The More You Lift, the Worse You Look?

If I see one more guy with tribal tats, rolled up sleeves, and a 145-pound body doing a lat spread in front of a gym mirror, bad things will happen.

Real power and success comes from the muscles you DON'T see in the mirror, but little Eddie with his weight belt on for curling doesn't know this yet.

I spend a lot of time in gyms. I've been noticing something for a while: some people look worse the more they train. They begin to get the body posture of old age with both arms bent, shoulders pulled far forward and a terrible hitch in their hips. It's the sign of age. It's also the most muscular pose. And that's the issue.

As we've become more and more a collection of benchers and curlers, we're making ourselves "bent" from our training. As such, I'd like to share a few ideas for you to add to your training to balance out your body and, in the process, look miles better for very little extra effort.

Something's Missing

The day after watching the Winter Olympics in any sport, go out to a local rink or park and watch people attempt the same sport.

Or, watch an NBA game and then watch your neighbors play a pick up game. Likewise, watch a master chef cut carrots and you'll see the same thing when you flail away with the knife. Keep your fingers out of the soup, please.

Well, what is it that's appealing about those observations? It's grace. It's elegance. It's beauty. It might sound odd, but if I were forced to talk about only one issue for those interested in fitness, it would simply be grace.

I missed a great revolution in track and field. While I was competing, athletes focused on two things: getting stronger and improving technique. Honestly, this is still pretty good advice. Today, a typical track athlete will spend huge amounts of time focusing on posture, position, and the spotting of the eyes. Track practice and ballet work at the barre have more in common than the brutal efforts of my career. And, to be honest, I'm jealous of this new generation.

Art DeVany brought this to my attention when I first logged onto the Internet. He noted that the X look for men was a sign of health. Men, he notes, should have broad shoulders, a thin waist, powerful buttocks and thighs, and not worry about their showy arms. Women, on the other hand, would show fertility with an hourglass figure with a narrow waist "bordered" by a rounder top and bottom.

Images of Raquel Welch in "One Million, BC" can still fire an immediate response in most men, and I'm certainly no different.

The "X Look" and the "Hourglass Figure" also have a subtle aspect that many people will miss. For years, as I added more and more bulk to compete at the higher levels of my sport, an interesting thing began to happen: I began to sway as I walked. I began to resemble an ape.

But I didn't walk like one of those elegant apes. My swaying led to some hip problems that lead to a knee injury. To undo those years of damage—and this isn't hyperbole as we're literally talking here about decades of poor exercise choices and poor posture—I learned the two keys to a better physique, better performance and happy, pain free joints.

And, you may well ask, what are the two keys? Grace and Compression. Now, grace might be apparent to most people (and because of that sadly ignored), but compression is another issue altogether.

What We Compress, Expands

Not long ago, I had one of those twin-epiphany moments that provided clarity for life. I attended a late night Bikram Yoga session and discovered that the harder I pulled myself into a position, the more my body responded during the rest period by expanding. Literally, what we compress, expands.

The next morning, a young teacher noted that having uniforms at school "made no sense." Rather than give her the standard answer of clothes making the person, I simply said, "What we compress, expands," and I walked away.

Later in the day, this young teacher sought me out, thanked me and told me that single line was the most logical insight into teaching she'd ever heard. And, as true as it is for my poor students cramped in tie and jacket, it's even more true for the body.

Grace and compression should live in a Yin Yang relationship in your fitness goals. When standing for long periods, walking and sprinting, or during training, make sure to strive for grace.

When doing restorative work and mobility work, let yourself dance through the "Compression and Expansion" feeling and be sure not to let either partner lead.

Grace is a remarkable thing. If you make the conscious decision to sit more gracefully, you tend to rise more gracefully. On an odd note, if you decide to throw the discus more gracefully, with a calm elongated head and quiet movements, the discus will thank you by flying farther.

There's an elegance in superior sport and artistic movements that allows even someone completely unfamiliar with the performance to figure out who's the best without having to resort to the box scores.

To get the benefits of compression, you can take a yoga class, join a mobility group, or take a deep study into flexibility. My good friend, Pavel Tsatsouline, has a wonderful book, "Relax into Stretch," where he outlines techniques such as "waiting out the stretch," "Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation," "Isometric Stretching," "Contrast Breathing," "Forced Relaxation," and, my favorite, "The Clasped Knife Technique."

