In high school, I lifted weights at a meat locker of a gym in the X: the run-down, tattoo-parlor-and-dollar-movie section of Springfield, Massachusetts. The gym, Big Daddy's, had recently produced 1983's Mr. Universe, Jeff King. Just about every thumb breaker in the greater Springfield area chalked up and grunted at the place.
Big Daddy's was my introduction to strength training. In theory, I was there to get stronger for sports, but recreational power lifting became a sport in itself. I favored bench press above all. Then seated military presses, seated leg presses, and seated preacher curls. By my freshman year of college, I could bench 310 poundstwice my body weightand military-press 225 pounds behind my head a couple dozen times.
What I didn't know then was that my favorite machines and free-weight lifts were destroying me. Those contraptions and benches are designed to isolate and supersize muscles. But isolation is the enemy. Every sport we do as outdoor athletes demands that the full body participate. You don't biceps-curl your way up an ice climb or bench-press your way down a river.
"When we first start to move as babies, we learn to coordinate everything together in basic movement patterns," says Lee Burton, director of athletic training at Averett University and a pioneer of the mobility-before-strength movement. "But isolating moves like leg presses and knee extensions don't communicate enough with the rest of the body. This creates asymmetries that set you up for injury, and that disrupts the entire body."
Here's what all that anti-mobile lifting got me: During a frigid mogul-skiing contest in New Hampshire, my left humerus squirmed from its cozy socket on a misplaced pole plant. I credit the shoulder injury to the military presses, which, with their extreme range of motion, stretch and degrade the ligaments that are intended to hold your shoulder in place. Shortly thereafter, I herniated a disk in my lower back, a condition that had me nearly crippled for most of my twenties. Thank you, bench press, which makes your lower back weak relative to your chest, arms, and shoulders. Much later I would blow an ACL skiing powder in Canada. Didn't even fall. My quads simply overpowered my hamstrings in a turn and pop! Blame the seated leg press.
The worst part? All those exercises failed to make me stronger in a useful way. Michol Dalcourt, a longtime professional hockey trainer in Canada, witnessed this dynamic firsthand when he compared the performance of seasoned pros, placed on machine-dependent workouts, with rookie skaters just off the farm. "Ask a farm kid what they do and it's 'Chores,' " says Dalcourt. "Moving stuff. Shoveling. The body is stronger as a whole than the sum of its parts. They never set foot in the gym, but they were stronger."
A 2008 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research validates that anecdotal evidence. In the study, one group of participants worked out for 16 weeks on machines with fixed ranges of motion, while the other group used free-form weighted cables. The result? The fixed-machine group increased strength by 57 percent, while the free-form group increased by 115 percent. But even more telling, the free-form group's balance improved a staggering 245 percent, compared with 49 percent for the fixed group.
Which brings us to the state of the art in strength training. Mobile strength means training the body to produce power in an endless range of real-world movements to build supple and flexible muscles in sync with the kinetic chain (i.e., your entire body). It's the natural evolution of the functional-strength movement, and some refer to it as "usable" strength training. Whether you brand it farm-boy strength or mobile strength, it's based on the notion that the only strength that matters is the strength you use. Because you can't pump iron at Big Daddy's forever.