Posted in Fit basics

Weights, Cables or Machines part II

In the first part of this article we pointed out two simple facts:

  • muscles make no difference between forces originating in weights, cables or machine levers
  • torques that external forces produce in joints is what matters

T = F · L · sin(A)

So let’s see how this reflects to free weight exercises.

Put gravity to good use

When we think about free weights such as dumbbells and barbells, the obvious constraint is that the force they produce is always pointed strictly downwards; we call this force “weight”. This is not a huge limitation because one of the guiding principles in human body design is the ability to lift heavy objects from the ground. Deadlift is the obvious confirmation of that – there is no other movement using which any human body would be able to move more weight than in deadlift.

Free weight exercises tend to feel quite comfortable as they do not prompt joints to be put into awkward positions. The best among them are such that they exploit the natural bio-mechanical advantages that our bodies possess. Deadlift and squat are obvious examples of such movements. If you decide to educate yourself more deeply into squat mechanics you will come upon an interesting fact that both quadriceps and hamstrings in our legs contribute to pushing the combined weight of the upper body + barbell upwards. Consequently, strength of both quads and hams is equally important not merely for the ability to lift the weight, but also for keeping the knees and hips in healthy condition for decades. But how is that possible? Aren’t hamstrings and quads antagonists to each another? Well, that is one of the ingenious details of body construction but explaining it requires a bit more analysis than is appropriate for this article; we recommend Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe as an excellent resource.

Let’s think about how is it possible that our bodies are able to bear huge loads without over-stressing any particular joint or muscle. Is it by using some kind of magic? Probably not. The trick is that when put under stress we intuitively perform so called “compound movements”. They are such that no single muscle or joint is isolated at any given moment. Thus the whole weight is never put exclusively on a single “component” within the body but is spread over many synergistic structures instead. And this is precisely the reason that compound exercises such as deadlift and squat are by far the best ones for building overall strength, power and muscle mass.

Now, that’s fine but in training we sometimes need to accentuate some of the muscles more than others, be it for corrective, aesthetic of sports specific purposes. In that case free weights might be a great choice, if one can put the body in such position that the targeted muscle can be exercised optimally with the weight pulling downwards. For instance, front delts can be isolated quite nicely using a pair of dumbbells in Front raise. But isolating some other muscles to the same extent would require a trainee to put the body into some awkward position, which would either feel quite uncomfortable and/or limit the effective range of motion.

As an example of exercise that is sub-optimal if performed with free weights, let’s take a look at Preacher bench curl mechanics (your homework from the part one of this article). Sitting at the preacher bench with your arms resting on a soft pad feels cushty and there is no stress in the lower back, but unfortunately at the top position the line of force passes almost right through the elbow joint. So there is no torque in the elbow that biceps muscle needs to resist. Would you need to squeeze the biceps hard at the top? No. You are simply balancing the forearm as a stick. You could hold a dumbbell all day long in this passive position without ever feeling tired.

The way Preacher bench curl is performed more often these days is one of the solutions to this biceps squeezing problem – lifters use either a special preacher bench with levers that provide constant resistance, or they use a standard preacher bench or a knee as an elbow support but with cables from a cable rack providing resistance. That way the line of force doesn’t pass close to the elbow at the top, so muscle needs to work with maximal effort all the way up. This trick of substituting cables for free weights can be applied to most other exercises with great effect, which will be discussed in more detail in part three of this article.

Yet another simple solution for building pronounced peaks is to pump them up by good old concentration curls. It works by not letting the forearm to reach true vertical, so biceps has to pull really hard at the top. Voila!

Reality bytes

While some exercises might simply not be especially effective if performed with weights, unfortunately there are nasty ones with inherent and uncomfortably high potential for hurting you really badly. A typical member of that evil tribe is dumbbell flies: everything is Ok in it if you are able to control the weights at any moment, which becomes the harder the lower you let your arms go. But what would happen if you miscalculated the weight and range of motion, and you suddenly loose control at the lowest position? The dumbbells would start to pull your fully stretched arms even more downwards, with very long lever arm and the angle of attack approaching 90’… so the more those heavy weights managed to stretch your poor shoulders, the higher the torque, and the less control you would have. Snap!

