Monday, April 30, 2012

Gym Pet Peeves

I notice a lot of things in the gym that make me wonder what the heck people are doing, how they are not injuring themselves, and if they really expect to get fit with poor exercise choices.  Sometimes I think that we as a society have become clueless about physical culture.  Then I see a few people who look like they are training smart, and my faith in humanity is restored.  On the other hand, there are still those irritating things in the gym that annoy me.  Here are a few of them:
  • Stupid [mis]use of equipment.  You've seen it before.  You may even have been guilty of it before.  I'll admit, I've done some of stupid things in the gym before.  Stupid equipment use is forgivable once you've educated the offending party, but it still annoys me every time I got to the gym because it's so prevalent.  What am I talking about?  It's things like:
    • Curls in the squat rack.  Do your curls somewhere else.  It's far more important that I have some safety precautions when I'm loading up a heavy bar on my shoulders for squats than it is for Mr. Must-Admire-My-Biceps to do 65lb vanity curls (which he apparently is too weak to just set down on the floor when he's done but must instead drop the weight loudly on the rack while grunting).  I got so frustrated by this phenomena, I started just grabbing the Olympic bar and bumper plates and cleaning the weight off the floor to do front squats.  That way I wouldn't need to wait an eternity for a squat rack.
    • Asinine exercises on the Olympic lifting platform.  Lo and behold jackasses are out to thwart me in my attempt to get my squats done without a rack.  I sometimes have to wait for the Olympic platform because someone is doing concentration curls, dumbbell bench press, or some other equally asinine exercise better done elsewhere.
    • Using an Olympic lifting bar for bench press.  After waiting for the Olympic platform, I often have to track down the Olympic lifting bar (with the smooth rotating sleeves) because it's usually on a bench press.  There is no advantage to benching with the Oly bar since the free rotation of the weight destabilizes your wrists with pressing movements, making it more likely that you'll lose control of the bar.  Brilliant use of the Oly bar.
    • Curls and upright rows with kettlebells.  Really?  You need a kettlebell for those exercises? There's absolutely nothing else in the gym better suited to those exercises?  I mean, don't mind me while I change my swing and snatch workout to something different because you need the kettlebells for your dumbbell workout.  And please, feel free to do those exercises on the Olympic platform.  I didn't need that either.
    • Bumper plates as platforms.  Yes, I really have seen this, and on more than one occasion.  Some people apparently think that the bumper plates are the perfect tool for sticking under their heels to do squats, for adjusting their height for a lift, and even box squats.  They couldn't just use regular weights which are all over the gym, those step class platforms, or even the friggin' plyo boxes.  They must specifically grab the rubber bumper plates because there are only a few of them, so they must be special and perfectly suited for use for rack pulls, elevated heel squats and box squats.
  • Not putting weights back.  Some people seem to think that the gym is there for their private use.  They take 12 dumbbells for their curl and shoulder flye marathon, and never put the weights back.  Or they load up barbells with weights and never take the weights off.  That second inconsiderate act is sometimes mitigated by the fact that their max weight is around what I planned on warming up with.  The truly strong lifters have generally (though not always) learned enough etiquette that I don't have to put away all their weights before I can start my workout.
  • Not putting other equipment back.  This actually doesn't happen as often as the other ones since most people either head straight for the cardio machines or lift weights.  But every so often, I go looking for a foam roller, Swiss ball, etc. and I can't find it.  Why?  Because someone took it out on to the main gym floor somewhere and just left it there.  Apparently the lazy slobs think their mothers work there and will pick up after them.
There are other things that annoy me, but don't directly affect me.  These things I feel annoyed for others on their behalf.
  • Clueless trainers.  If I walk into a gym and feel like I've spent a lot more time getting educated on exercise and fitness than the trainers, my respect for the gym and the trainers takes a plunge.  I'm not certified to train clients.  Trainers are, and they are supposed to be paid professionals.  I only read about fitness for fun in my limited free time and didn't get an education about how to train people.  If I know more than the trainers, that doesn't reflect highly on their competence.
  • Weak trainers.  If a trainer doesn't have baseline level of fitness, I find it hard to take him or her seriously.  Sure, I'll accept that a trainer doesn't have to look like a shredded beast.  But let me give you a few examples.  I've run into a young male trainer who could not do a single pull up.  That's inexcusable.  Another instance, I observed a trainer practicing Turkish getups and later teaching them to a client.  That would be a positive in most situations, except for the fact that he was butchering the form and struggling with a 10 lb dumbbell.  If a supposedly fit male trainer cannot just power 10 lbs off the floor (even with no clue about proper form), that's pretty weak.  I'm pretty sure that even my 100 lb mother can get 10 lbs off the floor from a supine lying position.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The $50 home gym

I recently read a post on Gimundo about building a $50 home gym, which I found to be.... well, utter crap. I guess the suggestions are ok for someone looking to just start moving, but I personally can't imagine anyone achieving anything beyond mediocre fitness with a suggestion of exercise videos, balance ball, and 3 lb hand weights (really, 3lbs?!? Are we so weak that we shoot for weights lighter than some of my textbooks?). Here's what I suggest for a $50 home gym.

  1. Bodyweight (absolutely free!) - You can do plenty of resistance training, running, calisthenics, yoga, etc. with just your own bodyweight. Pushups, pullups, situps, dips, inverted rows, hand walkouts, planks, side planks, lunges, squats, burpees, etc. are all easily done with no gear or just stuff around the house. If you get serious about getting strong, start getting exotic with handstand pushups, pistol squats, planches, and variety of lever static holds.

  2. Jump Rope ($5-$15) - If you've never skipped rope, you don't know just how bad your cardio conditioning really is. A basic speed rope (and a good pair of padded shoes if you're jumping on a hard surface like concrete) is all you need for one awesome cardio workout that hits most muscles of your body. Of course, it might take a couple of weeks of practice to get the rhythm and coordination. Add a few months if you want to learn fancy rope turning tricks.

  3. Furniture Sliders ($10 for a 4-pack) - If you've got carpet, you can do a ton of bodyweight exercises with these bad boys. If you've got hardwood or linoleum, go even cheaper and use towels as your sliders.

  4. Exercise Bands ($15-$30) - You wouldn't think that big rubber bands would give you a good workout, but you would be oh so wrong in your assessment. You won't need too many to start with. The heavy duty bands can give a lot of resistance (like 200+ lbs of resistance). Ebay a set of basic bands. It'll open up a lot of resistance and conditioning exercises that you can do during your workouts.

  5. Foam Roller (~$20) - Most of us have crap soft tissue quality. Loosen up your upper back, glutes, IT band, etc. with a foam roller. Your IT band will probably hurt like hell the first time you roll, but you'll feel better in the long run. Look at it as a poor man's massage. If you're super-cheap (and masochistic), just use a tennis ball or lacrosse ball and skip the foam roller.

    Start a love-hate relationship with your roller.

There you go. You could theoretically get everything for under $50 if you shop smart. Drop the exercise bands, and you can definitely stay under $50. Skip the workout videos suggested in the Gimundo post. You can learn to use your cheap home gym effectively with youtube videos and save the cash for something else.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Jump rope notes: Buddy Lee replacement cords and cable rope

Replacing my Buddy Lee rope cord

I finally managed to snap the cord on my Buddy Lee rope. It took me about three years, but I finally wore through the cord. All things considered, that's not too bad. I chew through the cheap ropes when I get in a jump rope conditioning phase, though I guess I mostly break those ropes at the handles.

The snapped Buddy Lee cord

I was just going to buy a new cord. An attractive feature of my Aero Speed rope is that the cord is replaceable. And it's reasonably priced at $5. That's when I got the sticker shock of the shipping and handling charges. $15 for shipping and handling is a bit excessive. How expensive can it be to stuff a cord into an envelope and drop it in the mail? Just on principle, I refuse to buy something where the shipping and handling is three times the cost of the product, especially when that said product is a plastic cord. That's $20 for a new cord. For that price, I'm most of the way to buying a whole new jump rope (the Rope Master is $28).

Being the stingy bast... errr... I mean, frugal person that I am, I decided that there must be a Home Depot solution for my problem. I remember reading that someone had made their own jump rope from PVC pipe and laundry line. I checked out the laundry line, and lo and behold the inner diameter of the laundry line was close enough to the original cord to be workable.

Laundry line = jump rope replacement cord

The tough part about using the laundry line as a replacement cord is that the laundry line has wire running through the middle of the vinyl sheath. It takes a bit of jiggering, but you can get the screw tip of the jump rope handle swivel bearings to insert into the vinyl sheath just off center from the wire. After a bit of turning, you can attach the laundry line to the Aero Speed handles just like the original cord. Getting the cord attached to the swivel bearings is a bit of a hassle, but it's totally doable. You just make sure to measure the cord to the right length. I cut the cord too long and had to repeat the process of screwing the cord to the swivel bearings several times as I adjusted the cord length.

Replaced Aero Speed cord... now it's green!

How does it work? Actually, surprisingly well. I can get similar speed as I was getting with the original cord. It's a bit more tiring to turn the cord since it's a little heavier with the wire running down the center, but I consider that a bonus. The added mass also means I'm just as careful about wearing shoes with this cord. I do sometimes miss and catch the rope on the feet. The extra heft of the rope means those misses sting more now. The clothes line cord holds its shape a little better, so I seem to recover better when I occasionally miss slightly and snag the rope on my heel. The flip side to that is that the rope is a little less flexible than the original cord. You have to be a little more precise in your timing of crossing the rope since it's not quite as responsive as the original rope. Again, I consider this a bonus. My technique has to be a little cleaner when I cross the rope, so I'm paying more attention to my jump rope workouts.

Replacement cord test

Note on cable cord jump rope

I tried my buddy Kevin's cable speed rope this weekend. While I don't regret getting my Aero Speed, if I had to do it over again, I'd probably seriously consider a cable rope instead. I can actually get the cable rope turning faster, which provides a better cardio and foot speed workout. I nearly got a triple under with the cable rope, and I could still do all the rope crossing steps. The only downside to the cable rope is that it's a thin wire that moves really fast. If you miss, you're going to have red welts (so you learn quickly not to miss... :).

Friday, March 12, 2010

Weight training and bone density

Conventional wisdom tells us that weight training increases bone density (ex. here and here). The force of your muscles moving a load stresses the bones slightly and causes them to grow back stronger. That's a decidedly good thing, at least assuming that you don't do anything really (excuse the pun) bone-headed like lift weights you're not ready for or do exercises with terrible technique. Imagine my surprise when I catch this bit of news: "Weight-bearing exercise does not prevent increased bone turnover."

My response to that headline was bafflement. I thought there was going to be some crap study on how weight bearing exercise didn't do anything for your bone health. Turns out that it's a study about how jogging and walking don't mitigate the increased bone turnover that occurs during weight loss. Apparently, you have increased bone remodeling when you drop a lot of weight. This makes inherent sense: less weight = less load on the bones = less stimulation for bone growth. The thing that bothers me with the study is how "load-bearing" exercises are defined. I guess getting my ass up and walking around is technically putting a load on my bones. But it's as much of a load bearing exercise for a normal healthy person as is picking up a remote to change the channel on the idiot box. I'm not sure when "walking" and "light jogging" became considered "load-bearing" exercises. Have we became that sedentary that everyday activities have become tough exercise?

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Home Gym Essentials

Reading through a fitness mag (ok, I admit it, I flipped through my wife's issue of Shape), I came across an article about equipping a home gym. As expected, I found half the suggestions to be ludicrous. I was quite amused that the bigger budget home gyms had a treadmill and elliptical trainer--two pieces of equipment I think are completely unnecessary for a home gym. I was likewise amused at the suggestion of the perfect pushup device; rotating handles for pushups are overrated and not worth $30. But the article, as silly as it was, did get me thinking about what equipment I would put in my home gym.

