In this final part of our series on suspension training we’ll examine the effectiveness and efficacy of suspension training. Efficacy is defined as the ability to produce a desired or intended result, for example “there is little information on the efficacy of this treatment.” Conversely, Effectiveness is defined as being successful in producing a desired or intended result, “effective solutions to environmental problems” for example. However, when it comes to science and research the two words have more specific meanings. Basically, efficacy is a measure of whether or not something works whereas effectiveness is concerned with whether or not it can be used practically. That is to say that there are many things (tools, treatments, etc) that are efficacious but due to their cost in dollars or time or other factors, they may not be practical to use or be effective in practice. More on the difference of efficacy and effectiveness here.
Suspension Training Efficacy
One study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research called Effect of Using a Suspension Training System on Muscle Activation During the Performance of a Front Plank Exercise found that “abdominal muscle activation was higher in all suspended conditions compared to the floor based plank.” This is in line with the marketing and purported benefits of suspension training. The study found specifically that “The highest level of abdominal muscle activation occurred in the arms suspended and arms/feet suspended conditions, which did not differ from one another.” So, some amount of instability or suspension is beneficial but more is not necessarily better. The study also found activity in the two joint quadriceps muscle that crosses the knee and hip joint and in an important shoulder/scapular stabilizer the serratus anterior, “Rectus femoris activation was greatest during the arms suspended condition, whereas SA activity peaked during normal and feet suspended planks.” The authors concluded that “These results indicate that suspension training as performed in this study seems to be an effective means of increasing muscle activation during the plank exercise. Contrary to expectations, the additional instability created by suspending both the arms and feet did not result in any additional abdominal muscle activation.”
The protocol in the study consisted of performing 2 repetitions each of 4 different plank exercises for 3 seconds each, three of which were using a TRX Suspension System;
floor based plank
planks with arms suspended (TRX)
plank with feet suspended (TRX)
plank with feet and arms suspended (TRX)
21 subjects participated and the muscle activation was recorded from rectus abdominis, external oblique, rectus femoris, and serratus anterior (SA) muscles using electromyography. In practice, trainers and exercisers tend to hold the plank position for more than 3 seconds which brings up the question of what happens as the person holds the plank suspended or unsuspended for a longer time and how applicable are these results if in practice the plank is held for longer periods.
Another study in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research titled Activation of Spinal Stabilizers and Shoulder Complex Muscles During an Inverted Row Using a Portable Pull-up Device and Body Weight Resistance found that Four inverted row exercises studied activated the LD (latissimus dorsi), UT (upper trapezius), MT (middle trapezius), LT (lower trapezius, and BB (biceps brachii) at levels conducive to strengthening. This seems to show that a suspension training apparatus, in this case a “portable pull-up device” is an appropriate substitute to free weights for creating the resistance necessary to build strength. 13 male and 13 female subjects participated in the study. Interestingly, the investigators reported that “No statistically significant differences in muscle activation existed between single- and double-leg WB (weight bearing) in any muscles.”
When examining push up exercises the study Analysis of Pushing Exercises: Muscle Activity and Spine Load While Contrasting Techniques on Stable Surfaces With a Labile Suspension Strap Training System also from the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research found that ” In general, the instability associated with the labile exercises required greater torso muscle activity than when performed on stable surfaces.” The researchers also found it interesting that ” a standard push-up showed significantly greater shear than TRX angle 1 (p = 0.02), angle 2 (p = 0.01), and angle 3 (p = 0.02).” This study used kinematic analysis of body segments and muscle activity in a 3D model of 14 men to estimate muscle force. They compared exercises performed using stable surfaces for hand/feet contact and with labile suspension straps. A metronome was used to control speed of movement for each exercise.
To quantify the load at different angle of the push up, Effects of Angle Variations in Suspension Push-up Exercise in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research examined this question. The study used 28 male subjects and compared forces during push ups at 4 different body angles (0, 15, 30, 45°) while using a TRX suspension training device. The results showed that “as the TRX angle was reduced, the load applied to the TRX straps increased…” This was true during the concentric and eccentric phases of the exercise, e.g. “for both the elbow joint changing from flexion to extension and vice versa.” The greatest forces were recorded at 0°. Forces equal to 50.4% of the subjects body weight were recorded when their elbows were extended and 75.3% of their body weight when the subjects elbows were in the flexed position.
