• Kevin Mullins

Ending the #FakeNews about your body's anatomy: 3 Lessons from a Dissection

So..... I saw a dead body this weekend.

Actually, I saw two different scientific cadavers meant for the deep study of the human anatomy. I spent eight hours in a lab at a Pittsburgh hospital examining muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones, nerves, blood vessels, and the interrelationship of everything above.

Myself and a bunch of other D.C. coaches drove the seven hours to Pittsburgh to do this workshop, which is hosted by Jon DiAntonio of MUV Integrated. Our goal was to blast through all of the misconceptions about the body, to study the integration of all the systems, and to discover the truth of what lies within. We ended up accomplishing this, as well as making incredible discoveries about the actual size of certain muscles, the integrative properties of muscles, tendons, and bone, and how assessing the individual units through controlled movement can lead to massive progression in the whole.

It was a powerful weekend that completely reshaped my approach to training in some ways, but only furthered verified my systems and beliefs in others. It is education like this that separates a fitness professional from any other coach.

This article is about the three largest takeaways I had from the weekend, whether or not they occurred in the lab with the cadavers or through movement in the gym post-lab.

But first, let's laugh

There is no way to spin it - I spent eight hours standing over two dead bodies this weekend. The skin was dissected off, and various muscles were cut to reflect what muscles/tendons/joints were below it. I held muscle bellies in my hands, and I ran my hand down the spinal cord into the lumbar "horse-tail". I flopped the soleus muscle back and forth and pulled on hamstring tendons in an effort to see the biceps femoris expand.

I was all up in it.

But in the beginning, wow.

My fellow classmates were quietly taking bets on how long I'd last in that room before I face planted the lab floor. A pool of a few hundred dollars quickly formed as they began debating if the smell would make me vomit in my mask, if I'd pass out onto the body, or if I'd try to gracefully exit and be found in the fetal position in the hallway outside of the lab.

And whoa whoa whoa did I come close. The first ten minutes or so were an exercise in checking back in with my reality, moving my feet, and breathing. With every removal of a skin section, or the sound of a knee joint squishing through flexion and extension, or the overall stench of a preserved body - I felt myself getting weak.

It all reached it's pinnacle when our instructor was digging into the anterior thigh of the cadaver (frontal thigh) and accidentally flicked some fat right past my head. Something the size of chicken nugget went flying past my skull and slapped against the wall behind me, leaving residue on the wall and my classmates in laughter.

Everyone stared at me.

And waited...

The sound of change jingling in pockets filled a quiet room as people got excited to cash in on their winnings. One person even started pulling out the stack of twenties he had collected, as though he were about to make good on the odds. I could see the cash and was determined to make people who bet against me lose their stacks.

So, I gulped what started to come up, shook it off like I needed to, and snapped out of the "holy shit this is a dead f**king body" phase and into the science-driven nerd that I really am.

Once I got past the initial shock of being within a few feet of a dissected human body I was entranced by the sight of all the realities of our body. The seemingly magical way that the body has arranged itself in layers is impressive in text or with plastic models, but the real thing is astonishing. Tendons aren't nearly as short as you think they are, and the muscles we focus on training are so small in comparison to some of the lesser known, or discussed, groups.

So, as I've come home and resumed training I've adapted my tactics. Through reflection on the weekend I've found my 3 greatest takeaways to be things that should be shared with the world, because if we can better understand our design, then we can better work it through space, and in turn, manage it through life.

So many textbooks given to students at Universities, individuals studying for certifications, and used as continuing education are just wrong. Whether or not it's the size of certain muscles, how the tendons connect to bones, or how the body creates force - there are so many inaccuracies it makes me question if the people who've made a fortune off of teaching anatomy have ever seen a cadaver themselves.


Nothing is An Accident

The human body is an evolving being. Even you, right now, are evolving in micro ways to better handle your environment. Your muscles hypertrophy in response to the stress placed on them by your workouts, or by the physical labor you may perform. Your bones grow additional thickness in response to repetitive local trauma. Your neurological systems forms and forgets thousands of connections an patterns throughout the course of your lifetime.

If you spend all day with your spine in a rounded forward position (kyphosis) and you don't actually work against it, then you shouldn't be surprised when eventually your spinal processes are stuck in that position.

If you train your body with heavy loads consistently, then it becomes obvious why your tendonous connections at bones get thicker in addition to your muscle fibers.

One of our cadavers clearly exercised as their muscle bellies, even in death, were still full and developed. Now, you can't speculate just how large they were once they are so dehydrated, but you can see the relative thickness of the muscle fibers once they are exposed, especially when they are compared to a neighboring cadaver. This is telling because it exposes just how the body lays new layers over the damaged ones until they heal, which over time leads to increased thickness of each fiber.

Seeing this helps you understand that there needs to be adequate recovery for a body to be prepared for stress to be applied again. These fibers are actually PROTECTING THEMSELVES with new layers, because they don't understand that it's 2017 and big pecs don't lie. The body just knows it's been damaged and it needs to react.

Another amazing adaptation of the stress placed on the body is that which occurs to the tendons. When you study tendons in school they are often described as these thick sheets of fibrous material that simply connects the muscle to the bone and helps deal with forces.

Guess what?

