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Train Naked

by Mark Sisson, Author


Coach Seiji, a regular contributor to this site, turned me on to a great site on health and nutrition a while ago called Mark's Daily Apple. It's a website full of great articles on general fitness and well being (with a heavy nod to the Paleo lifestyle), most of which apply to the motocross rider. This is one such article. - Virtual Trainer

OK, now that I have your attention, I’d like to discuss the idea of you doing your weight-training with as few “joint support gizmos” (wrist wraps, tape, lifting belts, etc.) as possible. Maybe you already do, but if not…

By now you know how I feel about shoes in general – and workout shoes in particular. Along with grains and statins, they make my list of the top ten mistakes in the history of human health. High-tech, “comfortable” and higher-heeled shoes are probably the cause of more bad backs, bad knees, pulled muscles, hamstring issues, torn cartilage, tendonitis and myriad other lower- and mid-body afflictions than any other single factor. The reason is this: the more we’ve unburdened the important (critical) small muscles of our feet with “forefoot motion control”, “heel stabilizers”, and “rear-foot shock absorbers” – in other words, the more we’ve put our feet in these supportive and restrictive casts – the more we’ve disrupted the intricate biomechanical balance that otherwise naturally arises from using our feet unshod as designed by evolution. And, as a result, the more we can find ourselves on the slippery slope to injury and misery.

Knowing what we know about feet and shoes, doesn’t it make sense that what applies to the small muscles of the feet, might also apply to small muscles in the rest of the body.

As we’ve discussed many times before on the MarksDaileyApple website, it’s the small muscles of the feet – and both the strength and the sensory feedback they provide – that begin to orchestrate the symphony of balanced movement that leads to functional lower-body strength and power. It’s also those small muscles that ought to be telling us when it’s time to quit doing what we’re doing. Instead, we often bypass that haptic feedback and burden the larger muscles and joints further down (or up) the line, setting ourselves up for much bigger – and potentially longer lasting – problems. While this concept applies to every aspect of foot use from standing to walking to lifting heavy things, nowhere is it more evident than with runners – my former self included. Balance and symmetry are tossed aside, along with discretion, in the pursuit of more garbage miles. My own injury issues (osteoarthritis, tendonitis, hip flexor problems) escalated linearly over the years as I went from being able to handle “only” running 35 miles a week in my Chuck Taylors and Onitsuka Tigers in the late 60’s-early 70’s to eventually running over 100 miles a week in my high-tech cushioned Nike LDVs. I drank the Nike Kool-Aid and I’m still dealing with the physical fallout 30 years later.

And while we are on the topic of dumb stuff; if I catch any of you doing stuff like this at the gym, I'm going to make you park your bike. You are obviously not smart enough to ride!

But here’s where I’m going with this. Knowing what we know about feet and shoes, doesn’t it make sense that what applies to the small muscles of the feet, might also apply to small muscles in the rest of the body. I see people at the gym all the time with wrist wraps, tight Velcro lifting gloves, taped wrists and ankles, knee braces, weight-lifting belts and all other manner of “support gear.” I guess the idea is to be able to “safely” push or pull more weight without stressing or injuring the delicate tendons, small muscles, cartilage, etc. in the joints. I get what they’re trying to do, but it’s antithetical to true strength and power. In fact, use of this sort of support gear bypasses those same important small muscles and tendons in fingers and forearms we should be working as enthusiastically as we work those larger beach muscles. (ahem...think that might be important for Motocross too) Furthermore, it’s the small muscles that ought to be telling us when it’s time to stop, or that we’ve hit our “max” (or even that we should take a few days off). Bypassing that critical feedback only places a greater burden on larger muscles and joints – or calls into play unusual or unsafe “workarounds” as the body intuitively tries (without our even knowing it) to recruit fibers from other areas to perform the intended work. The result is often a biomechanical imbalance that simply transfers the load to an inappropriate muscle or area, often leading to injury. In my own case, I re-learned this after I foolishly chose to go for a PR on the bench press some years ago. Because I have small “runners’ wrists” I would wrap my wrists tightly with the leather Velcro band that extended from my lifting gloves each time I trained heavy on the bench. This “small muscle/wrist bypass” enabled me to eventually achieve a one rep max of 275 at the age of 53 (I weighed 164). Not bad for an old skinny marathoner, but in the process I developed a rotator cuff injury and almost tore a pec muscle because I was doing more than my overall fitness was capable of handling in a balanced fashion. I should have used my wrist weakness – my weakest link at the time – as the ultimate indicator of what was prudent.

