The Science of Iron

I have mentioned before that I am something of a casual gymgoer- it’s only a relatively recent hobby, and only in the last couple of months have I given any serious thought and research to my regime (in which time I have also come to realise that some my advice in previous posts was either lacking in detail or partially wrong- sorry, it’s still basically useful). However, whilst the internet is, as could be reasonably expected, inundated with advice about training programs, tips on technique & exercises to work different muscle groups (often wildly disagreeing with one another), there is very little available information concerning the basic science behind building muscle- it’s just not something the average gymgoer knows. Since I am fond of a little research now and then, I thought I might attempt an explanation of some of the basic biology involved.

DISCLAIMER: I am not a biologist, and am getting this information via the internet and a bit of ad libbing, so don’t take this as anything more than a basic guideline

Everything in your body is made up of tiny, individual cells, each a small sac consisting of a complex (and surprisingly ‘intelligent’) membrane, a nucleus to act as its ‘brain’ (although no-one is entirely sure exactly how they work) and a lot of watery, chemical-y stuff called cytoplasm squelching about and reacting with things. It follows from this that to increase the size of an organ or tissue requires these cells to do one of two things; increase in number (hyperplasia) or in size (hypertrophy). The former case is mainly associated with growths such as neoplasia (tumours), and has only been shown to have an impact on muscles in response to the injection of growth hormones, so when we’re talking about strength, fitness and muscle building we’re really interested in going for hypertrophy.

Hypertrophy itself is still a fairly broad term biologically, and only two aspects of it are interesting from an exercise point of view; muscular and ventricular hypertrophy. As the respective names suggest, the former case relates to the size of cells in skeletal muscle increasing, whilst the latter is concerned with the increase in size & strength of the muscles making up the walls of the heart (the largest chambers of which are called the ventricles). Both are part of the body’s long-term response to exercise, and for both the basic principle is the same- but before I get onto that, a quick overview of exactly how muscles work may be in order.

A muscle cell (or muscle fibre) is on of the largest in the body, vaguely tubular in shape and consisting in part of many smaller structures known as myofibrils (or muscle fibrils). Muscle cells are also unusual in that they contain multiple cell nuclei, as a response to their size & complex function, and instead of cytoplasm contain another liquid called sarcoplasm (more densely packed with glycogen fuel and proteins to bind oxygen, and thus enabling the muscles to respire more quickly & efficiently in response to sudden & severe demand). These myofibrils consist of multiple sections called myofilaments, (themselves made of a family of proteins called myosins) joined end-to-end as repeating units known as sarcomeres. This structure is only present in skeletal, rather than smooth muscle cells (giving the latter a more regular, smoothly connected structure when viewed under the microscope, hence the name) and are responsible for the increased strength available to skeletal muscles. When a muscle fibril receives an electrical impulse from the brain or spinal cord, certain areas or ‘bands’ making up the sarcomeres shrink in size, causing the muscle as a whole to contract. When the impulse is removed, the muscle relaxes; but it cannot extend itself, so another muscle working with it in what is known as an antagonistic pair will have to pull back on it to return it to its original position.

Now, when that process is repeated a lot in a small time frame, or when a large load is placed on the muscle fibre, the fibrils can become damaged. If they are actually torn then a pulled muscle results, but if the damage is (relatively) minor then the body can repair it by shipping in more amino acids (the building blocks of the proteins that make up our bodies) and fuel (glycogen and, most importantly, oxygen). However, to try and safeguard against any future such event causing damage the body does its bit to overcompensate on its repairs, rebuilding the protein structures a little more strongly and overcompensating for the lost fuel in the sarcoplasm. This is the basic principle of muscular hypertrophy; the body’s repair systems overcompensating for minor damage.

