Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Look at That Body

A woman is doing triceps pressdowns with a rope. As she pushes the rope down, her triceps flex. They look, well, sexy.

I am that woman, admiring my own my triceps in the mirrored wall of the gym. If you’re put off by this apparent vanity, bear with me. I don’t look good during every exercise I do—with some I look ridiculous or even repellent—but with many of them, I daresay I look awesome. I lunge forward and admire my legs. I do Supermans and admire my lower back. And triceps—there’s something about them that gets me every time.

Somebody’s Tricep!

Allow me to clarify what I am not talking about. I’m not talking about walking around with a full head all the time.  I’m not talking about glorifying the body while disregarding everything else, in the way we often do with celebrities. However, I am encouraging you to admire your body and be proud of it when you exercise. If it is acceptable to be proud of your intelligence, your hard work, your good taste, and other attributes and accomplishments, why not the accomplishments of the flesh? Why should that be considered vain or otherwise immoral? Moreover, when I admire my body while exercising, it is not so much that it’s my body—it’s a body, doing what it has evolved to do: lift, push, pull, stretch, move.

A Brief Look at Philosophical Positions on the Body

Using the index of Bertrand Russell’s The History of Western Philosophy, I did not find much of interest relating to philosophical positions on the body. What I did find related mainly to epistemology. (What is a body? How do we know it’s there?)

One interesting passage, though, came from a chapter on Plato, who writes,

“The body is the source of endless trouble to us...”1

then goes on to enumerate several ways the body is inferior to the soul. The Stoic Epictetus, according to my man Marcus Aurelius, would say, “Thou art a little soul bearing about a corpse.”2 And yet the ancient Greeks are famous for portraying ideal bodies, often in motion, in their sculpture. We are now in the midst of the Olympics, a body-glorifying celebration if there ever was one, which of course originated in Greece. Greek attitudes towards the body, unsurprisingly for any culturally rich society, were not uniform.

Discobolus (disc-thrower). Interior from an Attic red-figured cup, ca. 490 BC.
Source, including caption: Wikipedia

Russell himself, explaining his own views on beliefs in the John Dewey chapter, writes,

“But in fact the distinction between the mind and body is a dubious one. It will be better to speak of an ‘organism,’ leaving the division of its activities between the mind and body undetermined.”3

Without exploring more thoroughly this question of mind–body distinction, a question deserving of its own post (or more than one), I simply note that observing yourself while exercising is a way to marvel at this distinction. My mind commands my arm to move, whatever that means, and my arm moves. My mind commands my legs to do one more squat, and my legs disobey. Who’s in charge, here? Philosophers and other humanities scholars pay so much attention to the wonders of the mind that they often forget the wonders of the body.   

Though they are not strictly philosophical thoughts, the Christian Bible has several verses that admire the human body, albeit because its magnificence gives glory to God:

“For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” (Psalm 139: 13-18, English Standard Version)

“How beautiful your sandaled feet, O prince's daughter! . . . Your navel is a rounded goblet that never lacks blended wine. . . . Your neck is like an ivory tower. . . . How beautiful you are and how pleasing. . .” (the man in Song of Solomon 7: 1-9)

“Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” (1 Corinthians 6: 19-20, English Standard Version)

Ultimately, I do not think there is a philosophically defensible position that denigrates the worthiness of a body exercising. Relatively speaking, our bodies are frail and ephemeral. Often, they are ugly and pathetic. But sometimes, they are beautiful, and rarely more so than when they are in motion. In those moments, take time to appreciate them—especially your own.   

1. Bertrand Russell, The History of Western Philosophy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972), 137.
2. Ibid, 263.
3. Ibid, 821.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

The Science of Decline Sit-ups

As I am a moderately well-read person, my poor understanding of science is a source of embarrassment. It’s possible I know as much science as the average American. Still, I haven’t studied it as much as I would like, nor does my brain seem particularly well-suited for it. I’m good with words and pretty good with numbers, but thinking spatially or mechanically is a challenge.

Because I spend a lot of time in the gym, I have decided to improve my understanding of certain scientific principles by studying different exercises and equipment. My hope is that in actually using my own body to do various movements, the principles will sink in better than they have before.

Shortly after choosing decline sit-ups for my first investigation, I explained my plan to a science-minded friend. “What forces do you think are involved?” he asked. “Fulcrums, levers, gravity?” I hazarded. “And torque,” he replied. Torque. The word calls to mind cars.

My next step was some online searches. The Wikipedia “Torque” entry was potentially informative. On one site, I found the following: “However, to avoid a lesson in physics we can summate the concept [of arm placement during decline sit-ups] as follows.” Not helpful, except that with a quick side investigation I learned that “summate” is a legitimate word, though it sounds off to my ear. Back at Wikipedia, I clicked links on the “Torque” page.

Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Torque

I admit I breezed through these and several other websites. Part of the problem is that I am not really all that interested in learning more science. It’s something I think I should do, and I kind of wish I could automatically deposit the knowledge in my brain. Still, perhaps if I can get a few footholds through this gym/science scheme, I’ll begin to find it more interesting.

