For professional triathlete Mike Pigg, 1994 was one of his most successful race seasons. In fact, it was also one of the greatest single seasons of any multisport athlete. Mike won most of his international races and finished high up in most of the rest. Not bad since he was nearing the end of his long career. And, that year’s training schedule was without weight lifting or other anaerobic work. As November approached Mike and I discussed the upcoming “off” season—the rest period following the last race until the onset of winter aerobic training. My idea of successful down time was to mentally and physically help round out a healthy and fit body while recovering from a high stress competitive season. In addition, it should prepare an athlete for the next cycle of endurance training. My recommendation to Mike, after a few days of doing little or no training, was to chop wood. This also involved lifting and dragging logs, along with other outdoor physical labor—catching up on outdoor chores around the house. It was quite a different routine than running, biking and swimming.
What Mike and many other athletes I trained were doing was basically what our Paleolithic ancestors did—they worked for a living. This included lifting and carrying heavy rocks and logs, and similar activities that induce the body’s muscles and bones to get stronger. But there’s a catch.
Like our Paleolithic ancestors—who lived between about 2.5 million years ago and 10 thousand years ago—this approach to developing muscle and bone strength is accomplished naturally without bulking up and contributes significantly to overall health and fitness. However, modern people who add high levels of muscle bulk (called hypertrophy) to their frame through weight lifting are often unable to accommodate for the added body weight with concomitant gains in strength—the large muscle mass makes them appear very strong, but that’s not necessarily true. Bodybuilding—an extreme approach to building bulk to show off a muscular body—does not promote fitness or health.
By following the Paleo Principle, mimicking what our ancestors did, we can improve full-body strength of bones and muscles, and be healthy and fit as a result.
Growing up, I was always lean. With puberty my physical abilities blossomed and by the middle of high school I was involved in various sports. Some of my friends and teammates had built-up bodies from lifting weights. But I didn’t, and was stronger than most of them despite my long lean muscles. One of my friends, who never exercised at all, was significantly stronger than all of us, and probably any two of us combined. He was as lean as me.
Strength is not always associated with muscle size. It’s our brain and nervous system that dictates power. Muscle contraction involves the brain stimulating nerves that innervate individual muscle fibers to contract. The more fibers stimulated and contracted, the more strength. Just having a large mass of muscle does not assure more fibers will be stimulated to generate power. That’s why a skinny kid who can contract a lot of muscle fibers can be stronger than a big bulky athlete who can’t contract large numbers of fibers.
A muscle that’s fatigued won’t contract as many fibers either. So it’s important to avoid workouts that are performed to more than mild fatigue. The catch is to avoid what is often encouraged in the gym—rather than lift until you’re fatigued, it’s often done to exhaustion, stop before it happens—likewise for chopping wood. This will still give you strength gains and bone health, but safely, without the risk of ill health and injury.
I maintained my muscle function ever since my high school and college days with the same workout strategy that I recommended to Mike during his offseason. I lifted logs, chopped wood, dragged large rocks, and performed other physical work both indoors and outside. Along the way, I trained for running races, completed triathlons, and performed many endurance activities, and most importantly, built my health.
While living in the northeast, a wood-burning stove was not only a great source of heat, but a wonderful ambiance on winter days. Making a rock patio with large flat bluestone sometimes dragged for a hundred yards through the woods was a rewarding project. Today, I’m living in Arizona. This week I’m gathering some large stones to help protect chickens from tunneling predators, and create raised beds in the vegetable garden. Other projects entail lifting building materials overhead. Long ago I learned one important lesson—to be most efficient with this form of muscle exercise, reduce the risk of injury and accident, and be able to maintain a constant routine, I could not let the work cause significant fatigue. This would help assure continued contraction of high numbers of fibers, maintaining and even building strength. It’s that simple.
Like Paleolithic people before us, some folks today do these kinds of activities for a living. Masons, homebuilders, and many others are very physically active lifting, dragging, moving, and carrying heavy objects. The local stonemason, who has a busy hands-on business, is tall and lean, and quite strong. Most others doing this kind of work don’t have big bulky muscles seen in bodybuilders who workout in gyms—and in most cases the natural workers are stronger than those putting on muscle mass from regular weight workouts.
In the 1800s, long before weight lifting and bodybuilding became popular, “strongman” exhibitions involved men performing great feats of strength. Some were circus performers. By the 1900s, these individuals were involved in more organized competitions that included picking large rocks off the ground, lifting logs overhead, and carrying heavy loads some distance. While competitive strength activities are recorded from ancient Greece, Egypt and China, it became a regular Olympic sport in 1920. (It would not be until the 2000 Olympics when women joined this competition.)
Starting in 1960, every four years audiences viewed Olympic weight lifting competition—these images turned into the notion that the big bulky bodies in these athletes were associated with health. Unfortunately, the idea has backfired. But it triggered the bulky weight lifting industry.
By the early 1970s, Arthur Jones developed a weightlifting machine that used a spiral mechanism wrapped by a chain connected to weights. This enabled users to more easily control the weight of their workouts. Jones patented the idea, and the Nautilus company was formed, triggering an explosion of average Joe and Jane weightlifting followers.
Most of the athletes I saw in my clinic beginning in 1977 were also lifting weights, and attempting to build fitness and health. Instead, they sought my services due to frequent injuries, ill health and diminishing performance. Despite having larger muscles, many still had muscle imbalances that caused joint, ligament, tendon and bone problems. Their weight lifting was almost always done to the point where the muscles fatigued, which directly contributed to many of these problems. Fatigue also increases the need and time to recover, which most people don’t have and won’t create. Fatigue also can contribute to poor posture and gait, which further increases the risk for physical injury.
