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.

Powerlifting, skateboarding and why keeping it real is so much fun.

I’m a middle-aged man who, in his lifetime, has had some modest athletic gifts that have allowed him to compete in Karate, Boxing, Kick-boxing, Baseball, Cross-country, Track and Field (high jump), various semi-marathons and, most recently, Powerlifting.  Try as I might, I can’t do “fitness”, it bores me to tears.  The idea of working out for working out’s sake makes me want to eat a bullet. Honestly, the concept of hitting muscles 8 different ways with machines and submaximal weights whilst tracking calories to a T makes me want to sit on the couch with Netflix and a big plate of chocolate chips cookies.  I need to be viscerally interested in what I do, and nothing focuses one quite as effectively as fear.

If I am honest with myself, most of my athletic success has been in those sports that have certain component of risk and/or fear.  To whit, I was probably best at baseball, vtournament Karate sparring, kick-boxing and most recently powerlifting.  Without going into too much detail, all of those sports require you to master your fear.  I am not what you’d call a macho person.  The idea of bungee-jumping makes me light-headed.  I once agreed to go sky-diving and then spent the worst afternoon of my life as I waited for my scheduled “drop plane” to take off.  The flight was cancelled due to weather and I literally the happiest person on the planet Earth that day ( Roughly 1998, in suburban Frankfurt).  I was very drawn to combat sports but personally I do not like to fight.  I have been in some street fights from pure necessity.  I know that football hooligans find a real high from pure aggression but I find that aberrant.

Powerlifting is probably the least “risky” sport of those I’ve just cited.   Really heavy weight in squat or bench press does not elicit the same fear and/or nervousness as walking into a ring with a real badass or facing down a fastball pitcher with control issues.  Nevertheless, it is scary.  I find that I’m only really motivated when I put some “serious” weight on the bar and think, “holy %$#@, how am I going to move this”.   This afternoon I was at the powerlifting club to train “safety bar” squats, as I still cannot lowbar squat without pain.  Safety-bar squats are the “ego” killer, you will suffer at weights you think are ridiculously low.  I did my programmed sets, and then my assistance work, but honestly it left me a bit depressed.  I needed a bit more.  Safety squats suck because there doesn’t seem to be a technically clean way of doing them.  You can’t work the leverages as you can with a good technical low-bar squat so you are forced to lift much lighter weights.  At the same time, your core works extremely hard which is really the hidden pearl of this exercise.  In any event, I did heavy singles, purely for motivation.  Full transparency, my heavy single in a safety squat bar is a good 50kg less than in a low-bar squats.  You get the weight down to the hole, but then how you get it up is less obvious.  Brace like a mofo and push, basically.

While I was squatting my son was skateboarding in the parking lot of the powerlifting club.   My son, as I’ve described on previous posts, is obsessed with skateboarding.   He is a chip off the old block.  He’s not a hell for leather let’s ollie 15 stairs sort of skateboarder.  He’s extremely technical, and he works many, many hours on “finesse’ moves.  In short, he’s not reckless but he takes risks for sport he loves, and he consequently gets hurt quite a lot.  For those of you aren’t familiar with skateboarding, it’s not possible to progress in the sport and not hurt yourself and/or face your fear on a daily basis.  My son is actually quite good for his age at skateboarding and partly it’s because he’s able to able to master a risk/benefit analysis.  He is driven to keep trying, to land a trick cleanly…and sometimes that means you hurt yourself.  Also, you need to have the drive to try the same technique thousands of times until you master it.  There is nothing so hard as making a skateboarding trick look easy.  He is such a careful little dude but at the same time he’ll try seemingly crazy tricks because he knows he’s analyzed it and should be able.

So at the same time I can’t just do 5×10@80kg safety bar squats.  It’s awesome and it works the lower body but it’s not sustainable.  It’s boring, I won’t do it because I’m not hchallenged.  Let me push the envelope and I’ll be happy.

