I saw The Secret to Superhuman Strength on the shelf at Amherst Books, and didn’t buy it because I was on the road and didn’t want to have to lug a hardback around for the rest of the trip. But now I just might have to.
“I live in a house of literary fitness freaks, and even for people who are supposedly good with words and who exercise all the time, Bechdel’s book contained real revelations.”
I’m going to come at this in a kind of roundabout fashion. Bear with me. (Or don’t. I won’t mind.)
It starts like this: A week or so ago I put my hands on my hips and noticed a large muscle I’d never noticed before. I got out my copy of Strength Training Anatomy, and identified the muscle in question as my gluteus medius.
The glute med stabilizes the hip during gait (important for walking and running). It abducts the leg (important for dancers, I suppose, and anyone stepping sideways). It also inwardly rotates the leg (important for martial artists for kicking, and no doubt other things). That all makes sense. It’s an awfully big muscle to not be important for many things.
Still, I’d never given it much thought. I certainly hadn’t been designing my workout routines to build a bigger gluteus medius.
For a few minutes I was thinking, “Really? My glute med is where I’m seeing hypertrophy? Not my pecs. Not my biceps. Not my traps. Not my quads. Not my lats. Not my rectus abdominis. Not even my gluteus maximus. Nope. The gluteus medius.”
Once I got past that, I started to wonder what I had done that had caused my glute med to blow up in size, and the only thing that came to mind was kettlebell swings.
Now, at one level this makes perfect sense. In fact, the Tim Ferriss post that introduced me to kettlebells and the kettlebell swing made specific reference to exactly this effect:
In four weeks, he took his then-girlfriend, an ethnic Chinese with a surfboardlike profile, to being voted one of the top-10 sexiest girls out of 39,000 students at the University of Auckland. . . . Other female students constantly asked her how she’d lifted her glutes so high up her hamstrings.
Building this muscle, at the top of the pelvis, just above the gluteus maximus, would produce exactly that effect: making your glutes look higher, as much it made them look bigger.
So the fact that kettlebell swings hit the glute med shouldn’t have been unexpected. But I was nevertheless surprised that I got so much hypertrophy out of the effort I was putting in. I suppose it could be something special about the glute med (or about my glute med—my lifetime movement history somehow priming my muscle to be ready to explode with growth), but I doubt it. I think it was the kettlebell swings, and there was really only one thing different about my kettlebell swing workouts as opposed to my other workouts: reps.
Once I gave it some thought, I realized that I should not have been as surprised as I was. This result of high reps is pretty well known. For example, Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer has an excellent discussion of this in a post on bodyweight training that he wrote for people trying to put together a home exercise program during the pandemic.
My kettlebell swing workouts, drawing from Tim Ferriss’s suggested workout, were originally 3×25 swings, formerly with the 45 lb kettlebell in the fitness room, more recently with the 53 lb kettlebell I bought as soon as they became available again after the pandemic-related disappearance of all sorts of home workout equipment. I’ve started adding a 4th set to that workout, so a total of 100 swings, once or twice a week.
Despite having only a passing interest in making my muscles bigger (as opposed to making them stronger), I am intrigued by this effect. Maybe doing 100 reps is some sort of magic for producing hypertrophy.
I’ve reached the point where I can crank out a respectable number of push ups, but I’m not doing 75–100 reps. And for most of the other exercises I’m doing (in particular, dips and pull-ups), I’m working very close to my one-rep maximum—which is exactly the recommended protocol for building strength. For building size though, there are reasons to think that higher rep counts make good sense.
A lot of different factors go into making muscles bigger. You can make your muscle fibers bigger (myofibrillar hypertrophy). Maybe you can grow new muscles fibers (hyperplasia)—evidence is mixed. You can also add to other stuff in and around your muscle cells—glycogen stores, additional capillaries, supporting tissues, etc. (sarcoplasmic hypertrophy). These things will make your muscles bigger without necessarily making them any stronger (although they should increase your endurance).
