Masters of the Sandlot
All recreational sport is really quite simple: You run. You jump. You throw. What's more, it's pretty easy to get good at these things.
You hear the grouchy lament all the time. Sports have gotten out of hand: Preening athletes. Criminal athletes. Fickle owners. It’s enough to make one long for those pre-Macedonian days, when sport consisted of coating yourself with olive oil and running naked through Olympia for the ultimate prize, a dried-up laurel wreath. Well, maybe not that far back, but one does wonder, just what is athleticism really all about? What are the basic movements that must be mastered in order to be a great athlete? Deferring to one ancient philosopher who said, “Look to the essence of a thing,” we’ve sought to answer these questions, with a comprehensive look at the crucial skills of summer, five athletic essentials you’ll employ while participating in this season’s decathlon of backyard sports.
To get you into recreational form, we’ve called on a few of the world’s finest athletes — like Olympic runner Suzy Hamilton — to hand-hold us through their particular movement specialties. Together these five building-block motions should provide you with the raw stuff to dominate (or at least get better) at almost any athletic pursuit you choose. This may not be enough to snag you a fat contract or buttery adulation, but no worries: The world has enough sports “heroes.” What our summer barbecues can never have enough of is kick-ass Ultimate Frisbee players.
Flying instructor Grant Hill helps clear the way for extended takeoffs
It was spontaneous combustion. Grant Hill, 14 and gangly, was playing pickup basketball on a patch of scrabbly asphalt in Reston, Virginia, his hometown. The seventh-grader caught the ball on the wing, drove in, issued a head fake to sweep the feet out from under his opponent, and then it was over. The tarnished steel net just hung there, clanking in the breeze, and the ball bounced unattended under the hoop. There was the six-foot-eight, 160-pound Hill, his cartoonishly outsize hands clutching the rim. He was cracking up with laughter.
“Everybody was cracking up,” Hill remembers. “That was my first time. To a bunch of kids, dunking was a sign of something big.”
Ten years later, Hill starts at forward for the Detroit Pistons. Though the comparison makes him uncomfortable — nay, combative — knowledgeable people consider the former Duke University history major and hoops All-American the eventual successor to Michael Jordan, in terms of both ability and likability; his Last-Nice-Guy-in-Sports persona has quickly become patented TV-commercial shtick. Hill’s game, like Jordan’s and Julius “Dr. J” Erving’s before him, is built on neither sheer Neanderthal brutishness nor outrageous Curly Neal-style freneticism. Rather, he does it all, as they say, employing agility and quickness to work the game’s many angles. He creates shots where there aren’t shots, he finds passage to the hoop through seven-foot-four swaying cottonwoods, and — perhaps most impressive to the aspiring backyard athlete — he flies.
Or so it seems. Humans, of course, don’t get Bernoulli-style lift from their wings — though not for lack of trying over the centuries. Nope, when you jump, you become a projectile, bound by the same laws of physics that control other projectiles, like asteroids, rockets, and even three-run homers. “Once you leave the ground,” says Jeff Broker of the U.S. Olympic Training Center, a biomechanist and one of the world’s foremost experts on the fundamental moves of sports, “the universe — not your brain or your muscles — is driving the bus.”
According to those laws, jumpers always carve a parabola with their path — a tall and skinny one, like the St. Louis Arch, for a Tomahawk Dunk, or a low and long one for a Jonathan Edwards-style world-champion triple jump. Which effect you achieve depends on your speed and angle at takeoff. Volleyball players tend to use a two-footed jump, while Hill and his ilk employ a one-footed style — you can do the latter on the run, and engaging the second leg doesn’t add much oomph anyway. Hill advises starting with plenty of foot speed, and he’s right; the body can actually transform some of your horizontal momentum into height. Next — and this is usually done automatically, without your having to think about it — the legs do a little jig. The body throws its weight over to the jumping leg, then shifts it back over to the “free” leg. This double-clutch, usually detectable to an observer, is rife with neuromuscular significance. Muscles, scientists have discovered, perform better if they’re loaded with weight and then unloaded just before a task. “It’s called a preload contraction,” says Broker. “And the effect is sort of like cocking a gun. You see it in all sports — the golf swing, the sprinter’s crouch, the tennis serve.” A deliberate elongation of the muscle precedes the contraction, pulling more motor units into play.
For final preparation, the arms and free leg swing forcefully both forward and upward. This windup is the body trying to jump-start its own center of gravity and send it hurtling toward the hoop. “The body has rather ingeniously figured out on its own that if one’s center is already moving upward, then the legs have to do less work,” says Broker.
Then the muscles of the butt, hips, legs, ankles, and feet fire in rapid order — like a pack of Black Cats let loose on the sidewalk — and the force of millions of neuromuscular explosions is ushered out through the feet and toes.
