September 2, 2010

Getting exercise and muscle growth backwards

Returning to an earlier theme of how unnatural gym bodies look, it's clear that this is just another case of how the modern rationalistic approach to things gets them completely backwards.

One example (pointed out by Nassim Taleb, possibly getting it from Art De Vany) is eating and activity. We view eating as a precursor to doing some range of activities that require a good amount of energy -- we're "fueling up" for these activities by eating. But it goes the other way around: we are designed to undertake physically demanding activity to acquire food, by hunting, gathering, threshing, grinding, milking, etc. We should aim to do vigorous activities on a somewhat empty stomach, then eat, and then mellow out for awhile, possibly including the next day or so, rather than pig out and then be very active today or tomorrow.

Food is not a fuel for activity later in the day; it is an information signal to our body that we've been active enough to get nourishment and that our body should chill and build muscle, repair itself, and so on. When we follow the modern experts' approach, we screw up that signal because after eating a good amount, we go "put it to use" through vigorous activity. "Hold on, I thought you just gave me food -- why are you out jogging and weightlifting so soon?" our body asks, confused about whether it should invest its limited resources in bodily maintenance or in here-and-now performance. These opposing goals are controlled by two separate parts of the nervous system, the parasympathetic (digestion) and sympathetic (fight-or-flight), which are not intended to operate at the same time.

Now consider physical activity and building up your physique. The modern experts' approach takes muscle growth as the goal and activity as the means to achieve it. So, most people have a picture in their minds of what they want to look like -- even using the narcissistic phrase "I wanna look good naked" -- and then go jogging, stairmastering, bicep curling, bench pressing, etc., to hopefully get that look. Then they wind up looking like freaks, as I detailed in the link above.

What went wrong? Again they got it backwards: we are designed to carry out a range of physical activities -- sprinting, leaping, hurling overhand at a target, heaving underhand at a target, pulling ourselves into a tree, and so on. In the process of doing these regularly and with the occasional intense demand, our body gets the signal that our environment requires us to be good at these things, and therefore it had better build us a set of musculature that will get the job done. When we do these activities that we're designed for, all of our muscles respond, not just the biceps and chest muscles that respond when you sit in a gym doing curls and bench presses for an hour. Plus they respond in the right proportions, which you cannot recreate by targeting every muscle one at a time -- how do you know how much to stress each one? You don't, but your body is programmed to respond in the right proportions once you do natural activities.

That's why when we say someone has "an athletic physique," we mean that's what the body should look like when it's excelling at the physical activities that homo sapiens are designed for. See any classical or Renaissance sculpture. Those people aimed to be athletic, and as a side-effect grew musculature that we find impressive. If they aim to look impressive and try to achieve this through "working out," they'll look weird.

They'll also fail at athletics -- how many of those gym rats do you think could hurl a 20-pound stone at a target from even 20 feet away and hit it? Could they sprint down a hill, leap across a 4-foot-wide stream, and sprint up the hill on the other side, let alone do it fast? How good would they be at dodging a moving object that was targeting them, like a predator or an enemy in battle? Could they coordinate their whole body to throw a good, connecting punch? These building block activities from our evolutionary past are what make up the spectacle of modern sports, and that's why no one wants to watch gym rats "work out" -- even Olympic weightlifting is so boring that no one watches.

In Starbucks the other day I overheard some retard loudly yammering into his phone about how a gym buddy of his is like so coming along in his program -- he can bench however-many pounds now! Hold on, that's the goal? These guys are just as insecure and pathetic as the geeks who hang out in MENSA clubs doing IQ puzzles all day and comparing scores, again getting things completely backwards. We are designed to make art, solve real-world problems, or whatever else, and our brain gets into shape as a side-effect, to help us excel at these activities in the future.

No one gives a shit if you can bench press X pounds or memorize a number that's Y digits long. So, the only way these people can keep up their enthusiasm is by finding the handful of similarly backwards-thinking morons out there and forming an echo chamber, forever caught in a contest over who is the best at getting nothing done.

The modern person rejects anything that they don't see the reason behind, and they suffer as a result of getting lots of things backwards. Following traditional practices will keep you in good shape, like working hard and then eating, or striving for athletic excellence rather than to "look good naked." Once again grandma knew better.


  1. Interesting, I have recently realised that I prefer working out on an empty stomach. I also prefer full body compound lifts.

    - Breeze

  2. I think this is partially why the Mediterranean cultures are healthier than most other cultures.

    A fairly light, protein rich breakfast.


