Tulum – Douchebag mecca or victim of it’s own success?

If one were to magically procure Admin rights to Instagram and was able eliminate all post from Tulum, I’m fairly certain that’d reduce total content on the platform by at roughly 30 percent.  Why is that?  What makes makes Tulum the ideal backdrop for the willfuly self-obsessed narcissists weirdly expending a great deal of energy to convince strangers they are “living their best” lives?  Is it Tulum’s fault, or is this once sleepy beach town in Quintana Roo the victim of the creeping, malignant douchery that has infected global culture since the invention of social media?  Sit back and relax, dear reader, as your fearless correspondent attempts to “downward dog” in this particular minefield.

But first, full disclosure:  Your scribe is of a certain age, so what follows is a bit of the ol’ obligatory “things were much better in my day”.  Sure, but bear with me, there is a reason for it.  In any event, I’m not unfamiliar with Mexico, but let’s face it, I am still very much a gringo.  I claim no deep cultureal knowledge of Mexico and only a slightly better understanding of issues in the Yucatan and Quintana Roo states.  My Spanish, once half-way decent, has atrophied by many years in Europe.  Suffice it to say, however, that my first travels in that area were decades ago, roughly around the time (or perhaps before) most of the IG influencers in question were born.  I had just resigned from my  job and was taking an extended, hyper low budget backpacking trip with Guatemala, Belize and Mexico.  We had crossed the border from Belize into Chetumal and were looking for cool, but above all, cheap places to visit.  In those days internet technically existed but it was not the tool it is now.  There was no social media or forums where one could get travel tips.  There were, however, travel guides such as Lonely Planet and, of course, word of mouth.  Once you were “on the circuit” with other young backpackers, people exchange information and “humble brag” about the places they’ve visited.  The modus operandi of this form of travel involved taking cheap buses to whereever you wanted to go and then, once onsite, immediatly hitting cheap guest hostels that you had heard about to procure a room, bunk or hammock.  As an interesting cultural aside, in 7 weeks of travelling like this I ran into very, very few Americans or Canadians.  My fellow travellers were almost entirely European, Aussies, Kiwis and Israelis.   For one, Yanks and Canucks have very little vacation time in general so to take such a trip would be (as was my case) an exception.  “Gap years” is not a thing in North American culture.

In any event, as we made our way up the coast we made plans to stop in Tulum to see what sounded pretty cool – a pyramid on the beach!  At that time Tulum was a little bit out of the way and from what we heard, a bit of a gamble in regards to lodging.  We had heard there wasn’t much, so the concern was if we got there too late we wouldn’t find a cheap room, or whatever, and would be stuck because there weren’t lots of buses on a daily basis.  We made it, however, and were able to score lodging.  Tulum was really, really basic back then, what I remember most about it (away from the beach part) was the dust.  It was pretty hot but that’s to be expected in the Yucatan in August.  The pyramid was definitely worth the trip, though, for the setting as well as wildlife surrounding and/or in it.  There were some hippy dippy, cheap new agey backpacker type hostels and cafes that were a fixture of this whole “circuit” but they were relatively few.   Most of what you see now in Tulum, whether in the town itself or on the “fabulous” beach zone, didn’t exist yet.  There were no high end boutique hotels, no condos, and no real fanfare about the place.  I remember thinking, indeed, this place is cool but not really great for an extended stay unless you had a car (and could visit the surrounding area which as many interesting things) or was a hardcore beach lover.

