newsletter Aug 12, 2022

By Abdurahmaan Saloojee

Abdurahmaan is a Pre-Script coach from Ottawa who loves reading, traveling, and training.

One consideration when executing movements, specifically externally stabilized movements for muscle hypertrophy, is where the origin and insertion start and end. You’d think that machines that are externally stabilized are hard to get wrong, but you’d be surprised – at almost every gym you can find someone who is trying to full stack the machine and doing themselves more harm than good.  

One way to get as much out of movements as possible is to consider your general positional awareness when executing a movement and maximizing that as much as possible. This starts with having a fundamental understanding of muscle anatomy. It is difficult to get the most out of a movement if you don’t know exactly where muscles originate and insert (let alone if you don’t know the muscles you are trying to work). This doesn’t need to as esoteric as having “anterior superior iliac spine” or “bicipital groove of the humerus” fresh off the top of your head, but having a general understanding of what bones muscles start on and where they end can give you a better idea of how to set up exercises for the most amount of benefit possible.  
When performing an exercise, if you want a quality contraction you need to secure the origin (where the muscle starts) and have it move as little as possible. Grab a towel and pull it taut. Think of that as a lengthened muscle. Now, keeping one hand unmoving, pull one end of the towel close to the other. That’s a muscle contraction. Now, pull it taut again. Keeping the towel the same length, shake your hands back and forth. The muscle is “moving”, but it isn’t really experiencing a meaningful contraction. If we know anything about muscular hypertrophy, it is that it is achieved through tension across muscle fibers. If the muscle isn’t really contracting and it’s just seesawing back and forth, there is minimal contraction. 
When performing a hypertrophy movement (typically on a machine or cable), you need to understand 3 things: 
  1. Where the muscle originates in order to keep it as stationary as humanly possible.
  2. Where the insertion is to know what exactly you’re trying to bring to the origin to create contraction.
  3. What direction the fibers run to know how to pull the insertion towards the origin.  

Let’s look at an example of this in practice: the lying leg curl. More often than not, you will see people trying to full stack the machine, using every fiber in their body to bring the roller up, then they wonder why they don’t feel it in their hamstrings (or worse, why they feel it in their back). 

What is so bad (or sub-optimal, sure) about this? First, we understand the origin: the hamstrings originate on the back of the pelvis (lateral aspect of the ischial tuberosity, if you must know). This is the part of the towel that shouldn’t move. Then we have the insertion: on both the tibia and fibula, or just behind the knee. This is the part of the towel that moves towards the other end of the towel. When you full stack the lying leg curl with the pelvis moving, you are effectively shaking the towel back and forth. To use this machine more effectively, you would need to lock your pelvis in place to prevent it from moving using your lats and core in compensation. Now when you bend your knee, the end of the towel stays fixed and you have a quality contraction. 
This idea has many applications across various exercises. Next time you train, think about origin and insertion and how you can lock yourself in more optimally to achieve isolated contraction of the target muscle. You might need to swallow the ego to load it properly, but you will surprise yourself with the results.