The Importance of Your 2 Different Types of Muscles: A Functional Approach

updating imagePeople frequently write or talk about the physiological differences between muscle fibers (fast twitch vs. slow twitch, oxidative capacity, etc.), but this information is generally not very useful to the typical health and fitness enthusiast. Some understanding of how your muscles work is certainly important, but most people don’t need to know all the in-depth physiology. Instead, I believe that understanding the basic functional differences between muscles provides more practical information than you would get by learning a lot of the muscle physiology.

When looking at the functional differences between muscles you can certainly go into great depth and examine how all the various muscles function at every single joint, but in the end, muscles generally fall into two different functional categories: prime movers and stabilizers. Prime movers are the muscles that actively create movement, while stabilizers provide balance and support to your body.

Prime movers are typically the larger muscles in your body and include muscle groups such as your quads and hamstrings (upper thigh), pecs (chest), lats (back), biceps and triceps (arms), etc. They connect to your bones (by tendons) and create movement around a joint. For example, your bicep connects your upper arm to your lower arm (forearm), crossing the elbow joint, and when the bicep contracts it brings your forearm closer to your upper arm. Since the bicep contraction creates this movement, it is considered a prime mover.

Stabilizers, as their name implies, have more to do with stabilizing your body than actually creating movement. Stabilizers are smaller muscles and in many cases they are not really even visible, because they are either so small or deep under your surface muscles. These muscles help to keep your bones, joints, and muscles correctly aligned both during movement and while you are stationary.

Stabilizer muscles are also essential for maintaining good posture throughout your life. For example, the stabilizer muscles in your mid and upper back, work to keep your shoulders back and in line with the rest of your body. If those muscles become too weak or your chest and front shoulder muscles become proportionally too strong or tight, your shoulders will begin to round forward. If the stabilizer muscles are not strengthened to the point where they can reverse this change, then the shoulder rounding will progress and your posture will become worse over time, leading to additional problems.

Prime movers and stabilizers both play valuable roles in your body and any well-rounded training program will include exercises or workouts to improve both types of muscles. It is also important to note that since prime movers and stabilizers have different functions and muscular demands, they should be trained differently. Unfortunately, a lot of people try to train stabilizers as if they are prime movers and possibly an ever greater number of people don’t realize stabilizers need to be trained at all.

Really this is not surprising, because most people in the fitness industry and the media still focus on using exercise to improve how your body looks and rarely spend time explaining how training can improve the way your body functions. It is a common assumption that training will always improve the way your body functions, but this is only partially true. A well-balanced program will improve how your body functions, but many programs are imbalanced or ignore important aspects that actually lead to physical dysfunction.

Improving stabilizer muscles is as example of something that is often left out of the average training program. Since stabilizers are so small, training them usually does not cause any dramatic change to how your body looks, so they don’t get much attention and are often completely ignored. It is very tempting to only train prime movers, because they are responsible for the most calorie burning and physical change. While the majority of your training time can be spent on prime movers, at least some stabilization training should be included as well.

When resistance training (lifting weights, using exercise bands, etc.), prime movers are generally trained by performing sets of exercises where each set contains typically contains between 3 and 15 reps, depending your training goals. In general, lower reps and higher weight result in more strength gains, while higher reps and lower weight results in more local muscular endurance. However, in both cases, the muscles are trained for a certain number of reps, usually until they become fatigued, and then there is a period of rest so they can recover for the next set.

This type of training is effective, because prime movers usually only work for shorter durations (with the exception of long endurance events), but stabilizers frequently have to contract for hours every day. The difference is that stabilizers muscles are designed to produce small and sustained contractions for prolonged stabilization as opposed to the strong and brief contractions of the prime movers. As a result, stabilizer muscles do not need to be trained to produce greater amounts of force for a short period of time.

The good news is that you can actually train stabilizer and prime mover muscles at the same time, depending on the exercises you use. For example, using machines to work your leg muscles (leg press, leg extension, etc.) provides little benefit to your leg stabilizers, but exercises performed standing in a split stance (one leg forward and one leg back),  on one leg, or on balance devices (Bosu, inflated discs, etc.) will challenge the stabilizer muscles along with the prime movers.

One thing to note is that when performing exercises that challenge your stabilizers, your prime movers will not be challenged as much, because you will not be able to use as much weight or perform as many reps as when your stabilizers are not used. This is because energy that would be used to contract your prime movers is spent on stabilization and control of the movement. In addition, your stabilizers may give out before your prime movers, if the stabilization demand of the exercise is high enough.

