I am currently on a quest to become a strong and powerful man-beast. Not fucking around. I just sold three spare pairs of running shoes and my Garmin Forerunner 205 on eBay. No more relying on long doses of slow cardio for fitness. I’m all in on lifting weights. Sorry.
To further the cause of total monsterhood, I re-read “Starting Strength” by Mark Rippetoe. It’s the bible for lifters. I say “re-read,” but to say I read it before would be generous. I skimmed it. This time I actually read the damn thing. If you’re at all interested in why and how to lift weights, almost everything you need to know is in there. Interested in why squats are the best of all exercises, or why you should learn to use a barbell and not use weight machines? It’s in there.
I thought I’d share some quotes and thoughts from the book. It won’t all be lifting-centric.
“Exercise” vs. “training”
“Exercise and training are two different things. Exercise is physical activity for its own sake, a workout done for the effect it produces today, during the workout or right after you’re through. Training is physical activity done with a longer-term goal in mind, the constituent workouts of which are specifically designed to achieve that goal. If a program of physical activity is not designed to get you stronger or faster or better conditioned by producing a specific stress to which a specific desirable adaptation can occur, you don’t get to call it training. It is just exercise. For most people, exercise is perfectly adequate – it’s certainly better than sitting on your ass.”
Rippetoe, being a powerlifting coach, doesn’t seem to me to have much use for mere exercise, because he seems to figure1 what’s the point unless you’re going to undertake a journey whereby you get bigger and stronger and move more and more weight up and down and eventually become a competitor. As opposed to lifting weights because you think, what the hell, it’s fun, it makes you fit, and it’s better than a kick in the balls.
I guess by his measures I’m mostly training. I don’t want to compete, but I have long-term goals that I’m training for. I want to deadlift 300 pounds by the end of the year. I’m not going to do that unless I train for it. I’d like to bench press 165 pounds, squat 225 pounds or more, clean and jerk 150 pounds, and get some gymnasticky stuff down, like toes-to-bars and handstands. But I exercise too. I go for short hourlong rucks with a 30-pound weighted backpack just to burn off calories. I guess that doesn’t really have much of an end goal. It’s better than a kick in the balls, anyway.
“A weak man is not as happy as that same man would be if he were strong. This reality is offensive to some people who would like the intellectual or spiritual to take precedence. It is instructive to see what happens to these very people as their squat strength goes up.”
I admit it: Yes.
“Movements that do not contribute to the vertical displacement of the load also represent wasted work capacity.”
And people think lifters are all meatheads.
“We want these exercises to train lots of muscles through a long range of motion. We like it when some muscles are called into function as other muscles drop out of function, and when muscles change their function during an exercise. This is because we are training for strength, to increase the force we produce in a big, general movement pattern; we are not training a ‘favorite muscle.’ We are not concerned with our favorite muscles. We do not have favorite muscles.”
I’ve been wondering why people are so fascinated by biceps. I know it’s a cultural thing, yeah, but why that specific region of the arm? It’s not the only measure of how strong a person is. It’s not even a good one. Let’s say an alien lands on the planet and says, “I’ve noticed you Earthlings value highly roundness and size in the section of your upper limbs between the front of the shoulder and the inside of the elbow.” How do you explain this?
Speaking of favorite muscles…
“The fact is that the dietary habits necessary to sustain about 10% or lower for most people is too low to sustain the metabolic environment required for a novice to gain muscle mass. And 10% bodyfat – if you do not have genetically low bodyfat (you know who you are) – is not healthy; the conditions that are required to produce and maintain it are not compatible with high strength and power performance levels.”
…the abs. Why the fuck abs? Why are most of us people attracted to visible ab muscles? I admit freely that I got excited when I got to the point that I started to see my own abs. But it’s not rational. And why do we consider them a sign of strength? They’re not — not necessarily. They’re vanity muscles. They’re mostly a sign of low body fat. Everyone has abs. You have them. I have them. Your great-aunt Matilda has them. They’re just hidden under the body fat collected around your gut. Drop down to 10% or less body fat, and boom — there are your washboard abs, pretty maids all in a row. That’s the one trick to getting abs. If you want abs, lose body fat until they show up. To repeat: You can do all the goddam crunches or situps or planks or twists or whatevers you want, but if you have body fat around your abs, you’re not going to see them. Abs can’t be seen if they can’t push through the fat over your stomach. If seeing your abs is appealing to you for some reason, you have to lose the body fat covering them first, which is a process that may or may not involve those exercises.2 Then it’s worth it to try to make the muscles bigger.
