Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Presidential Physiques and the Making of Squat-Rack Barack

Between the hours I spend carving out six-packs, loading and unloading Olympic barbells, and wiping up clients' sweat, I try to pretend to be a normal human being interested in normal human things like politics and NASCAR, but it can be tough sometimes. I can't seem to help seeing things through the lens of a Fitness Guy.

I take comfort in thinking that Einstein probably couldn't help but contemplate time's inexorable bend as he waited for a tardy date; or that Mozart probably heard music in the pitter-pat of rain on his roof; or that the Heat Miser probably perceives a kind of delicate beauty in the gradual liquification of candle wax. Similarly, I can't help seeing people as the sum total of the size and tonus of their contractile tissue, and how and what might be done to rearrange and retool the shape that tissue assumes as it moves its owner through the world.

Example: the other day I was watching CNN, and a clip of Barack Obama came onscreen. I was making a real attempt at having a serious listen to him when an occupational twitch kicked in: instead of focusing on the good Senator's words, I started honing in on his NECK:

Geez, that guy could really stand to gain some solid, muscular weight. He needs to lay off the pick-up basketball, up his protein intake, and go for some serious work on squats and deads. And maybe some O-lifts, too, to thicken up the neck, traps and upper torso. Perhaps throw in a few isolation moves for the arms so he fills out the shirt sleeves a little more? Looks good to have a popping bicep when you're hoisting babies on the campaign trail. Of course he's an ecto, so we've got to get him out of the gym fast...

When I shook myself out of my regimen-planning reverie, they were on to the already very fit and energetic-looking John Edwards, for whom designing a workout program would be a lot less fun, so I lost interest.

But then I got to thinking: I may be a fitness freak and all, but surely other people have had the same thought. Maybe even most people. After all, Obama's svelte physique is an integral part of who he is, and it will, in fact, have something of an influence on his effectiveness if we decide to give him the job: it will affect how he comes across to other world leaders; to congress and the rest of Washington, and, of course, to us, every time we see him delivering a speech or boarding Air Force One or strolling through the Rose Garden. Wheelchair-bound Franklin D. Roosevelt made a savvy call when he decided to have himself propped up with braces when he appeared in public: the president is the embodiment of the country, after all, and no matter how capable his mind, you want that body to appear strong as well. It's a significant factor in that mysterious and irrational split-second calculation we run in our animal brains when we decide--almost without our conscious participation--whether or not we deem a candidate "presidential."

Consider: just about all our presidents have been physically impressive. Of the 42 presidents to date, only 11 have been below the average CURRENT adult male height of 5' 9." Average height has risen, of course, meaning that earlier, shorter presidents still may have been above average height for their era. Eighteen of them--nearly half--have been a full six feet or more. And the trend seems to be even more pronounced since the advent of television and ubiquitous news images: take away a couple of single-term exceptions (five-foot-niners Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter), and you've got to go all the way back to 1900, and the five-foot-seven William McKinley, to find a president much under six feet tall.

But height is only part of the 'physically impressive' equation. Stats on the weights of US presidents are a little tougher to come by, but judging from the numbers available, descriptions, potraits and photographs, it would appear we like our presidents to be rather more beefy than average. In a website dedicated to the medical histories of our presidents,Monroe and Johnson are described as "massive;" Zachary Taylor as having been "big and barrel chested;" Garfield as "very strong, athletic, and muscular." Even the diminutive Benjamin Harrison is described, at five-foot-six, as having a "big torso and strong muscles." Chester Arthur was trim but powerful at 6'2" and 185; JFK was a touch over six feet and around 180. At 6' 1", media-savvy exercise fiend Ronald Reagan appeared to be about 200 very muscular pounds; Clinton had a bit of a gut but still looked powerful in his presidential finery at six-two and 220. And, according to the New York Times, six-footer George W. Bush now tips the scales at 194. Whatever else one might think of him, I bet he could take Osama in a cage match.

There are outliers, certainly: Jefferson was tall and thin, as were John Tyler and Andrew Jackson (whose sylphlike frame once helped him avoid death by a duellist's bullet). Madison was tiny, both in height and weight, and McKinley was ridiculed by opponents as having a frame like a little boy's. At 320 pounds, Taft was morbidly obese, and the chubby Grover Cleveland wasn't far behind. For all his rough riding, Teddy Roosevelt was himself close to clinically obese, though it's hard to fault the physique of a guy who took exercising so seriously that he lost the sight in one eye as the result of a White House boxing match:

"Chad, put down those law books and lace up my gloves, will you? I understand you did a touch of the boxing while in the military...well be a good citizen and give your President a taste of your 'sweet science,' eh? No holding back, now, there's a good..." [THUD].

So the ideal presidential physique appears to be, not surprisingly, perhaps, pretty close to that of most male movie stars: on the tall, trim, athletic side, somewhere along the meso-ectomorphic border. It makes a kind of sense: a taller guy can see and be seen a hair better than a shorter guy, meaning he's got an advantage when it comes to working a room; his long arms can reach out to shake more outstretched hands; a pair of wider shoulders guy will get you more space from others in the room, making you appear even bigger. Sure, we're a few million years off from being primates, but the silverback in the room still makes us sit up and take notice.

Height-wise, Obama's pretty solidly in the ballpark: at six-two, he's is in the rarified territory occupied by presidential giants Thomas Jefferson, George Wahington, FDR, as well as more recent 74-inchers George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, though he's still a good two inches shy of the presidential height record, still held by Obama's political idol, the six-foot-four-inch Abraham Lincoln.

(Quick fact about Abe: apparently he had a loud, shrill voice--not something you'd think would be an asset to a president-- until you remember that he would have had to give speeches to assembled audiences without modern amplification: the louder he was, the more people he could reach, impress, and convince. Nowadays, of course, a candidate who doesn't sound measured and cool on the mic--think Howard Dean-- would be unelectable.)

Looking at the shot of Barack on the beach, it's clear he's in pretty great shape for a guy his age, especially a busy one. But I still can't help thinking that Barack could help his cause if put some more muscle on his lanky frame: he's got the height, but with a few extra pounds of contractile tissue to his name, he'd move with more authority, exhude more gravitas, and look more like he belonged in the pantheon of US presidents.

I even wonder whether, more than a simple aesthetic hiccup, Obama's slight physique might in fact be the real source of what appears to be his most significant stumbling block. When voters say that they're worried about Obama's "experience," how many of them have actually checked his resume (which is, in fact, about as varied and challenging as you could expect a relatively young politician's to be), and how many are just looking at his physique and thinking, "He looks kind of skinny"--which somehow translates into 'inexperienced' when they answer polls? It's impossible to know, of course, but I'm going to speculate wildly that a large part of what people are responding to when they say "Obama lacks experience" isn't his track record but his BODY. Obama's whippet-thin physique looks like that of a young and inexperienced man, so we think that he must be, even if the facts tell us otherwise.

The solution? Hit the weight room, Barack.

Hey, I'll even design your program for you. It could be centered around baby-hoisting for the delts and hand-shaking for the forearms. All I'll ask in return is a token cabinet position in the event of your election.

(All information on presidential health and fitness was taken from here and here.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Lesson from the Shrubbery

Quick metaphor for fitness poeple out there with a poetical bent: when my wife and I bought our house in the spring of 2006, the back yard was an atrocity. Concrete covering 90% of the area, a gravelly, dirt-covered space on one end that the flyer had referred to as a "patio," the ugly side of a hideous fence separating our yard from the neighbor's.

It needed work.

So I spent an exhilerating weekend bashing up the concrete with a sledgehammer (my wife, whose general response to my physical exploits is indifference at best, actually got kind of fluttery watching me heave and sweat. And I was wearing safety goggles at the time, so I must have REALLY looked macho. It must have been a Kareem thing.) We laid down new turf. We had a real stone patio built. And we put up shrubs to mask the fence.

When the shrubs were put in, they were more like skinny trees with branches from top to bottom. Each one was like a newborn colt, barely able to stand on its own, so the contractor drove a six-foot stake into the ground next to each one and wrapped five or six tape rings at 12-inch intervals around each one.

Not having much of a green thumb, I kind of ignored the shrubs for a year or so, occasionally sprinkling them with a little water lest they parch in the blazing Southern California sun. I appreciated them, certainly--I liked the way they looked a lot better than the horrendous "Gates of Hell" fence that the previous owner had been lunatic enough to allow the neighbors to install, and I took measures to make sure the shrubs weren't turning brown. To my satisfaction, they grew about six inches apiece in their first year.

Then, about six weeks ago, my wife said, "Isn't it time we pulled up those stakes? I think they can stand on their own now."

I agreed, but waited about another two weeks to actually take the twenty minutes to DO the job (so that, you know, I could pretend it was MY idea.)

But here's the trippy part: in the month or so since I cut the tape of the shrubs and pulled up those stakes, those suckers have grown as much as eighteen inches apiece. I kid you not. And we're coming up on winter, here, folks, which even out here in SoCal means most plants are kind of taking it easy on the growth thing. But I'm telling you, once those shrubs were freed, they shot up like Jack's beanstalk.

So watch your heads, and get the metaphor abuse hotline on the phone, because here it comes: we're all shrubs, ladies and gentlemen, and after awhile, the very thing that starts out as a help to us often winds up holding us back.

Maybe you've been on the same workout program for two years. It stopped challenging you or yielding results after about six weeks, but you keep at it, vaguely thinking that those productive days will return, or that the new territory of a different program couldn't possibly work as well.

When I first started exercising, I stuck with the same program for literally eight years. I could recite it to you top to bottom, sets, reps, body part split (I know, I know...), exercises, sequence, rest periods. It wasn't that it was a bad program--I've returned to variations on the basic theme several times since then--but no program anywhere, designed by the most inventive, well-credentialed trainer in the world, will keep yielding optimal results for much longer than about two months (unless periodization is built in, of course). But I stayed taped to that stake-crutch for half of high school, all four years of college, and well into grad school--thus largely missing out on some of my most fruitful strength-and-fitness-gaining years--until at last I met a trainer who pointed out the myriad errors of my ways and set me on a path to liberation.

