Friday, June 17, 2011


A new Conan movie is coming out! I am looking forward to that, let me tell you. I watched some trailers - "I live, I love, I slay, and I am content!" August can't get here fast enough! But first, let's talk a little bit about an aspect of the first Conan movie that keeps me entertained every time I see it.

Conan The Barbarian (1982) (Arnold Schwarzenegger) grows from a unformed slave youth into a massive, hulking warrior with huge muscles, incredible strength, and more huge muscles. How does Conan become so powerful? Partially through his genetic inheritance, and partially though athletic training(1). A major component of Conan's training consists of years of pushing a heavy mill wheel called The Wheel Of Pain, an apt description for the way some of us feel about exercise.

The Wheel Of Pain at sunset.

Conan starts pushing the Wheel as a child. Through the miracle of time-lapse photography, we watch Conan mature as he pushes and pushes that wheel. At first, we see that he is one of many children engaged in this physical activity. As years go by, the children grow, improving in strength or dying of exhaustion, and fewer of them are left to move the wheel.

Conan the boy is chained to the Wheel.

Conan the man, training upper pecs and anterior deltoids.

More years go by and the group of pushers grows smaller and smaller, until one day only Conan is left at the Wheel Of Pain. Conan has grown into the perfect physical specimen: powerful, focused, and with minimal additional training, a glorious fighting machine.
Conan the warrior. Look at that... sword!

Assuming Conan ate nutritious meals, performed a physical warm-up before pushing all day, stretched regularly, and adhered to a periodized (Wheel Of Pain) program to optimize strength and cardiovascular gains, this forced enslavement at the Wheel in order to turn someone into a barbarian Adonis among men makes perfect sense. Except for one vital flaw(3) - SPECIFICITY.

Your muscles adapt to exercise (or work) as you stress them at increasing levels of intensity. This adaptation results in an increase in strength and an increase in size (although usually not an increase of Conan-like proportions.) Conversely, if you were to stop stressing a set of muscles, they would weaken and get smaller.

Your body also adapts to the specific types of exercises you do. On a basic level, if you do a bunch of push ups every day, it will probably be easier to push a baby's stroller but not to lift a suitcase. Why? Because you have only trained the muscles in your shoulders and arms that perform pushing/stroller activities, not pulling/suitcase actions.

In the movie, we see that Conan, our future governor of California, has an extremely well balanced physique. Indeed, pushing the Wheel would give anyone excellent calves, quads, and glutes. But in his upper body, Conan has a set of exceptional biceps brachii that would not be that hypertrophic in comparison to his triceps brachii. The biceps are pulling muscles flexing the elbow, the triceps are pushing muscles, straightening it.
An image of the biceps and triceps brachii from The Encyclopedia of Science site.
On the left, the biceps is contracting and flexing the elbow. On the right the triceps
is contracting and extending the elbow.
Warning: these images are extremely inaccurate regarding
the muscle attachments, but work great for location and visualizing how they move the elbow.

You need a good set of biceps to hold up a broadsword, and we're supposed to believe that Conan got them from only pushing the Wheel Of Pain. They must have cut some footage, in editing the film, of Conan pulling the wheel to break up the monotony of his day.

Conan (Schwarzenegger) and his biceps examine the scapula of
an opponent in battle.

Sometimes I fantasize about what Conan/Schwarzenegger would really look like if he had really only been pushing for years and years. Hm... he'd probably have great upper pecs, serratus anterior, anterior deltoids, and triceps. But his back musculature (trapezius, erectors), and his biceps and probably latissimus (yes, I know someone is going to want to argue over this muscle) would be comparatively puny.

Is anyone good at photoshop?

1. ...and possibly with a little help from steroids.
2. Click here for a PDF put out by ACE that gives a simplified explanation of periodization for fitness training.
3. Okay, okay. There are many vital flaws. Pushing a wheel for years will improve cardiovascular health and facilitate fat burn, for sure. But you're really going to be training those muscles (including your heart) exclusively for aerobic/endurance activities, like pushing a wheel all day. Power training is not the Wheel's forte, and fighting requires power (and speed, coordination, agility, etc.)