In Praise of Dumbbells

Happy Thanksgiving to my American readers!

The gym was closed today, and it’s weights day today.

Being a holiday, of course I can choose to skip a workout.  I chose to skip one earlier in the week due to sleep deprivation1, so on a day I was well-rested, not all that busy and the weather being gray and gloomy, I did want to go ahead and get in the mood enhancement of a short workout anyway.

When I started lifting, I started with a set of adjustable dumbbells.  I made great progress and was happy with them.  I figured though, since I’d “graduated” to a big ole macho gym workout that today would be light.

HA!  I had a wonderful, sweat pouring off me workout quite as good as any I get in the gym.

Friends, if you cannot afford a gym membership and want to lift, do save up and treat yourself to a cheap set of adjustable dumbbells, no kidding.     Mine are a set of Athletic Works that come in a case with 40 lbs of plates in the set, but each bar can take closer to 75lbs if you have the plates for it.  I don’t, nor do I need them yet!  (The heaviest weight I put on them is about 35 lbs for a total of 70 lbs for  dumbbell squats).  The original set cost me about $30, and I may have spent an additional $30 on more plates.  Plates are relatively cheap.

Now, do I like the gym?  Good lord yes!   The feedback and the motivation is wonderful, and exploring all the neat gadgets, machines and whatnot is all kinds of fun.  But they’re not necessary.  If I’m in a situation where I can’t afford a gym membership any more, my good friends the dumbbells will always be there for me.

And if you don’t believe me, check this out:

All Dumbbells, All The Time!
Dumbbell Exercises
The Complete Dumbbell Workout

1Up with a child having an asthmatic attack. He’s fine now, thank goodness!

The Ten Rules of Bodybuilding

In between my writing sessions, I’m looking up stuff on bodybuilding.

When you throw out all the stuff that’s clearly been paid for by supplement companies of dubious worth, it seems this is the basic advice:

  1. Lift heavy shit.
  2. Make sure every muscle in your body gets involved in lifting heavy shit.
  3. Make sure that when you’re lifting heavy shit that you don’t lift shit that is too heavy and tear something so you can’t lift heavy shit for awhile. (Your body will hunt down your ego and punish it if you forget Rule One1).
  4. Make sure that you give your muscles ample recovery time from lifting heavy shit.
  5. If you want your muscles to get bigger from lifting heavy shit, feed them enough protein
  6. If you want enough energy to lift heavy shit, make sure you get enough carbs.
  7. If you want to make sure your systems function properly while lifting heavy shit, you have to get enough fat, but not too much.
  8. While lifting heavy shit, make sure you get enough water.
  9. If you want to look like Mr. Olympia, you have to inject hormones while lifting heavy shit.
  10. You can’t be healthy only lifting heavy shit.  Get your heart rate up for a bit a few times a week not lifting heavy shit.

That’s it.  They don’t have to publish fitness mags any more.  There’s all the info you need.   So, howzat for simple?

1Don’t be a fucking idiot.

Occupational Hazard

A big problem I have when I’m working on a first draft is weight gain. I tend not to be as fitness-oriented when I’m hammer and tongs at a first draft. You know how it is, your mind is on the book, and you’ve got a million other things to get done. The last thing you want to do is take time out to work out.

I’m actually really bad about it. I’ve not been working out like I should.

Thing is, if I’m going to have a sedentary profession, I really, really need to make sure my physical needs are taken care of. After all, you do think more clearly when your body is healthy. It’s the brain that’s the important thing as a writer, right?

I do have a pool membership and have decided to store my bathing suit in my locker there so that I have No Damn Excuse not to get my lazy butt into the pool on my lunch break and get all red in the face good and proper!

While I do have an Otterbox and waterproof earphones, I’m laying off using them in favor of using the time face down in the water to work on Stoneflower, getting my brain in gear for the night’s writing. I figure it’s a decent moving meditation. When I was a kid, I would often plot stories while riding my bike around Kennedy’s Pond, then beg permission to go out into the woods behind my best friend’s house where I’d soak my feet in the stream and actually write the story. (Oh god, if only I’d had a laptop or my Palm and keyboard then! I never did much like writing longhand).

