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Columns: Evidence-Based Personal Training

Large and Small Muscles in Resistance Training: Is It Time for a Better Definition?

Ribeiro, Alex S. PhD1; Schoenfeld, Brad J. PhD, CSCS*D, NSCA-CPT*D, CSPS*D, FNSCA2; Nunes, João P.3

Author Information
Strength and Conditioning Journal: October 2017 - Volume 39 - Issue 5 - p 33-35
doi: 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000333
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Abstract

Resistance training (RT) is a type of physical exercise recommended to improve a wide range of health-related parameters including neuromuscular fitness, cognitive abilities, insulin sensitivity, bone density, and cardiovascular wellness (1,2,21), and is also practiced to enhance aesthetics and sports-performance. The benefits associated with RT are dependent on the proper manipulation of the variables that make up the RT program, which include magnitude of load, number of sets and repetitions, frequency, rest interval, exercise selection, time under tension, muscle action, velocity of movement, and exercise order (1,15). Regarding exercise order, there is evidence that this variable can acutely affect the volume and intensity of a RT session (1). However, the chronic effect of exercise order on muscular adaptations is still a matter of debate, especially because of the lack of longitudinal investigations on the topic.

Many studies focusing on exercise order have misapplied the definition of muscle volume (defined in this column as the total amount of muscular tissue, expressed in cubic units), with respect to classifying muscles as “small” or “large.” These erroneous classifications persist both for muscles of the upper and lower body. The issue seems to exist based on visual perception of muscle size as opposed to the actual volume of a given muscle. For example, several studies have classified exercises for the triceps brachii as working a small muscle (3–9,16–19), but in fact, this muscle has one of the greatest volumes of all upper-body muscles; even larger than the latissimus dorsi and pectoralis major (11,12,20), which are typically considered as large muscles (3–9,16–19). It is noteworthy that values of muscle volume consider its 3-dimensional amount, not simply its length and width (surface area), and therefore these terms should not be confused with one another.

Several studies have endeavored to quantify the volume of various human muscles. Holzbaur et al. (11) created 3-dimensional images from magnetic resonance imaging data to establish the volume of the upper limb muscles crossing the glenohumeral joint, elbow, forearm, and wrist in 10 young, healthy subjects. Results indicated that the deltoid (anterior, middle, and posterior heads combined) presents the largest muscle volume (380.5 ± 157.7 cm3), followed by the triceps brachii (long, middle, and lateral heads combined) (372.1 ± 177.3 cm3), pectoralis major (clavicular and sternocostal portions combined) (290.0 ± 169.0 cm3), and latissimus dorsi (262.2 ± 147.2 cm3).

Similarly, Vidt et al. (20) and Langerderfer et al. (12), analyzed the muscle volumes of older subjects and corpses, respectively. Both studies reported that the deltoid was the largest upper limb muscle followed by the triceps brachii and, contrary to popular belief, each of these muscles were larger than the pectoralis major and latissimus dorsi irrespective of sex. These results indicate that it is misguided to classify the triceps brachii or deltoids as a small muscle complex.

Moreover, misconceptions on nomenclature also occur in lower-body muscle groups, in which some studies categorize the knee extension as a small-muscle exercise (4,5,16,19). However, the quadriceps, the agonist in this exercise, is the largest lower limb muscle as noted by Lube et al. (13) and Handsfield et al. (10).

Therefore, we propose that the claims referring to knee extension and specific exercises for the triceps brachii (i.e., triceps pushdown) and deltoids (i.e., lateral raises) as working “small muscles” is a misapplication of terminology. Rather, given these exercises are single-joint movements, it would be more appropriate to say that the total amount of muscle mass worked is less than that during multijoint exercises. For example, the leg press works many muscles in addition to the quadriceps (i.e., gluteals, hamstrings, calves); the back squat works an even greater amount of muscle mass because of the contribution of stabilizer muscles (including the abdominals, erector spinae, trapezius, rhomboids, and many others) to carry out performance (14). Thus, these multijoint exercises necessarily involve the activation of more muscle tissue compared with a single-joint exercise such as the knee extension. The Table presents muscle volume values for a variety of upper and lower-body muscles.

Table
Table:
Volume of selected upper- and lower-body muscles

Given this information, we propose that rather than categorizing exercises as pertaining to either large or small muscle groups, they instead should be classified simply as multijoint or single-joint exercises. A viable alternative classification would be compound exercises (squat, deadlift, bench press, lat-pulldown, rows, etc.) or isolation exercises (knee extension, leg curl, lateral raises, arm curl, pec deck, triceps pushdown, etc.). Both definitions would more accurately reflect the total amount of muscle mass involved in an exercise without making reference to the volume of the individual muscles worked; this avoids potentially misleading statements on the matter.

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