The unexpected consequences of lifting.

What motivates people to train in the strength sports?  Ask 100 different lifters why they lift and you will no doubt get a 100 different answers that are just variations of the same theme.  The common thread running through their answers would be that it’s that it’s just flat out fun being strong.  Being stronger than you ever imagined you’d be is a hoot.

Everyone is familiar with runners’ high and “getting a pump” as just 2 examples of an immediate positive consequence or feedback from physical activity.   Whether you’re a  natural powerlifter, strong man competitor or Olympic lifter, one of the best things about lifting is working towards a well-defined goal and achieving it.  For strength athletes, the broad goal is to get stronger in your competition lifts. You do this by working your ass off, yes, but also by careful training and nutritional programming so that you are at your peak on the day of the competition.  Thus we get an even more potent high; the elation of hitting a PR as result of weeks or months of hard training or the “contact high” of seeing a training buddy hit theirs.  These are highs that can last for days.

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What, though, are the unintended consequences of lifting?  These are those things that happen as a result of your training but aren’t the reason you train and/or are something you would have anticipated.   Below are some of my personal unintended consequences – I’d like to this post to be more of a  forum thread and would love to hear about your “top” unanticipated consequences in the comments section below.

  • Diet and nutrition  –  Once I hit middle-age, became serious about strength training and decided  I was not going to take any Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs), I  developed a healthy (yes, there will be puns) interest in achieving optimal performance via nutrition.  While none of this interested me before I now know why GMOs are bad, the value of organically raised produce, why processed “food” is so unhealthy and a number of other subjects that I once thought was the sole preserve of the patchouli-scented self-righteous.  This is probably the subject for another post, but suffice to say when you drive a Ferrari to the gas station, you don’t put diesel into it.  So why would you ingest something your body is not designed to handle?  Taken in a wider context, why would you poison an ecosystem in the same manner?
  • Quieting the monkey mind – Yes, meditation.  Once I started down the slippery slope of optimal performance via natural methods, I heard mediation referred to many times by too many disparate sources to ignore it any longer.  I’m still very much in the beginner stage of meditation and mindfulness training.   Considering how much of a difference it makes already,  I think it might be analogous to the “beginner gains” phenomenon that all weightlifters have experienced.
  • Negative reactions – I have never engaged in a sport that has garnered this much negative feedback – and that includes boxing, kickboxing, “point” sparring in Karate tournaments and running marathons.  Much of this sort of reaction is out of genuine albeit uninformed concern, as in “Me:  “Hey, I had a 190KG squat PR the other day!”  Concerned family member:  “You know, you could really hurt yourself”.  Really?  You don’t run a marathon without putting in some serious training nor do you put 190KG on your back and squat it on a whim.  To further the marathon analogy, when you run that marathon you’re going to be suffering the effects for days after.  You hit a squat PR, you’re just going to have a PR “high” for days after.  Another type of negative feedback is a lingering but common place feeling that people who engage in strength sports are illiterate knuckle-dragging Neanderthals.  People who don’t know you often make snap judgements which hopefully they are disabused of once they make your acquaintance.   And, finally, I’ve had more than a few female friends/past girlfriends/ex-wife as well as a few male acquaintances be kind enough to share their opinions of one of my favorite past-times, or at least its physical manifestation.  The script always as follows,  ” You know, this weight training thing, don’t you thing you want to tone it down a bit?  The muscle-bound look isn’t great and, honestly, women don’t find it attractive”  That’s fair, people are entitled to their opinions but what I find so interesting in this case is why these people are so eager to share this particular opinion when they wouldn’t do it to a fat person, a skinny person, a really gaunt but athletic type (think triathlon, etc) or pretty any other body type.  My thinking on the subject is as follows:  I’m (quite obviously) not a bodybuilder.  My physical appearance is just the byproduct of what I do and I’m aware that a person with an above-average amount of muscle combined with an average percentage of body fat will look much bulkier than a skinny-fat dude (less muscle, higher body fat percentage).  However, I do this activity because I like it makes me feel so how it makes me look is  of secondary or even tertiary importance. As far as women are concerned, no doubt some if not many find this look not to their liking.  However, one of the benefits of living 50 years is that I have realized that pretty much all women dislike a man who has no passion and only does whatever he thinks will please them in a given moment.  So I do what I do because it makes me happy.  To quote from Slaughterhouse 5 (yes, I could say “Kurt Vonnegut’s” but I like to think that would superfluous for any reader of this blog) “So it goes”.
  • Sex:  Don’t worry, I will not, repeat, will not go into detail.  Suffice it to say this, strength training will certainly not interfere with one’s sex drive. In most cases (embarrassed cough) it will  help things.  For one, all that exercise and attention to proper nutrition means that, hormonally speaking, you’re firing on all cylinders.  And being able to “pick things up and put them down”  can be kind of fun in the bedroom.  Also, and in spite of the negative feedback I’ve described above, I’ve found that some women do quite like the look.  It is a double-edged sword, I’m aware, to have somebody interested in you for purely physical reasons or whatever they think you represent, but that is the subject for another post.  Interestingly, I’ve often found that I’ve garnered the most interest  from women in the “entourage” of the same people who freely offered me their opinion.  (let me be clear, I’m divorced and currently not seeing anybody lest anyone think I’m a cad).
  • Happiness/Contentment:  Sustained physical activity done with focus and intent is or should be an integral part of everyone’s life.  A sound body does indeed help to foster a sound mind.  To be honest, if my schedule allowed for it, my main activity would once again be some sort of martial art, but my living situation, work schedule, etc precludes a long-term commitment to be consistently in the same place at the same time week after week.  With powerlifting all I need is access to good gyms and  to occasionally check in with my coach and my home “club”.  The feeling of physical well-being after a heavy squat session is, for me, almost indescribable.  (high praise for squats, to be honest, as I’m well above average in bench press, OK at squats and have a “poverty” deadlift”.)  Endorphins, stress reduction and the, as I mentioned earlier, the flat out fun of being strong are a potent combination.

