Start being a PR machine
In high school, I stepped out of my comfort zone and started lifting at a Powerhouse Gym. It was exactly what it sounds like, a weight lifter/body builder’s gym. My coach took me there one day and showed me how to work the leg press and a few other exercises. As two cheerleaders, we were a bit out of place. But, I fell in love with lifting that summer.
Several days I was at the gym lifting, I noticed there were some arm exercises that seemed super easy. I wondered, why are the big lifters taking the time to do those? They weren't using heavy weight, what was the point?
Fast forward 7 years of college studying exercise and the body. Now I get it. Let me share…
If you want to be strong, there are 2 muscle function groups to know. Stuart McGill, a famous exercise science researcher, likes to call these two groups “Global” and “Local” muscles. You may also hear them called “Primary movers” and “Stabilizers.” Regardless of the name used, there is a difference in function between the two. We will stick with the primary movers and stabilizer terms for our discussion.
Let’s start with primary movers. This is the group your biceps, triceps, gluteus maximus, hamstrings, quadriceps and others fit into. When you need true strength and power, these are your heavy lifters. This group of muscles can be trained for endurance too, although the overall main function is pure strength. If you want to start the lawn mower, feel manly and chop wood with an ax, carry an infant in a car seat…this is the real-life tasks primary movers complete.
The “little” arm exercises I observed were focusing on rotator cuff muscles. The rotator cuff muscles (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres major, teres minor) surround the shoulder blade and provide stability. Strengthening the rotator cuff muscles were allowing them to lift heavier. How?
The stronger stabilizer muscles are, the more stability is provided at the joint. In this case the shoulder. This allows the primary mover muscles (the heavy lifters) to perform greater work…meaning lift heavier weight.
Have you been stuck lifting the same weight for months now? If you’re not seeing progress, try adding exercises for your stabilizer muscle groups to your routine. Add some ab exercises into your routine, you might notice that lifting plateau go away. Remember, stabilizer muscles are endurance muscles, so train with high reps and longer tension time (amount of time to perform your lift).
You can start working on your stabilizer muscles today.
Begin with this exercise.
1. Pull your shoulders backward and squeeze your shoulder blades like you want them to touch. Now back it off a notch. Hold this for 10 seconds. Do 5 repetitions, build up to 8. This exercise works on rhomboid muscle strength. A great exercise for anyone who may have shoulder impingement or some forms of neck pain.
2. Another variation of the exercise. Pull your shoulders backward and down, think of touching the bottom point of your shoulder blade into the opposite back pants pocket. This kicks on middle and lower trapezius muscles. Hold for 10 seconds. Again, start with 5 repetitions and build to 8.
This is a beginner phase exercise for strengthening a common group of stabilizer muscles. Everyone starts somewhere. Try incorporating this into your daily routine at your desk. Every time you come back to sit in your chair, do a set of one of these. You will likely notice an improvement in your posture as well.
The key take away? Take time to strengthen the stabilizer muscles. They don't produce results you can stare at in the mirror, but your body will thank you. The more muscle endurance the stabilizer muscles can provide, the more strength you should be able to attain from your primary movers. Aka, start being a PR machine and make big gains.
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Written by: Dr. Shari
Orthopedic Physical Therapist, Exercise Scientist