Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Bee and the Bull

The physical fitness test for the United States Army requires soldiers to perform as many push-ups as possible in two minutes.

The NFL combine, on the other hand, requires prospects to perform as many reps of bench press at 225 pounds as possible.

Both are examples of “horizontal pushing” movements, but that’s about where the similarities end. Which test an individual will shine in depends on a number of factors, including some obvious ones like weight, height, and limb length, as well as less visible ones, like muscle insertion point, fiber type predominance, and bony anatomy.

Rare is the athlete who performs at an elite level in both tests.

Consider the 6’5”, 260-pound “bull,” Karl Safran, compared to all 5’6”, 130 pounds of me (the “bee”). Both Karl and I resistance train, on average, six days per week. Yet, due to our respective anthropometry (the measurements and proportions of our bodies), we excel as vastly different physical tasks.

To illustrate these differences across a variety of gym movements, we prepared this short video:

Being tall certainly has its perks in the real world (who else out there struggles to reach the top shelf at the supermarket?). But when it comes to lifting weights, Karl’s height is actually a disadvantage. For every rep, Karl has to move his limbs a greater distance through space. Since mechanical work is a product of force and distance traveled, even when both Karl and I use the same amount of weight on the bar, he actually does more work and, consequently, expends more energy.

Being heavy has both advantages and disadvantages. Extra bodyweight makes squatting, deadlifting, and pressing a loaded barbell much easier for Karl than for me. In fact, Karl’s warm-up weights for squats and deadlifts are close to my one-rep maxes. Karl’s absolute strength trumps mine every time.

On the flip side, that same extra bodyweight makes exercises like push-ups, chin-ups, and inverted rows much more challenging for Karl than for me. Again, mechanical work is a product of force and distance. In this case, Karl has to overcome twice the force that I do. At 130 pounds, chin-ups are a test of muscular endurance for me. Conversely, chins at 260 pounds are a strength movement for Karl (even with a little kip!). My bodyweight-relative strength far exceeds Karl’s.

Having long limbs is beneficial for certain exercises but not others. Long arms are great in the deadlift, as less leg bend is required to get down to grip the bar. Long arms are a bench presser’s worst nightmare, however, as they increase the muscular torque (turning force) required to lift a given weight. Similarly, Karl's long legs are like a bad dream when it comes to back squatting.

We have no control over our height and limb lengths, but we do have some autonomy of our weight -- although this autonomy comes with a delicate give and take. Right now I can do push-ups all day. Until I gain a few pounds, though, I probably won’t be doing any reps of 225-bench press at the NFL combine. (Fortunately, that likely won’t be the only reason I don’t get drafted.) The trouble is, as I gain weight, my push-up prowess will almost undoubtedly suffer.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Karl feels his strongest at 260 pounds, but he's far more nimble at 245 pounds. His bench press may be impressive now, but until he slims down, he probably won’t be breaking any push-up records. But as Karl would tell you, at least he has his good looks to fall back on.

Anthropometry cannot be ignored when designing a strength training program, for no individual will respond exactly the same to any given workout. Barbell workouts that prescribe a particular weight on the bar are absurd, as deadlifts at 135 pounds will be exceedingly light for some and back-breaking for others. And that cookie-cutter workout straight out of a Muscle & Fitness magazine calling for sets of 10 bodyweight inverted rows? It's going to have a dramatically different training effect for Karl (muscle-building) than it will for me (warm-up).

For more from Karl and me, check out our video podcast on functional training.

The Bee and the Bull. Who would you put your money on?

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