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Why Muscle Sensation Isn't the Best Indicator of Movement Competency

A lot of times we might hear a client ask, "where should I be feeling this?" This is an appropriate question as the client wants to make sure they are performing the movement correctly, or at least, what they think is correctly. However, I think we should be thinking a bit differently about movement to optimize our time in the gym, and to have a better understanding of what is truly going on.

We've sort of been indoctrinated to only think about muscles when it comes to lifting. That's because, we've all seen the great bodybuilders, and when we lift weight, we grow muscle so it only makes sense that we should mostly think about muscles. But, if we want a better understanding of movement as a whole, we need to think about the human system altogether.

So, here's a model we can work with...

Our skeletal structure matters. The orientation of muscle fibers and their interactions with joints, tendons, and bones matter, and the way the fluid moves in all of these structures is going to determine how we move. Additionally, we have brains that influence movement. I look at these things as being interconnected and they sort of all give feedback to each other in the way that we move.

You can't just squeeze your glutes harder to activate them or to feel them work more. You may have to change the position of your skeleton to change the orientation of your glutes so more force and tension is placed upon them. You'd be amazed at how many people feel a glute bridge in their back until you tell them to not arch their back, and simply slowly push with the legs. Your nervous system will also dictate how much sympathetic tone is placed in a given muscle. You may feel that certain muscles simply can't "relax." The lower back is typically an area where this occurs. This can be due to a lot of heavy training where your nervous system implements the good ole "fight or flight" response to allow you to lift heavy weight but may be sucky at shutting this response "off." However, we can also use other interventions, one being changing structural position, to give feedback to the nervous system to reduce this sympathetic tone, but it still seems to me like a two-way street.

So, what does all this mean on the training floor?

We shouldn’t only be thinking about muscles when observing or coaching a movement. Muscle sensation can be useful in guiding our approach, but it isn’t the best indicator that the movement is meeting the desired outcome, and we have to respect how the system operates as a whole. Feeling the lower back on fire on an RDL probably tells you that they aren’t performing the movement with as much efficiency as they can, or it tells you that it might not be the right exercise for the job. This is all contextually dependent on the goals. Someone can also be performing a movement that looks quite perfect, but they don’t seem to be feeling it in the muscles you would like them to feel them in. I have seen countless RDL’s that look quite competent, but once asked if they feel it in their hamstrings, there’s a look of “no, all lower back.” This can give us feedback from a coaching perspective to adjust or coach the movement in a subtle way that leads to the outcome you want. Again, we can’t be too glued to specific exercises and as coaches we need to put our ego aside and pick a better exercise if one isn’t meeting the criteria we need. Instead of overcoaching to the point of confusion and exhaustion, pick something that the client can manage.

As coaches, we obviously have some boxes we need to check when someone is completing a movement. We can’t just prescribe a heels elevated goblet squat and let the client go about the movement willy-nilly. I know there are coaches who do this, but those I don’t find the need to address. What is the goal of the movement, and what are some good indicators that the movement or exercise is meeting the goal?

This is where our understanding of the human movement system as a whole becomes crucial. If we only take the limited perspective of muscles, we are likely going to miss some things. I think sensation is a good indicator, but not muscles specifically. For example, if I prescribe a front rack front foot elevated split squat to achieve the desired outcome of quad hypertrophy and movement adaptability/variability I want a few things to be happening. I want the medial arch on the ground, and I want the space between the shoulder blades and backside of the rib cage to feel expanded. I know these sorts of cues and sensations are synonymous with increased relative motion throughout the system. I don’t have to put someone on the table and measure their hip flexion to see this. Through experience and observation, I know these positions are usually (not ALL the time) synonymous with increased motion. I would guess that if you put someone on the table and measured you will find a favorable increase in motion, but it is important to remember table tests aren’t completely objective either. If I am only looking at the sensation at the quad I could easily be fooled. You can make someone work hard enough at anything and you will eventually achieve the desired muscle sensation.

Muscles are part of the human body and therefore should always be considered when looking at movement outcomes. I just think we need to respect everything else. Neurological factors, connective tissue, fluid, and even the pressure of the air inside our bodies effect the way we move. Muscles can fool us quite easily if that’s the only thing we are looking at. I have seen many programs with the intent of prescribed exercises to target specific muscles or muscle groups. I think a better idea is to program based on biomechanical patterns. This way you are less likely to be fooled and have a few better indicators if the movement is achieving the desired outcome. Load and velocity are also important but outside the scope of this article.

If there is one thing to take away from this, I hope it is that you have to have to be very intentional in how and why you prescribe certain exercises and have clearly defined criteria to see if the movement is meeting the desired outcome.

Muscle sensation is important, but it’s not the only dog in the fight.

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