Hang time is a topic fiercely debated. Big-league jumpers seem to actually hover up there, effortlessly snagging that out-of-reach Frisbee. It doesn’t happen quite that easily, says retired Colonel Douglas Kirkpatrick, a professor of astronautics at the University of Colorado. Kirkpatrick’s specialty is satellites, but several years ago, at the half-serious urging of a sportswriter, he applied his knowledge about flying objects to the subject of Michael Jordan. Inserting takeoff velocity, maximum height, and time aloft into complicated equations, Kirkpatrick revealed that Jordan is indeed mortal. “And so is Grant Hill,” he says. “Their speed is much greater at takeoff than that of the average athlete, and what they do in the air — moving their arms low to high, say, or spreading their legs and pulling them together again — creates an illusion.” Simply put, they’re playing with their center of gravity so it appears their trajectory is changing — but it’s not. A high-jumper messes with gravity in this way, too. By arching her back and legs over the bar in the now-standard Fosbury Flop, the jumper shifts her center of gravity outside her body. Her center actually passes underneath the bar. Thus to the legs, it seems the bar is two or three inches lower. This may seem improbable, but it’s common for objects to have their center of gravity outside them; a boomerang, for instance, houses its center in the empty space between the two prongs. When Hill goes up for a towering, two-handed jam, he arcs his back like a boomerang, and his center momentarily shifts upward. It returns to his belly when he trips the spring-lock and releases forward, rattling the backboard, the rim, and the defender’s sense of well-being.
“I suppose I’m not really the kind of guy who names his dunks or celebrates while running back down the court,” says Hill, deploying his trademark understatedness even as he discusses his trademark understatedness. “But there’s something about dunking over an opponent — I mean, right over the top, so that you bend their arms backward into the rim — that feels really … how to put it? Intimidating. It feels very good.”
The surest ways to add spring to your step aren’t options for most people. Tall people naturally get higher than short people, but it’s tough to grow at will. Other unchangeable biomechanical factors like the length of your levers and the ratio of fast-twitch to slow-twitch muscle fibers (faster equals higher) are more a function of genetics than anything else. Nevertheless, here are some real-world ways to add inches to your takeoff.
Reduce your body fat. The leaner your body, the less your legs work to achieve liftoff. Also, studies show that training techniques such as weights and plyometrics work better if you’re already in decent shape.
Hit the road, Jack. Running long distances detracts from jumping because it changes the muscles’ elasticity. But according to some sports physiologists, moderate distances can keep the leg muscles, not to mention the postural muscles of the back, firing on all cylinders. It’s a debatable point, but Hill nonetheless runs two to five miles, three times a week.
Hop to it, part one. Jump training simulates real sport activity and cuts recovery time between leaps. Stand at a volleyball net or under a basketball hoop and jump as high as possible, ten times. Repeat. Do three sets of ten, four or five times a week.
Do some heavy lifting. Hill doesn’t train for jumping, but he does lift weights three times a week, which sports physiologists say is ideal for improving jumping ability. Squats and leg presses add overall leg strength and power, knee extensions focus on the quads, thigh curls work the hamstrings and glutes. Most important are calf raises, which can help to increase the force with which the ankle pushes off in the final phase of the jump.
Hop to it, part two. Sometimes called depth training, plyometrics is based on the theory that rapid stretching of a muscle just prior to its shortening results in a much stronger contraction. Stand atop a 16- to 20-inch-tall bench — no higher or you’ll injure the patellar tendon in your knee. Drop off the bench, and immediately upon landing on both feet, jump straight into the air. Do four sets of ten. Repeat this exercise three to four times a week. Studies show that 12 weeks of plyometric training can add as much three hey-look-at-me inches to your vertical.
A) Arms and legs pump together during the running approach. Ground velocity gained is converted to vertical velocity — a higher jump for this southpaw high jumper — upon takeoff.
B) Legs flex, preloading the quads and lowering the center of mass for a one-footed takeoff. Feet do a “double-clutch,” as weight is shifted quickly from free leg to jumping leg and back again.
C) The arms and free leg swing forward and up, raising mass toward target and loading muscles in the jumping leg. Hip, butt, leg, and ankle muscles fire, with toes giving final lift to target.
Wind up, kick, and release, advises cram-it-down-their-craw ace Greg Maddux. Oh, and relax, dude.
