As movie-goers the world over are once again gripped by Superman Fever, I finally have an excuse to combine two of my main interests: Superheroes and Human performance!
The Man of Steel is without a doubt the world’s most iconic superhero and the new film is bound to create a new wave of fans young and old, male and female. I was obsessed with superhero’s and comics as a kid myself (I use the word ‘kid’ loosely here) and I’m positive like me, many of the fans with a new found fascination will find themselves contemplating their own physical potential, levels of strength( likely un-tested so far), power and (secret) abilities. Finally I have a chance to use this un-utilised and excessive comic book geek-knowledge to help people. I’m going to tell you how to unleash your own inner superman/supergirl and get you looking as good in blue spandex as The Man of Steel himself.
LEAP TALL BUILDINGS IN A SINGLE BOUND
What may surprise you is that originally when Superman was created his abilities were much more understated. For example he was never able to fly, SHOCK! (Already you’re thinking becoming Superman is more achievable right?) Superman was however, as the sentence above would suggest, able to jump REALLY high. Jumping tall buildings is going to require dense, strong muscles and speed.
Do not confuse muscle density with muscle mass. A dense muscle will have a greater cross-sectional area of individual muscle fibres rather than just an increase in fluid (bulk) surrounding those muscle fibres which is gained from other forms of training. I won’t go too in-depth but there are different forms of ‘hypertrophy’ or muscle growth. Basically heavy lifting creates myofibular hypertrophy (growth of the actual contractile units of a muscle). Lifting a more moderate weight with a greater volume will create sarcoplasmic hypertrophy (increases only the volume of plasma or fluid within the actual muscle cell) giving it a more ‘filled appearance’ but with less improvement in actual strength. So to summarise, a Superman will need to lift heavy to gain building-hopping strength. Muscle size does not increase as easily as with mass building but at least with a strength program, you know any lean mass gained will also be Super-strong muscle.
So, your Superman program is going to require low repetitions, with a higher number of sets per exercise and more rest time between sets (see, it’s not all bad news!). Lifting heavy requires us to tap into our higher threshold (fast twitch) muscle fibres. These are larger more powerful muscle fibres that produce more force during a contraction, force we rarely use in day to day lives. Another way to tap into these fibres is to use speed. The relationship of speed to power (Power = Strength x speed) is going to be crucial in not just leaping buildings, but also becoming…
FASTER THAN A SPEEDING BULLET
Developing your speed is going to be crucial if you’re planning on breaking the sound barrier and to regain those bragging rights off the Flash for the ‘fastest man on land’ title.
What?? Yes, you heard me right, Superman is not the fastest superhero (on foot); in DC comic book history Superman and the Flash raced 3 times, the first 2 were both draws and Flash won the third. True story.
Besides the obvious time you’ll save on commuting by leaping buildings and zipping through the streets, more dense and functional muscle will give both girls and guys more firm and defined muscles to help fill out the blue spandex in all the right places.
Superman and legendary strength coach Louis Simmons could definitely be mates. Louis ‘Westside Barbell’ protocol revolves around a concept of lifting heavy 2 days a week, with a upper and lower body split, and training for speed 2 days a week, again using a upper and lower body split (normally 72 hours after the respective heavy sessions). This is EXACTLY the sort of training a Superman would need so we are going to do something similar. The program will include 4 days of weight training and 3 days’ rest per week. 3 days off sounds like a lot but trust me, with this sort of training your body will need the recovery time. Low intensity work like cardio or any flexibility/rehab work you should be doing is OK on these rest days.
The exercises used are almost all compound exercises meaning they involve more than one joint and multiple muscle groups. They will require more concentration and dedication to correct form but the pay-off is that because these exercises involve so many different muscle groups, you’ll build strength and balance all over your body, improve your hormonal response to exercise and increase your metabolic rate (burn more calories). The exercises also cover a majority of natural human movement patterns, and guess what? They just so happen to be ALL the exercises a Superman needs. See below for proof!
Your week will look like this:
Weeks 1,2 & 6,7
Weeks 3,4 & 8,9
Note the only changes in the 2 tables involve the main heavy lifts upper and lower programs. These aren’t crucial to change, but you may find alternating these lifts in this way maximise your strength gains over the course.
Week 5: Rest up and eat well
If you’re bored order the entire back catalogue of Superman movies (except for Superman 4 – borrring) or buy an entire comic book series and dive in. You will be impressed by your own strength increases come week 6 and also in the amount of useful superhero knowledge you now possess after this week off.
