The horror...the horror....
Heck, Kurtz from the new version of Apocalypse Now doesn't have anything on me. Sure, sure, he had all that Vietnam angst and Dennis Hopper's head on a tray, but I betcha' that he hasn't walked into a typical gym or health club lately and seen what I have to look at nearly every single day.
Here are some trends that I find particularly disturbing:
Baby got back, complete with herniated discs – What's more common than stroke mags in a sperm bank? Back injuries, but the latter isn't nearly as entertaining.
Ever wonder why this keeps happening to lifters? Is it a problem of technique? Is it nature's way of telling us that we should never have learned to walk erect; that the only time we should get up on our hind legs, let alone put a weight on our shoulders – is to get the can of corn off the top shelf? Well, either of those conditions might be true, but it's my experience that back problems occur from a couple of easily fixable, self-imposed physiological shortcomings.
Most prominently, few of us have ever worked our Transversus Abdominus muscle, let alone heard of it. If you read Paul Chek's article in the current issue, you'd know that the TA muscle is a band of muscles that lies underneath the rectus abdominus. It literally wraps around your midsection like the corset your granny used to wear.
This muscle, when activated, stabilizes the torso and helps protect the spine while lifting.
If you contract your belly button to your spine, you're activating the transversus abdominus. Trouble is, few of us ever activate the sucker for any length of time. As such we've lost control of it. It no longer fires like it's supposed to, and while we're doing squats and dead lifts, it's sitting there reading this month's issue of Modern Back Injury and laughing its fibrous ass off.
As a result, the spine and its associated muscles get little or no protection, resulting in debilitating back injuries.
If you want to learn how to bring this dormant muscle back to life, you need to work it. Rather than go into a lengthy description of how to exercise it, I'll just refer you to The Lost Secret of Ab Training, by Don Alessi.
The second biggest contributor to back problems is tight hamstrings. The hams pull the pelvis into retroversion and thereby straighten out the lordosis or curvature of the lumbar spine, but if they're too tight, this effect is magnified. A straight spine can't absorb or distribute shock, thus leaving the spine open to injury when doing weight-loaded exercises.
We've briefly addressed hamstring stretches before, but if you really want to do this right, buy one of Ian's tapes or a good book on stretching.
Too much balls – The Swiss Ball is a great little tool. You can use it as an impromptu chair, for doing a bunch of cool stretches, or as props in your new circus act. Most importantly, however, is how it functions to increase stabilizer strength. It's an unstable surface, so muscles struggle to maintain order while gravity tries to pull you off-balance.
Often, spending a few weeks doing dumbbell presses off a Swiss Ball will translate into increased strength on a real bench. Likewise, proper use of the ball can lead to increased agility and neural efficiency, both which have a great carryover to sport.
The trouble is, I'm seeing trainees who use the Swiss Ball for nearly everything, all the time. I've even seen trainers have their clients do Smith Machine bench presses while being supported by a Swiss Ball. How crazy is that? They've given the client an ordinarily unstable surface so that the stabilizer muscles will be brought into play, but since they're pushing against a bar that moves in a fixed plane, they've negated the whole purpose and function of the Swiss Ball! How dopey is that?
Look at it this way: the stabilizers are often the weakest link in any movement. If the small muscles in the shoulder are weak, your bench press or shoulder press will fail long before the prime movers will. As such, using the Swiss Ball will build those small stabilizer muscles up, thus allowing you to go heavier in the big lifts.
However, the stabilizer muscles will always be the weakest link, no matter how much time you spend on the Swiss Ball. So, when you do heavy movements on an unstable surface – like that provided by the Swiss Ball – the stabilizer muscles will always fail first, thus preventing you from using the kind of loads you need to maximally build the prime movers.
The best way to use the ball, in my humble opinion, is during specific training cycles when your intensity is low. That way, the stabilizers will stay strong and when you go to heavy ground-based work, they won't fail you and you'll be able to thoroughly stress the prime movers into further growth.
