Squats, dumbbells, and the Winfield Village fitness room

Winfield Village has a little fitness room. From our townhouse it’s very handy—right across the parking lot.

It has an odd selection of equipment. There are perhaps 8 pieces of aerobic equipment—more than half treadmills, but also an elliptical machine and a couple of cycle-type machines. There are a pair of leg machines—leg extension and leg curl. There’s a fancy configurable machine with a pair of weight stacks hooked up to a pair of pulleys with interchangeable handles that can be set at any desired height, so you can adjust it for various kinds of rows, presses, swings, etc. And there’s a huge selection of dumbbells.

After two decades of doing my lifting with machines, I’d already been gradually switching away, so this new facility is nicely in line with what I was already headed towards.

My inclination to change away from machines started when I wanted to start doing squats (instead of doing the leg press machine). Maybe it would be more accurate to say it started when I wanted to be able to squat.

Being able to squat had always seemed like one of those basic capabilities a person ought to have (like being able to stand or walk), but like most westerners—like most people who own chairs—I lacked both the strength and the flexibility to squat properly. When I had to squat down—to look at something on a bottom shelf, let’s say—I could do it, but my heels would come up off the floor and I’d end up squatting with my knees way forward and my weight up on the balls of my feet. (Don’t do this—it’s dangerous for your knees.)

Primarily because of my taiji practice, I’d gained both a lot of control over my body and a lot of insight into how it ought to move, and some months back it occurred to me that I was probably at a point where I could do a proper squat.

I did some preliminary practice squatting, and found that doing it correctly wasn’t hard. (Keeping your heels down on the ground is only possible if you bend at the hips, stick your butt back, and lean your upper body forward. If you keep your head up, the result is a squat that looks just like the pictures of proper squat form.)

I experimented with squatting in the Smith machine at the Fitness Center, and did some squatting with a bar over my shoulders, but ended up deciding that bodyweight squats did the job just fine.

So I’m not really missing the bar or the squat frame. I can imagine wanting to add weight to my squats, but so far I’m happy just adding reps. When that’s not enough, I can add weight with dumbbells.

Since I have all those dumbbells at my disposal, I thought I’d look for some workouts that made use of them, and found an excellent dumbbell workout page over at Art of Manliness.

I’ve started doing something closely modeled on that page’s upper-body workout, with the addition of some qigong exercises from my taiji practice, and some exercises intended to help me work up to being able to do pullups.

I’d not had much success with the assisted pullup machine at the Fitness Center, so I was ready to do something different even if we hadn’t let our membership expire when we decided to move here. The replacement that I’m experimenting with at the moment is negative pullups: I use a bench to climb up to the top of pullup position, then lower myself down to hanging.

As I was writing this post I read a bit about working up to pullups. It looks like before I go all-out with the negatives, I should practice my dead hangs.

I’ll come up with a lower-body workout shortly. It’ll include squats.

With the fitness room right across the parking lot, I’m hoping to get a lot more regular with my lifting. If I succeed, I expect I’ll be posting about it here. If not, I suppose I’ll quietly start posting about something else.

Novel update

I’m having pretty good success with my new daily routine.

Things haven’t gone perfectly. One day last week I was coming down with a virus and took a sick day—no fiction writing got done. Yesterday’s bitter cold kept me from getting out to exercise—no walking, no lifting, and no taiji.

Today, things went pretty much according to plan. I had breakfast at 6:30, got to work at 7:00, and wrote until 8:30. Then I bundled up (still pretty darned cold) and walked to the Fitness Center, where I did my usual lifting and stretching, followed by about 25 minutes of qigong and taiji. I deviated from my schedule a bit, having an early lunch before getting back to fiction writing, but I did do two 90-minute sessions, which were both reasonably productive.

The novel’s word count has actually been soaring, because I’ve been slotting back in bits and pieces that I’d pulled out in a previous restructuring effort, now that I’ve got a better idea where they go. I’ve just about finished that phase, and it is almost time to settle in for the next major phase of writing new prose. (Which I’m all excited about, because that’s the fun part.)

Another attempt at a daily schedule

One reason I haven’t been more productive these past two years is that I’ve let my fitness activities consume the morning hours that are my prime writing time. I know that, and I want to free that time up for writing, but I’m loath to give up my taiji, because of the way it has been almost miraculous in changing my body for the better.

Five years ago I was starting to feel old. I could still do all the ordinary stuff I needed to do every day, but my spare capacity was shrinking. My balance and flexibility and strength and endurance were all less than they had been—and only just barely good enough. Any unusual stress, such as carrying something heavy up or down stairs, or moving across rough or shifting terrain, seemed dangerous. I had trouble getting a full night’s sleep, because my back would ache after lying still for a few hours.

Taiji (together with lifting) turned that completely around. I feel better than I’ve felt in years. I really don’t want to give that up.

The problem is, I’ve been devoting a huge chunk of each morning to the lifting and the taiji class, and morning is by far my most productive time to write.

Fortunately, I think I’ve figured out a way to deal with that. The key—and I’ve known this for a long time—is to start my writing first. Once I’ve had a solid writing session, taking a break for some exercise is perfect. After that, I can get back to writing. (Whereas I’ve found it very hard to start writing after a long morning of exercise.)

The way we’d been doing it, we’d do our lifting before taiji. We briefly experimented with doing the lifting after taiji, but I found that hurt my knees. (My theory is that the taiji tired out the small muscles that stabilize my knees, making them just a little too wobbly for heavy lifting.) This has been great for actually doing the lifting, but has meant an awfully early start to the day—too early to fit in writing first.

So, during the last week of December and the first two weeks of January, while the taiji class is on break, I’m experimenting with a new daily routine. I’m still tweaking it, but as currently sketched out, it looks like this:

  • At 7:00, right after breakfast, I sit down to write fiction, and work for 90 minutes.
  • At 8:30 I take a break and spend the hour from 9:00 to 10:00 engaging in some fitness activity: lifting or taiji. (Once the class resumes, I’ll do the class on days that it meets, and lift on the other days.)
  • Back home by 10:30, I write fiction for another 90 minutes, then break for lunch at noon.
  • After lunch I get back outside and walk again. Lately I’ve been using this time to play Ingress, but in the summer I may just walk, go for a run, or whatever.
  • In the mid-to-late afternoon, I may do a bit more work on some writing-related activity: Writing non-fiction (such as a Wise Bread post), revising stories, submitting stuff to editors, critiquing work for the Incognitos, etc.

I’m trying to be a bit more careful about social media, because of how easy it is to fritter away a whole morning reading stuff my friends have found interesting, without abandoning it. Right now I’m checking social media briefly before breakfast, then staying away from it until after lunch, then pretty much allowing unlimited checking in the afternoons.

I’ve been doing this for more than a week now (with the modification that on Saturday and Sunday I just do one fiction-writing session, rather than two). It’s going great so far—I’ve gotten several thousand words written on my novel.

I’ll keep you posted.

[The core of this post was originally written as part of my year-end summary of my writing. However, not being about my writing in 2013, it didn’t belong there, so I’ve pulled it out and made it a post of its own.]

Enough exercise (and a calf update)

I recently came upon an old livejournal post about my struggles to get enough exercise.

It had been written in April 2008, some seven or eight months after I’d quit working a regular job, and was about how I’d always blamed the job for keeping me from getting enough exercise, and how I was unhappy that I hadn’t seized the opportunity that came from my new regular-job-free lifestyle to get into better shape. Here’s an excerpt:

The big advantage of not working a regular job ought to be that I can exercise anytime I want.  In the spring, I can run in the afternoon when it’s warm.  In the summer I can run in the morning when it’s cool.  I can pick the nicest day of the week for my long ride (minimize the chance of being caught miles from home in a thunderstorm) and then organize the rest of the week’s workouts around that.

I say “ought to,” because I haven’t taken full advantage so far.  Last summer I was still working until the end of August, and then I was trying to focus on my novel while still cranking out four or five Wise Bread posts a week.  I tried to get the running habit set up in the fall so that I could continue it through the winter, but didn’t really manage it.

Now, though, it’s spring, and I’ve decided to make exercise–that is, fitness–my number 1 priority.

Reading that post, I realized that I have, finally, succeeded. I now get enough exercise.

Brief aside: Except, of course, that I’ve scarcely run in a month, because of my injured calf.

I’ve tried three times to go out for a short run, and each time the result has been re-injury. After the third time, I realized that I was doing more harm than good, trying to get back to running as quickly as possible. I decided to wait until the symptoms were completely gone, and then give it at least a full week for further rest and recovery, before trying to run again. On that schedule, my first run would be roughly Saturday. In fact, it’ll be delayed at least two days further, because Saturday Jackie and I will go to Forest Glen and squeeze in a long hike in the morning, ahead of a spinning and weaving event there. (And not taking a day to recover from a long hike before a short run is how I hurt my calf in the first place.)

Basically, though, my calf is fine. It doesn’t limit either my walking (we walked 10 miles yesterday) or my taiji (I’ve taught my class on schedule every day). It has been completely pain-free, except when I re-injure it—then it hurts for a couple of days.

I wrote two years ago about my winter fitness regimen. (Three times a week I lift weights and then do an hour of taiji; the other four days I try to walk for an hour.) It proves to be satisfactory to maintain my weight and maintain a base level of fitness.

In the summers, I’ve been doing more. I preserve the lifting and the taiji (and much of the walking, which is mostly incidental to getting other things done) and augment it with running—before my injury, I had been running 7–9 miles most weeks—and have also added a weekly very long walk.

That livejournal post has a chart with the amount of time I had been devoting to exercise the last time I’d been in really good shape. Here’s a similar chart for what I’d been doing until a few weeks ago when I had to quit running:

Activity Minutes per workout Workouts per week Minutes per week
Lifting 30 3 90
Taiji 60 3 180
Short walks 60 4 240
Long walks 240 1 240
Short runs 22 2 44
Long runs 60 1 60
Total 854

The first thing that strikes me is just how similar this is to what I was doing in the past when I’ve been fit. I’ve replaced the bike rides with walking a very similar number of minutes per week. I’ve added the taiji, which adds 3 hours a week, and I’ve reduced the number and length of my short runs, to gain back maybe 50 minutes of that time. But the bottom line is that I’m now spending about 120 minutes a day on fitness-related activities.

Now, that’s great. Certainly it feels great—I feel great when I’m getting this much exercise. And having gotten here, I believe I’m prepared to declare victory, and say that getting and staying in shape is a solved problem.

But how could anyone with a regular job manage such a thing? And yet, much less exercise than this would not build and maintain the capabilities I want. If I want to be able to run for an hour, I need to run for an hour pretty regularly. If I want to be able to walk for four or six hours, then every week or two I need to walk for four or six hours.

I don’t really have an answer here for people who find that making a living limits their ability to be fit. I managed it temporarily a couple of times, but only by letting things slide temporarily—things that I couldn’t let slide permanently.

Still, just at the moment, I’m feeling pretty good. Thanks to the taiji, I move with more ease and control than I’ve ever had before. Thanks to the lifting and the endurance exercise, I have more power and stamina than ever before. I’m looking forward to Saturday’s long hike. And I’m looking forward (after a day or two to recover from that) to trying to run again. (Because, as Steven says, “Running is great exercise between injuries.”)

Three miles on the dread mill

I hate running on treadmills. I also dislike running outdoors in the cold. The result has been that, while I may get into pretty good shape in the summer, I always lose that fitness over the winter, because I don’t run.

This year, I’m trying again to run on the treadmill. This year, I’m trying with podcasts.

I don’t listen to my iPod when I run outdoors. Running outdoors is wonderful, and I want to experience it full. Running on a treadmill is awful, and I want to pretend it isn’t happening.

I’ve had to make a second change to make this work: I’m going to the fitness center by myself.

Before, I tried to fit my workouts into the joint visit to the fitness center that I make with Jackie to do our lifting. That didn’t work. Jackie was willing to walk on her treadmill while I ran on mine, but she wanted us to be walking together. Since I was trying to pretend that I had slipped into some sort of lacuna in the space-time continuum, I was an unsatisfactory companion. Jackie was also willing to carry on with her workout while I ran, but there’s no reasonable way for her to stretch her workout to last 20 minutes longer, which is only barely enough time for me to get a reasonable run in.

So far, the scheme is working okay. For three weeks now, at least twice a week, we’ve gone to the fitness center for our lifting, then gone to taiji, after which I’ve gone back to the fitness center to run on the treadmill. The first couple of runs were kind of shaky, but I’d gotten them up over 2 miles last week, and today I ran 3 miles.

That’s long enough, I think. My long runs outdoors had gotten up over 5 miles, but my plan for the winter isn’t to boost my endurance, it’s just to preserve it. If I can run 5–7 miles a week, I think I can accomplish that. A single 3-mile run each week, combined with one or two 2-mile runs, will do the trick.

The podcast thing is working. My plan had been fiction, and I’ve listened to an Escape Pod story and to one on the Small Beer Press podcast. The problem with fiction is that it takes a while to get wrapped up in the story, and every instant that I’m not immersed in the story is an eternity of actually experiencing the fact that I’m running on a treadmill. Music works okay. News podcasts are okay, too.

Once, when Jackie and I were heading into the fitness center, back before we’d given up on treadmill exercise together, I asked her on our way in the door, “Are you ready to face the satanic mills?”

“At least they aren’t dark,” Jackie replied.

“It’s true,” I admitted. “They are well-lit.”

They’re still well-lit. They’re still satanic. But they’re pretty tolerable, if you’ve got a story to listen to.

An open-ended run

Yesterday, I went on my first open-ended run of the season.

On earlier runs, I pretty much knew how far I was going to go and what route I’d follow. Occasionally there’d be a bit of room for variation—I might think, “If I’m feeling good, maybe I’ll add a second lap around Kaufman Lake,” or “Maybe I’ll add the leg out to Bradley and back.” But by and large, I knew to within a few tenths of a mile how far I’d run before I took my first step.

The reason was that every run would take me a large fraction of as far as I could run. There was no chance I’d just decide on a whim to go a few miles further, because I couldn’t run a few miles further.

So, it was a great treat yesterday, to head out for a run with only a general idea of where I’d be running, and with no specific plan how far I’d go.

I knew I’d run halfway down O’Malley’s Alley (the short bit of rail trail that I call McNalley’s Alley), and then cut over into the neighborhood south of there. But I’d had only a vague, somewhat aspirational notion that I’d continue on as far as the trail through Robeson Park. But I knew that the trail would cross several different roads, and that I’d be able to head for home on any one of them, if I decided that I’d run as far as made sense.

In the end, I headed home when I got to Crescent. On some future run, I’ll push on as far as Mattis, and maybe continue on down the Simon trail before heading home.

This run, according to my GPS thingy, came to 4.84 miles, which I ran in 54:15, for an average pace of a bit over 11 minutes per mile. And it was a great run. My feet didn’t hurt, nor did my ankles, knees, hips, or any other bits. I did get pretty tired by the end, but not over-tired. In fact, after a bit of a rest and rehydration, I had enough energy to bicycle 9 miles, lift weights, and do an hour of taiji. (The lifting, I must admit, was a rather feeble effort.)

At over 50 minutes, it was definitely a long-enough endurance effort to produce significant levels of endocannabinoids, which I presume is the reason that my memory of the run is mainly just a strong sense that I was having fun and feeling good. There are only a few spots where specific details are sharp and clear—the spot where I had to back up and run on the grass next to the trail, to avoid a muddy patch, the spot where I thought, “There’s a hill here? How did I not know there was a hill here?” and the spot where I slowed to a walk so I could look back over my shoulder and read a street sign, so I’d be able to make a map.

Speaking of which, here’s a map of the run:

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.

A fitness regimen that’s working

After years of getting into shape during the summer, only to gain weight and lose fitness over the winter, I think I’ve finally put together an exercise program that’s working year-round.

It’s pretty simple:

  • Three times a week we go to the Fitness Center and lift weights, then go to the Savoy Rec Center and do an hour of taiji.
  • The other four days of the week, I try to spend at least an hour walking.

We’ve been very good about the lifting and the taiji—we’ve scarcely missed a session for many months now. I’m a bit less consistent about the walking, but I’m hardly ever entirely sedentary, even for one day.

I often get the bulk of the walking just by running errands in the neighborhood—I can get 10 or 20 minutes of walking just by going by foot to the bank or the grocery store. When the weather is nice, it’s easy to get myself out to walk around Kaufman Lake.

On the grounds of the mansion at Allerton Park.

Even better is when we can get out someplace like Allerton and hike over some more interesting terrain.

At a minimum . . . . Well, it takes seven minutes to walk around the block here in the apartment complex. I can hardly ever get myself to do the eight or nine laps that would amount to a full hour, but I can almost always get out for at least one lap—and once I’m out, I can usually convince myself to do a second.

What’s great about this is that it’s working. For the first time in my adult life, I weigh less in January than I did in October. My usual metrics for aerobic conditioning (running time and distance) don’t really apply, but the ease with which I can do ordinary stuff like carry groceries up stairs suggests that I’m in adequately good condition.

I’m looking forward to summer, when I can get back to bicycling and running, but I’m not waiting for summer to work on my fitness. This is a huge improvement.

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.

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.)