Monday, June 03, 2013

Working out

Time for one of my opinion pieces about a subject I am completely unqualified to speak about (go ahead, be the first to point out that covers 99% of my posts). This is a little different type thing than I usually write about, but I guess it is what I have been thinking about. So . . .

I worked out a lot when I was a kid and played a lot of sports. That dramatically sagged off in college and by law school I already was pretty lame at almost any physical activity I had been good at before and started to gain weight. About 10 years ago I started working out at a gym, and, with some breaks - notably a year when I moved to Virginia for a while - I have continued ever since.

I am in decent shape for a 54 year old man (later this month), but far from exceptional. I have a bum leg which will probably make that goal unattainable for me (I'd like to do it, but, I'd like to climb Machu Picchu also), at least, so long as I have to work for a living.  By far, the most important things I did to achieve the modest shape I'm in were two surgeries so that I could breathe and sleep some at night and losing about 90 pounds total.  I wrote about these things on 10/2/11 and 2/9/13.  But, besides those things, I'm pretty sure working out has helped too, at least when I was working hard.
I've also written before, probably more than once, about the upswing in men and occasionally women using steroids. A friend who does not go to the gym asked me how I could tell? Trust me, you can tell when you see someone whose head looks like a 60+ year old accountant but who has a body like Arnold Schwarzenegger; when you see a women with rippling arm and leg muscles bigger or more cut than some men (and almost inevitably with implants); when you see middle aged guys with flabby guts but biceps as big as head; when you see guys in their 30s not just in good shape, but with bodies like super heroes that you only saw professional body builders or professional wrestlers with up until the 2000s; or even when you see a battalion of teenagers  devoid of visible body hair but having incredible physiques such I only knew a tiny handful of young men to possess when I was growing up.  No, it's not better training or nutrition. Don't let 'em kid you. It's the steroids.

I have noticed something that has surprised me about the juicers. There are many people at the gym much stronger than me, but I notice that some of the users don't seem particularly strong at all, regardless of their size.  I've seen any number of great big guys, clearly users, who are using roughly the same weights that I do.  Sometimes on top of it they are cheating themselves as they lift (I'll explain that below).  No doubt, many of them, maybe most, are about the looks more so than their health or conditioning, or, maybe they fantasized that strength would come as easily as mass.
But, I do not compare myself to these people for obvious reasons or others who are just able to work out full steam like maniacs.  I try to develop some muscles, more so because I suppose I believe what I read about improving decreasing strength, circulation and bone density as I age.  I really take these things on faith, because I guess it makes sense to me.  But, though no one ever points to me walking down the street and says hey, look at that guy (unless accompanied by a look of horror and the shielding of their children's eyes) I have enough muscle to satisfy me. Frankly, I think a vintage Stallone body on top of my craggy face would look a little creepy.  I especially have no need for huge biceps, which, IMHO, are probably your most useless arm muscles in real life activities.  I have never had a desire to do the bodybuilder thing.  

For whatever reason that got into me this week, I want to share some work out stuff I've learned over the years (stop laughing), some of it from people much better at working out than I am or will ever be, but some I've just thought about myself.  Mostly it's just opinion (you can mentally add the words "In my opinion," or "I think," to the beginning of every paragraph. Research on working out is plentiful, incredibly contradictory and, in my opinion, usually useless.  Of course, I do whole-heartedly believe some research - usually the studies that confirm what I already thought.  Not especially scientific, is it?
The truth is, it seems to me, you can figure out most things about it yourself if you putter around a bit and experiment (like so many things in the world). Sometimes it seems contrary to what you read in a health article, sometimes not.  There are a lot of different exercises you can find on the web, of course, to work on particular muscles, and occasionally I'll look, but it is rare I find that I didn't already know from reading Arnold's Pumping Iron in the 70s. It really hasn't changed much since the 70s.

In no particular order:
      ·         I hate every second of every minute of every hour of exercise. I do it because I think it is 
              good for me, though I'm not all that sure how.

·         As with diets, most reasonable exercise plans are good, so long as
                                                        - you feel burning muscles or fatigue, and
                                                        - you keep doing it regularly.

·       For most of us, aerobic exercise is more important than strength or flexibility training. Better you can walk up a steep hill or stairs without stopping to rest than to pick up a 50 lb. box over our head. Also better to be able to lift a 20 lb. box over our head 20 times rather than a 50 lb. box once. I know some women who can't lift half of what I can, but they can lift a somewhat lower amount many times and are much stronger, pound for pound, than I am.

