I have been giving a lot of thought lately to the idea of internal vs external performance. We live in a fitness world dominated by the idea of the external accomplishment of “strength feats” or endurance challenges. Push up competitions, how much you can bench press, how fast is your 5k run? While very motivating and entertaining, it really has very little to do with health and properly conducted exercise.
Let me give you an example. Let us say we have two men who are bench pressing. One has a large, barrel shaped torso and short arms and the other has a thinner torso and long arms. Now this may be a little obvious but let me explain in plain English why the first one will lift more weight than the other. Firstly the guy with the bigger torso and shorter arms has a shorter distance to press the weight. Shorter distance mean less overall work that is required of the muscles involved. Second, the increased mass of the torso increases the angle of pull of the pectoral muscles relative to the upper arm bone, which improves the leverage. Improved leverage means increased potential for weight lifted. Now, looking at this scenario it is easy to assume that the first guy is going to get a larger training effect from the exercise as he can lift more weight. However in actuality, if both guys are lifting the same load, and both are touching the bar to his chest, then the second guy is performing a great deal more muscular work. The second guy is getting a more intense training effect. He “looks” weaker, but when its comes to muscular force output is probably as strong if not stronger.
The whole point is that competitive sport should not be confused with healthy exercise. Sports have externally quantified parameters that contestants must meet if they are to compete. These parameters are the same whether you have long arms, short torso, etc. You can see that to reach the highest levels in any sport there is a heavy genetic component involved. Sports also sacrifice form and technique for the attainment of higher levels of performance. Athletes may have pain and disability and push themselves in the name of their sport. While admirable, this has little to do with physical health.
Take another example of endurance running. While almost everyone can do some endurance running, only the few are blessed with superior running genetics. You know what I’m talking about, the long, lanky, stiff as a board types who could get out of bed and run a marathon tomorrow. If you took a slice of their quadriceps muscle and put it under a microscope you would see an abundance of Type 1 (slow-twitch) muscle fibers. These guys can run and run for hours. Sure you can take another body-type and force them into this activity but the ultimate result is pain, injury, and hard won performance increases.
I would like to point out at this stage that I am not anti-sports. Far from it! I think sports are some of the most worthwhile things a person can do and especially for children and adolescents. However, to truly excel one must find their sport. The one they were built for, both structurally and physiologically. If you are an adult who does not get paid to play a sport, I would invite you to consider that playing sports aggressively may be undermining your health and that there is a better way.
To build a solid base of health, use individually-defined exercise as your primary form of physical development. This means that for yourself, you do not simply follow a cookie-cutter way of doing a squat to train your legs. Evaluate your leg and hip anatomy, and work to design and select the perfect exercises for you! The one’s that maximally work the target muscles and energy systems while minimizing the damage to permanent structures of the body, like spinal discs and joint cartilage. Forget all the competition BS and simply compete against yourself to build a strong physique.
Build this base, then have fun with whatever sports or recreation activities you want. Or just look good naked.. Whatever floats your boat!