The Science Behind the Accessory Muscles

Wed, 10 Oct. 2012 - 1:42 a.m. MT
Credit: ARA Staff - American Running Association

Building a beach body this summer is not a typical priority for regular runners, cyclists, swimmers, and others who enjoy the fitness, health, and wellness information found in Running & FitNews®. But if you’re looking for better muscle tone or decreased body fat—perhaps on the principle that a lighter chassis will help your engine run faster—there is one fitness guru out there who boasts clientele like Madonna, Courteney Cox, Gwyneth Paltrow, and other notably toned celebrities. Tracy Anderson offers DVDs of something called the Metamorphosis workout, which promises to reshape your body with tone and tightness in all the right places. (Tracy’s idea of a perfect body is a little disconcerting, and plays into every imaginable media stereotype—but then again, look at her clients.) But how do her claims hold up? Is there science behind her pronouncements? And is this workout desirable or even safe for already regularly active people?

Why Tracy Anderson?

One reason for singling out Tracy is that her workout infomercial is extremely enticing. The first thing one notices is that the fitness promises don’t seem extraordinary; it looks like prolonged, hard work. To effectively sculpt your body into a celebrity state, the Anderson formula, in a nutshell, is: train six days a week with each workout consisting of 30 minutes of cardio (say, treadmill running) plus 30 minutes of body toning exercises which she has formulated to work the accessory muscles. And that idea is the second reason to take a closer look—what does this mean, and is it effective?

Her secret is the idea that underneath your major muscles lie smaller, unused muscles that when worked, pull the body in and transform it, rather than bulking you up. The result is that sinewy Madonna look we’ve seen on the tabloids in the checkout line for the past 15 or so years. Anderson has stated that her goal is to strengthen “the smaller muscle groups so that they can pull in the larger muscles, resulting in a lean, long, feminine figure that is not bulky.” The problem is, there doesn’t seem to be any real science behind this theory whatsoever.

What Tracy has wrong

There is nothing to suggest that her exercises actually work only the “accessory muscles,” or what she means by that term. (The accessory muscles do exist; they are used in respiration.) But Tracy never lists these muscles by name. Even more shaky is the claim that targeting these muscles will cause them to “pull in” the larger muscles around them.  

It’s far more likely that Anderson is working the major muscle groups in new ways at new angles, spurring change and toning because the body is not accustomed to these exercises. Her low weight, high rep approach is probably training the muscle fibers responsible for endurance, which generally do not increase in size, rather than training unique muscles that only she knows how to work.  

Nevertheless, the workouts seem to work. Her high-profile clients and, with a bit of Googling, the online community of authentic-seeming DVD-viewers, speak relatively highly of the program, and generally report good results. One promising aspect of the reports is that there isn’t always a lot of weight loss talk but almost always a lot of fat loss talk, as well as discussions of lean muscle mass gain, and often dramatic waistline shrinkage, sometimes 5 to 7 inches.

Along with these reports are a fair amount of complaints of shin splints, knee problems, and other aches and pains. This seems like the inevitable outcome of reckless embarking on an aggressive, high-tempo, floor-pounding regimen all but one day a week from perhaps a sedentary state. (After all, Madonna wasn’t exactly a couch potato before discovering Tracy Anderson.) These workouts are clearly not for everybody—at least not right away—though like any guru, Anderson (unsurprisingly) wants us to believe otherwise. More to the point, this routine may not be desirable at all for distance runners, cyclists, swimmers, or anyone else who is already undertaking a good deal of training several days a week. More high-impact pounding on knees, hips, and other joints is probably not the answer. The core strengthening exercises and arm toning workouts, minus the lower-body dance routines and other jumping about, seem open to consideration if you’re looking to add toning exercises and don’t already follow a weight-training regimen.

What Tracy has right

Tracy has several basics more or less right. She knows that cardio workouts are a good idea. She understands that simply burning more calories is a boon to fat loss—even if she isn’t quite clear on fat metabolism specifically. Most readers are getting plenty of cardio already, and so the focus here is on her toning exercises.

Another sound principle in the Anderson regimen is changing your exercises, over the course of a 90-day program, every 10 days. Despite the somewhat arbitrary 10-day term limit, she seems to have zeroed in on periodization and the problematic plateau that can occur when we weight train or tone the same muscles in the same way for too long.

She correctly favors light weights, working slowly from as little as 10 repetitions per exercise up to as many as 100. This upper limit is excessive. Chronic muscle fatigue becomes a reality with numbers like this, which can result in injury.

The regimen avoids “traditional moves” in favor of unusual and intricate combinations of rapid movements. Where her explanations go astray of science, but still result in effective workouts, is in her discussion of accessory muscles. The effectiveness almost certainly comes from the multi-planar, compound moves which strength trainers already know well as the best type of strengthening and toning exercise. 

For example:

Arm Raise: Using 3-lb weights, stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Slowly move arms together straight up into a “V” above your head. Elbows and wrists are bent slightly. Then gently lower your arms back down to your sides and without pausing go straight back up again. Work up to 100 reps.