Baseball pitchers tend to be lunkers. Big guys with pterodactyl wingspans and country-boy musculature tailor-made for bringing small, inanimate spheroids to blistering life. The reason is simple physics. Long levers cut broad, sweeping swaths through space, which means more time to impart force before sending the ball homeward, adding deadeye aim, trickier English, and as they say in the business, lots of gas. This concept shouldn’t be lost on anybody who, as a child, ever flicked macaroni and cheese across the table at a sibling: A serving spoon launches better than a teaspoon. Thus it comes as a bit of a surprise that four-time Cy Young Award winner Greg Maddux, arguably the world’s best living thrower of any ilk, stands but six feet even and weighs just 180 — the Major League equivalent of your smallest utensil.
Indeed, Maddux’s motion is so compact and controlled that it’s sometimes hard to tell if he’s giving it all he’s got. His windup, kick, stride, and follow-through — the key elements of throwing — are so smooth they seem effortless, and when Maddux’s 88-mile-an-hour fastball arrives at home, the catcher’s mitt issues not the familiar M-80 crack, but a muffled, puffy sound. Shhhrrrifffpppk. Unimposing, to be sure, yet Maddux routinely transforms marquee batsmen like Barry Bonds and Tony Gwynn into twisted heaps of double-knit wreckage.
“Dude!” answers Maddux, standing in the Braves locker room a few hours before a recent game, when asked how an average Joe can duplicate such hurling success. The 31-year-old Las Vegas native generously peppers all his conversations with this junior-high catchall. More often than not, the word signals the arrival of one of Maddux’s nifty truisms about throwing or, occasionally, life in general. The theme is usually the same: Simplify. “Pitching,” he says, “is not difficult.” But delving deeper, it’s clear that throwing requires a complex, seemingly illogical sequence of lever-flips and spring-uncoilings, beginning in the left toe and ending in the fingertips of the right hand (vice versa for southpaws), that few people ever truly master. There’s always more efficiency to be wrought out of the human body.
Whether you’re trying to blow one by a .300 hitter or trying to scare off a too-friendly moose with a well aimed rock, the four basic elements of throwing are the same; baseball pitches simply exaggerate each step. The windup gets things started by providing a subtle rhythm: Maddux swings his arms overhead and rocks backward, laying down the backbeat, if you will, by which the muscles of the legs, back, arms, and hand will do their work. Maddux’s left foot — or striding foot — then pushes off from the ground behind him and swings forward and across his body. This is the kick, and Maddux’s, as you might expect, is moderate, relaxed, practically boring. Other pitchers kick so high they can practically spot home plate under their knee. One notable extremist, 1970s Red Sox ace Luis Tiant, went so far as to wrap his striding leg clear around his tubby waist like a stripe circling a barber’s pole.
Whatever style you choose, or whatever you choose to throw, the kick is crucial, because that’s when the body is recoiling to store up power that will be unleashed as you swing forward. “All the twisting of the legs and rearing back of the arms is actually being absorbed by that cowhide,” explains one expert. “The pitcher is doing work on the ball, so that when it leaves his hands, the object behaves exactly as he wants it to.” For Maddux this means that, depending on which subtle arm motion he chooses to impart as he releases the ball, his “cutter” will dart inward and upward, jamming the batter’s hands; his “slider” will snake down and away just inches before reaching home plate; and one of his wiliest pitches, the “circle change,” will leave his hands looking like a straight-and-narrow fastball even though it’s actually traveling at the speed of a Little Leaguer’s best offering, causing the perplexed batter to swing and miss before the ball reaches the plate.
Next, with his leg cocked in the air, Maddux’s center of gravity starts cheating forward so that the muscles of the legs, back, and rear don’t have to start from scratch when they push off from the rubber. The right arm, with ball nestled gently between the fingers, makes a sweeping arc back behind him, readying itself for action by cocking into position and gently stretching its muscles. Thus begins the stride. Maddux aggressively shoves off the rubber with his pivot foot, hurtling his body toward home plate. It’s like tossing a baseball off the front of a speeding train: If you throw the ball 60 miles per hour and the train is already doing 25, somebody up ahead is going to have an 85-mile-per-hour fastball on his hands.
As the body lunges toward home, the arm is left slightly behind, poised to sling forward. At the last possible moment, the muscles of the shoulder, back, and chest go to work and begin trying to catch up, speeding the elbow forward, then the forearm, then the wrist, then the fingers. Finally, the last springs of the throwing contraption trip and the fingers let loose with the pitch. The ball sails forward. The batter whiffs. The Cy Youngs collect dust on the shelf.
“Dude,” says Maddux, grabbing his glove and heading for the tunnel that empties out onto the freshly mowed field, where his teammates are beginning to loosen up. “It’s just not that hard.”
Obviously, despite his protestations, Greg Maddux doesn’t really stay Cy Young sharp by merely playing golf and poker in his spare time. He works out — and here’s a fairly typical pitcher’s workout recipe to add zip to your fastball or some heat to that backyard softball game.