They have fibers that run in a myriad of directions, are arranged in layers, and extend deep into the muscle fibers themselves. It is these tendonous extensions into the fibers that we refer to as fascia. It's what you are trying to roll out as you mash your quads onto the foam roller. They communicate into the muscle and into the bone.

There is no magic tendon glue that attaches the tendon to the bone. Instead, it enters the center of the bone, the trabeculae, a webbing that serves as the skeletal structure, and interlaces with the fibers of bone itself. The texture and density of the tendon begins to mirror the properties of bone at this junction. This is why bones adapt in response to strength training - the leverage and force pulling on the muscles communicates to the tendons, which communicates directly into the bone. This causes tremendous torque and stress to occur, which over time causes hypertrophy of cells in the skeletal tissue, the tendons, and the muscles.

Nothing is Separate

Understanding this truth is imperative to training the body in respect to more than just the muscles. Proper biomechanics and loading properties are critical to ensure that you aren't causing negative adaptations in parts of the body in reaction to the constant stress you place upon.

When it comes to bad form - it isn't just this once that you should care - it's the fact that you're doing it every time you lift that you should worry about. Force over time causes adaptations inside your body, so what type of changes are you trying to make?


The Rotator Cuff Muscles are NOT Small

Yet, my whole training career has had them explained as "small but essential muscles for the health of the shoulder joint and capsule".

They are definitely not small, but the discovery of their size only increases their importance. I mean seriously, the infraspinatus looks like a chunk of hamburger meat a few inches thick.

A quick recap: The Rotator Cuff is a series of four major muscles (Subscapularis, Supraspinatis, Infraspinatus, and Teres Minor) that function to stabilize and mobilize the shoulder joint. An injury of weakness in any of these four muscles will have drastic effects on the ability of the shoulder joint to operate optimally.

Now, the importance of these groupings have not been a secret to lifters, athletes, and general health enthusiasts. In fact, any program that promised to "bulletproof" your shoulders typically was built upon strengthening the external rotators, abductors, and posterior back muscles that aid in retraction/depression of the scapulae.

Yet, reflecting (going under) your way underneath the lattisimus dorsi (LAT) reveals just how think the Supra/Infraspinatus muscles are. Each is a short bellied, but incredibly thick muscle that clearly serves prominent function inside the shoulder. AGAIN - the body doesn't hypertrophy tissue just for shits and giggles.

The teres minor and subscapularis are also quite thick, although they do not possess the width of the other two. However, the deep weave of these muscles is apparent in the external/internal rotation function of the shoulder.

Bonus Thoughts -

  • The relative LACK of thickness in your outer lats was absolutely astounding. Yep, that muscle you've been crushing in the gym without fail is significantly thinner than you'd imagine. Your back girth seems to come from your rhomboids, lower traps, the aforementioned rotator cuff muscles, and the middle lats that connect with the lower spinal erectors.

  • The direction of the fibers in the infraspinatus and lats point directly towards the obliques, which are meant for rotation. This symmetry in fiber direction points itself to why you are designed to overhand throw with tremendous torso rotation. These muscles were very literally designed to fire together as evidenced by the fact their fibers run in the same direction.


Adductors outnumber Abductors

A common problem that occurs in the exercising population is knee valgus collapse. This slack in the interior of the thigh towards the knee causes the patella to dip towards the opposite leg and present extreme instability.

Most coaches and online programs jump at the chance to throw mini-band walks/shuffles, glute specific work, hamstring curls, deadlifts, and attention to the vastus medialis obliqus (a key quad muscle). They aren't wrong. Weakness in these groups makes it much harder to abduct (or displace the knee outwards) during exercises that challenge lower body stability.

But, wow there are a lot of adductor muscles. Adductor longus, brevis, magnus, the gracilis, VMO, and so many others that could be named function to keep the legs in line with the hip joint. Each of these muscles are on the inside of the thigh, the exact place of a valgus collapse, and yet we aren't looking at them when we look to solve a serious biomechanical problem...but why?

It's important to remember that one element of stability of a joint during exercise is isometric contractions of the antagonist muscle groups. Many people know that the triceps fire to stabilize the elbow during a biceps curl; yet, somehow we don't push this thought process southbound into the hips/knees/ankles.

We tend to avoid strengthening these adductor muscles in favor of making the abducting ones much more powerful. We aren't completely wrong, but we aren't completely right.

Be sure to incorporate a variety of adduction exercises that emphasize the leg crossing the mid-line of your body. Extend beyond the machines and look to use bands, foot position, and lateral bounds to challenge these key muscles.


You'd have to figure that diving head first into a cadaver is going to produce results. Whether it is filling up your puke bucket and helping your friends make some side cash, or it's blowing your mind with the realities of our anatomy - the point is this.

We can't prescribe things without understanding the units we are working on. If you are coach, physical therapist, or a trainer with hopes of serving a greater purpose, then you need to do a cadaver lab.

If you don't, then don't get in argument with someone who has and expect to win. You shouldn't "assume" what is in there when someone else knows.

To the general public - keep vetting your information. Not everyone deserves the platform they are on. That Instagram muscle has a body, sure, but she has no qualifications to tell you what works and what doesn't. That jacked bro at the gym may "look the part", but he wouldn't know a single muscle beyond the ones trained in a bodybuilding magazine if you gave him cue cards.

It's just that simple. You can't argue science if you aren't willing to go towards the bleeding edge. Besides, who doesn't like living on the brink of face planting in hospital scrubs?


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