Life imitates meme…or why the gym is always packed the first week of January.

It commonly said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.  And yet, in spite of decades of gym-going experience every December I find myself tut-tutting at all those lame “new year’s resolutioners” memes and snarky posts to forums and Facebook groups.  Every year I tell myself that this phenomenon is exagerated, it’s not really a “thing”.  After all, human beings aren’t lemmings and human behaviour, even group dynamics, is often far from being predictable.  Finally, and this is probably the biggest reason, I find it hard to believe that somebody would wait until January 1 to do anything.  I’ve started, and failed, quite a few good resolutions in my time but never have I waited for an arbitrary date to do so.

So I felt supremely vindicated from January 1st to 5th, as I trained away at the Globo gym near my work.  All the “usuals” were there, as as we always are, week after week but there was no tsunami of Gymshark-clad noobs.  “Yaaassss”, I thought, “people are rational, idependent minded beings after all”.  We aren’t swallows going back to Capistrano or salmon swimming upstream driven by some antediluvian instinct.

Then I went to the gym on Monday after work.  Or should I say, I spent 15 minutes trying to find a parking space any where remotely close to my gym (there are 2 other gyms within a 3 block radius as well) before giving up and parking far, far away.  As I battled my way past the front door the scene that presented itself was part Lord of the Flies, part Star Wars bar scene and part outtake of a “Black Friday riot at the Tulsa Walmart” youtube video.  Everybody and their actual grandmother was there, resplendent in fresh from under the Christmas tree gym-wear.  Heck, even the Prime Minister was there…Ok, to be honest, he’s a semi-regular so his presence was far less remarkable than the sheer mass of humanity that managed to pack itself into the gym that night.  No joke, I began to wonder if we hadn’t attained the building’s occupancy limit.

Unfortunately, it was my night to train bench press and yes, it was Monday (aka International Chest Day) so the six flat benches were all taken by the time I got there.  Luckily, it didn’t take long for a bench to free up because, as is always the case in this scenario, the following happens:  Noob approaches the bench, doesn’t think a second about warming up with, say, just the bar… and slaps on what he thinks is a good working weight but is actually much closer to his 1RM.  The young gent (feet up on the bench, of course, never planted firmly on the floor) then attempts to bang out a set but barely manages to get the bar off of his chest for 1 rep.  He then reduces the weight, but not enough, and manages to squeeze 2 or 3 more reps before deciding that the Pec Deck looks more inviting.

Back, however, to the subject at hand.  So, yes, a crowded gym in January is not just a cliche or urban legend.  It’s a fact of life, in the same way that airports are crowded just before Christmas.  It’s also true that by Febuary things will be right back to normal.  Aside from the glaringly obvious (guilt over holiday excesses, corny resolutions, promotional deals by gym owners) I honestly don’t why it is such a thing.  Gym training, like running, is not seasonal.  And speaking of running, the sidewalks aren’t suddenly clogged with joggers in January.  So, what gives?

In the end, I suppose, who cares?  I’m glad they are there, whatever their motivation.  It’s nice seeing some new faces and, quite frankly, I’m hoping that as gym going becomes more and more the norm, the market will mature and prices will drop in the country where I live.  I pay extortionate rates at my Globo gym and (considering the amazing value) very reasonable rates at the Powerlifting club. And finally, as somebody who is considering entering the industry at a future date, it’s comforting to know there is an absolutely reliable annual cash cow.

Gym may be life…but keep it to yourself.

As I’ve said in previous posts, if you want to stick to a strength-training program it’s absolutely necessary to find your motivation.  Strength-training, per se, is not necessarily fun.  People who stick to strength-training programs are those of have developed an interest in which weight-lifting plays a part.   Often, these are athletes in heavily strength dependent sports such as American Football, Rugby, Highland Games, Track and Field, etc.  However, the most fervent gym-goers tend to be those whose sport is specifically gym-based, such as body-building, Cross-fit, Power-lifting and Olympic weightlifting.  It’s very common, once one has developed an interest in one of those sports,  to go through “gym-bore” period.  You’re excited to find this new interest that has a major positive impact on your life and you’re as giddy a kid on Christmas morning.  Do your loved-ones and co-workers a solid, though.  Keep it to yourself.  Here’s why:

  • It’s boring:  Yea verily, it’s boring.  Of course, it’s interesting to you and your gym buddies but nobody else on God’s green earth cares about your deadlift PR or your new programming.  We’ve all heard people droning on about their new diet..how captivated were you about that endlessly fascinating subject?  If the subject somehow comes up when you’re among non-gym goers, keep it brief and change the subject or you risk coming off as a narcissistic bore.
  • Gym is not LIFE, it’s part of life:  I don’t care how good you are at your sport, never forget it should only be one facet of your existence.  Outstanding champions such as Muhammed Ali, “Arnold” and Zydrunas Zavickas (Strongman) accomplished quite a bit outside the arena of sports.  Unless you are a coach and it’s your job, droning on ad nauseam about training makes you look one dimensional.
  • The douche factor:  Let’s face it, if you speak about your powerlifting training to people outside the sport, you might not only come off as boring but also like you’re bragging. Hence, douche-y.  Things are commonplace amongst powerlifters (say, a 200kg squat for reps) sound somewhat extreme to the uninitiated.  So, while maybe you’re not really bragging, but it’s going to sound like you are. And if people think you are literally “flexing” on them, you’ll either turn them off or they respond to what they perceive as intimidation.  “Oh yeah, we’ll I benched 360 lbs before…in high school”…
  • The frustration factor:  See above – if you get caught up in a “I’ve lifted mad weight” conversation with somebody who, shall we say, doesn’t look or speak like they have experience with training, just smile and agree with them.  While you may be tempted to press them for details, don’t.  For one, it’s an inane conversation for adults to engage in.  Really, 360 lbs?  Full range of motion?  Pause at the bottom, no chest bounce, no help from spotters?  Like quarter-squatters, just let them be.  It’s frustrating and a little bit silly, but that’s not your problem.  Also, if it just so happens they did lift that weight with proper form, you’ll look the world’s biggest insecure tool for trying to call them out.
  • Chick magnet, it’s not:  Note to the heterosexual males out there – the babes will appreciate those six pack abs and wide shoulders, but preserve some of the mystery.  She doesn’t need or want to know about drop sets and how much you spend monthly on creatine.  And for my powerlifting boys out there, women could care less about your righteous PRs, you lard asses.  Dudes will care, perhaps, but women…nope.  Sad, but true.  So if you think blathering on about your training will make the fillies come a-running, guess again.

The reasons that absolutely nobody should be intimidated by strength training

We’ve all been there.  Most of us mere mortals have been in lousy physical shape at least once in our lives.  At some point we think “hmm, I should really go to the gym” but we hesitate.  A quick perusal of social media, YouTube videos and blog posts reveals that a big reason many people are reluctant to make that first step is intimidation.  Many people are intimidated by gyms in general and barbell training in particular.   Here’s why nobody should be intimidated by strength-training:

