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Thursday, Dec 18, 2014
Health & Fitness

Training: Are you really working that muscle?


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It was supposed to be a core workout. But when the strained shoulder muscles began hurting the following day, I realized I hadn’t really been working my core very much at all.

The exercise seemed like a good idea at the time. Standing up while using the cable “row” in my gym, I’d pull on the bar handle while turning from side to side to work my core. It might have worked if I’d kept my arms motionless and tight to the body. Instead, by yanking on the cable, pulling it to my chin, I was mostly working my biceps. In fact, I was overworking them. The biceps tendons were strained, and hurt for days.

A trainer at my gym told me it’s a common mistake. People think they are working a certain muscle, but in reality, their technique works another muscle entirely. A good example is the shoulder shrug, used to build the traps.

The proper technique is to hold a bar or dumbbells while lifting the shoulders to the ears. But if the shoulders are held back, instead of in a neutral or forward position, the lats (latissimus dorsi) will be doing most of the work, not the trapezius.

Technique also matters while doing pull ups or lat pulldowns. Do either of those exercises while gripping the bar with fingers towards you, and you’ll be putting much of the load on your biceps. Do it with the back of the hand towards your face and fingers pointing away, and most of the work will be done by your chest and upper back.

Lunges are one of the best lower body exercises for athletes. They are specific for many sports, from skiing to soccer, and best of all, they are great for working the glutes (butt). The glutes are the largest muscle in the body, and the source of much of an athlete’s power.

But those who do lunges with a short step forward and don’t bend down very far are working the quads more than the glutes. To put more isolation on the butt muscles, take a long step forward and lunge down with the back knee almost to the floor. In fact, use the two different techniques in sequential sets, so that one set mostly works the quads and the next set mostly works the glutes and hamstrings.

The key point is: where do you feel the muscle fibers firing?

Many people go through their entire workout routine without taking the time to concentrate on what they’re feeling. This can be much more serious than merely working an unintended muscle.

The bench press is a great example. A shoulder-wide grip is a “close” grip that also works the triceps. Anything wider will put more of a load on the chest muscles. But a very wide grip with the elbows pointed out will often press dangerously on the rotator cuffs, with eventual injuries ranging from mild irritation to actual fraying of the tissues.

At the same time, a grip that’s too wide can hyperextend the shoulder joint, pushing it past the normal range of motion, which if repeated until damage occurs, may require surgery. If you’re feeling charged muscle fibers in your chest and arms when doing a bench, that’s good. If you’re feeling even minor pain in your shoulder or elbow joints, that’s bad. Call it a day, and next time, keep your hands closer together on the bar.

Another danger can be caused by a small technique flaw when doing lunges. While descending, the knee should never bend past the toes. If it does, too much pressure is placed on the knee joint, and the ligaments can be overstretched and strained. This is an easy mistake to see and prevent. Feeling pain in the knee joint after a set of lunges is a sign that your body is telling you something about your technique.

The best way to know which muscle is really being worked is to feel it. Feel the sensations of your muscles while you’re working them, not the following day when pain informs you of what you really did during your workout.

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Wina Sturgeon is the editor of the online magazine Adventure Sports Weekly (adventuresportsweekly.com), which offers the latest training, diet and athletic information.

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@ 2013, Adventure Sports Weekly See more at http://adventuresportsweekly.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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PHOTO (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): AV-TRAINING

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