A great movie has action, gratuitous violence, weird…dirty sex, plot twists, and great dialogue. A great lifting routine should be similar, except without the great dialogue. Nobody likes a talker in the gym.
I’m going to dust off an old classic lifting scheme, and put a couple of sexy new twists on it for 2007. More experienced trainees may have heard of the 1/6 Method popularized many moons ago by Charles Poliquin and others. For some time now, it’s been one of my favorite protocols for increasing strength and gaining muscle simultaneously. Sadly, it’s rarely used. So I’m bringing it back, and I’m bringing it back better.
To put another feather in the cap of the 1/6 Method, I’ll share a quick recount from a few years ago. In preparation for a seminar I was to give on novel methods of lean body mass accretion, I contacted a man by the name of Jerry Telle. He came up with a brilliant system of negative overload exercises he modestly called “Telle-Kinetics”, and I had planned on including quite a bit of info about these movements in my talk. My inquiry to him was in search of any new ideas or methods he had come up with in his mad scientist laboratory that the public hadn’t had a chance to feast upon yet. Much to my surprise, he declared his favorite muscle gaining protocol the….1/6 Method. Not what I was looking for, as this was something I had been using for quite some time already, but interesting as hell nonetheless.
What is the 1/6 Method?
The concept is simple, activate as many motor units as possible, and then fatigue them. And for dessert (one of my additions), some increased blood flow and nutrient delivery to feed the muscles and pamper those creaky joints.
For those of you that plan to skim the whole article to find out just what the workout is, wait no more. I sympathize with ADD and ADHD, and even ADDHD (ADD in Hi Definition, rare but just as made up as the other two…). So here is the plan first, with the reasoning, as well as an exact workout split, to follow:
1×1 @ 95% 1RM*
1×6 @ 95% 6RM
1×1 @ 100% 1RM
1×6 @ 100% 6RM
1×1 @ 100% 1RM
1×12 @ 105% 12RM
*An important note about 1RMs: This is a weight that you can perform for a single, completely controlled repetition. Just because you’re only performing one rep doesn’t mean you should sacrifice form and use too much weight. Form must be absolutely perfect; this is typically about 10% less than most people consider their actual 1RM. Picture the way you move a weight for the first repetition in a set of 6, this is how it should look.
This will be done for two paired movement-antagonistic exercises simultaneously, with adequate rest in between each set. For example, Bench Press and Seated Row, or Pull Up and Overhead Press.
So, your workout would look like this:
A1: Bench Press 1×1
Rest 90 seconds
A2: Seated Row 1×1
Rest 90 seconds
A1: Bench Press 1×6
Rest 90 seconds
A2: Seated Row 1×6
Why Does it Work so Well?
First, a quick low-down on motor unit anatomy, to make sure we’re all on the same page. Consider this the opening scene of a movie, where you get to learn about the protagonist’s sketchy childhood where his mother would lock him in the coat closet with a box full of raccoons twisted on LSD.
A motor unit (MU) is defined as a single motor neuron and all of the fibers it innervates. Those of you who have studied exercise physiology, that could quite possibly be the 875 thousandth time you’ve heard that. Once a motor neuron is activated, all fibers terminated upon by axons associated with the neuron will fire and contract maximally.
Muscles which require fine control have fewer fibers per MU. To help visualize, the muscles of the eye have about 10 fibers per motor unit allowing for very small adjustments based on number of motor units activated. Larger muscles designed for significant force generation have 100x or more as many fibers associated with each motor unit. The gastrocnemius of the calf, for example has 1,000-2,000 fibers associated with each motor unit.
An important point to remember, is that the strength of contraction for a given motor unit is constant (it either fires maximally, contracting all fibers, or it doesn’t fire at all), but the strength of contraction of an entire muscle is dependant upon how many motor units are activated.
What are the 1’s for?
Performing 1 repetition maximum (1RM) lifts aren’t just for powerlifters, Olympic lifters, and show-offs. Unfortunately many trainees are scared away from including them in their program due to potential injury, not having an adequate spotter, hypogonadism, or a variety of other reasons. This is a mistake! Here are some benefits of performing controlled 1RMs and the reasons for their inclusion in this program:
- Increased MU Activation:
Due to Hennemen’s Size Principle, MUs are activated sequentially from small to large, the large ones only being called upon for maximal force. The heavier the weight lifted, the more MU’s called upon, it’s that simple. It doesn’t get any heavier than a 1RM.
