Charlie Martin, Late-Blooming Athlete: Week 2 – ‘Quality of Life’ and 'The Un-Calloused Butt Mystery'

(See Week One here. The key passage:

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.)

In Week One, I asked Charlie to tell me about any old injuries, ailments, etc. that he might have and which could be a detriment requiring a workaround while exercising. Here’s Charlie’s answer — it isn’t so much that he has some nagging pains, but that the first 53 years of his life were an extended prison beating:

The only big joints I haven’t injured somehow are my left ankle and right shoulder. Poorly resolved fractured right ankle, meniscus surgery medial side right knee, plus painful knees (right knee today) consequent to tight IT band syndrome, lower back injury in car wreck, two whiplash injuries in car wrecks, chronic RSI from typing too much, left shoulder separation in martial arts tournament.

Charlie’s medical records also show that in 1983 he took a shiv to the lung from a fellow named “White Power Bill”, but Charlie thought that not relevant to a mobility question.

Physically and psychologically, injuries can become an overwhelming discouragement from participating in a fitness regimen. My worst was a ruptured disc in my lower back that I chose not to treat with anything besides time; I had sciatica pain down my left leg for over a year and still get twinges now. But here’s the thing, and don’t just take it from me (Seriously, as I mentioned in Week One, do not just take it from me. I have a Crossfit Trainer’s Certificate, but it is currently inactive, and my attorney wife does not specialize in liability claims. Take it from this guy, a friend and brilliant Physical Therapy PhD): your body is obviously healthier when it moves. Exercise releases a rush of great stuff that encourages healing. And despite the psychological barrier of not being able to move the way you want to, either temporarily or permanently, if you haven’t — G-d forbid — suffered a catastrophic paralyzing injury, then exercising is still an activity for you.

An example: my wife had surgery to repair a torn ankle ligament about ten days ago. Nine days ago, we went to the gym together. This Monday, in a walking boot, we did this workout together: 5 One-legged squats, 10 pushups (from her knees), 15 situps — as many rounds of that triplet as possible in 15 minutes. She was working harder than anyone else in the gym, without using one leg from the knee down.

Further, that leg, according to the science, is going to improve more rapidly because the rest of her body was being healthy — all the good chemicals a workout releases head to the bum leg, too. (Kelly Starrett, the trainer linked above, cited a study noting a 30% increase in the immobilized limb’s muscle mass due to the rest of the body doing work.)

For a heroic example: here’s a video of paraplegic servicemen working out harder than most of us ever have.

So whatever’s wrong with you, Charlie: do your research, come up with a plan for your body, and get moving. Injuries don’t mean the end of your physical activity. Fight for yourself, which you’ve already been doing.

The plan should start with gaining competence with the basic functional movements, the ones a human is designed to do: raising and lowering your center of gravity (the squat); picking things up (the deadlift); and pushing things (the press). Whether you’re young and pain-free, 95 years old, or recently bludgeoned with a pipe, you should start by figuring out what your body’s “ceiling” for those movements is, and work towards that.

In Week One, I also asked Charlie to make videos of himself from the side of him trying to do a proper air squat, and then of him doing a proper deadlift and a proper shoulder press with no weight besides a broomstick or PVC pipe.

These are the primary functional movements of the body, and should be the core of every human’s fitness program. And yes — there is a proper definition of “functional” exercise.

Perhaps, at your gym, you ran into Trainer Brad from Newark, who had you balance on your knees on a giant bouncy ball while doing dumbbell shoulder raises with one arm, because he said it was “functional”. Brad was incorrect, and possibly a clown fetishist with a closet of discreetly videotaped clients.

People: you are not Cirque du Soleil sea lions. If that stuff is “functional”, than anything can be called “functional”. This would be like some 31-year-old affluent perma-student declaring a “right” to free birth control. (Bad example, I’ll come up with something more plausible.)

Rather than expand on the full, elegant definition of “functional”, I’ll describe the piece of the definition that I’ve noted tends to elicit an “ahhhhh!” from the newbies, and gets them interested in learning more, and this is why I asked Charlie to send the videos. Let’s start with the squat: why is the squat so important, and what does a healthy range of motion for the squat look like?

Again, you are not a sea lion. Your body looks like a human body primarily so you can walk, run, and raise or lower yourself, because that’s what you had to do back then to survive. And you were most definitely not designed to rest by sitting in a chair, you were designed to rest in a deep squat.

Starrett illustrated it to me this way:

If we sit so much, why don’t we get a calloused butt?

Butts are not supposed to be weight-bearing surfaces. Feet and hands are. And you are supposed to use the below position for active rest or for getting yourself down and up:

Indeed, what you see in the above picture is normal, healthy human range of motion. Just about everyone alive prior to the spread of chairs had this range of motion. Today, you typically only see this among people heavily involved in certain activities, like martial arts.

Think about what mobility issues generally plague the elderly: getting in and out of a car, or a chair, or picking things up off the ground. Or, in more serious situations, picking themselves up off the ground. Now, think about how much better their lives would be if they could competently do full squats.

Listen up, Brad from Newark: among other things, “functional” movements are A) movements invented by your genes, not by people, and B) movements that a proficiency with is necessary for quality of life.

You could live well now without being able to do full squats, but you most definitely could not 100,000 years ago. And you still could definitely have a safer adulthood today if you can do them.

If you don’t do anything at the gym for the rest or your life besides attempt to master the squat — doing it fast, and repeatedly for different intervals of time, and with increasing weight, and with a full range of motion — you will still be an incredibly fit person, and more ready for the demands of life and of aging.

Heels never leave the ground, hips move back and down first (don’t start by sending the knees forward), feet about shoulder-width apart and pointed out a bit. You’ll eventually be able to experiment with different foot positions. Back stays as straight and stable as when you are standing upright with proper posture. A full squat in terms of exercise is hips below knees. (In the deep squat, more of a resting position, your lumbar curve goes “hollow”; this is not a good position to be lifting weight in.)

Charlie: whatever else you’re doing this week, practice your squat, get as many tips as you can about good form, and put it in your workouts however you wish. Let us know if it feels more comfortable at the end of the week. Never touch a Smith Machine, a leg press, hack press, hamstring curl, etc. again. If you are looking to get fit, ignore all the stuff that Brad wants you to do on “leg day”, and just focus on having a great squat.

You cannot be fit without one.