Lifting – a day in the life

barbell-grayscale

Yesterday I was reminded, repeatedly, about the value of keeping an open mind.  Last night I went to the big Globo gym near my work.  My programming called for bench press, safety bar squats (as my rotator cuff is still very much an issue) and accessory exercises.  However, the globo gym does not have specialty bars of any sort…and to me the leg press machine is only slightly less ridiculous than the Smith machine.  So, while they are not analogous, I opted for deadlifts instead.

A secondary complication was that I, once again, forgot my chalk.  Past a certain weight, chalk-less deadlifts suck.  Your hands get ripped to shreds and the grip issues mess with your form.  A buddy of mine lent me his Oly lifting straps last week so I decided to give them an honest try.  I tried lifting with straps, once, about 2 years ago.  I used them for about 5 minutes and then gave it up as being “too complicated”. Besides, real men don’t use straps, right? Did I mention that my deadlift is, at the best of times, straight-up pathetic?

I took a good 10 minutes to really figure out how to use the straps correctly.  Then I gingerly tried 1 rep at about 80%.  Wow – lifting straps, where have you been all my life?  Due to my only recently healed hamstring I’m coming off a 9 week deadlift hiatus so I’m fairly de-trained.  And, yet, I began to rep out weights close to my former “strapless” 1RM.  So the good news is I am really stronger than my lousy deadlift numbers would imply and strapped deadlifts are probably the best way of getting me of the plateau I’ve been on.  The bad news is I realized just how weak my grip is and that it’s a major sticking point.  If I didn’t compete, I wouldn’t care, but I’ll have to find a way to build my grip strength pronto.  Farmers carries, anyone?

Anyway, fresh from my awesome discovery regarding straps, I headed to the bench press area to do some very low weight, low volume deload sets.  So I start benching with the bar and I notice, hmm, this feels great.  No fatigue, no soreness and, you ever have those days when you’re just stronger than usual? It was one of those days.  Nevertheless, I reminded myself, I’m in a deload phase and next week’s programming is a killer.  Just as I was about to give into common sense, “K”, one of the trainers, installed herself and a client on a bench adjacent.  K is eastern european, non-surgically enhanced drop dead gorgeous and all around nice.  Amazing genetics refined by hard work in the gym – she’d give Elton John second thoughts about his life choices.  So, full transparency, I stayed on the bench and started to add weight.  Not because I am a creeper, nor was I was I “ogling” (not my style) and, no, it wasn’t some lame attempt to impress.  For one, women couldn’t care less about how much you can lift and, besides, she goes out with a guy I know.  Rather, and I know this sounds weird, I’ve noticed that I can usually lift a little more when attractive women are in the vicinity.  I think it’s probably universal for guys, must be some sort of evolutionary trait.

Anyway, I started making 20kg jumps after each set of 3…as I was getting towards more serious weight one of the biggest gym douches arrives with his posse.  They install themselves on another bench near mine and start their sets.  This guy is roughly my age, much taller and weighs about 25kgs more than me.  He’s never done anything to me, per se, but for some reason, I’ve just never liked him.  Soon, however, I’m up to my 1RM weight and I need a spotter.  If my deadlift stinks, and it does, my bench doesn’t.  So I had a fair amount of weight on bar.  I needed somebody with a decent strength and experience to spot for me.  Normally, I’d rather have had my toe nails ripped out with pliers than ask this guy for a spot, but I knew I was going to smash a new “touch and go” PR.  Swallowing my pride, I asked your man for spot and proceeded to best my former PR by 5kg.  I then added 2.5kg on top of that and failed.  It turns out the big guy a) knows what he is talking about (very good analysis of why I failed the last lift) and b) is a pretty decent, friendly dude after all.  He encouraged me to try again but it was getting late and I began to feel guilty re: blowing off my deload phase.

So the guy I thought was the biggest tool in the gym turns out to be pretty cool.  To be honest, he does have resting douche face but, then again, so do I quite often.  And lifting straps are best thing since Netflix.  All in all, it was a gentle reminder of the value of keeping an open mind as well as getting out of your comfort zone.

Do you even lift, bro?

