The Old Heave-Ho
Adult fitness programs targeting the masses with resistance exercise are a recent phenomenon. Until modern times people’s lives were filled with back breaking work. The men chopped wood, dug ditches, hunted, and threw spears. The women did laundry by hand, tended the garden, milked the cows, fed the chickens, and carried the children. Nobody worried about their body mass index. Of greater concern was having enough food for the family.
Today it’s the abundance of food that’s harming us. Couple that with nearly a complete lack of physical activity, and we have an explanation for our present, sorry state. In the not so distant past, formal exercise was unnecessary because people’s lives were filled with exhaustive activity. After having plowed the north forty and spent hours baling hay, the need for rest and recovery was at the top of everyone’s list, not jogging, aerobics class, Bikram Yoga, boot camp, Zumba, or circuit training.
Muscular strength was needed for most of our ancestors’ work. Typically people adapted to the work load over time and eventually grew strong enough to complete a day’s work in a timely manner. The enormity of our physical accomplishments is impressive. Paleontologists tell us that our earliest progenitors trekked out of Africa over a million years ago and populated the globe. Monuments were built and battles fought in the process. It was hard labor that built the Pyramids and Great Wall of China. Masters of the sea circumnavigated the world’s oceans. Wagon trains made their way across the great prairies to America’s West Coast, followed by railroads and, eventually, high flying aircraft. We’ve come so far from the giants which we once were.
There are more examples I can cite. Closer to my home can be found stone walls rambling on for miles across the New Hampshire countryside. This feat was driven home most pointedly a few years ago while cruising along a rural road one sunny winter afternoon. I was amazed to notice that these stone walls wound their way over hills and valleys, never seeming to end. The stones had been unearthed by land owners with plows hoping to till the rocky New Hampshire soil. A likely option for so many stones would be to use them to make walls demarcating property lines and pasture borders. That’s exactly what was done. Simply contemplating the daily chores of the 18th and 19th Century farmer may be enough to give most of us terminal blisters and a double hernia.
The development of strength traces its origins to the mythical Milo of Crete, who purportedly carried a small calf on his back until it had grown to the size of a large bull. In so doing, the legendary Greek athlete had discovered the principle of progressive resistance exercise and transformed himself into a tower of strength. But then the format of an effective strength development program apparently lay dormant in the human subconscious for two thousand years until rediscovered in isolated pockets here and there among strong man performers in the 19th and early 20th Centuries such as Arthur Saxon, Alan Calvert, Milo Steinborn, Bernarr Mac Fadden, and Eugen Sandow.
Medical science took a bit longer to accept the value of strength exercise. It wasn’t until the publication of Progressive Resistance Exercise in the 1940s by Delorme and Watkins, who used a strength development protocol utilizing three sets of ten repetitions to rehabilitate war casualties, that strength training achieved qualified acceptance by mainstream healthcare providers. Much of the reluctance here may have been because doctors typically saw the results of improper strength training manifest in the form of self induced injuries. If an athlete was fit and injury free, the doctors’ attention would have been directed to other, non-related problems.
Not long after that, a few stalwart young men, in many instances ignoring their coaches warnings about becoming “muscle bound”, sneaked into many a YMCA weight room hoping to grow bigger, faster, and stronger. Sometimes this worked; most of the time it didn’t.
And of the times when it didn’t work, much of the blame can be attributed to having followed an unbalanced program with poor exercise selection and even worse form.
Take the bench press exercise for example. For more years than I care to admit, my friends and I all thought that having a huge, one rep max in the bench press would be our ticket to athletic superiority and a world class physique. To me this was understandable because whenever the subject of strength was brought up, people would always ask, “How much can you bench?”
And the numbers tossed around were so outrageous that one had better be wearing hip high waders because that was when the bull guano began to pile high, though not quite as high as their purported poundages in this ubiquitous lift, though for the most part such tales of rugged athleticism were merely over blown personal fiction.
Hampshire Hills Sports Complex
I can’t say I hadn’t been warned. It was on my return to work after a two week vacation that one of my staff gave me a heads up about a new member named Lenny. Lenny was a high school junior with a bad attitude and dangerous deportment. He claimed to have been a bodybuilder and told anyone polite enough to listen that it would be only a matter of a few months before he would be the next World Professional Bodybuilding Champion .
When I entered the gym, Lenny was already there, loading up the bar for bench presses. I said hello and introduced myself, but he just gave me a vacuous stare and plunked himself down on the bench. “GIVE ME A LIFTOFF!” he commanded me. “I don’t have all day for this y’know!”
