Thursday morning, training with J. As has become our habit thus far in 2017, we have a new List on Monday and then go through a review day on Thursday. Today we had a little extra time – tribe member who usually occupies the Thursday 8 a.m. slot had to reschedule to Friday instead this week – so we had some extra time to really get technical about this List.
The better health quest is not a destination to be reached, it’s a journey and a process. Where I once, very naively, might have thought that exercise was learn to do something, do it, be done with it someday in favor of something else or another, more advanced, more effective exercise.
Oh how silly that thought has become.
In truth, the exercise component of the better health quest is an organic and living process. As I have discovered through the months, there is always a new tweak or enhancement or cue to explore to make the exercise better for me, or me more skilled with the exercise.
I was heartened to realize I am not the only member in trainer J’s tribe who does not always feel the exercises in the places as we are going through it. Frequently what I cannot feel working in session makes itself known a few hours later in the form of fresh aches and pains. More than that, though, the cueing evolves as well.
Today was almost magical in the new cues J presented and explained to me. I am totally thrilled out by the broad application of the invisible arms or the feet and thighs together for stability and keeping glutes and abs tight.
J’s test kitchen, our affectionate nickname assigned to the process of J’s study of evolving training cues, enhancements, added value experiences is ongoing. It occurred to me again today that our training partnership is symbiotic (meant in the nicest connotations possible). I know I benefit from his research, reading and following other fitness pros, and just striving for a cycle of continuous improvement. Exercises are added, sometimes they disappear, but training for me never gets stale, boring, routine, or monotonous. While I am not the newbie that I was 20 months ago, I still have so much to learn and to master.
Thinking today about my present positive outlook and intense curiosity about the limitations and boundaries of my own body and its potential to grow muscle and shed fat, ongoing success seems impossible to avoid.
This is perhaps the most satisfactory key takeaway yet.
What We Did
A1 Freemotion Squat Machine
A2 Floor Seated Dual Cable Lat Pull-downs
A3 Dual Cable Decline Chest Press
A4 Dual Cable Reverse Fly
A5 Dual Cable Straight-Arm Pull-downs
B2 Resist Rotation Presses (square stance)
C1 Glute Kickbacks or Donkey Kicks
C2 Long Rope Low-High Chops
C3 Dual Cable Bent-over Triceps Kickbacks
C4 Dual Cable Biceps Curl
How It Felt
Today was the variety pack on the Freemotion squat machine. We did our usual frog-stance version of the squats, then some 1.5 squats, and finally with the feet closer together to emulate a power squat on the machine. Falling in love with this machine all over again. More than that, though, we discussed the pretensioning of the glutes and quads on the upward elevation portion of the exercise. My goodness, what a change in the way the squats feel. For me, the squat feels more powerful, the movement smoother. While J and I have been over the pretensioning on exercises many, many times, this was the first time we have gone over the pretensioning in both the glutes and quads.
The floor seated dual cable lat pull-downs – I am getting better at the plop myself onto the floor and then climbing back to my feet portion of this one. Could be all the lunges I have been practicing, or my lack of fear for what will happen when I land on my bum, but I felt perfectly confident and graceful getting situated on the floor. From there, we again reviewed the chest up first, then shoulders back cue. In this, the order is significant. Pushing chest up and forward tends to automatically push the shoulders back and behind the ears (where they belong, not shrugged up around the ears). Almost as important as that, though, is not bending/leaning from the lower back. Chest up and forward/shoulders back tends to put the upper back arch into play as well while pulling down on the handles. This particular brand of cueing crosses a multitude of exercises. Looking ahead to tomorrow’s List of the day, I am already thinking about the cues and where they should be implemented and improve my proficiency and competency with all my Lists.
First of really exciting new things today began with the dual cable decline chest press. From the title of the exercise, the exercise is supposed to be impacting the chest most strongly. In my case, I have felt it in the chest, but also the arms and shoulders and triceps as well. So maybe not as focused in the chest? Still, not a terrible thing. I have learned a lot about the essential shape and how it should be done. But today – today we had a magic new cue. Today J said to imagine pressing without any arms. I know, I know – sounds over the top, way too woo woo to work. That said, it is a shockingly effective cue. Watching J demonstrate what I normally do, have been doing, and then demonstrate with the “imagine no arms” cue in mind, I could see the chest muscles tightening and contracting and moving in a different way, assuming most of the burden of the work. When it was my turn and I tried it, I was completely stunned at what a difference it made. Suddenly the press was coming from my shoulders and not my arms, and I could, and can, feel it in my chest muscles. J assures me the same cue will work on other types of presses, so I am eager to get to my own practice and test it on Saturday on the bench. Yep, exercise nerdiness of the first order.
