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Balancing act: training muscles vs training skills.

The human muscular system is an intricately designed complex that embodies a vast network of tough, interwoven tissues of various sizes and shapes that breathe life into our bones through movement.

As the engine that supplies power to the machinery of athletic movement, this integrated complex requires a comprehensive strength training program that will become a vital component in the enhancement of performance and reduction of severe injuries.



Over 600 muscles comprise this prodigious network, many of which are compartmentalized into three distinct anatomical planes (check the illustration):

Sagittal Plane--Runs vertically through the body and divides it into right and left segments. The word sagittal is actually defined as "the flight of an arrow" and refers to the way the body would be split by an arrow passing from front to back.

Frontal (also known as Coronal) Plane--also runs vertically and divides the body into anterior (front) and posterior (back) segments.

Transverse Plane--runs horizontally and divides the body into superior (upper) and inferior (lower) segments.

These movement planes provide an excellent template from which you can fashion the strength training program. By the end of the training week, all of these planes should be addressed with compatible strength movements.

This can be accomplished by incorporating pressing and pulling exercises from the vertical, incline, horizontal, and decline positions for the upper body to the rotary type movements for both the upper and lower body.

Leg presses and/or squats, hip flexion/extension, inner/outer thigh and hip, and several other options--both single and multi-joint--should be incorporated for the quadriceps (front of thigh), hamstrings (back of thigh), and hips.

The "core"--which envelops an area extending from the abdominal and lumbar (low back) regions to the top of the thigh and through the hip muscles--must also be addressed.

An infinite variety of equipment (free weights, machines, medicine balls, stretch bands, etc.) can and should be used to accomplish these goals. We've described many of these alternatives in past columns.

Some of the advantages of this approach:

* It develops a structural balance between agonist and antagonist muscle groups. This can prove to be an injury deterrent, as overdevelopment in one or a series of muscle compartments without a concurrent focus on the opposing compartments can be deleterious to the weaker area over time.

Example: Athletes who spend an inordinate amount of time and energy on pressing the "show" muscles of the chest and anterior shoulder region while neglecting the posterior shoulder, scapular stabilizers, and the large upper back structures, can eventually be set up for a posterior shoulder/upper back compartment injury.


* As mentioned earlier, the muscular system is an integrated system with the sum of its parts having interdependent functions and responsibilities. In just about every movement, there are muscles that act as the prime movers (i.e., play the major role in the desired movement), and others that serve as fixators (i.e., stabilize the origins, or less movable attachments, of the involved muscles).

Muscles that join together to propagate movement are termed synergists. In addition, certain antagonists, or opposing groups, are vital in maintaining joint integrity when decelerating rapidly executed movements (e.g., executed a sharp, lateral cut from a full, straight-ahead sprint).

* Athletic skills are multi-planar and, depending upon their complexity, can activate a large amount of muscle tissue to initiate and complete the task. Comprehensive strength training coupled with optimal skill encoding (i.e., converting all the finer teaching points of the skill to motor memory) via quality practice should result in optimal performance.


The term "functional training" has inundated the training literature in recent years, despite some discrepancies and confusion about its true meaning. In some cases, the prescribed "functional" activities run counter to the desired results.

It should be noted that there is an unadulterated distinction between biomechanical muscle function and skill-specific muscle function. In practical terms, a muscle's intended biomechanical function (e.g., flexion, extension, adduction, abduction, elevation, depression, rotation, circumduction, etc.) is heightened when combined with multiple synergists (assistant muscles) to perform a specific skill.

The role that each involved muscle plays--prime mover, fixator, or synergist--is, of course, determined by the skill. Once the skill is perfected, it is stored in the brain's memory center and other components of the neuro-muscular network for later recall.

Herein lies a question of considerable debate. When applying an overload to the system, as with strength training, should you train the biomechanical function of the muscles or the skill function?

In other words, should you overload the muscles or overload the skill?

We prefer the former, and here's why:

Sound, productive strength training entails gradual, progressive overload of the major muscle groupings through the fullest range of movement possible to derive optimal strength and flexibility. Ultimately, this enables the muscles to generate a high level of force over a greater distance, which is a key component in power production.

This newly developed strength, flexibility, and power can then work in concert with the exact skill requirements for the desired improvements.

Conversely, when you attempt to overload an athletic skill with impertinent resistance (e.g., throwing a heavier football, shooting a heavier basketball, swinging a heavier bat/racquet/club, etc.), you run the risk of deteriorating the specific neuromuscular pathways for sending, receiving, storing, and retrieving the precise information needed to properly execute the skill.

Sure, you will derive some metabolic and morphological benefits from these activities, but if your goal is skill improvement, you would be better served practicing those skills with exactness.

The motor learning literature is very clear on this subject: In order for a skill to transfer from the practice setting to the competition setting, it must be rehearsed and learned in a manner that is specific to the competition setting.

It is additionally difficult, if not impossible, to adequately train, within the parameters of the Progressive Overload Principle, all of the major muscle structures by mimicking skill movements with extraneous resistance.

You will quickly become handcuffed with an ineffective resistance due to the fact that any appreciable weight will so severely detract from the skill that it will become unrecognizable.

Rather than training in a functional manner, you might find yourself slipping into the abyss of dysfunctional training.


Comprehensive strength training and comprehensive skill training are both extremely vital, not only for optimal performance, but for endurance, durability, and injury deterrence.

As coaches, we must examine the practices and procedures we employ for each of these distinct entities and determine if the outcome is congruent with the time and effort spent. Is it truly an effective union, or more like a marriage made in hell?

If it's the latter, it might be time for a specificity overhaul!


Following is a basic, easy template that will assure you of exercising through all of the movement planes. (Note: You do not necessarily have to work all the planes in one workout, but you should at least vary them throughout the work week.)


Always choose at least 2-3 exercises from each of the following movements: chest presses, upper back pulls, and shoulder presses. Also, make sure to vary the movement angles (vertical above the head, incline, horizontal, and vertical below the head--as with dips). Don't forget to do at least 1-2 sets each of internal rotation and external rotation for the rotator cuff.


Make sure that abdominal and low back work is performed anterior to posterior (front to back), laterally, and rotationally.


The key movements here are hip flexion/extension (both single and multi-joint) via squats, leg presses, lunges, etc., abduction/adduction for the hips and inner/outer thigh, thigh flexion/extension (both single and multi-joint), dorsi/planter flexion and inversion/eversion for the ankles.

Last but not least, always include neck work when training athletes in heavy contact sports such as football, ice hockey, wrestling, etc.

--Ken Mannie

By Ken Mannie, Strength/Conditioning Coach, Michigan State University

Send your questions to: Ken Mannie, Michigan State University, Duffy Daugherty Building, East Lansing, MI 48824 or via email at
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Title Annotation:POWERLINE
Author:Mannie, Ken
Publication:Coach and Athletic Director
Date:Dec 1, 2004
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