  • We are all beginners once:  Congratulations, you’ve made it to the gym and you want to train compound barbell movements.  There are many things to learn, but that is also why it’s so much fun.  Trust me, nobody is sneering at you.  If an experienced lifter does happen to notice, he or she is probably thinking “Hey, that’s cool”.  Here’s another thing you probably didn’t expect, experienced lifters are even a tiny bit jealous because they remember their own “beginner gains” period.
  • The gym is for everybody:  Literally, every part of the gym is for everyone.  The old stereotype is that the weight room is for guys and the cardio area/classes are for women but that’s silly.  You are not intimidated by going to the park, the supermarket or the cinema, so don’t be intimidated by the gym.  It’s a public space.  It should be selfish thing, it’s where you indulge in some much-needed “me” time.  You have as much right to deadlift or do a spinning class as the next person.  You may come across some poor deluded souls who think they have a right to judge, but see this behavior for what it is – truly pathetic.
  • Anybody can train with weights:  Those guys and gals you see lifting that serious weight started just like you.  They are not genetic freaks (well, most of them aren’t), they have just been lifting for a while and have gotten to that stage by slowly increasing the weight they lift.   Anybody can do this and everybody should, in my opinion.
  • Serious lifters are some of the nicest, most chilled out people you’ll ever meet:  I know, I know, this seems counter-intuitive.  In many gyms, most women and more than a few guys, feel that the free weight area is the preserve of aggressive anti-social hard cases.  The weird truth is that lifting heavy weight chills people out better than Xanax.  Yes, there’s chalk flying everywhere, AC/DC cranking, people grunting under heavy loads or yelling encouragement but don’t let that fool you.  Most of those “big, bad” lifters are totally chill and friendly, the opposite of aggressive .  Serious lifters really dig meeting people who share or are interested in their passion.  To give you an example, when I travel I often do my research to find the most serious gym in the area and, if possible, a powerlifting gym.  So I go into the gym, explain that I am in town for X number of days and ask if I can pay a “day rate” to train.  In a serious gym, the staff are usually lifters and more often than not they’ll find a way that I can train for free or pay a “promotional” rate.  As for the few powerlifting gyms I’ve found while travelling , I’ve never had to pay – people are literally that friendly.  Last year,  I visited a big powerlifting gym outside of Ottawa, Canada.  The staff was stoked that some random guy visiting from Europe took the time to look them up.  They hooked me up with a free 2 week pass and were super friendly.  I met the owner and some of the powerlifting team members, they offered to spot my squats and bench, we took pictures together, etc.  It’s like being in a big social club.
  • Weight training is not very macho:  True, you can see people lifting some impressive weight, but that’s only because they’ve been working at it slowly and methodically over a long period.   This isn’t sky-diving, MMA or Formula 1 racing.   You don’t need to be particularly courageous. (OK, at more advanced levels you may sometimes attempt weights that scare you, but still… ) On the whole,  it’s not as macho and hairy-chested as people believe.

 

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?

training-weightlifter

“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.

 

 

Ain’t no half reppin’

heavier

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.

 

Age/Injury, women who lift and who’s that fat f*%$ in the video?

gym-barbell_weights

Yesterday I filled out an entry form for the first powerlifting meet I will do in 2018.  It takes place in early April.  I had to grapple with the fact that my nagging injuries will, barring a major miracle, have not healed so I while I enrolled for the traditional powerlifting (i.e. the 3 events) I also will compete in the stand alone bench press.  Therefore if my injuries still preclude from me competing normally I can still compete for bench press.  It also made me realize that, damn it, at 51 years old I shouldn’t train like a 25-year-old.  Maybe all those world-class powerlifting coaches with decades of experience knew what they were talking about after all.  I can say this, while I cranked volume, weight and intensity of my training to 11 last fall, there was a good 6 week period that I felt bullet-proof.  I was hitting some serious numbers in squat and bench, and finally edging towards not embarrassing in deadlift.  Weighted dips, pull-ups, overhead presses, heavy rack pulls,  etc…I was going to town.  Until, of course, it all came crashing down when I seriously f’ed up my left rotator cuff –  3 weeks before the competition.  I could not lift my arm above my waist without pain for a few days, and then it eased quite a bit.  So naturally I didn’t bench any more but continued to squat which, in retrospect, was really, really stupid.  So here I am a few months later, with no real end in sight regarding my rotator cuff.  The silver lining is that I am doing a lot of safety bar squats but, damn, I miss low bar squats so much more than I’d ever imagined. The take-away lesson from this is while I may be immature, I need to respect that my physical manifestation on this mortal coil is indeed beginning its 6th decade.   Sigh.

