Monday, November 26, 2007

Tale of Three Brothers

Most guys will break off from their Thanksgiving binge to watch football; my brothers-in-law and I, all of us inveterately indifferent to sports trying frantically to compensate, did some arm-wrestling instead. "Quien," I ask, "es mas macho?"

A quick rundown on the arm-wrestlers:

The older of my wife's brothers, Brennon, is heavy into weight training. You'd think that would mean I'd love the guy. In fact, I hate him, because he does everything wrong: lots of arm curls and extensions, lots of machine work, lots of benching, coupled with little to no flexibility work, and--this is what really kills me--NO leg work. Maybe a cursory leg extension or curl, but that's it. I've gone to the gym with him before, and while I'm busily comparing my performance on key lifts against my notes from last week's workouts, he wanders around, eying the equipment for something that strikes his fancy as if he were at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Then he'll amble onto a machine just vacated by an octogenarian, get his pump on using the entire weight stack, and spend the next five minutes checking out his guns in the mirror. And speaking of buffets, he eats with all the restraint and discernment of a starving mountain goat. Oh--and he SMOKES. Avidly.

Now, if there were any justice in the world, maybe he'd be modestly stronger than average, with some discernable size in his upper body. But he'd probably also have a gut, lousy skin and hair, and the general appearance of a middle-aged couch potato. But no, the reason that Brennon haunts my nightmares is that even though 90% of his training methods are as sketchy as a three-dollar bill, he's built like a bloody Adonis: huge arms, sculpted shoulders, visible abs, rippling back. The fact that his legs are skinny doesn't really matter, because he's 6' 5" and can get away with a touch of lankiness. Add to that the fact that he radiates good health and you've got one brother-in-law I very well might have to put a hit on in the near future, because guys like Brennon are bad for business.

Now and then I'll vaguely try to educate Brennon on the value of deadlifting, systematic workouts, good nutrition and flexibility. I even gave him a book on weight training for Christmas last year. But what's the point? His arms are twice as big as mine. And the fact that I usually give him this lecture while icing the painful and swollen back muscles I pulled--again--while doing very the exercises whose benefits I'm so enthusiastically extolling probably doesn't help my case.

My other brother-in-law, Mat, has three kids, the youngest of whom was blessed with nasty allergies to a cornucopia of foods, which has turned his infancy into an almost never-ending string of life-threatening crises (he's getting better now, thankfully). Mat works long hours at a construction company in Colorado, splitting his time between designing and helping to build custom houses in the old-fashioned timber frame style. I quizzed Mat on the details of his work as we drove our kids to see ENCHANTED on Friday, and he told me that his job entails lots of hand-chiselling and drilling, plus a fair amount of manhandling large pieces of timber that weigh anywhere from a few hundred to close to 1,000 pounds (they refer to these timbers as "sticks"). Every few months, Mat and his crew will drive to a job site, and do a sort of Amish barn-raising on steroids, where they snap and hoist and jimmy all these huge pieces of timber together to form a house.

Like his brother, Mat smokes. He also enjoys a beer or two after work, eats more or less indiscriminately, and gets no regular, structured exercise to speak of, outside of chasing after his eleven-year-old, keeping his five-year-old under some semblance of control, and coralling his two-year-old away from the refrigerator and all the forbidden, allergy-inducing fruits it contains. Like Brennon, Mat's about 6'5", and though he doesn't have the bulk his that his weight training brother has, he's as maddeningly lean and mean as your average college basketballer.

The final contestant, of course, was me: non-smoker, unstressful family life, on-my-feet job, obsessive exerciser always looking for the better mousetrap that will make me stronger or faster or bigger or better. Currently well into a weight training, strength-building cycle designed by one of the top guys in the field. Ever careful about what goes into my mouth, evaluating each morsel on the strength of its health-and-fitness building properties.

So, to recap, the contestants are: Guy One, big, but probably not functionally very strong; Guy Two, lean, with probably decent local muscular endurance and some functional strength; and Guy Three, good all-around fitness, with methodically-built, balanced, head-to-toe strength. Now, as the diminutive Sardinian Franco Columbu once said before posing off with the gargantuan, multi-titled Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1975 Mr. Olympia contest, "Of course I think I'm going to win." Aren't I the most prepared, the most systematically pumped and buffed and ripped? Haven't I sweated, trained, fretted and planned the most?

But here's the capper: I arm-wrestled both guys to a tie. Brennon nailed my left arm to the table, but I returned the favor on the right. Same for Mat, only there, my left arm was victorious, while my right--as the pictures show--came up short. Mat and Brennon didn't arm-wrestle one another. They reasoned that a contest of actual blood would be too much for a holiday of family togetherness to endure.

So what's the lesson here? Arm-wrestling is hardly a test of absolute fitness, nor is it even a test of absolute strength or athleticism. It certainly wasn't a specialty for any one of us. Still, it is an athletic contest, and probably a decent test of upper-body strength, and in this case, once I'd dusted off my wounded pride for not decimating the field despite my vocation, I found the results pretty interesting: the big guy, the functional guy, and the fitness guy all came up pretty much dead even. In other words, the guy who trains for looks, the guy who deadlifts fallen trees all day, and the guy who trains for total fitness have all reached a pretty similar place in this particular measure of strength and fitness.

So perhaps instead of feeling wounded, I should feel vindicated: I've said before, and will probably say again, that there are many ways to skin the proverbial fitness cat. Finding "the best" and "the most efficient" way to get fit will probably never cease to fascinate me (I can always chalk up those contests I lost to that old scapegoat, genetics), and for athletes and others for whom optimal health is serious business, it's a worthy, if labyrinthian, pursuit. But those few extra percentage points of improvement you get from "the best" program will probably never equal the massive benefits you get from doing something rather than doing nothing, and ideally, choosing something you enjoy that makes sense to YOU.

Brennon has told me that he works out so that he catches the eyes of the ladies. "Curls for the girls," he'll say, grinning at me from across the gym while I give myself an aneurism doing squats. Mat builds houses to keep his family fed--and showed me his design for the beautiful house he's going to build to keep them sheltered as well. I lift because it's engrossing, because I like the way it makes me look and feel, and because if I don't, no one in their right mind would hire me to train them. But we all go at it with everything we have, and that's a lot more important than doing something you hate just because a book or an expert or a TV star told you it's good for you.

Whatever expertise I, or anyone else, can offer, will mean nothing if the exerciser doesn't apply themselves. Intensity and focus trumps all the methodology in the world.

Don't believe me? Go watch ROCKY IV again, and pay attention.

(What's that you say? ROCKY IV isn't a documentary...? There never WAS a heavyweight champion named Rocky Balboa? Come on, I know I'm no sports fan, but some things are just common knowledge...)



tommythecat said...

Could you please comment once on Crossfit ( Would be nice to know what you think about this way of doing sports.


Andrew said...

Will do! I thought I'd brought them up once or twice before, but maybe not...