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.

YouTubular – The best videos of the week

I watch a lot of YouTube.  I have “cable” TV, Netflix and Amazon Prime but I only tend to browse through the choices/channels on the weekends and, typically, give up and pick up a book instead.  Youtube, however, is addictive.   There is a lot of bad content so the trick is having a “nose” for a good content creator and/or finding a particularly good clip.  If I find a particularly useful clip, I often share it to Whatsapp (friends and family) or Facebook Messanger (Powerlifting team) groups.  The following clips are the most useful clips I’ve found recently on their respective subjects.  If the subject of one of these video interests you, I promise you it’ll be worth your time.  So, without further ado, here are the clips:

 

This clips explains, in a very cogent manner, why growth occurs only when you are challenged and how find that “sweet spot” that engenders growth.  The title of this video is uber-cheesy, but don’t let that put you off.  It’s a very, very useful video for absolutely everyone.  I’ve shared it with my kids, friends and as well as with the team I manage at work.

Dr. Axe is an excellent content provider for all things related to nutrition and health.  I purchased a slow cooker a few months ago – I wish this video had been around before I made my purchase.  As it turns out, I think I made a good purchase but it would have been useful to have been armed with this knowledge.  I love my slow cooker, it really makes meal prep for the week a whole lot easier.  Dr Axe videos, of which there are 100s, are uniformly excellent.  If you find video on a subject of interest, you can’t go wrong.

Juggernaut Training Systems are undeniably one of the best strength training channels on YouTube.  They recently put out a series of “5 Pillars for Great Technique” for Bench Press, Squat and Deadlift.  This is a really excellent, well produced series for all lifters, from novice to advanced.  I’ve shared these videos with a number of “lifting buddies”.

This video was published the day before yesterday by the Barbell Medicine crew.  This is probably the best single video on the subject of the Bench Press that I’ve ever seen.  So much so that I shared it with my Powerlifting coach  – and I’m not in the habit of wasting his time.  He dug the video and if the bench press interests you, I guaranty that you will dig it too.  As an aside, the Barbell Medicine team recently and very publicly divorced themselves from the Starting Strength organization.  Smart move, these guys are going places.

What a year of blogging has taught me.

This post is not about how to blog.  At this point in the game, I don’t think I’m qualified to opine on the art of blogging.  If a blogging “how to” is what interests you, this is the most cogent blog post, from the uber-talented and prolific Cristian Mihai,  I’ve read on the subject thus far:  https://cristianmihai.net/2018/03/18/the-7-golden-rules-of-blogging/

I realized last week that I’ve been blogging for almost a year now so I’ve decided examine what  motivated me when I began, what still motivates me a year later and what I’ve learned from the experience.

What motivated me when I began:  My primary motivation was, I suspect, similar to many other bloggers.  I wanted to get back into the practice of writing and blogging seemed the best way to do it.  Writing is a discipline akin to sports.  It becomes easier with practice and said practice allows you to refine your technique.  After decades in the financial services industry my writing skills had atrophied quite a bit.  I also figured, correctly as it turned out, that publishing my writing to a “public forum” would provide a little extra motivation to refine my writing as well as make it more accessible.  Also, I believed I had a unique point of view (don’t we all) and some of my ideas were worth expressing.

What I’ve learned about blogging:  Most bloggers, myself included, are writing what amounts to published diaries.  We are doing it for ourselves primarily but the possibility of public criticism adds an extra frisson.  Yes, anybody on the internet can read your blog post, but that doesn’t necessarily mean somebody will.  What follows are a few tips and observations I’ve garnered about the wild, wacky world of blogging.

