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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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June 30, 2009

Engaging ATP-PC: The Primal Energy Pathway

By Mark Sisson
64 Comments

Whenever Grok needed to lift something really, really heavy, he drew upon the adenosine triphosphate phospho-creatine (ATP-PC) energy system. If he saw an opportunity to cut off a fleeing buck and had mere seconds to act, Grok would engage his ATP-PC energy to summon the requisite sprinting speed. Today, we use the very same energy pathways. The very same potential for feats of immense, instantaneous strength and power resides in our muscles (some of us more than others, sure, but that can be altered through training). Of course, the ATP-PC energy system is just one of three primary pathways in our bodies. All three utilize adenosine triphosphate (ATP) as the primary energy source, but the speed, intensity, and duration of our muscle contractions determine exactly how that ATP energy is tapped, released and recycled.

Like I said, the ATP-PC system is the path to instant, raw power, but it doesn’t last for long. It’s our first choice for immediate high energy, and we can tap into it for around 10-15 seconds of maximum output, almost like touching flame to gasoline. ATP already present in the muscle is used and then reproduced (recycled) by breaking down creatine phosphate (the same stuff that’s sold over the counter also stores naturally in our muscles). It flares up brilliantly and fleetingly and allows us to move big weights or run really fast, and then it goes out. Sprinters, heavy lifters, golfers (yes, golfers!), home run hitters – these guys all have to engage their ATP-PC system to perform at a high level.

After we’ve exhausted our ATP-PC, anaerobic glycolysis begins to kick in. Also called the glycolytic or lactic acid system, the anaerobic energy system breaks down some of our muscle glycogen to form more ATP. Our muscles are thusly fueled, but the byproducts are the production of lactate and a dramatic increase in hydrogen ion (acid) secretion. The burn you get when you sprint for longer than 20 seconds, do Tabata intervals, or reach higher reps on the weights? That’s the build-up of these hydrogen ions which literally prevent further muscle contractions at high levels. You can go longer in this zone than on ATP-PC, but you can’t go as hard or as heavy. One nice side effect of the lactate and hydrogen ion production is improved human growth hormone secretion, which is partly why moderately-higher reps are effective for increasing muscle mass (to a point).

The next level is aerobic energy production. This kicks in after about five minutes of output, supplementing the anaerobic pathway (but not fully replacing it until around half an hour of work). The aerobic energy system, unlike the anaerobic pathway, requires both oxygen (hence “aero”) and glycogen to produce enough ATP to fuel our muscle contractions. Yes, fat (fatty acids) contributes to this phase of energy production, but glycogen is still the limiting factor. Though there are certainly healthy doses of aerobic activity allowed and encouraged (slower is better), on the Primal fitness plan there is much less emphasis put on this aerobic energy path. I was a long-distance aerobic junky, as you probably already know, for years. It required massive amounts of carb-derived glycogen. For our purposes here – building muscle, increasing strength, reducing insulin load, overall better health – extended, high-end aerobic exercise (chronic cardio) can be counterproductive. Still, it’s nice to know that a level of long-range energy production is there if we need it.

What really interests me is the ATP-PC pathway. It’s the most purely Primal, visceral energy system and seems to be the key to developing raw strength (without necessarily getting “huge”). When I tried cycling the supplement creatine a few years back and got some appreciable strength gains for the duration, I was simply increasing my muscles’ short-term ATP reservoir. My creatine post a couple weeks back got me thinking. What if I were to engage my ATP-PC pathway exclusively – would I then increase my ATP stores along with my strength?

So for the past couple weeks, I’ve been trying something new on those occasional days I’m in the weight room (because otherwise I’m doing mostly bodyweight stuff as a rule now). Instead of lifting moderately heavy stuff for a few sets of 10-12 reps, I tried lifting a heavier weight for 5-6 reps until muscle fatigue, followed by a 5-10 second long break where I maintained the weight in the “starting” position while recovering. I then attempted another single rep, rested 5-10 seconds again and so on until I was at true “failure” and couldn’t do another. Most literature I’ve come across suggests that the ATP-PC pathway replenishes fairly quickly, especially if you’re already a trained athlete, so I was hoping I could take advantage of that. I didn’t want to venture into anaerobic glycolysis; I wanted to strictly stay in the ATP-PC zone. For the most part, I was able to pound out reasonably heavy weights repeatedly, as long as I rested a few seconds in between each rep. Because I was only spending around 1-2 seconds per rep, I wasn’t using all my ATP, so the recovery time was more manageable (as opposed to the recovery time after all-out 10 second sprints, for example). After a few sets of squats, deadlifts, weighted pull-ups and presses, I was totally beat.