However, for most people, the benefits of including stabilization training far outweigh the negative of having a little less improvement in the prime movers. Unfortunately, there is not much incentive for people to include stabilization exercises, because they often don’t realize how important stabilizer muscles are, at least not until after they start experiencing problems associated with poorly functioning stabilizers. Also, these problems typically do not start to occur until the mid to late stages of life and they are frequently thought of as normal parts of aging, instead of preventable or reversible muscle and joint problems.

For instance, let’s go back to my earlier example of a person who has rounded shoulders. It is common for elderly individuals to have forward rounding shoulders along with excessive curvature in their upper back and spine. In most cases, this is not a normal part of aging and it is actually caused by a combination poor stabilizer muscle function, lack of flexibility, general lack of muscle use, and the postural changes that result from these issues.

When people make a point of staying active, maintaining their flexibility, and practicing good posture throughout their life, the rounding of the shoulders and other postural changes can usually be avoided. Fortunately, if you have not done everything you should have when you were younger, there is still hope. A well-rounded training program, including stabilization training that focuses on your problem areas can go a long way in reversing and preventing many of the muscle, bone, and joint problems typically associated with aging.

About Ross Harrison 14 Articles

Hi, my name is Ross Harrison and I am a personal trainer in Austin, TX. I have been a certified personal trainer (NSCA) since 1996 and I am also a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS), nutritional consultant, and I have completed numerous other courses and certifications over the years. I also have a degree in psychology from Grinnell College. Over the course of my career I have been an independent personal trainer working with  clients in their homes or various other locations, as well as a trainer at a large gym. I also have experience working in a privately owned health food store  and a large chain supplement store.

After almost a decade in the health and fitness industry, I became frustrated and discouraged by the way many personal trainers and gyms were so focused on making money, even at the expense of their client’s success. As a result, I decided the only way for me to feel good about being a personal trainer would be to start my own business. That way I could create my own policies and make sure I stayed true to what I believe a personal trainer should  be. Then in 2005, I did just that when I started my personal training business called Precision Health & Fitness.

I chose to name my business Precision Health & Fitness, because it accurately reflects the approach I take as a personal trainer. I believe personal training should be completely focused on the client and since every person is different, every program should be precisely designed to reflect that individual’s specific goals, needs, abilities, and lifestyle. I know many
personal trainers say this, but more and more trainers are just repeating the same programs with numerous clients or using tools, such as computer programs,  to self-generate “custom” workouts or nutritional programs for their clients. In my mind these are examples of mass-produced training programs, not personal training.

I also feel that many conventional personal training practices, such as making clients sign contracts, not allowing refunds for purchased sessions, and even paying by the hour, ultimately take the focus off the client’s needs. Therefore, I made the conscious decision to stay away from any policy or practice that I felt detracted from focusing on my clients, even though other people have told me I am limiting my income or discounting the value of my services too much.

For example, my clients pay session prices instead of an hourly rate. This may not sound like a big difference, but it means I can spend more time with my clients when they need it. Many of the people I work with are just starting to exercise or have never been taught proper exercise technique. By having a set time limit on my sessions, I can take the extra time to ensure my clients learning to perform exercises correctly. This not only ensures their safety, but also leads to more effective workouts and better long-term results. Of course, if a client has a set schedule or a limited amount of time, then I will make sure the workouts I create fit those time constraints.

Another benefit of not having timed sessions is it gives clients the opportunity to talk or ask questions about health and fitness or their workout routine. I have never been a big fan of trainers who take the “do it because I said so” approach to health and fitness. I encourage clients to ask questions and I believe that becoming more educated about exercise and nutrition and
learning how your actions affect your results is an important component of health and fitness programs. By making a link between your actions and your results, it will help motivate you to stick to your  program.

This is just one example of how I my business is focused my clients, but there are also other ways Precision Health & Fitness stands out from other trainers and gyms. For instance, I do not have clients sign contracts and they are free to discontinue their training program at any time. I even let my clients determine their own payment plan, which they can change at any time.
Some clients pay for a number of sessions in advance, some pay after each session, and some pay after they have completed a number of sessions. It is all about trying to make things as easy and convenient for my clients as  possible.

