Do you have a favorite exercise method? Does it seem like the be-all and end-all, the solution to all your problems? If so, great – excitement about exercise is one of the keys to fitness success. So what could possibly be the problem with that? You’d be surprised.
On The “Road” Again
I had a friend who was a very enthusiastic and pretty disciplined exerciser. Her vibrant personality was infectious. Fitness was never far away from her awareness. When grocery shopping, she would avoid using a cart just so she could get some extra work for her biceps by carrying everything around in her arms. It’s a good thing she wasn’t buying for a huge family.
Her favorite exercise was the treadmill. She worked at the gym, so she put in time on it there. She also had a treadmill at home and used it a lot. She may not have found out what other people know, which is that a treadmill is mainly an object that holds dirty clothes, plants, loose papers, and dust.
One day, all excited, she told me that she was entering her first 10K race. I said, wow, great, have you been doing some practice runs, too? She said that she was really busy with school and work, but that she had increased her treadmill work – more time and more speed – and that she thought she was nearly ready. I suggested that she incorporate some roadwork. She said, yeah, I probably should.
That Fitness Injury Is Gonna Hurt
The next time I saw her was just after the race had been held. She said that the weather had been fine and she did pretty well, finishing the course successfully despite being pretty tired by the end. But now her legs were very sore. She admitted that she had ended up doing no road training, and that she would take my advice next time.
I had seen her running on that treadmill, and she really was going fast. You’ve probably seen people like that at your gym. A treadmill is very convenient – being indoors, it doesn’t care about the weather or car exhaust, it tells you your speed, it’s adjustable for speed and angle, etc. It’s easy to think that this prepares you for serious running. Not exactly, although it does prepare you for, well, running fast on a treadmill. The good news was that she was getting some quite decent cardio work, and she was looking great.
The bad news is that treadmills and other exercise devices try to emulate real-world activities, but not accurately. Think of the motion of running on a treadmill. In essence, what you are doing is letting the machine run, and moving your feet fast enough so that you can keep up with the machine. What you’re not doing is pushing your bodyweight forward as you do when you run outdoors. This means that muscles are working in a different pattern, so when she did the “real” race, her muscles were not fully prepared, and she was sore for days afterward. To paraphrase Groucho Marx, if you want to train for some event or activity, do that activity. At least some of the time. That’s more realistic, and you’ll be less likely to have injury or discomfort when you do your event.
Other Specificity Fails
- A Smith machine won’t prepare you to do real squats (a far superior exercise if done safely). They do let you handle more weight with worse form.
- Many slow laps around a track will not effectively prepare you for football. (Yes, I know many old-school coaches still enforce this, especially as punishment) Football is a game of hard, short sprints with rest in between, so it’s best to train that way most of the time.
- Another old-school example is swinging a baseball bat with a donut weight on it before stepping up to bat. This can actually interfere with hitting the ball, because you’re warming up with what amounts to a different bat, slightly confusing your nervous system. Baseball is extremely steeped in old traditions, so this one may last forever.
- Leg extension machines don’t really prepare you for much of anything in the real world, in my opinion. (I suppose they may be good providers of knee pain, or prepare you for kicking things under your desk) Why? They do nothing for your hamstrings, which are a crucial part of any leg training. You’re better off doing bodyweight squats, or maybe wind sprints.
- Using rubber tubing and bands can give quite a vigorous workout, but they don’t directly prepare you for weightlifting – when you lift a weight, the hardest part is the beginning of the rep where you’re bearing the most weight. With tubing, the end of the rep gives the most resistance, when the tubing is stretched tight. That’s a big difference, and you will need to adjust.
- Stair-steppers won’t get you ready for serious mountain climbing.
- Lat pulldowns will not effectively prepare you to do pullups, especially with the terrible form many people use.
- Having a cell phone doesn’t prepare you for remote hikes on dangerous trails and terrain. Duh. 🙂
Similarly, if you’re trying to exercise for a sport, using machines, devices, and weights may help, but you still need to actually play the sport. This is the general idea of specificity. No exercise machine will exactly correspond to a real-life application. But you can do better by picking exercises that are as similar as possible to moves in your sport.
Upside In The Downside
Does this mean that things like treadmills are bad? Not at all. They can give you a good basic cardio workout. You just can’t assume that they will prepare you for running races, mountain climbing, sprinting, soccer, football, and so on without also doing activities that are more specific to those sports.
There is another side benefit of exercises that are more general in nature rather than specific to a sport – they may work parts of your body that you rarely exercise in your regular sport. So don’t hesitate to do them if you enjoy them. And if you’re someone who is just training to be generally fit rather than trying to improve sports performance, specificity is not as critical.