I wasn’t breathing especially hard, though, and I wasn’t sore. I felt (for lack of a better word) Primal and totally energized. And over the past two weeks, the weights have gotten heavier and I’ve felt stronger. Now, it could be that the strength gains came simply because I was really focusing on pushing heavier weights and not because of any energy pathway tinkering, but I don’t know. I definitely felt a difference. If nothing else, it’s a refreshing way to lift weights, get stronger, and maybe even burn some fat (the ATP replenishment process draws on stored body fat, so depleting your body’s supply is great for leaning out). When I do find myself in the gym and just hitting the weights, I think I’ll try lifting this way a bit more often for a change of pace.

If anyone wants to try this out, I’d be interested to hear how it goes. Let us know in the comments!

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64 Comments on "Engaging ATP-PC: The Primal Energy Pathway"

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Jedidja
Jedidja
7 years 2 months ago

Have you been reading Body by Science, by any chance? 🙂 I know @paynowlivelater has been experimenting with it, and probably a few others in the #primal community. Definitely seems interesting.

Greg
Greg
7 years 2 months ago

Mark, seems like you are Alactic training as described by Art Devany. He uses that cycles that with his hierarchal sets. I do the same but with Doug McGuffs BBS.

Jocelyn R
7 years 2 months ago
Hey Mark! What about the lactate shuttle system – the so-called “fourth energy pathway”? It’s only really been “discovered” by the exercise physiologists in the last few years, but it seems to explain why high intensity training like CrossFit or what you do seems to work. Smart coaches and athletes always knew this stuff worked, but now the science guys have given it a biological explanation. As far as my understanding goes, the lactate shuttle system turns lactic acid back into energy directly in the muslces rather than cycling it out as a by-product into the blood stream and over… Read more »
Vin - NaturalBias
7 years 2 months ago

Hi Mark,

Is your goal to avoid glycolysis purely based on improving strength, or is there another reason that’s based more on avoiding unnecessary burden?

If not for the same reason, why do you prefer body weight exercises over lifting weights?

Thanks

Furious Mittens
Furious Mittens
7 years 2 months ago

I don’t know about Mark, but I prefer body weight exercises because they’re cheaper. Gym membership costs money. Weight set costs money. Body weight, I’ve got lots of that, and it’s all free!

Greg at Live Fit
7 years 2 months ago

Interesting. This may help explain why some of the more recent literature suggests using enough weight to only manage 3-4 reps per set.

Jane
Jane
7 years 2 months ago

Would people who don’t want to bulk up want to do this? I’m not one to use those dinky pink 3 pound weights, but I’m still careful about wanting to “tone” rather than “bulk up” being a woman. Maybe its me still fighting CW that makes me not want to use super high weights for only a couple reps…

Jim Jones
Jim Jones
7 years 2 months ago

@Jane, you realize that it’s really hard for a woman to “bulk up”. The testosterone just isn’t there.

http://www.elitefts.com/documents/female_athletes.htm

http://www.examiner.com/x-4570-Philadelphia-Personal-Training-Examiner~y2009m3d10-Why-women-dont-bulk-up

Halle
Halle
7 years 2 months ago

Maybe I am just unusual, but I do carry around a lot of lean mass even when I am not weight training. When I work out, I really have to be careful with my legs, or they look “husky” YMMV, but i don’t think it is true for all women that there will be no bulkiness anywhere. Blame my good Slavic genes I guess.

Kenny
Kenny
4 years 2 months ago

Maybe you are unusual, but I wish you weren’t.

Bird legs are for the birds, and I don’t mean the British kind.

Laz
Laz
7 years 2 months ago

Sure. Its all going to come down to your diet. Plus, women dont possess the harmones to get huge unless you’re a freak. You’ll gain some muscle mass but you’ll still be lean, especially that you’ll be burning fat as well with heavy lifting. Correct me if I’m wrong 🙂

eastbruce
eastbruce
7 years 2 months ago

This is the same as described by Fredrick Hahn in “The Slow Burn Fitness Revolution”.

Just finished reading the book and will be giving it a try.

Thanks for the more scientific explanation.

Ryan Robitaille
7 years 2 months ago

Eastburce, That’s exactly what I was thinking. Good book. The focus is on small (slow) intense reps to failure of each muscle group so the body goes into a muscle building / repair mode.

