Gym class was not a great time for me.
To understand exactly how painful grade school PE was back in my day, you must experience “Go, You Chicken Fat, Go.” Back in early 1960s, PE was all about preparing for and passing the Presidential Fitness Test, which was JFK’s youth fitness standards. “Go, You Chicken Fat, Go” was a ridiculous song written expressly for the Presidential challenge and sung by a guy named Robert Preston. Every single day during PE class, we did calisthenics as it blasted over the PA system on repeat. We’d do pushups, jumping jacks, squat thrusts, chinups, all while listening to this masterpiece – I think I’m finally realizing why I hated strength training and gravitated toward long distance endurance events for the bulk of my youth! We occasionally got to play dodgeball, and those were good days. Head shots were allowed and even encouraged. No PC stuff anywhere.
The hallowed halls of the Academy of Broscience contain untold tomes of knowledge, wisdom, and recipes for “sick” pump stacks. Over the years, their scholars have elucidated the arcane esoterica of muscle confusion, thereby making it palatable for the layman. They discovered that any gram of carbohydrate eaten after dusk turns immediately to fat, and that curling in the squat rack engages more muscle fibers than curling elsewhere. Their field researchers are reportedly close to confirming the existence of spot reduction. But perhaps their greatest contribution to modern physical culture has been the establishment of the unassailable fact that muscle burns fifty times more calories than fat, at fifty calories per pound per day. (Even Dr. Oz says it, so it must be true.) As they have so painstakingly shown, adding twenty pounds of muscle increases your resting metabolic rate by 1000 calories. With that kind of leeway, you could eat a delicious twenty egg-white microwaved omelet with low-fat cheese and a side of plain oats and never worry about body fat accumulation!
Many people, myself included, prefer streamlining fitness to obsessing over its minutiae. Although I’m no fan of their footwear, Nike’s “Just Do It” really does capture my view of what exercise should be. Find what you like doing and what works for you, and simply go do it. But not everyone is that way. Tons of people truly enjoy the nitty gritty details. They like the research, the nutrient timing, the supplementation. They’re the ones discussing the respective differences between sumo deadlifts, regular deadlifts, and Romanian deadlifts. They’re the ones who want to wring out every last drop of performance.
I get that. I used to be like that, too, but now I take more of an academic interest. That’s not to say I don’t pay attention to what I’m doing, because while I like to think I’m just going with the flow and doing what I enjoy, I also like knowing that what I’m doing is effective. Basically, I don’t like wasting time. Plus, many readers fall into the latter category of those who want the details.
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know that I’m not a big fan of protracted stretching routines or extended warmups that end up taking longer than the workout itself. I like simplicity. I like cutting corners without sacrificing quality or results. I’m okay with warmups that fulfill their basic goal – getting the muscles warmed up and ready for movement – and with active stretches that move you through the full ranges of motion you’ll be traversing during the workout, but that’s about it. If there was strong evidence in favor of stretching as a protective measure, I would be all over it, because I hate down time. But the latest research indicates that stretching is harmless at best and a performance-detractor if done excessively. Furthermore, warmups, while effective in the right doses, can lead to fatigue and lower performance if overdone.
So what does the research say and what should we be doing (if anything) to prepare for physical activity?
Dr. Loren Cordain and a few MD colleagues have recently published a paper (PDF) called “Organic Fitness: Physical Activity Consistent with Our Hunter-Gatherer Heritage.” It makes for a great companion piece to Primal Blueprint Fitness, and it encapsulates quite nicely the breadth of research into the physical activities of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Read the whole thing. There’s probably nothing really new to you guys already well-versed in this stuff, but it’s good having it all in one space, and it’s good having it from more sources (not just me). If someone ever asks you why you go barefoot, avoid weight machines, squat below parallel (don’t you know it’s bad for your knees!?!), go on hikes for fun without sunscreen, and hate treadmills, you can send along a nice, neat package including the PBF eBook and the Cordain paper. This isn’t a “nyah, nyah, proven right again!” type thing (well, kinda). This is a “buttressing the incoming unavoidable inexorable impossible-to-ignore flood of evidence in favor of listening to evolution in matters of health and fitness” type thing. The times they are a changin’, eh?
Anyway, let’s get to the meaty bits of the paper – to what they call the “fundamental elements of ‘organic exercise,’ which may serve as a template from which to design a fitness strategy for adults living in today’s modern industrialized culture.” I’ve bolded and italicized their words (from a section of which the title of this article is derived) and followed up with my commentary:
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