Training Naked

OK, now that I have your attention, I’d like to discuss the idea of you doing your weight-training (Law #4 Lift Heavy Things) with as few “joint support gizmos” (wrist wraps, tape, lifting belts, etc.) as possible. Maybe you already do, but if not…

By now you know how I feel about shoes in general – and workout shoes in particular. Along with grains and statins, they make my list of the top ten mistakes in the history of human health. High-tech, “comfortable” and higher-heeled shoes are probably the cause of more bad backs, bad knees, pulled muscles, hamstring issues, torn cartilage, tendonitis and myriad other lower- and mid-body afflictions than any other single factor. The reason is this: the more we’ve unburdened the important (critical) small muscles of our feet with “forefoot motion control”, “heel stabilizers”, and “rear-foot shock absorbers” – in other words, the more we’ve put our feet in these supportive and restrictive casts – the more we’ve disrupted the intricate biomechanical balance that otherwise naturally arises from using our feet unshod as designed by evolution. And, as a result, the more we can find ourselves on the slippery slope to injury and misery.

As we’ve discussed many times before on MDA, it’s the small muscles of the feet – and both the strength and the sensory feedback they provide – that begin to orchestrate the symphony of balanced movement that leads to functional lower-body strength and power. It’s also those small muscles that ought to be telling us when it’s time to quit doing what we’re doing. Instead, we often bypass that haptic feedback and burden the larger muscles and joints further down (or up) the line, setting ourselves up for much bigger – and potentially longer lasting – problems. While this concept applies to every aspect of foot use from standing to walking to lifting heavy things, nowhere is it more evident than with runners – my former self included. Balance and symmetry are tossed aside, along with discretion, in the pursuit of more garbage miles. My own injury issues (osteoarthritis, tendonitis, hip flexor problems) escalated linearly over the years as I went from being able to handle “only” running 35 miles a week in my Chuck Taylors and Onitsuka Tigers in the late 60’s-early 70’s to eventually running over 100 miles a week in my high-tech cushioned Nike LDVs. I drank the Nike Kool-Aid and I’m still dealing with the physical fallout 30 years later.

I was reminded yet again of the propriety of going barefoot or wearing minimalist shoes two weeks ago when I spent three days in Manhattan representing The Primal Blueprint and The Primal Blueprint Cookbook at Book Expo America (a huge publishing trade show). In an effort to look corporate and respectable, I found myself wearing my expensive “Sunday-go-to-meetin” shoes all day for the show (standing, mostly) and then walking 20 blocks back to my hotel. After having spent the past few years barefoot in my house, training, hiking and playing in my Vibram Fivefingers or my Feelmax Pankas, and just wearing minimalist “mock mocs” to the occasional business meeting, my feet have gotten much stronger and are used to having little or no support. Yet after binding them in my “ergonomically formed” dress shoes for three solid days, I was literally limping home to my hotel room each night, barely able to take a step without feeling like I was out of alignment everywhere. The message was loud and clear yet again.

But here’s where I’m going with this. Knowing (Grokking) what we know about feet and shoes, doesn’t it make sense that what applies to the small muscles of the feet, might also apply to small muscles in the rest of the body. I see people at the gym all the time with wrist wraps, tight Velcro lifting gloves, taped wrists and ankles, knee braces, weight-lifting belts and all other manner of “support gear.” I guess the idea is to be able to “safely” push or pull more weight without stressing or injuring the delicate tendons, small muscles, cartilage, etc. in the joints. I get what they’re trying to do, but it’s antithetical to true strength and power. In fact, use of this sort of support gear bypasses those same important small muscles and tendons in fingers and forearms we should be working as enthusiastically as we work those larger beach muscles. Furthermore, it’s the small muscles that ought to be telling us when it’s time to stop, or that we’ve hit our “max” (or even that we should take a few days off). Bypassing that critical feedback only places a greater burden on larger muscles and joints – or calls into play unusual or unsafe “workarounds” as the body intuitively tries (without our even knowing it) to recruit fibers from other areas to perform the intended work. The result is often a biomechanical imbalance that simply transfers the load to an inappropriate muscle or area, often leading to injury. In my own case, I re-learned this after I foolishly chose to go for a PR on the bench press some years ago. Because I have small “runners’ wrists” I would wrap my wrists tightly with the leather Velcro band that extended from my lifting gloves each time I trained heavy on the bench. This “small muscle/wrist bypass” enabled me to eventually achieve a one rep max of 275 at the age of 53 (I weighed 164). Not bad for an old skinny marathoner, but in the process I developed a rotator cuff injury and almost tore a pec muscle because I was doing more than my overall fitness was capable of handling in a balanced fashion. I should have used my wrist weakness – my weakest link at the time – as the ultimate indicator of what was prudent.

I see this same sort of thing happening a lot in the gym. Guys are squatting 300 pounds with a weight belt protecting their back and/or abs, when maybe they should instead be using 175 and doing a few more reps without “protection.” They should be developing acute proprioceptive and kinesthetic awareness around the lower back and abs, rather than blocking those sensations out. Similarly, if you have to tape your wrists because your grip is keeping you from completing that last pull-up, maybe you should be working as equally on your grip or forearm strength as you are on your lats. If you have to tape your wrists to do a handstand push-up, maybe you should back up a few skill levels and go through the progression that includes inclined push-ups first. Small muscles should dictate the max weights you do, and you shouldn’t move on to bigger weights until all parts of you are ready.

This is why I feel so strongly that bodyweight exercises are the ideal way to train small muscles as well as those beach muscles. Unwrapped and naked. Grip strength, balance, bilateral symmetry, haptic feedback, kinesthetic awareness and core function are all integral parts of Primal Fitness life skills. To circumvent them in the interest of building bigger biceps won’t serve you in the long run.

Stay tuned for The Primal Blueprint Fitness program, slated to drop early next month (for free to newsletter subscribers). It’s based around functional fitness and a few simple, balanced, full-body movements. Thanks for reading, everyone!

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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