How To Get Ripped

The Science of Motor Unit Recruitment Part 1

Understanding the science of motor units is absolutely essential for getting results, whether you want to gain muscle, build strength, or torch body fat. Building muscle fast requires you to recruit, and fatigue, all your motor units so they’ll grow. To reach elite levels of strength you must train your body to tap into the biggest, strongest motor units as fast as possible. And to burn fat, it’s essential to boost the metabolic cost of the exercises in your workouts as high as possible. How do you skyrocket the metabolic cost? You guessed it, by recruiting more motor units.
Take a close look at the picture above. The yellow area is your brain, spinal cord, and a bunch of nerves that travel throughout your body. It’s the output from this electrical mainframe that controls your muscles.
That’s why, over the next week, I’m going to cover everything you need to know about the science of motor unit recruitment, along with some intriguing new research that could change the way we think about motor units. So let’s start at the beginning.
“What the heck is a motor unit, anyway?” That’s probably a question you’ve asked yourself once or twice. As defined by my grad school bible, Principles of Neural Science: “The axon and the muscle fibers it innervates constitute a motor unit.”
Clear as mud, eh? In layman’s terms, the motor unit is a collection of muscle fibers along with the nerve that tells those muscle fibers to contract. Each group of muscles is innervated by only one nerve. A nerve can can talk to 100 muscle fibers (small, eye muscles), or thousands of muscle fibers (large, hamstrings muscles) or somewhere in between.
Before you curl a dumbbell an electrical signal starts in your brain and travels down your spinal cord to the lower cervical region where it activates a different nerve that goes out to your biceps. This nerve that exits your spinal cord and reaches your biceps is a motor neuron. (“Neuron,” by the way, is just another name for “nerve.”) The activated motor neuron releases the neurotransmitter, acetylcholine, which attaches to receptors on your muscles that create a cascade of events that contracts your biceps. (Of course, this all happens in fractions of a second.)

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Get a Stronger, Harder Core: Hand Walkout

Of all the core training exercises out there, one of my favorites is the hand walkout. It builds strength in your anterior core and lats very quickly, it trains the abs isometrically like Dr. Stuart McGill advocates, and it’s an excellent alternative to the ab-wheel rollout. Plus, the hand walkout will boost your squat and deadlift by augmenting the transfer of force between your legs and upper body. And since it requires no equipment, you can do it anywhere.
But it’s also an advanced exercise that I only use with clients who are ready for it. Here’s a brief video of my client, MMA superstar Ralek Gracie, performing the hand walkout.

Importantly, Ralek is an advanced athlete and that’s why he needs advanced core training exercises and ab exercises for men. This exercise might be too difficult for you right now, and there’s no reason to jump straight into a high-level exercise unless you’re ready.

How do you know if you’re ready for the hand walkout? You must first be able to perform the modified hand walkout (knees down) for 10 perfect reps.

Here’s how to do the modified hand walkout:

1. Start on all fours with knees and hands shoulder width apart. Hands are directly below shoulders (left pic).

2. Tense the glutes, brace the abs like someone is going to punch you in the stomach, and then “walk” your hands forward. The hips should shift forward as soon as you reach your left arm out (center pic).

3. Continue walking your hands out until your abs are just a few inches off the ground (right pic). Reverse the movement by walking your hands back to the starting position. That’s one rep.

Once you can perform the modified hand walkout for 10 reps, it’s time to take a crack at the hand walkout. You’ll probably be surprised how much more difficult it is so don’t try to do too much too soon. Before you attempt your first set of the hand walkout, perform 5 reps of the modified version to prepare your joints and muscles. Next, do three sets of the hand walkout for as many reps as possible.

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