Some friends of mine recently started work on an addition to their house. The architect said they needed some steel support beams. I was hanging around the day the guy came to drop off this steel, so, being the kind of guy I am (the kind who likes to lift steel, that is), I volunteered to help out.
A couple of the beams were about six feet long and I figured they just couldn't be more than about a hundred pounds or so. The guy making the delivery (he looked like a cross between a lumberjack and a Hell's Angel) casually slid one onto one beefy shoulder and walked off with it.
So, real cool like, I walk over and take the other one onto my right shoulder.
Well, I tell ya it felt like it felt more like a small economy car than a lousy six-foot beam. My left arm is flailing around trying to counterbalance this beam (my left arm weighs a tad less than a hundred pounds so it didn't make a real effective counterweight) and I'm feeling every muscle in my back in a whole new way.
Arnold once said the average person doesn't know a muscle exists unless it hurts, just as your grandmother doesn't know she's got a biceps unless she strains it. Suddenly I was in a position to vouch for all kinds of muscles on my right along the spinal cord - I could feel every one of them.
Most people think the spinal erectae, the so-called "lower back" muscles, exist just at the waist. I know better, and I still find myself thinking that way. To learn how wrong you are just look at a picture of Franco Columbu in his prime doing a back double biceps. Those muscles form a ridge either side of his spine from his butt all the way up to his shoulder blades.
As I casually strolled away from the flatbed truck with that steel beam on my shoulder that's what I was feeling - one half of the group known as the spinal erectae muscles. And I was feeling them all the way from my butt up to my shoulder blades.
Now the Paul Bunyan clone over there was having no problem with that piddly little beam. Probably he lifts weight like that every day. Well so do I! The difference is that he lifts it on one shoulder and has to balance it there. I lift it under controlled circumstances with equal stress balanced perfectly on a bar that I grip evenly on both sides. Or in the form of two dumbbells of equal weight. How eccentric of me.
Anyhow, what this is leading up to is a lesson in what you could call "functional strength". The Hell's Angel with the beam on his shoulder has a great deal of functional strength. His muscles may not have looked like much but when it got right down to using them, that didn't matter a darn. Think about it, folks. You lift weights and it shows. But then when it comes time to use those muscles if you don't measure up that can be pretty embarrassing.
Bulging biceps don't count for much when you're carrying steel beams. Of splitting wood. Of digging a ditch. Doing preacher curls doesn't exactly prepare you for the outside world, know what I mean? Fact of the matter is, darn few of the movements you more than likely do in the gym correspond to any normal daily activity. The more isolated the movement is, the less analogous it will be to any practical function.
I'm not suggesting you give up isolation movements. I'm not giving them up so why should you? But I learned something from my impromptu training session with Paul Bunyan.
I've started doing a lot more asymmetric training.
In other words, I perform uneven training.
Sounds really stupid, doesn't it?
Well, hear me out.
How many times during the day are both your arms or both your legs doing the same motion at the same time? Not often, I'll bet. At work or play, both halves of your body are putting forth effort but almost never in the same way to the same degree at the same time. And yet that's just what we do in the gym. We force each limb to mirror the other. That's why I had trouble with the beam. In fact, it would probably have been easier for me to carry one on each shoulder than to do one at a time.
Some athletes might be afraid that asymmetric training will result in an asymmetric build. Just the opposite is true, and I'll tell you why.
When you lift a bar, one side can dominate and take on a disproportionate amount of the stress in the movement causing certain muscles to grow faster. The result of this is an imbalance in your build. If, in training, the stress placed on either side is exactly the same, it will be almost impossible for muscles to grow unevenly. That should cure any sort of lack of symmetry problem.
How do you train asymmetrically? Use one heavy dumbbell and train one side at a time. Use your imagination . . .
Done using your imagination for now?
Let's continue . . .
Let's continue . . .
Virtually any upper body exercise done with two hands can be done with one. For example, right after the Hell's Angel and I did (Jim) beams together, I started doing one-armed dumbbell presses. I'd do as many as I could with my left, pass it to my right, rep out, pass it back to my left, and continue in that fashion. It's turned out to be highly effective super-setting one side with the other until failure. It brings into play muscles no amount of two-handed overhead pressing ever did before, stabilizers in the legs, hips, lower abdominals, obliques, and throughout the entire back. It's a fast workout too. You might think doing one side at a time means it would require twice as long to complete your sets. It probably would if you weren't super-setting every movement. But you are, and because of that you actually finish a body part in less time.
For the shoulders try doing one-arm overhead presses, one-arm upright rows, one-arm laterals, or (you might like this one) one-arm shrugs.
Bodbulgers and lifters have been doing one-arm bent rows for years, bracing the free arm on a bench, but what about one-arm pulldowns, one-arm cable rows, or one-arm T-Bar rows.
Arms can obviously be trained one at a time but normally the exercises are done seated, often with the arm braced in position. Try doing standing curls one arm at a time to bring into action all manner of stabilizers. Or one-arm French presses. Or one-arm pressdowns.
Want power? Try one-arm power cleans. Or one-arm deadlifts. You might want to use a strap on those last ones. By the way, normally, when you lift something one-handed, you brace your free hand on one leg to help in the movement. Don't do that. Do, to as great a degree as possible, a normal deadlift. But use only one hand. I can promise you pain in places you never heard of.
Asymmetric training may look a little weird. It may feel different from anything you've tried before. It may cause you some aches in strange places. But I think once you've tried it you'll be hooked.