The Hamster Wheel–Specifics

When it comes to eating right and exercising, there is no “I’ll start tomorrow.” Tomorrow is disease.

– V.L. Allinear

In the last post we talked about the book Body by Science. If you read it or are thinking about doing so, you might be left with one last question:

“That all sounds great, and in an ideal world, sure, I’d like to have plenty of protective muscle. But come on. I have this thing. It’s called a life. I have a/three job/s, kids, church, PTA. EVERYONE knows that exercising is good, but in the real world there’s just no time.”

I had that same thought early on in the book. I mean, “everyone knows” that to gain much of any muscle you’re going to have to spend time at the gym and spend money and really,…good grief. I’ve got more urgent things I need to do.

But that’s not at all necessary.

That’s not going to work as an excuse for you, either.

You, reading this, can do it. If you’re seventy-five years old and have one foot in the grave, you can do it. If you’re 500 pounds and can barely roll off the sofa, you can do it. The only people who can’t do at least some form of this are quadriplegics. Here’s why, and again, this is the simple Cliff Notes version of all this.

This exercise is designed to maximize efficiency and minimize time and risk. In this form of exercise you’re tearing down your muscle so that it will build itself back up, stronger than ever. It’s not necessary to spend two hours, three times a week to accomplish this. You can do it in just a few minutes.

You do it by first lifting, pushing, or pulling weight–which should be somewhere between 60% and 80% of the maximum you could lift/push/pull in that form–as slowly as you can. This ensures that momentum is not helping you. (Watch guys at the gym heaving weights as fast as they can and you’ll not only see momentum at work, but you’ll also notice that on the upheave they throw more of their body into it. They’re not just using the target muscles anymore.)

You do not stop pushing/pulling/lifting, and you do not take the load off your muscle for even an instant. For example, if you are lifting a weight up above your head, the temptation is to fully extend your arms and pause for an instant. In so doing, you are actually taking the weight off your muscles and placing it on your bones for a moment. This gives your muscles an instant to recover and stops the cascade effect of exhausting the muscle and emptying the glycogen stores. This is a perfectly normal and natural reaction–and one you must avoid to get the most out of the least amount of time.

For if you refuse to indulge the muscles’ desire for a break, you reach muscle failure very quickly. You keep going, slowly, until you just can’t lift that weight one more time. You’re pulling, but nothing is happening: that’s “muscle failure.” You’re choosing a weight weight that causes you to reach this point in approximately ninety seconds. That’s two to five lifts, really. This means minimum stress on joints for maximum muscular effort. When you’ve exhausted your glycogen stores and your muscle strength like this, your body then says: “Hey, we didn’t have enough strength to do that! We better build more muscle for next time!” Over the next week that’s exactly what happens. Use the right design of exercises and you only need three to five of these exercises to work most of the important muscle groups. At the most, this is going to cost you fifteen minutes.

And why once a week? Well, you need a couple days to recover. During these days you are sore and have less muscle strength than normal. Then, as the authors describe, you need another couple days to enjoy your greater strength before you start it all again. Could you do it every three days? Sure. But most of us just want something that we can reasonably expect to fit into busy lives. We don’t want to be sore every day. Being sore two days a week is acceptable, and working out once a week will get the job done.

Ok, so what’s happened to me, your volunteer guinea pig?

I started this back a few months ago with free weights. I can’t tell you what weight the free weights were because they were cheap Chinese weights. When I weighed them on my cheap Chinese scale they weren’t the weight they claimed to be. Unfortunately, the cheap Chinese scale could be the thing that’s in error, so honestly we may never know the true weight of those things.

It’s one of those unknowable mysteries, like when is Shakespeare’s birthday, or is human spontaneous combustion real.

However, I did the best I could with what I had. I used them in lifts as closely as possible approximating the ones suggested in the book, lifting as slowly as possible, never taking the weight off my muscles till reaching muscle failure.

