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Role Reversal: Strong Women and Flexible Men (Feat. Jeremy Clarkson)

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Role Reversal: Strong Women and Flexible Men (Feat. Jeremy Clarkson)

In sport we tend to engage with what we find easy, natural or enjoyable. Instead of genetics determining ‘talent’, evidence suggests environmental factors play the major role in how we develop physically.

This opens interesting avenues in human potential, because we have control of many of the daily inputs we experience. Genes do play a part, for example certain body types gravitate to certain pursuits.

I am a great believer that passion overrides genetic differences, many rugby players become huge and their bones denser by virtue of their training, perhaps if they’d taken up ballet as kids they’d have developed different physical adaptations.

Where am I going with this?

It’s true to say that men naturally gravitate to the weights area of a gym and women the cardio and Pilates/yoga classes. In both cases these choices play to the strengths of each sex. Men find generating tension and building muscle mass easier. Furthermore, society deems it attractive. On the spectrum of flexibility most men inhabit an area normally reserved for crowbars. Lacking some flexibility in seriously heavy lifting can be advantageous to maintaining tension, joint stability and force production but most men will never reach a level where this is a consideration .

Women on the other hand usually display a larger range of mobility and flexibility, ‘cardio’ is deemed the ultimate choice for weight management and yoga and Pilates is pleasurable for someone who displays a decent level of mobility, strength on the other hand is confused with bodybuilding and is not deemed desirable or necessary for a woman! I love running but it will not generally 'tone', and if done in the absence of any resistance training can lead to a reduction in muscle mass and bone density (osteoporosis).

Men need to do yoga and women need to lift heavy.


The ideal modern workplace should be a great equaliser, there is no reason why either a man or a woman can’t do the same job. This is a good thing, on the flipside men and women are equally at risk from developing physical issues that arise from the modern working environment. Many of my former colleagues may have heard me hark on about stand up desks and regular movement breaks whilst at the computer to help combat this. Sitting and a generally sedentary lifestyle is playing havoc with peoples movement patterns, body composition and damaging and eroding their natural talents gifted to them as children. Men and women are losing strength and mobility… this means equally distributed physical dysfunction in old age for both sexes. Men are becoming weaker and women less mobile (so think how bad men’s mobility must be!)

It’s time for women to lift heavy

“I don’t want to look like a bodybuilder!”

Trust me you won’t, really you won’t unless you use steroids, inject testosterone, eat 6-7 meals a day, live like a monk and train like The Rock. It’s almost impossible for a woman to build muscle mass like a man, mainly because women have vastly lower levels of Testosterone than men, this is why puberty turns boys into men in a few years. To be fair most men can barely achieve this level physical conditioning and only with great dedication.

Sadly, modern media culture does not value physical strength in women (note 'strength' not big muscles, strength is very different). Historically, women have been incredibly strong, from the hunter gather era to the agrarian revolution, women have had a strength that male culture did not want to admit.

There’s a great scene in Top Gear where Clarkson offers to take a basket of bananas off a lady’s head whilst touring Africa and he’s not strong enough to hold it, so rather ungainly he drops it. She on the other hand had been walking around for hours carrying it on her head. Spine perfectly aligned and core muscles of steel. Think of the demands of carrying a child? A toddler could be 15kg, then think of the pink 3kg weights the gym provides? What does the real world demand?

Burning Fat

What does strength mean for body composition? Muscle is metabolically expensive, and true muscle tone can only be achieved by heavy lifting. Cardio doesn’t build muscle mass, it builds aerobic capacity which is very different. When we think of youth we think of good skin, good posture, mobility, ability to recover etc, but not often muscle mass. As we age we lose muscle, it’s called ‘Sarcopenia’, it goes into overdrive after 50, but kicks in during our 30s. To look younger it’s important to build muscle.

