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, August 12, 2013

Zottman Curl variations

One of my favorite curl variations is the Zottman Curl. It is basically a regular dumbbell curl, but at the top you turn your palms down and lower the weight in a reverse curl. Since the reverse curl gets at your forearm strength more, and is generally less strong than a regular curl, you are basically overloading the eccentric (here, the lowering) portion of the exercise.

You can see Joe DeFranco demonstrating these in the first 7 reps of this 21-rep set:
21's ver. 2.0

Curl up, turn, lower down. Elbows stay close to your sides and the weight is lowered slowly to ensure you're not just dropping the weight down and catching it at the bottom.

These can be done double - as seen in that video, alternating (left then right, repeat), or one arm (all reps on one arm, all reps on the other arm.)

Tabletop Zottman Curls
This variation is one I first saw in this video by grip strength competitor Jedd Johnson.

Tabletop Zottman Curls

Like preacher curls, this has the effect of stabilizing the upper arm, preventing any "cheating" by swinging the body. The dead stop/dead start for each rep also means you can't use any momentum. Every rep will be as hard as the previous rep, and require a strong grip to squeeze the dumbbell off the bench and return it gently at the end of the movement.

Circular Zottman Curls
I've yet to find a video, however, showing this version of the exercise. It is described John Little in the book "The Art of Expressing the Human Body," which discusses Bruce Lee's workout routines and physical training methods. Bruce Lee was apparently a big fan of the Zottman curl, but it's not 100% clear if he did the "normal" version or this version, below.

"Curl the dumbbell in the left hand to the left shoulder, keeping the upper arm still but permitting the dumbbell to pass toward the right side of the body during the movement. When the elbow is fully bent, rotate the hand so that the palm is downward; then lower the dumbbell to the starting postion, at the same time taking the dumbbell away from the body as far to the left as possible (without altering the position of the left upper arm). When the left hand has been rotated and the weight is being lowered, the dumbbell in the right hand should be curled (across the body) to the right shoulder. [. . . ] Each dumbbell makes a circular movement, which should be performed smoothly and rhythmically."

That is a very different motion, combining a cross-body motion similar to a standing concentration curl with an external lowering of the weight. I've never seen this demonstrated. It makes for a somewhat different feel to the curls, too, although it's not clear that it does anything more to increase your strength or muscle size compared to a "normal" Zottman curl.

If you're finding your grip strength and forearm strength is lagging, this is a great way to address them (even more so with thick handled dumbbells, Fat Gripz, or Tyler Grips.) It's a good way to get both extra biceps work in while training your forearms and grip, too.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Audio Recommendation: Epstein and "The Athletic Gene"

I highly recommend this fascinating interview with David Epstein on his new book, The Sports Gene: Inside the Science of Extraordinary Athletic Performance. This immediately propelled the book to the top of my "must read" list.

You can hear him interviewed here:

David Epstein and The Sports Gene

It's well worth listening to. It's approximately 45 minutes long.

What is it about? The effects of genetics on training.

Practice is critical, but what if some people are more genetically predisposed to benefiting from that practice? In other words, if person A and B do the same amount of practice, but A is genetically disposed to benefit more from X hours of practice. If they both do X hours of practice, A will be better. B may simply not be able to catch up (think of sports stars who think about and practice their sport from extreme youth, from morning to night.)

Extending that to training, it can help explain why some routines make people and yet break some other people. Why some folks gain strength easily and others have such a hard time adding it - perhaps they'd be reversed if the goal was weight loss, or endurance training.

This goes a long way to explaining why there are so many ways to get stronger, yet they all don't work on all people. And why if they do work on everyone, not everyone can keep on that same program as long, or benefit as much as others. Some people start to back squat and add weight workout after workout for weeks, and top out at a high strength. Others add weight just as quickly but stall out sooner and just don't end up as strong. It's common to say it's hard work vs. not enough hard work, but given equal amounts of hard work, genetics is starting to tell us it's just that one person might be more predisposed to benefit from that modality.

This is pretty exciting stuff - if training can start to be tailored to both your goals and your genetic predisposition, it can end in better results for the work you put in. We do this now on an ad hoc basis - we try different training modalities, we look at your body type and try to extrapolate from other people's results giving those modalities and body type, etc. You see it as "Skinny Guy" routines and "Mass Gain for Hardgainers" and "High volume programs" for "mesomorphs" and so on. It's a question of trying to find out by hit-or-miss which training will benefit you the most, and which is spinning your wheels.