I know of lots of writers who like to walk, and often use the time to work out stories in their minds as they do so.

I also like weights because I’m lazy. It doesn’t take very long with a pair of dumbbells to get in a decent strength-building workout. Heinlein, if I recall correctly, liked to do stone mason type work around the house to keep in shape, but still often bitched about the fact it was easy to get out of shape while working on a novel.

It’s rough, sometimes. What I really want to do is to park my butt in my writin’ chair with an appletini to get my writing done. What I really need to do is make sure I eat right and work out so that my body supports that brain I need for work. I ain’t slender and I’m naturally pretty sedentary. A serious writing project makes it that much worse!

Zokutou word meterZokutou word meter

34,016 / 120,000

You've Gotta Be Kidding Me

I was going to write this short little thing to Bob Green (Oprah’s trainer, author of Making the Connection and some other stuff).

He feels like swimming is a lousy exercise for losing fat. I was going to point out swimming has been my major cardio, list how much I’ve lost1 and say “Nya, nya, nya”.

When I write an article, I often do as much as five whole minutes of research to find a website that supports some smartassed comment or other I make.

What do I find? Mr. Green is working with McDonald’s. Now, I’ve read Making the Connection and I know Green believes in a low fat diet. No, if you’re going to eat that way, McDonald’s doesn’t have a great deal to offer. Some, but not much, and no, not an Egg McMuffin without the cheese. BZZZTT!

I don’t respect this. It ain’t that I think a low fat diet is all that. I don’t. I eat low carb, high protein, and don’t sweat the fat. It’s what works for me. But it would be like me, after getting fit by what I’m doing, being a spokesman for an aerobics center that used as its marketing technique pink dumbbells, low weights, high reps and played into a fear of “getting big”.2

In other words, corporate whoring.

1 28 lbs since the beginning of July. A rate of about a pound and a half a week, which is a fine rate of fat loss.

2For those of you who may never have read any of my fitness articles, I believe in moderate cardio, and lifting hard and heavy. Putting on muscle is a great way to lose fat and get fit fast. Women won’t “get big” without special training and illegal or quasi-legal supplementation. Promise.

But I'm TIRED!

In a change of topic to shock everyone, I’m going to talk about.

<drum roll>

Gaining physical fitness when you start out obese and severely out of shape.1

One of the realities of being quite overweight is that you are often flipping tired! Will taking off fat and building muscle help? Of course. No-one argues that. But, if you’re like a lot of other people you’re told, “Oh exercise is great, exercise is wonderful, you’ll feel so much more energetic if you work out!”

Yes, and no.

What very few people who try to encourage us to work out say is, “The first month of starting a fitness program, even a very sensible one within your present fitness level, is going to mean that you are going to be tired. You’re going to need an extra half an hour to an hour’s sleep a night so that your body can build the muscle it needs to start getting stronger and more energetic.”

Oh, they’ll slip in “get plenty of sleep”, and yes, that’s good advice, but the detail is generally lacking. I’m not sure why. Maybe they’re afraid of scaring us off from starting. It’s a mistake, though. We know how to cope with difficult. We do it every day of our lives.

It doesn’t scare me to know that I’ll be tired for a month, but the payoff will be feeling great after that! I bet it doesn’t scare you, either. But, if I’m told, “Just exercise and you’ll feel great”, and I don’t feel great for weeks, I’m going to think something is wrong. Why in the world would I keep up with that? And why don’t more exercise proponents talk about it?

The problem is a simple one. It’s easy to forget what starting out feel like. I woke up this morning feeling a little sore because I’d done some different lifts last night. But it was a “good” sore — kind of a “Go muscles for gettin’ all strong and stuff!” When I got in to work, I ran up to the third floor with Disturbed blasting in my iPod, and my backpack full of exercise gear because I could and it felt great! I felt like I could wrestle a grizzly bear, give him the first fall, then eat him raw without salt. Back in July when I was starting out with serious lifting, I was resting at each landing (which I hadn’t been doing before) because my muscles were sore and I was tired.

