Lifting: a personal experiment with multiple sets

I first started lifting at a gym that used Nautilus equipment, where the staff promoted a Nautilus-style system of doing one set to failure. (That is, where you pick a weight that you can lift at least 8 times, but that you can’t lift more than 12 times.)

I understood right from the start that the system’s big attraction is for the gym owner: If everybody just did one set, the gym could sell two or three times as many memberships. However, I also found the physiology compelling: lifting as much as you can, and then attempting to lift a little more, is a powerful signal to your muscles that they need to become stronger.

I’ve generally stuck with single-set-to-failure workouts, because I’m lazy and find lifting boring: I want to get my workouts over with as quickly as possible and get on to something else.

Just lately, I’ve been experimenting with multiple sets. The reason is that, in the winter, my knees aren’t warmed up enough to lift a weight heavy enough to produce muscle failure in just 12 reps. If I try to push a weight that heavy, my knees hurt.

So, I’ve rearranged my lower-body workout. I’m now doing a first set of leg extension, leg curl, and leg press with a weight about one notch lower than my target weight, and then do a second set of all three with my target weight.

It’s working great. The first set serves as an excellent warm-up for my knees, getting the synovial fluid warmed up and flowing. The second set works the muscles to failure without knee pain. (On the leg press, I often do a third short set with an even higher weight, but that’s probably just because I’ve long been using too low of a weight, because it was all my knees could handle without a better warm-up.)

It’s working so well, I’m inclined to experiment with multiple sets for my upper body as well. I’m not sure it’s really a parallel situation, because I don’t have a joint issue that’s keeping me from reaching muscle failure, but doing the heavy workout with properly warmed-up joints just feels better, aside from not hurting.

Brain chemicals and artist’s dates

In my family, “brain chemicals” is the shorthand term for unmotivated negative feelings. That is, when you’re feeling sad because something bad happened, that’s normal, but when you’re feeling sad for no particular reason, that’s brain chemicals. (On the theory that you’ve probably got a chemical imbalance or something, and that you should probably see a doctor about it when you’ve got the time.) The same applies to anger, frustration, anxiety, etc.

I mention this because I often suffer from brain chemicals, especially this time of year, when the days get short and dark and cold.

I’m actually doing pretty well this year. I’m doing a bunch of things that help. I’m taking my vitamin D. I’m trying to get outdoors for some actual sunlight, any day that there is any. I’m getting my exercise in. (For many months now, Jackie and I have been lifting weights three times a week and doing an hour of taiji three times a week. I’m trying to get in an hour of walking and at least a few minutes of additional taiji on the other days of the week.) I’m being productive. I’m getting enough sleep.

Still, despite all that, brain chemicals seemed to be setting in yesterday. I was feeling over-busy, under-accomplished, and frustrated. So, I went to level two in the fight against brain chemicals, and scheduled an artist’s date.

I think of it as a date with my muse. A proper artist’s date involves going somewhere and spending time with something that spurs creativity. That could be almost anything, and if I did them more often (and I really should) I’d probably have to broaden the range of places that I go. But I don’t do them very often, so I can usually get away with taking my muse to the same few places.

I started at the Krannert Art Center. Much of their exhibit space today was full of stuff that I had little interest in, but outside the museum proper there’s a changing exhibit of student work that’s often more interesting than the work in the museum itself. Today it had the work of school children. There were a lot of interesting ideas—for example, a low passageway made of cardboard where kids who’d studied ancient cave paintings had painted their own—even if only a few of the actual pieces spoke to me.

Connected to the museum is the school of design building. They often have some student work on display in the hallway, and I rather liked a small group of pieces by students who had apparently had the assignment to create a brand identity for themselves. They produced the same elements that a brand identity package from a marketing firm would provide—a name and logo (provided in a couple of sizes and formats, in both color and black & white), together with some key terms and images that could go into a branded ad campaign.

It was everything an artist’s date needs to be—a reminder that creativity is everywhere, a reminder that there can be joy in art of all sorts.

I was already feeling better today, and expect that I’ll feel even better tomorrow.

On the social aspects of wearing a reflective vest

My reflective vest

People treat me differently when I wear my reflective vest.

I bought it four years ago, for when I run after dark. But as long as I’ve got it, I’m inclined to wear it anytime I’m going to be crossing streets on foot after dark.

Last night I was greeted in a friendly fashion by an older black man who called me brother. The last time I can remember that happening was in the 1970s.

My theory, based on that and a few other encounters, is that some people see me and assume that I’m a working-class guy heading out for for some sort of outdoor nighttime physical labor job. If they’re also a working-class guy familiar with outdoor nighttime work, it prompts them to greet me in a comradely fashion.

There’s another common reaction: Many people seem to think I’m “official” in some way. Cars that would have zipped around me in the daytime exercise additional caution, just in case. People make way when I’m going down a hall, in case I’m on my way to some minor emergency. Related to that, surprisingly often people who know me don’t recognize me—they see the vest and don’t imagine that anyone they know might show up in one.

I expect the reaction I’d get would be very different, if I wore a reflective vest designed for runners. I’ve got one of those too, but it won’t fit over a coat.

Storytelling cycling class

Yesterday I heard something unique and fascinating: A group cycling class instructor fashioning a story around the cyclists’ workout.

The group cycling classes at the Fitness Center take place in a room that is reached by walking through the room with mats where I do my ab and back exercises and do my stretching. The arrangement is pretty unsatisfactory, because the cycling class’s music is not only far too loud, it’s also a poor match for my cool-down-and-stretch purposes. Still, it gave me the opportunity to hear this.

I only caught the end. Where I came in, the cyclists were carrying a backpack and were being pursued by someone faster but less nimble. They had to ride really hard for 20 seconds, then ease up and make a sharp turn just ahead of the pursuers, who blew on past and had to regroup. The cyclists got a short respite, then had to ride hard for another two minutes to reach the safe house.

I don’t know who the pursuers were—it sounded more like spies than like zombies (which would have been my choice, but then maybe the instructor had used zombies last week). And the cycling instructor sounded more like a coach than like a storyteller—a real writer could have included rather more telling detail and provided better characterization for the bad guys. But it was still cool.

I’ve seen a few attempts to turn exercise equipment into video games, and of course I build stories around my own workouts all the time. (I assume others who exercise do as well.) But this low-tech application of using old-fashioned storytelling to enhance a workout—using what was essentially a paid storyteller—was new to me.

If it catches on, maybe there’ll be some new job opportunities for writers, at least writers who are very fit.

On not overtraining

Overtraining is not my usual worry. Like most Americans, my big problem is undertraining. I never manage to get any serious aerobic exercise during the winter, because I don’t like exercising outdoors in the cold, and I don’t like any sort of indoor aerobic exercise I’ve ever tried. (Stationary bikes and treadmill running are both much too boring.) This past winter I did manage a regular routine of weight lifting and taiji practice. That stood me in good stead for maintaining some basic fitness, but wasn’t really enough.

Since the weather turned warm, I’ve been running and riding my bike a lot. My training log for this week shows:

  • three short (1.5 mile) runs
  • one long (3 mile) run
  • two short (11 mile) rides
  • one long (28 mile) ride

This is all great, but I’ve reached the point where I need to be careful. Up to now, the limitations of my fitness have made it impossible to overdo the exercise. If I ran too fast, I got out of breath and had to slow down. If I ran too far, I got tired and had to walk. Now, though, I’ve gotten fit enough that I could very easily push a little too hard and get hurt.

This is tough, because I’m just getting to the point where running is fun again. Today I finished up my short run and thought, “It’s over already?” Up to now, what’s been motivating me is my memory of how much fun it is to go for a run that’s well within (instead of barely within) my capabilities.

So, this post is mainly to remind me to be careful. My next long run shouldn’t be more than 3 miles. (If I’m smart, the long run after that should probably be 3 miles as well, but I’m probably not that smart.) When I do up the distance, it should probably only go up by half a mile, not by a mile.

If I am careful, I can probably have my long runs up to 4 miles by mid-July and 5 miles by mid-August. That gets me comfortably in shape for the 5.5 mile Allerton Park Trail Race in late October, giving me a couple of months to train at distance and on trails.

(And it wouldn’t be like I’d be stagnating on the endurance thing. I can pile on some real bicycling mileage without much risk of injuring myself.)

But I still need to be careful. The first time I was running seriously I increased the mileage too quickly—in fact, now that I think about it, in order to get into shape for the very same Allerton Park Trail Race—and hurt my Achilles tendon. It took more than six months to fully recover. I don’t want to do that again.

But I do want to go for some long runs. I remember how good it felt.

Wildlife audience for our exercise

This is the grassy spot near the rear of our apartment complex where we do our taiji practice.

Today’s practice was special because we had an audience: a rabbit, a squirrel, three crows, and two juvenile groundhogs showed up to take an interest in our activity. They didn’t seem troubled (although when a guy came past with a dog on a leash, the rabbit most definitely took notice).

First thing in the morning I’d gone for a run and spotted a gazillion cedar waxwings. (Note: number of cedar waxwings approximate.) Actually, they would have been in this picture, too. Just past the little hill is the Copper Slough, and just across it is the path that runs around Kaufman lake, and it was just about here that I saw them.

I added a second lap to my usual run around Kaufman Lake, bringing the distance up to 2.41 miles—my longest run this season, and good progress toward getting back in shape.

After my run, Jackie and I went for a bike ride. We were testing both the route and ourselves for a possible ride to Philo in a few days. The ride to Philo, with a stop at the Philo Tavern for lunch, is our traditional first long ride of the year. Today’s ride covered the first half of the route to Philo, then headed back into town with a stop at Meadowbrook Park, making it a 17-mile loop. That went fine, so we figure the 28 mile round trip to Philo should be doable no problem.

We’re starting to get all sorts of wild ideas about possible long rides later in the summer. But our local wildlife audience is keeping things pretty wild right here at home.

Long runs and rides

Bicycle on the side of a country roadI miss being in shape for long runs and long rides, so it’s great to finally be making some progress.

Since I always get out of shape over the winter (I’ve never been able to get myself to run in the cold), I’m always having to ramp up in the spring.

I’ve got a nice 1.5 mile loop that I use for my early season runs. An important milestone is when I’m first able to do a “long” run of longer than that—this year a 2.12 mile run last Sunday. Not very long, but I know from experience that, once I can do a long run, I can ramp the distance up pretty quickly. If all goes well, by mid-summer my “short” runs will be 2.5 miles (same as my short loop, except adding a second lap around Kaufman Lake) and my long runs will be 5 or 6 miles. Still short by distance running standards, but long enough for me to feel like I’ve gotten a good workout.

The biggest obstacle to making proper progress is a pernicious habit I have of letting the weather tempt me into deferring my rest days: When the forecast is for rain tomorrow, I’m inclined to squeeze in a workout today, even if I ought to rest.

That can lead me seriously astray when—as is common on the prairie—we get into a weather pattern with several days in a row where the forecast is for rain tomorrow. Each day I think, “I’ll go ahead an get in one more run today, then take a rest day tomorrow when it’s rainy.” A few days of that, and pretty soon I’ve got sore knees or sore ankles—something that can blight a whole season.

Happily, the rain actually did arrive today, so I’m taking the rest day I should have taken Monday or Tuesday.

I follow much the same pattern with long bicycle rides. All the more so, really, because they’re even more dependent on the weather than a run. But the result doesn’t seem as pernicious. I can wear myself out with a few extra rides on what should be rest days, but so far the result hasn’t been the sort of injuries that set back my training.

So, rest day today. The forecast is for thunderstorms tomorrow as well, but we’ll still get in lifting and taiji, even if we can’t bicycle to them. Then, Friday, back to outdoor exercise. We’re just about ready for our first long ride of the season, traditionally to the center of the universe, for lunch at the Philo Tavern. (That link goes to a post from 2005 about that year’s first long ride.)

Doing Taiji backwards

The Taiji form that we’re learning is handed. That is, many of the moves are not symmetrical left versus right. That seemed odd to me. In Aikido, each move has a left version and a right version and we always learned them both ways. My instructor says that some schools of Taiji do learn all asymmetrical moves as both left- and right- handed, but that most, including the version he’d learned, do not.

He told us a while ago that he’d added some mirror-image work to his own practice, and we even did a little bit in class. Many of the students resisted this, and we only did it a couple of times. Still, doing a mirror-image of the form seems like an obvious win to me, so I’ve just recently started to do so in my own practice.

What’s most interesting to me so far is the way doing mirror-image work makes me a beginner again. Not that my study of Taiji is at all advanced, but I had progressed beyond beginner—until this.

It’s a very different sort of being a beginner. When I was learning this form the first time, the hard part was simply learning how the moves went. In the time it took to learn what I was supposed to do, I worked through my coordination issues for executing the move. Doing the moves backwards, my experience is quite otherwise. I know how the move is supposed to go, but executing it backwards requires developing a whole new set of muscle memories. The practice exposes a part of the learning experience that was largely masked before—hidden by not knowing quite what I was supposed to do.

The whole thing is interesting enough that I’m sure I’m going to want to repeat this exercise on the long form, once I’ve gotten reasonably good at doing our short (9-movement) form backwards. I’m also going to have to think about other variations that might let me rediscover being a beginner in other ways.

The obvious varient would be to reverse the form in time—do it from the end back to the beginning. I’m not quite sure what the reverse of the kicks and stomps would be, but for the rest of it, working each form backwards would be straightforward enough. It’d certainly make me a beginner again.

