If your goal is to build muscle mass then the point of lifting weights isn’t to simply move as much weight through space as you can, but rather to contract the target muscle.
Theoretically you could build your muscles as big as possible without ever lifting a weight IF you could force your muscles to maximally contract simply by flexing them. Unfortunately it seems that we must use some sort of external resistance (weights, bands, machines etc) to force us to contract our muscles harder than if we just flex them without any weight to push against.
Moving Weight vs Contracting Muscle
Take a look around your gym the next time you go and see if you can tell who is ‘moving weight’ and who is ‘contracting muscles’.
The ‘weight movers’ will be cheating up the weight no matter what their form looks like and what muscles are actually involved. In the case of the ‘weight movers’ their focus is on moving the dumbbell or barbell through space and they’ve likely forgotten why they are there working out in the first place, which for most people is to train the muscles.
Power lifters and competitve olympic style lifters are in fact attempting to move weight through space and don’t actually care how their body achieves this goal. This means their form becomes their function and whatever shape their body must take in order to the move the weight then so be it. In both of these cases a larger core/torso and larger hips/butt/leg area tends to dominate their physique. Indeed this is a powerful end result for moving weight through space on the major power and olympic lifts, but it doesn’t do much for building a Golden Adonis Index Ratio.
Contracting Muscles on the other hand is about using enough weight to force a maximal contraction at the working muscle that you are in fact intended to be contracted.
One way to ensure you’re getting the target muscle to contract is to have very strict form and avoid using other muscles or ‘body heave’ to assist the movement of the weight. It’s the idea of eliminating or minimizing the contribution of other muscle groups that are not meant to be worked during a given exercise.
For most exercises the best you can do is attempt to keep the rest of your body still/strict while only allowing the working muscles to move.
BUT there is one specific exercise where you can take this one step further and do what I call a ‘counter contraction’.
A counter contraction is where you not only keep the other muscles still/strict but you engage them in the opposite direction that would have otherwise been cheating.
For example on a bent barbell row many people engage their hips and lower back and instead of only using their lats and arms to pull up the barbell they also use a significant amount of lower back movement and hamstrings to ‘heave up’ the weight. This stype of cheating will allow you to move a heavier weight through space, but it will take away from how intensely your lats and upper back muscles will have to contract. In other words, you’re taking away from the activation of the target muscles instead of adding to it.
The counter contraction bent barbell row (I call it the Adonis Row) is where you bend into the contraction while your flex your arms and back. It’s somewhat difficult to describe so I’ve included a video here so you can see exactly what it looks like.
Try this row at the end of your next back workout, I guarantee you’ll get the most intense contraction and pump you’ve ever had in your back muscles.