That is not to say the workouts themselves are easy, because every workout is designed to be challenging, so it will create a stimulus for improvement. At the same time, I never design workouts that are designed to make  people stiff and sore for a week or have trouble walking up stairs. I know some  people like those workouts because they think the harder they work, the better  their results will be, but that is only true up to a point. It is definitely  possible to exercise too hard or too much and excessively challenging workouts  are almost always counterproductive over the long-run.

When you really think about it, shouldn’t long-term health and fitness improvements be the goal of a personal training program? I believe that it certainly is, although I know there are people who would disagree with me. However, for the people who just want to push themselves as hard as possible regardless of the long-term consequences, there is not shortage of personal trainers who are willing to do just that. My background and personal experiences  have made me believe that long-term health and success should never be sacrificed for short-term gain and that is the philosophy I apply to my personal  training programs.

Speaking of my background and personal experiences, exercise and nutrition have both been very important parts of my life since I was young. When  I was seven, I developed a serious hip infection that destroyed the femur head  (ball that connects to the hip) in my right leg and left me with a fused right  hip. At the time I was told there was almost no chance that I would ever
walk again, but by working hard and keeping up with my exercises, I was able to regain the ability to walk and eventually allowed to play most sports and participate in almost any other activity I wanted.

However, even with continued exercise, I still experienced hip pain that increased over the years. Then when I was 30 I was finally old enough to get a total hip replacement, which resulted in an almost complete reduction in my pain, but I was also left with a new set of restrictions. Since hip replacements  wear out over time, it means the more stress I put on my hip by doing things  like playing sports or running, the sooner I will need a new hip replacement.  Needless to say, my activities have drastically changed since my hip replacement  and I no longer play sports, but I still exercise regularly to remain healthy  and stay in shape.

As for nutrition, it has played an equally important role in my life. When I was younger, I had very unhealthy eating habits, was overweight (or husky  as my clothes were called), constantly felt run down, and got sick frequently.  By the time I was 18 I was trying to eat healthier, but I had already caused my  body and immune system enough distress to be hospitalized for
pneumonia and I  developed a bad case of ulcerative colitis, which is an incurable intestinal  condition where treatment involves just trying to keep it in remission. Simply  put, I had a lot of health issues for a teenager.

Fortunately for me, I became more educated about nutrition and I made eating healthier a priority in my life. My improvements were not immediate, but over time my energy level increased and my immune system improved to the point where I rarely ever get sick anymore. Also I have been able to keep my ulcerative issues to a minimum just by eating healthy (it is generally kept in remission through medication) and by working on managing my stress level. Due to  my improved nutritional habits, I can easily say that I am far healthier and feel much better in my mid 30’s than I ever did as a teenager.

The reason I included all this information is because it explains what motivates me as a trainer and why I care so much about health and fitness. My personal history has also shaped my training philosophy and it is the reason why I always focus on the long-term outcome of a training program, instead just thinking about short-term improvement. It is also why I try to get people to shift their priority from what they can do to look better and think more about what they can do to make their body feel better throughout their lifetime.

If you eat healthy, exercise properly, and do other things that make your body feel better, you will be doing the same things you need to make your body look better. On the other hand, if your sole focus is on making your body look better, it does guarantee that your training program will make your body feel better years down the road. Workout programs that cause you to perform
exercises incorrectly, use poor posture, or develop muscle imbalances can still result in you looking better, but they can also lead to premature muscle and joint aches and pains years later.

It is completely natural to be focus on the present and the immediate future, but people frequently do not think enough about how they want their body  to feel in 20 or 30 years down the road, at least not until they start developing some health related problems. Personal training success is often measured my how much weight is lost or how much muscle is gained, but I believe that is not the best way to think about success. Even if you lose fat, if you are frequently sore or in pain, I would not consider that to be successful, except maybe if you are a competitive athlete or someone who is required to push  your body to the limit.

Personal training and health and fitness in general, should be about creating a better overall quality of life and not only about looking better. Of course, looking better is almost always a primary goal, but it should not the only focus of a program. I know from first hand experience how much of a positive impact a well-designed exercise and nutrition program can have on virtually every aspect of your life. All too often, people accept aches and pains as normal consequences of aging, but in most cases you can make a significant improvement in how you feel.

I want to leave you with a final thought, regardless of your current situation, you are capable of improvement and you probably capable of achieving much more than you might think. I wish you success in all your health and  fitness endeavors and please contact me at ross@precisionhealth-fitness.com  or (512) 537-3377 if you have any comments or questions.

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