Skip to content

Feel the muscle vs. move the weight

Den Muskel spüren vs. das Gewicht bewegen

Here is a brief summary:

  1. Before you start training, you should decide what your main goal is. The goal of achieving a specific look requires a different training approach than the goal of becoming a better competitive athlete.
  2. Those who train to improve their athletic performance are more concerned with moving the heaviest possible weight from point A to point B in the most efficient way.
  3. Those who train to achieve a specific look should focus on feeling the target muscles working. Moving a weight from A to B is secondary.
  4. The amount of weight you use, the speed of your repetitions and your mental focus will vary based on your main goal.

It's your choice

Before starting any training set, you have an important decision to make. It's not the amount of weight you put on the bar or the number of reps you want to complete. It's something more abstract, but just as important. You have to decide whether your main goal is to move the weight or to feel the muscle.

In other words, you need to ask yourself whether your primary goal is an objective, measurable performance, such as performing the maximum number of repetitions with a certain weight, or whether your goal is to actually feel the muscle working. These are very different goals. Sets performed with these different goals will look very different - one will be heavier and more explosive, while the other will be lighter and more controlled.

Which approach is better? As different as these two approaches may be, neither is inherently better than the other - they just serve different purposes. So let's take a look at both approaches to find out which is best to use and when.

Movement vs. muscle

Athletes who play power and movement-based sports (MMA, American football, powerlifting) should generally focus on training movement, while athletes who are concerned with the visual development of their body should focus on training muscle.

Athletes who play movement-based sports need to be able to move better in order to improve their performance. An MMA fighter doesn't need to worry about the size of his pecs. Instead, he needs to think about his ability to release maximum force with his pecs quickly and repeatedly, which will allow him to deliver strikes against his opponent.

In the same way, a BMX cyclist will not worry about whether his legs look good in his underwear. No, it's more important to him that his legs can release maximum power, which will make him as fast as possible.

At the other end of the spectrum are athletes like bodybuilders who are more interested in improving the appearance of their muscles and are not as concerned about their power release or endurance capacity. They are most concerned with how their muscles will ultimately look as a result of their training.
Bodybuilders and other physique athletes don't care what their vertical jump height is, or how much weight they can move on squats - they only care about having full, evenly developed quadriceps with a good visible split between the three visible quadriceps heads.

And a figure athlete will not be interested in being able to perform a maximum number of pull-ups in the shortest possible time. She wants maximum latissimus development, which will make her waist and hips appear narrower. While it's pretty clear that athletes and bodybuilders ultimately have different training goals, this fact tends to get forgotten as soon as we start training in the weight room. Let's look at a few practical ways in which athletes and bodybuilders can fine-tune their training to maximize their desired results.

Training the movements: 3 factors

There are a number of ways in which an athlete can adjust their training to maximize their performance.

1 - Repetition speed

A good rule of thumb is that if you want to be able to move fast, you need to train fast. Simply put, you will get better at what you do. To maximize strength and speed, you need to be able to recruit the maximum number of muscle fibers and get the nerves that control those fibers to fire as strong nerve impulses as possible. In other words, if you are a strength athlete, you should aim to maximize your recruitment of motor units and your neural coding. One way to achieve this is to increase the speed of repetitions. Performing a repetition explosively will maximize both motor unit recruitment and neural coding.

Let's say you are performing a set of squats. It would make sense to perform the concentric part of the movement (the upward movement) as quickly as possible. By doing this regularly, you will be able to release maximum force at any given time.

Although care should be taken when performing anything other than controlled eccentric movements, fast execution of the concentric portion of the movement in squats will also serve to maximize the recruitment of motor units. This is especially true for the part of the movement where you reach the point in the repetition where the momentum of the rapid eccentric downward movement needs to be quickly decelerated and then rapidly change the direction of the movement by generating a quick concentric contraction.

By training explosively, you develop the ability to move faster.

2 - The choice of weight

Competitive athletes can improve their ability to perform certain movement patterns by regularly performing them against heavy resistance. A martial artist who bench presses will develop a better explosive power to help them push an opponent away. If you are an athlete, then you will benefit from using relatively heavy weights (a high percentage of your 1RM weight) when you bench press to maximize improvements in motor unit recruitment and neural coding. So if you're an athlete who is in the middle of a set of heavy bench press, then you should focus on moving the heavy weight as explosively as possible - not feeling your pecs working.