Somehow, comparing stretching to the use of a switchblade seems to waken something up in my interest in learning to stretch at a higher level. Traditional stretching movements are very important in understanding the role of compression. Literally, we squeeze ourselves into positions, then relax and expand.

How much time and effort should you spend in these efforts? As I tell people time and again, as you age, besides not getting into a serious traumatic accident (wear your seat belt, learn to fall and, really, don't smoke...if you do stop), there are two things to focus upon: Hypertrophy (increasing lean body mass) and joint mobility.

Mobility isn't exactly flexibility, but the easy movement of the body around each joint.

So, how much time should you spend on hypertrophy and joint mobility? The answer is simple: all the time you can spare! If the goal is to live well enough as long as you can, don't overlook either!

Tonic and Phasic Muscles

Years ago, Doctor Vladimir Janda, a Czechoslovakian neurologist and exercise physiologist, began discussing the muscles necessary for posture. To simplify, Janda separated muscles into two groups: Tonic, which tend to shorten when tired (or old!) and Phasic, which tend to weaken under stress (or age, I dare say). A simple chart:

Muscles That Get Tighter (Tonic) Muscles That Get Weaker (Phasic)
Upper Trapezius Rhomboids
Pectoralis Major (Chest) Mid-back
Biceps Triceps
Pectoralis Minor (deep chest muscle) Gluteus Maximus
Psoas (Those hip flexors that get bad press) Deep Abs
Piriformis External Obliques
Hamstrings Deltoids
Calf Muscles

I usually explain it this way: if you were chased by a tiger up a tree, the muscles you use to hang on to the branch for a long time are tonic muscles.

If you decided to chase a deer and throw rocks, you would use your phasic muscles.

Sadly, most trainers have this backwards, they tend to emphasize the "mirror muscles" like the pecs and biceps (bench press and curls) and ignore the muscles that are really the muscles of youth.

Years ago, I had this wonderful conversation with some women in the "100 Pound Club." To be a member, one needed to simply lose 100 pounds. Most of them had figured out that all they needed for "the biggest bang for their buck" in terms of weightlifting was to do standing presses and squats. Looking at the list, you can see that they intuitively understood the need for strengthening the phasic muscles.

But here's the issue: should you go to hot yoga five days a week for two hours at a time, then drive to the weight room, and then to the track stadium and train like a track and field athlete?

Well, you could. I don't. Let me simply suggest this: Stretch the tonic muscles in as efficient a way as you can and train the phasic muscles with some level of intensity.

The wonderful thing about all of this is the utter simplicity of doing "all of this."

Goals of this "Program":

  • To Develop the "X" look in men and the "Hour Glass" in women
  • Build a platform for grace in movement
  • Expand the body through compression (stretching the tonics)
  • Build some lean explosive body mass (strengthen the phasics)

Stretch The Tonics

One wonderful thing about these two groups outlined by Janda: they work together in systems. When I do a pec stretch, I also seem to stretch my biceps and a bunch of other wonderful things.

The TRX is a relatively new innovation and I can't get enough of the simple "Skin the Cat" that one can do by simply leaning out (like a gymnast doing an iron cross) and then rolling the upper body around to loosen up the pecs, biceps, and really, everything else, too. Don't have a TRX?

Try Laura Inverarity's inexpensive alternative:

1. Stand in the middle of a door way with one foot in front of the other.

2. Bend your elbows to a 90- degree angle and place your forearms on each side of the doorway.

3. Shift your weight on to your front leg, leaning forward, until you feel a stretch in your chest muscles.

4. Hold for 15 seconds.

5. Relax and return to starting position.

6. Repeat 10 times.

For stretching the hip flexor, I like my friend, Josh Hillis' method:

1. Take the same starting position as a standing lunge.

2. Turn your back heel out, so that your back toe points towards your front heel.

3. Push your front knee forward, but keep it behind your toes.

4. Flex your butt hard, like I was going to kick you in the butt.

5. Tilt your hips forward/up (if your hands were on your hips, you would be tilting your hips so that your "pointer finger" pointed up).

This movement, along with the goblet squat, are movements I do every single day of my life. Yes, it's that important to stretch the hip flexors.

