Tuesday, August 31, 2010

To Everything There Is A Season...

The famous song , taken from Qohelet (Ecclesiastes) 3:1, describes how different types of emotions and responses all have their proper time and place. I was biblically inspired once again by Andy Yoo, creater of Alternate Version of Psalm 23, and with whom I shared an extremely heterosexual man date this past weekend.

After my last post, which bashed Frankenstein-style training, I thought I'd take a few minutes to post on the positive side of bodybuilding.

1. It wasn't until relatively recently that bodybuilding training became so inane. Dan John points out in Never Let Go, that Arnold learned to Snatch and could do so with 110kg. He watched Robby Robinson and Lou Ferrigno train, and they trained like everyone else, except they were stronger. Full Squats, Presses, Rows, and even Cleans were what they used to build their bodies up. Then, while dieting for competition, they did the detail work to etch out the bits of definition that may have been missing.

The problem is that the detail work that they did only in pre-competition phase, somehow became the standard for what bodybuilders do year-round. This, of course, trickled down to the magazines, whose routines are almost entirely based on bodybuilding. So now you have guys who don't know how to squat or press (by press I mean standing overhead barbell press - as everyone of my ilk knows, but may be confusing for the less initiated), much less clean, doing supersets of behind the neck Smith presses with lateral shoulder raises for 4x15. And other guys who weigh 154 and desperately need to add 40-50 lbs, doing nothing but isolation work that will never get them bigger. They are so worried about losing their beloved 6-packs (which they fasted for 3 weeks to get), but as Rip says: What good is a six-pack when you have no ice chest to put it in?

2. Whether I like it or not, bodybuilding or bodybuilding inspired training is still what gets a lot of people into working out in the first place. Even if other sports have superior training techniques, they don't inspire as many people to start working out as the front magazine covers of bodybuilders.

3. Because of #2 (the fact that many people are inspired to start training because of bodybuilding, and use those kinds of programs), a lot of people who are unhappy with their body image are able to make a positive change for themselves and really help their self confidence grow. And it can be a healthy outlet for people who otherwise obsess over what they eat and such.

4. The supplement industry, although in large part snake-oil salesmen, does have some useful, quality products to offer. However, without the support of lots of bodybuilders and wanna-be bodybuilders, the industry wouldn't be nearly as big and products would be harder to get and slower to come out.

5. Bodybuilding begat Figure and Fitness. And some of those girls are babes.

I could go on, and there are other positives about bodybuilding and bodybuilding style training as well.

Even though I very firmly believe that this is not the best style of training for 99% of the population (basically anyone except actual bodybuilders, and even then, only sometimes), we must still give credit where due. So bodybuilding, my next round of Squats is for you!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Frankenstein Training

Most exercisers, myself included, did not have the fortune to begin our exercise careers under the watchful eye of an experienced strength and conditioning coach or trainer who had accumulated knowledge of academic and practical training methodologies for years. Nope, in our quest to get bigger and stronger (usually to impress girls, a coach, or both), we reached for the most available and obvious resources: Flex, Muscle and Fitness, and the other fitness publications readily available on magazine racks everywhere.

Within a few months, we were experts on how standing barbell curls are better for mass, whereas concentration curls really develop the biceps' peak. Mondays were dedicated to 18 sets of biceps work and 14 for the triceps, including drop sets and negatives. Tuesdays would likely be "chest," with flat, incline, and decline bench proceeding some dumbbell presses, flyes, and then cable crossovers to really etch out some definition. By Wednesday, our upper bodies needed a break, so 3 sets of Smith Machine Squats - with our feet about 3 feet in front of our hips and torso - working up to a massive 155 lbs, followed by some leg extensions, curls, and calf raises (toes in AND out, obviously) were the call of the day. We hated leg day and it made us sore, but we did it out of guilt. And so the week would go on.

Like many of you, looking back on it, I'm amazed a) how I did such boring, inane workouts for so many years b) how I didn't realize the stupidity of these workouts sooner and c) how I got any significant results from programs like this (I know it's the Novice Effect, but it's still incredible to me).

I'm amazed by these things because these "programs," if you can call them that, do not train the body in the most fundamental way it was designed and has adapted to be used. Sure they Blast the Back, Obliterate the Obliques, Assassinate the Arms, Destroy the Delts, Chisel the Chest, etc...as Dan John points out - it's almost as if we were at war with our own bodyparts, with these muscle groups. Like "They are the enemy and we must defeat them!" as opposed to "These are what creates and coordinates our motion and we want to improve it." In any case, these programs Obliterate, Blast, and Destroy etc...but do so in such an isolated manner that the intramuscular coordination required to do literally any human activity (except bodybuilding training) is completely missing from the program.

Think about it this way: what muscle do you work when you play football? When you have to lift and carry your heavy luggage up a flight of stairs? When you pick up your 8 year old niece and throw her up into the air amidst squeals of delight? When you try to force a budged door open? When you play catch with a buddy?