Its a REALLY quick way to build noticeable muscle mass – esp when combined with a quality primal or low-carb high-protein diet.

Its nice to hear Mark heading down that path too – I like it when all my “teachers” begin to agree on specific things. 🙂

John Sifferman
7 years 2 months ago

I’ve heard of similar strength training strategies being used before – so there must be something to it.

But I don’t think we have enough research to know about the ATP-PC adaptations as a result of specific training and its impact on performance. So, my guess would be that it’s simply a new physiological adaptation based on a new training program – you’ve likely found the sweet spot between progression and variation.

Berto at Discount Supplements
7 years 2 months ago

Nice!! I’ve been doing a heavy, 4×5 (4 sets x 5 reps) program, but it’s about to come to a close. I’m going to research the stopping and re-starting as my next cycle.

Note that when I do this program, I can eat like a madman and the weight goes on as muscle with just a touch of fat.

Since cutting down for my triathlon, I’ve put on 10 pounds, and I’d say 8lbs was muscle. Definitely a primal-friendly routine, and I am by far the craziest and loudest dude in the gym.

Scott Kustes - Fitness Spotlight

Jocelyn R,
Lactic acid doesn’t actually exist in the human body. What does exist is lactate and hydrogen ions as a by-product of the glycolytic system. The lactate is reused by the muscles for fuel, while the acidosis from the hydrogen ions results in reduced ability of the muscle to contract (i.e., decreasing power). You can train your body to better use lactate and buffer hydrogen ions.

Cheers
Scott Kustes
Fitness Spotlight

Jocelyn R
7 years 2 months ago

Awesome explanation Scott. That makes total sense. Thanks!!!

PS – love your blog too 🙂

Scott Kustes - Fitness Spotlight
Thanks Jocelyn! Of course, training to increase one’s lactate threshold is a painful, humbling endeavor. I did a workout the other day of 2 x (4 x 225m) @ 29-31 seconds per run. 4:00 between runs, 15:00 between sets. The purpose is that each run results in an increase in lactate and acidosis and 4:00 is an incomplete rest. By the 4th run of the set, it’s like a duel to the death…it’s like you stuck your legs in an acid bath. It’s brutal, but it works. I wasn’t even able to finish the 2nd set…over-programmed that workout having never… Read more »
Adam Steer
7 years 2 months ago

Really nice overview of the topic Mark! And your experimental attitude in the weight room is awesome. Christian Thibaudeau has written some good stuff about the basic approach you’re using. It’s essentially a variation on what he calls Cluster Training.

But I’m with ya… When the sun is shining I’m outdoors with bodyweight exercise!!

Cheers,
Adam

Andy M
Andy M
7 years 2 months ago

Nice article Mark. The only anaerobic workouts I do now are using burpees, weighted chins/push ups/squats (tabata and over interval methods) and of course hill sprints (my worst nightmares!. I packed the weights in last year. I look forward to seeing where this type of training takes you. Cheers, Andy.

Toolman
Toolman
7 years 2 months ago

Bill Starr 5×5 type routine. Classic style that many, many strength coaches have used to help their athletes gain strength. Sounds like you are tapping into that area.

I personally like to change my routines often and use various forms of full body routines, 5×5, split rountines, body-weight, etc.
I like the change and think my body does also.

LabRat
LabRat
7 years 2 months ago
When I was doing bodybuilder-style “upper body, lower body” days with the accepted set and rep schemes- 8-10 reps, three sets- three to four times a week, I made some progress. When I started doing Crossfit in which weights-only days are maybe once a week, usually only one move, very heavy weights, I made much, much more progress. Training for a year on the old scheme my maximum back squat never exceeded about 80 pounds on a good day; training for a few months like I am now and it shot up to 120. I’m sure I could get it… Read more »
George
George
7 years 2 months ago

CrossFit works no doubt, the problem is going 3 on 1 off for years without enough rest will eventually lead to burnout as well as overtraining. Planned rest cycles are just as important in CrossFit as they are in any routine, and people who go cultish with CrossFit are much more prone to injury than those who take a periodic complete week off or do scaled down weeks.