There are yet more subdivisions to consider, for there are two main types of muscular hypertrophy. The first is myofibrillated hypertrophy, concerning the rebuilding of the myofibrils with more proteins so they are stronger and able to pull against larger loads. This enables the muscle to lift larger weights & makes one stronger, and is the prominent result of doing few repetitions of a high load, since this causes the most damage to the myofibrils themselves. The other type is sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, concerning the packing of more sarcoplasm into the muscle cell to better supply the muscle with fuel & oxygen. This helps the muscle deal better with exercise and builds a greater degree of muscular endurance, and also increases the size of the muscle, as the increased liquid in it causes it to swell in volume. It is best achieved by doing more repetitions on a lower load, since this longer-term exercise puts more strain on the ability of the sarcoplasm to supply oxygen. It is also advisable to do fewer sets (but do them properly) of this type of training since it is more tiring; muscles get tired and hurt due to the buildup of lactic acid in them caused by an insufficient supply of oxygen requiring them to respire anaerobically. This is why more training on a lower weight feels like harder work, but is actually going to be less beneficial if you are aiming to build muscular strength.

Ventricular (or cardiac) hypertrophy combines both of these effects in a response to the increased load placed on the muscles in the heart from regular exercise. It causes the walls of the ventricles to thicken as a result of sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, and also makes them stronger so that the heart has to beat less often (but more powerfully) to supply blood to the body. In elite athletes, this has another effect; in response to exercise the heart’s response is not so much to beat more frequently, but to do so more strongly, swelling more in size as it pumps to send more blood around the body with each beat. Athletic heart syndrome, where the slowing of the pulse and swelling of heart size are especially magnified, can even be mistaken for severe heart disease by an ill-informed doctor.

So… yeah, that’s how muscle builds (I apologise, by the way, for my heinous overuse of the word ‘since’ in the above explanation). I should point out quickly that this is not a fast process; each successive rebuilding of the muscle only increases the strength of that muscle by a small amount, even for serious weight training, and the body’s natural tendency to let a muscle degrade over time if it is not well-used means that hard work must constantly be put in to maintain the effect of increased muscular size, strength and endurance. But then again, I suppose that’s partly what we like about the gym; the knowledge that we have earned our strength, and that our willingness to put in the hard work is what is setting us apart from those sitting on the sofa watching TV. If that doesn’t sound too massively arrogant.



OK, I know it was a while ago, but who watched Felix Baumgartner’s jump? If you haven’t seen it, then you seriously missed out; the sheer spectacle of the occasion was truly amazing, so unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. We’re fairly used to seeing skydives from aeroplanes, but usually we only see either a long distance shot, jumper’s-eye-view, or a view from the plane showing them being whisked away half a second after jumping. Baumgartner’s feat was… something else, the two images available for the actual jump being direct, static views of a totally vertical fall. Plus, they were so angled to give a sense of the awesome scope of the occasion; one showed directly down to earth below, showing the swirling clouds and the shape of the land, whilst the other shot gave a beautiful demonstration of the earth’s curvature. The height he was at made the whole thing particularly striking; shots from the International Space Station and the moon have showed the earth from further away, but Baumgartner’s unique height made everything seem big enough to be real, yet small enough to be terrifying. And then there was the drop itself; a gentle lean forward from the Austrian, followed by what can only be described as a plummet. You could visibly see the lack of air resistance, so fast was he accelerating compared to our other images of skydivers. The whole business was awe-inspiring. Felix Baumgartner, you sir have some serious balls.

However, I bring this story up not because of the event itself, nor the insane amount of media coverage it received, nor even the internet’s typically entertaining reaction to the whole business (this was probably my favourite). No, the thing that really caught my eye was a little something about Baumgartner himself; namely, that the man who holds the world records for highest freefall, highest manned balloon flight, fastest unassisted speed and second longest freefall ever will be forty-four years old in April.

