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Hit The Gym, Phase Two (continued from First Edition)

April 2002 Second Edition

So now I know I must exercise, or Iíll end up looking like a giant day-old microwaved potato; or Iíll end up like my hero, lying in a hospital bed with little metal tubes stuck in his blood vessels, giving himself insulin injections. Iím smart and realistic enough to know I donít have absolute control of my genetically-determined destiny, but I know that I can affect a good deal of what my health and what my life will be like twenty years from now. I know what exercise is, or more importantly, what it isnít: I canít sweep out the garage, or re-enact a fight scene from The Matrix with my son, and call it exercise. So now I must pick an exercise and do it.

[IMAGE] Which exercise to pick?

I play team sports, but I do not consider myself a team player. Whatever sport I play, I derive pleasure not on how well my team does, but how well I do. It doesnít matter to me whether we won by fifty or lost by fifty, as long as I did well. Sure, I want to be with my friends, and I want everyone to have a good time, but thatís not why Iím playing. Selfish? Maybe.

I played Little League as a kid, and I sucked. I played softball in the Air Force, and I really sucked. I think I was afraid of the ball. Itís funny, because I played goalie in hockey, where your job is to stand in front of a hard piece of rubber going much faster than a softball or Little League pitch.

Last year I had no intention of playing softball--I just went out to help warm up my wife, Diane. But when it was time to warm up the fielders, I found I was hitting the ball better than I ever remember doing it. So I joined the team; this year, is sponsoring the team. I still suck, but I enjoy it because every now and then I do okay.

I like the folks on the team and I enjoy the game--but I play because on good days I do pretty good out there, and on bad days we get creamed and thereís plenty of blame to go around.

Does this make me a bad guy to have on your team? Depends on what you want to get out of the game, doesnít it?

Anyway, I usually gravitate towards individual-performance activities. When I played hockey, one of the few team sports I enjoy, I played goalie; in high school, I wrestled. I like golf and skiing, but those take up so much time that they are almost lifestyles, not just forms of exercise. I know I need to exercise, but Iíve got other things to do than spending an entire day, or even an entire morning, on the links or the slopes.

I donít know how I first got into it--probably because my high school wrestling coach, John Ratel, ordered me to do it; and Coach Ratel was, and probably still is, the biggest and most intimidating guy Iíve ever known--but Iíve always liked weight lifting. The mechanical movement of the arms, cables, and weights fascinate me. Results are measurable--you can keep a logbook and see your progress over time, or you can look in the mirror and notice the muscles youíve never noticed before. You feel and look differently. Others can see the difference too, and most people admire the change. Thereís not much gear beyond whatís in the gym, and all of it is cool stuff--the fingerless padded gloves, the fat leather back support belts, the wrist straps. You could wear that stuff outside the gym, and folks knew you were someone special, someone different--or so I thought.

In grade school, my Dad made barbells for me out of cement-filled coffee cans and metal bars, and I secretly ordered Charles Atlas home bodybuilding courses out of the backs of comic books and worked diligently on every exercise in the book (so maybe I could eventually look like the superheroes in the comic books). In high school, I liked the big noisy chrome and pig-iron Universal machine; in college, it was the graceful, silky smooth Nautilus machines, the ones you usually had to strap yourself in to use it, the ones you had to twist and contort and stretch your limbs to get in and out of. The machines were pure magic.

Only the hard-core lifters and body-builders used the free weights, the barbells and dumbbells. First of all, most of the time you had to have a spotter when using the free weights, and for me that took away the splendid solitude of lifting --the last thing I wanted was to have a witness right there standing over me when I failed. There is nothing graceful about free weights--they are clumsy, awkward, and take time to haul around, even if itís only from a rack on the floor to a bar waiting just two feet away. Sure, I wanted to be one of those guys who could pick up a couple one hundred pound dumbbells from a rack and do incline bench presses with it--but the fact that I couldnít do it, and that others could see that I couldnít do it, was enough to keep me on the machines, alone with the other mortals.

Gyms had mirrors, of course, so you could see yourself and make sure you were doing the exercise correctly--right? Wrong. The mirrors were there so you could watch those guns explode, man, see those veins pop, see those fibers undulate under your skin like snakes in a plastic bag. They donít have mirrors in golf or skiing, do they? What other activity can you think of uses mirrors? What other sport encourages you to watch yourself?

And the best part is, 99.9 percent of people weight-lifting look good doing it. The kids that get on the machines and chat, or the ones who go through the motions but donít put any real weights on, look phony--but even the porkiest, most inexperienced, even the weakest guy or gal looks good lifting weights. Even if youíre straining against what you might think is a puny amount of weight, just the fact that youíre straining gets an emotional, empathetic response from almost everyone around you. Youíre working out, and it shows. You see someoneís muscles shake, their breathing gets deeper, or they grit their teeth, or stare off into the distance against the pressure, and you start to feel it yourself. You become one with them, briefly, even if you came to the gym to be by yourself. You almost canít help but try to encourage them to gut out one more rep.

Nowadays, itís not called ďweight-lifting,Ē but ďresistance training.Ē This was changed to encompass the new class of machines that donít use mass to exercise muscle, but instead use the potential energy created by stretching or compressing some sort of material to let the muscle work against. Everyone at one time or another had the two handles with the big, noisy, pinchy steel springs clipped between them; these eventually morphed into rubber bands or bungee cords. You may have even owned one of the most successful resistance machines ever developed, the Thigh Master (or maybe I just think itís successful because Iíll never forget the nearly orgasmic look on Suzanne Somersí face when she was squeezing one of those things between her legs or pumping her chest in the infomercials). But those hand-held things arenít the real deal: you need a resistance-training machine.

Go ahead and pick one: Soloflex, Total Gym, Bowflex. Iíve used them all, and they all do the job. Donít buy it new: go on Ebay or go to Play It Again Sports and get one used. Chances are it hasnít been used much, so itís still in pretty good condition, and the previous owner has already bought all the attachments and accessories for it.

I use a Bowflex, which definitely looks like some kind of medieval torture machine; but it works great, itís easy to switch exercises, and it really does fold up vertically out of the way when youíre done. I bought it used on Ebay, and it looked brand new--the leg attachment was not even assembled, but still in its box. They are a pain and expensive to ship after they are assembled, so go get one locally when you see it in the paper or online. Be patient--they come on the market all the time, and when they do, the owners usually canít wait to get rid of them, so youíll get a good deal.

I also have a treadmill, which I got used from a friend (thanks, Linda Mae!). Again, I recommend getting a used one--but get it checked out first by a fitness company guy, or buy it used from a reputable fitness equipment company. Get the best one you can afford. Get one where you can easily (meaning electrically) change the speed and incline angle.

I also have a very cool set of dumbbells and a tilting workout bench. Working out with dumbbells is fun and challenging--until you get into the heavier weights, and then youíre back to needing a spotter. A resistance machine gives you the same versatility of free weights without the danger of lifting large weights by yourself.

You can also join a gym. A gym represents a different mentality altogether than a home setup. Their equipment is usually far superior to anything you might have in your home, and you might be motivated by having lots of good-looking guys or girls working out around you. But there are some real negatives to joining a gym. Most of you know what Iím talking about. Thatís right--getting your butt over there.

A few bits of advice: if the gymís more than five or ten minutesí driving time away from home, school, or office, forget it. The longer it takes to actually get there, the more excuses youíll invent not to go. Join whatever gym or club your boss, co-workers, or friends belong to--youíll be more likely to go if you know theyíre waiting for you or if youíre likely to get ďface-timeĒ there. Pay month-to-month, but get a one-year or longer contract--youíll be more likely to go if youíre forced to pay that money every month. If you join a gym with no contract, or one where you pay a year ahead of time, youíre more likely to blow it off. Find one with a wide variety of activities, and use them all--sign up for Pilates, use the pool, or try a few games of racquetball, even if all you want to do is lift weights.

How often you work out is a personal choice. Listen to your body: if you are too tired to gear up for exercising four times a week, cut it down to two or three until you build up. What I have found is that most books on the subject are correct: three to four times a week is about right for most folks.

Most experts advise you not to work out more than three times a week. Baloney. If you try to do the same weight-lifting exercises two or more times in a row, you might not see any strength gains or development--muscles need rest in order to grow--but youíll still get the physical activity you need. Try alternating muscle groups--do push-pull or upper-lower routines--or put a cardiovascular exercise in between strength training days. Listen to your body.

Also, donít be fooled by those who say you can get a good workout in just five, ten, or twenty minutes a day. Thatís a marketing gimmick to get you to buy their gear. You need real, true, no-shit strenuous exercise, and that almost always takes more than a few minutes to accomplish. When you start an exercise program, twenty minutes may seem like a lot. But after a month or two, donít stop after twenty minutes when you can go an hour. Donít overdo it, but donít be afraid to push it a little harder when you can. Some days youíll be able to do it--other days, you wonít. Again, listen to your body and stop when you feel pain, dizziness, shakiness, or nausea--but donít be afraid to tell your body to gut out a couple more reps, pounds, or minutes every now and then, either. Just be careful to maintain good form and technique--quality of an exercise is always more important than quantity.

Next month: Getting down to business

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