Saturday, April 18, 2009

"Is A Puzzlement!" (Second update, May 10)

Here's what I can't figure out: How could a guy my age, in the shape I'm presently in, put up respectable numbers in the bench press when he's working out maybe once a week?

Quid conjuratio est? Is this a perfectly random incident, or is it possible, with appropriate effort, nutrition, and (please, Lord) rest, to reach a new strength plateau as I head into the latter part of my fifth decade?

As I noted in my last entry, which was published an eon ago, I'm settling ambivalently into middle age. On my most recent birthday -- an event I no longer celebrate, of course -- I had completed 46 circuits around the Sun.

My personal circumstances, as described earlier, are dramatically sub-optimal. My wife is chronically ill; we have six small children (the most recent arrived the day before my birthday, which gives me something wonderful to celebrate) requiring parental attention, which I alone can provide, given my wife's condition; I work out of my home as a freelance writer, which is the most precarious occupation one can imagine in our present economic circumstances.

I'm suffering from intermittent sleep disorders, and early last year, for the first time I can recall, I had panic attacks (no fewer than three, no more than a half-dozen, but they were vividly unpleasant experiences). I'm happy to say that with the help of some homeopathic supplements, I seem to have overcome my acid reflux.

This sedentary, stress-suffused lifestyle has left me perpetually tired and in horrible shape. Owing to my wife's illness (she suffers from an acute form of schizophrenia), I can't leave her alone with our children for very long. She's largely bed-ridden, which means I have to take care of the kids during working hours for the most part. We have a three-month-old newborn who must be fed and otherwise, ah, maintained at all hours of the day and night. So finding even an hour a day to exercise has been all but impossible.

Sure, it only takes about five minutes to do a set of 100 Hindu pushups, and 15 minutes to do 500 Hindu squats. But here's the problem: Once I've taken care of the kids, and gotten my work done, I'm always so tired that I simply can't motivate myself to work out.

So despite the fact that my typical work day begins sometime around 5:30 a.m., I end up deferring exercise until I get just one more thing done -- and, ere long, evening is upon me, and in my weariness I simply resign myself to yet another day without exercise.

To all of that we must add the not-infrequent problems associated with sickness. This past week I was up at odd hours tending to sick kids; this included a post-midnight hospital run with Isaiah, who was delirious with fever and showing symptoms of what was either bronchitis (bad enough) or meningitis (catastrophic); fortunately, it was the former, and a very mild case. And I've been grappling with my annual bronchial bout myself.

In sum, by the time today (Saturday April 18) rolled around, I was in very bad shape in every conceivable way. Not only have I retained and expanded on the distressingly ovoid form I acquired during Korrin's last hospital stay -- my legs, once as thick and solid as the trunk of an oak tree, are beginning to resemble pudding pops; my stomach is mushrooming over my belt -- but my unfortunate habit of falling asleep every time I sat still for more than five minutes at a time persisted.

Given all of this
, I find myself incurably puzzled by what happened in the gym this afternoon.

Since Time Immemorial (well, 1994 or thereabouts), Saturday has been bench press day for me, at least when I've been regularly attending the gym. There was a time, before I wed, when I would spend hours in the gym. That was back when I used to warm up with 225 or 250 pounds before maxing out somewhere around 450. (Once, just for the heck of it, I warmed up with a set of 8 reps at 315 pounds.)

So even though I've been attending the gym with roughly the same frequency that the typical political attends church in a non-election year, today was my bench press day.

Here's what I did, following my cardio time on the treadmill:

Set One

Warm-up: 135X12, including a couple of one-handed reps (don't try these at home, kids), followed by 3-4 close-grip reps (I can't remember the exact number);

Set Two

NFL Combine "strength test" set: 225X40.

Yes, that was forty reps at 225 pounds.

Set Three


Set Four


Set Five


In the interest of complete disclosure, the 405 rep may not have gotten three white cards at a powerlifting meet. It was a controlled rep with a very light touch to my chest -- no bounce, but no real pause, either.

But, c'mon, give me a bleedin' break here: This was 405 pounds after doing an NFL Combine-style set of forty reps. And I am 46 years old.

To put this in perspective:

At the 2007 NFL Combine, the highest rep total (which I think was the all-time record through that year) was 42. That performance was turned in by the fearsome DeMarcus "Tank" Tyler, a behemoth defensive tackle from North Carolina State who currently plays with the Kansas City Chiefs.

As it happens, Mr. Tyler's birthday is Valentine's Day, ten days after my own. He was born in 1985. At the time he set his Combine record he was less than half my present age.

My life is not barren of consolations. I have a beautiful wife and six incredibly wonderful children. People who know of my family's plight -- one very generous individual, an angelic personage who could have stepped from the pages of Dickens, in particular -- have helped us keep body and soul together. We live near my parents, who are the most wonderful people I know. I'm blessed to be able to continue my writing, which is clearly what I was made to do.

Having said that, I must also say this:

There is an elemental need in at least some men, myself among them, to distinguish ourselves physically. Yes, it's a species of vanity, but one of a practical variety, if only because it motivates us to practice at least some discipline in the maintenance of our physical selves.

