We all need a party-trick – or the fun of cultivating obscure, semi-useless natural talents

Talent is the natural aptitude or skill one has in any given action.  If one is really fortunate, one is able to combine their given talent with their livelihood.  If you have a calling, as the saying goes, you will never “work” a day in your life.  What I’m talking about is something that comes easier to you than it seemingly does to others although one must work hard to refine this talent.  Most of us, if we’ve lived at least semi-full lives, have discovered a number of things we are terrible at,  a smaller collections of things we are middle of the road average at and a very small list of things that, for one reason or another, we kick-ass in.  This post is a celebration of the cultivation of those weird, random talents.

When I was 11 I begged my mother for months to let me take martial arts classes.  It’s not that she didn’t want me to, it’s just that we didn’t have that much money at the time.  Finally, she relented, and we found a suitable dojo/boxing gym.  This place was open 7 nights a week – the first 2 hours for boxing, the 2nd two hours for Shotokan Karate.  I usually went a minimum of 5 days a week and attended both training sessions.  After 10 or 11 months of this the following things became apparent.  I was shitty boxer and at best I was able to attain a level that didn’t provoke outright embarassment in onlookers.  On the other hand, I was better in Karate…and what really distinguished me was my flexibity, speed and kicking ability.  My kicks were well above average, and my hands, even in Karate were, well, meh.  For those of you who are new to martial arts, Shotokan is a Japanese style that is not generally known for flashy kicks.  I , however, lived for such, so this being the early 80s I ordered books (yes, kiddies, no Youtube tutorials) written by well-known Korean Taekwondo practitioners that gave detailed technique breakdowns of many jump-spinning kicks, double jump spinning kicks and the like.  Soon  I started to do tournament sparring and it turns out I was relatively succesful.  I was painfuly shy at this point in my life so nobody at school had the slightest idea what I was doing with my spare time until my tournament results got some very localized media attention.  But perhaps even funnier, of the “party trick” variety, was the reception I got at first in the actual tournaments.  I remember once I destroyed this kid, a black belt, 3 points to 0 with rapid fire high kicks.  As we finished the head judge said “Hey, outstanding job for a yellow belt, you do Taekwondo?”  When I replied “No, Shotokan”, he did a doubletake and laughed.  The thing is, I trained 10 to 14 hours a week on this really obscure (especially at the time) skill that was really only applicable in this very specific setting.  I have never been a skilled fighter, I don’t have the instincts.  What I was very good at, however, was this very specific form of “tag” that is tournament karate sparring.

Another very, nay, extremely unlikely skill that I possess is the benchpress.  If you told me at 18 that one day I’d be that dude in the gym who benchpresses more than everyone else, I’d have laughed my ass off.  Until my mid-40s, I had a slimmer atheletic build.  I’ve always had fairly broad shoulders but otherwise I wasn’t big-boned, hairy chested or, at the time, overly burdened with muscle.  I was, and in some ways remain, the original metrosexual.  Benchpressing was for Neanderthals.  I was much more focused in my 20s and 30s on my 10K times than powerlifting.  Fast forward 2 decades in time and almost 8 years of Powerlifting training.  My deadlift is pathetic by almost any standard, my squat is respectable when I’m not injured but my bench is another matter.  On any given day in a commercial gym I can probably outbench anyone in the gym, even the heavier guys.  I might not out-bench everybody in a powerlifting gym, but I’ll at least make a good showing for myself.  I don’t grind out my benchpresses, they go up easily, even when I’m very close to my 1RM…until I’m over that limit and it doesn’t move.  I never train to failure and I only fail lifts a couple of times a year.  As my coach asked me the other day, “So what’s it like having this one weird thing you’re really good at?  I bet it doesn’t come up much in cocktail party chat”…

