family · fitness · strength training

Backyard fitness and being in this for the long haul

It’s gradually been dawning on us, here at home in Guelph, that fitness-wise, we’re in this for the long haul. I stopped going to the gym awhile ago now. On March 9th I wrote, Sam decides to take a break from the gym. And by “this” I mean working out at home.

If there were a work Covid-19 bingo, for sure one of the squares would be about this being a marathon and not a sprint. I even wrote a Dean’s blog post with that as a title. I hope I wrote that before we all got sick of hearing it. Maybe not. And while I am sick of hearing that phrase too I am only now realizing that it’s not just about work. My personal life has changed too. I won’t be flying anywhere soon.

And the more that I think about it, the more I realize, that even if gyms re-open, I’m not going back anytime soon. I’ve written about my 7 part physical distancing fitness plan and about the missing puzzle pieces of my at home plan. Now the missing pieces are mostly filled in. I’m getting lots of physical activity and it’s helping me with stress and sleep. It’s also a source of pleasure and achievement in these strange times.

I expect I’ll return to the gym if we have a vaccine or if/when we have reached herd immunity without a vaccine or I suppose if we develop effective treatments for Covid-19. Either of those options is more than a year away. Before that I am more likely to go back to our 24 hour discount gym, in the off hours, than I am to the campus fitness facilities.

Maybe I’ll change my mind. But right now I’m thinking if I can do a thing with less risk, I’m going to stick to that path. Hence, the backyard gym.

Inside, we have the TRX and yoga mats and resistance cables. We’ve also got a kettlebell and a lone 8 lb dumbbell. We’re pretty well set up for riding inside too though as things loosen up in Ontario, I’m looking forward to physically distanced rides with friends. Obviously, there’s still some shopping to do. Outside, we now have skipping ropes, the punching bag, and a giant tire. Between those things and the phone tabata app, and a few family members to work out with, it’s a good time.

Usually I envy my big city friends with their boutique gym options and a vast array of theatre, music, and food options. But right now. I’m feeling pretty good about life in my small city where we have a backyard and space to flip big tires. The streets aren’t crowded for walking and running even if the city parks haven’t re-opened yet. Yes, I’m privileged to have these options. I’ll totally understand if others choose differently.

Come winter we may end up with even more indoor fitness equipment in the room that was our livingroom but is now mostly a two person home office which turns into a home gym when we break for lunch, or do yoga after work or before bed. I’m not sure it will return to its pure living room status. On and off, I think we’ll be working at home (those of us whose jobs allow it) for awhile yet.

What fun piece of backyard fitness equipment would you buy if you had the summer ahead of you?

fitness · health · illness · self care · strength training · training

How much is too much? Some thoughts with lots and lots of links

So we all know that this isn’t the best time to get into the best shape of your life, no pressure from us, relax and do what it takes to help you cope in these stressful, strange times, but we also know that exercise–some exercise–is good for dealing with stress and anxiety.

So that’s from the point of view of mental health and emotional well-being but there’s also the idea that exercise helps with our immune response.

Yoyo penguin

Okay, how much? Maybe mild to moderate exercise two to three times a week.

According to Alex Hutchinson, everyone agrees that regular, moderate exercise is good for your health.

“Doing regular moderate exercise lowers your risk compared to doing nothing; studies typically find that near-daily moderate exercisers report about half the typical number of upper-respiratory tract infections. That’s an important message for anyone who’s tempted to slack off their fitness routine until life returns to normal.”

Got it. Get moving. Check!

Now!

Okay, but we’ve got lots of time, right? Why not exercise lots more.

The worry is that too much is bad for your immune system. Again from Hutchinson, “If you ramp the dose up too high, your risk climbs steadily until you’re more vulnerable than if you’d done nothing at all. For that reason, Oregon-based elite track coach Jonathan Marcus recently argued on Twitter that athletes should avoid the type of gut-busting workouts that might put them at higher risk. “To train hard now is irresponsible,” he wrote.

(Short version: It looks like intensity is okay, what sets back your immune response is long duration exercise.)

Moderation seems to be key.

Here are two sports scientists writing for The Conversation, How much exercise is OK during the coronavirus pandemic?

“Both too much and too little are bad while somewhere in the middle is just right. Scientists commonly refer to this statistical phenomenon as a “J-shaped” curve. Research has shown exercise can influence the body’s immune system. Exercise immunity refers to both the systemic (whole body cellular response) and mucosal (mucous lining of the respiratory tract) response to an infectious agent, which follows this J-shaped curve.