Work the little muscles. Dozens of major-league careers have been dashed by weak rotator cuffs, the primary muscles that stabilize the shoulder. Anchor one end of an Xertube, or any exercise device that uses surgical tubing to provide resistance, on a doorknob. Hold the other end in your pitching hand with your elbow against your side as though it’s attached at your hip. Pull the tubing across the front of your body, similar to the motion of a tennis forehand. Next, face the opposite direction. Keeping your elbow at your side, pull across the front of the body, as if you’re hitting a backhand. Do three sets of 20 to 25 repetitions of each exercise every day.
Work the big muscles. Because throwing employs almost every major muscle group, many trainers recommend a comprehensive tour of the weight room three times a week. Don’t skimp on lat pull-downs and bench presses, which strengthen the pectorals, deltoids, and latissimus dorsi muscles, which rotate the shoulder. The rowing machine will strengthen the rhomboids. Weak rhomboids, which attach the scapula to the rotator cuff, increase the chances of rotator cuff injury. Finally, it’s important to do what trainers call eccentric contractions, so that the muscles of the arm can effectively decelerate the arm after the pitch is released. During the bench press or military press, slowly — rather than quickly — bring the weight back to rest position.
Work while you throw. As you stride forward while making a pitch, step slightly to the left if you’re right-handed, or to the right if you’re a leftie. Doing this will open your hips and trunk toward home plate, which in turn adds more torque to the shoulder, which is trying to play catch-up with the rest of the body. Your shoulder muscles will learn to accelerate the arm more quickly, and that fastball will blow right past the firm’s executive V.P.
A) Muscles in shoulders and forearm elongate as throwing arm arcs behind the head in wind-up. Striding foot pushes off from the ground and swings in front, moving center of gravity closer to the target. Muscles in hips and shoulders are contracted just prior to rotating toward target.
B) Hips and torso have uncoiled. Forward foot acts as pivot around which muscles in the shoulders and arms will also uncoil. Back foot is dragged slightly for balance.
Better self-locomotion in several thousand small steps, led by proto-runner Suzy Hamilton
When Suzy Hamilton runs, when she pushes off from earth with one foot and catches herself two or three yards cross-state with the other, her shoes make a clear snapping sound, as if her soles were popping corn. They aren’t. The “crackle” is the earth administering a half-ton of force to her polyurethane soles, an audible “heave” that is equal to but opposite of the “ho” inflicted earthward by the 28-year old’s toes. This combined impact/release is the most important moment of the stride — the payoff, when Hamilton is launched as elegantly as an Alvin Ailey dancer mid-gran jet‰. Many biomechanists believe that Hamilton, America’s premier 1,000-meter runner and a top miler, too, is a textbook picture of graceful and efficient human locomotion, a high-stepping, arm-swinging epitome of a runner. “People say I run like a gazelle,” says Hamilton. “I know that’s really corny, but I’m flattered. Have you ever seen a gazelle run?”
Point of accuracy: According to a recent study by comparative biomechanists, the world’s “best” runner isn’t the gazelle, but its cousin the pronghorn antelope, a three-foot-tall North American that can go 55 and keep it up for half an hour. Sure, the cheetah can smoke its rivals in spurts, but like human sprinters, the big cat can’t make it last. That’s why middle-distance runners — from 800-meter mavens on up to milers — are, according to U.S.A. Track and Field sports physiologist David Martin, the crˆme of all human “self-locomotors”: They go both fast and far. “And isn’t that what running is about?” says Hamilton. “Animals go fast to delay being eaten. They go far to stay uneaten.”
The human animal generally isn’t too concerned about becoming a snack, of course, but anybody can profit from fine-tuning his stride, whether he uses it to log mileage before a 10k, chase down Sparky, or run a buttonhook during a touch football game. As in all human movement — swimming, jumping, throwing — the bottom line in running is efficiency. “The idea is to create long levers,” explains the U.S. Olympic Center’s Broker, who spends his workweek watching computer-generated stick figures — biomechanical maps of actual elite athletes — bob and weave across his screen. “Long levers can produce higher velocity,” Broker continues. “You can try to throw a boulder over the castle wall with your three-foot-long arms — or you can set it on the end of a catapult. Running is the same. You want to recruit as many of the body’s strongest muscles as you can.”
The first item of business for a runner is the push-off. The gluteus maximus and the quadriceps do the initial work, extending hip and knee and basically catapulting the body forward. The actual boost, however, is provided by the toes. “Think of the toes as an extra gear,” says Broker. “When your foot has done all it can, it shifts into overdrive — ‘toe’ gear.” The recovery is next. The “free” leg bends at the knee, making it feel half as long as usual and rendering it less cumbersome to move; then it’s swept forward and re-extended out in front, a long lever once again ready for duty. The foot strike completes the sequence.