This took around ten minutes total, then fifteen, then twenty. You see, I was getting stronger, and it was taking more and more time to reach muscle failure. Finally a day came when I’d been pumping that stupid weight slowly up and down for five minutes straight with no end of strength in sight. That’s when I decided I had to find a gym.

So what had I experienced in this first part of the experiment?

At the three week mark, I started noticing that things were suddenly easier. On one occasion, I was walking with people who walk far more often than I. We were walking up a steep hill, too. My friend wanted to show us her school, which is reached by climbing this steep hill. She makes this walk twice a day, every day. I live in a flat city where I never have to walk up hills, yet my friend was behind me huffing and puffing. I was out front when I suddenly realized I was breathing slowly through my nose at the same pace I’d formerly have breathed just sitting at my desk.

A week or two later, the elevators were taking too long in my building. I live on the tenth floor. When I was ten years younger, I lived on a sixth floor and worked on the seventh of two buildings with no elevators. I climbed those things every day. Between the two, I climbed at least twenty five flights every single day. You’d have thought I’d have been quite used to it; help me “get in shape” and all that. It never happened. I lived there a year, and those stairs exhausted me just as much after a year as they had at the beginning. But ten years older and I suddenly climbed ten floors far more easily than I’d ever climbed the six.

That’s when I became completely convinced and started urging The Roommate to try it too.

We managed to find a gym reasonably near us, reasonably clean, for a reasonable price (all a miracle around here). At that point I started being able to keep notes.

We’ve gone eleven times now, but it’s been a lot longer than eleven weeks. The first few weeks we would go every 7 days. But after a while we realized that when pollution was really hazardous we shouldn’t go. We would only get a clean day about once every ten days, and we started finding we were seeing faster strength gains with a ten day rest than a seven day one. Then we had to wait fourteen days, and that was the best workout we’d had. Now we go once every two weeks.

Here’s what we did/do:

  • Argue them into selling us a discount “weekend pass” that assumes you won’t be coming more than twice a week.
  • Arrive in a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, completely avoiding the lockers or showers.
  • Walk resolutely past rows and rows and rows and rows of machines cleverly designed for destroying your joints.
  • Walk resolutely past the many signs advertising classes for stretching and jumping and kicking and spinning and whirling and dancing and contorting into unnatural positions.
  • Go to the almost completely unused weight machines–unused because the guys are off in the free weight corner, grunting noisily and preening in the mirror, while the girls are jogging sadly upon the treadmills. (Can you use free weights? Of course! Both have their merits. The advantages of machines are two: a machine reduces your chance of hurting yourself, and  a machine helps guide your movement so you aren’t doing it awkwardly and thus stressing a joint or tendon. The advantage of the free weight is it allows you to engage micro-muscular balancing movements.)
  • Take turns doing six different machines, each one for between seventy and 160 seconds. Why 160 seconds? Because these machines aren’t top of the line, and they only go up by increments of ten pounds at a time. Ideally, once we could use a certain weight for 100 seconds we’d go up a pound the next time. But since we can only go up ten pounds or nothing, we accept higher times up to a point, then jump to the next higher weight.
  • Fend off the occasional personal trainer who comes by hoping for a gig and telling us we’re doing it all wrong.
  • Occasionally wait our turn while a man shows off for us. Honestly, guys. It’s not a competition. There’s this one guy at our gym: we call him Flabby Man. Flabby Man usually does free weights, but when we show up he has to come over and do the machines. The first week he was doing weights similar to ours. Once he realized that, he started putting the weights up a lot higher for himself. He loves to get on the machine we’ve just used, put on a higher weight, then pump it with all the momentum he can get going. If we don’t watch him enough, then he comes sauntering past whatever machine we’re on, over and over again, with shoulders back and chest thrust forward. This would be impressive if his stomach didn’t stick out so much farther than his chest. We call him Flabby Man because it’s surprising how much his arms jiggle when he’s actually quite strong. But my favorite gym dude is Movie Man. We call him that because he seems to be living life in a movie, at least in his own mind. The first time I saw him he was using the chest press machine at… twenty pounds. (The Roommate uses fifty already, and Movie Man is half our age.) He had his earphones in and was obviously pumped. He slammed that chest press as fast as I’ve ever seen a human move. Then he leaped off the seat and stood in place, bouncing lightly on the balls of his feet to the music no one else could hear. Then, suddenly, he yelled “HUH!” and whipped both his arm and perfectly straightened hand suddenly out and down, like some kind of karate move. Then he danced off to another machine. I haven’t seen him for a while, and I really miss him.
  • Walk home and throw jeans and t-shirts into the washer.

The whole thing, door to door, takes less than an hour. 25 minutes of that is walking there and back. We do it first thing Saturday morning if possible, and during The Roommate’s lunch hour if not. Here’s some example numbers of the change we’ve seen; then I’ll mention some more subjective changes.

The Roommate




So as you can see, we now have empirical evidence that we have been gaining muscle. But the subjective changes have been even better. The time it takes to recover between workouts has grown greater over time; another sign that we’re getting stronger. Yet the amount of soreness we feel has dropped; a sign of better fitness.

We both find everything easier to do. A few weeks ago we walked from lunch back to our home with a friend eight years younger than us. Our friend walks fast every day and is thinner than either of us. The Roommate never walks, except short strolls with the dogs. I walk when the air is clean–maybe once or twice a week. The Roommate and I were running circles around our younger friend and enjoying our walk while she huffed and puffed her way along by the end. We also both find ourselves more flexible.

Perhaps the best change for The Roommate has been in shoulder soreness. She has a desk job as an editor and writer. This means hours each day with a pen or at the computer, and during busy times her neck and shoulder would hurt so much after a few days she could hardly bear the pain from it. She would have a huge, hot knot in her shoulder and be almost unable to move. “Stretching!” everyone advocated. Stretching helped a little, but not much. Ninety seconds of the chest press and push up machines once a week? Complete change. One of those really busy editing times came a few weeks after she took up exercising. She was barely sore this time.

For me, the best benefit was to my knee. I hurt it snorkeling last summer. Resting and putting it up would stop the pain, but then every few weeks I’d do something to re-aggravate it. Too much sitting. Too much walking. A twist while sleeping. Running. I had the dreaded “iliotibial band syndrome,” which is Orthopedic for “You overused your knee, stupid.”

Knee braces helped but didn’t cure. Just when it seemed all was good, I would forget the knee brace for taking out the dogs and the pain would be back. Then, one day, it finally occurred to me: if the problem is that the knee isn’t moving quite right sometimes, what if I just strengthened the muscles all around it? All the ones connected to the knee? Wouldn’t that hold the knee where it’s supposed to be?

So I tried it. I couldn’t do exercises where you pushed with the knee directly, so I just exercised the inner and outer thigh muscles and calves, without using the knee at all. Bingo. Two weeks and I was pain free–nothing seems able to bring it back, either.

Let me end with one last thing; YOU can do this. If you’re so overweight you can’t leave your bed, you can get some weights and do it in bed. If you’re so weak that you can barely lift five pounds, then start with three pounds. The authors give a stunning example in the book of a friend who was dying of emphysema. He was at the point where he didn’t want to be put on a ventilator and draw out the agony: he just wanted to be allowed to die. He was confined to a wheelchair. They convinced to try this once-a-week weightlifting. He did just three exercises a week and doubled his strength–extending his life by six, fully functional and completely wheelchair-free years.

Those numbers I posted above mean precisely nothing. There’s no goal number. No one is going to give me a trophy when I hit some arbitrary weight. All I’m doing is increasing muscle as best I realistically can given my age, experience, gender, and duties in life. Thirty minutes every week is completely doable; but the benefits I’ve experienced are worth ten times that effort. Why not give it a try? It won’t take much of your time, and it certainly won’t hurt you. It might just make life a whole lot easier, too.


Plato says he’s hungry

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