Anyway, we eventually made our way to Playa del Carmen which back then was going through it’s “Tulum” moment, although much more under the radar as the whole “hype” machine was not as efficient back then.  It was the anti-Cancun.  Small, affordable, laid-back village that was still “identifiably” Mexican.  None of the silly adult Disneyland vibes.  It was just a big village on the coast with really, really nice beaches.  At that time there were these big palapas on the beach and you could rent hammocks for roughly 2 bucks US a night.  It was bigger than Tulum, for sure, but still very manageable.  There was no city vibe at all.  Yes, there were  the same hippy, new agey backpacker establishments that we’d seen in other places.  I don’t remember any high end hotels and certainly nothing over 2 or 3 stories.  It reminds of Progresso as it is now, only the town was less grubby and the beaches much, much nicer.  Kilometers/miles of unspoiled beaches and a really special vibe.  Mexico was and still is a pretty socially conservative culture yet, for some reason, a pretty permissive feeling reigned over Playa del Carmen.  At this time, topless sunbathing was still a norm in much of Europe and therefore, due to the high concentration of European backpackers, it was tolerated in PdC.  I thought I had died and gone to heaven.  Sleeping on a hammock on the beach, grabbing cheap beer and food from taquerias and surrounded by scads of attractive, scantily clad eurobabes.  I remember taking a long walk on the unbelievably beautiful beach ( no sargasso seaweed back then) one day and stumbling accross a nude photo shoot.  It wasn’t close to the action, sure, but it was not that far.  It was a professional affair with the requisite photography paraphenalia and 2 two breathtaking, butt nekkid models.  However, no gawkers or weirdos… people would might stop to look briefly but it would have been deeply uncool to sit there and drool.  Was this an example of cultural and economic imperialism?  Yep, it probably was.  Nonetheless, it was cool vibe without descending in some of the tackier and dodgy “druggy” vibes that you often encountered in backpacker “towns”.

Fast foward a few years, I was installed in Europe and had convinced some European and US friends to meet me in PdC for a 2 week holiday.  My first impression, not surprisingly, was that travelling to Mexico all the way from Europe is a big, long deal.  It’s perhaps even easier to go Asia from here than go to Mexico.  When I arrived in Playa, the town had grown to, I guess, a small city but it was still recognizable as the place I had seen before.  A few more hotels, cafes and bars, but still not Cancun-like by any means.  I remember looking for the palapa where I had rented the hammock, and I think it was gone.  The vibe was a little less “backpacker” counterculture than it was previously, but it was fine.  Restaurants, bars and clubs were cool but without the “exclusive”  vibe or preciousness that would later install itself in Tulum.  One day I rented a jeep so my friends and I could go Sian K’aan and check out Tulum on the way back.  However, when the day came my friends were all sleeping off hangovers.  I had one too, but since I had reserved the jeep I felt obligated to go.  It was a really cool trip, at one point I was on a single track road in the jungle near (but outside of) Sian K’aan and I was just surrounded by thousands upon thousands on butterflies.  On the way back I stopped in Tulum.  It had grown, but it still was still small-scale.  It reminded of PdC when I first visited.  In fact, I thought to myself that it’d be cooler to stay here now but we were locked-in hotel wise and besides some of my friends were not fans of the backpacker hostel on a jungle beach thing.  (Two of them fruitlessly searched for any place that served Champagne in PdC and couldn’t find any.  Oh, how things have changed…).

Years pass, I now have a family and am back in Mexico visiting some family and friends who live there.  They tell me how Playa del Carmen has exploded and indeed has become the fastest growing city in Mexico.  I couldn’t really conceive of this, but, I said to myself, I guess it was only a matter of time.  Even over multiple trips to Mexico during this period I didn’t make it to the “Mayan Riveria” right away.  I did land in Cancun each time though, and I’d note that the sign posting on the highway  for PdC and Tulum(!) which I noted with interest.  Anyway, roughly 7 years ago I went to a very secluded bunch of beach huts in Sian K’aan with some family and friends.  As the crow flies, the beach huts are not that far from the Tulum but given the state of the road it was good, bumpy 2 hour drive.  Anyway, on my way from Cancun airport I stopped at the PdC ADO bus station to pick up a friend…my brain was literally wrecked.  I could not equate the place I knew before with this big sprawling city.  As we continuted on, we inevitably arrived in Tulum.  Yes, it had grown, but not like Playa del Carmen.  To get access the Sian K’aan road you must past through the Tulum beach hotel zone.  It had changed, it was more upscale in design and no doubt pricewise, but it retained the jungle beach feel.  The clientele seemed to be mostly youngish, as before, but not of the backpacker sort.  There were lots of tanned, ripped Abs gay dudes cruisiing around (in both senses of the word) on fat-tired beachcruiser bikes, and lots of quite frankly really hot, bodied up yoga bunnies trailed inevitably by straight dudes who seemed to be feverishly dreaming of strategies of relieving said yoga bunnies of their Lululemons.  Man-buns, pork-pie hats, signs for yoga retreats and fucking pretentious locavore organic restaurants chef’d by gringos were everywhere.  Tulum was still cool and the natural setting still beautiful, certainly, but the vibe had become more”exclusive” and therefore douche-ier.

