In the pages called Your Relationship With Your Heart and Your Relationship With Your Lungs, we were engaged in creating a relationship with the environment and with the body itself in order to sustain, experience and enjoy life. It is this relationship which is important.
To live your life appropriate to who you are, it is also critically important that you have a living relationship with the earth, its history, with the atmosphere and its history and with life and its history. When all that is in place, you are ready to begin to create your place in this incredible world.
The first step in creating your place in the world is to learn about your body. We have begun the process of gathering the information you need to appreciate the miracle that is your body. We have considered the heart and the blood which it pumps and the system of vessels through which it is pumped. In Aerobic Exercise, we have also considered the organ responsible for gathering O2 from the atmosphere and the common insults to that organ: tobacco smoke and air pollution. There is only one thing left: skeletal muscle.
Skeletal muscle is a unique kind of tissue, which has the ability to contract and relax at your command, thus the ability to do work. Biologists are just beginning to fully understand how muscle contracts. Consider how miraculous it is to have a living tissue that can make itself longer or shorter on command and do work.
The skeletal muscle of your body makes up fifty to seventy percent of the tissue through which blood is pumped. For your heart to have a chance to do the best job possible, it is important that skeletal muscle be conditioned.
Skeletal muscle does not condition itself naturally. It must be exercised to be properly conditioned. Only when conditioned are the channels clear through which blood must pass. In a muscle which is disproportionately fatty, as the unconditioned muscle is, regardless if you are "fat" or "skinny," the capillary beds through which blood must pass are compressed. The overall effect is to raise blood pressure, so that the heart must pump harder and do more work to get the job done. Only when your muscles are conditioned can your body find its natural blood pressure. Also, when your muscles are conditioned, you feel better and are more able to concentrate on your activities.
There are hundreds of separate skeletal muscles in the body, and each of them has an attachment to two bones (an "origin" and an "insertion"). It is in the movement of the skeleton that work is done — therefore, these two attachments are absolutely necessary.
Skeletal muscle runs on the same energy source as does the nervous system: oxygen. A muscle can do its job only when supplied with sufficient oxygen. Oxygen arrives in the muscle via arteries, which branch over and over until capillaries are formed. Five factors determine the amount of oxygen delivered: (1) the condition of the arteries, (2) the condition of the muscle, (3) the strength of the heartbeat, (4) the oxygen exchange capacity of the lung and (5) the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood.
One of the muscles of the body is the diaphragm. For life to be happening, the diaphragm must contract. It is the only compulsory skeletal muscle. It must continuously contract and relax; this activity is compulsory for life to continue.
All other skeletal muscles are noncompulsory. For them to contract requires the activity of the command center located in the cerebral cortex coordinated through reflex circuits in the spinal cord and the cerebellum.
The diaphragm is run by the respiratory center located in the brain stem. Superior conditioning of the diaphragm is achieved through aerobic exercise. Superior conditioning of the rest of the skeletal muscles, likewise, requires special attention. This is called a "weight training program." When you think of a "weight training program" you probably will think of lots of time spent pumping iron, expense, Arnold Schwarzenmuscle, etc. That is not it. I am not recommending that you become muscle-bound; however, I do want to introduce you to your muscles. We will take them by groups, rather than as individuals, and find out how easy they are to condition.
The body can be thought of as a collection of sticks connected by joints. The sticks are the following: feet, legs, thighs, thorax-abdomen, upper arm, lower arm and neck. That is a total of twelve sticks. Each stick has two basic movements — flexion and extension — except for the neck, upper arm and thigh, which have five basic movements: flexion, extension, abduction, adduction and rotation. For exercise purposes, we can forget about rotation and adduction. Arnold and his friends must worry about those movements, but we do not have to.
Let us begin with your foot. In a sitting position, flex your foot back and then extend it forward. To flex your foot back, you used your anterior tibial muscles. Place your hand just over your shin-bone, and feel this flexion. To extend your foot, you have used your gastrocnemius. Place your hand on the back of your leg, and feel the action of that muscle. Now, do the same for the front and back of the thigh, the quadriceps and the hamstrings respectively. You need to stand up and flex your knee backwards to feel your hamstrings in action. These two muscle groups are responsible for extension and flexion of the leg (foot to knee), respectively.
Now, consider the movement of your thighs. These are moved by muscles attached to your pelvis. Stand up and, keeping your right thigh and leg straight, kick as if you were kicking a ball. Now, the left. This movement is accomplished with a muscle buried deep in your abdomen called the psoas. You will be unable to feel the action of the psoas with your hand. Now, kick in the same way, except backward. As you do this, put your hand on your buttocks. The muscles which do this action are called the gluteal group. Let us hope yours is cute! Now, kick to the side and, as you do, find with your hand the muscle that does this action. It is called the tensor fascia lata.
