Do you even lift, bro?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Obstacle or opportunity?

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Ain’t no half reppin’

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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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

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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?

Resolved.

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One cannot swing a deceased feline in the fitness-related blogosphere without hitting a few dozen posts about “New Years Resolutioners”, aka the 2nd most well-known seasonal flood after the Nile.  (OK, the construction of the Aswan High Dam largely took care of that phenomenon – just wanted to make sure you’re paying attention).  I don’t really have a dog in this fight since gym newbies typically do not gravitate to power racks or barbells.  If anything, it’s nice to see some new faces in the gym and I wish them well.  Also, it’s not quite the deluge that some would have you believe.  I’ve seen an uptick of new faces the last few weeks but mostly a lot of gym rats I haven’t seen in months have mysteriously reappeared.  Do gym rats migrate, following cheaply priced protein powder sources the same way blue whales follow krill blooms?  Where is David Attenborough when you really need him?

The reason people pick on the “new year, new me” crowd is that you need real motivation to train hard or stick to radical lifestyle and/or dietary changes.  A vague idea that you need to “get into shape” ain’t going to cut it.  So inevitably a big percentage of people will eventually give up.   The funny thing is, motivation is easier than ever to come by these days.  Google or youtube people who share the same goals as you –  after a few hours of watching videos from the thought leaders of your particular area of interest, you will learn about the basics you need to master to attain your goal.  If you really want get stronger, more jacked, lose weight, whatever, you’ll pick up a number of specific goals before even entering a gym.  If you’ve done your homework, you might even search out a specialized gym that would allow you to meet those goals.  “Getting jacked” is an idea – it’s the goals you set as you work towards that idea that are powerful.  It’s not “hard work” if you’re motivated.

Personally, I’ve never done a New Years resolution.  This is probably because today, my birthday,  comes soon after New Years and that is usually the day I reserve to declare my nebulous well-intentioned self-improvement ideas.  Call them wishes, because in my book once you’ve done your research and put a plan in action,  you’re doing, not “wishing”.  If resolutions are “wishful thinking” or percolating ideas for which you have not yet formed a plan, I resolve the following:

  • I will create 2 meaningful, well crafted blog posts per week.
  • I will get back into “active dating”.  Or at least come out of a self-imposed “social hibernation”.  Maybe I’ll start with micro-goals to drum up the motivation.
  • Read more – I used to read at least 2 books a week and this has slowed to a crawl in the last 2 years. Reading is a book, a real book, is one of life’s greatest pleasures.  Books are a lifeline, sometimes the only one, that can get you through difficult times.  Really good books, the classics, are like squats for your intellect.  If you’ve read the likes of Melville or Homer and have squatted some heavy-ass weight, you’ll know exactly what I mean.

2018 plans that are already in execution:

  • Compete in 3 powerlifting competitions this year.  The first one (in a few months) may have to be bench only due to my injuries.
  • Recover from injuries and actively incorporate more mobility work.
  • Do a long-term, gradual cut (see above re: finding motivation.  There is a lot to learn before implementing a plan like this).  I am back down to my November competition weight already.  I can easily get down to 90 to 92 kgs without impacting my strength. I’ll still be in the same weight category, but such is life.  Might nudge into the high 80s – but dropping any more weight would impact strength.
  • Implement external business plan by end of Q3.  (More on this as we approach the implementation date).

Anyway, if you happen to be one of those people who is getting back in the gym in January, kudos.  If you already have your micro-goals mapped out then you’re 50 percent of the way towards your goal.  The physical effort is the easy part.  If you haven’t mapped out your goals, take a few hours to do the research.  Above all,  if you are going to a “Globo” gym, don’t let a trainer set your goals for you.  If you want to learn to squat, for example, and he’s insists on the Bosu ball and TRX,  find another trainer.   You’ll save time, money and frustration.    You might just adopt a lifelong “habit” or interest.

That’s it, I’ve taken the day off to chill, read and get through an extended deadlift and accessory exercises training.  I have a sneaking suspicion that some sort of dinner is planned for this evening.  Have a great weekend

 

Negativity as motivation

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As we ease into the 2nd week of 2018,  I contemplate my upcoming workout.  Rotator cuff issues mean that I still can’t low or high bar squat so my workout today will feature safety bar box squats and the Wenning belt squat station for a reasonable amount of weight and volume as well as working up to some heavy triples on bench.  On the bright side of the injury report, my hamstring seems to healed to an extent that I can start easing into some more meaningful lower body training.  2 days ago I did my first deadlift training in 7 weeks for light to light/medium weight as the objective was to see how the hamstring felt and above all concentrate on form, form and more form.  I did snatch grip DLs, conventional DLs and then high rack pulls and barbell shrugs with a bit more weight.  I also did glute ham raises and some farmers carries.  The surprising result is that my legs feel fine (perhaps because I have been training them continuously with light weights and/or body weight) but my upper back and traps are feeling it.  My rotator cuff injury means that a lot of back/shoulder exercises are out of the question for now which makes exercise selection a bit of a challenge.

Two simultaneous injuries suck, but powerlifting is life so off I go to the powerlifting gym.  It’s a bit of a hike from my house but I will go there today primarily because it has the specialized bars and stations I need to do the exercises listed above.  Also,  we can blast music at improbable volumes and use healthy amounts of chalk all in a pleasantly mirror free environment.  The best things about this gym, though, are  the people and overall vibe.  It’s overwhelmingly positive (much of this is thanks to M, the gym’s inimitable owner and head coach) and it’s a blast to be surrounded by motivated, like-minded people. It’s sort of like Cheers, everybody knows your name.

As I’ve said in previous posts, I still go to a commercial gym about half the time as it’s close where I live and work and therefore convenient. One of my team-mates recently told that she avoids this (commercial) gym like the plague because, even though it’s very well equipped, because it’s awash in negativity and gym haters.  She’s not wrong.  Many commercial gyms, and this place is no exception,  have the social dynamics of a middle school playground – cliques, rampant gossip, dirty looks, the works.

In a weird way I enjoy the dysfunctional ambiance which is useful as I’m obliged to train there so often.  It’s a dose of Yang to balance out the Yin of the other gym. There are a lot of type A personalities and some inflated senses of entitlement, both in the locker room and out on the floor.  It’s a struggle to stay Zen sometimes.  I find that it’s almost a form of moving meditation as I try to block out the extraneous foolishness and focus on training.  I just navigate around the gym in my ratty t-shirt, Chuck Taylors and track suit bottoms with the tell-tale heavy-duty wrist-wraps and chalk bag in my pockets.  (Chalk is sort of frowned on but to the gym’s credit, they haven’t hassled me about it.).  And, yeah, there are the odd fun moments when you quietly install yourself on a bench next to a bench being used by some Instagramming, lycra clad bros and, slowly but surely, use their 1RM for paused-rep triples.

A certain amount of stress is required as a catalyst for growth.  This is the underlying principle of strength training, of course, as well as one of life’s greater truths.  As the French say, to make great wine the grapes must suffer.  As a man, you will not meet quality women or do anything else of note if you fear rejection.  You have to really embrace rejection or failure before you can see that it’s your fear, and not failure itself, that is holding you back. Fear is the mind-killer, the gains-killer and the get me some of that fine booty-killer.

So, boo-hoo, I’ve got 2 simultaneous injuries that are the direct result of me having enough time and resources to train in an activity I really enjoy and – gasp – I sometimes have to do such training in a big well equipped gym surrounded by the terminally shallow.  First world problems, to say the least.  If confronting your fears is important, so is gratitude.

 

Gym Etiquette – Unsolicited advice vs. Solicited advice

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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.

That time I did a Strongman contest

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About 18 months ago I did a very, very silly thing.  I participated in a local Strongman contest on a whim.  I just signed up a week before the contest and then I participated.  “How hard could it be?”, I thought naively.  I should preface this by providing some context at this point:  I know the organizer and for some mistaken reason I was under the impression that the contestants would be mostly my fellow Powerlifting (PL) team members and maybe a few other people.  So I thought it would be fun afternoon with a bunch people I basically know.  At the time I was doing a fair amount of overhead press, Atlas ball and some weighted carries in addition to squat, bench and deadlift so I thought I had an advantage.  Well, an advantage in the sense that I did more of this than some people in my PL gym so, since I thought they would be my main competitors.  Did I bother to learn about Strongman rules, strategy or do at least minimal contest prep?  Of course I didn’t.

I should also explain that at this point in time I was a strength-building “bulking” phase which is just a cool way of saying I was eating a lot (clean, yes, but a lot) and getting, well, sort of thick around the middle.  So, yes, I was relatively strong but my cardio capacity was even worse than usual thanks to the additional weight.  Additionally,  I had badly sprained my ankle 2 weeks before the event.

