The evolution of a Powerlifter.

I happened upon strength training almost by accident.  I had been going to the gym for a number of years, nay, decades, more or less consistently.  So I went to the gym regularly, but aimlessly, without clear goals.  I’d do whatever I felt like doing once I arrived at the gym and the exercise choice was largely influenced by whether a machine or bench was free.  Typical bro splits, chest, arms and abs.  Nary a leg was trained nor a squat squatted.  A good program was something one watched on TV.

Then, one day some years ago, I couldn’t stand it any more.  I was bored, really, really bored with the gym.  The gym, or rather a big commercial gym, is a fairly ludicrous space in the best of times.  I’d feel faintly ridiculous wandering around from exercise station to the next, bro tunes cranking in my headphones, trying to get my pump on.  I came to the realization that there had to be a better way of training or, if there wasn’t, I should find a better activity to spend time and money on.  Like everyone else on the planet, I resorted to the time-honored method of Google searching solutions to my problem.

Hmm, powerlifting movements sounded interesting and I thought, hey, it might finally provide me with some structure.  I’d actually be training with a purpose.  I’d set goals and try to attain them.  Solid, I thought.  This was just seemingly minutes before the big powerlifting Youtube boom, so I initially combed through loads of forums and a few books to glean as much information as possible.  There was, however, one slight problem.

To whit, my bench press was somehow, from a technique perspective, not bad.  I had no idea, however,  how to squat or deadlift, I didn’t know anybody who did those exercises and, to be honest, it was intimidating.  Nevertheless, I began my first program (5×5) and gingerly stepped into a highly underutilized (in those days) squat rack.  My squats were ugly, but at least I felt I was on the right track.  In spite of all I had read, I still had no clue how to properly deadlift.  My deadlifts were dreadful: mad, bad and dangerous to know.  Furthermore, I was usually the only person in the gym squatting or deadlifting outside of a Smith machine.  You know how every gym seems to have a Vibram Fivefingers guy?  I began to wonder if I wasn’t a variation on that theme:  well-meaning but slightly misguided.

Soon, as my program progressed, I got those sweet, sweet beginner gainz.  My benchpress shot way up and even my terrible squats and deadlifts improved.  By this time, powerlifting had started to become a thing and people like Mark Rippetoe, Mark Bell and that crazy Ask Elliot guy were putting out content on Youtube.  So while I hadn’t yet met like-minded people, I could at least watch them train and pick up some pointers.

While it seems funny now, my training partners viewed my squatting as a ridiculously girly thing to do and deadlifts as needlessly complicated.  They’d make a few wisecracks, shake their heads and go back to their cable-pulls.  I was still in the “bench much more than you squat” club but nonetheless my squats and deadlifts had progressed to the point that I felt I required real coaching before I hurt myself.  So back to google I went.  When I had first started training squat, bench and deadlift, there were literally two powerlifting gyms in my area and for a variety of reasons, including proximity, I wasn’t going to train with them.  A new one had opened up in the interim so I decided to give it a shot.

If many people are intimidated by the idea of going to a gym, many experienced gym goers are intimidated by the idea of going to a powerlifting gym.  In your mind’s eye it’s going to be like Westside Barbell with a bunch of shaved head, tattoed convicts and snarling pit bulls. That’s ridiculous, of course, but if you don’t walk through the door you’ll never know.  I walked right in and said, ” look, I am an absolute noob. Tell me what do and I’ll do it.”  It was revelation to meet people interested in the same obscure thing.  We could sit their and talk for hours about belts, shoes, programs, technique, you name it. My squats and deadlifts finally started outpacing my bench as they should.

Fast foward a few years, I had done some competitions and inevitably, been injured a few times.  I’ve set some PRs that I’m proud of and once briefly held the benchpress WR for my age/weight group in my federation.  Sometimes, however, life has a way of interfering with one’s best laid plans.  For the last several months I’ve not been able to train seriously due to work and family issues.  I still go to the gym whenever I can, but I’m not able to stick to a serious, challenging program that would allow me to increase PRs.   My motivation to train for competitions wanes periodically, but my motivation to powerlift is unquestionable.

I realized a few things in the past year. I don’t think I’ll ever stop powerlifting style training.  I truly enjoy it and believe it’s an integral part of a healthy life. Furthermore, lifting heavy weight is sufficiently taxing and radical that it acts like an unerring weathervane for other parts of your life.  Not eating or sleeping well?  It’ll be reflected in your lifts.  Not focused due to emotional turmoil?  It’ll be reflected in your lifts.  It sounds funny, but lifting gives me extra motivation to get s*** together, if only to lift better 🙂  And finally, the best thing about powerlifting is not setting a PR, it’s the process itself.