  • Just write it:  You will, rightly so, be hyper critical of your first blog post.  Will it be Pulitzer prize-winning content?  Probably not, but hit the Publish button anyway.  Much like going for that first horrible, painful run after a lay off of 2 years, you need to take those first steps and create some momentum.
  • Think of the reader:  Nobody wants to sit down and read a 20,000 word single-spaced, poorly laid out screed.  A modicum of editing, some decent graphics and a more accessible layout go a long a way.  Unless its absolutely brilliant, I won’t read any blog post over a thousand words.
  • Read other blogs:  We all post blogs because we think we have something to share.  If you’re like me, it might not occur to you at first to read other people’s posts.  Oh, but you should.  For one, it’s fascinating to check out so many unique viewpoints.  You’ll get an idea for what works, and does not work, in a blog post.  It’s also a Karmic thing, if you want to get, you’ve got to give.  If I read post I like, I always leave a like and, if I really like it, I follow the blogger.  Chances are, it might pique that blogger’s interest in your stuff. Finally, the more good bloggers you follow, the better the quality of your feed.
  • Views\likes\follows\comments:  My first observation is that it’s possible to get more likes than views for a post.  It’s also happens that people follow you without having read any of your posts.  Either people are being nice or they are drumming up interest in their own blog.  Personally, I think the proof in the pudding are the views.  Comments are the best as they show that somebody not only read it but took the time to provide some feedback.  Until now, comments on my posts have all been positive but I’d also welcome some constructive criticism.  I try to leave comments on blog posts whenever I think I have something to add.
  • What makes a blog post popular:  Some of my most “heart-felt” posts, those in which I felt I had valuable insights to share,  have been less than successful.  One, hilariously, was an almost total failure. I’ve also had some topical posts that have done much better than I expected.  I think a lot of this has to do with the nature of the content,  of course, but  the fine art of applying the correct categories and tags to your post is a major factor.  I’ll admit that I don’t fully understand it yet, but I need to step up my game.  Another great tip that I don’t do, but I think could actually work very well, is to post links to your blog in your social media.  I’d probably increase readership dramatically, but part of the reason my blog is semi-anonymous is that it allows me a degree of editorial freedom.
  •   It’s very hard to proofread a post in draft format:  I strive mightily to proofread my posts before I publish them but often fail miserably.  The proofread function will correct obvious spelling errors and suggest better word choice but there are some errors it can’t detect.  My mind “fills in the blanks” when reading my drafts and therefore doesn’t see the glaring omission of key words or basic errors in verb tenses.  For some reason these errors become glaringly obvious once I see the post in published format.  Luckily, I can quickly edit the post and hit the update button to correct these faux pas.

What still motivates me to blog:  I can’t say objectively if the quality of my writing has improved, but the act of formulating a post and writing it has become easier.  I find that the more I write, the more ideas occur to me for blog posts.  Sometimes an idea will occur to me during the day, so I’ll make a note on my phone and revisit it when I get home.  The sharper my focus is becoming, the more I am motivated now to increase my audience.  I want to make sure that the type of writing I do is targeted to those readers that may potentially be interested.

Starting Strength – The vegans of the strength-training community

Yes, the title of this post is very much tongue-in-cheek but, like all humor, there is a lot of truth to it.  On the surface, the communities couldn’t be more different.  Peruse any Starting Strength forums or groups and you’ll quickly realize that their 2nd favorite topic is probably the consumption of meat.  And I’d very much doubt there are numerous threads in Vegan forums extolling the virtues of powerlifting, much less Starting Strength.  If both communities were cars, then Starting Strength would a used Ford F150 pickup with a gun rack and Vegans would be a Toyota Prius.

I respect the ideas and the body of knowledge of both camps.  In any given week, about 75 percent of my meals are technically vegan, with the remainder containing some very well-sourced organic meat and dairy products.  I find this “omnivore” approach works best for me.  Similarly, Starting Strength was huge influence on me when I first started strength training.  In the past 8 years I have bought 4 copies of the Starting Strength book as I gave my first 3 copies away to friends.  It’s a fantastic book, perhaps the best strength training book ever written for the general public.  I still strive for perfect “starting strength” form in my squats and deadlifts.

To be fair to Starting Strength, the methodology is very science-based and is all about protocols and form what will elicit strength gains for most, if not all, lifters.  It’s very pragmatic and no-nonsense about its stated goal.  Veganism can be considered both a dietary regime and/or an ethical choice.  Which seems fairly straight-forward,  you’d imagine, yet there exists a very vocal strain of “magical thinking” amongst some vegans (more about this later).

So how are they similar?  Simply put, both communities are very Orthodox to a really weird extent.  I stopped reading Starting Strength forums because it became very apparent a favorite past-time was ridiculing “heretics” who dared question any of the methodology.  Many people posting seem to consciously mimicking  Rip’s (the founder of Starting Strength) style of treating most questions as inherently stupid so, cue the weary sigh, let me lay some common sense on you.  This is also why I quickly stopped watching any Starting Strength youtube content that isn’t strictly a form tutorial.  Rip’s manner is grating but it’s his personal style,  you can either take it or leave it.  That so many people want to emulate it is strange and, I think, makes Starting Strength a drag.  So there are some really great ideas, but the overall vibe of the community is sort of off-putting.