It is crucial you warm up fully before attempting these heavy first lifts, perform some unweighted overhead squats with a stick and lunges followed by around 3 progressively heavier warm up sets of the main lift. Gradually increase the weight and reduce the reps over these 3 sets, but not to a point that the any of it is too challenging. Also gradually increase the speed of the reps throughout the set.
For example you could try 10 reps of about 33% of what you plan to use for 5 reps, then 7 reps of about 50% what you plan to use and lastly about 3-5 reps using 75% of what you plan to use for your first working set.
*In terms of tempo or how fast you perform the exercises, just ensure you have good control off the weight on the way down and on the way up, explode as fast as you can. Upward movement will be slow with heavy weight especially on the last few reps but make sure the effort speed is as fast as possible.
1. HEAVY/ MAX EFFORT LOWERBODY SESSION
2. HEAVY/ MAX EFFORT UPPERBODY SESSION
3. DYNAMIC/ SPEED LOWERBODY SESSION
Remember to lift as fast as possible against gravity!
4. DYNAMIC/ SPEED UPPERBODY SESSION
Remember to lift as fast as possible against gravity!
A while ago, strength coach Charles Poliquin posted a great method of a fast and explosive (plyometric exercise) jump squat method that can be added to the start of a strength workout. I found it really effective and so have included it at the start of the Speed lower body day as it fits the overall goal perfectly. You see, a side effect of improving vertical jump height is an increase in sprint speed!(1) Boom. Watch out Flash.
On the Speed Upperbody day I have included a similar system of plyometric push ups. These are press ups performed by exploding up so fast your hands leave the floor. If you have time to clap while in the air, do so (It always looks impressive). If these are too difficult, or even standard press ups are a challenge, perform this exercise against a high step or table. The more vertical you make your body, the easier the press ups (plyometric and standard) will be. As you gain strength try to progress closer to horizontal each session.
You’ll see that on exercise A1 of programs 3 and 4 there are 2 lots of 6 reps within the same set. This is where Poliquins technique comes into play. Perform the first 6 jump squats with a barbell on your back that weighs the equivalent of 20% of your bodyweight and no more. Remember, you are going for maximal height and speed with each jump. Be sure to cushion your landing by bending your hips and knees into a squat which will in turn generate force potential for your next jump. After 6 barbell jumps, ditch the bar and immediately perform another 6 reps with just body weight but with just as much intensity (watch out for low ceilings). Now rest 1 minute. For the press-ups the first 6 are plyometric as described above followed by 6 standard press-ups at Super-speed.
Obviously the goal is to gain strength week by week, so aim to increase the weight on the main heavy lift every few sessions or whenever you notice an improvement in your rep numbers. For example if you worked out 120kg was your 5 rep max, your first session may look like this; set 1 = 5 reps, set 2 = 5 reps, set 3 = 5 reps, set 4 = 4 reps, set 5 = 3 reps.
The following week you may hit 5 reps for all sets and maybe feel you had more in the tank on the first few sets, so you would put the weight up to 125 or even 130kgs. Even if it means you only achieve 4 reps with the new weight, stick with it until you can hit 5 reps for most of the sets on the new weight, and then go up again. Don’t put the weight or reps up on the jump squats/ press ups on the speed days, just concentrate on getting faster and higher. You can increase the weight on all the accessory lifts as reaching the rep targets get easier and easier.
Because this program requires very heavy lifting on 2 days per week and the exercises are more technique orientated compound exercises, PLEASE be careful. If you are new to heavy lifting or have any doubts about your technique, train with someone experienced for these exercises until you are confident in your technique. Additionally on the heavy days, aim for only 5 rep max sets and not the 3 rep max sets. Experienced lifters can use the heavy days to work up to a 3, 2 or even 1 rep max lifts but remember to respect the rest times with these lift as your neuromuscular system needs more time to recover the heavier you lift.
The Squat exercises MUST be full depth to reap all the benefits. Numerous studies directly correlate maximal depth squats with bigger increases in strength and vertical jump height. (2,3,4).
Take a piece of chalk in your finger tips on day one of your training and squat jump as high as you can next to a wall, arm reaching above you and swipe a mark on a wall next to you. Do it 3-5 times, and repeat this process in 4 and 8 weeks’ time to see measurable progress. It may not be tall building height, but it’s a start!
