Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Calves of the Gods

Dear Fitness Scavenger: I am trying to make my calves "bigger". I was hoping you would have a few ideas. --"Mary," Hollywood, California

Hi Mary in Hollywood: I get this kind of question all the time: how do I build this and shrink that, how do I get bigger here and smaller there? In addition to her famous red and blue pills, didn't Alice have different multi-colored ointments that you could smear on various parts of the body to make them big or small?

The answer is yes, you can accomplish that goal--fairly directly and easily. But are you going to get an easy answer out of me? Am I going to stretch my answer to this simple, direct question into a huge essay on some arcane aspect of fitness?

You bet your underdeveloped gastrocnemei I am.

I'm going to give you two major solutions to your calf-building quandry. One is the textbook bodybuilding solution, an approach I fully understand but don't fully subscribe to, the other is a more holistic approach. I won't judge you whichever angle you choose, Mary. No, seriously, I won't.

SOLUTION ONE: Quick fix. If your goal is JUST to make your calves a little bigger--and you're not worried about running speed, vertical jump height, etc (and, really, why would you be??), all you gotta do is work that muscle hard in relative isolation. To do that, just flex and extend your ankle joint under resistance. The three exercises I'd recommend, in order of effectiveness, are:

Standing Calf Raises (performed with weight on shoulders, standing, naturally)
Seated Calf Raises (performed seated with weight on knees)
Donkey Calf Raises (performed flexed at the waist, weight at hips).

You should be able to find machines for at least the first two at your standard gym. Exercise number three might be tougher to find but many gyms have them (look for something that looks vaguely like the love-child of a Barcolounger and a torture device).

The final point to make about that movement, which may be either a deterrent or an incentive to do the exercise depending on your disposition, is, well, that it's called the Donkey Calf Raise. I don't know, but for me, that makes the movement more attractive. In our woefully literal world where most exercises have names like the "Incline Close-Grip Bench Press" and the "Seated Leg Extension," I like a little barnyard animal thrown into the exercise-name mix now and again, to go along with movements like the courtly "Good Morning," the repentant "Preacher Curl," and the formidible "Arnold Press."

When performing Donkeys, however, do NOT scream "EEEE-AHWWWW!!" at the top of your lungs with each rep. I've found that gym managers don't like that much. In a few months I'll be allowed back at the Bally's on El Centro to see if I can resist the temptation THIS TIME or risk permanent expulsion. Watch this space.

I digress. As for loading, reps, sets, etc, the most important thing on calves is to GO HEAVY. Your calves schlep you around all day long. Every time you take a step, you're lifting your entire body weight with ONE CALF. Take a trip from the couch to the fridge and back and each calf muscle has lifted about a thousand pounds and you didn't even notice. No other muscle in the body is subjected to so much stress so often (with the possible exception of your heart muscle, which never gets a break, the poor thing), so the stress required to make them grow has got to be pretty extraordinary. Lifting double or triple bodyweight for reps in the standing calf raise is not that unusual with a couple of months of training, so I'd make that your short-term goal.

WORK UP SLOWLY (over the course of three weeks or so) to doing 5-8 sets of 8-10 reps of EITHER standing or seated calf raises 3-4x/week. Just throw them in at the END of your regular workout (you don't want to work your calves before you work your thighs; you'll be too shaky).

You can rest just 20-30 seconds between sets--your calves recover quickly. Pound out about 10 reps per set, stretching and extending as fully as possible on each rep. If you can do much more than 10, up your weight. You'll probably surprise yourself very quickly as to how much you can lift. The whole workout should take less than 10 minutes.

Make sure you stretch your calves thoroughly at the end of your session, and if you think of it, throughout your day. If you don't, he Achilles tendon can get short, which can lead to postural issues down the line if you're not careful. I'm still paying for a year or two of intense calf work back in my teen years when I decided that my lower legs were just too damn skinny and needed punishment five days a week but no stretching. Bad move. Keep your ankles mobile and your calves supple with some hardcore stretching after your workout and on top of that, just as often as you can manage.

So that's solution one: the bodybuilding approach.

