“The Direction of Force” in Exercise Analysis

The direction of the force you produce, during an exercise, determines which muscle is loaded more, and which muscle is loaded less. How do you determine the direction of force you’ll use during an exercise? It is dictated by the direction of resistance provided by each exercise.

Let’s say you (at a bodyweight of 200 pounds) are about to perform a Barbell Squat. You are in the standing position, with a 200 pound barbell on your shoulders. You are therefore pressing straight downward, against the ground, with 400 pounds. If you were to put a scale under your feet, this would be confirmed.

In turn, the ground is pushing back 400 pounds. This is called “ground reaction force”. The ground is not sinking under the 400 pounds of load, nor is it pushing back more than 400 pounds, in which case you would rise.

In physics, the “ground reaction force” rule stipulates that an immovable brace (i.e., the ground, or the starting blocks of a sprinter, etc.) “pushes back” an amount equal to the amount pressing against it, and in the exact opposite direction. This means that the straight downward (vertical) pressing of your bodyweight plus the barbell, during Barbell Squats, is producing a straight upward (vertical) direction of resistance.

That upward direction of resistance, during Barbell Squats, requires that you produce a straight downward direction of force—otherwise, you would fall off balance.

The image below-left shows what occurs during a standard Barbell Squat. The red “UP” arrow indicates the direction of movement you are causing with your downward direction of force (indicated by the red “DOWN” arrow). Notice that the femur (upper leg bone) is perpendicular with your direction of force, while the tibia (lower leg bone) is mostly parallel with your direction of force. Thus, hip extension (produced by the glutes and other hip extensors) is loaded much more than knee extension (produced by the quads), in order to produce this upward movement.

In the figure above-right, you can see what would occur if you intentionally emphasized knee extension–instead of hip extension–thereby fully activating your quadriceps. Maybe you’d like to try this as a test (just kidding). If you do, be sure you have a soft cushion on which to fall, placed behind you.

Pushing your foot forward against the ground (indicated by the lower green arrow) would result in your hips and torso being thrust backward (indicated by the green arrow at the hips) and you would fall off balance. The reason this does not happen when you perform Barbell Squats (i.e., fully activate quadriceps contraction) is because you are coordinating a straight upward trajectory, directly opposite the vertical pull of gravity.

In the image below, I am performing a Cable Squat. At first glance, it might look similar to a standard Barbell Squat, but the key difference is that the direction of resistance is now coming mostly from a FORWARD-downward angle, instead of the vertical angle. The lower red arrow indicates the direction of resistance, which thus requires that I produce a force that is directly opposite (upper red arrow), or else I’ll fall forward. This new direction of force I must produce is significantly more perpendicular to my tibia. Therefore, the quadriceps are significantly more loaded than they would be with the vertical direction of resistance of Barbell Squats.

It’s also worth noting that—when you do this exercise—you can feel your feet sliding forward toward the front part of your shoes, which reflects the forward thrust of the tibia (i.e., the emphasis on “knee extension”, thus more quadriceps activation). This does not occur with standard Barbell Squats.

Another way of ascertaining the degree to which each participating muscle is loaded (quadriceps for knee extension – or – gluteus for hip extension) is to measure the “moment arm” of each limb / lever.

In the images below, you can see the difference between the moment arm of the femur, versus that of the tibia. “A” indicates the moment arm of the femur (being operated by the gluteus), and “B” indicates the moment arm of the tibia (being operated by the quadriceps). The greater the moment arm, the greater the percentage of load that is placed upon the muscle that operates that limb.

The reason why these lines are drawn vertically, is because that is the direction of the resistance during Barbell Squats. The “moment arm” lines of Cable Squats would NOT be drawn vertically. Cable Squat analysis would require that the “moment arm” lines be drawn diagonally, parallel with that direction of resistance (the cable). Thus, those lines would show a greater moment arm for the tibia, instead of the femur.

Further still, in the image below, notice the distance that must be traveled by the head and hips, in order to go from the descended position to the standing position. It’s a considerable distance. Thus, the question that must be asked is, “which limb/lever (and therefore which muscle) is producing most of that distance traveled?”.

In the image below, I’ve placed a protractor over each photo–one centered on the hip joint, and one centered on the knee joint. I’ve also placed a red dot showing the beginning (1) and ending (2) location of the femur (left image) and of the tibia (right image). On the left image, you can see that the distal end of the femur must travel a full 90 degrees from descended position to standing position. Conversely, on the right image, you can see that the tibia only needs to travel approximately 25 degrees, from descended position to standing position.

