Thursday, August 15, 2013

Are You Just Doing Curls, Or Are You Building Real Strength?

Let me start by offering this disclaimer...I am not an exercise or weightlifting expert. I have, however, read enough material and listened to enough trainers and fitness experts to know some of the main do's and don'ts of lifting weights and general exercise.

First, a little background and context so you can have the correct perspective on a conversation I recently overheard, hopefully empowering us to apply it many areas of our lives. One of the main rules of weightlifting is that you always begin a workout session with at least one main exercise (like bench press, squats, dead lift, or military press) that works several muscle groups. This effectively warms the body up and ensures strength is being built in a balanced, healthy manner. Then, you move into working targeted, specialized muscles (like biceps, triceps, calves, shoulders, or back). This allows you to focus on improving weaknesses or developing specific muscles that are important for a sport you play or the way you want to look. Balanced workouts among all of the muscle groups are strongly encouraged. An example would be to start with several sets and repetitions of bench press (which works many of the upper body muscles), and then do additional exercises that target the chest and tricep muscles. Then your next workout would hit another group of muscles like shoulders and back, or legs.

Author Note: This is not my bicep!
Next I need to make sure you know what curls are. Curl exercises target and work only the bicep, meaning they should usually be done after at least one exercise that targets multiple muscles (see image to the right). Yet many people bypass the core strength-building routines because curls make biceps bigger and more defined. And those are the muscles you flex when you look at yourself in the mirror, giving the appearance of overall strength and fitness. For more perspective on this subject, read this: Stop Doing Curls.

With that background, here's a conversation I recently heard as two guys walked into a weight room:

Guy 1: "So what do you want to lift today?"

Guy 2: "Let's do curls. I like doing those, and I'm pretty good at them."

Guy 1: "Cool."

As they headed towards the dumbbells, I shook my head a little and then made a brief outline in my head for everything that I think went wrong in that conversation. Here's my list and what I think we can learn from it.

What were these two weightlifters really after? Where do they want to be in 5 years, or even 1 year? Are they training for a sport, or do they have other fitness goals they are trying to achieve? I got the sense they really lacked an overall objective.

Whatever you are doing professionally, do you have an overall objective of where you are going and where you want to be in 5 years, or even 1 year? By taking some time to think this through and articulate it in writing, you are well on your way to achieving it. Failing to define it means you will likely not achieve it. Hard to hit the target when you don't know where it is, right? This can apply to any aspect of your life, especially if you feel like you are "spinning your wheels" in that part of your life.

Without a clear objective, it was impossible for these two weightlifters to connect their daily activities to helping them move closer to accomplishing their goal. If their objective was to try and lift a certain amount of weight for certain exercises at the end of the year, then they could focus their daily activities on what will best help them accomplish that objective. With no objective and no plan, what they choose to do in the gym doesn't really matter. Interestingly, they could end up doing more damage than good if they continue to randomly select exercises without an overall plan and objective. They would create serious imbalance, gain no real strength, and even create the potential for serious injury if they always select to do curls. 

So, think about your life. Are you a dreamer, with lots of amazing objectives and goals for the future, but with no real, viable, plan to get you there? Or, do you love to plan out your days but without an overall vision or objective to guide your activities. Both scenarios are less effective in terms of building real strength (if you are a weightlifter) or making the most progress possible. 

Guy #2 made an interesting comment about liking to do curls. Yet doing what we like is not always the most effective to help us accomplish our goals and objectives. If you are trying to stretch yourself to accomplish something, then it is likely that you have to do hard things. Often you have to learn new things and feel highly vulnerable in the process. Sometimes you have to do things you don't like to get where you want to go. But you're the one that picked the direction and objective, so it must be worth it!

Objectives may change occasionally, but plans need to be dynamic, always adapting and pivoting to best position yourself to accomplish your goals and objectives.