Phoning It In

June 24, 2013

I joined a new gym today, which is kind of like your first day at a new job. You’ve got to figure out the lay of the land, such as the location of the bathroom. As important, you’ve got to pick up quickly on the culture. For example, at some gyms, loud grunting will earn you a dirty look from gym staff. At others, making a scene while you lift is encouraged – even admired. Regardless, at all gyms, there’s one rule you have to respect: You must cooperate when someone asks you for a spot.

I’ve written previously about my objections to spotting – it interrupts the pacing of my workout; it offends my sensibilities to see someone using more weight than he can handle; on the bench press, it puts my low back in a terrible position. But most of all, if the guy benching 315+ suffers a total failure, I literally can’t help. There’s no way I can pull an anvil off some guy’s chest.

So during my workout today, the guy next to me throws three plates onto each side of his barbell. He looks my way and says, “Hey, can you help me out.” I started trudging over to my position behind his bench, but I noticed his strange expression. “Here,” he says, as he hands me his phone. “My buddy doesn’t believe I can bench this weight. I need you to video this lift for me.”

Finally, a spot where I can actually help.


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.”

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.

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.