Plateau Buster: A Look at Goals and IIx Fibers

TAGS: patricl, goals, bodybuilding, muscle mass, bench, deadlift, squat, strength training, barbell, training

“People who are unable to motivate themselves must be content with mediocrity, no matter how impressive their other talents.” —Andrew Carnegie

The pursuit of an Adonis-like physique is often punctuated by several periods of frustration. Save the few genetic freaks, building serious muscle is on the order of a lifetime achievement. Out of sheer desperation, many guys add countless sets and reps. They randomly add in a motley of drop sets or negatives with no real rhyme or reason. Why is muscle sometimes so elusive?

Still, many are on the quest for more muscle despite all setbacks. Muscle is like women—sometimes quality can be hard to come by and you’re just thankful for what you can get. Yet in the rat race of muscle development, too many people don’t size up.

Adding muscle almost always comes with a concomitant increase in fat. We can keep the fat largely limited with proper nutrition protocols. The frustration begins by stepping on a scale and trying to justify the weight gain as muscle. Most economical means of evaluating body composition calculate only lean body mass (LBM). Thus, the increased weight could be attributed to water retention, increased food volume, or even inaccuracy with the measurement tool.

If muscle were really that easy to gain, you’d see a hell of a lot more guys at the gym busting through T-shirts. Instead, we often find poor souls wondering aimlessly from machine to machine with much to be desired. We started from the bottom of the totem poll with no meaningful frame of reference. Along the way, we either researched information ourselves or found the tutelage of a seasoned veteran.

In the weight room as much as life, we can find ourselves saying, “If only I knew then what I know now.” I’m just lucky enough to have made enough mistakes at a young age so I’m hoping the least I can do is pay it forward for those who are in a rut.

Performance-based goals

The great debate of powerlifting versus bodybuilding is a dead horse. Don’t beat it (Frankie says relax anyway). In the modern day of strength training, everything doesn’t need to be mutually exclusive. There’s a tremendous amount of overlap. Not too many things are an either/or situation now. For instance, hypertrophy is highly dependent on strength. The biggest guys are generally the ones who lift the heaviest and eat the most.

The quickest way to look like you bench press 400 lbs is to actually be able to bench 400 lbs. There is the camp of guys who say that they don’t care about how much they lift as long as they look huge, but if you take a step back, these same guys are often stronger than hell. I don’t want to hear about the genetic anomalies and pharmacy “sponsored” athletes. Even the high volume camp can’t argue with this. A lifter with a max of 400 lbs will be able to achieve more hypertrophy than a similar structured lifter maxing out at 200 lbs.

Hypertrophy as a goal is abstract and misleading. I’d opt for performance-based goals instead. With performance-based goals, you have a clear idea of the progress that you’re making. They give you a definitive result to aim for. If you want more money and someone hands you a dollar, you have achieved your goal. It might not be what you wanted, but the lack of specificity yielded a less than optimal result.

Napoleon Hill, author of one of my favorite books, Think and Grow Rich, discusses goal setting throughout. The first step in creating goals is to write out specifically what you intend to achieve. The book is about money, obviously, and setting a goal of “I want more money” is useless. Someone could hand you a dollar and you would have met your goal.

There are many people out there who have been chasing hypertrophy for so long that the idea of improving strength is a foreign concept. Why can’t hypertrophy be a bonus “side effect” from the development of other qualities? Sometimes there’s too much micromanagement of sets, reps, pauses, and every finite detail that you end up being paralyzed by analysis. I hesitate to give the recommendations below because mechanics can vary greatly in people but as a rough idea:

For the beginner lifter looking to advance to an intermediate status:

(Remember pure beginners need to focus on somewhat higher rep work initially.)

