Contraction vs Moving Weight

Monday’s are devoted to female related topics to help females begin or continue to train. This particular post is relevant to fellas as well.

Last week we discussed some methods to develop pull-ups, and some of the methods included close-grip or underhand pull-downs (on a cable machine for weaker trainees). Doing these exercises served two purposes: to develop strength within a given range of motion and to establish musculature. Building musculature in an area isn’t something that occurs quickly. I refer to this as “accumulating work over time”, because doing pull-ups, rows, or round back extensions need to happen consistently over a long period of time to garner an improvement in the musculature and subsequently strength.

Recently (in the last couple of years) I’ve had trainees do Hammer Strength rows (a plate loaded machine), pull-downs, various curls, dumbbell bench, dumbbell press, machine dips, and weighted sit-ups. The commonality among all of them: they were performed to develop lagging musculature or strength. By giving the musculature a consistent stress it will develop. However, the approach to doing these sets are not the same as traditional strength movements.


This video of Kai Greene rambling about a few things is quasi-relevant. His disdain for “weight lifters” (a term that is kinda misused here) is only natural given his chosen hobby and profession, but listen to what else he says.

I think Kai Greene is knowledgeable about what he does, yet he is just raw in his ability to explain it. His first point is that bodybuilders aim to “stretch and contract their muscles”. This is why there are so many bullshit comments and articles about the “mind-body connection”; it’s referring to the ability to feel particular muscles in a movement and effectively work them. This attention to detail isn’t prevalent in the realm of strength training because strength training primarily demands moving the bar from point A to point B. The truth is that it isn’t that simple.

In my time of dicking around with “bodybuilding styles of training”, I developed this awareness. Nowadays I can perform a low bar squat in two different ways — one that uses the hamstrings and one that doesn’t — but make the two reps look identical. I have an awareness of what my triceps are doing in a press and what my lats do during a bench. This awareness is most relevant on a lift like the RDL, which is entirely dependent on stretching and contracting a muscle group instead of moving the bar from point A to B. Of course, if mechanics are sound, then the proper muscular action is a byproduct of doing a lift correctly, but muscle awareness can assist in the “means” to get to the “end”.

The second thing Kai Greene is talking about is lecturing the other dude on his curling technique. I would assume the other guy was using a lot of English and not getting good biceps work. The lesson is that if you’re trying to grow or develop a muscle, then working that muscle is more important than simply moving weight.

This concept is most relevant during assistance work. I specifically put exercises into training programs to develop musculature. The close-grip pull-downs for a weaker girl will develop strength, but more importantly give them a work load that will develop their muscles (I hesitate to say “grow muscles” since they won’t actually get that much bigger since they are a female with 1/10th the testosterone of a man, but I digress). Bigger muscles will move joints more efficiently, and developed muscles apply more force than muscles that haven’t received work. I use rows, dips, or RDLs to develop muscles to help with other movements, thus making the body stronger.

If you have a lagging group of muscles — whether they are lagging in size or in doing their job in a liftf — the time you spend on assisting that muscle should ensure it gets good contraction. Yes, doing RDL’s with 315 will look cool, but 185 is where most of you will get the best contraction. Ensure you understand how the muscle works and how to focus on the contraction of that muscle given the movement you are using. Feel your triceps while doing dips (externally rotate the shoulders by keeping the elbows close to the body and apply force through the heel of the palm), feel your lats while doing pull-downs and rows (think of the elbow driving back to the ribs), feel your biceps doing curls (don’t bring your elbow forward to use shoulder flexion), avoid flailing during weighted sit-ups, and keep tension on your hamstrings (by pushing the hips back and not letting the knees go forward). I could go on, but the point is that increasing your awareness to the contraction of your muscle(s) — particularly during assistance exercises — will help develop that musculature and augment the more important strength lifts. Not to mention you’ll get the full worth out of each rep by avoiding wasted effort.

30 thoughts on “Contraction vs Moving Weight

  1. It’s funny that we all seem to start out doing BB bullshit. I feel like I used to have that mind-body connection when I did that stuff, but kind of lost it when I started training for strength. I think about everything as a collective movement now rather than activation of individual muscles. However, I see the utility of what you’re saying.

    Thinking about it more, I think it’s the high rep work that really helps you feel the muscles. If you’re isolating something and doing 10-15 reps with it, you’ll feel “the burn” in a very specific place and can even start to focus on it during the movement–pursuing that specific feeling.

  2. Definitely have to focus on contracting certain muscles for lifts. For me, if I feel my lats are tight, I’m more confident when benching or pressing. Same for my hamstrings in a pull or squat.

  3. Thanks for the pointer! I recently added barbell curls to see if it helps with some elbow inflamation, but forgot this concept and started going for weight and getting sloppy. I wasn’t too bad about it but the reminder was needed and timely.

    Nice pic, too.

  4. I think for some movements the worst thing you can do is be overly-focused on what muscles you think should be contracting. Yeah, thinking about the “mind muscle” connection might make a triceps pushdown more effective but whenever I’d think about contraction for stuff like Swimming or throwing a Javelin my form would go to shit. These motions are obviously more complex than a concentration curl.

