For today’s edition of Dear Mark , we’ve got a four-parter. First up is a question about using the cable weights at the gym to build strength. Should they be discarded by the serious trainee in favor of exclusive barbell work, or do they offer something unique and worthwhile? Next, I discuss potential strategies for the reversal of arterial plaque. It’s not guaranteed, but there are some promising leads. After that, I give my take on stem cell meat. Am I opposed? Am I intrigued? Finally, I give my take on replacing your desk chair with a Swiss ball for a reader who can’t get a treadmill desk and wants the next best thing.
I have been a victim of chronic cardio for a few years now, but I am starting to see that it is not working out so well. I want to start strength training so I can build muscle (I am borderline underweight, but skinny-fat) but I have no idea what kind of strength training will be both good for my health and effective for looking lean and muscular. I found a program by Jamie Eason on bodybuilding.com  that uses lots of machines like cables and I have heard that those exercises simply add useless muscle that is good to look at. I was wondering what your thoughts are on these mostly machine workouts. Will they be ideal for health and actual strength too?
The arguments in favor of free weights over machines are compelling, and, save for a few exceptions, I agree with them for the most part, but cable machines are a different beast altogether and thus deserve a more nuanced look.
Consider why people eschew machines:
- They eliminate the need to stabilize and balance the load.
- They force you into unnatural movement patterns. Free weights conform to your body, your dimensions, while with the machine, you must conform to it. They only allow a fixed, linear path of movement. The real world, on the other hand, is not linear. You can be really strong on the overhead press machine, strong enough  to lift your bodyweight’s worth, but be unable to do a handstand pushup  against the wall.
- They work individual muscles, rather than multiple body parts.
Even though cables are a kind of machine, those three reasons are not valid for avoiding cables (nor are they necessarily valid for avoiding all machines at all times in every instance, but that’s another post), because cables:
- Can be used in such a way that requires stabilization and balance.
- Are non-linear without a fixed, predetermined path of movement.
- Can be used to work multiple body parts, not just muscles in isolation (although that’s possible, too).
Free weights are great because they pit you directly against gravity as we encounter it in the real world, along the vertical plane. One unique feature of the cable is the ability to load the horizontal plane. So, instead of lying down to push a weight horizontally (bench press or pushup ), you can do it standing up. Instead of awkwardly flopping down on your side and using a dumbbell to do external rotational rehab, you can do so standing up with the cables. Since you’re more likely to be pushing horizontally from a standing position anyway (in sports and other physical encounters), cables offer a “functional” way to train that movement.
Are free weights superior for general strength and fitness? Yeah. If I could only choose one between the two, I’d pick free weights every time. But, since we don’t have to choose just one way to exercise, we should consider availing ourselves of all the options that make sense, and that probably includes cables.
If you do go with the cable workout, I’d consider supplementing with weighted lower body movements, as cables aren’t very effective for the lower body. Get a knee flexion exercise (squats , lunges, split squats) and a hip extension exercise (deadlifts, romanian deadlifts) and you’ll be good to go.
I was wondering if it is possible to reverse plaque buildup in our arteries through a primal lifestyle?
All the articles I’ve read only seem to explain how to prevent it, but I assume it is likely that years of poor nutritional habits have already left some marks.
Thanks in advance,
Yes, there are several lifestyle and dietary modifications that seem to offer not just protection from plaque progression, but hope for plaque regression. It may come down to activation of a mouthful known as peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor gamma, or PPAR gamma, which helps regulate lipid  metabolism. Basically, when PPAR gamma agonists – or drugs that activate PPAR gamma – are used in animal models, we see a regression of atherosclerotic plaque . Unfortunately, many drugs that activate PPAR gamma, like statins, often have unintended, unwanted, and even disastrous side effects. What we’re interested in are lifestyle and dietary modifications, which tend to have beneficial side effects.
High intakes of vitamin K2  are associated with low rates of arterial calcification . Meanwhile, groups of rats given large doses of either vitamin K1 or vitamin K2 both reversed arterial calcification by around 40% . It should be noted that the only reason vitamin K1 was effective is that rats are great at turning K1 into K2; humans are terrible at it. When the rats were dosed with enough warfarin to interfere with K1 to K2 conversion, the K1 group no longer saw plaque regression.
Low intensity exercise activates PPAR gamma  and triggers an increase in serum oxLDL. On the surface, an increase in oxidized LDL – long suspected to be a causal agent in the progression of atherosclerosis – sounds bad. The authors propose an interesting plaque regression mechanism, however. Exercise by way of PPAR gamma activation is pulling oxidized LDL from the atherosclerotic plaque to be disposed of by oxLDL scavenger receptors, which have also been upregulated by exercise . Pretty cool, eh? This jibes with the already established and widely known negative association between exercise and atherosclerosis .
