IIa” fibers can continue to produce powerful contractions for about two minutes.

IIb fibers (which are replaced by the IIa fibers) are the fastest and most explosive of all. They act only when the intensity and training speed are maximized. These fibers use ATP and creatine phosphate as fuel, and metabolism of these substances does not produce lactic acid. However, our reserves in these energy sources are extremely limited and the type IIb fibers are therefore emptied, very quickly. Like other types of fast fibers, the type IIb fibers do not use oxygen to produce energy; they are anaerobic. These findings seem to contradict common sense. The training type used by the researchers was a maxi repetition, or “a little less than a hundred intermittent efforts a week, close to maximum effort.”

However, this type of training should develop the type “IIb” fibers and not of type “IIa”. So why the fact to train against a resistance would minimize the intervention of “IIb” fibers while improving performance during voluntary efforts close to the maximum? The researchers give the following explanation: type “IIb” fibers are probably used in an unusual exercise. When the activity becomes regular, as in the case of resistance training, a “IIb” fibers becomes “IIa” fibers.

These findings shed light on some similarities (and differences) between the resistance training and endurance training. These two forms of training appear to increase the proportion of type “IIb” fibers. And it may be, as suggested by a researcher, as “IIb” fibers represent a “missing gene” and that they therefore constitute a supply of fiber ready to be transformed into “IIa” fibers when activity increases, no matter, whether it is training against resistance or endurance. But when it comes to the overall distribution of fast and slow fibers, there remains a major difference between power training and endurance training. The race can increase the percentage of slow oxidative fibers from 75% to 95% (without increasing the total muscle mass). The weightlifter does not increase the proportion of fast fibers, although the total muscle mass increases.

What can we learn?

For a bodybuilder, what does all this mean? How can he use the knowledge of muscle fibers to improve training? It seems that there is a logical way to train. Start by studying explosive movements. These only recruit fast-twitch fibers. Also, by not practicing this kind of movement, you’d be hard pressed to develop more muscle mass. But for athletes who want to improve their muscle strength while keeping their weight to a minimum, it would probably be the best solution. In this regard, the high jumpers are a good example, as are athletes subject to weight categories, such as boxers, wrestlers and weightlifters. In comparison, very high reps with light weights are an excellent way to exhaust the muscle and recruit a maximum of slow fibers for endurance. In this case, the larger fibers will obviously be ignored. Between these two extremes there is a middle ground, one that involves heavy lifting and practicing slow and controlled movements.