Electromyographical Comparison of Pike Variations Performed With and Without Instability Devices also in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research found that there were “significant differences between the instability devices and the stable pike. These results indicate that with more freely moving instability devices (e.g., suspension device, Swiss ball, etc.), core musculature may require greater muscular demands.” The study compared the EMG results of 20 men and women performing 5 variations of a pike on varying surfaces –
stable ground [PK]
Swiss ball [SB]
suspension training device [ST]
BOSU ball [BOSU]
Core Coaster [CC]
Two additional studies looked at the influence of suspension training on hormone responses. Both these studies – Effects of Suspension Training on the Growth Hormone Axis and Anabolic Hormonal Responses to an Acute Bout of Suspension Training were publish in the March 2011 issue of Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. Additionally, both studies, which were similar in protocol were funded by The Citadel Foundation and Fitness Anywhere, Inc. Fitness Anywhere is the parent company of TRX. The both the growth hormone study and the anabolic/testosterone study used a 60 minute suspension training interval workout that consisted of 23 exercises performed for 30 seconds each followed by 60 seconds of rest. The results of both studies showed positive increases in hormone levels similar to those achieved in high intensity circuit type training with free weights or other modalities. The growth hormone study concludes “These data indicate that a suspension training workout using the recommended 30 sec:60 sec work:rest ratio is sufficient to stimulate the GH axis in recreationally active young adult males. Practical Applications: This evidence supports the use of suspension training as a stimulus for anabolic hormone release, suggesting this is a viable alternative to traditional resistance training for stimulating the anabolic hormones that support recovery and muscle growth. ” The anabolic/testosterone study concludes “A suspension training workout using 30 sec work intervals followed by 60 sec rest periods elicited typical TT and novel T:C ratio responses to moderate intensity resistance training in physically active males. Suspension training appears to stimulate an expected testosterone response with a lower associated stress (i.e. cortisol) response resulting in a positive anabolic profile lasting at least two hours after the workout. Workouts using 30 sec work and rest intervals, 45 or 60 sec work and 30 or 45 sec rest intervals may likely result in more robust hormonal responses.” Both studies state that their results support “the use of suspension training exercise as a viable alternative mode of exercise to traditional resistance training. ”
No studies that I have found have investigated the use of suspension training straps for lower body exercises such as hamstring curls, hip bridges, or squats. Additionally, I have not found any investigations into the use of suspension straps for plyometric or jumping type exercises for metabolic or power training. It seems to me that the use of suspension training straps for these types of exercises is superfluous. A function of choreography and class or session logistics rather than a function of efficacious or effective exercise selection.
When compared to needing a gym with hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment, it’s clear that the use of suspension training apparatus can be effective as well as efficacious. When compared to a calisthenic program that uses full pull ups and handstand push ups, the suspension trainer can be a way to regress or lessen the loading for those not able to perform full push ups, pull ups or other body weight exercises. Suspension training straps can also be a way to assist lower body exercises like squats or single leg squats making them accessible to those that cannot yet perform them with their full body weight.
However, when looking for a place to suspend a suspension trainer, the effectiveness of the products is not as great as imagined. Note that there are many anchoring systems and frames sold to allow one to use these suspension devices in gym and class settings because finding anchor points is not as easy as one would think. As a person that lives in an old house (see video) the door mounting devices also fall short in utility because I don’t have room in the hallways to use the devices. As someone that works in NYC, the Parks Department is not amenable to using trees to attach suspension devices either.
As debates continue regarding open chain vs closed chain exercises, stable vs unstable surfaces, and functional vs aesthetic exercises it’s also interesting to note the differences between object manipulation and body management skills. Body management, object manipulation and locomotion skill are the three areas of physical literacy suspension training clearly falls under the body management category but doesn’t satisfy the object manipulation or locomotion skill categories. Suspension training shouldn’t be the only source of resistance exercise in a program.
This post was on the original LTHE blog in 2015. Here it is slightly revamped for 2017.
I was recently asked the following by a fitness writer; “what are your tips for measuring your fitness levels, what tests tell you about balance, strength, flexibility, and cardiovascular strength? How does this test work to test fitness? What tips can you give to reach an appropriate level of fitness for your age and gender?: Though I had some issues with the term “cardiovascular strength” as those two words are at different ends of the spectrum from an exercise physiology perspective, I thought it was one of the best questions I’d ever been asked by a “fitness writer.”
The question brought up two big problems I have with the fitness industry. One, why don’t more people want to know where they are and how much progress they’ve made with a given program, class, or trainer, and two, what is really important for being able to live a full, functional, active life? The former is a topic for another post, and you can bet that it will have much to do with the lack of education of trainers in commercial gyms, the lack of an educated fitness consumer, and the overall demise in Physical Culture in our country. The latter is the topic of this article, and though it shares some common issues with the former, it has some other unique issues of its’ own.
What is strength?
Definition of STRENGTH
1: the quality or state of being strong : capacity for exertion or endurance
2: power to resist force : solidity, toughness
3: power of resisting attack : impregnability
4 a : legal, logical, or moral force
b : a strong attribute or inherent asset <the strengths and the weaknesses of the book are evident>
From a training and exercise physiology perspective, strength is measured as the maximum weight you can lift one time, your One Repetition Maximum (1RM.) Strength is also considered one of the measureable elements of “Health Related Fitness.”
Why You Need It
I’m going to skip the banal and ubiquitous “muscle is metabolically active and helps you burn fat”, “more muscle increases your metabolism”, “resistance training will help you lose fat”, etc. and focus on the practical and pragmatic aspects of strength.
