Which Muscle Is Working? Your Brain

Earlier this week, I received an e-mail from one of our bad-ass Ninjas at MFF who asked a question that took me back.  It took me back to days of functional anatomy, to program design, and to my love of trying to simplify the unsimplifiable.  Yup, I just made that word up.


Let’s start with a shortened version of Sue’s great question:

On the SP program, can you add into the description of the exercise which muscle is being worked? It would give me, at least, more consciousness. I know I could ask my trainers, but it would be good to have it in the program as well. It doesn’t have to be a long description, just simply a word, i.e. Biceps, quads, abs, etc.

As someone who genuinely strives to simplify the complex, I love this question.  Hold a gun to my head, and I’ll name a single muscle for a single exercise any day of the week.  That’s my “Yes.” Here comes my “And.”

On every exercise, you’re using your brain.

Technically, this isn’t my brain.  Matt Wilson said it to me as I thought aloud about this question.  Yes, we could simplify any exercise to a single prime mover, and we’re really focused on using as many of our muscles as possible on any given exercise.  When we try throwing as many of our 640+ muscles into any given movement, it’s hard to keep track of that many moving parts.  Rather than focusing on the muscles involved, we focus on the movements being performed.

For the program design app we use at MFF, we intentionally haven’t listed muscles being used.  That’s because we want to use all of them. If our attentional spotlight focuses on one or two in particular, we may lose the benefits of the attentional floodlight on all of them.


If you were to spend some time observing our training team, you’re more likely to hear “push the floor away” than “squeeze your quads” while someone squats, or “punch the ceiling” instead of “get those pecs” while someone bench presses.  When it comes to cueing, there are totally times when it’s appropriate to focus on specific muscles. That comes later, because first we want to use everything.

Sure, there are prime movers that are doing more work; your legs work more than your arms during a squat, for example.  If we’re using our abs and all four limbs on each exercise, we have the greatest chance of creating physical change.

I’d bet that we spend at least 85% of the time focusing on moves that use a whole bunch o’ muscles, called “compound exercises.”  These muscles are the primal movements such as squats, hinges, pushing, pulling, single leg work, crawls or carries. There is so much going on there, that we focus more on the movement being performed than the muscles being involved in the work.

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As a general overview, we try to include 6 different movement patterns in our programs, and here are the top muscles involved in each one:

  • Hinge – Hamstrings, Glutes
  • Squat – Quads, Hamstrings, Glutes
  • Push – Chest, Shoulders, Triceps
  • Pull – Back, Shoulders, Biceps
  • Single Leg – Adductors / Abductors, Quads, Hamstrings, Glutes
  • Carry / Crawl – Hip stabilizers, shoulder stabilizers.

Bonus answer for all of the above: Core!

When we’re really nailing it, we’re creating tension in our abs during each of those exercises.  Remember the adage, “a push-up is a plank that move.”  A hinge is a plank that bends.  A squat is a plank that folds.  Everything we do is a plank that moves. There are so many muscles involved in these movements that qualifying all of them can seem like a big ol’ data dump for lots of folks. Where we to really get into the nitty and gritty, we’d have hundreds of muscles listed throughout a workout.


Since functional anatomy isn’t everyone’s best life, some of our smartest friends in the fitness industry have begun using the movement model, and it’s one that we’ve found to be powerful to take our ability to move with beauty and creativity, and simply things enough that we can really make things digestible.

I first learned the movement-based system reading the work of Mike Boyle, Dan John, and Gray Cook.  These guys aren’t good coaches because they know a lot; they are great coaches because they make everything easier to understand.

The movement based system doesn’t typically include muscle-specific isolation exercises, such as biceps curls, shoulder raises, or leg extensions. These moves focus on creating as much focus on one particular body part.  These moves can be awesome for those who are working on really adding muscle mass in a specific area, and they can give the feeling of “toning” specific areas, but they make up a very small portion of our training programs.


These moves are helpful in a few instances, but the majority of exercise time should be spend using as many muscles as possible rather than focusing on a select few.  When we create stiffness through our midsection, we better allow our arms and legs to move, and when that happens we’re trying to use ALL of our muscles.  Of them, our BRAIN is working the hardest!


You’re right, anatomy nerds, the brain has no contractile properties, and it’s not a muscle.  You’ve got me there.  What Matt has led us to, is that thinking about how our bodies move is essential in the training process.  Rather than one or two parts of our body, let’s focus on ALL of the spots.

The more wholly we can train our body, the more complete our programs, and results, will feel.  Movement based training isn’t about using specific muscles, but rather about using ALL of our muscles.  That requires attention and focus that comes from a strong mind more than anything else.

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