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?


March 31, 2007

I always get a kick out of watching big burly guys use the seated leg curl. Few people realize this machine was designed specifically for pregnant women (who can’t lie on their stomach to perform a traditional hamstring curl). Still, the machine does a good job of targeting the hamstrings; it’s a respectable alternative to the horizontal version.

I’m not nearly as positive about the stationary hand cycle. The hand cycle provides a cardiovascular option for wheelchair-bound athletes. The able-bodied person using the hand cycle has skipped the treadmill, the StairMaster, the elliptical machine, and of course, the stationary bike, in order to experience a workout that is literally handicapped.

I notice two kinds of laziness at the gym. There’s typical sloth, and then there’s why bother to show up at all. The woman sitting in the hand cycle today most definitely burned the bulk of her calories walking from the parking lot to the gym. It’s one thing to choose a machine that uses only the body’s smaller muscle groups when your focus ought to be maximizing calorie burn. It’s quite another to rotate the crank so slowly that the fat hanging from your upper arms doesn’t even jiggle.

No matter. I think it was excellent training for repeated lifting of her TV’s remote control.

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.

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.

Going Out On A High Note

February 5, 2007

So here’s one. I’m resting between sets of bench presses, and I notice a guy come in and drop his gym bag next to the squat rack. He throws three plates onto each side of the bar, warms up with a quick check of his nose hairs in the mirror, and then settles in for his lift. What luck: I am present for the setting of a new land speed record, 0-300 in about ten seconds flat.

My high school band teacher always insisted that the proper way to warm up is not to pick out the highest note you can play and blow it as long and loudly as you can. Likewise, a warm up in the gym needs to be a thoughtful process that maximizes strength while minimizing the risk of injury.

The specifics aren’t critical; you’ve warmed up adequately when you’re ready to hit your first heavy set at full weight. My father, in his home gym, first picks up all the ping pong balls so inconsiderately left on the floor from the night before. I warm up with a 3-5 minute stroll on the treadmill, followed by stretching combined with three light sets of the first lift I plan to perform.

And what happened with Minuteman over at the squat rack? No, he didn’t tear a quad muscle or rip apart his knee. In fact, he didn’t squat deep enough to do much of anything at all.