 

 

 

The Safety squat bar – the best exercise you should, but don’t, do

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Pros:

  • It will straight up make you stronger for squats and deadlifts
  • You’ll be the vegan of your powerlifting crew, that condescending dude who has staked a claim on the moral high ground (could also be considered a “con”)
  • Physique gainz, son

Cons:

  • Really hard
  • Not for beginners
  • When coming out of the hole, all bets are off, just brace like you never braced before
  • Ego killer (could be considered a “pro”)

In Globo gyms, the low bar squat is the king of exercises; everyone talks a lot about them but very few people actually do them…and only a small subset of those people do them to depth.  Similarly, the safety-squat bar is the 2 ton elephant in most powerlifting gyms.  Everybody knows it’s there but everyone does their best to act like they haven’t seen it.  It’s the best thing that you should be doing that you probably won’t do…and for  good reasons:  it’s really, really hard, technique is secondary and it’s an ego killer to strain under far less weight than you can low-bar squat.

I am the first to admit that I first picked up the safety squat bar under duress.  I injured my left shoulder/biceps in November of 2017.  The last time I squatted significant weight was on November 11…my injury is healing, albeit very slowly.  I realized quickly that the only thing worse than safety bar squats would be to resume squatting after 8 to 9 months of no squat like training.  3 and 1/2 months of squatting with the safety bar has taught me the following:

Safety bar squatting is very, very different from low bar squatting.  The way the bar sits on your shoulders changes the leverages radically from a low bar squat  As such, it shouldn’t be taught to beginners unless they, like me, have injuries that preclude them from low bar squatting.  There is no “sweet spot”, nobody has ever said “that felt really good, it moved well” after a heavy safety bar squat.  Technique, such as it is, consists of bracing absolutely everything and grunting it “out of the hole” with a sort of hybrid squat/deadlift/ dog taking a **** technique.  “Hip drahve”, as the Starting Strength community like to call it, just won’t cut it.  Unorthodox, to say the least, so you can see why it’d only confuse beginners.

The cambered bar means that your entire lower body and back are constantly fighting to balance the load which means gainz of all sorts.  After a heavy safety bar squat session my hamstrings, glutes and abs are comprehensively fried in way that I never experienced with back squats.  The constant battle to balance the bar high up on the shoulders is somewhat like a hinge movement and consequently involves your “deadlift” muscles as well.   I’ve seen such activation in those muscles that I now understand why this bar has a following among bodybuilders.  I’d even venture to say that the “booty babes” at the Globo gym would be better served by dropping the hip thrusters and picking up a safety squat bar.

Another thing you need to wrap your head around is that relatively light weight will feel very heavy.  If your 1RM for a back squat is 190kg, don’t be surprised that 110kg feels really heavy on the safety bar.  It’s an ego killer to grunt and strain under a seemingly easy weight.  The ignominy is compounded by ignorance as not everyone has used this bar.  You might get a few incredulous looks like “Really?  It’s just 130kgs, man” from people who haven’t tried it”.  So it’s kind of lonely to be doing a hard, misunderstood lift for less than “glory” weight.  Soon, however, your growing realization that you are doing something harder than most people are willing to do will develop your condescension muscles to near vegan levels.  You will struggle to keep your disdainful sneer in check when interacting with the low bar squatting hoi polloi.

Seriously, though, safety bar squats have been the silver lining to my injury.  Like low bar squats, they really suck at first.  After a while, however, you begin to savor the challenge. When I finally return to low bar squatting I anticipate that the safety bar will be my go-to accessory exercise for squats and deadlifts.

