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December 14, 2023

Target Specific Muscle Groups & Maximize Your Time in the Gym

Most of you want to maximize your time in the gym. You want the most bang for your buck, to feel your muscles working and to be confident that you choose the best exercises to target specific muscle groups.

But how do you know that? 

In this blog, we’re going over the WHY behind choosing the best exercises to target specific muscle groups to get the results you want and maximize your time in the gym.


My name is Annie and I help you learn as you train and enjoy your lifts again. Today we do that by teaching you how to choose the best exercises to target specific muscle groups, and what to focus on when performing said exercises. 

You can go to T Nation, Body or some other site and search “exercises for triceps” and blindly go through the motions. 

But WHYYYYYYY are those the best? 

What’s the logic? How can you apply that logic to target specific muscle groups?

Do you just go from machine to machine looking at the highlighted area on the little muscle man diagram?

Sure, that’s an option….

Or you can use these three key considerations to choose the best exercises to target specific muscle groups in the body. Fuck yeah. Let’s do it.

This is for my trainers and my trainees. You don’t need a degree to apply these concepts to your training. If you can google a muscle…you can do this.

It will be easier if you have some background in anatomy and physiology but it’s not necessary.

Okay, education gains time…I’m stoked for this one.

1. Look at Origin vs Insertion 

I do not expect you to memorize names or exact locations of muscle attachments. But…in strength and hypertrophy training it’s beneficial (especially for exercise selection) to at least have a general idea of what muscles cross certain joints – the general vicinity of a muscle attachment. 

My belief is that: 

A. You’re capable of learning that. And…

B. By learning this, you may increase efficacy and joy in your training. Which is my literal sell.

Anatomy 101, whether you’re a trainee or trainer

Skeletal muscle pulls on bones via tendons in order to cause motion. That’s what happens when a muscle contracts.

BUT – every one of those muscles also has what’s called an ORIGIN and INSERTION. This is where the tendons of said muscles attach to the bones.

All you need to know is that insertion points pull or contract TOWARDS the origin.

Let’s look at the biceps for example. 

The biceps cross the shoulder, and originate at the scapula. They then run down your upper arm (the humerus) and insert or attach down at the top of your radius (lower arm bone).

Therefore the muscle crosses two joints; the elbow and the shoulder.

When you do a bicep curl, you have a concentric contraction where the muscle SHORTENS. You can see the insertion point moving TOWARDS the origin. 

Then, during the eccentric phase, the muscle lengthens, and the insertion point moves AWAY from the origin.

This same concept applies pretty cleanly to most muscles in the body – certainly those commonly worked through strength or hypertrophy training. Such as…hamstrings, glutes, quads, core muscles, upper and mid back muscles, deltoids, biceps, triceps, calves etc.

Now we know about origin and insertion. That’s how the muscle functions when contracting. But Let’s look at MOVEMENTS.

This is something to think about before we move on to number two. Is the movement anchored at the origin or at the insertion?

2. Is the muscle under most tension in the shortened or lengthened position?

Often times people just pull exercises, when attempting to target specific muscle groups, out of a bag like Mary fuckin’ poppins. Not you. Not after today’s video. 

They might even choose decent or effective movements, but I want you to know WHY an exercise makes sense for a movement; or for pairing a given exercise with another exercise.

One of the factors we can look at to choose the best exercises, particularly when designing supersets or pairings to target specific muscle groups, is WHERE THE MUSCLE IS UNDER THE HIGHEST TENSION. 

Is at peak concentric (shortened) or eccentric (lengthened)?

The benefit of looking at this comes when you choose the best exercises to pair opposites or opposing biases with one another, so that you’re stressing the muscle along its full range! 

We love this for hypertrophy potential, and also just for overall function.

Take the hamstrings for instance. Who doesn’t want strong and juicy hamstrings just hanging at the bottom of a squat.

We all want that, and if you don’t, you’re lying to yourself.

The hamstrings “tie in” under the glutes a the “ischium” – which is like the inner but posterior curve of your pelvic bones.

So, think inner, lower and back of your pelvis…….this is their ORIGIN.

They run down the back of the leg and attach on either side. Inner and outer, or medially and laterally, to the lower leg bones, your tibia and fibula. Thus, the hamstrings cross the KNEE and the HIPS.

Therefore, they can be anchored at either of these spots when performing an exercise.

The Hamstring Curl 

The hamstring curl is like the bicep curl. The hamstrings contract, pulling the calves towards the hamstrings, and the insertion towards the origin.

The highest tension for the hamstrings during this exercise is at the peak of the concentric or shortened phase.

Think about that as when the hamstring is “flexed.”

The primary movement here is knee flexion with little to no change in the hip.

That is not the case for every movement.

The Romanian Deadlift 

To counter that, we can look at the RDL. 

When the curl has a stationary hip (it can be 0 hip flexion or slight hip flexion but it’s locked in) the RDL is literally a hip flexion exercise.

The knee flexion is slight, and constant, with little to no change. Hamstring tension and action is all caused via the hips flexing.