Eventually I wound up on a website that looks to be quite informative and reputable, ExRx.net. It contains a page about levers, as well as a page on the weighted decline sit-up (and hundreds of other exercises). On the decline sit-up page, I read, “Lower decline to increase resistance.” I then set about to answer the simple question “Why does lowering the decline increase resistance?” If this is the physics equivalent of “Who wrote Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?”, so be it.

My first thought was that gravity might be involved. Something along the lines of slightly more air offering resistance as one is moving up. But that didn’t seem right—that air would only weigh minimally more, wouldn’t it, not enough to produce the effect that I know from experience is more significant. Then I remembered that as distance increases from the point of the fulcrum, or something like that, it requires more effort to move.

Returning to the lever page on ExRx.net, I saw I had the idea right, if not the terminology. What I thought of as the point of the fulcrum is in fact called a fulcrum, while the whole thing is a lever. Decline sit-ups seem to be either second– or third-class levers, the latter only if you hold a weight behind your head. As the page states, a third-class lever “requires relatively great force to move even small resistances.” I was able to empirically verify this statement during my last weight training session, when I held a 10-lb. weight behind my head instead of on my chest like I usually do. It was not easy.

A Third-class Lever
Source: ExRx.net

I have only scratched the surface of levers here, and I haven’t yet figured out what torque is or followed up on whether my gravity instinct has any truth to it. Yet I’ll be damned if I don’t feel a bit more eager to continue learning more science. And as far as I’m concerned, that makes this first inquiry a success. 

Sunday, July 8, 2012

When the Good Is an Enemy

A proposal: the enemy of the best is the good. In life. In health. In fitness.

A close friend has often repeated this “enemy of the best” idea to me, so I decided to research its history. It pops up attributed to NFL wide receiver Jerry Rice on numerous quotation websites. The full quotation usually appears as “The enemy of the best is the good. If you're always settling with what's good, you'll never be the best.”

The concept also appears at the beginning of Chapter 1 of First Things First by Stephen Covey, A. Roger Merrill, and Rebecca R. Merrill.1 Here the words “best” and “good” are in quotation marks, leading me to wonder what philosophical distinction the authors could be making. (A few pages later, the sentence does appear without quotation marks.) In Covey’s book, what is best seems to align with the “non-urgent but important” items in quadrant II of his four-quadrant scheme.

Yet another place I found the idea was in a proverb dictionary, in this case inverted: “Good is the enemy of the best, The. Meaning that one may rest satisfied with what is acceptable instead of striving for the truly excellent. 1912: J. Kelman, Thoughts on Things Eternal, 108...”2

Wisdom lies in this philosophy, yet three strong counterarguments strike me. In his 1772 poem “La Begueule,” Voltaire quotes a line from an “unnamed Italian sage” that translates literally from the French (“Le mieux est l'ennemi du bien”) to “The best is the enemy of the good” (my emphasis).3 What this sentiment points to is that in striving for the best (Voltaire’s word “le mieux” is often translated as “perfect”), a person can pass over one or even several good enough results and ultimately end up with something less than good, or nothing at all. This is the bane of the perfectionist, and often of the procrastinator.


Another counterargument is that it is often difficult, if not impossible, to determine what is the best choice out of multiple choices. This is related to the third objection, which is that sometimes there may simply be no best choice, that as far as it is possible to tell, two or more choices—choices leading to two or more outcomes, I suppose—are of equal desirability. Do I want trimmer abs or do I want to enjoy more delicious food? I really don’t know what is best. It seems they both could be. They will both make me happy in multiple ways. And yes, they seem to be mutually exclusive, unless I want to exercise substantially more.

Despite these counterarguments, it seems to me that people who take their health or physical prowess seriously would benefit from less settling with what’s good, to use Jerry Rice’s words. If my failure point for dead lift is nine reps at 170 pounds, doing eight reps is good—very good, in fact. But the best I can do is nine, and only that quantity will get me to failure and thus optimize my muscle growth. If I run a 5k but fail to give it my all, how can I be satisfied even if I win the race? Even if my time is good enough to win, the people who do their best have won in more important ways.

Sometimes, unfortunately, it’s not that simple. I have long had goals relating to pull-ups. As my strength has increased my goals have likewise increased. My current goal is to do 10 pull-ups (chin-ups, technically), and it is proving to be quite the challenge. It will take my best effort, I’m beginning to think, to reach this goal. Given this, the decisions I must make are difficult. Should I reduce my cardio and put more of my energy into strength training and rest? This would reduce my overall best level of fitness, but it might be part of my best life to achieve this goal. If I decide to go for it, what combination of strength training and rest is best—and within that, which exercises are best, and at which levels? And so on. Clearly, it would take intense thought, experimentation, and research to determine the answers, and these answers could not be perfect.

But to return to Voltaire, let us not confuse best with perfect. What is more, let us distinguish best from good whenever we can, and strive to determine when good is good enough, and when best is best.

1. Stephen Covey, A. Roger Merrill, and Rebecca R. Merrill, First Things First (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1994).
2. Martin H. Manser, ed., Dictionary of Proverbs (Hertfordshire, England: Wordsworth, 2006), http://books.google.com/books/about/Dictionary_of_Proverbs.html?id=7PMZJqSR4sAC, 242.
3. http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Voltaire