I see this same sort of thing happening a lot in the gym. Guys are squatting 300 pounds with a weight belt protecting their back and/or abs, when maybe they should instead be using 175 and doing a few more reps without “protection.” They should be developing acute proprioceptive and kinesthetic awareness around the lower back and abs, rather than blocking those sensations out. Similarly, if you have to tape your wrists because your grip is keeping you from completing that last pull-up, maybe you should be working as equally on your grip or forearm strength as you are on your lats. If you have to tape your wrists to do a handstand push-up, maybe you should back up a few skill levels and go through the progression that includes inclined push-ups first. Small muscles should dictate the max weights you do, and you shouldn’t move on to bigger weights until all parts of you are ready.

This is why I feel so strongly that bodyweight exercises are the ideal way to train small muscles as well as those beach muscles. Unwrapped and naked. Grip strength, balance, bilateral symmetry, haptic feedback, kinesthetic awareness and core function are all integral parts of Primal Fitness life skills (ahem...and the motocross athlete). To circumvent them in the interest of building bigger biceps won’t serve you in the long run.

That's it for now, until next time, good luck with your training and remember, if you have a question, log on to the Virtual Trainer Expert Forum and have your question answered by a panel of experts. In addition, be sure and check out the Racer X Virtual Trainer archive section. Your complete one-stop information zone for motocross fitness. VT Signature

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  1. Gravatar
    Rob Styron November 10, 2011 at 9:31 am

    Great article. Glad to see the comment below the picture, too!

  2. Gravatar
    Racer X Virtual Trainer November 10, 2011 at 10:41 am

    Thanks Rob. I'm actually working on a "Stupid Stuff I see at the Gym" article. Currently its way too long to print, :)

  3. Gravatar
    253 November 10, 2011 at 11:11 am

    So are you saying you are against wearing Olympic weightlifting shoes for squats and power based, velocity dependent, whole body movements because of the slight heel lift they provide? Or only against them where the lifts apply specifically to MX?

  4. Gravatar
    Joel Younkins November 10, 2011 at 11:27 am

    @253...There are places and times for belts, wrist wraps, or olympic shoes. The purpose of the article is to explain the reader to not rely on wearing safety equipment all the time so the equipment does not take place of the stabilizing muscles or the joint movement that the body is designed to do. If braces and other mechanisms do the job for your body, in the long run you can possibly create muscle imbalances or manipulate the kinetic chain in your body in which could lead to injury.

  5. Gravatar
    253 November 10, 2011 at 11:44 am

    Disclaimer: I am waaaay against wraps, belts, and tape. But WL shoes put your body in the optimal position to exert maximum force recruiting more muscle fibers as well as assisting in the anterior tilt of your pelvis to push your hips back for a mechanically better squat...and that's just for pushing movements. MOST lower extremity injuries in mx are knee injuries not ankle or foot as a result of ridiculously strong my question is...why NOT use WL shoes?

  6. Gravatar
    Rob Styron November 10, 2011 at 12:18 pm

    @253, I personally am not against weightlifting shoes for O' Lifts. But all the other stuff I am.

  7. Gravatar
    253 November 10, 2011 at 12:36 pm

    Sorry Tim, I didnt mean to question anyone's training philosophy on a public discussion board. My background is a BS and a MA in sports performance as well as a USAW coach and MXer so I've seen a lot of research on WL shoes...some of which my grad professor did, so i naturally become defensive when people talk about WL shoes being bad.