Hamilton is working with her coach, a German expatriate named Peter Tegen, on a technique that involves taking shorter but faster strides. The theory is that shorter strides result in less deceleration at stride’s end. The choppier strides have their pros and cons: Hamilton must take about a hundred additional steps per race to make up for the lost distance, but on the bright
While all this is going on below the waist, up above, the muscles of the back — the latissimus dorsi and serratus posterior inferior — keep Hamilton’s torso straight and semirigid, providing a firm chassis on which her legs can pivot. The chest leans slightly out over the legs, sculpting the oncoming wind around her body and shifting her center of gravity a couple of inches forward toward its goal. The arms swing with each push-off — right arm with right leg — sending her center of mass upward a few inches from groin to mid-abdomen. This can make her body feel lighter during push-off, not unlike the sensation on a roller coaster when the car reaches the top of a hill but your stomach keeps going up.
That’s the exo-view. Inside, Hamilton’s body is pumping out ATP, aka chemical energy, at world-record pace to fuel the muscles. While a sprinter runs almost entirely on stored-up chemical energy, a miler can’t do that. All the anaerobic work would leave behind several teaspoonfuls of lactic acid, liquid pain. To be a miler, you have to operate sustainably — at least until the final 150 yards, when you have nothing to lose in letting it rip and going anaerobic. Hamilton’s famously “sensible” personality fits this pace. There isn’t room in the head of a miler for the neuroses rampant in other disciplines. “The mile is a very sensible distance,” Hamilton says. “Everybody can relate to it. You pass mile markers every day.”
Of course, you and I can’t run like Hamilton and never will. Like all elite athletes, her body is well suited for her sport, and she’s good at optimizing its superiorly constructed levers. “She has long, powerful legs, a sturdy torso, a keen sense of balance, a generous assortment of both fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibers, and she’s very good at processing oxygen and food into ATP,” says Martin. Of course, he’s essentially saying she’s good because she’s good, which isn’t the whole story either. If it were, Hamilton wouldn’t spend seven days a week fine-tuning her engine. “Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve known I was good at running,” she says. “I’ve always sensed a sort of effortlessness in my bones, which I don’t think every weekend jogger feels. I get this wind-in-the-face sense of joy. I even pretend I’m a horse.”
And as it is with all great athletes, past or present: We can stare in disbelief — or try to imitate.
Through trial and error, David Martin says, your body may have already found its most efficient stride. “It automatically gravitates toward the most efficient motion.” Still, a quick overhaul of your stride probably couldn’t hurt. Here are some tips.
Run more. If you run only once or twice a week, try adding another mile to your route or squeezing in one extra lunch-hour run. The extra miles will strengthen your back muscles, improve your running posture, and help phase out unnecessary and “exuberant” movements. The major muscles will also grow stronger, and each stride will require less energy.
Run faster. Hamilton recommends at least one day a week of speed work. Interval training, such as running eight consecutive 100-yard dashes with 30 seconds of rest in between, is one method. Or vary your normal speed, adding short periods of sprinting and walking.
Practice baby steps. Experiment with a shorter, more powerful stride. Hamilton recommends tying one end of a bungee cord around your waist and the other end around the waist of a training partner. The partner starts sprinting ten seconds before you do; your feet must churn frantically to keep pace. “If you don’t take lots of short strides,” Hamilton says, “you wind up being dragged through the dirt.” The technique can trim ten seconds off your 5k time.
Pull a “sled.” You’ll need a harness and some weights. Go to the track and, with 20 to 40 pounds tied to the harness, walk stretches of 75 meters. Repeat twice, three times a week, and your torso, hips, and butt will benefit.
Hit the gym. There are two must-do weight exercises for runners. Start with leg extensions, which work the quadriceps. Do three sets of ten with a moderate weight, focusing on the last 15 degrees before full extension. Then flip onto your stomach and do three sets of ten hamstring curls, raising the weight until your lower leg is at a 90-degree angle to the bench. Do both exercises three times a week, increasing the weight by five pounds every third week. Hamilton also suggests some upper-body work, like knocking out 30 push-ups and two sets of 12 pull-ups three times a week.
A) Glutes and quads propel hips and torso forward on push-off. Chest leans out over legs, moving center of gravity toward goal, while arms swing forward. Toes give final boost as the free leg flexes at the knee and is pulled in front of the body.
B) Once in flight, muscles of the back work to keep torso straight and semirigid. Free leg is re-extended and brought down for foot-strike. Body weight rolls forward on grounded foot in preparation for push-off again.