I actually do go to the gym since it's free for me (one of the perks of being married to an academic), and I often workout outdoors. I do however recognize that it's still useful to have some equipment at home for working out. Here's what I came up with:


  1. Jump rope - a $5 speed rope is sufficient for a fabulous cardio workout that will work your legs, core, and arms. If you want to splurge, you can get a $40 Buddy Lee Aero Speed.
  2. Gymnastics rings or suspension trainer - I'm a big fan of bodyweight resistance training. A TRX trainer is a pretty versatile piece of training equipment that you can use to hit basically every part of your body. You can also go the DIY route if you don't want to spring the cash to buy the commercial product. Gymnastics rings (like Elite Rings or Xtreme Rings) are similarly fantastic total upper body workout.
  3. Resistance bands or tubing - Elastic bands and tubing are really versatile and just as challenging as weights once you get bands/tubes thick enough. I have trouble even opening my 2.25" inch band. As an added bonus, they take up far less space than regular weights.
  4. Pull up bar - You could technically get by with just some rings or a suspension trainer, but if you opt not to get one of those, you need at least something to pull yourself up on. There are plenty of DIY solutions for this, though commercial products are certainly a viable option.
  5. Foam roller - Keeping your soft tissue healthy is an important part of your training! Tennis balls, lacrosse balls, rolling pins, wood dowels are also acceptable substitutes and complements to the foam roller for maintaining your soft tissue health.

Nice to have

  1. Dumbbells - Weights with handles. They're basic, can be used in many exercises, and can usually be picked up used for pretty cheap. If you want to go fancy, you can even get adjustable weight dumbbells.
  2. Kettlebells - Once you know what you're doing, kettlebells are a great training tool for strength and conditioning. I wouldn't prioritize getting bells like some of the kettlebell fanboys, but they are admittedly versatile and worthy of adding to your fitness gear collection.
  3. Medicine balls - Do twists, slams, throws, or just use them as a weight.
  4. Sledgehammer - Just go the hardware store and pick up a sledgehammer. Find an old tire. Swing at the tire for rounds and intervals until tired. You'll be thoroughly de-stressed and be building a physique with explosive power. Pair the sledgehammer swings (anterior chain) with kettlebell swings (posterior chain), and you have a pretty complete strength and conditioning workout.
  5. Swiss ball (or stability/physio/body/fitness ball) - This isn't a strictly necessary piece of equipment, but it's cheap enough and versatile enough to make it worthwhile. Sometimes you just need to make an exercise slightly unstable to improve your strength levels.
  6. Sandbags, Bulgarian bag (or other odd object weight) - You can easily make these yourself. The non-rigid nature of the bags adds a stability challenge and makes for an effective workout.

Only if you have room and/or discretionary funds

  1. Erg / Rowing machine - Rowing is a great cardio workout that hits the upper and lower body. The machines can be a bit pricey, but can be worth it if you're dead set on working out primarily at home.
  2. Barbell with weights - Again, weights and a handle are pretty basic, but simplicity trumps fancy training in my opinion. I prioritize dumbbells over the barbell since I think dumbbells are more versatile overall.
  3. Power/Squat Rack - If you want to be seriously strong, you'll need to train your legs and squat. You'll probably want some measure of safety when holding heavy weights on your shoulders. As an added bonus, you normally get a pull up bar in a rack. Personally, I prefer going to the gym for the squat racks.
  4. Bench - I like a padded elevated surface for certain exercises. Dragon flags with my shoulders on a hard surface are no fun.
  5. Heavy Bag - Getting my heart rate up while training full body mechanics and hitting something is incredibly fun. I'm always in a better mood after yelling obscenities and pounding the bag. Ok, scratch the yelling obscenities part, but I do feel better from hitting the bag.