LabRat
LabRat
7 years 2 months ago
AHAHAHAHAHHAHA dude if you knew me outside a comment box on the interweb you’d know I am waaaaaay far away from being one of the cultish folks. I do take rest cycles both planned and whenever I judge I’m feeling a little too cumulatively tore up. And yes, I do believe this is why I’ve never been injured beyond a mild muscle “tweak” that takes a few days of not doing feindish amounts of work with that muscle group to heal up. Observing that it works much better for me than traditional bodybuilding ain’t the same as an indicator I’m… Read more »
Kyle
Kyle
7 years 2 months ago

Sounds like clusters, where you set the weight down and rest about 10 seconds between reps, for somewhere around 5 reps. I use this for deadlifting because I have to reset my feet, regrip, and realign between every rep to make sure I don’t hurt myself. It amounts to about 8 or 10 seconds.

eva
eva
7 years 2 months ago
Hi mark, and firstly thanks for a lifechanging website. I started on the primal or actually ef way of life (as i first got the spark from art devanys site) 2 years ago. It was an easy shift for me as i had already left out grains from my “diet” before that and had also been lifting weights and also hiking for years. Untill just recently (untill about 3 months ago) i had been a firm believer in weights, bodyweightcirquits and HIIT with very occasional SS cardio (dogwalking mostly and hiking). I avoided long-duration highimpact cardio like the plague- mostly… Read more »
Pierre Debs
Pierre Debs
7 years 2 months ago

Eva,

Some are born with a genetic and physiologic advantage, like myself, for endurance exercise.

I don´t agree with the bashing endurance sport is receiving. If performed and trained properly, it is perfectly safe.

Marathons and endurance exercise should not be undertaken without a proper cardiovascular checkup to rule out any potential cardiac problems.

Cheers,
Pierre

Scott Kustes - Fitness Spotlight

The biggest problem with endurance exercise is that few people incorporate any kind of strength training to manage the imbalances that too much running causes. Also, few are actually running at a good clip. Most people just plod along at 10-12 minute miles for years on end, never actually improving.

Though marathons are an excessive amount of wear and tear on the body if undertaken too often.

Cheers
Scott Kustes
Fitness Spotlight.

Pierre Debs
Pierre Debs
7 years 2 months ago

Running is not the only form of Endurance exercise. Rowing, biking and swimming are all much better than running. An yes, strength exercise must be incorporated.

I compete in several bike marathons every year, including stage races. I never have any problems.

In the off season, I lift 3x a week. During the biking season, only 1x per week, usually just powerclean/pushpresses (20 sets of 3 reps) some pullups and rings.

Cheers,
Pierre

Smurf
Smurf
7 years 2 months ago
I’ve been performing 6 to 8 exercises twice per week (and for the last two months, only once per week) since February. Before then, it had been years since I regularly went to the gym. My routine has been to perform 10 second reps (5 seconds positive, 5 seconds negative) in a single set of 8 to 12 reps. These rep amounts have not been hard and fast rules, but rather just the approximate amount of time it takes to reach muscular failure. If I’m able to do more reps, then the next time I increase the weight. In the… Read more »
Jeremy
7 years 2 months ago
Mark, Great stuff, as always. I love hearing about expirimentation with Fitness. It’s often hard for athletes (or non-ahtletes) to take the leap of faith from where they are so comfortable (ala your departure from chronic cardio). At the lowest level of approach, if you lift heavy often, and fuel appropriately, you will get stronger. The minutia is in the specific approach. Yep, Devany has written on similar approaches. Rippetoe (“starting strength”) allows more time for CNS recovery following near maximal loading efforts. In the end, it comes down to the desired outcome. I posted on your blog last week… Read more »
Doug
Doug
7 years 2 months ago

It’s called rest / pause training. The technique has been around in the bodybuilding world for decades.

Mike OD - Fitness Spotlight
7 years 2 months ago

Lately I like to use the 30-40 second set rule….and then increase weights progressively each workout (using an A/B workout day type of split). Could be 10 reps one week…increase the lbs next workout and then it could be 6 with pauses…continue 10% increases for a few weeks, then step back down the weights and go again. I’ve found more continual strength and muscle growth in that strategy alone (plus it’s fun and I enjoy it).

trackback

[…] If you want to get your CNS’ attention, pick up the intensity. Run some sprints or do some heavy lifting. When you do an exercise like the squat with a heavy weight, all hands are on deck. Your CNS […]

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[…] If you want to get your CNS’ attention, pick up the intensity. Run some sprints or do some heavy lifting. When you do an exercise like the squat with a heavy weight, all hands are on deck. Your CNS […]

Jess
Jess
6 years 11 months ago

Smurf, what are “negatives” ?..