SOLUTION TWO: The holistic approach. You can also simply amp up your other activities, making sure they include a fair amount of stress on the calves: long-distance running, sprints, hill runs, stair climbing, steep hikes, and, to a lesser extent, cycling, can all challenge your calves and have the additional benefit of improving c/v health, getting you outside, working your body as a whole, etc. etc. My calves were never so buff as when I was doing triathlons. So that's another way of going about it.

The other advantage is you're not overemphasizing calf work to the exclusion of other body parts. As an "integrationalist" (is that a word?) I prefer this approach but it's longer term and involves more extraneous work. Your results might not be as dramatic or as fast as going the bodybuilding route, but philosophically I prefer this angle.

So I'm offering either a quick, fast solution with pretty much guaranteed results or a long-term, difficult solution with no certain outcome. Whichever way you want to play it, Mary. But once you stray down the path of the Dark Side...

I guess what I'd recommend--reluctantly--is doing approach ONE for a month or so, then seeing how you've progressed and evaluating if you feel you've made enough progress. If so, you could back off and stick to the holistic method for a while. If not, still take a week off from pounding your calves and then hit it for another four weeks at a stretch until you feel you're where you want to be.

Just be sure not to overdo it, and again, build up slowly. Speaking from experience, the calves can get VERY sore and make normal, everyday walking a really fascinating challenge. They can also STAY sore for up to a week, cause a whole herd of Charley Horses to take up residence in your lower legs, and crippling pain whenever you stand up after prolonged sitting. You are forewarned.

So work up slowly.

Good luck--


Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Muscle...or Fitness?

This past weekend I attended a fitness expo at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Along with the predictable booths shilling various fitness-oriented products were some altogether more interesting types: diminutive power lifters hoisting three times their body weight; beer-bellied strongmen muscling around what appeared to be outsized bowling balls; mixed martial artists demonstrating their facility with cracking bones.

In one corner, reps from the American Gladiators show were counting the pull-ups and squat thrusts being churned out by next season’s hopefuls, whilst a few short steps away, the Gladiators themselves were fielding questions from a rapt audience. I was tempted, but I didn’t audition: running “The Eliminator” holds some appeal for me, but getting repeatedly blindsided by a 280-pound behemoth. So instead of auditioning, I stood there and tried to evaluate their testing parameters on the basis of their ability to actually predict aptitude for the American Gladiators competition.

I also attended a talk given by Dr. Tom Deters, who had some wise things to say about eating for fat loss. Although he did espouse two oldish school practices whose effectiveness has recently been questioned--namely fasted morning steady-state cardio training and a diet of 65% carbohydrate--his perspective was nonetheless very interesting to hear, and continues to be effective for a lot of people. Different strokes.

Because a pair of bodybuilding competitions served as the central event of the weekend, most of the products being shilled revolved around building muscles and showing them off to maximum effect: mass-building protein powers, skin-darkening tanning products, fat-incinerating capsules. The MMA guys, powerlifters and Gladiators notwithstanding, this was an event for people who wanted to get BIG; and if the scantily-clad ring-girl types who stood behind many of the booth tables were any indication, the primary audience was GUYS.

Now I’m not going to bemoan the reality of supply and demand: as icons down through the ages have shown us, muscles—even muscles devoid of true functionality--sell. Joe Weider and others have made fortunes by offering the salve of massive muscularity to quell the insecurities of adolescent boys. I often wonder whether part of the fetishistic appeal of publications like MUSCLE AND FITNESS is that the huge pecs and swooping, curvy body lines on display offer impressionable teen readers a Freudian association with the feminine form.

The saddish fact is that in common parlance, “bodybuilding” has become a de facto synonym for “fitness.” Overwhelmingly, what was on sale at the “fitness” expo were massive, shrink-wrapped muscles whose owners may or may not be capable of climbing a set of stairs or touching their toes without the aid of a pallet jack.

This is, to quote Fred Willard, “ironical.”