Nonetheless, it was fun to chuckle and play hipster bingo during our visits to Tulum every few days for supplies.  One day, I even went to Tulum with a friend in an attempt to “go out” for an evening.  We tried, we really did, to hit the beach hotel zone first to get a drink and then dinner.  And, yes, it’s very pretty and there is, to paraphrase 10,000 IG posts, a sort of special energy that is perhaps a product of the natural setting and, if you want to get more “woo-woo”, maybe even the pyramid a few kilometers away.  But holy shit, the clientele, that has changed.  Not everyone, but a significant minority, acts as if they are being trailed by invisible camera crew that are documenting the utter fabulousness of their lives.  There is energy, for sure, but some of it seems forced now.  Instagram, let’s be honest, is used for presenting an airbrushed, photoshopped versions of most people’s lives.  Hanging out in beach zone was like inhabiting a surreal IG live-feed.  And I get why so many people were and are posting almost obligatory pics from Tulum.  It’s cool, it’s hipster, it’s the anti-Cancun.  The subtext, which is not very subtle, is  that I’m not one of those obese, infantile lobster red masses wallowing in low brow massed tourism.  But there is now an strong undercurrent of “trying too hard” that would have frowned upon before.  We just couldn’t hack all of the fabulousness and forced smiles so we went into Tulum town for some beers and seafood – and had a grand old time.

Another reason Tulum is THE grand-daddy of all IG tourist spots is an absolutely brilliant marketing strategy which I think was discovered accidently but is now being overtly executed.  If you are easily trigged by non-PC truths, dear reader, please skip this paragraph.  In any event, because of it’s setting and probably also a well developed new agey scene in Mexico itself, Tulum slowly started to attract yogis, massage therapists and other sort of new agey types. Yoga, massages, organic food, crystal therapies, visits to cenotes to vibe with “positive energy” etc, is the sort of stuff that attracts straight women and a certain type of gay man.  A byproduct of all that yoga and well-being are a clientele that are relatively fit.  In short, Tulum became known as a destination filled with yoga MILFs and their gay equivalent hotties.  And that, my friends, attracted the dudes (straight, gay or whatever).  Which leads to more “peacocking” and and exclusiveness as said dudes feel the need to compete.  And, yes, also some of the women are shallow as well and require “cute, trendy cafes and shops”, etc.  Shallow, yes, simplistic, yep.  But true, yeah, it is.  Take a look a most of the leading establishments in Tulum.  The marketing strategies are exclusively targetting yoga yummy mummy and IG hottie demographic.  For real, read the promotional drivel and ask yourself if somewhere there is a straight 30something man going “wow, that sounds like exactly what I’m looking for”.  No, the establishments attract the women.  Some of these women are IG , ahem, influencers.  They post a few butt pics from the beach to score IG credibility points and/or because of a promotional deal with a hotel.  IG puts it out there that this place is filled eye candy.  The hotels and other establishments don’t need to market to guys.  If they attract the flowers, the bees will come.  Kudos and a golf clap to all those involved.

So, the final question, has Tulum jumped the shark?  I havent been there in 4 years or so but it seems to have achieved terminal saturation on IG.  Reports of Tulum’s demise have been heralded repeatedly for the last few years but it’s still a contender and still hasn’t gone “Playa del Carmen” although the reasons for that are both encouraging and discouraging (It’d take another post to explain).  At some point soon, people will move onto some place “less discovered” and therefore cooler in the IG-sphere.  And there are indeeds spots like those, a few hours drive from Tulum.  The saving grace is that represents, unlike Tulum, a longish trip by car or bus from Cancun airport.  But inevitably those spots will go the same route of Tulum.  If it brings much needed money and infrastructure to local (most Mayan) populace, then I’m all for it.

 

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.

Why is this so popular? Rant o’ the day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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.

The bench-press: It’s not just for meatheads any more…

In honor of Monday (aka International Chest Day) and my upcoming competition this weekend, this post will examine why the bench-press is so misunderstood, why you should do it and some surprising tips I’ve learned over the years that have helped me improve my bench-press.

