Something to push against

The author at the gym
Image: Huff
Person in the Image: Huff

Yeah that’s me and no I’m not doing Bane cosplay. It was just the best flu mask I could find before I headed to the gym.

After I had COVID earlier this year something went to work in my brain. Something that’s always been part of me. Best example: Sophomore year in college, late spring, and we were all dreading Music History. That was next up, all junior music majors required to take it. A band guy, brass player whose name I’ve forgotten but I still remember he looked like the Big Boy restaurant mascot but with serial killer glasses and a cheesy ‘stache, looked at me with a serious expression and said, “Don’t worry about Professor Olsen’s class”—the name of that year’s music history prof—“No one passes it the first time.”

The guy wasn’t being a jerk. He was sincere. Yet some alchemy just happened to take place in my brain right then, some combination of moment, mood, mindset. I said, “No one? Ever?”

”Far as I know.”

I took that as a personal challenge. Something to push back against.

Here is the silliest part: I was generally not a great academic student. I majored in music, vocal performance, and I lived for being onstage. I memorized my music early and diligently, always fulfilled my obligations as a singer to the hilt. But a lot of the academic side of music bored me. I was a low B student, basically.

Yet I decided then and there to be one of the best scholars Professor Olsen ever lectured, with his permanent handkerchief held to one side of his permanently leaky left nostril. I did it in anger. I was mad that anyone would dare lump me in with the masses of students in previous years and in years to come.

Junior year rolled around. I was in the class with two of the smartest people I knew, the woman to whom I was engaged at the time and the woman I would break up with her for and end up married to for 8 years. (I get horny for brainy people but refuse to ever use a term like “sapiosexual,” it just sounds…pathological.)

Both young women (52 and 54 today) were dedicated students in general and both were superb writers with razor-sharp, incisive minds. Both had already helped me limp through previous courses we took together. I feel bad about that today but at the same time, it would be 10 more years before I was diagnosed with ADHD.

I did not feel competitive, exactly, with either, but I did decide I would make better grades in this famously writing-heavy music history course than they did. On one hand, I look back today and that’s totally manic. An observer who knew all three of us might have laughed if I’d said that out loud.

I proceeded to do exactly that. At the end of junior year, Professor Olsen told me I was “the most incisive historical mind” he’d taught there, one of the finest writers, and cut out to practice law (he was, oddly, also an attorney). He had no idea what a shitty student I’d been and would be again in the future. And he might have been right about the law, I wondered myself. But just opening the LSAT study book made my eyes cross, so maybe not.

Anyway, I’m indulging myself here, but there is a point—I have frequently shocked myself by accepting a challenge no one even issued just to prove I can conquer it if I want. I remember every one, but the story of music history is the one that I often reflect on.

Sometimes I think catching COVID hit me a bit like that brass player’s laconic challenge. I came out of it saying to myself that I would respect the fact I survived the virus by completing a mission I began in earnest at 44: Making my aging body as ironclad as possible against whatever aging and life throws my way. I don’t have the natural energy to try and get superhuman with it, but now I feel like I did heading into that first history lecture junior year: weirdly assured I can accomplish the vaguely ridiculous goal I have in mind.

I don’t reject aging, that’s not it at all. In fact, since I turned 40 aging has been kind of, well, fun sometimes. I joke about it, but the truth is, I’m strangely proud of already making it this far.

That is, making my body “ironclad” isn’t about reversing the clock of my skin, fading spots or filling wrinkles. It is about making the man the age I am now as strong as he can be.

Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, I may get there.

My Sunday Workout, Posted Mostly To Consistently Post Something

At a certain point in the day on Sundays, especially, I realize if I haven’t gotten a morning run in there is a chance I won’t do anything. So today I groaned heavily, wrote a workout plan and did the following (in sets, not all at once):

  • 100 burpees
  • 50 push-ups
  • 50 squats
  • 50 leg raises
  • 50 curls (with 25-lb dumbbells)

I did the simple, non-push-up burpee, which still incorporates what amounts to a jumping squat, so that was a shitload of squats.

Which is an unpleasant set of words to pack in one phrase, I guess.

Verdict: good calisthenic workout, would use in a hotel room (sans curls) or in jail, I guess.*

Still have all sorts of anger issues and a need to prove myself, but at least I’m too tired to worry about those right now.

*Prison workouts is a whole Thing among home workout/raw/primitive fitness type folks–which honestly makes a lot of sense. Guys come out of lockup racked all to hell and not all facilities have weights anymore. You can, it turns out, get a whole hell of a lot done fitness-wise in a very small space. When you live in one of the most wintry cities in the US like I do, getting out and running every day just isn’t always the best option.

Divisible by Five: A Weird Guy Works Out

If my blog subjects boil down to history, murder and fitness, I guess that’s okay. Whatever, here’s a switch-up from the previous post. This is about how I sometimes like to do workouts designed to be entirely divisible by the number five.