My kettlebell swings, I suspect, mostly work through that last mechanism. (Although, to the extent that I do fatigue my glutes, I should get some amount of myofibrillar hypertrophy as well.)
Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is the increase of sarcoplasm in the muscle cells. Sarcoplasm is to a muscle cell what cytoplasm is to any other cell but contains glycosomes, myoglobin and oxygen binding protein in high amounts (as well as calcium). . . . Whatever is going on, the fact remains that lifting heavy makes you stronger and lifting a little lighter and for reps makes you bigger.
I continue to think that strength ought to be my main goal for lifting. Lifting for size seems to be about aesthetics, which is fine, but not important. But these past couple of years I keep coming back to thinking of my father, who is suffering from sarcopenia and becoming increasingly frail. And each time I do, I become all the more determined to add another few pounds of muscle as insurance against sarcopenia when I’m his age.
The success of my kettlebell workout in building the size of my glute med makes me think maybe I should go for 75–100 reps of a few other exercises. I’m within striking distance on push ups—I recently did 4×12 reps, so 3×25 isn’t that far off. I’m rather further away on inverted rows—I think the best I’ve done is 3×8 reps—but inverted rows are quite adjustable in terms of how hard they are. I’m sure there’s a ring height and foot position combination such that I could get close to 3×25 reps.
Maybe the result of those changes would be similar ballooning up of my pecs and lats. It seems, at least, to be worth a try.
Five years ago made a plan to spend the winter trying to build the strength I thought I’d need in order to be successful at (and enjoy) training for parkour. To keep the whole thing manageable, I chose just four specific exercises to work on. And to keep myself accountable, I described a “success” condition to let me know if I had accomplished each one. (I documented my plan here: strength training specifically for parkour.)
I wasn’t successful at meeting most of those goals after that first winter, which was discouraging, and I kind of quit tracking my progress on those metrics after that. But in my preparations for writing my “Movement in 2020” post, I happened upon that post—and was surprised to see that I had pretty much accomplished it!
Squatting is an important transitional posture, into and out of ground movement, and into and out of jumps. (It’s also a basic human capability, but one that requires a degree of strength and flexibility that most westerners no longer have.)
Five years ago I could only just barely squat, and then only when nicely warmed up. Since then I have worked on my squat in a dozen different ways—working on ankle mobility, hip mobility, and strength up and down the posterior chain.
My original benchmark was:
Success will be when I can get all the way down with a straight back, and then use my hands to manipulate things that are nearby.
I can report a considerable degree of success! I can get down into a deep squat, and I can linger there for tens of seconds at a time. I’m now working on improving my mobility while in a squat (looking to each side, up and down, reaching up and down, etc.).
Here’s where I was back then, and where I am now:
Early on my efforts to get better at various natural movements were significantly hindered by a lack of toe flexibility. My toes literally did not bend back at all.
This was actually a long-standing problem. At least as far back as college my martial arts instructors warned that I needed to pull my toes back or I’d hurt myself if I executed the kicks I was learning. But none of my martial arts instructors had even the tiniest bit of advice on how I might acquire the capability to pull my toes back.
Five years ago I came up with my own idea. I’d get into quadruped position while keeping my weight back on the balls of my feet (meaning that my knees had to be rather higher than ideal), then I gently worked to lower my knees toward the floor. That helped me make some progress.
A couple of years later, Ashley Price suggested an excellent exercise involving using a half-dome to let me gently flex my toes back. I’ve been doing that exercise almost daily since then.
My original benchmark was:
Success will be when I can keep my weight back on the balls of my feet and still get into position for things like planks, push-ups, and lunges.
On that I can report complete success. The only thing that still eludes me is the quasi-martial arts move where you sit seiza (kneeling with the tops of your feet on the floor) then pull your toes back and tuck them under, shift your weight to the balls of your feet, rock back into a squat from which you can stand up. This is useful if you want to move from kneeling to standing while simultaneously drawing a sword, but is perhaps not particularly important beyond that.
The ability to hang by your hands is crucial for many parkour moves.
