Snake Oil: Enough Already

Andrew Charniga

www.sportivnypress.com

Pandemics can bring with them shortages of consumer goods such as toilet paper,  hand sanitizer, protective masks, ventilators and the like; but, in America, hucksters, charlatans and skilled purveyors of snake oil will always be in abundance. This truism is readily apparent; just find all manner of products for sale in the health care market; especially fitness products, exercise machines, devices and conditioning techniques.

Considerable attention has been devoted to debunking some strength and conditioning fallacies in the Misinformation Engineering series of essays. Another seven part series was devoted to analyzing the rise to international prominence and subsequent demise in the international weightlifting arena, of the American national team of the late 1940s late into the 1950s. This series debunked fallacies the Soviet Union pulled ahead of the USA as did other East European countries by the late 1950s because of their purported first use of performance enhancing drugs.

This myth still persists. Forget the fact that American chemists were the first to produce these substances already in the 1930s along with Germany; by 1945 the pre – war weightlifting powers were on their knees; the USA had a huge advantage in money, food, untouched infrastructure, a massive thriving economy and so forth. The critical factor allowing the Europeans to brush the USA aside from international prominence was the development and cultivation of a training system centered around the biomechanics weightlifting  technique.

Today’s training systems  can encompass an amalgamation of university ‘safe unsafe’ exercise techniques burdened with training proscriptions; certified professional coaches; ex – athletes and an expansive assortment of commercial enterprises; the purveyors of which range from self proclaimed gurus to a wide assortment of machine or otherwise exercise equipment manufacturers. 

The following critques of various journal articles which can appear on the newsstand are prime examples of snake oil in the guise of exercise science. A number of features common  to such journals portend their questionable content.

/ an advisory panel consisting almost exclusively of PhDs, M.D.s or otherwise those holding some certification credentials, i.e., the high ground of the highly educated;

/ claims to be the ‘future of sports’ or the ‘future of fitness’;

/ feature non – standard exercise techniques and/or movements as the latest innovations;

/ claims or simply misstatements without basis in practice: voodoo biomechanics;

/ use of professional athletes as marketing tool to affirm the legitimacy of  training methods.

Consider a few of the articles in one such journal: Men’s Health (03/2021)

(1) Heffernan, A., “The path of most resistance”, Men’s health,03:15 – 17: 2021

The basic ideas presented in “The path of most resistance” is the guru featured in the article has invented something called ‘eccentric isometrics’. This is of course false. Lowering a weight slowly; pausing before returning is neither new, novel; nor any more effective for strength training than standard eccentric, isometric or other prolonged tension exercises. 

Furthermore, it is not a good idea to practice exercises pausing and holding a position at the half way mark. Anyone preparing athletes to step onto a court or athletic field to practice dynamic sports; which this ‘guru’ purports to do; should avoid these types of exercises.

Slow movements, especially with pausing are inconsistent with dynamic muscle activity in sports such as football and basketball. Sooner or later an athlete will slip and fall, get tackled or otherwise knocked down; or, bend the lower extremities very quickly on a court or athletic field, i.e., have to dissipate the mechanical energy of falling. Preparation with slow – grind – stop movements are antithetical to athlete safety in dynamic sport (see “Why Safe is Unsafe”, “Dropping like Flies at a Barbecue”, Charniga, www.sportivnypress.)  

Another of the ideas presented is the guru’s philosophy to train at joint angles of 90°; because: “When you look at muscle physiology 90° is optimal .. that’s where the muscle produces the most force”. Muscles can function at the optimum mechanics when the joint angle reaches 90° because they have to: the force arm of gravity is longest. This the most difficult part in the movement range to navigate (see figure 1). That is why we call it the ‘sticking point’. And, most importantly 90° is the joint angle which places the places the most strain on joints. So, the ‘guru’s’ whole premise for focusing on this joint angle to avoid joint pain is utter fantasy.

It is of course an irony of ironies that the enlightened ‘guru’, featured in the article, ‘peeks’ from behind a series of higher education initials. He chooses to train at 90 because he suffered through joint inflammation from standard exercise range of motion exercises. Yet, slow – with – stopping – at – 90° joint angles places the most strain on joints.