This is called making  my weirdness work for me. I’d stop short of saying I’m obsessed with the number 5. I think I just like the neatness of dividing and multiplying with it.

Anyway, I’m a weirdo and here’s the workout I did tonight. This isn’t a suggested workout. In fact, maybe you shouldn’t try it, since I enjoyed it partly because I set up the whole weird divisible by 5 deal. All that said, I was bushed when I finished.

Equipment used:

THE RACK: Appropriately named after a torture device
THE RACK: Appropriately named after a torture device

I bought The Rack about a year ago. It spends a good part of the week holding up my and my wife’s “clothes not dirty enough to wash that we might wear again this week–in a pinch.” However, I use the damned thing every week for its intended purpose, and I love it for that. Go here to see non-semi-dirty clothes hanger uses for The Rack.

(Not so) Perfect weight vest
(Not so) Perfect weight vest

The Perfect Weighted Vest is not exactly perfect. I bought this to have maximum poundage (40 lbs when all slots are filled), but discovered pretty quickly the design of this vest is such that any kind of fast-moving, complex bodyweight move while wearing it is rendered tougher than it should be because the vest tends to fold and curl. The problem seems to be the flap below the velcro clasp. That said, it does its job, for the most part, which is simply to add weight to make bodyweight stuff even harder than it should be. I’ll probably get a less flappy vest in the future but this is fine for now.

Dumbbells.
Dumbbells.

What? They’re dumbbells. I used two, loaded with 35 lbs.

I set my phone’s timer app for 20 minutes. The vest was loaded with 20 lbs and I wore it for the whole workout. After a 2-minute warmup, I started the timer and did the following:

… Five times through.

I finished the last reps of the final set of Arnolds (named, yes, after Ah-nuld Schwarzenegger) as the timer beeped. This added up to 25 dips, 50 burpees, 25 curls, and 25 Arnolds. All while wearing the 20-lb. vest.

The vest combined with the enforced 20-minute limit made all the difference, I’m certain–especially with burpees. Once I managed to secure the velcro straps well enough that they wouldn’t come undone, every set of 5 felt progressively more brutal and taxing.

And it was all, including the enforced 20-minute time, divisible by five.

Because I’m weird, and I’m fine with that.

Keeping it brief–a dumb post about working out

Image from 12 Minute Athlete
Image from 12 Minute Athlete

When I started exercising regularly again at 43, I quickly learned whatever I thought I knew about fitness in my teens and twenties–and I thought I knew a great deal–was either hilariously limited or just plain wrong.

That is, I had some hardened ideas that were actually working against me. One was the idea that it wasn’t a workout unless you were busting ass for at least 30 minutes. No wonder I’d think about getting back in shape in my late twenties and throughout my thirties, consider how much work I might have to do, and usually decide I had other stuff that might need my attention.

Once exercise did become a habit again, I had to learn that just for purely practical reasons sometimes a workout needed to be short, but hopefully intense. Especially if I wanted to work out frequently. Otherwise, at some point my body would just stall and say NOPE, WE’RE DONE. (It’s done that to me, so I speak from experience.)

Once I learned to love the fast-paced, brief workout, I discovered there are a ton of good resources for them online. Many are CrossFit-related, but there’s also the excellent 12-Minute Athlete, a frequently updated blog that plainly lays out well-balanced 12-minute HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) workouts with simple, pleasing graphics and videos.

All of this is preamble to note the 12-minute workout I did tonight. Even though I’m making it a point to give a shout-out to 12-Minute Athlete, I actually found this on a CrossFit site. Here it is as posted there:

Complete as many rounds as possible in 12 mins of:
8 Burpees
10 Kettlebell Swings, 24/16 kg
12 Air Squats

I used a 70-lb kettlebell but otherwise did the workout as directed and completed 5 rounds, adding up to 40 burpees, 50 swings and 60 squats. And when I was done, I did all the sweating, for a while. It felt like an excellent workout both for the range of muscles hit and for the level of tiredness I felt when done.

I think my point is to recommend to anyone who might read this that if you’re stuck in the old “I MUST DO THIS FOR AN ETERNITY OF SUFFERING” mindset as I once was, well, there are definitely excellent alternatives.

 

Here’s a dumb post about my workout

Periodic table of bodyweight exercises, find it here.
Periodic table of bodyweight exercises, find it here.

I’m finally working on a 6-7 day a week workout cycle. I’d had ambitions to experiment with 100 days straight doing something, but quickly realized that was an amusingly dumb idea. I need to find a certain kind of pace and balance before I murder myself that way. I sometimes like exhausting 90 minute cardio and strength something or others, and no way in hell I can do that for 6 days straight. I may be near that, I don’t know. I mean, I’m in good shape but I’m also still kind of old and fat, so, you know, caveats apply. Today I did do something that was a little different for me and it felt like a pretty (here’s that b-word again) balanced thing to do.