- Increased ability to activate more MUs after subsequent workouts:
Strength gain comes from improved neural efficiency as well as actual increase in cross-sectional area of the fiber. We want to take advantage of that phenomenon in this program. Every workout of performing 1RMs, your nervous system will learn how to activate more and more MUs. Novices can only activate a small percentage of their total available MU pool, even when performing a 1RM. With repeated effort, this percentage increases significantly.
- Increased Rate Coding:
This is a lesser known and less discussed variable of significant importance. Rate coding is a measure of the electrical impulses sent by each motor neuron down to the axons. This can be either slow, or fast. Think of it as the difference between firing a semi-automatic handgun as fast as you can, vs. holding down the trigger on an automatic weapon. You’re firing off a hell of a lot more bullets per second with an Uzi than with your grandpa’s six-shooter. In physiology terms, the bullets are known as action potentials. A slow contraction of a muscle will fire off 5-8 action potentials (or pulses) per second, whereas a maximal contraction (1RM trying to move the weight as fast as possible) can fire off up to 200! This is not to be underestimated, as up to 15% of maximal force development comes from increased rate coding. Improve rate coding, improve force production, and improve strength. As a side note, isometric contractions produce extremely high levels of rate coding as well, which is one of their main benefits in using them concurrently with dynamic methods.
- Increased MU Asynchronization:
In the past (or current, depending on who you ask), exercise physiologists assumed that the more synchronization we have between MU firing, the stronger the contraction. It makes perfect sense, if a larger percentage of MUs fire at the same exact time (synchronicity), then more force can be generated at that instant, and a greater load can be moved. Upon further inspection, it appears that the opposite is true. What we really want is for some MUs to fire at the same time, and then others to be fired in a delayed fashion, just by fractions of a second. This allows for a smooth, constant force to be applied to the resistance throughout the entire movement (1,2). If you were to blow your load, so to speak, all at once, you wouldn’t move the resistance very far before it came crashing down. This way, some MUs can fire and fatigue as others begin to fire fresh; and the initial MUs can then fire again. Remember, we’ve got up to 200 action potential pulses per second.
- Golgi Tendon Organ Desensitization:
This is a grey area, and involves more theory and guesswork than the other areas.
Golgi tendon organs usually have a protective function against excessive tensile loads in the muscle (3); but with training, in theory this inhibitory action can be postponed and trained to respond only to increasing loads. The use of maximal loads (1RMs) causes this autogenic inhibition to desensitize over time (4,5). Kreigbaum’s biomechanics text theorized this possibility, but it was not proven. However read this excerpt from Tony Sheilds’ (of exrx.net) PhD thesis for an alternate view:“In the strength training literature, the inhibitory influence of the Golgi tendon organ is frequently cited as a possible limiting factor to voluntary muscle activation (see for example; Determining factors of strength, (1985). National Strength and Conditioning Association Journal, 7(1): 10-23 and 7(2): 10-17). However, this view is inconsistent with a number of experimental observations. Firstly, there is evidence that type Ib afferents deliver only weak autogenic inhibition (Crago et al., 1975). Secondly, Ib afferents of limb extensor muscles deliver, in certain movement contexts, an excitatory influence to both the muscle that they innervate and that muscle’s synergists (Pratt et al., 1995). Furthermore, during maximal voluntary contractions of the human tibialis anterior and hand muscles, afferents of muscular origin deliver a net excitation to homonymous motoneurones (Gandevia et al., 1990; Macefield et al., 1993). This is most clearly demonstrated by the 30 to 40% decline in the maximum motoneurone firing rate that occurs when the motor nerves are blocked, distal to the recording site, by anaesthetic (Gandevia et al., 1990; Macefield et al., 1993). These findings suggest that, during brief contractions, the excitatory influence of type Ia and II afferents from muscle spindles greatly exceeds any possible inhibitory effect of type Ib afferents from Golgi tendon organs. These observations also clearly indicate that afferent fibres from muscle spindles provide a significant proportion of the excitatory drive to the motoneurone pool during maximal voluntary contractions.”
So, the take home message, is…well, you figure it out.
