I’ve been seeing a wave of videos and articles on body weight exercises sometimes also called calisthenics. The word calisthenics comes from the Greek kalos beautiful + sthenos strength so it literally means “beautiful strength.” According to Merriam-Webster online, the first known usage of the word was in 1827 and its definition is “systematic rhythmic bodily exercises performed usually without apparatus.” Another definition from Google is “gymnastic exercises to achieve bodily fitness and grace of movement.” The “grace of movement” part is key to this discussion as Burpies and flailing on a chin up bar often look anything but graceful.
Due to the current popularity of body weight exercises or calisthenics it’s important to examine the myths, misconceptions, and most effective uses of these types of exercises.
“Body Weight Exercises Are Safer Than Lifting Weights”
I’ve heard this quite few times and it’s not factually correct. If one compares a very complex weight lifting exercise like a barbell snatch to a simple body weight exercise like a plank then, all other things being equal, maybe. Conversely, if one compared a plyometric depth jump to a lat pull down then clearly the bodyweight exercise potentially more injurious. Both of these seemingly logical arguments are fallacious. Let’s look at the research. In a seminal study by Hamill that examined injury rates in school sports per participant hour, weightlifting and weight training had far fewer injuries than gymnastics or other endeavors using body weight.
Anything that’s done without attention whether it be manipulating an object or not is potentially injurious. One has to apply the principles of Precision, Progression, and Variety to all exercise selection. Applying proper technique to any movement and executing that movement precisely can help avoid injury. Selecting exercises that are appropriate to the level of the exerciser both in complexity and mechanical difficulty (weight, speed, etc) can help avoid injury. Progressing the complexity and difficulty in a systematic way with attention to the progress or adaptations that are occurring in the exerciser over weeks and months can also. Using a variety of movements, methods and techniques can avoid overuse or repetitive strain injuries in a program that isn’t specifically geared towards training those movements for a sport or job task. Even then, variety and doing different types of exercises during different periods or phases of the training program (Periodization) can also reduce the mental and physical wear and tear on the exerciser.
“All You Need To Do Is Body Weight Exercise”
I like body weight exercises and gymnastics. I like ice cream and Italian ices too. But just because I like it doesn’t mean that that’s all I should do, or eat! There are a number of ways to approach this misconception but the largest, most important concept to apply is that of “Physical Literacy.” Physical literacy is comprised of three components; Locomotion Skills, Body Management Skills and Object Manipulation Skills. Before getting into what each of these is, it should be clear that to be physically literate, one needs all three types of skills. That is, one needs skill in manipulating objects. A bag of cement or dog food, grocery bags, lumber, tools, and even barbells, dumbells, kettlebells, sandbags, medicine balls and other apparatus that are found in the gym to mimic the types of objects we interact with in everyday life.
Locomotion Skills – involve transporting the body in any direction from one point to another. Examples are crawling, walking, running, hopping, leaping, jumping, galloping, skipping and swimming.
Body Management Skills – are usually large muscle activities required for controlling the body in various situations. These skills integrate agility, coordination, strength, balance, and flexibility. Body management skills involve balancing the body in stillness and in motion. Examples are static and dynamic balancing, rolling, landing, bending and stretching, twisting and turning, swinging, and climbing.
Object Manipulation Skills – these skills require controlling implements and objects such as balls, hoops, bats and ribbons by hand, by foot or with any other part of the body. Throwing, catching, kicking, striking, bouncing and dribbling are examples.
“Bigger, Faster, Stronger?”
Can calisthenics make you bigger, faster and stronger? Are they the best way to accomplish any or all of these things? Well, of course it depends on how you use the calisthenic or body weight exercise, what type of body weight exercise you’re using and where you are in your training/conditioning.
In training terms we use the word hypertrophy to describe an increase in size or muscle mass. Although size and strength often go hand in hand, they are actually two separate attributes. When one gets bigger one typically gets stronger but only to a point. When one gets stronger, one typically gets bigger but again, only to a point. Hypertrophy is an anatomical adaptation, that is, it is specifically a change in the structure of the muscle cells and specific muscle organ itself. Additionally, there are different types of hypertrophy of muscle cells. Typically we call these Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy and Myofibrillar Hypertrophy.
