PT-26: Basics, beyond, and back again

Thursday morning, training with J. And it was glorious. And I’m sure there are folks out there reading that wishing I would come up with other adjectives to describe our sessions, or that I would talk smack and be realistic about how hard, painful, and whatever other negative word people use about exercise. Funny, I was once one of them, and yet I cannot come up with a harsh word to say about training days. Progress.

Key Takeaways

I still love, Love, LOVE review days. J confessed this morning that he never knows what to expect with review days, whether there will be little or nothing to talk about or if there will be significant corrections and/or enhancements. Me, I don’t care much one way or the other, except maybe the less corrective action days might be boring for him to watch me go through the List of the day almost flawlessly. I must admit, the idea of that makes me laugh. The idea of us having nothing to talk about makes me laugh even harder.

One of the biggest lessons from these many months of training, every body, every person has different skills and abilities. “Almost flawless” for me with an exercise might be less desirable form for someone stronger, more experienced with exercise, or more flexible. If comparison is the thief of joy, it is also a source of depression and despair and an inferiority complex for me. I do observe other members, and I like seeing what they do, how they are doing it, the expressions on their faces. The best are those who concentrate so fiercely, or who smile as if they are having a lot of fun in the process. Either way, it makes me feel encouraged. While I do not have the trainer eye (thankfully), I now understand enough to wonder when I see someone doing something different or that J has specifically cautioned me against or is working to train me away from. There is no sneering in my head about how wrong they are and how they should hire J to teach them correctly, because I have no idea how it feels to their particular body. Always I hope they are not going to hurt themselves.

But I do not feel inferior or superior or as if I am somehow losing or gaining in the process. On the drive home, I posited that my better health adventure, the exercise leg of it, is akin to tunneling the through the thickest part of the biggest glacier using an ice cream scoop. It takes a long time to make much discernable progress. However, as my pile of perfectly shaped snowballs will attest, I am doing something and I am making progress, even if it seems like I have barely made a dent in this big giant project. All the thoughts of what I would do with that pile of snowballs, who would be unsafe from my aim and whether or not I would have some catapulting device to extend my range – well, let us just say I am grinning enormously imagining the havoc I would wreak on a few select folks and leave it at that.

Practice continues the big dividing line between me improving and me wondering why I am not improving. This week I was had a practice with the huffy-puffy of last week, and for the most part all went well. It IS huffy-puffy kind of work, and even my fancy-smancy FitBit watch agrees there is a big difference in heart rates from trying for the peppier pacing. From review week, to trying on my own, I am better at it. In my mind there is always room for improvement, whether it is better form, weightier-weight, or simply focusing and going for higher intensity (aka: more oomph in the huffy-puffy), yet I feel great about my effort. This is so foreign to me, still new enough to make me stop and realize how far I have come from the exercise-hating negative girl who wanted to die of embarrassment every session.

What We Did

Review of Monday’s huffy-puffy List revisit and all sorts of new enhancements:

A1  Front Squat to Overhead Press
A2  Bent-over DB Row
A3  Alternating chopper sit-ups, Otis ups (all together)

B1  DB Walking Lunges
B2  Bench Pushups w/ DB Handle Assists
B3  Squat to ball slams

C1  Kettlebell swings
C2  Bench Triceps Dips
C3  Lateral lunges with bicep curl

How It Felt

We added a mini band below the knees to make the front squat to overhead press more challenging and it works. I tend to break Lists up into what I know best (and therefore find easier) to what is most challenging. This particular exercise falls into the first category, but it still requires focus to ensure I am feeling muscle engagement. I particularly like these for the hypnotic effects of the down-up-down-up rhythm that comes from doing movements I know separately really well.

New favorite thing: bent-over dumbbell row. Because today J introduced me to the new trick of resting the top of my forehead on the bench. I know, sounds kind of weird, but surprisingly, shockingly effective. Who knew so much of my energy was expended on this exercise in holding my upper body in place while pulling the weights? When he first mentioned this, we were standing near the bench, which was in its flat position. All I could think at first was far I would have to bend at the waist to rest my forehead on it. Then he adjusted it to the incline position and demonstrated what he meant. Could be another of those life-changing tweaks, and it was even better when I put my towel over the end.

As a corollary to that, we tried a set of the bent over reverse flys with the forehead supported on the bench. I found this immediately cured my head-bobbing problem. Without the bench, I have this tendency to want to raise my head and upper body as I am pulling the weights upward. The counter balance of pressing my forehead against the bench keeps me from bobbing and allows me to feel the work in my back and shoulders.

