Determining “exercise efficiency” requires an understanding of
biomechanics — and also of your specific goal
Exercise, by definition, is used as the “means to an end.” It is not meant to be the end unto itself. Exercise is typically done for the purpose of eliciting a specific developmental response. For that reason, we need to clearly identify the response we seek, so that we can select the exercises which are most likely to garner the physical adaptation we want.
Clearly identifying our goal is not enough, however. We also need to know what makes one exercise different from another—what makes an exercise “better than” or “worse than” another, in terms of its mechanics (physics) and its anatomical / physiological factors.
There are parameters by which all resistance exercises can be evaluated, just as there are parameters by which the flight worthiness of an airplane can be evaluated. Every resistance exercise has a bio-mechanical “profile”, which can be used to evaluate its mechanical efficiency and also its anatomical / neurological efficacy. Identifying the profile of an exercise allows you to determine whether performing that exercise is a wise choice for your specific goal.
Unfortunately, most people are unaware of the physics involved in resistance exercise, and of the anatomical and neurological factors involved in resistance exercise. Therefore, they cannot even begin to evaluate how “efficient” an exercise is (energy cost versus degree of muscle loading), nor how anatomically correct the movement is (range of motion, alignment, joint integrity, etc.), nor whether or not there are any neurological compromises.
Further, most people do not realize that the following two goals are polar opposite:
- Optimizing muscle development with optimum safety
- Lifting the most amount of weight
People usually assume that there is a direct correlation between the amount of weight being lifted, and the amount of load a particular muscle receives—but this is absolutely false. How much load a muscle receives involves a number of mechanical variables, only one of which is the actual weight being used. The other variables include the length of the limb a person is using, the angle of that limb relative to the direction of resistance, and the angle at which the target muscle pulls on that limb.
Consider the following comparison of two exercises, in terms of how much triceps loading each exercise produces.
In the image below, I am demonstrating the descended position of “Parallel Bar Dips”. Keep in mind that the forearm is the “operating lever” of the triceps.
All levers (i.e., limbs) are “neutral” when they are parallel with gravity (vertical)—and any muscle operating a neutral lever is not loaded (receives zero percent of the available resistance). All levers that are perpendicular with gravity (horizontal) are “maximally active”—and any muscle operating a horizontal limb is fully loaded (receives 100% of the available resistance).
If we were to quantify (in a simplified way) the amount of resistance with which each of my triceps is loaded, we would first acknowledge the gross amount of weight being moved—which is bodyweight, in this case. Then, we factor in the length of the forearm. This is a standard ratio typically used in all lever-load calculations: the distance between the pivot point (the elbow) and where the force is being applied (the triceps attachment on the ulna / forearm) – relative to – the distance between the where the muscle force is being applied (the triceps attachment) and where the resistance is applied (the hand / distal end of the forearm). Then, we factor in the “moment arm”, which can be easily identified (in this case) by the angle of the forearm, relative to gravity. The more horizontal the tilt of the forearm lever, the greater the moment arm—the greater the moment arm, the greater the percentage of load magnification.
So, in this example, we have a bodyweight of 200 pounds, divided by two arms—therefore, 100 pounds per arm. We then multiply that by a factor of 12 (i.e., the approximate length of the forearm, a 12 to 1 ratio). Then we multiply that by the moment arm (approximately 11% – representing the degree of forearm tilt, between vertical and horizontal).
100 (lbs.) x 12 (forearm length multiple) x 11% = 132 pounds
Therefore, this exercise above (Parallel Bar Dips) would load each of the triceps with approximately 132 pounds of resistance. The “cost” of this is 200 pounds of effort (bodyweight).
As a comparison, let us now calculate the load on each triceps, when performing a “Supine Dumbbell Triceps Extension”—shown below—using a pair of 20 pound dumbbells.
