Saturday, June 8, 2013

Not Just Pumping Iron - Part Ten

Apollonian and Dionysian Orientations
Part One: The Equipment

One of the most heated debates in the iron world in recent years has been the debate over equipment. Specifically, the controversy has been framed as "free weights" versus "machines." The proponents of free-weights (mainly barbells and dumbbells) have argued that they are superior for maximum development of strength and physique, they allow greater variety of exercises, and they develop coordination beyond what machines afford. The other camp, those who champion machines, argue that machines are safer to use, more nearly insure that any given exercise is performed correctly, and create exercises which work certain muscles at angles which free-weights cannot. But the strongest argument put forth by the machine companies is that these machines provide the most efficient development of muscular strength known.

In order to understand the arguments presented on both sides of the debate, one must understand how the various pieces of equipment work. They all have the same purpose, namely, to provide resistance during an exercise movement and to provide a means of increasing that resistance over time as the lifter grows stronger. This is in accord with the overload principle touched upon in an earlier chapter. To state the principle simply, when a muscle is worked against a resistance which is greater than that to which it is accustomed (i.e. overloaded), it will increase in strength in order to accommodate the increased demand. In other words, overload a muscle and it will become accustomed to the new demand. To keep the muscle growing, keep overloading it, with appropriate time intervals, nutritional requirements, and rest for its recuperation. The various pieces of equipment differ in the type of resistance which they provide and in a way that they change the level of resistance. The most important criterion is that the apparatus provides for progressive resistance exercise.

It is interesting to look at the evolution of weight lifting equipment. The first systematic attempt at progressive resistance training in Western culture is popularly considered to be made in ancient Greece by Milo of Crotona. At least, so goes the legend, and the legend is just that. Readers of this blog will be more than familiar with the story. I don't know about you, but I have yet to visit a gym which keeps livestock, so the method has been improved upon over time.

With the progressive resistance principal established, thanks to Milo's oh-so-bovine demo, no doubt other people used this principle with various kinds of makeshift exercise equipment. Stones of progressive sizes were collected for lifting and tossing. Cannon balls replaced stones, being more comfortable to hold. Someone thought to put a handle on a cannonball, and the kettlebell was invented. Thinking it would be easier to "handle" a pair of cannonballs, the dumbbell evolved. The handle was extended and the barbell came into being. These early pieces of equipment were known as globe dumbbells and barbells, spherical dumbbells and barbells because of the shape of the weighted end pieces. The metal spheres or globes were sometimes solid, sometimes hollow. The hollow spheres could, of course, be larger for a given amount of weight, and would therefore look more impressive when lifted. As I mentioned in a previous chapter, other heavy objects were lifted in the early strength shows -- anvils, cannon, platforms loaded with people, automobiles, animals, sledge hammers, you name it. Sometimes barbells were constructed from heavy wheels or from barrels which were then filled with some weighty content . . . great works of intellectual brilliance, scientific dissertations, puns of various sizes and shapes.

For the strength showmen, all of these apparati were important, and the more dramatic the better. But for the non-professional, the man who wanted to engage in the new "physical culture," the spherical dumbbells and barbells became the popular equipment. Free-hand calisthenics and calisthenics with fixed weight equipment such as Indian clubs and medicine balls began to be supplanted in the new physical culture circles by progressive resistance exercise, made possible by graduated sets of dumbbells and barbells. Exercise routines were pretty much standardized, based on the publication of a book by Theodor Siebert in Germany in 1907. Interestingly, Siebert's exercises provide the core of beginning lifting routines even today. 

In addition to making progressive resistance exercise practical for many people, barbells and dumbbells provide a degree of standardization which was necessary for contemporary lifting to develop. As part of their shows, the early strongmen put forth a challenge to members of the audience to step forth and equal their demonstrated feats. The feats, however, often involved odds and ends of non-standardized equipment, perhaps of unknown weight, and non-standardized ways of lifting (or bending and breaking, as in the case of horseshoes and chains, respectively). This, of course, gave the show person a distinct advantage in that the person who took up the challenge, in most cases, would not have had the opportunity to practice with this unique equipment.