You simply do not want to find yourself is such position. Avoid exercises which can cumulatively put even more stress on your joints and muscles if anything goes wrong. They are typically those ones in which you handle free weights above your body or your head, and your back is fixed – not only are your shoulders and elbows in risk of being overstretched, but you also provide an unfortunate cushion for the weights. If barbell bench press now comes to mind, you got the point; it’s hard to find a single “gym fails” video on YT without a horrible bench press accident in it.

The rule of survival is simple. Use squat cage rack when you squat and safety catches when you bench press. If you use free weights in your training routine, make sure that they can fall down safely without hurting you. And please don’t value the floor more than your own body. Gym owners are well aware of the fact that weights have a tendency to be dropped down hard from time to time. And even if your gym lord is of the raging bull sort, your head is going to be better off anyway than if a dropped 100 pound dumbbell landed on it.

Whenever you take heavy weights in your hands, always go through a mental safety drill and think for a second how you would let them go if you suddenly loose control.

Everything keeps pounding in my head
Can’t free my soul til I
Learn to let go
I’m losing control
Say it ain’t so
Throw my hands up
And learn to let go

Gee thanks for such educative lyrics, Welshly Arms bros!

Posted in Fit basics

Weights, Cables or Machines

A common dilemma that every thriving lifter faces is “Should I use free weights, cables or machines?” Bro-science on this topic is of little help, as most of it is superficial knowledge. In this three-part article we will inspect the similarities and differences between exercising with free weights vs machines, and give you some useful hints to keep in mind. The whole subject is pretty straightfarward actually, and you will benefit a lot from understanding a few core concepts.

A few bits of physics and math

Before we start the analysis, we firstly need to clear out one simple fact: your muscles do not know the difference among weights, levers and cables at all. They have no eyes, so they can’t tell the object opposing their efforts to contract. The only thing any of your muscles is able to perceive is how much resistance there is to fight at any given moment while trying to bring together its two neighboring bones.

The second fact is that bones do not slide but rotate with respect to one another. Whenever you perform a certain movement, you do it by making some bones in your limbs rotate around fixed anchoring points called joints. For example, when walking you rotate your thigh bones with respect to the pelvis, shin bones with respect to thigh bones and bones inside your feet with respect to shin bones. Any particular muscle involved in walking is able to simply rotate one of the bones with respect to some other bone. Your quads rotate your lower leg bones with respect to upper leg bones so that your legs straighten out at the knees; your hamstrings do the opposite. All those bone rotations are very precisely coordinated from moment to moment, resulting in you pushing your torso forward linearly with minimal bobbing up and down.

Why is this necessary to point out? Because your muscles are actually there to produce torque rather than linear force. If the only thing that bones do is rotate with respect to one another, then all we want our muscles to do is to “force” the bones into some useful rotations around the joints. And “rotational force” is technically called “torque”. Therefore the resistance that you feel when performing a movement under tension i.e. when exercising, is the torque caused by external mechanical force acting on a bone, around a joint as an anchoring point.

An important fact to note is that external forces of same magnitude can produce very different torques around a particular joint, if they act on a bone at different “angles of attack”. The more perpendicular a force is with respect to the bone it acts upon, the greater the torque. We are certain that being a weightlifter you are a smart and brave person so we will not try to hide the fact that there is a mathematical formula expressing this relation:

T = F · L · sin(A)

F is the magnitude of the external force, L is the length of the bone, while sin(A) is a trigonometric function called “sine”: you give it the value of the angle A between the external force F and the bone L it acts upon, and it gives you back some numeric value ranging from 0% for zero degree angle (force in parallel to the bone) to 100% for 90 degree angle (force perpendicular to the bone). Thus, no matter how great the external force is, if it acts in parallel to the target bone it will be multiplied by zero, and there will be no torque; a muscle connected to such bone wouldn’t feel anything to resist at all. But if force acts perpendicularly to the bone, 100% of it will be used to produce the torque T. Who would know that math is so useful and elegant 🙂

Sine, the most elegant function in mathematics.

