In my last article, I mentioned near the end that “if there’s one thing you learn from the Reembody blog, let it be this: muscles don’t create movement patterns; they respond to them.”
Did anyone read that and think to themselves “yeah, whatever the hell that means”?
You’re not the only one. To clear things up, I’m going to take the next few minutes to completely redefine the concept of strength and turn your understanding of what muscles do completely on its head.
#2. Leverage: Strength for Smart People
One of the most common misconceptions I encounter as a trainer is how people view their relationship with gravity.
It gets blamed for a lot: gravity is what makes push-ups hard, what makes us feel wobbly during a single-leg squat, what makes our thighs burn when we climb a long flight of stairs.
This, in turn, inspires the other most common misconception I come up against: if gravity is the villain, muscle is the hero. We use our big, strong muscles to fight gravity, to do more pushups, to fly up those stairs like a gazelle with a rocket pack.
But your body is more than a collection of big, strong muscles: it’s a damn genius when it comes to physics. Consequently, you can produce a lot more power just by being smart about how you do it.
For example, say you have two circles of different sizes: the smaller circle will spin faster than the bigger circle when turned with the same amount of work. Basic physics, right?
Well, a lever is really just a tool for creating a couple circles. Check it out:
Pushing down on the long end is a lot like turning a big circle. The short end behaves like a small circle that turns at the same speed but, because of their size difference, produces more work. Simple. Elegant. Incredibly useful.
So it’s no surprise that evolution saw fit to build you out of a bunch of levers. Take this one, for instance:
What looks like your heel bone is really one of your body’s most amazing pieces of mechanical engineering.
Red Dot: When that pointy bit hits the ground, the ground pushes back with what’s called ground-reaction forces, or GRFs.
Green Dot: That other bit that looks like a shelf isn’t touching the ground, however, so it’s still accelerating toward the floor.
GRFs push up, gravity pulls down and suddenly we’re looking at a big circle:
The only difference is that, instead of moving boulders, this lever is turning your tibia:
Boom. Leverage. Every step you take generates force through the pull of gravity and the clever geometry of the bones in your foot.
And not just your foot, either; all of your joints operate on this principle. Recognize this one?
The force that initially entered through the foot keeps moving from joint to joint—knee, hip, spine, shoulder, wrist, all of ’em— growing each time due to the mechanical advantage conferred by leverage, until it finally explodes into whatever action you feel like using it for.
Gravity, far from being the enemy, is an energy source. Muscles, instead of fighting against gravity, are, quite literally, storing the energy generated by gravity.
When it comes right down to it, muscles are basically batteries.
A bigger muscle, then, is not necessarily stronger; if the alignment of the bones underneath isn’t optimal for generating leverage it’s just a dead battery. And what’s the point of carrying around a bunch of dead batteries?
But I get it: you want to be a sexy beast cut harder than a roman bust. Hey, no judgement here. Besides, I never said it wasn’t possible to be both strong and muscley. I’m saying that you don’t get strong by building muscles, you build muscles by getting strong . . .
. . . and you get strong by being smart.
Here’s something to start with:
Remember that heel bone lever we just talked about? Well the ankle is the next stop for the force generated there. Let’s see what we can do with that.
Stand with your feet parallel and about shoulder distance apart. Now look at your feet. Your ankles probably look like this:
Now make them look like this:
No matter what happens next, do not let the angle of your ankles change. Bend the knees a little and ensure that, despite your new ankle position, your heels are firmly planted on the ground.
Now start to roll down:
If you’re successfully keeping your ankles dorsiflexed, you’re going to feel like you’re really top-heavy; that’s good! That top-heaviness is the feeling of gravity charging up all the extensor muscles in the back of your body, mainly the glutes.
Go down only as far as you can stay in control of your ankles and keep your balance. That point will be different for everybody.
Now, roll back up, still maintaining the dorsiflexion of your ankles. The glutes will fire up automatically. As you continue to rise, think of flexing your ankle even just a tiny bit further. This will keep leverage in your favor and gravity working on your behalf.
No muscles in your back, shoulders or neck are required to work and the overall effort required to return you to a standing posture will be negligible, save for the energy expended by the glutes (which was stored there when you rolled down in the first place).
Now, as a little experiment, start over and, this time, let your ankles push back into plantar flexion. I’ll bet 10 bucks that your glutes turn to pudding and your hamstrings start screaming.
That screaming is not “a good stretch”; it’s your hamstrings telling you that they are overburdened and underpowered: just a couple of dead batteries. Flex those ankles and gravity will light you up like a christmas tree.
A good roll down will train your glutes to get better at storing the energy created by the leverage in the ankle. You can expect to see the glute tone up nicely and build in a way that actually makes sense for your alignment.
Now, as promised, please enjoy this adorable kitten: