Watching Olympics can inspire you to get slimmer, fitter, faster, stronger

Racers compete during the heptathlon 100-meter hurdles at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials on July 9, 2016, in Eugene, Ore.
Racers compete during the heptathlon 100-meter hurdles at the U.S. Olympic Track and Field Trials on July 9, 2016, in Eugene, Ore. The Associated Press

With the Rio Olympics only days away, there’s always the danger that we will become a bunch of couch potatoes fixated on our flat screens, what with all the drama to take in and the athletes to follow.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Sure, the Rio Olympics promise to be entertaining, but you can also find inspiration there that can get you moving and plenty of things to learn that can take your health and fitness goals to new heights.

If you’re trying to drop a few pounds, one look at all those six-pack abs in the running events or at the Olympic pool might encourage you to bypass dessert, lace up your sneakers and, for starters, go for a a brisk walk.

If you’re already active, digging deeper into what the athletes do to prepare and improve will give you all kinds of information about strength and endurance training you can apply to your own workouts.

Experts agree that, yes, the Olympics will be inspiring and the athletes are terrific examples of doing what it takes to compete at the highest level. But they also offer some caution: If you’re just starting out, don’t try to do too much too soon.

These experts also say that champion athletes get all of the basics right. They get plenty of sleep. They eat nutritious meals. They don’t skip workouts. They listen to their bodies. They warm up thoroughly. They strive for proper technique.

Beyond the scientific advances in training and recovery, perhaps the most important lesson from watching the Olympics is the idea of resiliency. Successful athletes bounce back, they fight on, they ignore all the naysayers and continue to move toward their goal. Failure is a detour, not a dead end.

“Olympic athletes have this incredible physical motor,” said Keith Baar, a UC Davis professor of neurobiology, physiology and behavior, “but what distinguishes one physical motor from the other is their willingness to go to the extremes. It’s the feeling of resiliency, the willingness to try again once you have failed.”

David Hawkins, who studies human movement and athletic performance at UC Davis, said those inspired by the Olympics should start slowly, especially if they have been sedentary. Training too quickly like a world-class athlete could have negative consequences.

“You’ve got the whole spectrum,” said Hawkins,who has a doctorate in biomedical engineering. “You’ve got the person who enjoys running and who will watch the Olympics and then take it to the extreme and hurt themselves. Then you have people at the other end who could be doing a lot more. Just getting off the couch and moving is a benefit, but maybe they could be doing more.”

As you’re watching the Olympics, Hawkins said it’s a good idea to zero in on how athletes move in running events and notice how relaxed they are. Yes, they are moving as fast as possible, but tensing their muscles, including their hands and arms, would only slow them down.

Once you learn to relax, maybe you could focus on making your running stride more efficient. If you’re serious, Hawkins says you can use technology to make sure you’re running in a way that won’t do more harm than good.

In a sports performance lab at UC Davis or California State University, Sacramento, force plates measure how hard your feet strike the ground and what kind of strike they are making.

For instance, runners who strike the ground close to their toes increase their risk of injury if they’re training for long distance events. Knowing this could help athletes transition to more of a midfoot strike, Hawkins said.

Another term to remember as you take in the Olympic experience is “genetic ceiling.” The athletes who win gold tend to have amazing genes and have maxed out their potential.

Sprinters have more fast-twitch muscle fibers than the average person. Endurance athletes have a higher VO2 max – the laboratory measurement of aerobic efficiency.

But whatever your genetic ceiling is, there’s a good chance you haven’t reached it. You can get stronger and go farther. You can probably run a lot faster. And surely, most of us could stand to be slimmer and trimmer.

If you’re looking for more muscle, there’s some good news coming out of the latest research. For one thing, Baar said, you don’t have to lift superheavy weights to build muscles. He said a comprehensive study by Stuart Phillips of McMaster University in Canada shows that lifting lighter weights for higher repetitions can build significant muscle as long as the final reps are completed until failure – you can’t possibly do another.

“I tell students that the only place on this campus where failure is the goal is in the weight room,” said Baar, who used to be the strength coach for the University of Michigan football team.