I realize my list is highly biased to my own training. I'm partial to bodyweight training, resistance strength training, and interval cardio training. I also really like exercises which I believe have good functional carryover to other activities, which means my equipment choices favor compound and stabilization movements.

I intentionally left the typical cardio machines off the list (treadmill, elliptical, bike), because I think they just aren't necessary. The treadmill and elliptical in particular I don't like. They're expensive to buy decent ones, and have serious shortcomings that preclude them from being regular training tools in my view. Treadmills move your foot back for you and basically give your hamstrings and glutes a free pass during your running. This leads to an imbalance between the quads and hamstrings/glutes. That's a recipe for future knee pain if you do the treadmill all the time. Elliptical trainers tend to put the pelvis in posterior tilt, which is not a postural habit you want ingrained. Modern sedentary life (i.e. sitting desk jobs, sitting in cars, couch lounging, etc) already puts a lot of us in posterior pelvic tilt. Reinforcing that posture during your regular cardio workout is not doing your spine a favor.

I also left off the typical "universal" weight machine you see in a lot of home gyms. They are far too expensive and generally provide sucky versions of all the exercises at each of the stations. Quite frankly, you're better off with either dumbbells and a bench, or a pull up bar and just open floor space.

Anyhow, that's my take on equipping a home gym. I'm sure I left some things off the list, but I think the list is a good launching point.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Making progress with the old man

My dad was never a big fan of my avid interest in physical fitness and physical activities. His attempts to turn me into a nerdy bookworm were only half successful. I did turn out to become a nerd, but he fortunately never succeeded in making me forgo all physical activity to study more. In fact, his constant badgering about me not studying enough probably caused me to rebel and become even more interested in physical fitness. But last night, he didn't poo-poo my fitness expertise like he usually does. Finally, after decades of criticizing me for wasting my time training too much, he finally listened to my advice about exercising.

What happened? Well, my dad retired. You have a lot of free time to fill when you go from college professor to retiree. He took up repairing the house, and like everything else he tackles, he took it up with single-minded vigor. But he neglected to consider that he doesn't have the body of a 20 year old any more, and years of professing while not exercising had taken quite a toll on his physical conditioning. He gave himself tendonitis from gripping and using his tools for too long without sufficient rest.

Then he starts exercising, doing mostly pushups and modified squats. That would be ok, except my dad ignored my advice on correcting his pushup form. He managed to overdo the pushups and strained his shoulder. I suspect (from my attempt to play PT) that he wasn't using his upper back and lats enough to stabilize his shoulders, so he overused his rotator cuff muscles to compensate (guessing he strained his supraspinatus? gotta ask my PT friends to be sure).

After two bouts with injuries, he finally listened to me as I instructed him to do band pull aparts and scapular wall slides to restore proper shoulder mobility and muscle activation patterns. I may try getting him to do a scapula push up and some lat pull down variation, but I don't want to push my luck quite yet. From past experience, my dad doesn't always take too well to having to listen to his son instead of barking out the orders. But I'm pleased I've made this much progress with him. Maybe in another few years, I'll also be able to correct his hip movement dysfunctions.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

2009/12/16: Back on the rings, medicine ball core work

Hopped back on the rings yesterday afternoon after a few weeks off. It's been a little cold, so hanging the rings outside hasn't been happening. At some point, my Floridian senses take over and tell me that freezing temperatures and stiff winds are not good for an outdoor rings workout.

  • wide supports: 3 x 15s

  • iso hold false grip pull ups: 2 rounds

  • archer dips: 2 x 4-6 reps

We also attracted some unwanted attention in the gym for this workout. Hanging the rings seems to always bring people over. Sometimes you meet interesting folks who are curious, and sometimes you run into the people that don't like you doing things that they're not used to seeing. Today was the latter. Fortunately, we weren't being unruly and I can't be kicked out of the campus gym for merely working out. Whew! Saved by the campus ID.

After the main rings workout, we did some core work on the medicine balls. I planned on doing Swiss ball step offs, but we ended up playing around with different medicine ball variations. That ended up being more fun than the step offs.