 

 

Veganism and Strength Sports

What follows are my personal, unscientific, non-triple blind tested observations on the effects of a plant-based diet on training for strength sports. Is it better, is it worse and, if so, why? Is it harder to stick to a vegan diet? What are the non-sports benefits? What is over-rated about a plant-based diet? What are the unexpected benefits of eating plant-based? How much cooler would eating plant-based be without certain vegans ruining it for everyone? Finally, faux-meat, a “faux pas”? Come with me as I meander into the cultural minefield that is VEGANISM…

*** Disclaimer: Gentle reader, know that your esteemed author is not, by most definitions, a vegan. However, to employ a hackneyed phrase, some of his best friends and favorite family members are down with that plant-based life so your intrepid scribe is well versed in the milieu. In fact, he rarely eats animal products himself, but when he does he likes to wear a velvet smoking jacket like the suave old dude in the Dos XXs ad. Seriously, though, I have gone through extended periods of eating only plant-based in the past 2 years, and even now when I do eat dairy, eggs or meat, it’s maybe twice a week.

  • Plant-based diet for strength sports: Yeah, yeah, of course you can…there are veritable scads of vegan body-builders, powerlifters, strongmen, and cross-fitters who compete successfully. All high level competitors have to on top of their diet but I’d say that vegan competitors have to be even more dialed in to make sure they’re getting enough protein, B6, etc. Have I noticed a difference going from a conventional diet (albeit a healthy one) to a much reduced animal products diet? I can’t say hat I feel any better or worse. My lifts have gone down some from my all time PRs, but that’s probably more because I’m not training as seriously as I did in the past due to recent work constraints. Verdict: Doable, yes, laudable, I guess so, slightly more complex to track, yep and does it make me stronger or weaker, jury is still out.
  • Is it hard to “go vegan”?: Somewhat, in my experience. Bear in mind, however, that I live in Northern Europe in what is essentially small town, albeit a very well-heeled one. I already cook a lot, so the fun part was coming up with wholesome plant-based menus that covered all the nutritional bases. I even discovered that I’m much better at plant based dishes than meat-based. Though it pains me to admit this, my meat game was/is relatively weak. So it takes effort and planning at first to go plant based at home. The real challenge is going out to eat. It’s limiting at the best of times in my town. There are a few vegan restaurants but mostly they suck, are overpriced and are populated by smug yet weirdly tense individuals. In big cities like Berlin, London, NYC and Toronto it’s much easier. Not to mention in places like Toronto or Boston, most of your fellow vegan restaurant goers will have recently blazed a big ol’ legal joint and are thus markedly more chill than in my town.
  • General benefits of a plant-based diet: I am not convinced that 100 percent plant based diet is good for all people, all the time. I think the same applies to any dietary regime. People react to food differently. However, does vastly limiting your animal product intake have health benefits? From a common sense perspective, I’d have to say yes. More important that being stringently one diet or the other is the quality of the food you are stuffing your face with. Avoid processed foods and eat organic as much as possible and you’re going in the right direction. So the big biggest benefits I have noticed regarding a plant-based diet is that the raw materials are often cheaper, one is much less concerned with spoilage and for the most part I feel good, not lethargic, after eating plant-based or mostly plant-based meal. Also, if you source your products carefully, it’s good for the planet. The same can be said for animal products but it’s MUCH harder and more expensive to find local, organic animal products from sustainable agriculture.
  • Plant-based – is it over-rated? In many ways, yes. It won’t make you into Superman overnight. If you had a crappy, processed food diet before and then implement a carefully considered plant-based diet then, yes, you will notice health benefits. It’s entirely possible to eat vegan crap. Hey, the vegan Ben and Jerrie’s flavors are just as awesome as the other flavors, but sadly no better for you. As the market matures, more processed vegan-junk food is being made available which I think is a step in the wrong direction. Again, done well, it’s a healthy dietary regime for many people that is sustainable for the planet…but the same argument can be made for well considered vegetarian and omnivore diets.
  • The less well-know benefits: For me, it’s increased mindfulness regarding what I eat. I know more now re: the dietary benefits of many legumes, herbs and vegetables than I did before, and how they all can be combined to make a wholesome diet. I tend to plan my meals at last a few days in advance. Now, even when I do incorporate animal products, I fit them into the bigger nutritional picture of what I will be eating that week.
  • The annoying-a** Vegan: We all know at least one, and many of us know dozens of them. Veganism is both a diet and, for many, a philosophy or way of life. And that’s absolutely cool. I’m always impressed when I meet somebody, get to know them and then discover, in more of less discrete way, that they have strongly held beliefs that influence their actions. They are not virtue-signalling, they are just living their lives according to their principles. Unfortunately, there are always attention-starved dip sh((s in any group who tend to ruin it for everyone. Some vegans can truly come off as unhinged as tinfoil hat wearing flat-earthers, or worse. Perhaps one of the worst vegans on Youtube is “Vegan Gains”, a deeply troubled young man who ostensibly talks about veganism and strength sports…but really just uses the platform to spew hateful invective. Way to help the cause, guys.
  • Faux Meat: I will say this, I just tried the McDonalds vegan burger and it’s really, really good. I was expecting to be underwhelmed but it’s genuinely good. Much better than any Mickey Ds meat product, however that’s setting the bar pretty low. McDonald’s, aside from their fries, is pretty rank. And I say that as somebody who eats meat. It works so well because a fast food burger is more about texture than quality meat, which you will not get at that price point. This is encouraging because if a large percentage of McDonalds customers switch to vegan burgers simply because they taste better, that’s a win/win for everyone and the planet. If you’re going to eat meat, even occasionally, don’t blow it on a fast-food burger. On the flip side of the coin, in my experience the “vegan versions” of meat dishes in many hipster vegan restaurants are often nasty. I can still not the get the taste of a vegan “Philly Cheesesteak'” out of my mouth. Blech…

An ode to fringe activities…

OR THE LONELINESS OF THE POWERLIFTING WINE-CHUGGER.

OR HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE BY NOT BORING THEM TO TEARS WITH YOUR HOBBY/SPORT/LIFESTYLE CHOICE/DIET

Happy new year, everyone.

I made an early night of it last night so after a nice dinner with friends I went to bed shortly after midnight CET. As a consequence I was up early this morning which left ample time to reflect on last night’s dinner as well as my powerlifting training session later today. I was pretty excited about the wine choices for the dinner last night as well my upcoming training session but I knew, as everybody in a subculture eventually learns, to keep my enthusiasm to myself or be labelled a “bore”. Believe it or not, most people don’t want to discuss the need to reform French AOC rules or whether Sumo dead-lifting is cheating.

It got me to thinking when it’s appropriate, and not appropriate, to discuss one’s weird-ass fringey activities with the general populace. I’ve come up with the following observations.

  • Subcultures can be intimidating to people who don’t engage in that activity. In a weird way (we all do this) people think you’re judging them via a specific lense (powerlifter, wine enthusiast, martial artist, vegan, etc) when, unless you’re a real a-hole, you’re not. If an opportunity to discuss your interest comes up, let others ask you questions and when the questions dry up, move on.
  • It’s OK, in a very broad sense, to let people know about your interests and what you spend your time on. It’s not OK to give them constant updates and/or commentary about a subject that really doesn’t interest them. Anybody who has a beginning crossfitter or a vegan in their life knows what I’m talking about. People are generally happy you’ve found this awesome thing and, yes, it’s probably a good idea if everyone did it but ramming it down their throats doesn’t win any converts. We’ve all been guilty of this at one time or another.
  • If you want to share your passion with other people, set an example first. See above re: intimidation. So people know you do this thing, that’s great. Just keep doing your thing and, from time to time, somebody with a genuine interest might ask you about it. This is a green-light, now’s your time to share. To give you an example, as a powerlifter people sometimes tell me in conversation that they’ve started going to the gym and they have this great trainer who has them doing bosu-ball hula-hoop jump spins and the like. The old me used to say ” Cool, but why don’t you also ask them to show you proper squat form, that’d be really useful” and, in 100 percent of the cases, the person reacted as if I’d insulted their mother. The proper response is “That’s great – keep it up!”. Why? If they continue to train they will eventually learn about compound movements and might just ask you about them. Then, and only then, it’s OK to discuss in detail. A few years ago I started going to a globo gym with colleagues. I’d do my usual PL style training in the corner and they’d go all YOLO with machines and dumbbells. I often got a lot of comments and criticism (hey, man, you’re not going to failure with every set, why squats, etc) but I just continued to do my thing. After a while they began to ask me questions and eventually asked me to show them proper form, explain programming, etc. Even then they were resistant to many of the ideas so I’d just shrug and do my thing. Fast-forward to now, they are all training for powerlifting. I’m not a vegan but cook/consume vegan dishes roughly 85 percent of the time. I’m familiar with the milieu, shall we say. The strict vegans who always make an impression on me are those who I find out are vegan indirectly. It piques my interest and more often than not I’ll ask about it.
  • Find like-minded individuals/Let your freak flag fly: Let’s face it, the only time you’ll ever be able to fully express your enthusiasm for your passion is amongst like-minded people so you must search them out or forever have the feeling of not completely scratching an itch. Whether it’s wine-tasting, a serious powerlifting gym, a cool vegan cafe or whatever, this is your chance to geek out to your heart’s content. Not to mention learn new things and meet new people

Anyway, I’m off in a few minutes to engage in one of the aforementioned fringe activities. I wish you all happiness and health in the new year as well as the chance to engage in your geeky passion(s) to the fullest.

The 4 rules of the SQUAT

 

I had an epiphany a few days ago.  Thanks to time, rehab and mobility training, I have recently been able to perform back squats for the first time in 11 months.  I knew that I was going to lose strength in squat…and I sure did.  What surprised me, however, was how much my technique had gone to sh^%.  So I called M,  our coach, powerlifting guru/evangelist and all around nice guy, and asked him to meet me at the powerlifting club.

Using experience, the naked eye and a bar tracking app on his Iphone, M confirmed what I already knew; that while I wasn’t back at square one, I was definitely on square 2.  On a bar tracking app(which draws a line on your video denoting the bar movement), a textbook squat should appear as 1 straight vertical line.  The squat should travel the same path going up as it did going down.  In the beginning, my squats (via the app) looked like skinny ovals, but after a few hours and many reps later, they began to resemble really skinny “V”s.  They felt a little better, too, more in the “groove”.