You still need to put the work in - as David Epstein says, it was never a question of practice helping, the question is, exactly how much of a result is practice? You need to put in the effort. But it seems like genetics helps you determine how much you get out of every unit of effort you put in.


Review: Why Michael Couldn't Hit (maybe great genetics, but not enough practice)

Monday, August 5, 2013

Book Review: The First 20 Minutes

The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer
by Gretchen Reynolds
Published 2012 by Hudson Street Press
266 pages

This book is, at its heart, an explanation of why you should exercise. And that it's only going to take 20 minutes of movement a day to get some real benefits. What kind of benefits?

Chapter by chapter, the author outlines the benefits of exercise. Improved cardiovascular health. Improved brain function. Improved lifespan. Improved weight control. Improved everything physical and some emotional and mental, as well.

The author steadily debunks myths, too, while replacing them with facts. Explanations are thorough - you'll understand leptin and grehlin and their effects on appetite. You'll understand what endurance means and how it's achieved. You'll get a solid understanding of the body's response to exercise.

What it isn't is a workout guide, or a how-to book. It's much more of a "why you should" book and it leaves the details on what your exercise routine or diet should look like out. That might seem to make it less valuable, but in a way it makes it more valuable - it's not focused on getting you to do a specific workout or justifying a specific diet by demonizing others. It's all about the general knowledge you need to succeed.

The author does show a fairly typical general-population target audience bias, though - exercise is basically running, cycling, swimming, and yoga. Possibly weight training, but it's usually mentioned without any real explanation of what's involved. In general, the idea is that fitness is cardiovascular training. It's not a case of ignorance, though - the author clearly states the difference between weight lifting (a sport) and weight training (an exercise mode). It's just that strength training takes a back seat. Even the chapter on proper technique is about running (barefoot and shoed), cycling, and swimming, and not much else.

To a large degree this makes sense, because people need to walk before they run. Getting that first 20 minutes of activity per day, reducing sitting and increasing motion, is the main idea of this book. It's focused on getting started and why it's valuable, not on a balanced routine of strength and endurance training. If people are getting up and moving, and walking or going for a bike ride or swim, it's a good start. But so is getting out to the gym and learning to lift, but it's not really held up as more than a secondary choice.

The author also does an excellent job defining an athlete vs. a recreational trainer - and it's pretty hard to meet the definition of an athlete.

There are a few nits to pick, though. Although many studies are mentioned, none are discussed in specific or end-noted or footnoted. So when the author mentions the results of a study, there is no way to track it down. For example, she mentions that a study showed that the best way to improve strength was with higher reps at a lower weight than lower reps at a higher weight. That flies in the face of a lot of strength training science, on the face of it. But it's hard to find out what it means - what does "high reps" mean? What do they mean by low weight? Or low reps? Or high weight? Or even by strength - is it improving one-rep max, 10-rep max, perceived difficulty of lifting a weight? It's just not clear.

There are also other areas that prompted a "yeah, but" or two, where it was clear that maybe something else was going on. Studies about how fast pickle juice cures cramps or that swishing sugary drinks and then spitting them out improves performance vs. swishing sugar-less drinks or water are mentioned as possible mental prompts to perform better, not actual physiological effects of those substances. But it ignores the fact that digestion starts in the mouth (stick a sugar cube on your tongue and see), so it's possible you're triggering a very reasonable cascade of responses because actual nutrition (even a tiny bit) is being received. Things like that, though, really are nits. The book's information is so solid that it's only on this edge cases that I found things to complain about.

Content: 4 out of 5. Excellent, highly accurate and well-explained content. However, many studies are mentioned but not in enough detail to track them down and study more.
Presentation: 4 out of 5. Well-written and clearly written. Easy to follow. Finding things later is difficult, and it lacks any illustrations or charts so it's even harder to just flip back to a specific piece of information.

Overall: This is not an exercise guidebook as much as it's a solid explanation of why you should exercise, what the benefits are, and generally how much you need. Well worth reading. If you're a trainer, it's worth reading and then passing on to sedentary clients or those without a basic understanding of why it's worth training.
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