Red Pill Your Workout

The blog in which I give myself a break from focusing on truly upsetting things and focus instead on mostly benign oddities.

Nick and I noticed something strange last night, at the gym.  A fair number of people, young people, were making a hash of their barbell lifts — not unusual — but we realized, these folks were the same demographic that’s first to Google or YouTube how-to on everything else.  This exact revelation had never occurred to me before, in this exact way.  We see people making a hash of their barbell lifts all the time, including and perhaps headlining personal trainers themselves — just kidding, personal trainers avoid barbells like the plague — and we’ve always just been kind of like, “well, that sucks — hope they figure it out before they hurt themselves.”  

Nick has actively intervened in a few situations where it did seem likely they’d hurt themselves.  It’s always a tough call — it feels pretty aggressive to intervene in someone else’s workout, with a high risk of coming off as patronizing or intrusive.  Some people just don’t know any better, and some others are actually very consciously committed to the stupid shit they’re doing.  Most women trying to learn to lift unfortunately pair themselves, for lack of a better man, with someone who thinks he knows how to lift and teaches her everything wrong, while remaining himself observably weak and ineffectual, and also over-involving himself in spotting her lifts, as a rule.  

We mostly try to mind our own business.  But we observed all this routine wrong and more, last night, and it had just never occurred to me that it’s never occurred to them they could just Google about it.  For anyone reading this blog, I’ll say please just go straight to StartingStrength.com, but even outside of that hot tip, any kind of internet tutorial would be better than nothing.  

It’s probably really obnoxious that I’m on my high horse about lifts, and I know we want to pontificate about exercise like it’s just so deeply individual — no man can possibly understand another man’s relationship to kettlebells.  We saw someone on a video actually say, “There are as many ways to squat as there are stars in the sky.”  Unbelievable.  It would be true with the addition of one word — wrong.  There are as many wrong ways to squat as there are stars in the sky.  There is, actually, a right way to squat.  

We’ve seen people pull off amazing, just phenomenal things, despite form errors — we just watched a video last night of a young man (with clear gynecomastia) squat 700 pounds, at full depth.  He wasn’t even wearing a belt.  The bar was too high on his back, right at his neck, rendering the feat even more amazing from the standpoint that this bar placement gets the weight out in front of you at the worst possible time.  

I said, “Holy shit — imagine how much he could squat low-bar, with a belt!”  

Nick said, “I knoooooow!  My god!”  

Very strong young man.  Very ‘roided as well, which cannot, itself, accomplish a 700 pound squat FYI.    

I think you can probably Google yourself into some important errors in form, also, since there are some really stupid ideas running rampant right now.  “Look up to stand up!,” relative to squatting, for instance (and think about it — when’s the last time you stared at the ceiling to get yourself up out of a chair?)  And the bar high on the back, and there’s a really unfortunate thing going around where men drape their hands over the actual weights at the ends of the barbell, which to me looks like bilateral broken wrists waiting to happen.  

But it was really clear that the people in the squat rack, last night, weren’t doing an incorrect squat based on something someone somewhere recommended.  They were just doing a squat no one would ever recommend.  

They were two skinny, high school aged boys, and their low weight squats were shit form, shit depth, and then they just kept adding more and more, and more, weight!  By the end of it, they were pressed close together, nuts to butts, with the working partner in front, staggeringly and terrifyingly un-racking a bar that was obviously 150 pounds too heavy, trembling like a leaf, and then doing frightened little knee pulses, in lieu of squats, with the “spotter” pressed up against his back like a lover, arms literally wrapped all the way around the working partner.  In a squat rack!  A squat rack designed, specifically, for people to safely dump the bar!  None of it made any sense.  

It was a fever dream.  

That was to our left; meanwhile, to our right, a boy with skinny fat arms involved himself in every inch, every second, of a girl’s attempt to bench press.  The girl was very obviously stronger and more muscled than him, and he never backed off to let her get a single rep on her own.  Nick kept rubbing his face when he would glance over there by accident.  This stuff gives him a rash.  

