Energy Sources (Pt 1) - Explosive Energy (The Phosphagen System)

July 1, 2020 | Adam Salamon

In our previous article, you learned about the common misunderstanding between lactate (an anaerobic energy source) and lactic acid (the thing used to make yogurt). At the end of the article, we briefly started looking at how lactate jumps in when your heart and lungs can’t get enough oxygen into your muscles. In the next several articles, we’re going to go down the path of understanding the three different metabolic energy systems: phosphagen (explosive), glycolytic (transition), and oxidative (long haul). Each of these energy systems kicks with a type of different exercise and last for very different amounts of time. Our focus for this article is on the phosphagen system, your fastest and most explosive energy system.

Sprinter crouching in the starting blocks

Picture a racer standing at the starting line to do a 100-meter sprint. At this moment, the body’s energy needs are balanced and being met by the oxygen he’s breathing in and the food he’s recently eaten. There is no need for an immediate supply of extra energy. BANG! The starter pistol fires and the racer explodes off the line and starts sprinting. His muscles are in urgent need of energy to keep powering him down the track, but the metabolic pathways are taking too long! What is the solution here? Will the athlete collapse after two seconds?

Obviously, the answer is no, but have you ever asked yourself how come the body is able to support such an explosive movement that requires a substantial amount of energy in a limited period of time? The answer to this question resides in one incredible system that’s not frequently discussed in the field of fitness, the phosphagen system, your explosive energy system. In this review, we will explain how this system works and when the body utilizes it to create energy. We already talked about sprinting, but the phosphagen system is extremely important for many activities that require short-duration movements, such as weight lifting and rugby scrum.

How does the phosphagen system work? (Let’s get sciency for a minute…)

The main substrate that the body uses to produce energy is ATP, which stands for Adenosine Tri-Phosphate. This molecule is incorporated in several metabolic pathways to release energy necessary for all biochemical reactions, including those that mediate muscle contraction. ATP powers everything from muscle fibers to nerve endings. It is the smallest unit of energy our body has and our muscles store a small amount of ATP for immediate use.

Generally speaking, ATP gets broken down in your muscles into two molecules:

      • ADP (Adenosine Di-Phosphate)
      • A single phosphate molecule

This process takes around 2-3 seconds, which is accompanied by another reaction that occurs at the same time, where creatine phosphate is metabolized into creatine and a single phosphate molecule. When these two reactions are complete, the cell will be left with ADP and one phosphate molecule.

Like with most things, what comes quickly often doesn’t last. After just 8-10 seconds, the entire process is complete and the phosphagen system can no longer provide the power you need. After that, the body starts breaking down other fuel sources like carbs and fat. (We’ll talk more about that in the next article)

During recovery, the body resynthesizes ATP using the ADP and phosphate molecules created during your explosive energy use.

Training your phosphagen system

Your phosphagen system maxes out at around 10 seconds of power for your explosive energy needs; no number of squats, sprints, or bench presses will change that. You can however increase just how explosive you can be. Training your phosphagen system involves doing the sorts of things that would normally call on the phosphagen system: sprints, heavy strength training, and jumps (to name some). These quick (<15 second) activities will quickly burn your ATP stores and drive your body to improve upon its ability to respond to the next time you need them. The trick with training this system is you need to fully recover your phosphagen system between each set. That takes about 5 minutes. Do this a few times each week and you’ll improve upon just how explosive you can be.

Next Up: Glycolytic System (Transition)

In our next article, you’ll learn about the glycolytic system. This next step along your energy reserve path gets you from the quick, explosive energy of the phosphagen system to reach a steady state where the oxidative system takes over for the long haul.

Want to learn more?

This article is part of a series which will help you learn about your body’s energy systems. Keep an eye out for our next article or subscribe to our newsletter to be notified when it is posted.

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