Post No.: 0171
Bodies can physically appear in many different ways and still be physically fit. For example, a top triathlete will look very different to a top weightlifter, yet both can be incredibly fit in their own ways. But bodies can look fit yet not be as fit performance-wise as people may think, and vice-versa. I personally care about how well people perform, not how they look.
There is a certain look that some men (more than women) who regularly go to the gym and look in the mirror a lot try to achieve, which involves concentrating on building the ‘showy’ muscle groups of the upper torso and abdominal area in particular – but in many cases these people fail to achieve a balanced body since a lot of them neglect their legs. This is probably because most people don’t walk around in just their underpants in order to show off their legs, most people predominantly only look at the top half of others in politeness when interacting with them in person, and selfies aren’t normally shots of anything below the torso (well unless they’re tasteless ones, where skinnier legs might even exaggerate the relative girth of other body parts!) But legs are the source of power for most real-world manoeuvres of strength, such as picking heavy objects up from the ground or using the entire body to push something heavy along.
So don’t skip leg days even though most people primarily look at and judge the upper bodies of themselves and others. Most real-world moves of strength and power employ the legs. Relatively speaking, and for a lot of useful applications, the upper body is for show and the lower body is for go! Even effective punching in the sport of boxing involves lower body power to a huge degree – a powerful punch starts from the floor, and the power is transmitted in a biomechanical chain through the legs, core and finally the arm. The lower body and back generate the overwhelming bulk of the power, and the shoulder and arm only generate a minor fraction of the resultant force. (A good technique is therefore paramount too.)
Regarding weight or resistance training, if that’s your thing – to specifically target these ‘showy’ muscles, people also tend to overuse gym machines, mechanical apparatus or otherwise overuse moves that perform isolation exercises, which target one joint and a small number of usually large muscles at a time (e.g. bicep curls or leg extensions), as opposed to compound exercises, which involve a large number of joints and muscles, both small and large, to perform each time (e.g. deadlifts and squats).
Now it’s oversimplistic to say that isolation exercises have no place in a workout at all, but the vast majority of one’s exercise routine should ideally comprise of compound exercises because isolation exercises often ignore the smaller muscle groups, which are employed when e.g. trying to keep a free weight in balance on one’s shoulders, and are therefore necessary for our real-world ability to balance; but they cannot grow as large as the larger muscle groups can and therefore aren’t as ‘showy’. Of course, if one is a professional or amateur athlete with a specific set of moves that really matters for one’s sport or activity then one’s routine will need to be tailored for those goals, but if one’s goal is to achieve general all-round strength and conditioning then concentrating on a variety of compound exercises is recommended. And note that weights aren’t the only form of resistance or the only way strength or power can be trained.
So by neglecting these smaller muscle groups, we can remain weak or fragile in the real world because we are only as strong as our weakest part(s). Most real-world moves when trying to shift heavy objects involve compound joint and muscle moves where one must keep a free, untethered weight in balance and control – not isolated joint and muscle moves where a machine might take care of keeping the weight in balance and in control for us by virtue of restricting their plane(s) of movement. Hence, in my furry opinion, free weights are overall the best for building strength for real-life situations. In almost all situations in everyday life, a lump of mass won’t be carefully laid out on a bench or arranged on a pulley, for instance, and we should ideally train emulating the movements and tasks we want to be good at performing.
Some compound exercises can be performed on machines or other apparatus, and some isolation exercises can be performed with free weights, so it’d be once more an oversimplification to say that machines have no place in a workout (they also tend to be safer and add variety, amongst other things). But overall, free weights more closely represent real life situations than machines – something needs to be shifted, and it likely won’t be attached to a machine or have a chair for you to sit on either; or even if there were a chair, one likely wouldn’t use it because one would likely stand up in a real-world situation and use one’s entire body to lift or shove it (by driving with one’s legs and bracing the object with one’s shoulders, like a rugby player in a scrum, rather than trying to ‘press’ it with one’s arms alone, for instance).
