Noise Pollution

April 14, 2007

I worked out in a gym last week that had on display the biggest indoor sign I’d ever seen. It was more like a billboard, in 2000 point font, hanging above the dumbbell rack: DO NOT DROP WEIGHTS.

The dropping of weights, dumbbells in particular, seems to be one of the top etiquette issues at every gym. I too am offended when people let their dumbbells crash to the ground – but only because of the damage done to the dumbbells themselves.

Heavy dumbbells that smash into the floor at an angle will bend into a c-shape, upsetting the way they balance in your hands. The weights on battered dumbbells can also come loose from the handle, and sometimes even break off. (Good luck getting your gym to fix or replace that dumbbell anytime soon.)

I think that what gyms are rallying against, however, is the bone-rattling noise of falling iron. And here’s where I say: what do you expect? I’m grateful for the gyms that furnish 100+ lb dumbbells, a rare commodity in this age of express, female-targeted health clubs. But, I can also tell you that when I reach failure at the end of a set of dumbbell bench presses, I have little control over how the weights find their way to the floor. I try to ensure that the dumbbells hit flat, to avoid breaking the equipment. Beyond that, I just want to make sure that they don’t tear my arms off on the way down.

I used to work out at a gym located on the second floor of a small strip mall. I was scolded several times by management for all my clanging and banging doing deadlifts with a 345 lb barbell. It wasn’t the gym that cared about the noise, however, but the poor tenants on the first floor who endured the sounds of an avalanche all day long.

So here’s a note to landlords: don’t lease space to a gym above the ground floor. And gyms: don’t lease space above the ground floor if you want your members to enjoy their regular workout.

Low Back Special

March 3, 2007

I cheer new techniques and machines that target the low back. In fact, I just completed a month of physical therapy for a herniated disk, the consequence of fanatical free weight workouts during my early 20’s.

One good alternative is the basic back extension machine. You sit in the machine, select the weight, and work your spinal erectors by leaning against the back pad. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, today I saw a woman raise the machine’s adjustable back pad so that it lay directly across the top of her spine. By stiffening her neck and pressing back with her head, she managed to push the machine through its normal motion.

Still, no back exercise, done correctly or otherwise, is as dangerous as the good morning. A good morning consists of standing under a heavy barbell and bending forward at the waist, all while keeping your legs straight. This movement has fallen out of favor over time, either as a result of advances in kinesiology or its contribution to long lines at sports medicine clinics. I’ve even been to a gym that crossed out the good morning image on its poster of suggested back exercises.

I occasionally notice women doing this exercise with just a Body Bar, though I imagine the risk of injury at these weights is minimal. I did recently find a serious lifter mocking a gym novice online for not knowing the difference between squats and the good mornings the serious lifter was actually performing.

Well, pal, the joke’s on you. My greatest regret as a trainer is the way I encouraged many clients to add good mornings to their workouts. Though I was only passing on the best information at the time, these folks are probably cursing me from the straps of a traction machine right now.

The deadlift, on the other hand, remains one of the sport’s best overall strength and mass builders – as long as you pay meticulous attention to proper form. Here’s what not to do:

There was a guy at my gym that worked out while his girlfriend did. He would “show off” on deadlift day for her. His idea of a deadlift was to drop to the floor at light speed, smash the plates off the floor, then bounce it up to the start position and call that a rep. He sounded like a grocery cart being pushed down the stairs.

The correct mechanical position for beginning and finishing the deadlift: head up, shoulders higher than butt, and your butt higher than knees. Also, it’s important to feel yourself pushing with your legs rather than lifting with your back. I offer no guarantees, however, only the assurance that I’m passing on the best information available today.

The Lost Art Of Stretching

February 27, 2007

I’ve been waiting patiently for gym members to provide me with the inspiration for a post on stretching and flexibility. I’ve been on the lookout for things like:

  • Ballistic stretching (bouncing)
  • Painful stretching
  • Over stretching (taking muscles and joints well past natural limits)

However, I found something even more alarming when it comes to members’ regular stretching … absolutely nothing.

I grew up during the golden age of fitness, when people like Joe Weider championed the idea of a “fitness tripod” – a sturdy foundation of physical wellbeing consisting of muscle strength, cardiovascular fitness and improved flexibility. Nowadays, people obsess over weight loss, fad diets and supplementation, discarding the fundamentals of total body health.

At a minimum, thorough stretching prior to working out reduces the risk of injury. On my heavy leg days, I get added confidence from a good stretch of my quads and low back. On chest day, some form of a doorway stretch always feels great and helps defend against a rip in the pectorals. I also began regular shoulder stretching years ago after a rotator cuff tear, speeding my recovery and minimizing the risk of future problems.

Furthermore, there is a synergy between muscle tone and flexibility. Contrary to the myth of the musclebound athlete, bodybuilders who work their muscles through a full range of motion enhance their flexibility in areas such as legs and low back; just think about the repeated stretching required by a set of deep squats or hyper extensions. On the flip side, even professional bodybuilders have claimed success lengthening and firming calves and lats through a serious stretching routine.

Just remember: aggressive, reckless stretching is as dangerous as combining heavy weights with sloppy form. Always warm up a cold muscle first with light cardio. And never try to imitate something you’ve seen from an Olympic gymnast … but I guess that’s a story for another post.

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.

Hard Gainers

February 18, 2007

Although a certain segment of the population goes out of its way to avoid making progress in the gym, hard gainers – or “hardgainers” (an actual fitness term of art) – find their bodybuilding dreams limited by mediocre genetics. Experts in the field estimate that somewhere between 60 and 95 percent of people are hardgainers.

These figures aren’t all that surprising. In any sport, a few elite athletes set the standard for legions of amateurs. And besides, statistically speaking, most people are average.

I, however, would like to advance a new theory. In my estimation, when it comes to building muscle, the problem is that 60 to 95 percent of people have no idea what they’re doing.

Today at the gym I watched a couple younger guys make an absolute mess of their back workout. They performed sets of t-bar rows and barbell rows with their posture nearly ramrod straight, transforming these excellent mass builders into sloppy bicep curls.

Then there are the folks who turn a simple set of abdominal crunches into a chiropractor’s nightmare. Lying on the floor, they wrap their arms tightly around their heads, and yank their chin into their upper chests over and over. I don’t know which is more remarkable – the 30, even 50, reps per set performed this way, or the ability to spend this much energy on abs without tapping even one stomach muscle fiber. Either way, I urge you people, why don’t you start by trying to execute just one clean crunch – fingers behind the ears, chin up, strong contraction in the abs. Just one.