At his age, he would be ineligible for entry into the British Armed Forces, is closer to collecting his pension than university, and has already experienced more than half his total expected time on this earth. Most men his age are in the process of settling down, finding their place in some management company and getting slightly less annoyed at being passed over for promotion by some youngster with a degree and four boatloads of hopelessly naive enthusiasm. They’re in the line for learning how to relax, taking up golf, being put onto diet plans by their wives and going to improving exhibitions of obscure artists. They are generally not throwing themselves out of balloons 39 kilometres above the surface of the earth, even if they were fit and mobile enough to get inside the capsule with half a gigatonne of sensors and pressure suit (I may be exaggerating slightly).

Baumgartner’s feats for a man of his age (he was also the first man to skydive across the English channel, and holds a hotly disputed record for lowest BASE jump ever) are not rare ones without reason. Human beings are, by their very nature, lazy (more on that another time) and tend to favour the simple, homely life rather one that demands such a high-octane, highly stressful thrill ride of a life experience. This tendency towards laziness also makes us grow naturally more and more unfit as time goes by, our bodies slowly using the ability our boundlessly enthusiastic childish bodies had for scampering up trees and chasing one another, making such seriously impressive physical achievements rare.

And then there’s the activity itself; skydiving, and even more so BASE jumping, is also a dangerous, injury-prone sport, and as such it is rare to find regular practitioners of Baumgartner’s age and experience who have not suffered some kind of reality-checking accident leaving them either injured, scared or, in some cases, dead. Finally, we must consider the fact that there are very few people rich enough and brave enough to give such an expensive, exhilarating hobby as skydiving a serious go, and even less with both the clout, nous, ambition and ability to get a project such as Red Bull Stratos off the ground. And we must also remember that one has to overcome the claustrophobic, restrictive experience of doing the jump in a heavy pressure suit; even Baumgartner had to get help from a sports psychologist to get over his claustrophobia caused by being in the suit.

But then again, maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised. Red Bull Stratos was a culmination of years of effort in a single minded pursuit of a goal, and that required a level of experience in both skydiving and life in general that simply couldn’t be achieved by anyone younger than middle age- the majority of younger, perhaps even more ambitious, skydivers simply could not have got the whole thing done. And we might think that the majority of middle-aged people don’t achieve great things, but then again in the grand scheme of things the majority of everyone don’t end up getting most of the developed world watching them of an evening. Admittedly, the majority of those who do end up doing the most extraordinary physical things are under 35, but there’s always room for an exceptional human to change that archetype. And anyway; look at the list of Nobel Prize winners and certified geniuses on our earth, our leaders and heroes. Many of them have turned their middle age into something truly amazing, and if their field happens to be quantum entanglement rather than BASE jumping then so be it; they can still be extraordinary people.

I don’t really know what the point of this post was, or exactly what conclusion I was trying to draw from it; it basically started off because I thought Felix Baumgartner was a pretty awesome guy, and I happened to notice he was older than I thought he would be. So I suppose it would be best to leave you with a fact and a quote from his jump. Fact: When he jumped, his heart rate was measured as being lower than the average resting (ie lying down doing nothing and not wetting yourself in pants-shitting terror) heart rate of a normal human, so clearly the guy is cool and relaxed to a degree beyond human imagining. Quote: “Sometimes you have to be really high to see how small you really are”.

Why we made the bid in the first place

…and now we arrive at the slack time, that couple of weeks between the end of the Olympics and start of the Paralympics where everyone gets a chance to relax, wind down a little, and take time away from being as resolutely enthusiastic and patriotic as we have been required to for the last two weeks (or a lot longer if you factor in the Royal Wedding and Queen’s Jubilee). However, it’s also an undoubtedly good time to reflect on what have been, whatever your viewpoint, a very eventful last couple of weeks.