Meanwhile, behind us, a very strong girl benched solo, working up to a reasonably impressive weight, but without full depth.  Full depth isn’t just some kind of sadistic form of fitness cachet, it’s simply the use of a natural “bounce” at the bottom that, otherwise, can only be an arbitrary reversal of motion at an arbitrary point in the bar path.  

I did offer a spot, eventually, and she got her half reps on two more sets, and I resisted the urge to be like the dick drill sergeants who’d stand over us in basic training, while we did pushups, and count, “One!  One!  One!  One!…” 

So, back to the annoying issue of my high horse, I am indeed blessed that I fell into relationship with an honest-to-god strength coach who stands on the shoulders of Starting Strength giants — NOT a personal trainer, a term that also gives Nick a rash — and so my path has been made straight, from barbell zero to barbell hero, no credit to myself, or very little.  Not everyone is teachable, and I am, so that’s my kudos at least.  

BUT, just to be clear — I met Nick in the gym, in the weight room specifically, and I was doing lifts that I had YouTube’d form on, and although no other coach can compare to a Starting Strength coach, because they are the barbell gods, I still had made some effort to educate myself.  In short, I might have been doing it wrong, but not that wrong.  Even if I hadn’t met him, I really doubt I would have accepted the interference of some cuck attaching himself to me and getting really involved in all my lifts.  

So on the one hand, I’m glad to see anyone giving barbell a shot, in this age of isolation and cardio machines, and I hate for people to avoid barbell with this impression that they’ll get hurt.  Then again, I look around and think: how could you not get hurt.  No fault of barbell per se, except as an agent of gravity, just through what looks to me like a catastrophic failure of a normal human level of risk aversion.  Like, you have to know you weren’t doing that right two hundred pounds ago — why on earth would you keep adding weight?  The same way everyone associates motorcycles with a high degree of risk, and I’m like, okay that’s valid, BUT — can we just statistically subtract all the deaths and injuries related to 20-something dudes on crotch rockets going 120mph for no reason at all?  I feel like they shouldn’t count.  They’d probably figure out how to kill themselves on a tricycle.

So, the people who should do barbell, because they have a reasonable sense of risk aversion, don’t do it because it’s been portrayed as this really dangerous thing, and then the people who shouldn’t do it, because they literally walk around one synapse away from a fatal accident in general, do barbell, and make it look crazy risky for normal people.  That’s not news to me at least, but it was interesting to realize that these people doing crazy barbell things would probably have the presence of mind to Google or YouTube anything else.  How to use contouring makeup, or mine gold in Minecraft, or hit on a girl, or where to buy a Supreme brand sweatshirt, or the lyrics to the latest Lil’ XXL rap song, or, or, or.  And then, walk up to the squat rack and reinvent the wheel from scratch.  So odd.

It’s a shame, because barbell is so amazing.  It’s a way to involve your whole body and breath and mind in a compound movement that is weighted to a ridiculously customizable degree.  Those stupid isolation cable machines have ten pound slabs, that give way to 20 pound slabs, and there might be a fiver floating around that you can slot in, which is great for when you want to disengage your entire body, breath, and mind, except for one totally mindless thing.  For barbell, plates usually come in 45, 35, 25, 10, 5, and 2.5 pound increments, but I own a set of fractionals that allow me to add 0.5 pounds to my bar.  That’s right, half a pound.  I have that much control.  

There’s just no reason not to give barbell a shot, when the unenlightened can at least Google up something, and the enlightened can get it from the horse’s mouth at Starting Strength, and when the basic movement pattern (squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, clean, snatch) can be perfected at very low weight — if the 45 pound bar is too heavy, they make 22.5 pound ones, and even less — and the weight can be added with such incremental, nearly surgical precision.  There’s no reason to sacrifice form.  Form can go to shit sometimes when you make a jump to a new weight but I mean there’s no reason to lift as if form isn’t the priority.  That’s like playing music as if tempo and key signature isn’t a priority, or building houses as if structural stability isn’t a priority, or walking as if moving forward in an upright fashion isn’t a priority.  I don’t know why barbell seems to represent such a breakdown of normally observable common sense, but it does, and I feel #blessed to watch from the bleachers of basic ass reason.

