So... having got medical clearance last week, I went to the Y on Tuesday evening, not to swim, but to start a weight training program.
Now. If you know anything about me at all, I'm sure your first question is, "Erin! What book are you using?" So let's save time. I'm using a pair of books authored by Mark Rippetoe:
- Practical Programming for Strength Training, 3rd ed., Kindle version
- Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training, 3rd ed., paperback.
Some googling will let you know that this author's style is not to everyone's taste (sample quote: "The only legitimate use for a glove is to cover an injury... If your gym makes a lot of money selling gloves, you have another reason to look for a different gym. And if you insist on using them, make sure they match your purse.")
Given that, I can recommend another educational and inspiring source that is similarly no-nonsense but much less likely to bring back PTSD from high school gym class: stumptuous.com , written by Krista Scott-Dixon, who is only one inch taller than me. If nothing else, her article "Don't Fear the Free Weights" is a great place to start.
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Nevertheless, the Rippetoe books are thorough, detailed, and -- this part is important -- simple in their approach for the novice. I compared the advice in these books to another very popular weightlifting book The New Rules of Lifting for Women by Lou Schuler, and my impression was that the latter contains a lot of unnecessary shuffling around of many different exercises. This might keep it from getting boring, but it also means a lot of time spent on the learning curve. So: not for me.
Rippetoe suggests starting with four barbell exercises (links go to stumptuous.com so you can see what I am talking about):
The press and the bench press alternate, so you only do three at each workout. That's it. Alternate, three workouts a week. Cardio not required.
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Speaking of books, there's one more in this history. Of late, Mark's been implementing some of the principles in Training for the New Alpinism: A Manual for the Climber as Athlete by House and Johnston. I read through some of that book, and I liked its attitude of goal-specific training: not so much making the motions of training match the motions of your sport, but training for the particular mix of endurance, strength, and technical skill that your sport calls for.
Mark's interested in skiing and ice climbing and rock climbing, maybe running a 5 or 10k here and there, always looking about three months ahead to the next trip. My sport, on the other hand? Life with kids, and staying mobile and strong and able to choose many activities as I get older. I have modest but long-term goals.
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So, we read through the theory in the programming book together. While I had waited for my doctor's appointment, Mark started re-acquainting himself with overhead press, bench press, and pullups (which make an appearance a bit farther along in Rippetoe's program but are nevertheless known to be a good exercise for climbing).
I spent a long time Tuesday afternoon, while the kids were messing around with some new Minecraft feature, carefully taking notes about the squat and the overhead press. I've done both of them before, but it's been a long time; I think the last time I did weight training at all was before my 7yo was born.
I don't have any special weight lifting clothes or tape or anything. I wore my running capris, my cross-country racing flats, and a tee shirt. Mark wore the baby in the Boba carrier; I met him at the stairs after a few minutes warming up on a rowing machine. "Thanks for coming with me," I told him. "I know I've done this before, but I still feel like it's obvious I don't know what I'm doing."
"Why don't you do the overhead press while I've got the baby here, and then I'll take him down to the child care while we both work on the squat."
I went to the A-frame rack of small barbells, because I knew I would not likely to be able to start with the empty Olympic bar; it weighs 45 lbs all by itself, and most people can't lift as much in the overhead press as in the other lifts. "I'm only pressing fifty," Mark pointed out by way of reference. The small bars weigh twenty pounds, and the smallest plates are 2.5, meaning that the lightest barbell is 25 pounds. That is where I was to start.
Mark pointed out that the top peg of the A-frame was just about the right height for me to take the barbell into the correct position. And that is where the 25-pounder happened to be resting, so I gripped it and took it out of the rack, resting it at my collarbone.
It wasn't that heavy. I checked my notes: elbows forward, overhand grip, thumbs encircling, wrists straight. I rocked my body back and forth a couple of times, muttering, "Let's see..."
"It's not that complicated," said Mark, "just push it up till you lock your elbows."
I pushed it up to the ceiling and felt what it was like to be stable under the bar. Once it is all the way up, it isn't hard to hold it there; your elbows lock and that's it, you are a pillar in compression. The tough part is getting your face out of the way as the bar goes up and down around it, but that's harder-looking on paper than it was in the gym.
I brought it back down, and repeated it for a set of five. I didn't need to slow down; I could do more weight than that. We switched it out for the thirty-pound bar, and that was more difficult; I could tell I would not be able to lift five additional pounds, but I could press thirty pounds for three sets of five with only a little slowdown. So. Thirty pounds. I wrote it down.
Time for the squat. Mark toted the baby downstairs while I performed a few bodyweight squats. I am naturally quite flexible, my one genetic advantage, so it isn't hard for me to drop all the way down ("ass-to-grass," or ATG, as they say in the creepy bodybuilding forums). My heels stay down and my knees don't hurt, and I don't have any bad habits like looking at the ceiling or arching my back.
When Mark returned, we headed over to the squat rack -- and I instantly saw a problem.
Eight years ago I squatted at the gym in a proper squat cage, aka "power cage." These look like this:
The cage has three functions for the squatter (or the bench presser).
- First, it holds the bar for you while you change the plates.
- Second, it holds the bar for you on a pair of hooks, the height of which you can adjust, while you get into position under the bar.
- Third, it has a pair of adjustable safety rails that you set just below your range of motion. They are supposed to catch the bar if you drop it or crumple under it, so it doesn't destroy the floor (or, in the case of the bench press, crush you to death).
Unfortunately, in the intervening years, the Y got rid of the squat cage and replaced it with a squat rack. These look like this:
Ostensibly they perform the same three functions for the lifter who wishes to safely execute a squat. The hooks hold the bar for you while you change plates and get into position. And there are safety rails to catch the barbell if you drop it.
However, the safety rails are not adjustable; they are fixed. And guess what? They're too tall for me. If I were to squat inside such a rack, I'd get partway down and then the bar would go BANG and stop while I went the rest of the way down.
And probably too tall for a lot of other people, too. Even though I'm unusually short and unusually flexible, it seems to me that you only need to be unusually one or the other to hit the rack. I googled around and found lots of complaints from below-average-height males about the squat racks at their gyms. How annoying.
I talked to a staff member named Joe who agreed that it was a major bummer and added that he heard they were going to get rid of it and replace it with a squat cage sometime in the fall.
Putting an aerobic step inside the cage felt very unsafe, and I couldn't easily stop partway down. What I wound up doing was stepping back outside the safety rails, which is a stupid thing that nobody should ever do with a really, really heavy weight. At this point I'm only lifting the 45-pound bar; if I drop it, nobody's likely to get hurt.
If I'm lucky enough to progress so fast that the cage isn't here yet and I can't justify doing it without the safety, I'll just have to rope a couple of staff members into helping me -- because the squat requires two spotters, one on each end of the barbell. Either that or get Mark to spot from behind, a method which requires a certain level of comfort and/or intimacy with your spotter.
Three sets of five, and that was enough for the day.
When we fetched the baby back from his 20-minute stint in the child care, he wanted to go straight to me. I tucked him in the crook of my arm and instantly felt the fatigue I'd given myself. I was glad to transfer him to his car seat back at the van. The next morning everything felt warm and just a wee bit sore: not an unpleasant feeling, and I can tell that I worked hard. A completely different feeling from the post-swim sensations I am used to.
Next time, I learn the deadlift.