Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Middle Body

We've looked at the lower body. It does two things: horizontal and vertical movement. It steps and stands, runs and jumps, lunges and squats. Simple. We've looked at the upper body -- it does two things: pushes and pulls. Arms up, arms out, arms down, but pushes and pulls. Overhead press and chinups; pushups and rows; dips and highpulls. That's everything the upper body does. Simple. What's left? The middle body. Torso, trunk, abs, core. It does two things: bends and twists. Exercises for the core? Not as simple as the others.

First, the core is, or should be, involved in all athletic activity. That's the problem with the standard gym routines, the isolation machine mentality of working just a single muscle at a time. Take the fabulous benchpress. Isolates the outward pushing structure. There you are, all relaxed lying on a bench, with just that one part working. Alas, when it comes time to push a Buick out of a ditch, as my grandmother once had to do, all you've trained is one third of what's necessary. The rest of you was lounging on the bench. So when you're trying to push your 1949 Roadmaster (a car that does, I confess, give me an erection) out of the ditch, well, your butt folds out like a sugarplum fairy sprinkling stardust.

You didn't train your body, bonehead -- you trained only part of it. It's the difference between being integrated, and being disintegrated. The body should, as I've noted before, be trained not as a bag of hinges (this one moves, that one moves ... whatever) but as a spring (every part of a spring is involved in every movement). Point is, the core should always be engaged. That's why benchpresses are good only in theory, and pushups are good in practice -- you engage your whole body, with pushups.

You can demonstrate this to yourself, thus: compare an overhead press, sitting to standing. You will find that with standing it becomes a whole different experience. I won't elaborate. Discover it for yourself. It's the difference between training wheels and mountain bikes. It's junior high compared to grad school.

So real, useful, functional exercises take heed of the fact that muscles are related not only to joints and bones, but to the central nervous system and to other muscles. We are not a palm and a collection of fingers. We are a hand, and when need be, a fist. That being said, we still want to focus, not on body parts, but on body functions. Pushing and pulling; standing and stepping; and, here, bending and twisting.

Deadlifts, kettlebell swings, the horrifying burpies -- all are full-body movements which exploit the hip movement that amounts to bending and unbending. What, did you think bending was just curving the spine? Not something you want to do a lot of, with weight. No. Don't.

As for twisting, there's a machine in the gym designed just for that. You sit in it, and grab ahold of a lever or somesuch, and taaaa-wiiiiiist! Really fast, too! Boom boom boom. Now that's a workout! Cuz it works the abdominal obliques, y'see -- that's such a good thing! Ahem. Whoever invented that machine should be poked in the eyeball with a stick, while in prison. Aside from any actual damage to the vertebrae, we just know, because it has happened to us, what happens when we lift something heavy, with a twist. Pulled muscles -- not as bad as damaged vertebrae, but bad enough.

Sidebends exercise the same muscles, and there's no twisting involved. Situps with elbows to opposite knees hits those muscles, with only natural bodyweight. And so on. These are fine, when done with good form. But I don't do any of these, or rarely, and I have visible obliques, complete with intercostals. Not a vanity thing -- it just happened, from what I do. What I have always done, unconsciously, naturally, is engage my core when I exercise. So my core is developed. What I did naturally, others have to think about. No worries. Think about it, and then do it.

Isolated middle-body exercises? Crunches paired with back extensions. Sidebends. Alternating situps. Yeah, they're fine. Maybe you have a photo shoot for your Sports Illustrated bikini issue? Men's Health? The poster of "300"? Sure, go crazy. But for actual functional improvement, so your back doesn't ache so much, so you can lift your grandkids without slipping a disk, well, deadlifts and knees-to-elbows.

But here's the point. Crunches are an isolation exercise, for the abdominal rectus, the abs. Crunches shorten the distance between sternum and pubic bone. Hm. How useful a movement is this? Um, clipping your toenails, and packing yourself into a small box, and, uh, vomiting. Y'see, the actual, functional purpose of the abs is mid-line stabilization, working in close conjunction with the small of the back -- so that you don't flop forward, or backwards. It's a dynamic tension, an equilibrium thing. You see it when toddlers walk -- they're wobbly in the hips -- their abs and lumbar muscles are learning the job.

This is the core that they talk about. It's the stabilizing girdle of muscle around the midsection, without which there is no athleticism, aside from the sort possessed by, say, wheelchair athletes. How odd. The kids think it's about curls and the benchpress. Adults understand that the lower body is where most of the muscle is. But athletes, whether they're aware of it or not, spend most of their time training their core.

A way to illustrate it is with punching. A child, or a woman, or someone who's just not into it, hits with their arm, as a sort of push, like their arm is a club or an arrow. The toughguy in the bar winds up and hits with his shoulder behind it, like John Wayne. But the professional, the knowledgeable fighter, understands that the real power comes from the twist of his hips. Hips first, then shoulder, then arm. A whipcord progression. The point? Power comes from the hips, which is of course where the middle body begins.

That's it then. Middle body. Not so clear-cut. Almost muddled -- it comes from being centrally located -- a place where the confluence of energies makes it hard to, uh, isolate things. Yes, it's about bending and twisting, and there are exercises that train these functions. But it's about so much more. We think of the starfish as five arms, but those are just appendages. The fish is at the center. That's always were the strength is. Everything else is peripheral.

Any more questions? Cuz I'm sure to have the answers. I just can't get over myself, how wonderful I am. Wonderful. Wonderful.



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