I’ll probably always return to blog-homages — blogmages — about the things I consider to make the biggest positive difference in my own life, and barbell is certainly among them.  So if you’ll indulge me I’ll just wax loquacious a bit about why I like it so much: I love being in the gym, watching so many people waste their own time so thoroughly, and knowing, for a 100% certain fact, that I’m not wasting my time.  

I just really value my time, you know?  I don’t like to be on the clock unless I’m making good money, or really loving what I do, preferably both; I don’t like to fill my days and my calendar with meaningless shit.  I’d rather have the free time, frankly, unless there’s something that important that needs doing or that I want to do.  I love my free time.  I love writing and sleeping and looking at memes and taking deep dives into new ideas and snuggling with my half-bugaboo, half-demi-god family and taking recreational baths and just being human, Hannah-style.  I’m real picky about what soaks up my time.  Blocking off two hours to go flog myself around a gym just ain’t in the cards, unless it’s clearly accomplishing something.  

Barbell accomplishes so much, with the right programming.  I’ve added almost ten pounds of muscle to my skinny, 5’7” frame in the last year-plus, and that’s frankly amazing.  I track my lifts in my phone and, despite the humanly fallible inevitability of gaining ground, losing ground, gaining more ground, losing more ground, having my period, missing deadlift day because I was bitchy, whatever, it’s still soothingly obvious that I’m trending stronger every month.  What used to be my red-line max effort weight is now my middling warm up weight, which is just so cool.

Another thing I love about it is to have finally hacked the conspiracy of “keeping my heart rate up”.  This is the most prevalent, widely accepted form of bullshit on planet Earth.  Everyone, everywhere, is doing strength stuff in such a manner as to “keep their heart rate up”, so that they can “burn fat”.  It’s just great to look back on that — a recommendation so ubiquitous most of us don’t even think to question it — and to give it both my middle fingers, raised high overhead.  

We just cannot stop huffing the “to burn fat” glue, can we?  No wonder so many of us are so poor.  It’s literally a difference along the same lines as active income vs passive income.  They should re-release a copy of “Rich Dad, Poor Dad — the Fitness Edition” to address this problem.  Stop trying to actively burn fat.  Make your body into a passive fat burning machine, so you can sit around on your ass all day, like I do, looking at memes and burning fat.  

When Nick and I go lift, we sit around and look at memes most of the time then, too.  Or, I do, and he gets himself into arguments on Reddit.  There’s no keeping our heart rate up.  There’s just the goal: 3 sets of 3 at max effort (or whatever); however long that takes, with however much rest in between.  Doesn’t matter!  We don’t go flailing around the gym in between sets.  We just sit there, or quietly make fun of people.  

I used to feel really uncomfortable with how much Nick wanted to make fun of people, but I hadn’t spent as much time in gyms as him, at that point.  Now I’ve spent a bunch of time in a bunch of different gyms, and I’ve begun to wonder: just what the fuck is going on, over there?  I mean, wrapping yourself around the back of the guy who’s squatting too much weight: what’s your plan, if that fails, like…more than it’s already failing?  Or there was a lady at the Albuquerque gym where we used to be members, who wore a lot of makeup and big hair, and would assume this really intense skier posture, and then violently but delicately tippy tap the toe of one foot back and forth, as quickly as possible, behind her, and then switch feet, with a really intense look on her face.  Why?? What is that doing??  I’m sure it was sold to her as a way to “keep her heart rate up”, in order to “burn fat”.  The more you do something that makes some kind of sense, in a gym, the harder it is not to make fun of people.  

Anyway, to close on some kind of sub-point there at least, strength is the most directly trainable, useful, strategically adaptable athletic variable there is.  There are other variables that are more important AND over which we have little or no direct control.  A lot of the other stuff is just genetic; we’re either the have’s or the have-nots, by birth.  Like, the ability to instantly recruit resources to perform a 40” box jump versus a 20” box jump, or to sprint 400m in one minute versus two — you can work on that, sure, but you’re only going to move the needle so much.  You can, systematically and over time, go from a 100 pound squat to a 400 pound squat, though, and apply that strength to jumping, or sprinting, or football, or whatever sport or hobby you choose.  