Now, on to the thorax-abdomen. Those muscles that form little waves on your belly (if and when you become skinny) are called the rectus abdomini. These muscles flex the thorax-abdomen in relationship to the thighs. Do a sit-up, keeping your hands on your belly to feel the action of these muscles. Now, get in a crawling position and raise the upper part of your body to the position of standing on your knees. As you do this, arch your back. The muscles that do this are located on both sides of your vertebral column and are known as "extensors" of the spine.
Now, consider your upper extremities (arms, forearms and hands). First, let us look at the shoulder joint. Stand with your arms outstretched as if to fly like a bird. Now, bring your hands together back-to-back over your head. The muscle doing this action is the deltoid and is what you refer to as your "shoulder." Now, resume the flying position; imagine yourself upside down, and bring your arms from that position to your sides. These muscles are the latissimus dorsi. They originate from your rib cage about where your elbows are when you are typing or playing piano, and they attach ("insert") to the inner aspect of the upper arm just below the shoulder. Find them with your hands.
Now, lie on your back with an object of two to ten pounds in each hand with your arms spread-eagled straight out from your sides. Keeping your arms straight, bring the two objects together in front of you. The chest muscles which have done this action are called the pectorales (pectoralis is the singular form). Find them, and inspect their action.
Now, stand next to an armless chair with your right knee on the seat of the chair. Bend forward until your trunk is horizontal with the floor, and support yourself with your right hand on the chair. With a moderately heavy object in your left hand, and that hand at floor level, pull that object upwards until your elbow is at the level of your back. Keep your elbow flared out and away from your body. One of the muscles in this action is the trapezius, and it spreads out over your back like a sheet, attaching to your shoulder blade and stabilizing your shoulder blade, while other muscles (teres major and minor), attached to your shoulder blade and arm, elevate your arm. The trapezius also attaches to the neck and the spine from the upper neck to the mid-back.
Now, take a moderately heavy object in each of your hands, stand up and, with your hands facing forward and your arms hanging at your side, lift the object to your chin with the palms of your hands turned toward your face. These muscles are the biceps.
Now, take the object, and hold it directly over your head. Let your elbow bend and your hand come down behind you with the shaft of your upper arm pointing to the ceiling. With your other hand, resting on your biceps and holding in place your upper arm, raise the object again over your head keeping your elbow in the same place. The muscles which have done this action are the triceps.
Now, find the flexors and extensors of the wrists. These muscles are located on the front and back of your forearm respectively, and they bend the hand back and forth.
That leaves the neck. Disregarding rotation, the neck has four movements: flexion, extension, abduction and adduction. These muscles groups are named for what they do: neck extensors, flexors, abductors and adductors. Flex and extend your neck and find those muscles. Point your head to the right and the left, and find the muscles which do that.
There are hundreds of muscles in the human body, but if you pay attention to them in the manner I have outlined and work them regularly, all muscles will be well-conditioned. I distinguish between becoming muscled up and being conditioned. It is not necessary to be muscled up to be conditioned.
However, it is necessary to exercise each muscle group twice each week. To achieve our purposes, each muscle group needs to be matched to an appropriate weight and worked to exhaustion two times each week. This represents about thirty minutes of your time, less than one-half of one percent of one week.
Worked to exhaustion means that the last repetition is the last one you can possibly do. The number of repetitions should be between eight and twelve. The weight is adjusted up or down until exhaustion occurs after eight, nine, ten, eleven, or at most twelve repetitions.
This is called "anaerobic" exercise because you are using stored energy rather than straight oxygen. Believe it or not, anaerobic exercise is an important part of aerobics. It creates muscle tissue through which your heart can pump blood with minimum effort. It also creates more insulin receptor sites and changes the insulin/glucagon/eicosanoid hormone balance in a very positive way. A usual effect is to lower blood pressure, even if your blood pressure is only in the high normal range. See eicosanoids for a full discussion.
How to get started? This is a process of education. If you are not already accustomed to this, you need a teacher. If you are accustomed to weight training, and you are not actually doing it, you need to further educate yourself about the benefits. When you know enough, and if you love life, you will do your program. It will be a high priority. If you join a fitness club, they will provide someone to set up a program for you. When you become very practiced at it, you will be able to take this activity into your own home and make it a part of your regular routine. You brush your teeth, you wash the dishes, and you lift your weights.
The proper diet to follow for maximum benefit from exercise is covered under "Human Growth Hormone."