    A swim, followed by lunch and a nap.

    Work till late evening

    Eat and relax till the early hours

  3. I wonder if part of the issue is that we don't have good places to exercise outdoors. In a modern (sub-urban) US community the choices for outdoor activity are surprisingly limited (one of the biggest differences with Canada, IMO, although Canada isn't perfect, either).

    Gyms become the "best of the bad options" and the numbers are a way to keep track of *some* sort of progress.

    I suspect that a hard day hunting or gathering would be a far better way of getting in shape!

  4. Interesting. I generally eat something light and carby before my workout out of concern for not having enough blood sugar (energy) to get me through the workout. I'll try the somewhat hungry approach. I expect I might feel slugish though.

    No one gives a shit if you can bench press X pounds

    True, but most adults don't hunt or fight, so the amount of lifted weight max is a way of benchmarking one's progress.

  5. Measuring progress is good, but keeping track of how much weight you can lift is not a good measure. How many passes you complete in a football game, your batting average, etc., measure some real skill.

    One of the simplest ways to measure progress is to throw things at other things. See how far back you can go until you can't hit it. That's good feedback, plus trying to hit a target focuses the mind and feels real.

    About gyms, sure, they're OK if you're doing natural activities there. But most who go there get pulled onto the bench-and-curl treadmill. The whole atmosphere doesn't make you feel like you're doing something real -- it feels more like the training montage of Ivan Drago than of Rocky from Rocky IV.

  6. Among the guys I play basketball with, the very best are really average-looking, normal-sized guys. You would never know they are athletic until they step out on the court.

  7. A freakish, malproportioned body is often difficult to develop unless you go on steroids. Steroids enable a bodybuilder to inject wherever he wants to see growth. Hence the weird bulging. Also, steroids make your skin look funny and do other strange things...

    For normal people, a balanced and diverse gym workout will produce a proportioned look. It's actually difficult to develop one body part without developing the others, as different regions of the body tend to work together. If you don't do legs or abs, it's hard to see the progress you want on arms and chest.

    My advice would be to vary up your workout. Lift weights, run, row, swim, play racketball/tennis, bike. Vary it up, keep it fun, be disciplined, eat well, rest, lots of protein, tons of water, good form, vary the intensity. You do that and I guarantee the results will be to your liking.

    I do agree that natural activities and sports are preferrable ot bodybuilding, but those can always be augmented by a good gym workout.

  8. Has anyone seen Dr. McGuff's Body by Science book? His Ultimate Exercise site has some Youtube videos of the workout and his explanation. He is explicitly aiming to create a fitness black swan event with his recommendations. Briefly stated, it's a very intense once a week workout, that lasts for about 15 minutes.

    The idea is that recovery and extra muscle growth takes at least that long for most people and that 15 minutes is enough to stimulate metabolic changes and muscle growth. I've been experimenting with it for about 2 months now and the results are really encouraging. It's not exactly hunting and gathering, but my goal isn't to join a reenactment society it's to recreate those conditions in my comfortable modern world.

  9. how many of those gym rats do you think could hurl a 20-pound stone at a target from even 20 feet away and hit it? Could they sprint down a hill, leap across a 4-foot-wide stream, and sprint up the hill on the other side, let alone do it fast? How good would they be at dodging a moving object that was targeting them, like a predator or an enemy in battle? Could they coordinate their whole body to throw a good, connecting punch?

    Is there any reason to believe they would be any less likely to perform those activities than the typical non-exerciser?


  10. The gym-rats agnostic saw probably have a innate desire to get big enough that they look 'hyooge' while wearing street clothes.

    Having a nice body that looks good naked is getting to a Mark Wahlberg/Mario Lopez level of development.

    Having a body that looks intimidating while clothed on a man who is only 6-1 or less generally entails getting hyoooge. Thats what the hardcore gym-rats want: the instant alpha-male-recognition based on their intimidating physical size alone, despite not having a gigantic skelatal frame. To achieve this, they have to not only get "built", but "overbuilt" to the point that their bone structure isn't merely full of muscle, but is overflowing with muscle. They want to be bigger beasts than their human-bone structure will allow.

    What they end up with are thighs that are so large that they have to walk with their knees ever-so-slightly-outward, and their arms slightly akimbo so that their lats dont get rubbed raw by their triceps. They transform themselves into men with an awkward walk and bearing to achieve this.

    The kinds of men who are into this are far beyond wanting to merely "look good naked". They want to look intimidating clothed, even in a winter coat.


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