Why in Deed

January 4, 2011

Anyone who makes exercise a regular part of his or her routine has to acknowledge Jerry Seinfeld’s point about the circular logic of the gym:

“The only reason that you’re getting in shape is so you can get through the workout. So we’re working out, so that we’ll be in shape, for when we have to do our exercises.”

I’ll pile on even a bit more, questioning exercise’s supposed ability to make you “feel better.” The day after I train legs, an ordinary flight of stairs looks to me more like a mountain. Depending upon what’s happening with my low back, tying my shoes can be a real struggle. And I’m hard pressed to see the advantage of using up your energy for the day prior to 7 a.m.

So truly, why bother?

Well, upon further reflection, I’ve compiled a list of times when I’ve found the effort to stay fit – and a thick layer of muscle – to actually come in handy:

10. Getting off the subway: You’re sitting in the center of the metro car as the train pulls into your station; you count about 30 people – plus assorted luggage, instrument cases and bicycles – standing between you and the door, which will remain open for only a matter of seconds.

9. Protecting your internal organs: When you’re resting on your bed, and your kids start to use your torso as a trampoline, you can giggle right along with them.

8. Getting on the subway: You want to board an already packed subway train; as the door opens, you apply the gentle but firm encouragement of your forearm into the middle backs of the folks in front of you.

7. Eating contest: Due to your continual craving for food, you can impress friends and relatives with your ability to consume large quantities in a short period of time. (Downside: constant hunger can also get expensive.)

6. Trying to catch an early flight: At the bus stop, you figure out the hard way that bus service to the metro doesn’t start for another hour; it’s no problem for you to walk instead, making the one mile trek up to the train station while dragging along your bulging suitcase.

5. Feats of strength: When your massive picture tube television finally dies, you can haul it out to the curb solo, without needing to call in a favor from friends or neighbors.

4. Saving time: It only takes one trip to carry all the grocery bags in your car up the stairs and into the kitchen.

3. Crash recovery: When you lace up ice skates for the first time in 20 years, you can survive the inevitable wipeout without serious trauma.

2. Discipline: When you inform your uncooperative children they have the opportunity to complete a task (i.e., getting dressed, going upstairs) “the easy way or the hard way,” you can, when necessary, make good on the threat.

1. Shoveling snow: When the forecast calls for snow, you don’t need to worry about the aftermath causing heart trouble or other injury. In fact, if snow has made the roads impassable, the shoveling can substitute for your trip to the gym.

Eight Is Enough

November 20, 2008

As I strive to squeeze the most from every set, I’ve done considerable thinking about what number of repetitions is most challenging. Put another way: When doing a set to failure, what number of reps hurts the most? I’ve analyzed only sets consisting of 1-10 reps; if your set lasts more than 10 reps you’re doing glorified cardio.

My comments below are ordered from easiest rep range to hardest.

10. Four: A four-rep set isn’t heavy enough to be a vessel-popping lift.  It’s also not light enough, nor long enough, to leave you gasping for air at the end of your set.  I’ve fallen into a four-rep set when I overestimate my strength and grab weights that are just too heavy. At four, you won’t achieve the muscle-building benefits of higher reps, and you don’t get the gut check that comes from lifting even heavier weights.

9. Ten: I don’t believe for one second that everyone’s muscles fail magically at exactly 10 reps. You picked a weight that was too easy; you decided before you began your lift that you would call it quits at 10.

8. Two: Something has gone wrong here. A two rep set is either a max lift too light, or a well-intentioned set that became too heavy.

7. One: To be honest, I’ve never done a one rep max lift. They’re crazy unsafe, and pretty much decoupled from muscle size or fitness. (Don’t believe me? Here is a photo of legendary Russian weightlifter Vasiliy Alekseyev.russian-weightlifter3 And then there’s Naim Suleymanoglu, the Turkish weightlifting phenom who between rounds at the Olympics ducked outside for a smoke.) Even though I’ve never done a one-rep lift, I have hoisted many heavy things once, like couches, folding tables and hide-a-beds. For sure, pushing your body to its physical limit requires a massive mental effort. I am also sympathetic to the perspective of American female weightlifter Cheryl Haworth – she said that weightlifting is unique among competitive sports because hard training never makes the workout easier: any milestone lift is quickly buried under the weight of your next heavier attempt.

Regardless, at the gym, the typical one-rep lift is an exhibition in poor form. It’s also an intense workout for some unfortunate spotter.

6. Three: Triples are used predominately as a warm-up for singles. The whole set probably takes about 10 seconds, and is more an ego-booster than a killer lift.

5. Five: To me, five is a failed effort to get to six, the absolute bottom of the mass-building range. The effort required to move such a heavy weight five times is impressive, but ultimately nothing meaningful has happened.