As I sit here alternating between sips of black coffee and apple cider vinegar/cinnamon/lemon juice/cayenne pepper detox drink, I contemplate my upcoming Powerlifting meet this weekend in Germany.  I will only compete  in the stand alone Bench-Press as my jacked -up left biceps/shoulder area preclude me from the traditional 3 lift powerlifting competition.  I haven’t been able to low-bar squat for a few months now and have only been able to seriously train the deadlift recently.  For this competition there is a pretty deep field of competitors for the Bench event in my weight/age category,  much more so than in the 3 lift event.  I think this might be testament to the popularity of the bench-press and also that a number of my “older gent” competitors might have injuries like me.

Bench-pressing is, in some ways, a victim of its own popularity.  Most people think that since it’s so popular amongst “gym bro” meatheads that it’s to be avoided like dodgy sushi in an all you can eat buffet.  Never fear; the first thing to know about the bench-press is that performing the exercise will not lower your IQ or give you a man-bun.  If you had told me, my friends or my family 10 years ago that I’d one day I’d compete in a bench-press competition you’d have been met with a healthy dose of skepticism if not outright hilarity.  I would have thought, above all, that I was absolutely incapable of seriously competing (albeit in a very amateur federation) and, besides, I wasn’t macho and hairy-chested enough.  Wrong on both counts, it seems.  Even if you never compete, here’s why I think you should do this exercise – and some tips to do it better.

  • The bench-press is the single best compound movement for the upper body.  If you do it correctly you’ll give your chest, shoulders, arms and, to some extent, your back an excellent work-out.  Pair it with overhead presses and you have a very comprehensive upper body training regimen.
  • The bench-press is not macho:  Really, trust me on this.  It’s an exercise like any other and should be treated as such.  For dudes – don’t treat it as a test of your manhood…that’s just plain silly.  Besides, I’ve found that the vast majority of guys that brag about how much they can bench are, how shall I put it, “mistaken”.  A real 1 rep max of a bench-press involves controlled descent of the bar until it lightly touches the chest, a slight pause (i.e. no bounce off the chest), pressing the bar back up and then re-racking.  This is harder than sloppy YOLO bounce off the chest,  spotter helping you on the ascent style of bench press so you need to completely check your ego.  Therefore, train intelligently using weights that you can do with good form.  Always respect the weight – if possible do all of your bench-press training in a squat rack or bench that has “safeties” to catch failed lifts.  DO NOT intentionally train to failure with the bench-press.

A blog post is too short a format to discuss all the finer points of bench-press and, besides, here is one of the most comprehensive how-to videos I’ve seen on the subject:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1FWDde2IEPg

Excellent though that video is, I feel I can add some additional hard-won tips/cues:

  • For the first half of the bench-press, treat it like a pull-up:  Above all, retract your scapulae.  This will recruit your lats, give you a strong base and put your arms/shoulders in correct position to push-off, utilizing your triceps, shoulders, lats and, yes, your pecs.  Retracting your scapulae is fundamental to all of powerlifting, squats and deadlifts included.
  • Tuck your elbows in as much as possible:  This cue is also known as “bend the bar”.  I like to imagine that I am trapped on the ground with a heavy object on top of me.  Flaring my elbows just won’t do the trick.
  • A spotter is not a training tool:  The very best lifters don’t fail a lot of lifts in training because they train methodically.  They train to peak exactly at the time of their competition.  They may be doing a lot of heavy triples and doubles but rarely wildly attempt new PRs.  For one, failing too many heavy lifts, especially in the bench-press,  trains your brain to equate really heavy weight with a “panic” response.  So I don’t wildly attempt unrealistic PRs even when I’m benching in squat rack with the safety bars correctly set up.  Secondly, an excellent spotter is a very rare thing, capable of judging when to grab the bar, neither too early nor too late.  Finally, I’ve seen far too many bad spots, including some that almost resulted in accidents, to think that one should rely on spotters.  The only spotters I somewhat trust are the two spotters you get in competitions – and that’s only because there are two of them and, in case they screw up, the competition bench has safeties.
  • Assistance exercises that have worked best for me:  I use a fairly wide grip for my competition bench.  During training, however, I like to vary the widths I use to recruit muscles differently as well as avoid over-use injuries.  Floor presses, I feel, help to improve that crucial sticking point i.e. pressing off of your chest from a dead stop.  For me the bench-press relies heavily on the triceps so I do a lot of additional triceps training.  Finally, pulling exercises such as pull-ups and Pendlay rows help develop the back musculature which is crucial to balance out the shoulders, pecs and triceps development.