A large study showed that mild to moderate exercise — performed about three times a week — reduced the risk of dying during the Hong Kong flu outbreak in 1998. The Hong Kong study was performed on 24,656 Chinese adults who died during this outbreak. This study showed that people who did no exercise at all or too much exercise — over five days of exercise per week — were at greatest risk of dying compared with people who exercised moderately.”

Exercise dog!

Interestingly, exercise rates are on the rise during the covid-19 pandemic among everyday exercises and down for elite athletes. In a way, that’s not a surprise for serious competitive athletes. All of their competitions are cancelled. They are just in maintenance mode mostly. For us, everyday types, we actually have some time, some of us, and exercise is one of the few things we can do outside. We’re moving more and they’re moving less and maybe we’ll all meet in the moderate middle. Go us!

It’s the same I think for strength training and weight lifting. The moderates like me, have installed home TRX-es and bought the odd kettlebell. I’m glad I got mine before they all sold out. But some of the serious gym rats I know have just out and out declared it bulking season and say that if there aren’t big weights available, they’re just waiting it out and doing lots less.

Okay, but not everybody is moved to moderation. Some people are making a personal challenge out of these odd times, like the 13-year-old boy who ran 100 miles in Quarantine Backyard Ultra or the man who ran a marathon on his PAris balcony during lockdown.

And none of this is shared with any advice giving intentions. If you care what sports scientists have to say about how much exercise is best during a pandemic, then go follow the links above and read away. If you need, from the point of view of your mental health and well-being to do more or do less, than do what you need to do.

It’s the moderation point that interested me, and I thought I’d share. Thanks for reading!

fitness · strength training · weight lifting

Women, Are You Ready to be Weird?

Are you ok with not fitting in, or would you rather blend in with the crowd? If you are watched, noticed, and possibly commented upon by your community, would that derail you from your pursuits? If these discomforts don’t deter you, ladies may I suggest you take up weightlifting?

Early stage weirdness requires being willing to wander around the weights portion of your gym not sure what to do. You’re going to have to guess how much weight you can lift and you’re going to have to wonder how to do the lifts correctly. You will mess up. You will stand out. Not because you are new, because there’s always someone new, but likely that someone is male and many males have an armor of “fake it ‘til you make it.” So, I suggest you do the same. Strut in there, fake some competence, and walk out knowing you started on your journey.

As you develop some competence and confidence, those who are sincere in their pursuit of weirdness will likely need to begin to log their work at the gym. You will be less weird if you do this on your phone, but those who are aiming for purity will begin to carry a workout log book. The log book will allow you to switch up your workouts day to day and week to week and see your progress as you go. There can be real celebration in this form of weirdness, because you will have concrete evidence of your growth. As you move up in weights, away from smaller dumbbells towards larger ones, or begin using the barbell and adding weight on the bar, you can see that you are getting stronger. This is wonderful! It will also make you different, as only a small percentage of those around you will be working out with such a sense of purpose and focus. Expect people to ask you what you are writing down in that little book.

This intermediate stage of weirdness also includes some changes you may choose outside of the gym. You might find that you want more protein at each of your meals, which can require feeling different from the other ladies when you go out for brunch. No longer are you splurging on the pancake plate and hashbrowns. No, you need to get your protein in, so how many eggs does that omelette contain? And can you add some smoked salmon to it?

You may decide you like wearing tank tops, even though the women around you are always talking down about their own arms, shoulders and bust. You know you don’t look like a model, but you’ve become proud of what your body can do and it’s fun to show off a little bit. That pride is wonderful, but it isn’t normal. You will stand out. Dig in deep to this weirdness!

You may try new things that you’ve only seen online or learned from a trainer. Maybe you do dynamic tension, wrapping huge rubber bands around the bar before you squat or bench press. Maybe you begin lifting in minimalist shoes or even just in specially designed lifting socks. You take the risk of trying all the rep ranges–you don’t let your ego force you to go heavy every time nor allow your fears keep you with lighter weights and high rep ranges.

Standing out in the crowd really takes on a whole lifestyle change somewhere along the way. At this point, when you walk into the gym, you are going to walk with confidence to the heavy weights and then begin to do things few around you are willing to do. You will stand out as you set up your bar with weight plates. Your confidence and sense of space–that you own that place in the gym at least as much as the next guy, and maybe more so because you’ve earned it from dedication and hard work over a long period of time–this will make you different from the people around you. They will notice. Some of them will find you inspiring. Others will feel challenged by your existence and may try to cut you down. This can be a real test to your ongoing pursuit of weirdness. How will you respond if a man, through his actions or words, suggests that your work is less valid than his? Are you ready to be really weird and stand up for yourself, loudly and where all can witness it?