The elements of my family's misfortune are intangible, and the people once regarded as friends whose betrayal did much to create our circumstances reside safely beyond my immediate reach (to them I say: If you value a lifestyle characterized by unaided mobility, you would be wise to ensure that this remains the case for the foreseeable future). So there is something wholesome and cathartic about being able to make large amounts of impersonal iron obey my will in defiance of gravity's implacable grip.

Is it possible that I could add the muscle mass, and develop the kind of conditioning, that would permit me to cross the 500 pound bench press plateau sometime in the future? Who knows? Granted, the actuarial tables make this a dubious proposition. Heavy lifters usually peak somewhere around age 31, which is about when I started to lift weights seriously.

Heavy lifting beyond age 40 is dangerous to the joints and generally frowned upon, which is why about five years ago I got heavily into high-rep calisthenics and sprinting (which I intend to resume, as well).

Still ... how does one explain a day like today? If I had been going to the gym regularly for the past three or four months, it wouldn't be so peculiar. As things stand, it's downright anomalous -- a freak disturbance in The Force, perhaps, or the product of something that infiltrated our water supply.

Sure, there are plenty of guys, of all ages and a variety of sizes, who lift more than I did today, both in reps and one-rep max. I would imagine, however, that all of them spend a lot more time in the gym than I do, and that not many of them are dealing with the kind of trouble that perpetually besets me as I try to keep my family fed, housed, and whole. And within that fact resides something I'm going to describe as my own little victory.

UPDATE, April 28: The Puzzlement Continues

After roughly a week of drab, listless enervation -- irregular sleep (I'm waking up at 3:00 in the morning unprompted now, and can't go back to sleep until much later), a lingering bronchial cough, no energy, no time to exercise, and growing self-disgust -- I finally dragged myself to the gym again this evening in the hope of doing something: Cardio, calisthenics, weights, something.

I was sick of dragging my increasingly gelatinous form around the house, and passing out on the nearest flat surface. So I finally propelled myself in the direction of the gym hoping that something good would come of it.

I warmed up with a pretty decent twenty minutes on the bike and another very brisk twenty on the elliptical trainer. (Oh, how I wish there were a rowing machine here; I'd put Miklos Rozsa on the mp3 player, get my Judah Ben Hur-as-Number 41 freak on, and spend hours on that bad boy.)

After forty minutes of cardio, I decided to go back to the bench press, since more than a week had elapsed since my last session. It seemed like a good idea to mix things up just a bit, since -- as common workout wisdom dictates -- if you do what you always do, you get what you always get by way of results, only a little less of it each time.

Accordingly, my workout went like this:

Set 1


Set 2 -- modified NFL strength test set

250X30 (!)

Set 3


Set 4


The final set was two pretty solid reps, the second one actually better than the first. My all-time best set at that weight was five reps (that's from more than a decade ago, when my one-rep max was in the neighborhood of 450).

Rather than stacking 45 lb. plates on the bar -- which certainly looks impressive -- I used a set of 100s (plus a pair of tiny 2.5 lb. plates) for the 250 lb. set, then added a pair of 45s for the 335 set. I then added two 35 lb. plates for the final set.

The last two workouts have been very encouraging, albeit entirely mystifying to me. I shouldn't be lifting amounts this large in the shape I'm in. Granted, I need to be disciplined and reasonable in building on my present strength levels. I'm curious to find out if I can integrate this into my more important goals that involve weight loss.

Building muscle mass is an important component of any conditioning program, of course, and my weightlifting -- both powerlifting-type exercises like the bench press and front squat (which I love), and Olympic-style lifts like power cleans -- will help work off my lard. But I have to get back to more natural workout modes as well, and this means more high-rep calisthenics (especially the Hindu squats and Hindu pushups), hill sprints, and walking.

In the meantime, in honor of my mid-life fitness renaissance, I offer the following selection from the soundtrack to The Incredibles -- "Life's Incredible Again," which accompanied a montage showing another portly middle-aged guy trying to get back into shape.


So here I was on May 7, stoked over the prospect of seeing Star Trek with my older boyz (it's a terrific film, incidentally -- a little light on the Roddenberryian philosophy of peaceful cooperation and exploration that defined the Original Series, but still a lot of fun). I managed to find an empty hour and used it to go to the gym.

After a very vigorous 20 minutes of staggered sprint training on the elliptical machine, I hit the bench. This time, in my eager haste to get things done, I inadvertently practiced the principle of "muscle confusion." After my warm-up I put what I thought was 250 lbs. on the bar. Imagine my surprise when I found myself gassing very quickly, doing a total of only 7 reps when a week before I'd done 30.

"Wow," thought I, "this is disappointing."

Imagine my surprise, once again, as I examined the bar a bit more closely and discovered that I had miscalculated the weight by ninety pounds. I was actually doing 340 lbs, not 250.

So I followed up with sets of 385X3 and a max of 415 (missing an attempted second rep).

Maybe the key to "muscle confusion" is simple mental confusion. If so, maybe an occasional "senior moment" of this kind will help be bust through some of my plateaus.