Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Discovering Creation in a Barbell

"Meditate, my brother, on the Creator's wisdom in structuring your body," Rabbi Bachya ben Yosef ibn Paquda advises in his classic book, Duties of the Heart. The Rambam likewise observes in his Epistle to Yemen:

"The inner parts of man are the true wonders that reveal the wisdom of the Creator: the nerves extending into the muscles which allow man to move his limbs at will; the attachment of ligaments, how they cling to bone, and the manner in which they grow; the connection of bones and joints; blood vessels that pulsate and those that do not and how they branch out; the placement of man's organs overlapping one another; how every part of the body has its proper composition form, and place."

The fundamental barbell exercises (squat, press, deadlift) are the weighted expression of this Divinely arranged physical structure. Consider the deadlift. On the surface, a deadlift is simply picking up a bar from the floor and standing up with it. (The "simply" part tends to disappear with a maximal weight.)

In fact, a deadlift contains an immense network of musculoskeletal coordination from the upper back down through the legs. Toward the end of my interview on the deadlift with Mark Rippetoe, Rip recounted how he discovered why the shoulder blades need to be aligned with the bar at the start of an efficient deadlift. I'll close this post with his reflections:

"Look at the anatomy of the traps and the rhomboids. Look at the position that the scapulas are in to receive the force transmitted up the spine. It’s right there in front of you. That is the structure that receives the force transmitted across those broad muscles isometrically and then down the arms to the bar...

The trapezius has the broadest muscle origin in the human body. It goes all the way from the base of the skull down to T12. It receives the force that the rigid spine transmits, the force generated by the muscles that open the knees and the hips. That force is then transmitted across the traps and the rhomboids to the scapulas. What hangs from the scapulas? The arms. And then if you’ll look at it, every single time you see somebody pulling a heavy bar off the floor—every single time—it’s the scapula that is plumb to the bar, not the arms. Why would that be? Because the scapula is the thing below which the bar hangs. The tensional force of the weight in the hands is transmitted between the scapulas and the grip by the muscles, ligaments, and tendons that anchor the bones in place isometrically. The traps and rhomboids transfer the force to the scapulas; the triceps, biceps, forearm muscles, grip muscles, and the ligaments and tendons form the chain from which the weight hangs; and the lats act on the humerus to keep the arms at the angle they have to be to place the load directly under the scapulas."