Movements, not Muscles

Abstractions are all around us. They remove a lot of details and make something complex more simple. The computer you’re using to read this article is built on a tower of abstractions. I have written in the past about how RPE is a form of abstraction. Another useful abstraction that I picked up under the tutelage of Mike Tuchscherer is thinking about building strength in terms of movement patterns versus the muscles utilized.

Benefits of Abstraction

A good abstraction is one that eliminates the need for a lot of details. A lot of people in Powerlifting think in terms of making the muscles stronger. At first glance this makes sense. The muscles are doing the work. If we get them stronger our lifts should go up! The issue is that the movements involved in Powerlifting are multi-joint, multi-muscle movements. If we think in terms of the muscles then we have to build each major group up, hopefully in the right ratios, and then integrate them and transfer the strength to the competition movement.

However, if we think in terms of movements then we can utilize the movement itself to build the muscle. This has can be very beneficial as we don’t have to worry about the ratio of muscular strength or transference to the competition lift. For example, most lifters are weak off the chest in the Bench Press. We could say “oh, we have weak pecs” and do lots of dumbbell flies and dumbbell press to build up our pecs. But then we end up leaving the triceps out of the chain. If we think in terms of movements we’ll do long paused bench press and pin press to build up our bottom end strength. We don’t need to worry as much about muscular ratios and transference. It’s very specific to the competition movement.

Practical Recommendations

If you know where you’re weak (determining weakness is another post in and of itself) then it’s fairly simple to adapt your programming to target the weakness. You will pick exercises and rep ranges that allow you to spend more time in the weak range of motion. Paused and Pin variations for strength at the bottom ROM; chains, bands, and blocks for the top end. You can also pause at different points along the ROM. Another way is to do a lot of sets in the 4-6 rep range around a 9-10 RPE which will have you grinding through those weaker ranges of motion.

Baby and Bathwater

We’d be remiss if we took the abstraction too far and eliminated all muscle work. One must be wary of anyone who claims to have all of the answers. The movement-based abstraction is very useful, yes, but it’s not the end all be all in training ideologies. Your focus should be on the competition movement. After that, including ROM specific movements is probably a pretty good exercise selection strategy. Past that it couldn’t hurt to throw in more musculature-centric work. Specificity should still be respected here and it would be best to select exercises that are still close to the competition lift.

Next time you’re designing a program try thinking about the movements first and see how that might change things.

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