The science of keeping your body guessing

To throw a hammer, I spin my body 360 degrees four times and then release a wire that’s attached to a 16-pound ball. To throw a hammer 80 meters, I have to increase the tension on the wire to around 700 pounds — the same weight as a grand piano — as I let go.

I’ve been throwing hammers for more than 25 years, winning an Olympic gold medal along the way, but as I grew older I found that it was becoming increasingly difficult to recover from the fatigue and injury. Athletes begin to lose their ability to recover at 30, and that capacity deteriorates significantly after 35. That’s when many athletes feel they’ve reached their physical limits — many consider retirement.

I began to feel like a paperclip; weakened after too many bends — it’s the repetitive movement that causes fatigue and injury. But I was surprised to find that after I experimented with different training exercises I’d created (I call them Hammerobics), the stress on my body decreased dramatically.

The aim is to get the body to respond quickly to ever changing stimuli. It challenges both muscles and mind. The athlete performs standard exercises, such as squats, bench presses or step ups, but with hammers attached to either end of the barbell.

As the hammers swing back and forth, they move in a chaotic pendulum motion called parametric oscillation, which is also seen in a hammer throw before release. The unpredictable motion requires quick compensatory muscle movements, reducing the stress of repetition.

Hammerobics can be incorporated into training regimens two to three times a week. In order to further develop these exercises, I’m investigating how specific areas of the brain react to repetitive and non-repetitive motions. For instance, I’ve been using functional magnetic resonance imaging to study how brain activity differs when I simply squeeze a sponge over and over with one hand compared to crumpling a newspaper into a ball with one hand.

The latter task requires quick control of hand movements depending on the shape of paper, which is constantly changing. Our experiments have shown how this strongly stimulates the brain area responsible for motor planning and body perception. I believe that Hammerobics can have a similar effect. By avoiding repetitive strain, Hammerobics could benefit both professional athletes and everyday people.

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