Finally, the last thing I’m weirdly good at is Trivial Pursuit or Jeapordy type games.  My cousin actually had a week long winning streak on Jeapordy program (RIP Alex Trebek) in the 90s so perhaps it’s in the genes.  So much so that I immediatey vibed with with the move Slumdog Millionaire when it came out.  I just happen to know a lot of weird, random facts for a number of weird, random reasons.  I clean up in pub quizzes, as long as it’s general interest and not too (which can happen where I live) UK specific.  I’m always getting the “WTF, how do you know that?!?!” reaction.  What can I say, I guess rampant boredom and no TV growing up had something to do with it…

We all need these party tricks, these obscure skills that maybe don’t garner much public glory but make us feel good about ourselves.  Firstly, because skills or talents are only discovered and developed because you’ve gone out there and tried many things until, lo and behold, here’s this crazy thing that you’re better at than most people.  Secondly, you need to work hard take the skill in question to the next level.  All of the skills I mentioned above were examples applying many hours of hard work to a specific apptitude.

The evolution of a Powerlifter.

I happened upon strength training almost by accident.  I had been going to the gym for a number of years, nay, decades, more or less consistently.  So I went to the gym regularly, but aimlessly, without clear goals.  I’d do whatever I felt like doing once I arrived at the gym and the exercise choice was largely influenced by whether a machine or bench was free.  Typical bro splits, chest, arms and abs.  Nary a leg was trained nor a squat squatted.  A good program was something one watched on TV.

Then, one day some years ago, I couldn’t stand it any more.  I was bored, really, really bored with the gym.  The gym, or rather a big commercial gym, is a fairly ludicrous space in the best of times.  I’d feel faintly ridiculous wandering around from exercise station to the next, bro tunes cranking in my headphones, trying to get my pump on.  I came to the realization that there had to be a better way of training or, if there wasn’t, I should find a better activity to spend time and money on.  Like everyone else on the planet, I resorted to the time-honored method of Google searching solutions to my problem.

Hmm, powerlifting movements sounded interesting and I thought, hey, it might finally provide me with some structure.  I’d actually be training with a purpose.  I’d set goals and try to attain them.  Solid, I thought.  This was just seemingly minutes before the big powerlifting Youtube boom, so I initially combed through loads of forums and a few books to glean as much information as possible.  There was, however, one slight problem.

To whit, my bench press was somehow, from a technique perspective, not bad.  I had no idea, however,  how to squat or deadlift, I didn’t know anybody who did those exercises and, to be honest, it was intimidating.  Nevertheless, I began my first program (5×5) and gingerly stepped into a highly underutilized (in those days) squat rack.  My squats were ugly, but at least I felt I was on the right track.  In spite of all I had read, I still had no clue how to properly deadlift.  My deadlifts were dreadful: mad, bad and dangerous to know.  Furthermore, I was usually the only person in the gym squatting or deadlifting outside of a Smith machine.  You know how every gym seems to have a Vibram Fivefingers guy?  I began to wonder if I wasn’t a variation on that theme:  well-meaning but slightly misguided.

Soon, as my program progressed, I got those sweet, sweet beginner gainz.  My benchpress shot way up and even my terrible squats and deadlifts improved.  By this time, powerlifting had started to become a thing and people like Mark Rippetoe, Mark Bell and that crazy Ask Elliot guy were putting out content on Youtube.  So while I hadn’t yet met like-minded people, I could at least watch them train and pick up some pointers.

While it seems funny now, my training partners viewed my squatting as a ridiculously girly thing to do and deadlifts as needlessly complicated.  They’d make a few wisecracks, shake their heads and go back to their cable-pulls.  I was still in the “bench much more than you squat” club but nonetheless my squats and deadlifts had progressed to the point that I felt I required real coaching before I hurt myself.  So back to google I went.  When I had first started training squat, bench and deadlift, there were literally two powerlifting gyms in my area and for a variety of reasons, including proximity, I wasn’t going to train with them.  A new one had opened up in the interim so I decided to give it a shot.

