The Barbell Prescription: The What, Why and How of Weight Training

So much cool stuff happens on campus all day every day. It breaks my heart that I literally don’t have the time to go do and see and hear everything. On Tuesday, I went to a free seminar that was held at Hart House called, “The Barbell Prescription”. You know it’s going to be a good one when you’re already taking notes and salivating over the guest’s credentials. Dr. J Sullivan joined us from Michigan. A former US marine, 3rd degree black belt in Karate, 3rd level Krav Maga practitioner, doctor, researcher… The guy received a $2 million research grant from the NIH… that’s the National Institutes of Health. It’s a big deal. On top of all that, he owns, manages and trains clients at a gym called Grey Steel, for aging adults.
Dr. Jonathon Sullivan
Dr. Jonathon Sullivan Source:
We started off talking about what we considered an “athlete”, how we’d define the word. I learned a little bit about Greek athletes (the word athlete comes from the Greek “athlos” which means contest or feat). Apparently there was an athletic event in the Greek games, “Hoplitodromos”, which was a race in full battle armour. Competitors in the games had to swear an oath to Zeus that they trained for a minimum of 10 months. Awfully specific for so many years ago!
Hoplitodromos depicted on a piece at the Louvre. Source:
Hoplitodromos depicted on a piece at the Louvre.
While the word itself suggests an athlete is someone who competes, we agreed that a broader definition could be applied. We were asked to consider whether martial artists, marines, firefighters were also athletes. What do you think? We decided they were indeed athletes. We then discussed the fundamental fitness attributes: strength, power, endurance, mobility, balance and body composition. These fundamental attributes apply to all athletes. Ballerinas need them, firefighters need them, and soccer players also need them. Dr. Sullivan explained that strength is the key fitness attribute. It is most fundamental because it underlies all the others. It’s more general and comprehensive and it requires more investment (because to get stronger we need to build tissue) but is more persistent (that same tissue doesn’t just disappear too quickly once we stop maintaining it). What resonated most with me was his explanation of the Stress-Recovery-Adaptation cycle. Basically, Dr. Sullivan explained how strength training works, how we get stronger: We come into the gym, work hard and leave fatigued. Under this fatigue, we are weaker than we were when we first walked into the gym. Our body immediately starts to recover. Our body however, thinks to itself “Huh, that sucked… maybe that’ll happen again” and overcompensates in its recovery, bringing our strength not just back to where it was before we stressed our muscles by training, but above that level. In this way, our body makes us stronger. Pretty cool, huh?
The concept, illustrated. Source:
The concept, illustrated. Source:
This doesn’t work forever though (obviously, since we aren’t all Arnold Schwarzenegger). What happens is we get strong enough –eventually- to do a workout we won’t recover from in time. This happens after many months of training and is the reason for more complex training plans used by intermediate and advanced athletes. So where does “The Barbell Prescription” come in? Dr. Sullivan explained that barbell weight training is an extremely good way to build strength and develop all fitness attributes. It’s safe, it’s scalable (meaning we can increase and decrease the weight easily to progress), it’s comprehensive because it uses the entire body, it’s effective and specific, simple and efficient. If you’re stuck on the “safe” part, Dr. Sullivan explained that it’s done on a stable surface and it consists of repeated movement in a normal range of motion. It’s also scalable and doesn’t involve unpredictable forces. However, proper execution is very important! We went into a lot more detail and despite there being some science involved (which I liked being able to relate to my coursework), Dr. Sullivan did a fantastic job of making the lecture accessible to anyone –science background or not. This talk was just one of many free events happening on campus all the time. Be sure to check out the Hart House events calendar and our Facebook page so you don’t miss out!

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