Your effort doing any physical task is a function of how much of your maximum capacity that task requires. So, for example, if the maximum amount you ever try to perform a squat exercise with is 30 pounds (i.e. a fifteen pound dumbbell in each hand), and you need to carry a 30 pound bag of cat litter (pictured) or some other load of groceries into your house, you are using 100% of your capacity to do this simple task. No
wonder people get injured doing simple daily activities or are exhausted by doing errands or chores. Now, imagine a progressive resistance training program that has you squatting your own body weight, for reps even, now that 30 pound bag of litter only requires one fifth of your capacity if you weigh 150 pounds. That’s only 20% of your capacity.
It bears mentioning that in the not-so-distant past we were much more active. Manual labor was common in our daily activities like carrying the coal bucket below. Additionally, structured physical education like dumbbell drills were common in schools as opposed to just game playing games in phys ed class. More on this later.
How much strength we need should not decrease because our activities of daily living are less demanding. We’ve already lowered the bar in so many areas, including physical education the buck has to stop somewhere. So, let’s look at some common measures of strength or muscular capacity. I think it’s fair to say, one should at least try to be average but the practical benefits of being above average should be obvious.
Here are the average scores for a push up test. Men do “full” pushups and women “modified” pushups (e.g. from their knees) for this test though this should not limit how they train. I also have to be honest, a pushup test is really a measure of muscular endurance not strength but it is a good place to start this discussion.
McArdle W.D. et al, Essentials of Exercise Physiology, 2000, 2006. Published by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
For military service, the standards are higher of course. Recruits are required to do at least 50 pushups to pass basic combat training. This should be considered also in understanding what’s possible. Also, not that long ago we still had a draft and these standards would have been required of all. For women in the military, 19 push ups (full not modified) would result in a score of 60 on that component of the PFT (Physical Fitness Test), 42 push ups would be a score of 100. These scores are for women 17-21 years of age. http://usmilitary.about.com/od/army/l/blfitfem17to21.htm
With respect to Chin ups (palms facing you), an average 16-19 year old male should be able to do 6-8 chins, an average female in the same age range 3-4. The minimum requirement for Marines is 3 pull ups, to get a maximum score of 100 on the Marine Corp Fitness Test, 20 chin/pull ups must be performed. Females taking the Marine Corp Fitness test must perform a “bent arm hang”, hanging from the bar for at least 40 seconds with the elbows flexed to hold the chin above the bar. Holding for 70 seconds results in a score of 100 for that exam component. As we age, the numbers go down, typically between the ages of 31 and 50, the number of pull ups we can perform decreases due to the age related decline in muscle associated with a lack of physical activity. Obviously, this does not need to be the case. Just ask Jack Lalanne. It’s also important to say that the heavier a person is, the fewer chin ups or pull ups they can perform as they are lifting more weight with each repetition. This brings up another important concept which is the strength ratio. That is per pound of your bodyweight, how much can you lift. Strength ratios have been calculated for many of the multiple joint exercises that transfer to everyday activities.
Bench Press Strength Ratios = Percentage of your body weight that you can bench press one time.
Leg Press Strength Ratios = Percentage of your body weight that you can move on the leg press one time.
The Physical Fitness Specialist Certification Manual , The Cooper Institute for Aerobics Research, Dallas, TX, revised 1997
Keep in mind that I’ve only presented the 50th percentile ranking here. That means half the people can do more and half less. When we look back at the example of someone training with the 15 pound dumbbells and wondering why lifting a 30 pound bag of cat litter is hard, this chart takes on new meaning. One should easily leg press their own body weight to start, bodyweight coefficients from Baechle, T.R. and B.R. Groves. Weight Training Steps to Success (2nd Ed.) Human Kinetics. 1998 show that untrained women should be able to lift 1x their body weight for 12-15 reps and untrained men, 1.5x body weight.
“You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” The term redpill refers to a human that is aware of the true nature of the Matrix.
Consider the following before you dismiss the importance of strength.
Physical Culture was a movement in the late 1800s early 1900s that used the motto “mens sana en corpore sano” a sound mind in a healthy body. This concept that both the mind and body were integrally related and reliant was prevalent in the YMCA and other movements of the time as well. However, by the 1950s structured physical education in schools had been abandoned and replaced with games. Part of the problems we face today are due to this shift in emphasis. There is a more insidious problem with respect to physical education, strength, and movement in the fitness industry today which is the idea that these things are mutually exclusive. For example, Pilates, Feldenkrais, Alexander, and corrective exercise practitioners focus on the quality of movement while trainers and strength coaches focus on the quantity of movement. This is a false delineation, both the quality and the quantity are important and one should not only be able to move a lot of weight (have strength), but should also be able to do it in an efficient way. The way in which the movements are performed (quality) should address both safety and the use of techniques that enable the lifter to 1-lift more, and 2-apply the technique in life situations. Despite what some celebrity trainers say, you should lift more than 10lb weights.