Mark, you should write up a post sometime on the specifics of your body weight routines. My routines are (unintentionally) only bodyweight, so I’d love if you gave some ideas that posed some new challenges. 🙂

Toolman
Toolman
6 years 11 months ago
The negative portion of an exercise (also called eccentric) is the part where you lower the weight back to your starting position. For example on bench press it is the portion where you lower the weight to your chest, as opposed the the positive/concentric part where you push the weight away from your chest. BTW – You are MUCH stronger on the eccentric portion and many people have routines where they train only the eccentric portion and make great strength gains. An example: on a pullup using a step stool to jump to the top position and then very slowly… Read more »
trackback

[…] If you want to get your CNS’ attention, pick up the intensity. Run some sprints or do some heavy lifting. When you do an exercise like the squat with a heavy weight, all hands are on deck. Your CNS […]

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[…] most people imagine (physical restructuring of the muscle). You’re training the muscle, the energy pathways, the brain, the CNS, and anything else that’s involved in moving your body against a […]

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[…] altering the way the gene works. Risks for certain diseases might amplify (or decrease), certain energy pathways may be down- or up-regulated, and resistance to climate may change as a result of SNPs. They occur […]

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[…] altering the way the gene works. Risks for certain diseases might amplify (or decrease), certain energy pathways may be down- or up-regulated, and resistance to climate may change as a result of SNPs. They occur […]

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[…] altering the way the gene works. Risks for certain diseases might amplify (or decrease), certain energy pathways may be down- or up-regulated, and resistance to climate may change as a result of SNPs. They occur […]

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[…] and wine and bacon. I also love the feeling of intensive exercise, of completely depleting my glycogen stores and ATP, and seeing how much more weight I can lift today as opposed to a month ago. A lot of people tell […]

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[…] If you want to get your CNS’ attention, pick up the intensity. Run some sprints or do some heavy lifting. When you do an exercise like the squat with a heavy weight, all hands are on deck. Your CNS […]

Myra
Myra
4 years 4 months ago

This sounds similar to what is often recommended for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. People with this condition easily go into anaerobic respiration, even during aerobic activity. So doing strengthening is better, with few reps and lots of rest breaks. People with CFS have to pace their daily activities as well. The ATP system is believed to be impaired in individuals with CFS and fibromyalgia. Some of the pain is from lactic acid (besides a dysfunctional central nervous system).

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[…] obstacles (over and over again across 24 hours) will also require intermittent forays into the ATP-PC and anaerobic pathway. Your nutrition, then, has to take both aspects of the race into […]

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[…] obstacles (over and over again across 24 hours) will also require intermittent forays into the ATP-PC and anaerobic pathway. Your nutrition, then, has to take both aspects of the race into […]

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[…] obstacles (over and over again across 24 hours) will also require intermittent forays into the ATP-PC and anaerobic pathway. Your nutrition, then, has to take both aspects of the race into […]

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[…] obstacles (over and over again across 24 hours) will also require intermittent forays into the ATP-PC and anaerobic pathway. Your nutrition, then, has to take both aspects of the race into […]

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[…] learned a lot about cardio and the three energy pathways (ATP PC, glycolytic, and oxidative) and how at no point are we ever just using one pathway. we are never […]

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[…] Why? Doing clusters helps build energy pathway #1 — ATP-PC […]

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[…] walking up a steeper grade while doing it increases the work being done and shifts it toward the anaerobic […]

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[…] walking up a steeper grade while doing it increases the work being done and shifts it toward the anaerobic […]

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[…] walking up a steeper grade while doing it increases the work being done and shifts it toward the anaerobic […]

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[…] If you want to get your CNS’ attention, pick up the intensity. Run some sprints or do some heavy lifting. When you do an exercise like the squat with a heavy weight, all hands are on deck. Your CNS […]

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[…] If you want to get your CNS’ attention, pick up the intensity. Run some sprints or do some heavy lifting. When you do an exercise like the squat with a heavy weight, all hands are on deck. Your CNS […]

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1 year 7 months ago

[…] ATP-PC Energy | Mark’s Daily Apple – Whenever Grok needed to lift something really, really heavy, he drew upon the adenosine triphosphate phospho-creatine (ATP-PC) energy system. If he saw an… […]

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[…] ATP-PC Energy | Mark’s Daily Apple – Whenever Grok needed to lift something really, really heavy, he drew upon the adenosine triphosphate phospho-creatine (ATP-PC) energy system. If he saw an […]

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[…] fuel muscle and help recovery during training by recycling ATP (the basic energy currency of the body). Creatine […]

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