Monday, May 25, 2009


A western Idaho oasis: This lovely little waterfall, with a small but inviting lagoon, rewards those who take a short but vigorous hike in Jump Creek Canyon.

If every day -- or even every third day -- could be like this year's Memorial Day, things would change, in a hurry, for the better.

As with most days I've recently suffered through, Memorial Day began at an obscenely early hour for me -- roughly 4:30 a.m. This time the culprit wasn't any of my half-dozen sleeping disorders; it was the kitten we obtained a couple of days ago, a Siamese mix with electric blue eyes that rival those of Megan Fox or Daniel Craig.

Scooped off the streets and nurtured to health by a neighbor, Sparkle (as we've named her in honor of a cat we briefly owned in 2005) is a temperamental little feline whose insistent mewling snaps me right out of my slumber. But then again, practically anything will.

Accordingly, when Sparkle very thoughtfully roused me on the wrong side of five o'clock, I decided to stay up and get some work done. I managed to finish most of today's "serious" blog essay before seven a.m. Even after the involuntary nap I took, I was left with some time to go to the gym, since I didn't have to worry about getting the kids to school.

Once at the gym I did my now-standard 20 minute sprint circuit on the elliptical trainer, which is quickly becoming my favorite piece of workout gear. I then followed a piece of advice from "Underground Strength Guru" Zach Even-Esh: I combined floor presses and front squats into a mass-generating workout.

Yes, the floor press is a variation on the lift about which I'm obsessed, the bench press. It differs in several significant ways:

*If done with flat legs (my preferred approach), the floor press emphasizes the upper body exclusively, since it's almost impossible to recruit the lower "core" or the legs in doing the lift -- and it's interesting to note how much that assistance is missed when one moves from the bench to the floor.

*The limited range of motion forces the lifter to concentrate on a dead stop, and to power out of the bottom position without the use of "elastic energy."

*That same limited range of motion helps the lifter avoid over-use of the anterior deltoid muscles, which tend to be overtrained when one focuses on the flat bench and traditional supplemental exercises (such as dumbbell flyes and presses).

The front squat is an exercise I've come to love. I hate doing conventional barbell squats; they tend to mess up my back, no matter how hard I try to maintain strict form. A decade ago I got heavily into the twenty-rep squat protocol, which actually minimized the damage because it was built around a single "work" set. I think sometime in the future I might try a variation on that approach with front squats.

My workout also included a rather dubious attempt at some inverted rows, which are an exercise to which I'm going to devote some time.

After the workout our family packed up and drove out to Jump Creek Canyon. A very brief but invigorating hike took us to a lovely waterfall, and made me regret that we had neglected to bring swimming attire. Poor little Sophia was given an unpleasantly instructive introduction to stinging nettles, and so we had to cut our trip just a little short.

The only thing missing from the day's activities was an opportunity to do some calisthenics and some hill sprints. But spending most of the day in vigorous, enjoyable exercise was a terrific and badly overdue change of pace.

Tomorrow I plan on doing some deadlifts, power cleans, push press, and some bodyweight routines. Hopefully, Memorial Day will represent a badly needed change of direction, and help me gain some useful momentum toward getting back in decent shape.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Ad Astra Per Aspera

Paying the price: My friend, Bud Jefferies, perhaps the world's most impressive (drug- and chemical enhancement-free) strength athlete, steels himself to perform a 1,700-pound quarter-squat.

Time seems to accelerate as the years accumulate.

Compounding this cosmic injustice is the fact that progress in physical conditioning slows to a pace that makes continental drift appear downright sprightly by comparison.

Any gains that occur seem to disappear immediately unless extraordinary measures are taken to preserve them -- which, given the unfavorable gradient of middle age, means constantly improving one's performance against a background of general decline.

There comes a point at which -- as a character lamented in the last Indiana Jones film -- life stops giving and starts taking away, beginning, I guess, with the gift of vitality itself.

As I've noted previously in this space, my grudging and uneven descent into middle age has been marked by a number of anomalies. My weight remains a significant cause of concern. I've been plagued by a number of sleep disorders and generalized fatigue. There have been times that my joints have left me all but immobilized.

However, my measurable strength, in terms of one-rep maximums and high-rep power calisthenics, is not abating and may actually be increasing.

Take tonight's Workout of the Week, for instance:

Cardio -- Elliptical Trainer Sprint Sequences

20 minutes alternating -- in one-minute sets -- between 65-70% effort and full-out sprints

Lifting -- Bench Press

Warmup -- 45-lb. plate toss (literally tossing a plate in the air and catching it, then using it in various stretching exercises to loosen my shoulders and elbows)

135X12 -- close-grip






Now, I've commented quite a bit on the Bench Press in previous posts. I admit to being nearly monomaniacal about this marginally functional exercise, which is sort of a vanity lift.

I enjoy other lifts -- particularly front squats, power cleans, dumbbell snatches, and push-presses. But the bench press offers me a good measure of where I am in terms of raw lifting power and general fitness.

This is odd-object lifting: Yours Truly uprooting and felling a dead tree about a year ago.

It would be wonderful to resume a full-spectrum training program -- calisthenics, sprinting, odd object lifting (barrels/kegs, sandbags, stones, tires), weight lifting, martial conditioning (judo, wrestling, boxing, fencing -- all of which I've done in the past).

But with an ailing wife and six kids, not to mention growing concern over my employment situation, I don't have time for everything I would like to do, or even everything I think I need to do. But when I at least take the time to do something that makes me sweat and ache in useful ways, and gets my heart rate up for a sustained period of time, I'm offsetting some of the accumulating risk factors that tend to feed my anxiety and thus multiply their damaging impact.

I'm beginning to appreciate just how important sleep is, not only in the recovery cycle of a conditioning program but simply for sustaining one's health and mental acuity.

One training mantra of ironheads like myself is: "Lift big, eat big, sleep big." I've never had any trouble with the first two (the workout description above illustrates the first, the unflattering profile in the photo immediately above attests eloquently to the second), but the third has always caused me more than my share of trouble.

Even as a child my sleep was uneven; as a school-age kid I tended to be nocturnal, a trait I also see in my 11-year-old William Wallace. Before meeting Korrin I was a chronic insomniac. Now I my sleep schedule is hopelessly confused, and I'm grateful if I get five or six hours' worth of cumulative sleep, let alone a solid bloc of deep REM sleep.

I honestly think that if I could somehow solve my sleeping disorders, I could drop 40-60 pounds in a very short time frame, and nail a 500 lb. bench press within a year. Ah, if only....