J combined the alternating chopper sit-ups with the Otis ups, so this went left-right-Otis up. Still not loving them, but discovered that moving my feet closer to the glutes made them so much more productive. Still not a lot of stamina with these, still need to secure my feet under the bench or something, but I understand how these are supposed to work with the tall spine coming up and the slow and controlled descent back to the mat. Do I like them? Not much at all, actually. But I will persevere. Today we were at 5 of these bad boys, and I am determined to be up to 8 of these by this time next week. May take more time and throw a wrench in the peppy pacing, but I will be working on both my technique and mileage, probably even outside this huffy-puffy List.

If pride is a sin, I am so going to burn for this one. The dumbbell walking lunges – I am ridiculously proud of how far I have come doing these. Monday we went from lunge, stop in the middle, lunge to lunge, lunge, lunge. From my initial lunge anxiety to this? I am so pleased. Occurred to me today that the mini band forward walks have helped enormously, and even with the critical trainer eye from J, he could find very little to correct about my form and technique. I could do better keeping my shoulders back, which I knew from the way the weights sometimes swing. But not bad. And yeah, 12 hours later I am still feeling those lunges in my legs.

The bench pushups with dumbbell handle assists continue to vex me, but I am up to 10 consecutive. However, I am still working on these. Today’s big trick was looking at my set-up in the mirror, to ensure shoulders are over the weights on the bench, and flaring the elbows to get more emphasis on the chest muscles. That, plus the rib tuck reminder and staying more plank position, it is enough to ensure I get back to my practice of 10 pushups per day.

While I intellectually understand how to do the squat to ball slams, actually implementing it is not so simple. This is one of those exercises that I see all sorts of folks doing all around me in the gym, yet I struggle. This is another of those break it down into simple pieces and parts, master each, and then put them all together into one smooth sequence. So much easier in my head than in reality. However, I figured out today that the slam part should be happening later to get the ball landed where I want it, and I also figured out that I want to be enroute back to the squat when I do throw it down. But putting all that together – harder than it reads. At least today I have a better picture of the shape of it and how it’s supposed look and to feel. Additional practice is required, but I will learn and master them.

There is this big giant disconnect with kettlebell swings. I mean, I see people doing them everywhere in the gym. The thin and fit members, the heavier and seemingly less fit members, the older members. Probably if I looked in the childcare there would be small people doing kettlebell swings. From my casual observations, these did not look all that difficult. From my personal experience, these are damn technical and there is a lot more to them than meets the naked eye. I was pretty thrilled to realize today that the stamped number on the side of the turquoise kettlebell we are using was actually kilograms, so it is more like 25 lbs. rather than the 12 I thought I was swinging. But with my efforts, it is always something – lock the knees, press forward with the hips, rib tuck/turtle back. Kettlebell is supposed to “float” to the top with the hip press and with a rib tuck/turtle back. So first I did pretty well with the locking the knees, but was pulling more with the arms and not pressing forward with the hips for the floating effect. Then I did better with the locked knees and the hips pressing forward, but the rib tuck/turtle back got lost. Each set I would do 8 to 10 reps, stop for correction/instruction, then try again for another 8 to 10 reps. As I said, for me, these are technically advanced. I am getting there, but definitely want to work more on my “float” technique and my rib tuck/turtle back, all the while keeping glutes and abs tight to protect the lower back. Geez, what was I thinking that these looked easy?

Another favorite on this List is the bench triceps dips. Still imperfect in form and execution, but learning a lot and with more practice will certainly be feeling far more confident. There is a machine version of these on another List, but the shape feels different. Today’s big bonus takeaway is work the thoracic arch – shoulders back and chest up and forward while dipping down. I also get the feet positioning better – a little further outward but not yet with the legs completely stretched out. Big key on this for me is to not use the hips for the dip part, to lower and raise using the arms and triceps. With all the tricep exercises I know, each has its own rhythm and shape and idiosyncrasies. These feel far less complex, or somehow more familiar than other things on this List.

Lateral lunges, how I loathe thee. All of them. There is something about stepping side-to-side that makes it really hard for me to feel completely comfortable and confident. That said, however, there is some subtle nuances to these that let me know I know more than I realize. Today J was watching and reminded me of the difference between a reaching lateral lunge and a regular lateral lunge. The reaching is more lean forward, rounded back, forward reach, whereas a regular lateral lunge is butt back, back more straight and upright as if in a squat, dumbbells resting on either side of the knee. I understand the differences, and I can implement them. These are meant to be the regular lateral lunges, then stop at the top with, bicep curl, repeat on the other side. It has been awhile since the difference has come up in training, because I think the vast majority of later lunges of late have either been reaching lunges or choice between lateral lunges and lateral reaching lunges. Looking forward to getting back to this List and working on this brand of lateral lunge.

