Strength and Conditioning

Strong like your great-great-great-grandparents

Ten years ago Michael Pollen wrote an article for Time magazine, titled “Six Rules for Eating Wisely.” One recommendation that always stuck with me was that you shouldn’t eat anything that your great-great-great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food. His point was that in our age of packaged food products, much of what is on the market today is bereft of good nutrition. You’re better off buying whole foods and cooking the way of your grandparents.

It’s time we apply the same idea to how you build strength.

Watch a few late night infomercials or walk the exercise aisle of a box store. You’ll be overwhelmed with new fitness products. A similar phenomenon happens on social media. Tune in to Instagram or Facebook, and you’ll see people cranking through some crazy, inventive exercises.

Before you open your wallet or drop to the floor to imitate the 8-part calisthenics routine of a celebrity trainer, stop and ask yourself: Would previous generations recognize the new equipment or movements as a way that helped people get stronger? If they wouldn’t appreciate it as something that obviously takes strength to perform, then it doesn’t belong in your strength training.

My maternal grandfather was a muscular, barrel-chested Midwesterner. He had his own business as a plumber. Day-in and day-out he made a living carrying lead pipe, busting up concrete, and wrestling with wrenches. He died when I was young, so I never got to ask him, but I suspect that he didn’t have a specific exercise routine. His work was all that were necessary to keep his body thick with muscle.

Perhaps your grandpa didn’t have a physically demanding job. Yet, go back enough decades, and I’m sure that at some point you had a relative who worked manual labor. There might not be the pictures to prove it, but the chances are good that he or she was built solid.

Imagine transporting that relative to the present day. Would that person recognize how to use the colored resistance bands, the thigh squeezers, or the other contraptions sold at an exercise store? I doubt it. The use of those items isn’t intuitive. He or she might find them amusing, like a bunch of toys to play around on, but they wouldn’t be seen as tools for strength development.

Back in the day, you built strength by lifting, carrying, pulling, or pushing heavy weight. You also built it by commanding your body to perform simple movements against gravity. You climbed a rope, pulled yourself above an overhead structure, or dipped between parallel bars.

The underlying principle to strength development hasn’t changed over our evolution. Progressive overload remains the name of game. Either continue to add load to your weight training, or increase the amount of leverage and time under tension to bodyweight skills.

Gymnastics-type movements like levers, L-sits, and planches, might seem foreign to your grandparents, yet I bet that they would still applaud them as feats of strength. Those types of movement are immediately and cross-culturally understand as demanding a high-degree of might.

The point is that we need to be better consumers of fitness products and trends. Be wary of advertisements that claim how a new device will help you build muscle. Unless you are rebounding from a few months of bedrest, there are very few items sold on TV or in your supermarket that will help you build muscle in a meaningful way. Similarly, be skeptical when you hear about some hot new exercise to add to your workout routine. The design of the human body is hundreds of thousands of years old. The stimulus to build muscle hasn’t changed over the millennia. Go back a few paragraphs to what I said about progressive overload.

To better identify what tools and exercises qualify as good for building strength, let’s return to the analogy of your grandparents’ cooking and nutrition. Two big concepts stick out when we consider what is on the shelves of our grocery stores today versus a few decades ago. First, the ingredient list on modern store-bought food is out of control. There are often dozens of ingredients, many with highly scientific names. Your grandparents wouldn’t even recognize most of what is in there. Their foods were made from a few simple ingredients, like eggs, flour, milk, butter, salt, and pepper. Second, the array of food products on the market today is disorienting. Back in the day, your food choices were limited to breads, pastas, meats, veggies, fruits, nuts, and dairy items. They might have been combined into something like a soup, or perhaps they came in variety of forms like a piece of French bread, a kaiser roll, or a biscuit. Either way, there were distinct and recognizable categories of foods. It’s much less clear today. Think about chicken nuggets made of soybeans. The amount of processing to achieve such a thing is no small feat. And unfortunately, all of the manufacturing doesn’t add any nutritional value.

So, from that perspective, ask yourself these two questions about your strength training routine:

  1. What materials or tools are being used during your workout? Be skeptical of anything made of from plastic. If a device looks like it was cooked-up by a designer and then pitched to a marketing department, stay away. Iron, wood, canvas, leather, and rope were all that your grandparents needed. They’ll work fine for you too.
  2. Does a piece of equipment or movement seem overly complex? Remember to think in terms of categories. Either you push, pull, lift, carry, or suspend from it, or you say goodbye. Balancing on a wobble board while trying to lift a kettlebell might be challenging, but it isn’t effective for building muscle. Use as many variations as you want, but limit yourself to a few basic categories like deadlifts, squats, dips, presses, and pull-ups.

People who say that cooking from whole foods like your grandparents did is too expensive or time consuming, have it wrong. It might take a little extra time to buy the raw ingredients and learn the recipes, but once you’ve done the prep you’ll have a lifetime of good nutrition. Ditto for strength development. It might take some time and energy to learn from a qualified coach or stock your home gym, but after that work is done the path to getting stronger is simple.

As someone who has written an exercise encyclopedia with hundreds movements, I don’t mean to disparage the breadth of fitness techniques available today. There are many different reasons why you might want to perform a certain exercise. You could be going for an aerobic burn. You could be on working on agility or trying to improve your stability. You could even be doing something just for the fun of it.

However, getting stronger in the truest sense of the word demands its own protected pillar. Muscle mass is so fundamentally tied with your health, that to be misled in its pursuit is dangerous to your wellbeing. If you’re ever at a loss for whether or not a tool or movement will help you build muscle, remember the question: What would your grandparents think?

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