But his point is, once people drop body fat to that low a percentage, they aren’t as strong as they would be if they had a little bit more body fat padding their muscles and joints and tendons. The really stupidly strong guys out there in the world do not have shredded abs, and are supremely uninterested in ever getting them. They see six-packs as a sign of weakness. Go onto a powerlifting forum and ask what they think about having a six-pack.
His greater point is that if you’re going to exercise hard, you have to eat — a lot. I have a problem with this. Most days I eat way too little. Sometimes my issue is that I get too distracted or busy to eat. Sometimes I worry that if I eat too much, I’ll become a chub again, even though I know it won’t happen. I’m getting past this and working hard, but it’s a daily thing. I didn’t get fat overnight, I didn’t lose fat overnight, and I’m not going to unlearn decades of bad information overnight.
“Starting Strength” has a little info about eating and diet recommendations. Mostly, he advises young skinny boys to drink a gallon of whole milk a day to bulk up for a while, then drop down to a half-gallon. A lot of weightlifting diet advice I’ve read lately tends to be aimed at thin little boys who need to put on weight. I can’t relate. That must’ve been a nice problem to have. He doesn’t have much to say about how a 36-year-old man who wants to lose the sagging remnants of a decades-old gut pouch and build muscle should eat. I mean, he sort of does, but it’s not quite that specific.
“There is simply no other exercise, and certainly no machine, that produces the level of central nervous system activity, improved balance and coordination, skeletal loading and bone density enhancement, muscular stimulation and growth, connective tissue stress and strength, psychological demand and toughness, and overall systemic conditioning than the correctly performed full squat.”
The man loves his squats.
Where am I
“A lack of kinesthetic sense – the ability to identify the position of the body or a body part in spatial relation to the ground or the rest of the body – is very common.”
That’s a nice phrase: kinesthetic sense. Knowing exactly where your body parts are and what they’re doing. I have very little. Sometimes my coaches tell me to move my feet this way, or put my ass down a little that way, or lift my chest like this — and I swear I’m doing it, but I’m actually not. Instead, my feet or ass or chest are just doing the same things as before, but I’m thinking harder.
Add this to the list of things I have to work on.
I don’t have a particular quote for this one, but re-reading “Starting Strength” helped me gain several pounds on my overhead press. If you’re not familiar, that’s a basic barbell lift where you hold the bar up by your shoulders and, without bending your legs or hips or whatever, push the bar up overhead until your elbows are straight. For a long time, I was stuck at 85 pounds, which isn’t very much at all for a man my size.
When I finally finished the squats chapter of “Starting Strength” (it’s wicked long) and read the press chapter, I suddenly realized I had been doing presses wrong all that time — or, not wrong exactly, but not optimally. I wasn’t keeping the barbell over my mid-foot, which is my center of mass, so I was creating extra work for myself. It’s a lot easier to hold something heavy directly over your head than it is to hold it overhead and 2 inches forward or backward, because then you have to hold it up there and out there instead of just up there. I also wasn’t holding the bar with the strongest part of my hands, and I wasn’t driving the bar up and getting under it.
It’s a lot to think about for a simple thing of taking a bar and putting it over your head. But I started thinking about it. When I set my 85-pound max in January, my next goal had been 90. I didn’t expect much. The other day, thanks to training and a few helpful tips, I pressed 100 pounds over my head. Boom.
When I ran, I spent a lot of time figuring out how and when to breathe (answer: deeply, all the time). This took more work than you’d think. I had a nasty habit of holding my breath when trying to run, which became problematic around mile 12, if not much, much sooner. Eventually I got better about taking in oxygen once in a while.
Now that I lift weights, I have to unlearn what I learned. You’re not supposed to breathe on big lifts — you’re supposed to take a big breath, lock down your midsection, and hold that breath until you complete at least a full rep. It’s called the Valsalva maneuver, and Rippetoe spends a lot of time talking about why it’s good for you and supplying all kinds of medical and biological evidence. He spends a lot less time talking about blacking out because you’re holding your breath under extreme exertion3, mentioning that this can be unsafe if you faint while under a heavy bar, but just make sure to fall in the right direction and you’ll be fine because generally it’s no big deal, at which point I said “What the fuck” at the book and “Seriously?” and “That kind of sounds like a big deal” — but hey. He’s the expert, not me.
I’ve started trying it, and it definitely seems to help move the bar. I’m not going to go until I black out, though. If I feel swimmy headwise, I’m breathing, I don’t give a shit. *
- I assume. I might be putting words in his mouth here, but that’s how it came off to me. If that’s not true, it’s my fault. I don’t want to cross him. He’s a big guy. ↩
- Probably not. Instead, it will mainly involve eating right. ↩
- “Vasovagal syncope,” he notes helpfully. Good to know so you sound smart at the ER. ↩