Strength also plays a large roll in our ability to do work. Would it be too much to say that weight lifting helps you run but running doesn’t help you lift weights? Regardless, one needs both for work and should focus on how to get the most bang for their buck so they can increase their work capacity. Work capacity is a combination of aerobic and anaerobic energy systems (strength.) Fit workers can do more work with less fatigue and still have a reserve to meet unforeseen emergencies. In short, fitness is the most important factor in work capacity and strength is at least half of fitness. Another important component of work capacity is that in the work environment, our capability effects our coworkers as well as ourselves. ”Work capacity is the employee’s ability to accomplish production goals without undue fatigue, and without becoming a hazard to oneself or coworkers.” http://www.wildfirelessons.net/documents/FitnessAndWorkCapacity2.pdf Thus, being strong and having a high work capacity is a part of “good citizenship.” Maybe that’s an antiquated concept, but maybe fitness goes beyond our vanity (flat abs etc.) and is part of our social responsibility.
If you’ve been around the gym a bit or you’ve been in the health-fitness-exercise field for any length of time you could probably retire if you had $1 for every time you heard someone say “I don’t want to get big, I just want to tone” or its myriad variations.
In this piece we’ll examine what tone actually is and it’s positive and negative aspects as well as try to examine what people really mean when they say that “tone” is something they want and what they may think the opposite of tone is – hypertrophy?
syntonus(1) in skeletalmuscle, a state of tensionthat is maintainedcontinuously – minimallyevenwhenrelaxed – andwhichincreases in resistance to passivestretch.Pathologically,loss of tone (flaccidity) can be caused,e.g. by peripheralnervedamage,andexaggeratedtone (spasticity) by overstimulation,e.g.whentheactivity of therelevantlowermotorneurons is releasedfromhigherCNScontrol in spinalinjury.Theterm is sometimesalsoused,incorrectly, toindicategeneralmusclestrength.(2) In smoothmuscle,steadytensionmaintained in thewalls of hollowvessels;regulatedmainly by autonomicinnervationbutinfluenced,e.g. in thewalls of arterioles, by localvariables:temperature,chemicalfactors or intravascularpressure,contributing to autoregulation of appropriatebloodflow.Seealsostretch reflex.
To get a visual of this concept, we have to understand the structure of our muscles and how the nervous system controls them. Skeletal muscle cells are long cylindrical cells that for the most part run the length of the muscle. They have a connective tissue covering called the endomycium. Muscle cells within any given muscle are grouped together into units called fasicles and these fasicles are also covered with a connective tissue called the perimycium. Groups of the groups of muscles cells (fasicles) make up the muscle itself and are covered with a connective tissue called the epimycium.
The connective tissues (endomycium, perimycium and epimycium) combine with each other at the ends of the muscle cells to form tendons which attach the muscle (muscle cells) to the bones and allow the contraction of the muscles cells to rotate the bones around the access of the body’s joints.
The nervous system and it’s nerve cells control the muscle cells. Each motor neuron and the muscle cells it innervates (attaches to) are called a motor unit. Some motor units and motor neurons control 1,000 muscle cells and some only control one muscle cell. In large muscles of the legs and torso where a gross or more general control is required we have fewer but large motor units. In muscles of the face, mouth, and hands where we require a fine tuned control, the motor units are small (one neuron for one muscle cell) and we have many of them so we can exert a very fine tuned control over the contraction (movement and tone) of those muscles.
The resting tone of a muscle is maintained by the asynchronous firing of the motor units within that muscle when it is not being told to contract voluntarily. It would look something like this.
Exercise, especially resistance training does have an effect on tone. But, it is not in the obvious way that the people that would say something like “I just want to tone, I don’t want to get big” may think.
The Motor Learning Effect
The motor learning effect is the reason that people gain strength in the initial stages of a resistance training program. This effect is most pronounced in people that were “un-trained” before they started the program. The gains in strength that these exercises have during the first stages of their program are because of the nervous system finding and recruiting motor units that it hasn’t used in a long time. The individual does not grow new muscle cells, new nerve cells or new motor units. Instead, due to the “overload” or the demands the new program puts on the person’s body causes the person to adapt by finding motor units that they haven’t been using. Now that the person can recruit this additional, previously un-utilized or under utilized motor units they can do more work or are stronger. Additionally, now that they have a larger pool of available motor units, their tone may improve because there are more motor units to do the asynchronous firing that creates the appearance of tone. This new level of resting tone, would be maintained in this manner.