To my mind, and certainly to those of the Olympic organisers, these games have been a success. Whether you feel that it was all a colossal waste of money (although how anyone can think that of an event featuring the Queen parachuting out of a helicopter alongside James Bond is somewhat puzzling to me), or the single most amazing thing to grace the earth this side of its existence (in which case you could probably do with a nice lie down at the very least), its motto has been to ‘Inspire a Generation’. From a purely numerical perspective, it appears to have worked- sports clubs of all sorts up and down the land, even in niche areas such as handball, have been inundated with requests from enthusiastic youngsters after membership, and every other sentence among BBC pundits at the moment appears to include the phrase ‘the next Mo Farah/Usain Bolt/Ben Ainslie/Chris Hoy’ (delete as applicable).

However, I think that in this respect they are missing the point slightly, but to explain what I mean I’m going to have to go on a bit of a tangent. Trust me, it’ll make sense by the end.

So…, what is the point of sport? This has always been a tricky one to answer, the kind of question posed by the kind of awkward people who are likely to soon find an answer flying swiftly towards them in foot-shaped form. In fact, I have yet to hear a convincing argument as to exactly why we watch sport, apart from that it is for some unexplained reason compelling to do so. But even if we stick to the act of participation, why do we bother?

Academics and non-sportspeople have always had a whole host of reasons why not, ever since the days that they were the skinny, speccy one last to be picked in the dreaded playground football lineup (I’ve been there- not fun). Humans are naturally lazy (an evolutionary side-effect of using our brains rather than brawn to get ahead), and the idea of running around a wet, muddy field expending a lot of precious energy for no immediately obvious reason is obviously unappealing. Then we consider that the gain of sport, the extent to which it contributes to making the world a better place is, in material terms at least, apparently quite small. Humankind’s sporting endeavours use up a lot of material for equipment, burn a lot of precious calories that could be used elsewhere around the world to help the starving, and often demand truly vast expenses in terms of facilities and, in the professional world, salaries. Even this economic consideration does not take into account the loss in income presented by the using up of acres upon acres of valuable land for sports facilities and pitches. Sport also increases the danger factor of our lives, with a heavy risk of injury ranging from minor knocks to severe, debilitating disabilities (such as spinal injury), all of which only adds to the strain on health services worldwide and further increases the ‘cost’ of sport to the world.

So why do we bother with it at all? Why is it that the question governments are asking themselves is “why aren’t enough kids playing sport?” rather than ‘why are so many of them doing so’? Simple reason is that, from every analytical perspective, the benefits of sport far outweigh the costs. 10% of the NHS’ entire budget is spent on dealing with diabetes, just one of a host of health problems associated with obesity, and if just half of these cases were to disappear thanks to a healthier lifestyle it would free up around an extra £5 billion- by 2035, diabetes could be costing the country around £17 billion unless something changes. Then there are the physical benefits of sport, the stuff it enables us to do. In the modern world being able to run a kilometre and a half in four minutes might seem like a pointless skill, but when you’re being chased down the street by a potential mugger (bad example I know, but it’ll do) then you’d definitely rather be a fit, athletic runner than slow, lumbering and overweight. Sport is also one of the largest commercial industries on earth, if not on a professional level then at least in terms of manufacture and sale of equipment and such, worth billions worldwide each year and providing many thousands or even millions of jobs (although some of the manufacturing does admittedly have a dubious human rights record). The health benefits of sport go far beyond the physical & economic too, as both the endorphins released during physical activity and the benefits of a healthy lifestyle are known to increase happiness & general well-being, surely the ultimate goals of all our lives. But perhaps most valuable of all is the social side of sport. Whilst some sports (or, more specifically, some of the &%^$£*)@s involved) have a reputation for being exclusive and for demoralising hopeful youngsters, sport when done properly is a powerful force for social interaction & making friends, as well as being a great social equaliser. As old Etonian, heir his father’s baronet and Olympic 110m hurdles finalist Lawrence Clarke recently pointed out in an interview ‘On the track it doesn’t matter how rich your family is or where you’ve come from or where you went to school; all that matters is how fast you can get to the finish line’ (I’m paraphrasing, but that was the general gist). Over the years, sport has allowed mixing between people of a myriad of different genders and nationalities, allowing messages of goodwill to spread between them and changing the world’s social and political landscape immeasurably. This Olympics was, for example, the first in which Palestinian and Saudi Arabian women competed, potentially paving the way for increased gender equality in these two countries.

