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[My friend Laszlo, who has contributed several excellent
pieces for this site (articles 52, 87,108 & 135), emailed me recently with a
story idea. He wanted me to write about training on the road or under atypical
circumstances. “Sounds like a good idea,” I wrote back, “but you’re much
better equipped to write it than me. I don’t like to travel and on the rare
occasions when I do almost never go to a gym, just walk.” Laszlo acknowledged
traveling a lot--Mexico City, Germany, England, Chile, and Katherine, Australia
are just a few of the places he’s found a place to train--and preceded to tell
me about training near the equator on the island of New Guinea: “To get
to Tembagapura you have to travel on a highway that rises from the jungle,
frequently traveling on the ridges of mountain escarpments that were shaved off
at the top, through mists and clouds, to the famous Ertsbert mine.” Sure made
my point, didn’t he? His article follows. As usually it’s filled with
wisdom, attitude and his unique perspective. He says it’s mainly for
beginners, but this experienced trainer found it most absorbing. He calls it
“Common Sense for Beginners,” but I believe you’ll agree it’s much
was a kid reading the instruction manual that came with my Billard Barbell Set,
I wasn't sure whether you were supposed to count the weight of the bar or just
the plates you put on the ends. I mean the bar didn't have its weight stamped on
it like the plates did. Was that supposed to mean you ignored it? Well, in case
any of you are wondering, of course, you count the weight of the bar! You're
lifting it aren't you? This is so obvious it took me about a year to figure out.
And it was only after I read a few muscle mags that the truth seeped into my
Novices don't know the stuff that's obvious to a Ronnie Coleman or Bill Pearl or a Navy SEAL. My good friend Johnny, who started training in his fifties, had no idea you could walk into most any gym anywhere and train for a small fee. He just stopped training when he went on an out-of-town business trip. So this article is for all the Johnnies and young Laszlos out there who need basic common-sense information.
First of all, check your membership terms before hitting the road. You may be allowed to work out at any gym of your brand. This is true of 24 HR Fitness, Gold's, and others that offer multi gym memberships. Second, your gym may be affiliated with some network of gyms that allow you to train for free or at least at a reduced rate. So check on this, too, when you walk in. Third, just pay the ten bucks and be happy. Isn't a good workout worth the price of a lunch? Only a few snooty, frou-frou gyms like Bally's have a strict members-only policy.
Once you're in, do your normal workout. Why wouldn't you? If it works at home, it will certainly work when you're on the road. If you can't find the exact machine you're accustom to, use something similar. Who cares whether it's Nautilus, Cybex or Hammer Strength? The slight difference in an unfamiliar machine may even induce a more vigorous response.
If your workout is based on free weights, you have a big advantage: iron is the same anywhere you go. If you do cleans [lifting bar from floor to shoulders] or any standing pressing movements, be sure to look for a bar that doesn't have knurling in the middle where it can cut your neck. Most gyms have one or two smooth bars lying around somewhere. (As to why most Olympic bars have knurling in the middle, it's beyond me. The only purpose for it is to aid in one handed lifts and the last time I saw anyone do a one-handed lift with an Olympic bar is never.)
Oh, by the way, a good way to distinguish a serious gym from a "training spa" when you're phone surveying from the motel is to ask whether they have a squat rack and Olympic barbell. If they say yes to the first, it's probably an OK gym, but be sure they're not talking about a Smith machine. (I hate those for squats.) If they also say yes to the second, you're just about certain it's a decent gym. But be prepared to describe what an Olympic bar looks like, since most personal trainers don't have a clue.
I've trained in gyms all over the world including, Munich, Santiago, Darwin (Australia), Bangkok, and all major US cities. The most exotic place I ever trained was in the private mining town of Tembagapura at 8,000 feet on the island of New Guinea. That gym was about as primitive as the natives, but it had a few bars, lots of plates and a basic rack. No matter where you are, there's bound to be a decent gym somewhere nearby. If the phone listings look bleak, call a health food store. Sometimes people in such places have leads to small or semi private gyms that might let you in. If you sound reasonably knowledgeable and pleasant, most lifters will be happy to accept you. After all, there's still a camaraderie that connects serious trainers even if you're only a beginner.
Training in a Rush
It's 5:00 o’clock. You're having dinner with your Big Kahuna client at 7. Tossing in travel time, cool down time, and get ready time leaves you with exactly half an hour for your workout. There's no time for three sets of six exercises plus warm-ups. What now? Do you just skip the workout? Heck no! Do total body exercises and let your first set be the warm-up. What's a "total body exercise?” Well, try a Dave Draper favorite: repetition clean and press. You clean the bar, press it, lower it to your shoulders, drop it to your thighs, clean it and press it again. If you've never tried this, you'll be amazed how it gets you huffing and puffing as it sends your shoulder girdle and arms into lactic acid shock. (OK, OK, you don't have to do it that hard. Just do it hard enough to achieve personal satisfaction. That applies to any exercise.) Of course, it's also working your lats, hips, thighs, forearms, and calves.
