The Human Wave, and Isometric Exercise

18 06 2012

I find myself in the weight room, curling my XXX pound weight, with a vigorous male next to me pumping the weights like he needs it to power his home.  I’m on my first rep, and he pounds out his first five.  I’m still on my first rep, and he pulls the weight another five, in rapid succession.  By the time he finishes with his entire set, I’m still on my first rep, and I can tell he’s waiting for me to finish so he can use the machine that I’m on.  I’m thinking the guy could go easier on the machine and save his joints if he’d replace the quick and powerful reps with more weight.  It has the exact same effect. I’d also like to explain to him the virtues of isometrics, but seeing that he already doesn’t understand simple physics, I’m reluctant to engage him on the matter of physiology.  After about fifty seconds, I finally finish my set, rewarding me with one and only one rep.  I raised and lowered the bar only once, and I’m fairly certain I got more exercise for having done so.  Raising the weight a great number of times makes a person feel that more work has been accomplished.  Holding the weight in place seems about as productive as putting it on a table and counting to ten.

This brings us to an important question raised by a fellow student in one of my classes in college, years ago.  Exactly, how is it that a table can hold a weight four feet off of the ground and utilize no energy, but a man cannot hold the same weight four feet above the ground for more than a few seconds without getting completely exhausted?  This question was asked in a physics class, by a business student.  I might add that the student had to be a genuine genius to have posed such an insightful question in a subject far removed from his own specialty.  The physics teacher did not answer the question.  He had no answer.  The question could not be answered strictly with physics math.  No energy is being expended on an object that remains stationary, no matter what holds it, human or table.  At least, that’s what the math says.  So the professor turned to the class and asked if there were any biology students who could answer the question, and I gave the answer.

I came across the question on the internet, once.  It was posted as a physics question.  Naturally, experts in physics were the primary respondents.  They all gave the same answer that no energy is expended in the effort to hold a barbell up, so long as it is not being raised higher.  This, of course is false.  Simply stated, the human muscle is incapable of holding anything in one position.  It contracts at a single speed, and it relaxes.  In order to contract slower, it must intersperse contraction with a little relaxation.  The muscle contracts and relaxes very rapidly, on a microscopic scale.  In order to hold an object in a stationary position, it must balance the contractions and relaxations very carefully, so that the muscle vibrates rapidly, back and forth on that microscopic scale.  In truth, the weight is never really being held in one place.  A human muscle can do no such thing apart from death and rigor mortis.  At death, when energy is deprived of the muscle, it locks in position, and then it could hold a weight in a stationary position with no added energy.

So, at the end of my set, I’m not sure whether to say that I’ve completed one rep or several million reps.  The second one sounds pretty good, doesn’t it?  In the first ten weeks I doubled my strength.  I lift the weight to the optimal angle, where the muscle is at its strongest because the entire muscle is engaged.  For most joints, that’s about a ninety-degree angle.  For shoulders, it’s about a forty-five degree angle from the torso.  Some web sites suggest using the least advantageous angle, but I’m fairly certain they’re wrong.  Many web sites also suggest that holding the weight at one angle improves strength only at that angle, but I have not found this to be true.  Just to be on the safe side, I very slowly lower the weight at the end of the rep, in order to exercise a wider range.  To be fair, though, this method, called isometric exercise, has a disadvantage.  In real life, picking up an object requires a whole system of muscles, with different ones being employed in stages during its ascent.  Holding that weight in one place generally only uses a few muscles, and if a machine is involved, it might only use just one muscle per arm.  Despite my increased strength, I found my strength unchanged in real-life activities, so I had to be more careful about maintaining an exercise regimen that included more muscle groups, which amounted to significantly more time in the weight room.

The difference between a human and a table, or a human and any inanimate object, is that in every aspect the human body is thoroughly dynamic.  Muscles are either building or deteriorating.  Actually, they do both at the same time.  Bones are being built up and torn down at the same time.  Enzymes are being assembled and destroyed simultaneously.  Nothing in the body remains in any one stable configuration for any length of time, prior to death.  A rock, on the other hand, mostly maintains the same chemicals and chemical bonds throughout its existence, minus the superficial erosion.  A human body is never exactly the same at any two moments in time.

Similarly, a wave in the ocean is a dynamic thing.  Like the body, substances flow into and out of a wave.  The body of a wave is not composed of any set of atoms.  In fact, like the human body, the moment that new substances cease to enter it and old substances cease to leave it, it ceases to be what it was.  Stop breathing and you die.  Stop eating or defecating and you die.  The wave moves through the ocean, from one batch of water molecules to another, like the human body moves through life, from one batch of carbon-based molecules to another.  Hence, the question, “What is a human?” seems, at first glance, to resemble the question, “Is light a particle or a wave?”  A human is not a particle.  Instead, we are defined by what we do, rather than by what we are.  The moment we stop doing anything, we stop being human.  Likewise, the moment a wave stops doing anything, it stops being a wave.  We are not a thing.  We are an action.  We don’t lose part of ourselves with every exhalation.  The substances that leave us were only the temporary medium that supported the action.  Food, water and air are to us what water is to a wave, what air is to a sound wave.

With a human, there is no real stasis.  There is no such thing as doing nothing.  Only a corpse does nothing.  In fact, a corpse is really no different from any of the other substances we excrete daily.  It is merely a mass of substance through which the action once moved.

So a man who pushes against a wall is not doing nothing.  Despite having no net effect on the wall, he is still exerting energy, and he is still getting his exercise.  The man who raises and lowers a weight repetitively may think he is doing more than the one pushing against the wall, but not only does he still have no net effect, after doing and undoing his actions every time, but he actually gets less exercise, because he is not exerting maximal force, and his muscles are only passing through their optimal point, not hovering there.

As I’m exercising, though, I can’t help but imagine two worms munching on my corpse after the end of my life, and I can’t help but wonder if they’ll really appreciate the finer quality of meat that I’m giving them.

I shake my head to clear that thought.  I concentrate on getting those substances into my system and out of my system, that the wave may continue onward, growing steadily as it approaches the shore…

…where it will beat itself to death on the rocks and cease to exist.  Ah, nuts.  Pass me a donut.