Using the same formula, we’ll first factor in the gross weight being used—20 pounds per arm (40 pounds total). Then, we’ll factor in the same forearm length—a multiple of 12. Then, we’ll factor in the “moment arm” (i.e., the angle of the forearm, relative to gravity). In this case, you can see it’s mostly horizontal, rather than mostly vertical. When the forearm reaches the fully perpendicular position, relative to the straight downward pull of gravity (as shown above), the forearm is at the 100% “active” position. Again, let’s do the math, plugging in our new variables.
20 (lbs.) x 12 (forearm length multiple) x 100% = 240 pounds
This exercise above (Supine Dumbbell Triceps Extensions), therefore, loads each triceps with 240 pounds of resistance and the “cost” of this is only 40 pounds total of effort. This is almost twice as much benefit (triceps load), with about 80% less effort. Who wouldn’t want that kind of return on their investment?
Clearly, you can see the superior efficiency of allowing the operating limb of a target muscle (i.e., in this case, the forearm) to interact perpendicularly with gravity (the direction of resistance), as opposed to using a limb that is mostly parallel with the gravity (vertical), when the goal is maximum muscle loading with minimum wasted effort and minimum injury risk.
The triceps muscle could never be loaded as much—during Parallel Bar Dips—as it could be by doing Supine Dumbbell Triceps Extensions. In order to get 240 pounds of triceps load while doing “Dips”, an additional 160 pounds would have to be added to the body (80 pounds per arm). But that would drastically increase the risk of injuring the shoulder and elbow joints, plus also the anterior deltoids, and most people wouldn’t be able to do it.
The compound exercise zealot would argue that “Parallel Bar Dips is still worth doing because it works other muscles at the same time”. However, the other two muscles that participate during Parallel Bar Dips—the pectorals and the anterior deltoids—are not worked as well as they could be worked, during isolation exercises.
Participation of the pectorals is compromised (during “Dips”) because the humeral movement that occurs is not the ideal pathway for the pectorals. The ideal pectoral movement would cause maximum elongation and maximum contraction (shortening) of the pectoral fibers, and that requires the arms (i.e., the humerus / upper arm bone) to move laterally (sideways)—away from the sternum, and then medially—toward the sternum, the midline of the body.
During Parallel Bar Dips, the upper arms are not moved in that manner. Rather, they are moved alongside the torso, with almost no lateral or medial movement at all.
Participation of the anterior deltoids is also compromised, during Parallel Bar Dips, because they are over-stretched (in the descended position), yet forced to stop short of their full contraction (at the “top” of the movement). The anterior deltoids are also severely overloaded during “Dips”—strained far beyond their reasonable capacity—because they are the smallest and weakest of the three muscles involved.
So, from the standpoint of “muscle benefit”, and also from the standpoint of muscle and joint safety, each of the three muscles that participate during “Dips” would receive more benefit more safely, by doing three separate isolation exercises. It would thus be foolish to select Parallel Bar Dips—“because it’s a compound exercise”—while ignoring (or being unaware of) its significant bio-mechanical shortcomings, which compromise benefit and pose a high risk of injury.
Another exercise that is popular because it’s a compound exercise, and because it allows a person to move a large amount of weight, is Barbell Squats. Powerlifters typically use this exercise as one of their three competition lifts, but it’s also regarded as a “Holy Grail” by most bodybuilders and people who are pursuing general fitness (because they’ve been mislead).
In the illustration below-left, we see a person standing with a barbell on his upper back. In that figure, you can see that his lower leg (lever), his upper leg (lever) and his torso (also a lever) are all vertical, which means they are in the neutral position. Therefore, none of the muscles which operate those limbs (levers) are yet loaded.
(Note: Keep in mind that the lower leg “lever” is operated by the quadriceps muscle group—which is to say that the quadriceps extends the knee joint. The upper leg “lever” is operated by the muscles which produce “hip extension”—most notably the gluteus maximus. The gluteus is assisted in this action by two other muscle groups—the adductors and the hamstrings.)
