How Muscles Work Together in Sport Skills

Knowing how muscles work together to produce skilled movements impacts your choice of training activities. Muscles play different roles and contract in different ways. Experienced athletes learn to execute precise sport skills by practicing movements that work in sync in a variety of situations.

Action Muscles

Muscles can shorten and lengthen, so muscle actions leverage bones to cause them to move. Just the right amount of force and in the right directions contributes to skilled movement.

Starting at the brain, the athlete senses information (e.g., seeing an opponent move, watching the release of a ball, hearing cues) and sends the correct signals to muscles to execute the required skill. Instantaneously, many muscles throughout the body receive these electrical signals from the brain, to the spine, and to specific muscles so the athlete can perform the right sequence of movements.

Zooming in way down to the smallest units, the muscle fibers, the signals cause muscles attached to the same small nerve (neuron) to contract. It's an all-or-nothing situation. Either a fiber contracts or it doesn't. The stronger the signal, the more fibers "fire". The more fibers that fire, the stronger the force. But more is not necessarily better! The correct number in the correct sequence is key.

These signals are sent to multiple muscles even in the same limb. For example, the signal to contract the bicep during a lay up shot is accompanied by messages to the tricep and surrounding muscles in the arm and shoulders. Muscles play different roles--they oppose, stabilize, and neutralize each other and work together to move bones in precisely the right way. This is where training with isolation exercises on machines falls short when it comes to free, skill-based movements.

Muscles produce force isotonically (by shortening and lengthening) brings about acceleration and deceleration of limbs, such as in walking. Isometric contractions (no changing length) occur in wrist wrestling when both opponents work against each other equally.

Isokinetic machines produce artificial movements because the machine resists equally through a range of motion. When research is conducted in labs using isokinetic devices, coaches should take results with "a grain of salt", considering dissimilarities with sport movements.

Understanding how muscles work together makes the difference in how you develop your training programs and workouts, as well as the type of equipment and training methods you use.

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