Whichever muscle you chose, you're right - because the answer is ALL OF THEM. Every life activity requires the combined use and coordination of the entire body's muscular system (controlled by the nervous system) to complete the task at hand. This is why the typical trainee's question "what is this working?" while completely understandable, is misguided. The idea isn't to work a specific muscle, at all. The idea is to develop strength and coordination between all the muscles in the entire body - this is how we are designed to move, this is what life's everyday tasks demand of us, and this is what makes our physiques look their natural best.

Pavel and Dan John often use the term "Frankenstein Training" to describe the bodybuilding approach of isolating and oblitering muscle groups. The analogy is cogent: if you isolate the biceps from their assisting roll in multi-joint shoulder extension (row, pullups), the hamstrings from their hip extension role while performing knee extension (Squat, deadlift), and other such dysfunctional movements - you end up with a physique that can look impressively muscular, due to the rigorous work that the actual muscle fibers receive, but is functionally Frankenstein. It's like taking an arm from this grave, a leg from that grave, a torso from the other grave, slapping it together, and expecting it to walk like a normal human. It can lumber along and get from Point A to Point B, but Frankenstein is never, ever gonna get picked first in gym-class basketball...or even kickball.

Integration, my friends, not isolation. In the case of the human body, the whole is a lot more than the sum of its parts. Training the whole system yields greater gains in strength, neuromuscular efficiency, and a favorable hormonal response compared to isolating and obliterating. This is well supported by the literature of people much smarter than I am.

So why do most gym goers still do Frankenstein Training? Well for one, that's still what the magazines say. Two, that's what most of the big puffy guys at the gym do - the ones whose genetics are good enough that they get results from this despite the poor exercise choice of these Frankenstein programs (and who sometimes supplement their own results with a little needle-infused testosterone). Three, they just don't know better. Watch anyone at a commercial fitness center Squat (it's rare, but watch when they do). My best estimate is that less than 5% actually know how to do so properly - and sadly, this includes the trainers and group ex teachers. With the prolification of the fitness industry, how many "fitness professionals" are actually "aspiring something elses?" To many of these people, fitness is only a means to make money while pursuing something else. They're not passionate about learning more and being examplary in their craft. You think they're gonna take the time to read anything other than the same magazines that are feeding drivel to the general public? It doesn't help that due solely to low caloric intake, many of these people look as if they're in good shape, so people will listen to what they say - even if they have absolutely no idea what they're talking about. So who is the general population going to learn from, if their "fitness experts" don't even know?

Fighting this tide is not an easy thing to do. Proper strength training is neither easy nor sexy, and involves little in the way of "eye-catching moves" or "cool gadgets." (ps I LOVE that even the Wikipedia entry for Bosu now includes exposing the fact that they're basically a counterproductive, useless piece of wasted space). The only thing we can do is educate, educate, educate. Through 1 client at a time, 1 athlete at a time, 1 team at a time - the results from integrated, strength based programs are impossible to deny. Industry leaders like Mike Boyle, Eric Cressey, Mark Rippetoe, Dan John, and others have started to blaze the trail. It's up to us, the rank and file who work with the regular people out there - the same ones reading Shape and Fitness magazine - to get the word out.

And get the word out we will, because when you Deadlift 500lbs in front of the biggest guy at the gym, who is grunting and gasping with effort on his 135lb curls (using the Squat Rack, of course), the results of non Frankenstein training cannot be denied.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Psalms and Squat Racks

Those of you who know me and/or read my blog (I flatter myself by pretending that people I don't know actually read this; it makes me feel better, ok?) pretty much know how I feel about curls, bodypart training, and other such silly things that most people do to improve their fitness, work their core,get swole, pick your cliche of the day. I should probably be nicer to these people - after all, at least they're working out. They're doing something other than sitting on their butts, watching tv, and eating chips. I do applaud them for this, even those whose only motivation is looking good nekkid.

However, at the same time, I also can't hide my disdain. For one thing, so many of these guys walk around gyms like they own the place. They (often) purposefully intimidate a lot of well intentioned, less muscled folks out of visiting the power rack or the bench press. Additionally, they use the power rack for curls. All the time. This pisses me off to no end (if you don't know WHY this pisses me off so much, you REALLY need to read this post), so I've dedicated this post to them.

If you're looking for a trainer in the downtown Manhattan area, one of your best choices would be a colleague of mine named Andy Yoo. Andy, in addition to being a smart guy with pretty outstanding bodyweight/strength ratio, also shares a) my ridiculous sense of humor and b) my penchant for being extremely nerdy regarding all things fitness. Andy put together the following brilliant re-write of Psalm 23, which I share with you today in full, with Andy's permission:

The Rippetoe is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me squat; He leads me to deadlift. He restores my Adenosine Triphosphate; He guides me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me. Your Barbells and Your Squat Rack, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me with grilled breast of chicken; You have annointed my head with lifting chalk; My cup overflows with a gallon of milk. Surely increased strength and loving hypertrophy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the squat rack of the Rip forever.

So to all the Meathead, Muscle Shirt Wearing, Roided Up, Beach Muscle Working, Frankenstein Training (more on this soon) people out there: get your bible on and read Psalm 23. Or rather, re-read it, Andy Yoo style. You might have missed something in translation the first time around.