This should not have been that surprising as a powerlifting squat is an athletic move.  One would not jump back in a boxing ring after 11 months off and expect to spar at the same level as a year ago.  You can shadow-box and hit the heavy bag all you want, but nothing replaces that 3 minute round with a real, live opponent.  Similarly, all the deadlifts and safety-bar squats I did in the interim helped to keep me in shape, but maintain my squat they did not.

The squat is not just an athletic movement, it’s a test of character.  I know a lot of people who are freakishly good bench-pressers or deadlifters.  While they do need to work hard to improve these movements, they generally have certain physical attributes that give them a certain advantage.  I am sure there are exceptions to this rule, but I’ve never seen anybody walk off the street and almost automatically squat impressive weight.  Rule number one of the squat:  you must put in the work.  95% of the people you see squatting impressive or at least heavy weight have plodding their way, slowly and methodically, towards lifting more kilos.

Rule number two of squat:  Technique is paramount.  Most trainees who weigh between 80 and 100 Kgs can rep out 130 or 140 kg squats after about 4 or 5 months.  This proves that, yes, they’ve put in the sheer work.  If, however, they also emphasis training for correct form at some point their squat weight will make huge jumps – from 140 to 180 kgs in a relatively short space of time.  This is because they’ve applied their strength to a more efficient way of moving the weight.  A highly trained welterweight boxer hits a whole lot harder than some 100 Kg slob throwing haymakers.

Rule number three of squat:  Confront your fears.  First, you need to confront your fear of hard work.  You need to confront your ego, and make sure you’re up to sucking at something in the short-term.  And, finally, when you do finally start lifting some considerable weight..it’s scary.  It shouldn’t be, if you squat in a squat rack, have learned how to bail by this point and are not attempting a weight 40kgs above your PR.  Nevertheless, taking some pretty heavy weight out of the J-hooks…there is something sort of crazy about it.  6 months later, that “crazy” weight has become something you do for 5×5.

Rule number four of squat:  Ain’t no half-repping.  Only squat that weight which you are able squat slightly below parallel and back up again.  You may argue that quarter squats or half squats are valid training movements (er, and I’d disagree). If you half-squatted 200kgs with aid of knee-wraps, smelling salts and your gym-bro posse yelling encouragement and filming you for the “IGs” than kudos to you, old boy.  You did not, however, squat 200 Kgs.  You did something else.

 

 

 

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.

The Safety squat bar – the best exercise you should, but don’t, do

safetybar

Pros:

  • It will straight up make you stronger for squats and deadlifts
  • You’ll be the vegan of your powerlifting crew, that condescending dude who has staked a claim on the moral high ground (could also be considered a “con”)
  • Physique gainz, son

Cons:

  • Really hard
  • Not for beginners
  • When coming out of the hole, all bets are off, just brace like you never braced before
  • Ego killer (could be considered a “pro”)

In Globo gyms, the low bar squat is the king of exercises; everyone talks a lot about them but very few people actually do them…and only a small subset of those people do them to depth.  Similarly, the safety-squat bar is the 2 ton elephant in most powerlifting gyms.  Everybody knows it’s there but everyone does their best to act like they haven’t seen it.  It’s the best thing that you should be doing that you probably won’t do…and for  good reasons:  it’s really, really hard, technique is secondary and it’s an ego killer to strain under far less weight than you can low-bar squat.

I am the first to admit that I first picked up the safety squat bar under duress.  I injured my left shoulder/biceps in November of 2017.  The last time I squatted significant weight was on November 11…my injury is healing, albeit very slowly.  I realized quickly that the only thing worse than safety bar squats would be to resume squatting after 8 to 9 months of no squat like training.  3 and 1/2 months of squatting with the safety bar has taught me the following:

Safety bar squatting is very, very different from low bar squatting.  The way the bar sits on your shoulders changes the leverages radically from a low bar squat  As such, it shouldn’t be taught to beginners unless they, like me, have injuries that preclude them from low bar squatting.  There is no “sweet spot”, nobody has ever said “that felt really good, it moved well” after a heavy safety bar squat.  Technique, such as it is, consists of bracing absolutely everything and grunting it “out of the hole” with a sort of hybrid squat/deadlift/ dog taking a **** technique.  “Hip drahve”, as the Starting Strength community like to call it, just won’t cut it.  Unorthodox, to say the least, so you can see why it’d only confuse beginners.

The cambered bar means that your entire lower body and back are constantly fighting to balance the load which means gainz of all sorts.  After a heavy safety bar squat session my hamstrings, glutes and abs are comprehensively fried in way that I never experienced with back squats.  The constant battle to balance the bar high up on the shoulders is somewhat like a hinge movement and consequently involves your “deadlift” muscles as well.   I’ve seen such activation in those muscles that I now understand why this bar has a following among bodybuilders.  I’d even venture to say that the “booty babes” at the Globo gym would be better served by dropping the hip thrusters and picking up a safety squat bar.

