How do we get, keep and stay in shape?
A question which most of us contemplate, either occasionally when we get out of shape or as a fundamental philosophy to help us get the most out of life.
What follows is a distillation of the evolution of my 50 years experience in what, for the purposes of this blog I’m going to call sport/fitness science. SFS.
By the time I was 16/17 I was 6’2” and resembled a pipe cleaner. Scrawny young men like me the world over were seduced into buying into a body building programme by Charles Atlas.
The main advertising wheeze was – “Put an end to having sand kicked in your face by the beach hunk “ The assumption being made that if you were forlornly hoping to impress the girls you had better bulk up.
Bulking up sounds like modern terminology but the Atlas programme started in the States in the 1920’s and is an example of one of the earliest and very best advertising promotions. The Atlas “brand” still works today.
Charles Atlas eh? What a great name. He took it on to impress America.
His real name was Angelo Siciliano, not too shabby either what with having dark elements of mafiosa and hot bloodied Latin threads running through it.
After what I know as the second world war was over it became the convention for British people to spend their holiday at seaside towns such as Blackpool and I was fortunate to grow up in Dunbar which IN MY HUMBLE OPINION ( sorry imho doesn’t quite cut it here) had the best outdoor swimming pool in Britain. The world even. I was lucky enough to get a school summer holiday job there for a couple of years which gave me the opportunity of buying the Charles Atlas training manuals. Don’t think I got much out of them because back in school when I told the gym teacher that I’d been picked to play for the first team at the rugby club he asked me what weight I was. Ten and a half stone. ( 147 lb ) With the emphasis on power in today’s game I wouldn’t have lasted long.
This muscle emphasis philosophy dominated until 1968 when Dr Kenneth Cooper came up with Aerobics. This highlighted the importance of developing the cardiopulmonary system. Heart and lungs. Probably the single most far reaching contribution to hit SFS in my lifetime. And from there any physical trainer worth his salt would talk about increasing VO2 max and training the cardiopulmonary system, as the importance of having a great set of bellows got more emphasis. Reducing salt in the diet came later.
Edinburgh gets to host the Commonwealth Games in 1970 and cheer on their long distance matchstick heroes Ian and Lachie Stewart and Ian McCafferty.
But this was also the era when the world, through the ever expanding dimension of television was looking in on more and more sporting competitions and watching physical specimens, the likes of which had never been seen before, as the East v West culture wars were played out in the sporting arena.
One of my biggest memories from watching athletics in the 70s was seeing David Jenkins racing in his favoured distance of 400 metres when, from powering ahead of the field he suddenly seemed to be running through jelly. Jenkins was an outstanding athlete but under the competitive pressure to maintain his position at the top of his sport he started to take anabolic steroids. Later he was given seven years in a US slammer for smuggling steroids over the Tijuana border. He still had his wits about him though as he only served 10 months after, in true Scots fashion he became a clype.
Though, with his privileged background he may not have known what a clype was.
Mike Stone is a very highly regarded American academic in the field of Sports Science and I got my one and only Strength and Conditioning qualification at one of his courses. He was an Olympic weightlifter and in his time the Romanians and the Bulgarians were in the ascendancy. On the subject of getting warmed up he told the story of how he would, in an effort to steal a secret or two watch their pre lift preparations.
What did the guy who won the event do?
He cracked his knuckles.
Coaching started to filter down from the elite to more mundane levels. One match day a visiting rugby team were being prepared by their coach and he had them doing press ups. So wrong!
Probably a lot better though than guys in my team looking on and having a pre match fag?
When I played tennis competitively I read that Jimmy Connors had a steak before his games so I would try to do the same. So wrong!
And we’ve had glucosamine and chondroitin promoted to help us deal with our dodgy joints. A multi million dollar industry for years. Having had three knee arthroscopies to nullify years of kicking heavy leather footballs and rugby balls and twisting and turning on tennis courts I was a sucker for such promotion. But it turns out I was more than likely wasting my time and money.
Nasal dilators. Remember them? Big news about the time of Atlanta Olympics. Turns out it’s not the amount of oxygen entering through the nose ( mouth) that is critical but rather the amount getting into the lungs. Discredited now but check them out if you have a snoring problem.
