Sunday, October 14, 2007

Numbers, Shmumbers

About halfway through the first (and best) TERMINATOR movie, the CSM-101 cyborg (played by Arnold Schwarzenegger) sits in a seedy hotel room paging through a stolen address book belonging to his quarry, Sarah Connor. Having had some of his external flesh--including one eyeball--torn away in various high-octane misadventures, the CSM-101 is partially rotting, and is surrounded by buzzing flies.

Drawn to the stench, a janitor bangs on the door: "Hey buddy," he says, "whaddya got in there, a dead cat, or what?"

We cut for a moment to a P.O.V shot of the CSM-101: its computer brain quickly scrolls through a list of possible responses to the janitor's question, including "YES/NO," "OR WHAT", and "PLEASE COME BACK LATER." The CSM-101, ever the master of the pithy phrase (it was this film that gave Schwarzenegger his famous 'I'll be back' line), settles on "F**K YOU, A**HOLE," which has the intended effect of sending the janitor on his mumbling, cart-pushing way down the hall.

I was reminded of this immortal moment when I was doing a talk-back following a student matinee of MACBETH yesterday morning. Amidst questions about makeup, getting into character, and line memorization, one young man raised his hand and said, "This is a question for the guy playing much can you bench?"

He asked me this because he’s a high-school guy, and presumably, because he saw in my bio that in my other life, I work as a fitness coach.

Like the Terminator, I saw a list of options flash madly across my brain-radar screen:


Option six initially seemed like the worst option—it was no-win, and all the others seemed more attractive by miles.

But I was too slow. I couldn’t think of any humorous way of getting around it, so I opted for option six, and told them that I’d once pushed 225.

Which I must have known even in the moment was actually a five-pound exaggeration, meaning that I actually opted for choice (1) above: exaggerate. I do remember hitting 220 once a couple of years back, then excitedly TRYING to lift two plates on each side on the next set. A kind spotter, obeying the universal, unspoken rule of spotting a brother-in-iron on the bench, gave me a good twenty pounds of assistance and blessedly said that the lift was ‘all me.’ This is something you just tell a guy whether it’s true or not, and having been in his shoes many times before, I knew what he really meant: “Pal, it’s a good thing I was here to help you, because without me here to save your sorry ass, that weight would have crushed you like an apricot beetle in July.”

So now I’ve come out: my real all-time max on the bench press is a measly 220 pounds. Wow, that was hard to say, but I feel good now that I’ve said it.

At this point, I imagine some of my hardcore-weight training readers are smirkingly clicking “reply” and “unsubcribe” on their keyboards; after all, what could a guy who only benches 220 know about fitness?

And some others—like the room full of high school kids I was addressing—will think, “Wow, he benches 220. He’s a regular Master of the Universe.”

If I were trying to brag about my paltry lift in the guise of false modesty—either here or at that talk-back--I don’t imagine I would have felt compelled to add that imaginary five pounds to my lift (as if someone unimpressed by a 220-pound lift would be blown away by a lift of 225. Good god, the ego works in the oddest way…).

No, the fact of the matter is that I feel pretty sheepish about my 220 pound bench. I have all kinds of excuses, ranging from “the bench press is overrated as a measure of strength,” to “I have long arms,” to “I don’t lift for maximal strength,” but who am I kidding? I’d love to be able to push 300 or more, and maybe someday I’ll hit that. But right now it ain’t in the cards for me and my delicate, oft-dislocated right shoulder, my impatience with the long rest periods required for near-maximal strength training, and my weird preference for lighter, faster, more cardio-demanding training sessions.

And I’m trying to just live with that, people, and remind myself that my pitiful bench press numbers don’t tell my whole story. Like everyone I train, and everyone who cares to read what I have to say about this absurd hamster-wheel practice of getting in ever-better shape, I’m a work in progress.

The larger point that I want to make here—and this, as always, is something for ME to remember as well—is not to sweat the numbers. They go up, they go down; some stuff’s easy for you, some stuff’s harder. There are always ways to address a number that seem stacked against you—whether that number is your body fat percentage, or your cholesterol level, or your resting heart rate. And addressing your “problem” stats is obviously an important part of fitness. But whatever number you happen to be working on at a given time, remember that it’s just a snapshot of one tiny piece of who you are at one very specific moment in time. It is NOT, as my alter-ego of the moment, Macbeth, says, the ‘be-all and the end-all.’ It’s fluid. It’s dynamic. And it’s within your control to change.
So hold those number lightly, people. Don’t be ashamed of them; shout them from the mountaintops.

Or, if you prefer, to a room full of slouching, scoffing teenagers.

Those numbers aren’t YOU, after all.


(Question of the day: Why isn't "buttoxen" the plural of "buttocks"? (thanks, Jane!))


Madley said...

Dear Apricot Beetle -- uh, er, I mean Master of the Universe -- so good to read your posts while you're away. And those five extra pounds -- them there are some IMPORTANT extra pounds either way you go (losing, gaining, lifting, pressing...). At least you didn't tell him to F*** off... hehehehe

Mich said...

I get that question from my high schoolers and middle schoolers. I tell them that it is a question I answer in the gym, not out of the gym, and that they are welcome to join me there anytime I'm training. I also point out that since I am more than twice their age, I expect them to be able to better my numbers. And I sometimes preempt or divert by suggesting that they use the five minute class break to do push ups. :-)

Anonymous said...

If you were still in MacB garb, you should have leapt from the stage and slaughtered that kid and his drooling friends like so many murdered deer.