Which of these two limb angle changes is more likely to produce the degree of torso lift shown in the previous image?  Obviously, it’s the image on the left image: the femur—gluteus—hip extension that produces the majority of the upward rise of the torso.

When calculating force, one of the factors is “distance traveled”. The more distance that is traveled, the more force that must be produced by the muscle that is causing that degree of travel. “Distance traveled” is directly associated with the length of the moment arm. The greater the moment arm, the greater the distance traveled. The shorter the moment arm, the less distance traveled.

These same rules apply to Parallel Bar Dips. Remember, the direction of the force that you are required to produce, determines the degree to which each participating muscle is loaded—and the direction of force you must produce is mandated by the direction of resistance provided by the exercise.

In the image below-left, you can see what occurs during standard Parallel Bar Dips. The direction of resistance (“ground reaction force”) is straight upward, which therefore requires that you produce a straight downward direction of force. That direction of force is mostly parallel to the forearm, which renders it mostly “neutral”—loading the triceps with only about 11% of the force. Conversely, that downward direction of force is mostly perpendicular with the humerus (upper arm bone), which causes the front deltoids to be the most loaded. Notice the degree of movement the humerus must travel (90 degrees)—from starting position to ending position—in order to cause the torso to rise.

The image above-right, you can see what would happen if you were to intentionally emphasize triceps extension, during Parallel Bar Dips. The arrow pointing left shows the direction your hand / forearm would “push” (i.e., think “Triceps Kickback”). This backward push of your hands/forearms (a force that is perpendicular to your forearm) would result in your torso being thrust forward–not upward. You can try this in your chair, with your hands on the arm rests, and you’ll feel the difference in triceps activation and in the way your hands feel on the “bars”.

In fact, during Parallel Bar Dips, there is no “backward push” being produced by the hands, as occurs during typical Triceps Extensions. There is no sliding sensation on the hand, which would result from posterior “friction force” against the bars—as occurs in all effective triceps exercises (i.e., think Cable Pushdowns with a rope, or Dumbbell Skull Crushers with a hammer grip…the way you must squeeze the handle or else your hand will slide). “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”…thus, there would absolutely be a significant “backward slide/push” occurring—against the bar, by your hand—if the triceps activation (during Dips) is as great as some people think it is. Yet, there is none of that during Parallel Bar Dips.

Below is yet another example of how the direction of force produced by the person, determines the degree to which a participating muscle is loaded.

In this example, the person is leaning back against the ball. This “backward lean” changes the direction of force the person must produce. In this case, the person must produce a direction of thrust (with his legs) that is angled diagonally forward. He has no choice, given the backward lean. He does not have the option of pushing “straight down” with his legs. If the floor was oiled, his feet would slide forward–proving that his direction of force is slightly forward now. This forward direction of force automatically loads the quadriceps more, because it is more perpendicular with the tibia than a straight down direction of force would be. In this case, it does NOT matter how vertical the tibia is because now the direction of resistance is no longer vertical. It has been altered by the forward “friction force”, created by the feet pushing forward against the floor, which is mandated by the backward leaning against the Swiss Ball. The farther forward the feet are placed on the floor (i.e., away from the wall), the more forward “friction force” is produced, the more perpendicular that direction of force is with the tibia, and the more loaded the quadriceps are.

The image below—Sissy Squat on a Sissy Squat Bench—shows a direction of force that is somewhat similar to the Swiss Ball Squat above, but to a much greater degree. In this case, the body would fall backward if not for the brace in front of the ankle (similar to the friction force of the feet on the floor, above). Thus, the direction of the resistance is NOT vertical—it is now rotational—moving around the pivot that is created by the pad at the top posterior side of the tibia (just below the back of the knee). In fact, you can see that his feet are not even touching the foot pad under them, proving there is zero downward (vertical) force in this example…until he reaches the fully ascended position.

This rotational direction of resistance requires that the force produced (by the distal end of your tibia / your ankle) be applied straight forward, against the ankle pad. That is precisely what makes this an excellent quadriceps exercise. It does not matter that the tibia is vertical (i.e., which would only be considered “neutral” when the direction of resistance is vertical). The direction of resistance is now essentially horizontal, and thus requires that the direction of force the person produces also be horizontal, directly against the ankle pad.

The example above also highlights one more very important thing that is worth noting. As you can see, in this descended position, the hip joint is bent (“flexed”). So, when this person rises to the upright position, it will APPEAR as though the hip joint was actively extended by way of the gluteus muscle—but that is NOT the case, in this exercise. Rather, the hip is being passively extended.