Think about opening a house door – your intuition tells you that the easiest way to make the door open i.e. to rotate it around the hinges is to push perpendicularly on it (sin(A) = 100%). You wouldn’t try to open the door by pulling the knob towards or away from the hinges because such force would be “wasted” due to its ineffective angle of attack (sin(A) = 0). If you get really stubborn and keep insisting on pushing/pulling the knob in absurd directions, hinges will eventually succumb to the abuse and you will be able to enter the house, but you’ll certainly need to call a technician after you get sober…

Keep this picture in mind when picking exercises, as some of them are quite natural and logical as is the way we open a house door, but others might let you mess up your joints slowly over time, and yet there are nasty ones that can bite you hard when you least expect. In the next part of this article we will analyze the risks and benefits of exercising with free weights. In the third part we will see whether cables and machines can be used to mitigate the risks and surpass the shortcomings.

As a small homework, try to spot the problem in the next picture.

Posted in Fit basics

Muscles vs Tendons

Training hard in gym means pushing yourself beyond the limits of the comfort zone. But that is Ok. We all love it. That’s the very reason we all exercise in the first place. Without making those little excursions into the unknown, our bodies would never want to improve and get stronger.

A smart athlete would not want to push themselves too far on any given training day, but to gradually improve abilities until the body gets ready to reach higher goals. But even if you are reasonable and patient, there are still some not so obvious traps that might catch you and slow your progress. One of the most common is caused by the difference in responsiveness to stress by muscles on one side and tendons on the other.

Muscle tissue is one of the most dynamic in human body. It is very quick to recover from small injuries and as a consequence it becomes even stronger than it was before. This is not a quirk of nature – muscles are expected to sustain microscopic traumas by simply doing what they are supposed to do. While it is not necessary for your muscles to feel sore after a workout in order to grow, it should not bother you either; you know that everything will be back to normal in only a day or two.

But unfortunately the same doesn’t hold truth for tendons. They are made of connective tissue (collagen strands) so they are much slower to adapt to increased demands. Worse yet, they are far slower to recover if stressed beyond the current capacity.

The exact causes of this problem are still debatable, but at least part of it arises from the fact that connective tissue typically has much weaker blood circulation in comparison to muscle tissue. Consequently, it is less able to flush metabolic waste and to receive nutrients. This is not a flaw in design of our bodies, it is just mechanically impossible for blood vessels to reach all the dynamical structures within joint area without being exposed to the risk of being compressed or crushed.

There are two important observations that you should be aware of:

  • If you make constant progress in your training, as you should, tendons will be lagging behind muscles in terms of strength and durability.

  • If injured, your tendons will heal much more slowly than muscles.

The more knowledgeable and efficient you become in exercising, the more able you will become to stimulate muscle and tendon growth. But because muscles tend to grow faster, the more accentuated the discrepancy between muscle and tendon strength will be. So if after approximately a year of regular going to the gym you start experiencing strange aches or pains in your body, you should suspect tendon overuse possibility.

It might be the case that there is nothing wrong with your body, but you simply became so proficient in training your muscles that your tendons can’t catch up. A typical issue of this sort is stubborn pain felt around the elbow when exercising triceps, some people get it no matter how perfect their exercising technique is. The reason is that elbow joint and triceps tendon are simply not designed to be stressed as much as we might want them to be. Or perhaps, your exercising technique might be less than perfect so you tend to chronically over stress your tendons; which was not obvious before you gained significant strength but now it is.

The only way to prevent such nuisances is to periodically review your technique and to constantly listen to what your body is telling you. If it says that something starts to hurt, then you should refrain from being too obsessive with it and check whether you are doing everything right.

You’ve probably heard that old “No pain = No gain” bro proverb. But honestly, that is a soothing chant unwise lifters repeat to themselves while rubbing a sore spot that doesn’t let them sleep for nights. It is true that occasionally something will hurt a bit, and you won’t dye from it, but that should only be the exception that proves the rule. And the rule is, if you wouldn’t push someone you love so much that they hurt themselves while doing it, and you wouldn’t be celebrating if that happens, then you shouldn’t do it to yourself either. Be smart = Be strong.