As you can see in the diagram to the right, the way in which we train influences the type of adaptation that occurs. Getting bigger (hypertrophy) can be a result of adding more contractile proteins to the muscle cells (Myofibrillar Hypertrophy) or it can occur with more fluid accumulating in the cell (Sarcoplasmic Hypertropy.) The Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy would not result in a gain in strength as there is not an increase in the number of contractile proteins which are needed to increase force production or strength. Conversely, Myofibrillar Hypertrophy, where contractile proteins are added to the cells would result in both an increase in size and an increase in strength. Since calisthenic exercises like push ups, body weight squats, etc. typically require less force and therefore can be done for a long period of time (e.g. may repetitions), they loan themselves more to the development of Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy, that is an increase in size, not an increase in strength. Charles Atlas’ famous mail order program did not use weights, instead it used body weight calisthenic exercises to gain size and some moderate amount of strength. The exception or caveat to this discussion is a specific type of body weight or calisthenic exercises called Plyometrics. Plyometrics are a type of body weight movements performed explosively. Jumping, bounding, clap push ups and the like are examples of plyometric exercises. When performing this type of exercise, we apply the “speed rule”, that is every repetition is performed as fast as possible and the set is over when the speed cannot be maintained. By giving an all out effort during these exercises, they typically fall in the 1-5 rep range and may result in a increase in strength due to adaptations in the way the nervous system controls the muscles without a concurrent increase in size. Lastly, the term hypertrophy described here denotes a relatively permanent adaptation to repeated training, not the “muscle pump” that occurs due to increased blood flow and fluid accumulation around the muscle cells (not inside them) right after exercise which dissipates within a matter of minutes.
As we began discussing above, the type of body weight exercises called Plyometrics do have the potential to make one faster. However, it’s important to note that these explosive types of exercise put a lot more force on the joints and muscles and are therefore NOT for beginners. One must create a base of muscle, tendon, and ligament strength before adding Plyometrics to their program and one must be very careful about the volume of plyometric exercises that one does. Additionally, just because “Plyos” can increase speed and force production that does not mean they should be performed year round or be the only exercise technique in one’s program. The National Strength and Conditioning Association has some useful guidelines and criteria for determining if a person is ready to add “Plyos” to their program, the progression of difficulty of different plyometric exercises (intensity), and the total recommended volume based on one’s training status.
Why The Move Away Physical Literacy to a Sports Culture Will Continue To Keep Us Overweight, Out of Shape, and What the Fitness Industry Should Be Doing (But Isn’t) To Fix It.
Profits Over Principles
The Gymnasium or Gym as we know it began in Germany as a Turnplatz eventually called a Turnvereine or Turner Hall. The Turnplatz started as large outdoor contraptions for climbing and exercise that were used to prepare the population for protecting their country. When Germans emigrated to the United States, they brought the Turnplatz concept with them and this “German Method” along with the “Swedish Method” eventually became the basis for how we train our military and taught physical education.
The first American Turnvereine opened in 1848 in Cincinnati Ohio followed closely by the opening of the first YMCA in Boston Massachusetts in 1850. These were community based organizations where people learned, trained, played and socialized. Dumbbell, Indian Club, and Gymnastics classes were given and continued to prepare the population for defense while creating a sense of community and belonging. Both the games of Volleyball and Basketball were invented at the YMCA.
In Paris in 1847 Hippolyte Triat opened a gymnasium which was the first to give dumbbell classes performed to music and the first to sell shares publically to raise investment capital. By the 1860’s “Athletic Clubs” began to open which served a more affluent clientele. Rowing, cycling, boxing, wrestling as well as the gymnastics, indian club and dumbbell classes of the Turnvereines were taught and practiced by this more affluent mainly male demographic. Many of these Athletic Clubs like the New York Athletic Club are still in existence today.
In the 1890’s physical culture experts like Professor Atilla (Luis Durlacher) and his son in law Sigmund Klein who have trained and taught the aristocracy in Europe begin to open commercial studios in the United States. These studios were on a smaller and more personal scale than the Athletic Clubs, YMCA’s, and Turnvereines but taught boxing, dumbbells, barbells, hand balancing and other foundational methods and techniques of the time.