What are your top “unintended consequences”?

Detours – why getting there is half the fun…

Last Christmas, as an after thought, I bought my 10 year old son a somewhat crappy skateboard as a sort of oversized stocking stuffer.  I have no idea why I bought it nor did I have any clear indication that he’d like it.  And, in fact, when he opened this present he literally said “why did you get this for me???”.  He was genuinely puzzled and freely admitted he had absolutely no interest in skateboarding.  The next day, for the heck of it, we went to a covered garage with plenty of smooth concrete so he could test out his new skateboard.  My son put his leading foot on the skateboard, pushed off and, I swear to you, you could see a visible “Aha, where have you been all my life” moment as it happened.  He loves skateboarding, he is OBSESSED by it.  In the short space of 5 months he has racked up hours and hours of practice, innumerable  bruises and a growing number of tricks in his repertoire.

As any skateboarder, on parent there of, can tell you , the absolute foundation, the bedrock upon which modern street skating is built upon is a maneuver called the Ollie.  The Ollie is sort of hard to describe and, trust me, much harder to master.  The skater basically pings the back of the skateboard off the ground, jumps and simultaneously leads the front the skateboard with his lead foot so it levels off and creates “jumping motion”.  This allows one to jump onto obstacles or, even cooler, off of obstacles.  It’s an absolute bitch.  There are no short cuts, if you want to Ollie, you must pay your dues.  I have played a number of sports but I’d be hard pressed to find an example of a movement that is as timing and muscle-memory dependent as an Ollie.  As you might imagine, the past few months I have seen my son try to Ollie thousands of times.

Fast forward a few months, hours upon hours of practice, some broken then upgraded skateboarding hardware – my son can Ollie.  He ollie’s onto things, and off….and does all the other tricks he has already mastered and others that he  continues to master.  No other skill in any other team sport he’s played has been so hard won, nor so self-taught.  The victory, then, is that much sweeter for being so personal

Flashback many decades, I walk into a karate dojo at roughly the same age as my son when he discovered skateboarding.  This was the late 1970s when absolute ignorance regarding the martial arts reigned.  I went to the lesson as a lark, but I can tell you the “aha moment” is real.  I felt it, and was absolutely hooked for a numbers of years.  Almost nobody understood what I was doing, or why I was doing it…until such a time that I became demonstrably good enough to win competitions and garner other residual sorts of attention.  I realized that the desire to learn and to get better at this passion meant that other people would notice, as an almost unintended consequence.  Then you become known as the person who does that thing, and either you are comfortable with it, or not.  In this example,  I eventually succumbed to physical and, I suspect,  a morale burnout.  I regret doing that, perhaps a more mature person would have dealt with it better.

Fast forward a number of years – my son is happy with team sports but really finds himself, expresses himself with his skateboard.  His sister, my daughter,  has been competing for many years in international gymnastic competitions.  She is, at this actual moment, traveling to a competition in Northern Italy.  I remember her “aha” moment as well, when I brought her to gymnastics lesson when she was  7.  It was plainly obvious then, as it was with me and my son years later, that this was “her thing”.  When I was competing in Karate tournaments or boxing rings, I always had an opponent. In sports like Gymnastics, you are the only factor, the only point of judgment.  I respect the guts it takes to get up in front of hundreds of spectators.  She handles it far better than I or her brother would.