You may need to stand up for your weirdness with family and friends, too. Are you ready to defend your choices to your mother who is worried you’ll hurt yourself? If it applies to you, are you ready to answer the question, “How does your husband feel about you getting so strong?” to a well-intentioned but totally off-base friend? These challenges are real, but they are worth it. In exchange for standing out in these ways, for being labeled and harassed, you will have the confidence of knowing you are living a life in tandem with your values. You can feel mentally and emotionally stronger by persisting to explore the limits of your physical strength.

Are you willing at this point to dig in deep to your weirdness and pursue real strength? You could choose an elite level of weirdness and possibly try to even GAIN weight and get BIGGER? Would you eat more food than you need so that you can pack on some muscle? Those who get to this level of weirdness are pushing the boundaries of what is expected of women, and as they show up in their bodies every day, they are making a statement about who they are and what place they are creating for themselves in the world. It is not easy to buck expectations for femininity at every meal. Few will understand your goals. Even fewer will be sympathetic if you find it challenging. “Poor you, you can’t gain weight. I feel really bad for you.”

Are you willing to stand out even within the strength-pursuing crowd and avoid the quick fixes and half-baked solutions? Go evidence-based and feed yourself the fuel you need, do the work, and trust the process? It’s a long game, and there will be folks who seem to be your peers suggesting things that you need not do to reach your goals, things that are potentially harmful and are certainly unsustainable. Again, you can find inner strength as you gain in knowledge and confidence.

Succeeding at being consistently weird is a lifelong journey. At not all stages of your life will you be willing to push being different from others to the same degree. It’s ok to let your weirdness ebb and flow with other priorities in your life, but know that this is a goal that can really change who you are and how you interact with others in powerful ways. And it’s worth it. Taking up more space and owning it, having confidence and competence, will improve your life. So ladies, are you ready to be weird?

Image description: A photograph of a workout log, with the names of exercises and the weights, sets and reps recorded below them.

Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found standing out in the crowd, picking up heavy things and putting them back down again in Portland, Oregon.

climbing · fitness · Guest Post · strength training

Get a grip (guest post)

Shortly after starting indoor rock climbing, I found out that my grip strength was going to be a limiting factor, especially when I tried out the bouldering wall. So, I decided to train my grip strength. To get a baseline to measure my progress against, I asked my gym for a go at their grip strength tester.

I pulled about 100lbf. “You have excellent grip strength!” the gym attendant said, pointing at the last column of the “female” table, which topped out at 70lbf. That didn’t seem right to me because while I can open jars, I couldn’t hang on in any but the absolute easiest bouldering routes. So I checked the “male” table.

[img description: A grip strength tester reading about 100 pounds, set next to a paper showing two tables with age ranges and grip strength categories from “needs improvement” to “excellent”. The top table says “female” and the “excellent” grip strength column has numbers around 70 pounds. The bottom table says “male” and the “needs improvement” grip strength column has numbers around 90 pounds.]

“Poor,” it said.

Literally, this manufacturer’s grip strength assessment put the weakest of wimpy men at stronger than the strongest of women.

I would have understood overlapping results with “average” on the men’s table being a bit higher than on the womens. But this?

Anybody who trusts this table won’t recommend grip strength training to women but will to men, for the same strength measurement. It quite directly encourages men and discourages women from strength training. “Oh you’re plenty strong enough, lady,” it says. No need to get stronger.

Then people wonder why men tend stronger.

When I pointed this out to the gym attendant, he was shocked, and went looking for a better grip strength table, but all the ones he found on the internet had the same gap between the top of the women’s table and the bottom of the men’s table.

A much more useful grip strength table, in my opinion, wouldn’t be split by gender at all, and would have column headings like “can open most commercially sealed jars,” “can hang 50kg body weight with a 2 handed grip,” and so on. Because it looks to me like every female climber is going to be well into the “men’s” table,and whether your grip strength is “excellent” or “needs improvement” should really depend on what you need and want to do, not on some arbitrary and sexist value judgement

Varve is a nonbinary novice climber who is heartily sick of being told they can’t do something because they’re “a girl” – and has been since long before knowing there was anything outside the binary.

fitness · strength training · weight lifting

Breasts and the Myth of Perfect Form

There’s a lot of unnecessary anxiety out there regarding weightlifting and “perfect form.” While technique may be important to avoid injury and to maximize the benefits of a lift, I would encourage you to consider letting go of this particular worry.

There is no perfect form. There are a plurality of good forms, and they are dependent on the micro (and macro) differences in each of our unique physiologies. To illustrate this point, I would like you to consider breasts.