He's not mentally deficient, just super slow – My local paper, and, if I remember correctly, a recent copy of Men's Journal, dedicated serious newsprint to this "new" way of training. It involves doing every set at a 10-0-10 tempo; that's taking ten seconds to lift a weight and ten seconds to lower it.
You wouldn't believe how many muttonheads I see training this way, each with a certain tinge of snobbery, certain that they're on the cutting edge of training methodologies. Too bad it was first popularized about 30 years ago....
Anyhow, we've long advocated slower tempos as a great way to build muscle, but the acolytes of Super Slow have taken a good thing and mucked it up.
While taking ten seconds to lower a weight has beneficial physiological effects, taking ten seconds to raise the weight is questionable. A slow concentric contributes to overall time under tension, and it might have some athletic carryover to some very specific athletic actions, but a lifter would be far better using a more rapid movement on the concentric.
Likewise, the slow concentric contributes to metabolic fatigue and central nervous system fatigue, thus forcing you to cut down on the total time under eccentric tension, which is where you build muscle.
A rapid concentric movement benefits the central nervous system. Using a rapid concentric in combo with a slow or slower eccentric offers the best of both worlds for the bodybuilder: building strength and size.
Just because she's got plenty of ear wax... This doesn't have much to do with training, but I just got a call from an ex-training partner whose wife just had a baby. They're naming her Sienna, which, as I recall, is one of the colors in a box of Crayola Crayons.
Please stop this heinous practice now. I don't want to see any more baby girls named Sienna, Sepia, Wisteria, Cerise, Fuchsia, Mulberry, Periwinkle, Goldenrod, Asparagus, or any other colors from a box of Crayolas.
Really. Stop it.
Inch worms – I don't know what's going on, but every third muttonhead is doing movements with a range of motion that's about three inches. I think it's directly related to the length of their penises. Me? Broad strokes that travel perhaps 20 to 30 inches. Anyhow, while this particular disturbing trend is most often seen on triceps dips, bench presses, and squats, no movement is immune.
Half of 'em do it that way because, wonder of wonder, it's easier! And golly, I can lift more weight if I only go a third of the way down. The other half will tell you that on bench press, for instance, the rotator cuffs will come into play at a certain point of the movement, so each individual should only go down to the point where some other muscle group gets involved.
That's all fine and dandy, but barring some sort of pre-existing tissue damage, you should go all the way down. Muscles don't operate in a vacuum. Most movements involve other muscles. Go only part way down, and you'll only build strength in that particular range of motion.
I know where this type of thinking originated, though, as Coach Poliquin pointed out to me that back in the sixties, a particular study showed that an isometric biceps curl, done at 90 degrees flexion, built strength in a range from 75 degrees to 105 degrees. Given that bit of research, some coaches assumed that the same thing was true in concentric or eccentric training.
Unless you're training for the 3/4 rep World Championship of Half-Assed Bench Pressing, use full range movements.
Who the hell was Smith, anyhow? – If you've been reading this site for any length of time, you know that we kinda' hate Smith Machines. For one thing, they create what Paul Chek has termed Pattern Overload. What that means is that by being locked into a particular plain of motion by the Smith Machine, you'll only get stronger or more efficient in that narrow plain. Worse, though, is that by doing movements in that same range over and over again until the stars stop twinkling will cause your joints to be featured as the "Sorry Case of the Month" in the journal, Orthopedic Nightmares.
Personal trainers like to put their clients in these gizmos because they're deemed safe. A trainee in a Smith machine is unlikely to fall on his keester, and what's more, he's protected against earthquakes. The truth is, trainers who put their clients in Smith Machines are lazy.
Another problem posed by these machines is knee injuries. Because the bar is fixed, a person doing Smith Machine squats is able to lean against the bar, which is a natural response. This minimizes hip extension, thus allowing the hamstrings to take a siesta during the movement. Trouble is, the hamstrings help to stabilize the knee during squats, and the result of taking them out of the picture is to induce a shearing force on the joint. This might ultimately lead to a blown anterior cruciate ligament.
Why, I've literally seen trainees who were using the Smith Machine to do squats have their kneecaps fly across the gym and take out an entire family of Afghani refugees.