For the piriformis, the hamstrings, and those wonderfully stiff calves, I strongly suggest rolling them out with either a foam roller or "my version." I was too cheap to buy a foam roller, so I merely cut up a six-inch PVC pipe when its life as a slosh pipe had expired. I simply used the hacksaw to make four nice rollers. Yes, it hurts more than foam. Sorry.

Rolling out these three areas "seems" to me to do more good than the kind of static stretching usually prescribed for this kind of issue. If you need more, roll, then stretch.

It's important to note that I'm not giving you an exact step-by-step approach (come to think of it, I don't think that is my role anyway). Instead I'm trying to clue you into a simple approach at achieving some "balance" in your training. If you simply added these stretches, and the next exercise, many of us would cut back on our chronic issues in our shoulders and hips.

Holy Rhomboids, Batman!

Now the ONLY muscle that I always refer to by name is the rhomboids. As a thrower and lifter for nearly five decades now, I've come to appreciate these guys for their hard work in holding me together. To keep them whole, I do something I call "Bat Wings."

Yes, I invented them...just after I invented the Internet. Lie face down on a standard bench with two dumbbells on the floor. Now here's where it gets confusing...I don't care at all bout your range of movement. I only want you to grab those bells and squeeze your thumbs up into your armpits, cramming your shoulder blades together. Hold it for ten seconds. Oh, yes, you did go too heavy didn't you? Go lighter. Do this for five to ten "sets."

The next day, that really cramped feeling muscle in your upper back is called the rhomboids. Oh, and you're welcome. You see, the development of the rhomboids will save your shoulders, make you stand taller and lead you to a life of wisdom and wealth. Maybe.

The Single Best Exercise

Now, we come to my favorite four muscles: triceps, deep abs, external obliques and Deltoids. These are the muscles that make thrower's throw. When I was growing up, these were the one's that gave you "barndoor shoulders" and "shoulders like a man!" The exercise I have for you would be my answer to the question: "If you could only do one exercise what would it be?"

Moreover, if I had to pick the single best lift to teach the athlete and provide lean body mass, my answer would be the same. I'd choose the one arm press. What does it teach? Rooting. Being one piece. Locking down. It also works a massive number of muscles and the learning curve is straight up. You can learn the one arm press in seconds and master it in just a few workouts.

Any Russian kettlebell certified trainer can instruct you in the basics in a snap. Really, it's simple, but I'd prefer that you keep an eye on your foot placement. I often do this lift with one foot in the air, just to get a sense of the whole body reacting to the load.

For most workouts, keep your feet tighter than shoulder-width, occasionally do them heel to heel. As for the movement, be sure to start low (I always touch my thumb on my pectoral to make sure I am in deep enough) and then progress to a total elbow lockout.

Don't lead with the trap by shrugging, I like to squeeze my lat to start the movement. If this is too complex, it's my fault!

Let me try again: take a bell, press it overhead. There!

A Bad Case of Saggy Butt?


Finally, the glutes. Folks, glutes are the image of youthfulness. There was a great episode of "Sex in the City" (yes, I watched it and I like it!) where one of the girls falls for a very wealthy older man. It goes well until she sees his bad case of saggy butt. A tight buttocks (I need "Goldmember's" voice here) is a sign of health and youth. Get one. Preferably yours.

How? As a track coach, I can tell you this: don't underestimate sprinting. Or hill sprinting. Or squatting. Is this all too simple?

My idea of sprinting is something I shared with you fine people here a few years ago:

"We usually start with the "great eight" sprints. In the back of my house, there's a long parkway and we do eight "build up" sprints. The idea is to start slow, then ease off. Actually, we do try to accelerate through each set, but the goal is to get the sprint work in without hurting anything.

The eight sprints are between forty and sixty meters. We try to accelerate in the middle of each set, increasing the intensity with each sprint."

It's honestly enough for most people. If you have kettlebells, toss in some swings and goblet squats. If you have barbells, do some squats, if you only have machines, fix that.

These tiny additions to your program won't take that much time, but the impact, over time, will be tremendous. While little Eddie is working his "wings," I'll be running hills with Raquel.

Dan John is an elite-level strength and weightlifting coach. He is also an All-American discus thrower, holds the American record in the Weight Pentathlon, and has competed at the highest levels of Olympic lifting and Highland Games. Follow Dan John on Facebook