Single-arm Pull: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, left hand on hip, right arm straight out to side with palm facing floor. Pull right elbow to hip, twisting palm to ceiling.

Single-arm Overhead Pulse: Using 3-lb weights, stand with feet shoulder-width apart, arms at your sides. Raise one arm above your head with your elbow slightly bent and then straighten your arm completely over your head. Pulse like that, up and down. Work up to 100 reps on one side and then the other.

Arm Raise 2: Holding weights, lift your arms out to your side and then raise them up to your head and then immediately bring them back down to your side.

Arm Raise 3: Raise arm to a high "V." Smack hand to top of back and return to starting position. Do 50 reps on each side.

Arm Raise 3 Variation: While your arms are out at your side, do arm circles and then bring them in as if you're scratching under your arms. If you change rotations all the time you will keep your muscles lean.

(For photos of some of these exercises, see the links at the end of this article.)

To watch Tracy on her infomercial, you get the sense that sometimes she is just bouncing around with 3-lb weights, moving them in different ways, making up the moves as she goes along. One even senses that she would not mind if you did this yourself. This is dangerous territory which can lead to back strains and other injury. Still, the basic principle behind it would seem to work well enough to seriously strengthen and tone most people who otherwise would find weight training boring. 

Here are a few more arm exercises she recommends:

Double-arm Palm Out: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, right arm bent covering forehead, left arm bent covering chin, both palms facing away from face. Next, extend arms out to sides and swing hands behind you, clapping them together. Bring arms back to starting position. Do 50 reps with right hand on top, then 50 with left hand on top.

Large-range Half-circle: Stand with one foot in front of the other, knees slightly bent, with arms raised slightly above "T" position and palms facing floor. Rotate palms to ceiling and extend arms out in front of you. Reverse move to starting position. Do 100 reps.

Diagonal Pull-up: Holding a 1- to 3-lb weight in each hand with both arms to the left side of your body, stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Hold left arm in place and pull right arm across body to the right side of your hips. Then raise right arm up to a high diagonal and return to starting position. Do 50 reps on each side.

The trick appears to be, to a large extent, variety. For strengthening and toning thighs and buttocks, Anderson recommends:

Attitude Leg Lift: Kneel on all fours. Keep your right leg slightly bent and raise it up behind your back, straightening your leg as you lift. Return to starting position. Do 50 reps with each leg.

Overlap Outer-thigh Lift: Lie on left side on mat, left leg slightly bent, leaning back on left elbow. Cross straight right leg over left leg. Keep hips rotated to the left and lift the right leg to a 90-degree angle, keeping it straight. Lower to starting position. Do 50 reps with each leg.

Large-range Extension: Start in a plank push-up position. Bend right knee toward the ground without touching it, then straighten leg and lift as high as possible toward ceiling. Lower to start. Do 50 reps with each leg.

Inner-thigh Lift: Sit on the mat with your right leg extended and left leg bent, left foot on the floor with toes forward. Flex right foot and turn it out, away from your body. Lift right leg so it's parallel to angle of left and point toes. Return to starting position. Do 50 reps on each leg.

For abdominal/core strength, the following three exercises uniquely move your major, not “accessory,” abdominals as you work them, which is really at the heart of her strategy, whether she believes so or not:

Piking: Lie flat on the floor, arms at your sides. Lift straight legs up to ceiling to 90 degrees and then gently lower. Without pausing, lift them back up again. Your upper body should remain flat on the ground. Both arms and legs should be straight with your toes pointed. Work up to 100 reps.

Advanced Piking: Lie on the floor, legs straight out in front of you with your arms on the floor stretched out over your head. Hold onto a 3lb weight and bring your hands up to meet your legs when you raise them to a 90-degree angle and lower your arms and legs back down to the floor at the same time. Both arms and legs should be straight with your toes pointed. Work up to 100 reps.

Standing Isolation: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, hands on hips. Pull shoulders back. Keeping your hips completely still, shift rib cage from left to right. Do 50 reps on each side. This last exercise is interesting because it can be performed almost anywhere, perhaps in the elevator ride to work, standing in line at the ATM, or while fitness walking.

The effectiveness of the Metamorphosis workout lies most likely in exhausting the large muscle groups rather than suddenly engaging smaller muscles that normally aren’t used. It is certainly not advisable to stop other activity, or to perform her regimen to the letter. But there may be value in a mix-and-match approach to working these muscles in new and challenging ways. 

The bottom line: Proceed with caution with Tracy Anderson, don’t take her word as hard science, and don’t ignore aches and pains in favor of her slightly shrill “must”s with regard to following the regimen precisely. There are ideas here worth salvaging; but every body is different. The least each of us can do on our long journey to transform it is to listen to it.


Tracy Anderson, Official Website, 2012,


Marie Claire, “Toning Exercises to Get in Shape Fast,” by Lizzie Dunlap, Nov. 17, 2008,


Daily Mail UK, “The Woman Who Rebuilt Madonna…and What She Can Do For You,” by Laura Collins, Jan. 23, 2010,



(RUNNING & FITNEWS® May / June 2012 • Volume 30, Number 3)

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