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“Do you even lift, bro?” was the cliched, but very real, sarcastic put-down of a heavily Italo-american US East Coast bodybuilding subculture that thrived from the early 80s until roughly 5 years ago.  The pathos in this phrase is self-evident (to everyone except the person asking it) and Broscience Life is the brilliant comedic Youtube channel that mined this rich vein of comedy gold.  Fitness trends change so the roided out curl bro simpleton is rapidly fading in the rearview mirror of cultural significance.  In the current zeitgeist, it’s apparently Crossfitters who have picked up the gym douchiness mantle.  Nevertheless, the phrase remains as it touches a very raw nerve socioeconomic nerve.  Namely, do smart successful people lift weights to the point that, gasp, “gainz” are obvious?

When I first starting going to gyms in the 80s, the last thing I wanted to do was resemble these dudes.  For one, you’d probably catch a beating if you ever went near the bench press or any thing that’d allow to work chest, shoulder and biceps – so it wasn’t easy.  Also, and I hate how this sounds, these guys were, in my mind, ridiculous.  In the US, if you are over 18 but not quite 21, the only clubbing option are these “under 21” clubs which don’t serve booze to the underage and, since it’s the only game in town, forced many different youth subcultures into close quarters.  The roid boys and I weren’t going for the same young ladies and, yet, I couldn’t help but notice how some of the most faux Alpha of these guys ended up with some pretty attractive young women.  Maybe these young ladies couldn’t trade bon mots like Dorothy Parker, but they weren’t hideous.  Hmm, I thought, every woman I know swears these guys are ridiculous so how is it that….?

From the 80s to the 90s I went to the gym as well as ran a fair amount.  I’d do chest, arms, abs at the gym and rely on running for the lower body.   Boy, in my 20s, this worked like a charm.  I was lean but with a reasonable amount to upper body definition that didn’t draw undue attention either way.  My legs (quads, etc) were not bad but I realize now my posterior chain (lower back, butt,etc) was seriously weak which set me up for issues when I hit my 30s.  At this point I realized that given half a chance ( weird for a former painfully skinny teenager) I could put on muscle relatively easily.  Since I was often in caloric deficit and muscle mass was not something that I prioritized, I didn’t care.

Fast forward some years, I get married, have kids and all of a sudden the six pack, good 10k times, etc goes out the window.  At first it was strangely liberating to, you know, get sort of chubby.  It was fun, I was exhausted anyway, and I was convinced that I could lose those extra Kgs anytime I put my mind to it.  The older I got, of course, the harder it was to lose that weight through good old steady state cardio, aka running.  In my mid-40s I finally got close the shape I was in my 30s.  Then, predictably, body parts began to fail me due to the uneven stress they were subjected to.  I developed very serious tendonitis in my right knee which effectively stopped my running career in its proverbial tracks.

There I was in my early 40s with a bad knee and chronic bad back issues.  I could no longer run so it seemed that I was doomed to some sort of pre-obese doughy dad-bod state.  As as last resort I thought, hell, might as well go to the gym to work out those body parts that can be exercised.  At the time, I thought that my knee and lower back issues could only get worse.  Nevertheless, my arms, chest, shoulders and back really responded well.  But the machines like leg press and quadriceps lift did indeed made my back and knee pain worse.

Purely by chance, I stumbled on Stronglifts  5×5 and Starting Strength at the same time.  The message was clear, being stronger was infinitely better than “bodybuilding” lifting – and compound movements are the way to get stronger.  So I started down this path and haven’t looked back since.  My knee and back problems disappeared very quickly.  One of the by products, however, of getting stronger is getting relatively more jacked.  Let’s keep it real, while I’m not 7 percent body fat, I’m not fat either so regular shirts, coats, trousers, etc no longer fit me.  If I walk into a corporate meeting room I realize that, at my age especially, developed shoulders, arms, back, glutes, etc make you stand out somewhat.  Not always in a good way, either, as there is still a socioeconomic bias against a visibly developed musculature.

As I have mentioned in a previous post, I’ve had a decent amount of negative feedback in my social circle regarding this increase in muscle mass.  I understand where they are coming from as held these opinions for many years. Here’s the issue:  I really like getting stronger and building goals that involve strength training.  If this means I add muscle mass, so be it. I am the same person, with or without the extra muscle mass.

Let’s be honest, now.  If you are jacked, there are a certain number of women who will notice.  In fact, you will get much attention from some of the same women who loudly professed such disregard for such a primitive look.  Women are complex, finicky creatures so can I say that the “jacked” look has contributed to recent success? Oh yes indeed,  and not always the ones that most people would suspect.  I sometimes get “felt up” on the arms, shoulders and back during conversations with people.  Not complete strangers but not necessarily people I know really well either.  I know it’s a thing because it didn’t happen to me at all before.  .