If I’m doing a circuit of bodyweight or kettlebell exercises I normally plan them out informally ahead of time, either off the top of my head or based on something I’ve seen on sites I visit, like 12 Minute Athlete or FitnessBlender. I write out what I plan to do, set my phone’s stopwatch and get busy. Today, rather than focus on reps, I decided to set the timer for 20 minutes then see what I could get done during that time, stopping when the timer buzzed no matter where I was. This wasn’t intended to be any kind of major workout–because I might lose motivation tomorrow if I slammed it today. Like I said, I’m old.

I ended up feeling pretty good and deciding I’d use this as a maintenance workout (as in I just wanted to sweat and work a bit, but didn’t jump up a level) again. Here’s what happened

Timer: 20:00

  • Burpees-8, 8, 8, 6, 6 (36)
  • Push-ups-12, 12, 12, 8, 6 (50)
  • Dumbbell curls, 2 x 25 lbs-6, 6, 6, 5, 5 (28)
  • Assisted pull-ups (see this page, level 3A)-8, 8, 6, 6, then 2 with strict form, no assist
  • Two-handed swings with a 53-lb kettlbell-12, 12, 12, 10, 10.

This ended up being a faster-paced workout than I sometimes do. I was sweating like a pig who just heard the farmer’s wife complaining she’s out of bacon. I think I could up the speed a good deal in the future and add sets. It hit most everything, though, and I don’t feel like completely flopping for the rest of the night.

As an aside–I hate most of the fitness-related writing I find online. I’m not talking about sports journalism; that’s a totally different animal. I’m talking about bloggers and various posts for websites, some of them really popular. Too often the tone is far too “that one gym coach you had in high school whom you plotted to blow up his house.” You know–it’s either frustrated drill sergeant or belittling jock. As in, “HEY PUNK LOOK WHAT I CAN DO CAN YOU DO THIS PUNK WELL, CAN YOU????”

I really want to avoid that when I do choose to write about fitness. If many of the people who take on that sort of authorial tone (honestly, this also applies to a lot of Youtube videos about working out–hell, maybe most of them) truly cared about helping others learn about the benefits of fitness, they’d be way more inviting and accommodating. Maybe shaming a person struggling with their weight and appearance will work for a time, and maybe it’s exactly what some people think they deserve, but it never worked for me, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that. I’ll do my best to not link that sort of thing, save for amusement value.

Supposed to be

Summer, 2010
Summer, 2010

After you turn 40, you’re supposed to graciously give in to gravity. Let the pounds accrue and let your ass gently carve curves in that one special corner of the sofa. After you turn 40, you’re supposed to let the young folks take over and forge ahead and sit back and reflect and plan the rest of the slide. After you turn 40, you’re not supposed to care anymore. After you turn 40, you’re not supposed to give a damn.

Not everyone receives these messages. I won’t claim they are universal, not these days. I can only claim I received them, and by the time I was 42 I’d taken them on as an unconscious philosophy of living. I was doing some things I liked with my life–writing for a living–and my depression could wait. My high blood pressure would succumb to medication, as soon as I found time to get to the doctor.

Then we took our summer vacation trip to Salem, Massachusetts (from Georgia, where we lived at the time) and my wife and I took a lot of photos and videos. We got home and I looked at those videos and I saw the shambling, red-faced, nearly 300-lb fat man in them and thought about how I woke some nights sick from reflux and how a mile walk in 80-degree heat almost made me pass out and I thought, maybe I’ll completely give in. I’ll make it look like I’m trying to fix things and hope the effort kills me.

So the first time I took a walk in the summer heat aimed at ‘starting a program’ I actually hoped I might die. I’ve written this before elsewhere and told people, but I’m convinced their reaction is to think I’m being dramatic. I’m not. I shuffled along those pretty wooded trails in that hilly park by our home in Georgia and by the time I reached a ridge where there was a slight breeze and the peaceful rush of the Big Creek below, I thought, very clearly, hopefully I’ll die here. A man the size I was at the time, with my uncontrolled hypertension, well, I was supposed to die in that situation.

I didn’t, so I tried again. And again. I skipped days and then tried again.

I never even vomited from exertion. I kept dropping weight, and I started feeling, well, better. The exertion, by degrees, began to feel good. I slept better. I made conscious efforts at watching what I ate, then found myself occasionally just naturally gravitating toward the better choices. Somewhere along the way, I stopped hoping I’d die on that ridge with the wind and the creek on either side of me and began enjoying them for what they were.

I encountered condescending, much fitter young people on the trails who gave me smarmy “encouragement” as they dashed past, but sometimes I saw other guys, my age, grinding along like I was. We’d nod grimly and keep moving.