The next big-ass cue came with the dual cable reverse fly. No secret to anyone reading this or who actually knows me that I have this chronic shrugging problem when it comes to exercise. Plus I tend not to want to stand tall and keep abs and glutes tight when appropriate. J has been working with me on inching feet closer together whenever we do exercises that require standing tall and shoulders back. Today, he had me put feet together, touching like sneakers on the shoe rack at home (to conserve space, have A LOT of shoes), and squeeze thighs together as tightly as possible. Lo and behold, that automatically lends itself to tight glutes and abs, not back movement. Chest up (first), shoulders back (second), stretch arms out wide to get the deepest contraction – by golly it worked! I thought I would be more weeble-wobbly without the wider stance, but no, stood up straight they worked beautifully. I can still feel them now.
The feet and thighs together cue was also a game-changer for the dual cable straight-arm pull-downs. Game. Changer. The shoulder shrug thing is nothing new, nor is the recent chest up (first), shoulders back (second) cueing from the last couple of sessions. Combining those with the feet and thighs together, it is far easier to stand tall and pull cable all the way down and then push it down and back behind me into a complete stretch and contraction. Suddenly I can actually do this without thinking stand tall, shoulders back, chest up, pull straight down.
With today’s squat-row, we initially focused primarily on the row portion. The newish chest up (first) and shoulders back (second) cue came into play yet again. Adding to this, today’s golden parachute cue of pretending I have no arms. Before, the cue was use hands like hooks to hold the handles and pull more with the shoulders. Being armless in my head works better. Sounds weird, sounds strange, but hey, it works for me and makes me pull with my shoulders, work the upper arch, and keep the shrugging at bay. Now, I have been doing some version of rows since about week 2, yet my tendency to shrug persists. Apparently years of sitting at a computer and typing trump 20+ months of working at not shrugging when shoulders should be down and back. When we added the squat in the second set, I found the cueing worked far more smoothly than it has in recent outings.
It does not seem the resist rotation presses (square stance) should be as challenging as they are in reality. First item of note, stay behind the cable. For whatever reason, I found myself in front of the cable and at an incorrect angle to make this work most effectively. Slight bend in the knees, rib tucked in yet without tucking glutes as well, slow press from the sternum without completely unbending elbows, hold for 3 seconds, return to start. When I have my stance and set-up right, I can feel it in my obliques. Still working hard at getting the set-up right.
Love, love, love the step-press. Not a lot of correcting to do, other than to extend arm in the press forward with the shoulder. Definitely aware that I have arms with this one, but stepping forward firmly and pressing, extending the whole arm to the shoulder. Joked with J that have warned M that I am getting pretty good with the forward pressing, punching motions. He better be scared.
J inserted a set of cable glute pull-throughs because we had been discussing it. The pull-throughs look strange, are awkward, and they are proving challenging to master, if only because I am not practicing them on my own. For that alone this was good reason for going through them again, because it illustrates why I am in the gym and practicing Lists on my own so consistently. But I am getting the general idea, even if my execution remains imperfect. However, it’s good enough to know that I feel that contraction right smack dab in the center of my glutes.
We went into the fluffy cuffies and glute kickbacks and donkey kicks, doing sets that included 10 reps of each. Glute kickbacks I am trying to get the leg as high and as parallel to the floor as possible, and I believe I am getting better with these. Same is true of the donkey kicks – love donkey kicks – and for this I need to focus on getting heel higher and up toward the ceiling. Anymore, I have made love affair with single leg exercises.
The long rope low-high chops – better, but still imperfect. I have gotten the basic shape and process down and know where my feet should be in relation to the cable, but still
know feel they are imperfect in critical ways. I wonder – should I be bending more at the waist at the start, or sort of getting lower by bending the knees? Or does it even matter that much? I did learn today by observing the way J held the rope that the arm/hand furthest from the cable stayed sort of tucked in place, and the hand/arm pulling up was straight out in front and pushing upward at the end of the motion. Not across, more a twist and push forward from the shoulder. Monday it seems I wanted to have both arms extended outward, but it makes more sense and feels more natural to have the further elbow bent and arm sort of tucked up against the side. Got the feet settled as well after pivoting around my office with imaginary rope in hand.
We reviewed the dual cable bent-over tricep kickbacks, and my new focus is raising elbows higher and pulling the cables back. The closest shape that comes to mind is the bent over dumbbell rows, only instead of using shoulders (and invisible arms) to pull weights up and down I am staying with elbows in the upper position and pulling cables up by extending elbows. Feel these all the way to the core of the tricep. I experimented with letting the arms and elbows drop slightly and could not feel the triceps as strongly. This is a new mad love for triceps.
For the dual cable biceps curl, need to remind myself to keep the elbows in front of me and to not completely straighten the elbow. While still not a huge fan of curls, I find these and the concentration curls are growing on me. Again, the feet together causes the glutes and abs to tighten, me to stand up straight, keep chest up (first) and shoulders back (second) and maintain that posture through the series of biceps curls.