Posted in Human body construction

Human Body Construction – Upper Back

OK let’s now move one floor upstairs from the core. The focus of the second part of this article series is on the shoulder blades or “scapulae” and the muscles surrounding them. Have you ever wondered what exactly is their purpose? Why on Earth do we have a pair of movable triangles made of bone in our backs?

The answer is simple. Our arms require much greater range of motion in comparison to our legs in order to perform various tasks for which we use them. This holds truth for any land animal, but especially for humans and our closest cousins that spend a lot of time hanging around in trees. So in order to make the shoulder joints more mobile, evolution decided not to “weld” the bony bases of the upper limbs to each other as it did with the lower limbs (that’s what the pelvis is), but to let them float over the rib cage. Muscles in the upper back tug and pull on the shoulder blades in several directions so that their outer tips to which the arms are attached can be put in the optimal position for every single arm movement imaginable. Since there are so many ways in which we want to use our arms, there are also many muscles in the upper back which we can use to position the shoulder blades. Once the scapulae are being held tightly in their optimal place, we can start using mighty Lats, Delts and Pecs to move the arms around.

And here is another nice tip to remember: because all those muscles in the upper back (Traps, Rhomboids, Serratus anterior…) are there to prepare the shoulder blades for arm movement, the obvious and right way to make them strong and beautiful is to learn the right technique for executing back, chest and shoulder exercises which involve arms. For example, putting just a tiny bit of effort in appropriately positioning and fixing the shoulder blades prior to the main movement in pull ups and pull downs will make a huge difference in your upper back development. Furthermore, pulling the shoulder blades down and back towards the spine in bench press not only exercises the upper back muscles, but also makes the pecs more efficient and prevents some nasty shoulder injuries.

We find it interesting to stress the similarity between the way our core muscles and our upper back muscles are supposed to operate. Both give us some freedom to position our bodies in such a way so that limb movements can be executed in the most efficient and safe way. Abs move the rib cage with respect to the pelvis and then they lock the lumbar spine so that the torso presents itself to limbs as a single solid structure, while the upper back muscles position and lock the shoulder blades so that shoulder joints at their tips become safe and sturdy, and therefore ready to support the arms.

Both of these muscle groups are thus not meant to do the work in the so called “active contraction” i.e. to actively move the bones, but rather to be strong in the so called “isometric contraction” i.e. to hold those bones to which they are attached to tightly in position. Since the abdominal muscles are often referred to as “the core”, by following similar analogy we might reason calling the upper back muscles “the crust”… and you must become proficient in utilizing both in order to consider yourself one tough nut to crack!

Posted in Human body construction

Human Body Construction 101

In this article we shall try to map the human body at the very low level of magnification. We shall see out of what functional regions it consists and explain how that translates to several very general rules that apply to training and exercising. Fortunately, this is not complicated stuff but the importance of this knowledge cannot be overstressed; consider it the first step in your true understanding of how your body works, what it likes and what it doesn’t like to do, and what are the most natural and effective ways to care for it.

To begin with, it is obvious that we have the torso to which a pair of arms and a pair of legs is attached to. Ah yes, there’s also that round thing called head, but other than the fact that it weighs around ten pounds which might turn out to be quite substantial load to your neck in some positions, we don’t need to worry much about it in the gym.

Now let’s first take a closer look at the torso. What does it consist of? Most generally speaking, there are two regions, the upper and the lower part of the torso.

The upper part of the torso is rigid because the lungs and the heart that it contains are securely encased inside a bony structure called the rib cage. Note that while the spine extends from the top to the bottom of the torso, only its bottom half, the so called “lumbar spine” is able to twist and bend. The upper “thoracic” vertebrae are fixed by the ribs and do not contribute to the flexibility of the back at all.

Lumbar region is a totally different story. The only semi-rigid part of the spine is lumbar spine with merely five vertebrae. Now if you think a little about it, having a flexible spine right in the middle of the body where stress forces are highest might appear not to be a rather fortunate idea on the part of our Creator, right? Well, not quite so. We need that flexibility in order to function properly in everyday life. The way the almighty solved the issue is that he provided us with a set of no less than four layers of flat but very strong muscles that wrap around and envelop the spine and the internal organs. Those of course are the glorious abs i.e. the “core” muscles.

