Initial Gains in Strength: Muscle Recruitment

The Challenge of a New Workout: Pride Comes Before the Fall

If you start a new way of working out, chances are, you’ll feel a bit like a fool. The first day in the gym or outside, it can feel like you’re working with a couple of limp noodles for muscles. The day after that, you can barely move because of soreness.

Discouraging, right? Not only do you feel like a fool, but you are also in pain.

But, let me tell you something. If you come back and stick with it for a while, that person can make huge gains in a very short period of time. Surprised by your rapidly increasing strength, you might check the mirror. You look pretty much the same, but you convince yourself your muscles are getting bigger. They have to be, right?

Increased strength has to come from increased muscle size.


It’s really nothing against you and your muscles, but the first part of a new workout isn’t targeting your muscle cells’ size, per say. It’s about targeting them at all.

I’ll explain. Let me give you a scenario. 

New lifter goes to pick up a 10 pound dumbbell and curl it.

New lifter has never done “curls” on a regular basis. Therefore, new lifter’s body has no clue what to do. The Central Nervous System (a.k.a. brain and spinal cord that are responsible for “awaking” the muscles to contract) send a signal to one or two fibers to contract. It’s the one or two fibers you use most of the time to do things like pick up your toothbrush, lift the cup to your mouth, etc. Anytime you’ve done this motion in the past, that’s been all you needed. However, a 10 pound dumbbell is a little harder than your previous tasks and as a result you flounder and have to use the other hand or momentum to get it up. Each fiber is completely overwhelmed.

Seasoned lifter goes to pick up a 10 pound dumbbell and curl it.

They’ve done it before. Their Central Nervous System is experienced. It’s not a new route that it’s unfamiliar with. For that reason, when they go to pick up the dumbbell their brain/spinal cord “awakens” all one hundred muscle fibers available to them in order to do the same job. It’s easy because each fiber only has to do 1/100th of the work and they aren’t overloaded.

This is a theory called “Recruitment.”

There are two main types of recruitment:

  1. Spacial Recruitment: Recruiting more muscle fibers at one time.
  2. Temporal Recruitment: Signalling the same muscle fiber more frequently.

You know what temporal recruitment feels like… have you ever had a muscle cramp? What did it feel like? Like your muscle was being “recruited” over and over again and you could not figure out how to get it to stop contracting? Yeah. That’s what we mean by temporal recruitment. You just sent a million signals to that muscle to contract.

Sometimes, if something is really hard, you might use both temporal and spacial recruitment to lift a weight.

Practical Application:

If you are starting a new workout routine and feeling like a weakling compared to the other people who make it look easy – fret not! There’s an easy explanation. They’re using 100 muscle fibers to do what you’re trying to use 2 fibers to do.

It’s a lot harder for you MAINLY because your body hasn’t done it before and doesn’t know to recruit more fibers. The more you do it, the easier it will get because your brain and spinal cord are getting smarter with time (i.e. learning what resources they can call on for help with the task).

Don’t get frustrated with yourself. Be patient. There’s a lot going on in your body. What it needs is NOT for you to GIVE UP, but for you to KEEP AFTER IT. Keep trying so that it can continue learning/practicing how to do the things your asking it to do.

When do my muscles start growing?

Muscle innervation or “muscle recruitment” accounts for about 75% of strength gains in the first 8 weeks of any new type of training. After that is over, you’ll start actually building muscle mass IF you work out at an intensity high enough to breakdown your muscle. And that’s a big “IF.”

Just remember, any activity is good activity.

The important part is just to get out there and start challenging that body to move.


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