There’s more good news for time-crunched fitness enthusiasts. You don’t have to do lots of sets of an exercise to build muscle. In fact, his athletes on the football team only did one set of each exercise, but they lifted until they reached the point of failure.

“If you can get to failure in one set, that’s all you need. In my own training, I only do one set,” Baar said.

In that one set, however, you must push your muscles to max out. For instance, when you can no longer lift the weight, you can get a training partner to help the weight up and then continue to lower it until you reach an even more intense kind of failure. These partial reps are known as negatives.

“What (Phillips) found was that the protein synthesis and muscle hypertrophy was the same if you lifted a light weight and went to failure or lifted a heavy weight and went to failure,” Baar added.

The lesson here is that athletes seeking maximum strength and not just muscular growth have to lift heavy, but the rest of us can limit the risk of injury and still build muscle by dialing back the poundage.

Rafael Escamilla, a physical therapy professor at Sacramento State, attended two summer Olympics as a researcher, studying the throwing motion of baseball pitchers and the serve of tennis players. In August, he’ll be in Rio, this time as a fan.

He said resistance training can help athletes in any sport, whether it involves short bursts of power or sustained strength for long periods of time.

“Any sport you can think of, there’s force involved,” Escamilla said.

The professor said it’s important to match the type of training to the sport. For instance, sports with throwing motions and twisting movements like a golf swing are performed on what’s called the rotary plane. Jumping and sprinting sports are done on the sagittal plane.

To improve throwing power, or velocity, for instance, an athlete can use resistance bands to mimic a throwing motion, along with weight training that targets muscles at the rotator cuff, torso and shoulders. A medicine ball can be used for explosive trunk rotation drills, he said.

Escamilla said top athletes use the progressive overload principle, meaning that as the body gets stronger, they add more weight or other kinds of resistance to stimulate further strength gains.

He said most athletes at the Olympic level are approaching their genetic ceiling, meaning they are finding it difficult to improve. Even though fitness buffs probably don’t train hard enough to reach that ceiling, he said, it’s important “to set realistic goals and get started with a properly designed program.”

If you watch Olympic gymnastics, note that most of those powerful, chiseled athletes got that way without lifting weights. Instead, they used their body weight – pushing, pulling, jumping, twisting – to build powerful, flexible physiques.

In something of a throwback trend, bodyweight exercise routines have become popular, replacing barbells, dumbbells and machines with pushups, pull-ups and burpees. Yoga and some types of Pilates are also examples of bodyweight strength routines.

If you’re interested in bodyweight strength training, more and more books out there can help, including “You Are Your Own Gym” by Mark Lauren and “Convict Conditioning” by Paul Wade. Bodyweight exercises can also be performed to failure.

One athlete who probably came close to reaching his genetic ceiling is Bryan Clay, who won gold in the decathlon at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and silver in Athens in 2004.

Like millions of others, he will be watching the 2016 Olympics as a fan, and he says fans, especially the children, can do what he did to become an accomplished athlete.

“I can vividly remember watching Carl Lewis run on TV (in 1984) and looking at my mom and saying, ‘That’s what I want to do,’ ” said Clay, who is a volunteer track coach at his alma mater, Azusa Pacific University near Los Angeles, and has developed a phone app, PK Fitness, to encourage people to exercise.

“As a kid, I got better by copying people. Early on in my career, it wasn’t so much about going out and winning. I just wanted to look like the professionals. When you watch kids who are really good at basketball, they’re not working on the fundamentals. They’re copying what they saw their heroes do.”

In other words, while we adults might need the latest research to get faster, kids just have to get out there and repeat what they watched on TV.

“You can’t overthink it. You have to be able to feel it,” he added. “When you talk to athletes, they will tell you that when they are at their best, they’re not thinking. They’re in a zone.

“There will be plenty of time to win and plenty of time to get things perfect, but when you’re young, it’s time to watch and mimic and figure out your body. There’s so much you figure out on your own.”

Blair Anthony Robertson: 916-321-1099, @Blarob