Athletes are in the business of efficient movement, and the best are incredible at controlling their body. Coordinated movement doesn’t come from something as simple as purely building muscle size. Muscles mean little individually without the ability to synchronize movement in the appropriate skill. Athletes that can move well aren’t always the most muscular and the most muscular guys don’t always move well. Want an example…Watch a UFC fight. This is purely anecdotal but I noticed a trend when I got turned on to the UFC about 15 years ago. I loved watching fights between muscular, aesthetic looking bodybuilders and skinny, blue collar looking average Joe’s. Way more times than not, the average Joe would dominate the muscle freaks. This trend was almost common knowledge to my friends that fought in the ring themselves. They knew that the scary looking muscled up guys spent too much time worrying about muscles and not enough worrying about their skill. While one guy was getting jacked up in the gym, the other was jacking up guys in the ring. While this article doesn’t specifically focus on the skill side of sport, it does focus on the importance of developing movement skills versus muscle based training. A muscle based program has many problems when it comes to developing athletes.
1. Volume can easily get carried away
Focusing a program built around only muscles can easily become overkill. After all there’s over 600+ muscles in the human body. Obviously we aren’t building a program to cater to each, however focusing too much energy on muscles can create issues in building an efficient program. Volume, for athletes that aren’t bodybuilders, must always be accounted for in the grand scheme of athletic development. A program focused on training the pecs, triceps, biceps, forearms, deltoids, upper traps would take a considerable amount of work on any given day or week. Don’t forget athletes have other work in the name of skill training that takes up time and adaptation energy as well. Too much of one doesn’t lend itself well to adapting in other areas, and it’s often those other areas that are more important to the athletic cause.
Building a program around pushing and pulling in multiple planes eliminates the issue of the large volumes required when focused on one muscle at a time. The majority of all pushing movements use multiple muscles in the upper body in some form or fashion. Large compound pulling movements utilize the opposite upper body muscles in some form or fashion. Big multi-joint movements will often take care of building muscle as a by-product and with less overall volume necessary.
2. Training sessions can become long when working to stress every muscle.
The place I see the most overkill is in the upper body. Programs built around muscles are often very much upper body focused. First off, athletes dominate based on what their lower body, and core produce more times than not. That is the center of all athletic movement. The pelvis, or the hub of the lower body and core, is often the center of power, and speed development. Secondly, a program should not be built around, pecs, lats, biceps, triceps, traps, deltoids, forearms, and then LEGS and CORE as an afterthought!
I see frequently multiple days of the week designated as chest, tricep, and shoulder days, then back and biceps days, and then left to one day is LEGS and CORE. How are the largest and possibly the most important area’s of the body only receiving one day while muscles that make up less than 10% of the body’s muscle mass, like the arms or shoulders, receiving multiple days per week?
Athletes only have a certain amount of time to train. Using up too much time on unimportant small muscles limits the time one can designate to things like jumping, sprinting, throwing medballs etc. Those are things that should happen multiple times throughout a weekly cycle but often just get pushed to a Legs-only day once a week. Strength, speed, and power are all high on the list of CNS demands when it comes to training. Here comes a common theme….The nervous system’s involvement is important. When muscles become the priority, programming has the tendency to become bodybuilding. When movement becomes the priority, the nervous system becomes the focus.
3. Athletes need to groove movement coordination.
The biggest lack of development in a body part or muscle focused program is that of the central nervous system. The nervous system is everything in building a great athlete. It is THE most important factor when it comes to athletic development. The CNS controls all inter, and intra-muscular coordination. It is responsible for telling which muscles to turn on, at what time, how fast, how many fibers, when to relax, etc.
While muscles do move the athlete, the coordination amongst muscles, and the musculo-tendonous chains throughout the body are what REALLY moves athletes. The ability to contract a single muscle is often unimportant in the grand scheme. The ability to contract groups of muscles across multiple joints at the right intensity and right time is key to athletic movement. To go a step farther the ability to shut off an antagonist is often a defining ability in elite level athletes. Much more goes into high level synchronized movement than simply a muscle shortening.
4. Exercises become isolated versus multi-joint
Athletes need big compound movements to teach neuromuscular coordination throughout the body as a whole. Training muscles individually offers nothing in the realm to movement coordination. Every time an athlete moves the nervous system is sending information, and receiving information. It builds, and stores this information in its motor program for the future. It’s a continual process of teaching the body to be aware of where its limbs are in space. Without training movement, this process breaks down to some extent. Having athletes do isolated single joint exercises is really a disservice. Take that a setp further with machine based training and you have recipe for failure. Machine based training does nothing but contract and relax a muscle. We essentially take the nervous system out of the equation completely. Large compound movements train more muscles than isolation movements and do it in much less time. The name of the game in athletics is movement. Train the body the way it is utilized in sport.
This article isn’t to say there’s not a time and place for individual muscle development but to state that in general an athletes programming should be built around movement, not muscles. Big muscles don’t always transfer to sport. Strength, power, and speed, as well as the ability to coordinate fluid movement certainly transfers.