Understanding sequential muscle recruitment with simple examples

Have you ever spent a lot of time working out only to realize minimal results? It could be because you aren’t recruiting all of your muscles sequentially to 100%. This might be confusing if your workouts give you the feeling that you’ve done a lot. Unfortunately, feeling tired doesn’t always equate to effective exercise.

To get congruent results, let’s go over the types of muscles you use when working out, why group fitness scenarios can be ineffective, what proper muscle engagement means, and how adaptation and growth occur.

Sequentially recruiting slow, intermediate, and fast twitch muscles
Imagine you’re lifting a heavy box. At first, you use your slow-twitch muscles for the initial lift (these are the muscles responsible for endurance, like when you go for a long walk). As the lift becomes harder, your body recruits intermediate muscles (these provide a balance between endurance and strength), and finally, if the box is really heavy, your fast-twitch muscles kick in (these give short bursts of power, like when you sprint). Sequential recruitment means your body uses all these muscles progressively, from slow to fast, during the activity.

Group fitness gym exercises
Let’s say you’re at a gym doing a workout involving multiple activities like climbing a rope or sledging a hammer onto a big tire. In some cases, these exercises might only engage 20% of your major muscle groups. If your muscles were a band of 5 musicians, this would be like going to a concert and only 2 of them play at a time. You would hear sound, but you’d be missing out on the full range of music possible. When muscles aren’t fully depleted, your body conserves energy and stores untapped potential as fat (more about this below). So while you might feel tired and your heart rate increases, you haven’t had as good of a workout as possible, which would be using your muscles to 100%.

Proper muscle engagement:
Now, picture doing exercises that specifically target all your major muscle groups, from slow to fast twitch, and, each muscle being worked to it’s 100%. This looks like 60 seconds to 2.5 minutes of slow motion adaptive resistance training. To go back to the musician example from above, this is like going to the concert and all of the band members playing their part. You hear the songs you wanted to hear and you go home content, excited for the next show.

Adaptation and growth:
When you work each muscle group to its maximum capacity, from the slow-twitch to the fast-twitch fibers, you’re depleting the stored energy (glycogen) in those muscles. Think of your muscles like a sponge. Squeezing out the old water (glycogen) allows it to soak up new water (energy from food/drink). If you don’t squeeze out the old water, the sponge can’t absorb new water effectively, and new water (energy from food/drink) is then stored in other areas as fat.

At the same time, when fully engaging your muscles, you create tiny damages that your body repairs, and in this repair process your muscles become stronger and more efficient. By going to 100% sequentially in each muscle group, you squeeze the sponge while creating as many tears as possible. Thus, you repair into stronger and stronger form. The adaptation and growth created is tied to the adequate recovery taken in-between workouts.

In essence, sequential muscle recruitment means involving all your muscle types in a coordinated manner during exercises. Proper strength exercising recruits your muscles from slow to fast twitch. This approach ensures that you use your energy efficiently, promote muscle growth, and prevent excess energy (from food) from turning into fat. So, the next time you exercise, remember: engaging all of  your muscles properly – and fully! – is the key to effective workouts that produces great results and long-term strength.

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