·        Bench: 1.5 X body weight

·        Squat: 2 X body weight

·        Deadlift: 2 X body weight

The intermediate guy looking to take it to an even higher level of performance might seek numbers in the neighborhood of:

    • Bench: 2 X body weight
    • Squat: 2.5 X  body weight
    • Deadlift: 2.5–3 X body weight

For a 200-lb athlete (who calls us athletes anyway?), an intermediate guy would have a 300-lb bench, 400-lb squat, and 400-lb deadlift. These numbers are pretty high by typical standards, but to build T-shirt ripping muscle, you must up the ante. An advanced athlete at this body weight would boast about a 400-lb bench, 500-lb squat, and 500–600-lb deadlift.

Performance-based training is about increasing the load of weight lifted. I’m in agreement that we need volume for maximum hypertrophy. Here’s a car analogy for the mechanically astute. If you are weak (small engine), adding volume is just creating a longer race. However, the objective isn’t to go farther. It’s to go faster. To do that, you need to trade in the four-cyclinder engine for a gas guzzler with more horsepower (strength). In the world of resistance training, strength and speed dominate, and those with the most of both can achieve faster hypertrophy gains if desired.

In continuing to build the case for heavy lifting, let’s look at tone. There are two kinds of tone—myogenic (which may be particularly interesting to you) and neurogenic (still interesting to geeks like me). The former is just your muscle tone at rest, which is primarily affected by the density of your muscle. Lifting heavy weights promotes increases in hypertrophy by increasing the amounts of actin and myosin and is dubbed myofibrillar hypertrophy. This type of fiber hypertrophy leads to increased muscle force production (1). If you want to look dense, hard, or solid, heavy lifting is right for you.

Overall, hypertrophy is generally the result of high volume work, but like I mentioned before, having a bigger engine will allow accelerated gains. Hypertrophy from higher rep training is sarcoplasmic hypertrophy and is caused by the growth of sarcoplasm and non-contractile proteins (1). The sarcoplasmic hypertrophy itself offers no increase in force production potential. Does this mean you can’t get stronger from high reps? Well, not exactly. It’s not sarcoplasmic or myofibril hypertrophy but generally a combination of the two to varying degrees.

Heavy lifting is not a free pass to be the guy in the gym screaming with every rep. It is not a free pass to compromise form. These are all cases of douchebaggery. However, it’s a little shortsighted to say that adding load is the only way to a better body.

In the end, we can only ask, “Is getting bigger a specific enough goal?” With conventional body composition measurements, it’s difficult to set specifics to the amount of muscle or fat you could tolerate in the pursuit of this goal. The problem is that not enough people have paid their dues to build a solid foundation of strength from which to expand upon. You can’t sculpt a pebble.

The power of deloading

It wouldn’t make much sense, but the very attributes we seek to maximize with our training actually suffer a regression in response to training. The high glamorized and promoted type IIx fibers we seek to stimulate suffer transformation into less desirable types as we continue to train. Yup, Johnny Couch Potato has more type IIx fibers than you do!

Seriously, not even kidding. A recently published study compared the fiber types of bodybuilders to physical education students with no previous training experience (2). First, the type of training they characterized the bodybuilders performing involved a great number of repetitions, short rest periods, and high intensities. Nothing new.

This method of training seems to shift the muscle fibers to more of the hybrids and type IIa. No matter what kind of fiber was compared, the bodybuilders had larger muscles in all cases. This at least makes it apparent that we can still achieve as much size as we want in the absence of type IIx fibers.

Type IIa fibers are still very desirable for building muscle, much more so than type I. Yet, there are still a handful of questions we have to ask. Were these bodybuilders (and we’re discussing national level competitors) genetically predisposed to lose type IIx fibers or is it a result of the training? High-level bodybuilders are born so there must be many similarities among these individuals.

If they had trained differently, could they have slowed or improved their type IIx composition? If they did heavy lifts over 90 percent or executed normal reps with higher speeds, what would the effect have been? Keep your eye on the prize. We’re talking about getting the most type IIx fibers we can. Most of us aren’t genetically gifted with many so retention of our own God-given potential is vital.