Again with the money analogy — if you build up money, you get to enjoy spending it on whatever you want — or just walking around being wealthy.  If you build up strength, you get to enjoy spending it on whatever you want — or just walking around looking good.  Strength is a raw, trainable resource, and barbells at the gym are a perfect way to train it, and once you figure that out, and that none of it needs to involve keeping your heart rate up or trying to directly burn fat, suddenly a whole bunch of gym activity starts looking really pointless.  

One more thing about the heart rate conspiracy — you’ve got two different metabolic processes going on, relative to training strength versus training cardiovascular fitness.  The former is anabolic, meaning “constructive metabolism” — ie, tissue growth; the latter is catabolic, meaning “destructive metabolism” — burning both fat and muscle.  Everyone focuses too much on what happens during the workout and not enough on what happens after.  As Nick always says, in keeping with Starting Strength perspective, “You don’t get stronger from lifting; you get stronger from recovering.”  This is why we can sit around looking at memes, snuggling the bugaboos, eating entire vegan pizzas right before bedtime, and not get fat: our workouts promote a long-term anabolic state (ie passive income), whereas catabolism is short-term (ie active income).  

Now, the idea with HIIT (keeping your heart rate up to burn fat) is to kill two birds with one stone, which *sounds* great, but think again: how likely are you to consistently push forward your own strength envelope while winded and exhausted?  In other words, how much do you want to confuse your own body as to whether to produce active income or passive income?  Sit and rest, get your max according to your rep scheme, go home and recover, then add a smidge more weight and do it again.  If you want to throw in some catabolism, that’s fine — just do it separately.

One more brief note about HIIT (high intensity interval training) — properly done, it would look like, well, strength training.  Weights moved, sets, reps, in some kind of sequence.  But it’s been bastardized, with what *should* be a focus on weights moved having migrated to “keeping your heart rate up to burn fat” instead.  This is why everyone everywhere going around talking about keeping their heart rate up is…well, just kind of a bummer.      

Panning out again, I have to say: the more oriented I get to a straightforward fitness paradigm that makes actual sense, and produces consistent results, the more shocked I feel that so much misinformation abounds.  I should form, like, the fitness version of Qanon or something.  I mean, is there a fitness Deep State making sure we all get confused and stay confused about how to be fit?  Why is everyone doing, believing, and recommending, the same stupid shit that’s never helped anyone, unless it represented that crucial maneuver called “getting off the couch in the first place”?  I’ve said this before, but if you want to Red Pill yourself about fitness, just go and look at the bodies of people doing different things in the gym.  It’s right in front of your eyes.  (Wake up, sheeple!)  

By and large, the fittest people will be doing barbell or free weights, and they will not be “keeping their heart rates up” between sets.  They will not be doing cardio.  They will not be doing cables.  They will not be doing isolation machines.  They will not be doing stupid personal traineering (aka fitness concierge) shit, involving bosu balls or balancing like storks on one leg.  They will not be doing one thing with their upper body while pointing their toes off in space like horizontal ballerinas to “engage their core”.  They won’t be doing “functional training”, observable to the naked eye by how fucking functional it isn’t.  The fittest, best-looking men and women will be doing the really boring bro stuff, with barbells and dumbbells, which turns out is not so boring at all.

