By: Josh Bryant
I was in sixth grade and had just joined the YMCA with dreams of pumping iron to increase my vertical jump and build a physique like Paul Orndorff, aka, Mr. Wonderful.
Before being allowed access to the weight room, I figured I’d be shown some ceremonial rites of passage. To my dismay, I had to settle for a YMCA weight room orientation with some mullet that ran the joint.
A majority of the orientation was spent in the “Nautilus Room,” a chrome palace filled with the latest “state of the art” machines.
Ninety percent of our time was spent in this hell hole, even though 99 percent of the best athletes and most muscled-up physiques were built next door in the free weight area, which had not been updated in a quarter century.
The last pearl of wisdom my YMCA tour guide offered was, “Remember your goals of increasing your vertical jump, getting stronger and more muscular can be accomplished more safely and efficiently with the machines I have shown you. We only have the free weights for the serious bodybuilders and athletes.”
Needless to say, I was madder than a bobcat in a piss fire!
What a contradiction.
I want to look muscular and increase my prowess on the field of play. The “Nautilus Room” was filled with out of shape, middle-aged men and the type of gals that should have ignored the contemporary trend at the time of spandex.
Enter the Free Weight Zone
Undiscouraged and seeking the truth—I entered the free weight room.
I was happier than a woodpecker in a lumber yard when the first person I saw was an ex-con looking dude with a barrel chest, traps that looked like a silver back and beautiful “back arms” doing dips for multiple repetitions with multiple plates and dumbbells strapped around his waist.
This is what I wanted.
On the other side of the weight room I saw the starting tailback at the local junior college, an All-American to boot; he was squatting deep rep after rep and adding an additional 45-pound plate to the bar each set.
Certainly “the trenches” showed the superiority of barbells and dumbbells to the religion of Arthur Jones, oops, I mean machines.
Science and Free Weights
Let’s look beyond the weight pile and venture into the lab.
Studies have shown that elite Olympic weight lifters are faster than elite sprinters for the first five to 10 meters of a sprint; in many cases, also having greater vertical jump heights.
The greater an athlete’s squat pound for pound, the higher he can jump and the faster he can sprint, says science. Compound free weight movements have been shown to be superior for size and strength gains.
The scientists that man the trenches of the laboratories concur what old heads on the weight pile have known for decades.
Unstable Surface Training
Performing exercises on stability balls and bosu balls had increased in popularity over the past 15 years.
High profile celebrity trainers have perpetuated this method from private Beverly Hills training studios to a worldwide craze.
Initially, these techniques were implemented by general fitness folks exclusively. Now some regular athletes are on board, even some physique and strength athletes. Do these techniques have a place in your program if you hope to pack on serious muscle, gain strength or enhance overall athletic performance?
Logically, one would think yes because celebrity trainers at the pinnacle of financial success in the fitness industry must have access to the latest, greatest research. A contingent of strength coaches firmly believe, “Yes!”
But as I learned at a young age, because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s right! The masses generally think newer is better.
What does Science Say?
Studies have been performed on this subject; let’s see what science has to say:
1n 2010, James Kohler, of California State University Northridge (CSUN), led a study that showed training with heavy weights on stable surfaces overloaded and best recruited core muscles. Both prime movers and stabilizers were assessed. Thirty subjects with serious strength-training experience performed both barbell and dumbbell shoulder presses on stable and unstable surfaces for three sets of three, with what equated to equal intensity.
The same procedure was used for the bench press. Core muscle activation was measured by using electromyography (measures the electrical activity of muscles). As the instability of the surface increased and less weight was used, the recruitment of core musculature decreased.
A 2012 Norwegian study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research measured the force output of leg and core muscles in isometric squats performed on a stable surface (floor), power board, bosu ball and balance cone.
The study examined from stable to extremely unstable. An isometric contraction simply means the muscle does not move while force is being produced. In this case, the athletes squatted with maximal force against a bar they were unable to move, with their thighs slightly above 90 degrees.
The bar contained an electronic device that measured the amount of force the athletes could produce. The electrical activity of muscle was also measured.
This insured there was no chance of bias or an incorrect formula being used.
The results showed force production decreased seven percent on the power board, 19 percent on the bosu ball and 24 percent on the balance cone. Recollect this is a contraction where the athlete is not moving, adding movement and transition phases like a “real” squat and I believe force production would decrease further with instability. Quadriceps had the greatest electrical activity with stable squats.
Athletes like Alpine skiers that are required to compete on unstable surfaces can derive benefits from unstable surface training and even certain abdominal movements are preferable on swiss balls.
The problem lies when trainers think newer is better; because of a lack of confidence, these trainers feel a need to entertain clients.
“The key to building massive, powerful muscles is to doggedly increase the training weights you use,” quoting 8-time Mr. Olympia, Lee Haney. Don’t perverse this to doggedly decrease the stability of training movements you use.
Bottom line: to gain muscle and get stronger, use heavy weights on a stable surface.
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