Saturday, July 26, 2008

"Muscle, Smoke and Mirrors", a Review

Randy Roach’s “Muscle, Smoke and Mirrors, Volume 1” was as long overdue to the fitness world as John Peterson’s “Isometric Power Revolution.” To the best of my knowledge, there hasn’t been a book as comprehensive about the origins of the iron game and physical culture’s nutritional history as this book is. I’ve been impatiently waiting for this book ever since I read Roach’s article on the Weston A Price Web site. When I got the book in my hands, it took me only 5 days to read the 500+-page novel. That isn’t to say that it’s wide spaced, large print easy reading. It’s absolutely enthralling and informative.

Randy does an impressive job of being, for the most part, non-biased. Even though he’s more of a bodybuilder, he is very even-handed in handing out praise and scorn over the movers and shakers of the physical culture world as it split into its rival factions of Weider, Hoffman, and Rader. His only apparent slip (as I see it anyway) is by labeling the Golden Age of Bodybuilding as essentially drug free, even though Bill Pearl, Dave Draper, Doug Howorth all admitted to using steroids. Judging by his writing, it’s hard for me not to conclude that these are the men that inspired him to start bodybuilding.

Randy also does a great job of interpreting the information that he gathered. One problem with studying history is that anyone can research, read, or study it. What is often lacking is the ability to draw a reasonable, truthful conclusion from what is analyzed. Randy generally didn’t have this problem.

Still, he could have done better at using his powers of interpretation to make more sense of the murkiness surrounding the advent of steroids in the iron game. While he shined light on the little known fact that the Germans and the Americans were synthesizing testosterone in the 1930’s and 1940’s, he was inconclusive about their use by weight lifters and bodybuilders during that time period. Personally, I think it’s unlikely because of the nasty side-effects some of those early brews had that Randy referenced(like the prostate enlargement problem).

Honestly, I’m a very picky person and overall, my criticisms should pale in comparison to what's good about this book. You’ll find out the sometimes scary origins of the foods that we eat today (did you know that hydrogenation was invented for CANDLES?). You’ll realize how big of a footprint that Bernarr McFadden left on physical culture and how his uneasy (at best) relationship with the AMA turned much of th medical establishment against strength training for a while. His emphasis may have been on nutritional history but he veers off into the personal histories of Rheo Blair, Vince Gironda, Joe Weider, and the formation of Muscle Beach. He addresses the history of homosexuality in bodybuilding. He finds the earliest reference to a low carb diet for weight loss. It's just downright stunning how much information that he managed to dig up.

It’s an interesting history and it deserved to be recorded. Randy Roach, so far, did and exceeded expectations. I can’t wait for volume 2.

The Fittest vs. The Fattest Cities

Apparently, determining which cities are in the best shape became a popular media hobby. Men’s Fitness made a list of the 10 Fittest and Fattest Cities in their ____, 2008 issue. Another media group, whose name eludes me, came up with their own list of the fittest and fattest cities in the United States. I personally think that MF’s list might be more accurate based on my travels. While I haven’t been to every city on the list, I did spot one noticeable trend amongst the fattest cities: All but one of them (Miami) was landlocked and flat. Almost all of the 10 fittest cities on the list were near bodies of water or near mountainous areas.

Now, this didn’t factor into MF’s decision-making criteria so it seems to me that this isn’t coincidence. My own travels validate this. I see a lot more fat people when the terrain is of no challenge to the human body, even in this age of mechanization. Another thing that I notice is that there are two kinds of cities: Cities that go out and cities that go up. The latter is expensive, complicated and only happens when space is at a premium. When city space is at a premium, the use of cars is discouraged. This happens more near mountains and bodies of water. So, people walk more.

I don’t expect you to move to one of these cities in order to improve your health. Actually, I don’t even encourage you to live in a city if you are. Still, I think that there some interesting insights that we can use to learn how get and stay fit. The terrain that we’re surrounded by has an impact on how fit we are. So, try to use it to your advantage. If you happen to live in the heartland, this certainly doesn’t mean that your home is a deathbed for physical activity. Just be aware of the shortcomings that your home presents to you and learn to work with them.

Would You Agree With This Statement?

I’m not disagreeing with the notion that weight-based strength training doesn’t produce great results. I’d be the most willfully ignorant human being blogging about fitness if I believed that. People get healthy and strong with weights all the time and have since antiquities. That’s not what I’m disputing at all. What I am disputing is that you can’t get strong without weights. That is what irritates me.

The truth is that you can get strong with no other resistance other than what you can generate with your own body. Just because it hasn’t gotten the attention that weights received over the past 8 decades doesn’t mean that it’s an illegitimate form of strength training.

Now, every form of strength training has inherent risk of injury. That is true for bodyweight-based and weight-based strength training. On the other hand, I think that the risk of injury is greater on the latter. Often times, weight-based strength trainers are more interested in things outside of the health of the body. As far as some are concerned, the ability to hoist more iron off the racks is the only test of health that matters. To others, it's the ability to make the muscles bigger is what counts the most. There's more life and strength training than these visceral pleasures.

BW-based strength training is different. It’s evolved into a more holistic and comprehensive approach to health and strength that’s more devoid of ego than weight-based strength training has devolved to. This isn’t to say that weight-based strength training couldn’t be a more complete package. It’s just the way things have gone in the past 55 years. This is where my statement about weight training has come from:

“I have no problem with weight training other than weights cost money and they’re hard to travel with. I have a problem with weight lifters, however.”

In the end, your health and strength is a result of your habits. Since you can do BW-based strength training without anything other than your body, it’s an overall superior method of strength training than weights.

So, what do you think?

Saturday, July 5, 2008

"You're Only as Strong as Your Weakest Link"

It’s an annoying cliché uttered by irritatingly positive people but there is only one little problem: It’s true. It also applies to your body. People have this tendency to fall in love with specific body parts and disregard other parts of the body (Ususally anything you can see in a mirror). Then there’s also the problem with people not knowing about these muscles. They may not even think about them.

That is until they get sore. You may get thrown into a situation where you work these muscles when you previously hadn’t. I know this because it happened to me not too long ago. I got back to doing some serious hard labor and although I routinely exercise, life had a way of finding the weak points in my skeletal muscle.

The first one is embarrassing because I’ve written about it so many times: The lower back (or the Erector Spinale). Strength in the lower back is critical for overall health. The back. Frankly, this was a case of simple neglect. I hadn’t made a concentrated effort to make sure that I was throwing in bridging work on a more regular basis. It can be easy to forget because it’s not seen in a mirror and it doesn’t really impress girls at the beach. Neither is being weak. Don’t forget this key muscle in your body. It can be a painful mistake.

While the muscles on the front of the ankle are visible in a mirror, most don't give them a thought. I hadn’t until I started climbing up the hills that are all over my last job in Pennsylvania . These muscles lifts up your foot and the higher that you lift your foot, the more grip you can get on the elevated ground. If you don’t, then you may resort to bending your knees in positions that can cause pain. I know this because I saw a co-worker walk up hills with his feet twisted sideways to get a better foot grip. His knees ached at the end of the day. You can avoid this by doing Hindu and sissy squats as well as isometrics for this muscle.

Just remember that the health of your body depends on proper tension across the muscles. If you have weakness or excessive strength on one muscle, you can compromise the entire structure. So make sure that you exercise your muscles thoroughly. Try different exercises, mix it up, and move freely without pain.