Recently a member asked me this question: “I’ve noticed you do less targeted training for things like quads and biceps- why is this?”
And this is true! Well, kind of... Let’s talk about it.
First, you have to understand that muscles have two ways of contracting: concentrically (shortening) and eccentrically (lengthening). Take a dumbbell bicep curl for example. If you lift the weight up, the bicep is contracting concentrically (i.e. the muscle fibers/ sarcomeres are getting closer together). If you lower the weight back down slowly and controlled, the bicep is still contracting, but now it’s also lengthening. The second is an eccentric muscle contraction.
When it comes to planning my classes on KORE | KINECT, I leave no muscle behind. With that said, I very strategically program more eccentrically loaded exercises for quads and biceps (especially in the beginner and intermediate levels) mainly for two reasons. (Remember, individual needs may vary. This programing is based off general population needs and my personal experience training thousands of bodies in person for over a decade).
1. Functionality & Correcting Muscle Imbalances
Most of us live a relatively sedentary life. We sit all too often and because of this, the anterior/ front of our bodies tend to be more shortened/tight than the posterior chain. To put it plainly, most of us have overly active hip flexors and quads and lazy glutes. Also, our world is in front of us, meaning we hold kids, groceries, bags, our phones etc. using the front line of the body predominantly whereas the back line of the body becomes neglected as gravity tries to take its toll. This leads to muscle imbalances that can cause joint mobility and chronic aches and pains when not addressed.
My main goal with people who come to me is to first address their muscle imbalances. In the Beginner and Intermediate category of workouts on KORE | KINECT, you won’t find a ton of “compound movements” like squats and lunges which attempt to work many muscles at once. The reason is that when you have muscle imbalances, the more dominant muscles tend to do the majority of the work (think of them as overachievers) and the lazier muscles will not want to help as much. To correct this, I include lots of exercises specifically targeted at shortening muscles in the posterior chain like the glutes, hamstrings, triceps, and rotator cuff (to name a few), while also including exercises that eccentrically load and lengthen the front body, like the quads, hip flexors and biceps. Once clients are more balanced (they’re feeling no chronic pain in their neck, shoulders, hips, lower back etc.), I graduate them to more advanced, compound exercises like lunges, squats, push ups, and planks. At that point, they are better able to feel ALL muscles working together evenly.
The goal of “functional” fitness is to train the body to work as a whole system. But, ironically, in order to do that, we have to start by strategically addressing individual parts.
In terms of aesthetics, the most common lower body “wish list” item for clients who come to me say they want lean looking legs and lifted glutes. For upper body, their biggest concern is wanting to tighten the back of the arms (triceps) and the area along the sides of the ribcage (in addition to strengthening their core, of course).
The evidence shows that aesthetics follows function. There is a very simple reason why most women feel less “toned” in the back of their arms than in the front- because we overwhelmingly use the front of the arm (biceps) in our daily lives much more than we use the back of the arm (triceps). It's the same reason we lose definition in the glutes when we sit too often. We all know what they say- If you don't use it, you lose it. But, what they don't say is that if you lose it (certain muscles), then other muscles will have to take over the responsibility and then you're left with some muscles that are chronically shortened and others that are chronically lengthened ie muscle imbalance.
This is why exercise selection is so important for both function and aesthetics. Eccentrically loading the quads, for example, through strategic exercises like the Pilates “thigh stretch” (shown below), will simultaneously strengthen the quad muscle fibers while also actively stretching them. This not only helps restore good function to lower appendages, but also helps the thigh muscles appear leaner. Think of it this way - when you contract a muscle at its most lengthened state, you are essentially telling the muscle to remember that lengthened position.
There are also other benefits to eccentric training.
You can actually get stronger!: Studies show that muscles can support 1.75 times more weight during the eccentric phase of an exercise than in the concentric phase. Think about the bicep curl. At a certain weight, the concentric/shortening muscle action “fails” and cant lift any more reps. But, you could start from the contracted muscle position and still apply enough force to slowly control the weight back down. Because you can handle more weight eccentrically, you can actually work the muscle more strategically with greater potential for muscle hypertrophy.
Injury prevention: Eccentric training builds stronger connective tissue (ligaments and tendons), which is essential for injury prevention. Too often, our connective tissue is forced to take over the “braking” mechanics when muscles aren’t strong enough eccentrically (for example, pain in or around the knees while hiking downhill or while going down stairs could indicate a lack of eccentric strength in the quads).
Improve flexibility: A healthy muscle is one that can equally contract and also lengthen (i.e. it can be taken through a full range of motion). When you work eccentrically, you are actively lengthening a muscle through its complete end range. This not only makes the muscle appear leaner over time, but stretches the muscle in a safe way the ensures what you are stretching is in fact muscle tissue and not overstretching connective tissue.
While I’m always keeping my clients aesthetic goals in mind when programming workouts, I am first and foremost concerned with improving their body mechanics. Thankfully, they go hand in hand! When we address muscle imbalances and work with the intention to improve how our bodies function, the aesthetic results will inevitably follow. So, not only do people who stay consistent with KORE | KINECT look tighter and leaner over time, but they also feel better because their bodies are more balanced and aligned.
As always friends, train smarter, not harder.