Another interesting one I like is the squat and press. If you do this as a front squat, it will be very difficult. So use a light weight and get used to it. One of the great joys of training is finding an unfamiliar exercise that forces you to start out light. You will then reap the satisfaction of making rapid gains from workout to workout.
Or try it as a back squat and press. The balance is much easier, but be very careful in lowering the bar back to your neck. Let it meet the upper traps, not your spine, and don’t hit the back of your head! In both styles of squat-press try to rise up as fast as you can so the bar flies up with the force of your leg acceleration. Trust me, no matter how vigorously you use your legs, your arms and shoulders will get plenty tired. Meanwhile, the fact that you are rising from the deep squat so rapidly will give your legs a decent workout even though the weight will be light.
If all of the above sound too ambitious to you, then just plain back squats are great. In fifteen minutes you ought to be able to do three decent sets. Then devote the final fifteen minutes to one good upper body exercise: bent over rows, incline bench press, lat pull downs, or something similar. Just be sure it's a "big" exercise for big muscle groups. Forget about those odd little twisty-wristy type exercises that I see so many people waste their time on. Where did they ever learn these goofy time wasters? If you push a dumbbell up, twisting your wrist will add no benefit but will certainly distract you from using as much weight as you could. If you're addicted to this twisty stuff, break the habit and move up to serious weights.
While I'm at it,
here's another exercise no one would miss: bench-pressing with your feet
on the bench. This variant claims to be safer and better at building "core
strength" (whatever that is). Let's look at these claims. Trainers claim
it's safer because raising your feet makes the lower back go flat. Yet it's well
understood that in its power position the lower back is curved like a bow. If
you were standing up, you could not possibly lift any weight with a so-called
"flat back." You'd collapse forward if you managed to do it at all.
Besides, in the bench press you're lying down: there's very little stress
on the back even when your feet are on the floor. (I don't advocate the bench
press form of competitive power lifters who exaggerate the curve so much that
only the shoulders and hips touch the bench.)
As for building balance or core strength, how does the feet-up position help? It takes hardly any balance to do a lying-down exercise in the first place. So exactly what balancing skill are you improving? The ability to toss your four-year-old in the air while lying in bed perhaps? As for core strength, that's just plain strength in my book and you get it by lifting heavier weights, not by struggling to keep a light barbell balanced. If you do bench presses, just do them with your feet securely on the floor.
you'd like to include aerobic exercise in that half hour, try circuit training.
This means walking rapidly from one station to another and doing a sequence of
exercises. Because of the minimal rest time, you’ll have to use much lighter
weights than usual; but if you move rapidly you will not only earn sore muscles
but a pounding heart and gasping breath. A possible circuit might be hanging leg
raise, cleans (or deadlift), arm curls, pullover and press, and back squat.
Two circuits will be all you can squeeze in but they will be plenty. Another
option, if you're really bored with your routine, is the random method:
wander over to any machine or weight station that’s open and lift whatever
poundage you find, and then move on quickly to another. Based on my experience,
in most gyms there will be very few times you will have to reduce the weight,
but probably several where you'll want to increase it.
Training when Sick
No, I don't mean throwing up sick or sick as a dog. I mean "coming down with a cold" sick or "not feeling so good" sick. I've actually had some truly excellent workouts while I was coming down with a cold. I've even managed to break personal records in between bouts of nose blowing. Trust me, it won't kill you. Your immune system is usually in high gear during the early stages of a cold and you can convert this to a great workout. The catch is that immediately afterward you have to go to bed or lie down for a while. Maybe the workout will help you get the ten hours (or more) of sleep that you really need to speed up your recovery. If you have serious work to do afterwards, then skip the workout. The body can take only a finite amount of stress.
A recent assignment took me to the Dominican Republic. After some fifteen hours
of travel that began with a red-eye out of Portland, Oregon, I arrived at my
hotel feeling tired, headachy, bleary, and fully experiencing what in the
nineteenth century was called "general malaise." I took a quick nap in
my room, which had the effect of making me want to take a long nap. None of my
symptoms went away. Yet, somehow I knew that a decent workout would help.
Fortunately the hotel gym actually had Olympic bars and benches (no squat rack,
but no way was I going to be squatting heavy). I did a few dumbbell exercises by
way of warm up, and then plunged into the clean and press. I did a set with 135
and noticed that the other people in the gym were staring at me. In a hotel gym
45 lb plates rarely get hoisted, certainly not in a standing position. I guess
the attention energized me a bit; I proceeded to do a set of three clean and
press with 185, then curls with 115, a set of squat-press with 115, and finally
a few bench presses ending with 8 x 225. I was certainly not pushing my limits;
but I wasn't just going through the motions either. I don't think it took me
longer than a sitcom to finish. After a shower the malaise was gone, nothing but
honest tiredness remained. I slept well and was fully energized the next day for
my photo assignment, which went very well indeed.