So, yeah, I powerlift.  Trust me, nobody is more surprised than me.   I love getting stronger, I love the challenge and difficulty.  I never would have predicted this but, then again, you can’t predict “aha” moments.  The trick is in appreciating the detour.

Random Musings on Gym Behavior – Part 1

30 years ago I joined my first gym.  It was a hugely overpriced affair located in Boston’s Financial District.  It was filled to the brim with big, bright,  shiny machines (Nautilus was a big deal in those days) and entitled Type A douchebags.  Forget even approaching the bench press in those days as: a) there were very few of them and b) they were permanently colonized by Roided out curl-bro neanderthals who had a predilection for silly baggy multi-colored “work out” pants.  This was decades before “leg day” entered the lexicon.  Since the gym was always, always crowded you had to learn a form of gym etiquette very quickly to avoid, shall we say, “unpleasant” experiences.  But it was there that I realized that gyms are amazing places to study human interaction.  African wildlife documentaries  always have watering hole scene as it’s an easy way to film a large number of species interacting in a relatively small space.  And I put to you that if I was young Sociology or Anthropology student, I’d do my field work in a gym for the same reason.

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In the past 30 years I have worked out in gyms across North America, South America, Africa and above all in many countries in Europe.  I’ve noticed some behavior is fairly universal while others are what you’d call site specific.  Some of these include:

  • Nudity in the locker room – Ah, the locker room…stomping ground of the archetypal Naked Old Dude.  Yes, they exist in ever single country I’ve ever visited and, no, they didn’t give single f***.  Clipping toenails, drying their hair (or worse) and engaging in extended conversations all whilst butt nekkid.  As for the under 65 crowd, I’ve noticed some cultural differences.  People from Germanic influenced countries and cultures are by far the most at ease being naked, at not just in the locker room.  Think of them as Naked Old Dudes in training.  In the US, Latin America, UK, etc people generally are not phased by it given that you go, take your shower, get dressed.  If you want debate last night’s game, for God’s sake put some clothes on.  And, perhaps surprising to some, the most reserved are Europeans from the “Romance Language” countries.  Wearing your boxers into the shower is very common.  I am, of course, a product of the cultures I am exposed to the most so I admit on more on US/Romance language side of the spectrum.  Ok, yes, one has to get nekkid to change clothes or take a shower but why, oh, why do you need to be over by the sink, shaving, without a stitch of clothes on.
  • Working “in” with a stranger – This is very common, necessary practice in US gyms, especially in bigger cities.  What this means in practice is that you very nicely ask the person who is using the equipment you’d like to use if you can work in as she or he rests between sets.  In Latin America and Africa this is fairly common as well.  In my experience, it’s fairly rare in “commercial gyms” in many Western European countries.  Not coincidentally, I find that Western Europeans are also much less likely to engage in conversations with random strangers than those other cultures.  The exception to this rule (speaking of Western Europe) are specialty gyms – power lifting, strong man or Olympic lifting.  The difference is you’re then in a subculture with its own norms.
  • Using the gym as a pick-up joint – I haven’t noticed much regional variation for this behavior.  Yes, there are some men and women who do, but it’s actually far less common than people think.  The big whopping exception to the rule are personal trainers.  I have known people who own and/or managed commercial gyms and judging from the “behind the scenes” tales they tell (as related to them by their staff), it’s probably even more soap opera-esque than people think.  Note:  I am not referring to strength training gyms as they don’t have “personal trainers”.  They have coaches whose job it is to teach the proper form and programming you need to achieve your sporting goals.  Personal Trainers work in commercial gyms and, aside from making you look ridiculous on a Bosu ball, I’m not sure if they serve a useful function unless it’s the service alluded to above.  Finally there is universal Gym archetype number 2 – the creeper.  This is generally a guy who is more interested in staring at women than achieving a new PR.  At a commercial gym, it’s undeniable that 95 percent of the women are there to take class of some sort and or run on a treadmill.  They avoid the weight room it can be intimidating to the uninitiated but also, I imagine, because it’s populated mainly by dudes and thus the chance for being ogled is that much higher.  Which is a shame as they are depriving themselves of a chance to get stronger.  If a guy is doing his thing in the weight room, chances are he’s all business and goal oriented.  I’ve seen many guys more interested at checking themselves out in the mirrors or taking Instagram pics than ogling the few women that venture into the weight room.  That lone guy in your Zumba class, though….