To understand this, imagine the man above has no torso. The knees would extend (straighten) by way of quadriceps contraction, and—as a result—the femurs would rotate up to the vertical position. Anything that is placed at the upper end of those femurs—let’s say you’ve taped a golf ball on the upper end of each femur—would also rise. Now, just replace the golf balls with his torso. The same thing would happen—the torso would simply rise by virtue of the upper ends of the femurs rising. In other words, the torso is just “going for a ride”, carried upward by the rising end of the femurs. The hip extension muscles (the glutes, etc.) do not need to actively produce that angle change at the hip joint, given the physics of this exercise. Of course, the weight of the torso would load the quadriceps (knee extension) much more than the golf balls did, but that is a separate issue.

To further illustrate this, look at the two images below—showing a Supine Dumbbell Press.

The insertion of the pectorals is on the upper end of the humerus. When the pectorals contract, they pull the upper arm from an outward (lateral) position, medially—toward the midline of the body. Now, imagine that you have had both of your forearms amputated. So, you attach a weight directly to the distal end of your humerus, and you perform this exercise–“shoulder adduction” (i.e., which is the function of the pectorals). You would still effectively load your pectoral muscles, even if you have no forearms or hands.

Like the previous example (Sissy Squat bench), if you were to then place a forearm (with a hand and a weight) at the distal end of each humerus, that forearm (with attached weight) would also be carried upward by the rising end of the humerus. Thus, the elbow goes from bent to straight, passively—without assistance from the biceps or the triceps—as long as that forearm stays in the vertical position…balanced over the elbow. This is because (in this case), a “vertical” forearm is the same angle as the direction of resistance, so the forearm is neutral—requiring no force from the biceps or triceps.

If you were to tilt your forearm “outward” (when in the descended position), you would engage your biceps to a degree (i.e., a small percentage—an amount equal to the degree of outward tilt). If you were to tilt your forearm “inward”, you would engage the triceps to a degree (i.e., a small percentage—an amount equal to the degree of inward tilt). This is due to the forearm leaning to either one side, or the other, of the “apex” (the neutral angle).

Again, this proves that a joint is often passively moved (flexed or extended), even though it may appear that the joint is being moved by the biceps or the triceps, or whichever muscle which “could” actively flex or extend that joint under different circumstances.

Below is a final example of this. You might think that—during any rowing exercise—the elbow is bending by virtue of biceps contraction, but that is not necessarily the case.

Imagine that you have no forearm, no biceps and no triceps. Instead, you’ve attached a rope to the distal end of your humerus, with a weight hanging on the bottom end of the rope. You would still be able to perform the above exercise (One Arm Dumbbell Row) simply by contracting the muscles that move the shoulder joint (i.e., the “back” muscles), thereby raising the humerus from the lower starting position, to the ending upper position.

The rope (with the attached weight) would do the exact same thing the forearm is doing in these photos—hanging from the elbow, going along for the ride, rising simply because it is being pulled upward by the distal end of the humerus.

Some people mistakenly believe that rowing exercises function as a biceps exercise, under the misguided belief that “since the elbow is bending, it must be like when we do Curls”. No—it’s not like Curls at all.  When we do Curls, we cause the forearm to become perpendicular with gravity (i.e., horizontal). Conversely, when we row, the forearm stays mostly parallel with gravity—in the neutral position.

Of course, if you “pull” your forearm–angle your forearm toward your shoulder–you would engage the biceps a little bit. If you were to “push” your forearm–angle your forearm toward your hips–you would engage the triceps a little bit. But as long as that forearm stays vertical (parallel to gravity), neither the biceps nor the triceps would be loaded.

Again, the direction of resistance provided by the exercise dictates the direction of force that you must produce. If the direction of force you produce is mostly parallel with a limb, the muscle that operates that limb is mostly neutral—not loaded much, if at all. If the direction of force you much produce is mostly perpendicular to a limb, the muscle that operates that limb will be very loaded.

It’s not merely a matter of a limb being “vertical” or “horizontal”, because that ignores the factors that influence the direction of resistance. In order to determine whether a muscle is loaded with a significant percentage of the available resistance, you must first identify the direction of resistance provided by each exercise, then determine the direction of force you must produce based on the demands of that exercise, then compare the direction of force you produce to the angle of the limbs involved (i.e., you must also know the anatomy, to know which muscles move those limbs).

Understanding (Not Misinterpreting)
“Knee Strain”: Leg Press vs Leg Extension

This particular study was done in 1993, and was published in PubMed.gov: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8346760/

Unfortunately, some people refer to this study as “evidence” that Leg Extensions are “bad for the knees”. However, that is NOT the conclusion of this study. This is an example of cognitive bias, whereby people hear or read what they WANT to hear or read, rather than what has actually been demonstrated.

