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.

A Parents’ Guide to Working Out

August 31, 2010

I think parents of young children enter into the experience with some awareness of the expenditures that lie ahead. There’s the monetary cost, obviously, and also the drain of intangibles: time, energy and peace. But what has been a surprise to me, at least, is the physical damage my kids inflict on me – and the resulting missed workouts at the gym.

Jordan with Brady HokeFor example, a couple years ago I took my son to a University of Michigan alumni event, where he could meet the head coaches of the football, basketball and hockey programs. In order for my son to see the guests of honor, I had to lift him onto my shoulders, where he sat comfortably for the 30 minute program. At the end of the event, my son got a football autographed by Brady Hoke. I left with a first degree shoulder separation that took several weeks to heal.

I’ve also been trying to teach my son how to golf. At the end of one trip to the driving range, I thought I’d show off by swinging at the last ball with as much force as possible. I succeeded not only in sending my ball into orbit, but also in tearing my right tricep so badly that it hurt for a month just to pull open a door.

Of course, some injuries occur from simple overuse at the gym, and scheduled rest is indispensable for any fitness enthusiast. With kids though, there’s never really any down time. I’ve been away from the gym for about a week now, trying to get the bursitis in my left elbow to go away. However, my son needed me to set up his basketball hoop in the driveway. The process sent shooting pain through my elbow multiple times, probably resetting my healing to day one.

So, I have advice for parents who also want to hit the gym with some regularity. First, make sure you’re lifting weights light enough to complete at least 10 reps per set. Anything heavier than that just makes you too fragile and injury-prone. With no margin for error, you’ll also need to stop doing gym activities that have caused you strains and sprains in the past. I love the tricep press machine, but giving my elbow time to heal is just too complicated.

Sydney and JordanFinally, set some limits: I told my daughter that when she hits 60 lbs, there’s no more getting carried around on my shoulders. There was some foot stomping and hands on hips … yet another thing she can blame on her brother, I guess.

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.

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.