How much exercise?

I’ve always struggled to get the right amount of exercise.

I used to blame much of my difficulty on having a job. My experience over the past three years makes it clear that it wasn’t so simple. (It wasn’t completely wrong. Especially when the days get short—when I would be going to the office before sunrise and returning home only after the sun had set—it was very difficult to get enough exercise. That is much improved.)

There have been periods I have managed to get enough exercise. Three different summers I managed to do so by organizing my exercise around training for a future event (twice a race, once a century ride), but those efforts never carried over into the following winter. More successful have been the times when I integrated my exercise into my day’s activities, such as by walking to school or by bicycling to work.

The first time I was running seriously, I kept a training log. At the peak in late summer I was spending just over 100 minutes per day exercising. (That was averaging a 5-hour weekend bike ride in with shorter weekday bike rides, almost daily runs, and two or three sessions of lifting per week.)

The problem was that 100 minutes per day turned out to be more than was sustainable if I was also going to hold down a job, keep up with household tasks, and have a life. Even now that I’m not trying to hold down a regular job, I’ve found it impossible to put 100 minutes per day into exercise.

That’s all prelude to mentioning the extensive coverage in the news lately on a recent study on physical activity and weight gain prevention. For people of normal weight, it seems that one hour per day of exercise was sufficient to prevent weight gain. People who got less exercise gained weight. (The details were complicated. People who were already overweight didn’t seem to benefit from exercise.)

Still, even with the complex result, it seems like a target of 60 minutes per day of exercise is a reasonable one. It seems to be enough to maintain a healthy weight. (That is, if you can’t sustain a healthy weight when you’re getting that much exercise, the solution is not likely to be more exercise.) And it’s well under the 100 minutes that I found unsustainable.

The first news story I saw on the study had a great line, to the effect that if an hour a day seems like too much time to spend exercising, think instead that 23 hours a day is too much time to spend being sedentary.

So, that’s going to be my goal: about an hour a day of exercise.

I’ve already got two days a week covered—on Mondays and Thursdays Jackie and I have a well-established habit of doing about 30 minutes of lifting plus 60 minutes of Taiji. If I aim to spend an hour a day on the other five days of the week walking, I can hit my target even if I miss an occasional day due to bad weather or schedule problems.

And I’ve already started. Thursday I did my lifting and Taiji. Yesterday I walked with Jackie for an hour just after lunch. Today I walked into campus for the Esperanto group meeting.

One great thing about this new exercise plan is that I don’t need to work up to it—I’m already in good enough shape to walk for an hour every day. I just need to do it.

Getting outdoors

"Bee on Clover" by Philip Brewer
"Bee on Clover" by Philip Brewer

I do fine at getting outdoors enough in the summer.  In the winter, though, I’m prone to spend far too much time indoors.

There’s a sidewalk around the interior of our apartment complex that makes for a fine short walk.  (It takes about seven minutes, so I think it’s probably close to a third of a mile.)  In the summer, I might do that walk at any time.  In particular, I do it while I’m writing, when I find that the prose isn’t flowing.  That’s usually a sign that I’ve taken a misstep in the story, and a seven-minute walk is often just what I need to figure out where I’ve gone astray.

In the winter, though, I don’t do that, because the cold and the snow turn the little walk into a big production.  Changing into outdoor clothes (and then out of them again) can easily double the time for taking a quick walk, so instead of being seven minutes it’s a quarter of an hour.  Plus, I figure if I’m making that kind of investment of time, I ought to do more than just walk around the block–I should get a real walk in, or run an errand.

That kind of thinking leads to trying to optimize my time–scheduling my walk not when I need a short break from writing to get back on track, but when I need to go to the bank or pick up something at the grocery store.  And if I don’t have any such chore to justify the outing, I tend to just stay indoors all day.  (One of the few upsides of having a regular job was that it did get me out every day.)

Since I know I’ll feel better if I do get out everyday, even if just for a few minutes, I’m thinking of creating an artificial errand:  taking a picture.  I figure it’s something that can be added onto any actual errands I have–I can just bring the camera along.  If it seems like a day for a longer walk, I can take the camera along for that, too.  And if it’s not a day for a long walk–if I’m busy, or the weather’s bad–I can just as easily take a picture on a short walk.

When I get a picture that I’m pleased with, I’ll post it here.  This one’s from a day or two ago.  When I was a boy, one had to be careful walking across a field of clover because there’d always be bees around.  This summer, finding a bee on a clover was a rare treat.