Men's Journal - Laird Hamilton Says: Turn Your Workout Upside Down
With his debut column, the big-wave surfer wants you to do the opposite of everything gym rats tell you. by Laird Hamilton I’ve been hanging upside down a lot lately. Nothing decompresses me more or has a better overall positive effect than that. It stretches and elongates my spine, gets blood flowing to my head, and takes pressure off my organs. Being upside down is the ultimate counter balance to the repetitive motions we do in our vertical lives — walking, standing, paddle-boarding, sitting upright. There’s a saying among yogis that a man who can stand on his head 20 minutes a day masters time. I haven’t mastered time, but I do try to put in 20 minutes a day upside down — whether I’m doing a headstand or hanging from a harness in my garage — to provide a little counterbalance to the rest of my life.
And I never would have done it if I hadn’t torn my ACL and been forced to really think about what I was doing to my body and why I needed to find a way to counteract the motions I was overdoing. I blamed the ACL injury on biking. I loved biking — I’d been riding hard a few hours every day — but the sheer volume of repetitive motion was killing me. It built up certain muscles — quads, hip flexors — while ignoring others, which was creating tightness in my lower back and IT band, and I wasn’t doing a thing to counteract it. So I started riding backward.
At first, it was just a hunch, an unformed theory. I did it mainly because I hoped it would help me avoid injury. But then I started to see and feel the results, and that’s where the revelation came in. When I went back to pedaling normally — that is, frontward — I discovered that I had a better relationship with my stroke. Not only did going backward counteract the repetitive motion that was causing my problems, it also improved my dexterity and coordination. It made my normal stroke feel more fluid and instinctive.
I later found out that backward pedaling is something world-class cyclists have been doing for years. I also discovered that Bruce Lee’s method of punching faster was actually to try to recoil quicker. It’s kind of counterintuitive — you think you’d be faster by speeding up the extension, but really your speed comes through the recoil. Normally you’re thinking only about punching, so somewhere there’s a shutoff in your consciousness, and you’re not thinking about pulling back. But when you incorporate the muscles that it takes to pull back and initiate them into moving forward, you find the gain. It’s like the muscles become more educated. We always say, “Train smarter, not harder,” and ultimately, it’s about enhancing performance. The irony is that what enhances performance also helps prevent injuries.
Once you start being conscious of the repetitive motions that we all just accept as part of being human, you realize how little we do to counteract those motions. Instead we usually go out of our way to do more of them. Think of working out in the gym. All the movements are about folding inward. Between curls and crunches and squats, we’re always tightening and closing ourselves up. It’s crucial to remember to open up as well — whether it’s on a cable machine or with a weight, incorporate more movements where you’re extending and opening yourself up. Coincidentally, they’re harder to do and you don’t need as much weight to do them. It’s all an opposite reaction to how we normally do things.
Usually, working out is about aesthetics — six-pack abs and biceps and pecs — instead of true functionality. True function has a different aesthetic appeal. Of course, any kind of working out is better than no kind of working out. Everybody gets an endorphin high from it: You sweat, you eat good, you sleep better, sex is better — it’s life- enhancing. All of this is positive stuff, but there are repercussions over time, and you risk blowing something out and just getting stiffer and stiffer over time.
You could still have all that — you could be ripped up and have all the guns and do all the deal and have all the power, but you’re going to have to combat all that tightness with something. And if you do, your posture will be more open and you’ll be better balanced. You may not look like you would if you did 500 sit-ups a day, but you’ll perform better, and for me, training was always about enhancing performance. At the end of the day, it’s really about running faster, jumping higher, hitting the ball better, and functioning better, so you can run and swim and do all these things you want to do. That’s life.
This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue of Men’s Journal.