I had finished my workout and was arranging some belongings in my locker. Momentarily, I was overtaken by a couple vigorous sneezes. A guy getting dressed nearby smirked and said, “Maybe you’re allergic to exercise.” I smiled back and said, “Or maybe I’m allergic to stopping.”
Waiting for a meeting to start, a younger colleague of mine began filling the air with a story about her previous night’s fun. With the conference room falling silent, someone blurted out: “We all have 23 year-old envy!”
Well, I’m not so sure. The Internet is awash in articles with titles like: Things I Wish I Could Tell My Younger Self About Dating/Careers/Money. In fact, it seems that what people really want is to go back in time and shake their younger selves by the lapel. So, given the chance, here are five things about exercise I’d shout into the ear of my 23 year-old self.
5) Learn how to jump rope. Yes, you can pick up the jump rope in your 30s, but the coordination is easier to learn at a younger age, and advanced moves can take years to perfect. Besides, the fitness you build jumping rope strengthens every part of your routine, making you a faster runner and a more powerful lifter. Enjoy the benefits as soon as possible.
4) Squat correctly. I know that when you started lifting, you used to squat with a block of wood under your heels. Maybe you’ve learned by now to squat only with your heels planted firmly on the floor. In any event, I have finally started to squat correctly, with a low bar position and my knees thrust out. My knees no longer hurt, my hamstrings are huge, and I haven’t thrown out my back in over a year. Speaking of throwing out our back …
3) You only have one low back. Now, all those sets of Good Mornings, I understand. Gyms used to post pictures of Good Mornings as a recommended back exercise until angry mobs started tearing them down. Regardless, the 345 pound deadlifts were just dumb. We even got in trouble for all the noise we were making.
2) Pick a weight that causes you to fail at 10 reps. Anything heavier than that and you’re setting yourself up for injury. It doesn’t matter how heavy you can go on a particular day if you can’t make it back in for a week, or longer.
1) Stop doing upright rows. I read an article several years ago about how the top of the movement causes fragile shoulder parts to squeeze and rub against each other. I replaced upright rows in my routine with raises of various kinds, and I’ve noticed no difference in shoulder strength or size.
Bonus tip: Cut the wheat out of your diet. Whether or not you believe in the paleo lifestyle, the bowls of multigrain cereal and stacks of whole wheat bagels just make it harder for you to show off all your great ab work.
Fear can be a positive force in the gym. For example, fear that an uneven lift could catapult your weight plates across the gym encourages you to secure your barbell collars. On a primal level, there’s fear of rejection – even fear of death – that motivates you to go to the gym in the first place.
But along the fear spectrum, you can head into a place where the feeling is less useful. If you’re lifting heavy, your fear of injury increases your concentration, but might at the same time cause you to cut short your range of motion. In my case, when I perform low bar squats (Rippetoe style), my fear of the weight sometimes causes me to slide the lift forward onto my quads – where it’s more comfortable, rather than back onto my weaker hamstrings and glutes – where the form is right.
At the far end of the fear spectrum resides personal trainers, and the functional training fad. As I’ve written before,
It seems like every trainer is trying to see how much “functional/balancing” crap they can use on new trainees … They jump up and down on benches, use a medicine ball and other toys.
Today, I saw a trainer order his client to perform history’s most awkward set of push-ups. He instructed the poor woman to rest her shins across the top of a giant swiss ball, while she gripped two handles placed on the floor below. After mounting the wobbly ball, the terrified woman cried out: “Hold me, I’m afraid!”
Now, I question how much intensity can be directed into a set when you’re training in literal fear. But regardless, the client completed the movement, dismounted, and then summed up in one sentence the entire state of functional fitness. “Well,” she said, “it’s not too bad if you hold me.”
It turns out that one of the biggest obstacles to having a good workout is just getting through the gym’s front door. Now I don’t mean this in a motivational or philosophical sense – I mean literally having a gym employee remember to get out of bed in the morning and go unlock the front door.
Over the course of my fitness career, I’ve seen dozens of gym parking lots fill up with restless and angry members, regardless of the city or the brand. In fact, I belong to more than one gym, in part so I can escape fiascos like the one I came across today.
Given all the ways gyms try to entice people to join, I think I’d start my own franchise with an access guarantee and the most basic of slogans: “We open on time.” (I should also mention my idea for a gym in Washington D.C. near the U.S. Capitol called, “The House of Reps.”)
In any event, whenever my workout gets sidetracked by a gym’s deadbolt, I often consider trashing them on the Internet, either lighting them up on Twitter or naming names on this blog. But in reality, I don’t think damaging their business helps me in the long run. In point of fact, I need all my gyms to stay open, so that one of them does indeed remain open.
For the past few years I’ve participated in an annual 5K run sponsored by a nearby town. Since the course is the same each year, I use the race as an annual evaluation of my level of fitness. I’ve also experimented with listening to music during the race, taking into account issues of etiquette, safety, and whether it’s even desirable to tune out the event. I can report that whatever the drawbacks, earphones will indeed help you go much faster.
The race organizers do a nice job at the starting line trying to separate the faster runners from the slower folks. Several large signs clearly indicate where you’re supposed to stand based on your typical pace per mile. Each group goes off in a staggered start separated by a minute or so.
Although this athletic honor system should help streamline the race, the whole arrangement breaks down under actual event conditions. Pumped full of pre-race adrenaline, people who have never run three miles in less than 30 minutes conclude they’re going to streak down the course at an eight minute pace. Likewise, you have folks with no conditioning at all that decide to accompany their more fitness-oriented spouse or relative at the race.
Everything would be fine if these people, totally gassed by 1,000 meters, drifted off towards the sidewalk in a courteous and controlled fashion. Unfortunately for the rest of us, they crash suddenly and stop right in your path. For those of us in the third or fourth wave of runners, the first half of the race is most notable for its frequent collisions and for weaving around the widespread traffic jams. In fact, the beginning of the race encapsulates everything wrong with the state of fitness today: People with unrealistic expectations starting too fast, burning themselves out, all while getting in the way of folks trying to train seriously.
There’s also fun to be had at the water stations at miles one and two of the course. Now, I imagine the race organizers set up these stations only for liability purposes or because it’s required by some county code. As a practical matter, do you really need to suck down a pint of water nine minutes into your jog? I’m serious – are people normally crazy with thirst after four laps around a track? I know that I haven’t even started to sweat yet at this point in my workout. Regardless, runners swarm the the tables and fling their empty cups all over the road. In particular, I like watching the guys who grab a cup of water in each hand and pour it over their heads, like they’re heading into the final stage of a triathlon.