Choose the right tool to communicate with your muscles in their own simple terms.
Ever since I began to climb the fitness ranks—from trainee, to trainer, to now having my own no-nonsense brand—more and more people have sought out my “professional opinion” regarding trends and fads that pop up within the fitness industry.
Many people wonder if I use kettlebells. Yes, I use them to solve specific issues with specific individuals. In some cases they’re simply more practical than other forms of re-sistance at my disposal. What about the TRX? Same deal.
But for every trending topic that is brought to my attention, the common theme I notice is that some diehard fan is looking to me for validation that they’ve found something far beyond anything that has ever been created, which will undoubtedly help them accomplish the fitness goals they’ve yet to achieve using more conventional methods, like a barbell.
Muscles Respond To Tension
I remember when both the TRX and kettlebells came into popularity and people began to form cultlike subcultures, hoping to impose these tools on anyone who didn’t know better. TRX junkies would say things like, “The TRX is for athletes, and if you want to be an athlete, then you should use the TRX.” The same can be said for kettlebells: “Bro, have you tried kettlebells? They’re amazing. All my clients are losing weight ever since I started using them.”
Anytime someone comes to me for my opinion regarding these tools, they’re generally let down when I try to explain why I’m not fully on board with them and why I won’t be adopting their principles and completely changing the way in which I do things. If I did, that would suggest that everything I knew and believed previously would be of signifi-cantly less value and that anyone I’ve worked with previously was shortchanged because what I now know would trump what I knew then, and this simply is not the case.
What I’ve known for a very long time now is this: Muscles only really know tension. This here is the underlying principle to which I always make my judgment when I’m asked for my professional opinion regarding a trending topic. When someone asks me about the TRX or kettlebells, or anything else for that matter, I ask myself, “Does this tool allow me to subject a specific muscle to a certain degree of tension?”
A muscle doesn’t know if it’s being loaded with a barbell or if the resistance is coming by way of bodyweight or using the straps of a TRX. Hell, a muscle cannot differentiate whether or not you’re swinging a kettlebell or a dumb-bell. Muscles only know tension.
There are three primary triggers of muscular growth: tension, metabolic stress, and muscle damage. Some people fail to realize that tension is a prerequisite to both metabolic stress and muscular damage. Metabolic stress is the result of extended time under tension while damage comes from repeated bouts of tension.
Free Weights and Machines
A common theme in the strength and conditioning realm is that free weights are superior to machines. But the same people who latch onto this belief are stunned when they see guys at the gym pack on a great deal of muscle using the Smith machine for their presses, squats, rows, or even deadlifts. (Who would deadlift in the Smith machine? Try Googling “Chris Cormier Smith machine deadlift” and take a look at how shocked some people are on the message boards. It is mind-blowing.)
You can build a world-class back relying on Smith machine deadlifts as a staple because muscles only know tension. Cormier built his back by subjecting those muscles to very high levels of tension using whatever tools he found to be most effective. He just happened to find the Smith machine valuable in that sense.
The reason most coaches advocate free weights over machines is because these coaches are not for bodybuilders, nor do they train them. The one area in which free weights reign supreme for the resistance training population is in regards to how the nervous system must coordinate movement when using a free weight, as opposed to a machine, which is locked into its path. Obviously in the world of sports, athletes are not locked into a fixed pattern, therefore performing such movements doesn’t accurately reflect the real situations of an athlete’s performance. Athletes need to move three-dimensionally, so therefore it is of greater value for them to train three-dimensionally. But for those who are simply looking to build muscle or lose fat, it’s all about subjecting the muscles to high levels of tension.
The Right Tool for the Job
All of these items (TRX, kettlebells, barbells, dumb-bells) are just tools at the end of the day. And much the same way that you’d select the right tool for a job at home, you should select the right tool for the job in the gym. While a hammer is a pretty versa-tile tool for a lot of different household tasks, you wouldn’t rely on it for things that require fine preci-sion and delicate movements.
The right tool, in this case, is the one that en-ables you to perform a given task to the best of your physical capacity (assuming the goal is to get the greatest return on your investment of time and effort). In some cases, the kettlebell may be the best tool. Some may have an easier time learning a swing holding onto the handles of a kettlebell, as opposed to one end of a dumbbell. Others may have an easier time subjecting the muscles at their hip, knee, and ankle joint by performing a squat through a full range of motion while holding onto a TRX, as opposed to loading a barbell onto their back.
For me, I know barbells and dumbbells allow me to subject my muscles to high levels of tension through full ranges of motion, and through stress and repetition I’ve built my body up to meet the goals I’d set out to achieve. But there are other tools that offer unique benefits that a barbell or dumbbell simply can’t provide, such as a cable apparatus. There are specific situations in which I’ll opt to use a cable apparatus to subject specific compartments of whatever muscle it is I’m trying to place under tension.
The goal is always to subject the muscle, or part of the muscle, to the highest level of tension possible, and what-ever tool allows me to do that is the one that I choose.
By Vince Delmonte