A common myth in fitness is that building muscle mass is the same as building strength.
However, “strength” is actually specific to a task at hand and a type of sport. Most of the time we are trying to improve an action in sport e.g. kick the ball further in football, serve a faster ball in a racket sport or get a faster time in a race. All these examples are “skills”: what this means is that an improvement of one step in the sequence ultimately improves the whole skill.
Gaining muscle mass indiscriminately with a sporting goal in mind doesn’t necessarily mean that the skill within the sport will improve at all. It’s more important to train the muscles with exercises targeted for the skill that we are trying to improve.
When you understand the science behind what happens in our bodies when muscles contract, it soon becomes clear that getting stronger, as most people think of it, really has no impact on sporting skill.
The science behind muscle contraction:
Everytime we walk, swim, dance, run and move, our brain sends multiple signals to our muscles a few milliseconds before each contraction. When we decide that we want to move, our brain sends electrical signals along the motor neurones (a type of nerve cell that connects the brain to the muscles). At the neuromuscular junction (neuron- muscle junction), the electrical signal is converted to a chemical one, which acts as a trigger for the contraction of the muscle.
In summary, we aren’t just talking about one electrical signal, but thousands being propelled from the brain to the muscle! The frequency of the electrical signals determines the degree of contraction, with a higher frequency making a stronger contraction.
To cut a long scientific explanation short, this basically means that if we can understand how to increase the frequency of electrical signals coming from our brain, we can reach maximum contraction of the muscle.
This “maximum contraction” is what most people strive for when they think of building strength. Why? Because they think it improves skill.
Is there a correlation between getting stronger and improving sport technique?
Many sports like football require players to run fast, have control over the ball in short range, and a powerful kick to target balls long-range. In order to achieve this, players aim to kick further and many think, “I need to make my glutes stronger, making my leg and kick more powerful in order to kick the ball further.”
But Muto trainer Simon explains that “this is not the most effective way to improve skill, instead we need to shift the focus to skill development – not just contracting the most.”
Not convinced? Simon uses the analogy of a bodybuilder and a professional tennis player hitting a shot on a tennis court. It is most likely that the bodybuilder has more muscle mass, and if strength in a sporting context is purely based on muscle mass, he should hit the ball harder and faster. However, the mass of a muscle is only one factor in the completion, making this outcome unlikely. Instead, a professional tennis player, albeit a lower muscle mass, with proper technique and a good understanding of the skill, is inevitably going to hit the shot harder, faster and with more accuracy. The analogy confirms that we need to focus on an aspect of the skill within the sport, rather than getting stronger.
Given this information, how should we actually improve our skill?
The exercises used are dependent on the type of sport you do, but the strategy remains the same: train around the skills you want to improve.
With the example of tennis, a common goal is to improve the serve. What needs to be improved within the sequence of the skill is highly personal, but a simple example would be the kicking of the hip. This is a major part of the sequence of the service motion and is integral to both generating power and keeping the serve in court. Therefore, it is integral to focus on exercises that train or load this section of the movement.
Another tip is that the exercises you choose contain some or all of the skill you are trying to get better at. By this we mean, if the exercise doesn’t look or feel like the targeted skill for improvement, then it probably isn’t that useful. An example of this is training with squats and deadlifts. Whilst these exercises work the muscles in your legs (quads, hamstrings and glutes) they are unlikely to help improve your tennis serve. Even though the legs generate a lot of power, the skill of service and the skill of squats and deadlifts don’t have a huge amount in common biomechanically.
Whilst this is a very specific example, all of Muto’s personal trainers also take this skill-specific approach, meaning efficient results! It is more important to consider the steps of a skill and try to improve each step in turn, rather than to increase muscle gain overall. The steps necessary to build up a skill are most definitely not common knowledge, so expert advice from a good quality personal trainer can help to make sure your training is personalised and targeted for your goals of skill improvement.