An improvement of spherical weights came with the use of lead shot to load the hollow spheres to desired poundages. This was another step towards a standardized apparatus so much needed for lifting competition. With shot loaded spherical barbells it was easier for someone to attempt another person's best lift at another place and another time. A weight could be reported and a challenger could put his barbell on the scale and add lead shot until a desired weight was reached. The loaded sphere also made it easier to practice progressive resistance training in that fewer barbells and dumbbells were required. One could increase the weight of an existing barbell or dumbbell by adding lead shot as he became stronger, rather than having to construct or purchase a heavier barbell or dumbbell with each significant increase in strength.

Loaded spherical weights were used in Olympic competition as late as the 1924 games in Paris. That year lifters had a choice of using these or of using the new disc equipped barbell.

The clatter of barbell plates was the death knell for the spherical barbell. The invention of the barbell which used discs or plates meant that one piece of equipment would conveniently serve for many. One adjustable barbell could be quickly and easily loaded to any desired weight. This meant that a person who could not afford to equip a home gym with several spherical barbells of different sizes, or who didn't want to perform a tedious operation of weighing, loading, and unloading a hollow sphere with lead shot, could now purchase one apparatus which would meet a wide variety of exercise needs, at an affordable price. The mechanics of progressive resistance exercise were now simple and convenient. In addition, much greater standardization was possible. A group of lifters in competition could all use the same barbell with plates added as needed. That meant that they all used a bar with one diameter, one balance, and one "feel." And, in time, this meant precisely standardized dimensions for competition barbells.

Anyone who has lifted both a solid barbell and an adjustable barbell knows the tremendous difference in the feel. The revolving sleeve or even the revolving plates of an adjustable barbell allow one to make quick movements and changes of direction of movement without feeling that the bar may be wrenched from one's grip. I remember vividly my surprise the first time I lifted a solid spherical barbell. I was warming up for an Olympic lifting contest being held at an old Turner club in the Midwest. This was sometime in the early 1960s. Among the array of iron in the warmup room was a solid iron barbell. I picked it up, and found it to be a suitable weight for doing some warmup power cleans and presses. So, I lowered it to the floor and did a power clean. To my consternation my wrists bent back painfully as the barbell reached shoulder level. The momentum of the barbell twisted my wrists well past the point where they were accustomed to stopping on a power clean. I knew then why these unwieldy hunks of iron were not any longer the chosen equipment of lifting.

A less dramatic, but equally impressive experience formed the basis of my regard for the solid kettlebell. While teaching a psychotherapy seminar on a Russian ship, the M.S. Kazatstan, I was delighted to learn that there was a gym aboard. The first time I had a chance, I went off excitedly to work out. What I found was a small room with some exercise mats and several assorted dumbbells and kettlebells. From pictures which I had seen of early strongmen I recognized the kettlebells with some sense of mystique. What I found, upon using them, or, more accurately, trying to use them for some one arm curls and one arm presses, was that they were quite uncomfortable. More than just unwieldy, the handles were difficult to grip as the angle of hold shifted during a curl or press. I understand why kettlebells are relegated to the category of antique equipment.

The solid barbell and kettlebell are items of the past, left along the road of progress as more comfortable, versatile, and efficient equipment emerged. The solid dumbbell has survived, however. Especially in gyms, where a rack of progressively weighted dumbbells is desirable, the solid ones are often found. There is also a safety factor involved. whereas, when a barbell is lifted, the bar is intentionally kept parallel to the floor, when dumbbells are lifted, they are intentionally rotated so that the bars have excursions from parallel to the floor to vertical. This means that collars or clamps must be tightly affixed to both ends of the bars if plates are used, to prevent the plates from sliding off. Solid dumbbells avoid the hazard of falling plates from carelessly applied collars or clamps. Some gyms use adjustable dumbbells which have permanently welded collars, thereby preventing falling weights.

