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.

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.

 

 

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.

What to do when you don’t feel like training…

Sooner or later, it happens to everyone. You take your physical training regimen for granted and little by little, it becomes less of a priority. Whereas before you’d broach no interruption to your training program, now work and family stress become a valid reason for missing workouts. Inevitably, as your training become crappier, so too do your results – or lack thereof. As your hard-won “gainz” evaporate like early morning dew on the Serengeti, a form of depression sets in which engenders a vicious circle of inertia. Soon your salad days of easily repping out 4 plates are but a dim, bitterweet memory.

Fear not, esteemed gym rat. All things in nature are cyclical so your balls to wall “Yang” of beastmode training was inevitably leading you to a “Yin” of increased Netflix and burrito binging sessions. Your couch becomes a place where training dreams, and countless bags of Cheetos, are disembowelled. If this is not your first rodeo, you’ll know the pendulum eventually shifts. One day, slack-jawed as you listlessly click through yet another season of “Ultimate Beastmaster” and licking your orange stained fingers, a tsunami of shame will blind-side you. “How did it come to this????”, you pitifully wail and gnash your teeth.

(Imagine a David Attenborough voice-over) ” Suitably chastened, the somewhat tubbier common gym rat (ratus gymnasticae narcissium) extricates himself from the vile miasma of his half eaten nachos and empty Heineken cans nest and navigates, like a swallow going to Capistrano, back to his natural habitat.”

What, if anything, can you do to remain motivated to train and avoid periods of gym burnout? Firstly, know that it exists and, if you are lucky enough to train seriously for any length of time, you’ll encounter bouts of low motivation. It’s like an injury, if you have a torn muscle you will not continue to train normally. You will do what you can and train around your injury until it’s healed. If you encounter a period of burnout, don’t give into the impulse to vegetate. Do what you can to keep moving, whether it’s a half-assed squat session, a bike ride, a long walk or a bit of yoga – the more fun, the better.

Physical activity is an vital part of your physical and mental hygiene. You wouldn’t stop showering or brushing your teeth, would you? Your training burnout was caused by how seriously you were taking everything. Gym is not life, it should be part of life. It’s cool that you set goals because they focus you and facilitate progression. However, don’t tunnel-vision on short-term goals. For example, if you are a power-lifter and have encountered injury or burnout, why not chill on your goal for the 350 KG deadlift for the moment and engage in a little bodybuilding style training for a bit? Come on, you know want to do a few sets of more than 5 reps and maybe, just maybe, get a massive pump. When you go back to serious PL training, the extra muscle might not be a bad thing to have.

We all have those acquaintances who suddenly turn into Gym Is Life Bros. overnight. One day, they are asking you how to do a proper bench-press and a scant 5 months later they are critiquing your training, diet, goals, the works cause, you know, they are experts. Strangely enough, a year or so later you’re still there, training away, and chances are, they aren’t. Training blues is a fact of life. Just keep moving. When your motivation returns, you’ll be glad you did.

The 4 rules of the SQUAT

 

I had an epiphany a few days ago.  Thanks to time, rehab and mobility training, I have recently been able to perform back squats for the first time in 11 months.  I knew that I was going to lose strength in squat…and I sure did.  What surprised me, however, was how much my technique had gone to sh^%.  So I called M,  our coach, powerlifting guru/evangelist and all around nice guy, and asked him to meet me at the powerlifting club.

Using experience, the naked eye and a bar tracking app on his Iphone, M confirmed what I already knew; that while I wasn’t back at square one, I was definitely on square 2.  On a bar tracking app(which draws a line on your video denoting the bar movement), a textbook squat should appear as 1 straight vertical line.  The squat should travel the same path going up as it did going down.  In the beginning, my squats (via the app) looked like skinny ovals, but after a few hours and many reps later, they began to resemble really skinny “V”s.  They felt a little better, too, more in the “groove”.

This should not have been that surprising as a powerlifting squat is an athletic move.  One would not jump back in a boxing ring after 11 months off and expect to spar at the same level as a year ago.  You can shadow-box and hit the heavy bag all you want, but nothing replaces that 3 minute round with a real, live opponent.  Similarly, all the deadlifts and safety-bar squats I did in the interim helped to keep me in shape, but maintain my squat they did not.

The squat is not just an athletic movement, it’s a test of character.  I know a lot of people who are freakishly good bench-pressers or deadlifters.  While they do need to work hard to improve these movements, they generally have certain physical attributes that give them a certain advantage.  I am sure there are exceptions to this rule, but I’ve never seen anybody walk off the street and almost automatically squat impressive weight.  Rule number one of the squat:  you must put in the work.  95% of the people you see squatting impressive or at least heavy weight have plodding their way, slowly and methodically, towards lifting more kilos.

Rule number two of squat:  Technique is paramount.  Most trainees who weigh between 80 and 100 Kgs can rep out 130 or 140 kg squats after about 4 or 5 months.  This proves that, yes, they’ve put in the sheer work.  If, however, they also emphasis training for correct form at some point their squat weight will make huge jumps – from 140 to 180 kgs in a relatively short space of time.  This is because they’ve applied their strength to a more efficient way of moving the weight.  A highly trained welterweight boxer hits a whole lot harder than some 100 Kg slob throwing haymakers.