Which brings me back to the original question.  In those days, “Do you even lift, bro?”was a put-down to suggested that nobody noticed your gains.  These days it’s more nuanced as too many gains=knuckle dragger in certain circles.  I will never be mistaken for the bodybuilder but I’ve got far more muscle than the average.  Nobody will ever ask me these days if I lift, but I am sometimes asked why.  I do it for me, to get strong and, quite frankly, how you feel about it doesn’t enter the equation.

 

 

Obstacle or opportunity?

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This post has been ruminating for some time now and has been inspired by conversations with my kids, some great feedback I received a few weeks ago from a fellow blogger and, believe it or not, the latest Chris Rock special on Netflix.  Chris has this riff about how bullies provide an essential part of kids’ educational experience.   It’s funny, of course, and like all great humor it’s 1 part exaggeration to 1 part truth.  It’s an old idea that periodic bursts of stress promote the most growth.  It’s the major principle underlying strength training as well the inspiration for that famous Orson Welles quote in “The Third Man”:  “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had five hundred years of democracy and peace – and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”

Habitual readers of this blog know that I have been dealing with 2 injuries for the last few months.  As an athlete, the correct response to being injured are rehab, analyze how  you injured yourself and, finally, continue to train those movements that you can safely do.  In my case, I haven’t been able to do a low-bar squat for 3 months now, and have only been able to start dead-lifting again in the past few weeks.  So I have spent the last few weeks refining my competition bench technique and training to a level that would not have been possible if I had to also concentrate on heavy squats and deadlifts.  At the same time I’ve come to rely on, from sheer necessity, a number of accessory exercises (safety-bar squats, belt squats, glute ham raises, etc) that I should have used in my training previously but never did.  Now that I am, very carefully, dead-lifting again my training is focusing on technique, technique and more technique.  As I will only doing benchpress in the next competition, I can now afford focus more on improving my technique and strengthening the main-movers of the dead-lift.  I’m not so focused on pulling the most weight for the next competition.  Improved technique, more experience in important accessory exercises, an appreciation for prehab and mobility training and a stronger bench press – I’m not saying I want to get injured again, but it can (if you have the correct mindset) teach you some important lessons.

I’ve always said that boredom is an essential parenting tool.  Yes, allow your kids to get bored or create situations (camping weekends without cell phones) that force them to rely on their creativity and curiosity.  Boredom is a subliminal teacher that teaches you lessons on the sly.  The smarter a person is, the lower their threshold for boredom, and that’s a good thing.  If you are bored, you will be forced to provide stimulation to your brain.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with kids these days besides the fact that we, their parents, allow them non-stop access to smartphones, streaming video and video games.  Without a doubt, boredom is what saved my high school career and what allowed for my subsequent success in university.  I grew up, not rich, in a 3rd world country in somewhat special circumstances.  The phone didn’t work half the time, we didn’t have TV (even if we had, there were only 2 channels which only played a few hours) so my only forms of entertainment were sports, hanging out with friends and books.  And did we ever have books – of all kinds.  My mother got her doctorate at Harvard so we often her schoolmates/colleagues visiting us.  So many people left behind books – all of which I devoured.  History, social sciences, politics, physic, philosophy, etc.  So I was not only reading these books, but was able to discuss them with my mother and her friends.  It’s obvious when I describe it this way that I was learning, but it didn’t occur to me at the time.  I simply had nothing else to do.  Later in my high school career I shot myself in the foot scholastically with bad attitude/partying, etc – and the only thing that saved me was this base of knowledge I had accrued.  My classmates were often amazed that the “less than model student” often had the answers to difficult questions.  Once, I famously entered a school essay contest because the prizes were all expenses paid week-long trip to a student congress type deal in Washington, DC.  We had to write about government.  My essay won first prize and my buddy’s essay (which I wrote for him) won 2nd prize.  Predictably we had a good time in DC as well as a few minor disciplinary problems.

The country where I grew up was, and sadly remains, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.  It also has one of the strongest, most vibrant cultures I’ve ever encountered and, like Renaissance Italy, absolutely radiates creativity and “thinking outside of the box”.  People are poor but find a millions forms of expression and, hopefully, a way out of their situation.  I am not singing the praises of abject poverty, not by a long shot.  Too much stress with no periods of respite break a person.  Also, countries where poverty and boredom abound but intellectual curiosity and expression are discouraged are volatile and unstable.