4. Nine: An honest effort – you were shooting for 10 but reached failure first. Nevertheless, you’re going too light: As you re-rack the weight you find you’re more winded than exhausted.

3. Six: Six reps is a major accomplishment. Still, the set doesn’t last long enough to leave you worn out. You finish the set feeling pumped and strong, not dizzy and drained.

2. Seven: My most memorable lift was seven reps: a bench press with 115 lb dumbbells.  You can make a career out of seven reps.  Nevertheless, there’s one rep left if you want to achieve perfection.

1. Eight: The eighth rep is the place to die.  Eight reps means the weight is heavy enough to build powerhouse strength, but the reps are high enough to pack on the mass. This set isn’t about ego but about serious training, making the most of your time in the gym. A solid set of eight will leave your cardiovascular system stressed, your muscles sore, but your mind content.

Good Looking

October 21, 2007

In an attempt to make amends for last week’s goof-off of a post, I’ve done some actual thinking about what motivates people to come into the gym.

For sure, there’s a certain subset that buys the membership or hires the trainer simply for the status. Beyond the poseurs, however, there are three kinds of people who in fact show up routinely: The Purist, who has a genuine desire to improve his health; The Egomaniac, motivated by his desire to be buff, generally in the hope of gaining access to female reproductive services; and The Addict, who uses his workout to convert emotional pain into more manageable physical pain.

The Egomaniac is the most amusing, of course. He got in his car and drove to the gym in order to improve his physical appearance. Yet, I see this kind of guy all the time just leaning against the equipment and staring at women as the women lift actual weights.

First of all, this kind of behavior is an egregious violation of the three second rule: When you identify a woman of interest, you must approach her within three seconds. Otherwise, you’ll not only lose your nerve, you’ll also creep her out. More importantly, I’ve always thought these guys would have a much better shot in the long run if they worked out themselves – you know, bulking up in reality.

A Universal Top 10 List

October 13, 2007

I’ve written in the past about why people don’t want go to the gym. Now, I thought it might be interesting to focus on why people do. Unfortunately, I’m running short on time. So I tracked down an announcement that made headlines across the country, the results of a recent study about people’s motivation to have sex. Though you’d assume people have sex for simple and straightforward reasons, the research revealed dozens of varied and complex motivations – 237 in all.

I’ve inserted a chart below. The left side shows the top 10 most intriguing reasons people gave for having sex, and the right side shows the top 10 reasons I think people are motivated to go to the gym.

Top 10 Reasons For Having Sex Top 10 Reasons For Going To The Gym
1. I was sexually aroused and wanted the release 1. I was sexually aroused and wanted the release
2. I wanted to stop my partner’s nagging 2. I wanted to stop my partner’s nagging
3. I wanted to improve my sexual skills 3. I wanted to improve my sexual skills
4. I wanted to get a new job 4. I wanted to get a new job
5. I wanted to be popular 5. I wanted to be popular
6. I wanted to get rid of a headache 6. I wanted to get rid of a headache
7. I wanted to keep my partner from straying 7. I wanted to keep my partner from straying
8. I thought it would make me feel healthy 8. I thought it would make me feel healthy
9. I wanted to see what the fuss is all about 9. I wanted to see what the fuss is all about
10. I thought it would help me to fall asleep 10. I thought it would help me to fall asleep


September 23, 2007

Since no one has risen in defense of the sport of swimming, I guess I’ll just do it myself:

Dear Muscleman,

Though you claim to have spent years as a competitive swimmer, you seem to have missed the most rewarding aspect of the sport – the competition against yourself. As you know, the most important benchmarks in swimming are your own personal best times. You’ve no doubt experienced disappointment after a win, or satisfaction after a loss. There’s a lot to be said for a sport that’s less about the best that can be done, and more about the best that you can do.

Buoyant in Baltimore

Buoyant, thanks for your note. I think you’re on to something here, but that you’re right for the wrong reasons.

I found a syringe in a gym locker today – a pretty disgusting reminder of how athletics at every level are tainted by performance enhancing drugs. Still, champions distinguish themselves through their mental game – the way they control their nerves and maintain focus – irrespective of suspicions of drug use.

Soon, however, even mental advantages may become obsolete. Take this fascinating article about the drug scandal sweeping the world of classical music. Musicians at every level are getting in shape for auditions and concerts not with steroids, of course, but with Inderal, a beta-blocker. This drug does a near perfect job of shutting off the symptoms of fear, doubt and anxiety.

While the calming effects of this particular drug make it useless in sports, a similar pill that leaves adrenaline glands untouched is surely on the way. With drugs creating artificial results both physically and mentally, the only meaningful measure of success will indeed be your own personal best.