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Abstract

Many studies have misapplied the definition of muscle volume with respect to classifying muscles as “small” or “large.” Given frequent misapplication of the terms, we propose that they should be classified simply as multi-joint or single-joint exercises. A viable alternative classification would be compound exercises or isolation exercises
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COLUMN EDITOR: Brad Schoenfeld, PhD, CSCS,
CSPS, NSCA-CPT
Large and Small Muscles
in Resistance Training: Is
It Time for a Better
Definition?
Alex S. Ribeiro, PhD,
1
Brad J. Schoenfeld, PhD, CSCS*D, NSCA-CPT*D, CSPS*D, FNSCA,
2
and Joa
˜o P. Nunes
3
1
Center for Research in Health Sciences, University of Northern Parana
´, Londrina, Brazil;
2
Exercise Science
Department, CUNY Lehman College, Bronx, New York;
3
Metabolism, Nutrition, and Exercise Laboratory, Londrina
State University, Londrina, Brazil
ABSTRACT
MANY STUDIES HAVE MISAPPLIED
THE DEFINITION OF MUSCLE VOL-
UME WITH RESPECT TO CLASSI-
FYING MUSCLES AS “SMALL” OR
“LARGE.” GIVEN FREQUENT MIS-
APPLICATION OF THE TERMS, WE
PROPOSE THAT THEY SHOULD BE
CLASSIFIED SIMPLY AS MULTI-
JOINT OR SINGLE-JOINT EXER-
CISES. A VIABLE ALTERNATIVE
CLASSIFICATION WOULD BE
COMPOUND EXERCISES OR ISO-
LATION EXERCISES.
Resistance training (RT) is a type
of physical exercise recommen-
ded to improve a wide range of
health-related parameters including
neuromuscular fitness, cognitive
abilities, insulin sensitivity, bone den-
sity, 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 evi-
dence 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 longi-
tudinal 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 muscu-
lar 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 pectora-
lis major (11,12,20), which are typi-
cally considered as large muscles
(3–9,16–19). It is noteworthy that val-
ues 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.
Address correspondence to Alex S. Ribeiro,
alex-silvaribeiro@hotmail.com.
Copyright ÓNational Strength and Conditioning Association Strength and Conditioning Journal | www.nsca-scj.com 33
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 6157.7 cm
3
), followed by the
triceps brachii (long, middle, and lat-
eral heads combined) (372.1 6177. 3
cm
3
), pectoralis major (clavicular and
sternocostal portions combined)
(290.0 6169.0 cm
3
), and latissimus
dorsi (262.2 6147.2 cm
3
).
Similarly, Vidt et al. (20) and Langer-
derfer et al. (12), analyzed the muscle
volumes of older subjects and corp-
ses, respectively. Both studies re-
ported 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 pector-
alis major and latissimus dorsi irre-
spective of sex. These results
indicate that it is misguided to classify
the triceps brachii or deltoids as
a small muscle complex.
Moreover, misconceptions on nomen-
clature also occur in lower-body muscle
groups, in which some studies catego-
rize 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 spe-
cific exercises for the triceps brachii
(i.e., triceps pushdown) and deltoids
(i.e., lateral raises) as working “small
muscles” is a misapplication of termi-
nology. 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 ex-
ercises. For example, the leg press
works many muscles in addition to
the quadriceps (i.e., gluteals, ham-
strings, 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.
Given this information, we propose
that rather than categorizing exer-
cises as pertaining to either large or
small muscle groups, they instead
should be classified simply as multi-
joint or single-joint exercises. A
viable alternative classification would
be compound exercises (squat, dead-
lift, bench press, lat-pulldown, rows,
etc.) or isolation exercises (knee
extension, leg curl, lateral raises,
arm curl, pec deck, triceps push-
down, 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 poten-
tially misleading statements on the
matter.
Conflicts of Interest and Source of Funding:
The authors report no conflicts of interest
and no source of funding.
Alex S. Ribeiro is a professor and
Research Associate of the Center for
Biological and Health Sciences at
University of Northern Parana
´.
Brad Schoenfeld is an assistant
professor and director of the Human
Performance Laboratory at CUNY
Lehman College in the Bronx, NY.
Joa
˜o P. Nunes is an Undergraduate
Scientific Initiation Student in
Metabolism, Nutrition, and Exercise
Laboratory at Londrina State
University.
Tab l e
Volume of selected upper- and lower-body muscles
Muscle Average volume, cm
3
Latissimus dorsi
a
262.3 6147.2
Pectoralis major
a
290.0 6169.0
Deltoid
a
380.5 6157.5
Triceps brachii
a
372.1 6177.3
Biceps brachii
a
143.7 668.7
Brachialis
a
143.7 663.7
Brachioradialis
a
65.1 636
Quadriceps femoris
b
1,417.4 6440.8
Biceps femoris
b
269.8 687.1
Gluteus maximus
b
764.1 6138.0
Iliopsoas
b
353.0 6102.2
Sartorius
b
126.7 622.4
Data are presented as mean and standard deviation.
a
Holzbaur et al. (11).
b
Lube et al. (13).
Evidence-Based Personal Training
VOLUME 39 | NUMBER 5 | O CTOBER 2017
34
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Strength and Conditioning Journal | www.nsca-scj.com 35
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