A properly designed exercise routine isn’t an instant payoff thing. Oh, you’ll notice little positive changes early on. If you have trouble sleeping, you might find you sleep more deeply, and wake feeling a little better. When I found a cardio-type exercise that didn’t hurt, I was lucky enough to start getting the endorphin rushes pretty early on. You’ll notice little subtle changes in strength and endurance if you pay attention, but they are pretty subtle. In general, though, at the end of the day, you’re going to be tired. That’s okay. Your body is obediently trying to adapt to your new routine and needs the sleep to do it.

But that wonderful rush of energy and strength is a minimum of a month away — more likely two or three.

Thing is, you’ve sweated out two or three months of something difficult to get something good. I know all of you have. You might have a college degree, or have tediously practiced an instrument to learn to play, or done any of a number of things. This is no different, really.

1Yes, I do have other things on my mind, but they mostly involve getting Keith Hamilton Cobb in… Nevermind… Don’t want you clawing out your eyeballs.

Slow Burn Fitness

I don’t know about you, but when I see pictures of these thin little things in spandex jumping around on magazine covers, it drives me crazy.  I’m 5’2″, weigh 219.5 (– as of Oct 2003.  I’ve been losing weight), and I am not in good shape from a workout point of view.

I also hate to hurt when I exercise.

Not only that, but there’s this cultural sense of guilt we have in not being perfectly fit, as if we’re committing a sin somehow.  Makes you feel like garbage about yourself after awhile.  Me? I say that the guilt is completely unnecessary, even if I do want to be healthy.  I’m not a bad person because I am short and fat.  I won’t be a better person when I am short and in shape.  As I often tell people who compliment me on my weight loss, and say, “You must feel so much better about yourself.”, no, I don’t feel better about myself.  It’s just possible to run up the stairs.

So, if you’re overweight and take a cab if you have to go more than a few blocks, what the heck do you do? What if walking a mile is quite frankly out of the question? What if that “gentle half an hour walk” you’re supposed to take every day is really too much?

Stop feeling guilty about it, for one! You can start small and create an enormous snowball effect in your fitness.  Put on clothes and comfortable shoes. Pick a direction.  Walk as quickly as is comfortable for you for five minutes. Come back at the same pace.

Forget about it until the next day.  The next day, do the same thing.

When you’ve done it seven times, walk five and a half minutes instead of five before turning around.

Do that seven days in a row.  Then walk six minutes.

Oh, sure, it’ll take you about four and a half months to get to your target of walking a half an hour a day.  So what? Do you perhaps have a deadline? Are you going somewhere? You know that exercise is good for you.  Chances are good that you’re not doing it because it hurts.  It might be that your fitness level is pretty low.  Hey, I’ve been there.  I feel for you, because it really does stink to feel like that.  I know what it is to want to get in shape, get in shape now, then push myself too hard, get injured and quit.

I don’t do that any more.  That’s how I got to weigh 245 pounds and exhausted myself.  I felt at all times more or less the way I feel now when I am just recovering from the flu or something.  Yeah, that’s right, I felt slightly ill at all times.

As of this writing, I walk a good brisk 20 minutes a day.  I get my heart rate up to 21-22 beats in ten seconds, which is about 70% of my maximum and a good conditioning rate.  (You should be very careful to find YOUR correct target heart rate, as this is fairly individual).

I can hear you saying, “But what if It’s nasty weather out there.  I can’t go out in the rain! It’s cold, It’s yucky! Gray days depress me too much to do that!”

Get outside anyway.  I’m serious.  I grew up near Washington DC, which has abominable weather for a good portion of the winter–gray, yucky, dreary, you name it.  You know what, that ickiness you feel from lack of light will actually be alleviated a bit if you get outside.  No kidding.  Even on a yucky gray day, thereis a lot more good sunshine for you to absorb than there would be in your living room or in your office.  I now live in Vermont and work in New Hampshire. You want yucky weather? Try our winters.  Falls are gray and rainy and days are about an hour shorter in the dead of winter than where I grew up.  Believe me, the people who thrive up here learn to put on the boots and the polar fleece and get their butts outside into the sunlight while we have it!