Shoring up the core motion of self-propulsion, as tutored by the hard-rowing Steven Redgrave
|The coach said he liked the looks of my hands and feet,” recalls four-time Olympic gold medalist Steven Redgrave when asked what first drew him to his sport. “They were awfully big for the rest of my body.” A few days later, the floppy-limbed British 13-year-old was hoisted aboard a creaky bucket of boards and bolts known as a bank-tub — basically a rowboat fitted with pulleys and chains and docked on dry land. It was the forerunner of the modern rowing machine, and there, looking out over the English countryside, Redgrave began his career. “I was quite clumsy then, you know.”
That was 22 years ago, but the record suggests that Redgrave’s first coach was indeed a fine talent scout. The oarsman eventually grew to six-foot-five and 225 pounds, the Platonic ideal for a sculler. Perhaps more important, Redgrave mastered the elusive art of rowing, a skill that demands finesse, brute strength, and a tolerance for a Sisyphean workload. You pull, then you push away, and you do it until you drop. These motions — and dogged effort — are central not only to Redgrave’s sport but also to any nonrunning sport that requires self-propulsion — climbing and swimming being the foremost examples. Redgrave’s version of this — his stroke — is easy to spot from the shore because of its utter hitchlessness. He is a machine, and to a rower, that is the ultimate compliment. “He curls up just like a cocked spring,” says Michael Shannon, a sports physiologist at the new U.S. Olympic Training Center near San Diego, “and then — pow! — he lets loose with a highly controlled explosion of arms and legs.”
If you look at a computer model of somebody rowing a boat, this apparently seamless act dissolves into a million moving parts — levers pivoting on levers pivoting on levers. The important thing, however, isn’t all the cranking and turning of the body’s gears, but the net result of that activity: two simple arcs painted in thin air above the gunwales, the path that the hands make as they pull on the oars.
To begin the stroke, Redgrave bends his knees and reaches forward over his legs. His arms are fully extended so that they have maximum power when they begin pulling. His feet are braced for leverage when the legs, the longest, most powerful levers in the body, extend in the first moment of the stroke. Then, in synchronization with his partner, Redgrave drops his blades into the water — a moment called the catch — and his body begins a complicated progression. In an explosive nanosecond, the muscles of the butt, thighs, and calves act to extend the hips, knees, and ankles. Then, starting at the base of the spine, the back’s erector spinae muscles gradually begin to swing back away from the knees, pulling the trunk into an upright position, vertebra by vertebra. As the torso sits up straight, the arms begin their job of transferring the legs’ and torso’s power into speed that the boat can use. They pull. The biceps begin reeling in the oar handles while the rhomboids of the upper back and the latissimus dorsi step in to add some extra horsepower. “It’s always advantageous if you can engage the body’s bigger, stronger muscles,” says Jeff Broker. (A fact readily understood by big sport climbers and burly surfers alike, where the arm’s efforts are complemented by almost every large muscle in the chest, back, abdomen and legs.) Finally, Redgrave’s elbows collapse in at his sides, and the oar blades slice through the water.
Of course, it’s hard to talk about the stroke without moving away from biomechanics and into the realm of biochemistry. The ability to make one perfect push/pull motion isn’t worth much in itself. You need a passel of them — Redgrave makes about 250 in a 2,000-meter race. Mixing strength and stamina in such strong doses requires immense aerobic capacity. “A good athlete has a VO2 max of about six liters per minute,” says Shannon. “Steven is a seven.” That means that Redgrave’s muscles extract an amazing 15 percent more oxygen than those of the typical athlete. Of course, in the heat of battle, even Redgrave’s lungs eventually lag, and muscle tissue begins to break down slightly as it tries to make usable energy sans oxygen, a process that produces lactic acid, a major source of pain. But Redgrave is able to fend off these chemical demons till later in the race than his opponents.
Indeed, as the push/pull motion is repeated over and over (44 strokes per minute is pretty much flat-out), you begin to see why it is said to resemble some widget-producing contraption from the nineteenth century. Redgrave’s back, which has been described as being like a second chest facing the other direction, expands and deflates like a bellows as the erector spinae muscles extend to lift the torso upright. The arms move forward, then remain that way through the recovery. Yet amid this mechanical motion, Redgrave’s shoulders always look relaxed and slightly rounded, engaged only when necessary. They, at least, are clearly human. “That stillness,” explains Broker, “equals biomechanical efficiency.”
“Some people call it swing,” Redgrave says, referring to rower’s slang for the quasi-mystical glide with which a boat moves when a rower’s trunk, legs, arms, and fingers are working together to produce those two power-filled arcs with the oar handles. “Swing of the body. Swing of the boat. I don’t use that word myself — but I certainly know how it feels.”