By the 1900s Eugen Sandow, Bernarr Macfadden, Alan Calvert, George hackenschmidt, and Prof. Attila become spokesmen for a growing PHYSICAL CULTURE MOVEMENT. This movement promotes exercise as medicine by performing feats of strength at theatres and exhibitions. Mens sana in corpore sano (a sound mind in a sound body) is the motto of this movement which tries to fight against the deconditioning that accompanies the new urban life style of the time by opening gyms and schools, publishing magazines and books to educate and train the population.
Throughout the second half of the 1800s and early 1900s exercise equipment inventors and manufacturers like Gustave Zander, Dudley Alan Sargent and Alan Calvert (Milo Barbell Company) add to the growing physical culture movement by providing a means to perform exercise both at gyms and inside one’s home.
Though World War I, the depression and World War II distract the majority of the population from fitness and training pursuits, there is still a strong physical culture in the form of weight lifting and bodybuilding at gyms such as Germantown, a weightlifting gym in Philadelphia, Vic Tanny’s on the West Coast as well as Eastman’s and Harold Zinkin’s.
With soldiers returning to the States in the late 1940’s entrepreneurs like Vic Tanny see an opportunity to capitalize the emergence of a thriving middle class by creating a new type of gym adding mirrors, carpet, chrome equipment, saunas and pools and changes the gym environment. Tanny’s gyms become largest chain of clubs in the world. This type of gym or “Health Club” created a demographic shift in the industry from the more affluent male dominated environment of the Athletic Clubs to an environment more welcoming to women and families. However, this is not necessarily a positive thing for the health and fitness of the populace.
Time magazine reported in 1961, that the leadership of Vic Tanny was quoted as saying, “If you fail to get an appointment, then take a gun out of your desk and shoot yourself.” This quote is in the context of the use of high pressure sales tactics by Vic Tanny clubs. This high-pressure sales methodology was eventually introduced to a host of other clubs and club companies, including Health and Tennis Corporation (now called Bally Total Fitness) and can be seen in the sales management applied to personal training sales and membership sales in many of today’s club chains. This is in stark contrast to the community, education based, prepare the population for protecting their country, environment and purpose of the Turnvereine and YMCA movements or that of the Athletic Clubs and Physical Culture Studios which aimed to elevate, educate and maintain the health of the common man.
When looking at the success of the commercial fitness club model in actually having an impact on the health of our citizens, it is sad to note that only 16% of the population belongs to a fitness club (2), and this doesn’t account for how many actually use that membership in any meaningful way. For example the “high volume-low priced” or budget clubs that are on a race to zero with their dues ranging from $9.95 to $19.95 a month must have over 7,000 members per club to generate the revenue that they need to be profitable. Clearly they don’t want all 7000 members to actually show up on any given day, week, or month to use the facility. Hitting that credit card every month may be a good business model but it isn’t successful in changing the health habits of Americans or citizens of any other country. (19)
Other important events in the 1970’s also shaped the modern club industry. These include;
The work of Dr. Kenneth Cooper, MD who conducted research on post MI patients and wrote the book “Aerobics.” Cooper’s work created a huge increase in the number of people participating in cardiovascular exercise by introducing the world to an easy way to quantify the health/fitness effects of cardiovascular exercise.
American College of Sports Medicine develops and disseminates the first set of Nationally Recognized Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription in 1975. The book is now in its 9th edition and serves as the benchmark for all Health/Fitness Professionals for prescribing exercise and assessing fitness.
Michael O’Shea PhD opens Sports Training Institute in Manhattan and blends physical therapy, personal training and membership. This is the first gym to go back to the Physical Culture Studio model and create this concept of a personal training membership, that is you only join STI if to get personal training services, not to “rent” their equipment. STI is considered the first to bring the Personal Training model to market and many of their employees go on to reproduce the model at other club chains in New York and around the country.