By aiming solely for that ‘showy’ muscular look, a lot of people also tend to neglect exercising for stamina too, since to obtain muscle hypertrophy (growth), one needs to ideally perform relatively high resistance but low repetition/distance/duration exercises. Stamina is obviously very useful in the real world too. Some of the latest research actually shows that going to failure (where you cannot perform any more repetitions within a set) and maximising fatigue is more important for optimally developing hypertrophy than whether you use heavy or light resistances – but for this goal, most people prefer to use relatively heavy resistances because you can reach failure (thus producing a lot of muscular micro-tears that promote repair and growth) far more quickly. Longer aerobic exercises alone aren’t the best way to achieve that muscular look but the real-world fitness one can obtain from including it in one’s regime is valuable. However, short but intense cardiovascular exercises are very time efficient if one claims to not have a lot of time for exercise, and any exercise is better than none.
The main point is that ‘looking fit’ in the mirror won’t necessarily mean one is performance-wise as fit as one may think one is for the real world, because concentrating mainly on building the ‘showy’ muscles (the chest, abdominal and arm areas mainly) might mean neglecting other muscles or attributes such as stamina, balance and flexibility, and we are only as strong as our weakest attribute.
Being overly lean and gaunt is also not healthy, even though it might highlight one’s muscle definition best – few professional athletes are quite so lean, especially in sports where there are variable energy requirements (e.g. a tennis player cannot be totally sure whether he/she will need to play for 3 or 5, or 2 or 3, sets in a given match), and this is true of real life too. We cannot be sure whether we’ll be called to expend more energy than usual on a given day thus some fat in reserve is healthy and useful. Fat isn’t just for stored energy but has other functions too, such as providing insulation and warmth, protection and the storage of some vitamins. A lot of people can also mistake ‘thin and gaunt’ with ‘big muscles’ because they assume ‘muscle definition means muscle mass’ and assume ‘low body fat means fit and strong’ – but one just needs to look at professional strongmen and strongwomen to see the difference (however, at the highest level, such competitors can take other things to extremes, such as gaining mass in any form because ‘mass shifts mass’, in ways that cannot be healthily sustained indefinitely).
Still, regular exercise, even if one’s goal is to achieve a certain size and/or look in the mirror, is better than nothing. It can still make you feel great and better about yourself. These are just some of my personal views. Exercising for one’s appearance is better than not exercising at all, but it isn’t better than exercising for performance. They are not the same things – the former is relatively easy but is for the selfie, whilst the latter is relatively difficult but is for winning gold medals and titles. The use of certain drugs, like anabolic steroids, is also rife for many gym-goers who are primarily aiming for aesthetic goals, whilst professional sportspeople are not allowed to use such aids to make their recoveries faster or to grow larger. (Well, some sportspeople do secretly use illegal performance-enhancing drugs of one form or another, but they’re cheating in their sports as well as potentially cheating their own long-term health.)
Apart from bodybuilding, no one gives sporting medals to people according to the way they look. We don’t skip the games and just give the person who ‘looks’ the strongest, fastest or whatever the prizes! We can cheat on our health to try to achieve a certain look – and this is what some movie stars do, but under the supervision of medical staff, and only temporarily for their roles. On set, they can look fabulous but feel incredibly weak to the point of almost fainting. The same for bodybuilders when they’re on stage in a competition. So there isn’t an absolutely reliable 1:1 relationship between size and strength, appearance and performance. We want to be healthy more than look healthy. And that’s also a reason why I think our culture needs to be far less superficial and vain.
Gold medal winners will tend to look great too, but those who look great won’t necessarily be potential gold winners. Aesthetic trends/fads, like ‘metrosexual’ or ‘spornosexual’, come and go too, but performance will always be valuable.
Body dysmorphia, which was discussed in Post No.: 0168, is generally about the way sufferers perceive they look in the mirror too, so it’s better to get away from looks or weight to focus on health and performance instead – which also hopefully means that unhealthy practices to achieve a certain look or weight should not be tempting either because unhealthy practices generally hamper performance, especially in the long-term even though some unhealthy practices can boost performance in the short-term. This naturally includes features of one’s diet too. So another clarification is focusing on one’s long-term health and performance to discourage the use of long-term-harmful practices or banned forms of doping.
The instinct to assume ‘appearance equals performance’ as a rule of thumb when determining another person’s genetic fitness and attraction evolved because that was and is generally the case, but it’s not always the case, especially in the modern world where more and more techniques and technologies allow faking, cheating or exaggeration (e.g. dramatic artificial lighting and photo manipulation tools).
Woof! I am only a small puppy most of the time but I am stronger and more experienced than I appear! This post is not about sharing any specific exercises or routines because many can be found on the web. But if you’d like to share your own personal performance goals and the routines that work for you then feel free to via the Twitter comment button below.