Another thing you need to wrap your head around is that relatively light weight will feel very heavy.  If your 1RM for a back squat is 190kg, don’t be surprised that 110kg feels really heavy on the safety bar.  It’s an ego killer to grunt and strain under a seemingly easy weight.  The ignominy is compounded by ignorance as not everyone has used this bar.  You might get a few incredulous looks like “Really?  It’s just 130kgs, man” from people who haven’t tried it”.  So it’s kind of lonely to be doing a hard, misunderstood lift for less than “glory” weight.  Soon, however, your growing realization that you are doing something harder than most people are willing to do will develop your condescension muscles to near vegan levels.  You will struggle to keep your disdainful sneer in check when interacting with the low bar squatting hoi polloi.

Seriously, though, safety bar squats have been the silver lining to my injury.  Like low bar squats, they really suck at first.  After a while, however, you begin to savor the challenge. When I finally return to low bar squatting I anticipate that the safety bar will be my go-to accessory exercise for squats and deadlifts.

Lifting – a day in the life

barbell-grayscale

Yesterday I was reminded, repeatedly, about the value of keeping an open mind.  Last night I went to the big Globo gym near my work.  My programming called for bench press, safety bar squats (as my rotator cuff is still very much an issue) and accessory exercises.  However, the globo gym does not have specialty bars of any sort…and to me the leg press machine is only slightly less ridiculous than the Smith machine.  So, while they are not analogous, I opted for deadlifts instead.

A secondary complication was that I, once again, forgot my chalk.  Past a certain weight, chalk-less deadlifts suck.  Your hands get ripped to shreds and the grip issues mess with your form.  A buddy of mine lent me his Oly lifting straps last week so I decided to give them an honest try.  I tried lifting with straps, once, about 2 years ago.  I used them for about 5 minutes and then gave it up as being “too complicated”. Besides, real men don’t use straps, right? Did I mention that my deadlift is, at the best of times, straight-up pathetic?

I took a good 10 minutes to really figure out how to use the straps correctly.  Then I gingerly tried 1 rep at about 80%.  Wow – lifting straps, where have you been all my life?  Due to my only recently healed hamstring I’m coming off a 9 week deadlift hiatus so I’m fairly de-trained.  And, yet, I began to rep out weights close to my former “strapless” 1RM.  So the good news is I am really stronger than my lousy deadlift numbers would imply and strapped deadlifts are probably the best way of getting me of the plateau I’ve been on.  The bad news is I realized just how weak my grip is and that it’s a major sticking point.  If I didn’t compete, I wouldn’t care, but I’ll have to find a way to build my grip strength pronto.  Farmers carries, anyone?

Anyway, fresh from my awesome discovery regarding straps, I headed to the bench press area to do some very low weight, low volume deload sets.  So I start benching with the bar and I notice, hmm, this feels great.  No fatigue, no soreness and, you ever have those days when you’re just stronger than usual? It was one of those days.  Nevertheless, I reminded myself, I’m in a deload phase and next week’s programming is a killer.  Just as I was about to give into common sense, “K”, one of the trainers, installed herself and a client on a bench adjacent.  K is eastern european, non-surgically enhanced drop dead gorgeous and all around nice.  Amazing genetics refined by hard work in the gym – she’d give Elton John second thoughts about his life choices.  So, full transparency, I stayed on the bench and started to add weight.  Not because I am a creeper, nor was I was I “ogling” (not my style) and, no, it wasn’t some lame attempt to impress.  For one, women couldn’t care less about how much you can lift and, besides, she goes out with a guy I know.  Rather, and I know this sounds weird, I’ve noticed that I can usually lift a little more when attractive women are in the vicinity.  I think it’s probably universal for guys, must be some sort of evolutionary trait.

Anyway, I started making 20kg jumps after each set of 3…as I was getting towards more serious weight one of the biggest gym douches arrives with his posse.  They install themselves on another bench near mine and start their sets.  This guy is roughly my age, much taller and weighs about 25kgs more than me.  He’s never done anything to me, per se, but for some reason, I’ve just never liked him.  Soon, however, I’m up to my 1RM weight and I need a spotter.  If my deadlift stinks, and it does, my bench doesn’t.  So I had a fair amount of weight on bar.  I needed somebody with a decent strength and experience to spot for me.  Normally, I’d rather have had my toe nails ripped out with pliers than ask this guy for a spot, but I knew I was going to smash a new “touch and go” PR.  Swallowing my pride, I asked your man for spot and proceeded to best my former PR by 5kg.  I then added 2.5kg on top of that and failed.  It turns out the big guy a) knows what he is talking about (very good analysis of why I failed the last lift) and b) is a pretty decent, friendly dude after all.  He encouraged me to try again but it was getting late and I began to feel guilty re: blowing off my deload phase.

So the guy I thought was the biggest tool in the gym turns out to be pretty cool.  To be honest, he does have resting douche face but, then again, so do I quite often.  And lifting straps are best thing since Netflix.  All in all, it was a gentle reminder of the value of keeping an open mind as well as getting out of your comfort zone.