If it’s the chilly damp that is kicking up your arthritis? Again, I genuinely feel for you.  I have it, too, and have since I was twelve.  Yeah, yeah, losing weight is supposed to help, but darn it, I hurt even when I weighed 117 pounds, ya know?

Exercise is actually good for arthritis, too.  No, don’t go jogging.  That’s too hard on your joints.  But walking at a pace that gets the blood pumping a little bit (a LITTLE bit!) is going to help.  You need strong muscles and to increase your bone density more than most, if you have this.  Get out there and walk. I promise you that if you start really small and stick with it while gently increasing your time, you will feel better.  If walking five minutes makes you hurt too much, start with four and a half, or three and a half or even two! you’re not going anywhere, so It’s a good idea to try.  Your body will thank you and you’ll be around a lot longer.

Now, cardio is all well and good, and I get a bit of it every day.  But what about other things? Strength training is vitally important, especially if you are or have been quite out of shape.  Your muscles are working harder than most peopleis are.  Think about it a minute — if you’re carrying 100 pounds of adipose tissue (I was), it would be as if someone else were carrying a 100 pound backpack.  You need to be stronger so you won’t be so darned tired! (Yeah, yeah, ideally you should lose the weight.  Ya think if you do all this you’re not going to lose a little adipose tissue and put on some muscle?)

Fortunately, walking is a weight bearing exercise — great for your behind, your thighs, your calves and you ankles.  So what about the upper body?

Pushups.  Okay, let’s be realistic here.  Chances are slim that you’re going to be able to drop and give anyone one, much less twenty! that’s okay.  Can you lean against a wall with your hands at pushup height and pump out a few? Betcha can.  If you’re strong enough to be able to do more than twenty this way, you do need something more challenging to get the upper body strength going. Forget those silly “girl” pushups, with your knees on the floor.  that’s not really going to build muscle.  Instead, once you’ve gotten to the point where wall pushups are too easy, do them against your kitchen counter.  When that gets too easy, drop the elevation again to a very sturdy table.  After that, drop it to a chair and so on until you hit the floor and are doing pushups the old fashioned Marine way.  Your upper body will love you for this.  I have found that as I have put on muscle that the daily tasks of life are simply less fatiguing. Obviously, at a desk job, I don’t do a lot of heavy lifting, but yes, I do have to lift a big carton of copier paper every now and then.  I have a family of six, so the weight involved in lifting groceries is certainly a non-trivial issue.  While I certainly do like looking good, for me the primary motivator is that when I am physically strong, it is less likely for me to get overwhelmed by the daily things I have to do.

While you’re working on this, you might also want to work on your abdominal strength.  Once you get to that full-fledged pushup, you’ll notice it works your abs, too.  Building ab strength is insanely easy.  Lay on the floor.  Now, see how much of your body you can lift off the floor without using your hands. Didja get your head up? Good.  What about your shoulders? Great.  Whatever you can do, try to do it five times.  Was that easy? Do more.  Did that hurt? Do enough until you can feel it, but not enough for it to be painful.  Now, every ten days, increase the reps by one.  you’ll be pumping out crunches before you know it.  In reading accounts of athletes, the ones I admire the most (gymnasts, martial artists, yogis and dancers) all say that trunk strength is crucial to overall condition.  I used to trivialize this concept until I had been working out several months.  But then I noticed that as I was able to increase the amount of crunches I was doing, the more stable I was in other workouts.  I have a desk job, but do not experience that bane of seated professions — back pain. While yes, back pain has many causes, strong supporting abs go a long way to reducing potential problems.  My skinny husband, who is an artist and spends many hours at a drafting table notices that if he does not do his crunches, he will get a horrid backache after a few hours of work.  Just remember to work up to increased repetitions on this.  You do not want to hurt yourself.  And also remember, whatever you can do today is okay.  You’ll be doing more next month, and a year from now, if you keep this up, you’ll look back on your progress and be amazed.  But if you push too hard, feel bad about yourself or punish your body in the process, you’re going to be stuck where you are.  don’t do that to yourself.  Really.  you’re okay where you are right now.

Okay, so we’ve got our strength and we’ve got our cardio.  One more thing: flexibility.

No, stop groaning.  Stretching is a sensual delight when you do it right. Stop looking at me like that.  I’m serious.

Remember, this is not supposed to hurt.  If you stretch until it is painful, you’re damaging muscle and tendons.  We’re trying to be good to our nice bodies that carry us around and do so much.  No punishing, please.

Confession time: I am fairly flexible for a woman of my age, medical condition and weight.  I studied things that require a lot of stretching all my childhood n ballet, martial arts, that sort of thing.  If I am describing things that make you laugh at me or wince in pain, remember that the point here is not to become a contortionist.  The point is to remain mobile.  It is not a contest and your present fitness level is okay.  It’s where you are and what you have to work with, and you’re fine person just the way you are.  You get fit to feel better, not to be better.

So.  First things first.  Can you touch your toes? No? that’s okay.  My skinny husband who finds a two-mile run a pleasant outing cannot, either.  When you get up in the morning, reach up and try to touch the ceiling, then lean back as far as you can comfortably.  Then lean over and try to touch your toes until you feel a pleasant pull.  PLEASANT PULL not PAIN.  No pain, no pain.  You do not want to tear anything.  Hold it at that nice pulling feeling for about ten seconds, then rest for a few breaths then try it again.  Then forget about it until tomorrow morning.  Keep doing that until you can touch your toes.  This may take awhile, and that’s fine!

I do a yoga exercise (yogis call it an asana) called the Sun Salutation several times every morning.  It stretches and limbers your whole body and feels oh so good–especially if I do it after a hot shower, so that all my muscles are warm and relaxed.  If you’re limber enough to do this, great, but don’t sweat it if you’re not.  The point here is to build fitness, not beat yourself up about your present state of fitness.

However, if yoga isn’t your thing, there are lots of other things you can do to make building flexibility fun.  Another thing I really enjoy doing is putting on some sexy, groovy music and just stretching out.  (Little Red Corvette is a favorite “stretching” tune of mine).  Start slowly with this and always move slowly.  No bouncing.  Bouncing is bad and evil and a quick route to a torn muscle.  Be nice to your body and don’t do that.

Start standing up with your feet together.   Reach your hands up as far as they will go.   Keeping the back straight and bending from the waist, slowly lean over as far as you can until you feel a nice pull all along the backs of your legs.   If you hurt doing this, you’re pushing to hard, so ease up.   Do this a few times, then move your feet about twice shoulder width apart (don’t lock your knees.   Keep them an itty bitty bit bent!), and reach your hands up as far as they will go again.   Lean over as far as you can with your back straight.   Come up, then lock your fingers and lean to the side as far as you can, being sure to keep your torso and legs on the same plane.   Then go to the other side.   Do this until you feel a nice pulling stretch.   Then lean to the front and try to put your hands on the floor.   If you can ease yourself to the floor without moving your legs, great.   If not, don’t sweat it and just sit down and part your legs in as wide a V as you can manage.   Reach up again, and try to grab your foot and put your chest on your thigh.   If you can do that, you limber thing you (I can, but it’s only because of my far too generous cup size), try to put your forehead on your shin.   Hold that for a few breaths, then move to the other leg and do the same thing.   Then lean over as far as you can to the center.   Aim to keep your back straight and put your chest on the floor.   I never could do this, by the way, even after ten years of dance classes, but aiming for it is good because it helps you maintain proper form.

The key to this entire article is to start small and have a plan for building a little bit at regular intervals.  My own personal fitness goal is do be able to do 100 pushups.  I am not yet to the point where I can do 20 proper pushups on the floor.  I started at wall ups, am now doing 20 pushups with my hand elevated on a seven inch step, and am probably about eight or nine months away from my goal.  I know that if I keep going Iill probably be on the floor in a week, and will be able to increase my reps every couple of weeks.  But I look back on my progress and am glad I started very small and carefully.

I am hoping that those of you who have a long way to go will look back in a year and be amazed at what those little steps to fitness can do for you.