Also in the 1970s, the growth of endurance sports was booming. Marathoners, cyclists, triathletes and others were encouraged to lift weights to complement their sport. Unfortunately, this too often backfired, resulting in injury, overtraining and reductions in the very features they needed most—endurance. That’s because improperly performing the many types of weight lifting can impair aerobic performance.
The lesson of our Paleolithic ancestors is one I’ve personally and professionally used throughout my life with great success. Natural strength activities, whether lifting and dragging heavy stones and logs, or other natural physical activities that required high levels of muscle activity, promoted fitness in an easy, safe and convenient way. The same is true today, and, it’s free.
One problem is that many people don’t live in locations suitable for dragging logs and lifting big rocks, or they have no need or desire to chop wood or build stonewalls. If you reside in a city, or choose not to get your hands dirty, you can still build your bones, muscles and improve strength. You don’t even need to go to a gym. The option is to lift weights at home in a way that mimics the Paleolithic Principle.
I often recommend that people perform strength exercise if they don’t accomplish these activities naturally. But it should be done with balance in mind. It must fit your lifestyle. You can’t just tack on an every-other-day weight lifting routine to your weekly program—even if you perform it properly. Most people don’t have room in their schedule without creating stress. It’s the stress hormones that potentially cause most problems, especially impairing aerobic function.
While over-lifting is common in fitness folks, the lack of muscle strength in those who are inactive is an epidemic. It can even occur in endurance athletes.
Too many people are deficient in muscle mass, especially in those in their middle and late thirties and beyond, when the body’s muscle content begins to decline. Sarcopenia is the condition of low muscle mass, and it is one of the most common causes of physical impairments later in life. But today, 20- and 30-year old marathon runners are often lacking adequate muscle mass, which can not only impair fitness, but health. In addition, those who are overfat typically have too little muscle.
Reduced muscle means lower levels of body movement, reductions in strength and less protection of bones, ligaments, joints and tendons. But muscles do more—they are also necessary for optimal blood and lymph circulation, immune function, fat burning and hormone production. It’s no surprise that low muscle strength is a significant predictor of mortality.
Contributing to the problem is that commonly used prescription and over-the-counter drugs, including Ibuprofen and other NSAIDs, can accelerate sarcopenia, as can a low protein diet.
Many individuals lift weights to seek a better body image, although often won’t admit it. They also believe that more muscle strength can improve endurance activities. This may be true when properly done, but more often that’s not the case. For too many people the increased anaerobic stress and overtraining leads to injury and poor endurance.
However, following the Paleo Principle can accomplish both overall improvement in health and fitness, including stronger muscles and bones, and increased endurance performance. This involves lifting heavy objects in the course of natural movement, and avoiding more than slight muscle fatigue during the process.
Genetics & Sex
The earliest humans, Homo sapiens, evolved with less muscle bulk when compared to the more muscular Neanderthals who eventually became extinct. More accurately, early humans absorbed Neanderthals into their species, with the best genes surviving. Today’s genes that determine our muscle and bone structure and function were “coded,” or developed during the Paleolithic period. So we’re very much the same regarding our muscle’s fitness needs. (Likewise, our dietary needs today are quite similar to Paleolithic humans thousands of years ago.)
While today’s genes dictate the requirement for regular fitness activities, those who either overwork or neglect their muscles develop ill health. In the case of neglect, the loss of muscle and bone is the primary cause of physical dysfunction in older individuals, although today many of these problems are increasingly found in younger people who have low muscle mass associated with high body fat. In the case of overworked muscles, overtraining in the athletic population is an epidemic.
The issue of muscles and genetics is often a topic of confusion. While our muscle makeup has a significant genetic relationship, we control much of what the genes dictate through behavioral and environmental factors. This includes choosing to be physically active—whether moving rocks and chopping wood, or carefully performing weight lifting workouts—and aerobic fitness. Likewise, the diet also significantly affects muscles—eating more vegetables and fruits high in antioxidants, and high quality protein foods can help maintain muscle mass during aging. In addition, both muscle strength and mass is reduced in those with chronic inflammation—a common problem that can be remedied by balancing diet fats. Moreover, increases in body fat, even in those who are not obese, can trigger the loss of muscle mass. Simply put, expanding fat stores can increase inflammation and contribute to muscle atrophy.
When talking about genetics a key issue is “gene expression.” While a person’s genes dictate eye, hair and skin color, earlobes (attached or dangling), the ability to curl your tongue or not, and the shapes and size of fingers and toes, much about our gene’s instructions is how we influence them with our environment. An example is that a healthy environment can affect genetic expression of better bone density. This process is related to how well bones develop in childhood and the density obtained by early adulthood. Physical activity, sun exposure (vitamin D), nutrition (protein and calcium) and hormones are primary factors that help develop and maintain bone density and prevent the common problems of fractures and osteoporosis.
Another example is diet—depending on the quality of food, eating a single meal can turn on, or off, genes for cancer.
From a biological perspective, sex is obviously the reason our Paleolithic ancestors passed on the genes we have today. So it’s no surprise that muscle function is associated no only with physically protecting offspring from harm, but is directly influenced by sex hormones. These include the estrogens, and testosterone, in both men and women.
Sex hormones are reduced with aging, but much more so in those who are unhealthy and have lower levels of fitness. However, overtraining can also reduce sex hormones, as can poor diet and emotional stress.
In the second part of this article, I’ll discuss more about the issue of work fatigue, whether chopping wood or working out with weights, recovery factors, creating imbalances in muscles from improper workouts, and workouts to create strength without bulk or impairing aerobic function.