Practices Between Now and Monday

I am planning a rerun through this List tomorrow to cement my new-found tricks, corrections, and enhancements. While the kettlebell swings and squat to ball slams before the teaching fades too far in memory. Plus the alternating chopper sit-ups and Otis ups; new productive things to replicate and see if I can improve over my 5 reps. Besides, the little professor inside my head is chomping at the bit to get back and try again, and I would have been joining my friend K for practice tonight had M and I not made plans to Costco shop for produce tonight.

Saturday is a toss up between last week’s huffy puffy and a lower body List downstairs. Sunday for sure is upper body, because I slacked off yesterday and did not get as much done as I had hoped. But oh well; I will get my practices in for the week.

Kitchen Sink Thoughts

In conversations, J and I have randomly discussed the mental health benefits of exercise. While I have my periodic funks that just come with the cycles of life and its issues, I am not especially prone to depression. Since buckling down, settling down into a regular schedule of sleep, exercise, better eating habits, I feel there is some fresh insulation surrounding me from the harder days that come with life and living. The good stuff seems better, richer, far more meaningful; the hard stuff less painful, bitter, and emotionally paralyzing . My ability to bounce back and roll with the punches has improved.

Every session, I wonder how why and how it continues to be so much fun. I wonder why others in the tribe are not as jazzed as I am about training, or about coming to the gym and getting to practice what they learn. This morning something was said about the depth of my exercise library, about how being beyond basics, and it started me diving down the rabbit hole of exercise and the evolving journey. Especially interesting to me because so much of what I do, what is on my Lists, is very much about basics. Squats, lunges, presses, rows, push-ups – these are all still on my Lists and things I do week after week after week. That said, there seems to be bazillions of variations available, and I have learned that mastering the basics is critical before trying to advance. Because I trust J’s judgment about my readiness or capability, I never worry about learning new stuff I might see others doing in the gym. I absolutely believe he introduces me to things based on my ability to succeed.

My desk is wood so I can say this because I have wood available to superstitiously knock upon: my getting this far in the gym without injury is remarkable. Very early on in the process, prior to my getting more serious about my consistency, I had a dalliance with plantar fasciitis. It was from being on vacation, hiking in the wrong shoes and stepping on one too many rocks and roots. It kinda/sorta sidelined me for a couple of weeks, but really hard to tell because I was showing up for sessions and not doing much else in between, so how sidelined could I truly be at the point? For me the plantar fasciitis was merely a reasonable excuse to indulge my gym crazy.

Since then, though – I have given this a lot of thought. I show up nearly every day, I go through a List, and I have learned to listen to both the cues running through my head and the feedback from body about what I am doing in the moment. Plenty of times when I am not feeling it the way I believe I should be feeling it, or something hurts and needs to be investigated. After months and months and months of drills on the basics, I now have an intuitive reaction when something is going wrong. Maybe I’m not leaning enough, or maybe the rib tuck is untucked, or maybe the arch is not quite there yet, or maybe I just need to set the weight down and go through the pieces and parts and feel what body is trying to communicate without the distraction of weights in my hands.

Prime example today: once upon a time, I truly believed a kettlebell swing was a basic movement. Then J finally taught me how to do one and I realized either everyone else took to them more quickly than I have or they may be doing various things wrong. It is certainly not up to me to judge anyone else’s form and technique. What I do know is that I may be on slo-mo with this one for awhile to come, because for me it’s a lot more technical that it appears and has a lot of little moving pieces and parts that I have to master before I will feel confident and capable with this exercise.

But everyone around me in all shapes and sizes are doing KB swings, and from my perch they look fairly simple. Now I know they are far more challenging for me than a lot of other things, and J was right 18 months ago when he said it would be “awhile” before he taught me how to do them. If I were impatient and insisted he probably would have acquiesced and gone ahead and done so long before this, but I trust his judgment and there was a lot of other stuff to fill my practice hours. I worked at the same foundational basics for almost 5 months before we advanced to something new (dumbbell Lists A and B) and then worked at those for another 4 or 5 months as well. Looking back, I occasionally still run that old List just for fun. Where I was using 10 and 15 lb. dumbbells this time last year I am now using 20, 25, and 30 lb. dumbbells, so there has been progress. But each of those “basic” exercises still appear regularly on my Lists now.

Every now and again, something sparks old thoughts and ideas and wonderings from way back when. I was not quite bored with the old Lists when we moved on to other things, but I recognize the transitional period between coming in to meet with J once a week and coming in to meet with J once (then twice) per week and practicing on my own every other day of the week. I got better, improved my skill, yet was afraid to try weightier weights on my own. Sometimes I am still anxious about trying weightier weights on my own and will wait to run through it with J before trying on my own. And doing the same 2 Lists over and over did become sort of boring after awhile.