In the illustration above-right, the person has descended to the “bottom” position of the Squat. Notice that the angle of the lower leg has tilted forward about 30 degrees from the neutral, vertical position. As such, it is far from loading the quadriceps with 100% of the available resistance, which would require that it be horizontal. It is far closer to the vertical (neutral) position, than it is to the horizontal (fully “active”) position—and this is the farthest that the the lower-leg-lever can tilt forward, during standard Barbell Squats.
The angle of the lower leg lever does not even reach 45 degrees, which would be halfway between vertical and horizontal. A 45 degree angle could loosely be called the “50% active” angle (i.e., half way between fully neutral and fully active). Because the lower leg only tilts forward approximately 30 degrees from the neutral position, the load reduction to the quadriceps is approximately 60%. This is absurd, given that one of the primary reasons for doing a Barbell Squat is quadriceps development.
To compensate for this drastic load reduction (i.e., the person senses that his quadriceps can handle more resistance), more weight is added to the barbell—but the added spinal compression increases the risk of spinal injury. It would be much wiser to increase the quadriceps load by using a more efficient lower leg lever—doing an exercise that allows the lower leg to be more perpendicular with gravity—rather than continuing to use an inefficient lower leg angle, but with more added weight.
The Compromised Mechanics of the Upper Leg Lever
The upper leg bone (the “femur”), which causes most of the downward thrust during Squats, is powered by the gluteus and a couple of other hip-extension muscles. The femur (lever) does reach the horizontal position—perpendicular with gravity—and that is theoretically good. However, notice that the lower leg lever, which is the “secondary lever” to the upper leg lever, doubles under the upper leg. This causes a “length reduction” of the femur (actually, of its moment arm), such that its magnification is effectively reduced by nearly 40%. So, instead of the gluteus being loaded with the magnification of a 17 inch lever (femur), it is only loaded with the magnification of a 10 inch lever (approximately).
Again, in order to compensate for this load reduction the person who is Squatting must add more weight onto the barbell, which further increases spinal compression. Yes, adding more weight to the barbell does increase the net load to the quadriceps and to the gluteus, but it does so with the same compromised “cost / benefit” ratio—the same percentage of load reductions. Thus, the skeleton is burdened with a tremendous amount of additional load, which could be avoided simply by using more efficient exercises.
It would be much more efficient to use two separate (mechanically “better”) exercises—one for the knee extensors (i.e., the quadriceps) and one for the hip extensors (i.e., the gluteus, adductors and hamstrings). Using isolation exercises for each of these two muscle groups would allow each to be loaded as much or more—while using less weight—thereby also minimizing wasted effort and unnecessary skeletal strain.
It would thus be foolish to hail the Barbell Squat as a “good” exercise for the legs simply because it’s a “compound exercise”, while ignoring (or being unaware of) the significant mechanical inefficiencies of the movement.
Compromised mechanics is not the only problem associated with Barbell Squats. There is also a neurological conflict, and it relates directly to the fact that Squats is a compound (multi-joint) movement.
The human body utilizes a neurological function called “reciprocal innervation”, which prevents opposing muscles from contracting simultaneously, with full force. This is meant to prevent self-defeating efforts. It is an integral part of the body’s ability to function with coordination.
For example, when you hold a weight in your hand with your elbows bent—as shown below—your biceps are loaded. Loading the biceps triggers the CNS (central nervous system) to send a “relaxation synapse” to the triceps, which is the “antagonist” muscle (i.e., the opposing muscle). This relaxation synapse prevents the triceps from simultaneously contracting with much (if any) force, thus preventing any interference which would conflict with the biceps’ optimal effort.
Whenever we load any skeletal muscle, the CNS (central nervous system) automatically causes a relaxation of the opposing muscle(s). This happens involuntarily—without us even being aware it. We cannot prevent it from happening, even if we wanted to do so. It’s automatic, and “autonomic”—part of the “autonomic nervous system”.
When we perform Barbell Squats, we unknowingly cause the relaxation (partial shut down) of some of the muscles we are actually intending to engage, because opposing muscles are trying to work simultaneously.
