by Dan Cenidoza, CSCS, RKC, AKC, CK-FMS
I recently took a 16 week hiatus from lifting weights. Due to a number of lifestyle changes and re-prioritizing of training goals, it became necessary for me to stop lifting. For approximately 4 months, I did little more than grip work and muscle control practice. When I returned to heavy lifting, I came back stronger. The following is my thoughts and experiences with Muscle Control.
What is Muscle Control?
Muscle Control (MC) is the targeted action of specific muscles that are under your voluntary control. It is a series of isolated contractions usually performed as an isometric. In other words, it is the ability to flex and relax individual muscles.
My first introduction to Muscle Control (MC) was when I stumbled across a picture of someone performing "the rope"an abdominal control where a stomach vacuum is held while the rectus abs (6 pack) is contracted. I was amazed that someone could differentiate between abdominal muscles and control them independently from one another. I had never seen any such thing and thought the guy performing it to be some "freak of nature."
That picture led me to a book entitled Muscle Control by a guy named Maxick. The quick and dirty on Maxick is that he was born in 1882 as a sickly child who was so weak he was unable to walk until the age of 5. Under the advice of the doctor and the enforcement of his parents, he spent most of his youth avoiding anything strenuous. In his desire to become stronger he crafted himself a dumbbell, which when his father found, he destroyed, not wanting his son to overexert himself. It was then when Maxick began developing his system of MC. For more information on Maxick or MC visit www.oldtimestrongman.com
MC is simply communication with muscles. You have two commands you can give them, contract or relax, and these commands are equally as important. Every author of MC has stressed themes of relaxation.
"Relaxation is just as important as contraction, for unless a muscle be supple enough to lie soft when relaxed, real control is out of the question. This applies not only to the particular muscle, but to those surrounding, or those muscles which come into direct contact with, and are governed to a certain extent by, the said muscle. The control of the surround muscle will in turn be hindered by the proximity of a muscle group that will not absolutely relax." -Maxick
"Directly related to muscle control is the ability to completely relax a muscle or groups of muscles. This is also an acquired skill. Learning to relax certain muscle groups can improve performance in sports where speed is essential." -Jubinville
Most people who are reading this are familiar with the Hardstyle philosophy, irradiation and other similar concepts of tension. Terms like "dormant flexion" and "passive relaxation" might seem to be in direct opposition to the idea that "tension equals strength" but lets take a deeper look into tension before we overlook the importance of relaxation in the development of strength.
Dr. Mel Siff talks about "non-functional muscle tension," "spurious tension" and "coordination tension." Granted, he was speaking mainly on the topic of flexibility, but in Supertraining he says, "The level of proficiency of the athlete has a marked influence on the reflex ability to of the muscles to contract and relax. Rapidity of both contraction and relaxation increases with level of mastery, with a decrease in relaxation time becoming especially evident." He then goes on to cite some data from Matveyev, if you're interested it's on page 186.
Pavel talked about the bilateral deficit in Return of the Kettlebell stating, "You have only so much neural drive or "nerve force" and when you have to spread it out over two limbs it does not go as far." The same thing goes for two muscles as it does for two limbs. When you focus your neural drive on a single muscle it allows you to contract that muscle harder than if your attention was spread out over a group of muscles.
Here is a simple test. Most people can contract their biceps so tightly they near the point of cramping. Can you still do that with braced abs, tightly squeezed glutes and a white knuckle fist?
Without relaxing the muscles nearby the one you are contracting, you are hindering the contraction of the working muscle. And by contracting one muscle at a time, you are establishing greater ability to control that muscle.
I have found that by gaining control over individual muscles in isolation, I in turn have better control over those muscles when contracting them with a group of muscles, be it in a lift or a control.
The saying, "press with your lats" means to contract an antagonist muscle while you are pressing. It does not take a scientist to figure that it would be easier to contract your lats if you did not have to worry about pressing a weight overhead. Learning to better control the lats, could only lead to an increased ability to "press with your lats" assuming that technique was helpful to you to begin with. Either way, it's best to either learn to chew gum or walk first, but not both at the same time.
Of course, the practice of isolating the muscles during MC does little good for your real world strength unless you are devoting equal attention to all of your muscles.
Here is another test. Can you contract the biceps of your leg as tightly as the one of your arm? If not, you do not exhibit the control over your leg to the degree you do over your arm. Therefore you cannot expect to contract the leg biceps as strongly when you do finally integrate it into a compound movement.
It is mentally and physically easier to contract one muscle at a time than it is to contract them in groups. It just takes a little thought practice before you can differentiate and control them independently from one another.
Movements or muscles, or mind?
I am no longer sure about the now cliche saying, "Your body knows movements not muscles." I see no reason that you cannot know both. I understand why people say that, to encourage new trainees to think of exercise in terms of movements instead of bodypart muscle building, but if movements are a skill, that makes both muscular contractions and the neural counterpart that drives it a skill as well.
I have always been impressed by Pat "Human Vise" Povilaitis ability to close two #3 grippers simultaneously (actually, I am impressed by pretty much anything that Pat does but that is just one example). Pat is one of the strongest men alive and arguably the best steel bender in history. If you have ever seen him bend the look of concentration he has is scary! There is no question that his laser-like focus is at least part of the reason Pat is able to do the things he does.
Take note that "focus" and "concentration" are products of thought or mental effort. Another theme frequently written about in MC is "thinking into the muscle." Unlike resistance training where a trainee could go through the motions while paying little attention to what he is actually doing, the practice of MC is impossible without constant uninterrupted thought, or concentration.
This is a trait that can and will be developed with MC.
With heightened levels of concentration, better body awareness and finer control over individual muscles, you are destined to become stronger.
I am stronger for practicing muscle control. After my 16 weeks off from weight training, I closed a gripper I had never shut before, I PR'd on a 5 minute snatch test and I deadlifted heavier than I did at the end of my previous cycle.
These are not results that I expected. Needless to say I am pleasantly surprised at what I have found and have begun further experiments into MC. I will report my latest findings in future articles.