Kitchen Sink Thoughts
The little things on training days are meaningful. Stories about other tribe members’ successes are so exhilarating and uplifting, even if their goals are not even close to my own. I do not ever aspire to be a powerlifter, perfectly happy slogging through my multitude of reps and sets with lighter weights. But I am thrilled out of my mind when one of the powerlifting ladies in my age range crests a new plateau in her training pursuits. I marvel at her capabilities and reimagine what I myself may accomplish with time and persistent practice.
A good friend hurt herself in a crossfit class/session yesterday. This is her second or third shoulder-related injury, all of which had her on the couch and not exercising at all for at least a week, the last was almost a month. Visit to the doctor on her calendar today. We are approximately the same age, and since she began crossfit 18 months ago she has lost an impressive 26 lbs. despite the injuries that have prevented her from exercise on a few different occasions now. It is an admirable accomplishment, and the almost immediate results and the rah-rah-rah nature of her crossfit gym has her hooked.
Every time we discuss the differences between her program and my own, I have a stronger understanding that our goals and desires for better health and lifestyle changes may be similar yet our willingness to take risks is very, very different. Injury is one of my biggest fears, and working with J in a one-on-one setting offers plenty of opportunities for him to correct mistakes that could cause me to hurt myself somehow. Breaking one of my own rules about comparing myself to my friend, we are about the same age and are the same sort of average when it comes to being gifted in physical fitness pursuits. If anything, she has/had great confidence and willingness to try newer programs and diets to reach her goals more quickly. Think tortoise (me) and hare (her). She loves the fast-pace, energy, and enthusiasm of her crossfit gym, and frankly it sounds about as intriguing as the idea of deliberately stepping out into the path of a hurricane knowing stepping back out to safety is outside my control.
While our approaches differ, I believer our new-found eagerness to increase our exercise consumption is well matched. A difference, though: her excitement increases with pounds and inches lost, mine with just the mastery over my own body and its abilities. As my personal muscularity has increased – and I do not mean body builder style bulky, I mean less fat and more muscle on my frame – so has my desire to understand and educate myself about the span of possibilities.
Just lately here, my fascination with correct form has evolved into something of an obsession. My practice focus presently remains on the 2016 Lists of the last quarter – upper and lower body splits and such with regular and generous dashes of the dumbbell matrix – the 2017 Lists will probably gravitate toward the top of my practice routines before too long. My latest focus on perfecting form on the 2016 upper/lower Lists is a lot consuming, and sometimes I go slower than J likely intended in my pursuit of excellence.
It truly is all good. I spend a lot of time working at moving my body in specific and deliberate ways, and the strength and endurance is layering itself in with every practice and ever set. I like knowing that. Maybe it shrinks my frame, or reduces the number that pops up on the scale. The numbers I worry about – my glucose monitor – are looking good and stable.
What’s more: I feel good and stable. Strangely, it continues to improve and get better.
M just walked into the office and told me he had read on Facebook that people who post their workouts online are psychopaths. Hmmm. Probably said and posted by someone who hates exercise, does not want to try to become better at it, and resents regular folks who do not look like physique models writing about their training sessions.
Oh well. Pretty sure I’m not a psychopath, but even if I were, probably all real psychopaths say and think that about themselves.
Chatting with M, with runner friends, with friends who walk or crossfit or do a lot of yoga, the common theme is that we all want to age gracefully and improve or protect our health. Whatever our individual motivations, whatever keeps us going, keeps us getting up and moving is a good path to pursue. There is no single right answer, no one-size-fits-most when it comes to exercise and better health quests.
But I do enjoy the discussions about what folks are doing and why.
Part of my writing process with the recaps on training days is that I leave the post window open throughout the day and write notes, thoughts, pieces when I need a mental break and during lunch, typically finishing at home in the evenings. But when I am in the office, I sometimes stand up, sit down, occasionally even lay down and pantomime whatever we went through that day, especially with there is new or significant cueing involved. Yep, exercise nerdiness and its finest. My receptionist and associates are accustomed to my eccentricities and will frequently ask me what it is, precisely, I am doing or trying to recall. Today it was my receptionist, who walked in while I was trying to recall my stance for the dual reverse flys and the resist rotation press. Only he could easily see the invisible arms that I was pretending did not exist.
Frankly, I love that about me. I love that I am completely unembarrassed to be found waving my arms around trying to remember how something felt this morning so I can memorialize it here for later review. My receptionist and the associates I work with know I am completely immersed and truly DIG this weighty weight stuff, so none of them are at all surprised that my mind is mulling it over long after I walk out of the gym.
Since I seem to have no to few other hobbies, my gazelle-intense focus on the exercise seems perfectly understandable. One of the other tribe members told me not to get old, and I said quite sincerely that I am striving to arrest any further aging.
I am starting to think I may be making progress with that as well.