Time Machine

May 7, 2013

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.

In Decline

October 27, 2010

The decline bench should be a place to do great work. Tricep extensions performed on a decline bench force your arms to move under constant tension; Russian twists on a decline build rotational strength and grow obliques that look like armor; decline dumbbell presses cover a huge range of motion and focus the load almost exclusively on your pecs. (I’ve read that decline dumbbell presses might be the perfect chest exercise.)

Unfortunately, gyms and equipment manufacturers have conspired to turn the decline bench into just more weight room clutter.

Almost every decline bench I’ve ever climbed onto makes me seasick. I don’t know whether to blame the gyms that won’t tighten the pivotal bolt, or manufacturers that throw together such an unstable piece of equipment. Regardless, every chest day, I find myself rolling back and forth as I work to press up two heavy dumbbells.

Today, I mounted a decline bench that actually got the stability right. It was designed, however, without any consideration for the proportions of the human body. The leg pads were fixed at least 12 inches too high, so that my butt and low back were pulled off the bench. The whole position was so insecure that as soon as I started pressing, I slid right down the slope of the decline.

I did find a gym once with a good decline bench. Two in fact, side by side. They were solid, stable, ready to go. Of course, they were located up a long flight of stairs and down the hall, impossibly far from the gym’s dumbbell rack.

Like Fine Wine

June 10, 2007

Long time imaginary reader Serious in Seattle has dropped me another note:


Your blog is beginning to affect my motivation to go exercise. Frankly, I don’t know how you do it. Just since January, you’ve survived terrible gym music, exasperating slobs, crazed gym ball users, noxious fumes, busted equipment, and idiots trying to fight, not to mention the general circus-like atmosphere.

I’d think it’s tough enough to get psyched for your regular workout, let alone prepare for the daily adventure that awaits you.

So what’s the trick? How do you keep your head in the game?

Seriously in Seattle

Serious, thanks for writing again. I find that weight training is unique among athletic pursuits in the way that the body responds to age. Every running enthusiast, for example, experiences the moment when he’s literally gone over the hill. One day when he’s speeding along the jogging trail, two strapping young lads will blow by him, while casually engaged in conversation.

That depressing, Flowers for Algernon moment, is much delayed in bodybuilding.

I found that I got substantially stronger throughout my 20s. My bench didn’t take off until I was 26 or 27, and I’m still pressing my peak weight more than half a decade later.

I imagine that former varsity athletes in football or basketball look on with jealousy at the youth now dominating their sport. On the other hand, I can go to the gym and be inspired by the guy with a face in its 40s but a body in its 20s.

Even among the professional ranks, bodybuilders peak well into their 30s. Jay Cutler won his first Mr. Olympia last year at age 33, defeating the defending eight time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman, who last won at age 40.

Then again, I do struggle whenever I see a woman at the gym with sharper abs than mine. Now to me, that’s depressing.

Pain In The Abs

May 13, 2007

Funny thing, abs. (Funny weird, not funny haha.) People obsess about this body part the most, yet nearly everyone tries to get away with doing the least.

Take the ab-jiggler. I don’t know what this gizmo is actually called, but I saw a remarkable infomercial recently. The idea is that you wrap this belt around your waist, and an electric device embedded in the belt jiggles your abs into shape.

Then there’s the high-profile study conducted at the University of Copenhagen, making the case that spot reduction actually works. One of the biggest myths in fitness is that you can burn fat in your midsection by exercising your abdominals. The correct way to think about spot reduction is that it’s like trying to scoop water out of a particular part of a bucket. Fat is distributed evenly throughout the body, and if you want to show off your flat stomach, you need to lose fat everywhere. Not surprisingly, the Danish study has been largely discredited as unscientific and unable to be replicated.

At the gym, you’ll probably find a variety of ab benches and devices that are supposed to help people target their stomach. I question whether such equipment actually improves ab mechanics over a simple floor crunch. Regardless, people seem determined to defeat whatever advantage these machines do provide by performing the exercises as fast as possible. Watch people use these contraptions, and you’ll see heads bobbing up and down so quickly that the activity generates a breeze.

I tried out one of these ab benches the other day just to experience first-hand the machine’s movement. Truth be told, if you crunch up and down in a slow, smooth, controlled motion, you’ll soon feel a painful burn in your abs.

Now what good is that?

Seductively Simple

February 22, 2007

I’m not kidding when I say that folks struggling with good form should focus first on doing just one clean, quality rep. I can think of a number of bodyweight exercises where this rule applies: crunches, dips and certainly unassisted pull-ups.

Today at the gym, however, I saw another kind of one rep exercise that is most definitely not what I have in mind. It’s the all too familiar group of guys who prepare for bench presses by loading a minivan onto each side of the barbell.

The terrible form, sure to follow, doesn’t defeat just the philosophical purpose of my “one rep” rule. On a physiological level, the only possible benefit derived from singles is the strengthening of ligaments – an advantage clearly outweighed by the increased risk of injury. One rep max lifts grow very little muscle, contrary to the hopes of high school football players and frat boys. Just compare the muscularity between Olympic weightlifters and serious amateur bodybuilders.

Nevertheless, a discussion of muscle biology misses a far more interesting sociological point. These guys load up a bunch of weight so they can lean conspicuously against their barbell and grin idiotically when attractive women pass by.

In fact, I think there is an opportunity here to launch the next innovation in seduction techniques. Go ahead and load up your barbell – stand around – but don’t actually lift at all. The most productive part of the max workout comes from the effort loading and unloading several 45 lb plates anyway. Why find yourself lying on the bench, wasting a few precious seconds, when the next HB 10 walks by? Most importantly, why risk breaking a sweat?

There can be too much of a good thing, however. Just because one rep is too few doesn’t mean that peak muscularity comes from doing 50. The muscle building sweet spot is somewhere between six and eight reps per set (for women, I’ll call it the muscle toning sweet spot). Scientific studies also encourage a little variety in your workout: 6-8 reps to work the explosive “fast-twitch” muscle fibers, 10-12 reps to stimulate the endurance “slow-twitch” fibers.

Either way, you should be using a weight heavy enough that you experience muscle failure by the tenth, maybe twelfth rep. You’re just cheating yourself on multiple levels if you pick a weight with which you can do 30, but simply stop at 10. Regardless, once you enter the 12-15 rep range and beyond, your workout becomes a form of endurance training, not muscle building.

Besides, if you can really do dozens of reps – particularly when it comes to abs – you’re probably not doing the movement right at all.