When I really started contemplating the full implications of my experience with the shrubs, I honed in on about a half-dozen habits, relationships, and behavior patterns that at one point in my life had served me but now were holding me back from serious growth. I imagine they're out there in droves in everyone's life. We're clinging to them, convinced we'll fall over without them, but in fact they're the very things that are keeping us from achieving our true potential.

Untape yourself from the stake-crutches of your life.

Here endeth the pop psychology lesson of the day.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Lost Art of Spotting

I've never been a big "workout partner" guy. Whether running or biking or lifting weights or swimming or practicing kata or hitting a heavy bag, working out has always felt like an inherently solitary endeavor to me, ever since my initiate days of pumping concrete-filled "DP" weights in my parents' basement. My few forays into "social" exercise--in triathlon clubs, boxing gyms, and martial arts studios--have been enjoyable, eye-opening revelations to me, but they've all been followed by quick retreats back into the comforts of my own misanthropic little workout shell, a secret world where I can deny my athletic averageness and safely pretend that I'm bigger, faster, and stronger than everyone else without the pesky intrusion of anything so mundane as "reality."

Not everyone is like that, and many workout texts perkily counsel readers to "Exercise With A Buddy! : )." I see such duos in the gym all the time, chatting away between sets or next to one another on the treadmill, or loudly impugning the honor of each other's mothers as they go for personal records in the dead lift.

One of the benefits of having a workout partner is that you always have someone to spot you, which would be a huge plus for me at the moment: as I've mentioned before, I'm currently on a personal mission to raise my lifting numbers solidly into 'mediocre' territory, so I've had occasion to need a spotter lately. The importance of a spotter was brought home to me again recently when a fellow gym-rat I'd buttonholed for a spot recounted the tale of getting himself stuck under a max-effort bench-press weight and attempting to extricate himself by ROLLING THE BAR ONTO HIS THROAT (capitalization mine). When I asked him what made him think that would be a wise course of action, he replied, "I thought my neck would be able to take the weight."

Among many other things, this little story illustrates the dangers of lifting weights while smoking crack. How and why he was alive and kicking to spot me on that day is a complete mystery to me, and a complete breakdown in the laws of Evolution as I understand them.

Show of hands: how many times has this happened to you? You're about to attempt a near-maximal lift on the bench press, you need a spotter, and you look around the gym, sizing everyone up on their ability, should the need arise, to save you from being crushed.

It's a strange moment, because, truth be told, you're looking for someone with whom you're momentarily going to entrust your life. You don't think of it like that, of course. After all, spotting is a relatively quick and easy task: give a guy some help hefting the bar off the uprights, mutter some cheesy but encouraging platitudes as he pumps away, then give maybe ten or fifteen pounds of assistance as he ekes out his final rep. Nothing to it.

Still, if he screws up, let's face it, you could buy it, right there at Bally's during the 5:15 rush.

Now, few spotters are so negligent that you'll actually die on their watch, but in my experience, they tend to fall into one of four cagegories:

1) CAUTIOUS PETE, or 'THAT-BAR-WILL-KILL-YOU-SOON-AS-LOOK-AT-YOU': This guy treats the bar like it's a wild stallion that could start bucking and kicking at any second. He won't let go of the bar the entire time you're lifting, and then he helps you the milisecond your lifting speed flags, denying your the feeling of accomplishment that comes with grunting your way through an agonizing last rep or two. Eventually you get the feeling that if you don't terminate the set yourself, Pete will just keep on lifting it for you till doomsday. You could take your hands off the bar, have a chat on the cell and a drag on your cigarette, and he'd still be there, lifting away. At the end of that set, it's impossible to know if you ever did even one single rep by yourself. Was he spotting you on the bench or were you spotting him on the dead lift?

2) ORTHOPEDIST'S ASSISTANT: This guy doesn't know to help you lift the bar off the rack, so you do something god-awful to your shoulders trying to wrastle the bar into place for your first rep, guaranteeing an expensive trip to the orthopedist, with whom O.A. is in cahoots. Your set goes on just fine, but when you finally need just the tiniest hint of spot to get the bar back onto the racks, O.A. pulls the bar skyward with all his might, practically lifting you off the bench along with it. This means the pressure on your shoulder joints goes from near 100% to less than zero in a matter of a tenth of a second or so, so that if the bad liftoff didn't already seal it for you, this little coup de grace at set's end will ensure that soon, very soon, you will personally be buying your local orthopedist a brand new Jet Ski that he'll bring along with him on a two-week trip to the Caymans!*

3) NO-HELP McGEE: When this guy utters the requisite "all you," he means it, because he's not helping you AT ALL. "How bad do you want it, Jackson?" he seems to be saying as you sputter and wheeze beneath the swaying tonnage. It's not until the bar begins its inexorable descent towards your trachea, and you've mentally started saying your goodbyes to loved ones and the taste of hazelnut chocolate bon-bons, that No-Help comes to the rescue, emitting a Beevis-and-Butt-Head chuckle when he finally saves your bacon.

4) GUNNERY SERGEANT McCARTHY, YOUR SENIOR DRILL INSTRUCTOR: This guy seems innocuous enough. Sure, he's a big guy, but most of the behemoths want the rest of us to succeed, if only so G.S.M. will have more smaller folks around to lord over on his big heavy lifting days. But get that bar moving and he starts cursing at you like you're back on Parris Island. And you never WERE on Parris Island, but you're pretty sure you know what it must have been like, because McCarthy casts such horrible aspersions on your character, your parentage, and your very value as a human being that you suddenly feel like you'd rather be squatting in the bush keeping an eye out for Charlie than listening to the kind of invective spilling out of this mammoth's mouth.

Given that the Art of Spotting seems to have gone the way of the Do-Do, I thought I'd just put together this little refresher course:


1) Stand CLOSE to the bench, but not SO CLOSE that it's distracting. Or weird.
2) FIND OUT roughly how many reps the lifter is going for.
3) On the lifter's command, HELP him get the bar off the uprights and DON'T let go until he tells you.
4) When he tells you--LET GO OF THE BAR. Don't touch it, graze it, or hover your hands around it like you're casting magic spells unless and until he asks you for help.
4) Stand close and WATCH the lifter as he does his reps. Even if he doesn't need your help till the end, the focus will be appreciated. He's obviously working at near his maximum capacity, or you wouldn't be there. A little respect is warranted, no matter how easy that weight would be for YOU.
5) Utter some affirming, but not distracting, words as he cranks through his set (optional).
6) When he ASKS for help, and not before (unless he's in obvious distress), give him JUST ENOUGH ASSISTANCE to get the bar up to the arms-locked position. DON'T pull up with all your might (unless, of course, that's the only way to get the bar moving). Once the bar is up, DON'T assume he's finished with the set and force the bar into the uprights. Just help him lift it up till his arms are locked. If he wants to go for another rep, take your hands OFF the bar as he lowers it but keep them close, because he'll most likely need help again to get the bar up. Repeat until the lifter tells you he's done, and THEN, and only then, guide the bar back into the uprights.
7) End with a couple of words of encouragement, or congratulations, or--if the lifter ASKS for it--advice on technique, progression, or stock picks.
8) Be happy because you've participated in an age-old ritual of helping a fellow gym rat work confidently at his edge.

A good spotter is hard to find, and when you DO find one, remember it, because you owe him an equally attentive spot sometime in the near future. If you're not up for spotting someone who needs it--if you've got a bad back, or you worry that the load he's lifting is too much for you--say so.

I've never gotten myself a workout partner out of spotting someone, but I've made some decent gym pals. Saving someone's life will do that. To say nothing of being saved.


*also paid for by you.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

CrossFit: A Total Sham or The Second Coming?

A reader named tommythecat (not--presumably--his real name) wrote to me recently and asked me to do a post on CrossFit, a popular training system whose devotees and detractors lock horns on chat rooms with alarming frequency and leave the rest of us wondering what the big deal is.

Taking away all the hoopla--and there's plenty of that, believe me--CrossFit offers brief, intense workouts that combine a heart-pumping cardiovascular challenge with basic, old-fashioned strength moves, creating a full-body workout challenge in less than half an hour. There are CrossFit Facilities, CrossFit Websites, CrossFit Mixers, CrossFit Tote Bags, CrossFit Pregnancy Tests...the whole ball of wax, all designed to create and maintain the sprawling CrossFit Community, a large percentage of whom post the particulars of their Herculean accomplishments on the site as an across-the-board challenge to other members. So if you live in Homer, Alaska, you can check the site and see that FitYoda123 in Valpariso did the "Fran" workout (all the workouts are named for the person who first did them) in 15:45 and you can try to beat his time.

CrossFit first came onto my radar about a year ago. I read a bunch of their material and did a couple of their workouts, and overall I have to say that the workouts are pretty tough. They consist mostly of anaerobic exercises, often done in a circuit, usually for time or maximum repetitions, making them short and very intense: the idea is you are working at or near your maximum capacity for the entire workout.

For some samples of CrossFit-style workouts, I pulled up their site and saw that the last week of workouts looked like this:

Front Squats, 5 sets of 5


5 Rounds for time:
400 m run
75 lbs. Sumo Deadlift/High Pull, 21 reps
75 lbs. Thruster, 21 reps

5 rounds, maximum reps:
Body-Weight Bench Press
Pull Ups

Deadlift 5 sets of 3


MONDAY 12/10
Push Jerk 7 sets of 3

For time:
100 Pullups
100 Pushups
100 Situps
100 Squats

The idea of blending cardio and strength training is something I've discussed before (here and here if you're interested), and, for time economy, general health and fitness, fat-loss, and sheer, gut-wrenching toughness, it's hard to beat this particular way of structuring a workout. For most of us, this kind of anaerobic workout is the hardest physical challenge we're likely to encounter in everyday life: if you ever have to run to catch a bus, or scamper up a few flights of stairs, or help your cousin Jed unload the bricks for his new patio from his F-250, this kind of anaerobic conditioning will help you prep for it. And since basketball, touch football, raquetball, and tennis are anaerobic in nature, a CrossFit athlete is unlikely to find himself sucking wind on a rec field either.