Now let's suppose
you've started your workout and it's not going so well. Let's say you intended
to finish your squats with 10 x 225. But hey caramba, 185 feels heavy!
You struggle with six reps. What’s more, your knees hurt. Now what? The
Marines say, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going." Yeah,
grit your teeth, get psyched, and do what has to be done. Right? Well, You're
not a Marine! There's no drill sergeant looking over your shoulder. No
teammates are counting on you. You're not going for Olympic Gold. You're
just training for good health and the fun of it. So forget the squats. Do
something else. Pick some less stressful exercise that you're not used to and
see how well you can do it. Try reverse curls or French presses or narrow grip
bench presses or double reverse Zottman curls--anything that gets you out of the
grind and into a zone of pleasant challenge. That way you can leave the gym with
a sense of accomplishment, and with your knees intact. You can do the heavy
squats another day when you're back to normal.
If you have an athletic background, it can be tough to back away as I suggest. Your in-grained guilt mechanism screams, "Shame! Shame!" But let me assure you from personal experience, a can do attitude might end in a great big can’t: two months for recovery from muscle injury or eighteen months for partial recovery from tendon and ligament injury, even more if you have a tear. So be smart. Pay attention to your body's exquisite warning systems.
If you find yourself having bad days often, it's a sure sign there is something wrong with your workout. You've probably been doing the same routine too long. You're burned out. Another likely culprit is a program that some expert gave you with steadily increasing percentages that you can't quite meet. Either way, dump your program. Dump your favorite exercises, even if they're "the best" according to some expert. A change can refresh your system. When you return to your favorites in three or six months you may find that you've improved even without having done them! This has happened to me many times. Knee injuries I've had for the past two years made it very painful for me to do leg lifts on a bench with a dumbbell between my feet. For years that had been one of my favorite ab moves. So I substituted another lower-ab exercise. When my knees were feeling better, I decided to try my old favorite again. Much to my surprise, I easily did fifteen reps with a 45-pound dumbbell. I had never been able to do more than twelve reps with that weight before, and the last two had been exceedingly hard. Now it was a piece of cake. Change is good.
Now let's suppose you haven't trained at all for two weeks, three weeks, or four weeks. Too many pressures, too many demands on your time, the boss, the wife, the husband, the kids, the family, Christmas, St. Anselm's day and so on--golden excuses, all perfectly rational, even downright compelling. After a layoff like that, there's no hope, right? You've only been training for three months (two months, four months, whatever) so everything you've gained is gone. You'll have to start from scratch. It will be so depressing. You can't stand the thought. Might as well give it up now and go back to TV and guilt.
No, No, No! You won't have to start over from scratch. You haven't "lost it all." That's a myth. The training effect lasts longer than people think. It will take six months of no training to lose three months of training and a year to lose six months. If you switched to another form of exercise (say bike riding) you've hardly lost anything at all. But let's assume you did no training of any sort. After a two-week layoff, you might actually be stronger! It depends on how hard you were training when you quit. Even if your training had been very light, you can expect to lose no more than 10 to 15%. If you had been doing ten reps with 85 pounds, expect to drop to eight or nine. After a four-week layoff, you might drop to six or seven reps. I wouldn't expect it to be worse than that. Is that really so depressing given that you started your training with six reps at 50lbs?
Just start back lower than where you left off. Be conservative. You will find, to your amazed pleasure, that regaining lost strength happens far faster than gaining it in the first place. Even after a four-week layoff, I'd expect you to be up to par in less than two weeks. After that you're back on track for new gains.
So don't curl up on the couch if you've been a bad boy or girl. Just walk back in the gym and heft some iron. And by the way, stop giving yourself excuses to cease training. You can train through practically any crisis in your life. The training might even help you weather the storm. Years ago, I was informed of my mother's death while on a photo assignment in Los Angeles. That night I went to a gym and wept as I trained. It soothed me. What good would it have done me to sit brooding in a depressing motel room? Training imposes a precious regularity on our lives and helps compensate for the stresses that leap on our backs like ravening tigers.
Don't give yourself excuses to blow off training. Modify your routine to fit the circumstances. If you quit training for a while, just start up again. And remember that you can find a decent gym almost anywhere in the world.
Ripped Enterprises, 528 Chama, N.E., Albuquerque, New Mexico 87108, Phone (505) 266-5858, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, FAX: (505) 266-9123. Office hours: Monday-Friday, 8-5, Mountain time. FAX for international orders: Please check with your local phone book and make sure to include the following: 505 2669123
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