Typically, when we do Barbell Squats, our intention is to optimally stimulate the knee extension muscles (i.e., the quadriceps) as well as the hip extension muscles (i.e., the glutes, adductors and hamstrings). However, the simultaneous engagement of those two joint functions causes some of those muscles to be compromised (to shut off), due to reciprocal innervation.
Hip extension is opposite hip flexion, so activation and loading of the hip extension muscles (i.e., the glutes, adductors and hamstrings) automatically causes a relaxation of the hip flexion muscles. One of the hip flexors is the rectus femoris, which is also a primary quadriceps muscle (i.e., the rectus femoris has two joint functions because it crosses the knee joint as well as the hip joint). The rectus femoris cannot fully engage while the gluteus is loaded. This has been demonstrated in EMG studies.
Needless to say, it’s more than a little ludicrous to do an exercise that causes nearly one quarter of your target muscle to be de-activated, precisely when you are struggling so hard to optimize its stimulation.
More Neurological Interference
Knee extension (which is caused by the quadriceps) is opposite knee flexion (which is caused by the hamstrings). These two muscle groups cannot be optimally engaged at the same time, because they are antagonist muscles. Reciprocal innervation prevents their simultaneous activation.
However, the hamstrings muscle group also has a secondary joint function, because it crosses the hip joint as well as the knee joint. The secondary function of the hamstrings is assisting in hip extension. During Barbell Squats, all hip extension muscles are “called to action” to participate in that part of the movement. However, the hamstrings are conflicted during Squats due to the simultaneous activation of the quadriceps. So, during Barbell Squats, “hip extension” becomes partly impaired, because the hamstrings are mostly deactivated.
It’s also likely that the “desire” (the effort) on the part of the hamstrings to participate in hip extension, causes a degree of deactivation to occur in the quadriceps ….because the quadriceps oppose the hamstrings. Compromised activation of the quadriceps (all four parts) is certainly not what you want when you’re doing heavy Barbell Squats, with the intention of developing the quads.
It would be far better to work the quadriceps without the neurological interference that is caused by simultaneous hip extension. And it would be far better to work the gluteus without the neurological interference that is caused by simultaneous knee extension. In fact, it’s far more productive to do isolation exercises for each of those two primary joint functions (knee extension and hip extension), and doing so has the added benefit of not needing to load and compress the spine at all.
It would be foolish to believe that a Barbell Squat is a “great” because it’s a compound exercise that theoretically “saves time” and “burns more calories”, while ignoring (or being unaware of) the significant mechanical and neurological inefficiencies that occur during Barbell Squats,.
Squats do not save time because the benefit each participating muscle receives is significantly less than could be achieved using more mechanically efficient exercises.
Squats do indeed burn a significant amount calories. However, the same amount of calories could be spent simply walking on a treadmill with an incline of 20% and a speed of 6.0 mph—without the tremendous skeletal load on the spine, knees and hip joints.
Interestingly, the fact that Squats are “difficult” is often what compels people to mistakenly assume that Squats are good—“because they’re so tough”. Many people live by the “No Pain, No Gain” mantra, as if anything that is tough must have a commensurate amount of reward—but that is not necessarily true. In the case of Barbell Squats, as well as many other compound exercises, the reward does not match the amount of effort required, due to mechanical inefficiencies and neurological conflicts.
Squats are safe enough when performed without a heavy barbell placed on the spine, and they are productive for the purpose of cardiovascular fitness, improved endurance, body fat reduction, and general lower body conditioning. Adding weight, however, significantly increases the cost without an equal increase in benefit.
Barbell Squats can also be useful for enhancement of sports performance—injury risk be damned—when a particular sport requires movements that are very similar to Squats. But proprioceptive training (practicing a skill with added resistance) for a specific sport is considerably different than training for improved physical fitness and muscular development.
Selecting the Most Efficient Exercises for
Fitness and Muscle Development
The following ten bio-mechanical criteria allow us to determine and select the “best” (most efficient, most productive and most safe) resistance exercises for the purpose of fitness and muscle development.
