Sunday, June 5, 2016

Everybody knows all there is to know about lifting

I was out on a fine Illinois morning lifting in my garage when a young guy came by selling bug extermination services. He saw that I was lifting weights.

"So, getting a workout in?" he says.

"Yes," say I, always charming and ready to talk to strangers.

"Do you compete?"

"Yes. Powerlifting." I hope my taciturnity will get him to leave.

"Cool," he says, nodding. "I used to do a bunch of that powerlifting stuff myself."

"Is that right?"

"Yeah. What lifts do you guys do?"

At this point it's clear that he doesn't know what he's talking about. He is like many other people who think that they know all about weightlifting, because they used to go to the gym, or they've read an issue of Muscle and Fitness, or they've got a buddy who taught them how to bench press once.

I've met lots of people who dismiss my chosen avocation with an airy wave of the hand and an "I used to do that. Heck, I squatted 300 once!" Often this is followed with a "Be careful! You'll hurt your knees/back! I know a guy who blew out his knee squatting!"

Never mind that I've done quite a bit of study and logged many hours coaching the barbell lifts, or that I've been on staff for Starting Strength seminars: they've got knowledge to equal mine!

Consider whether you would do this with your doctor or lawyer. "Yeah, I know all about medicine. I once had a cut and closed it with super glue!" "Oh, I know all about the law. I read a contract once. Even signed it in the right places!"

In medicine and law you seek competence. In strength training, most people are content to rely on a few tips from their buddy. Is it any surprise that most people don't get good results?

Find a competent coach and pay what it takes to get the coaching. You can find a Starting Strength coach at

Monday, April 25, 2016

Forth Eorlingas! Get under the bar!


Indulge a lengthy quote from The Lord of the Rings:

“Now Théoden son of Thengel, will you hearken to me?” said Gandalf. “Do you ask for help?” He lifted his staff and pointed to a high window. There the darkness seemed to clear, and through the opening could be seen, high and far, a patch of shining sky. “Not all is dark. Take courage, Lord of the Mark; for better help you will not find. No counsel have I to give to those that despair. Yet counsel I could give, and words I could speak to you. Will you hear them? They are not for all ears. I bid you come out before your doors and look abroad. Too long have you sat in shadows and trusted to twisted tales and crooked promptings.

Théoden was an old king, sitting in his hall, despairing of the world. He was easy prey to evil advice, and thought that all hope was gone. A convenient counselor told him that all hope was gone. He sat in the dark waiting to die.

There is an old man, well-loved by me, who has been sitting on his couch despairing of his health. He has avoided exercise because “it hurts”, and resisted my arguments that he needed to get stronger because he was worried about getting hurt. A convenient doctor told him not to lift. He preferred to sit and decay.

Now he has fallen and broken his arm, and I’m angry. Broken bones in the elderly are quite often the prelude to the spiral of morbidity, and this could be it. But it didn’t need to be this way! His weakness is entirely self-chosen. Sarcopenia and osteoperosis, the loss of muscle and bone, are not inevitable, but happen because we get old and quit doing things that require muscle and bone. We tell ourselves or let our own Gríma Wormtongues tell us that we are too old, that days of vigorous physical activity are behind us, that we might break or get hurt. Fear then makes us weak.

In the book, Théoden is nearly overwhelmed by the darkness of the world, but Gandalf says “Your fingers would remember their old strength better, if they grasped a sword-hilt.” The king then ends his life in strength and glory rather than in darkness. May I suggest you could be the same, if your fingers grasped a barbell?

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Wasting Time in Kentucky

A sweet lamp at the entrance of the gym
My family and I recently took a short vacation in Kentucky. It's a favorite getaway of ours, close enough to drive in a day and far enough south that we can taste an early spring. This year was no exception. It was a delightful trip.

I'm preparing for a meet in a few weeks, and I had to find a place to train. I found a place not too far away that was kind enough to give me a week's pass. I got two good sessions in. In the process, I got to see what goes on in a commercial gym.

On two beautiful Kentucky spring afternoons, I saw lots of people come to the gym. This is good and shows dedication. These are people who are serious about exercise, at least serious enough to get in the car and come to the gym. Once there, they proceeded to waste all of their time.

I saw the following:

  • Biceps curls
  • Preacher curls
  • Bench presses (partial ROM)
  • Incline bench presses (partial ROM)
  • Lateral dumbbell raises
  • Long, slow cardio
  • Behind the back forearm curls
What I did not see:
  • Squats, deadlifts
(Full disclosure: three people did reasonable attempts at squats, but they were a rare exception.)

All of the lifters were weak. Most of them were skinny. One poor boy had his father instructing him. Dad gave him a series of biceps curl variations to do. For two hours! 

Gym time is precious. Most of us can't spend all day there. Wouldn't you like to get the biggest bang for your buck? You get bigger and stronger faster if you do full-body moves with lots of weight. In other words, squats, deadlifts, presses, bench presses, and power cleans. The curling kid could have done 3x5 on the squat, 3x5 on a press, a set of deadlifts, and then stopped for a gallon of milk on the way home in half the time he spent curling. He would have gotten much more benefit as well. 

They could all have trained more efficiently, gotten more benefit, and then could have enjoyed the rest of what their fair state has to offer:

Friday, January 1, 2016

New Year's Resolutions and the Cheshire Cat

So the New Year is here. What are you going to do about it?

If you are anything like me, you have a history of failed resolutions. Anything from losing weight, to learning Greek, to being a nicer person--I've failed at lots of things. I think the reason was that I went about it in the wrong way. I didn't think clearly about where I wanted to go.

Do you remember Alice in Wonderland? Alice meets the Cheshire cat, and asks for directions.

'Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?'
'That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,' said the Cat.
'I don't much care where--' said Alice.
'Then it doesn't matter which way you go,' said the Cat.
If you don't have a clear idea of where you are going, you won't get there. A vague resolution is easy to make and easy to abandon, because there aren't any real metrics to know how well you are doing. Lose some weight? Ok. Eat this donut? I can have one donut, can't I? It won't bust my vague goal to lose some weight. A specific goal, on the other hand, allows you to formulate specific steps to reach it. Rather than "learn Greek" or "be nicer", I should pick something like "read Iliad Book 9 in Greek" or "volunteer at the local charity three days a month." Now that there are steps, I can do what I need to do to get there. This works in fitness, too. "Get in better shape" is so vague as to be useless. So is "Lose some weight." In addition, a performance-based goal gives you some incentive to do it, since there will be a reward at the end.

I suggest you make clear resolutions this year. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Finish the Starting Strength Linear Progression. DTFP! 
  2. Compete in a meet at a particular weight-class.  
  3. Add 100lbs to your conventional deadlift. 

My goal is to set the Illinois record in 100% Raw Powerlifting for ages 40-44 in the 242 weight class. I've already got the record in 275lb class. I have to do this before my birthday in May. So, when I think of skipping training or eating poorly, I can think of how my goals would be affected, and I'm able to be better motivated.

I've done much better the more specific my goals are. You should give it a try.