Aug 2, 2003

Dear StrongerAthletes: Specificity, Safety, and "Stabilizer Muscles

August 2 "The secret of staying young is to live honestly, eat slowly, and lie about your age." -Lucille Ball

Dear StrongerAthletes: Specificity, Safety, and "Stabilizer Muscles"

We received an e-mail from Mr. Richard Todd a few weeks back that addressed several areas of concern many athletes and coaches have such as specificity, safety, and the so-called "stabilizer muscles". Our comments follow Mr. Todd's.

Dear StrongerAthletes,
I read and enjoyed your article on specificity and wondered if you could give me some advice? I do like the idea of doing just big compound movements for strength training but the thing bothering me at the moment is that I am 52 and (obviously) not an athlete and the reason I am doing resistance training is to make me stronger and fitter for everyday life.
According to the concept of specificity, the exercises I do will only help me to carry out daily activities that are exactly the same as far as movement planes etc goes. So I can see that the squat will help me to get up off the couch and maybe run for a bus but how can the other compound exercises help in daily life? For example, I do the bench press but I can't think of any situation in everyday life where I lie on my back and push things up in the air! So I was a bit irritated when after 4 months of weight training I still found it a big struggle to push my wife in her wheelchair up even modest hills. The same point goes for things like pull ups dips and shoulder presses etc with their limited movement planes.
So it seems to me that for everyday life, weight training has virtually no carryover unless, for example, the bench press converts to pushing on a horizontal rather than a vertical plane but I don't think it does if I understood your article correctly. Please clarify this for me. Another very brief question if you don't mind. I am trying to work out a program using compound bodyweight exercises because these are apparently the best. However my two favorites, dips and pull ups seem too easy to create adequate stress i.e I am quickly reaching a point where 20 reps is no problem. Any advice?
Regards, Garry Todd

Mr. Todd,

First I would recommend a book by Ellington Darden called "Living Longer Stronger: The 6-Week Plan to Enhance & Extend Your Years over 40." I flip through it every time I am in Barnes and Noble.

What we mean by specificity is that no training in the weight room will carry over to specific movements. So you example of what will the bench press do should be re-thought... What will having a functionally strong upper chest do for you? I would think it would help your posture when balanced with an upper back movement, or keep you strong enough to play with the grand children.

Dr. Peterson spoke at a clinic we were at a while back linking longer life spans with resistance training older people. Take a look on the Internet for Darden Ellington, James Peterson, and Roger Schwab articles, I think you will find them helpful.

Good luck and keep in touch with us.

Dear StrongerAthletes, Thanks for your encouraging e-mail. With all the conflicting articles and so on that I have read on the net it's great to get some clarity, and you people have definitely provided it. I also intend to look up the book and web articles you recommended. Thanks again and best wishes, Garry Todd

Dear StrongerAthletes: Hello again, I hope I can test your knowledge again to try make my training schedule more productive? I may be wrong but the general consensus seems to be that the best kind of exercises are compound ones because many muscles are worked at once, which is a more natural way for the body to function, and the best way to do them is with free weights rather than machines because of the involvement of stabilizer or postural muscles with the former.

We do advocate the use of compound exercises but it certainly can be productive to perform a couple single joint movements as well. I believe that their is too much hype lately about what people call stabilizer muscles. In fact their really is no such thing as a stabilizer muscle. Becoming neuromuscularly efficient in an exercise will teach the body balance and therefore stabilize the weight. Worrying about the "stabilizers muscles" as everybody says is a waste time. People use the term stabilizer referring to a variety of things.

Some believe their are stabilizer muscles in the chest that need to be trained during a bench press. Others are referring to the muscles of the back that stabilize you in the bench press. One should concentrate on the muscles that can effectively be contracted such as the chest, shoulders and triceps in the bench press example. We do advocate machines however, many coaches prefer the free weight routine due to cost prohibitiveness of machines. If machines used by Hammer or Nautilus are used or another good machine, we actually believe that MOST exercises (not all) should come from them. Remember, your muscles do not know if you are using free weights or machines. All they know is that resistance is being used and that they must work to move that resistance. -S.A.

Another consideration that your website advocates is the use of high intensity (heavy weights relative to ones strength and low reps) and adequate rest. All of this makes good sense to me given that I am not a body builder, I want to improve my strength to help me carry out daily chores etc more effectively, and I want to get in and out of the gym as quickly as possible.

We do believe in high intensity but not necessarily low reps. It depends on the exercise. Upper body exercises can be performed in the 6-10 range, lower body exercises in the 8-15 range. In come cases we do advocate up to 20 reps at times as long as the exercises doesn't become too cardiovascular demanding to where one must stop the set short of muscular failure. Now, 6-10 on upper body exercises may sound low but if the reps are done in a slow manner then the exercise is perfectly safe and more productive. -S.A.

These are my worries: Firstly, the squat is too dangerous to do without a spotter (there hard to get hold of in my gym!) also, the barbells in my gym are not heavy enough for me to reach failure within 6 to 10 reps even if I could get a spotter, and I am a bit uncertain as to whether the leg press is an adequate substitute given the lack of stabilizer involvement. Should I find another gym with more weights, or a squat machine, or do a different exercise that may not be as good as the squat (lunges or step ups etc)?

We do agree with you that the squat can be a dangerous exercise with or without a spotter, especially without. We have found that the leg press is a very good replacement for the squat. Leg strength and development can be just as productive in either exercise. So finding another gym probably would not be necessary. Again, do not buy in to the "stabilizer" as a criteria for deciding on free weights vs machine movements. -S.A.

The second problem is that if we are supposed to change our routine periodically, do we drop the best exercises listed above and replace them with "inferior" ones or change to machines (inferior to free weights), or change the rep range up to, say, failure at 15 - if we do though, this will go against your precept of intensity in the low rep, heavy weight range?

Periodization is not necessary. It is just a fancy term people use in attempt to make their training program sound technical or scientific. Changing exercises is not necessary if the exercise is producing strength gains. If you do choose to change exercise, change some of the single joint movements. Do not change your compound exercises. Once again, their is too much hype out there about variety. Why fix it, if it's not broken.

Keep in mind that when coaches choose to add variety to their athletes' training it is done to either challenge the muscle in another way or to keep the athlete from becoming bored with the same routine. So, change is O.K. if done for the right reasons, but if your strength gains are consistent we wouldn't advise changing. -S.A

I look forward to one of your usual very helpful and well informed replies. Thanks in anticipation and best wishes, Garry Todd

You sound like you are on the right track to a successful training program. Be brief, train with a high amount of intensity and do not train very often. It is absolutely crucial that you pay attention to rest and recovery between training sessions. This will put you on the road to success in your strength training goals. Good luck and let us know if your have any further questions or comments.

Coach Rody, StrongerAthletes.com

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