Movements VS Muscles

I’ve been prescribing exercise for almost 10 years. Throughout those years my ideas, methods and interventions have surely changed. In my college, we were taught by the more unidimensional view of musculoskeletal movement, largely based on the origins and insertions of muscles and the movement that their individual contraction was responsible for. Conversely, as the relatively young science of sports, and particularly the understanding of human movement began to develop, the isolated muscles approach began to give way to a more holistic view of the body. As we were becoming more aware of the regional interdependence of joints, influence of the fascial network, and of the extreme importance of the nervous system and motor programs, “chest and triceps” slowly transformed into “pushing”, “back and biceps” into “pulling”, and “quads and hammies” into “knee dominant” and “hip dominant”. Sentences, like “train movements, not muscles” became the banner of the “new” exercise selection paradigm and are increasingly uttered by the new generation of fitness professionals.

If you enter a couple different gyms, you’ll likely find some where coaches prescribe exercises according to the muscles at work, others according to the movements performed, and yet others that use a mixture of both. So, is the “new” paradigm of “movements” an improvement over the “old” one of “muscles”? A simple question, that has aroused many discussions, begs a proper answer.

How should you categorize your exercises?

So, I would argue that categorization of exercises has these two main models:

1 — Categorize exercises by the muscles that primarily come to play in a given exercise;

2 — Categorize by the type of movement that is being performed.

I’ve seen coaches organize their training prescriptions using one model or the other, each being inflexible about their methods. I’ve also seen coaches prescribe using both, sometimes simultaneously, using sentences such as: “Let’s do a little bit of pushing and pulling and then we’ll do something for those abs”.

My opinion is that, ultimately, both forms of classification make little sense if they’re not seen in light of the goal you have in mind when prescribing exercise.

First, let’s try to understand why to divide exercises at all. The main components of the movement system: muscles, bones, connective tissue, nervous system, energy systems, etc… work together, each to its own extent, to allow for a desired movement outcome. Running for 2 hours has a completely different demand on each of these components than, for example, deadlifting 200kg or being successful playing football. The development of any of the components that allow us to perform such activities requires a specific stimulus. Also, in order to actually induce adaptation, that stimulus needs to be above a certain threshold. As it is conceptually impossible to properly stimulate everything at the same time, a choice of stimulus (exercise) has to be made. Exercises that help improve any of the above-mentioned physical activities are completely different. This should be pretty self-evident.

Now let’s try to understand the origin of both approaches to exercise selection. The more classical way of thinking, dividing exercises by muscles groups, has likely had a big influence from the medical research done in musculoskeletal anatomy and from the rise of the bodybuilding culture in the 60s and 70s. Gyms were, and some of them still are, packed with muscle building machines, most of which were designed solely to target very specific muscle groups. I was myself formerly taught in such a way. Following this line of thinking, you chose and divide your exercises according to the main muscle groups that contract to perform a given movement. If you want to improve the size and strength of your biceps, you flex your elbow, and so on… It is an undoubtfully useful way of thinking for bodybuilders, whose goal is not function, but aesthetics. Not only that, it is very useful when need arises to focus on a specific muscle due to injury, or a muscle that proves to be too weak a link in a given chain of movement for any possible reason (injury, poor training, repetitive movements). However, we now know that this type of segmented thinking does not properly characterize human movement, as it is very reductive and doesn’t account for all the other muscles and systems that come into play. If we took the idea to the extreme, and followed its logic to work all muscle groups, 5 hours would not be enough for even half of the muscles of the human body. That would prove to be very inefficient.

This former model has been overrun by a more holistic approach to human movement, that came from areas of study such as sports, physiotherapy, osteopathy and even anthropology. The works of Thomas Myers, Gray Cook , James Earls, and Daniel Lieberman are great examples. According to this new approach, muscles work as part of myofascial chains, in an integrated fashion, in avid and constant information exchange with the nervous system.

Movements like walking, running, jumping or throwing are the actual result of the interplay between virtually all the muscles at the same time, each with a specific function according to the movement being performed. Research has even shown that movements such as walking or running are very energetically efficient due to the elastic properties of the fascial tissue and that muscles play but a complementary role (Fukunaga et al., 2002) (Roberts & Azizi, 2011). As such, a case is made that exercises should more logically be divided by types of movements, than by muscles at work. Jumping higher will likely be better and way more rapidly achieved by squatting heavy, than by performing leg extensions, leg curls, glute kicks, and heel raises.

However, only organizing sessions by the main movements, does not always account for muscles that, for some reason or another, are not properly playing their part in the bigger scheme. Common examples are the rotator cuff in throwing movements and hip external rotators in exercises that require triple flexion/extension of the lower limb. If we took this approach dogmatically, we could hardly take into account the individual parts that may be playing their role deficiently, hence reducing the efficiency and safety of the desired movement. There is more than enough research to show that isolated strengthening of some muscles can help prevent injuries.

It is imperative to understand the role that both ways of thinking play in proper exercise selection. Whatever decisions are to be made, they need to done so in light of the goal. Do you want to recover from injury? Do you want to throw stuff further? Do you want to be able to change direction with less risk of being hurt? Only after your goals, needs and limitations are digested and clearly formulated, should you then start to think about how to achieve them in the most effective and efficient manner.

Recovery from injury or movement rehab/prehab may require you to know your anatomy, so you can be able to identify the weak link in the chain and properly target your intervention. On the other hand, a logical and balanced development of your body may be better achieved by choosing exercises based on the main movements: pushing, pulling, squatting, etc…

So, next time you hear someone saying either of the sentences you see on the cover of the article, try to understand if what they proceed to do actually makes sense.

Finally, independently of the rational you have behind your decision making, it’s essential to be aware of one thing:

The intent with which you do an exercise does not influence its result!

Meaning that if you kill yourself in that abduction machine to “reshape your buttocks” it won’t necessarily do so. So, make sure that what you’re doing actually helps achieve the intended results. This topic will be further discussed in an upcoming article.

André Sousa

17/7/2019, Shanghai, China


Thomas Myers

Gray Cook

James Earls

Daniel Lieberman

Fukunaga et al., 2002

Robert & Azizi, 2011

André Sousa — On Physical Exercise and Performance

Written by

Performance Coach working in China. Using this platform to organize, write and share my random thoughts on the area of sports, fitness and exercise training.

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