Now, for most people, building a few extra pounds of contractile tissue is a pretty good corrective to many of the physical woes that ail our sedentary society. Like Alwyn Cosgrove, Lou Schuler, and many of the other fitness folks I admire, I believe that if you’ve got just three hours a week to spare for exercise, you really can’t go too far wrong spending it in the weight room, chugging away on the basic exercises that have been with us since man invented barbell. And heck, I’ll be the first to admit that images of well-developed men and women can be a pretty powerful inspirational tool.

Still, I think it’s a little bit unfortunate Weider and his ilk can now lift a cognac to the near-wholesale appropriation of the fitness industry by bodybuilding enthusiasts. Bodybuilding, as Tom Deters mentioned in his lecture, is an extreme sport, rather like ultra-marathoning or free-climbing or BASE jumping. Developing a stage-worthy bodybuilder’s physique almost always involves copious drug use, extreme training, a fanatical attention to food, and a to-the-minute approach to sleep.

Is this the kind of lifestyle that the fitness industry should be promoting? Is it rewarding, fun, healthy, even?

I recently read an article in an old FLEX magazine about a day in the pre-contest life of Ronnie Coleman, who was Mr. Olympia for many years. Most of his days, it seems, were spent in repose. Sure, he trained hard for ninety minutes a day, and he ingested enormous meals and mounds of supplements at meticulously-times intervals, but the rest of his time was spent lounging about, refraining from extraneous activity, waiting for his muscles to grow. Whether or not to make an impromptu trip to the airport to pick up a friend was a major decision: could he risk being 15 minutes late for his 7 PM date with a protein shake? For the most part, Coleman passed his glory days like a hypertrophied hen perched expectantly on her prize egg.

All props to Coleman for his dedication, but should we really be turning to people like him for Everyman advice on how to get fit?

Six months ago I embarked on a little bodybuilding quest myself, and managed to add about fifteen pounds of beef through heavy lifting, gluttonous eating, and careful control of extracurricular activities.

People told me I looked buff. My training weights soared. I began wearing really tight t-shirts even when it was cold. Even my wife, who claims not to notice or care about such things, noticed my transformation (She kept rolling her eyes and asking, “When are you going to stop this?”). So in some respects, my experiment was a success.

In the process, though, I also injured my back twice. I developed chronic tendonitis in one elbow, and some instability in my right shoulder. On most days I was in some kind of additional workout-induced pain as well. Getting out of the car was a hassle. My flexibility suffered. I had to pound protein shakes at all hours to feed my hungry muscles. With the additional weight of my extra muscle mass, my knees couldn’t take the pounding of even a quick jog around the block. . I could barely keep up with my four-year-old in a game of tag. I moved more stiffly, and for the first time in my life, started to feel…old. I wondered if this was going to be it for me.

So a few weeks ago I shifted things: three weight workouts a week instead of four, plus two more days of other athletic activities: running, cycling, hitting the heavy bag, calesthenics, interval training. I shifted the weight workouts to more athletic moves like power cleans and Tabata squats. I wouldn’t try to shed the extra muscle weight, exactly, I’d just go back to being a generalist instead of being so myopic in my focus on packing on the beef.

And, no surprise, I suppose, I feel much better. I’ve got my running wheels back. I’m back feeling good doing athletic things, being able to move quickly and without pain. I FEEL more like a trainer should feel, even if I don’t LOOK as much like one as I did eight weeks ago.

So there’s the paradox: the fitness industry has fed us a model of fitness that is all about looking a certain way, with very little attention to feeling good or performing particularly well. If you’ve got big guns a six-pack, well then, you must be fit. But there’s a whole lot more to it than that.

The great irony of ‘American Gladiators’ is that although the show’s stars are hypertrophied WWF-types, the contestants who prevailed in the contest were trim, prototypically athletic-looking types. They’re fitness generalists, strong and muscular, certainly, but also quick and agile, with excellent strength-to-weight ratio. If you’re talking about real-world fitness, the kind of fitness that feels good AND looks good, that will help you schlep your four-year-old around AND catch the bus as it’s pulling away, that will keep you going in a pick-up game of Ultimate Frisbee AND enable you to help your buddy move into his new third-floor walkup, that’s the type of physique to go for. If you’re trying to build that type of body, muscle-building may indeed be a part of the equation, but it doesn’t—and shouldn’t—stop there.