There was 185 lbs. on the bar, and without so much as a token warm up set, Lenny took the bar from my grasp and let it free fall to his chest where it made a sickening thump on impact, rebounding off his sternum. And as this was happening, Lenny thrust his pelvis toward the ceiling as his right leg was in the air pointed toward the ceiling oscillating to and fro and his neck twisted violently from left to right and back again, the bar settling back down on his chest. I pried the weight off his dented torso, but before I had a chance to rack it, Lenny grunted out, “FIVE MORE REPS!” So he did, or rather, I did. By the time the bar had been racked, Lenny asked me how many reps he had gotten. “None,” I told him. This seemed to upset him incredibly, so I offered to help, asking him about what he was hoping to achieve by such a methodology. He just sneered as though I was too stupid to understand the obvious.
“Everybody knows that heavy weight for low reps is the way to build mass.”
“That’s generally true,” I admitted, “But you haven’t done any reps.”
Lenny got up off the bench and walked across the room, muttering under his breath something about me not being that big for a guy who was supposed to be a bodybuilder. I just laughed, but what happened next was not particularly funny.
This time it was clean and presses that Lenny had chosen to undertake. There was 135 lbs. on the Olympic bar. I looked on in amazement as Lenny ripped the bar off the floor with the finesse of a trash collector tossing an ash can into the back of a garbage truck. Somehow or other he managed to get the bar over his head, but as he did so he was running across the room and up an abdominal slant board where he teetered precariously at the top before backing back down and slamming the bar onto the floor.
I had no other plausible recourse but to intervene and put a stop to such nonsense. My plan was to offer Lenny some one on one coaching in hopes of getting him to change his badly misguided ways. Unfortunately Lenny spurned my offer and instead, not fifteen minutes later, got into a physical altercation out in the parking lot with one of the high school football players who didn’t particularly care for his surly attitude. Lenny wound up second best in that unevenly matched face-off. Sometimes this is what it takes to learn gym etiquette. Worse still, Lenny never became a bodybuilding champion.
There are a number of other exercises with a high potential for abuse. Squats and dead lifts immediately come to mind. Granted, these two lifts may rank among the most beneficial among the repertoire of resistance exercise, but as the song goes, “It ain’t the meat; it’s the motion.” In other words, it’s the technique that matters at least as much if not more than the amount of weight used.
First let’s take a look at the potential benefits, and I’m sure Big Al would agree wholeheartedly.
Squats and dead lifts engage all of the body’s major muscle groups in a challenging, well coordinated fashion. In fact, these two exercises can work the entire body in less time than a dozen less demanding ones. The other benefit involves something known as “the indirect effect”, which tells us that when a muscle grows stronger, not only will the prime movers benefit, but so will the entire body. This “indirect effect” is in proportion to the degree of muscle mass engaged by the exercise. With the hips and thighs being the largest muscle group in the body, this effect will be much more pronounced than it would with, for example, the biceps.
On the down side, both squats and dead lifts place tremendous compressive force on the spine. Therefore, anyone with a questionable lower back or cervical spine should avoid them. Likewise for those with balance and /or coordination problems. Having said that, I can tell you that I rarely prescribe them for average adults until I’m certain they can do them safely. Muddying the picture even more, there is a current program targeting high school athletes that advocates something known as “box squats”. Here the athlete gets under a very heavy barbell in the squat rack, then backs up and sits down on a high box, pauses there briefly, and then “explodes” to a standing position. The compressive forces here are well off the charts and pretty much guarantee an injury to the lower back. Someone with a rudimentary grasp of high school physics should be able to understand why this is a bad idea. Follow this program at your own peril.
Power cleans are out completely. An Olympic lift assistance exercise, power cleans have the lifter pull the bar off the floor, very quickly dipping under and catching it at the shoulders. This can be impressive when demonstrated by an accomplished Olympic weight lifter. I can recall observing Bob Bednarski yanking the bar only about three feet off the platform and then getting his body beneath it in a millisecond. While a great strategy for an Olympic weight lifter, for the average person the benefit to risk ratio make power cleans unacceptable. At risk here are the neck, shoulders, elbows, wrists, lower back, and knees.
Lately even more exercises have been condemned by the experts. Some of these warnings have merit; most do not. Heading the banned exercise list are the press behind the neck and pulldown behind the neck because of the strain placed upon the rotator cuff and cervical spine. Dumbbell flyes have been roundly booted from the program because of the risk of shoulder dislocation and ruptures of the pectoralis major. Lateral raises and upright rowing are not recommended because of their potential for causing or exacerbating shoulder impingement. Bent over rows are thought to be hazardous to the lower back. Bench presses with a full range of motion can damage the shoulders, and parallel bar dips may put the shoulders in a compromising position as well. Leg extensions are ill advised because of the shearing forces generated through the knee, though such forces can be held to a bare minimum via perfect form, which is rarely if ever seen. Most perform this exercise by kicking the weight up and then letting it fall back down and bouncing it back up. It’s surprising that so few are hurt from this technique. Personally, I think it would be easier to tell us which exercises are still okay. In fact, no exercise is completely without risk for all people. The problems are likely attributable to poor exercise form in conjunction with an undiagnosed orthopedic or psychological problem. Case in point.........
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