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.


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.”

Diminishing Returns

December 12, 2010

I’m always suspicious when I see someone loading up a lift with more weight than I use. It’s not that my lifts are unbeatable, or even that impressive. What I do know with certainty is what’s possible for someone with my athletic ability (average) and my level of conditioning (excellent); and therefore, the bright line across which proper form collapses and injuries proliferate.

So I see this doofus at the gym today load two 45 lb plates at a time onto each side of the hack squat machine.1 Then, crossing the line, he slid another 25 lbs onto each rod.

In truth, this guy moved the weight through a much larger range of motion than I expected. He began the lift by letting his legs go nearly limp, smashing the sled against the bottom of the track and bouncing halfway up, then re-engaging his thighs to finish each rep.

Imagine the actual progress he could have made by cutting his weight in half, and bending his legs in a slow, controlled fashion.


1 Some old school gyms have a few 100 lb plates lying around. I’ve used them a couple times trying to look cool, and have nearly broken my back trying to maneuver the massive plate onto a shoulder-high leg press carriage. I can’t imagine creating such an unwieldy arrangement by choice.

Inquiring Minds

November 8, 2009

I don’t mind when people approach me with questions between sets. Give people credit for recognizing excellence and caring enough to learn more. Lately, I’ve been drawing a lot of attention with my Manta Ray, and folks wanting to know if it makes squats easier. Yes it does, since the device neutralizes problems caused by the typical bent and rusty barbell. However, with the bar placed higher on your traps, you’ll work harder as you’re forced into better, upright form.

When it comes to strange questions, I’d have to give the gold medal to a personal trainer who once sought me out. With her client in tow, this trainer inquired about what exercise I had been doing. It was that newfangled motion called deadlifts.

Irrespective of the query, I draw the line when someone wants to chat mid-exercise. Today, I was grinding away on the StairMaster, with my headphones drowning out the pain and my sweat streaming down the handrails. Desperate for my attention, a woman began knocking hard on the base of my machine. Obviously the gym must be on fire. I couldn’t really hear what this woman was saying, but the upshot was that she wanted to commend me on my workout intensity. Ironic that she didn’t see herself as an impediment towards that goal.

I intended to discount this last intrusion as just another example of poor gym etiquette, but then I had an epiphany. If I had witnessed something in the gym as unusual as a person training hard, wouldn’t I also seek out the nearest member to gush about it?


As a footnote, I’d add that violations of gym etiquette aren’t limited to the gym. I was in the middle of a jog once when a car rolled up next to me and began matching my brisk 8-minute mile pace. The driver lowered her window and shouted out a question about directions.

Diamond in the Rough

December 17, 2008

Competence is such a rare commodity. In any endeavor, when you find people who know what they’re doing, you savor the experience, consuming it eagerly and letting some of the sweet liquid run down your chin.

At the gym, you’ll often find yourself hoping to learn something from fellow members’ pushing and pulling.  The challenge is to identify among the workout rabble those few lifters worth emulating.dip-belt1

Spotting the clowns is often easy. Last week, I saw a guy exercising with a dip belt on backwards, so that the chains banged against his low back while the wide back support hindered bending in front.  Regardless, buffoons also show up in fitness camouflage, using snazzy outfits, weight belts and conspicuous note-taking to create the illusion of expertise.

So what credential is carried by almost every fitness buff? The answer is: thick, well-defined calves. One glance below the knee will tell you much about a person’s commitment to exercise.

Diamond-shaped calves are the trademarks of athletes serious about cardio: runners for sure, or even better, those into jumping rope. For bodybuilders, calves are also known as the most stubborn body part; toughened by everyday use, calves respond only after years of hard training. A person with big calves cares about a balanced physique top to bottom, and is someone whose workout may well be worth watching.