Do you even lift, bro?

training-weightlifter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Life under the bar

black-and-white-alcohol-bar-drinksAside from spending time with family and friends my absolute favorite things in life are reading, physical activity and, during a certain period, booze.  Reading, if one reads broadly, is obviously a way of cultivating one’s intellect.  Physical activity (running, yoga, weight-lifting, etc) is  the second part of the equation – Mens sana in corpore sano.  Most of us adopt these habits organically, not consciously adopting them because they are “GOOD HABITS”.  Like an anxious dog who has been locked inside all day, your body and mind will give you explicit hints that they need to be exercised.  Weak and flabby is not a great feeling, whether it’s intellectual or physical.

Addiction, in all it’s forms, is the flip side of the coin.  Addicts have an instinctive need  to retreat from some aspect of their life.  All addictions, be it alcohol, weed, social media or cheesecake, are methods of changing one’s brain chemistry and ultimately changing one’s perception of reality, however briefly.  Addiction is also an attempt, albeit very counterproductive, by the addict to assert control over their life.  It’s an attempt to quiet the ceaseless background chatter, the ever-present feelings of anxiety that lurk in the margins, the monkey mind.  The irony of addictive behavior is that in the immediate aftermath of a binge, the background chatter is foreground and the volume is pegged at 11.  Interesting that clichés about addiction employ circular imagery; a vicious circle, a downward spiral, spinning your wheels, etc.

It’s not surprising that gyms, yoga studios and running clubs are filled with ex-addicts.  For one, it’s a logical reaction to want to offset the damage of the addictive behavior.  Physical exercise can also be somewhat addictive (in a good way) unless taken to extremes (which, let’s be honest, are rare).  It’s a time-honored tradition to swap an addiction for one that is relatively harmless (i.e. people guzzling coffee at AA meetings).  Most important, I think, is that physical exercise begets a calmer state of mind and ultimately puts one far closer to the goal of quieting the monkey mind than guzzling tequila till 4 in the morning.   When you start to train seriously you set in motion behavioral patterns  and interests (exercise, nutrition, quality sleep, meditation) that reinforce each other and, yes, help you become that “best version of you”.  (Eeech, horrible phrase, but fitting in this context.)  Physical training makes you feel better, look better, clears your mind AND gives you regular hits of endorphins.

Probably less well-known is the number of people who still engage in addictive behavior and for whom training is a way of offsetting, somewhat, self-inflicted damage.  It’s also a handy psychological crutch, it allows you to feel just a little bit better about your sorry-ass, bleary-eyed self if you drag yourself to a heavy squat session.  And, yes, sports training is the ONLY way you’ll offset all of the calories you’ve ingested and clear the cobwebs a little.  (It goes without saying that this refers to people in a certain stage of addiction, not hardcore addicts. Also, I am not referring to addiction to extremely dangerous drugs such as crystal meth or opiates) In a way, training might empower some people to continue their addictive behavior by serving as a physical and psychological counterweight.  I like to think, though, that if the person stops the destructive behavior, the good habits they formed in training will help them through the rough patches on their way to sobriety.

I have mixed feelings about alcohol.  I appreciate good wine and beer.  I was a wine enthusiast for many years and did, at one point, take some preliminary steps towards a job in the wine trade.  The closer I got to this goal the more I realized that I didn’t want to make my living from a product was potentially harmful.  Like many,  my life has been negatively impacted by alcohol.  I have family and friends who were alcoholics and are now sober, some who are still fighting that battle and 2 friends who ultimately lost their lives as a direct result of their alcoholism.    In high school, college and “after work” I binge drank with the best of them – only I couldn’t keep up.  I was usually, but not always, the drunkest of the group.  I have done a number of idiotic and dangerous things while drunk and it’s truly astonishing that I’m still here to tell the tale.  Worse still, a perpetual hung over state meant that I often “less than present” for family or on the job.  Some people can take or leave alcohol while others are on a spectrum of “where have you been all my life?”.  I’m in the latter camp.  It’s only in the last few years that it dawned on me that  alcohol was getting far more out of me than I was getting from it.  So I decided to spend less time in the bar and more time under it.

It might surprising, then,  that I still go out for the occasional beer with friends or have wine with some meals.  I also like to scuba dive, hike, go camping and pursue other interests that have inherent risks.  An intelligent adult identifies and mitigates potential risks as much as possible.  A better analogy is having an aggressive dog in your house.  If you aren’t in control, the undisputed Alpha, that dog is going to bite you on the ass eventually.   I haven’t had hard spirits in my house for decades, and I rarely have wine or beer in the house.  I don’t go out much any more, especially when the occasion is a thinly veiled excuse for excessive drinking (which is most of the time in the country I live in).  If I do go, I offer to drive (thereby taking myself out of the boozing equation) or I go only if it’s within public transport or taxi range.  It’s matter of recognizing what could happen.  To thine own self be true.

