Thursday, January 1, 2009

Wrong Theories

Gym coaches are still telling their students that the way muscles grow is that first muscles get torn down by exercise, damaged, and then they build up again, repair, only stronger. Yep. Damaging something makes it stronger. Like mutations and Evolution. Uh huh. Cuz that’s what the body does, y’see, when it gets big muscles. Something to do with scar tissue, maybe.

No. It isn’t the damage that makes us stronger. The damage comes not from doing enough, or from being effective. Damage comes from doing too much, from overtraining, and from foolishness. Yes, it can accompany muscle growth, the way busted gaskets can accompany reckless driving. But jumbled in with all such associations is a profound tendency toward the post hoc logical fallacy. Correlation does not support causation. No duh.

The actual “cause” of muscle growth is hormones -- not movement, not exercise, not sets and reps and routines. None of these things could have any beneficial effect, without the hormonal signal to add protein to muscle cells -- whereas new size can be added if the hormones are there, with only a token amount of exercise. Effort stimulates hormones, but effort does not build muscle -- hormones do. Keeping it simple, of course. Steroids? The needle replaces the effort, so the same amount of work produces much bigger muscles. Smaller testicles, though. An acceptable tradeoff, one must suppose.

The point is, how do we stimulate the clearest hormonal signal? Intensity. Major muscle mass engaged in powerful effort. The brain reads this as a call for more strength, and provides it. Damage? The brain reads this too, and sends out reparative hormones, to clean up the mess. The mess, however, does not make you stronger. It’s there because the workout was foolish. Coach was wrong.

Another wrong theory. The plateau. The dreaded plateau, where you work and work and just don’t make any more progress. How very sad for you. Your body has adapted to some motion, some exercise, and you’re stuck at the same weight, just can’t break through to a heavier weight. How frustrating. How to fix it? Do more of the same? Try harder? Psych yourself up? Pray? Take a supplement? Have your spotter do more work, all the while saying that it’s “All you!”

Some of it, this limit, is psychological. The 200 benchpress, or 250, or 300. It’s not the weight, it’s the number. Frightening, somehow, and the unconscious just won’t let you do it. But that’s not what we’re talking about. We’re talking about the actual limit to what your body can do with that motion. It’s a real barrier. Lots of theories, not all of which can be correct. How bothersome, all these wrong ideas filling people’s heads. Like the way to overcome the plateau limit.

“Muscle confusion”. Goodness gracious. What a concept. It’s just a descriptive term though, and of course there is no brain in the muscles to be confused. Still, it’s a silly phrase. Adaptation is a smarter one. The body has become efficient at executing a movement, say the benchpress, and it’s become more of a skill than a stimulus to muscle growth. This is a bad thing? Only if it’s size, and not effectiveness, that you’re after. Well, either size, or attaining a new goal -- the latter of which is an honorable thing. Even so, for all that adaptation may be an explanation, it’s not a solution to the problem.

I humbly propose another, presumably new solution to the problem. It’s not that the muscles, the pecs and the triceps, have become as strong as they can be. Far from it. These muscles are not the limiting factor. The limit, the plateau, is in the stabilizing muscles. These neglected "muscles" -- which are in fact motor units -- are not being challenged by that same old foolish motion, executed rep after rep, set after set, day after week after years and years and years. Mercy. Is there nothing else to do with your time, than these same few non-functional movements, mindlessly rehearsed like a pagan bowing before his idol?

It’s not a plateau, it’s a rut. It’s not the big muscles -- they’re getting plenty of work. It’s the auxiliary, the stabilizing muscles, and the more peripheral motor units -- that are not getting much of a workout, not even in their supporting role. The big muscles, the mainstreet fibers, have crowded them out, attempting as it were to take over their function. Well? The benchpress may think it’s a lonewolf hero, but it’s just a player on a team. Everyone needs to play, on a team.

The way out of the rut is indeed to mix things up, do new movements -- give the rest of the body a chance to develop. It should be obvious. It’s only one of the many reasons that constantly varied functional movements must be the core of an effective training program. It’s not an eat-your-vegetables sort of thing, because eating them is somehow theoretically good for you. It’s because vegetables supply the most nutrients; in this same way, doing many varied movements trains the whole body, including the limiting factors, the weakest links, the "stabilizing muscles", that make the difference between someone who only looks big and strong, and someone who is actually strong, no matter how big.

So that’s another sort of wrong theory, arising from the wrong theory of isolation exercises, where doing bodybuilding, which is entirely about appearance, is supposed to make people more fit. Fit for what? In actuality, fit for standing on a stage in a thong, chemically bronzed, slathered with baby oil, glinting in the spotlight. Oooooh. The correct theory, we modestly asseverate, regarding how one might attain fitness, is that it is achieved by treating the whole body as a unit, rather than as a collection of mostly independent parts.

So that’s it then. Ah. I just can’t get over it. You know what I mean. About how smart I am. It hardly seems fair -- so good looking, so smart, so charming. I’m like a superhero or something. It’s almost too much.


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