Think about the hamstrings PULLING the hips back into extension. Thus, being “anchored” at the knees instead of the hip (like the hamstring curl).

In this exercise, the highest tension on the hamstrings is going to be at the bottom of the movement, when they’re stretched – at the peak of the ECCENTRIC phase. 

That is when they’re LENGTHENED the most.

You can see how this could be considered an “opposite stimulus” to the hamstring curl.

Not every exercise fits so cleanly into one of these boxes, but I hope it’s fun to look at exercises through the lens of shortened vs lengthened and to determine where the muscle is experiencing the most tension. This will help you to target specific muscle groups.

This is especially important if muscle growth is a goal of yours! When you stress a muscle from different directions, angles and ranges, you have potential to recruit different muscle fibers.

The NORDIC Curl https://www. 

As an “in between” of the curl and the RDL we have the Nordic Hamstring Curl.

This is one of my all time favorite hamstring exercises. We have knee flexion but the hips are locked in. Like the hamstring curl….but different.

In the prone curl, the calves move TOWARD the glutes.

In the nordic curl, though the hips are fixed and knees bend and extend, the knee flexion is limited, starting at 90 degrees, and the glutes move AWAY from the and then back to the calves.

The tension is greatest as the muscle is elongating (like the RDL – but little to no knee flexion and ALLLLLL the hip flexion). *somewhat* similar “position” to the curl, but peak tension during a different part of the muscle action.

That was only ONE exercise, but I hope you can apply that to other areas like the shoulders, glutes, triceps, quads, and so forth.

Quick lookskie at the glutes

On how a DEEP single leg step up, pull up machine step down or smith machine curtsy reverse lunge would have the MOST tension at the greatest degree of knee and hip flexion of the movement, VERSUS the knee and hip extension portion. 

Meaning where the glute is LENGTHENED the most.

This is in comparison to something like the hip thrust, where the max tension is at the shortened, top position (the concentric phase). 

Not knowing the direction the muscle fibers are running, makes it harder to know where the muscle is LENGTHENED the most.

Which brings us to number three.

3. Direction of Fibers

When you work the “glutes”. First off this is three different muscles; glute medius, minimus and maximus. Each of these muscles have different areas of muscle fibers within them.

One exercise might stress or bias the upper fibers of the glute max vs the mid or lower fibers.

It’s far less complex than one might think. 

Do a google of any muscle. Look at the fibers. 

And then know that a muscle contracts in the direction of its fibers.

We want to move, or contract the muscle in line with these fibers as much as we can. Please don’t lose sleep over this. But do consider it. 

This might not be making or breaking your muscle fiber recruitment or gains but it’s fun to think about AND keep in mind for your mind muscle connection.

USE origin, insertion, muscle tension and direction of fibers to choose the best exercises when pairing them, to ensure you’re stressing a certain muscle at maximum ranges.

This is the approach you see in bodybuilding. You might “know” that they tend to demolish a muscle group from as many angles and ranges as possible. But this is the WHY and HOW. Which I think is pretty cool.

For this “way” to select and choose the best exercises, let’s look at the lats.

The lats are the largest muscle in your back. They attach from the upper arm, across the bottom edge of the scapula, alllllll the way down to the posterior upper curve of your hip and lumbar spine, or low back.

A muscle this large has many fibers running in slightly different directions – which means you have options for movements to stress this muscle. 

You can mostly split this muscle into upper and lower fibers.

At the top these fibers run ACROSS the back, more horizontally.

As you get lower, these fibers bias more vertically, running DOWN the back. 

With that knowledge, then we can consider origin and insertion. It originates along the spine and hip, and inserts distally, at the upper arm. Focus on the arm being pulled TOWARD the spine and DOWN to the hips. 

Are we connecting the dots?!?!  Can you SEE how the lat actually contracts and functions?

If you can, then you infer that we’d want horizontal pulling like…rowing variations for those upper fibers AND vertical pulling like…lat pull downs and pull ups to get after those mid and lower fibers.

To get even more specific, you can look at the degree of fiber direction in order to play with your elbow and angle in said pulling exercises. 

Elbow angle will change the direction of the pull and stress on the fibers.

It’s easy to get into the weeds with this stuff. Please don’t. 

Remember, the basics work. Pushing a muscle from different ranges of motion and angles works to recruit more fibers. 

If you can take even one nugget from this post, and understand the WHY just a bit more, GREAT! That’s my hope in helping you choose the best exercises for any muscle group in the body.

The more often you lift, look at muscles, and focus on using them, this stuff will make more sense.

Look at where muscles attach, direction of fibers, and then pay attention to where the muscle experiences the most tension in a given exercise.

Make choices or pairings accordingly.

HAVE FUN OUT THERE. Happy gains, tell a friend, and I’ll see you guys in the next one.

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I'm an adventurous introvert from Vancouver, Washington who lives on sleep + "me time." I'm a lover of lifting weights, dinosaurs, real talk and traveling with my husband. I am here to help you move better, lift more, bust the myths of the fitness industry, and inspire you to love the process.

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