Thursday, June 30, 2016

Some thoughts on exercise

(Based on a twitterhea that started after I came back from the gym today. I'm still recuperating from a long trip and a upper respiratory infection from the return flight.)

Strength training

If I could only do one strength exercise, that would be the deadlift, possibly with a trapezoid ("hex") bar. Interestingly, if I could only do two exercises, those would be squat & pulldown, so there's no nesting of the exercise sets. Actually the topology becomes ever more complex: three exercises would be squat, pulldown, incl. press; four exercises would be squat, pulldown, flat bench press, military ("shoulder") press. Past that, the topology becomes more workable, with five exercises adding back the deadlift and six adding horizontal row.

An alternative topology, recognizing the importance of deadlifts:

(Yes, military "shoulder" press ahead of [flat] bench press; much more useful for life, plus pecs get worked on pulldowns.)

In reality, I do all six exercises (and a few more strength exercises) in a standard three-split powerlifting program (Monday: squat; Wednesday: bench; Friday: deadlift).

I seldom do any biceps or triceps work, as I find the upper arm gets enough exercise from the compound movements. Once a month or so, if I'm not too tired on a bench press day I might do three sets of standing curls superset with three sets of rope press-downs; but seldom more than once a month, and my arms aren't exactly skinny.

Accessory work

(Understood as accessory beyond the accessory work for the powerlifting lifts.)

Core: a lot of people worry about having "six-pack" abs; I train the core for strength, because it's a big deal in stabilizing movement and maintaining spinal health. I do a variety of exercises for the abs, obliques, and transverses, all under load. Unlike most gym-goers I understand that what makes for pretty six-packs is lack of fat, while what makes for good spine stability is strong muscles.

Specific posterior chain exercises: yes, the deadlift works the posterior chain, no kidding. But since standing up straight is somewhat important, I do a lot of other exercises targeting parts of the posterior chain beyond the glutes, particularly the various spinal extensors.

Neck (yes, I know it's in the posterior chain, at least the extensors): hey it's no big deal; it just HOLDS THE HEAD. Maybe gymbros could cut two or three of the hundred sets of standing curls they do per workout to strengthen the muscles that HOLD THEIR HEADS. Then again, perhaps they understand that there's nothing valuable there. Extension (with load), rotation, flexion (with load), plus careful mobilization.

Wrist: bodybuilders do do some wrist work, as their forearms are visible outside of a t-shirt, but they do it for show. I do wrist work because it protects the movement of the hands, which is kind of important for life. Wrist curls, reverse wrist curls, internal and external rotation with load.

Grip: I have a gripper, I use it. Short of a Hammer Strength grip machine (few gyms have those and even fewer the MedX equivalent), best thing for developing grip strength. No point in having upper body strength if the grip can't hold the load (bodybuilding bros say "strength? it's all about size, bro"), like having a very powerful engine in a car with bad tyres.

Rotator cuff: another area that needs to be protected against damage; I do a variety of low load movements of all the rotations of the rotator cuff, then train the two main movements (rotate forward, rotate backward) with standard strength training programming.


I'm a big fan of sled pushing and heavy farmer's walks, but mostly I end up doing treadmill intervals, hill sprints, or stairway sprints as that's what's available. I've tried to do farmer's walks with heavy dumbbells in commercial gyms, but unless the gym is almost empty, it's futile and garners strange looks from the know-nothings that mostly populate those gyms.*

In the past I have run mid-to-long distance, but that was in an age of ignorance. Quite a lot of information has come to light about the superiority (not equivalence, superiority) of high-intensity interval training over long low-intensity "cardio" for conditioning purposes.

Thinking about functional value of this conditioning training, it really matches real-life needs more than any long low-intensity training: usually if there's any running to be done (for example), it's a short burst of high speed.