Anyway, wish me luck.  Hopefully this time next week I’ll be posting with some good news such as I made the podium.  Either that, or the silence will be deafening.  Just kidding, if things don’t go as planned, I’ll try to honestly analyze why they didn’t.  My opening lift will be my previous competition PR.  This weight is now my “any day, any time” weight so provided I make that lift and a subsequent heavier lift I should at least have a new competition PR at the very least.

 

 

Why some blog posts work and others don’t: an analysis

 

As a blogger, have you ever taken to the time to examine your readership statistics to discern what seems to garner the most attention…and what doesn’t?  I’ve been blogging for a year now and have published dozens of posts.  During that time, I’ve had some spectacular failures as well as a few relative successes.  Using the data available I will attempt to identify what worked, what didn’t  and pass an honest judgement as to why.  In the second part of this assessment I’ll identify what, as a reader, draws my interest to a blog post.

First, let’s set the parameters.  I feel that a “view” is the most important data point.  You can “like” a post and even “follow” the blog but only the “view” reliably indicates that you drew the reader’s interest.  “Follow” statistics are somewhat useful, especially if you see a spike after a blog that garnered a decent number of views.  This indicates that some people a) read your post and b) decided to follow your blog as a result.  Of course, you can follow a blog or like a post without reading it and this seems to happen to some extent.  “Likes” are therefore nice to have, but not a reliable indicator as to the “market value” of the post.

A quick analysis of my posts:  As a blogger my stated interests, as laid out in my “about” page are varied but include strength training, literature, travel and sundry other topics.  Below, in descending order, are blog topics that generated the most interest:

  • Writing/blogging  – This had a comfortable, but not overwhelming lead, over other topics.  Not surprising, really, as we’re all blogging because we love to write so it’s a shared interest in the broadest sense.
  • Literature – Books are my lifeline, as they probably are for you so it’s not surprising that in the blogosphere there is a widespread appreciation for reading/literature.
  • Travel/Living in other countries – Well, again, not surprising, it’s part of the title of this blog.  Other cultures, and by extension travelling are also a universal interest.
  • Strength training:  A slight majority of my posts are about strength training, powerlifting or gym going in general.  You’ll notice it’s 4th on the list. Primarily, strength training, and especially powerlifting, is a niche activity.   If you factor in how many readers in the blogosphere would be interested in those activities, it’s probably not surprising those posts are not my most read.  That being said, they are some of the most loyal readers.
  • Cooking/Cuisine/Recipes: I’ve done a just a few of these posts.  They were unique, I feel, and garnered some interest but were no doubt handicapped by poor “marketing’.
  • Life Lessons/Motivation:  Dead last.  A few views but really no interest.  I think there were a number of reasons why this happened (bad titles, dense prose, etc) but basically I wouldn’t read this sort of post from somebody I didn’t know either.  It’s that simple.

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What helped success – and what caused failure:

  • Clear, concise titles:  The biggest take-away from this analysis is that cryptic titles for your post just don’t work.  It can be brilliantly written and categorized/tagged correctly, but it’ll never work  you can’t tell in 2 seconds what the post is about.  I wouldn’t read such post, so why I expected my readers to is an embarrassing mystery.
  • Good layout/well written:  How many times have you, against your better judgment, clicked on a poorly titled blog post (hoping against hope that the title was not indicative of the writing quality) and immediately regretted your decision?  Exactly.  You don’t like reading somebody’s BS “This is what I did today, guys!” post so don’t inflict that on your readers.  Stream of consciousness, laundry list types of posts are boring and you’ll lose credibility.
  • Add value:  We all have a unique voice and viewpoint that, if correctly targeted, can generate interest.  The first step is to find your voice and identify the areas where you truly add value.  Blogging is part of this first step for many of us.  The “market” will decide where it thinks you add the most value and, in some cases,  it might not be what you suspect.

What works for me as a reader:  At it’s best, reading blogs exposes me to a myriad different viewpoints.  It’s a direct line to access some quality writing from bloggers around the world.  There is quite a bit of cra*, though.  If you filter out all the commercial blogs, there remains quite a bit a poorly written, poorly conceived dreck. Hey, I’ve written some of those and chances are you might have as well.  The posts that resonate the most with me are those who have clear title, have a strong sense of what it is they want to communicate and are well written.  What this means is different for every writer and subject.  For example, I follow one young writer who writes seemingly stream of consciousness “slice of life” stories that, on the surface, shouldn’t be worth the time.  Still, she has a strong, unique voice and an innate sense for storytelling that make all of her posts quite worth reading.  And, yes, in her own inimitable way, the title of her posts always gives you an indication of what you are in for.