Here, below, is the report:

Biomechanical considerations in patellofemoral joint rehabilitation

Patellofemoral joint biomechanics during leg press and leg extension exercises were compared in 20 normal subjects (10 men, 10 women) aged 18 to 45 years. Knee moment, patellofemoral joint reaction force, and patellofemoral joint stress were calculated for each subject at four knee flexion angles (0 degree, 30 degrees, 60 degrees, and 90 degrees) during leg press and leg extension exercises. All three parameters (knee moment, patellofemoral joint reaction force, and patellofemoral joint stress) were significantly greater in leg extension exercise than leg press exercise at 0 degree and 30 degrees of knee flexion (P < 0.001). At 60 degrees and 90 degrees of knee flexion, all three parameters were significantly greater in leg press exercise than leg extension exercise (P < 0.001). Patellofemoral joint stresses for leg press and leg extension exercises intersected at 48 degrees of knee flexion. This study demonstrates that patients with patellofemoral joint arthritis may tolerate rehabilitation with leg press exercise better than with leg extension exercise in functional ranges of motion because of lower patellofemoral joint stresses.html

It’s important to understand precisely what was “found” during this study, and precisely what was concluded based on that information.

A comparison was made between a Leg Press and a Leg Extension (machine), in regards to “patellofemoral stress”. Researchers were trying to determine which of these two exercises, and which degrees of knee flexion, would produce more knee strain—specifically for “patients with patellofemoral (knee) arthritis”.

Knee stress (load) was evaluated—during both exercises—at four different knee positions (degrees of knee bend): at 0 degrees of knee bend (i.e., straight knees); at 30 degrees of knee bend; at 60 degrees of knee bend; and at 90 degrees of knee bend.

The researchers found that “knee stress was significantly greater during Leg Extension, than during Leg Press, at 0 degrees of knee flexion and at 30 degrees of knee flexion”.

In essence, what this sentence states, is that when the knees are straight, and when the knees are only slightly bent, the Leg Extension exercise produces more knee force, as compared with those same knee positions during the Leg Press exercise.

No surprise here. When the knees are straight, during Leg Press, there is zero activation of the quadriceps because the direction of resistance is parallel with the lower legs (i.e., they are in the “neutral position”). However, when the knees are straight during Leg Extension, the quadriceps are fully activated because the lower leg is encountering a perpendicular force against the front of the ankle, from the machine’s lever arm / roller pad.

However, it is essentially useless (i.e., produces almost no muscle benefit) to “perform” a Leg Press with straight knees—or with knees that are only a bent to a small degree. The straight-knee position (during Leg Press) is not even an “exercise”, any more than “standing” (with straight knees) is an exercise. That position is what happens BEFORE the knees begin bending, and the lower legs encounter some degree of perpendicular force, relative to the direction of resistance.

It’s obvious that the knees participate more during Leg Extensions when the knees are straight—because that is not a “resting position”, as it is when the knees are straight during a Leg Press. During Leg Extensions, the quadriceps are fully activated when the knees are straight (image below-right). It is logical to expect more knee participation (“stress”) when the quadriceps are fully activated, and less knee participation when the quadriceps are not activated, or are only activated to a small degree.

What this study also found, but which many people seem to miss, is that: “At 60 degrees and 90 degrees of knee flexion, knee load was significantly greater in the Leg Press exercise than in the Leg Extension exercise”.

Again, this is no surprise. During a Leg Press, the more the knees bend, the more perpendicular the angle becomes between the lower legs and the direction of resistance (i.e., the pathway of the Leg Press’ carriage, which is holding the weight). The more perpendicular that angle is, the more the percentage of the load on the quadriceps increases, as does the participation of the knees.

In the photo above-RIGHT, the red line shows where the upper and lower leg would be when it’s entirely straight (knees at 0 degrees bend). In that position, the lower leg is parallel with the direction of resistance (the trajectory of the sled), so it would provide zero load to the quadriceps. The yellow line shows the angle of the lower leg when the knee is bent at 30 degrees.

There are two things worth noting here: 1) that is a very compromised range of motion for the quadriceps — possibly as little as 1/5 (20%) of its “full range” ability. Also, 2) the angle of the tibia (relative to the direction of resistance) in that mostly straight-knee position, only loads the quadriceps with approximately 1/4 (25%) of the weight that is on the machine, even though 100% of that weight is loaded onto the bones.