Gyms are full of dogmatic cliques;  cardio freaks, Crossfitters, bodybuilders and powerlifters.  While each group looks down on the others they are united in their disdain for the New Year’s Resolutioners that pack gyms in January like salmon swimming upstream to spawn.  OK, it’s annoying to be in a more crowded environment but we all know that by February things will be back to normal.  I really love seeing new people in the gym, people who are little out of their element(for the time being) but are giving it a go.  There are so many good excuses to not go to the gym;  I’m tired, it takes too much time, it costs too much, gyms are full of shallow, judgemental douches, I feel self-conscious etc.  I say silence that background noise, get greedy and go get yourself some.  The bar will lift you up.

 

Divorce and dating across cultures.

restaurant-alcohol-bar-drinksRoughly 7 years ago I had one of those “damn, we’re really going to get a divorce” moments when you realize that something you’ve pondered so often is actually going to happen. Even if part of you welcomes the divorce, it’s a very strange feeling, especially after many years of marriage. It was a mutual decision and, while I was well aware of the disadvantages (we have 2 kids) I realized that, at the very least, I could start dating again. At this point I will put my cards out on the table: I never cheated on my ex-wife, not even close. If you think that enthusiastically searching out sexual partners(at least in short-term) is lame and shallow than you, dear reader, have never lived through the last few years of a dying marriage. So, yes, I was overdue and was I ever motivated.

There are many reasons why I have lived in this city for the past 20 years but one of the nicest is that it’s extremely cosmopolitan, the sort of place that you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting some sort of expat or immigrant (I guess you could say I’m both). It’s very similar to some neighborhoods in New York or London, only on a smaller scale. It’s the sort of place where you can constantly meet people from literally all over the world. This meant that in my roughly 3 to 4 year stint of post-divorce dating I met women from enough nations to get a quorum call at the UN General Assembly.

Disclaimer: What follows are some personal very generalized (the better to protect the privacy of everyone involved) observations. Certain examples might cleave to a cultural stereotype of that person’s nationality and, if they do, it’s because I did indeed observe this behavior. Nobody is walking national stereotype but culture is very strong force. If you belong to a culture you will share at least a few characteristics with people in that culture. Also, this particular post will be stupendously shallow. You have been forewarned. OK, so now on to the good part…

  • General Dating strategy – You’ll have realize that I was many years out of the game so my dating game was weak. Even in my earlier single days, my game was pretty bad. I was able to date some pretty fantastic women, but it was almost in spite of myself. I quickly realized a few things: a) I’ve more money and lots more life experience than I did in my 20s b) I managed to stay in shape and consistently look younger than I should do in spite of ingesting a Lake Superior of booze in my lifetime c) I was going to learn from past experience and not date people from work and d) I was going get out of my comfort zone and be more outgoing. So I did what just about every one does in the situation; I looked up old girlfriends, I did online dating and I forced myself to widen my social circle by meeting as many people as possible. What follows are the results of those strategies.
  • Looking up Exes: I don’t care what anybody says, this works like a charm. If you were decent person in the relationship, the sex was good (or great) and it just so happens your Ex is not in a relationship at the present moment, your chances are excellent. What’s more, no surprises and no illusions about the future. I have had newly single Exes look me up, and vice versa. You therefore have a pleasant time together (sex and companionship) and eventually go onto to other things. It’s more a friends with benefits sort of relationship. I have moved on, as have the Exes in question, but in most cases we remain on very good platonic terms.
  • Online Dating: This might be the most interesting facet, especially given the multilingual/multicultural angle. One complicating factor is that I am really not a fan of getting my picture taken or the whole Selfie phenomenon. The best pictures of me are invariably “action” shots taken while I am doing something else than waiting for my picture to be taken. I eventually found 1 or 2 recent pics and worked on creating concise tag-lines in 2 languages. While I find this sort of blatant hard sell abhorrent I find the idea of being celibate ever more so thus I jumped in with both feet. It was a funny experience and I met loads of women that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. I certainly don’t regret it but I won’t do it again because a) it takes a lot of time and b) the type of people I met in person tend to correspond more to what I am looking for. Dating sites are the shotgun approach to dating. I did met some great women, some of whom remain good friends. I met a lot of characters and at least 1 or 2 women who had, shall we say, a somewhat tenuous grasp of reality. And I met some women who were just all about sex, asap (yes, ladies, it’s not just the men). Please note that I’m not complaining about that part as it’s one of my stated goals. However, when you walk into a cafe, talk for a few minutes or so and the woman says “Ok, let’s go, your place” (this actually happened to me once) alarm bells start to go off. I also met women who felt that a first date should be a “how serious are you” interrogation, seemingly forgetting if the date is not a fun experience, I’m not going to repeat it. I met women who, on a first date, would regale me with a litany of complaints about their ex-husband or who would try to grill me about my ex-wife. I learned a very valuable lesson from a few women, namely how to cut and run, done with class and consideration. Internet dating is a crap shoot and there will be times when you meet somebody and realize within the first few minutes that this person is not for you. At first, I’d suffer through a fairly long period (out of consideration) and then bring the date to an end. Women have much more experience rejecting the opposite sex and can usually do it decisively and tactfully if they so choose. Men, conversely, are much more used to rejection and we appreciate a “no thanks” when done with style. Bringing a non-starter date to a swift but considerate conclusion is a must.
  • Meeting women the old school way – This includes having friends introduce me to their female acquaintances, meeting women at parties, the tried and true method of going out to bars and clubs with friends and finally, from time to time, starting open, non-committal conversations with women in random locations . Considering all the time I spend in gyms, I’ve never dated or attempted to date women I meet at the gym. There are many reasons for this but primarily I work hard in the gym so I am a sweaty, red-faced mess most of the time. I met less women via the old-school methods than via the internet but there were distinct advantages. I wasted much less time and also I could perceive women (and they could perceive me) at face value, and not the result of some filtered internet search. In general, I find that I usually have more in common with women closer to my age. Via these methods, though, I often met and sometimes went out with women who were both younger and (a little bit) older than me. It’s easier to keep an open mind when the person is right in front of you.
  • Results: Bear in mind that during this period I was highly motivated. The end result was that I met quite a few women…and I slept with a quite few women. I easily slept with more women during this 4 year period than during my entire post high school/pre- marriage single period. In spite of no longer having the six-pack I did back then, I have a much more positive attitude which made an enormous difference. Concentrate on having a fun experience and chances are the sex will come. If I met somebody cool and interesting but did not have sex, that was fine too. Wasting my time on a dud date (no chemistry, conversation, negative vibe, etc) was really the only down-side. Conversely, rejection is not a big deal – everyone has the right to say no. Yes, some women I thought were cool turned out to not think the same of me. And that was fine – and makes me wonder why I dreaded that result so much as a younger man. Also, I was able to flip the script. A few times, as I attempted to politely say no to another date,etc , I’ve had a woman just lose her shit and get nasty. My loss, right, no reason to get worked up about it. It’s a virtuous circle, the less you fear rejection, the more fun you will tend to have. Final result I don’t necessarily feel the need to “met” women at any expense as I did “post-divorce”. If was fun (for the most part) and it pushed me out of several comfort zones which is something I think every divorced person needs.
  • Cross-cultural Observations (AKA is he really going to validate cultural stereotypes): I found that, in an extremely broad sense, cultural stereotypes tend to have some truth to them. Latin American, African, Asian and Eastern European women tend to expect and appreciate that you play the “man”, you take initiative make the decisions, open doors and, yes, pay for most things. No joke, You will reap benefits, shall we say, that would almost be unthinkable with upper middle class Aglophone (US, Canada, UK, Australia, etc) women but you must first Prove Your Worth. North-American women want their cake and eat it too – meaning that they expect full equality while at the same expecting you to pay for most things and still “take charge”. Sometimes. When, where and how to take charge is highly variable and woe unto he who misinterprets the signs. Western European women are somewhat closer to the North American end of spectrum meaning they appreciate their independence while still acknowledging that there are innate differences between the sexes. That being said, both groups tend to be lower maintenance which can be a real breath of fresh air.