·       If you are fat, I would concentrate on losing weight first. That can include working out, but
I am not a believer that moderate exercise helps you lose weight and naturally believe the recent studies that same as much. You just don't burn enough calories. Cutting calories, hard as it is, is probably easier than burning them, particularly as you get older.

·       If you are using a machine to help you, like a treadmill, for example, and you can read a book or magazine while you are doing it, you are not working hard enough to get a real benefit. TV is not quite as bad, but, if you can read the scroll at the bottom of the screen or follow everything said completely, you are also probably not doing enough.

·        I understand that people read or watch TV when they work out to help with boredom, stress and pain. I do too sometimes, but, that doesn't mean it is worthwhile.

·       When I see people get great results on a treadmill or the like, it is almost always because they are either

                                     - frequently working hard enough to sweat profusely, and/or
                                                  - have exquisite form.

·       Pure form while you work out is extremely important, and, much rarer than you would think. I go to a gym with a lot of people and infrequently see them doing exercises in what I think is the correct form. I do my best, but definitely muck it up too.  I can think of only two women at the gym (yes, with nice shapes) who probably exemplify pure form.  One of them is the only one in the gym who uses the Stairmaster, in my opinion the best of the aerobic devices, without holding on. You might not think so, but it makes it a lot harder.

       ·     When lifting weights, the two most obvious ways to cheat (avoid doing the exercise purely) are:

- rocking. For example, someone might be doing curls and each time each time they lift, they arch their back. Some of the work their bicep is doing, but their lower back is doing a lot of it.
              - failing to fully extend. In other words, whatever the movement is supposed to be, they 
             don't fully extend or bend at their elbow or wrist or shoulder, etc., so that they are only
             partially doing the movement.

·       Both of those mistakes are probably as a result of lifting too much weight. There is always a desire to add weight, both for the sake of vanity, and to increase the strain on your muscles. But, many people, particularly men, just use too much to begin with.  Just this one change would make a world of difference to many people.

·       That being said, you have to be careful not to extend your body past a safe range of motion either. Shoulders, as I have found to my despair, are especially susceptible. Don't put them back behind your body's axis if you can avoid it. Those little muscles, tendons and ligaments rip and tear easy, and then take forever to repair.

·       I have four little thingees I try and do while lifting weights that I am semi-convinced help.  1. Locking my body so I don't cheat. 2. Squeezing my hands near the pinkies briefly when the motion is completed. 3. For arm exercises, where possible, twisting my wrist during curls, and, 4. Doing odd little exercises to try and isolate various muscles. As an octogenarian friend of mine might say in his own style - Do these things really help me, you ask the universe?  And the answer comes back --  I have no idea.

·       Many middle aged men are very susceptible to the injury known as tennis elbow. My injury came from a momentary lapse in concentration during a set (probably too much weight, also) and foolishly hanging onto the weight until my friend could grab it instead of letting it fall. But I have met any number of men in their 50s who suffer from it without going through any trauma.

·       Classes can be great. Why don't men do them? I've taken a number of them and have often been the only man, sometimes one of a few, to take them.  Some of them these days are known by their abbreviations. I have my own collective abbreviation, PSLH - Pain, Self-loathing and Humiliation. That's because, often due to my funny leg, I am just awful at whatever the class is doing (particularly if there is rhythm involved) and it not only friggin' hurts, but pretty much makes me feel terrible about myself. Much as I feel that way, I think it is good for me.

·       I am not though a big fan of the most popular exercise class, Zumba, which is basically a bunch of girls dancing. It doesn't seem to me that it provides much in the way of exercise.  I have met some people who are in horrible shape who do it thinking they are getting a good workout. I also know some women in good shape who tried, and they find it fairly worthless. Naturally, there have to be exceptions.  I would agree it is probably better than nothing, but, not by so much you'd notice a lot.

·       I am a big fan of super-sets. The one muscle group I have deliberately worked on the past year or two are my shoulders, which I felt were too small.  My shoulder workout consists of 31 sets of ten repetitions each. That sounds like it would take a really long time, but I get it done in less than an hour because 12 of them are done in three groups of 4. That is, I do four sets of ten all in a row, without a rest, three times, with short breaks between each super sets.  Those burn, but, they are really good for you, or, so I believe.