And this brings us to the final difference between training movements vs. training muscles - mental focus.

3 - The mental focus

Where you place your mental focus during a set is by far the most important factor when it comes to what results that set will produce. Watch a CrossFitter performing a set of pull-ups and compare this to a bodybuilder performing a set of pull-ups - these two sets will look different - almost as if they are not even the same exercise. The reason for this is the basic attitude of the exerciser or the purpose of their training. A person doing CrossFit will be more concerned about performing the greatest possible number of pull-ups in the shortest possible amount of time. And therefore, that person will perform the repetitions in a way that maximizes performance and efficiency. Feeling the muscles working is not important in this case. A bodybuilder performing pull-ups, on the other hand, will focus exclusively on feeling their muscles working.

When you begin a set of a given exercise, the aspect you focus on will determine what performance you achieve and what performance you achieve will determine what adaptations will take place.

Training the muscles: Three factors

Take a look at how the same three factors will be different for someone who is more concerned with the appearance of their body.

1 - Repetition speed

The most important thing to remember about repetition speed for bodybuilding training is this: train slowly enough that you can ensure the target muscle is doing most of the work. Repetition speed is less important than stimulating the right muscle. While it's not a bad idea to occasionally train at a higher repetition rate to maximize motor unit recruitment, training for hypertrophy is generally more about making sure the target muscle is trained and kept under tension for an optimal amount of time. Hypertrophy is as much about time under tension as it is about maximizing the number of muscle fibers stimulated.

A bodybuilder must first ensure that the repetition rate they are using allows them to maintain a consistent tension on the target muscle. This will usually be a much lower repetition rate than you will see in a person training to improve their athletic performance. In particular, the eccentric or negative phase of the repetition will be slower and more controlled. The concentric portion of the movement can and should be performed slightly more explosively to recruit the maximum number of motor units - even in those training for hypertrophy.

2 - The choice of weights

Choosing the right weight follows a similar protocol to repetition speed in bodybuilding. First, make sure you're targeting the right muscle and then feel free to choose a relatively heavy weight as long as you don't lose the feel of working the target muscle. That's one thing that's so unique to bodybuilding and hypertrophy training: training with high resistance and/or high repetition speed like a power athlete can certainly be beneficial, especially because of the aforementioned neurological changes that will take place. But doing this without stimulating the right muscles will not lead to growth in the right areas.

For example, let's say you're a bodybuilder doing barbell bench presses to develop your pecs. If you aim to use as much weight as possible and move the weight explosively then you will no doubt perform better, but if this results in you shifting a good portion of the work from your pecs to your front shoulder muscles then you are robbing your pecs of the stimulation they need to grow.

You can't do two things at once. Don't try to perform better at the expense of your muscle gains. This brings us to our last and most significant difference between the way bodybuilders and athletes should train.

3 - Mental focus

If you are training for muscle growth, then you need to focus on the target muscle. If you don't focus on the muscle you want to build, then the body will do what it's good at - which is to let those muscles "sleep" and fall back on the already over-developed muscles surrounding the muscles you actually want to train.

Performing an exercise without feeling the target muscle working will not only slow your progress, but can actually set you back by further exacerbating muscle imbalances.

If you're training a muscle that you don't feel working, then it's only natural for your body to work around that inefficient, sleepy muscle by altering the motor program to recruit more efficient, more work-ready muscles. The only way to make sure you get what you want out of an exercise is to use the powerful muscle between your ears. Make sure you feel the right muscles working as hard as possible from the first repetition to the last. Manipulate your form of exercise execution, change your repetition speed a little (usually by performing the exercise a little slower) or consider using a technique like isometric hold - especially in the contracted position - to make sure you feel the load of the exercise in the right place.

What do you choose?

Bodybuilders can benefit from training like an athlete and vice versa. But just as you need to focus your attention on learning a language if that's what you want to learn, you need to decide what your primary goal is before each set - and then train accordingly.

By Clay Hyght

Previous article The definitive guide to preventing muscle loss