Hanging was one of the things I worked on early, and made quite a bit of progress at, working up to being able to hang for a minute no problem. At about the same time I briefly managed to do a chin-up. But until this year I hadn’t done a pull-up since I was in elementary school.
Since I redoubled my efforts on pull-ups back in April or so, I’d largely quit working on hanging endurance, and it has somewhat slipped away—I can do 30 seconds, but a recent attempt at a full minute fell short. Similarly, although I can hang briefly from one hand, I can’t do what I could do a few years ago.
My original benchmark was:
Success will be a single pull-up in good form from a dead hang.
And at that I have succeeded! I can do a pull-up! In fact, on a good day I can do pull-ups in sets of three. Even on a less-good day, I can manage three sets of one pull-up.
The wall dip is another foundational move for parkour. You use it to get on top of a wall or other structure.
The village where I live seems to have a terrible dearth of chest-high walls (unlike campus, which has lots), so it has been persistently difficult to get in the practice I need, and doubly so during the pandemic.
What I’ve been doing instead this year are ring dips.
Ring dips are actually much harder than wall dips, because the rings are unstable, so you have to stabilize them yourself. As I sat down to write this, I was worried that the limitations of those stabilizing muscles might have kept me from fully training the pushing muscles for the dip itself.
So over the last few days I’ve checked for that, using the edge of my window seat as a wall for practice. (It’s not perfect, because it’s too low, so I have to tuck my legs back to keep my feet off the floor. That configuration doesn’t precisely match the way you’d do a wall dip in parkour, but it does let me fully test the basic pushing motion.)
My original benchmark was:
Success will be when I can do a dozen or so wall dips with good form.
On three different occasions this week I’ve done at least a dozen wall dips, so I can call that one accomplished as well.
Assuming I can keep it together to do at least some maintenance training during the winter, I can enter the spring with a solid base on which to pick up my parkour training!
One side benefit to all the ring training I’ve been doing has been increased grip strength.
It hadn’t occurred to me in advance that this would happen, but it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Most people have poor grip strength (unless they either do manual labor, or else hang by their hands for some reason). Because most people start from a very low base, increased grip strength is easy to achieve.
Hanging exercises are a great idea for everyone. I encourage my taiji students to consider doing some sort of hanging exercise. They’re mostly seniors, so I admonish them not to actually hang by their hands without carefully working up to it, but just grasping something over your head, and then bending your knees to put a little weight on your hands will do a world of good for your shoulders. It will also start building grip strength. (In class I always joke that developing the ability to hang by your hands can save your life, if you unexpectedly find yourself in an action movie.)
I recently discovered that my grip strength had gone up in a way that was a little problematic: I was giving a dish rag a good squeeze, and found that it made my hand a little creaky: My grip strength was higher than it had been—enough higher to be out of balance with the strength of the joints and tendons in my hands.
There are two issues there. One is that grip strength for hanging from (or supporting yourself on) gymnastic rings covers a very narrow range of motion for the hands—the rings are just one diameter all the way around, and they don’t get smaller if you squeeze them, so you’re training your hands to be very strong in that one single position. The other is that muscles get stronger much faster than tendons do, so in a few weeks you can make your muscles strong enough that they can strain your tendons, while it takes months to make your tendons strong enough to stand up to the maximum force those muscles can exert.
After my experience with the dish rag, I got out my Power Putty. (It’s a brand of stuff like Silly Putty, but sold in a range of different stiffnesses. It’s marketed in the less-stiff versions to people who need physical therapy for some grip issue, and then in the more-stiff versions for people who want to build strongman-like grip strength.) I was a little surprised to find that the stuff I have—medium-firm—feels scarcely firm at all any more.
That’s okay. I’ve learned enough in the 20 years since I bought that stuff that I certainly don’t feel the need to get Power Putty in different stiffnesses.