Clearly, when we all get behind it, sport has the power to be an immense tool for good. But notice that nowhere in that argument was any mention made of being the physical best, being on top of the world, breaking world records because, try as one might, the value of such achievement is solely that of entertainment and the odd moment of inspiration. Valuable though those two things surely are, they cannot begin to compare with the incalculable benefits of a population, a country, a world united by sport for the good of us all. So, in many respects, the success of an Olympic games should not be judged by whether it inspires a new superstar, but rather by how it encourages the guy who turns up with him at that first training session, who might never be that good a competitor… but who carries on turning up anyway. The aim of top-flight sport should not be to inspire the best. It should simply be to inspire the average.

So… why did I publish those posts?

So, here I (finally come)- the conclusion of my current theme of sport and fitness. Today I will, once again, return to the world of the gym, but the idea is actually almost as applicable to sport and fitness exercises generally.

Every year, towards the end of December, after the Christmas rush has subsided a little and the chocolates are running low, the western world embarks on the year’s final bizarre annual ritual- New Year’s Resolutions. These vary depending on geography (in Mexico, for example, they list not their new goals for the year ahead, but rather a list of things they hope will happen, generating a similar spirit of soon-to-be-crushed optimism), but there are a few cliched responses. Cut down on food x or y, get to know so and so better, finally sort out whatever you promise to deal with every year, perhaps even write a novel (for the more cocky and adventurous). However, perhaps the biggest cliched New Year’s Resolution is the vague “to exercise more”, or its (often accompanied) counterpart “to start going to the gym”.

Clearly, the world would be a very different place if we all stuck to our resolutions- there’d be a lot more mediocre books out there for starters. But perhaps the gym example is the most amusing, and obvious, example of our collective failure to stick to our own commitments. Every January, without fail, every gym in the land will be offering discounted taster sessions and membership deals, eager to entice their fresh crop of the budding gymgoer. All are quickly swamped with a fresh wave of enthusiasm and flab ready to burn, but by February many will lie practically empty, perhaps 90% of those new recruits having decided to bow out gracefully against the prospect of a lifetime’s slavery to the dumbbell.

So, back to my favourite question- why? What is it about the gym that can so quickly put people off- in essence, why don’t more people use the gym?

One important point to consider is practicality- to use the gym requires a quite significant commitment, and while 2-3 hours (ish) a week of actual exercise might not sound like much, given travelling time, getting changed, kit sorted and trying to fit it around a schedule such a commitment can quickly begin to take over one’s life. The gym atmosphere can also be very off-putting, as I know from personal experience. I am not a superlatively good rugby player, but I have my club membership and am entitled to use their gym for free. The reason I don’t is because trying to concentrate on my own (rather modest) personal aims and achievements can become both difficult and embarrassing when faced with first-teamers who use the gym religiously to bench press 150-odd kilos. All of them are resolutely nice guys, but it’s still an issue of personal embarrassment. It’s even worse if you have the dreaded ‘one-upmanship’ gym atmosphere, with everyone’s condescending smirks keeping the newbies firmly away. Then of course, there’s the long-term commitment to gym work. Some (admittedly naively) will first attend a gym expecting to see recognisable improvement immediately- but improvement takes a long time to notice, especially for the uninitiated and the young, who are likely to not have quite the same level of commitment and technique as the more experienced. The length of time it takes to see any improvement can be frustrating for many who feel like they’re wasting their time, and that can be as good an incentive as any to quit, disillusioned by the experienced.

