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?

When Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction

March 5, 2007

There are a few really astounding gym incidents that I’ve been able only to hear about, rather than witness firsthand. For example, there are variations on the collarless barbell: A guy doing bench presses with three plates on each side pushes up unevenly; the bar tips to one side, all three plates spill off the barbell, the bar seesaws wildly through the air, and the three plates on the other side go crashing to the ground. You’ll also come across the barbell catapult when someone unloads a barbell by first stripping all the plates from just one side.

(The most exciting thing to happen between me and a barbell occurred during a set of upright rows. A woman, distracted by a conversation with her boyfriend, speared herself by walking into the end of my barbell.)

I read somewhere that the reason truth is even stranger than fiction is because fiction is governed by probabilities. Now here’s an incident that I couldn’t have even imagined:

There was this other guy who was benching about 200 pounds. The benches were arranged along a big window that leads out to the carpark … When you lay down, the window is behind your head. So, the guy finishes his final rep, but misses the “hooks” or whatever you call them on his bench. The bar flew crashing through the window and rolled down the carpark.

I believe it was Albert Einstein who said that the difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits.

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.

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.