Looking at the above week of workouts, I see that there's a pretty good balance between workouts that focus on the upper body (Friday and Monday), the lower body (Tuesday, 12/4 and Saturday), and something in between (Thursday and Tuesday, 12/11). You've got some heavy strenth work (Tuesday 12/4, Saturday, and Monday) as well as some hardcore anaerobic challenges (Thursday and Tuesday, 12/11). I don't know if it always shakes out like that, but it appears that some thought has been given to the structure of the entire week. So looking at their workouts, I'd wager (though I can't really say for sure, never having gone to their classes or seriously studied the performance of their athletes) CrossFit will produce an excellent athletic generalist, which is all most of us will ever aspire to be.

Add to all this an emphasis on competition--both against one's own personal best in a given workout and against the other CrossFitters worldwide--plus the supportive online community (real or virtual), and you've got yourself what adds up to a pretty cool little workout trend.

So in my book, the CrossFit system has a lot to recommend it.

The weaknesses in this program--yes, CrossFit has weaknesses, just as any program does--and, most likely, what chafes certain elements of the fitness population about these workouts--is their lack of specificity and progression.

Specificity is also something I've gone over before. The idea behind the principle of specificity is that the body makes adaptations based very precisely on the demands you place upon it: you won't become a significantly better runner by swimming; you won't bench-press much more by playing tennis. Sure, there may be some microscopic change, but it's not going to be a significant, performance-enhancing, wow-I-won-my-club's-golf-trophy change. If you want to get better at something, you've got to work at that thing, not its second cousin, not its next-door neighbor, but the thing itself.

So if you work at doing CrossFit, you're going to get better at...CrossFit. You aren't going to get much stronger at the bench-press; you aren't going to get much faster on the track; you aren't going to deadlift 500 pounds, you're not going to improve your forehand. Sure, if you're so out of shape you can't lift a pencil and you suddenly get a hankering to take up CrossFit, you'll certainly see some changes in performance in many skills. But you could get that effect if you started any kind of fitness program, and these improvements will plateau fairly quickly.

Even though your athletic abilities may very well see some initial improvements on many fronts, CrossFit will never make you a master Olympic lifter, or carve you an astonishingly aesthetic physique, or make you a master sprinter (unless, of course, you have exceptional genetics for any one of those things before you started, at which point--yes--any coach in the world would tell you to jettison all the other irrelevent activities that CrossFit entails and focus on your sport of choice in order to excel further). You simply won't develop exceptional abilities in any athletic endeavor unless you focus specifically on getting better at those things.

Which leads me to my "no progression" complaint. Say you're really into the whole CrossFit thing, and you really want to be able to post some impressive numbers on the site and maybe earn yourself an approving PM from CrossFitChick75. But let's say you're terrible at sprinting. Unless you figure out a way to do some carefully-worked-out sprint progressions in addition to what's posted on the site, you're out of luck, there, Freckles, because sprinting once a week isn't going to make you faster or better or much-of-anything-'er' except exhausteder and frustrateder.

And if you're terrible at, say, deadlifting, you're going to stay terrible at it because before last Saturday, the last time you deadlifted was November 28th, and that was just to test your one-rep max, which I'm here to tell you may be good for the ego but it's not much of a workout. Referring back to the week of workouts, none of the programs listed have been in the rotation for at least a month, and a couple haven't been visited since June, meaning that any specific benefits you got out of the workout a month ago will have evaporated.

So CrossFit isn't the place to turn if you're looking for a systematic way to improve any single aspect of your fitness, be it aerobic conditioning, sports skills, or maximum speed, power, and strength. There are certainly more efficient ways to improve body composition as well.

But the simple fact is that the vast majority of us don't want or need to have superior aerobic conditioning, significant amounts of hypertrophy, or superior absolute strength or power. At our most physically stressed moments in life, and during intense sport play, we need a kind of middle-ground ability to express fairly high strength at fairly high speed, which, again, is exactly the kind of sweet spot that CrossFit-style workouts develop. I suspect that a CrossFit devotee would argue that the weaknesses I cite above are actually strengths: that all-around, general fitness is in fact the goal, that avoiding what they might call excessive focus on one activity is precisely the point, and that their system fosters readiness for any kind of physical challenge.

So: who out there has tried it, and what do you guys think? CrossFit lovers and haters alike, I'm open to your comments.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Nature: ONE; Nurture: ZERO

In Andrew Niccol's 1997 sci-fi movie Gattaca, Ethan Hawke plays an aspiring astronaut in a dystopian future where the quality of your life is dictated by the quality of your genes. It's a world where, "with the right helix tucked under your arm, you can go anywhere." Unlike his brother, who was engineered to be a perfect combination of his parents' best features, Hawke's character was conceived the old-fashioned way (in the back of a convertible), and is therefore born with a weak heart, which automatically disqualifies him from the astronaut program.

But his desire to reach the stars burns strong and bright, and he contrives a way to take on the identity of the genetically superior but wheelchair-bound Jude Law, who sells him his fingerprints, a blood sample, and a medical-bag full of other distinguishing features for a hefty percentage of Hawke's earnings. Some diligent workouts stave off his heart troubles whilst some fancy evasive moves keep the man off his tail, and things wind up going pretty well for him. Law has the genes, but he lacks the heart and soul to get the job done; Hawke lacks the genes but he's got the fire. As the poster said, 'There is no gene for the human spirit.'

As my occasional references suggest, I'm a fan of this movie, I suppose in part because it reinforces my conviction that our genes don't tell our whole story: we're in charge of our destiny, thank you very much, and what we do and how we act and what we accomplish is all on our shoulders, not predestined by our genes or by anything or anyone else. In a way, Gattaca describes the whole ethos of working out: put in the time and the effort, and you can create a new self. It's all up to you.

I suppose that's why I was so taken by a story in a recent issue of The New Yorker (abstracted here). The story, by Stephen S. Hall, describes the development and gradual acceptance of a hypothesis by scientist David J.P. Barker that "adult disease is linked to pre-natal and early post-natal life." Barker based his hypothesis on some data that suggested that being born small (under 5.5 pounds in this study, though premature babies were deliberately excluded from the research) increased one's chances of contracting heart disease in adulthood.

Hall describes how Barker's hypothesis initially met with a fair amount of resistance, primarily because of the anti-Gattaca impulse: science is great, of course, but we want to believe that it doesn't tell us everything. That if we contract heart disease, it may be a bum deal, but darn it, maybe we should have laid off the french fries and mayo. In direct contrast to the oppressive powers-that-be in Niccol's film, health officials had been laboring to get the message out that adult behaviors determined health and longevity. Now here was a study--and a convincing one--that suggested that we might not be as fully in control as we once believed.

Elsewhere in the article, Hall cites research that suggests that adult health may be influenced to a shocking extent by the quality of your mother's diet in the four days following conception: in theory, the developing embryo sets the pace for its growth rate during this crucial period, and if nutrients are scarce, it puts the brakes on its development (it must be noted that those results were taken from an animal study).

But the supporting data for Barker's theories came hard and fast, and now, as the abstract states, they're a new kind of orthodoxy. Score one for the Gattacists.

I suppose I feel a little pang when I read Hall's article, but I also realize that we still don't know the whole equation. There's a complex relationship at work here, and cheesy though it may be to say, the human spirit is unquestionably a wild-card player that very well might trump the whole game: I'm reminded again of cancer survivors I know who have gritted their way back to health, and of friends and clients who have lost enormous amounts of weight, beating genetics and ubiquitous temptation through constant vigilance and a thousand daily acts of will. Our genetic hand plays a big role in our health and fitness, certainly, but in truth, we can't deny the power of our own nature any more than we can deny the power of nature itself.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Profiled at the Y

So I had myself a nice little workout this morning at the local low-frills YMCA: lifted some decent weights (for me), worked up a pretty good sweat, and generally got myself into a narcissistic froth over my own manliness (it helped that the only other people working out at the time was a group of Korean women, none of them a day under seventy-five). Lots of fun. While I was completing my post-workout stretch, I remembered a quote from one of the many Horatio Alger, Jr. novels my grandfather gave me to read when I was a kid. At one point, the hero, an Italian immigrant named Ben, addresses a sickly companion:

"You are not so strong as I, Giacomo," said Ben, looking down with some complacency at his own stout limbs."

That line, with its odd combination of cockiness and formality, was something of a catch-phrase when I was growing up. If ever my mother thought I'd done something that smacked a bit too much of self-regard, she'd follow it up with a quick "...looking down with some complacency at his own stout limbs," and I'd get the message to clamor on down off my high horse, and don't catch my breeches on the stirrups on the way down.

Anyway, I was thinking smirkingly of this line from the past when a trainer came up to me.

"Are you done working out?" she asked. I assumed she was going to ask for some advice, or a spot, or to simply tell me how amazing it was that I'd managed to lift not just the bar itself, but a couple of those plates at the same time, and maybe say a word or two about how witty I am in my blog, from which she'd somehow managed to recognize me. As I said, I was in a personal-record-setting-induced revelry at the time.

"Yes, I'm done."

"I was wondering if you could put your weights away?"

I was momentarily flummoxed--had I left some weights out? Quick to accept blame (I'm working on that one), I started towards I the squat rack I'd been using, but saw that all the weights were in fact already put away. The bar was completely stripped, ready for the next kid to use, just like I'd been taught in nursery school. Scanning across the gym, I saw that the dumbells I'd been hoisting were also happily on their home in the rack, awaiting their next victim. I was relieved to see that in fact I'd been a good citizen.

"Sorry," I said, trying not to sound like a jackass, "What weights are you talking about?"

" know...those on the Smith machine...some barbells over there," she gestured vaguely towards an area I hadn't come near all morning.

"Oh," I said, "Those aren't my weights. I wasn't using the Smith machine."

"So you do put your weights away, then?"

"Yes," I said, for some reason feeling it necessary to add, "always."

And she strolled away without another word, but with a "I"m watching you, bucko," vibe.

I didn't think much of the interaction until afterwards, when I realized that this trainer hadn't had a clue about what I'd been doing in the weight room, and didn't have a shred of evidence for her accusation. She'd cased the joint, seen some stray weights and, just because I looked like the hardest-core guy in the place at the moment, fingered me as the culprit.

Come to think of it, she didn't even have a specific CRIME in mind. She just thought, 'Ah, here's a guy who looks like he leaves his weights lying around for the trainers to pick up,' and sauntered up to see if she could get me to do her job for her by tossing a general accusation in my direction.

She'd PROFILED me!

Look, I'm not going to get too bent out of shape about this; I'm a WASPY straight guy, after all, so maybe a little profiling will build me some character (though, come to think of it, some nasty cases of profiling have been levelled at some pretty WASPY straight guys of late). Still, I wanted to make a plea for myself and the other people out there who take their time in the gym relatively seriously: don't assume that just because we work hard in the gym that we're jerks. Don't assume we never put our weights away, that we'll never spot you, that we'll hog the water fountain or the squat rack or refuse to let you work in with us.

Most of us are insecure, anyway: we don't feel like we're strong enough, or big enough, or good enough yet, and that's why we're there in the weight-cave in the first place, hoisting inanimate steel instead of making friends with those beings called "other people," who secretly confuse and frighten us.

We're too timid to be jerks.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Tale of Three Brothers

Most guys will break off from their Thanksgiving binge to watch football; my brothers-in-law and I, all of us inveterately indifferent to sports trying frantically to compensate, did some arm-wrestling instead. "Quien," I ask, "es mas macho?"

A quick rundown on the arm-wrestlers:

The older of my wife's brothers, Brennon, is heavy into weight training. You'd think that would mean I'd love the guy. In fact, I hate him, because he does everything wrong: lots of arm curls and extensions, lots of machine work, lots of benching, coupled with little to no flexibility work, and--this is what really kills me--NO leg work. Maybe a cursory leg extension or curl, but that's it. I've gone to the gym with him before, and while I'm busily comparing my performance on key lifts against my notes from last week's workouts, he wanders around, eying the equipment for something that strikes his fancy as if he were at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Then he'll amble onto a machine just vacated by an octogenarian, get his pump on using the entire weight stack, and spend the next five minutes checking out his guns in the mirror. And speaking of buffets, he eats with all the restraint and discernment of a starving mountain goat. Oh--and he SMOKES. Avidly.

Now, if there were any justice in the world, maybe he'd be modestly stronger than average, with some discernable size in his upper body. But he'd probably also have a gut, lousy skin and hair, and the general appearance of a middle-aged couch potato. But no, the reason that Brennon haunts my nightmares is that even though 90% of his training methods are as sketchy as a three-dollar bill, he's built like a bloody Adonis: huge arms, sculpted shoulders, visible abs, rippling back. The fact that his legs are skinny doesn't really matter, because he's 6' 5" and can get away with a touch of lankiness. Add to that the fact that he radiates good health and you've got one brother-in-law I very well might have to put a hit on in the near future, because guys like Brennon are bad for business.

Now and then I'll vaguely try to educate Brennon on the value of deadlifting, systematic workouts, good nutrition and flexibility. I even gave him a book on weight training for Christmas last year. But what's the point? His arms are twice as big as mine. And the fact that I usually give him this lecture while icing the painful and swollen back muscles I pulled--again--while doing very the exercises whose benefits I'm so enthusiastically extolling probably doesn't help my case.

My other brother-in-law, Mat, has three kids, the youngest of whom was blessed with nasty allergies to a cornucopia of foods, which has turned his infancy into an almost never-ending string of life-threatening crises (he's getting better now, thankfully). Mat works long hours at a construction company in Colorado, splitting his time between designing and helping to build custom houses in the old-fashioned timber frame style. I quizzed Mat on the details of his work as we drove our kids to see ENCHANTED on Friday, and he told me that his job entails lots of hand-chiselling and drilling, plus a fair amount of manhandling large pieces of timber that weigh anywhere from a few hundred to close to 1,000 pounds (they refer to these timbers as "sticks"). Every few months, Mat and his crew will drive to a job site, and do a sort of Amish barn-raising on steroids, where they snap and hoist and jimmy all these huge pieces of timber together to form a house.

Like his brother, Mat smokes. He also enjoys a beer or two after work, eats more or less indiscriminately, and gets no regular, structured exercise to speak of, outside of chasing after his eleven-year-old, keeping his five-year-old under some semblance of control, and coralling his two-year-old away from the refrigerator and all the forbidden, allergy-inducing fruits it contains. Like Brennon, Mat's about 6'5", and though he doesn't have the bulk his that his weight training brother has, he's as maddeningly lean and mean as your average college basketballer.

The final contestant, of course, was me: non-smoker, unstressful family life, on-my-feet job, obsessive exerciser always looking for the better mousetrap that will make me stronger or faster or bigger or better. Currently well into a weight training, strength-building cycle designed by one of the top guys in the field. Ever careful about what goes into my mouth, evaluating each morsel on the strength of its health-and-fitness building properties.

So, to recap, the contestants are: Guy One, big, but probably not functionally very strong; Guy Two, lean, with probably decent local muscular endurance and some functional strength; and Guy Three, good all-around fitness, with methodically-built, balanced, head-to-toe strength. Now, as the diminutive Sardinian Franco Columbu once said before posing off with the gargantuan, multi-titled Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1975 Mr. Olympia contest, "Of course I think I'm going to win." Aren't I the most prepared, the most systematically pumped and buffed and ripped? Haven't I sweated, trained, fretted and planned the most?

But here's the capper: I arm-wrestled both guys to a tie. Brennon nailed my left arm to the table, but I returned the favor on the right. Same for Mat, only there, my left arm was victorious, while my right--as the pictures show--came up short. Mat and Brennon didn't arm-wrestle one another. They reasoned that a contest of actual blood would be too much for a holiday of family togetherness to endure.

So what's the lesson here? Arm-wrestling is hardly a test of absolute fitness, nor is it even a test of absolute strength or athleticism. It certainly wasn't a specialty for any one of us. Still, it is an athletic contest, and probably a decent test of upper-body strength, and in this case, once I'd dusted off my wounded pride for not decimating the field despite my vocation, I found the results pretty interesting: the big guy, the functional guy, and the fitness guy all came up pretty much dead even. In other words, the guy who trains for looks, the guy who deadlifts fallen trees all day, and the guy who trains for total fitness have all reached a pretty similar place in this particular measure of strength and fitness.

So perhaps instead of feeling wounded, I should feel vindicated: I've said before, and will probably say again, that there are many ways to skin the proverbial fitness cat. Finding "the best" and "the most efficient" way to get fit will probably never cease to fascinate me (I can always chalk up those contests I lost to that old scapegoat, genetics), and for athletes and others for whom optimal health is serious business, it's a worthy, if labyrinthian, pursuit. But those few extra percentage points of improvement you get from "the best" program will probably never equal the massive benefits you get from doing something rather than doing nothing, and ideally, choosing something you enjoy that makes sense to YOU.

Brennon has told me that he works out so that he catches the eyes of the ladies. "Curls for the girls," he'll say, grinning at me from across the gym while I give myself an aneurism doing squats. Mat builds houses to keep his family fed--and showed me his design for the beautiful house he's going to build to keep them sheltered as well. I lift because it's engrossing, because I like the way it makes me look and feel, and because if I don't, no one in their right mind would hire me to train them. But we all go at it with everything we have, and that's a lot more important than doing something you hate just because a book or an expert or a TV star told you it's good for you.

Whatever expertise I, or anyone else, can offer, will mean nothing if the exerciser doesn't apply themselves. Intensity and focus trumps all the methodology in the world.

Don't believe me? Go watch ROCKY IV again, and pay attention.

(What's that you say? ROCKY IV isn't a documentary...? There never WAS a heavyweight champion named Rocky Balboa? Come on, I know I'm no sports fan, but some things are just common knowledge...)


Thursday, November 22, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving to All!

Okay: Just a couple of things here, I swear I'm going to make this short, because I've stolen away from my family's pre-feasting festivities at our little rented home and am blogging with my wife's borrowed laptop perched on top of a clothes dryer that is currently drying sheets, blankets and towels that my two-year-old nephew spent last night dowsing in vomit. Don't ever say I never did anything for you.

Now, I realize that even for fitness freaks, this afternoon's meal is a chance to go hog-wild. You've probably earned it. Still, in the event that you want to hold onto a tiny sense of self-control, here's how NOT to regret your gluttony at the Thanksgiving table, while still having a generous--some might say hugely indulgent--meal:

Fill up on turkey, or ham, or whatever lean protein you've got going this year. Accompany it with as many veggies as you wish, assuming they're relatively free of dressings and other fun additives. Go crazy on this stuff. You can also eat a good amount of sweet potatoes AND cranberry sauce, assuming (again) that they haven't been destroyed by the addition of lard and/or sugar variations. Make that round one.

Then, spend a few minutes gabbing with Aunt Celia across the table. Let round one settle a bit. If you can wait up to 20 minutes--so much the better.

THEN, check to see if you're still hungry at all, and if so, you can now either repeat round one, or, if you'll be banned from next year's feast if you don't indulge, have some of the stuffing, rolls, white potatoes, breads and/or corn. But go easy on these starches. Think of them as sweets. And for heaven's sake, don't eat them first.

One key to not overstuffing is NOT to eat little bits of a hundred different things. That's the primrose path to a food-baby. Can you say "all you can eat buffet" anyone?

