Friday, November 25, 2016

Keep lifting after the honeymoon phase is over

As princess Irulan, daughter of emperor Shaddam IV Padisha famously states at the beginning of the first tome of Frank Herbert’s Dune, “a beginning is a very delicate time”. Indeed, in my bookish childhood beginnings were a dreary business. Every time I immersed myself in a new book (that was many times a week) I had to first find my bearings. I read mostly fiction then, and a good deal of science-fiction, and God knows that science-fiction beginnings are dazzling and confusing and disorienting. It’s not just entering in a new place, populated by people you still don’t know anything about, but on a whole new universe where the usual laws of physics may not entirely apply, where societies are systematically imagined to work differently (but in the end not that differently) from your own, and where customs and mores and unspoken assumptions can’t be relied upon to guide you through the plot.  

To this day, acquiring a new skill is a bit like starting a new book: you feel clumsy and insecure, you soon realize you are woefully inadequate to perform it, especially when compared with more experienced practitioners, and there seem so be an unbridgeable chasm between what you can actually achieve and your aspirations. As the traditional wisdom would have it, if you persevere and keep honing your ability, you end up having a reasonable level of mastery, and you can actually start enjoying the application of such skill. Be it writing poetry, reading in a new language, playing a sport, developing web pages or drawing comics, what I’m essentially saying is that beginning sucks, but overcoming such sucking enables the patient practitioner to reap the rewards of his application and become that “better version of himself” that so many times I’ve propounded as the ultimate finality of human life.

As an aside, there are a couple activities where the beginnings are not that tough, and for some they may even result to be even more enjoyable that what comes after. The first of them is dating: when we start going out with a new prospective couple everything is peaches & cream. Everything the other person says or does is charming, amusing, interesting and a source of endless fascination. Her utterances and comments and suggestions are deep and thoughtful. Her face is an inexhaustible well of wonder, each gesture and countenance a trove of suggestions, of rich signals to be deciphered and treasured. If she happens to smile, or even more to openly laugh, what a joy, what inexpressible happiness and exultation! But as is well known, after a (sometime shorter, sometimes longer) period of time the initial wonderment wears off and the relationship has to either find a more stable, better rooted footing or wither away, to be replaced  by some new one (and we all know of people that seem unable to make their relationships grow beyond that first phase of elation and settle in a more sustainable and mature form).

The second kind of activity blessed by nature with an easy beginning, I will argue, is lifting weights. And as with relationships, it is likely to be followed by a more mature, more stable phase when there is not so much exultation and fun but, if pursued consistently, is apt to give us much firmer benefits. Now some readers may argue that the beginning of a lifting career is not that different from other complex pursuits, as we soon realize we are not that skilled, and definitely not that strong to begin with. BS, I say. Most moves are so easy a kid can learn to do ‘em in a technically sound way in 10 minutes (believe me, not only did I learn myself in such a timeframe -and I’m no genius of kinetic self-awareness- but I’ve taught my own kids to do it without much fuss), and every session brings with it the wonder of being almost effortlessly able to move more total weight than the previous one. A most exhilarating feeling, as becoming gradually (but sure-footedly) stronger is a solid foundation for a host of additional pleasurable and rewarding mental states (more self-confidence, better ability to do in a sustained way difficult thing, more tolerant to pain and discomfort, etc.)

But like in sentimental relationships, there comes a time when it is just not so fun anymore, when the prospect of going to the gym and complete the planned schedule does not fill you with joy but either leaves you somewhat indifferent or, worse, what it fills you with is dread of how difficult and painful and exhausting it will be. My contention, and what this post will argue for, is that such wholly expectable moment has to be overcome, for it is by overcoming it that we not only become better persons, but learn a valuable lesson that unlocks additional possibilities of personal growth and improvement.   

First, let’s take a look at the underlying cause of most people disenchantment. When we start lifting progress comes naturally and easily (as every experienced coach say, at the beginning almost everything “works”). Making a weak and detrained person half strong is comparatively easy, as long as you do not prescribe some utterly asinine program based on an excessive volume (or highly ballistic moves that can prove dangerous and lead to injury), regardless of age.  As long as you do not expect a 90 year-old lady to do full snatches on her first day, or ask a detrained guy of any age to do 10 sets of 10 reps each of half a dozen moves, they will be OK, and will improve from one session to the next. Some will do it at a slower pace, some will do it by leaps and bounds (young females and, especially, young males become stronger just by breathing, eating normally and sleeping well, so if you add a few compound movements it’s amazing how insanely strong they can become really fast) but all and every weak human beings have the potential to gain some strength no matter how asininely they are coached (unless they get injured, of course, so the basic boundary to effectively train them is “do not do stupid shit that can get them harmed”).

But after a few months (or may be quite a lot of months, if progress has been slower) people are more than halfway in their way to reaching their full genetic potential (a somewhat slippery concept, but bear with me for a while) and can be considered to have overcome their novice phase (that phase has a very precise meaning in Mark Rippetoe’s terminology, which we will come to in a moment). That means that to continue progressing it is not enough to do just any combination of sets and reps of nay move. Recovery within each training session, and recovery between sessions become a priority (more so the older the trainee), and if things are not balanced properly it is very common to stop progressing altogether: too much volume and little recovery and instead of being stronger and moving more weight every single day you find that what you could lift a week ago feels like it is stapled to the ground. Reduce the volume substantially and increase the rest periods (decrease frequency substantially) and you meet the same result. What gives? No wonder a lot of people in forums and seeking advice end up thinking that this lifting thing is an arcane science (or more like a dark art) that requires paying some guru a lot of moolah to be able to keep on adding a few paltry grams to the bar.

And when the required effort keeps on increasing whilst the measurable improvements keep on becoming smaller and smaller (the almost omnipresent law of diminishing returns) it is not surprising that so many people quit entirely, and stop lifting altogether. Hell, even some of the greats turn to other interests (there is a very specific transition from lifting for “performance” to lifting for “aesthetics” that take many former powerlifters to end up in bodybuilding shows which I found deeply disheartening, but I will not go into such deviancy for now) as finding the willpower to keep on punishing oneself in the gym after many years in the iron game is understandably difficult, and that’s why you see comparatively few people able to squat over 400 pounds or deadlift over 500 (something that, according to Justin Lascek, any healthy male who puts his mind to it should be able to accomplish). When it starts being difficult to further approach those numbers, they raise the foot from the gas pedal, and when understandably the car slows they let it stop altogether and divert their straying attention to other pursuits, like Pilates or Zumba, “toning” their muscles, “leaning” and other sorry excuses for working less hard and not having to push themselves so hard.

Well, I’m not here to criticize anybody, but I will say this: lifting heavy weights beats, hands down, any other form of physical activity. I’ve played rugby (great for conditioning, and much, much more fun), I’ve run until my reconstructed knee told me in not uncertain terms to shove it, I’ve shot putted (which is really a lot of heavy lifting plus jumping oddly with a cannonball that then you let go a couple times a week) and cycled and swum and rowed and skied and skated, and let me inform you they are not even close. Any other activity is probably funnier, and as such I fully understand it can be a deeper source of joy and contentment for many. That is not what I’m arguing about. But if you want to be “fit” (whatever that means), if you want to ensure you fully function as a normal human being is intended to function (with well-oiled joints, reasonably strong and balanced muscles for moving thick, dense bones around them and a sense of balance and coordination to direct them) there is simply no substitute to lifting repeatedly a heavy barbell, in “big” compound movements that involve most of the body, and doing it frequently. Again, I’m not saying swimming, or running, or cycling are not great exercises. They are, and chock full of benefits for your body and most likely for your mind. Hell, even Zumba and Pilates, which I can not help but see as glorified versions of 70’s aerobic and old school calisthenics beat by a mile stayin’ in the couch watching TV and eating Doritos all day. And if that is what makes you tick, by all means go for it. But just don’t think you are making the most efficient use of your time (and especially, don’t try to proselytize me into following your latest fitness trend, thank you very much). Not that everything must be decided based on efficiency, and as I’ve said a number of times now, if balancing on a Bosu ball with pink dumbbells in your hand is what lights your candle, have at it to your heart’s content.

Obviously, I’ll stay lifting, and lifting frequently, and going heavy now and then, and for sure “pushing it” well beyond the point of noticeable discomfort (and every now and then right into the realm of all out effort, and occasionally in that of questionable sanity). And hope to counteract the unavoidable setting in of old age ‘til the day I croak, not necessarily setting new PR’s (unless I start using the Sinclair coefficient for calculating it, but I’ll still wait a few years for that) but programming my lifts judiciously so I can keep on improving, no matter how hard it is (no matter how dark an art I have to learn in the process) until that very last day. A few pieces of advice for those who are, like myself, past their prime years and thus need to apply some sound judgment:

·           Don’t get too obsessed about sets and reps and percentages of 1RM. If you have been some years in this game you already know what your body tolerates and what you can get away with. Periodize and program some undulation (start your “waves” with more reps with less weight, and slowly add weight while reducing reps per set… when you reach a high enough number start again, if possible slightly higher) but leave yourself some leeway to accommodate changes in your baseline strength

·         Be consistent, but don’t get obsessed about it. Allow for some slippage in your schedule caused by more load at work, bad sleep because of the kids, longer intervals due to attending family events, etc.

·         As you grow older, it may be advisable to notch the intensity down a bit. Still go heavy now and then, push it when you feel like it, but don’t impose on you many sessions above 80-85% furthermore, 85% of a 500 pounds DL is significantly more taxing than 85% of a 300 DL (Duh!) You should be pretty strong by now, that level of strength only grows when used judiciously, not so much when called upon frequently with no rhyme or reason

·         Assume that it may take longer to recover from the same effort you recovered easily from just a few years back. Specially from moves with a marked eccentric component. Heck, I’m talking about squats. Low bar back squats can be wrecking (again, not exactly big breaking news here), so as you will be doing them (heck, what kind of program does not include lots of heavy squats? A shitty program, that’s what!) you better program some extra recovery measures afterwards (be it foam rolling -which, btw, has never done anything at all for me- deep tissue massage, or plain ol’ eating a ton of carbs)

·           Probably it pays to break your training in more sessions of shorter duration. Instead of very depleting couple of full body sessions twice a week, of almost two hours each it may pay to do four sessions of 50’ in which you stay focused from the beginning to the end, and instead of leaving the gym like the cast of The Walking Dead (and I’m not talking of the “live” part of the cast that tries to escape from the zombies here) leave sprightly and full of energy, itching to come back for more as soon as you can, but…

·           Pay attention to your joints. Past certain age, I’d be surprised if you don’t have at least one or two ligaments and tendons either surgically replaced or chronically inflamed or at least giving frequent and clear signals of protesting all the abuse you have heaped upon them. Be gentle to them and accept that you better be picky and take some aggravating exercises off the menu, rather than keep pushing beyond the point of no return. And frequent training seems to make that condition worse (unless you choose the exercises in each session to provide for adequate rest of the aggrieved joint), so balance your programming accordingly

Just apply some common sense and you may enjoy a long, productive lifting career. I’m not telling you following those simple rules will ensure you become your country’s IPF champion and/ or record holder, but they sure can make you have a physically more rewarding, fuller life. And that, my friends, is what a life well lived should be about. 

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