Not utilizing these criteria, or employing the services of a trainer who does not fully understands these criteria, essentially guarantees that your efforts will be largely inefficient (costing more effort and energy than necessary), that your results will be compromised (less productive), and that you will be exposed to a higher risk of injury than would occur if you used a better exercise selection.
- The exercise uses mostly “active” limb angles (i.e., perpendicular with resistance), instead of mostly “neutral” limb angles (i.e., parallel with resistance).
- The exercise uses mostly full lever (limb) lengths—without unnecessary “moment arm” reductions caused by a secondary lever (limb).
- The exercise allows the person to move the limb (operated by the target muscle) directly toward the target muscle’s origin during concentric contraction, and then directly away from the target muscle’s origin during eccentric contraction.
- The exercise allows dynamic muscle contraction (i.e., exercise with movement) and full range of motion—avoiding static / isometric contraction (exercise without movement), as well as incomplete range of motion.
- The exercise allows proper alignment (i.e., the direction of movement, the direction of resistance, and the origin and insertion of the target muscle, are all on the same plane). This also ensures “opposite posi tion loading”—that the target muscle is positioned directly opposite the direction of resistance, thereby getting its full load.
- The exercise avoids reciprocal innervation—the attempted engagement
of two opposing muscles. Unintended reciprocal innervation occurs
when a compound exercise requires the simultaneous movement of
two joints (each with a different function), and the associated engagement of one or more opposing, two-jointed muscles. In such cases,
the two separate joint functions compete for muscle innervation, which compromises muscle activation (i.e., weakness) of target muscles.
- The exercise avoids “active insufficiency”, which is the over-shortening
of a two-jointed muscle, upon its contraction. It also avoids “passive insufficiency”, which is the over-stretching of a target muscle’s antagonist (opposing) muscle.
- When practical, the exercise avoids “bi-lateral deficit”, which is the neurologically caused strength compromise that often occurs when both (left and right) side limbs work simultaneously.
- When applicable, the exercise avoids the simultaneous occurrence of “mechanical disadvantage” (when a muscle that flexes a joint, pulls on its corresponding limb from a fully parallel angle), and a fully “active” limb—a limb / lever that is fully perpendicular with resistance. These two “magnifiers” of resistance, occurring simultaneously, result in a drastic increase of resistance, which significantly increases the risk of tendon rupture.
- The exercise utilizes an optimally beneficial resistance curve—providing more resistance during the early part of the range of motion (when the muscle is more elongated and stronger), and less resistance during the latter part of the range of motion (when the muscle is more contracted and less strong). This allows the “resistance curve” of the exercise to match the “strength curve” of the skeletal muscle, which is optimally productive.
This may seem very complicated, and it obviously requires more explanation before the significant benefit of following these criteria—when selecting exercises—can be understood. But it demonstrates that there’s much more that determines what makes an exercise “good” than simply how much weight “can” be lifted, what dogma dictates, and what the current trends encourage.
There is a plethora of misinformation in the fitness industry, due to its over-commercialization. This has lead many people to mistakenly believe that certain exercises are “gold”, when often they are not.
“Compound exercises”—like Barbell Squats, Parallel Bar Dips and Deadlifts”—have been hailed as essential and foundational, but they are compromised for a variety of reasons. Other exercises are often better.
We need to look carefully at the bio-mechanical profile of each exercise, in order to properly evaluate them. Only then can we appropriately select the most efficient exercises for our intended goals.
Doug Brignole is the author of “The Physics of Resistance Exercise”, a book about the biomechanics of resistance exercise, which is endorsed by ten PhD professors (i.e., exercise science, physics, neurobiology, biomedical engineering, paleoanthropology, sociology and psychology), plus three orthopedic surgeons. Brignole is a former Mr. America and Mr. Universe bodybuilding champion, with over 40 years of experience in the field. He is also the co-author of “Million Dollar Muscle” (a university sociology book), and will soon begin work co-authoring a university biomechanics textbook.