Also during the 1970’s we saw the rise in employee based fitness programs because they bring a return to the company. One of the first, The Pepsi Center was created by Dr. Dennis Colacino for Pepsi in Purchase, NY. Many other companies such as Exxon, Monsanto, Johnson and Johnson, became benchmarks for this new segment of the industry.
Despite all of these ground breaking events, only 51% of employers offer wellness programs but only 21% of employees have access to these programs and only 21% participate in the fitness programs that are offered (3). At commercial gyms, which less than 16% of the population belong to (1) some may belong to corporate or community based gyms, only 13.5% use personal training (4) though other reports are much lower at 2-4% (5). While ACSM has disseminated the guidelines for exercise testing, most gyms don’t actually use fitness testing prior to developing exercise programs or to measure the effectiveness of those programs but instead manage risk by simply administering waivers and hold-harmless agreements. In many cases, insurance companies will settle claims against gyms instead of defending them because they cannot show that the staff has actually been trained appropriately even if they are certified (6). Though International Health Racquet and Sports Association mandated that member clubs must hire trainers with a third party accredited certification, many still do not. Doctor Cooper’s research though ground breaking and important left out the benefit of resistance training, flexibility, and other modalities and there has been an increase in the incidence of overuse injuries/repetitive strain injuries over the last 40 years (7).
The question all those involved in fitness and especially those working in commercial fitness settings should ask themselves is “Am I part of the solution or part of the problem.” Compared to the impact the Tunvereines, YMCA’s and the Physical Culture movement had on creating a population educated on how to exercise based on principles of precision, progression and variety, the modern fitness industry has fallen well short. We are no longer a society ready for labor and defense but are a society where profit is put above principles.
Making Fitness a Sport
The physical education system in the U.S. was originally based on the Swedish and German methods which took many of their principles from the ancient Greeks, U.S. physical education has strayed from these ideals and methods over the last century. Steve Cellucci, USAPFS commandant says of the recruits coming into the U.S. military, “Structured physical training in schools was sacrificed to sports and games around 1920. By the 1950s there were signs that America was growing clumsy and unbalanced. There was an initial phase of denial, and American physical educators have since been slow to face the crisis. Army recruits fresh from the civilian sector generally have poor posture and motor patterns that impede training and lead to injuries”.
The focus on team sports in High Schools and Colleges is disturbing also because only two percent of adults over the age of thirty five participate in team sports (8). In a documentary on the history of physical education in the U.S., Dr. Earl Zeigler describes the shift from structured physical education to sports and games by saying “Were not having sport for the benefit of man, we’re using man and woman for the benefit of sport.” (9) The shift to sports has had much longer reaching effects on our society by creating a system that focuses entire families on one sport for the possibility of a scholarship or offer from a professional team. Parents are manipulated into focusing a child on one sport, while unscrupulous coaches offering special camps and programs make money and children lose the joy of playing. Children become hyper-focused on learning splinter skills for one sport yet lack the basic movement patterns and posture due to this over specialization. The competent ethical coaches are prevented from developing long term excellence and better people through sports participation by this system (10).
This shift in physical education has led to a public health crisis related to lack of exercise, fitness, and positive lifestyle habits that decrease disease risk. Instead of focusing on sports and games proponents of the “new physical education” logically propose that what’s taught in physical education classes should help establish a healthy lifestyle and habits that carry through to adulthood such as the dumbbell, Indian club, gymnastic and physical culture training of the German and Swedish methods as opposed to focusing on team sports or individual sports that may win a select few a scholarship but have little impact on creating a healthy population and may even foster a dislike for exercise among those that aren’t developmentally ready to participate in sports or who burn out from too much participation in sports. Despite this very obvious and real trend towards sports and games that started in the 1920s, some think the answer to our current health problems is making fitness into a sport and describe their training programs as the “sport of fitness.”
Starting in 1957, a program developed by Stan Leprotti at La Sierra High School in California focused on structured physical education for ALL students, not just athletes and was subsequently implement in 1500 schools throughout the U.S. under President Kennedy’s initiative. (11)Sadly, the program did not include female students at the start and slowly erode through the turbulent 1960’s. The exercises and abilities of the students in the program were progressed and a ranking system using different colored gym shorts was established. Many of the student surpassed the criteria for entry into elite military units.
Instead of having criteria that assesses a person’s fitness and developmental level we currently have no system in schools or in fitness that gives any meaningful insight into where students, clients and participants are with respect to their physical literacy, motor patterns or skill. Without a criteria, how can we hope to move forward as an industry or society? Relying on the logical fallacy of “appeal to authority” by deifying athletes and considering athletic accomplishment in the specific narrow parameters of a certain sport is not the answer.
Everyone Gets a Trophy
As sports and games took over structured physical education, the practice of making everyone a winner or giving every participant a trophy became a wide spread reaction. In fitness a similar trend of saying “find something you like and do it” has also taken hold. (12) These practices may show some short term success in motivating less motivated individuals to participate but the profound lack of participation in fitness activities and sports by adults shows that neither has had any real success in changing society’s attitudes to or participation in keeping themselves healthy or ready for labor and defense though exercise.
Physical educators have focused on promoting sports which create huge profit centers for the few but leave the majority of citizens in our society weak, apathetic and unhealthy.
The Kraus-Weber test of the early 1950s again suggested that American youth (this time baby-boomers) were seriously deficient in muscular strength and flexibility. Though the Leprotti system and President Kennedy attempted to address this shortcoming, there was already deep resistance to structured physical education as Kraus describes in his book with the following passage;
“At the time I simply did not realize that many physical educators had such an ingrained dislike of exercise. I found this out in 1957, when I attended a meeting with a number of physical educators. It was a very friendly session. After a few minutes we got down to the main problem. I asked, “Why are you against exercise?”
“We can’t use exercises,” one physical educator said.
“Why not?” I asked.
He smiled. “Very simple,” he said, “Twenty-five years ago we gave exercises to school children. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s enough. We were looked down on as the boobs of the school system. We had no status at all. So we changed our emphasis. Now who are we? Well, we’re not the boobs we used to be. We’re respected members of the academic community. We’re educators, physical educators if you wish. We’re not ‘exercise teachers’ any more. We’re educators, coaches, and administrators. You want to know the truth? Exercise is finished! It’s passé. It’s out of date. You want us to turn back the clock. Well, I’m telling you doctor, we don’t care what your findings show, we’re not going back to the old days. We’ve worked hard to get where we are, and we’re going to stay there.” (pp. 49-50)” (13)
The Soviet and Eastern European system of rank gave researchers an objective standard by which to judge athletes by assigning a rank based on specific scores on both sports and non-sports related fitness tests so that research could be done knowing the actual physical capabilities of the subjects. In the U.S. this level of specificity is impossible to apply to athletes at any level as their physical capabilities differ widely. The SPARQ and C360 testing batteries have tried to address this but still fail to address the lack of emphasis on physical literacy in the U.S. The Soviet approach to maintaining physical literacy and biomotor abilities was discussed in the NSCA Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in the late 1980s, ““If during the competitive period there are losses in any of the physical qualities needed as the sport, supplemental work is done to raise it back to the needed level. A good example of this is the middle and long distance runner. Running alone, it has been found is not sufficient to maintain all-round fitness. Because of this general physical preparation is also carried on during the competitive season for maintenance”. (14)
There has not only been a movement away from structured physical education to sports and games in our society but this has been supported by the deification of a small percentage of the population with athletic skill. Further, the structured physical education of the German and Swedish methods which built character and citizenship as well as physical literacy has been abandoned by many physical educators not because it was not valuable for society but because it was not profitable, high profile, and “sexy” as the sports programs and systems that took its place. All this while military and health leaders are sounding the alarm on public health issues such as obesity, poor motor patterns and posture, diabetes, etc. The fitness industry and leaders continue to try to profit and/or give trophies for participation by advocating activity instead of exercise and giving up structured exercise with precision, progression and variety for anything that “you like doing.” How can we expect to move forward in this climate?
False Profits, Gurus, and Acolytes
Mentioning trail blazers such as Eugen Sandow, Bernarr Macfadden, Sigmund Klein, Stan Leprotti and others is important historically to understand where we came from. Additional trailblazers like Jack LaLanne whose television show started in the early 1950s and continued until the 1980s creating a demand for knowledge about pursuit of physical activity are important. Harold Zinkin (Universal Exercise Machines), Arthur Jones (Nautilus Equipment), Dr. Cooper, Arnold Schwarzenegger (Pumping Iron), and Richard Simmons (Sweating to the Oldies) all also played a role in bringing popularity and accessibility to attaining increased levels of health and fitness and creating the modern fitness industry. However, individuals acting on their own out of their own areas of interest, expertise and bias have not made a significant change in the health and fitness problems that we face in our society. In many ways they could be considered responsible for creating today’s problems because they laid the foundation for less ethical and educated fitness celebrities like Jillian Michaels, Dr. Oz, and Tracy Anderson. Consider that all these “celebrities” are being sued for the advice they are giving the public or their business practices. (15) (16) (17)
Organizations such as ACSM, NSCA, and other not-for-profit groups of professionals offer certification, research and resources for fitness professionals yet many “professionals” still seek out the sage advice of Guru’s. How can a certified professional think that getting a weekend teaching certificate in a methodology from a television infomercial is an appropriate way to increase their knowledge? Shouldn’t a certified professional be creating those products for their clients? It seems that that low barrier to entry into the fitness and personal training field has had the unforeseen consequence of making the professionals as gullible as the clients they take money from for their expertise.
Evidence based practice is described as the combination of the best research evidence, clinical expertise, and client/patient values. (18) Too many “fitness professionals” lack the ability to understand research or lack the clinical expertise to apply the skills of their craft appropriately and so their clients suffer. They suffer from the lack of progression, precision, and variation that could keep them healthy, fit, and ready for labor and defense for life and instead treat fitness and exercise as a fad and each new method or technique as being equal because they have no principles to measure them by or criteria to compare them to.
In the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s Essentials of Personal Training, the chapter on Legal and Professional issues discusses the tension between gym owners and trainers. The gym owners want to keep costs down and feel that college educated trainers are too expensive and over qualified. Concurrently, in an exam survey given to trainers and gym members, they gym members were scored just as high on fitness knowledge as the trainers unless the trainers were certified by ACSM or NSCA. The troubling issue for our society is the we have come to a situation in fitness where the blind are leading the blind. (20)
Furthermore, many would stand in the way of increased education, credentialing, registration, and licensure in the fitness industry claiming that the market will sort things out. Clearly the market has not been able to sort this out, nor have the gurus and their acolytes fresh off a weekend certification. Being a life-long learner and continuing to improve your clinical expertise is necessary but having a foundation, research literacy, and understanding of the laws and principles that apply to the human body is prerequisite to any continuing education despite however sexy the guru may be.
Pornografication of Fitness
The beginning of our physical culture dates from the ancient Greeks. The Greek ideals of beauty influence the Romans. After the Dark an Middle ages, the Greek and Roman ideals influenced the renaissance which in turn influence the founders of the German Method (Johann Gutts Muths) and The Swedish Methody (Per Henrick Ling) on which the physical culture and education system in the United States is based.
In ancient Greece, boys were first taught good posture through a system of specialized exercises. Strength, agility, speed, tenacity and alertness were necessary for battle and cultivated in all citizens by practicing rope climbing, running, jumping, swimming, and throwing the javelin. Specific martial training in boxing, wresting and a combination of the two was learned in the Greek Palestras as one got older. The harmony of body, mind, and soul was the ultimate goal of Greek physical education so that an individual was fitted to participate in the activities of the State and to promote its welfare.
The ancient Greeks left many works of sculpture glorifying the body and demonstrating the ancient ideal of physical development. The Spartans used harsh training methods to achieve an ideal of form and function which they showed off with their enthusiasm for nudity. The ideal of physical beauty which comes from these ancient Greek statues influenced the physical culture movement in the United States and abroad in the late 1800s and early 1900s. However, the Greek, and especially Athenian, ideal was that of a sound mind and sound body (often expressed as arete, or “virtue”) not just the aesthetic seen in the statues and it was cultivated in the gymnasiums, where young men exercised, bathed, socialized, and discussed philosophy. Moreover, Hippocrates, the name sake of the Hippocratic Oath our modern physicians take, believed that diet and exercise would unleash natural forces to promote harmonious bodily functions. The Greeks used exercise as preventive medicine and as a means of recuperating from illnesses and weaknesses. So the ancient Greeks were not simply focused on aesthetics and looking better naked. Their physical culture was connected to their political, philosophical, artistic, community, and societal structure.
There has been a change in emphasis from developing citizens that are sound in mind and body based on principles from the ancient Greeks that the Swedish and German methods cultivated to a culture that is more interested in spectating at sports events and letting a few select individuals participate and become deified. Additionally, there has been a shift from a sound mind and a sound body to objectifying and marginalizing women based on modern standards or trends of beauty. Most ‘Fitspiration” and “Thinspiration” memes show unrealistic female bodies and likely prevent more women from exercising than inspire. (21) Our focus on sports and games in addition to our focus on aesthetics has created a society in which obesity and lifestyle related avoidable disease are the norm. Only a few genetically gifted individuals who either can perform in a specific sport or look a specific way are encouraged and rewarded by society for exercising, being fit, or being healthy. The larger majority of our citizens are ridiculed for being clumsy on the field or for not looking good enough to wear certain clothes, be seen in revealing poses or exercising as it is only for the attractive and thin. Our children are selected for sports participation based on early achievement and often burn out or get injured before achieving their potential while the vast majority of other students not as adept at an early age are ignored and never given the opportunity to develop full physical literacy. Children that are selected by parents or coaches at an early age over specialize in a specific sport and also miss the opportunity to develop physical literacy and fundamental movement skills. Young girls are often kept out of both sports and fitness and instead taught to be objects of men’s desire instead of full contributing citizens.
Recent attacks on Rhonda Rousey and Serena Williams as well as other female athletes for what some consider their “masculine” physics further show the disparity and objectification of fitness as well as its pornografication. Fourtunately, the “Don’t be a DNB” movement by Rhonda Rousey (22) though more controversial and the Always #LikeAGirl (23)campaign in the United States and This Girl Can (24) in the United Kingdom are attempting to address this disparity issue, there is still a long way to go.
The fitness industry continues to use seductive photos of women to advertise its memberships and products; Cleavage and rear ends are used to get more clicks and likes on Facebook; Magazine covers are plastered with quick fix workout routines to target “problem areas” with photos of emaciated models who’ve likely never trained; Exercise methods, techniques, and products promise long lean Hollywood muscles; Gurus and false prophets disempower women by telling them to never lift anything heavier than ten (or five) pounds as they may become too “bulky” or masculine; Female athletes are ridiculed in the media for having powerful functional bodies. How does an educated fitness professional or a vocation that claims to want to improve the health of our society allow their industry to behave in this manner? Perhaps licensure will limit the type and amount of false and damaging claims that are made in the name of fitness.
If It Ain’t Broke
In the mid 1940’s Dr. Krause joined forces with a team of experts at New York to examine if muscular imbalance might be a contributing factor, to the increased incidence of low back pain physicians were beginning to see. They developed a test using six simple postures designed to measure the muscular efficiency of the lower back and abdominal region. Patients who scored poorly were given exercise prescriptions which often proved effective in helping to relieve their back pain. It was also thought that the tesst might be used to predict backache. Once again, exercise, or the lack there of, became medicine.
Though this investigation (Kraus – Weber) was and remains important, it also has set up another paradigm shift in physical education and fitness. As exercise and back pain or other injuries became more linked in the minds of educators, practitioners and the public and interesting phenomenon occurred. A list of contraindicated postures exercises and movements began to grow. This expanding list of postures considered questionable or dangerous by physical educators and trainers includes the squat. Many physical education majors are taught that squatting is bad for the knees, back or may otherwise cause injury. Yet, humans comfortably rest, sleep, work, defecate, copulate, and sometimes even give birth from the squat position. The movement patterns and vocabulary of American’s deteriorates further as the list of forbidden postures grows longer.
Another interesting movement in the fitness industry away from developing skills, postures and abilities that may be functional and transferable to labor, defense and the pursuit of happiness and self-expression through movement is the problem some people seem to have with “locking out” or straightening joints all the way when lifting weights. Pamela Peek, MD in Body for Life for Women gives instructions like “press the weight up until your arms are almost straight (with your elbows just short of locked)” to which other authors and fitness professionals must then re-educate clients. Lou Schuler describes in The New Rules of Lifting for Women (pg 8), “I’ve never come across any suggestion of injury risk from this simple movement (straightening your elbows in a shoulder press). More to the point, elbows are supposed to lock. It’s called “straightening your arms.” He also writes “Women are sometimes presented wth cautions that have little basis in the real world, creating fear of injury when the actual risk in non-existent.” (26)
Fear of exercise has been created by physical educators who vilify certain exercises and authors who give erroneous instructions and then educated fitness professionals must re-educate the client or un-educated professionals continue to perpetuate these myths. Moreover, a culture of individuals injured by faulty movement patterns and lack of skill are lead to believe that exercise is dangerous and their very bodies are somehow deficient and prone to injury. “I have a scoliosis”, “I have a kyphosis”, “I have a bad back” are how many clients identify themselves and relate to their bodies. They often use this as a reason to not exercise or to under-exercise for fear of pain. Dr. Kraus linked idiopathic back pain to under-exercise (hypokinesia) and over-irritation. Kraus believed hypokinetic disease and nervous tension contributed to at least back pain, stiff neck, headache, emotional instability, duodenal ulcers, diabetes, and heart disease.
The other surprising result of the reticence to exercise from fear is the emergence of the Personal Trainer as Physical Therapist. Where fear mongering and sales are accomplished by telling clients they have “overactive this” or “short that” and that their movement patterns are inefficient, pathological and potentially damaging so they must use “corrective exercises” to “fix” these problems before doing any other exercises. This often happens without any actual assessment or with a cursory assessment lacking sufficient muscle strength or length tests to really ascertain if something is short, weak, or otherwise not functioning properly. This approach nearly always this fails to recognize the fundamentals that the traditional German and Swedish methods included. Per Henrick Ling’s General Principles of Gymnastics (The Sweidsh Method) was published in 1840, a year after his death. In it defines the four areas of physical education he believed integral to a complete system (13):
Medical–by means of which one seeks, either by his own proper posture or with the help of another person and by helpful movement, to diminish or overcome the ailment which has arisen in the body through its abnormal relations.
Military–in which one seeks by means of an external thing–e.g., a weapon, or by means of his own bodily power–to subject the will of another person to his own.
Pedagogical–by means of which one learns to bring his body under the control of his own will.
Aesthetic–through which a person endeavors to give bodily expression to his inner being, thoughts, or impressions. (13)
Medical Gymnastics are a component of a program and certainly exercise is medicine but to the focus on that by unqualified trainers without the knowledge, skills, and abilities (clinical expertise) or formal training to do so is simply another high pressure sales tactic design to separate a client from their money. This practice continues to foster fear, and exploits client’s weaknesses instead of educating and creating stronger citizens. The scope of practice issues around this practice are also must be examined as most therapeutic practices must be performed by licensed professionals such as physical, occupational and massage therapists and athletic trainers not those that have completed a weekend certification in a modality like kinesio-taping without any formal education or licensure.
Moral and Ethical Obligation of Citizenship
To fix the state we are in:
Gyms/Fitness centers should be run by those that understand and care about fitness, not by private equity firms or CEOs serving shareholders.
Educational and licensure requirement should be enacted so that evidenced based fitness and training becomes the norm.
Fitness centers/gyms should have specific precise progressions and ranking systems so that participants can know where they are and where they need to get to.
Programs should keep the population ready for labor and defense and foster self-expression and self-actualization through a combination of physical, mental, and artistic exercise.
A balance between medical, martial, pedagogical, and aesthetic practices should be encouraged for all citizens participating regardless of gender or age.
1 Fitness Management 2006 Tharrett, Stephen J., M.S., Peterson, James A., PhD, FACSM Healthy Learning