Obviously, the best place to increase your pushing and pulling proficiency is at the gym. But don’t think that the ability to bench press twice your body weight is the be-all and end-all — it’s as important to have the full complement of your body’s muscles working at the same level and to be able to do so sustainably. Thus a three-pronged approach is in order.
Lift weights. Redgrave suggests you visit the gym at least twice a week. Leg presses and squats are crucial for lower-body strength, which because of the explosive power it provides is perhaps even more important than a massive set of biceps. Do three sets of 12 repetitions of each exercise, setting the resistance at about half of your body weight. The bench press and “bench pull” are also central to Redgrave’s routine. For the latter, which works the rhomboids, lats, triceps, and biceps, lie on your stomach on an elevated bench with a barbell resting on the floor beneath you. Pull the weight toward your chest, and then gently lower it again. Do five sets of 12, using one-third of your weight. Finally, do 50 crunches a day on an incline board to strengthen the abs, which must be in balance, strengthwise, with the muscles of the back.
Increase your overall fitness. Redgrave works out 42 hours a week to prepare himself for a total of about an hour of racing per year. Obviously most of this time is spent on the water, but other activities help him add to his baseline of endurance, which is key to maintaining power over long durations. He says that the average amateur should run at least two miles three days a week and swim 1,000 meters on three days, resting one day per week.
Row. Even if you have no interest in the sport itself, rowing can improve your athletic ability in a way that no amount of weight lifting can. Because it works all of your major muscles in tandem, the stroke forces each to carry its own weight, so to speak, thereby targeting your weakest muscles more efficiently than any other means. If you don’t have access to a shell or a body of water, fret not: Rowing machines, such as the Concept II Indoor Rower ($725; 800-245-5676), stimulate the stroke quite well, says Olympic Training Center sports physiologist Michael Shannon, which will ultimately help you work through those glitches in your form — all without even getting wet.
A) At start of stroke, knees are bent and feet are braced for leverage. Torso is bent at the waist and arms are extended straight in front of body. Blades are dropped into water at the catch.
B) Biceps and rhomboids pull oars back toward the body. Muscles of the back pull trunk into upright position, widening the angle between chest and knees. Legs drive off from the brace and begin to straighten, transferring power to the blades.
C) Shoulders are slightly rounded, and arms are flexed in preparation for the release.
Getting to the center of it all, with acrobat Rob Bollinger, gravity’s arch-nemesis.
The most destructive force in society today isn’t drugs or semiautomatic weapons. It’s the common chair. Far-fetched as this may seem, that’s the opinion of Rob Bollinger, who says ergonomically incorrect seats have destroyed the posture and balance of generations by tugging at the spine and knocking the body out of synchronization with the earth’s gravitational pull. That’s why Bollinger hardly uses them. He prefers standing or squatting or standing on his hands. To him, any spare moment is a chance to mull over gravity’s complicated gambits and then make a counteroffer. Bollinger says he’s walked the stony spine of almost every retaining wall on the Las Vegas strip, where he performs with the Cirque du Soleil, the world-famous humans-only circus troupe from Montreal that many say has made acrobatics more athletic and regained the circus trade some lost respect. “Balance is a process,” he says. “Babies, for instance, are walking disasters, embarrassments to our species — and the really young ones can’t even walk at all. But over time they get better.”
The 36-year old is something of an expert on the subject — a professional balancer, you might say. Five nights a week, he climbs poles, catapults off trampolines, and twists himself into distorted, gravity-defying poses. Bollinger’s most trying time of day occurs when he gets a cue from offstage telling him to climb the Chinese Poles. The four green masts are like the poles found in old firehouses, and Bollinger’s job is to basically look like he’s immune to gravity’s pull while climbing them. To the sounds of electric jazz, and sporting ridiculous multicolored tights and a backward mask, he ascends, hopping from one pole to the other, inverting himself, doing somersaults, and striking muscle-bulging poses not unlike a gymnast on the rings. In one impressive moment, Bollinger pauses near the top of one of the poles, jerking his head about in a birdlike staccato, and then swings his legs out so his body makes a 45-degree angle with the pole. “I look like a flag caught in a hurricane,” he says. More vertigo-producing still, he torques his body to a boggling 60 degrees, like a forearm in full salute. Then he’s upside down, gripping the pole with only his thighs. As the music crescendos, he catches two or three breaths and scampers down headfirst, no hands.
