“I was Stuck With Needles for Research.”

by Laurel Blackburn on May 17, 2013

I have always wondered which exercises gave me more bang for the buck. I like going to my gym and knocking out quick workouts and I don’t like to waste my time training with isolation exercises.

You can go to your local grocery store and see fitness magazines touting the best exercises. For women, it’s normally the butt and for guys, it’s biceps and chest. I always wondered how they can come up with anything new. If you read through them, the exercises are usually the same. It’s lunges for ladies and bicep curls for the guys.

I’ve been using and teaching Kettlebells for close to seven years now and it never fails, someone always asks, “Which muscle does this work”? The thing I love most about using Kettlebells for myself and my clients is that I can hit every muscle and get an incredible fat torching workout in 30 minutes or less.

But you already know that.

For several years, I have been trying to get my husband to do an Electromyography (EMG) test on me so that I could see which exercises target specific muscles the most. He kept saying that I did not want to do that because it will hurt. He tried to make me shy away by talking about how he would have to stick needles deep into my muscle bellies. I never let that deter me from finding the answers to my questions.

This past weekend I finally tied him down and we set a time. Again he told me how his patients have cried, cringed and about passed out from the pain. This time I almost changed my mind, but I was too excited to find out the answers to my questions.

Oh, I guess this would be a good time to let you know that my husband is a Neurologist. He has been practicing medicine and doing EMGs for over 21 years. I knew I was in good hands and if you can’t trust your husband to stick needles in you, whom can you trust?

We decided to this on a Sunday afternoon while the office was empty. We made a list of exercises to do and compare. Knowing that his EMG machine has better results with static movements, I decided to compare the most common exercises while holding the end part of each one in an isometric contraction. In other words, I held the hardstyle lock out of the top of a swing with needles in different muscles while Rick interpreted the data.

Keep in mind this is very basic research. In order to get numerical values and dynamic readings, we would have to find a different EMG machine.

The first thing Rick did was to place electrodes on my stomach. Then came the needle. I braced and prepared myself for pain, but was surprised to find it didn’t hurt at all.

With the needle in my abdominal muscle, I positioned myself in the hardstyle lock out of the swing. I contracted as hard as I would as if I had a Kettlebell. We knew that the lock out would be more significant if I had been doing swings with a Kettlebell.

I braced my abs as if I were taking a punch and I was breathing “behind the shield” while the contraction was recorded. With this type of EMG, you can see and hear the output of the muscle contraction. There was significant muscle activation, but not nearly as much as I had hoped for.

I then got on the ground and held a traditional crunch in the up position. The crunch lit up the machine much more than the top of the swing (don’t worry, you don’t have to do crunches to engage and activate your abs, bare with me).

The last thing I did for the abs was to hold a normal gym goer plank verses our RKC Hardstyle Plank. There was a big difference. Not much activation in the abs with the traditional plank that most people do. The HSP was clearly the winner.

So for maximum abdominal contraction; the crunch was first, the HSP was second, the swing was third and the regular person plank was last.

Next test was the glutes (here I turned off the camera). Rick had to get an extra long needle and I wasn’t sure if he was trying to tell me something. He said it was a big muscle…

For testing glute activation, I again held the top of the swing, held the bottom of a lunge, held the bottom of a deep squat and lastly performed a deadlift without weight. I got into deadlift position and contracted as if I was pulling a heavy load. The deadlift outperformed all the exercises in glute activation, then the swing, lunge and squat.

Next up was the quadriceps muscle. For this we compared a regular squat just to parallel, verses a deep squat. a pistol squat and the swing. To my surprise the most muscle activation was the down leg of a pistol squat. I was surprised because the only time my quads get sore is from doing pistol squats and I always assumed it was from the up leg. The swing was almost equal in quadriceps activation and the other squats were last.

Last but not least, Rick stuck a needle in my Lats. Again I held the top of the swing position and did an isometric lat pull down. The Lat pull down was just a head of the swing but the lats were definitely activating during the lock out at the top of the swing.

The take away is that, yes, isolating muscle groups has more activation than our Kettlebell exercises, but most of the Kettlebell exercises target ALL of the muscle groups. If you want to spend 2 hours in the gym isolating every muscle group, have at it. If you want to activate all of your muscles and get a killer calorie burn, improve endurance and torch fat, the Kettlebell swing can not be beat.

Next time your clients asks you, which muscles they are working during the swing, you can tell them, “All of them”.

Stay tuned for more EMG reports. Next time we are bringing the EMG machine to the gym to see if we can capture results while doing dynamic movements.


Laurel Blackburn is an RKC Team Leader and owner of Boot Camp Fitness and Training and Tallahassee Kettlebells.

Getting ready to turn 51 in June, she is out to prove that age is just a number. Her goal is to motivate and inspire people everywhere, both young and old that strength, flexibility and mobility can get better with age. Follow her adventures on her blog:  www.SuperStrongNana.com

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Previous post:

Next post: