AtA: the ‘vanity’ of exercise and the ‘proper’ resistance weight

Posted June 30th, 2010 in Ask the Author by Clint

In the last month I’ve started hitting to gym to lean up my fat ass; while in the last months my lifts have all gone from “struggling with the bar” to 100-140lbs, my motivation is more or less purely physical vanity.

Though this might not apply to your situation specifically, I’m still mildly surprised when someone blushingly confesses to me that their motivation is aesthetic, as if it’s somehow less noble of a goal or motivation than health or athletic performance. In the same way exercising for better health and longevity could be attributed to selfish motivation (because you personally want to live longer or better), or likewise could be for others (because you do not want to be a medical burden on your family or society), you can likewise consider aesthetic reasons to be for the benefit of others (so that your children don’t grow up with a weak, fat parent as their role model, or so that your significant other can continue to find you attractive and enjoy you physically as well as mentally and emotionally). I’m not one to break each and every little thing down to subjective reality, but you can call the motivation anything you want so long as it gets you where you ultimately want to go.

For example, I’m motivated to see everyone succeed because every person who is obese is a financial burden on myself and my society. I’m also motivated because I have plenty of friends and loved ones who are overweight or obese, and suffer not only medically, but emotionally and mentally.

What ultimately matters to me is that as many people who want to help themselves can do so, and I’m doing that in the best way right now that I know how. But my motivations aren’t as important as the end goal, and yours don’t have to be either.

However I hate the hassle of actually going to the gym so the idea of keeping a sandbag in my closet I can use in my apartment in the morning is extremely appealing.

I would caution you that though (or perhaps because) it is more convenient, you will need more motivation to convert to working out at home, not less.

Though it’s a method I recommend, having a sandbag in your closet is an easy thing to go “Oh I’ll just do it tomorrow, I deserve to take it easy today because of [reason here].” The engineer bag can be an incredible tool and can readily serve as a universal one for people who need it to do so; just don’t let it enable you to make excuses and eventually fail yourself in your ultimate goal. Again, that may not be your problem, but we’re all different.

Now, I’m 6’2″. Is a bag full of sand that maxes out at 160lbs going to be enough of a stimulus to give me decent-sized musculature (once I drop enough fat to have it become visible, of course)?

Time and again, athletes are shocked when they find out an engineer bag they’ve been struggling with might only weigh 100lbs. The reason barbells became so popular is because of the fact it’s efficient, that the body can best grasp that weight and manipulate it in that form, where it’s as compact and unencumbering as it can be. That’s why things like fatbars/fat grips and kettlebells are so en vogue; they take a weight and make it unwieldy and thereby more challenging. Bagging weight takes it that step further, especially if you are gripping the canvas itself rather than the convenient handle or cradling it. It’s a pain in the ass to lift and move, and the more obnoxious it is, quite frankly, the better it can be.

If you can fill a bag completely and are knocking out all your movements like it’s no thing, simply get another bag and either load them both up on your arms zercher-style, put one on each shoulder, or carry one under either arm. If you’re at 300+lbs in sandbags and you’re still feeling unchallenged, at that point you might look into a gym membership. And probably competing at a serious level of sportsmanship.

AtA: Engineer Bags vs Freeweights

Posted May 10th, 2010 in Ask the Author by Clint

I have a question about your suggestion for using an engineer bag stuffed with weights as resistance training, though [...] but I really wonder how favorably it compares to pumping iron with real free weight equipment.

I should preface by stating that the engineer bag (or other suitably heavy object you might train with) is not a short-cut or temporary fix to get people started with resistance training; it is a fully-formed method suitable for people of virtually any level of fitness, and can be an effective program for life. The barbell is less than a century old; it’s not like prior to that humans were just wads of cookie dough with stick arms.

A lot of ‘underground’ fitness methods do Strongman-style training, with tire-flipping, sandbags, car pushing, stone lifting, and so on. For all intent and purpose, you can build an incredible physique and immense strength doing basic movements with challenging free-weight of any kind. It’s just mass being moved, simple as that.

That said, it would depend on your goals and how you define them.

Bodybuilders, to start off with (and pardon me if I paraphrase something you might have already read, I say a lot of things more than once) are particularly suited to using barbells and dumbbells because what they are doing is in essence being sculptors, with their own body as the medium. Even amateur-level bodybuilders spend hours just critiquing their own physique, and by having a wide range of tools and stimuli available they are able to shape each curve, angle and plane. In that case, not only would you want the more refined tools that a gym offers, but a host of other isolation exercises that I don’t get into in the book.

Powerlifters and other competitive weightlifters I consider to be athletes, and lifting barbells as a sport. From the lowly gymrat up to the girthiest (sure that’s a word shut up) of pro powerlifters, they seek to make the numbers go higher, same as a runner wants to make the numbers go lower. In this case, I would recommend you seek a gym as well; it’s significantly easier to lift 225 on a bar, even in a front squat, than it is to do the same with an engineer bag or any other unwieldy load. This isn’t to say it’s somehow less of an accomplishment, but like any other sport, some powerlifters wear special suits and practice special techniques (and often have horrifying physiques and form) just to get the numbers a little higher. It’s not a means to an end, it’s the end itself.

There are obviously other purposes that I may not need to get into for the moment, but suffice to say if you goal is “be leaner”, “be stronger”, “look good naked” or most of the reasons people want to ‘do exercise’, the engineer bag is not only a valid choice, it’s one of the better ones available. Though I personally love the gym in theory and in practice, and consider my power cage to be a part of the family, it’s not necessary. I (and you) could accomplish basically the same thing with a good sized rock.

Recommended Reading: Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe

Posted January 22nd, 2010 in Recommended Reading by Clint

Though I’ve many times said in Brain Over Brawn and elsewhere that you do not need to go to a gym, some people have access by default through their school, their company or as an amenity of ownership or membership of property or association. And some people just enjoy going to a gym for the atmosphere and camaraderie. Though it’s not for everyone, I might like for it to be in my personal neo-utopian fantasies.

I’ve also said that personal trainers are by and large hacks and charlatans, and that has yet to change in any measurable metric.

With these two facts in mind, I would suggest for both the novice and veteran gym-goer and barbell enthusiast alike to pick up Mark Rippetoe’s “Starting Strength: 2nd edition”. For as much as someone could capably learn a physical, spacial movement (well, a series of movements) via a book, Mr. Rippetoe goes into exhaustive (approaching neurotic) detail. If you intend to mess with big iron plates and bars as your preferred method of resistance training, this is about as close as you can get to someone with accurate information getting uncomfortably close to your ear and rubbing their stubble against your jaw while whispering all the collected minutia and errata they have dutifully gathered over decades of legitimate training.

Ball-busting aside, Rippetoe knows what the haps are, and if you plan to formally lift this is the resource for you. Even if it is your first time in your life entering a gym, chances are excellent you would be far better equipped after reading this book than by taking that ‘complimentary session’ from lycra-clad “Kev” at your local McGym.