A transcendental meditation/stress relief program consisting of twice daily 20 minute meditation sessions was able to modestly reduce plaque in human subjects  with hypertension. Meanwhile, the control group experienced modest progression of plaque.
There’s no magic bullet, of course. Just popping some fish oil without making other changes won’t reduce atherosclerotic plaque . It requires an entire lifestyle shift, and even then it isn’t guaranteed.
What are your thoughts on the recent development of a stem-cell beef hamburger patty? Although it is a wider gap from Grok than other options, it eliminates the industrial agriculture model of meat production and therefore the ethical dilemma is reduced, antibiotics eliminated, and it has the potential to give millions of people access to animal protein. It may become the great dietary equalizer.
It’s bizarre, yes. But what do you think? I’ve heard so many say we can’t feed the future world on meat, could this be a game-changer? Would you eat one?
You know, I would be open to it. I have no ethical hangups with consuming something created in a lab simply because it’s created in a lab. If they can perfect the stuff, I’d try it. And if I liked it, I’d probably eat it regularly. I’m just skeptical they can get it right.
After all, stem cell beef isn’t some grand gesture by benevolent scientists. It won’t be disseminated to open mouths and empty bellies as a charitable donation, but rather as a product. It will be sold, and marketed, and designed to appeal to as many people as possible. Nothing wrong with that. It’s just that like all other processed foods, its composition will be painstakingly designed to increase consumption and lessen satiety – only with stem cell meat, food scientists will have an unprecedented level of control over its physiological allure. Could nutritiousness and flavor coincide? In theory, sure, especially if you’re starting with a nutrient-dense, delicious food like meat  (stem cells), though scientists have a long road to go if they want to recreate the complex and varied dietary and environmental inputs  that determine the nutritional content of grass-fed beef . But it won’t be their proximate goal to save the world.
Also, I wouldn’t be so sure lab grown meat will eliminate the need for antibiotics. They’re already using them. In order to keep this most recent stem-cell burger “alive,” scientists had to bathe it in antibiotics  to maintain a sterile growth environment. Will that change? Does it make it into the finished “meat”? I’m not sure, but they’re always going to require a sterile environment and that means using prophylactic antibiotics.
I won’t hold my breath.
So, I would love to work while on a treadmill desk, but that is not allowed at my office. I have just gotten it approved to sit on a bosu ball if I can give some information on the benefits. While looking around, I read that sitting on it long term could possibly cause more issues. So my question to you is, if I must sit at a desk, what would you suggest sitting in? Thanks so much! =)
You’re right. The evidence in favor of Swiss balls for sitting is inconclusive and mixed . Short bouts appear to help some people manage and reduce their back pain and improve their posture , while spending all day sitting , whether it’s on a Swiss ball or an office chair, just isn’t very good for you.
That said, I think the studies are inherently limited. When you’re involved in a study researching the effects of different types of chairs on posture, you’re going to pay close attention to how you sit. They put you in a rocking chair and you’ll be on your best postural behavior for the duration of the study. White-coated clipboard-wielding researchers tend to have that effect on people. However, the differences come out over days, weeks, months. You might not slump in your chair with people watching and recording you, but when it’s Monday morning three months down the line and you’re struggling to wrap your brain around the load of mind-numbing busy work that just got dropped on your desk, your posture is going to be the last thing you worry about. If your chair allows slumping, you’re gonna slump. If your chair is a bouncy ball that rewards slumping with a quick deposition of your body onto the ground, you’re not going to slump as readily.
I don’t use balls myself, but I have on occasion and can vouch for the fact that sitting on them is very different than sitting on a chair. It’s a lot more active. All those normally imperceptible shifts in weight distribution that occur as we sit, stand, and just exist become suddenly perceptible on the ball, and you have to account for them. Even once you eventually get the hang of things and stop having to consciously balance yourself, your core musculature stays turned on. Swiss balls, then, require core musculature to work right. If you don’t have that musculature, you might not benefit until you do.
Plus, the Swiss ball isn’t magic. One study  showed that people still manage to slump on an exercise ball; you can’t just sit on the ball and keep up your bad habits.
All in all, I don’t think the ball is necessary to get a good sitting experience. The main advantage of a treadmill desk lies in the absence of long periods of sitting and immobility. It’s not so important that you move constantly, but that you don’t sit for for long stretches of time. It’s a small but important distinction to make, and it makes choosing a sitting implement much easier because all you have to do is stand up every fifteen minutes or so to realign your body and move around a bit . You don’t actually need a treadmill desk, or even a standup desk , to get the benefits associated with them. You just have to remember to take regular walking/movement breaks!
That’s it for this week, folks. Thanks for reading and be sure to chime in with your comments, suggestions, and input below!