Build Muscle in Less Time With Massed Practice

Learn how to use massed practice training to gain unreal strength and build muscle.

What do recovering stroke patients and many athletic trainees have in common? Both lack efficient neural pathways for necessary movements, and both would benefit from an increased ability to build muscle.

When a person has a stroke, the blood supply to the brain is reduced or blocked completely, and parts of the brain can die due to the deprivation of oxygen and nutrients. When this happens, a person may lose the ability to move a limb or an entire side of the body.

Dr. Edward Taub is a behavioral neuroscientist who has pioneered a technique aimed toward helping stroke victims recover and regain use of their affected limbs.

His constraint-induced (CI) movement therapy involves restraining the good limb so that the only option is to use the affected limb for tasks. Dr. Taub employs a technique he calls "massed practice," which involves repetition of a basic task on the affected limb until the brain is able to reorganize and restore the brain map for motor control.

Even though the primary neural pathways—the synapses—are no longer available, other pathways/neurons begin to take their place. Although total movement in the limb may not be restored, the hope is that it improves, and with it, so does the patient's quality of life.

Connection of Massed Practice to Training

The same principles of brain plasticity that enable a stroke patient to regain mobility can also help the average athlete progress in difficult lifts. The idea is that the increase in neurological use and efficiency will lead to an increase in muscle size.

Think of the synapse as a dirt road between two towns. At first, cars drive back and forth fairly slowly because the road is cramped and riddled with potholes. As more people use the road, it gets built out, lanes are added, and soon it becomes an eight-lane highway with a speed limit of 70. Cars travel much faster, and many more cars can drive down the road on a daily basis.

Here's how you can use massed practice training to gain unreal strength and build muscle.

RELATED: Why You Gain Strength Before You Add Muscle

Exercise Selection

Efficiency = muscle

I chose three exercises to target three goals:

1. Clean and Jerk

The Clean and Jerk is a full-body move that showcases overall strength, especially through the posterior chain and upper back. It's responsible for the "powerlook" of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson in Hercules.

Use this move if you're an athlete looking to increase your vertical jump or speed; if you want to become a more powerful human being; or if you just desire to perfect your Clean and Jerk form. It's important to use a weight that is challenging, so shoot for 70-85 percent of your max. If you're a beginner, any weight will be challenging, so start slow.

Clean and Jerk

2. Front Lever

The front lever is a full-body move that takes incredible core control as well as control of the scapula and shoulders.

It's done by starting from a dead hang at the bottom of a pull-up position. While contracting your whole body to ensure it stays solid from shoulders to feet, pull your body from perpendicular to the floor to parallel to the floor. This basic gymnastic movement can often take a year or two to master fully.

Use this move if you're interested in building 3D abs and a wide lat spread, or want to increase your shoulder strength and health.

Front Lever

3. Free Handstand/Handstand Push-Ups

Just learning to do a handstand is challenging, so that's the focus of the practice. Hand-balancing is like balancing on two feet; it takes muscular control and stability that comes over time and with practice.

Use this move if you're looking to increase Bench Press strength and shoulder and upper back size.

Implementing Massed Practice

Dr. Taub started out having his CI therapy patients do six hours of massed practice. They would do 10 to 12 tasks per day, with each task repeated 10 times. This was done for 14 to 21 days. Currently, Taub is researching the most effective length of training for stroke patients. His new research suggests that drilling different movements for three hours and increasing the repetitions is superior to drilling all day until total exhaustion.

With healthy clients, using a variation of high-frequency training has yielded the best results. This is something that can be done in conjunction with your current program, best used as an addition, not as a standalone training modality.

To train this way, pick the exercise that best fits your goal and begin adding massed practice between your current exercises.

For example, if your program is:

  • A1: Bench Press 3 x 8
  • B1: Barbell Row 3 x 8
  • C1: Shoulder Press 4 x 10

Then your amended program would be:

  • Bench Press
  • Clean and Jerk x 2
  • Bench Press
  • Clean and Jerk x 2
  • Bench Press
  • Clean and Jerk x 2
  • Barbell Row
  • Clean and Jerk x 2
  • Barbell Row
  • Clean and Jerk x 2
  • Barbell Row
  • Clean and Jerk x 2
  • Shoulder Press
  • Clean and Jerk x 2
  • Shoulder Press
  • Clean and Jerk x 1
  • Shoulder Press
  • Clean and Jerk x 1
  • Shoulder Press
  • Clean and Jerk x 1

Practice makes permanence, so when training in this way, it's important to never go beyond technical failure. No "grinding" reps allowed. Do 1-3 reps between exercises.

Application and Accountability

One of the most important implements Taub used with his patients to create long-lasting results was something he termed a "transfer package"—to help his patients take the skills they learned in the clinic and apply them to real life.

The transfer package involved a few different elements, but the general theme was helping patients stay accountable over time. Since most of us don't have people in our lives who will call every day and verify that we did our exercises, it's important to be accountable to ourselves.

The best way to do this is to print a calendar and hang it where it will be seen several times every day. After each training session, write the number of reps or length of time spent working on the chosen discipline. After awhile, just filling in the empty space on the calendar becomes its own reward, and seeing an empty box becomes a punishment.

It takes 21 days to create a habit, so if it doesn't come easily at first, continue working at it for a minimum of three weeks.

Additional Tips

  • The massed practice technique works best when the same lift is trained every session, at least six days per week. This makes it hard for weekend warriors to incorporate the Clean and Jerk into their session, but Levers and Handstands can be done anywhere.
  • Shoot for training this way 21 days in a row, or up to five weeks if you can only train 4-5 days per week.
  • Don't expect huge improvements on your other lifts during this time. Keep the weights the same for the full month while you add the massed practice.
  • For the handstands, just practice getting up into a handstand, tightening your entire body and holding it for as long as possible. At first, it might be necessary to use a wall or do up to 5 reps.
Learn more about building muscle:


  • Doidge, Norman. The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science. New York: Viking, 2007. Print.
  • Philbin, John. High-intensity Training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2004. Print.
  • Taub, Edward, Jean E. Crago, and Gitendra Uswatte. "Constraint-induced Movement Therapy: A New Approach to Treatment in Physical Rehabilitation." Rehabilitation Psychology 43.2 (1998): 152-70. Web.

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