As a blogger, what were your most widely read posts?  Were they the posts you expected or did you have surprises?  Please comment below.

The dark side of the Gym

 

 

This blog is about to get real.  This morning I read an excellent post from Awkward Brown Guy (https://theawkwardbrownguy.wordpress.com/ – I highly recommend his blog) in which he describes his motivation for going to the gym, and how it’s changed over the years.  It got me thinking about how we all like to post about the myriad benefits of going to the gym, but we very rarely touch on the less than salubrious aspects.  It’s not all unicorns and rainbows, folks, so let’s have an honest discussion about some of the more disturbing trends in gym going behavior.

  • Balance is the key:  Nature seeks equilibrium; too much or too little of anything is not good.  Physical activity is required for one’s physical and mental hygiene. The question that many people struggle with is “how much?”.  Some people see some of the less than healthy behavior of some “fitness” trends and use it as an excuse to avoid exercise.  Still other seemingly think that engaging in physical exercise will solve all of your problems.  I think all of us are somewhere on this spectrum, and where we are at any given time depends on external factors.  Personally speaking, I’ve had couch potato periods, somewhat exaggerated periods of heavy training and more common work/life balance “trying to find time to train” periods.
  • Motivation vs. Pathology:  The modern fitness world is addicted to motivational stories to an unhealthy extent.  It’s very simple, if you don’t train and then start training, you will notice many improvements.  Better mood, sleep, weight loss and/or muscle gain, reduction of anxiety, the list goes on.  And I think it’s great this engenders a feeling of empowerment in people.  I don’t think, however, that pushing stories of how people have seemingly conquered all of life’s ills by physical training is a positive trend.  We all know a few 1 dimensional “gym is life” types and, admit it, it’s a bit sad.  Sadly, many of us have a seen a few pathological cases which literally make you wince.  At the Globo gyms I go to, for example, there is  one guy who is so hyper-ripped that his muscles actually interfere with his mobility.  He waddles from machine to machine and occasionally the dumbbell rack.  It’s kind of disturbing.  There is also this extremely anorexic woman I’ve seen at gyms around town for years now.  It always makes me nervous to be in the gym with her because I honestly expect her to keel over at any moment.  She’s literally a walking skeleton and all she ever does is cardio.  I have a family member who struggled with this disease, I know it’s a desperate attempt to exert control over one’s life,  so I don’t take this lightly.  The gym is the last place she should be and nobody should be enabling her to burn any more precious calories.
  • Performance Enhancing Drugs:  I used to be very naive and thought steroid use was rare.  10 years ago I might have even thought that the behemoth I described above was a “natural”.  The reality is that most of the shredded guys and gals at your local gym are on “gear”.  Most of us don’t have the genetics  it takes to resemble a Comic Book hero, so, surprise, surprise, many people resort drugs.  I understand if a professional athlete or movie star does it because the risk may be worth the monetary reward.  It’s pathological, however, for  your average gym goer or amateur competitor take the same hormonal health risks.
  • Body Dysmorphia:   Sure, body dysmorphia exists outside a gym environment.  It’s also true that physical training is conducive to developing a limited degree of body dysmorphia in most people.  What I find most interesting is how the condition manifests itself depends on what type of training you are doing.  This is logical because depending on your chosen activity you’ll spend a certain amount of time around phenotypes best suited to that activity.  For example, when I ran semi-marathons I used to think I was too bulky at 66 Kgs for 1m79. I now weigh 30KGs more after years of strength training.  Honestly, some of that is fat, but a lot of it isn’t.  It’s not an abnormal body type to find in a powerlifting gym but I am sometimes reminded, by people’s reactions, how outside the norm it is.  The interesting thing is that in my mind’s eye I’m “normal” size and I don’t really dig the “getting bigger” aspect.  It’s a side effect of the sport, not the raison d’être.

