Today we will dive into one of my favorite topics...muscles!
Always nice to have a little humor to start the morning. And muscles are much more complex than just what we see on the outside.
Muscles, specifically skeletal muscles, play an important role when it comes to the human body. Your skeletal muscular system, comprised of MANY muscles, is a vital component in many bodily processes including:
Producing Bodily Movement
Influencing Metabolic Adaptations
Looking like a greek god or goddess
Today we will mainly focus on the first two points. Made up of bands of fibrous tissue, a muscle’s main function is to contract. This contraction can do some pretty cool things (which we’ll get to in a little bit) and the way we utilize exercise (resistance training) can have a huge impact on how our muscles adapt or change (improve the contraction). So let’s break it down...
First, some basic anatomy...a muscle is made up of individual muscle fibers (muscle cells). These fibers are joined together by several connective tissue membranes. At the ends of the muscle fibers, there are extensions of this connective tissue that converge to form tendons, which anchor the muscle to the bone.
Bone === Tendon ==== Muscle ==== Tendon === Bone
From a biomechanical perspective, all a muscle is trying to do is pull it’s 2 points of attachment together (2 bones together). Why is this important? Because we can look at muscles as tension producers, trying to create more or less tension to move our limbs based on what we’re trying to accomplish.
Picture this: think of trying to pull up your blinds at home. In order to move them up, you have to pull and create tension in the string. If you want to lower them, you have to release the tension. That’s what your biceps brachii muscle (along with other muscles, we can never truly isolate) is doing when you bring your hand to your shoulder. It’s creating tension to move your forearm up and lessening tension when you lower it.
Pretty fascinating that the body is able to coordinate all of that! Especially considering that there are upwards of 650 muscles.
So let’s carry this over to exercise, specifically strength training. Let’s make it simple and choose a dumbbell biceps curl as our exercise to analyze. As we hold the weight in our hand, we contract our biceps to begin moving the weight forward, then up, then toward our shoulder. This contraction is called a concentric contraction (where we feel the squeeze), which is when our muscle fibers are shortening. When we lower the weight, our muscle fibers are lengthening, which is called an eccentric contraction. If we hold a static position and there is no change in length, this is called an isometric contraction.
***One thing to note is that they are ALL contractions, meaning there is still tension in the muscle. The main difference is that the muscle’s contraction is winning the battle between the resistance (weight/dumbbell) on the concentric and losing the battle on the eccentric.***
Why does this matter? Because shouldn’t the main focus of strength training be about what’s on the inside, our muscles?! The structures that actually move us?
It’s common, easy, and quite frankly the ‘norm’ in most gym settings to have an external focus when strength training….sets, reps, amount of weight being lifted, time or tempo of an exercise, etc. Heck, in some cases not even to that extent for some people... no focus at all, just plop in some headphones and zone out for 45 minutes. And I don’t say this as a bad thing, but rather to get you thinking...What happens to your muscles when you have that external focus? Are they being challenged appropriately? Is that truly an effective use of your time? Are you at a higher risk for injury, especially considering how important your muscular system is? What is your goal of that workout?
There are a few things that will happen when you bring the attention and focus to the muscles:
You will be able to produce more tension, more tension = more strength
You will more than likely have to slow down your tempo, this will help protect your joints and keep them safe
You will feel the exercise where you should, which means a more focused and efficient challenge (no wasted energy or time)
So my challenge to you the next time you’re strength training is to bring an internal focus to your exercises. Feel the contraction or the squeeze throughout the whole exercise and bring some mindfulness to your muscles (trying your best not to sing along to minute 2:30 of Oops I Did It Again by Britney Spears :)
Now I’m not saying the external components are not important or don’t play a role, because that would be a silly, absolutist statement, but they are not the only piece of the puzzle. And doesn't it make sense that the structures actually doing those 3 sets of 10 or that 30 second plank (your muscles) are just as important anyway?
Hopefully this helps gain some perspective on what muscles are and how important their role is for our bodies. Next week we will dive into a big part of what muscles influence, your joints!