The way to build further grip strength is to grip real-world things of a variety of sizes and textures. Squeezing dish rags is a great way to start. Hanging from tree branches (instead of just gymnastic rings) would be good too. Brachiating across monkey bars of various sizes will also be good. I’ve seen tricks for working on grip, such as putting a towel over a pull-up bar (or through a gymnastic ring) so that one hand is gripping the towel instead of the bar or ring.
Grip strength is strongly correlated with greater life expectancy (and superior health status in numerous other ways). This has to be one of the clearest cases ever where “training to the test” is useless—increasing your grip strength will not make you live longer—but living your life in a way that builds your grip strength is probably a great way to be stronger, healthier, more capable, and more comfortable as you age.
I think I’ll actually be using my Power Putty. It’s not really stiff enough to build my grip strength, but it’ll probably be just right to work on the tendons and joints in my hands. They mostly need time to get stronger to match the strength of my gripping muscles, but working them through a full range of motion will also help, and medium-stiff Power Putty will be great for that.
I actually knew this already, having seen an article about the work, originally serialized in the weekly journal the New York Atlas under the pseudonym Mose Velsor, when it was collected and republished as a PDF (Manly Health and Training) in 2016. But I hadn’t read through the whole thing until this month.
I’ve read a lot of fitness books over the years, and one thing I find interesting is how much they are all the same—including Walt Whitman’s. Of course, every fitness book has its own peculiarities—more or less focus on functional fitness, flexibility, muscle size, body fat, strength, quickness, power, control, aerobic capacity, aesthetics, etc. But the levers available to affect these things don’t really change: sleep, diet, resistance exercise, endurance training, and stretching just about cover the gamut. Aside from the details of the diet, it’s primarily a matter of selection, focus, and combining of exercises.
Walt Whitman’s fitness manual offers a nice little selection of exercises, none of which would seem out-of-place in any modern fitness book:
Rowing: “a noble and manly exercise; it developes the whole of the body.”
Toe-touches: “The ordinary exercise of bending forward and touching the toes with the tips of the fingers, keeping the knees straight meanwhile, is a very good one, and may be kept on with, in moderation at a time, for years and years.”
Lunges: “The simple exercise of standing on one foot and lowering so as to touch the bent knee of the other leg to the ground, and then rising again on the first foot, is also a good one.”
Dancing: “The art of the dancing-master may also be called in play, for the development of the legs, and their graceful and supple movement.”
Swimming: “being relieved of all the clothes, and supported in the water, allows of bringing nearly all the muscles of the body into easy and pleasant action.”
Walking: “A pretty long walk may also be taken, commencing at an ordinary pace, and increasing the rapidity of the step till it takes the power of locomotion pretty well, and then keeping it up at that gait, as it can be well endured—not to the extent of fatigue, however.”
Walt Whitman wants his readers to be exemplars of manly beauty. In fact, based on how he talks about it, you have to assume that increasing the amount of manly beauty around is really the most important thing he hopes to achieve with his book—but that’s a fair thing to do, because:
As regards human beings, in an important sense, Beauty is simply health and a sound physique. We can hardly conceive of a man, at any age of life, who is in perfect health, and keeps his person clean and neatly attired, who has not some claims to this much-prized attribute.
Related to this, he is clearly keen to normalize men caring about aesthetics:
Nor is there anything to be ashamed of in the ambition of a man to have a handsome physique, a fine body, clear complexion, nimble movements, and be full of manly vigor. Ashamed of! Why, we think it ought to be one of the first lessons taught to the boy, when he begins to be taught at all. It is of quite as much importance as any grammar, geography, or arithmetic— indeed, we should say it was of unrivalled importance.
Of course, some things are desirable for more than just their aesthetic benefits:
The beard is a great sanitary protection to the throat—for purposes of health it should always be worn, just as much as the hair of the head should be. Think what would be the result if the hair of the head should be carefully scraped off three or four times a week with the razor! Of course, the additional aches, neuralgias, colds, &c., would be immense. Well, it is just as bad with removing the natural protection of the neck; for nature indicates the necessity of that covering there, for full and sufficient reasons.
