Train Muscles Not Movements

Train Muscles Not Movements…

Train Muscles to optimize Movements, or more accurately, train individual joint actions to optimize force producers.

The fitness industry enjoys buzz phrases, ever since I started my journey as a fitness professional over 25 years ago a buzzword would show up and hang around for a while until the whole industry leaches on, then suddenly, a new one comes out.

Unfortunately, same holds true for what is labeled as “science facts” that are repeated, and whenever you attempt to trace them, you find that they are no more than miss interpretations with no real science or even flat out wrong.

Today’s buzzword in the industry is “train movement, not muscles” and locking down human functions into “movement patterns”.

To avoid being hung up on semantics in a useless debate, in this blog I will refer to training multi joint motion as “train movements”, and train single Joint action as “train muscles”.


Functional Training & Movement Patterns                                                

If you look up the definition of functional training, you will see attempts to define it, but there is no unified answer to it. So, to make life easy, let’s keep it simple by saying “functional” means to serve a “purpose” or a “function”.

Attempts to quantify functional exercise lead to the creation of “movement patterns” … now again if you look up movement patterns, you will find opinions of 5, 6 or 7 “movement patterns” that are referred to as primal or fundamental.

Once again, I will not get hung up on semantics but will get to the core of the issue… functional training philosophy calls for the human body to be trained in “movement patterns” similar to “the daily” activities it goes through. That is a problem, as the most used human movement is to sit in a chair, so to train people functionally you should find some sort of a resisted seating position or high intensity setting or even what these days can be called “anti-standing”!

While there is no doubt in my mind that if you train a motion, you will get much more efficient at it… the questions are,

  • Did I really optimize my output?
  • Did I protect my weak links?
  • Did I make all my contributing parts available for the brain to recruit?

To answer these, we need to investigate what we know about the brain and remember, neuroscience did not get even close to really deciphering the brain code.

Why do We have a brain?

In his Ted talk, “The real Reason for Brains”, Daniel Wolpert states “we have a brain for 1 reason and 1 reason only, and that is to produce adaptable and complex movements”. He shows that the brain will move in the most efficient way for your own body, meaning it will pick the easiest way possible when we repeat the same motions every day the brain tends to compensate by using the stronger muscles. When you start exercising by using compound motion you are encouraging your brain to continue using your strong muscles at the expense of weaker ones, as a total result you get more efficient at that move, but you end up not addressing the weak parts

Keeping things simple, your brain is smarter than you are, and it ends up tricking you into favoring stronger muscles.

“Isolation Training”

It is remarkable how words like “isolation training” and “machines” became a bad word in the industry, trainers that use “machines” are sometimes labeled as lazy, this is rather “naive” and flat-out ignorance.

I would argue that the most functional part of training is isolating joint actions.

When you look at all types of exercise, the sole purpose of training is to optimize the output of muscles involved in motion, to produce the desired outcome. Whether you are running, jumping, squatting, moving weights to a beat or riding a bike… you are producing force, ranging from 1 repetition in the extreme explosive moves, like Olympic lifting, all the way to continuous leg knee and hip flexions and extensions when riding your bike for 100Km.

The one common factor in all sports & exercise is the more force each muscle can produce, the more that is available for your brain to recruit at higher efficiency.

Here is an example, for you to do, an Olympic lift, jump on top of a “jump box” in a CrossFit competition, squat in the gym or be a 90 year old woman that wants to get out of the chair, knee extension is an integral part of the move… the stronger your quads are, the more efficient the move becomes… the easier your brain recruits muscles. The fact is, there is almost nothing that can challenge the knee extension motion at the end range like a leg extension machine… no squat, lunge, jump or whatever can come close, as it is a matter of physics, not exercise… all exercises loose resistance at the end of knee extension, as gravity applies forces downwards while the knee is moving forward. I know some of you may say I can apply force using a resistance band above the knee coming from the front to create the extension move, while I agree I also argue that you have just redesigned a knee extension machine, with far less optimum force application, however you are still training a single joint motion.

Main Message

Many may think from what I listed above that I am against functional training… I would say I am totally for it, what I am totally against is starting someone at the top of the pyramid, as the base should be strength, not “stability” and “mobility” … you need to train the force producers to establish both stability and mobility, so you need to maximize the output and train stability and mobility.

Then you go use those components for your purpose, and progress into “functional” training, which I refer to as “skill”, because that is the truth about it, you are training a skill, not a function, this skill might contribute later to a function.

If you are a CrossFitter you should progress into the moves that get you the scores you need, if you are a football player do all your zigzags, if you are a sprinter push a slid and if you are a bodybuilder continue to lift in isolation, but regardless of how advanced you get, never leave “isolated” joint motion out of your training routine, it will always give you a huge force output capability.

Labeling an isolated joint exercise as “useless” or “serves no purpose” is a result of a severe lack of understanding of muscle function, physics and exercise outcomes.

The Challenge

I know I have thrown a curve ball at many of you, and I have supported the views of some of you… the idea of changing your mind to go against the overwhelming social media messages is not easy, as you are standing against the wave, however when you have the support of physics and anatomy, you have very strong support… You also can refer to highly credible resources in this field it will help you further your understanding of the whole idea

I highly recommend that you watch the video that inspired me to write this blog, titled “Perspective: Train Muscles, not Movements” by Tom Purvis not only that he is one of the top thinkers in the fitness industry, but no one puts things better and more entertaining than he does…

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