After the first six weeks of a program, additional gains in strength will typically come from changes in the muscles cells themselves. That is the muscle cells must add contractile proteins (actin and myosin) organized in structures called sarcomeres that give them skeletal muscles their stripped or striated appearance. It’s much more difficult to get the muscle cells to hypertrophy or grow larger from adding contractile proteins. It requires taking in the right type, quality and quantity of nutrients, getting the right amount of sleep to maximize hormone levels for recovery and adaptation in the form of growth as well as the consistency of following a challenging resistance training program designed for hypertrophy. Not all resistance training programs are designed for hypertrophy. Programs can also be designed for improving muscular endurance, strength and power. The weight on the bar is only one of the many variables that is manipulated in program design and it is not the most important variable for hypertrophy programs. See also Strength and Why You Need It and The Truth About Body Weight Exercises.
So, it seems that the word Tone has been confused and combined by many with the concept of Hypertrophy. Now that we’ve established the difference, let’s talk about tone and it’s real implications.
Hypertonicity, Hypotonicity, Flaccidity and Spasticity
Tone can be conceptualized as a spectrum, a range or a scale. The middle of the scale would be normal, healthy average tone. The far left would be the absence of tone or flaccidity which is often the result of nerve damage and the far right of the scale would be spasticity or constant contraction of the muscle. The spastic condition is often the result of damage to the central nervous system. When a person says the want to tone, I don’t think they mean that they want to move toward the right of the scale towards a spastic condition of the muscle/s. It’s interesting that a neurological concept and term “tone” or “tonicity” has been coopted into a discussion of asthetics.
Cerebral Palsy, Multiple Sclerosis, Strokes and other central nervous system conditions often result in a hypertonic state of muscle or spasticity. Often the flexor muscles or the extensor muscles are hyperactive together resulting in a flexor spasticity or an extensor spasticity and the goal of treatment is to lower or decrease the tone of the muscles. Nerve damage to the nerves in the extremities from trauma or Polio may result in faccidity or hypotonicity where no signals can get to the muscle cells and therefore there is no tone at all or a diminished tone. The concepts of tone and hypertrophy are very different though one form of muscular dystrophy (Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy) connects the concepts in it’s symptoms. Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy is sometimes called the pseudohypertrophic type because the flaccid weak muscles seem to get larger or hypertrophy due to a build up of scar tissue.
Facilitation, Inhibition, Recovery and Contracture
Tone is a function of the nervous system and changes throughout the day, minute to minute, hour to hour. We try to maintain homeostasis of tone when at rest and adjust our tone upward or downward based on the needs of the activity and environment. Despite our best efforts and homeostatic mechanisms our tone does not always meet the demands of the circumstances and can snowball out of control.
Facilitation, Warm Up and EPSPs –
The neurons that control your muscle cells, the ones that are part of the motor unit and directly connect to the muscle cells get signals from lots of other neurons in your central nervous system telling them what to do. These lower motor neurons, the ones that are part of the motor unit and directly attach to the muscle cells are getting signals from many different upper motor neurons (neurons of the central nervous system) as well as from sensory neurons coming from proprioceptors in the muscles themselves. Golgi Tendon Organs (GTOs) and Muscle Spindle Organs (MSOs) are the main proprioceptors that work as a servomechanism to help maintain normal levels of muscle tone. The GTOs make sure your tone doesn’t get to high by inhibiting the lower motor neurons and the muscle spindles make sure your tone doesn’t get to low by exciting the lower motor neurons.
There are of course times that we want to have more than the normal amount of tone so that our muscles are ready to contract without delay. This is accomplished by signals coming down the spinal cord upper motor neurons to the lower motor neurons and causing the lower motor neurons to fire more signals per second. This in turn cause the tone in the muscle to increase. The motor units are on ready. Facilitation of the lower motor neurons, bringing them closer to threshold and increasing their rate of firing is one of the results of and reasons for doing a warm up, movement prep, or the “activation” exercises that many trainers and therapist talk about. It’s also important to note that stress and worry will also cause more signals to travel down the upper motor neurons and facilitate the lower motor neurons increasing the resting tone of the muscles. This is one reason people often report a stiff, tight, or sore neck and shoulders when under stress for prolonged periods.
An Excitatory Post Synaptic Potential is what we call it when a neuron, in this case the lower motor neuron, is above it’s normal resting potential (-70mv) and closer to its threshold (the level at which it will fire an impulse.) Being close to its threshold or having an EPSP means that the neuron will fire more signals per second and in the case of this discussion, cause more motor units to contract and increase the resting tone.
Inhibition, Cool down and IPSPs –
Conversely, there are upper motor neurons that cause inhibition of the lower motor neurons. Parkinson’s disease illustrates the important function of these inhibitory upper motor neurons because the tremors and the eventual freezing or motor block is a function of too much tone or signals to the muscles because of a lack of inhibitory signals. The GTOs, the proprioceptor that causes inhibition is also important for lowering the firing rate of lower motor neurons, moving them further away from threshold and decreasing tone.