Sunday morning comes around and I nonchalantly roll up to the parking lot where the contest is being held.  First thing I noticed is that event looked a bit more “serious” than I was expecting – nicely set up, TV cameras, the works.  Second thing I noticed is that there weren’t many people from my PL team in attendance.  Those that were there were helping the organizers, not competing.  OK, I thought, no big deal.  Then as the other competitors arrived I realized that they were all Crossfitters and I easily had a good 18 years on the next oldest male competitor.  The horrible realization dawned on my that I had made a very foolish and potentially embarrassing decision to compete in a sport I know next to nothing about against a bunch of young guys with the strength and cardio fitness of race horses.  However, the only thing more mortifying than actually competing would have been to chicken out, especially in front of people I know.  My goals were clear – finish the competition and, for my self-esteem, not come in dead last.

Things got real even before the competition started.  The organizers took the competitors through some warm up stretches and light cardio.  In my “fuscular” bulking state, I was winded from the light cardio, and hobbling around to boot due to my sprained ankle.  It occurred to me as the events and rules were explained that Strongman is a lot more cardio intensive than I had anticipated and that, dear reader, did not bode well for yours truly.

The first event was the yoke carry over a 100 meters which I, of course, had never practiced.  Guess what, it’s harder than it looks, much harder.  Carrying a very heavy yoke over 100 meters takes a great deal of cardio.  (Strongman in general demands more cardio conditioning than people (or maybe just me) suspect)  After my carry I discretely went over to the side of the parking lot so fewer people would see me retching into the bushes.  I was the last to do the yoke carry so of course I was first up for the next event – farmer’s carry.   I was already winded to the point of seeing stars and now I was expected to pick up two weighted frames and move them 100 meters.  Ugh, my grip strength is my greatest weakness in the best of times, but in my tired state and with a sprained ankle, it wasn’t pretty.  I was dead last, by a country mile, in that event.

Two of the crossfitters were just absolute beasts, strong as hell and in all around excellent shape.  They were literally running away with the competition.  As the competition progressed I saw that the rest of my competitors were young (20 somethings), in much better cardio shape than I was but for the most part not as strong as your average powerlifter.  I did fairly well in those events that required upper body strength and/or resemble squatting or deadlifting.  So I placed well in one event that required us to pick up a 70kg ball off the ground and throw it over our shoulders for as many reps as possible (AMRAP) during one minute.  I came in second in the log press (pressing a weighted metal cylinder overhead for AMRAP during one minute) and probably would have done better if I knew how to do a push/press (i.e. utilizing your legs to help push the bar overhead).  People were screaming at me to stop doing a strict Overhead Press (which does not use the legs) but it was the only technique I knew.  Yep, a little contest prep would have gone a long way.

So I stumbled from event to event in an exhausted, hypoglycemic, trying not to retch daze.  Then, almost magically, the competition was over!  I had managed to get points in all of the events (not a given – some people, for example, couldn’t do even 1 rep of the log press and therefore got no points for that event).  Lo and behold, I managed to not place dead last.  OK, I was 6th from the bottom but on the other hand, I was old enough to be everyone’s father.  Aside the public humiliation that was my farmers carry attempt, I didn’t completely disgrace myself.

As I hobbled back to my car, every muscle and sinew in body was crying out in pain.  Uh-oh, I thought, this going to be even more sore tomorrow.  And indeed tomorrow was not kind.  I staggered into work and grimaced in pain every time I did radical things like get out of a chair or walk down a few stairs.  I am a manager in a conservative bank, where the sport of choice for people like me would be golf, tennis or running.  I am always the weirdo nursing some sort of injury like torn-up hands (due to deadlifting) but for the most part these injuries fly under the radar.  Impossible to remain un-noticed with the DOMS I was feeling from that competition.  I have never felt that physically trashed after a sporting event.  So big, big respect to all you strongman and strongwoman competitors out there.  You’re crazed masochists, the lot of you.

As I reviewed the video from the event I also came to the realization that there is a fine line between bulking for strength and looking like you’re wearing one of the tires you’re supposed to be flipping.  I also realized, in rather dramatic fashion, that I had an appalling lack of cardio conditioning.  I learned some honest to goodness respect for crossfitters.  It’s fashionable in some circles to talk trash about crossfitters because they are the jacks of all trades but masters of none.  You know what, if taught well and practiced with strict form, crossfit turns people into beasts.  If I was 20 years younger, I might be tempted to search out a really top-notch crossfit box.  Any sport that gets masses of people excited about compound barbell movements is all right by me..And, finally, it was fun to push the envelope a bit.  Wish I had done some contest prep and actual training for the events, but hey, hindsight is always 20/20.

 

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.

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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”?