What are the 6’s for?
Now that you have a large pool of MUs activated, you want to fatigue them. We want to keep the reps fairly low, however, as not to cause any detrimental metabolic byproduct release that may hamper high threshold MU recruitment.
We then go back to the set of 1 as to kick start MU activation once again for subsequent sets of 6.
What is the last set of 12 for?
Training with low reps (1-6) exclusively can be highly demanding on the joints and connective tissue. Connective tissue uses lactic acid as a fuel for growth and repair, and low rep sets don’t provide this byproduct. Once we’re done calling upon the high threshold MUs that can be impaired by lactic acid, now its time to set it loose. Aside from the lactic acid release from this set of 12, we also increase blood flow to the working muscle and joint, which increases nutrient delivery at a much higher volume than has been addressed by the low rep work. Why 105% of 12RM? The preceding 1RM set will allow you to call upon increased strength and a higher pool of MU’s, so you will find that your previous 12RM will now be more like a 14 or 15RM (acutely).
What are the antagonistic movement pairings for?
You’ll find that you actually become stronger between sets by pairing exercises in opposite planes of movement; this is another trick to increase MU activation. In other words, you will be able to increase performance above and beyond that of an equal time spent resting.
- Make sure you move the load as fast as possible, concentrically. The act of trying to move the load as fast as possible increases MU activation, regardless of how fast it actually moves.
- Perform the protocol exactly as it is laid out.
Workout 1: Horizontal Push/Horizontal Pull/Arms
A1: Low Incline Bench Press
A2: Seated Row (Pronated/Medium Grip)
A1: 1×1 @ 95% 1RM
A2: 1×1 @ 95% 1RM
A1: 1×6 @ 95% 6RM
A2: 1×6 @ 95% 6RM
A1: 1×1 @ 100% 1RM
A2: 1×1 @ 100% 1RM
A1: 1×6 @ 100% 6RM
A2: 1×6 @ 100% 6RM
A1: 1×1 @ 100% 1RM
A2: 1×1 @ 100% 1RM
A1: 1×12 @ 105% 12RM
A2: 1×12 @ 105% 12RM
B1: Flat DB Flyes 2×12
B2: Standing Cable Rear Delt Crossovers 2×12
*Alternate sets of B1/B2
C1: Incline DB Curl 1×6/1×8/1×12
C2: Lying EZ Bar Tricep Extension 1×6/1×8/1×12
*Alternate sets of C1/C2
**Use 7RM, 9RM, and 13RM loads respectively (leaving 1 rep in the hole)
Workout 2: Hip Dominant Legs/Calves
A2: Seated Calf Raise
*Same protocol as above
B1: Unilateral Romanian Deadlift 2×12
B2: Unilateral Seated Calf Raise 2×12
Workout 3: Vertical Push/Vertical Pull/Arms
A1: Weighted Pull Up
A2: Seated BB Overhead Press (to the front)
*Same protocol as above
B1: Decline 2DB Pullover (neutral grip) 2×12
B2: Incline Unilateral DB Lateral Raise 2×12
C1: Reverse Preacher EZ Curl 1×6/1×8/1×12
C2: Incline Tricep Cable Pressdown 1×6/1×8/1×12
Workout 4: Quad Dominant Legs/Calves
A1: BB Front Squat
A2: Unilateral Standing Calf Raise
*Same protocol as above
B1: Decline Step Up 2×12
B2: Bilateral Standing Calf Raise 2×12
Perform this workout for no more 5 weeks. I would highly recommend sipping on a shake during the workout consisting of rapidly digesting carbs and protein, highly diluted.
1. Yao W, Fuglevand A, Enoka R. J Neurophysiol 83:441-452, 2000.
2. Semmler JG, Sale MV, Kidgell DJ. Proc Int Australas Winter Conf Brain Res In press, 2006.
3. Nicole J. Chimera, Kathleen A. Swanik, C. Buz Swanik, Stephen J. Straub J Athl Train, 2004 Jan-Mar; 39(1): 24-31.
4. D. Zytnicki, J. Lafleur, G. Horcholle-Bossavit, F. Lamy and L. Jami, J Neurophysiol 64: 1380-1389, 1990;
5. Scott, Steffan L., Acute Effect of Heavy Pre-Loading on Horizontal and Vertical