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Middle Body

We've looked already 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, 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 out of the ditch, well, your backside folds out like a sugarplum fairy sprinkling stardust.

You didn't train your body -- you trained only part of it. It's the difference between being integrated, and being disintegrated. The body should 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. No need to 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 burpees -- 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!


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.

Smarter? 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 some people don't do any of these, or rarely, and still have visible obliques. Why them, and not you? They naturally, unconsciously engage their core when they exercise. So their core is developed. What they do 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, if you think one particular body part should be emphasised over the others. Maybe you have a photo shoot for your Sports Illustrated bikini issue? The cover of 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 nephews without slipping a disk, well, deadlifts and knees-to-elbows will train you, not just parts of you.

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, like a broken robot. 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. Teenage boys 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 someone who's just not into it, hits with their arm, as a sort of push, as if their arm is a club or a spear. The toughguy in the bar winds up and hits with his shoulder behind it, like John Wayne. But the professional, the knowledgeable striker, understands that the real power comes from the twist of his hips. Hips first, then shoulder, and 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.

Well. See what you've learned? Sort of a different perspective, isn't it. It's not about being different, but being effective. Just the tip of the iceberg. It starts with simple effectiveness. Everyone can benefit from not doing useless, unsafe things.

Be excellent.


Wrong Theories, pt. II

Climbing Higher than Possible

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, just can’t break through to a heavier weight, or continued fat-loss. So 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 mind 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. What a ridiculous 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.

We humbly propose another 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 so-called stabilizing muscles. These neglected "muscles" 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 muscles, the stabilizers -- the unrecruited motor units; they're not getting much of a workout, not even in their supporting role. The big muscles have crowded the auxiliaries out, attempting as it were to take over their function. The trained motor units have reached their capacity, and can't grow any more disproportionately. 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 stabilizers, a full range of motor units within a given muscle. This is what makes the difference between someone who only looks big and strong, and someone who is actually strong, no matter how big.

There's a lot of nonsense in the world. The relative proportion between foolish and wise is probably about the same when it comes to fitness. Perhaps more. Perhaps much more. No matter. We don't know what we don't know we don't know, if we think we know it. Sometimes however we get the chance to correct a wrong notion, or a wrong practice. This is a wonderful thing. We do, after all, live inside our bodies. That's a world where nonsense can make you weak, or unattractive, or old before your time or ill, or worse.

None of us can undo all of the nonsense, because hardly anything is perfect, and of that catagory, none of us fit. No tragedy. The tragedy is not that we aren't perfect, but that excellence is possible, while so much less is the norm. If you'd like to undo some of the decay, you can start with yourself. 

Be excellent.


CrossFit Burbank
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