'Splitting Like a Girl'

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It has been a dismal day in the eastern half of the country. So in the spirit of bracing activities to make the most of cold weather, here is a report on the right way to split firewood, especially if you're female. Background:

As previously mentioned, the Atlantic article I most enjoyed reporting and writing was "Throwing Like a Girl." In part that was because the "reporting" included a week at Vic Braden's tennis camp in California and an interview with the actor John Goodman. But the story also helped me understand a lifelong familiar phenomenon in a completely different way.

The phenomenon was the dynamics of throwing a ball, or the related motions of serving with a tennis racket or swinging a golf club. The concept that cleared things up for me was the "kinetic chain." I explain the "chain" in the article -- it's the transfer of momentum, and continual increase in speed, as motion shifts from large-mass parts of your body, like your legs and torso, to your arm and hand and ultimately the ball. From this great site, here's Randy Johnson transferring a whole lot of momentum along the chain. [These are GIF animations that might not come through properly in RSS feeds; if there's a problem, follow this link to our site.]

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Reader JS, in Vermont, reports how understanding the kinetic chain has equipped her for new happiness as a log-splitter. In a note titled "Splitting Like a Girl," she reports:

>>Although I've never played baseball, something kept seeming very familiar about the physical act as you described it [in "Throwing"], and it suddenly occurred to me that there are a number of similarities to wielding a maul to split firewood, something I do almost daily since I switched to heating my house with a woodstove.

As a strong and healthy but non-athletic female rapidly approaching the age of Medicare eligibility, I don't have the upper body strength to power through the wood, so I've struggled a bit to learn how to do this chore, and spent a fair amount of time trying to figure out the difference between a whack that neatly splits apart a chunk of wood and one that nicks it and bounces off.

I'd begun to figure out that standing up straight when I swing not only is more effective but takes much less effort, and it was your very clear description of the "kinetic chain" that gave me  real "A-ha!" moment next time I went out to split.  Working with an upright back means the maul is upright and balanced for a split second at the top of the swing, meaning I can slide my left hand all the way down to the end of the handle.  And that means I need very little muscular effort, just a sort of twitch of the lower back and a slight tightening of the biceps,  to touch off one heck of a downswing, which then hits the wood with acceleration doing all the work of producing force, rather than my (puny) power.

Or something.  This kind of physics is not my strong suit, Lord knows.  But that concept of the "kinetic chain" is really a wonderful one.  When I get it right, which I'm doing much more often now thanks to your article, I can literally feel it transferring from my lower back to my shoulders and upper arms, into the maul handle, ending with a very satisfying crack when it reaches the end at the wood.

Even if, as you say in that article, there's no actual structural difference between male and female upper bodies, the difference in pelvic structure and center of balance, plus the really striking difference in muscle power means that using tools almost universally designed by and made for men is often very frustrating.  I'm looking forward to figuring out how to apply the kinetic chain concept to make all sorts of outdoor chores a bit easier next summer.<<
Who says journalism never adds to general happiness and well-being!? Apart from the locus classicus in the Atlantic, the best place I've seen to learn about the kinetic chain is The Hardball Times, source of the Randy Johnson shot above and this schematic of the transfer of energy in Tim Lincecum's motion, below. I'd make some joke about the diagram being done with the cooperation of the TSA -- but, never mind, not worth it.

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Glad to be of service -- and stay warm up in Vermont.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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