Sunday, February 4, 2007

Child's Play

There is a video of Pyrros Dimas floating around the internet. I’ve had it linked to Again Faster since our inception, because it’s absolutely beautiful. Among other things, it shows him power cleaning around 400 pounds.

Not power cleaning as in his femur didn’t make parallel. Power cleaning as in his knees barely bend.

I’ve watched this video upwards of twenty times, and it never ceases to amaze me. I’m no longer surprised at what he does—he’s a three-time Olympic Champion, after all—but rather what he does it with. This man only weighs 185 pounds. It’s predominantly muscle, but there’s only so much muscle you can pack onto a 185-pound guy and still have room left for organs and such.

One of the other assistant instructors at Crossfit Boston asked me to post the video in question to our WOD Blog on Friday morning. I tacked it up there, and barely gave it a second thought. The human brain has a wonderful ability to seek novelty and ignore banality, and I’d seen this video more often than I’d repeated lines from Fight Club.

Late on Friday afternoon, when the incoming email slowed to a trickle, I remembered the wonder that overcame me the first time I watched Dimas throw a barbell around. I shut down the various pieces of financial software that rule my 9 to 5, and I loaded up the video.

He’s only 185 pounds! This piece of trivia had bounced around in my head, unanalyzed and unacknowledged for over a year. This time, it slammed me upside the head.

There are two basic ways to get stronger. An athlete can develop larger muscles, or he can utilize more of the muscle mass he already has. The former process is known as hypertrophy, while the latter process is known as innervation. Either way, contractile force goes up, and the athlete brings more force to bear on the world around him.

Until Friday afternoon, I believed that innervation had a very limited scope. Like every other male on the planet, I thought I’d need to get bigger to get stronger. My daily observations seemed to prove it. Linebackers are stronger than wide receivers, bouncers are stronger than their patrons, and Vin Diesel could clearly kick the crap out of Paul Walker.

Then there’s Pyrros. He could probably fling a 260-pound man a pretty good distance and still have the pluck to pick the guy up and dust him off.

Using our traditional paradigm of lifter size and weight lifted, it would stand to reason that Pyrros would weigh something north of 225. He doesn’t, and the question becomes, “Why not?”

It’s accepted within lifting circles that high intensity/low volume sets lead to innervation without appreciable hypertrophy. An athlete lifting above 90% of his one-rep max is teaching his nervous system to fire his muscles in the exact order and duration necessary to complete the lift without signaling his body to grow.

The number of repetitions an athlete can perform at this intensity is necessarily limited, and the attendant damage to existing muscle fibers is limited as a result. When damage is limited, hypertrophy is limited.

Fortunately, the body’s ability to make additional neural connections with existing motor units is not. The athlete continues to get stronger through innervation.

Along with a few other elite Olympic Weightlifters, Dimas has taken this process to its logical end. These athletes have the ability to contract every ounce of muscle fiber in their possession, with such ferocity and completeness that power cleaning 400 pounds becomes child’s play.

They serve as a striking counterpoint to the idea that bigger is stronger. Next time you feel the urge to buy six bottles of Mass Gain 3000 or call me with complaints that your twelve-part bulking program isn’t working, remember that there are other ways to skin a cat. Load up the bar to 90% and bang out three reps. Repeat a couple more times, and call it a day. Someday, you might find yourself power cleaning 400 pounds.

Go faster!

Picture courtesy of I believe the video is from Ironmind. If it is subject to any copyright, I sincerely apologize to Dr. Strossen for my role in its dissemination, and I encourage all of you to go subscribe to MILO right now!


Blogger ec said...

you know, to be honest, i think i had seen that video a few times before as well. its only after ive become (slightly) more familiar with the oly lifts that its even more amazing. its definitely when you hear that he's only 185# and POWER snatching and cleaning absurb amounts of weight that you realize he how strong he is!

2/05/2007 03:46:00 PM  

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