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Posted 10 months ago

Get the muscle strong, not the movement

If you read that sentence and think to yourself “wait a minute, I thought I was supposed to be getting stronger!”, then you’re absolutely right! At VW Physique we preach the progressive overload training method and focus on getting stronger over time.

However, I realised after a few conversations with some new clients that there is some nuance in there that perhaps isn’t always clear, meaning that they – and perhaps yourself reading this too – were missing out on a very important layer to training. Therefore, the purpose of the article is to explain the difference between strong muscles vs strong moves, the thought process behind using internal cues, the importance of muscle initiation, and why we need to obsess over maintaining tension.

Avoiding mindless movement

Have you ever found yourself progressing your weights on the bar, but then after a few weeks you begin to realise that you don’t feel much going on in the target muscle group? This is often because it can be easy to lose the tightness on your form when performing an exercise and getting to the point where you’re simply moving the weight through a movement pattern, as opposed to using the target muscles to do so.

For example, if we take a move like the hip thrust, you may have been focusing on getting a big “squeeze” at the top, but after each set you might realise that you get most of the post-exercise feeling in your lower back, hamstrings and/or quads. If you are reading this and nodding along, don’t worry – we’ve all been there! In fact, when I first introduced hip thrusts into my rotation in 2017, I messaged my coach explaining that my lower back was sore. His response threw me off a little, as he asked me: “What are your internal cues?”.

When I told him that I was (mentally) going: weight on heels, drive up, squeeze the glutes at the top, he and I both realised that this is where I was going wrong – I wasn’t focusing on what muscle was doing the movement, and I was simply moving the weight from A to B, and was moving mindlessly. This was mainly because I had weak and inactive glutes (I can blame my basketball sporting background for that one), and the realisation completely shifted my focus. I realised I had to bring my mind into my training session, and that’s when developing internal cues because more important for myself and for my clients when training.

Internal cues

In keeping with the example above of myself performing hip thrusts, I essentially had to re-teach my glutes how to “fire up” before I performed any moves which involved a hip extension, such as the hip thruster.

Therefore, I stepped away from loading the bar with any heavy weights and instead went light: all ego lifting was removed. In addition, when I wasn’t training, I developed a daily routine of setting myself up on the side of my bed with an imaginary bar over my hips and would work on mentally and physically getting my glutes active.

Specifically, I would get myself set up in a hip thruster position, put one hand on either side of my glutes, and then I would press inwardly ever so gently. I would then try and think about contracting my glutes/turning them on so that when I pressed inwards my hands were met with a brick wall of tension. Once I had done this, I’d then begin to drive upwards, performing a hip thruster movement with no weight, keeping my hands on my glutes, contracting them as hard as I could throughout the entire movement and having the thought process of squeezing a credit card between my butt cheeks! Trust me, it works, and if hip thrusts are also an issue for you (experiencing pain or activation of other muscles when performing the move) I’d strongly encourage you to go try this to get your glutes firing.

Anyway, I continued to do this each day and included this exercise in my pre leg warm up. I also added in single leg glute kickback moves and applied the same thought process: press inwards, be met with a brick wall of tension, and contract hard throughout the movement. Before I knew it, my lower back pain on hip thrusters dissipated and I felt every part of the movement in my glutes.

You can hopefully now see the importance of thinking about what we are doing, as opposed to just mindlessly moving the weight. There simply must be some internal dialogue where you actively get a muscle on and contract it throughout its full contractile range (from where a muscle is short, to where a muscle is long).Ideally, as you get used to training with this internal monologue, you’ll do it without thinking and you’ll have the ability to connect with your muscles without much conscious effort. However, with most of you, particularly those of you who are just starting out and/or very strong, you’ll need to consciously do this at least every so often if you want to get the most out of every lift you are performing.

Maintaining tension

It is important to remember that a muscle is weak at the extremities of its contractile range. In layman’s terms, this refers to where the muscle is at its shortest and its longest. Going back to the example of the hip thrust (move) and the muscle (glutes), the muscle is extended (long) at the bottom of the lift and contracted (short) at the top of the lift. Importantly, you’ll know that as you start to tire and fatigue throughout the set, you’ll find that your range of motion shortens, and that it’s much harder to get the muscle fully shortened (e.g., think of the struggle to get that same bum squeeze at the top of a hip thrust on rep 8 vs rep 2!).

Remember that just because it starts to “hurt/burn” doesn’t mean we should stop going there: a place where you are weak is your perfect opportunity to get strong! Which then leads us to one of our main points for getting strong: we want to try and maintain as much tension as possible throughout the muscles complete contractile range. Why? Because we will generate more muscle fibre recruitment, elicit more muscle breakdown, and can therefore evoke more of an adaptive response: muscle growth and getting stronger.

With that in mind, it’s imperative to keep and maintain our internal thought cues from rep 1 all the way through to the last rep of the set. We must have a deep focus on turning the muscle on (initiation) on every single rep, continuing to contract throughout the mid-range and then squeezing hard in the shortened range. Only in doing so can we ensure we are recruiting as many muscle fibres on as we possibly can. In short – the more tension is maintained, the more gainz we make.

Assessing your form

Here at VW Physique, clients will send us video footage of their training as part of their weekly check in. This is crucial in the development of their physique as there is often tips, tricks, and feedback we can give to improve the execution of some exercises. At first, clients are often hesitant to video themselves in the gym because they don’t want to be “that guy/girl”. But after some back and forth they soon see the value in it, and we (as coaches) have videos in our inbox each week.

This is crucial, because a move could visually look very solid. Good form, controlled tempo, no rushed sets, and quality control. However, clients might just not be “feeling” the move in the right place. If that is the case, the first conversation we will have will be about internal cues and the thought process throughout the lift.

Once they add in this extra layer of thinking into their training, the same move they just performed begins to progress (strength) very quickly, the muscle area tends to see a sharp growth due to the novel stimulus (as it has never been worked in this way), and the move begins to feel ten times better than it did before.

I’ve seen thousands of videos where form looked spot on OR not quite right, and in both scenarios my clients didn’t feel anything in the move at all. Our thought process here needs to be about changing how the move is performed, as well as retraining our clients to rethink their internal voice throughout the move.

My question to you as the reader is then: if you never video your sets, how do you know what you are doing right/wrong, and identify areas in which you could improve? I know the answer, because if you’re not doing these things, then you will not be progressing (or certainly not as much as you could).

In summary, there might be a huge part to training that you are missing out on, and that is the internal cueing of muscles/movements and how you maintain tension across the lift. If you are simply moving weight from A to B without any real thought process, you’ll often hit a plateau in growth and could potentially get injured at heavier loads. You might need to take a step back in your training before taking two steps forward but if you do, and you are then consistent with your progression, you won’t recognise yourself in the next 6-12 months.

Vaughan Wilson Bsc Hons