An aside, because it touches on both dancing and aesthetics: A few years ago I read a fitness book titled something like How to Have a Dancer’s Body, which I read hoping to get some suggestions for improving strength and flexibility, only to be sadly disappointed. Its advice in those areas, after a brief treatment of stretching and posture, was that the student should find a good dance class and workout under a teacher. (Most of the book seemed to be about normalizing having an eating disorder—which, admittedly, is probably essential if you want to have the body of a prima ballerina.)
Dance’s attractiveness comes, I think, from the way it both provides actual (often astonishing) physical capability along with an aesthetic that I and many other people find attractive. Walt agreed on both counts, although seemed to take issue with the dance fashions of the times:
As originally intended, dancing was meant to give harmonious movements to the whole body, from the legs, by keeping time to music. In that sense, it was a beautiful art, and one of the noblest of gymnastic exercises. Modern arrangements have made it something quite different.
We would be glad to see some manly genius arise among the dancing teachers, who, out of such hints as we have hastily written, would assist the objects of the trainer and gymnast.
As I said, all fitness books are pretty much the same, so I am not really surprised to find things here that read exactly like something I might find in some entirely modern source of fitness advice.
Probably, in civilized life, half the men have more or less deformed feet, from the tight and wretchedly made boots generally worn.
In one of the feet there are thirty-six bones, and the same number of joints, continually playing in locomotion, and needing always a free and loose action. Yet they are always squeezed into boots not modeled from them, nor allowing the play and ease they require. For the modern boot is formed on a dandified idea of beauty, as it is understood at Paris and London, and not as it is exemplified by nature.
If you want to see the feet in their natural and beautiful proportions, you must get a view of the casts of the remains of ancient sculpture, representing the human form, doubtless from the best specimens afforded by the public games and training exercises of the Greek and Roman arenas. They exhibit what the foot is when allowed to grow up, with its free, uncramped, undeformed action. There have been no artificial coverings or compressions; and we know that the gait therefrom must have been firm and elastic. We can understand how the Macedonian phalanx, or the Roman legion, performed its long day’s march. We can see the ten thousand Greeks pursuing their daily wearying course through the destroying climate of Asia, marching firmly, manfully, across the arid sand, the mountain pass, or the flinty plain. It is a truthful lesson we may learn, not for the soldier only, but for the civilian.
Probably there is no way to have good and easy boots or shoes, except to have lasts modeled exactly to the shape of the feet. This is well worth doing. Hundreds of times the cost of it are yearly spent in idle gratifications—while this, rightly looked upon, is indispensable to comfort and health.
Simlarly, his principle workout plan sounds exactly like a MovNat combo:
In truth, however, a man who is disposed to attend to the matter of strengthening and developing his muscular power, will be continually finding some means to further that object, and will do so in the simplest manner, as well as any. To toss a stone in the air from one hand and catch it in the other as you walk along, for half an hour or an hour at a stretch—to push and roll over, a similar length of time, some small rock with the foot, thus developing the strength of the knees and the ankles and muscles of the calf—to throw forward the arms, with vigorous motion, and then extend them or lift them upward—to pummel some imaginary foe, with stroke after stroke from the doubled fists, given with a will—to place the body in position occasionally, for a moment, with all the sinews of the arms and legs strained to their utmost tension—to take very long strides rapidly forward, and then, more slowly and carefully, backward—to clap the palms of the hands on the hips and simply jump straight up, two or three minutes at a time—to stand on a hill or shore and throw stones, sometimes horizontally, sometimes perpendicularly— to spring over a fence, and then back again, and then again and again—to climb trees in the woods, or gripe the low branches with your hands and swing backward and forward—to run, or rapidly walk, or skip or leap along—these, and dozens more of simple contrivances, are at hand for every one—all good, all conducive to manly health, dexterity, and development, and, for many, preferable to the organized gymnasium, because they are not restricted to place or time. Nor let the reader be afraid of these because they are simple, but form the daily habit of some of them, without making himself uneasy “how it will look” to outsiders, or what they will say.