Women who lift:  I love women who lift.  I really respect a woman who has realized that getting stronger is where it’s at.  I think any woman who picks up any weight is a rock star, but I especially love those who go for it and test their limits by lifting heavy.  When I see a woman in a squat rack and she’s loading some weight that is not just for “booty” purposes, I’m intrigued.  If she then hits the bench press and proceeds to challenge herself with some real weight, my jaw just about hits the ground.  If she proceeds to then pull respectable deadlift numbers, I’d probably look away, do an embarrassed cough and try to find some way to repair my fragile male ego.  Seriously, though, every woman I’ve ever known who’s applied herself in the weight room ends up looking awesome and, better yet, feels awesome.  That combination is very, very attractive.  You know what, I respect the dedication, etc of figure and/or bikini competitors, but it’s not the same.  I want to know what you look like when you’re strong and not starving yourself.  A few years ago I dated a former female bodybuilder.  She was from the era when female bodybuilders were not roided out monsters but definitely had some muscle.  She was more about definition than bulk.  You can be feminine and still be noticeably strong.  I’ll be honest, there is a limit, at least for me..  Huge shoulders, a big back, and bulging quads, NO.  Luckily, that wasn’t her case.   (Full disclosure – I don’t think over-developed dudes look great either).  Bottom line, athletes, with the exception of marathon runners, are sexy.  Food for thought.

Last night I took a few videos of myself was I was lifting alone at the powerlifting club.  I did this for 2 reasons.  Primarily, I was going for a bench press PR so I wanted proof for them gym haters (kidding of course) that I hit those numbers, but also I realised that, post holidays and birthday, I was carrying a few extra KGs, so I figured seeing myself on video would provide the motivation I required to shed that flab.  (NB:  the powerlifting club has benches with “protection arms” to catch failed attempts so benching alone is not as risky as it seems.  If you don’t have these at your disposal, please, please do not bench press alone.  It’s the single riskiest thing you can do in the gym.)

Result – I hit that PR and, daaaaamn, the form was on point.  It looked silky smooth, on video, easier that it actually was.  On the other hand, I looked like a God-damned beached whale.  Bench press angles are far from flattering, and this one was no exception.  However, there was no escaping that if would have been a bit less egregious if my belly wasn’t spilling out of my t-shirt.  #fatold*%$k#landwhale#layoffthebeer.  Not into body shaming, but you got to be honest with yourself.

Most Embarrassing Gym Stories

leader-stupid-embarrassed-mortified-oh-no

Gyms are a sub-culture unto their own.  The reason that some people find Gyms, and especially specialized Gyms/Training facilities, so daunting is the mini-“culture shock” of learning parameters of this subculture.   These are the “do’s and dont’s” that allow one to avoid “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, aka complete social humiliation.   Sometimes, however well-versed one is in gym culture, we all fall prey to the occasional faux pas.

A few years ago, when I first started getting interested in powerlifting, I trained exclusively at a big commercial “Globo” gym.  My enthusiasm for squats was matched by only by my complete, blissful ignorance of technique.  So there I was in a squat rack – completely raw – no knee sleeves, wristwraps, shoes or belt – but on the other hand the weight I was lifting probably didn’t warrant that.   In those days my benchpress was many kilos more than my squat.  To my credit, though, I was wearing Chuck Taylors, and not spongy running shoes.  I was also wearing those sort of thin nylon running trousers, the type you wear to go running when it might rain a bit.  They were the only non-shorts gym bottoms I owned and they had a drawstring that I could tighten to avoid the dreaded “carpenters’ crack” at the bottom of a squat.  They were not, however, very heavy-duty.  Anyway, I am at doing my 5×5 squats at 6:30PM on a Monday night, the height of gym rush-hour.  I am on the 4th rep of the last set, coming out of the “hole” when I hear an audible tearing noise, then a pop and, suddenly, a cool breeze invigorates my nether regions.   The trousers had split wide open from the waistband down to my knee.  The ‘back end” of the trousers had ceased to exist. You know how mothers always tell their kids to wear clean underwear in case they get into an accident?  Words to live by, y’all.

Not long after the “Flapping in the breeze” incident, another ignominious event took place at the same Globo gym.  The gym was packed and I had just completed a killer training session.  I was more than a little light-headed as I proceeded to the showers with my brand new towel, which I had literally just bought at a store just before going to the gym.  The showers in this gym have towel hooks to right of each shower stall (which are enclosed by doors).  So as I faced the shower I hung my towel on the hook to the right of my shower door and took a nice hot shower.  As I exited the shower with steam and water in my eyes, I reached to my right, grabbed the towel and vigorously dried every damp nook and cranny.  This towel went from dry and pristine to wet and befouled in roughly 20 seconds.  As I opened my eyes, I realized to my horror that I had just besmirched somebody else’s towel.  Just as this dawned on me, the owner of said towel exited his shower.  No, he was not pleased and no, he would not accept my brand new, never been used towel in exchange…nor my apology.  Some people apparently lack social graces as well as the common sense to take an unused new towel.  Oh well, lesson learned, always drape your towel of the shower stall door so it’s impossible to mistake.