Rule number three of squat:  Confront your fears.  First, you need to confront your fear of hard work.  You need to confront your ego, and make sure you’re up to sucking at something in the short-term.  And, finally, when you do finally start lifting some considerable weight..it’s scary.  It shouldn’t be, if you squat in a squat rack, have learned how to bail by this point and are not attempting a weight 40kgs above your PR.  Nevertheless, taking some pretty heavy weight out of the J-hooks…there is something sort of crazy about it.  6 months later, that “crazy” weight has become something you do for 5×5.

Rule number four of squat:  Ain’t no half-repping.  Only squat that weight which you are able squat slightly below parallel and back up again.  You may argue that quarter squats or half squats are valid training movements (er, and I’d disagree). If you half-squatted 200kgs with aid of knee-wraps, smelling salts and your gym-bro posse yelling encouragement and filming you for the “IGs” than kudos to you, old boy.  You did not, however, squat 200 Kgs.  You did something else.

 

 

 

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.

Germany Competition Recap – stuff happens.

So last weekend I competed in the stand-alone bench press event in the 2018 German Powerlifting Championships for my federation.  It was an interesting weekend in many ways, I learned a lot about what I should, and should not, do for my next competition, how I feel about “stand-alone” events vs. the traditional 3 event powerlifting.  In a subsequent post I’ll post my impression/observations about the powerlifting sub-culture in deep, semi-rural Germany.  Half of my family are semi-rural Midwesterners of relatively recent German descent so suffice it to say it was strangely familiar at times, whilst completely foreign at others.

I was off my visibly off my game on Sunday (more about that later) so I didn’t do as well as I should have.  I improved my competition bench-press PR by 2.5 kgs, but given that I trained and planned to increase it by an ambitious 10kgs, I’m disappointed.  I made a number of mistakes that are linked, I think, to the fact that I only had one event, not 3, to worry about.  I warmed up too early and lifted weights close to my “opener”.  Big mistake, of course, but after a week of laying off the weights I always start to doubt myself.  In addition, I was had very little sleep and was fairly burnt-out on powerlifting after having stayed with my team as they competed until 2AM the same morning.  Finally, (and, yes, more about this later) I understood next to nothing most of the time as my German is very poor, and the “competition plate” phenomenon only heightens this.  (Basically, it’s very easy to do “plate” math in the gym so you always tell how much somebody is lifting.  Even with color coding of the plates, the fact that they are slimmer (denser) and bar collars themselves weigh a combined 5kgs throws me off at first.  Also, the most used plate in competitions in a red 25kg plate.  In the gym 180kg on the bar would have a cool four 20kg plates on each side.  The same 180kg much less impressive looking in competition.)  So I got white-lights for my opener but is looked far uglier than it should have.  With such a poor showing, my coach was OK with only increasing the next lift by 2.5kg instead of 5.  I made the next lift too.  It looked good, nice and smooth, but I knew that I wasn’t at my best.  My coach told me to add 5kgs for my final lift, instead of the 7.5kgs we were planning on.

Even though my 2nd lift looked nice and smooth, I felt that I could only handanother 2.5kgs for the 3rd lift.  Some people can grind out a bench-press but I am not one of those people.  When the weight gets really heavy on a lift – i.e. heavier than your previous 1RM (one rep maximum) it’s crucial that your form and technique is impeccable.  I might have been able to have done another 5kgs on that day, but my concentration was not what it should have been.  As the bar reached my chest, my bracing wasn’t what it should have been so I wasn’t able to explode out of the hole after the pause.  I missed my third lift.

In the powerlifting gym I belong to there is a white-board where the team members can list their PRs in the different lifts(provided that lifts are relatively heavy for a given lift) and, in most cases, only competition lifts are accepted.   So I had done, more than once,  a legal competition bench-press in the gym (pause on the chest, wait for the “press”command, press up in a controlled manner(feet on the ground, butt on the bench) and then wait for the “rack”command) at the weight I had just failed in the competition.  Powerlifting competitions are weird in that I don’t really get nervous because of the competition or lifting in front of a fair amount of spectators and peers.  Rather, the pressure I feel is all about not reaching my goals, of not making the months of hard work pay off for me personally.  I failed that last lift because I felt my goal was in jeopardy and I wasn’t mentally strong enough on that day to keep my focus.  This is what makes a succesful lift in competition the gold standard for lifters.  Gym lifts don’t count, bro.

In the end, I came in 2nd in my age/weight class.  The guy who came in first was 10kgs better than my best lift. Even though I should have done 5kgs better, there is no chance in hell that I could have lifted more than him.  Kudos to him, it was a sight to see.  One of the best things about power-lifting competitions is that you’re excited to see big lifts, period.  I fully appreciate what this competitor did at his age and weight so it’s not like “he’s kicking my butt” but more like “respect, dude”.  I did better than some others, ok, but that’s neither here nor there.  The missed lift is what sticks in my craw.  Had I done the lift, I’d still be in 2nd place, but I’d have felt really good about it.

I learned a few things about the “stand-alone” events, which I had never participated in or even seen before.  This is because typically the 3 event Powerlifting competitions are typically on Friday/Saturday, and the 1 event competitions are on Sunday.  Firstly, wow, the stand-alone bench event is popular.  In this competition, at least, there were many more competitors in my age/weight category than in the traditional 3 event competition.  Not surprisingly, some of these guys were straight up bench-press specialists.  While it was a fun, educational experience, I don’t think that I will do it again simply because I miss the “long game” aspect of the 3 event powerlifting.  A bench-press competition goes by very quickly, 3 lifts and you’re done.  And while my bench is pretty good, I don’t think it’ll ever be “stand-out” in a field of bench press specialists.