Barbells, too, can have permanently affixed collars, thereby creating a safer piece of equipment, while having the advantage of a rotating sleeve, or at least rotating plates. Many gyms have racks of such barbells in progressive weights. More and more, though, the best gyms provide Olympic or power bars with a large assortment of various sized plates and heavy duty collars.

An interesting side note is that in an occasional advertisement or store display the plates are arranged from smallest to largest and back to smallest. This symmetrical arrangement is reminiscent of the spherical barbell. It looks almost as if someone has sliced the spheres. In fact, I have seen dumbbells whose plates were beveled such that when they were placed on the bars, smallest to largest to smallest, they actually formed spheres. Such arrangements of plates, though not convenient when adjusting barbells, are a reminder of the adjustable barbell's roots.

The adjustable barbell is clearly the quintessence of weightlifting equipment. In its most highly evolved form, the Olympic or power bar, it is balanced and of exactly marked weight. Its balance, its smoothly rotating bar, its precisely located knurling, and its "feel" all contribute to making it the easiest way to lift a given weight. Olympic bars and power bars have a slightly different diameter, the latter being greater, to subtly accommodate those different styles of lifting. Simple in concept, this barbell is evolved and of incredibly versatility.

There are various pieces of equipment which are adjuncts to the barbell, and its smaller cohort the dumbbell. Included are squat racks, power racks, flat benches, incline benches, decline benches, preacher curl benches, etc. All of these are in the service of lifting barbells and dumbbells.

For many years there have been other pieces of equipment which have coexisted with barbells and dumbbells, and served as either adjuncts or alternatives available for variety. These are the various pulley machines -- lat pull, triceps extension, crossover cables, cable row, and so forth -- and calf machines. These simple machines, in their earlier versions, were loaded with barbell plates, and in their current versions have built-in weight stacks with a selector pin for choosing the proportion of the weight stack desired. The calf machine is an easier and more comfortable version of doing toe raises with a barbell on one's back. The lat pull is an alternative to the chinning bar and a weight belt on which barbell plates are hung. The other cable systems simply employ a pulley to change the direction of pull so that one can pull down or pull horizontally or pull at some angle in between, rather than being restricted to pulling or pushing a barbell or dumbbells on a vertical plane against gravity. In essence, these machines do nothing that cannot be done with a barbell, dumbbells, and a chinning bar. They do, however, add interesting variety and some more comfortable alternatives for certain exercises. (Actually, lat pulls and chins do have a subtly different effect, as they involve moving the resistance toward one's stationary body [open chain movement], or moving one's body as the resistance [closed chain movement], respectively.)  

These machines, however, are not the ones which represent one side of the free-weights versus machines debate. The machines in the debate are "high tech" machines. The essence of the high tech machine is that it involves moving a lever against an automatically variable resistance. Both of these characteristics are important. First, by having a lever to be moved, the machine requires that a particular motion, for which that particular machine is designed, and only that motion, is used. This allows for relative isolation of the muscle group for which the machine is designed. In other words, recruitment of muscles other than those which the machine is designed to exercise, is minimized. "Cheating" on an exercise is made difficult. Second, the automatically variable resistance accommodates the mechanical advantage of the body. When lifting a barbell or dumbbell the level of difficulty varies throughout the range of motion of the exercise. In lifting parlance, there is a "sticking point." So, the weight lifted is limited by the weight which can be moved through the point of least mechanical advantage. In the zones where there is greater mechanical advantage, the muscle may work very little with that weight. By using an automatically variable resistance, the machine provides more resistance in the zones of greater mechanical advantage and less resistance in the zone of least mechanical resistance. The result -- maximal resistance throughout the full range of motion of the exercise.

Because of this second essential feature of the high tech machines, automatically variable resistance, they are referred to as isokinetic machines. Resistance is automatically varied by several means. Some machines use a cam, some a variable length lever arm, some a hydraulic cylinder, and some a pneumatic cylinder.