Finally, in the embarrassing but unavoidable category, I once tore a hamstring muscle by freak accident during a powerlifting competition.  It was so painful that I could barely walk.  I thought this meant that I couldn’t deadlift and consequently would not finish the competition (meaning my other lifts (squat and benchpress) wouldn’t count) until another competitor pointed out that I could just lift the absolute minimum once.  So I went up to the organizers table and told the nice ladies that I wished to change my first deadlift attempt to 70kgs.  I had to say it 3 times as they thought they hadn’t heard me correctly.  I explained that I had hurt my leg but I sort of still got some side-eye.  Anyway, the message didn’t get to the team loading the plates so when my name was called they had to take plates off and leave, I believe, just 2 measly blues on the bar.  Most of the spectators didn’t I know was injured so the scene must have looked faintly ridiculous;  some burly dude walking out for a 70kg deadlift in a competition.  So I “hammed” it up a bit as I hobbled out to the bar, sort of did my deadlift set-up, and invented what might be a new deadlift form – the modified Bulgarian split deadlift.  I did the lift, got 3 white lights, and informed the nice ladies that I wouldn’t take my other lifts.

What are your most egregious gym gaffes?

Gym Etiquette – Unsolicited advice vs. Solicited advice

photo_7872_20081111

Warning – this post will likely appeal mostly to hardcore gym rats and/or inveterate students of human behavior.  As I have said in a previous post, a gym is to human behavior what a watering hole is to the Serengeti.  You see a lot of different types of behavior concentrated in a relatively small space.

Today’s topic of discussion concerns what is perhaps the thorniest topic in the entire canon of Gym Etiquette – unsolicited gym advice.  Should you ever offer advice to somebody at the gym and, if so, under what circumstances?  Also, how should you handle unsolicited advice?   Finally, on rare occasions you might be asked for advice or will ask somebody else for theirs – what is the best way to do this?

First let’s establish the parameters:  we are talking about a large commercial gym and you are interacting with somebody you don’t know.  I will also assume that you, dear reader, are reasonably adept at reading social cues.  In a commercial gyms we need to:

  • Realize that a big commercial gym is, sociologically speaking a public space akin to a subway or a shopping center.  The norm for interaction with strangers in these cases is usually limited to a brief smile or nod and maybe brief eye contact.  You might speak briefly to strangers in all of these contexts, but you would not normally  share your unsolicited opinion.  It’s the sort of behavior that makes people change seats on the subway.
  • Realize that people in big commercial gyms have wildly different goals.  Some people want to lose weight, others just want to get jacked, or just get out of the house, or might not even have a clear goal just yet.  How do you know your advice is relevant to a complete stranger?
  • Be sensitive to social norms when travelling.  Social norms for public spaces such as gyms differ from country to country.
  • Realize that the business model of most large commercial gyms does not always empower the client.  It’s more profitable to install weight machines (almost zero knowledge or technique needed), change half-baked classes frequently (Zumba-combat) and have trainers who run people through bosu ball and mini-trampoline workouts.  Novelty sells.  In short, a lot of people in the gym aren’t learning a new skill or any useful information.  It engenders constant beginner syndrome which is psychologically fatiguing.  Approach with caution, Mr. Knowitall.

