Train Movement - Not Muscles
For more on movement-based training and how you can incorporate it into client sessions, check out our new Movement-Based Exercise Workshop at select cities across the country.
Do you remember the first time you saw someone working out and thought: "I want to do THAT?"
As a Gen-Xer who grew up in the 1980s I was motivated to start working out by the action heroes in the summer blockbuster flicks. Of course I'm talking about guys like Arnold, Stallone and Van Damme. In the movies the guy with the big muscles ALWAYS beat the bad guys and ended up getting the girl. Who wouldn't want to emulate that?
Naturally when I got my first set of plastic, sand-filled weights (110 lbs. total), where did I go for my initial "fitness education?" To none other than the Governator himself – Arnold Schwarzenegger. My first book on how to exercise was Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder, and I completely devoured it. I mean, let's be honest, how many of you can admit to buying a copy of Arnold's Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding after you were first introduced to the world of fitness?
Along with Arnold's book, I also subscribed to Muscle & Fitness, the staple magazine of consumer fitness. At the time these seemed like the ultimate resources for sculpting the muscle-laden bodies of my role models. My first gym was the weight room at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, MD. When I was a senior in high school I somehow finagled my way into getting a job at the Bally's Holiday Spa in Rockville, MD. In college I worked in the weight-room and played on the football team for a year, where I followed the program for strength and power. As my access to equipment and facilities expanded, so did my interest in designing exercise programs.
I can remember spending hours consuming bodybuilding literature and debating with training buddies on the best way to sculpt a set of pecs or blow-up a set of biceps. For example, at that time one of my favorite routines was to combine chest and bicep exercises, or back with triceps on the theory that it was a more effective method of increasing the total volume of training for involved muscles. In college I remember marathon weight-lifting sessions that would finish with doing as many reps as possible of 225lbs (either benching or squatting) until total, utter failure. That was the way I continued to lift after college and as a men's club rugby player. All of my workout programs focused on body-part splits with a high volume for hypertrophy and strength.
In 1999, everything changed.
By this time I had become a personal trainer and discovered the world of continuing education. Before then, I mistakenly thought one of the best places to learn about fitness was from professional bodybuilders. When I started attending workshops and conference sessions, my approach to exercise program design experienced a metamorphosis. I quickly realized that exercise programs for individual muscles or isolated body-parts were not that effective for the working professionals who were my clients. Someone who's only going to be exercising 2-3 times per week is much better off doing a total-body workout or circuit training to increase their metabolic response and maximize energy expenditure.
When I first read the quote "train the movement, not the muscles" in an article by Vern Gambetta I have to admit it confused me. As I started reading and learning more about this methodology, I became convinced that it was the most effective way to design an exercise program. By the early 2000s "functional training" had become a popular trend in the fitness industry, but it meant different things to different people. On one hand functional training meant using stability balls or balance apparatus as a means to enhance "proprioceptive demand" for clients. Another school of thought championed by educators like Gambetta, Gary Gray and Chuck Wolf taught that functional training was simply educating the body how to move more efficiently during normal, multi-planar movement patterns.
The only time a muscle truly works in isolation is in a machine designed for isolation with one single axis of rotation. Otherwise muscles are inherently designed to work in coordinated synergies to produce a force through concentric shortening to create movement or reduce a force via eccentric lengthening to decelerate a movement.
Think of the most graceful athletes and movement professionals you know. Chances are that you’ll conjure up images of dancers, gymnasts, acrobats or martial artists. Now think of their physiques; athletes from each of those disciplines have the bodies many of our clients want.
The common denominator is always movement. The human body is designed to move from an upright position over the ground on two feet. If we can understand how the body is designed to move through the fundamental patterns of squatting, lunging, pushing, pulling or rotating, then we can develop exercise programs that improve our clients' coordination and skill, ultimately enhancing their lives.
There is an old saying that "form follows function." My early studies of bodybuilding techniques were all about understanding how to enhance form through isolation, and there's nothing wrong with that if the goal is to compete in a figure contest. But dancers, gymnasts and similar athletes attained their physiques by training to move in the most efficient and effective ways possible for their specific discipline. Keep in mind that most of our clients want to use exercise as a way lose weight or simply feel better. Improving a client's movement skill can address those needs while simultaneously making the training session more interesting by using dynamic movements as opposed to static machines.
I'd rather train my clients like dancers or martial artists and emphasize integrated movement patterns using the entire body. The real benefit is that understanding how to design movement-based exercise programs and challenging our clients to execute efficient movement patterns makes it a more stimulating experience for everyone. From my own personal experience evolving from exercise programs that focus on muscle isolation to workouts featuring multi-planar movements using equipment like medicine balls, cable machines and ViPRs has meant that my 40-year-old body feels and works much better than it did 20 years ago when I was a practicing meat-head.