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Who would ever aspire to be one-dimensional? What guy, outside of perhaps a competitive cyclist or wrestler struggling to drop weight, wants to be strong but not big? Or big but not strong? Often, the ideal scenario would have you big, strong and powerful, as well as athletically functional outside the gym.
If you want to build muscle and increase your strength, it stands to reason, then, that your next workout shouldn’t be created in a vacuum in which only one of the four objectives above is considered at the expense of the other three. Sure, from time to time you may want to focus on adding some size, functionality be damned, or on boosting your five-rep max on core lifts, even at the expense of the additional hypertrophy that accompanies high-rep training. But in between such phases, why sacrifice one goal for another when you really don’t have to? Behold a routine that’s actually multidimensional: ECO Training.
No, it isn’t a program for environmentalists, though they’re more than welcome to take part in it. ECO stands for Explosive, Closed-chain and Open-chain exercises. Explosive exercises are plyometric or ballistic-type movements such as squat jumps, depth jumps from a bench and clap push-ups. Closed-chain exercises are those in which your hands or feet remain stationary and your body moves (think squats, push-ups and pull-ups). With open-chain moves, the resistance is in your hands or at your feet, such as leg extensions and most barbell and dumbbell upper-body exercises.
The explosive movements must be done first in your workout while the muscle fibers are fresh. If you’re fatigued when you do them, your muscles won’t be able to contract as quickly and explosively. Plus, as you fatigue, your form suffers and your risk of injury increases. Explosive exercises target the fast-twitch muscle fibers — the ones that grow the biggest and strongest. Gaining explosive strength and power from these moves transfers to greater strength on most other exercises, especially core lifts like the squat and bench press. What’s more, research out of the University of Massachusetts (Boston) shows that explosive exercises done before strength exercises (like the closed-chain ones you’ll be doing next) can increase strength by about 5%.
Do no more than three reps per set on these plyometric movements, and rest 3-5 minutes between sets; the point is to be explosive on each and every rep you do, not to tire the muscle as when your goal is hypertrophy. You’ll use a very light weight, often just your bodyweight or a weight with which you can perform about 30 normal reps. The key to getting the most out of these movements is to maximize the speed at which you move the weight. Be as explosive as possible, regardless of the amount of resistance.
Closed-chain exercises are ideal for building strength, because you move your bodyweight plus the additional weight. They also improve functional strength, as they require balance and the use of stabilizers to control your body. Most chest and shoulder closed-chain exercises aren’t practical for developing strength, so these routines substitute the incline barbell press and barbell overhead press. These movements are similar to closed-chain exercises because the hands are locked in place on the bar. Go heavy on these — you shouldn’t be able to perform more than 6-8 reps per set. Rest 2-3 minutes between sets.
Open-chain movements (flyes, curls, extensions, etc.) in the ECO program will be used as isolation exercises to focus on the target muscle — without having to worry about moving your own bodyweight — for better muscle growth. Because hypertrophy is the objective here, keep reps at 10-12 and decrease rest periods to 1-2 minutes between sets. And keep in mind, the routines listed throughout the article are merely samples; feel free to substitute your favorite movements into the program, especially in the open-chain category, which includes by far the widest selection of exercises. This may mean performing barbell curls instead of incline curls, pec deck instead of dumbbell flyes or cable lateral raises instead of dumbbell laterals. By all means, do your own thing.