So let’s break this down: muscle needs more calories than fat (10 vs 2 calories), so those with higher muscle mass have a higher Basal Metabolic Rate (the minimum level of calories needed). This muscle needs to be fed and if you have a clean diet you will build a lean toned body that stays that way if strength training is maintained. Muscle ‘tone’ is function of ‘neural readiness’, heavy weights stimulate the mind-muscle connection. By keeping the reps low and the weight heavy we can teach the muscle’s motor units to work more efficiently. Regular heavy lifting creates a residual tension in the muscles, the brain maintains a state of 'readiness', slightly activating the muscles at all times and this is why athletes have abs and nice bums. Strength is a skill you see:

Strength "it’s not built, it’s granted" (Paul McIlroy).

Light weights are ineffective, teach poor form and can cause injury. Ladies, if you are thinking of starting a training plan, think about adding heavy lifting into your schedule twice a week. Pick some lifts – a push, pull and squat perhaps (pick things like Deadlifts, squats, overhead pressing, press ups, pull up progressions, Kettlebell swings, suitcase carries) keep the weight heavy and the reps low. Say 3 sets of 5 repetitions (find a weight you can lift 5-7 times comfortably and each session add 2.5kg to the bar, for example).

Never work to exhaustion and over the next 3-6 months see your body slowly adapt and build tone, function and muscle you never thought you could develop. As an aside, heavy lifting is great for posture, bone density (which can affect post-menopausal women) and helps combat spine dysfunction issues such as kyphosis and lordosis caused by all that sitting we do. These are conditions historically attributed to old age but now becoming common in young people.

Men, time to salute to the sun.

“I want to get big, I don’t have time for yoga!”

Typical weekly programme for the typical average guy:

Monday: Universal bench press day

Wednesday: Bench Press

Friday: biceps / Bench

Etc etc

At no point do men tend to include mobility and flexibility training in the gym routine. Groans all around, it’s the boring painful stuff, I know. But if you want to lift heavier, have more function, stave off a hip replacement at 60 years old then you need to include mobility and flexibility in your life. As I mentioned above, the sedentary nature of the modern work place leaves the average person with stiff fascial tissue, sleeping muscles (gluteal amnesia, for example) and joints that are rarely, if ever, taken full-range of motion – can you sit in ass-to-the-grass squat with heels down for 10 minutes?

Mobility training can hold these bad things at bay and if engaged daily can reverse many aspects of ageing, boosting joint strength, reducing injury and providing a larger movement language that will provide stability and agility as we age.

I’ll start with the cool stuff, if you want to lift heavy you need to be mobile. Mobility means the ability to ‘actively’ move a joint in a desired range of motion (i.e. using strength) , flexibility means the length of the muscle and the ability to suppress the stretch reflex, it’s a passive process often using gravity or leverage. Both mobility and flexibility is neural state as much as it is a tissue one. The central nervous system determines your power output and it is significantly concerned with the integrity of the joints. If it suspects the joint is vulnerable it adds stiffness and can reduce the force generation capacity of the muscles, this is a safety mechanism and is there for good reason. If you have greater mobility you free up neural output or you brain puts the pedal to the floor!

My other argument for guys doing yoga or some form of mindful mobility ties into the office bit. We need to counteract the effects of sitting, wake our muscles up and we need to invest in joint and tissue health. Most people want to have function throughout their life and old age; it can mean life or death (falling is a bigger killer in the US for over 50s than cancer). Furthermore, investing in your posture makes you more attractive, more alert and people are more likely to see confidence. Win win!

Perhaps if we see ageing as a symptom of things we can no longer do, through movement practice we can lower our age.

So guys, start each gym session with 10 minutes of mobility (Shoulder rotations, bird dogs, crawling, duck walks, salute to the sun, downward facing dog, rolling, squats. Bring those joints through a full range of motion and end the training session with 5 mins of flexibility by hold 2-3 stretches for at least 2 mins, concentrating on particularly tight areas.

I’d recommend each morning that everyone has a 5 minute movement practice. Incorporate the mobility exercises or follow a five mins Pilates programme, and do it when you get home after work, also. Remember 1 hr twice a week is not going to undo 166 hrs per week of poor movement.

By investing in purposeful practice with attention to good form and the basics you can see wonders unfold and new body emerge.

If you need some mobility and flexibility ideas download my eBook below and Reclaim Your Body!

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