Muscle Building and Strength with Post-Tetanic Facilitation

By Tony Schwartz

Everyone wants a quick fix to their problems. Whether it’s looking for a way to lose fat quickly or pack on muscle at an alarming rate, we are always on the lookout for the ‘holy grail.’ Unfortunately, it is rare that you find a product or technique that immediately accelerates your progress towards your goals.

doing a light bench press set as part of Post-Tetanic Facilitation training

Well, today is one of those rare times. Maybe you’ve heard of post-tetanic facilitation (PTF) before, but I’m going to re-introduce it to you today. If you haven’t been using it in your training you are severely short-changing your strength and muscle gains.

In case you haven’t realized it already, muscle size and strength are intimately tied together. I am sure we all know that one guy who is huge yet not that strong, or is small yet very strong. However, all things being equal (particularly nutrition), more strength leads to more muscle mass.

If you need proof, look at some of the biggest guys on the planet, like Johnnie Jackson and Ronnie Coleman, both 800+ deadlifters. Sure, you can get somewhat bigger without getting stronger, but why wouldn’t you want both? By using PTF you will increase your strength immediately, and will see size gains shortly thereafter.

What is Post-Tetanic Facilitation?

A tetanic contraction occurs when a motor unit (a motor neuron and all the muscle fibers it innervates) is maximally stimulated. In scientific studies this is often done with an isokinetic 1-rep max or with the help of EMS (electro-myostimulation).

As you may have guessed, PTF occurs after the tetanic contraction. PTF is the result of a variety of neurological processes that combine to make any subsequent work done with any of the motor units used during the tetanic contraction easier. You may have noticed this phenomenon if you have ever used the reverse pyramid system for an exercise. If you start with heavy weight and low reps, you will find that as you decrease the weight and increase the reps the weight will feel very light. PTF is also exploited in other loading schemes, such as wave loading.

The basics of using PTF for strength gains involve using a heavy load prior to using a lighter load. It is important to use as many of the same motor units in the heavy set as you will in the lighter set.

First and foremost, this means that your heavy and light sets should be the same exercise. For example, doing a heavy set of bench presses before a light set of bench presses will be much more effective than doing a heavy set of dips before a light set of bench presses. Similarly, I have heard others recommend simply holding a heavy weight prior to a lighter set. For example, taking the bar out of the racks in the bench press and holding it for a few seconds before doing a lighter set of bench presses. This will not work nearly as well since not all of the necessary motor units will undergo a tetanic contraction.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, ‘Sure, this is a cool trick, but aren’t the strength gains just temporary?’ In a way, yes. You are getting a temporary strength increase, but since PTF allows you to lift a lighter weight for more reps than usual, you will cause more muscle breakdown in different muscle fibers than usual. If your recovery protocols are where they should be then these muscle fibers will hypertrophy. This hypertrophy will lead to more strength gains which will allow you to use PTF with larger weights in the future.

Give PTF a try on your first exercise at your next training session. Warm-up and work-up to a single at 90-95% of your 1RM. You don’t want to work up to a true max because the fatigue created will negate some of neurological benefits.

After your heavy set wait 4-5 minutes and then go for your lighter set. To get the greatest benefit you will want to use 70-80% for your lighter set. Expect to get 1-3 more reps than usual.

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