There are so many opinions about what type of exercise is the “best.” Is it HIIT? Cardio? Pilates? Yoga?
Here’s the key: focus on specific muscular fatigue rather than systemic fatigue.
Let’s discuss what that means and why specific muscular training is superior to systemic training.
Strength training is crucial for long-term results. But like anything, wise, methodical, and intentional training will yield the best results.
From my experience of changing my own body and helping hundreds of others, resistance exercise that focuses on specific muscular fatigue rather than systemic fatigue is the best way to exercise regularly. It creates sustainable change, a muscular and fit body, a healthy, fast metabolism, and youthful, preserved joints.
In other words, focus on building muscle by targeting individual muscles in the way they were designed to move, creating very targeted muscular fatigue.
We focus less on large, compound movements that burn a lot of calories, target multiple muscle groups simultaneously and create “systemic,” less targeted exhaustion.
An example of an exercise that results in specific muscular fatigue is a bicep curl. An example of an exercise that results in systemic muscular fatigue is a burpee. The bicep curl very specifically targets one area; you could point to exactly what is working and how much. Whereas a burpee is more systemic, and you just feel fatigued all over, rather than in one specific part of your body. Never mind the burpee’s biomechanics, but I much prefer the specific exercise (the bicep curl) to the systemic one (the burpee).
I realize this is contrary to what most of the industry practices, but I’ve seen this philosophy create more muscular benefits and leave my clients with less painful joints. Let’s break down both of these methods and why I prefer to create specific fatigue rather than systemic fatigue.
Let’s first discuss what is common in the fitness industry and why I prefer more specific muscular training.
Compound exercises (which generally create more systemic fatigue) like squats, pull-ups, overhead presses, and deadlifts are common in fitness enthusiasts. And those exercises do load muscles like your legs, lats, upper traps, and glutes, which can absolutely lead to strength improvements and burn many calories. I’m not saying they do not work in the short-term. But there are a few issues with these compound exercises that actually limit you from optimal strength improvements and can unnecessarily strain your body.
Multiple muscle groups contracting at the same time requires higher energy expenditure, which means you will burn more calories. Although you might see weight loss in the short term (because you may be in a calorie deficit), the work is spread ineffectively through more muscle groups, meaning each individual muscle will not be optimally loaded. This means you aren’t building as much muscle as possible and stressing other joint structures and smaller muscles in the process.
Yes, these compound movements mimic a movement you would do in everyday life. A squat will mimic how you sit and stand up from a chair. A pushup will mimic how you push open a door. However, stronger muscles and healthier joints will increase your ability to perform everyday life movements, even if you don’t practice them with load in your workouts. Stronger glutes and a healthier low back will improve your ability to pick up a heavy box. Stronger chest muscles and healthy shoulders will allow you more ease at pushing open a door. You don’t need to practice the coordination of the movement every week in your workouts for you to apply that strength to your everyday life. Strong muscles don’t immediately “forget” how to contract if you haven’t practiced the exact pattern you need to complete a movement in your everyday life, like sitting up from a chair or pushing open a heavy door.
Yes, compound movements build strength, but the cost is a high risk of injury and strain to smaller muscle groups that are not as tolerant to heavy weight. In fact, you are less functional when you have more strained muscles and more vulnerable joints, so this actually accomplishes the opposite of what most people think it does.
Let’s take the example of an overhead press. In an overhead press, your forearm is slightly tilted forward (so you don’t hit yourself in the face with your weight/arm). Additionally, most people lack the shoulder external rotation to keep their forearm exactly perpendicular to the floor. This means a rotator cuff muscle, called your infraspinatus, is straining to keep your arm from rotating all the way forward. Your infraspinatus is a small muscle that cannot tolerate nearly the amount of weight that your upper trap (the targeted muscle in an overhead press) can. This means you are likely over-straining your infraspinatus and probably under-working your upper traps. If you do a lot of overhead presses, you have probably felt the back of your shoulder feel tender/painful – which could very likely be due to overstrain of the infraspinatus.
So the result of overhead presses, a compound movement, is that your upper traps are not optimally loaded (and neither are your shoulders, which is actually the targeted muscle for most in an overhead press), and your rotator cuff is strained, leading to a tighter, more painful, less functional shoulder.
Compare this to the person that is loading their upper traps and deltoids in ways that don’t over-stress their infraspinatus (like a side-lying lateral raise for the medial deltoid). This person has stronger shoulders and no strain to the infraspinatus. So when they lift something above their head in their everyday life, their shoulder doesn’t feel tight and painful, allowing them to complete the movement with more ease.
Another issue with these bigger, more systemic exercises is that you are limited by the weakest muscle or tissue in that movement. A deadlift is a great example of this. Your glutes are the strongest muscle in your body and capable of producing the most force. However, in a deadlift, your back extensors are also 100% active and loaded. Your back is the “limiting” factor in a deadlift, meaning that you can only lift as much as your back will allow, or you will get injured. This means your glutes are missing out on additional load because your back is the weakest link. Yes, your glutes can still gain strength in this way but will leave you slightly unsatisfied because you can’t fully load your glutes, or you’ll risk wearing down your back.
Another reason compound exercises are popular is because they burn a lot of calories. This is because they require high energy expenditure, with more muscle groups contracting at the same time to move the weight. However, although multiple muscle groups are contracting simultaneously, they are not loaded in the best ways they could be.
For example, a squat does not effectively target the quads. The moment arm to the knee in a squat is relatively short and does not optimally load the quads. So although you are hitting multiple muscle groups at once, you miss loading each muscle group as effectively as you could.
As I’ve said before, yes, you can get stronger, but not as effectively as you could in targeted exercises and at the cost of straining smaller muscles/structures. This leads can lead to tightness and more joint pain.
These compound movements will systemically fatigue you. They require a lot of energy because multiple muscle groups have to fire at the same time. Systemic fatigue will burn calories, but it isn’t optimal for muscle development because it isn’t targeting the muscles in the best or safest ways.
So if compound movements, or systemic exhaustion, isn’t the answer for optimal, sustainable strength training, what is?
I believe specific fatigue, or more muscle-targeting strength training, is much more productive and sustainable.
Let’s look at the pros and cons of more focused strength training. With specific muscular fatigue, you are loading fewer muscle groups at one time, specifically loading those muscles in the proper fiber direction and with effective levers (such as a bicep curl, reverse nordic curl, or skull crusher).
- It doesn’t burn as many calories (less demand for blood and oxygen because a smaller surface area is requiring increased circulation)
- For weight loss – requires a stricter nutrition plan at first
- Muscle takes time to build, and your metabolism will take time to improve (for most people, about three months). Since you aren’t relying on your workouts to burn off your excess calories, you have to place more focus on clean eating, especially at the beginning
- It will result in greater strength improvements long-term because you can target the muscle exactly how it was designed to move
- This Will lead to fewer muscle strains from smaller muscle groups that act as the “weakest link” in many systemic or compound exercises
- Will lead to less damage in structures such as spinal discs and facet joints
- (When paired with proper recovery) will lead to increased metabolism, and eventually, greater fat loss
I know this is a total shift from what is commonplace in the fitness industry, but I hear from clients constantly about how much better they feel, the muscles they see growing more, and how they actually enjoy their workouts (because they aren’t uncomfortable or painful). I believe that we should create exercises that fit our bodies, not fit our bodies to a movement that we think it needs to do. If you’re ready to start working out in ways that create long-term, sustainable change in your body, try Evlo! There’s a 7-day free trial and a program that creates a customized schedule, so you always know which classes to take. I’ll see you there.