Motivational speakers love to cite, to the extent that it’s become clichéd, that the Chinese word for “crisis” signifies both “danger” and “opportunity”.  Some things are too good to be true as this appears to be a poorly interpreted translation.  A closer translation is apparently “a point where things happen or change” which decidedly more neutral.  Which I think is more logical as, in my experience, how you react to stress or obstacles is like billiards, a game of angles.  If you get the angles right you in billiards, you will sink your balls while positioning yourself to sink the remainder.  If your shots are just a little bit off, good luck to you.  So stress or obstacles can serve stimulus for growth if managed correctly.  This increased strength will set you up for further success when opportunities arise, provided you play the angles correctly.

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_word_for_%22crisis%22

 

Ain’t no half reppin’

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Something miraculous happened on Friday night.  I got out of work late so I went to big Globo gym because, well,  its nearby.  Say what you will about this gym, it does have 8 power racks and plentiful benches.  I’ve only had to wait for a bench once in 3 years and I’ve never had to wait for a power rack.   So you can imagine my surprise when I strolled out of the locker room and realized that all 8 power racks were taken.  Not only were they in use, they were all being used for squatting!

“What the hell”, I thought, “is there some new social media challenge craze?”.  To say this was anomalous behaviour for this gym is pure understatement.  Sure, there are a few lifters at this place that powerlift or Olympic lift, but we never all train at the same time.   I was training deadlifts so the lack of free power racks was no hinderance.  A bigger issue was that I forgot my chalk.  Globo gyms don’t do chalk so I was sh*t out of luck, grip-wise.

As I warmed up I took a gander at the power racks.  2 of the racks were being used by these Oly lifting guys who were doing front squats.  The other 6 racks, however, were being used by gangs of youngish dudes, not really teenagers but let’s say they aren’t pushing 30 either.  And these guys were making every rookie error possible save one.  J hooks set way too high, backing up blind to re-rack the bar, using the silly foam bar pad, wearing gloves, using too much weight, knees way forward and, it goes without saying, not squatting to depth.  I’m not talking missing depth by a little bit, more like quarter squats.  So I didn’t see “knees caving in” because nobody was squatting deep enough to make that error apparent.

While it’s easy to lampoon a bunch of foam pad using young guys who quarter squat not terribly heavy weight and enthusiastically high-five each other, let he who is without sin throw the first wrist-wrap.  Honestly, I thought it was cool, but remain slightly baffled as to why the sudden popularity.  In an earlier post, I discussed the taboo of giving advice in Globo gyms.  At a rack right next to where I was deadlifting these 2 guys set the J hooks noticeably higher than their shoulders (!) and had wrapped a towel around the bar as there were no more foam bar pads(cringe).  The first guy who un-racked narrowly missed dumping the bar in my direction so I felt it was OK to point out that putting the J hook far lower and not using the towel would make for an easier, more stable lift.  Didn’t say a word re: form, though I was dying to do so.  Squats are not exactly enjoyable at first.  If you compound that with doing the lift wrong, you’ll probably quit after a few weeks.  Time will tell, I guess, if there are legs to this squat craze.

Without chalk, my deadlifts didn’t exactly go as planned.  My grip strength is a weak point, and my deadlift form tends to go to hell when I feel the bar slipping from my hands.  So instead of working up to heavy weight, I stuck to sets at 70% for volume and then did accessory work.  Note to self – keep some chalk in the car as well, and maybe get used to lifting straps or hook grip.

Good to see all those guys giving it a go in the squat rack.  I’m more than a little jealous since it’s been 3 months now since I’ve done a low bar squat.  My rotator cuff is not getting better so I have yet another ultra-sound scheduled for next week.  My physical therapist, sports friendly though he is, would freak out if he knew I still bench and deadlift heavy.  I’m 8 weeks out from the next competition.  I had registered for classic powerlifting as well as stand alone bench, but it’s fairly apparent now that I’ll only be able to do bench.  The record for for this federation in my age/weight class is 10 kgs heaver than my best competition bench, however I have bench pressed that weight “touch and go”, and can now bench within 5kgs with strict competition form.  I’m certainly going to give it a shot.