Figure 1. Super elite female weightlifter; strong beyond the imagination of  the average gym rat from doing complex exercises though large amplitudes of motion; struggles though the ‘sticking point’ of the recovery from the deep squat as her knee angle approaches 90°. Charniga photo

A simple rule of thumb in this regard: the closer a link (the thigh in figure 1) to the horizontal the larger the moment on the joints. That is why weightlifters who get carried away with power clean and power snatch; where the knees flex to about 85 – 105º, stop and return to the start, suffer knee pain from the strain of stopping the weight at such a long resistance arm of gravity (see Charniga, “Bats, Traps and Calves”, www.sportivnypress.com)

Careful: Not to Slide on the Oil

The author goes on to state: “Seedman  remains undeterred. “I have yet to see a sound scientific rational against the methods I pose”. The fact of the matter is there is no “sound scientific rational for the methods he poses. His methods are made up exercise for sale.

However, un- deterred the author and guru double down with “five (exercises) you should integrate into your training”:

/ “Eccentric – Isometric – Romanian – deadlifts”. First of all, there is no such thing as a ‘Romanian deadlift’; hence, no need to invent an “eccentric isometric” one. The half bend forward ‘deadlift’ depicted in the article is not a deadlift at all; just a half bend forward holding dumbbells; with little intrinsic value. It is certainly not as effective an exercise as a regular deadlift from the floor or various straight leg versions.

/ “Eccentric Isometric Bird-Dog Row”

The prize for the silliest, made – up – exercise of this magazine issue is the “eccentric isometric bird -dog row. The exerciser kneels on a bench, perpendicular to its axis. With the opposite leg extended straight backwards he is depicted performing single arm dumbbell rows holding this position for 10 seconds at the start; lift quickly hold 2 – seconds and lower, etc.

Is it waste of time to point out the obvious?

Yes, but, so is this nonsense to begin with. It is common knowledge that strength developed from exercising in different postures does not transfer fully to other body positions for the same muscles. For instance, strength gains from exercising the legs seated does transfer effectively to the same muscles standing.

However, someone exercising in the disposition of a dog taking aim at a fire hydrant; with rear leg in the air; preparing to hose down unsuspecting hydrants, doggie style; is pure unadulterated snake oil. 

More ‘educated’ advice from this article intones “Descending slowly is something we should do more” says MH fitness director Ebenezer Samuel C.S.C.S. Once again learning to descend slowly is good for descending slowly. Falling, getting tackled, stumbling on field or court is not slow and requires the falling athlete to bend quickly in order to dissipate or otherwise redistribute the mechanical energy of the fall so as to minimize the possibility of injury. Training to “descend slow”  prepares one for slow descents. How many guys do you see get tackled slowly in football?  

The author even mentions “wall squats” as one of the exercises along the same lines the guru recommends. Check these articles for reference of the hazards of proscribing wall squats for athletes in dynamic sports: “Why Safe is Unsafe”, “Dropping like Flies at a Barbecue”, Charniga, www.sportivnypress.)  

Snake oil rating awarded this article (on a scale of 1 – 5 with 5 yielding a maximum slip-slide distance): 4.5

Consider another of the articles in: Men’s Health (03/2021):

Fabritz, P., C.S.C.S., “The new science of squatting”

This article is only about 2/3 of one page in length; astonishing to say the least, how so much ignorance has been crammed into so little space. First of all, there is no old science of squatting; consequently, the title “The new science of squatting” is an oxymoron.

For instance,

“..quarter squats are better for explosive speed”.

Trying to mimic the alignment of shin, thigh and trunk in vertical jumping is not new; nor in any way validated by a “data driven approach” as is implied. The difference between the jump position and the quarter squat position on the right in figure 1 is significant: the presence of the barbell on the shoulders; which, in its turn, subjects the lumbar spine to significantly more strain than jumping without weight due to the the position of the weight relative to the forward lean (almost 45°) of the trunk. 

For instance, compounding the ignorance:the lower you squat the more your spine becomes the limiting factor”. This is false. People who write initials after their name should understand (but they don’t) squatting low with the trunk closer to a vertical disposition places less strain on the lumbar spine; not more. In point of fact the strain on the lumbar spine is greater with the quarter squat as depicted on the right because the trunk is leaning so far  forward.