Here is a very important point to make. The way the abdominal muscles are supposed to be used is no to actively bend or twist the lumbar spine but rather to hold it still. In other words, they are a muscular substitute for bony rib cage.

Because abs are made out of muscle tissue, they can be relaxed and contracted at will. They can be flexible in one moment and turned very sturdy in the next. This gives us freedom to put the torso in the most appropriate form and position for any particular movement we want to execute with our arms and legs, and to fix it there by contracting the abs. Only after the lumbar region is made rigid are we allowed to start moving the weight around with arms or propelling ourselves through space with legs. Otherwise lumbar spine would suffer.

In addition to abs, we also have deep back muscles, the so called “Erector spinae” structure. Literally, those are the muscles that enable us to hold the spine upright. The best way to think about them is to imagine a lot of guy wires tensing the spine from its top to its bottom. When core and deep back muscles are flexed, the upper and the lower part of the torso unite.

It should be obvious to you now why strong abs and deep muscles of the back are of the utmost importance for practicing any sport. And not only sport – the number one reason for lower back pain isn’t something inside the spine itself, but it’s the weakness of the abs and those long muscles surrounding the spine: flimsy abs and bendy Erector spinae provide insufficient support for the body, transferring the majority of the mechanical stress to the lumbar spine; sooner or later ligaments and inter-vertebral disks in there get hurt, and that is what causes infamous aches and pains.

We suggest that you think about your “core” as of a big soda can put between the pelvis at the bottom and the rigid rib cage at the top. If your core muscles are strong and agile, you will be able to pressurize it adequately so that it can’t be neither bent nor twisted no matter how high the load you put it under becomes. But if the abdominal wall is flabby, it will be crushed. And then you and your spine are in trouble.

Posted in Fit basics

Types of Muscle Contraction

By now you probably know that muscles are able to do only one thing – to pull bones. Muscles never push, and that is the reason that they always come in “antagonistic” pairs. For example, your biceps flexes the elbow, while your triceps extends it; you need both.

So there is only one type of muscle contraction, right? Well, not quite. It is truth that muscles always produce pulling force, but if we take into account velocity of the weight being pulled, then there are three possible cases:

  1. Muscle pulls the weight and the weight travels in the same direction. For example, this happens when a dumbbell is traveling up in biceps curl. That is what we call “concentric” contraction, or “positive phase” of a rep.

  2. Muscle pulls, but the weight doesn’t move. As if you are simply holding a dumbbell in front of yourself, with the elbow bent at 90 degree angle. This is called “static” or “isometric” contraction.

  3. Muscle contracts, but the weight travels in the opposite direction. As when lowering the weight. That is what we call “eccentric” contraction, or “negative phase” of a rep.

Now ask yourself, in which of the three cases would you be able to keep at least some minimal amount of control over a really heavy weight?

Let’s say Arnie suddenly passed you an insanely heavy dumbbell and said, Holdt itt! Even if it was so heavy that you would had no chance of lifting it without help, you would probably be able to lower it to the ground with some control and dignity, right? And if the dumbbell you received was only reasonably heavy, you would perhaps be able to really hold it still for a few moments and make the mechanism in Arnie’s jaw grind into a smile. The conclusion is that muscles are strongest in eccentric, less strong in isometric, and weakest in concentric mode of contraction.

A smart athlete is in position to exploit this knowledge in order to make their workouts maximally effective. First thing to remember is that for any particular exercise, you should use such heavy weight that you are just barely able to very slowly lift in concentric contraction on your own. This ensures that all available muscle cells will be engaged in all three phases of the exercise.

Second thing is, in comparison to the positive phase, your muscle fibers are even more heavily engaged in the isometric phase of a rep. Thus it is very smart and effective to pause the lift in the top position so that you actively hold the weight in isometric contraction for a second or two. Do not simply switch from lifting the weight to lowering it in a blink of an eye. Stop and squeeze the muscles hard at the top. Feel the burn.

Finally, muscles are strongest in the negative phase of a rep, i.e. while lowering the weight. Consequently, this is the most stimulating phase for your muscles. Never let the weight pull you down as a rag doll. Actively control the weight on the way down instead. Imagine Arnie is watching you and you would have to freeze at any moment if he suddenly draws out a mini gun and yells, Staap! … That’s the control we’re talking about.