However, by far the biggest (and ultimately overriding) cause is simply down to laziness- in fact most of the reasons or excuses given by someone dropping their gym routine (including perhaps that last one mentioned) can be traced back to a root cause of simply not wanting to put in the effort. It’s kinda easy to see why- gym work is (and should be) incredibly hard work, and busting a gut to lift a mediocre weight is perhaps not the most satisfying feeling for many, especially if they’re already feeling in a poor mood and/or they’re training alone (that’s a training tip- always train with a friend and encourage one another, but stick to rigid time constraints to ensure you don’t spend all the time nattering). But, this comes despite the fact that everyone (rationally) knows that going to the gym is good for you, and that if we weren’t lazy then we could probably achieve more and do more with ourselves. So, this in and of itself raises another question- why are humans lazy?

Actually, this question is a little bit of a misnomer, simply because of the ‘humans’ part- almost anyone who has a pet knows of their frequent struggles for the ‘most time spent lazing around in bed doing nothing all day’ award (to which I will nominate my own terrier). A similar competition is also often seen, to the disappointment of many a small child, in zoos across the land. It’s a trend seen throughout nature that, give an animal what he needs in a convenient space, he will quite happily enjoy such a bounty without any desire to get up & do more than necessary to get them- which is why zoo keepers often have problems with keeping their charges fit. This is, again, odd, since it seems like an evolutionary disadvantage to not want to do stuff.

However, despite being naturally lazy, this does not mean that people (and animals) don’t want to do stuff. In fact, laziness actually acts as a vital incentive in the progression of the human race. For an answer, ask yourself- why did we invent the wheel? Answer- because it was a lot easier than having to carry stuff around everywhere, and meant stuff took less work, allowing the inventor (and subsequently the human race) to become more and more lazy. The same pattern is replicated in just about every single thing the human race has ever invented (especially anything made by Apple)- laziness acts as a catalyst for innovation and discovery.

Basically, if more people went to the gym, then Thomas Edison wouldn’t have invented the lightbulb. Maybe.

Part 4… and I think there’s going to be another one…

Part 4 of my series on gym-less workouts should be the last one on that subjects specifically- however, since a related idea has been knocking around my head for a while (since I started this series), I’m going to continue with my running theme of sport n stuffs for at least one more post. Whether I go on for even longer than that is entirely up to whether I can think of enough material for it, and whether I think it’s got boring.

But first, my final two exercises:

Where:  Er… on your forearms. As in the bit between hand and elbow. Something that not a lot of people know about the forearms is that their main function is not in fact to move the wrist (although they do do that), but to control the hand and fingers (which contain no muscles of their own due to lack of space, but connect to small muscles in the forearm). As such, they are responsible for the strength of your grip.
Exercise: Grip strength is a very important part of a lot of everyday and workout exercises- one of the most common beneficiaries is pull-ups, so doing those will build your forearms a little. However, to work them more specifically (and make pull-ups of all kinds an easier process), you basically need to find a way of gripping something against resistance. If you really want, you can buy these things consisting of two handles with a spring in between them that you clench and unclench, but I’m sticking to non-equipment exercises here. You can just find something to grab hold of and repeatedly clench and unclench against it, but for more satisfying results just take any heavy object with a handle- if you happen to have a shopping bag that does not lacerate your fingers, that’s perfect, but a handle at the top of a rucksack will work too. Hang the handle from outstretched fingers, and simply repeatedly clench and relax your hand. Best of all, this is the kind of thing you can do casually on the way home from the shops, meaning you don’t have to set aside time to work it out. Forearms are perhaps not the most crucial muscle group, but they are useful nonetheless and, given that they are really easy to work, you’d be pretty dumb not to.