Polish it off with a modest portion of pie or dessert that you actually ENJOY.

...or, just throw it all out the window and have a good time. One meal won't kill ya.

I'm still deciding which route to take myself.

Regardless, have fun.

Gotta go, clothes are almost dry.


Friday, November 16, 2007

Two Great Fitness Resources for Women!

Although I'm sort of a journeyman in this industry, I like to think, as Robert De Niro says in THIS BOY'S LIFE, that I know 'a thing or two about a thing or two.' But there's one thing I'm not and never can be without a lot of surgery, hormones, and therapy, and that's a woman. I like to think that fitness is fitness is fitness, and what's good for the goose is good for the gander and all that, but the fact is that women do respond in subtly different ways, and have often have different needs and goals, than men.

So if you happen to be a woman interested in fitness, you should definitely check out the following resources:

1) Rachel Cosgrove's Blog. Like me, Rachel is a triathlete. Unlike me, she's an Ironman finisher. She has also coached numerous figure competitors to high finishes and, from her writing, appears to be in the know about all things fitness-related. I just discovered her blog today, and it's a breath of fresh air. It's also nice to have someone out there writing about training for endurance events who is equally well versed in the world of strength training and diet. Meaning she knows how to train for extreme events without getting injured. I've never met Rachel, but I'm told she coaches locally and I hope to saddle up on my bike with her group sometime in the near future. I fully expect her, and probably most of her charges, to leave me choking on their dust.

2) The New Rules of Lifting for Women, by Lou Schuler, Alwyn Cosgrove, and Cassandra E. Forsythe. If it's anything like its predecessor, this book will hardly need my endorsement. Back in 2005, Lou Schuler and Alwyn Cosgrove (husband of Rachel, above) put out an unassuming-looking fitness book called The New Rules of Lifting, which has become, in my estimation, pretty much the gold standard for practical, up-to-date, and clearly-written advice on the fastest and most effective ways to lose fat, gain muscle, and increase strength. Chat rooms sprung up for people using its programs. Among fitness geeks, a mini-revolution was born, in which long-time lifters started accepting its very new, and rather controversial ideas, as the new gospel of How To Weight Train the Right Way. And frankly, I think it's deserved. Alongside Chad Waterbury's Muscle Revolution and Mike Boyle's Functional Training for Sports, it belongs in the library of absolutely anyone who's the slightest bit interested in fitness.

So I'm doing something I really should never do, and that's giving this book a blind endorsement, because I fully expect this book to be every bit as innovative, thorough and readable as its predecessor. I know both Cosgrove and Schuler the tiniest bit (the latter only via email, but that counts these days, right?), and they're absolutely the top of their field. If it's decreed by Schuler and Cosgrove, you can rest assured it Will Build Muscle and Burn Fat. I know less about their collaborator, Ms. Forsythe, but from all accounts, she, too, is the genuine article.

A word of warning here, the book isn't even OUT yet, and WON'T be before the holidays, meaning that you can't even purchase it as a gift for a friend. Then again, giving a "get in shape" book to a woman you love for Christmas is dicey territory, so maybe it would work better as a New Year's present to yourself to go along with your resolution to hit the gym hard this year.

Have a great weekend.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Something Everyone Knows

Some things are repeated so often you stop hearing them.

Or at least, that's my theory based on the kinds of things many people believe when they darken the door of the gym for the first time.

On some level, we wish--fervently--that getting in shape could be easy. That we could somehow fob it off on someone else, buy, or cajole, or bargain our way to glowing health and drool-worthy physiques.

And while some people inarguably have a genetic leg up on that score, and others may start out a few steps behind, the bottom line is you get out what you put in. You're not going to get a great body because you charmed your way through an interview, or because the parking attendant thinks you're cute, or because you pledged Kappa Pi Epsilon. Nope. You've got to put in the hours.

In a weird way, that cold, hard nuts-and-bolts formula remains a major part of the appeal of the fitness game to me. The weights make sense: effort + time = improvement. Lots of effort + lots of time = lots of improvement. No cheating, no shortcuts, no easy ways out (save pharmaceutical ones, I suppose--but, incurable square that I am, drugs have never held the least bit of appeal to me).

When I first started exercising, in my early adolescence, I suppose I was freaked out about growing up, about what lay ahead, about where I stood in my family and in the world, and somehow the simple, daily confrontation with iron or pavement or heavy bag made it all seem a little more manageable. If I could apply myself with focus and determination in the fight against these intimidating, inanimate objects, making incremental improvements in my physical abilities, I figured maybe I could do something similar in the subtler, less concrete conflicts that attended my young adulthood. I'm convinced that pumping iron--and perhaps more importantly, the lessons I derived from the time I spent lifting weights--made me a better student, a better artist, a better guy to be around.

Poke just about any guy who's spent a significant portion of his life getting and staying in shape, and I bet you'll get some version of this same formula: weight room as metaphor, as microcosm of life.

So, on to the thing that everyone knows but no one believes, or acts as if they believe: what you do OUTSIDE of your exercise time can either enhance and improve, or completely undermine and undo everything--absolutely EVERYTHING--you do INSIDE the gym.

Say two identical twins hire me to train them. Say they have identical goals--fat loss and muscle gain--and say they happen to come to me in identical shape: completely sedentary, deconditioned, with similar postural and flexibility problems.

So I put these guys on the same program, they each show up three or four times a week and work out to the best of their ability each time they come in for six months.

Now: let's say that Twin A starts eating small meals every three hours, starting with a good breakfast, with plenty of high-quality protein, vegetables and fruits; he starts taking a protein shake after his workouts; he starts drinking green tea and fish oil tablets regularly; he cuts down significantly on floury, sugary carbs; he starts cutting down on his late-night TV binges and sleeping a full eight hours; and he figures out ways to carve out more healthy ways to relax at work and in his off-hours.

Twin B, on the other hand, does none of these things: he eats erratically--long periods without food interspersed with huge binges replete with lots of unhealthy carbs and processed foods; he collapses at night in front of the TV or computer; his downtime is filled with activities centered around excessive eating and drinking; finally, and unsurprisingly, given the physical stresses he's putting on himself day in and day out, he's constantly fretting about his job and his personal life.

Six months after these two hypothetical clients start working out with me, Twin A could be well on his way to acheiving his goal: better health, a leaner and more muscular physique that people are starting to seriously notice. Maybe he's even considering joining a team or a club sport and getting into the competitive fray once a week.

Twin B would most likely be lagging far behind. He stalled out at a point that his brother passed months before. He probably misses workouts due to illness and injury. He may be still going to the gym as much as he can, but of necessity the workouts are now focused on undoing the stresses he puts on himself outside the gym than on progress and improvement.

Now, I'll happily create a workout for pretty much anyone in any condition: hung over, separated from their spouse the previous day, stressed out after 20 hours on the job, homeless, helpless, unemployed in Greenland. Give me your tired, your poor, and all that. And I'm reasonably confident that those workouts will be beneficial, even if I have to dial it all the way back to an hour of PNF stretching to relieve tension and the effects of stress.

And believe me, I understand being stressed out, depleted, and feeling as if you don't have time or energy to do anything for yourself, much less eat well, get enough sleep, or balance the stress in your life. I don't want to sound like Malvolio here, because everyone needs fun and freedom from rules and restrictions in their lives once in a while. But look, guys, if you're serious about your health (and if you're not, uhm, why aren't you?), it's imperative that you figure out ways to make the stressed out, poorly-nourished, sleep-deprived version of yourself the exception rather than the rule.

Yes, go to the gym and work out for several hours a week. Yes, find a trainer who challenges you and designs solid programs tailored specifically to your goals. But the best program in the world designed by the best trainer in the world can't compensate for bad choices outside the gym.

The hope of every trainer is always that the bug will get every client: that all of them will become addicted to the positive changes they see in their bodies and start improving other aspects of their lives to support their efforts in the gym. Sadly, of course, it doesn't ALWAYS happen.

But hey, there's no reason it can't happen to YOU.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Ultimate Frisbee Conditioning!

Today's blog is going out to my Irish-Catholic New England cousins, of whom there are 32 (did I mention the Irish-Catholic part?). For the past few Thanksgivings, they have played a fiercely competitive annual Ultimate Frisbee match called the Marie's Cup. I played Ultimate with these guys at our family reunion last July, and they don't fool around. Just about all of them are former varsity college athletes, and the rest were star high school athletes, so getting on a field with them is nothing to be taken lightly.

I'm the youngest cousin, and I remember our family reunions fondly: my 118-pound self getting steamrolled during Ultimate games by guys like my soon-to-be-fullback-at-Brown cousin Brian, who must have weighed around 250 back then; or getting humiliatingly juked by my 6'5" other cousin Bert Jacobs, who is such a natural athlete that a few years ago he decided to do a marathon...on the day of the marathon itself (and completed it); or watching another cousin, John, roll gracefully down a steep hill while doing a handstand on a skateboard (just to see if he could do it; it wasn't something he'd ever practiced or worked at before, mind you. He could just DO IT.)

So they’re a physically gifted bunch.

Anyway, this morning I got an email from (yet) another cousin, Jim Laughlin (there are two other Jims in the family so I have to specify), asking me (and everyone else on the roster) to get in shape for the Marie's Cup tourney, which is fast approaching. Left coaster that I currently am, there's no way that I can make it to the match, though I'm flattered to be asked as I still think of myself as the nerdy runt of the litter.

I thought, however, that I could vicariously participate just a smidgen by putting together the following in-a-pinch Ultimate Frisbee Conditioning Program that might--just might--help Team Doonaree bring home the cup this year. If any of this helps even one of them make one single play in an even slightly faster, safer, or most importantly, cooler-looking way....I feel I will have done my job.

At the same time, the following can serve as a little primer in the philosophy behind conditioning program design for anyone who coaches or plays any competitive sport on a semi-regular basis.

