Exercise for Life -- Not Looks!

Humans are fairly good at lots of things -- and extremely good at several things. What are these skills? And what do they have in common?
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"When you perceive a truth, look for the balancing truth." -- Lord Acton

"How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress." -- Niels Bohr

What sharp eyes my readers have! Several of you have pointed out something useful -- I have contradicted myself:

1. I emphasize the fact that human beings are physical generalists. We can't swim like dolphins, run like cheetahs or wrestle like pythons. Instead, we are good at lots of different things -- swimming, running, throwing stuff. This is why I insist on cross-training. I hate to see my clients spend all their time on any single exercise. That's just not natural for Homo sapiens. It's not who we are. It's denying our evolutionary heritage.

2. But I've dropped a lot of hints about our amazing abilities as runners. When we run, we're not generalists. We're finely honed specialists. We rock! Many animals ran faster than Homo sapiens. Few hunters have our stamina. We are "persistence predators." We share this trait with wolves. It's why we teamed up with them -- along with some other skills like good communication and a willingness to share food. (Though we're still learning about sharing food.)

So there it is: Humans are fairly good at lots of things -- and extremely good at several things. Not just running. We have other important skills. What are these skills? And what do they have in common?

To start with, we're not who we think we are. We Homo sapiens like to picture ourselves as big apex predators. Lions. Tigers. Bears. But these are not our roots. We've only been on top of the food chain for about a thousand generations. A blink of an eye! Physically, we're not large carnivores. Without our weapons, we're something very different.

From the neck down, Homo sapiens are almost exactly like our probable ancestor Homo Habilis: a clever, opportunistic, mid-sized omnivore, lightly built and sneaky. We have stamina, flexibility, balance, dexterity -- traits we perfected as fast-thinking survivors in the complex mosaic of microclimates in ancient Africa.

A Homo sapien is more like a jackal. Or a coyote.

Ever seen a coyote? It has our kind of body. It's wiry, agile, graceful, well-balanced, light on its feet, quick to respond. A coyote can turn on a dime. A coyote is a master of switching gears, changing strategies, fine-tuning its responses. I've never seen a coyote fall down. I've never seen one stumble.

A clumsy coyote is a dead coyote.

OK, now we know what kind of animal we are. How do we train that kind of animal? First clue: Avoid weight-training -- unless it's subordinated to the goals of agility, stamina and balance. And that requires lots of thought and many other forms of exercise.

But what's wrong with most weightlifting? Simple: It does not match the kind of animal we are. We are not tigers. We are not gorillas.

Some of my clients proudly say, "Oh, but I do FREE weights." Gimme a break! 8-12 repetitions of the same mechanical movement? Your core muscles will be somewhat happier stepping out of the machine. But how about escaping the machine inside your head?

A bench press is still a bench press. Nobody ever caught a rabbit using a bench press. Or escaped a lion.

Let's step back and look at what weight training is usually about. Is it really about getting stronger? Or is it about looking good? Be honest with yourself. Because if strength is your goal, this is not the path.

And by strength, I mean real strength.

I live in San Diego. Believe me, I see lots of young people who look like underwear models. But it's cosmetic. It won't last. It won't be there when they're my age -- almost 60. It won't improve their health or make them capable of hard physical work. It certainly won't help them win a bar fight.

These are fake muscles. You might as well wear plastic bubbles on your skin.

Being muscle-bound isn't natural for humans. It's as artificial as a tree twisted and tortured to look like a giraffe. The natural form of a tree is more satisfying to the eye -- and a lot better for the tree! Indeed, the muscle-bound look isn't even cosmetic. Increasing numbers of people can see the difference between a pumped-up body and a fit body. To believe otherwise is one of the illusions of adolescence -- whether the adolescent is 15 or 50.

Happily, my job is not to help teenage boys impress girls. (Ironically, few women of any age find muscle-bound guys attractive.) My job is to help amateur and professional athletes maximize their potential. My job is also to help people age gracefully and usefully, as I hope I'm doing.

Overall, I want my clients to play to their strengths as Homo sapiens. I want to see agility, flexibility, stamina, grace, and balance. I want to see a human being who can run a mile, climb a tree, dance a tango and carry a load of groceries up eight flights of stairs. Real things in real time and space. And I want to see a human being who can stir a pot of thick stew for five minutes without stopping, something very few men can do.

How do we get there?

Oh, wait! Sorry! We're almost out of time! The answers are in my next blog: "The Particle and the Wave." (Working title.) Here are a few hints: Change routines frequently. Do at least three wildly contrasting things. Right now I do yoga, trail running, and clambering around on bars like a monkey. My trainer's a bit eccentric!

Yes, you may include weights. But try kettle bells, many different routines, and lots and lots of repetitions. I do weights sometimes. But the goal is to help me swing like a monkey.

Or a coyote with opposable thumbs?