Q: There's an epidemic at my gym. Everyone and their mother seems to be doing all of their exercises on a Swiss ball. I know that you use them occasionally, but what do you think of people who do the bulk of their routines on a Swiss ball?

A: Well, it's a matter of what goal one wishes to achieve. Personally, I like to use Swiss balls:

  1. For core training: Having strong core (muscles that move the spine in various directions) has a carryover effect to just about any sport.
  2. As a kick-start for various training cycles: For example, if someone has reached a plateau in the barbell bench press, I may start him or her on incline dumbbell presses on the Swiss ball. This will teach them to use their stabilizer muscles, in addition to strengthening them.
  3. To impose stress on different points on the strength curve: For instance, during Jerry Telle-type of hypertrophy training. The following exercise is an example:

Lean-Away Eccentric Dumbbell Curls

The setup

Sit with your back and triceps resting against the side of a 65-cm Swiss ball. Reach down and grab your working set of dumbbells.

The exercise

  1. Perform the concentric range of a seated dumbbell curl. Make sure that you initiate the movement from the elbows in a smooth fashion and that the wrists are cocked down and back – this isolates and overloads the elbow flexors.
  2. Once you curl the dumbbells to the top, raise your hips so that your thighs are parallel to the floor. Your upper body should then be literally on top of the ball.
  3. Lower the dumbbells down and away from you. At this point, the brachialis anticus and the short head of the biceps brachii will be maximally activated. Don't forget to keep your wrists cocked back while lowering the weights.
  4. Lower the hips.
  5. Repeat steps 1-4 for the prescribed number of reps or until concentric muscle failure is reached.

As useful as the Swiss ball is, there's a problem with relying on them too heavily. People who use them exclusively – I repeat, exclusively – have the following in common:

  1. They're so weak in the upper extremities that most of them couldn't drive a heated Samurai sword through a pound of butter.
  2. Their ability to perform explosive work is poor. In other words, they have the vertical jump scores of a snail on valium. Since most Swiss ball exercises require controlled slow movements for obvious safety reasons, athletes who rely on them too heavily will lose the ability to perform ballistic contractions.

Another problem that recently came to my attention involved a businessman who suffered from shoulder pain. His personal trainer, however, had had him perform countless exercise sessions on the Swiss ball. It was a classic case of overuse, as the man could incline dumbbell press more on a Swiss ball than on an incline bench. How could that be? Well, when he did them on the ball, he was inadvertently shifting his hips and knees slightly through the range of motion, thus allowing him to find a safe groove, i.e. a path of movement that didn't hurt.

The Swiss ball is a great tool, but it's not the only tool. You can't, after all, build a house with only a hammer.

Q: Chuck, I read your article on Achieving Structural Balance with great interest – mouth agape, drool, the whole bit. Along the same lines, what percentage of work should people do for their body parts? For instance, should 50% of leg work be devoted to quads and 50% for hams, or do they require different amounts of work? Similarly, should biceps and triceps get equal work? How about back and chest?

A: The percentage of amount of work should be dictated by either:

1 – Your Training Goal

For example, if you want to make the finals of the 500-meter kayak race at the Sydney Olympics, you probably want to cut back on squats and deadlifts. Conversely, if competing in the high jump is your goal, a twenty-inch arm is rather useless.

2 – Structural Balance

For example, bench press is probably the exercise that gets the most attention in the gym. Therefore, most people could further extend their training careers and performance by cutting back on pressing work and doing more work for the rhomboids and external rotators. A basic training concept is that the height of the competitive peak is a function of the width of the general preparation base. In other words, the more well-rounded your program, the more strength performance you can achieve in the long run.

Q: I understand that the hams should be about 2/3 as strong as the quads. Is there any way to test this? I thought of seeing what I could do on a leg extension and then comparing it to what I can do on a leg curl, but is that legit? I mean, don't the machines have to be made with the same strength/force curves?

A: First of all, the concept that the hams should as 2/3 as strong as the quads is antiquated. It's based on rather inadequate testing devices, and that figure was suggested when ergometers were about sophisticated as a circa 1950 computer. To get the true torque measurement of the hamstrings, you must be able to test it at very high speeds. Based on data that I have from various Canadian National teams, I theorize that the minimum ham/quad ratio should be at least 80%, and the optimal ratio will vary depending on the sport. For example, alpine skiers have lower rates of injuries when the ratio is near 80%, while bobsledders should target 125% ratios (meaning that the hams are actually stronger than the quads).

Interestingly enough, the ham/quad target can easily be reached by implementing "leave a stain on the carpet" full squats in the training process. In my first year with the Canadian National Ski Team, I got them to drop their half squats and substitute full squats, and their ratio went from 57% to 79% in eleven weeks.

Regarding the idea of testing strength ratios with the usual weight room machines, it's nearly impossible to do as there are so many different models of resistance training machines out there. If you're really concerned about the ratio, you can get it assessed in the biomechanics or physical therapy department of a major university. Ask for a ham/quad on the Kincom, Cybex, or David ergometers, which are far superior to what was available just a few years ago.

Q: My shoulders hurt all of the time when I work them directly. I've thought about not working them at all and instead concentrating on all of the other body parts. What do you think – will they shrink away?

A: I think it's a great idea. I don't prescribe direct delt work to most of my clients, yet they end up developing impressive delts. Recent anatomical research points out that there are seven different innervation patterns for the delts – not three, like originally believed (anterior, medial, and posterior). The shoulders will actually grow best if left alone. Anterior innervation patterns get plenty of stimulation from chest work, and posterior innervation patterns get plenty of stimulation from back work. Therefore, most torso work is bound to involve some of the seven innervation patterns.

You may, however, want to train using some shoulder abduction work (i.e. cable lateral raises) once every ten days or so.

Q: I never see you really advocate any time off, or even lessening the workout level of effort. In other words, it's always balls to the wall. Should I ever take a week off, or should I just spend a week where I only use, say, a 50% level of effort?

A: I think that holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas often take care of the time off. You can plan on having five days off during those time periods so that you can enjoy your holiday and, at the same time, regenerate the entire neuro-muscular and neuro-endocrine systems.

However, the longest amount of time I'd recommend that you take off is five days. If you can't regenerate fully in five days, then you really have some issues.

I also don't believe in performing 50% level of effort weeks, but I do believe that you should reduce your total number of sets by 40% once every three weeks. It's very hard to overtrain by employing only high intensity – your body just won't be able to lift the weight. You're far more likely to overtrain by volume. In other words, if you do ten sets per body part for the first four workouts, cut down to six per body part for the fifth and sixth workouts. Then change the program. Studies actually back up this concept of periodic volume reduction. The exact physiological reason isn't yet clear but, evidently, it does work.

Q: I know that you and Brooks Kubik are big on thick handle work to give muscles a different and presumably growth-stimulating stimulus. But the dumbbells at my gym are the regular kind. Any gizmo you know of that I could use to fatten the grip?

A: As a matter of fact, there is – it's called an EZ-grip. The prototypes were first shown to me a few years ago by one of my seminar attendants in Philly. You buy them in pairs. There's one for the left hand and one for the right. They fit right over the regular types of dumbbell and barbells.

They're also recommended for people with carpal tunnel syndrome-type symptoms. Incidentally, they also cut down on the exposure to germs.

It may sound as if I'm being anal, but I recently stumbled on a study where they found that most barbell handles have more germs on them than public urinals. Yet, many trainees don't hesitate to wipe their faces with bare hands after doing a few sets of curls.

To purchase a pair of EZ-grips, call Shelley at 1-888-797-7729 or visit the www.qfac.com website. They sell for $39.95, plus shipping and handling.