The point is that we need to apply the same critical regard to physical training as we do to other parts of our lives.  I often liken it to stages of “culture shock”.  When you first arrive in a country you often “love” (or detest) everything about it for a period of time.  Then, abruptly, that feeling completely changes to its polar opposite.  So now you loathe every stupid aspect of said country/culture.  Within a few months, however, you’ll reach a more reasonable mindset and begin to see the culture for what it is, neither perfect nor horrible.  Physical training is, for me, an essential part of life.  Sadly, it doesn’t provide an answer for all of my problems.  Sometimes, it even causes a few problems such as my recent injury or getting bulkier than I’d like.   At my age, though, I’m not motivated by vanity.  I like how it makes me feel and I get a kick out of achieving goals and getting stronger.   Sometimes you have to take the bad with the good.

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.

 

The Mythical Land of Oz

 

I was born in The Land Down Under.  While it wasn’t exactly an accident of birth (heck, I was even conceived in Oz) my birthplace is not one of my more salient facts.  If you met me today absolutely nothing about me screams, or even whispers, Australian.  I am relatively unsullied by and downright ignorant of things Oz-related.  The closest I’ve to Australia in the past few decades has been in travelling SE Asia and, culturally speaking, attending a Midnight Oil gig at the Paradise in Boston way back in the day.   (Oh, yeah, and I read The Fatal Shore  some years back)  You see, my parents were expatriates at the time and we left Oz when I was still a wee sprog.  Realistically, I’ve not really been there…and yet, in a rather important sense, I have.

It’s funny how seemingly insignificant facts can influence one’s life.  I feel like the Mariner in Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Australia is the Albatross around my neck. It’s a fact that I’m not allowed to forget and that I am required to explain the circumstances of ad infinitum.  This is no slight on Australia, by all accounts I hear it’s a lovely place and the Australians I’ve met, without exception, were good craic.  You’d be surprised how many official and professional documents require to list your birthplace.  Often these documents assume your birthplace=your nationality which always requires further explanation for people like me.  For some reason, this singles me out for extra questioning at Customs/passport control without fail in Anglophone countries.  “Let’s see, you were born in Australia, you are X nationality, you’ve traveled widely and you live in Y country”.  So you’re obliged to give the whole spiel about who you are.  Interestingly, Customs agents in non-English speaking countries don’t bat an eyelid – never question it.  I wonder, when I do eventually visit Australia,  if Australian Customs will even notice.  It’d be hysterical if they didn’t.

A few years back I found myself in a fairly stressful situation.  I was being interviewed by a committee and they had my dossier.  The forms in my dossier asked for my place of birth but not my nationality.  I should note that this interview was not in English so while I have a slight Anglophone accent, it’d be rather hard to judge my nationality.  Anyway, they lit up like Christmas trees when they saw the word Australia and people started to wax melodic about Sydney, the Outback, Barossa Valley, etc.  I just smiled and made non-commital comments, neither denying nor confirming my Aussie-tude.  The rest of interview went swimmingly, better than I can could have imagined.  Cheers, Australia.

Those of us of a certain age will remember things Australian were hugely trendy in the 80s – at least in North America.  This was largely due to a God-awful movie called Crocodile Dundee, a film that has not aged well at all.  Honestly, try watching it now, it’s painfully bad.  People at that time just couldn’t get enough of Australian accents – it was a veritable strine-mania.  I remember briefly thinking they were cool without giving it too much thought.  I do watch Australian TV shows (via Netflix and UK-based TV) these days and I can’t help wondering why Australian accents were considered cool.  They’re just as horrid as any other accent, but that’s not necessarily a pejorative.  It means they’ve got character.  I lived in Boston for 12 years and during that time I had a complicated relationship with the real Bawstin accent, theah.  It grated on me after a while.  Now, when I hear a real honest to goodness Boston accent, I can’t help but smile, I love it.  The Boston accent has character, it’s like no other US accent you’ll hear.  It’s also a reflection of the culture, it’s an unapologetic, unique mindset of its own.  People from Mass can be loud, brash, bordering on the obnoxious sometimes but also funny and really good-hearted.

So I am thinking of finally visiting Australia next year.  Mostly sticking to Sydney and Melbourne but I’m open to suggestions.  I will also probably visit, for the complete heck of it, the city of my birth as it’s between Sydney and Melbourne.   Also looking to visit the best powerlifting gyms I can find in those locations. If anybody has suggestions about what to do in Australia in general or powerlifting gyms in particular, I’d be much obliged.