·       There is one shoulder exercise I do that I have never seen anyone else perform except the friend who taught me them a few years ago and a couple of women who only use it to warm up using very small weights in their hand. My friend learned it from his physical therapist, who told him it worked interior muscles that aren't very visible.  Yet, I think (definitely not know) that I have had more success with it than any other exercise I've done.  Not sure I can even describe it right, but I'll try. You stand straight up with a fairly heavy weight in one arm. You put your arm holding the weight in an L position - upper arm running along your side and your forearm parallel to the floor with your fist extending forward. In this position your interior elbow makes a 90 degree angle. You are holding the dumbbell with the weighted parts at the top and bottom.  Keeping your elbow pinned to your side (and trying hard not to move your body much -- a little is natural), you then rotate your fist holding the weight outward to the your right (if it's your right hand), ending the swing about even with your shoulder. Your arm is still in an L shape, but your fist is facing to the right.  All this is done without dropping your forearm -- i.e., keeping your forearm parallel to the floor -- and your elbow pinned to your side.  If you have the right amount of weight in your hand, you should barely be able to do ten or so without dropping your arm. I do three sets of those with each hand using a 40 pound weight right now, but I have had to work up from 20 pounds about two years ago. 

·       There's a second group of 3 sets which is the reverse movement. Go back to position one and this time, you swing your arm out just a little, then draw it towards your stomach, again keeping the forearm parallel to the floor.  Same 3 sets of 10 with each hand.  It's not magic, of course, but I really think it helped me a lot, particularly coming back from a shoulder injury.

·       My achievements in working out are not exactly record setting, but, as you age, you have to compete against yourself and have to feel accomplishment doing things you didn't think you were capable of. It is hard not to feel some pride in it, even if the guy next to you thinks you are a girlie man.  I have two such achievements. The first I started doing in Va., being introduced to it by my workout partner, a very athletic young woman, who I felt pulled me along upwards physically as I dragged her down (I did warn her I would corrupt her). These particular exercises she called butt kickers, because they really kick your butt. I did them for about a six months to a year and am sorry I stopped. It goes like this. One squat, one push up, one jumping jack. Then two squats, two pushups, two jumping jacks. You keeping adding as long as you can, repeat the highest number, and then come down. I found this exercise terrifying, afraid to start each time.  Even when I became proficient at them and could get up to 15 up/down with small weights in my hand, I was in a state of stress the entire time thinking that I couldn't do it, not a single one more. What pulls you along? Some goal. Lose weight, look better, feel better, competition?  I don't really know. Why did I stop? First, I lost my partner - who stopped working out for a long time. But, more important -- boredom.  If you do 30 sets of these (15 up/down), that is 240 squats, 240 pushups and 240 jumping jacks -- 720 repetitions. Over six months, 3 or 4 times a week (sometimes in addition to other exercises) -- that is a lot of calisthenics.

·        Again, this is a personal achievement.  Kobe Bryant might be able do them endlessly. I can't. My workout partner could go to 20 and down again faster than I could do 15s and work out on a punching bag waiting for me to finish (after which I would collapse and need recuperation anyway). The reason was not that she did each repetition faster than me, but because she could transition between each one (you had to go to the floor for the pushups and up for the jumping jacks) so much faster. To show you the difference between us, if you go to 20 (up and down) instead of 15, you aren't adding 5 sets, but 5 sets of increasing numbers (16-20). So, if I did 240 of each squat, pushup and jumping jack, she was doing 420 of each - 1260 in all (175% of my effort) -- and again, faster than I could do far less.

·       Of course, I didn't start off doing 15s. I started at 5 going just up (only 33 repetitions) and collapsed, certain that I would never progress. I am not a fan of the power of positive thinking. Expecting failure helps my performance. I'm not sure why. It might be an anxiety reducer. Whatever the case, it just works for me.

·       My second personal achievement came when I moved back to NY. I do what I call the vomit run. There are nicer names I could use - the bluff run, sand run, water view run, etc., but my overwhelming feeling after the first time was the need to vomit (I did have a very rich cupcake just before starting and also used too much bug spray) so that is just the way I think of it. There is a point on Long Island in King's Park where the Nissequoque River runs into the Long Island Sound. There are trails you can hike in overlooking the water.  It is very beautiful. I think one of the very most beautiful spots on Long Island.  Some people refer to it as The Bluffs, because on the Sound side there is a group of sand bluffs running very steeply uphill. They overlook the water and, if you are insane, you can run up them. Of course, they are made of sand, so each step you take you not only sink in, but you slide backwards. It is not that you are running so far, but they are quite steep. The first time I tried I could do it but one time and then collapsed.  Every week I'd add one half lap until I got to four (walking down panting in between). There were more than a few times I worried myself that I was going to have a heart attack.