When we stretch and do other cool down activities like deep breathing, guided relaxation or a variety of recovery modalities like heat, cold, compression we can slow the firing of the excitatory neurons and increase the firing of the inhibitory upper motor neurons and the GTOs to slow the firing of the lower motor neurons and decrease the tone of the muscle. In this case, decreasing the tone of the muscle can help to switch it from catabolic energy expenditure mode to anabolic energy conservation and repair mode. Passive stretching and even foam rolling can stimulate the GTOs and increase inhibitory signals. More on this in Part 2.
An Inhibitory Post Synaptic Potential is what we call it when a neuron, in this case the lower motor neuron, is below it’s normal resting potential (-70mv) and farther away from its threshold (the level at which it will fire an impulse.) Being farther away from its threshold or having an IPSP means that the neuron will fire fewer signals per second and in the case of this discussion, cause the motor units to contract less frequently and decrease the resting tone.
Contracture is a condition of shortening and hardening of muscles, tendons, or other tissue, often leading to deformity and rigidity of joints. One way that contracture develops is due to nervous system disorders that cause an increase in tone. The increase tone puts the muscle in a shortened position which eventually causes it to loose its elasticity and the normal architecture of the muscle cells and connective tissue are replace with more inelastic connective tissue making the muscles hard to stretch preventing normal movement. Their can also be pain associated with contracture as well as decrease function. To “just want to tone” becomes even more of a troubling misunderstanding of the benefits of exercise when one considers that increase tone is a step on the way to contracture.
One of the goals of recovery modalities (see Part 2) is to decrease tone. To benefit from an exercise program, one must adapt to the exercise that is being done. This occurs by rebuilding and repairing the tissues used during the exercise so that they can perform more of the same type of exercise in the future. Recovery between workouts or exercise sessions is something that needs to be maximized to get the benefit of the exercise program. Maximizing recovery entails proper nutrition, proper sleep, proper hormone levels and normal levels of tone. Bringing the muscle tone back to normal after a training session signals the central nervous system that the stress is over and it can now release the rebuilding, repair or anabolic hormones. Normal tone in the muscles also allows the lymphatic and blood vessels to remove wastes and bring nutrients to promote the repairing and rebuilding process. Less tone is good for repair and recovery.
You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.
Here is a video product review of many inversion/gravity boots on the market. Check out below a history of inversion training.
There are lots of instances of inverted or upside down exercises throughout history. Many can be found in the literature from the late 1800s to early 1900s on Swedish, German, and German American Gymnastics. These systems included medical gymnastics as well as exercises (gymnastics) to be taught in schools. In the 1960s, gravity inversion equipment was designed by Robert Martin, MD, to aid patients in relief of low back pain. Through inversion and by utilizing gravity and their own body weight pain may be relieved by decompressing the spine and vertebral discs.
Despite a long history, Inversion Training and Gravity Boots experienced a renaissance in the 1980s due in good part to the work of Robert Martin, Jr. and his father an osteopath and chiropractor – Robert Martin, Sr. The Martins developed a system of inverted exercises and an apparatus for inverting one’s self called The Gravity Guidance System. After it was used by Richard Gere in the 1980 movie American Gigolo the system gained widespread fame.
There were other books published in the 1980s about upside down or inverted exercise and it became extremely popular until a number of lawsuits and concerns from the medical community regarding potential dangers of inversion increasing the risk of strokes or other vascular related injuries. A 1985 study of the “Inverchair”, an inversion device published in the Canadian Chiropractic Journal found that there are some measurable physiological effects of inversion therapy. These effects included increased forward trunk flexion, a general reduction of paraspinal EMG activity, a significant level of distraction of the L4-5 and L5-S1 disc spaces, as well as a lack of change in heart rate and blood pressure.
A 1983 study of inversion therapy stated that ” there are now more than a million people using these devices and more than 15 manufacturers of gravity inversion systems.” The studies authors also speculated that extended periods of head down (-90 degree) inversion could prove to be dangerous in some patient populations, due to increases in systemic blood pressure, central retinal arterial pressure, and intraocular pressure. The authors cautioned patients with the following conditions against inversion training/exercise:
uncompensated congestive heart failure
carotid artery stenosis
persons receiving anticoagulants or aspirin therapy
those above age 55 or those with a family history of cerebrovascular accidents.
In 1984 a follow up study was conducted and the authors stated that “The risk of stroke expressed in previous studies has been grossly exaggerated by the media. To date there has not been a single case of reported stroke or cerebrovascular accident associated with all forms of inversion therapy during the last 15 years they have been popular.” The authors went on to state a post inversion effect on resting blood pressure and heart rate, “We found the systemic blood pressure to decrease from 122/80 mm of mercury in the upright position to 120/78 mm of mercury after 15 minutes of
oscillation. Pulse rate dropped from 76 to 72 in the same time. Intraocular and central retinal arterial pressure increased in a similar fashion to static inversion but of less magnitude.” The main difference in the type of inversion that was used in the follow up study was that it used an oscillating gravity guider device an was therefore keeping the subjects in motion to avoid the congestive effects of static hanging.