I should note that class differences were minimal. The women I dates tended to have the same level of education and professional development – if not more in some cases.

Pleasant surprises – Russian women are invariably pretty and expensively dressed, yes, but in my experience are also very cultured as regards to literature, dance and music. They can have dark, off-beat senses of humor. Romanian women are some of the most fun women in the world. They combine Slavic and Mediterranean looks while preserving a more sociable Mediterranean warmth. They can, and will, talk your ear off but it will never, ever be boring. Know that a 50 kilo Polish or Irish woman can drink your punk ass under the table, all day, any day. Anglophone women and women from Western Europe tend to be somewhat less drama prone than women from other cultures that I met.
Wow – didn’t really expect that: When I was freshly separated from my soon to be ex-wife, the idea that I could meet and eventually sleep with a decent number of fairly interesting, attractive women seemed, if not far-fetched, at least a tad overly optimistic. I soon learned that this is not the difficult part. The truly difficult part is the karmic price you pay. A quick example that happened to me no less than 3 times. Married female acquaintances made it clear that I could help add some spice to their daily routine. For so many reasons, this is a horrible idea so I didn’t…until, of course, I did, for all the usual reasons. 9 & 1/2 weeks territory, as in indulging in the majority of fantasies one has harbored for quite some time. I ended it before things could truly go south but in the bargain I felt like a real asshole for doing it in the first place. Gentlemen, know that if your marriage is going stale or on the rocks and your wife/girlfriend is attractive, well, she can indulge herself at the literal snap of a finger. To the “other guy”:  Don’t ever be the “3rd person”, ever.

Lessons learned – Do not take rejection personally, stay true to yourself and your morals, have fun and above all, “be in the moment”.  Don’t do things you don’t want to do with people you don’t want to do them with. 

Finally, the city I live in is sufficiently small and cosmopolitan enough that one meeting and dating somebody from another culture was\is pretty much a constant. Everyone is doing it, not just out of necessity, but also because they can. It’s fun and exciting. Yes, long-term relationships between people who share a culture can be easier (less misunderstandings, for one). All I know is that I’ve never been one to take the easier path.