Given the social dynamics we’ve just explored, in my opinion, I think you could or should offer unsolicited advice in the following situations:

  • Imminent danger – Barbell training is a skill that has to be learned.  Done improperly you can potentially harm yourself.  People new to the sport sometimes unintentionally put themselves in danger.  I have pulled failed bench presses off solo benchpressers who didn’t use safety pins or ask for a spot.  I’ve also had to jump in more than once to re-rack bars for people who squat backwards (i.e. go forward out of the J hooks and then back up (blindly) to re-rack the weight).  Deadlifts are a grey area, sometimes you will see somebody with terrible form attempt weights that are way too heavy.  In most cases, I don’t say anything unless they are kids or seniors.
  • Advice hacking – Every so often, I’ll be in a commercial gym and I can see that somebody in the rack next to me who is obviously new to barbell training but visibly enthusiastic about it.  Clues include new weightlifting belt and shoes while making some obvious beginner errors (example, knees caving in while squatting or leaving that foam thingy on the bar).  I have soft spot for these people because I remember how enthusiastic I was in the beginning and also how (at first) I had nobody to teach me the finer points.  So I might start-up an innocuous conversation  (hey, I am looking for a pair those shoes, where did you get them?) and if the conversation progresses, talk a bit about technique cues that I like to do.  Notice I did not say “you should fix a, b and c”.

Those are only scenarios in which I think one could or should interject themselves into a strangers’ workout.  I should also point out that I’ve never attempted to give unsolicited “beginner” pointers to a woman I don’t know.   One could be accused of Mansplaining, having ulterior motives, etc.  Finally, I should point out that the unsolicited advice dynamic is not the same in speciality gyms (powerlifting, etc).  These gyms are smaller, people share the same specific goals and the social dynamic is more like a club than a public space.  Chances are people are only too happy to get feedback or discuss technique.

I have received my share of unsolicited advice in commercial gyms and it doesn’t bother me.   I don’t understand why some people get so butt-hurt about it.  I think in most cases it’s simply a way of starting a conversation.  It shows some concern on the other person’s part so God bless ’em. Also, I have actually received some pretty good unsolicited advice – it’s not all bad.  Yes, sometimes you run into Gym Haters but that is the topic for another post.  The unsolicited lifting advice I find objectionable is usually outside the gym.

Solicited advice:  Sometimes I’ll see an experienced lifter doing something new or cool.  In most cases, I might just straight up ask them about it.  If you ask a legit, intelligent question most people love to talk about themselves.  The other day a guy asked me about floor presses I was doing as an accessory to my bench workout.  It was a good question so of course I was cool with discussing it for a few minutes.

The unexpected consequences of lifting.

What motivates people to train in the strength sports?  Ask 100 different lifters why they lift and you will no doubt get a 100 different answers that are just variations of the same theme.  The common thread running through their answers would be that it’s that it’s just flat out fun being strong.  Being stronger than you ever imagined you’d be is a hoot.

Everyone is familiar with runners’ high and “getting a pump” as just 2 examples of an immediate positive consequence or feedback from physical activity.   Whether you’re a  natural powerlifter, strong man competitor or Olympic lifter, one of the best things about lifting is working towards a well-defined goal and achieving it.  For strength athletes, the broad goal is to get stronger in your competition lifts. You do this by working your ass off, yes, but also by careful training and nutritional programming so that you are at your peak on the day of the competition.  Thus we get an even more potent high; the elation of hitting a PR as result of weeks or months of hard training or the “contact high” of seeing a training buddy hit theirs.  These are highs that can last for days.

weights-1634747_640

What, though, are the unintended consequences of lifting?  These are those things that happen as a result of your training but aren’t the reason you train and/or are something you would have anticipated.   Below are some of my personal unintended consequences – I’d like to this post to be more of a  forum thread and would love to hear about your “top” unanticipated consequences in the comments section below.

