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.

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.

 

 

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).

 

 

 

 

The best books you’ve never read

 

 

The purpose of this post is share my all time best literary “finds”.  My definition of a “find” is a work that is not mainstream but undeniably brilliant.  These books are, in my opinion, masterpieces.  A masterpiece is, in my experience,  a book that is usually not very accessible at first but once you’ve entered it’s universe you feel your mind literally expanding.  It’s technically brilliant, it offers unique perspectives and tackles multiple universal themes simultaneously.  You can revisit/reread these works many times and you’ll learn something new.  Hamlet, Moby Dick, The Invisible Man and The Iliad are some of my favorite works and are undeniable masterpieces,  but they aren’t exactly finds. I’d like to start a dialogue in which we share our favorite, lesser known books.  In essence, I’m saying “Trust me, you might not have heard of this book, but it’s well worth your time”  So, without further ado, below a few of my best, unexpected finds.

  • “The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao” by Junot Diaz:  This one almost qualifies as mainstream as it had much critical praise and won many literary awards when it was published.  There is a relatively small but fervent bad of “Oscar Wao”-heads and I count myself among them.  This book deserves a much wider audience, I think, now more than ever.  “Oscar Wao” is ostensibly about a sensitive, obese young Dominican nerd growing up between NJ and the Dominican Republic in the late 70s and into the 80s.  It explores so many themes so well that I actually had to put the book down a few times when I first read it – from sheer exhilaration.  My mind was blown.  I have reread this many, many times.  Some books will make you laugh and some will make you cry, but Oscar Wao is the only book I’ve read that will make you do both.  For real, don’t read this on the subway or you risk making a scene of yourself.  (Sidenote:  I grew up in the Caribbean (in a country veeerrry close to the DR – hint) during the time this book takes place and also spend a certain amount of amongst Caribbean communities on the US East Coast so the book resonates even with me, a quiche-eating gringo/blan.  The language, the descriptions of Caribbean history and culture, comic books, youth culture of the time, hip-hop, the outrageously debilitating “fineness” of Dominican women, it’s all there.)
  • The Tao of Physics” by Fritjof Capra:  The subtitle of this books is “An Explanation of the Parallels of Eastern Mysticism and Modern Physics” which sums it up pretty neatly.  I love this book for many reasons, not the least being that it’s a “period” piece.  This book could only have been written in California in the early 70s.  It fairly reeks of patchiouli oil and acid trips, but I mean that in a positive sense.  Fritjof Capra was a renowned Quantum physicists whose “aha” moment came, as one might imagine, whilst he was tripping balls at Big Sur.  If you’ve ever wondered why leading physicists such as Robert Oppenheimer and Niels Bohr were adepts of Eastern Mystical traditions long before they became trendy in the west, this book answers that question.  Granted, some of the physics is somewhat dated (at least in my old edition) but the basic premise remains valid.  Capra succeeds in describing the basics of each tradition and the underlying theories of Quantum physics and ties them neatly together.  I’ve read and reread this book many times and will often just revisit specific chapters.
  • The Zanzibar Chest” by Aidan Hartley:  This book is very much off the radar, I suspect.  It’s a nonfiction work that tells the story of the author’s work as a Nairobi based Reuters correspondent in the 90s.  It’s also part family history as Hartley frames his story in the wider context of his family who were British colonial expats par excellence.  As a correspondent, Hartley covered most of the well-known “micro” wars from the Balkans to Rwanda, Somalia and beyond.  This book was criticized when it was published for lacking politically correctness.  Hartley is both a product of British colonialism and a war correspondent.  He doesn’t try, however,  to whitewash his past or his some of his behavior, about which he himself is very conflicted.  Hartley’s own story, and stories he reports on, are very Joseph Conrad-ian in tenor.  In the age of the Oxfam scandal (in my “home” country no less, and no, not at all surprised – such behavior is the rule, not the exception.) this book is perhaps a bit less shocking.  As somebody who has lived and worked a fair bit in various parts of Africa, as student of history and as a human being I found this book to be riveting.  It’s book that stays with you long after you’ve read it and one that you will most probably read more than once.

3 lesser known books that are well worth your time.  What are your favorite finds?  Please comment down below.