The presence, shape and size of breasts can change the pathway of motion for innumerable lifts, although I feel that they are most noticeable in how they impact back exercises. Take a seated, cable row–you are sitting on a bench (or perhaps kneeling on the floor), and your hands are extended straight out in front of you, gripping a cable attachment. If the distance between your hands is shorter than the width of your shoulders, it is possible for your upper arms to come in contact with your breasts. If your breasts are smaller and closer together, you may only notice a slight brushing against the inner arm; however, the larger and further out your breasts spread beyond your ribcage, the more likely you will find yourself adjusting your hand position to reduce mashing your breasts as you pull the cable towards your body. Or, another option is to adjust the pathway of your elbows so that they open “out,” away from your body instead of straight back. This is less desirable, but may be necessary, especially if you have a larger upper body in general. The “perfect” form for you is the one you can achieve consistently while targeting the desired muscles of your back and without causing undue breast squishing! If your breasts are larger and getting in the way, I would suggest a wider grip on the cable row so that you can pull back as straight as possible, aiming for a pathway of motion that allows you to squeeze your back muscles tightly without straining your elbows.

Some other examples of breasts changing a lift:
Anything “chest supported”: These exercises are performed lying forward on an incline bench. Regardless of the size of your chest, you will have to guide your elbows around the bench as you pull up. Find a cushioned bench, and pull dumbbells wide enough to get around squished breast tissue. For barbell variations, you may need to hold your hands wider than lifters without breasts.

Dumbbell chest press: Bench pressing with dumbbells gives you more freedom of movement than barbell. As a result, it is great for shoulders, elbows and other cranky joints. If your breasts extend beyond your ribcage when you are lying down, however, you will need to also move dumbbell weights a little further from your body than someone who does not have that physiology. I use a hybrid grip for these, with my hands about 45 degrees from my chest (rather than pronated, the more traditional hand position with palms facing the direction of my toes). This gives me more room (and therefore more power) to push up and also helps me avoid smooshing my breasts on the release downwards again.

Bicep curls: Two possible workarounds for these that I like–the first is to use dumbbells or single-hand grip on a cable and angle the lift slightly to the side of the body instead of to the front. The second option is to hinge your hips forward from a standing position, so that when the weight (dumbbells or barbell) is pulled all the way up, there’s about 30 degrees space between your upper arm and your chest.

These adjustments sometimes vary from what folks will claim is perfect form. However, chances are very good that the folks who make these claims are not people who have had to problem-solve lifting around one’s breasts. These variations do allow more diverse body shapes to access lifting and to make it a more comfortable experience. They also are only specific to one physiological difference–breasts!

Again, I want to stress that there is no one perfect form. I am using breasts as an exemplar of how each of our unique bodies will do lifts with good form differently, but they are hardly the only physiological difference that matters. The width and angle of your hips changes how you lift. The ratio of arm length to leg length changes how you lift. The proportion of your upper body strength to your lower body strength changes how you lift. ALL of these differences will lead to differences in your form, and none of them make you wrong. The goal is to lift in a way that does not cause you harm, does not cause you lasting pain, and helps you target and train the muscles that you are aiming to improve. Do these things, and you are using perfect form, for you!

I don’t have a good video of someone negotiating a great lift around their breasts (sorry!), but here’s one for your consideration. Watch Lamar Gant deadlift and tell me he isn’t using perfect (for him) form!

Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found perfectly imperfectly picking up heavy things and putting them down again in Portland, OR.

fitness · strength training · weight lifting

This is My “Why”

“Why do you do that?”

The tone of incredulity was hard to miss. My mother, who I love very much and is, and has always been, very different from me, clearly could not fathom why I would want to learn to lift heavier weights. You see, I’ve recently hired a personal trainer to teach me the big barbell lifts, and while I am thrilled about it, my mother is clearly concerned.

I don’t share her fears. And I LOVE lifting weights. Why?

Lifting gives me a sense of mastery of a skill–a skill that few have pursued with seriousness, male or female, but especially us females. We aren’t encouraged, of course, but there is something wonderful about feeling really and truly capable at lifting heavy things. Or perhaps in part, it is because it is not encouraged? There is definitely something subversive about the pursuit of strength for a woman–a willingness to stand out, to stand up proud, and to possibly pursue taking up MORE space in a world that encourages us to achieve endless smallness instead.