Where: …come on, really? I mean really?
Exercise: Many serious gym-goers don’t really believe in full-body workouts other than as a fitness technique, and next to none would be able to name on for working all of the body’s muscles. This is unsurprising- most people would associate a ‘full-body workout’ either as a descriptive term for a gym session, rather than exercise, or something like swimming, which will work just about every muscle gently, and will mostly only build endurance (although, offset against that, the most physically impressive guy I have ever met set it all off as a swimmer, so if you know what you’re doing…). The thing is, resistance training (using weight as a load) fundamentally doesn’t work more than one or two muscle groups well without technique and effectiveness suffering, and so is not designed for full-body exercises. There is, however, an alternative that is- tension training.
I came across tension training in martial arts, where it is used to train the body to stiffen up when it is hit and thus absorb blows better. It basically consists of performing a range of motions, without any weight, very slowly and controlledly, but working against your own body to provide the load to work against. To explain- muscles work in antagonistic pairs, meaning one contracts to move a joint one way, and its partner contracts to move it in the opposite direction. The principle of tension training is that by tensing both muscles at once, if the joint is to move then the muscle contracting must overcome the force of the other muscle pulling against it, and thus both muscles get worked. Tension training done properly involves performing very slow, simple motions whilst endeavouring to keep every muscle in your body tensed up as you perform the motion.
A key feature of tension training is breathing- you should do long, controlled breaths in time with the motion, breathing out as you contract and perform the stretch (your breath should sound very strained, like a sound effect from some deathly minion in a fantasy film, as it forces its way through your tense neck) and breathing in as you relax and return to position. To use an example, if your chosen motion were a bicep curl, then you would tense up all your muscles (bicep, tricep, chest, back, neck, legs, abdominals, everything) and breathe out in one long, slow, 10 second breath as you contracted the biceps and brought them up to your chest, and then relax and breathe out as you return to your starting position. This strict breathing pattern deprives your body of oxygen, forcing it to learn to use it more efficiently and greatly benefiting your muscular endurance, whilst the exercise itself works muscles for strength (all muscles get a bit of work, but the ones worked hardest are those moving, so the biceps and triceps in the example above). Tension exercises can be incredibly tiring, especially if done at the end of a session (which is probably where they belong to prevent you becoming too tired to do anything else), but are worth the effort for the benefits they can reap- they should take about 3-5 minutes overall, over a variety of motions and exercises (some martial arts incorporate them into a ‘dance’ of strikes and blocks for variety and training), and should provide an interesting line of exercises for everyone from the lowliest newbie trying to fulfil a New Year’s resolution, to the most musclebound hunk who’s in the gym 4 times a week, every week, for the last 5 years. I thoroughly recommend them.

Who needs a gym?

This is a post I’ve been trying not to resort to in a while- not because I think the content’s going to be bad or anything, just that it’s a bit of a leap from my usual stuff and because it’s actually going to be a bit too easy. However, given the fact that a) the Euros, Wimbledon and the Olympics are all on over the next month or so, b) my last few posts have been of a sporting persuasion, c) I vaguely know what I’m talking about here and d) I keep forgetting my other ideas, I thought I’d bite the bullet and go for it. So here it is, my first ever advice column for this blog: how to get fit and strong without the use of any gym equipment.

Fitness can be broadly (and fairly inadequately) split into three separate fields: aerobic & cardiovascular, muscular and flexibility. I’ll deal with all three of these separately, and am almost certainly going to have to add another post to fit all of the ‘muscular’ area into, but I’ll start with flexibility.

Some would argue that flexibility is not really part of fitness, and it’s true that, on the surface, it doesn’t appear to fit into our typical classification of the subject. However, it is just as much a matter of our physical ability to perform as any other, and thus probably has the right to be included as part of this list. The main reason I have misgivings about talking about it is simply personal knowledge- I don’t really know any exercises designed to improve flexibility.