The limiting factor of the trunk is also does not follow; because the the trunk (spine) becomes the limiting factor the further it is leaning forward. Consequently, the author’s squatting alignment of trunk, thigh and shin makes the trunk a greater “limiting factor” than the alignment of figure 2 because the author’s trunk is taking a disproportionate loading whereas the weightlifter in figure 2 has concentrated the bulk of the loading on the legs.

Compare the disposition of the trunk in the figure 1 with that of female weightlifter in figure 2. The female lifter’s trunk is closer to vertical in figure 2; as the weightlifter is sitting in a deep squat. There is a smaller moment on the spine because the lifter’s trunk is closer to vertical; the forces on the spine are closer in line with the curvature of the spine. That is to say the natural curvature of the human spine is designed to mitigate the vertical loading of walking, running and so forth.

Invariably, as if following well worn script, the ‘guru’ claims to train many top hoops players;  with the implication his training has only a positive effect. Nowhere to be found in these testimonials does the data driven ‘guru’ accept any culpability for on the court (or field) injuries resulting from his exercise selection, techniques and training. These injuries are non – contact; commonly caused by training the body in the irrational manner relative to the demands of dynamic sport.

Figure 1. ‘Correct squatting technique as depicted in the article. The idea is to mimic the shin, thigh, trunk alignment relative to the horizontal of jumping with the same disposition of those links with the figure on the right.

Figure 2. Super elite North Korean female weightlifter (58 kg body-weight) performing back squats. Sitting in a low squat position, her back is relatively vertical which places considerably less strain on the inter – vertebral discs: the spine has curves to distribute vertical forces experienced in bipedal locomotion; a sort of a ladder – like design to support weight vertically. Charniga photo.

So is there culpability for injury? For example: …Fabriz, who trains many top hoops players, including James Harden, is a bit of a heretic”.

James Harden (one of the NBA players the guru claims to train) experienced what the Brooklyn Nets are calling a “setback” in his hamstring rehabilitation and is now out indefinitely. “Back to square one,” Nets coach Steve Nash said Tuesday. “We’ll rehabilitate him and get him back whenever we can, and and who knows when that will be.”

More misinformation:

the lower you squat the more your spine becomes the limiting factor”. Says Fabriz, You’re no longer working on your legs”. How dumb is this! Then the basketball players who 1/4 squat must have the big leg muscles; whereas, the deep squatting weightlifter the skinny legs; because they do deep squatting.

Another lie: “Deep squats are often riskier, leaving you limping out of the gym feeling beat down- without being any better at your favorite sport.” Deep squats effectively load the legs including ankle muscles throughout a full amplitude of motion – a loading which cannot be replicated with partial movements. Strength training is angle specific with gains in strength and muscle mass confined to the joint angles where the loading takes place. That is common knowledge, that is unless you are hawking snake oil.  

Figure 3: Super elite female weightlifter (North Korean) with ankle muscles actively raising barbell even though feet are flat on floor (on left) and close up of her calf muscle development relative to the muscles of the lower thigh are proof other muscles are involved in squatting, i.e., indicative of the human body’s redundancy. Charniga photos. 

False: “The higher part of your quads is critical for jumping, says Fabriz.” all the muscles of the legs are important; the ankle muscles and tendons (Achilles) most of all.

False: “You also want to jump fast, so you should train strength and speed with minimal knee bend.” Basketball players by the very nature of the activity tend to overload the jumping knee angles (1/4 squatting depth) so if anything full range of motion squatting would be almost a rest from overuse at the jumping angles of legs; better to prepare the athletes in the weight room  for rapid bending (especially falling) to half squat and below in order to dissipate and redistribute mechanical energy for safety.  

Snake oil rating 4.8

Refrences

/ (1) Heffernan, A., “The path of most resistance”, Men’s health,03:15 – 17: 2021

/ (2) Fabritz, P., C.S.C.S., “The new science of squatting”, Men’s health,03:89: 2021

/ (3) https://www.espn.com/nba/story/_/id/31298001/brooklyn-nets-guard-james-harden-suffers-setback-hamstring-rehab-indefinitely

/ Charniga, A., “Misinformation Engineering” series of essays at www.sportivnypress.com