Vegans, well, what can I say that hasn’t already been said?  It’s a shame that the bat-guano crazy vocal minority give veganism a bad name.  It’s a highly viable dietary regime for many people, for general health and even for athletic performance.  There is a long, growing list of vegan athletes.  The ethical reasons, if that is a prime motivator, are sound.  So why must it be sullied by the zealotry of a fairly large minority?  Many of us have met the stereotypical smug self-righteous vegan with a capital “V” in real life, you know the one with whom no actual discussion or discourse if possible.  Why do so many vegan Youtubers (and especially that guy who did the “What the Health” documentary) come off as easily triggered, programmed cult members?  You can literally see, when looking into their eyes, that some function of critical thinking has been switched off.  And speaking of “What the Health”, why the bad science and misrepresentation?  Guys, the facts literally speak for themselves…why twist things?  And why the hyper-sensitivity to criticism?  It makes the whole community look “cray-cray”.  When’s the last time you saw an easily triggered vegetarian?

The Starting Strength methodology is a great tool.  I believe that everyone interested in strength training should read the book and run the protocol a few times.  You may find that at some point another training protocol fits your needs and that is (or should be) OK.  Eating solely plant based is great but the reality is that the majority of the population will likely never do it.  Pragmatically speaking, what is the greater good;  that 5 percent of population become strictly vegan or that a much larger percentage reduce their meat consumption significantly?

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.

 

Been down so long looks like up to me

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To those of you who started reading this post because you are fans of Richard Farina – my apologies.  This post will not discuss his seminal novel of the same name/title (see above).  For some reason when I sat down to ponder reverse culture shock this phrase/title literally popped into my head.  Score one for the subconscious, that industrious bastard is always cooking up something on the down low.  I think maybe the title came to me because (forgive me, it’s been maybe 30 years since I read the novel) on a broader sense the novel is about shifting paradigms, of examining the familiar from a different critical perspective.  Or maybe it’s just a really cool title.  Perhaps a little of both.

Anyway, I have been pondering this phenomenon of late.  Is it a real thing?  The short answer is “yes”.  Has technology muddied the waters?  Oh hell yes.  (“Muddied the waters”, man, the ol’ subconcious is working overtime today.  I just realized that the title of this post( and Richard Farina’s book) originally comes from an old Blues song.  Muddy Waters didn’t sing it, but you see where I’m going with this…)  Technology, and how it affects acculturation, is a subject fit for a book, not just a blog post.  Suffice it to say that when I was a kid, living outside of my “passport” country, my only real links to that culture were my parents and books.  Powerful forces, to be sure, but add satellite dishes and the internet and you have a very effective layer of insulation between you and the host culture.  This phenomenon is, of course, a very sharp double-edged sword.

Let’s assume, hopefully, that one has adapted in a healthy way to their new host country.  After living there for a number of years you should have learned the language and culture mores, made friends/social acquaintances of different nationalities and feel comfortable, “at home”,  in your host country.   Granted, you have increased ties to your “homeland” thanks to technology, but let’s not forget that those ties are “virtual” at best.  Let’s assume that distance (and maybe inclination) precludes you from visiting your home country often.  At what point does “reverse” culture shock kick in?  2 months, 1 year, 15 years?  And what is reverse culture shock anyway?  A sense of anomie in one’s own country?  This short article from Investopedia (of all sources) describes it fairly well: https://www.investopedia.com/terms/r/reverse-culture-shock.asp

To add some personal perspective to the issue, I will say that nothing is weirder than experiencing culture shock in your own culture.  By now, I have lived outside of my home culture country the majority of my life.  I do make it back there, albeit very infrequently.  The first few days are always a complete head-wrecker.  No joke, I sometimes lean on friends and family in certain situations to tell me what to do or add context, as if they’re cultural Sherpas or something.  It’s faintly ridiculous, of course, so it’s best to recognize the humor and roll with it.  To answer the question above, all the TV and YouTube videos in the world cannot (re)acclimate you sufficiently to a culture.  You need to live in that culture.  While reverse culture shock is indeed a thing, it’s not that big a deal.  You’ve got all the tools you need: family, friends, language, etc.  Reverse culture shock just means that your mastery of the culture has become a bit fuzzy and needs some fine-tuning, like trying to improve the focus of a local UHF TV channel back in the day.  (For you young’uns who don’t get that reference, look it up on the interwebs).