However, that doesn’t mean I can’t offer advice on the matter. The first, and simplest, way to improve general flexibility and range of motion is just to get active. Every movement of the joints, be they legs, arms, back or wherever, makes them that tiny bit freer to move over that range and thus a little bit more supple- running, cycling, whatever. It is partly for this reason too that it is important to warm up and stretch prior to exercise- by extending the muscles longer than they are naturally used to, then they are prepared for that greater range of movement and are thus capable of easily moving across the more limited range that general exercise demands. Perhaps the easiest ‘flexibility exercise’ one can do is tree climbing  (which also happens to be endlessly entertaining if you can find some good trees), but stuff like yoga can be learnt without too much difficulty from the internet if you’re serious about improving your flexibility. Otherwise, I would suggest joining an appropriate club. Doesn’t have to be yoga or gymnastics or anything quite so extensive- martial arts (my personal preference, and a superb full-body endurance exercise) and rock climbing (which will build forearms and biceps the size of Mercury) are great for teaching your body a whole new way of moving, and are also a lot more fun for the casual enthusiast.

OK, now onto something I can actually talk about with some authority: aerobic and cardiovascular fitness. The goal when training cardio is simply to get the heart pumping- cardiac muscle works like any other muscle in that it can be built by straining it, breaking muscle fibres and having the body re-knit them into a bigger, stronger structure capable of doing more. Cardiovascular training should ideally be done at a rate upwards of 160 bpm (heartbeats per minute), but if you’re struggling to get into exercising then it’s best to start off with a more casual workout. Regular walking can quickly burn off excess fat and build up at least preliminary fitness (although be warned- to be most effective one should aim for a rate of around 120 steps per minute, or less if you’re struggling to keep that pace up, for at least 20 minutes. Bring an iPod too stave off boredom). The average resting heart rate of a person is somewhere around 70bpm- if yours is anything below 80 or so (measure it at home by counting the number of thumps on the left of one’s chest over the space of a minute) and you’re relatively serious about getting fit, then it’s best to step up a gear.

Just about any activity that gets the heart racing (remember- 160bpm minimum, 180 as a target) is suitable for increasing cardio fitness, be it running, cycling, swimming, rowing, football, rugby or whatever else you can think of- the only important thing is to try and keep the motion fast. Running or cycling on a machine (if you have access to one) will make it easier to keep up a pace (since air resistance is decreased), but reduces your workload, meaning less muscle is built on the legs and the effectiveness of the exercise is reduced, meaning you have to work out for longer. Rowing is an especially good exercise for both you muscles and your cardio, but access to a machine can be problematic. Oh, and a word of warning about swimming- whilst it’s a great full-body workout and can really improve your speed, it’s only going to be as effective as a good run or cycle if done at a fast pace, for quite a long time; moderate speeds won’t cut it.

You don’t have to judge one’s activity by heartbeat, as this can be understandably tricky if you’re pounding along a road, but learn to get a feel for your intensity levels. A low intensity, when you’re still able to comfortably breathe and speak (so about up to a fast walk), is a little too slow for proper aerobic work- moderate, where you can feel the breath coming hard but can still speak about normally, is fine for aerobic work over sets of about 20 minutes or longer- but keep going for as long as you can/have the time for. High-intensity work is you going flat out, where speaking becomes next to impossible. It’s probably best left until you’ve achieved a good level of fitness, but if you can manage it then just short bursts of less than 8 minutes (which is about how long you should be able to keep it up) just a few times a week can reap rewards.

A final thing about cardio, before I devote Wednesday’s post to the nitty gritty of muscular workouts- it’s at its most enjoyable when done as part of a sport. Pounding round the roads on a daily jog is almost certainly going to be a more effective workout, and if you’re really looking to seriously improve your fitness then it’s probably more the way to go- but the attraction can quickly fall away in the face of a damp Wednesday when you’re nursing a calf strain. But sport is without a doubt the best way to build up a good level of fitness and strength, make a few mates and have some fun in the process. Some are better than others- boxing is the single best activity for anyone after a cardiovascular workout, whilst something like golf doesn’t really count as exercise- but there’s something for everyone out there, if you know where to look.

Now, to plan a muscular workout for next time…