Of course it doesn’t have to be all gym and no play, feel free to sub your weekend training for a Saturday morning (11am) Modified Strongman Training (The clue is in the title!) session at McGuigans gym, 33 Parkgate Road, Battersea, SW11 4NP London, United Kingdom
The set up looks just like Supermans dream playground. It’s a ton of fun, but Shane and Daryl who run the class strongly advise against any alcohol the night before! From personal experience, this is very good advice
Be aware that training alone will not be enough for gaining and maintaining Superman strength. Superman pays close attention to the well established recommendation of Earth’s top strength coaches to consume around 2 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight to maximise strength and muscle gain. Since food quality is of the utmost importance to Superman, he regularly flies to New Zealand to pick up weekly red meat intake. He picks up a well looked after organic cow straight from a green field to BBQ in the sun on the flight home. Since you’ll prefer your meat in a more convenient transportable quantity, visit Neat Meat in Ponsonby, Auckland, New Zealand if you want only the best. If you’re in the UK like me (or anywhere else in the world) try to visit your local butcher that supplies locally organically, grass fed meat.
As far as i know there are no super foods or supplements that are going to allow you to shoot rays of heat from your eyes or see through any material you please (except lead) –Sorry guys. However Supermans extraordinary visual acuity allows him to see danger from great distances. He clearly shared some of his secrets with his airborne brothers of the British Royal Airforce (RAF) during WWII. They regularly gulped down blueberries to improve their night vision, they were also able to adjust quicker following glare exposure and have faster reaction to darkness onset. Additionally the blueberries prevent macular degeneration and ageing
Superman is 75 years old this year after-all! Leafy greens like Kale and Spinach have also been shown to protect eyes against aging due to the antioxidant lutein and vitamin A content. Spinach was also used by Popeye for his great feats of strength. They couldn’t both be wrong! The more colourful vegetables and fruits are also the highest in carotene (vitamin A), a crucial nutrient for the eyes and a powerful anti-oxidant. So while greens are good, try and keep that plate colourful.
What other super-foods? Eggs! (free range natural diet hens). Eggs would certainly be high on Supermans shopping list. Along with lutein the high zinc and omega 3 content also benefit eyesight. He would certainly eat a lot of oily fish like salmon to up his omega 3 levels too, even if the image does suggest he prefers to eat shark (after shoulder pressing them a few times).
THE POWER OF A YELLOW SUN
What many people don’t realise is that innately Superman has no super-powers. Under the red sun of his home planet Krypton, he is just ‘Man’. It is under the glow of our beautiful yellow sun that he gains his powers. (I guess he would just be ‘Man’ the majority of the time if he lived in London too which is probably why he chose America to fight crime).
Whether your kryptonite is the common cold, low bone density or even a night on the tequila, exposure to our yellow sun will also give you your Super back. Exposure to the sun helps our skin produce vitamin D. In its active form Vitamin D is actually more of a hormone than a vitamin and its benefits are numerous. The benefits range from improving bone density and our ability to absorb calcium (crucial if you’re building bones to support building-leaping musculature), improved immune function, reducing inflammation and improving neuromuscular potential
(nerve-to-muscle communication= improved speed: We’re trying to beat speeding bullets remember!)
Regular (short) exposure to the sun is the best way to get your vitamin D. Oral supplementation is possible (and often necessary in the winter months) but it is not as effective. The sun’s rays have been demonised for many decades now, and along with spending countless hours indoors at work, at home or commuting we are told to constantly wear sunblock, long sleeve shirts and hats to avoid exposure. This has led to many of the population being deficient in one of the most important contributors to human health. I’m not saying go out and bake in the sun all day long with no protection, nor am I advising you fly directly into the sun for a few seconds (like Superman has been known to do on occasion for a quick re-charge). Stay in the sun for less time than it takes to burn, but try to do it every day.
1) Human Movement. Volume 12, Issue 4, Pages 324-330, doi: 10.2478/v10038-011-0036-4, December 2011. Acute Effects of Drop Jump Potentiation Protocol on Sprint and Countermovement Vertical Jump Performance. José Bomfim Lima1 / Douglas Marin1 / Gustavo Barquilha1 / Leopoldo Da Silva1 / Enrico Puggina1 / Tania Pithon-Curi1 / Sandro Hirabara
2) J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Aug;26(8):2140-5. doi: 10.1519/JSC. Effect of range of motion on muscle strength and thickness. Pinto RS, Gomes N, Radaelli R, Botton CE, Brown LE, Bottaro M.
3) J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Feb 25. [Epub ahead of print]. Effect of back squat depth on lower body post-activation potentiation. Esformes JI, Bampouras TM.
4) J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Dec;26(12):3243-61. doi: 10.1519/JSC. Influence of squatting depth on jumping performance. Hartmann H, Wirth K, Klusemann M, Dalic J, Matuschek C, Schmidtbleicher D