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.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Book Review: Overpower Pain

Overpower Pain: The Strength-Training Program that Stops Pain without Drugs or Surgery by Mitchell T. Yass.

Overpower Pain is a book that aims to solve common pain-inducing conditions with strength training and flexibility training. It's written by a PT (Physical Therapist) who also provides personal training.

The first chapter makes a great case for strength training. But a few things he states in the opening chapter clash with my own understanding of training.

He correctly states that sports use muscles in conjunction with one another, and that the body will find a way to complete a movement by compensation for a strong muscle with a weak one. This is true, and it makes sense to proscribe corrective exercise to bring up the weak one. But he says "Weight training involves isolating individual muscle groups and strengthening them as efficiently as possible." (Overcoming Pain, p. 6) That may be true for corrective exercise, but for all weight training? A lot of weight training specifically involves multi-joint exercises to avoid this isolatin. The deadlift, for example, calls on chains of muscles from your feet up to your neck in order to perform it. While there is a place for isolation and training up individual groups, this isn't true of all weight training. The statement is just too broad.

Another example is that he says there is a linear relatiobship between strength and muscle mass. "If you improve your strength by 10 percent, you'll increase your muscle mass by 10 percent." (bold and italics from the original, Overcoming Pain, pg. 8) If that was the case, a 200 pound man who could bench press 200 pounds could only get his bench press to 220 by gaining 10% more muscle mass. But strength adaptations are not limited to growth of muscle. You can also increase your central nervous system's efficiency at using existing muscle or performing a specific task. You can improve your technique and muscle coordination. Strength is not purely linear to mass. A bigger muscle is not always a stronger muscle. It's a good bet, but it's not such a direct relationship. In fact, his own later discussions explain you can get stronger without increasing muscle mass. It's a gross simplification and contradicted later.

He also says, surprisingly "Forget the notion that exercise can or should be fun. You should do it because it offers a tremendous value to you." (Overcoming Pain, pg 8). I whole-heartedly agree with the second sentence, and disagree with the first. Why can't it be fun? Why shouldn't it? He's right that you shouldn't get caught up in doing one type of exercise and hope it covers everything. But there is no reason exercise can't be fun. If you don't enjoy it or enjoy your results, you're not going to stick with it.

The book has a few similar problems - odd definitions of "mass gain" versus "toning," an incorrect definition of supersets, and others. When he does make a good point - why you don't need to constantly change up your workout, it's somewhat undermined by the errors elsewhere. If this stuff is wrong or over-simplified, what else is?

Where the book really makes it worthwhile is in the sections on pain. The author is a practicing PT, and it shows here. Flexibility deficits, muscle imbalances (one muscle being stronger than its antagonist), carpal tunnel syndrome, referral pain, treatment of structural vs. non-structural injuries (a herniated disk vs. weak muscles), etc. The book goes on to discuss specific pain areas - such as the lower back, shoulder, and so on. These sections contain information on the pain you might have and the exercises that strengthen them. This one section is very good.

The chapter The Golden Rules of Weight Training has problems as well. It's a mix of good advice (make sure you're in a safe and stable position, use an appropriate weight, use a full range of motion, allow time to rest and grow) with advice I'd consider suspect (don't lock out your joints, always lift slowly, don't lift in more than one plane of motion, don't work too many body parts per day). It's a mixed bag.

The exercises are a mix of compound and isolation exercises. They are also heavily weighted towards free weights, cables, and bodyweight, but it includes some specific machine exercises. They're broken up by body part, and the technique generally seems good, but since he's against locking out the joints almost all of the exercises are partial range-of-motion, ending just before the joints lock a weight out. However, there is specific advice I have trouble with. For example, he recommends not strengthening the lower back, for fear of causing postural problems and overwhelming the abs. But he also recommends several forms of the deadlift, which will exercise and strengthen the lower back. On the bright side, he's very enthusiastic about squatting and uses it for knee rehab - contrary to the more common "squats wreck your knees" misinformation so commonly heard. It also contains information on stretching.

There are no specific workouts, and little advice on how to structure one. The implication is that you'll need 60-120 minutes in the gym, 3 sets of 6-12 reps (depending on your goals, "toning" or "muscle mass"), and body part splits. It's a mix of good information (60 minutes is fine, so are 3 sets of 6-12 in many cases) and bad information (the toning s. muscle mass, body part splits for beginners).

I'm not sure what to make of this book. As a workout how-to manual, it's not good. But perhaps as a pain-relief approach or a physical therapy approach, it makes sense. The exercises are generally good but the workout advice is body part splits and generic advice on lifting that doesn't match the advice of respected strength coaches.

It concerns me that he makes a some broad statements like this that aren't that broadly applicable, and defines some weight training terms so differently than their common usage. If this was your start to weight training you wouldn't do poorly but you'd learn a lot that you'd need to unlearn later.

Substance: 2 of 5. Some good material surrounded by a lot of suspect material.
Presentation: 4 of 5. Good presentation, clear text, useful pictures and diagrams.

If you've got issues with pain, it is potentially worth looking over. Otherwise, I hesitate to recommend it.

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