February 18, 2013

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.”

Bump and Run

September 4, 2011

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 benchmark 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 starting line.

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.

Apples to Apples

June 11, 2011

I’ve been critical in the past of personal trainers, wondering exactly what physical benefits a client gets from the relationship, and whether either the physical or psychic benefits are worth the cost. But until today, I’ve never been able to compare side-by-side, minute by minute, my free workout – built only of motivation and common sense – against the workout designed by a (presumably) credentialed professional.

This morning, I began my 3 mile (12 lap) jog at a local high school track just as 20 participants arrived for a fitness “Boot Camp.” (I’m guessing $25 per person?) The trainer had the group drop their armfuls of pads and mats and water bottles right in front of the home side bleachers. As a result, as I swung around the track, I could get a snapshot every couple minutes of Boot Camp activities. Here is how our workouts stacked up against each other:

Time My Activity Boot Camp Activity Notes
6:00:00 AM Run Wander around, wait for latecomers ____
6:02:30 AM Run Run The boot camp ambled over to the track for a one lap warm up right as I was cruising through. I got a mouthful of elbows and I stumbled over feet – I felt like I was running through a cornfield.
6:05:00 AM Run Sprawl self on mat due to exhaustion from quarter-mile jog
6:07:30 AM Run Stretch
6:10:00 AM Run Stretch
6:12:30 AM Run Stretch
6:15:00 AM Run Flail around on mats Fine. We’ll call it abs.
6:17:30 AM Run More flailing on mats
6:20:00 AM Run Stroll over to adjacent basketball court
6:22:30 AM Run Skip around basketball court The boot camp leader yelled at the group to skip with their knees up high. This instruction caused several folks to have coordination issues.
6:25:00 AM Run Twist and dance around the basketball court
6:27:30 AM Run Stroll back over to the track
6:30:00 AM Water break Water break

Ignorance is Bliss

May 9, 2011

I came across this charming article by a guy contemplating the experience of turning 70. He suggests that, having made it this far, you’re starting to play with the house’s money. Since discipline and regimen have served their purpose, why not bring on the “red meat and dry martinis?”

I appreciate the sentiment, but would like to recommend a different indulgence: The Reese’s Peanut Butter Chocolate Cake Cheesecake from The Cheesecake Factory.

Menu labeling laws in my area have stripped from The Cheesecake Factory any of the restaurant’s remaining modesty. Even the desserts in the display case are exposed. During a recent visit, I was admiring through the display case glass a particularly tempting cheesecake, and noticed a small decal nearby. It said simply: 1550 calories. I asked the hostess about this 1550 – is that per slice or the whole cake? No sorry, that’s just one slice.

If you dig into desserts the way I do, then just one forkful of this cheesecake has 150 calories – the energy equivalent of about 11 minutes on the treadmill. (Three bites cancels out an entire workout!) And since each cake is pre-sliced into 12 pieces, there’s no escaping the math – one cake equals over 18,000 calories. If you consume a typical number of calories in a day, you could maintain your usual intake for more than a week eating your way through just this one confection.

I’d note that the display case at this restaurant features 24 cakes, a collection that in total approaches something like a half-million calories. The restaurant might as well hang up two sides of beef for their display instead. Seriously, you can look it up – an entire cow yields about 500,000 calories.

What’s Old is New

March 11, 2011

For all our modern sophistication, real scientists and armchair sociologists are discovering the benefits of co-opting the lifestyles of our distant ancestors.

For example, proponents of the Paleo Diet believe we should consume only the foods available to original humans; we were genetically adapted to diets high in protein, with abundant fruits and vegetables, that contained no grains or dairy.

When it comes to theories of physical attraction, a well-trained Pick Up Artist will play paleo-mind games with women, striving to create the impression that he is the leader of a tribe.

And some pundits have begun to note how the cubicle farms of the modern workplace create an unnatural environment for human hunter-gatherers. One writer laments the obligatory assertions of mail-room cheer – “Hangin’ in there!” – that run counter to male programming.

But for all the challenges of civilization, we still rely on the gym to serve its paleo-purpose, right? We can safely go through the motions of hunting woolly mammoths and fleeing from saber tooth tigers – all in a climate controlled environment.

Well, maybe not. Here’s a sample of gym conversations I’ve overheard this week:

Guy 1: “Hey man, you’re looking fit today.”
Guy 2: “Thanks bud, but at least you have some sweat on your body!”


Dude 1: “Hey pal, are you working hard or hardly working?!”
Dude 2: Practically falls over with laughter.


Fellow 1: “How’s your training going?”
Fellow 2: “Well, I used to bulk up this time of year. But as I’ve gotten older, I focus just on maintenance.”

Fellow 2 looked to be about 28.