Of Heroes, Grandmothers, and Good Chest Muscles
by Jeri Massi
Every hero has a great chest, and when people want to boost their own appearance or behave with confidence, they lift the chin and thrust out the chest, a sign of confidence. We associate the chest with courage, high spiritedness, and even self-sacrifice. The chest, after all, guards the heart. Behind that wall of muscular strength, the repository of our love and tenderness lies quietly beating, protected and hidden.
Looking good requires that men develop a powerful set of pectoral muscles, as the pectorals are associated with youth, strength, and vitality. And women want "perky" breasts, which requires hours in the gym developing the chest muscles so that the breasts, which of themselves have no muscle, can be well supported.
But appearances aside, the chest muscles are essential because they govern our ability to do work. The old myths of the great heroes who went out with their massive chests and accomplished great feats of strength and daring are actually rooted in truth. The chest muscles connect to the upper arm and shoulder blades. They provide strength for the arm to perform certain vital actions, actions usually associated with hard, productive work.
Jeanne, my 76-year old friend with whom I lift weights, has made great progress in her chest strength over the last three months. When we started her weight lifting program, Jean did not have the strength, when lying on her back, to push two five-pound dumb bells straight up from her chest to full arm extension above her. This basic exercise, called a chest press, was difficult for her, and we had to drop the amount of weight to almost nothing before she could do five repetitions without assistance.
Now, three months later, Jeanne can chest press 37.5 pounds ten times for a set, and she performs three sets of chest presses in each of our sessions together.
The chest is considered a "major" muscle group. The pectoralis major and pectoralis minor make up the chest muscles, and weight lifters often refer to the chest as the "pecs." Both muscles are fan shaped. The pectoralis major, which is the more visible of the two, attaches to the upper arm. It is the most significant muscle used for any arm motions across the chest. The pectoralis minor connects to the shoulder blade and is used to draw it down and forward---to hunch the shoulders.
The pecs rely on numerous other muscles for navigation of the arm and for stability, and most arm work relies on the interaction of chest and shoulder muscles, but forward motions rely most heavily on the chest muscles. Chest strength is developed by performing many repetitions of the chest press, which is described above, and the chest fly. The chest fly is normally performed lying on the back, holding two dumb bells to the sternum, and then bringing them out in a motion that resembles slowly opening heavy robes. When the weights are brought outward to a fully open-armed position, the person brings them back in to the starting point. I think of chest flies as an exercise that opens the chest and then closes it.
So Achilles, when he slew Hector in their famous final battle outside the fabled walls of Troy, was using a lot of chest strength as he swung his deadly shining sword and cut the life of Hector free from his body. And Robin Hood, eyes clear and bright, relied on good chest strength to draw back the bow, keep it steady, and release the arrow into the target to prove his mettle in King John's contest of archers.
Jeanne's grand daughter was coming for a visit over Easter, and Jeanne---perfect house keeper that she is---prepared for this visit in the time honored way of Southern hospitality. Jeanne cleaned her already spotless apartment from one end to the other. She got down on hands and knees and scrubbed her bath tub. She cleans it every week, but this was an especially vigorous scrubbing, and later when I looked at the tub's gleaming surface, so white that it seemed to shine, she still complained that she could not get up the minute gritty residue that had been put into it by the maintenance people to lower the risk of an elderly resident slipping while getting into or out of the tub and shower.
She vigorously vacuumed and dusted every room, then turned to the kitchen and scrubbed the enormous floor. Sink and counter tops were scoured. Then she really got down to work and started cooking the vast Easter dinner that she had planned for her college-aged grand daughter.
All of these actions relied heavily on chest strength. So that finally, on Easter Sunday when her grand daughter arrived from New York, Jeanne could stop work, and enjoy her afternoon and evening. Behind all those strong actions, I realize, is the beating heart that is filled with Jeanne's tenderness for her own family, her generosity and her kindness. Just like in the days of old, those strong chest muscles guard a loving heart.
The next week, as we worked on chest exercises: the chest press and the chest fly, Jeanne told me that she was a little tired. But she had been amazed and pleased at her ability to work as much as she had wanted to work, without the limits of weariness preventing her from her preparations. I was preparing to take my test for fourth degree black belt that same week, but in spite of a busy schedule of workouts, study, and private coaching from a personal trainer, I made the time to work with Jeanne, as our sessions together are important to me and very rewarding.
The test was grueling, for it was very long. Promotion to fourth degree black belt requires demonstrating all kinds of different skills: kicks, strikes, combinations, and the teachers required a very long demonstration of my self defense skills. Normally on a test, women are required to demonstrate two or three self defense responses to put down an attacker who grabs her. But for my test, I was required to do ten. Fourth degree black belt is the highest rank a woman has ever attained in my school. My attacker attempted to choke me, pull me to the ground by my hair, shake me back and forth by my lapels, take me down in a bear hug from behind, and execute different slashing and stabbing attacks with a rubber knife.
Instead of relying on the overly simplified wrist locks that are usually taught to women students, I surprised the instructors by clinging to my opponent and throwing him to the floor time and time again so that I could land on top, drive my weight into him (especially my forearm across his throat), and then I would use my legs, knees, arms, etc., to lock him up in arm bars or chokes. I never hesitated, and my willingness to grapple and throw impressed them. It was especially impressive as we were working on a carperted, concrete floor with no mats.
I passed the test, and the next day I returned home and invited Jeanne to view the video tape. I pointed out to her how the chest flies that we do gave me the strength to cling to my opponent and hang on so that I could throw him with foot sweeps. And the chest presses gave me the strength to swing my arms up in blocks that deftly turned into arm bars and wrist locks against him.
"Mercy!" she exclaimed as she watched. "Mercy!" When it was finished, she peered up at me through her glasses. Jeanne's eyes are very round and very gentle, and I have nicknamed her "mouse" because she reminds me of a curious mouse peering out at the world from the comfort and safety of its little hole. "Do you really like to do that? Didn't it hurt?"
"Yes it hurt a lot!" I told her. I was so sore the day after the test that I could hardly move. "But this is what I love to do."
Her voice took the judicious but dubious tone that only mothers make when they pronounce judgement. "All right then. I just hope you don't hurt yourself."
"Maybe we should lift weights Tuesday instead of Monday," I told her. "I think I need one more day to recover."
"I should think so! That will be fine."
She was tired, too, and welcomed the rest. She had worked busily, doing what mattered to her, perfecting the neat order of her home to welcome her grand daughter, make her comfortable, and express that generous love that grand mothers are so good at.
And I had done what mattered to me, launching myself into the austere world of martial arts. And both of us were able to do what we had wanted to do. The ability to do work comes from good strength, and good strength comes from good chest muscles. Good chest muscles come from consistent resistance training of the chest muscles. That training enables women to live as they choose to live, to be free and independent, and to decide their own course.