Charlie Martin, Late-Blooming Athlete: Week 3 — Yoga, Without the Yoga
If you enjoy yoga, fine. But mastering these two functional movements is easier on your wallet and your schedule.
February 19, 2013 - 2:00 pm
The majority of activities people are accustomed to doing at a gym are neither efficient means of getting fitter nor particularly safe. A typical trainer at a typical gym is now a terrible investment, both for your fitness level and because elite-level training information is freely available online. There is no substitute for an actual qualified trainer at a quality gym, both in instruction and motivation, yet you can do great things for yourself on your own, with a computer. Charlie’s PJ Lifestyle entries strike me as a good opportunity to demonstrate this; he’s agreed to be somewhat of a lab rat.)
Last week I preached the Gospel of the Squat, the movement that: a) would save humanity from much lower back and knee dysfunction; b) would be as familiar as running (which most of us do incorrectly as well) without our cultural reliance on butt-sitting; and c) done exclusively as an exercise program, would just about suffice to make you fit without trying any other exercise. This week, I’m moving on to …
Nah, I’m going to talk about squats more.
But different squats: these next two movements are as genetically determined as the Air Squat, but include the added dimension of things, which people are designed to handle. Your frame is built to carry external objects, a necessary survival function. For an opposing example, look at, say, a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Those little arms were vestigial, not intended to do much of anything. You, however, are made to hold stuff.
The Air Squat is how a human raises and lowers his center of gravity. Our new exercises:
1. The Front Squat is how a human raises and lowers his center of gravity while holding an object in front of him, like a slaughtered antelope, or a laundry basket.
2. The Overhead Squat is how a human would do the same with an object overhead. It happens less often, but your shoulder girdle is specifically built to handle weight overhead.
(Also, there is the Back Squat, which most are familiar with. You can handle the most weight with the Back Squat; it is the best movement of the three for building strength. Technique-wise, though, it is essentially the same as the Air Squat, which we’ve already discussed. Also, it is the least likely position that a human would be holding weight, since the arms are mostly out of the picture.)
The benefits of the Front Squat and the Overhead Squat extend far beyond strength. Most fascinating to me: the movements themselves provide elegant, circular answers to questions regarding balance and mobility. (Most use the term “flexibility”. “Mobility” is more accurate as it implies a purpose for having flexibility).
The specific questions which the Front and Overhead Squats answer, by merely existing:
Why should I get more mobility?
How much mobility do I need?
Why do I need to get better balance?
How much balance do I need?
If balance and mobility are important, what is the best way to get there?
Over the past couple decades, yoga — and to a slightly lesser extent, Pilates — gained the upper hand as gold standard exercise activity for gaining balance and mobility. Why? Well, because being good at yoga and Pilates requires lots of balance and mobility, and doing yoga and Pilates will give you better balance and mobility.
So what’s the problem? The problem is that being good at yoga and Pilates essentially means only that: you are good at yoga and Pilates.
As mentioned in Week Two, fitness is — among other things — about being prepared for whatever life throws at a human body, which is why a human body looks like a human body to begin with, and not like a platypus.
You don’t have legs so that they can get into Warrior Three pose. Warrior Three pose is just something you happen to be able to get into.
This is not an indictment of yoga and Pilates — indeed, I could make the same argument regarding throwing a baseball, and I would never imply that throwing a baseball is a pointless activity. (Even thinking that makes me a bit sad.) What I’m implying is that yoga and Pilates and baseball should all be thought of as sports, as part of an active life, and not as activities to get you fit.
Charlie Martin wants to get fit, and balance and mobility are elements of fitness. Yoga and Pilates can help in this regard, but they are inefficient, time-consuming, and are not designed with the goal of fitness in mind.
Humans are built to raise and lower their center of gravity, sometimes while carrying things. How much mobility and balance does Charlie need? How does he know when he is mobile and balanced “enough”?
The beautiful answer: Charlie will have enough mobility and balance when he can raise and lower his center of gravity while he is carrying things.
He doesn’t need to be able to get completely flat in Pigeon Pose; he needs to be able to do this:
Humans need to be able to Front Squat and Overhead Squat. The best way to get there? Work on your Front Squat and Overhead Squat.
An amazing fact that may win Charlie over to Crossfit, as it did me: you will get better at yoga and Pilates by doing Front Squats and Overhead Squats, even if you do not do yoga and Pilates at all.
Whereas the reverse — doing yoga and Pilates to get better at squatting — is not remotely as effective.
There are plenty of stretches and devices that can help in this regard; you will even come across some of them while participating in yoga and Pilates. However, the goal, if you want to get fit, should always be gaining enough mobility and balance to do Front Squats and Overhead Squats — two genetically determined, functional human movements — and not gaining enough mobility to do yoga, Pilates, splits, etc.
This example carries over to every human activity: if you get better at the basic functional movements of the human body, you will be better at everything else a human can do. You will be an athlete already, without stepping onto a practice field. Get yourself some great squat skills first, then go specialize in whatever else you love.
Think about the squat, the deadlift, and the press as the “core fitness curriculum”; the “three Rs” of your body. That Masters degree in yoga can come afterwards, and will come more easily.
Charlie has sent video of his form doing squats, deadlifts, and presses: later this week we will analyze them, and see if Charlie is ready to step up his workout intensity. There will be sweat involved, though we will honor Charlie’s “no vomiting” edict.