Any exercise should be approached with prudent judgement. The “self-help” movement and other introspective and internally focused modalities have brought into focus the difference between therapeutic and other types of exercises. Though the foundations of American Physical Culture (See German and Swedish Gymnastics traditions) looked at all exercise as a spectrum that included Medical, Martial, Aesthetical, and Pedagogical gymnastics, we tend to look at exercise and movement as being black and white, this OR that, and thus exclude our selves from certain physical pursuits out of hand instead of continuing to learn and expand our movement vocabulary and physical literacy. The more recent history of inversion training seems to me to illustrate this separation. Enjoy these vintage inversion exercises that were part of the German-American and Swedish school gymnastics. Stay tuned for Part II where we’ll take a look at some programming and exercises with the gravity boots!
Here we discuss the history and use of Ropes and Rings.
Stay tuned for Part III where we discuss the research and use of suspension training.
I first came across the suspension ladder called the U.S.A. – Universal Strength Apparatus in 2010. I’ve reviewed it and compared it to other suspension trainers in Part 1. Here is a video of Larry Betz (Director of Brooklyn Athletic Club) and I using the suspension ladder and demonstrating various exercises. I think it’s a very useful tool and has many features that make it one of the most versatile of the suspension trainers I’ve reviewed and used.
The original U.S.A. was made by Body Weight Culture but they no longer manufacture or distribute it. Here is my affiliate link to Amazon where you can get a suspension ladder made by WOSS. It is much less expensive than the original U.S.A. Affiliate link:
You can also find the suspension ladder in the Amazon Store above.
It’s well made and a good value.
Thanks for watching.
Welcome to Part I of the three part series on Suspension Training. In this video, we review the main suspension training products on the market based on their ease of use, features and unique selling propositions. Below the video is a product guide and resources for buying suspension trainers.
Part II of this series discusses some Low Tech Old School options like ropes and rings and provides a little historical context.
Part III of the series looks at the research and the application of suspension training.
The Blast Straps from Elite FTS were the first suspension trainer I used. They are rated for very heavy loads and have a very convenient metal clip that is used to attach them to squat racks or pretty much any other piece of equipment in the gym. The straps are separate (two individual anchor points) and so you can adjust the width of the handles. The length adjustment of the straps is not the easiest as you must pull the thick (heavy duty) nylon strap through a small metal buckle. The length adjustment is very secure and you won’t worry about it slipping but I did find it challenging to get the straps the same length quickly between exercises when working with clients. The main limitation of these straps is that you can’t really use them for hooking your feet into. The handles are basically metal cable crossover handles. On the other hand, you could easily attach them to a sled and because of their weight rating, not be worried about them breaking.
TRX is probably the most well known suspension trainer. They certainly were at the forefront of the revival of suspension training. Therefore, their suspension training unit can be thought of as a gauge or bench mark to measure other suspension trainers against. What TRX has done that most of the other manufacturers have not (the exceptions being CrossCore, Redcord, and Primal 7) is offered instructor training courses and continuing education units for personal trainers/fitness instructors. These courses teach instructors how to utilize the straps and offer programming guidelines for one-on-one and group instructional environments. This approach to marketing, offering ceus and education to fitness professionals, has made TRX the most ubiquitous of the suspension trainers found in gyms and fitness settings. The strap itself has one anchor point and handles/stirrups that allow you to easily use the strap with both the hands or the feet. The strap’s length adjustment is one of the easiest both to lengthen and shorten with an easy locking clip to depress and a tab to pull on. Additional material keeps the excess part of the strap together with the weight bearing piece during exercise. Considering the other options on the market now, I’m not sure these features justify the price of the TRX equipment. Although not every manufacturer offers approved CEU courses, almost all provide manuals and DVD or web-based video resources on how to use their apparatus.
The Jungle Gym XToffers some unique features or upgrades when compared to the TRX. The handles are a formed plastic which makes them easier to get your feet/heels into and is easier to wash or keep clean as they can be wiped down with cloth and cleaning solution. The Jungle gym has two separate anchor points so the width can be adjusted and you can easily do unilateral work without having to secure the two sides of the apparatus together as is necessary with the units that have only one anchor point. The length adjustment is very similar to that of the TRX in its method and ease of use.
The CrossCore 180 changed the suspension game by adding a pulley so that the arms or legs can move independently in alternating or reciprocating fashion. This also increase the instability of the apparatus offering more challenge to stabilizing muscles and increased the number and types of movements (rotational movements) that can be done. Formerly called the War Machine, the pulley system also allows one to use the CrossCore as a cable machine by attaching a weight to one end. The handles allow you to use your hands or feet with the CrossCore and are very similar to the handles on the TRX. The main limitation of the CrossCore is adjusting the length of the straps. One can adjust the height of the pulley itself or one must cinch up the cord that runs through the pulley. Recently, CrossCore has addressed this issue by adding an additional piece of hardware that allows one to more quickly adjust the length of the strap/cord.
