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.


A Parents’ Guide to Working Out

August 31, 2010

I think parents of young children enter into the experience with some awareness of the expenditures that lie ahead. There’s the monetary cost, obviously, and also the drain of intangibles: time, energy and peace. But what has been a surprise to me, at least, is the physical damage my kids inflict on me – and the resulting missed workouts at the gym.

Jordan with Brady HokeFor example, a couple years ago I took my son to a University of Michigan alumni event, where he could meet the head coaches of the football, basketball and hockey programs. In order for my son to see the guests of honor, I had to lift him onto my shoulders, where he sat comfortably for the 30 minute program. At the end of the event, my son got a football autographed by Brady Hoke. I left with a first degree shoulder separation that took several weeks to heal.

I’ve also been trying to teach my son how to golf. At the end of one trip to the driving range, I thought I’d show off by swinging at the last ball with as much force as possible. I succeeded not only in sending my ball into orbit, but also in tearing my right tricep so badly that it hurt for a month just to pull open a door.

Of course, some injuries occur from simple overuse at the gym, and scheduled rest is indispensable for any fitness enthusiast. With kids though, there’s never really any down time. I’ve been away from the gym for about a week now, trying to get the bursitis in my left elbow to go away. However, my son needed me to set up his basketball hoop in the driveway. The process sent shooting pain through my elbow multiple times, probably resetting my healing to day one.

So, I have advice for parents who also want to hit the gym with some regularity. First, make sure you’re lifting weights light enough to complete at least 10 reps per set. Anything heavier than that just makes you too fragile and injury-prone. With no margin for error, you’ll also need to stop doing gym activities that have caused you strains and sprains in the past. I love the tricep press machine, but giving my elbow time to heal is just too complicated.

Sydney and JordanFinally, set some limits: I told my daughter that when she hits 60 lbs, there’s no more getting carried around on my shoulders. There was some foot stomping and hands on hips … yet another thing she can blame on her brother, I guess.


A Farewell To Arms

August 12, 2007

Though technically not one of the most outstanding things I’ve ever seen in the gym, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s visit to my high school in 1991 definitely ranks up there as one of my top moments in bodybuilding.

Arnold’s limo arrived at the football field and drove the long way around the track. Finally, Arnold got out of the car. He surveyed the crowd and announced into the mike: “I see a flabalanche!”

After Arnold completed his address, the president of the senior class presented him with a school t-shirt. Arnold held up the shirt by each sleeve and declared, “I never accept a shirt without trying it on first.” At this point, I thought we were about to be treated to an impromptu posing routine by the greatest bodybuilder of all time. Unfortunately, Arnold just pulled the t-shirt over what he was wearing. I guess Arnold figured that at age 43, there was no need for reality to eclipse the legend.

Still, he did not disappoint. Arnold electrified the crowd by hitting a huge double bicep pose – the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen in a short sleeved shirt.

Of course, Arnold’s signature muscle is his bicep. He credits his arms, the peak of his biceps, with winning him championships. Nevertheless, Arnold also worked hard to build a well balanced physique. No bodybuilder advances in the sport without symmetry among all muscle groups.

In fact, I don’t think the typical fitness amateur accomplishes much without giving appropriate attention to each body part. Your respect for a fellow gym member declines real fast as your eyes shift from his bulging arms to his A-cup chest. Similarly, guys with big upper bodies betray their lack of seriousness with their scrawny bottom halves.

The general population’s obsession with arms certainly makes for some pointless workouts. I’m always amazed when I can finish an entire leg routine while a couple guys take turns doing barbell bicep curls at a neighboring squat rack. Ok guys, you’re right: It’s the eighth set of curls that’s going to make the difference.


Team Effort

April 2, 2007

I’ve often wondered whether asking a stranger for a spot is a violation of gym etiquette. I know that when I’m asked for a spot, I’m irritated by the disruption in the pace of my workout and the break in concentration. I also resent channeling my precious energy into someone else’s workout, and, considering the absurd amount of weight usually involved, putting my low back at risk.

I’m no hypocrite: I also gave up asking for spots years ago, though mostly because people don’t understand the concept of spotting for safety. Typically, you’re just encouraging the shared lift you often see at the gym. You’ve got the spotter who assists his partner on the leg press by repeatedly throwing himself into the machine’s carriage. Or, how about the guys performing barbell bicep curls when it’s not clear who’s doing the lifting and who’s doing the spotting. The bottom line is that a spotter has no business touching anything unless the lifter is just plain stuck. Besides, if you’re using an appropriate amount of weight, a spotter really shouldn’t be necessary.

I do know that when someone else imposes a spot on you, he’s definitely crossed the line of gym etiquette.

True story: I’m minding my own business, lying back on a flat bench with two heavy dumbbells. As I start my set, some guy runs up behind me, cups his hands under my elbows, and proceeds to push up on my arms through 8 or 9 reps.

A couple questions present themselves:

1) Am I supposed to thank this idiot for his counterproductive spot?

2) Why do certain people believe that proper lifting requires some kind of group hug?


24 Hour Fitness

February 16, 2007

One of the most underrated – underhyped – benefits of weight training is the 24/7 calorie furnace created by slabs of lean muscle. Much like the basketball player who’s still 6’10” even when he’s tired, your toned physique is burning fuel when you’re on the couch watching TV, or even asleep.

Meaningful lean mass is achieved by developing the body’s largest muscles (legs, back and chest) through exercises that, naturally, hurt the most. I’m referring to the moves that make a difference: squats, deadlifts, rowing movements, various kinds of presses.

Unfortunately, folks at the gym throw away daily this round-the-clock fitness opportunity. And of course, the worst offenders are usually the people who need it most. I see flabby middle-aged women wasting their time with moves like one-arm tricep pulldowns or concentration curls. I shake my head watching paunchy guys perform isolation exercises like pec-deck flys or leg extensions. All these movements should belong exclusively to serious bodybuilders, who are looking to bring out the striations in their already-meaty legs, pecs and arms.

The most depressing part is that these folks are often exercising under the close watch of personal trainers. People with limited time and limited goals should especially be directed toward major compound movements; key exercises like rows and presses work smaller muscle groups – shoulders, arms – at the same time.

One of these days I’m going to have to step in and give a free lesson myself.