It would be a dangerous and bad idea to add to the top of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.
(Disclaimer: I have no idea whether or not this is a scientifically and architecturally accurate statement. But, logically it makes some sense and, for the purposes of this blog, demonstrates the big idea, so I’m running with it.)
In the game of Jenga, as more pieces are removed and added to the top of the increasingly unstable structure, likelihood of toppling the building goes up. When it comes to training and putting on mass, trying to add to an unstable frame or to compromised movement patterns will increase the potential for injury, stall progress, and, in turn, lead to frustration. In the above examples of The Leaning Tower and a game of Jenga, mechanical stresses were added to unstable structures. The same can be said of adding mass to a body out of balance. With this in mind, let us discuss the importance of moving well in gaining size and strength.
Before digging in to the main focus, we need to take a step back and examine what instability is with regard to the body. Instability comes down to either a movement pattern that cannot be expressed through a full range of motion at the necessary joints, or a posture that is out of a “normal” alignment. So, the two main functions of the bones in the body are to act as levers for movements created by muscles and to protect your organs. The way we use our muscles will play a big role in the alignment of bones. The signals (postures, movements, etc.) we send to our skeletal system (muscles and bones) from our nervous system will create changes in alignment, movement quality, and coordination. This is why with mindful, dedicated, and consistent practice over time movements can improve dramatically! Now most people have some sort of postural or movement pattern related quirk that could benefit from a little extra focus, and generally this is a product of past injuries, the prevalence of sitting in our culture, certain shoes we wear, etc. These quirks and idiosyncrasies are usually not a major barrier to progress. However, when movements are truly compromised or postural alignment is well out of balance, the body - from the nervous system to the skeletal system - will not be able to function optimally, and as a result the training we’re doing won’t have the desired effect (improved strength and muscle gain.)
In other words, if we want to turn The Leaning Tower of Pisa into The Leaning Skyscraper of Pizza (yeah, I changed the name) without correcting the unstable base, then we will eventually end up with the Lying Rubble of Pisa/Pizza.
For gaining muscle and getting superhero strong there are two primary means that will be employed; lifting weights at near max effort (heavy) and lifting weights at near maximum tension (high rep sets or tempo reps.) These two strategies will be our primary means for optimal muscle gain, and both require a strong (pun intended) movement skill set.
“First move well, then move often.”-Gray Cook
This quote is the basic principle of the Functional Movement System, which preaches the importance of movement proficiency as the top priority consideration in training, and was one of the major revolutions in the training industry around emphasizing movement quality over intensity. Taking this principle into the consideration of training to gain mass, we see an issue with not moving well. Training to gain mass requires that you move often…as in the kind of often that elicits sentiment such as, “wow that’s a lot of squats/presses/deadlifts/etc.! What is coach trying to do here?! That has got to be a typo. Did I offend them recently??” Not at all! We do it because we care about you fully getting to celebrate gainzmas year round!!
But I digress. Now, if you’re not moving well, but you are moving often, two things are going to happen. First and foremost, a bad movement is going to become ingrained. Practice does not make perfect, practice makes permanent (might have taken that line from Gray Cook too. Gray is smart. Thanks Gray!), and if we’re practicing poorly then permanent performance will be perpetually pitiable #alliteration. Grooving a bad pattern over and over will make it that much harder to eventually break these subpar habits, which I hope by now is recognized as a pretty important pursuit. So I have an addition to Gray’s sentiment: Move well, then move often, and then move well often.
Secondly, poor movement patterns compromise not only your ability to get strong, but increase the likelihood of injury. When movements are performed incorrectly or posture is out of whack, then the body, which is very smart at being efficient but not always protective, utilizes the wrong muscles to swing that kettlebell, lift that refrigerator, or push that car with the dead battery. And remember, practice makes permanent and these less than ideal practices are sending signals to unintended muscles. A simplified and common example of this is relying your back as the primary mover of a deadlift and not your legs and glutes. As a result, the low back muscles receive an unnecessarily strong signal to fire and grow, while the hamstrings and glutes do not. What results is a recipe for back pain and a deadlift with a low potential for improvement. Not a great way to see yourself gain muscle and strength.
Finally, throwing in overwhelming training intensities to a body that doesn’t support sound movements and positions is a fast track to being out of balance and injured. That’d be like driving your car as fast as possible with the wheels not fastened to the frame. When looking at subpar movement quality we can pretty much look at intensity as the gasoline on the pain fire in that it is only going to speed up the process of joint aches, muscle strains and even injuries. When these occur, training is halted as the body is hopefully allowed to heal and flush out inflammation. It’s hard to make significant forward progress in training when you’re not training. So, one more addition to Gray’s initial thoughts: Move well, then move often, then move well often, and finally move well with intensity.
Do you need to be a perfect mover with immaculate posture to up the weights and put on muscle??? No! However, it is important to be mindful of movements that are within your wheelhouse and utilizing those for your training, while continuing to improve mobility and posture. An example: performing kettlebell goblet squats to a box instead of back squats with a barbell. Remember, mobility wasn’t built in a day, and improving and maintaining healthy patterns is a continuous pursuit. The good news is that this can be done will getting strong and improving the quality of training while gradually increasing the quantity and intensity. Move well, then move often, then move well often, and finally, move with intensity.