  8. Gravatar
    Joel Younkins November 10, 2011 at 12:57 pm

    @253...I don't think any of us think the WL shoes are's just has a time and place just like with anything else. In regards to the article, it was a general article in which the topic was to limit lifting aids. With the topic or question you were referring to brings up another discussion IMO.

  9. Gravatar
    253 November 10, 2011 at 1:06 pm

    true, i got in an argument with some guys on here several months ago over an article about Crossfit and it opened a huge can of worms that went on for over a week about technique vs time. probably just should have kept my big fat mouth still learning that my is way of doing it is just an opinion, even if its backed by years of scientific research

  10. Gravatar
    Tampa Tommy November 10, 2011 at 9:12 pm

    This information is about 20 years old, and just gets reused as each trainer goes through the education process and passes it along like it is somthing new. The basics are what works, no special program. Use the belt if you are a power lifter and seeking a maximum one rep lift, or unless you are stuck in the 80s and still wear weight lifting gloves. The best program for anyone is to maintain an overall weight training program, including multi joint upper and lower body exercises 2-3x week. Cardio 2-3x week and combining some stretching at the end. KISS Keep it Simple Sam

  11. Gravatar
    Racer X Virtual Trainer November 11, 2011 at 8:35 am

    253 - Since your comments are of the intelligent nature and not the "you guys are stupid and don't what the heck you are talking about" kind, I welcome them. So keep commenting and pushing the conversation forward. I have a Masters Degree in Mechanical Engineering, so scientific backed research always trumps popular trends for me. But like Joel said so well, this is a generalized article and not specific to power lifting. The take home message for the motocross athlete is to not rely on external support to train (wraps, braces, belts). I don't think wearing (or not wearing) a particular type of shoe is going to make or break you as a motocross athlete.

    Joel - Regarding your comments, once again we are on the exact same page.

    Tampa Tommy - While this may not be ground breaking cutting edge research, I would say (by the look of things at the gym and the type of questions I receive) guys are still mislead when it comes to this topic. Although it is nothing new to someone like yourself (I believe you said in a different post you have been in the training business for many years) most riders I come across are not smart "gym" guys. They need educated even if it is 20 year old info like you say. Oh, and I don't think anyone (or this article) is passing this off as "something new".

    In general, the verdict is still out for me on wearing shoes while running or training. I know that the author and his website are extremely "Paleo" and think that everything the caveman did, we should do as well. I'm not there yet, but I am getting closer. I need to do some more research on this whole "no shoes" idea to be completely educated on the topic. For now, I still wear shoes! Joel or Rob, care to tackle that topic?

  12. Gravatar
    Rob Styron November 11, 2011 at 11:11 am

    I personally cannot jump on the "barefoot" training trend, nor can I knock it but there are a lot of good things said about it. Here are a few links.

  13. Gravatar
    Chris Bauer December 09, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    I will not be jumping ship on the shoes department any time soon. But there is something to be said about that. Many bodybuilders in the 60's and 70's trained barefoot. Columbo, Arnold, Zane, Ferrigno, etc.. were proponents of bare necessities training. I too am a degreed mechanical engineer and try to apply any technical aspects to my weight training as well as my racing/riding. I have been weight training for almost 30 years and competed in powerlifting in my early 20's. I was always taught to use a belt when squating with reasonably heavy weight. It gave you something to push on with your abdomen. I never really thought it as an aid to back support. More of a preventive measure against hernia. Being in my mid 40's, I don't go for the gusto and do singles any more. But I do get in the 300+ range for reps when squating. Maybe I'm a creature of habit, but I wouldn't try that weight without a belt. Knee wraps, supersuits, bench shirts, & wrist wraps I've pretty much shelved. I am an open-minded individual though and am willing to hear how others are training.

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