While I’m not at all close to being an expert on anything, I do happen to know a thing or two about a handful of subjects, such as what the best breakfast food in the world is, who is really pretty, and quotes from Harry Potter. The obvious answers are Scrambled Eggs and Mila Kunis, and check out this quote dropped by my man Albus Dumbledore:
“Humans have a knack for choosing precisely the things that are worst for them.”
Those words are applicable to practically everything, but I find it most poignant when it comes to fitness. For lack of a better term, people just love to do really stupid shit. We have an obsession with aesthetics that leads to the neglect or mistreatment of entire body parts. The muscles you’re forgetting about are the ones you need the most, and the ones you focus on aren’t nearly as important.
I’m not sure if gender plays a roll in this, because I’ve seen both men and women focus on the axis of aesthetics, the pecs, abs, and biceps. If you walked into a college gym or local fitness facility, you’re guaranteed to see more variations of bicep curls and chest exercises than there are weights in the gym. It’s absurd! Fitness magazines, across both sexes, reinforce these well-intentioned but vain behaviors. In a mini-study of some of my female friends, I sent out a mass text asking about their favorite muscle on a the male body. Responses included biceps, chest, and abs. (Who woulda thunk?!) Prying further, I asked why not more functionally important muscles, like the glutes. This is a screen shot from my friend’s phone:
After further discussion, I understood why Sarah likes arms; you can see them. You’re far more likely to see a T-shirt or tank top than a guy walking around without pants on. Logical, right? Maybe for today, and tomorrow, but for the long term, the biceps femoris is much more important than the biceps brachii. Why is there such a disconnect between structure and aesthetics?
I think that some of it is due to research in exercise science, and the development of machines to isolate specific muscles. Instead of looking at the body as a complete system that needed to work as such, we began to look at it in unrelated segments. This culture, exacerbated by years of body-building centric media coverage, has led millions of people to avoid basic, effective exercises, instead focusing on isolation exercises that let them ‘feel the burn.’ This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; there’s nothing wrong with training to ‘feel’ something, or for aesthetic purposes. I mean at the end of the day, who doesn’t want to look better naked?
Issues arise when we neglect our long term health for a short term aesthetic goal. For example, doing curls because you want bigger arms is fine, but not if you’re not doing any rowing or chinning. You’ll have big arms, no upper back what-so-ever, and a blown shoulder. That’s going to be fun, isn’t it.
Unlike most situations, I think that there are enough options when it comes to exercise that you can have your cake and eat it too. If you’re thinking aesthetics though, cake might not be the best idea. For the most part, choose exercises that either begin or end as body weight movements. Properly executing fundamental patterns will always provide more for you than supported, machine based exercises. You want basics?
- Hip Hinge – Think deadlift variations
- Squat – Body weight, goblet, front, back, Zercher, you’ll never run out
- Pulling, both vertical and horizontal. – Chinups and Rows
- Pushing, same as above. – Overhead Pressing and Push-Ups
- Torso Stability – these can include loaded carries, or anti-extension, anti-rotation, and anti-lateral flexion exercises. You can frequently incorporate these aspects into your other movements.
A shorter list could not be had! The above list could be expanded into countless articles, books, and texts explaining the importance of each, but that’s not what you or I want. You simply want to look better, or perform better, or some mix of the two. Right? I simply want you to feel good while doing that, not only now but in 30 and 50 years from now. I don’t think that it’s so hard to have the best of both worlds, do you? After all, it’s happened before.
If nothing else, I’m going to ask one thing of you. When planning your daily workouts, begin with the basics. If you’ve completed all of your sets and reps of chin-ups and squats, go ahead and do bicep curls and calve raises. If you’ve truly trained hard enough, instead of merely working out, you’ll likely not even want to do the isolation work. If you’re training hard enough, the odds are that you’ll look like you’re doing the isolation work. Then we’ll both be happy, right? I hope everyone is enjoying this first weekend of October; I’m going to train.