Tuesday, December 23, 2008


An athlete is someone who uses his whole body to accomplish sports goals. That’s the first thing. The second thing is that he doesn’t just exercise, he trains. Let’s look at it. As I've said, the body is not a bag full of hinges, with this joint moving and that one too, maybe, as chance might have it. It’s not some child’s tumblejack toy of sticks and swivel screws that you can shake and it clatters about like bamboo chimes in the wind. No. That’s not what the body is. The body is a spring. Every part of it is used in every dynamic movement. When you pull one end of a spring, the other end participates in the action, equally if not as dramatically. When you push on a spring, the entire structure, and every atom within it, plays its part.

Likewise, when you lift something with your right arm, the left side of your body is engaged, counterbalancing, accommodating the motion and finding a new equilibrium. What, you thought it was just the muscles of the right arm working, and maybe a little something in the shoulders, the right shoulder, and maybe the back sort of somehow too? If you think that, you’ve been living in your body without paying attention to it. What it’s really about is architecture, about load-bearing and flying buttresses and shifting foundations -- only in flesh, and moving, moving all the time.

The application here, regarding athleticism, is that the arm is more than just the biceps and a hand, and the biceps is more than just something for doing curls with. The arm, in fact, is just an extension of the shoulder, which is anchored to the trunk, which derives its power from the hips. We’re using the word “power” here in a slightly broader meaning than that required by someone doing a benchpress.

Yes, there’s a lot of strength in a strong guy’s benchpress. But unless you’re trapped under a wagonload of timber, the benchpress isn’t a terribly useful motion. It’s use is very very narrow. Virtually singular, in fact. It is good at doing the one thing that it does. This is precisely the opposite of what athleticism is. If you train only the upper-body outward-pushing structure, without training the core that supports it, and without training the lower body that makes an ally of gravity -- instead of ignoring it and hoping it will go away -- then you’ve trained precisely one third of what needs to be trained to achieve athletic goals in the real world. You're a sort of circus freak, who can perform some gimmick; you're a one-trick pony, or two-, or whatever the not very large number. What you are not, technically speaking, is an athlete.

If you’re playing football with big manly arms and no strength in your midsection and no push in your legs, well, you’d make a good slap fighter, but you’ll be bulldozed over. You won’t be a wall, you’ll be a swinging door. You won’t be a tank, you’ll be a pushcart. If you throw a ball by swinging your arm, you’ll throw about as far as a talented nine year old. It’s when you lunge with your leg, twist with your hip, follow through with your shoulder -- that’s when you throw far.

Athleticism engages the whole body. It’s not about dramatic sweating and grunting and making painful faces. Bowling is athletic, and so is golf. It’s not about how long the feat takes, it’s about how engaged and integrated the body is in performing it. That’s why rolling dice isn’t athletic, and marksmanship is. The whole body is incidental with dice, regardless of manipulative skill. Whereas with marksmanship, stance and stillness and breathing and control of the heartbeat all matter. Didn’t know that, did you. It's the difference between a game and a sport. Both require skill. Only one requires integrated whole-body functionality.

It’s about harmony and balance. The Classical Greek Ideal. It’s the bodybuilder ideal too, in theory, in theoria. The bodybuilder praxis, alas, is a grotesque perversion of this. Not just in the abuse of steroids and the insane lust and quest for size. For our purposes, in the bizarre fad that it’s become with regular joes, and high school and college athletes. Why why why are they doing bodybuilding routines?

Will training individual muscles make those muscles function in closer harmony with all the others? Will making the biceps disproportionately bigger and stronger than the deltoid make them better for any sport? Will isolating and decoupling a movement from the complexity that real-world motions require somehow augment the workings of the central nervous system and its ability to recruit motor units in an integrated fashion? These questions answer themselves. Isolation exercises as they are used by bodybuilders are the opposite of athleticism. It’s almost designed to make someone less functional.

What is athleticism? It’s being able to meet the physical demands of whatever it is that some sport, or life, throws at you. It’s being fit for the task, whatever the task may be. It is mastery over your body.

Which brings us to training. I've discussed it before, the ideas of activity, and exercise, and training. Activity is just an expression of metabolism. Living things move around, most of them -- even sponges. Going here, doing this, moving that -- just a part of being alive. Then there’s exercise. It requires an accelerated heartrate. There’s no intelligence required, it’s just working at a more intense level than usual. A good thing, pretty much, but possibly rather haphazard. Then there’s training: exercise with the addition of intelligence. It requires a plan, and a goal, and measurable progress, and consistency.

The crossfit model has its flaws. Too randomized. Yes, life has its randomness. But it's not random. It's predictable, in a statistical way. No guarantees, but usually it's business as usual, usually. We don't however train for the usual. We train for the extraordinary. Yes, we may have to climb stairs every day. That counts as exercise. If we plan on climbing a mountain, though, we need to do more, we need to train.

An athlete can’t be better than his deficits allow him to be. They hold him back, obviously. A weakest-link thing. So training must identify and address those shortcomings. They are not something to be ignored. They are to be embraced, as it were, and made the heart, the core of a workout. It’s not about idealism. It’s a necessity, for improvement. The reason a gym-bodybuilder is so much weaker than he should be is that he has never trained his shortcomings. No, it's not about calves or forearms or deltoids or rhomboids. It's about the little stabilizers that hardly anyone knows the names of, and that don't show up in the mirror except subliminally, as the difference between a guy who works a few muscles so he can pose in front of a mirror, and an athlete who's trained his body the way it was meant to be trained -- completely.

Well, there it is. Some fairly focused musings on a fairly obscure subject. What do you expect from me? -- gossip about celebs? Girlfriend. Please. The only celeb I care about is famous internet sensation Jack H, under-appreciated but looking fabulous. You should see his pecs. Divine.


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