Muscle Chains vs. Muscle Groups
Many fitness trainers discuss their workouts in terms of muscle groups. Essentrics, however, articulates the method in terms of muscle chains. How and why are the approaches different?
Muscles Rebalancing versus A Focus on Large Muscles
Let us start with an illustration. Front squats have long been a staple in fitness training, while less common but gaining popularity these days are "plié squats," which are similar to the "Tai Chi plies" that Essentrics has taught for over 20 years. Here is how the industry would describe a "plié squat" in terms of "Muscle Groups":
Instead of muscle group, Essentrics would instead describe the "Target Anatomy" of Tai Chi pliés as including:
- Anterior tibialis (front)
- Soleus (back)
- Achilles tendon
- Gluteus Group
- Iliopsoas (from hip to leg)
- Tensor Fasciae Latae (outer thigh)
- Gracilis (inner thigh)
- Sartorius (inner thigh)
- Adductor magnus (inner thigh)
In Tai Chi pliés we consider not only the quads, glutes and hamstrings but also the adjacent and related muscles. This means all the muscles in the inner and outer thighs. In addition, Tai Chi pliés engage the muscles in our shins, calves and feet by working our bare feet and often raising our heels while staying in the pliés. Like the quads, many of these lower leg muscles originate/insert around the knee joints. We can think of them as "downstream" muscles compared to those in our the upper legs. By engaging the entire flow/chain through our upper and lower legs - and doing so for the rest of our body - we work all muscles evenly, avoiding the common pitfall of overtraining large muscle groups. This gives us a balanced body which is important because we are only as strong as our weakest link.
Biomechanics Improve with Muscle Chain Rebalancing
Consider what happens if we follow fitness industry convention and only focus on the large muscles. Let's try this simple experiment: walk forward without moving our feet and our calves at all, lifting only our thighs. This feels awkward and tires us quickly because the thighs must carry all the weight and do all the work. Even though they are bigger and stronger than our calves and feet, we need all large and small muscles in the chain to collaborate in order to move efficiently and smoothly. This is good biomechanics.
Many workouts, however, target large muscles by overtraining the upper legs and glutes. This creates repetitive stress. Moreover, during those workouts we constrict our feet with training shoes, just as we do with other shoes. This further prevents us from engaging the lower leg and feet muscles, and further restricts movements in our ankles and toe joints.
Muscle Chain Rebalancing Means Better Joints
The focus on joint mobility is another reason behind the Essentrics muscle chain approach. Some of the muscles that lift and move our feet originate from our lower legs (or more precisely, the calf bones called tibia and fibula). When our lower leg and feet muscles are just as strong and flexible as those in our thighs, we can bend our knees, lift our ankles, and bend at our toes more easily - which means walking, running and jumping with greater ease, speed, and power.
Similarly, while the fitness industry may highlight the benefits of inner thigh toning from plies squat, Essentrics highlights the additional mobility benefits of opening up the hip joint, which allows for greater range of motion and movement ease.
Fascia Stays Conditioned with the Muscle Chain Approach
Aside from body rebalancing and joint mobility, the muscle chain approach implicitly incorporates conditioning of our fascia - those fibrous, collagenous, and elastin tissues that, like a physical internet, cover, group, and separate different muscles as well as create chambers to house our various organs. Fascia cover us from head to toe and dry out from a lack of proper movements. To continue with our Tai Chi pliés example, our upper leg muscles are connected to our calf and feet muscles as a continuum via fascia. If we overtrain our upper legs, the fascia in our lower legs and feet will become relatively stiff. This hinders movements in our lower legs, effectively placing the burden of movements on our thighs, which slows and drains us.
The Sum of the Parts
By approaching fitness from a perspective of muscle chains rather than muscle groups, Essentrics rebalances our full body. This rebalancing includes not only our muscles but also our joints and fascia, thus improving our mobility, our speed and power. It addresses the integrative nature of every aspect of our body large or small, and how they relate as a whole. This makes Essentrics not only full body but holistic - literally!