If you really go down the rabbit hole, you’ll notice that gyms always market their personal training as “customized”, but then you’ll notice that each personal trainer always runs their clients through an almost-identical, if not identical, regimen of dumb shit.  You’ll also notice their clients never get fitter.  You’ll also notice the personal trainers never get fitter.  You’ll also notice they’re not so fit to begin with.  You’ll also notice that the people who generate the most income for the gym experience the least positive personal results.  You’ll also notice that gyms notice that.  You’ll also notice that gyms are a money-making proposition, and not necessarily a fitness-making proposition.  You’ll also notice that gyms offer every excuse to do everything on earth except get under a barbell.  They offer dance classes, Zumba classes, yoga classes (which I do sanction and endorse, FYI), “booty blast” classes, step classes, core classes, spin classes, “Dungeon explicit hardcore fitness” classes (??), water aerobics classes, battle ropes, a flotilla of various configurations of cardio machines, another flotilla of muscle isolation machines, a bunch of big dumb marketing pictures of personal trainers in heroic, kneeling poses, guiding the movement of someone doing a movement it doesn’t make any sense to do, an armada of Bosu balls, an array of things to mindlessly throw them at and against, a mind-boggling amount of stuff you don’t need to get fit, that won’t help you get fit, and which only helps the gym justify the amount of money they’re charging you every month.  

Nick and I had a nice talk with a girl at the last fire.  She was overweight and knew it, and wanted to talk about fitness, since it’s obvious we’re people who can talk about fitness, because we look fit, because we don’t waste all our time doing dumb shit that doesn’t make us fit, when we work out.  She’s currently working with a personal trainer and Nick was gently probing into what that looked like.  

“We do some strength stuff,” she said assertively, “with cardio in-between.  You know, to keep my heart rate up.”  

I could actually feel Nick trying not to crawl out of his skin, next to me.  “Well, okay, but the purpose of strength training is to build muscle, so —” 

“TO BURN FAT,” she interjected, woefully indicating her midsection.  

Nick sighed, and tried another tack, and had her maybe wiling to acknowledge that it might all be simpler than she’s ever realized, by the end of the conversation.  Like most people, she was pretty resistant to the idea that she could focus on anything BUT losing weight.  That’s poor folks thinking, y’all.

To sum it all up, consider that just maybe, the entire modern fitness paradigm is one of reduction — the ceaseless, infinitely moving target of “reducing yourself”.  I always hear people say, “I just want to lose thirty pounds,” or “I just want to fit into my old jeans”.  I don’t hear them say, “I just want to add thirty pounds to my deadlift” or “I just want to fill out the shoulders of my tee shirts better”.  Let’s think about this for a second.  With fat loss, when is enough, enough?  When the scale shows a lower number?  When your clothes hang looser on your body?  When you figure out an infinite number of ways to eat a little less, or eat the same amount but with fewer calories, or you spike your metabolism with a little bit of amphetamine, or you smoke a little more to be a little less hungry?  When you spend a little more time on the treadmill and eat a little less of the homemade Christmas cookies your coworker brought in, or get the thing you don’t really want from the restaurant instead of the thing you do really want?  You can pare down, and pare down, forever, and maybe hit your goal — maybe not.  Maybe you don’t really understand your own goal.  Maybe, when you see truly fit, muscular people, you don’t even notice how muscular they are — all you see, when you look at them, is “skinny”, because all you see, when you look at yourself, is “fat”.  

Let’s flip that on its head.  What if you rejected that entire notion and focused instead on expanding yourself?  Think: I want my muscles to get bigger; I want to push more weight, I want to pull more weight; I want to take up more space in the world; I want to feel strong and stable and confident and like I can’t be shoved over, physically or mentally.  I want to hold my ground, in this world.  What would that look like?  Maybe abandoning this fruitless, will-o’-the-wisp mirage, retreating out in front of you forever, called “losing weight”, and actually putting some good weight on, on purpose, and transforming your own body into a passive-income-generating fitness machine?  

Body trends come and go.  Young men are obsessed with looking like rails, right now.  That’s fine.  Young women are obsessed with looking like rails with large, disproportional bumps.  Okay.  It behooves us to realize that we all recognize physical strength and integrity AS “beauty”, whether or not we’re conditioned to consciously acknowledge it.  A strong, fit person could get in a time machine and go anywhere, any-when, and be recognized as an attractive person.  Our bodies contain their own template for beauty, and it’s called musculature.  Don’t run away from it.  Run towards it.  And grab a barbell on your way.              

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