The isokinetic machine was invented some years ago. The first Nautilus machine was built in 1948, although Nautilus equipment was not commercially available until 1970. Although many other companies offer isokinetic machines, the Nautilus company has published the most research, done the most advertising, and even set up Nautilus centers, franchised widely. So successful has been ('has been') their campaign that much of the general public at one time knew the name and used it as a common noun. I remember being asked when someone heard I was a lifter, "Do you do Nautilus or barbells?"

That question reflects the "either/or" controversy. Much of this controversy resulted, I believe, from the public claims made by the representatives of Nautilus. Prior to the advent of commercially available Nautilus equipment, there was no debate about free-weights versus machines. After all, the machines which existed before the isokinetic machines were essentially barbell adjuncts, not machines created to replace free-weights. But with Nautilus, the point was different. Arthur Jones, for instance, declared  that, "Instead of trying to fit human muscles to an imperfect tool, the barbell -- Nautilus was an attempt to design perfect tools that would exactly fit the requirements of muscles." Jones was critical of machines which " . . . merely copy the functions of a barbell," saying some rather inflammatory words, namely, that such machines "are now about as practical for the purpose of exercise as a horse is for the purpose of transportation." If this were not sufficient, Jones went on to say that "Nautilus is the ONLY source of 'total' exercise."

During the height of the Nautilus movement, as Nautilus centers were being established throughout the country, a highly accomplished lifter came forward endorsing the equipment. Some time later, a brother team of well known physique stars added their endorsement. The former star claimed great things for Nautilus equipment, giving many the impression that his massive, defined physique and great strength were the products of Nautilus training. [Viator. Mentzer brothers. Endorsement money and lies.]

With all this, Nautilus appeared to many to be the state of the art, and predicted that the barbell would gather dust as it became a relic of the "old," that is, pre-Nautilus days. Other equipment manufacturers boarded the band wagon and emulated Nautilus as closely as patent laws would allow.

So what happened?
Why were free-weights not phased out?

First of all, the lofty claims of Nautilus did not hold up for hardcore lifters. The softcore lifting public liked the machines. They seemed simple to use, convenient, and efficient for producing some quick gains in overall muscle conditioning. Hardcore bodybuilders often reported that they did not experience as complete a pump from the machines as from free-weights. Whether that was an objective fact or not, it reflected a dissenting opinion about the popular machines.

Then came an exposé.

The star, who had early on endorsed Nautilus, stepped forward to announce publicly that he had been paid well to endorse Nautilus and the he had actually built his physique using free-weights. In fact, this man had competed in a Mr. America contest well prior to even using Nautilus equipment. The fact became realized that exclusive Nautilus training had never produced a champion physique. And, obviously, Olympic lifters and powerlifters do the overwhelmingly greatest part of their training on equipment with which they compete, namely the barbell.

What has emerged is the following pattern. Many softcore lifters prefer the machines. As I have said previously, they are safer, easier, and simpler to use than free-weights. The Nautilus training program, for example, has proven to be a moderately efficient way of muscle conditioning for overall strength, for health and other sports. Hardcore lifters, on the other hand, tend to use free weights in the main, with machines as a small, supplementary part of their program. When Nautilus machines are used, they are very rarely followed using the Nautilus training program. For Olympic lifters and powerlifters, the machines have little use, aside from being used as minor adjuncts to the primary free-weight training.

The basic fact is the matter is baldly stated by Daniel P. Riley in Strength Training by the Experts (1977). "The most important consideration . . . is really personal preference. Remember that it is the quality of training that will provide the greatest increases in muscle strength and mass. Significant gains in muscle strength and mass can be obtained by using anything that will overload the muscles."

Of particular interest to us, in the context of the present book, is the psychological reason for the personal preference of equipment . . .    

No comments:

Post a Comment

Blog Archive