Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Heavyhands-an 80s fad that deserves another look

I'm getting sick of kids in neon clothes and big Ray-Ban sunglasses like it's 1989. Some fads deserve to stay buried. That being said, I think there are some 80's exercise fads that didn't deserve to die. No, I'm not talking about Jane Fonda, Jazzercise, or Nautilus circuits.

I'm talking about Heavyhands.

Dr. Len Schwartz, Creator of Heavyhands, in his 80s.

Heavyhands is a fusion of weightlifting and aerobics that improves both strength and endurance. It's easier on the joints than running, yet works the entire body, can be done in a small space in front of the TV or in the great outdoors and uses inexpensive equipment (light hex or padded dumbbells ranging from 1-10lbs with a few exercises calling for slightly heavier, 20-40 lb. dumbbells). It spreads the cardiovascular load across your body and allows you to burn more calories at any given level of perceived effort (meaning, it SEEMS easier to burn MORE calories, as your whole body is participating in the effort). For bigger guys like myself (I'm 220 lbs right now, down from a high of 270+) it allows me to get a pretty tough aerobic workout in without the pounding on the joints that running entails.

In its simplest form, heavyhands is just walking while holding weights and using an exaggerated "biceps pump" maneuver. Just this simple move can really boost the calorie burn of your walks. To vary the difficulty, you can vary your pump height, pace, or walking speed. There are, of course, many other maneuvers to try, from overhead presses, shadow-boxing, and double ski-poling (think of the maneuver you use with ski poles to propel yourself forward). All you really need to get started is a couple of 1-5 lb weights and a route to walk or room to march in place.

So what happened? If this system was so darn good, cheap, easy to do anywhere, and effective, why isn't it still with the masses? I can think of a few reasons.

Dr. Schwartz, the creator of the system says (at Clarence Bass' webpage) "Even huge weights don't evoke much aerobic work when hanging inertly... You have to act boldly." That means you actually have to pump the damn weights, high, fast, or both. This had two effects: one, to get a good workout, some people really pumped the weights, and then realized, "hey, this is still hard," and stopped. Runners found that the weights "threw them off their stride," meaning, of course, that even though they were getting a better work out, their egos couldn't get over the fact that they had to go slower. The second effect was that some people just carried the weights around, then found, "Hey, this doesn't work." And these people went back to just walking. You've got to pump the weights high to get the effect you're looking for.

Two: it looks funny. Though I imagine jogging looked funny at first to people as well. I just try to ignore the funny looks I get, pumping weights, but some people aren't as able to ignore it. To those people, I suggest working out in front of the TV.

Three: ironically, I think Heavyhands kind of killed itself because there was so little equipment to buy. Besides a couple of books (Heavyhands: The Ultimate Exercise System and Heavyhands Walking: Walk Your Way to a Lifetime of Fitness With This Revolutionary, Commonsense Exercise System) there were only the weights to buy. The weights have a little handle, but honestly, regular hex dumbbells have worked just as well for me, so it seems likely that there wasn't as much money to be made in the Heavyhands specific dumbbells as they thought initially.

My recommendation? Give 'em a try. In the meantime, you can do a bit more reading about heavyhands at Clarence Bass' website here and here or at the heavyhands blog (which looks defunct but has a good archive). If you need more info, grab the books. They're packed with good information.

I've got more on heavyhands coming up, plus another post on home gyms in apartments, plus the rest of the pulse series, and a mnemonics series, plus some other surprises. Stay tuned.


Tuile Hansen said...

I've used Heavy hands off and on for 20+ years. Running is boring, so I spice it up with HH, or the original Nordic Track, which ALSO uses "peripheral cardiovascular" principles. So, as I was a biathlon contender, ANYTHING that gives variety is good, IMO.
Bodybuilding is boring, so for variety and to get "unstuck" from a plateau, I do heavyhands. My BP is 11/65, HR is 45-50, and my blood profile is of a dude half my age (I'm 55.
Thanks Dr S.

Paleojay Bowers said...

Excellent post! I have just resumed my "off again, on again" heavy hands relationship, and really like it!
Like you, I find standard dumb bells just as good as, or even BETTER than the official heavyhands weights. ( I like that i can use them as pushup handles during breaks).

I remember seeing the same guys in the 80's and 90's, just carrying tiny heavy hand weights as they jogged... They always looked the same, year after year, and I wondered if they'd ever read the book?? (No pumping at all).

I think folks were mainly just afraid of, as you said:
1. Looking goofy
2. Working hard

Shanlo said...

Myself on again after a 3 year break due to chronic fatigue thing. And I have always liked it but I don't do the full goof only to shoulder height and the benefits have always been good. However, due to influence of Maxick ( I have added sustained isometric contraction in my daily walk routine. Talk about a muscle pump. I think the mechanoreceptor activation on the upper body muscles due to the bounce produced by the stride really works the isometric contraction. Then the usual arm pump tends to flush the muscle of toxins. So I find it works me.