‘Feeling’ a muscle vs training a movement

Recently during a training session one of the members of our Barbell club told me they couldn’t feel the muscle working during the movement they were doing, asking if it meant they were doing the exercise wrong and if there was anything they could do to change this. This got me thinking that a lot of people when they start strength training think they have to feel a certain muscle while they’re training to get the full benefit of the exercise, while this can be true for certain exercises it’s not a universal rule that you need to feel the muscles working while you’re training. I thought I would use this as a chance to outline some general rules that can help you think about when you should be focusing on feeling a muscle versus training a movement.

At MSC performance we are massive advocates of strength training. We like to focus heavily on big movements such as the squat, deadlift and the bench press, not everyone will be training these specific movements, but they will be training the overall movement archetypes. These movements require a good amount of technique, when we’re training the squat pattern, we’re trying to keep the weight over our mid foot, we’re trying to brace effectively and transfer the ground transfer force through the ground as effectively as we can. This will heavily involve keeping as much of the weight through the legs as we can, with the goal of keeping a fairly consistent torso angle on the ascent out the hole. If we can do this efficiently the quads will have to work hard to overcome than knee extension demands, the hamstrings and glutes will have to work hard to overcome the the hip extension demands and your core and surrounding muscles will have to work hard to brace effectively to keep your torso rigid.

With the above in mind, you can see the Squat is a complex movement, which requires a good amount of technique. While it does work the quads hard, we’re not specifically thinking about the sensation of working the quads. The quads will be working incredibly hard in the bottom of the hole while they’re in their lengthened position to overcome and return back to their shortened position as we stand up, as a result, when you finish a tough set of squats, you will feel the work in your legs, but it will be a completely different sensation to a simple single joint exercise, like a leg extension. The leg extension is a simple single joint exercise against a machine, there is no skill or balance involved in it, it’s still a tough exercise that really works the quads through their shortened position, but with less technique needed, this exercise suits itself more to focusing on getting a good working sensation in the muscles, so on this exercise we want to think about a controlled tempo and getting a good squeeze at the top and extending the quads as hard as we can.

 Both of these exercises are great for building the quads and for a lot of people both will be staples in their strength training programme however one is a skill-based compound movement while another is a single joint isolation exercise, these are two good examples of when you should be looking to train a muscle versus training a movement. If we focus on the movement of the squat, executing the exercise to the best of our abilities taking into account that we have to keep the weight over the mid-foot and use the quads to drive out the whole we will be working the quads incredibly hard as well as the other muscle groups named earlier, but it will be a very different sensation to the leg extension where we really trying to get that good connection of working the muscle in a controlled manner through a full range of motion. This is similar to when we’re deadlifting, we shouldn’t be specifically thinking of working our upper back but we should be thinking of keeping our upper back rigid and hold that position as best as we can under heavy load which will in turn work the upper back but it will be a completely different sensation to a seated row, which should be performed with a slow tempo emphasising constant tension on the muscle. Both of these are going to work the upper back but will result in very different sensations.

The takeaway from this should be when you do your compound movements you should be focusing on the technique and the execution of the lift rather than focusing on what muscle groups you can feel. When you are doing your single joint exercises, you should place the emphasis on training the muscles rather than just trying to train the movement and lift as heavy as you can. Isolation exercises the emphasis should be on the sensation and on the amount of work the muscle can do and as a result the weight will be light, whilst training a compound movement we want to push as much as we can within the constraints of keeping good technique and your prescribed RPE/difficulty of the session rather than emphasising feeling specific muscles through the lift.

We can use this to help us moving forward when going through our training sessions, emphasising pushing our large compound movements as hard as we can through as much range of motion as we have, then supplementing these with our isolation exercises to get additional work and work the muscle in its best abilities with constant tension and aiming to ‘feel the muscle working’.I hope this helps with you next training session and you can use this as a guide for when to push the movement versus train the muscle!

Hope you enjoyed this blog.


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