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It’s not exercise but resisting gravity that gives us big muscles. That’s why astronauts can’t punch their way out of a paper bag when they land back on earth¹. After a few recent adventures with FWC Hammersmith Instructor Adam Prout, I started to hear, “Ask Adam to do more crazy stuff”. Now, dear students, that is somewhat missing the point. Adam is not a Crash Test Dummy, he’s a Kung Fu Instructor. Nor is he (totally) reckless. But he loves a challenge. And Britain has an astronaut in space. Let’s put Adam to the test again.
What can Adam’s legs do?
“We tried hopak and then moved on to pistol squats, but they didn’t look hard enough (though my quads will be happy to tell you that they were). The photos looked like I was just having a bit of difficulty sitting down on the floor. Hopak is the Cossack dance where the men in boots and furry hats squat down, fold their arms, and flick their legs out hopping from foot to foot. Pistol squats are one-legged squats with a leg held out in front (as for front-thrusting kick). My legs were killing me but they are not photogenic exercises (well, not the way I was doing them) so I asked Instructor Sharon if she had ever seen Anti-Gravity squats. “No. Show me.”
I borrowed a pair of anti-gravity boots. These are big clamps that go round your ankles with hooks to attach to a bar. I roped in Instructors Dave and Karim to hold up a staff. And clipped on. They tried not to laugh too much. But there was not enough height to relax my body straight and pull myself up – it looked like I was doing hanging stomach crunches. So we used outdoor monkey bars. I could now hang like a bat.
Normally when you squat you relax your muscles to drop to the floor then engage your quadriceps muscles (known as “your quads”) to come back up. When you are upside down you have to use the antagonistic muscles to lift you up. These are the three muscles running down the back of your leg (collectively known as “your hamstrings”²). It is a strange sensation using your hamstrings to lift you up. Usually they are used to lift your lower leg backwards when walking or running. So lifting your entire weight with them is not something you do regularly. Or at all.
It takes a massive brain shift to engage the hamstrings in the context of lifting yourself. I had to keep telling my hamstrings to contract, contract, contract. I had to override the desire to engage my quads even though I was upside down and they were not needed. My muscles were fighting my brain for control, and the screaming cognitive dissonance was almost painful. The final difficulty is that blood is also susceptible to gravity, filling up my head and emptying my muscles. The stars definitely looked different today – and it was broad daylight.
How hard can it be?
On a physical level, it is very very hard. Before you even start the squat you have to lift your ankles above your head and clip them on to a bar. This is fiddly and it took a few goes, by which time my abs were having a bit of a whinge. There is a lot of core strength required. Getting the boots off the bar is even harder, as you are now tired and have to do a hanging sit-up to grab the bar and unhook them. More core strength. I have done thousands of squats and sprints over the years so my hamstrings are quite strong. This meant that the squat itself was initially not too difficult – well the first one was ok, by about the tenth….
The really really tough part is the mental strength it takes to co-ordinate your body against its own desires. It doesn’t want you to hang upside down. It doesn’t want to move your hamstrings and core to pull your whole weight up. And then it doesn’t want a controlled descent but for you to give up and drop like a stone regardless of the immediate consequences. Unlike the other squat exercises I didn’t have any big muscular pain afterwards except for sore Achilles’ tendons (from the constriction of the boots).”
“Ground Control to Major Tom”
So Adam fell to Earth (we caught him) and we put him back on his feet. The feeling of your brain screaming at your muscles that they are “going the wrong way” is probably fairly familiar to anyone who has started training recently and is trying to learn stepping backwards or upper crane block. We feel your pain.
1. There is more about space flight and muscles on the NASA website.
2. The three muscles joined to the hamstrings are; semitendinosus, semimembranosus and biceps femoris. Strictly speaking the hamstrings are both the tendons and the muscles that insert at the ischium of the pelvis (your sit bones) and connect either side of the tibia behind the knee.
Other things Adam has tried for us (so we don’t have to):
And FWC Instructor Dave Courtney Jones has some comments on