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.

Speaking Truth to Power

May 14, 2009

I know that golf is supposed to be the sport most metaphorically applicable to life. But I’d like to mention this bit of insight that came from my coach of youth soccer: A ball rolling slowly towards the goal has a much greater chance of scoring than a fast wild shot that is off the mark. This wisdom is clearly applicable to something like financial planning, and also to the gym.

I used to deadlift extremely heavy – my best sets were 335 lbs for six reps, with no belt on. I’m also proud to say that my form was perfect. However, the only way I could get out of a car for one week following was to open the door and roll out onto the ground.

Today, as I watched an average-sized guy load up a barbell with four plates on a side, my amusement was tempered by empathy.

For a regular guy, a 405 lb deadlift is preposterous. To be sure, I’d never before seen a person deadlift with a spotter, getting pulled upright at the top of each rep. I did, however, recognize the noise this guy made bouncing his barbell as a grocery cart being pushed down the stairs. Regardless, when this fellow added another 25 lb plate between sets, I didn’t even bother to continue watching. I just turned away and waited for the sound of splintering low back ligaments.

Nowadays, I do my sets of deadlifts at about 225 lbs for eight or nine reps. I’m no longer the man to call to lift a car off some unfortunate soul, but I’m also not missing bunches of workouts due to a wrecked low back.  I figure it’s better to be at the gym making slow but regular progress, than to engage in one fast wild workout and spend the next several days in bed.

Point Of No Return

October 28, 2007

I found the following handwritten sign taped to the mirror in a corner of my gym:

When you are caught sticking the bar in the wall, you will be asked to leave and not return. MGMT

A little explanation here. The t-bar row is one of the best exercises for your back. Unfortunately, too many gyms, including this one, don’t offer this essential piece of equipment. Many lifters T-Bar
decide to create their own t-bar by lodging one end of a barbell in a corner and loading the other end with weight plates.

Granted, over time, the rubbing of the barbell against the drywall will carve up the plaster and most likely leave a giant hole. Regardless, I don’t see how a gym can refuse to spring for a real t-bar row machine and deny its members the right to build their own substitute.

In response to MGMT’s sign, I dropped the following note in the gym’s suggestion box:

When you are caught padding profits by failing to properly equip your gym, I will vote with my wallet and not return. MMBR

The Sky Is Falling

September 30, 2007

This week the roof caved in at my gym. Seriously: Wet chunks of ceiling tile were splattered across the floor, and puddles splashed my shoes when I walked from one machine to the next. I decided it was time to at least explore alternatives among local gyms.

At the first gym, I saved myself a tour and lengthy sales pitch by strolling up to the large windows outside and pressing my nose to the glass. My eyes were drawn first to an empty dumbbell rack, and then to the knee-high pile of dumbbells heaped directly in front of it. I had real hopes for my next stop, a well-known national chain. Inside, however, I found equipment so old that the metal was orange with rust, and a general state of affairs not worth the extra drive.

In his bodybuilding encyclopedia, Arnold Schwarzenegger wrote about the primitive state of bodybuilding science during his prime, believing it robbed him of 10 percent of his potential. I also feel only 90 percent complete, though in my case, I’ve been handicapped by a chronic problem with gym quality.

Stuck with my current gym membership, I’m resigned to increasing the amount of elemental equipment in my gym bag.

When it comes to seated pulley rows – possibly the best back builder out there – I’ve got two choices at my gym. I can use an older machine with lousy action but a nice handle; or, I can use the new machine with great action but a handle that’s far too narrow. Of course, the gym has welded shut the link attachment on the good handle so it can’t be moved to a different machine.

In an attempt to stop the madness, I ordered this handle from a commercial gym supplier. Now I know it’s ridiculous to lug around a five pound piece of metal on back days. Nevertheless, at least I’m one step closer to reaching my full potential. Handle

Are Bodybuilders Dumb?

July 22, 2007

Let’s take a look around my gym early on a Saturday morning. You have to figure that the folks showing up before 9 a.m. on the weekend take the activity seriously enough.

We’ve got one guy wearing dark sunglasses, in this windowless gym prone to power failures. Another guy, dressed in a Barney-the-dinosaur purple running suit, is doing squats with his feet spread about a football field wide. A third guy, who got me thinking about this topic, at least looks relatively normal. However, he’s got the seat on his lat row machine set so low that he pulls almost completely with his rear deltoids, not his lats.

Do bodybuilders deserve their meathead reputation? Judging from this sample: you bet. However, none of these guys will ever accomplish anything in the gym. I’d argue that ironically, the guys packing the most beef also possess the biggest brains. At a minimum, the successful bodybuilder has a command of kinesiology, anatomy, and nutrition. Depending upon what’s inside the plain packaging with the Chinese postmark, he’s probably quite knowledgeable about chemistry, too.

On the other hand, within the fitness universe, the biggest dumbbells must be the folks in charge of gym management.

You would think, for example, that I could get in a decent pull-up somewhere in my gym, with three separate pull-up stations to choose from. Well. The first pull-up station is located directly under the indoor running track, so that any pull-up ends abruptly in a collision between skull and concrete. The second station is centered almost perfectly under a long sprinkler head, eliminating the necessary overhead clearance. In the part of the gym with the lowest ceiling, you’ll find the third station. Here, as you reach the top of your pull-up, you have to ram your head through the ceiling tile, reaching peak contraction somewhere in the crawl space. I guess I should just be happy there’s no permanent injury.