Friday, December 9, 2011

"What Muscle Does This Work?" Part 2

Last post, we reviewed a brief history of how isolating muscles rose to popularity.  While I'm sure people did specific exercises for their "back" or "legs" or "biceps" before this, there was also a general understanding that the exercises they were doing (pullups, squats, curls) weren't strictly isolating those muscles, but also involved many synergists and stabilizers.

You can thank Arthur Jones and Joe Weider for drivel  like this.
With the advent of the Nautilus circuit, however, the isolation was more, well, isolated.   While you can't truly ever isolate a muscle, the Nautilus machines came much closer than what was possible before.  And this took training particular "muscles" or "muscle groups" to a new level of popularity.  The Weider bodybuilding publications of the era - Muscle Builder, which became Muscle and Fitness in 1980, and Flex - bouyed by lots of advertising dollars for Nautilus from Jones' pocket, fed this growing trend by publishing workouts that only hit "bodyparts."  So you'd have programs that called for 15-20 sets of dedicated work, EACH, just for biceps and triceps.  And so on for chest, shoulders, back, legs, etc... It wasn't long before they even spilt up Quads and Hamstrings - and if you look at some programs of bodybuilders today, they still do!

You don't get a Squat like this by splitting up your quads and hamstrings.

It is against this backdrop that the "Train movements, not muscles" pushback occurred.  Fitness pros who took their jobs seriously were tired of the silly bullshit that was being pushed by the isolation crowd.  Isolation worked perfectly fine for a tiny subset of people: Bodybuilders taking steroids.  For everyone else, it sucked.

The problem, as in many cases, is that this wonderful catch phase, "Train movements, not muscles" was co-opted by many different subgroups in the fitness industry.  The Stability Ball people, the BOSU people, the Balance Board people - collectively referred to as the Unstable Surface Training is Where It's At, Yo! People - claimed that their way was the true functional path, training movements, not isolating muscle groups.  While it's true that they didn't isolate muscle groups, the functional part of their claim is rather dubious - how often do you do anything on an unstable surface, other than unstable surface training at the gym?  Also, having people do bicep curls while standing on a BOSU, or Dumbbell Presses kneeling on a Stability Ball - well, that kind of misses the point of training to overload, doesn't it?

Doing this...
...does not yield this.

So, what does "Train movements, not muscles" really mean?  It means that your strength training in the gym, no matter what you're training for - life, specific sports, whatever - should consist of progressive overload of general human movement patterns.  

Why are the squat, deadlift, and press such effective exercises?   Why is doing pullups and cleans better than straight arm lat pulldowns and knee extensions?  It's precisely because they're NOT specific.  They train general patterns, which allows them to be loaded heavily and progressively.  They work multiple muscle groups across multiple joints, forcing everything to work together in the way predetermined by the laws of physics.  If you train this way, the carry-over to all the SPECIFIC things you do in life and sport will be maximal because specific hangs from general.

If you need to exert 150lbs of force for 20 seconds to help your buddy move his couch up the stairs, it doesn't matter how good (or bad) you are at doing empty bar squats on the Stability Ball - because you never actually had to produce 150lbs of force!   If you need to push the ground with 200lbs of force to suddenly swerve on the ski slopes - if you did lots and lots of BOSU lateral shuffles because your trainer told you they were Sport-Specific, well sorry buddy, you're screwed.  You may be able to do it anyway, because you're naturally good enough - but unless your workout required you to produce enough force to cause an adaptation to the general pattern, none of the silly "specific" stuff you did in the gym will help a lick.

Now let's relate this back to our original topic: "What muscle does this work?"  The answer is: stop giving a crap!
 #1 Spot reduction is an established myth anyway
 #2 Now you know that you don't WANT to isolate your muscles.  That was all the rage in the 80's, but we've moved beyond that.

What you want to be asking, and focusing on, is: What movement pattern is this?  None of the good exercises that work the general movement patterns isolate ANYTHING.  So if you really really need to know what's working, you need to NOT ask "What muscle is this working?"
Rather, ask  these two questions:
1) Which movement pattern(s) is this?
2)Which muscles are the prime movers here, which are the helpers, and which are the stabilizers?

Too complicated for you?  Get serious!  If you care enough to spend hours per week working out, you care enough to learn this easy stuff, which you will after asking the question only 2 or 3 times.

Did I offend you?  If I did, it's probably because you're not strong enough yet.  Go do your Squats and get stronger.  But not like this:

 

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