Systemic Fatigue vs Muscle Fatigue: Use the Right Training Stimulus for Your Goal

The purpose of this post is to ensure you are choosing the right training stimulus specific to your goal.  Not the most riveting literary topic but if you’ve ever wondered why despite killing yourself in the gym, you look the same or aren’t getting stronger, it may be time to focus on a key concept of training that gets butchered on a regular basis.  

  Ignition Protocol. Coming Soon!! Click the pic for details!

Ignition Protocol. Coming Soon!! Click the pic for details!

Strength training is simple.  Some try to make it complicated using fancy buzzwords like “functional” or “muscle confusion” to make themselves or their training sound groundbreaking but it boils down to an elementary concept:

·       A training stimulus is applied to a muscle(s)

·       Muscle(s) work to overcome the stimulus

·       Muscle(s) adapt (increase strength/size/definition) to be more efficient at overcoming said stimulus

An example:

Dumbbell Bicep Curl: The targeted muscle (bicep) becomes fatigued while attempting to overcome the resistance (training stimulus) provided by a dumbbell for a given amount of reps and sets.  If done with proper form and intensity, the bicep is forced to adapt by increasing in size/strength to better perform the task in future training sessions. 

  I don’t know this dude but he’s got some decent biceps. My bet is that he didn’t get those by doing 20 squat thrusts before he hits his curls.

I don’t know this dude but he’s got some decent biceps. My bet is that he didn’t get those by doing 20 squat thrusts before he hits his curls.

That’s it folks.  That’s training.  Understand this concept and you’ll be able to spot the “muscle confusion” BS from a mile away.

Localized Muscle Fatigue

When attempting to strengthen or grow a muscle, localized muscle fatigue and in some cases failure, MUST be present to create adaptations in a specific muscle. Without it, why would your muscle feel the need to get stronger, bigger, or more defined?  The fact is, it won’t.  It’ll remain the same until a stimulus is presented that requires a significant amount of intensity to overcome.  This is a major reason why being cognizant of what muscle you are targeting with an exercise and using proper form and intensity are so important, to make sure a training stimulus is provided for that specific muscle.

As awesome as deadlifts are, most trainees are limited by the strength of their lower backs.  If the limiting factor of the movement is lower back strength, localized muscle fatigue may not be occurring in the hamstrings or glutes to the point required for those muscles to adapt.  Accessory movements such as Romanian deadlifts or hip thrusts that target the hammies and glutes may be a necessary supplement to deadlifts to ensure development of those muscles. 

Another example where trainees typically miss out on the benefits of localized muscle fatigue is when they are limited by a different type of training stimulus:  systemic fatigue.  This refers to when the trainee reaches fatigue or failure during an exercise due to cardiovascular or pulmonary limitations.  If you’re hitting your billionth burpee and need to assume the fetal position to control heart rate and breathing, chances are you’re reaching failure systemically.  Regardless of how hard you perceive the exercise, it’s not doing much to increase the strength of the individual muscles involved.

  Battling ropes look cool, a lot cooler than an overhead press. However, if you think they will build more shoulder strength than lifting a heavy barbell over your head because you saw it on “Ballers” or “The Biggest Loser” you sir, would be wrong!!

Battling ropes look cool, a lot cooler than an overhead press. However, if you think they will build more shoulder strength than lifting a heavy barbell over your head because you saw it on “Ballers” or “The Biggest Loser” you sir, would be wrong!!

Systemic Fatigue = Conditioning

Systemic fatigue is generally most desirable during conditioning work.  Cardio, sled pushing/pulling, HIIT, barbell complexes, bike sprints, rower sprints, etc. are all great examples of exercises that will induce systemic fatigue and improve levels of conditioning that will increase the ability to perform more quality work in the gym. Ideally, cardiovascular and pulmonary adaptations will follow bouts of training where systemic fatigue is the limiting factor.

Some bro’s get sloppy and justify their lack of conditioning with a fear of losing muscle but it has its benefits for even the biggest, baddest, power athletes in the strength game.  Look up world renowned strength coach Louie Simmons and his crew from Westside Barbell and how they implement GPP (general physical preparedness) using a series of sleds and prowlers.  If you aren’t getting conditioning work in, you’re piss poor work capacity is leaving gains on the table.  Stop being lazy.

  It may not be riding on the elliptical for 45 minutes watching Game of Thrones but strong people do conditioning too, and it actually helps them get stronger!    Image courtesy of Westside Barbell. War Wagon Barrow.

It may not be riding on the elliptical for 45 minutes watching Game of Thrones but strong people do conditioning too, and it actually helps them get stronger!

Image courtesy of Westside Barbell. War Wagon Barrow.

Pick One or the Other and Smash It

Both types of training stimuli are beneficial for their own specific reasons. 

Want to get stronger and/or add muscle size and definition? Fatigue a muscle or set of muscles locally.

Want to improve conditioning or expend some energy? Push your body to fatigue systemically.   

Pick one or the other and knock it out of the park.  And although this would be a topic for another post, if strength or aesthetics are the goal, localized muscle fatigue should make up a much higher percentage of your training then systemic fatigue or you’ll risk losing precious lean body mass and wind up in the dreaded “skinny fat” category.

Kill Two Birds with One Stone?

Many experts and programs I see online attempt to hit the trainee with both stimuli at once to “confuse” or “shock” the muscle into adaptation.  It doesn’t work like that.  A circuit of bench press, box jumps, burpees, cartwheels, and backflips with zero rest isn’t going to make you any stronger, it’s just going to gas you and burn a bunch of calories.  It’s like trying to study calculus and astrophysics while getting laid, you’re going to end up being awful at everything. 

  This pic doesn’t have much to do with the article. I just thought it was ridiculous how far some gyms take this shit and thought you should see it. Although if “shocking” the muscle was your goal then I suppose when these ladies get dropped: mission accomplished.    Image courtesy of breakingmuscle.com

This pic doesn’t have much to do with the article. I just thought it was ridiculous how far some gyms take this shit and thought you should see it. Although if “shocking” the muscle was your goal then I suppose when these ladies get dropped: mission accomplished.

Image courtesy of breakingmuscle.com

Programming

Especially if your goal is either aesthetics or strength based, which makes up 99.9% of those who walk through gym doors, exercises that focus on localized muscle fatigue should be performed first in the training session.Save the conditioning work for the end of the workout.If your schedule allows, the best option would be to do conditioning as a stand-alone session at a time that won’t negatively affect recovery from strength work.

Leave a comment and let me know what you think about what you just read. Did you like it? Do you agree/disagree? Do I suck at writing? Let it all out.