5 Training Principles Behind “Grassroots”

How we all doing out there, guys and gals? We are now onto week four of our Grassroots programming, which is insane to me that it’s going by that quickly. I know, I know. In all other areas this “sheltering in place”, aka quarantine seems like it is taking forever but for some reason when I sat down to write this week’s workouts, it blew my mind to learn it was actually the fourth week of doing so.

While I know training at home with limited equipment is not the favorite modality of training within this community, the good news is that there’s a lot of proven physiological principles behind our Grassroots programming that we can continue to drive adaptation and progress.

1. Plyometrics

What is now commonly referred to as plyometrics started out in Russia as training for Olympic athletes during the Cold War era by a different name: shock method. The idea being behind plyometrics is that we increase strength through the explosive release of elastic energy, stored in the connective tissue during eccentric muscle contraction and released on the concentric portion. In other words we lower down, store energy on the descent, and explode up precisely like a slingshot. A rapid muscle lengthening phase followed by an explosive muscle shortening phase (contraction).

Performed correctly, and plyometrics are an effective way to apply maximum force and muscle power in movements like squat jumps and plyo pushups. It’s a highly effective way to add load without having equipment, so for those of you who think you don’t have any equipment, you do: Your body + plyometrics + gravity = weighted resistance.

They are also an effective way to increase caloric burn when time is a factor, aka, before the workout goes too long and you get bored as shit. Some days we might see plyometrics as a strength movement for maximal force and power, other days we may see low level impact movements in a conditioning format. Both work. If you remember anything about fitness at all, remember this: If Russia does it, it works.

2. Isometrics

Isometrics are held positions of maximal muscle contraction for an extended period of time like a plank, squat or push-up hold, while keeping our joint angles constant. A traditional biphasic movement like a squat has an up (concentric) and a down (eccentric), and each of those have different agonist and antagonist muscles that are each working a little more than the other in their respective phases. For example, in a bicep curl your agonist is the biceps (more of the work) and the antagonist is your triceps (some of the work). However, in isometric movements there are no traditional agonist/antagonist because everything is turned on at all times, peak tension, and working at nearly 100% of their capacity if performed correctly. This is why isometric contractions produce greater muscle activation than both the eccentric and concentric portions of a movement.

As we’ll see in the upcoming weeks, isometric pauses at various sticking points of movements are a very effective way to get past those areas of weakness. The last few inches of a push-up, the first few inches out of the hole on a squat, etc.¬†Because movement of the joints are not permitted, the constant state of muscle tension requires an energy expenditure that stimulates enough adaptation in our neuromuscular system to not only support strength, but develop it.

3. Unilateral, Contralateral, and Ipsilateral Training 

Unilateral, as in single leg or arm (i.e lunges). Contralateral, as in your opposite arm working with your opposite leg (i.e. deadbugs). Ipsilateral, as in your same arm working with your same leg (i.e. an RDL where you are holding the DB in the same arm as your working leg).

“Grassroots” features many movements that force us to train single and isolated parts of our body in this manner and they are beneficial because of the varying stability adaptation they create. Stability is a non-negotiable skill when it comes to getting strong and fit, and to stay healthy under the barbell for years to come. Contralateral and ipsilateral movements force us to stabilize in a much greater level than bilateral movements like squats because only one side is working, and since everything must have an equal or opposite reaction, the force on the stabilizing side is just as significant as the force on the working side. The result of this kind of stability training is an improved ability to maintain good form on the bilateral movements when we return to them. Greater form not only means improved safety, but improved gains.

You like gains, don’t you?

Additionally, there is a sneaky benefit when it comes to building and maintaining muscle. While bilateral movements unquestionably develop greater total loading ability which yield greater strength gains, it is actually unilateral work generally allows for greater ranges of motion and thus, potentially improved muscle activation.

 4. Unfamiliar Loading

Unfamiliar loading is simply a loading pattern we’re not used to. As I will harp on anyone who will listen to me, it’s why I don’t and never will believe that all one should do are the big barbell movements. The reason is simple. We adapt. They aren’t hard for our body to do from a movement perspective, so if we want our strength, coordination, and abilities to continue to develop in a well rounded way, we need to ask our body to load things in position we aren’t used to. It’s also important to remember that our own body weight is in fact load, and getting it into trickier angles for movement and isometric holding is a beneficial way to keep our neuromuscular system adapting and getting stronger in lieu of not having a lot of access right now.

5. High Volume Sets

We don’t have the luxury of near maximal loads but we do have loads that will allow us to build muscle with a high volume, short intra-set recovery approach. The improvements of training in these rep ranges consistently include improved strength endurance, and depending on your diet, some addition of muscle. Many of our workouts in the gym tend to stay between 5-10 reps because they are the most effective for building strength, muscle and well rounded fitness. However, in Grassroots, we’re seeing a consistent approach at 10 reps or more, so we’re going to drive a lot of adaptation in our muscles through the metabolic stress mechanism.

At the end of the day, no one will argue that the conditions we are in are less than ideal and likely not your favorite. However, a lot of opportunity presents itself for gains to be made on very real, scientifically proven ways.

So let’s use ’em.

-Dave