·        Now, there are people who can run marathons, or a mile in less than four minutes, so I get that this doesn't sound like much of an accomplishment.  But, oddly, it seems that people in much better shape than I can't do it. . I have brought three younger people with me there, all in much better shape than I am, who could not do it twice.  I watched a high school track team try and all but two kids could not make it half way up once.  Obviously, they can run circles around me. I've concluded that it's just really mentally tough and that my success at it is not because it has increased my endurance or strength all that much, but that with progressive training, I have been able to learn to put the anxiety of trying temporarily out of my mind better than they can.   It is so intimidating to look up at the top knowing you are going to try, that it fills me with angst from the minute I leave the house until I finish them, even now that I know I can do it. The only way I could manage was by not looking up the whole run and thinking about anything else but what I was doing -- sports, math, chess, history, The Lord of the Rings, girls, music (I refuse to use an ipod at such a beautiful and peaceful spot). Ironically, because of my leg problems, I cannot run more than a hundred yards or so on a flat surface at a track. Running uphill is a little easier for me because your ankle is automatically flexed when you are going uphill. At the end of my run, it is not my wind that kills me though. My legs become like jelly. One time after I did it I couldn't get up for half an hour.  I have no doubt that if any of others kept at it they would soon easily surpass me, but for them, once was enough.  This I understand.  I am hoping it is helping me because otherwise it is so not worth it.  I went a few days ago for the first time this year and quickly learned, I am starting from scratch. Damn.

·        Last thing. Like with diets, there are often new fads with exercise. One recently a friend of mine, admittedly vastly out of shape and looking for that magic short cut (without doing drugs), he found what is variously called high intensity interval training, sprint interval training or very intense exercise. He admits he is trying it because he wants to find something he will do for a while, and he knows he will not work out for long. It involves just a few minutes once every few days of sprinting for 10 or 20 or 30 seconds with a few short breaks.  As a comparison I put in about 5-6 hours a week exercising. Believe me that 12 minutes or 30 minutes a month seems very enticing. I have read a few of the studies on it and tried it. I don't doubt you can get some results from it, but they are probably not going to be results involving high performance, weight loss or muscle/bone development. The claim to fame of it is that you produce some enzymes that you don't otherwise produce that may be related to fighting diabetes.  I've read some criticisms too that indicate that maybe any gains are very short-lived.

·       Good results for little effort is enticing. But, it is not as easy as it might sound.  As I tried to explain to my friend -- he isn't really doing it. He is running on an elliptical - the easiest device to use -- and he is not exhausting himself for ten-twenty minutes after he is done, which should be what is happening if you are to get the desired results.  In fact, I would bet my bottom dollar, he, and many others who are trying it, are exerting themselves only a little and not near as much as necessary.  You can't neglect working out for so long, and just turn on a switch like that.  

 That'll do it.




  1. I just found a great recipe for barbecue sauce. We will try it out next time you come down. By the way, How's that old guy you visit EVERY morning at the DONUT shop doing?

  2. At first I'm wondering why he is sending me a personal message on my blog like it's facebook. Good thing he knows me well enough to highlight words so I finally got the point.

    Now, now, to be fair to me, it's a bagel store, not a donut shop. The donuts are on the other end of the strip mall and I almost never go there (though I love it so dearly I can't tell you). The internet suggests my breakfast is 300 calories. I count it as 400 to be safe.

    And never said I ate well or right or healthily, though just by cutting down on calories you end up eating more yccchy fruits and vegetables. I try to eat as few calories as I can stand, but in turn, I also try to eat what I like - vitamins, antioxidants, glycemic index, etc. be damned! I could be very wrong, but outside of a minimal amount of nutrients we have to have to avoid disease, I'm not a big believer that we need all the stuff they tell us, or not to eat all the stuff they say don't, so long as you don't eat too much of it. The french toast bagel with a little butter I have every morning helps me psychologially to eat less all day. It's called an eating disorder for a reason, fellah.

    And the old guy is fine.

    Thanks. Always nice to be mocked by you.

  3. You are a regular Jack LaLane.
    Actually I agree with most of your points on working out; my experience has been similar. I also have noticed that juicers tend to have bodies that look better than they perform.

  4. Even dead, Fran├žois Henri LaLanne could pick you up and body slam you for spelling his name wrong. It's TWO n's.

    But probably he'd just sell you a Power Juicer.

  5. I could go for a power juicer.


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About Me

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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .