How to Lift Weights

by allthoughtswork

Image result for biceps

A 50-something keto bicycle racer once asked me online: “Okay, I joined a gym, now what?” Here’s what I told him.


Disclaimer: I ain’t a doc or a trainer but I did spend 24 years lifting alongside professional body builders, the Denver Broncos, and other pro athletes, so take our cumulative wisdom with a grain of salt. Ketoers love salt.

Okay, I’m going to give you a visual. You car is parked on a flat road. You lean down at the rear bumper and start to push. It seems like nothing’s happening but gradually you notice things beginning to move. Soon, it’s rolling freely and you’re not pushing anymore, you’re just steering it in the direction you want it to go because momentum has taken over.

That’s what the weight room is like. Strength leverages strength and you’ll only really need patience in the beginning. After that, you’ll be rolling. I want you to remember this when I’m advising you to start with tiny weights or, even more exasperating, none at all, while a bunch of glistening 20-somethings grunt 60# dumbbells into the air beside you at the mirror. Stick with me, kid, and you’ll get there with half the grunting and none of the pain.

First, some things.

  1. PAIN There is absolutely no reason to hurt at any time. If you go slow, you can avoid DOMS altogether. Yes, really. If you hear some gruff voice chuckle, “Hey, no pain, no gain, right, buddy?” that’s your cue to roll your eyes and leave the room. That bullcrap went out with mood rings and bell-bottoms. If you have tenacity and patience, this is going to be a cake walk. If you want to look like Daniel Craig by Christmas, well, I’m rolling my eyes and leaving the room.
  2. FLEXIBILITY The results are in: Longer, more limber muscles get stronger quicker. Plus, all that connective tissue around them is happier and more forgiving when you do something stupid. There’s still a lot of squabbling out there over static vs dynamic stretching but for now, just start very gently with something that makes sense to you and do it just until you can barely feel it pulling. Do it every day and after a year, you’ll be more limber than you ever thought possible. I can do the splits three different ways at 47 years old. In yer face, millennials.
  3. PLEASURE This is non-negotiable. If it sucks, you’ll waste energy thinking up ways to get out of it. If it’s fun, you’ll create momentum looking forward to it. Attitude is a chemical cascade inside your body that you can switch on and off with a single thought, so you might as well hit the gym ON. Your brain actually has something to say about how much you benefit from those biceps curls, too. People who practice the violin with pleasure develop more of the part of their brain needed for the activity and with greater speed than the ones who force themselves to trudge through lessons they hate. Takeaway: Don’t force yourself with motivation, inspire yourself with pleasure. Pick exercises you like and screw the guilt.
  4. LEVERAGE Your brain lays down new neural pipe for everything you think about and everything you do equally, it doesn’t know the difference. Read that sentence again because it’s fucking important. What that means is you can be strength training even when you’re not holding a dumbbell and you can be screwing yourself even when you are. It’s all about focus. Olympics athletes know this, they’ve been using Visual Motor Rehearsal (VMR) for years with spectacular results. They go over their routines in their mind until it’s second nature to their brain, then enjoy early mastery. Remember, your brain won’t know if you’re bench pressing or visualizing bench pressing, it’ll muster the troops either way. VMR only works with activities already programmed into your system so it’ll work for biking but (probably) not pole dancing (well, maybe, I don’t know you that well). Take a little time to read up on this and play with it once you’ve got your lifting routine down, you have no idea how powerful this is but these researchers do hereherehere, and here and so does NASA.
  1. TECHNIQUE Choosing your technique and split (how you break up your exercise routine to target different muscles over the course of the week) is going to be a little like keto in that you’ll have to experiment until you find one that feels right. I used the old school, yet wildly effective, Push-Pull-Leg split where I did all the upper body exercises that involved a pushing motion on Monday, all leg stuff on Wednesday, and all the upper body exercises that required a pulling motion on Friday. I climbed mountains on Sundays, so this spaced rest days out nicely. (Set up your longest bike rides furthest from leg day so lifting and biking don’t eat each other’s gains, e.g. bike on Saturday, do legs on Wednesday.) I alternated slow and regular reps every few months. Slow reps are where you lift 25 – 50% max weight in fewer reps in very slow motion so that your muscles are constantly flexed. It saves time, really balances out concentric and eccentric contractions, and abolishes bad form but you’ll want to switch it up with other techniques to keep strength steady. I rarely did max days except to test strength levels for fun. Guys will do these on a date night because it swells the tissue. Tread lightly with maxing out because I’ve noticed the testosterone can really flow during these sessions and limits can easily be ignored, then deeply regretted. Bragging about how much a max day hurt is NOT the sign of wise lifter, though you’ll hear it constantly. Commence eye rolling.

Okay, now you’re standing at the weight rack, inhaling an intoxicating blend of perspiration, inspiration, and leather. Believe it or not, you’re actually going to look forward to this olfactory trigger. Just thinking about it makes me want to adjust an imaginary pair of weight training gloves. Which reminds me….

  1. GEAR Check your gym’s rules on what you can bring into the weight room, a lot of places have inexplicable restrictions put in place because some idiot ruined it for the rest of us. The universal uniform is stable, closed shoes you can tighten and untighten, a shirt that covers your nipples, and pants that cover your secrets. Most places will insist that these be athletic gear, not jeans or sweaters or something.

Lifting chalk is for the sweaty-palmed who want stability, widely used by the pros.

Gloves are for anybody who A. Hates chalk; B. Doesn’t want callouses/blisters; or C. Wants grip assistance above and beyond optimized forearm strength. You can also wrap up with Ace bandages or athletic tape each time (handy during transitory hand and wrist injuries) but it gets pricey. Even with phenomenal grip strength, I used gloves because I ran a landscaping company 6 days a week back then and it was just too much to ask my palms to endure. Also, slow reps were smoother with the added grip. Most importantly, the knurling on equipment can run the gamut from mild to WTF and you never know which bar or barbell you’re going to be forced to use that day–the new one with teeth so sharp it feels like a sand shark is having angry hate sex your palm or the old one that is so smooth, it’d be easier trying to palm a wet beach ball. Tip: Leather bicycling gloves are often cheaper and better made than weight lifting gloves, so your shopping may already be done.

Straps are strips of heavy cloth or leather that you secure yourself with to the bar to make sure that puppy don’t slip. Only heavy lifters ever really need these but the physically impaired often use it as a hack.

Weightlifting belts are holy, yet some eschew them, championing core exercises and proper form over all else. Yes, form is essential, do it right or go home. However, if you have any back injuries, former back injuries, other relevant medical considerations, or are lifting insane amounts of weight (power lifting), a good belt might be all that’s standing between you and a frowning orthopedic surgeon with a clipboard. Since you’re enhancing your aerobic sports performance rather than adding bulk, you probably don’t need one for the way you’re going to lift. On the other hand, if you get hooked (endorphins, baby!) and decide to go heavier while you’re still rockin’ an old herniation (Sometimes They Come Back isn’t just an old Stephen King movie), a soft Velcro belt can be your friend. I wore one to protect a nasty L4 – L5 herniation that prevented me from working my core to my satisfaction. I know the thick leather weightlifting belts look badass but they’re for the guys with no necks lifting small cars with their pinkies. Put it back.

Worn down 2 x 4s and wood chocks are usually laying around a good gym for raising your heels or toes during specific leg work. Also, long wooden dowels are typically in a corner somewhere for stretching moves. If you’re lucky, they’ll have foam mats and tubes, too. The mats are for floor work when you’ve got to kneel or lay down for a move (the floor is rubber but there’s often crap embedded in there and if you have bony knees…) and the foam tubes are for slipping over the bar during squats, etc. to protect your shoulders. That evil knurling is everywhere.

Most of the above equipment is often available at the sign-in desk, so ask if you don’t see it.

  1. ETIQUETTE The standard Don’t Be a Dick principle applies but weight rooms are foreign countries with their own rules that only the regulars know. Here’s how to blend in and be accepted by the natives.

a. If someone’s using it and you want to, wait until they’re done with their set, lean in, and ask, “Can I work in?” which means you want to trade off. If that’s not your thing or the answer is no, ask, “How many sets you got?” This is their cue to let you know how long before your turn. Then, walk away and do something else but keep tabs on them. A decent regular will sort of find you with their eyes to let you know it’s yours now, so stay in their line of sight. If another patron tries to horn in ahead of you, fight to the death. Just kidding, but I’ve seen some shit.

b. Talk to someone during their set at your peril. They’re concentrating, they ain’t got no time for chit-chat. Wait until their weights are in a resting position again and they’ve taken a few recovery breaths before opening your gob. The only exceptions to this rule are when you are coaching them during a spot or informing them that the building is on fire.

c. If someone asks you to spot them, just say, “I’m kind of new here” to get out of it. You’re not obligated to spot anybody at any time but if you want to learn, just watching others will get you there. Spotting is the classic way to learn names and make friends but again, no pressure. Never spot a weight heavier than you can lift off of somebody.

d. The Golden Rule applies, so put your toys away, don’t clang them around or drop them (grip strength, people!), don’t step between a lifter and the mirror during their set, and give people space because you never know when someone’s gonna suddenly reach out with a set of dumbbells and smack you in the nuts with a twenty-pounder while doing flies. I’ve seen it happen. Okay, I might’ve done it. Deodorant is a must and cologne is anathema. Keep all bodily fluids inside your body. The sweat you can’t control is easily controlled with a towel. That you will wash regularly. Same goes for gloves and shorts, Mr. Stinky. Tip: Keep straight isopropyl alcohol in a spray bottle and hit everything not leather or wood, it neutralizes odors on contact.

e. It’s apparently a law now that every gym must blast pop music while simultaneously broadcasting random talk shows and sporting events on a dozen flat screens like a scene from Minority Report. This is annoying but so is Kenny Loggins creeping out of your ear buds and into your neighbor’s zen. Think before you crank. I wore foam earplugs for years, now I just work out at home. (sigh)

f. If you can’t live without it, don’t bring it into the gym because if it disappears, nobody cares. I tucked a car key into my sock during my workout, everything else in my bag was disposable. Come on, unless you’re an attending physician or an emergency rescue worker on call, you can leave the bloody phone in your car for the next 45 minutes, it’s good for you. I see too many 30-second breaks turn into 10-minute texting marathons while warm muscles grow cold. Get your mind off Farcebook and back in the game.

g. Water/non-alky beverages in a plastic or metal bottle are okay, everything else will get you glared at, then kicked out, even gum. (I’ll admit I’ve snuck bites from a protein bar in desperation once or twice after a long, hectic day. What happens at the rack, stays at the rack, but never let ’em see you chew.)

h. It’s okay to laugh at people doing stupid things, just don’t let them catch you, ‘specially not that big guy in the corner with the unibrow. If he spots you giggling at him, tell him someone told you to read the instructions for the exercise machines as if they were instructions for sex. Okay, you can tell him it was me.

i. Read the instructions for the exercise machines as if they were instructions for sex. This isn’t a rule, it’s just fucking hilarious and can really perk up a dull day: “Do not overload; Keep hands and clothing clear of all moving parts; Do not use if broken; If you are confused, ask an attendant to assist you.” Cracks me up every time.


9 Comments to “How to Lift Weights”

  1. phew, after reading all this, I think i’ll continue giving the gym a miss – sounds like too much work

    i’ll stick to exercising – lifting bottles weights – at home

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I came across this exercise suggested for seniors, to build muscle strength in the arms and shoulders. The article suggests doing it three days a week.
    Begin by standing on a comfortable surface, where you have plenty of room at each side. With a 5-lb. potato sack in each hand, extend your arms straight out from your sides, and hold them there as long as you can. Try to reach a full minute, then relax. Each day, you’ll find that you can hold this position for just a bit longer. After a couple of weeks, move up to 10-lb. potato sacks. Then 50-lb. potato sacks, and then eventually try to get to where you can lift a 100-lb. potato sack in each hand and hold your arms straight for more than a full minute.
    Once you feel confident at that level, return to the 5-lb sacks, but this time put a potato in each sack…

    Liked by 1 person

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