Aging, self-image and weight-training

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How old do you feel?  How old do you look?  If you’re past the age of 40, in your minds-eye, what version of you is your self-image based on?  Maybe this is a purely masculine thing, but if I was honest my “mental avatar” is me, albeit circa 29 years old.  I mean that is the physical template my mind accepts as my true physical manifestation.  It’s not that I don’t accept myself as I am now, I do, but if I can’t help notice a subtle mental recalibration going on in the background when looking in the mirror.  It’s my subconscious going, ” Ok, the dude in the mirror?  That is actually you so get with the program. ”

Why 29/30?  Why not 21 or 35?  Perhaps it corresponds with some Jungian idea of male archetypes (anima, hero, etc).  There must be a reason.  Am I happier and wiser now than when I was 30?  Hell, yeah.  Was I at my physical peak back then?  Yes and no.  I was in pretty good shape in a very superficial sense.  I had a six pack, some development of the “disco muscles” (shoulders, arms, chest) and decent cardio-vascular shape.  But I could have been in much better shape had I, for example, followed the same training program I do now.  Therein, I think, lies the answer.  29 or 30 years old represents a sort of sweet spot in mental, intellectual and physical maturity.  It is, was or should have been you when you had the most raw potential.  You’d have completed years of education, should be at least 8 or so years into a career, and hormonal health is still firing on all cylinders.

I was orders of magnitude wiser and happier at 30 than I was at 21.  I remember thinking I wouldn’t go back to 21 for anything.  And that trend has continued while I do have to make some concessions to aging.  In my case, I don’t lose weight as easily as before, my eyesight got a little weaker and my temples went grey.  Other than that, the main difference between my 30 year old self and me now is “life wisdom” which is both a burden and advantage.  Youth, the saying goes, is wasted on the young which I interpret as while you’re getting wiser and happier, your physical vitality is waning.

It does, but I think how quickly it does is something you might be able to control.  Partially its genetic, yes, but it’s a least 50 percent lifestyle choices.  Purely coincidentally, I became serious about weight training in my 40s.  As a flood of recent, peer-review studies has shown,  strength training with compound movements (deadlifts, squat, presses, etc) is probably the single best form of physical training for older people.  It builds muscle, maintains bone density, ramps up hormonal efficiency (production of testosterone, human growth hormone and others) and increases metabolic efficiency.    This is not news to any of my middle-aged powerlifting brothers and sisters.  Honestly, what is cooler or flat-out funnier than getting really strong at an age when most people take up golfing?

Personally speaking, I unwittingly had 2 advantages when I started lifting.  First, I had no expectations or ego when I began.  Started really light and added a little bit of weight each week – classic linear progression, though I hadn’t heard the term at that time.  Anybody can do it and everyone will inevitably see results of they keep it up.  Secondly, hormonal health has never been an issue for me.  As a young man, it was a problem in that high levels of T meant I had bad skin.  (Interestingly, subsequent studies have backed up anecdotal evidence from dermatolgists that former acne sufferers’ skin ages slower than the average populace due to longer alleles in their genes.  Seems to be my case as well, so perhaps the universe does have a sense of justice).  As an older man, it meant that, to my surprise,  putting on muscle wasn’t too difficult.

Whether or not you have an advantage when you begin lifting, the result will be the same for everyone.  If you put in the work week in and week out, your body will change.  You’ll gain muscle and feel physically vital (Ok, except for those mornings after a heavy squat or deadlift sessions when crawling out of bed while groaning is the norm).  I’m 51 and I feel great, I feel strong. I feel as if I’ve made some progress towards exploiting my physical potential.  I could have easily spent the last decade doing nothing.  Had I done that, I’m fairly certain that I’d feel a lot weaker, a lot more frail…old, if you will.

In short, I don’t feel 51 so I assume that is why my minds-eye reflects somebody a bit younger.  I don’t mean to imply there is anything wrong with aging.  It’s part of life.  It’s how you react to aging that makes the difference.  One of the benefits of age is gratitude.  The older you get the more you know how often life doesn’t go as scripted.  So many things can go wrong at any time.  To be alive and to have relatively good health for yourself and your loved ones is already such a blessing.  Physical training is not a “drudge” or hard work, it’s an almost decadent opportunity to turbo-charge that blessing.

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.