I do a number of other activities that look like exercise but aren't:

Rowing is a hobby and I prefer to do it on the water. It's a very calming activity, considering how it's basically 15 to 20 explosive movements per minute. Even on a Concept II, the movement is very calming. It's basically yoga --- at 15-20 explosive movements per minute. If I'm doing it on a machine, I might listen to audiobooks: multitasking of the kind that works, unlike multitasking attention.**

Walking is what I do to clear my mind. I like to take long walks to think; it's an habit I cultivate that most people abhor (thinking, not walking; ok, most people abhor walking as well, but mostly they avoid, abjure, and detest having to think). When I say "long" I mean 25-50km long. This has led to some complaints from friends whose idea of long is "ten minutes" rather than "fifteen hours."

Working, reading, studying, watching lectures or other educational videos on "cardio" machines, typically the elliptical, treadmill, or stationary cycle. Since I have a gym in my building, and these machines tend to be available during my work hours, I can simply translate "sitting" into "slow moving" and get some advantageous oxygenation during the intellectual work. I don't count these as exercise because they don't get anywhere near the level of intensity that would create the need for the body to adapt, i.e. to gain any new capabilities.


A lot of strength athletes pay lip service to mobility, but not more than that. I did that too when I was young and foolish.

Now in my early middle age (ahem...), I find that the ability to reach and stretch is kind of important so I've been spending more and more time making sure that I get as much range of motion as possible, both in the gym (before and after working out) and several times a week outside of the gym.

And an inexplicable phenomenon...

Something that happens at some commercial gyms has been puzzling me: I finish my workout (warm-up, strength training, accessory work, mobility) and do a short cool-down on a treadmill or elliptical, walking slowly... and get the evil eye from the people on the machines next to me.

I can't explain it; I've surmised that these people's entire workout is 20-30 minutes of slow walking (sometimes slower than my own cool-down) on these machines, while I do my 15-20 minutes at the end of 90-120 minutes or more of moving metal (sometimes, a lot of metal), so there may be some divergence of the minds there.

Oh, on an unrelated note, I tend to switch the TV in front on my machine to FoodTV or the Travel network (if there's a food show on it) during the cool-down; I like food and food shows. I notice that no one else seems to be watching that channel, although they all appear to like food a whole lot.


-- -- -- --

* Also, farmer's walks with dumbbells are dangerous: while it's difficult to get your feet under a standard farmer's walk rig without doing it on purpose, it's a law of Physics that a dropped dumbbell will always hit your foot edge on. Check it.

** I end up doing a lot of rowing on machines because going to the Berkeley Lagoon is a schlep and then I have to pay a rental fee for a shell (I'm not a member of the rowing club). Since I have my own Concept IIc at home, I tend to use that.

The 15-20 strokes/minute rhythm is because I'm short but with a heavy torso (long torso to begin with, and powerlifting muscles weigh a lot), so I need a very slow return not to lose speed on the water due to my own inertia.

(I could row much faster on a machine, of course, but that would create bad habits for the water. On a related note, the way most gym goers – especially those who do something that rhymes with Fosscrit – row on the machines is hilarious: on the water they wouldn't move at all.)

Friday, June 17, 2016

More fun with people who "love" science

"How many Joule in a kilowatt-hour?"

This is not a trick question. It's a trivially simple question, that requires a middle-school undestanding of science. Yet, someone whom I'll call Igor (for Ignorant Grandstanding Oblivious Rabble-rouser):

a) Had no idea what I was talking about;

b) Didn't think there was any relation between my question and Igor's topic of "energy";

c) Didn't realize that Igor's ignorance of basic units of energy undermined Igor's credibility as a source of information on "energy"; and

d) Wasn't deterred from continuing a long Jeremiad about the "good" types of "energy" and the "bad" types of energy.

(One Watt equals one Joule per second, so one kWh is 3.6 million Joule. I knew this before I was 10, since I was a science geek even then, but it's taught in middle school where I come from.)

Having worked in education for a while (on and off), I've seen many cases where people don't learn, forget what they learned, and forget that there's something to be learned. But Igor is different.

Igor thinks that learning is unnecessary, because Igor already knows. Igor knows because... well, because all Igor's life, Igor was never contradicted as long as Igor's words fit the prevailing narrative. Igor's self-esteem ballooned like a spinaker in strong wind, and never deflated. Igor's education avoided science, where Igor might occasionally be wrong, so Igor never learned the most important lesson:

Reality always wins in the end.