Recent research indicates humans have some ability to selectively activate or relax certain muscles during isometric or dynamic actions without changing posture or position. A new study was conducted to determine whether trained athletes could isolate either the pectoral or triceps muscles at different intensities when given verbal technique instruction.


bench press, isolating muscle, coaching, cuing, activating muscleThere were 11 Division III football players with at least 6 months of continuous experience with the bench press who participated in the study. The bench press was chosen for the movement to determine muscle recruitment. Each player's 1-rep max on the bench press was determined before the study began.1


Each player performed 3 sets of bench press at 50% of their 1-rep max, as well as 80% of their 1-rep max. Rest periods lasted three minutes between each set. While performing the exercise, electromyographic (EMG) activity was recorded for the agonist muscles: pectoralis major, rear deltoid, and triceps, and the antagonist muscles: biceps, and front deltoids.2


The first set of the bench press was performed without instruction. In the second set, the subjects were given verbal instructions to use only their chest muscles: “During this set, try to use only your chest muscles and not your arm muscles. To do this, attempt to push your hands together, while still remaining your grip on the bar.”  In the third set, the subjects were instructed to use only their triceps: “During this set, try to use only your arm muscles, and not your chest muscles to complete the lift. To do this, attempt to push your hands apart, while still maintaining your grip on the bar.”3


The results of the study revealed that during the 50% max lift with verbal instruction to focus on chest muscles, pectoralis major EMG activity increased by 22% over pre-instruction activity, whereas rear delt and triceps activity was statistically unchanged. When the subjects were instructed to focus only on the triceps muscle, the pectoralis major muscle activity returned to baseline, whereas the triceps muscle activity increased by 26%.4


When the lift was increased to 80% max, pectoralis major and rear delt activities were both increased with verbal instructions to use only chest muscles. Triceps activity was not affected during the 80% lifts, regardless of instructions. Based on this data, it can be concluded that verbal technique instruction is effective in shifting muscle activity during a basic lift, but it may be less effective at higher intensities.5


Verbal cuing can be an effective tool for athletes when trying to focus on a certain muscle to improve performance. This new research is also useful for coaches to know, especially when coaching beginner and intermediate athletes who need to become familiar with the muscles they should be using.


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