Now I have lots and lots of Lists, yet I tend to return to the same 3 or 4 all the time. I do upper, or I do lower, or I do huffy-puffy, and my choices are always influenced by equipment and space availability. That natural selection process works out fine for me. On Wednesday nights, when I go into the gym to practice with friend K, I mostly don’t care what we do, because I have already done something that morning and enjoy her company and hearing about her experiences with her Lists.

Thinking basics and exercise library, I recognize how far I have come in listening to and trusting information body is communicating. Yeah, I still hear the “Feed me a cookie! Ice cream! Junk food!” but I also know when something is not quite right or if the humming in my mind is truly the sign of all being well and not me trying to block out the icky sounds coming from someone else nearby.

I am really glad to have spent so much time learning and mastering the basics. Thinking back on it, the many, many hours of practice made the task of becoming someone who exercises regularly a lot more productive. J is a fantastic trainer and teacher, but in truth I had to do the heavy lifting and make myself put in the time it took to make good form happen.

Today, I am really glad my tribe sister made the comment. While I need few reminders of how far I have come or how far out in front of me the road ahead stretches, none of that matters if I the foundational basics that are now automatic enough to almost seem second nature to me. As I learned again today, having such a strong understanding, confidence, and yes, ability with the basics allows me grasp and (eventually) learn the subtle nuances of other exercises that are beyond basics.

I would not be here right now if I had not worked so hard to get mind and body in sync to let me learn how to exercise productively.

“Productive” is my new word with regard to exercise. The word “easy” is not one that I use when it comes to my Lists. When I make a change and something seems to work better, it’s not easier, it’s productive. Where I once thought never was me with regard to improvement and learning, I now think in terms of yet – I am not there yet.

Adjustments to my eating habits and pursuing a consistent exercise regimen are critical to my better health quest. But I remember today why my improved mindset is cornerstone of anything and everything I do to improve my health. With me, for me, changing my outlook and mindset from one of all my shortcomings to all my present (and future) accomplishments is key to stepping up my game.

I love the person I am becoming. I love that I get up and go to the gym at least 6 days per week. I was realizing today how many hours I have logged working at the basics and beyond. How many squats, lunges, rows, presses, and pulling exercises have I done this week alone? This month? This year so far? Throughout 2016?

Put that way, it’s a lot of hours. I asked M about it – did he think I spent a lot or maybe too many hours pursuing my better health objectives? M, being a “happy wife, happy life” kind of guy, knows the right answer and is genuine about it. Anymore, the exercise makes me happy and brings balance, so no, not at all. And it is true – M will never complain about how much time I spend in the gym practicing or in training sessions. None of us know how many years we have left, how much time. What M and I both know, though, is that every hour I log in practice and training and making better, healthier food choices allows me a lot more freedom to pursue activities we both enjoy.

That means almost everything to me, because I love my husband, family, friends and want a whole lot more time and adventure with them. And I want it to be on my terms. In good health and with more energy than being a diabetic invalid would provide me.

Days like today, I recognize that my ego is also stoked by having an exceptionally excellent session where I learn new things and they start to gel for me. My technique is still evolving with the kettlebell swings and the squat to ball slams (who would ever think that slamming a ball onto the ground would turn out of be so complicated?) yet I am not beating myself up for not getting it or embarrassed about feeling less capable. Nope, I am more fascinated by the technicalities of both exercises and almost the science behind the release point of the ball for slamming. I watch J demonstrate and as always, he makes it look so easy. Someday it will be easier for me, because I know how to squat, I know how to raise the ball overhead, and I will get the rhythm down of when to release the ball so the slam lands where I want it. Practice will carry me over the finish line in good time.

And for me, that is the key thing: practice, practice, practice. It took some time to figure out how to work my Lists, to remember the cues, to “feel” the exercises and the muscles working. I do not always get it right, but even breaking me of poor habits acquired through practice on my own seems easier now than it was when I first began.

As I said to J this morning, progress happens in mysterious ways. It is not always measurable with scales, tape measures, pounds or kilograms lifted, reps and sets completed. I do not even measure it by hours spent in practice much of the time. The fact that I rarely feel discouraged about anything I am doing in the gym or within the confines of my better health quest is an excellent choice I make every single day. It has been awhile since I have defined myself by what I cannot do and applied myself toward perfecting my skills with everything I can.

Mind now trends in a positive direction, with better word choices and self talk when it comes to challenges and pathways to improvement. Progress? You betcha!

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