Training aids: The BullWorker was patented in 1962 and was promoted for isometric exercise. This used the recently discovered principle that a muscle contracted at more than a third of it’s strength will grow in Mass. If it doesn’t go to Mass it can have a rest day and a lie-in.
I use dumbbells, kettle bells and a TRX to work out but you can get in shape with no equipment. For day to day life the vast majority of people do not need to be seriously strong but they do need to be mobile . There is a huge amount of training info available online nowadays and if you go there for help search out a qualified kinesiologist rather than a personal trainer by the name of Tiger Biceps.
Nutrition: Now very much part of an elite athlete’s life. After top tennis players were allowed to rest their weary butts by slumping into a chair at change of ends you used to see them drink Coke. And then there was a recent fad of having a couple of bites of a banana. You never saw Grand Slam winner Andy Murray eating a banana did you? There was a sound scientific reason for that though. He didnae like them.
My contribution is this. If we train heart lungs muscles tendons ligaments etc way above homeostasis and then let them have a period of rest/recovery/development then why don’t we do the same with the digestive system? (we can train the digestive system but just in a different way) Diet became something that was linked almost exclusively in many peoples minds with trying to lose weight rather than what they consumed. We’ve had many and varied latched onto by celebrity and punter alike, some of which, like the popular Atkins diet, were very bad for you in the long term.
Since we started farming about 12,000 years ago we’ve now got to the stage where our supermarkets are heaving with produce from all around the world and food ( please excuse the play on words!) is in your face 24/7. So our digestive system is working continuously if we constantly shovel food down the shute. Therefore don’t eat a big meal late in the evening. That advice is out there on the grapevine (!) But then again maybe if you spend your pre sleep time on your computer/ tv screen, having more of your blood directed to the digestive tract might help calm the thoughts racing around in your mind?
Recently the 16/8 diet has become popular. “Modern”mankind has become used to having anything and everything 24/7 – which imho is one of the main reasons our planet is in such a sorry state. Anyway the 16/8 gives the gut a chance to have a rest, so in my blog that’s a good thing.
We now know a lot more about how to keep the human body in optimum performance condition compared with when I started out coaching. When the weather got really bad though, I preferred in coaching.
Tai Chi, Yoga, Pilates have been been joined by newer kids on the block. Cross Fit, HITT ( high intensity) and LISS ( low intensity) are just some of the terms common in SFS today.
Heart and lungs/ cardiopulmonary. Tick.
Strength and Conditioning. Tick.
We use principles such as progressive overload to achieve improvement in these areas. Remember Milo? Ancient Greek 6th century BC athlete. Mythology tells us he trained for competition by lifting a calf every day for four years. The original BullWorker maybe?
To be and remain healthy, as well as having fate on our side, we need to have strong cardiopulmonary system, a strong frame supported by a tuned in neuromuscular network and in the control tower a brain which needs to have all of it’s myriad functions open for business.
Not too much to ask, is it?
Dementia has recently overtaken heart disease, stroke and lung cancer as the biggest killer in the U.K. . Well I’m certainly not medically qualified and it’s beyond the scope of this blog to delve into the workings of the brain, the build up of plaque etc.
If our muscles, cardiopulmonary system and brain are only worked as hard as an undemanding desk job they will only atrophy. SFS recognises this and bookshelves and internet offer a huge amount of info on how to improve the first two. The topic of mental health is no longer taboo and that has to be welcomed but there is very little out there about how to keep the old brain physically fit. We are encouraged to keep it active by reading, doing puzzles, learning a new language, taking up a musical instrument etc.
Doing any or all of these is the equivalent of going for a walk to train the cardiopulmonary system or cutting the grass to train the muscles. That is, both activities are ok and certainly better than doing nothing but on their own they are not enough to substantially delay the deterioration that comes with age.
Luckily just before Covid-19 came on the scene I found a good science based app that has allowed me to add physical mental training to gym work and cardio. I’m not sure if it’s doing any good but it certainly helps to fill the day!
Ok wrap up time.
Our systems break down for two main reasons.
1. Overuse. 2. Poor maintenance.
For most of us it’s 2.
Ok, so here’s the warp!
No pain No gain. Forget that.
Use it or lose it. Remember that.
And a chain is only as strong as it’s weakest link so train muscles, cardio and brain.
One of the questions in the written exam for my Intermediate coaching qualification was, What are the Four S’s of fitness? I got three.
How about you?