Lifting gives me a space to focus purely upon myself and my own goals. I do it for myself, because I like it, and I enjoy the results. I know not everyone here supports aesthetic goals associated with exercise, but I admit, I like the definition in my arms when I flex. I like the subtle ripple of muscles on my back when I move. I celebrate these changes in my physique as evidence that my body, at least to some extent, is something I can mold to my desires. I grew up bigger and softer than most of my peers, and I falsely believed it was my fate to remain that way. Redefining my goals with lifting has shown me that I have more control than that over my appearance–they aren’t always dramatic these changes, and I’ll likely never look like a fitness model, but they are real, and measurable proof that I can have some impact on my appearance, to look more on the outside like the strong person I know I am on the inside. Lifting helps my appearance more closely mirror an authentic sense of myself.

Truly though, the goal for me is so much more than the pursuit of an aesthetic; I enjoy feeling strong. Feeling and truly being strong helps me feel safe and in control. I like how it allows me to move with confidence through the world, literally changing how I show up. Because of my lifting, I hold my shoulders and head up a bit higher, walk a bit more confidently, move with more self-assurance. Lifting also reduces my pain so I move a bit less like the “old lady” I can feel like some days, and it gives me agency to improve upon challenges that otherwise I’d have no venue to improve. I am strong enough to dig my own holes, open my own jars, and assemble my own Ikea cupboards. Lifting gives me the confidence to do these physical tasks and to believe I can be competent at them.

Lifting builds my mental toughness. Learning that what I thought were my limits were in fact surmountable feats has helped me to challenge other assumptions I’ve had about myself. Pushing the boundaries of strength in a climate that does not encourage me to do so has helped me to ignore naysayers who would try to hold me back in other aspects of my life. It is easier (although still not always easy) for me to speak up when I have had many opportunities to stand up for my space at the gym. It is easier for me to speak my truth when I have had to listen to myself and acknowledge my truth as an athlete.

Lifting challenges my own belief that I am a sickly person, who will always suffer poor health, bad luck, and the chronic pain that comes with it. I can be proactive in this way, when so much of my health is so out of my control. In this one element of my life, I can choose to increase the odds in my favor. It won’t grow back missing organs or wipe away the scars of surgeries. It doesn’t allow me to quit all my medications, although maybe it helps me manage with lower doses. It doesn’t end all my pain, although maybe it reduces the severity. It doesn’t mean I can suddenly ignore troublesome symptoms, although it may help me notice important changes sooner. I am not a genuinely healthy person, but lifting certainly makes me healthier.

Lifting for me is a celebration of life and abundance. I recognize my ability to lift is a gift and a privilege. Not everyone can do what I am doing. I have not always been able to do what I am doing. I may, some day, no longer get to do what I am doing today. I am so grateful for this time, for this opportunity to push myself and to have the health and strength and resources to lift like I do, as often as I get to do it. I love lifting weights because it brings me joy and gratitude for this moment. That is why I do it.

Image description: A woman in black and purple workout clothes, kneeling on a bench while rowing with a kettle bell.

Now it’s your turn–do you have a powerful reason why you move the way you do? Please share your thoughts below!

Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found joyfully picking up heavy things and putting them back down again in Portland, Oregon.

Sat with Nat · strength training

Nat goes back to her exercise basics

I tried to think of the first exercise I ever learned. I can’t put my finger on it but I bet it was skipping, running, push ups, summersaults or sit ups.

For me body weight exercises are the basics, the foundation of where I build my fitness. From walking to cycling to yoga, moving my body starts first with getting the moves right.

The past month I’ve had a lot of hip and lower back pain. It was so bad I had to stop my activities, including walking to work, and rest my body.

Now that the acute pain has passed I’m going back to basics with a beginner body weight workout. I like this one by Nerd fitness. It’s customizable and I can draw on my previous knowledge to pick the variations on each exercise that work.

For example toe push-ups are not accessible to me right now and knee push-ups are painful from varicose veins across my knees so I started with wall push-ups. You get parallel to a wall with your arms extended, step back on your tippy-toes and do your push-ups. It allows me to dial in my form and check in with my body. After 3 circuits I can feel the burn in my chest & triceps.

My partner and I joked our little 20 minute routine was just a warm up until the aches set in two days later. It might be the squats, the lunges or the giant bag of rice we used as a weight but whatever it was we were both humbled by how much the routine asked of our bodies.

I want to slowly ramp back up to weights. I also know if I do a body weight routine for a few months my core, flexibility and form will support my future fitness goals and reduce my chances of injury.

An 8 kilogram bag of jasmine rice sits on a slightly dirty floor

This rice seemed, at just under 8kg, a good rowing weight.

What exercises do you go back to time & again? What is the first exercises you remember learning?