Go ahead and use the Smith Machine periodically, for short durations and for specific purposes, but don't make it a mainstay of your program.
What's next, walking in place? When I was a kid, we had these things called "bicycles" that we used to go to the store to buy Slurpees and gum and stuff. We didn't really think of them as exercise, but they were functional and kind of fun, too, especially if we put a baseball card in the spokes.
Who'd a thunk that they'd make them stationary, line them up in a room, and have a certified instructor (yes, certified!) lead the class in an imaginary trip to 7-11! Yep, it's called Spinning.
What's next? Herding a bunch of people in a closed room where they march in place? Sure, we'll call it "Truckin'."
Cut it out. Take your bike outside where it belongs. Get some fresh air. Check out the neighborhood.
The Dreaded Gluteal Fold Syndrome – Quick, name me three hamstring movements... bet some of you couldn't do it. I've harped on this before, but the majority of trainees do leg curls for hamstrings and that's it. Consequently, their legs resemble pool cues with a prominent flabby-assed gluteal fold at the top. (A gluteal fold is where the end of the glute and the beginning of the ham is clearly discernible. In sprinters – or people with similarly advanced ham development – the glute almost always flows smoothly into the hamstring.)
The hamstrings have dual functionality. They both flex the lower leg and extend the hips, but most people only pay lip service to the lower leg flexing capability. Cut it out.
In order for complete development, proper functionality, avoidance of hamstring pulls, and the elimination of the dreaded gluteal fold, you need to do movements that work the hip extension function of the hams like deadlifts, good mornings, straight-leg deadlifts, and perhaps something like cable kick-backs (where you attach a low cable to a cuff on your ankle and move the entire leg back, keeping a straight leg and originating the movement from the glute).
I'm not workin' abs, I'm humpin' air – There are really four main muscle groups that make up the abs: the transversus abdominus, the internal and external obliques, and the rectus abdominus, the last of which can almost be considered two muscle groups consisting of an upper and lower section.
Most people only work the upper part of the rectus abdominus by doing half-assed crunches or those things where they hang from a bar and look like they're humping air, and then throw in what they think is some work for the obliques by doing twists with a broom.
If you're really serious about working abs, you have to work all the muscles that make up the midsection, and in the proper progression, one based on how much fine motor control is required to work each group properly. I use the mnemonic LOU to remember the order: lower, outer, upper.
As mentioned above, the transversus abdominus should be worked with some form of what Ian King has referred to as Thin Tummies. In other words, you need to do some variant of an exercise where the navel is drawn in towards the spine and held there. The second progression should involve working the lower part of the rectus abdominus. These movements typically involve some variety of hanging leg raise or reverse crunches on a Swiss ball.
While a bodybuilder doesn't need to build up his obliques too much, they should be given some work to ensure proper postural alignment. Most movements that work the obliques also stretch and work the quadratus lumborum, which is a muscle that gives support to the lumbar spine and which often blows during heavy deadlifts when the lifter has weak transverse abdominus muscles.
Movements that work the obliques and quadratus don't involve broomstick twists. You need to work against gravity and simply sitting there with a broomstick on your shoulders and imitating a stuck propeller ain't going to do it. Do some side bends off a Swiss ball or Roman chair, or check out the movements described in Ian King's article, "The Thinking Man's Guide to Ab Training".
Work the upper part of the rectus abdominus last. Swiss ball crunches are great, but my personal favorite is the "Sicilian Crunch," invented by T-mag contributor John Paul Cannonzaro. It's one that involves Jerry Telle-esque shifting lever arms.
What you do is sit on a Swiss Ball with a dumbbell held high on your chest. Crunch upwards, and when you get to the top of the movement, extend the dumbbell high over your head. Then slowly control the movement downward. When you get to the bottom of the movement, lower the dumbbell to your chest again and repeat.
For more ideas, check out the aforementioned Ian King article.
I could probably come up with several more Disturbing Trends, but these are just the ones I've seen being practiced this week.
Please, if you have any regard for me at all, help me kill these practices, especially the one that involves parents naming their kids after crayons.