Somehow, I just never stopped. Running and careful eating carved a good deal of the weight away, but at some point after I’d lost maybe 90 lbs. I realized I wasn’t just a runner. My curiosity took hold and I began to study exercise, in a way I’d never really even tried before. I grew fascinated with whatever steps one could take to never have to join a gym. I’m not anti-gym (there’s an old-style gym in the city where I live now I’d still like to check out–“old-style” meaning it caters more to large, solemn men bent solely on lifting very big weights than suburban moms looking to knock off the holiday pounds) but embracing exercise again taught me that I am at heart, like my dad, a born do-it-yourselfer.

With dad, this manifested in various construction projects around the home, some so successful and novel they bordered on genius, others perhaps less successful but still interesting. With me, it began to manifest in figuring out just how much I could do alone.

Today.
Today.

With kettlebells, body weight exercises and (a bit less) running, I dug in, hard. I’m digging still. Here is where I am today. I have never used a trainer, and haven’t joined a gym. I don’t have workout partners. I did this by myself, using excellent online resources like FitnessBlender, articles by kettlebell gurus like Mike Mahler and Pat Flynn and a motley crew of Youtube fitness lunkheads and weirdos, and I’m doing it still.

I haven’t fully conquered everything. Not sure I will. I still fight my weight. It turned out that accumulating 100 extra pounds of fat between the ages of 28 and 43 or so resulted in some pretty damned tenacious fat. There are legitimate (as in I know it’s not just my perception) things about my body I’d still like to change, in general. I still get depressed because depression is an integral part of my makeup and slack–though I’ve found that exercise has become such a hardwired habit for me now that even when depressed, I usually end up doing something.

But whatever I do, I’m going to do it without killing myself. I went from hoping a 2 mile walk on a hot day might put me out of my misery to feeling most alive when I’m buried in a long run or slinging a pretty huge volume of sweat with a 70-lb kettlebell in hand.

I might look angry in the “Today” photo, but I’m not. I’ve learned a different way of looking at things, and mostly taught it to myself. I’m determined. That’s why I wrote this, even though I’ve blogged many of these things either on my Tumblr or in this blog before.

I don’t know what this time of life is really like for other men and women. For some, I suspect the gradual beginning of a certain slowing down is exactly what they need. My own father had worked damned hard, mostly with his hands, by the time he turned 46. It was perfectly okay for a man who’d worked like that to want to walk in and sit the hell down and not move at the end of the day. But my time is different, the world has made a different set of demands on men in my generation. I don’t want to rest yet. I haven’t earned it. I’m pushing ahead. I think that’s how this is supposed to be.

Note, 6/16/2014: I’m grateful WordPress featured this post on Freshly Pressed. I’m also grateful for the comments I’ve received. I don’t often write this kind of thing–my professional writing has mostly been about current events, particularly dark subjects like crime and cyber crime, with some satire on the side–so the idea that this post would be of positive benefit to others is pretty gratifying. Thanks for reading.  

100 Days

This is a real kettlebell. Those ridiculous little plastic kettlebells you see at Target are not kettlebells. This is the business.
This is a real kettlebell. Those ridiculous little plastic kettlebells you see at Target are not kettlebells. This is the business.

On April 17, in one of the several little notebooks I scribble in daily so I don’t actually pester the internet with all my bullshit, I unofficially began a 100-day fitness challenge. It’s unofficial because I’m figuring it out as I go, I guess. I have two goals so far: variety and no rest. That is, I’m not going to skip a day, for 100 days. I typically take 2-3 days a week off. That’s out the door, for a few.

Now, if I was going for 10 mile runs or doing heavy duty kettlebell/strength stuff for 2 hours each day, that’d be an utterly insane goal for a man my age, with some of the medical challenges I’ve had in the past. I’m not that crazy.

I’ll work out at least once a day, and no routine will be shorter than 12 minutes. That may mean 5 straight days of 12-15 minutes of something, each day, but that’s better than nothing. To keep myself honest, I’m noting what I do on paper. That’s also a way to organize the effort and keep it honest on the variety end of things. I’ve found that since I went from just running or walking to body weight, dumbbells and kettlebells, I have favorite exercises and will stick to those if I don’t think too hard about it–when my body might be better served by a wider variety of lifts and moves.

I suppose I just want to see what, if anything will happen. I don’t necessarily feel I’m at a plateau right now or anything, but I do feel a bit slowed, somehow. And there’s something charming in the 100 Days concept, even if I get tired of seeing “inspiring” 100 Days videos posted on Facebook (hell no, I’m not going to make any videos, ew). That’s not the fault of the people using the challenge to achieve something, it’s the fault of our forced inspiration/whimsy internet culture. Which is another subject, entirely.