Cousins, a lot of this will be old hat to you athletic-scholarship guys from way back, but hey, I'm my father's son, so any chance to be pedantic...


1) I'm assuming that anyone attempting these workouts is already in decent shape--otherwise you probably wouldn't be contemplating competing in a physically demanding competitive sport in a few short weeks. I'm also assuming that you've got the wherewithal to stretch carefully after your workouts, and that you have a pretty good working knowledge of your own strengths and limitations, so that if I recommend something that you know will hurt, or exacerbate a previous injury, you're going to be able to modify it so that it works for you.

2) Your conditioning workouts should more or less replicate the speed, intensity, and duration of game action. This goes for conditioning for ANY sport: the basic job of a strength and conditioning coach's is to watch some games, see how long the average play or down lasts and what's demanded of the various players during each play, and then duplicate those demands in practice, preferably at escalating intensity so that the workouts becomes progressive and the players get faster, stronger, and generally more capable.

In Ultimate Frisbee, play goes on for about three minutes, followed by about a minute of rest as everyone regroups between points. So workouts should take the form of intervals that conform to a 3:1 work-rest ratio. Work for three minutes, rest for one.

All-out sprinting speed, agility, and power (for jumping), are emphasized.

Note that this means that traditional long-distance running--at a steady pace for long periods, which builds endurance at slow speeds--isn't going to gain you much. Nor is bodybuilding-style weight training, which builds strength at slow speeds in relatively nonfunctional movements. So the typical run-lift format for getting in shape isn't going to gain you much.

3) During work intervals--which you would try to structure much like the average point-- you've got short periods of jogging, interspersed with periods of 10-20 seconds of full-on sprinting, which are further broken down into numerous changes of direction, leaps, lunges and bounds, all the while shifting your focus as the disc flies to different players on the field. So your work intervals should include all three intensities: easy jogging (low intensity), sprinting (high intensity), and jumping/bounding (highest intensity).

Having said that, here’s a workout that could help improve your Ultimate-Frisbee-specific conditioning. The workout should be performed on a flat grass field—ideally the field of play itself, if you can get there. Keep a bottle of water handy and sip from it between rounds.

5 minute warmup: easy jogging, some mobility drills such as bearcrawls and inchworms: loosen up all joints. AVOID: stretches lasting more than a few seconds in duration, high-intensity efforts.


1) 10 second sprint alternated with 20 second jog, performed for three minutes (for a total of six ten-second sprints and six twenty-second jog).


2) 15-second shuttle run, running between two objects 10 yards apart, making directional changes as quickly as possible, alternating cutting legs. Jog easily for 15 seconds between efforts. Repeat for three minutes, for a total of six shuttle-run intervals.


3) Three minutes of “speed play”: jog, sprint, stride, change direction, jump at will. This round is like shadow boxing for UF. Bring the intensity down a notch from previous two intervals.


4) Do three minutes of the following drill: run 10 yards, squat jump, change directions, run 10 yards, squat jump, change directions, jog 20 seconds.


5) Repeat speed play round.

Cool down with a few minutes of static stretches and deep breathing.

This whole workout—warm-up and cool-down included—will take you less than a half-hour but will be very challenging for everyone (since you control the intensity with your speed and effort level, it will never become easy), and will absolutely get you in great shape for UF.

If the workouts are too difficult at first (which is likely unless you’re already in excellent shape), cut the work periods down to 90 seconds-2 minutes and work gradually up to the longer work periods. The idea is to pace yourself through each work period so that you’re not collapsing at the end of each one. Use the ‘jogging’ periods during each interval to catch your breath and relax as much as possible.

Once you get used to the format, you can design your own drills around elements of your game you’d like to improve: jumping height, foot speed, agility, hand-eye coordination. Stick with the interval-style format.

I’d suggest doing this kind of workout 3-4 times a week, always taking at least a day off between sessions.

You can also include speed drills like these at the beginning of a regular team practice.

Go Team Doonaree!


Monday, November 05, 2007

Ten-Minute-a-Day Fitness: A Cold, Hard Look

So I was reading THE OPRAH MAGAZINE yesterday--and there’s nothing wrong with that--and came across an article by Selene Yeager called “Exercise: The Least You Can Do (Would You Believe Ten Minutes?)”. Like most pieces on exercise in that publication, it’s short—and there’s nothing wrong with that, either. I have to remind myself sometimes that the vast majority of the population doesn’t derive a huge portion of their happiness and fulfillment from exercising and thinking about exercising and wondering how and when they’ll be exercising next. It’s to Oprah’s credit that, although she makes no secret of being something of a workout-phobe herself, she nevertheless emphasizes its importance, both in print and on her TV show.

The thesis of the piece is that, contrary to the claims of fitness experts, you only have to work out about ten minutes a day to see some good results. The evidence presented is a study by Dr. Tim Church of Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, which, according to the article, demonstrates that, among formerly sedentary, overweight, postmenopausal women, a low-intensity, low-duration exercise program (72 minutes per week of walking 2-3 mph) “significantly improved heart strength and general fitness, nearly matching the efforts of women exercising almost twice as long” (the same study, which was conducted in May, also received coverage here).

To her credit, Yeager does state that you will ultimately need more than ten minutes a day to affect weight loss, blood pressure, and other health indicators. She’s careful to point out that Church’s findings suggest not that the ten-minute minimum is all you’ll ever need for optimal health and fitness, but rather you can “take your time easing into those longer workouts.”

I fear, however, that the title of the piece—and pictures of the svelte, sprightly, and decidedly pre-menopausal woman that accompany the article—will upstage that relatively subtle qualification.

Taking a cue from the Sir Thomas More of Fitness, Lou Schuler, I found my way to a more comprehensive summary of Church’s study and did a little critical analysis: did the study show what Yeager suggested it did?

The answer is a qualified yes. According to the JAMA abstract of the study from May 15, 2007,

"Participants were randomly assigned to 1 of 4 groups: 102 to the nonexercise control group, 155 to the 4-kcal/kg (400 calories), 104 to the 8-kcal/kg (800 calories), and 103 to the 12-kcal/kg (1,200 calories) per week energy-expenditure groups for the 6-month intervention period. Target training intensity was the heart rate associated with 50 percent (a modest intensity) of each woman’s peak VO2 (a measure of oxygen consumption and fitness level).

The average minutes of exercising per week were 72.2 for the 4-kcal/kg, 135.8 for the 8-kcal/kg, and 191.7 for the 12-kcal/kg per week exercise groups. Compared with the control group, the VO2abs (absolute) increased by 4.2 percent in the 4-kcal/kg, 6.0 percent in the 8-kcal/kg, and 8.2 percent in the 12-kcal/kg per week groups. There were no significant changes in systolic or diastolic blood pressure values from baseline to 6 months in any of the exercise groups vs. the control group.

So, to sum up: the minimal exercise group saw an increase in VO2 max—a reliable gauge of cardiovascular fitness—of 4.2 percent over six months. Yeager claims that the low-duration group’s results “nearly matched” those of the group that exercised “nearly twice as long,” presumably the one which did their mall-stroll for 2.25 hours per week and saw an increase in VO2 max of 6.0 percent.

Now, the difference between 4.2 percent and 6.0 may not seem like much. But when we’re talking about such relatively small increments, the difference between an improvement of 4.2 percent and one of 6.0 percent IS significant: to be precise, it’s a 30 percent difference (4.2 + [30% X 4.2] = 6.0). Improve your income or your lifespan or your bench press or any other number you stress over by thirty percent and tell me you won’t be turning somersaults. A 30% better result is a MUCH BETTER RESULT. And the group that exercised for something close to a reasonable weekly duration (though still far short of a reasonable intensity) experienced an average VO2 max improvement of 8.2 percent, more than double the results of the minimal exercise group (Yeager doesn’t mention that group). So the implication that Church’s study suggested that there was no important difference in the results obtained by women exercising for 72 minutes a week and those of the women exercising nearly twice or three times as long is misleading.

Let’s be clear here: none of the groups experienced an appreciable improvement in fitness compared to what they could have experienced had their exercise program been progressive, challenging, coupled with a careful diet, and all those other things that I drone on and on about all day every day until everyone around me becomes a drooling automaton. Yeager states that the fitness levels of the minimal-exercise group improved “significantly,” but doesn’t tell us the numbers. And I suspect that even Dr. Tim Church would agree with me that, although the improvements of all three groups were “significant” in the science-class sense of “measurable,” they were almost certainly not “significant” in the common-parlance sense of “large” or “impressive” or “Gee, Marge, how’d you get to be a size four?”

A 4.2 percent increase in VO2 max—with NO attendant weight loss and NO improvement in blood pressure—might mean a lot to Lance Armstrong fine-tuning his training for Tour #8, but for someone with as far to go as these sedentary, overweight, postmenopausal women have, it just isn’t a whole lot to get excited about. So that when Church and his science buddies say that his minimal-exercise group saw a “significant” improvement in fitness, he’s really just saying that they improved enough so that, given the sample size, the improvement probably couldn’t be explained away by margin of error. It was a statistically significant improvement—not a relatively large improvement overall.

The other aspect of this study that warrants some underscoring is that we are talking about a group of people going from COMPLETELY INACTIVE to SLIGHTLY ACTIVE. Speaking as someone with some experience in the matter, There Is No More Significant Improvement to be seen than in a trainee who is going from “zero” to “some physical activity,” regardless of what that physical activity is.

That’s why I love completely sedentary clients. As long as I don’t overtrain them, they think I’m some kind of magician, because the pounds MELT off them. Relative to their couch-potato selves, they feel ASTOUNDING. Their mood soars, their mind feels clear, they sleep at night, there’s a spring in their step. EVERYONE tells them how good they look, they want to adopt me and entrust me with their personal fortunes.

But the fact is that they probably would have seen similar results if they’d bought themselves a golden retriever and walked it around the block a couple of times a day. The real test—and I realize that such tests are woefully impractical—are longer term. What will happen to the fitness levels of these women after one or two years? Would they keep improving? Or, more likely, would their fitness level off and finally even backslide?

Now look: the last thing I’d Ever Want To Do In My Life is take on Oprah, or a friend, relative, or employee of Oprah’s. Mongo only pawn in game of life. So I’m not going to get on a soap-box about how the popular media misrepresents science, and the abstract-reading and study interpretation should be left to chest-pounding, bicep-flexing fitness gurus like me. As I said, Yeager DOES judiciously qualify the implications of her splashy headline and the eye-catching accompanying photos, and if she does perhaps selectively share the facts of the study with her readers, she never outright distorts them.

The point I’m going to end with here is that the message of the Oprah magazine, and many others like it, is that Success and Happiness are Within Your Reach. You can do it. You go, girl. You don’t NEED to be a zillionaire to make a difference. With a little know-how and get-up-and-go, you can fix your lousy marriage, your bad finances, your indiscriminate diet, your figure, your dysfunctional family. And you can do so with a minimum of effort.

Truly, there’s nothing wrong with that message if it encourages people to take charge of their lives, to be more active in solving their problems, and to take positive steps towards living the life they want to lead. Having taken those first few tentative steps, the hope is that more and bolder actions will follow. And if and when they do, the results can indeed be impressive and commendable.

But let’s not kid ourselves: improving your fitness slightly, if you are sedentary, may not take much, but getting in exceptional shape is TOUGH. You’ve got to work at it, make it a priority, figure out creative ways to squeeze it in when you get busy, keep at it in spite of obstacles and setbacks. No one knows that better than Oprah herself. And by suggesting that it’s actually EASY, that impressive results are attainable with a minimum of effort—are we not setting people up for disappointment?

I just ask. Comments welcome.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Diseased Canine Training

Alwyn Cosgrove had an interesting post recently that got me thinking. Dangerous, I realize, but hear me out here, gang. Ready for my new crazy assertion that will have everyone talking? There's No Difference Between Cardio and Strength Training. There. You heard it here first.

The American College of Sports Medicine, which recently laid out new exercise guidelines for average folks (and whose recommendations I picked apart at length some months back), makes a clear distinction between exercise intended to challenge the heart and lungs and exercise designed to challenge the muscles, namely, that "cardio" works for one and "strength training" works for the other, and, to maintain health and fitness, you need to do a little of both.

Alwyn's argument is that if you're exercising, you're working the muscles, heart and lungs all together. So to parse it and say one type of exercise works one thing and one the other is a false distinction. When you exercise, the body does one thing: it moves, and the heart and lungs are going to support that movement to the best of their ability. All you can do is change the speed, force, and direction of the movement. That's it.

Cosgrove uses the 'walk a mile' analogy: walking a mile is, in fact, a resistance-training exercise. The resistance is your body weight, the set lasts about 15 minutes, and you perform something on the order of 1500 reps.

I think the cardio/strength distinction sprung up around the time that those accursed weight-training machines started cropping up that were designed to isolate tiny muscles that you could work all day long and never raise you heart rate a single beat per minute. If all you ever do is these isolation moves, you can bet your heart and lungs aren't going to get much of a workout, and that you'd better go out and do some jogging or gardening or washing the car just to remind your c.v. system that it's alive.

But if you're doing real strength-training workouts, where you pound the basics for 45 minutes, your heart and lungs are going to get a serious workout--provided, of course, you DON'T turn your 30-60 second rest intervals into 5-minute 'catch up on ESPN' sessions between sets. Your largest muscle groups working in tandem against high resistance will produce a serious cardiovascular demand, and it's compounded when and if you do supersets or simply minimize your rest between sets.

And this is why I think that the one item that people should absolutely bring with them into the weight room, that nobody does, is a stopwatch. When I do a session of squats or deadlifts, you can bet that I'd like nothing more than to rest four minutes between sets. But if I've scheduled a session of multiple sets of 20 reps with 30 seconds rest between, the only thing that's going to keep me honest is that secondhand, hopping implacable towards the exact second of my undoing, laughing at my laziness if I'm not under that bar when the time comes.

Done in this way, strength training is a KILLER cardio workout. You don't even need the high reps. You can do back-to-back sets of heavy rows, heavy dips, and heavy deadlifts, none for more than five or six reps, and be a wheezing, panting mess in three minutes.

And, sad to say, but turning yourself into a wheezing, panting mess several times a week is a pretty darn good goal for any reasonably healthy person looking to get or keep themselves fit. Those are going to be MY exercise guidelines: if you look like a rabid dog when your session's over, you had a good workout. If you could go out to Spago's afterwards without so much as a shower and a little gel in the hair, guess what, Freckles, you dogged it today.

Let's face it: jogging and all those mamby-pamby machines are really avoidance mechanisms. I used to jog and I used to work out with a lot of little isolation moves. Then friends who needed help moving would call on me because I was a fitness nut, and guess what? I'd punk out SOONER than everyone else. I wasn't any more up for the challenge of moving heavy things for any period of time than my sedentary friends were. Moving furniture is really a series of deadlifts, farmer's walks, overhead presses, squats, weighted lunges, and step-ups done for hours on end. It's nothing like strapping yourself into a machine and doing curls. It's a full-body, heart-and-lungs-AND-muscles workout. And I just hadn't put in the hours to be able to handle it.

But here's a little success story to balance that one: once I figured out that I'd been fooling myself all those years and got serious, I began to stick mostly to the basics, and built myself into a stronger, leaner and more muscular version of myself. I cut out all the jogging because I had asthma and figured I'd never be much for endurance anyway. Some time later I started studying the martial arts, and got very nervous when the sensei told us to lace up our running shoes for a half-hour run around town. To my surprise, it was no problem for me. Miracle of miracles, the weight training had whipped my c.v. system into shape. Not into triathlon shape, mind you--you've still got to train specifically for your sport--but in far better shape than they'd been before I started hitting the weights with any intensity.

Many athletes know that it's really not an either-or thing with muscular strength and cardiovascular fitness: you don't have to train these two functions in isolation. It's a both-and thing, and the most fit people--martial artists, boxers, sprinters, and gymnasts among them--work out in a way that challenges both functions at once. They're producing close to a maximal force and power for a long enough period so the heart and lungs approach THEIR maximum capability. I don't need to say again that the physiques of those athletes are what the vast majority of people--men and women--would consider their ideal shape: muscular but not bulky, lean but not cadaverous.

So what does that mean for the rest of us? Well--in a word, train hard. Don't just jog, sprint. Don't just lift--lift fast and hard, using compound sets and multi-joint exercises. Keep yourself honest by keeping a careful eye on your rest between sets. It's getting yourself into that rabid dog state--the sweating, grunting, can-barely-stand that's really going to do you--ALL of you--the most good.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

My Blog-of-the-Month Resignation Speech

Well, the time has come. On this Halloween day--fittingly, a day when we celebrate darkness, death, the ending of all good things and the rising of all things evil--I now must step down as the holder of the coveted spot as JP Fitness' Blog of the Month. It's been such an exciting whirlwind I can barely believe it's all over now.

First there was the official tattooing ceremony, when the image of a huge, fiery dumbbell was inked across my back with the words "Live To Lift...Lift To Live" inscribed beneath; followed by a week of hazing consisting of fat-loss workouts by Alwyn Cosgrove (owch!), strength workouts by Chad Waterbury (goff!), and combat-style workouts by Juan Carlos Santana (blurp!), all while following an extreme fat-loss diet designed by Alan Aragon (retch!!). The 15 body fat percentage points I lost and the 28 pounds of muscle I gained required that I buy a whole new wardrobe, which now consists entirely of '80's style patterned parachute pants and Gold's Gym sweatshirts. Mysteriously, my hair has become a blond mullet (don't ask me how), spikey on the top, pony-tailed in the back. But I usually cover it in a do-rag anyway. I also wear a huge hoop in my left ear, and sport an orangey, full-body tan year-round, which helps to cover the copious stretch marks all across my now-massive frame.

As Blog-of-the-Monther, I was swarmed with guest writing and speaking engagements. I wrote for MUSCLE AND FITNESS and told everyone they should cycle their workouts in a twelve-part split, including a traps day and a day dedicated entirely to training the sartorius. I covered the Mr. Olympia for FLEX and said that Ronnie looked flat. I did an article for MEN'S HEALTH and said that squats and Olympic lifts would help them attract women, then submitted the same article to MEN'S FITNESS but instead of "attract women," I wrote "score with the office hottie." Jimmy the Bartender shook his head in disapproval. I wrote an online pieces for TESTOSTERONE NATION, but it was taken down because the readers cited more studies than I could. I posted some thoughts on JPFitness, but was ridiculed by the actual Steven Hawking, who apparently is a voluble member there as well (he calls himself "QuantumDude123" and uses a picture of the FUTURAMA scientist for his avatar). Too lazy to crank out still more pieces for WOMEN'S HEALTH and SELF, I pasted together some bon mots from previous articles, but added several references to "Your Problem Zones."

I spoke at seminars and conferences, saying that fitness programs would beef up your company's bottom line, all the while uncertain whether it was in fact true. I guest posed at a women's prison in Ventura, and was offered a role as the Rock's second henchman in a movie whose working title is "The Rock's Second Henchman Gets Killed in the First Scene (...And You Can't Even See His Face)." Dwayne and I kicked it. I mean, I waved at him from the Kraft Service table and I think he might have seen me. I never actually met him; he used a double in my scene with him. Still, I thought we had good chemistry.

All in all, it's been a great month.

I'm a true fitness icon now!

Thanks, JP!


Wednesday, October 24, 2007

How Not To Set Up Your Gym

Choice in just about everything can sometimes just be a plain distraction.

Take, for instance, the gym where I’ve been working out these last couple of months up here in Washington. There are, and I counted, five resistance machines that are variations on rowing, none of which can hold a candle to the bent-over row exercise that one can do with a good ol’ Olympic barbell set.

There are almost as many overhead pressing machines, none of which are as good as a standing overhead dumbbell press or barbell overhead jerk—but it’s tricky to find a place to do those at this particular gym, because the Olympic lifting platform area is, in a stunning display of inanity, located in the one spot on the gym floor with an unusually low ceiling. Meaning that the one spot in the gym where lifting large, heavy objects with great speed overhead is the primary goal has an eight-foot ceiling. The light fixtures tremble whenever I go over there, and I’m no giant, folks. A truly tall guy who wants to do some Olympic lifting has got to find some empty floor space amongst all those machines in the high-ceilinged area, which I’m here to tell you is pretty much impossible, cuz there ain’t no empty floor space to be found.

In the past, I’ve gone on exasperated rants about exercisers who go to all the trouble of carving out the time to exercise and then simply can’t seal the deal by actually putting in a real workout. That behavior makes no sense to me.

But now I begin to think that sometimes the health-club facilities themselves are set up to actually deter effective workouts. Contrary to what you might think given my profession, my workouts, for instance, are nothing particularly fancy. On days when I strength train, I use a combination of free weights, body weight exercises, Olympic lifts, a pulley-machine move or two, and some stretching drill. It’s a variation on the kinds of things you can see in popular fitness magazines like MEN’S HEALTH, which, at present, are not too far off from what you would have seen fifty-plus years ago in similar publications. They’re sort of “horse sense” workouts.

You would think, then, that given that these kinds of workouts are almost universally recognized as the best way to spend one’s gym time (quibbling over details aside), that weight room facilities would be set up to accommodate PRIMARILY those kinds of workouts, with a secondary emphasis on more arcane exercise methods. But they’re not. In my gym, for instance, I’ve got to walk through a sea of machinery to get from the bench-press station to that low-ceilinged Olympic lifting platform to perform bent-over rows. The squat racks—of which I suppose I can be grateful that there are any at all—are tightly crammed in, three in a row, such that two people using racks right next to each other would resemble a jousting tournament. The squat racks and Olympic lifting platform are jammed into the least inviting, worst lit, and most unsafely-configured area in the entire gym. Who would want to spend any time there?

Finally, there’s NO place to perform walking lunges, or plyometric jumps, or dynamic flexibility exercises, aside from the aerobics studio, which is almost always occupied by people taking classes. Nothing against classes. In fact, I’ve poked my head in there and seen some real sweat going on in there from time to time. But open space is important and useful in a gym, and this gym has almost none of it.

The other day I was warming up in the treadmill area, which overlooks the gym floor. Reflexively, I took a quick visual survey at what the people were up to in the gym below. What I saw made me almost cry with joy: the machines were languishing. No one was touching them. Instead, everyone was over by the dumbbells, benches, squat racks and chinning bars, putting in real effort off in the low-ceilinged, poorly-lit corners of the place. And these weren’t just the hulks, either: they were the older clients, the female clients, the people with a long way to go.

A fluke? Probably. Still, I wonder how much better these gym managers and owners could do--and how much better their clients’ results would be--if they set up their facilities to accommodate and encourage challenging, effective workouts, rather than subtly funneling everyone towards workout equipment whose effectiveness is sub-optimal at best and dangerous at worst?


Lou Schuler, of the indispensable health, fitness, and all-things-Schulerian blog Male Pattern Fitness has a totally different angle on my topic from Monday. Lou is the father of three active kids, a veteran of many sports teams, and currently a coach for one of his daughter’s soccer teams. As such, he’s got a different very slant on things than I do, and it’s worth a read.

Heck, his stuff’s always worth a read.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Numbers, Shmumbers, Part II

In my five decades as a personal trainer (okay, maybe not quite that many), I’ve noticed that just about all my clients at some point bring up their memories of the Presidential Physical Fitness Test.

For those of you who escaped particular ritual, the Presidential Physical Fitness Test is a series of drills that elementary and middle-school students are required to perform, usually twice a year, in gym class. When I was a lad, the tests included maximum sit-ups in one minute, a one-mile run and a 50-yard dash (both for time), a standing long jump, and maximum pull-ups or flexed-arm hang for time. You’d receive the instructions, do each drill, consult a wall chart, and report your percentile score back to the gym teacher. If you scored above the 85th percentile in each event, you’d get an official-looking iron-on patch adorned with a noble and very fit-looking eagle.

Now I personally never managed to nab a Presidential Award patch. It wasn’t, however, for want of trying. In the weeks leading up to the test, I remember doing flexed-arm hang workouts on the tire-swing rope behind our house, situp workouts with my feet jammed under our green-striped, prickly-fabric couch in the living room, sprints up and down the street. It’s ironic to me looking back now that the one event that scuppered my chances of collecting one of those coveted patches was the single event for which I appear to have some aptitude as an athletic adult: the mile run. As an asthmatic kid, I could never middle- or long-distance run worth a plug nickel. It wasn’t until well past adolescence, long after my eligibility for a Presidential Award iron-on patch had tragically expired, that I discovered that strength-endurance—the ability to sustain a high level of effort for relatively long periods—was actually something I had a knack for.

I did some poking around on this new “internet” thing and have discovered that times have changed a little since I was sweating my way through the Presidentials: a shuttle run has replaced the 50-yard dash; the standing long jump has apparently been eliminated; and a sit-and-reach test has been added as a test of flexibility.

I could nitpick these particular choices till the cows come home, but I’m not going to because the REAL point I want to make here is about the other major change that has taken place in the administration of the Presidentials. Nowadays, instead of giving awards only to the truly outstanding kids who score at or above the 85th percentile on all five tests, everyone gets a patch. That’s right: show up for gym class on that day—which you’re legally required to do anyway, incidentally--shamble your half-assed way through a handful of exercises, and yes, you too can be the proud recipient of a “Participation Patch.”

This patch looks only SLIGHTLY different from the patch that’s now awarded to the kids who score in the 50th percentile, which in turn looks only SLIGHTLY different from the patch still given to the kids who score in the 85th percentile or better.

Now I get what’s going on here, folks: gym class can be humiliating for some kids, why single out the talented ones, why make the less athletically-inclined kids feel any worse about themselves by not getting a special patch, and one and on. I understand the argument for universal attention and praise for these kids’ efforts.

But I ask you: does ANY elementary-school kid, from the smartipants-iest A-student to the most remedial barely-functioning slacker, really think that those participation patches are worth the cloth they’re printed on? Do they really make ANY kid feel remotely better about themselves? Or, more likely, do the kids recognize the lame patches as the sham that they are, designed not for the kids themselves but to make the parents and teachers feel better about themselves for praising all kids equally: outstanding, mediocre, and piss-poor alike? Do any kids actually iron those patches of participation onto their favorite sweaters and wear them proudly to their family reunion, regaling aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents with the tale of ‘The Day I Really Actually Tried To Walk a Whole Mile In A Row All By Myself?’

One of these days I’m going to create a shrine with all the Awards for Mediocrity that are now being handed out in sad homage to our sinking self-esteem, our plummeting standards for excellence, and our woeful horror that our children can’t handle being honestly evaluated for the quality of anything that they do, ever. Being good at something, by definition, means being, well, BETTER than other kids at it. Meaning that not everyone can be number one, or number 85th percentile, in everything, all the time. Your Baby Einstein might in fact be a math whiz, but let’s not pretend that he’s ALSO as physically skilled as you neighbor’s Baby Jesse Owens, unless we’re going to start handing out “Certificates of Participation” in algebra to replace the cold, hard reality of that C-minus my kid brought home on her trigonometry test last week.

Am I being a fitness snob here? Do I have no sympathy for the slow kids, the kids who have no real interest in fitness or achieving excellence on the physical plane as well as a mental, or spiritual, emotional or artistic one?

Well—I do have sympathy for these people. And sadistic gym teachers who, for some unfathomable reason, think they have the right to berate and humiliate the slow kids, should be given their own personal circle of hell in which to run laps for eternity: Mr, Ferrigno (no relation to Lou), our assistant gym teacher, was a dyed-in-the-wool prick for calling my overweight friend Jon Cogswell “Mr. Pigswell” when we were in middle school. So maybe the “give everyone a patch” mentality serves as an appropriate corrective to the Mr. Ferrignos of the world.

But unfeeling gym teachers aside, part of growing up is recognizing that it’s possible to accept and improve on one’s weaknesses even while building on and cultivating one’s strengths. Guess what? Being able to muddle through an activity or a situation in which one is not naturally gifted, and do so with grace and humor, is an important life skill.

Personally, I spend about 90% of my time practicing it.

Many years after the Presidentials were behind us, as my high-school class started applying for, and subsequently receiving acceptance and rejection letters from the colleges of our choice, we staked our claim to the senior lounge Wall. Tradition held that everyone who was applying to college that year would post any rejection letters they received on The Wall for all to see.

By the end of the year, The Wall was covered—floor to ceiling—with letters bearing the words “we regret to inform you…” and “at present we do not have a place…” and “you are welcome to reapply…”. Virtually no one in my class remained unscathed. Myself included (curse you, Brown University!).

To me, The Wall was a tremendous example of the triumph of solidarity and humor over despair and disappointment. Rather than hide our shame at what felt like failure, our class—and classes long before and long after ours—would share in it, proclaiming that all of us--nerds, geeks, jocks and slackers alike--had felt the sting of rejection, and that, with a little laughter and a few conciliatory hugs from sympathetic classmates, life could, and would, go on.

I’m still proud of the Wall: it meant that, as a class, we could face our failures, laugh off our inadequacies, and stare coolly down the barrel of the daunting, impenetrable world that lay ahead.

Some parents saw or heard about the Wall and were horrified: why are these students trumpeting their failures so enthusiastically? Wasn’t this a celebration of failure and mediocrity?

No, it wasn’t: the Wall was—and remains—a shrine to resilience. You want a celebration of mediocrity? Look no further than the Participation Patch.