    I don’t disagree with anything in this article. I’m just saying that a lot of times the whole “mind muscle” thing ends up being poison because it’s frequently used in the wrong context. You hear bros yelling at other bros to flex their chest when they’re benching or to flex their traps when they power clean.

    Kai Greene may say he’ll “Never be a Weightlifter” but Kai Greene reps out with 585 on squats and 495 on bench with very clean reps. Dude is strong.

  5. I fully understand what you’re getting at, Justin. Good post. But humorous sidenote is how out of breath Kai is just walking around. And the fact that shit loads of humatrope and like 4g test a week makes anything work.

  6. @criedthefox, are you 14? Grow up.

    Justin about RDL loading. Do you continue to add weight each week or just get up to a reasonable weight and leave it there?

  7. what are you 85 or something, old man?

    jokes that are obviously shitty upset you?

    and no, definitely stop adding weight, don’t want to do something irresponsible and get stronger….

  8. When curling in the squat rack you should be more focused on your surroundings than the tension in your biceps. You know, just in case someone feels like practicing their bro-throwing.

  9. This is like that one guy, who said when he low bars his quads sorer than his hamstrings. Thats because he was doing the movement wrong..I get what your saying

  10. Very interesting read.

    Just a side note: I finally buckled down and bought a pair of WL shoes. I read through all of your posts on it. Thanks for the info.

  11. well-written post, Justin, I just have one concern. I thought more weight=more muscle, regardless of form (to an extent). back when I did BBing stuff I remember reading that Arnold did cheat curls fairly often, and it’s obvious that you can move significantly more weight while cheat curling. also, this is anecdotal, but there’s at least a few guys at every globo-gym who are fucking HUGE but do half, cheated, or force reps with just about every exercise. also, kroc rows.
    i’m not trying to prove you wrong or disagree with you as I don’t have any factual evidence myself, i’m just curious.

  12. I’d have to disagree, Bert. Unless you own the rack (i.e. home gym) or there is no one else that needs the rack, I wouldn’t curl in it.

    Someone else squatting is more important than me curling a little bit more conveniently.

  13. @mattciupak – this is one thing I’m having a problem with, too. Almost all the BB type guys I see are doing half rep, messed up looking movements, and they look like beasts. I move more tonnage per day than almost everybody I see, but I’m still @ 185 with 13.5 inch guns.

  14. Just because you’re doing cheat curls doesn’t mean you aren’t focusing on a mind-muscle connection. Justin’s post wasn’t about strict/perfect form.

  15. And timely post, Justin. Having started 531 this year coming off the SS LP, I’m doing all these assistance/accessory lifts that I’ve never done before (never did BB stuff). Curls and pushdowns and pull downs for 10+ reps. Wendler says to “train like a bodybuilder” for the assistance stuff so it seems the content of this post is relevant to me.

  16. To clarify my earlier post, I don’t advocate attempting to throw Kai Greene. I think that would end badly. I take no responsibility for actions resulting in delimbification. Just couldn’t resist a snarky “curling in the rack” comment.

    I see so much wrong with that video but that’s probably because his perspective on resistance training is so far to the other end of the spectrum than mine (ours?). Isn’t it fun to judge though! I’ll agree that it’s just common sense to focus on the contraction of a particular muscle being trained in smaller/isolation lifts. However, until you’ve developed the strength to “contract and stretch” with a reasonably heavy load, slow and controlled reps won’t get you swoled up as effectively as training more like a “weight lifter.” That and cheat curls are fun.

  17. For a while now ive been LBBS because Crossfit and Rip said so. Got to 320×5 but had tennis elbow like mad. Took me a while to attribute it to the LBBS, but I’ve since switched to HB. I gotta tell you, it’s a major relief. I can do dips and cleans again because my elbows no longer hurt. My weights have dropped due to the noticed the lack of hamstring influence, but shit..just squatting down and standing up and not worrying about hip drive and the other shit feels good! Thanks for writing about LB&HB a few weeks back.

    Also, just got to the point in FIT that talks about bumping down deadlifted to 3×1 after done with 5×1…thank god! My pr is 420×5 but lost it quick when I got sick then went on a vaca. Hit 410×6 on Friday and am getting a bit nervous for that 420 pull again, but knowing that 3×1 is acceptable makes it alright :)

  18. @mikeinnola: Exactly, I’ve seen Brandon Curry squat 315 for about 6 reps, to failure and fall to the ground barely breathing. That’s the same weight I used for volume day on TM a couple of months ago, and I used to be 180 lbs. How can these guys be so big, while handling those weights is beyond me…

  19. Regardless of whatever methods Kai Greene used to become so massive, I think he is describing his methods NOW. Once you reach the point of a certain muscular mass (for example, when your relaxed bicep is so big that it droops off your humerus by virtue of its own weight, or when your massive quads flop off to the side of your femur) you have a completely different appreciation for what that muscle is doing during the contraction. Hell, guys like Kai can probably feel the difference between the two heads of his bicep, each one is so developed. And once a muscle is developed, it is full of nerves sending impulses to the brain.

    How we get as big as Kai is by moving as much weight as possible. Once we are that big, the training methods (and supplementation methods!) are completely different.

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