If many people are intimidated by the idea of going to a gym, many experienced gym goers are intimidated by the idea of going to a powerlifting gym.  In your mind’s eye it’s going to be like Westside Barbell with a bunch of shaved head, tattoed convicts and snarling pit bulls. That’s ridiculous, of course, but if you don’t walk through the door you’ll never know.  I walked right in and said, ” look, I am an absolute noob. Tell me what do and I’ll do it.”  It was revelation to meet people interested in the same obscure thing.  We could sit their and talk for hours about belts, shoes, programs, technique, you name it. My squats and deadlifts finally started outpacing my bench as they should.

Fast foward a few years, I had done some competitions and inevitably, been injured a few times.  I’ve set some PRs that I’m proud of and once briefly held the benchpress WR for my age/weight group in my federation.  Sometimes, however, life has a way of interfering with one’s best laid plans.  For the last several months I’ve not been able to train seriously due to work and family issues.  I still go to the gym whenever I can, but I’m not able to stick to a serious, challenging program that would allow me to increase PRs.   My motivation to train for competitions wanes periodically, but my motivation to powerlift is unquestionable.

I realized a few things in the past year. I don’t think I’ll ever stop powerlifting style training.  I truly enjoy it and believe it’s an integral part of a healthy life. Furthermore, lifting heavy weight is sufficiently taxing and radical that it acts like an unerring weathervane for other parts of your life.  Not eating or sleeping well?  It’ll be reflected in your lifts.  Not focused due to emotional turmoil?  It’ll be reflected in your lifts.  It sounds funny, but lifting gives me extra motivation to get s*** together, if only to lift better 🙂  And finally, the best thing about powerlifting is not setting a PR, it’s the process itself.

 

 

Why is this so popular? Rant o’ the day

Today I’m going to bend one of the golden rules of this blog  The gym should be a judgement free zone,  not in the infantile, disempowering “here, have a donut” Planet Fitness sense, but rather a positive place where you do challenging things.  Mirin’ is encouraged, but haughty disdain of one’s fellow gym-goer is the penultimate gym foul.  Rest assured, though, that this rant is not about hatin’ on the playa,  it’s about hatin’ on the game.

To whit, my friends, we need to talk about this “bench-pressing with the feet-up” trend.  Don’t get me wrong, I know it’s a valid accessory exercise and/or a good variation for people with lower back issues.  However, I am completely mystified that a good 80 percent of the guys (it’s always men) I see bench-pressing in Globo gyms do the “feet up” thing.  WTF, y’all?  Was there a memo that I didn’t get?  On any given evening in the Globo gym I’m surrounded by legs in the air gym Bros benching away with the smug air of insider traders.  It’s not being used as accessory exercise, we’re talking feet never touching ground, ever.

“Feet in the air” benching is a good accessory exercise precisely because it’s less stable and takes leg drive completely out of the equation.  One can therefore only use sub-maximal weights  but it provides a good chest/triceps workout and underlines the importance of a tight back/retracted scapulae.  Actually, it’s pretty gangster if you see somebody bench serious weight with “feet in the air” because it puts the athlete at a disadvantage.  But you never see that in the Globo gym because people aren’t getting that much stronger, really.  The only way to get a lot stronger is to lift some heavy-a@# weight, and the only way to do that is with the normal bench press.

I get it, I get it.  Most of the guys bench like this simply because when they walk into the gym and they see 4 gym bros benching away like dead cockroaches and 1 apparently clueless dude benching with feet firmly planted.  If you don’t know any better, your best bet is to do what everyone else is doing.  Going to the gym and using the equipment is important, but so is having sufficient knowledge about things like technique and programming.  The Globo gym business model isn’t about education or quality coaching.  It’s all about novelty and catching the next trend.  Even if one were to hire one of their overpriced personal trainers, he or she is more likely to have their client doing bosu ball kettle-bells swings than teaching them proper compound lift form.