I joined a new gym today, which is kind of like your first day at a new job. You’ve got to figure out the lay of the land, such as the location of the bathroom. As important, you’ve got to pick up quickly on the culture. For example, at some gyms, loud grunting will earn you a dirty look from gym staff. At others, making a scene while you lift is encouraged – even admired. Regardless, at all gyms, there’s one rule you have to respect: You must cooperate when someone asks you for a spot.
I’ve written previously about my objections to spotting – it interrupts the pacing of my workout; it offends my sensibilities to see someone using more weight than he can handle; on the bench press, it puts my low back in a terrible position. But most of all, if the guy benching 315+ suffers a total failure, I literally can’t help. There’s no way I can pull an anvil off some guy’s chest.
So during my workout today, the guy next to me throws three plates onto each side of his barbell. He looks my way and says, “Hey, can you help me out.” I started trudging over to my position behind his bench, but I noticed his strange expression. “Here,” he says, as he hands me his phone. “My buddy doesn’t believe I can bench this weight. I need you to video this lift for me.”
Finally, a spot where I can actually help.
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 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.”