In the photo above-LEFT (i.e., the fully descended position in the Leg Press), you can see that the angle of the knees has gone beyond 90 degrees—it’s approximately 118 degrees. Yet, even with this maximum degree of knee bend, the tibia has still not reached a perpendicular angle with the direction of resistance. In fact, the tibia has only reached a 60 degree angle, relative to the direction of resistance. 

What this means is that, in order to load the quadriceps with the same amount of resistance as could be achieved with a Leg Extension exercise (which provides a completely perpendicular direction of resistance, against the tibia), you would have to use approximately 30% more weight on the Leg Press machine (as compared with the Leg Extension), at this particular degree of knee bend.

This is the reason why Leg Presses cause more strain on the knee joint, when the knees are bent beyond 30 degrees. You must use more weight, in order to compensate for the inefficient angle of the tibia, relative to the direction of the sled’s pathway. Using 30% more weight, in order to get the same amount of quadriceps load as you get with a Leg Extension, simply loads the skeleton (the bones and joints) more, with no additional benefit to the quadriceps.

The Leg Extension exercise (using full range of motion) is more mechanically efficient because it provides more muscle load with less skeletal strain, as compared with a Leg Press (using full range of motion). Leg Extensions deliver the highest percentage of the load being used, to the quadriceps muscle. In addition, since Leg Extensions do not activate the hip extension muscles (i.e., the glutes, adductors and hamstrings), “reciprocal innervation” is not triggered—which means that quadriceps activation will not be neurologically compromised, as it is when doing Leg Presses*.

(* Note: This is fully explained in “The Physics of Resistance Exercise”, in Chapter 11)

The stated conclusion of the study was:  “This demonstrates that patients with patellofemoral joint arthritis may tolerate rehabilitation with the Leg Press exercise better than with the Leg Extension exercise in functional ranges of motion because of lower patellofemoral joint stresses.”

The “functional ranges of motion” to which they refer are the degrees of knee-bend that are between 0 degrees (straight knees) and 30 degrees. The term “functional” here suggests that the degree of knee bending that occurs when walking, stepping onto a curb, or walking up and down stairs accurately represents a person’s basic “functional” requirements. However, moving a knee or elbow no more than 30 degrees is extremely compromised for the purpose of muscle development. Imagine being restricted to bending your elbow joint only 30 degrees when working your biceps or your triceps. The normal range of motion for an elbow (or a knee) is approximately 110 degrees.

What this study actually declares, is that the least amount of knee “stress” occurs when there is the least amount of knee movement (almost none), and the least amount of load on the quadriceps, and that can be achieved by doing the 1/5 least challenging part of the range of motion of Leg Presses. Ironically, the same thing can be achieved by simply doing “mini-squats”– tiny knee bends from a standing position. You don’t even need a Leg Press machine.

This study also established that there is LESS knee stress during Leg Extensions (as compared with Leg Press), when the knees are more bent (60 degrees to 90 degrees). That is the range of motion where the quadriceps are working at their most productive / beneficial length (i.e., when muscles are more elongated).

To be clear, this study was conducted for the purpose of addressing the rehabilitation needs of people with patellofemoral knee arthritis. It was not done for the purpose of establishing which exercise is more safe (Leg Extensions or Leg Press) for people with perfectly healthy knees. The “take away” from this study should NOT be construed as “Leg Extensions are bad and Leg Presses are good”. Yet, this is how some people naively misinterpret this study.

An injured joint would obviously inhibit (interfere with) the successful loading of any target muscle, when attempting to use a resistance exercise that involves that particular joint. However, the concessions that need to be made by a person with an injured joint, are not required of a person who does not have that injury.

Again, this study does not suggest that all people should avoid doing Leg Extensions, nor does it suggest that Leg Presses are better than Leg Extensions for people with healthy knees. In fact, it states that “full range of motion” Leg Presses (i.e., going beyond 30 degrees of knee bend) produce more knee stress than “full range of motion” Leg Extensions. Thus, if an exercise should be avoided by a person with healthy knees, it would theoretically be Leg Presses–not Leg Extensions.

Evaluating the Efficiency of a Resistance Exercise

Determining “exercise efficiency” requires an understanding of
biomechanics — and also of your specific goal

Doug Brignole
January 2020

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.

Neurological Interference

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.

  1. The exercise uses mostly “active” limb angles (i.e., perpendicular with resistance), instead of mostly “neutral” limb angles (i.e., parallel with resistance).
  2. The exercise uses mostly full lever (limb) lengths—without unnecessary “moment arm” reductions caused by a secondary lever (limb).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.