The Rip 60 is a suspension training apparatus for which Jillian Michaels is the spokesperson. If I put aside the 60 minutes to get ripped marketing campaign and ignore the celebrity spokes person and all the problems I have with fitness celebrities in general and this one in particular, the unit itself is not bad. I first encountered it when I was teaching in the Dominican Republic at GoFit Gym. The Rip 60 features a wide strap like the TRX and Jungle Gym that is strung over a metal arch so that you can perform reciprocating and rotational exercises as with the CrossCore. The difference is not only the metal arch instead of a pulley, but also that the Rip 60 features this wide strap and length adjustment similar to the TRX and Jungle Gym. It also features interchangeable handles attached with carabiner clips. How long until the friction on the metal arch frays the strap and the unit needs to be replaced would depend on the usage. All the straps and clips will wear down eventually.
The Pure Motion AirFit Trainer is a suspension training device that offers a pulley and a spring. The spring absorbs force making it “glide on air.” At least I think that’s what the name signifies. What’s most unique about this unit is the large strap like handles that can wrap around arms, forearms, thighs, and other body parts. These large strap like handles can also be grabbed in many different ways. Pure Motion makes a rack system and the AirFit is just one of many accessories one can get to outfit their rack system. This is an important point in that suspension training is not a panacea, it’s just one of many modalities or tools that can be used in an exercise program. Especially with leg exercises in a standing position, I often wonder, why people are holding onto a TRX or other suspension trainer. Unless it’s remediation, wouldn’t that squat or plyometric exercise be more effective if you don’t hold onto something?
The Universal Strength Apparatus (USA)is one of my favorite suspension trainers. Sadly it is not manufactured under this name anymore by Body Weight Culture. Fortunately, WOSS (listed below) now manufactures the BEAST SUSPENSION LADDER which, for all intents and purposes is the same thing. The many handles that form a ladder make use of this unit easy because they all together eliminate the need to adjust the height of the unit. The fact that ladders were a staple of old school physical culture makes this even more appealing to me. With respect to transferability to job tasks and other climbing movements (climbing on ship rigging was an important skill) this unit is hours of fun.
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
Exercise Wands, sometimes called Health Wands or just referred to as Wands were a staple of early physical education and military training. The “Golden Age” of American Physical Education was from approximately 1880 to 1920. During this time, the “four horsemen” of exercise tools were Indian Clubs, Wands, Medicine Balls and Dumbbells. Here is a quick tutorial on how to make your own wand in a quick and cost-effective way. I was able to make 10 of them for my classes for under $100, and that included a nice set of files to add to my tool complement.
The wands (a wooden dowel) had parallel origins in Eastern and Western physical cultures probably stemming from sword and martial traditions. Various military training manuals including the 1914 – Manual of Physical Training for Use in the United States Army, show that these wand exercises also became rifle exercises and could also be done with barbells.
“The object of these exercises, which may also be performed with wands or bar bells, is to develop the muscles of the arms, shoulders, and back so that the men will become accustomed to the weight of the piece and learn to wield it with that “handiness ” so essential to its successful use.”
In the 1896 book – Gymnastics : a text-book of the German-American system of gymnastics, published by the Normal School of the North America- Gymnastic Union the following description of the wand is given though no mention of its origin is discussed.
“The wand is a round stick, generally of wood or iron. Thickness, length, and weight should be in proportion to the person using it; viz., always long enough to form the hypotenuse of a right angled triangle, when the hands have grasped it at the extreme ends, and the arms are extended at right angles. When of wood the thickness varies from three-quarters of an inch to one and a quarter inches; when of iron, from five-eighths of an inch to one inch. The wand for the adult may weigh from five to eight pounds.”
The weight of the wand and the materials used to make them (wood or metal) suggest that the wand also morphed into the modern barbell as it got heavier. Many of the wand exercises, curls and overhead presses are standard barbell exercises today. Additionally, the resting and carrying position for the wand is describe as being like a gun suggesting the military origins of the wand. “when taken from its place, it should be carried like a gun, either at the right or the left side. The wand should rest on end on the first joint of the first finger, with the thumb brought around in front, pressing the wand firmly against the shoulder.”
Vintage wand exercise picture gallery.
In the video below we demonstrate the winding exercises with the wand. The following WINDING exercises are from the 1896 book – Gymnastics : a text-book of the German-American system of gymnastics, specially adapted to the use of teachers and pupils in public and private schools and gymnasiums / edited by W.A. Stecher. Though it’s likely these winding exercises were very prevalent during this time, this is the primary text with wand exercises that has these winding variations that I have been able to find so far in my research. There are two versions or types of winding, Winding with the Under Hold (reverse grip) and Winding with the Upper Hold (pronated grip.) The start position of the hands (reverse or pronated) and the start position of the wand, chest or hips (order arms) differs in addition to the ending relationship of the arm wound around the wand.
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