WHAT IT IS: As with pushing movements, pulls can come from many angles. The lat pulldown—one of the most popular gym exercises—involves pulling a weight straight down to your shoulders from overhead. In a pull-up or chin-up, you pull your body up to a stationary bar.
Rowing exercises have many forms. In a gym, you can sit at a machine and pull a weight toward you. You can also sit or stand in front of a cable pulley and pull a weight toward you from many different angles, using one arm or two.
Free-weight rowing exercises are usually done with you bent over at the hips so your torso is nearly parallel to the floor. Then you pull dumbbells up to your sides, or a barbell up to your abdomen.
Finally, there's the pullover, in which you take a weight that's overhead or behind you (if you're lying down) and pull it in an arcing motion until it's in front of or over your torso.
MUSCLES USED: The two major upper-back muscle groups are the latissimus dorsi—"lats" to you—and the trapezius, or "traps." The lats are shoulder-joint muscles; they pull your upper arms back to your torso when they're extended overhead or
Your biceps and some of the muscles in your forearms aid your lats (and, indirectly, your traps) in these pulling exercises. That's one of the most important points we'll make in this book: Your biceps will get all the work they need from rows, chin-ups, and other pulling exercises. They don't really need any special attention to grow in proportion to the rest of your muscles. And, as I've already said in this chapter, they won't grow out of proportion to those muscles no matter how many curls you do, and no matter how you do them.
I won't make the argument that curls don't do anything—any time you work a muscle directly, it'll get bigger and stronger. And if you want to give them direct work, I won't talk you out of it. Alwyn's workouts include a few biceps curls, strategically inserted at various points in the training scheme. I'll even confess that, when the weather warms up and the long-sleeve shirts go to the back of the closet, I'll throw some curls into my workouts. But my big point remains: Over the course of your lift ing life, your biceps will do just fine without any special attention. They'll get bigger and stronger if the rest of your muscles get bigger and stronger. And they won't change shape no matter what you do—that's all determined by your genetics.
REAL-LIFE USES: If I could design any exercise machine, it would be one that mimics a tug-of-war. I don't think there's another exercise or game that so thoroughly works your biceps and upper-back muscles in their natural, harmonious relationship to each other. (With the possible exception of sailing in a heavy wind; I'm not the nautical type, so I have to take the sailors' word for it.)
If you're winning the tug-of-war, you're starting the pull with your upper-back muscles, then finishing with your biceps and, to a lesser extent, your forearm and hand muscles. (Don't underestimate the importance of grip strength—it's one of the few aspects of muscular fitness that's been linked to a longer life.)
In fact, if you put together all the components of a successful tug, you'd start with a straightening at the hips that resembles part of the deadliftt motion, then a pull with the upper back, then a biceps curl, with a twist thrown in for good measure. In other words, in one picnic game, you'd employ three of the six most important muscle-building movements.
Tug-of-war isn't all that different from a rowing movement, and of course rowing is called "rowing" because it mimics the very useful act of (ready for this?) rowing a boat.
The other important use of the pulling muscles is in climbing, an ability that was so important to our primitive ancestors that it literally meant life or death. If you couldn't pull yourself up into that tree or scramble up that cliff faster than whatever drooling predator was in pursuit, you were that day's low-carb lunch special. And there goes your genetic legacy—a tangle of bones and a few steaming piles of saber-tooth-tiger dung in the Pleistocene forest.
In climbing, you start to pull yourself up using your upper-back muscles, then finish with your biceps. And, of course, you can't get around the importance of gripping strength. You slip, you die.
One more point about pulling movements: They mirror pushing movements precisely. For example, if you were tugging on a rope with one arm, it would be the mirror opposite of a pushing motion. In the gym, the shoulder press and pull-up are opposites, as are rowing and bench-press movements. You could even do the opposite of a pullover, if you wanted to do an exercise called a "front raise," in which you lift a weight in an arcing movement from the front of your torso to overhead.
With muscles so clearly designed to mirror one another, it's crucial to give them equal emphasis in the gym. You won't have to worry about muscle-use discrepancies if you follow Alwyn's workouts, which are perfectly balanced. But when you're on your own, you'll probably revert to the common gym ratio of three to one—three times the time and effort on the front-body muscles as the ones in your back. And you'll probably do a lot of curls, too, which won't help the situation. You'll soon end up with overworked, overtight muscles in the front part of your shoulder joints, putting too much strain on the comparatively weak muscles in the back of your shoulders.
Curls Gone Wild!
Part of my living derives from my ability to answer questions from readers. It's a growth industry—there's never a shortage of questions to answer. One of the classic questions: "My elbow (or wrist, or forearm) hurts when I do curls. How can I make it/them stop hurting?"
The answer is pretty easy: Stop doing curls!
But the problems encountered by my correspondents pale compared to this one, detailed in the March 2004 issue of The Physician and Sportsmedicine. The article was a case report of an eighteen-year-old football player who'd developed a condition called bilateral musculocutaneous nerve palsy from doing too many biceps curls.
The player was sent to his team physician after he tried to flex his biceps in the mirror and discovered he had no biceps to flex. That is, he couldn't get them to contract. The nerves controlling biceps action had shut down. This was after his biceps had gotten progressively weaker in the previous three weeks of workouts.
The cure? Stop doing curls! In three months, he was fine.
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