Other studies agree with the fact that strength training causes a decrease in type IIx fibers (3, 4, 5, 6). This strength training sucks. We’ve spoon fed you lies about these great type IIx fibers that disappear as soon as you try to stimulate them. You’ve been training for years without a layoff and now you might as well quit because you’re never going to get where you want to be.

And then the light at the end of the tunnel! Taking a break might not be a half-bad idea. Long-term resistance training shifts the bigger fibers to the middle of road guys, but a deloading period can create type IIx fibers in greater abundance than pre-training levels (5).

It’s an anomaly. Bodybuilders are familiar with this—eating candy on the day of a contest to fill out and look harder. It’s the only time that junk food will ever do a service to your body and contest day is Christmas in July. So lift heavy, take a break, and return borderline bionic? Well, it’s not so simple. The deload in the study was three months! Yea, one quarter of a year just to come back with more type IIx.

Sorry, but I’m not sure if you are aware of how fat you can get in three months with no exercise. Not to mention you’d have some degree of muscle loss over this three-month spring break. For the novice, there’s not much need for a break because they barely have the proper motor patters in order to execute the lifts effectively. An excessive break will only bring you back to ground zero.

If you have been lifting consistently for years, you are still looking at a regression in strength and work capacity. The question is whether or not this layoff will cause an overshoot in all characteristics as well. For many, this presents a challenge because training is part of a routine that they enjoy.

Type IIx disappearance during training stimulates processes that fuel the rebound when you take a break. Creatine supplementation seems to accelerate the switch to type IIa during training and increases the processes to rebound (6). Creatine is also known to contribute to strength. This begs the question, “Is there a advantage to having more type IIa fibers as opposed to the other varieties?”

There seems to be a huge disparity in this whole mess. To take time off or to not take time off? Well, if you’ve lifted heavy for any length of time, as little as a week off can be a huge service to your joints. The whole physiological mess is intimidating, but we’ve come full circle with it.

Meat and potatoes

The bottom line remains that hypertrophy is a goal too many people struggle with. The mindless sets and reps until the cows come home aren’t getting the job done. Beginners need to build a solid base of strength and set clear performance-based goals. Seek to improve your best lifts by a specific number of pounds and set your focus on achieving it. Along the way you’ll notice that muscle comes as a nice side effect.

When it comes to training to maximize your biggest and best fibers, remember that maximum force stimulates them. High speed with moderate resistance or heavy singles and doubles are the ticket. While time off can help you rebound with more type IIx fibers, it’s up to you if the juice is worth the squeeze. My recommendation is seek alternative ways to deload and find ways to improve your progress in your gym because in all honesty you’ll never know how many type IIx fibers you really have. Generations of men have grown without caring about the physiology so make sure your focus is on measurable progress.


  1. Zatsiorsky VM and Kraemer W (2006) Science and Practice of Strength Training. Human Kinetics.
  2. Kesidis N, et al (2008) Myosin Heavy Chain Isoform Distribution in Single Fibres of Bodybuilders. Eur J Appl Physiol 103: 579–83.
  3. Kadi F, Lars-Eric T (1999) Training Affects Myosin Heavy Chain Phenotype in the Trapezius Muscle of Women. Histochem Cell Biol 112:73–8.
  4. Raue U, et al (2005) Effects of Short-Term Concentric vs. Eccentric Resistance Training on Single Muscle Fiber MHC Distribution in Humans. Int J Sports Med 26:339–43.
  5. Anderson JL, Aagaard P (2000) Myosin Heavy Chain IIx Overshoot in Human Skeletal Muscle. Muscle and Nerve 23:1095–04.
  6. Willoughby DS, Rosene J (2001) Effects of Oral Creatine and Resistance Training on Myosin Heavy Chain Expression. Med Sci Sport Exer 1674–81.


Ryan Patrick, CSCS, is a class of 2008 graduate from the University of Kentucky. He’s pursuing a master’s degree in health and exercise science at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Colorado. As a bodybuilder and athlete himself, his experiences have helped him excel with diverse clients ranging from SWAT teams to your regular Joe. Get his free muscle building report and diets by signing up for his free newsletter at



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