// RIP isolation in praise of integration
by Paul Taylor
Why do we do what we do? This question forms the foundation of much
of what Anthony Robbins, the great motivational speaker, talks about.
He reasons that when you find the why, the right answers come much more
easily. This article is not about motivation, it’s about resistance
training, but the question is very pertinent – why do we train the way
If you look in any gym or health club today, you will see people using all sorts of machines to train with and doing a huge variety of isolation exercises in order to stimulate the muscles to become bigger, stronger and more functional. fitness instructors and personal trainers the world over continue to write training programs for clients that break the body into various body parts and even individual muscles or muscle groups – they talk about chest, back, biceps, triceps, shoulders, glutes, quads, hamstrings and calves. My question is; do the advances in science support such programs?
Let’s examine the roots of this type of training. To do this, we have to go back to the 1930s, when much of our understanding of the anatomy of the body came to prominence. I call this type of anatomy ‘table-top anatomy’, because it came about through researchers using electrical equipment to stimulate the individual muscles of cadavers (dead bodies) in order to see what effect they had on bones and joints. hence, we learnt that the biceps flex the elbow, the triceps extend the elbow and the soleus extends (plantarflexes) the ankle. We also learnt that a muscle must cross a joint in order for it to have an effect on the joint, right? I’ll discuss this a little later.
The research from the 1930s was corroborated in the 1950s when extensive muscle testing was performed as a result of the polio epidemic. In this case, researchers used living individuals, but again their research was conducted with the subjects lying on a table. The researchers did their utmost to isolate individual muscles and learn about their effects on bones and joints as it gave them a lot of information useful for identifying the early symptoms of the muscle-wasting polio disease.
It was in the 1950s that bodybuilding rose to prominence, with bodybuilders obviously using knowledge of anatomy when designing training programs. To this day, bodybuilding ideas continue to dominate the field of resistance training, although the vast majority of exercisers do not want to look like bodybuilders.
In the 1970s Arthur Jones of Nautilus produced a range of machines that allowed people to isolate muscles while allowing for stricter technique and, often, an increase in the amount of weight or load, an exercise variable that we all know is required for muscular hypertrophy. on the face of it, this sounds like a great idea – we are all taught the importance of good technique and machines mean you can even sit down while you practice it!
At this point I would like to pose a couple of questions; how many veteran bodybuilders do you know who are pain-free? Why are bodybuilders so much weaker, even though they have more muscle, than traditional strongmen? It is ironic that the strongmen that had preceded the bodybuilding movement, and knew very little about anatomy, used very integrated and function-based movements to train for strength and power.
The word ‘integrated’ is the key here. Modern biomechanists and functional anatomists have begun the long process of identifying how the body interacts in function. let’s look at the proper definition of ‘function’, as the word is often misused today. The New American Medical Dictionary defines function as; ‘The special work performed by a structure in its normal state’.
So what is ‘normal state’ for human beings – is it lying on a table? I think not. Gary Gray is a physiotherapist in the US who, along with Dr David Tiberio, has had a huge impact on our understanding of training. They have built on the work of leading anatomical and biomechanical researchers such as Ida Rolf, andre Vleeming and Raymond Dart and in 2004, identified the following as essential for functional movement:
• Should be tri-planar
• Should be integrated
• Requires proper gravity-orientation (i.e., mostly upright!)
• Should be propriceptively enriched
• Should produce dynamic stabilisation.
One of the key aspects of integration is the effective use of the kinetic chain, which is a linked system that can more effectively absorb, distribute and produce forces within the body. The body utilises multiple segments and joints, so the interaction between them becomes vital to the overall performance of the chain. This can be summed up thus; ‘The body knows nothing of muscles, only movement’
The way the kinetic chain can fulfill this amazing role is by integrating the muscle, skeletal and nervous systems together to produce, control and manage the forces the body has to interact with in life. These forces are gravity, momentum, ground reaction forces and itself. This is where the true beauty begins, because fascia (a type of connective tissue) can provide the body with a network that can support, absorb and transfer forces between segments to allow the smooth brilliance of human movement that we see in athletes and dancers. This is because the fascia is derived from the same mesoderm germ layer (see box next page) as the muscles and the skeleton. as such, there is a common thread of biology which covers and interacts with each system. fascia interacts with the nervous and musculoskeletal system to facilitate the flow of information that helps to load and unload structures within the kinetic chain in the most efficient manner – thereby increasing movement and performance capacity and reducing injury. At this year's 'Meeting of the Minds', event hosted by PTontheNET, I had the honour of presenting alongside a non-industry presenter called Thomas Myers who gave a fascinating presentation on the role of fascia in the human body. His book Anatomy Trains has had a big influence on the PT academy ethos and his presentation strengthens my belief that personal trainers absolutely must be taught about fascia.
As a case in point, I now want to return to the belief that most of us have that a muscle must cross a joint in order to have an effect on that joint. That is true of electrically-stimulated cadavers, but not of living beings. It has been shown, for example, that the soleus ‘accelerates the knee into extension twice as much as it acts to accelerate the ankle in extension for positions near upright posture’ (Zajac and Gordon, 1989). How does the soleus do this without crossing the knee? The answer lies in anatomical myofascial lines, which are lines of force distribution in the body that involve the integration of both muscle and fascia.
When we understand this, we are compelled to throw away the idea of isolating the muscles of the body and using machines to ‘assist’ us in our training. While isolation can indeed produce the stimulus for muscle hypertrophy, it lacks the multi-level stimulus approach the body requires to perform tasks in an effective manner and can ultimately lead to dysfunction and chronic pain. although fitness expos the world over are full of increasingly fancy machines, they do not provide the variety and the range of positions our joints and segments are capable of.
In order to train the body in a way that is complementary to its design, we must remember the following:
• Joints have the capacity to move in three planes of motion (not equally in all planes), which allows them to control forces placed on them and to load associated structures to assist smooth, controlled movement. We need to rid ourselves of saggital-plane dominance in the gym and get the frontal and transverse planes involved.
• Eccentric control of force is vital to overall kinetic chain functioning; force reduction always precedes force production, which dictates that you must load (stretch) before you unload (contract) the system. Use gravity and momentum to load the body, allowing the system to function at closer to full potential.
• Isolation is dead, long live integration!
• Get your clients off seats, benches and stability balls and into proper gravity-orientation – standing up.
In summary, much of what we currently do in the gym is still in the dark ages and based on an outdated understanding of anatomy. Even bodybuilders (not representative of the average client), who are in love with the word ‘isolation’ would greatly benefit from integrated strength that can only be developed by training in an integrated manner. Paul chek started the revolution with his Primal Movement Patterns and we must continue to build on this work by continually asking ourselves ‘Why do we do what we do?’
A former Royal Navy Aircrew Officer, Paul is an accredited and practicing exercise physiologist and nutritionist as well as being the director of The Personal Training Academy. He has combined his years of university training with his interests in neuroscience, quantum physics and positive psychology to develop an integrated approach to health and well-being that he calls Scientific Holism – evidence-based holistic health that integrates both the physical and mental components of the self.