Strength Basics

Getting stronger, fitter, and healthier by sticking to the basics. It's not rocket science, it's doing the simple stuff the right way. Strength-Basics updates every Monday, plus extra posts during the week.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Book Review: Becoming Batman

By E. Paul Zehr
300 pages
Published 2008

Becoming Batman is a book about, well, Batman. How Bruce Wayne could have transformed himself from Bruce Wayne, aggrieved child crime victim, into Batman, masked avenger and nemesis to evil. Batman is often mentioned as a more accessible superhero - it's too late to be born on another planet or bitten by a radioactive spider, but Batman became Batman through dedication and hard work. What did that hard work involve?

The author of the book has a martial arts background and a scientific background, and he addresses pretty much everything you'd need to consider. Martial arts training, diet, muscular development, cumulative effects of injuries, age, and more. Name another book that explains the General Adaptation Syndrome, the effects of sleep deprivation, muscular rate coding, and how Batman beats on bad guys all together. Not many options, I'd bet.

The book is at its best when it sticks to explaining the normal functions of the body, and its upper limit, in terms of what Bruce Wayne would need to become batman. Paul Zehr has a knack for explaining these difficult (and sometimes potentially eye-crossingly boring) subjects in easy-to-understand ways. For that reason alone, the book could make a great introduction to basic human anatomical function.

The section on muscular strength and power is the original reason I picked up the book. Unfortunately, amongst the very well-explained and accurate statements it has some cringe-worthy errors and misstatements. The theory is correct - Batman needs to be strong, but more importantly he needs to be powerful (able to express that strength quickly). But the specifics betray a lack of practical knowledge in the field.

For example, he mentions "lifting an extremely heavily weighted barbell during an Olympic dead lift (where you hold the bar and stand up). This is a feat of great strength." Yes, it is, but the deadlift isn't an Olympic lift. It's a Powerlifting event, or a straight-up exercise. Olympic lifters do the deadlift motion as part of the Clean and Jerk, and may deadlift in training, but it's not an Olympic event. Another one that led me to wince was where he describes a panel from Batman # (1940) - it shows Bruce Wayne holding a barbell overhead in one hand, looking up at it like an Olde Tyme Strogman (sans handlebar mustache). Zehr says "Holding a heavy weight overhead with one hand is really not a very useful part of Batman's actual training regimen. In fact this is contrary to the main point of specificity in training." The caption itself says "Bruce is shown lifting a barbell above this head, which would not have been a likely part of his training." Ouch! So, the ability to pick up a weight from the ground and get it (and hold it) overhead is contrary to the needs of a crime-fighting avenger who uses his body as a weapon? I'd argue the ability to move a weight from the ground to overhead one-handed is very useful for anyone, nevermind a bare-fisted vigilante. It's a great builder of strength, better than the biceps curl Zehr uses so often for his examples of Batman's training.
Heck, Bruce clearly didn't train with Mark Rippetoe.

His prescription for Bruce Wayne's weight training isn't much better. It starts with "squats and calf raises [...] to simulate springing and lunging." Hey, at least he's starting with squats! Next up, "leg extensions and curls" for things like kicking and jumping. Neither really helps develop strength that will aid either, sadly. And what kind of training? 3-4 sets of 12-15 reps to failure with 60% of 1RM, because "this level [...] is good for making muscle stronger." Well, sort of. It'll work well in a total beginner, but anything will for a while. But it's better, generally, for size and endurance than for strength - see a longer discussion here. As Batman gets better, though, he'll need to increase his intensity (according to the book) and his volume, until he's doing 80% of his 1RM for "more sets" (he doesn't say how many) just to make progress.

When he sticks to the scientific background and explanation, the book is rock-solid. It's got one of the best descriptions of how muscular strength works and how it grows (and why). Without dumbing it down or skipping the necessary scientific vocabulary, either. It's the specifics that aren't what a potential Batman (or any athlete) is going to get much mileage out of. The section is written generally - it doesn't come with a program, workouts, etc. or purport to tell you to train that way. But it's cringeworthy because it's not how any successful and reputable strength and conditioning specialist would training someone for hand-to-hand combat and the street gynmastics that Batman does. It just seems pulled out of a general, bland set of exercise guidelines.

Aside from those very strong caveats, though, the book is just fun. Comics illustrating the human body's function? How can Batman survive so many knockouts without a concussion? What's his sleep pattern like? Using Bane (a super-soldier foe of Batman) to illustrate the ups and downs of steroids? It's really a great idea for a book, and it's done well. Except, of course, for the strength and power section...

Content: 3 out of 5. Everything except the strength training information is spot-on, although he's clearly more enamoured of Eastern martial arts than Western ones. But the strength training section is what's being reviewed, and...
Presentation: 5 out of 5. Extremely well written, fast read, packed with easy-to-understand knowledge and illustrations from the comics. This is what a book like this should look and read like.

Overall: If you're into Batman, or superheroes in any way, it's a fun read. If you want a basic primer on human function and like Batman, this is exactly what you want. Just promise me you'll research more yourself on how to train for strength and power if you really want to be Batman.

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