  • Diet and nutrition  –  Once I hit middle-age, became serious about strength training and decided  I was not going to take any Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs), I  developed a healthy (yes, there will be puns) interest in achieving optimal performance via nutrition.  While none of this interested me before I now know why GMOs are bad, the value of organically raised produce, why processed “food” is so unhealthy and a number of other subjects that I once thought was the sole preserve of the patchouli-scented self-righteous.  This is probably the subject for another post, but suffice to say when you drive a Ferrari to the gas station, you don’t put diesel into it.  So why would you ingest something your body is not designed to handle?  Taken in a wider context, why would you poison an ecosystem in the same manner?
  • Quieting the monkey mind – Yes, meditation.  Once I started down the slippery slope of optimal performance via natural methods, I heard mediation referred to many times by too many disparate sources to ignore it any longer.  I’m still very much in the beginner stage of meditation and mindfulness training.   Considering how much of a difference it makes already,  I think it might be analogous to the “beginner gains” phenomenon that all weightlifters have experienced.
  • Negative reactions – I have never engaged in a sport that has garnered this much negative feedback – and that includes boxing, kickboxing, “point” sparring in Karate tournaments and running marathons.  Much of this sort of reaction is out of genuine albeit uninformed concern, as in “Me:  “Hey, I had a 190KG squat PR the other day!”  Concerned family member:  “You know, you could really hurt yourself”.  Really?  You don’t run a marathon without putting in some serious training nor do you put 190KG on your back and squat it on a whim.  To further the marathon analogy, when you run that marathon you’re going to be suffering the effects for days after.  You hit a squat PR, you’re just going to have a PR “high” for days after.  Another type of negative feedback is a lingering but common place feeling that people who engage in strength sports are illiterate knuckle-dragging Neanderthals.  People who don’t know you often make snap judgements which hopefully they are disabused of once they make your acquaintance.   And, finally, I’ve had more than a few female friends/past girlfriends/ex-wife as well as a few male acquaintances be kind enough to share their opinions of one of my favorite past-times, or at least its physical manifestation.  The script always as follows,  ” You know, this weight training thing, don’t you thing you want to tone it down a bit?  The muscle-bound look isn’t great and, honestly, women don’t find it attractive”  That’s fair, people are entitled to their opinions but what I find so interesting in this case is why these people are so eager to share this particular opinion when they wouldn’t do it to a fat person, a skinny person, a really gaunt but athletic type (think triathlon, etc) or pretty any other body type.  My thinking on the subject is as follows:  I’m (quite obviously) not a bodybuilder.  My physical appearance is just the byproduct of what I do and I’m aware that a person with an above-average amount of muscle combined with an average percentage of body fat will look much bulkier than a skinny-fat dude (less muscle, higher body fat percentage).  However, I do this activity because I like it makes me feel so how it makes me look is  of secondary or even tertiary importance. As far as women are concerned, no doubt some if not many find this look not to their liking.  However, one of the benefits of living 50 years is that I have realized that pretty much all women dislike a man who has no passion and only does whatever he thinks will please them in a given moment.  So I do what I do because it makes me happy.  To quote from Slaughterhouse 5 (yes, I could say “Kurt Vonnegut’s” but I like to think that would superfluous for any reader of this blog) “So it goes”.
  • Sex:  Don’t worry, I will not, repeat, will not go into detail.  Suffice it to say this, strength training will certainly not interfere with one’s sex drive. In most cases (embarrassed cough) it will  help things.  For one, all that exercise and attention to proper nutrition means that, hormonally speaking, you’re firing on all cylinders.  And being able to “pick things up and put them down”  can be kind of fun in the bedroom.  Also, and in spite of the negative feedback I’ve described above, I’ve found that some women do quite like the look.  It is a double-edged sword, I’m aware, to have somebody interested in you for purely physical reasons or whatever they think you represent, but that is the subject for another post.  Interestingly, I’ve often found that I’ve garnered the most interest  from women in the “entourage” of the same people who freely offered me their opinion.  (let me be clear, I’m divorced and currently not seeing anybody lest anyone think I’m a cad).
  • Happiness/Contentment:  Sustained physical activity done with focus and intent is or should be an integral part of everyone’s life.  A sound body does indeed help to foster a sound mind.  To be honest, if my schedule allowed for it, my main activity would once again be some sort of martial art, but my living situation, work schedule, etc precludes a long-term commitment to be consistently in the same place at the same time week after week.  With powerlifting all I need is access to good gyms and  to occasionally check in with my coach and my home “club”.  The feeling of physical well-being after a heavy squat session is, for me, almost indescribable.  (high praise for squats, to be honest, as I’m well above average in bench press, OK at squats and have a “poverty” deadlift”.)  Endorphins, stress reduction and the, as I mentioned earlier, the flat out fun of being strong are a potent combination.

What are your top “unintended consequences”?