Physique: Less Base = More Muscle

This week, we were going to delve into utilizing joint variations for body sculpting, but I’ve been burning to discuss another topic that I believe is more universally beneficial to all who exercise. I couldn’t wait to share, so stay tuned for sculpting. In the meantime, try this on for size:

You need to sit like a lady to lift like a man!

Stop me if you’ve heard this, but modifying your base of stability in closed chain movements can increase (or decrease) the amount of muscle you activate during any given lift. The narrower your base of stability, the greater degree of balance required to control your resistance. Increased demand for balance translates into increased recruitment of stabilizers, not mention fibers in the primary movers! How so?

First, let’s define base of stability (BOS). The easiest way to think of your BOS is the foundation created by the feet planted on the ground, and/or working in unison with whatever other body parts may come in contact with a bench (ie glutes, back or shoulders). Your BOS is your connection to your training surface, and force against which allows you to derive power to execute your movements.

With this understanding, let’s illustrate this theory in practice. Imagine (or actually get up and do it) that you are lying on a flat bench, in preparation to do dumbbell flies with your normal working weight for hypertrophic sets. Our natural tendency is to plant our feet anywhere from 18 to 36 inches apart to create a solid and balanced foundation to execute the exercise; especially if we’re using a more challenging weight than normal. Unbeknownst to us, while executing the movement, our feet are doing the majority of the balancing work. This greatly diminishes the importance of stabilizers, the very muscles we’re looking to recruit when we grab dumbbells.

Now, let’s switch gears. Using the same weight, align yourself on the bench with your feet and knees together (like a lady). Execute the same fly… A number of things may happen in an instant:

  • Small, frequent balance checks
  • Slower movement to maintain control and balance
  • Weight feels “heavier”
  • Form breaks at the bottom of the motion because you can’t use a wide BOS as reinforcement against the resistance
  • Faster fatigue despite increased muscle recruitment
  • Greater core activation and stabilization

The point is not to get you to use lighter weight, but rather, recognize how much muscle goes underutilized without us ever realizing it. By using a narrower BOS, we’re forced to recruit more stabilizers for balance and more fibers in the primary movers for force. The net result is a greater amount of muscle activated and trained, even if a lighter amount of weight was required to be successful in the sets. Ultimately, isn’t total recruitment in our target muscle group the goal of a successful lifting session?

Once you’ve mastered a narrow base, you can take this concept to the next level by destabilizing your base entirely. Here, you might consider your fly and press movements on a stability ball, or perhaps push ups, squats or even standing dumbbell presses or curls on a BOSU ball, rounded side down. Introducing TRX Suspension Training movements into your program is another great way to not only modify your BOS, but also destabilize your entire workout “environment.”

So, now imagine combining a narrowed BOS with the new variations on joint positions we discussed last week. Sounds like new muscle stimulation to me! The question is, are you lifting for new muscle? Strength? Endurance? Are you sure? Tune in next week…

Michael Anderson, CPT NCSF

IFBB Physique Pro

Happy Lifting!

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2 comments for “Physique: Less Base = More Muscle

  1. November 4, 2012 at 5:27 pm

    I can honestly say that I learned something new about exercise form and execution from this post! It makes total sense to use a smaller BOS in order to activate other muscles groups and get a really effective work out. I have done it during a few of my workouts but haven’t given much thought to the mechanisms involved.

    • November 4, 2012 at 5:32 pm

      I agree Ryan. We have always been taught to provide a stable base, drive through the heels etc even when we’re doing chest press. I’ve never tried doing DB presses or flies with my legs together. I think I know what I’m doing tomorrow am…

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