Our entire training staff read an article published in the Journal of Nutrition that chronicled and provided historical context for the famed “Minnesota Starvation Experiment.” This study commenced in 1944 toward the end of WWII. Ancel Keys, a physiologist at the University of Minnesota conducted the most exhaustive study in human history on the topic of human starvation. The aim of the study was to learn what happens to humans when they are systematically starved. Equally as important, Keys (and the War Department) wanted to identify a prudent way to re-feed or re-fuel the massive populations of starved POW’s as the war seceded. The end result was a 1385-page text titled “The Biology of Human Starvation.”
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) sent out an email survey to its members and certified professionals asking them what the new trends in the fitness industry are for 2013-2014. A few of our staff chuckled as we clicked through question after question about the latest and greatest fitness fads. It left me thinking, “Who cares if this stuff is “new” or hot… shouldn’t we be more concerned with whether or not it PRODUCES RESULTS?” The fitness industry (including everything ranging from health clubs, personal trainers, infomercial gadgets, and fitness/wellness magazines) is as guilty as any industry of hyping what’s new. I’m all for continual improvement and innovation, but new doesn’t mean better… it means, “new.” This line of thinking led to the development of our new “Group” workout card at Discover Strength. We named the workout card “Legends” because the three workouts come from three mentors of mine that are truly “legends” in the field of strength training and fitness. Each workout finds it’s origin in a different decade; one from the 70’s, one the 80’s, and one the 90’s.
I recently had a client tell me that her physical therapist told her that she should probably avoid leg extension and leg curl as these exercises trained “muscles” but that they were not “functional.” This client is very well informed, so she knew exactly how off-base this advice was. The logical response to this physical therapist (and to all of those who espouse so-called “functional training”) is this: What causes function? The answer of course is MUSCLE and MUSCLE CONTRACTION. Here is the bottom line. The goal of strength training should be to improve the ability of a muscle to contact and produce force. Then and only then can functional ability (our ability to bend, run, swing, ski, jump, climb, live) actually improve.
Side note: To be precise, we can see improvements in performance by practicing a specific “closed-skill.” This simply means that if we practice a specific task or skill, we will get better at it. The limitation to this is that this improved performance does NOT transfer to other tasks or skills. This is a basic and long held tenet in the field of motor learning and control. Exercise should be all about changing our physiology, NOT about improving our skills.
The Hippocratic Oath is credited to the ancient Greek physician and philosopher, Hippocrates. Taken by physicians and healthcare professionals, the most well known tenet is translated as “First, do no harm.” This is a fantastic starting point when considering an exercise program. I had the fortune of being taught this lesson by a mentor and leader in the field of exercise science and strength and conditioning, Mark Asanovich. Mark was the long time strength and conditioning coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers under head coach Tony Dungy and went on to spend a number of seasons as the strength and conditioning coach for the Jacksonville Jaguars (Mark had coaching stints with the Vikings, Bucs, Ravens, and Jaguars). Mark was presenting at a strength and conditioning conference in Ohio in 2002. His presentation was confrontational and not well received by the audience (if I recall, one attendee wanted to fist-fight with him following the presentation). Why? Because Mark questioned the popular practices and trends (Olympic weightlifting, fast speeds of movement, plyometric training) in strength training and called them out as… “Dangerous.” His message was simple. Our (the strength and fitness professional) role as an allied health professional is to “first, do no harm.” Our first priority in an exercise program should be safety. This really shouldn’t be a controversial topic. After all, by definition, exercise should improve physical function (not decrease it). Arthur Jones put it succinctly: “Exercise should help to avoid injury...not cause injury.” If it doesn’t improve our function and in fact has a negative impact on our health or function, it really isn’t exercise (it is probably better classified as sport or physical activity… very different than exercise). Mark was very clear, if an exercise carries with it a potential for acute or chronic injury, it shouldn’t be performed. This message resonated with me in 2002. Today, Mark’s message is more important (and less accepted) than ever. A review of current exercise practices, trends, classes, and methodologies reveals that the vast majority of what passes as exercise (particular resistance exercise) is in fact, about as dangerous as it gets.
I will argue that most exercisers, even the most dedicated and hardworking fitness enthusiasts fail to ask a simple question before they commence an exercise program, an individual exercise, or a general mode of exercise. That question is this: What is my objective? The answer to this question delineates what type of exercise to perform and HOW to perform it. Everything starts with this question. The reality is most people exercise because they simply understand that exercise is good for them… but they fail to dig a little bit deeper. Answers to “What is my objective?” might include: prevent injury; increase lean muscle tissue; increase bone mineral density; reduce body fat; improve running speed; etc. Whatever the answer, exercise should be performed in accordance with that stated objective. And here is the key: Your objective shouldn’t be to get better at exercise. Stated otherwise, your objective shouldn’t be to raise a weight from point A to point B. We don’t receive credit for how much weight we lift, how many times we lift it, or how many times our chin elevates above the pull-up bar. Exercise is a means to an end, not an end in itself. Some critical examination and contemplation of this question will change the way you exercise forever (and dramatically improve your results).
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