Remember, in all three phases of each rep in every exercise you must clearly show the weight who is the boss. Or your success as an athlete will be terminated.

Posted in Fit basics

Gym, Life and Everything

Let us use some space at the very beginning of this blog to mention a few useful concepts concerning exercising and training. We suggest that you take a look at them whether you are novice or advanced sports enthusiast as that will help us all to stand on a common ground when discussing various topics in the future.

Should you obey the rules or be creative?

The nature of being human
is to do the unexpected
and every birth carries with it
the possibility of a changed world.
- Hannah Arendt

When one consideres sports theory and practice, that broad area can be observed at several levels of “magnification”. From far away, one can observe that there are various long term goals that active people set for themselves and there are numerous disciplines through which they opt for achieving them… Some of them simply want to look good. Others enjoy being athletic and using their bodies to perform remarkable feats for sheer pleasure. Yet some folks literally live (and sometimes die) for sport; they are professionals willing to push themselves beyond the limits, compete with the likes and make for a living from that. Those are all legitimate goals.

While pursuing any of those, people follow some plan or program. Perhaps that’s just a general statement – I’ll go to a gym with my buddy two to three times a week, do some exercises and I hope I will look awesome in swimwear. Maybe you are more serious about your body so you have copied several routines from a textbook or a web page and now do your best to adhere to them for months and years. But if your living depends on your rankings, chances are good that you will invest a lot in a personal trainer conducting customized training program, a nutritionist preparing highly optimized diet and a chiropractor taking care of the consequences. Those are all legitimate plans.

If we keep zooming in on what people do when they engage in fitness and sport, we find that any plan and any training routine ultimately consists of exercises. No matter how casual or serious you are about athleticism, you will practice some exercises periodically in order to achieve your goals. And this is where an interesting observation can be made – there are not that many productive, efficient and safe exercises people usually do as one might think; both professionals and beginners seem to be doing very same exercises in the gym. Why would that be the case? The answer is simple – those are the VERY RARE safe and efficient exercises that exist.

The world of fitness is of course very dynamic and it constantly evolves. And yes, there are indeed new exercises that people invent, that quickly spread around the world and acquire many devotees. But most of them fade into oblivion as rapidly as they come to focus. The reason is quite simple – human body has a finite number of movements that it is designed to perform really well and without damage. That doesn’t mean that the number of good exercises is small, it is simply not infinitely large and thanks to generations of smart and diligent athletes, humankind has already figured out most of those that benefit our bodies.

Talk the talk, then walk the walk

We suggest that you think about it this way.

  • A typical language has some tens of thousands of words in its vocabulary; only a fraction of that number is really used in everyday conversations.
  • Speakers of that language combine them to formulate billions and billions of thoughts every day.
  • Despite using same words and similar sentences, stories that they tell to each other about their lives, experiences and achievements are doubtlessly unique and limitless.

In the world of physical culture, exercises are equal to words. There are just that many words, but there is no need to invent new ones all too often as these ones that we already have suit all possible purposes quite well. So that’s where you would neither want nor need to be creative. If you aim at becoming a world class writer one day, learning the existing words and understanding profoundly their deepest meanings is what you should concentrate on first as those are the building blocks which you will use to construct your masterpiece.

Exercising routines and programs are equal to thoughts and sentences built out of words. First of all, each of them ought to have a purpose and then its structure should be more or less adherent to some general recommendations. If you accept that there is no point in stacking words in nonsensical piles, then it should be obvious that there is also no point in aimless hopping from one exercise to another. But if several simple rules are obeyed many sentences will make sense, and similarly many routines will eventually make you fit. Some of them undoubtedly more quickly than others, but it is up to you to choose what seems to work best for you.

Your body is your novel. What you do with your body, how you reverie about its future and what you undertake to make those dreams come true is where limits vanish. You should experiment and explore new possibilities. You should push yourself hard to recognize and develop those hidden talents that you bear deep inside. There are no written rules for that. Because there are no written rules for becoming a human being.