Throughout the routine, Bollinger’s millions of balance receptors are rioting, but the illusion comes off as planned. He uses subtle, nearly undetectable movements — for instance, a slight flex of his extensor hallucis longus muscle (that’s his big toe, to you) to arrest any teetering of the torso, or a little more bend in the knee to lower his center of gravity and prevent a misstep from becoming a fall. So gravity seems to pull at him from the ceiling or sometimes from stage left, but rarely does the tug appear to come from the ground. “Balance is not something that just happens,” says Marjorie Woollacott, a professor in the University of Oregon’s Department of Exercise and Movement Science, “but is actually a complicated neuromuscular activity that makes all other human movement possible. Think of it as the system software that runs the computer, making it possible to use word-processing programs or spreadsheets.” Woollacott explains that it takes a hundred different muscles firing repeatedly like an automatic weapon for a human to simply stand in place, to have posture. Only after balance is achieved can the brain signal for the surfboard’s edge to be set, for the Frisbee toss to begin. “Balance — and its twin sister, posture — is the canvas on which all human movement occurs,” Woollacott says. “Without it, even an athletic genius like Michael Johnson would be an idiot rolling in the grass.”
The equipment for this crucial function is strung through the body like wires leading to the instrument panel of a 747. One of your cockpits is a walnut-size chunk of brain matter called the reticular formation. This grayish dollop hails from our amphibian past and does the bulk of the work in laying a foundation of body awareness in our subconscious. It soaks up data embedded in our muscles, tendons, and joints. But other critical information originates just around the corner, in the eyes and ears. Processing all this feedback, the brain computes the direction from which gravity is pulling, how the body is oriented in space, and whether the body is balanced or teetering around its center of mass.
In practice, this can be a daunting task. Take a surfer, for instance. He can’t trust his vision, because a wave is trickier than it looks. It’s constantly growing, shifting, or otherwise changing its shape and angle of inclination. He can’t trust the proprioceptors in his ankles and feet, because the “ground” — the surface of the wave — is rising, falling, and generally not behaving like terra firma. “A surfer has to tune out this faulty information and rely almost solely on the balance mechanism of the inner ear for survival,” says Woollacott.
Elite athletes figure out how to make use of all the dials and gadgets so there’s little guesswork involved in moving through space. “We’re not sure,” says one Olympic trainer, “but it’s possible that among other things, great athletes have superior feedback systems, giving them superior balance and superior posture.”
There is some comfort in this for run-of-the-mill athletes, knowing that sport is something of a Marxist-determinist realm: Being awkward isn’t really your fault; you’ve been denied the necessary tools to rise from oppression. But most biomechanists point to a ray of hope when it comes to balance. “There will always be Rocky Balboas,” says Jeff Broker. “You can smooth out your own systems with quite significant results — and occasionally somebody with inferior tools but lots of preparation will knock off the best athletes in the world.”
There are countless exercises for improving balance, but significant progress can take years. So might as well have fun, right? Here are some of Woollacott’s favorite drills, with a few extra balancing moves tossed in.
Be a tree. Few exercises drive home the “active” nature of balance better than yoga’s famous Tree Posture. Stand on one foot, pressing the sole of the other into your upper thigh. Look down, look up, look side to side. Then close your eyes. Switch legs. You’ll feel the muscles of the toes, feet, legs, hips, and back hard at work to hold this pose. Do this exercise every day, holding the posture for 30 seconds — or as long as you can. Gradually increase the time till you can make like a tree for an entire episode of Seinfeld. Then go for E.R.
The notorious BAPS (Biomechanical Ankle Platform System). Trainers and physical therapists use this surfboardlike contraption to rehab leg injuries, but it can improve the balance of healthy people, too. Basically it’s a plastic board that pivots 360 degrees on a sphere mounted on its underside. By moving the board in a circular motion with one foot, the athlete exercises the neuromuscular receptors of the knee, ankle, and foot. To begin, rotate the board clockwise ten times slowly; then change directions and rotate it five times counterclockwise. Switch feet. Do three sets of ten with each foot daily. ($559; from Sammons Preston, 800-323-5547.)
Stair mastery. Walk up a flight of steps with eyes closed. Then carefully walk down backward with eyes open, trying to keep your trunk as straight as possible. Most people tend to bend forward at the waist when backing down, a sign that their balance receptors could use some TLC. Do this five times, once a day.
Using your feet. Walk 50 yards on your tiptoes, and then walk back to where you began. Walk 50 yards on the outsides of your feet — i.e., with ankles turned out — and then return. Walk 50 yards on your insteps — ankles turned in — and return. Do three repetitions of this complete series daily. “The stronger your feet and ankles,” says Woollacott, “the stronger your base, and thus the sturdier your posture.”
Slight flexing of toes and feet keeps torso from wobbling. Bending the knees lowers the center of mass to ward off unwanted falls. Receptors in the inner ears, eyes, joints, muscles, and brain work together to make minor posture adjustments and maintain balance.