The trap of weight lifting
In this article, I want to share one not so obvious, and not so popular, thing about conventional weight lifting. I also want to make it clear that in no way, I intend to attack the concept of lifting weights or any relative sports such as powerlifting, Olympic lifting, bodybuilding, and CrossFit. However, like any activity, if done excessively and inconsiderably, it has its complications that are no good for your body and health. Let's talk about this trap.
You might think: “of course we know that the heavier you lift, the greater a chance of injury is,” or “the technique is the key if you want to see the results and stay safe.” And you will be right, but today we consider something else.
When you come to the gym, you see a lot of people around doing biceps curls, triceps presses, bench presses, squats, deadlifts, and machines …. a lot of machines. And if you come to the gym every day or every second day you still see the same people doing the same things. To me, they all steadily head towards a disaster that is awaiting them in the near or not so future.
How so? First, here is my own experience. My gymnastics journey ended when I was a teenager. I quit and shifted my focus towards powerlifting. I liked it a lot — the feeling it gives you when you bench press 160kg (my personal best) is astonishing. The size of your muscles, increasing in size from month to month, gives you a high. Of course, you want more and faster. I started competing and was quite successful at it. Eventually, I took bodybuilding, as well. Everything was great until it wasn’t.
Something awkward was happening to my body. Yes, it was big, the size of the t-shirts I wore was L and XL (now it is XS and S). The biceps, the triceps, the lats. I had guns. Big guns (by my standards, of course). Unfortunately, it turned out that the guns were …. muskets …. big, shiny, loud and …. absolutely dysfunctional. I couldn’t touch my knees without bending them, the shootings in my lower back were killing me, and scratching my neck behind the head was virtually impossible (I had to find a girlfriend). In other words, all my gymnastics just disappeared. No flexibility, no mobility, no balance, no coordination. I was like an old tree, big and bulky. How did it happen to me? Let’s have a look at the social and physiological origins of my failure.
When everyone around you lifts weights and does it often and has some muscles on them, it is easy to put the dots together and jump on the bandwagon. And the social media that bombards you with the “lean and mean” body images of guys doing biceps curls or squats makes it even easier to follow the trend. When everyone does it - it must be right for you.
All movements your body can do are executed by the muscles run by the Central Nervous System (CNS). For each of them, the bran stores a motor-neural program - a set of instructions for how and when to engage the muscles responsible for that movement. So, when you want to bend the arm, your brain retrieves the corresponding program and engages the related muscles. However, when you want to do a handstand or a dancing routine … nothing happens …because you have yet to develop and learn that program.
The reason why weight lifting is so popular is its relative simplicity. All those exercises and machines utilize already familiar movements - banding the arm, the legs, the hips, etc. We learned how to do it a long time ago, as kids. By adding weights, we just make it more difficult for the body.
The reason why yoga, gymnastics, acrobatics, dancing, etc. are not so popular compared to weight lifting is that there is nothing simple about it. To do it, you need, first, learn the moments. It means you need to recognize the muscles used, figure out the sequence, and make those muscles stronger, more flexible, and enduring. All these require active thinking, whereas bending the arm does not. The same process is needed for the next element, and the next, and so on. I want to point out that “not simple” and “difficult” aren’t synonyms. Difficult or hard implies a significant amount of energy focused on one thing, whereas not simple or complex implies a few steps (easy or hard) to do that one thing.
Now, back to weight lifting. What do we call progress in there? First and foremost, I’d say it’s the ability to handle heavier weights. Sounds good to me. However, when you increase the weight on your barbel, you decrease the range of motion. The more weight you put, the less range of motion you get. For example. The biceps curls with 50kg. Can you do it with no kip and go from fully locked elbows to fully bent where the hand would move in an arc trajectory from 0 to almost 180 degrees? No. The hand would probably start at 80 degrees and stop at 120 degrees relative to the biceps with your torso leaning slightly back to accommodate the effort. How about 10kg - no problem, full range. The same is true for every single exercise with weights.
Because the weight increase is widely considered as progress, no one is happy with decreasing it. And when we hit a plateau, we try to keep working weights as heavy as possible, or use strategies we have read about in numerous fitness magazines to fight it and continue increasing the weight. We do believe that heavier weights will yield more significant results - the muscle increase in the first place. And we are diligently pursuing this goal for years.
Remember those motor-neural programs stored in the brain for each moment? So as we continue our fight for heavier weights, our range of motion keeps shortening. And the brain keeps “seeing” that the elbow is now never fully locked nor fully extended. After only a couple of months, the brain “draws” a fair conclusion that now this is a new normal for the elbow to function. It changes the motor program for that movement and eventually loses the ability to control the muscles whenever the elbow goes beyond its new normal. The result? You cannot start or finish the movements with the elbows fully extended or bent. A pull up from fully extended elbows to fully bent? Or the same but lat rows? Pushups? Challenging or pretty impossible, right? The same is fair for any other movement.