The book especially addresses people who are in school, telling them to be “also a student of the body,” but wants to be sure that the reader knows that not only students are the intended audience:
To you, clerk, literary man, sedentary person, man of fortune, idler, the same advice. Up! The world (perhaps you now look upon it with pallid and disgusted eyes) is full of zest and beauty for you, if you approach it in the right spirit! Out in the morning! Give our advice a thorough trial—not for a few days or weeks, but for months. Early rising, early to bed, exercise, plain food, thorough and persevering continuance in gently-commenced training, the cultivation with resolute will of a cheerful temper, the society of friends and a certain number of hours spent every day in regular employment.
I am pleased to find myself so particularly represented! I’m really not a clerk, but I will claim to be a literary man, and will own up to being also a sedentary person, an idler, and arguably even a man of fortune.
There are many reasons to read a good fitness book, but very few reasons to read another after that. Walt Whitman’s fitness book isn’t really an exception. Still, if you are, like me, a connoisseur of fitness books, it’s worth including this one—for his unique prose style, for his place in American literary history, and for his perspective on manly beauty.
I’ve been lifting weights regularly for at least 25 years–shortly after we got married I convinced Jackie to start lifting with me, and we lifted together all those years until we moved and let our membership in the fitness center in our old neighborhood lapse.
Any time during that period, if you’d asked me what my goals were, I’m sure I’d have told you that functional strength was what I was going for. I’d have just called it strength, but functional strength is what I’d have meant: The ability to do things that took muscle power—to pick up heavy things, carry heavy things, climb stairs with heavy things, etc.
The actual exercises I did, mostly with machines, were poorly selected for developing that strength, but that’s just because I didn’t know better, not because I was secretly going for something else.
As a secondary goal I’d have told you I was interested in the general health benefits of being strong—stronger bones, more metabolic activity, etc. Once I learned about lower insulin resistance I’d have included that.
One thing I was never interested in was hypertrophy. That is, I was only interested in bigger muscles to the extent that they’d be stronger and provide the associated metabolic advantages. If I could have gotten that with small muscles, I’d have been totally fine with that. In the privacy of my own brain, I was even a little disdainful of people who lifted for the aesthetics of having bigger muscles.
I did know that stronger muscles and bigger muscles pretty much go together. Competitors in sports that involved moving your own body—and especially sports that involve moving your body up a hill or mountain—have always sought ways to make their muscles stronger without making them (much) bigger. It’s possible—just barely, at the margins, to a limited extent—but by and large getting stronger means getting bigger.
I mention all this because I’ve taken an interest in hypertrophy, for a very specific reason: At my last physical, my doctor suggested that I should quit losing weight.
I’m not quite sure why—I’m just about at the mid-range for “healthy weight” (based on BMI, which has its flaws, but which probably provides pretty good guidance in my case) and well above underweight. Maybe he was just concerned in case I wasn’t in control of my weight loss. Maybe he was worried that I might be losing muscle as well as fat. I’ll ask him at my next physical.
At any rate, that left me with a minor dilemma. My weight, at the midpoint of the healthy range, is just where I want it. (Even before my doctor mentioned it, I had already decided to quit losing weight, when I realized that if I lost much more weight I’d no longer be size “medium” and would start being size “small,” and I didn’t want to be small.)
However, I still have more subcutaneous fat than I’d like. To lose that fat without losing weight, really my only option is to build more muscle.
So, for about a year now I’ve been working on that, with pretty limited success. Hypertrophy is hard. It’s also harder to measure than weight, which makes it hard to know if I’m having any success or not. In fact, I haven’t even tried to measure my muscle hypertrophy. (Measuring my chest and biceps and such puts me a little too squarely in the group that I mentioned being privately disdainful of, although I probably ought to get over it.)
In any case, so far I’m sticking with just measuring strength and figuring that hypertrophy will follow.
And let me reiterate just how weird it feels to have even this much of a focus on hypertrophy.