Yes, You Have To Learn To Use Your Muscles

Image: Rikard Elofsson

Dear Swole Woman,

I recently bought a beautiful sofa on Craigslist, and thought the thought that I always think when I move furniture, which is: “Wow, I bet this would be easier if I were stronger! Gee, if only there were a way for a human to make herself stronger!” So I started Mark Lauren’s You Are Your Own Gym beginner program, which he says “anyone healthy enough for rigorous exercise should be able to do.” I walk a mile and a half every day, and run five miles when I feel like it, so I figured this included me. But then I strained all the tendons in my arms and shoulders, resulting in days of pain. Adding insult to literal injury, my actual muscles felt entirely unworked. This also happened to me when I tried working out in college (on the terrible machines in the student gym). I just hit the tendon-death point before the good-muscle-soreness point, and then I can’t exercise, carry books, or lift coffee to my mouth for a week. What gives, Swole Woman? Is it normal to have such pathetic tendons? Is there a way around this?

Please help me. 🙁

Signed, Pathetic Tendons

A number of you have written to me lately about your tendons. Who is telling you all that your tendons are problematic and that you have to resign yourself to a box labeled Bad Tendons? Is it Gwyneth? I will fight her.

Without getting terribly medical, and barring a medical issue I’m not qualified to evaluate anyway, here is the thing: learning to use your muscles takes work, especially if you have not used them in a while, and even more especially if you’ve never used them much before, ever. You have to learn to find them and feel them in your body and activate them when you need them to work for you. It’s a very cool feeling — you cannot flex your traps or pecs on your enemies without knowing how to find those muscles in your brain and make them pop. This is the mechanism by which Beyonce can flex her individual butt cheeks in the 7/11 video, for the record.

But for many people who haven’t engaged physically very much with the world, doing things with your body may not be as intuitive as you might assume, given that you’ve lived in your body all your life. We all bend down to pick things up from the waist like arthritic zombies without using our hips or knees and throw our backs out doing it, or carry bags with the weight on our internally rotated shoulders (deep internet cut incoming). We all have bad physical habits that come out when our muscles fall into disuse, so we have to re-learn where they are and what they do. This is entirely normal.

A thing I’ve read often is that what separates elite lifters from less-trained people is they have insanely high levels of muscle activation — years of training has allowed them to learn to turn on and work their muscles all in concert, to the muscles’ capacity. Per Greg Nuckols, “Strength is part neural, and part muscular.” A less-trained lifter can use some of their muscles and get them to fire at roughly the right time, but often not to their capacity, and not as well as an elite, because they have less practice and training doing it. Their muscle utilization might be more like 50%, with muscles coming and going more as they please and less at the lifter’s mental command, where an elite lifter may be upwards of 90%, purely out of habit, and maybe even without consciously focusing quite so hard. This has basically nothing to do with how absolutely strong either of their muscle groups are; it’s entirely the act of turning them on and making them work together. If you’ve ever heard of the “mind-muscle connection,” that is basically what this is.

A big part of using the right muscles is using correct form for whatever you’re doing. To use your legs, you first have to get in the right position (bar over midfoot, shoulder blades over bar, shins touching bar, back straight) and FEEL the tension in your hamstrings and butt. Those muscles should be screaming to launch your body into the air, at that point. If you don’t do any of these things and just do what all the spindly-legged men in my gym do, where you just sort of walk over to a barbell, flop down at the waist, grab it, and then drag it up through the air by heaving your spine with all your might, all you’re doing is giving yourself back problems.

To know what good form is for any given exercise, you may either have to engage a trainer or do a little research, but even a 30-second video will tell you what exercises you should feel where.

Beyond knowing what muscles you are supposed to use, you then have to invest the time in using them correctly. You can flop through any exercise as fast as possible and feel real macho about the number of reps you completed, only to end up with tender knees and elbows and shoulders by having put the effort where it doesn’t belong. If your muscles aren’t coming through on the lifts you are doing, you have to focus on what is called “rep quality” — good form performed in a slow, controlled motion where you really focus on squeezing the muscles you should be using. It’s not even necessarily going to happen the second you do it; it may take a few tries, or several, or many. This is practice, and practice involves some failure. Expect it.

This can be hard when you’re impatient to get a workout over and done with, impatient to get stronger, impatient to grow, impatient to shrink, whatever your goal is. But good exercise that works demands your focus. Picture yourself curling a 10-pound dumbbell in a slow, controlled movement, where your entire brain is one with your bicep through the full range of motion, for 10 reps. Now picture yourself with a 20-pound dumbbell, doing a curl where you have to heave your wrist, elbow, and shoulder and torso to get the weight up, for 15 reps. With each rep, your entire body gets more exhausted and the range you move gets shorter and shorter.

In which scenario do you think you actually developed stronger and more shapely guns? Which one will you hurt more in a bad way tomorrow? Which one will hurt in a good way? Perhaps you don’t know, so I will tell you: it’s not the way where you used more weight and more reps. The first way is the better way. It is absolutely true that you can get better muscle development, better exercise, and more overall fitness from relatively less weight and relatively fewer reps, IF you do them with intention, good form, good control, and a lot of focus on the muscles you should be using in the movement. (Please note I’m saying *relatively*. Weights that are as heavy as you can tolerate for a given exercise and number of reps are crucial to cultivating strength and swoleness and even a tiny, modest amount of “toned” muscle. This does not happen with 2-pound dumbbells for 100 teeny pulses; sorry.)

It’s also possible you’re trying to do too much too quickly, so start with less weight than you think you can possibly do, just for now. It’s better to do a relatively lighter weight with great form and add weight next session than to lift with your ego, hurt yourself, and ingrain a bunch of bad habits like lifting with your joints and tendons and thrusting your spine through the air like a dancing snake rather than just using the muscles you want to be using.

This is not a problem with your tendons. Be gentle with your poor tendons. Protect the tendons at all costs by learning to work your muscles instead, with weights those muscles can manage. This takes practice and is, again, something that all people who lift weights are continuously working on and trying to get better at. You cannot get the muscular rewards of lifting without giving yourself the time and space, mentally and physically, to let your body learn the right way of doing things.

Got a question for A Swole Woman? Email You can also follow her on Instagram or Facebook.