The domino effect occurs next. Since we lost the range -> we don’t use the muscles beyond it (due to changes in the motor-neural programs) -> we lose their strength beyond that range (the brain “forgets” how to activate the muscles there because we never go there) -> we lose those muscles’ flexibility (the brain will freak out and contract the muscles whenever they stretch beyond the “normal range” of motion to protect the joints from “unfamiliar” therefore “unpredictable” stress) -> lost flexibility limits mobility of the related joints (It will be difficult to scratch the back of your neck …you will have to find a girlfriend or boyfriend) -> lost mobility makes it difficult to coordinate the movements -> and, finally, lost coordination significantly decreases balance, which is an ability to maintain a chosen position using coordination, which is based on mobility, which is based on flexibility … see the connection? It is a vicious circle.
To make things even worse. It might come to you as a surprise, but our brains shrink as we age. A healthy person’s brain will lose its density by 25-30% from the age of 25 to 70. What does it mean? The brain is a bunch of neurons (~86 billion, the grey matter) connected by trillions of nervous fibers (the white matter - axons, dendrites, and other confusing words). If two neurons stop communicating with each other, then their nervous fiber linking them to one another - get physically disassembled. Since after 25 we are mostly done with school we no longer focus on anything else but one thing which gets us our salary. So, the neural connections we used for mathematics or chemistry classes are no longer needed. Our body is a very efficient mechanism. It doesn’t keep something we don’t use. It’s expansive. It requires energy to maintain. So you don’t use it - you lose it.
No panic. The brain shrinkage is normal. It is designed to give us an ability to stay efficient and functional at what helps us get through decades of our life (hunting, building, farming). The body is like a small business. It allocates its resources on something which yields results and doesn’t cost much. However, with humanity becoming more advanced every year, we get lazier. Nowadays, there is no need to punch keys - use voice control, walking to the TV to change a channel …. ahahaha ….. turning on a light switch …Alexa! …… going to a bank …. nonsense! …. driving a car …may Tesla be with you. As you see, those neurons in your brain, that are supposed to talk to each other to produce all that activity, become … less talkative. What happens next - I believe you’ve already guessed. Combine all those mentioned above with decreasing range and complexity of motion and you will get an ever-accelerating brain shrinkage, which makes it hard to maintain proper body functionality as we age.
And here comes Injuries. No wonder we start experiencing more back, knee, hip, shoulder, elbow problems. If we cannot increase the weight, we try increasing reps. But the movement stays the same. It is the same joint and the same muscles. Eventually, we get an overuse injury, literally wearing off the join and its connective tissue (ligaments), contributing to a further decrease of our overall functionality and ability to produce familiar moments. But we are not quitters! Right? If we can’t do squats, we keep doing bench presses and jumping jacks with no jumps. We are fighters. We don’t stop just because our knee hurts. We keep pushing the body within its ever-decreasing functionality. Sounds familiar? I hear you. Been there done that.
When I hit my rock bottom (severe lower back shootings, 7mm disk displacement, virtually no flexibility and mobility, no handstand), I questioned myself why I kept doing it. The idea of exercising is to improve health, not to hunt it down into a deep dark hole and blow up the entrance. So I switched back to my old sport - gymnastics. Of course, a heavily modified version of it. But my focus, again, became strength thorough-out full range of motion, stamina, flexibility, mobility, coordination, and balance. Not only that. I focused on learning movements I couldn’t do at that moment, such as handstands, l-sits, and other gymnastics strengths elements. Remember those connected neurons? Whenever you learn anything - a new language or movement - the brain creates more connections between the neurons. They start talking and stay connected through life as long as you keep using them. The more you learn, the more connections you develop, the better your chances of using your body up to its full physical and mental extent deep into your age.
I am pushing 40 now. No back problems what so ever. I can do quite a few gymnastics strength elements again. I am flexible. My mobility, coordination, and balance are back. How about the muscles, am I still big? No, I am not, but I look ok … like a young tree … not so big, but pliable and strong. Check my Instagram (@trainer_maxim) to see for yourself.
Here is my take on it. There is no point in doing something you can, do something you cannot. Constantly expand your body’s movement language’s vocabulary. Learn new strength elements, combine them to create new routines. Stretch regularly. Learn balancing exercises (handstands, pistol squats). Keep doing cardio and weights, but with purpose and not that often (once or twice per week). With purpose means, if for handstands, your triceps need to be stronger, then do triceps exercises and use its new strength for the handstand skill or any other one. Also, in general, learn more new things outside your everyday life interests. Enlarge your field of knowledge to create more neural connections to prevent premature brain shrinkage and keep neurological disorders (dementia) at bay. And don’t forget to get more rest. Only at rest does the brain build new connections!
I hope you enjoyed reading it. If you have any follow up questions, please, sent me a text. I will always be happy to answer and share my expertise. Thank you very much, my friends, and have a great day!
Greetings from Bali -)