I love training incognito at commercial gyms, YMCAs and fitness clubs. The wacky antics I see on a never-ending and continual basis have provided column fodder for my magazine articles for decades. Just yesterday I arrived at my local upscale training facility for a 6:30 AM workout. In the early morning you run into the serious fitness folks—the people smart enough to understand the need for fitness and need to fit it into their hectic lives. These folks are disciplined enough to haul themselves out of bed at 4 or 5 AM to dress, drive to the training facility, hit a workout at 6, be done by 7, then shower for their stress-filled job by 8 or 9. Admirable.
The early morning crowd is far different then the macho meatball crew of 18-35 year old males that start rolling into the weight room at 5 PM to strut and preen for their meatball brethren or in front of their beloved mirrors. This is a male mutual admiration society that congregates at every commercial gym in America every evening. They’re the reason I won’t train at a commercial gym past 5 pm. However, macho punk arrogance in the weight room is understandable—these idiots are overflowing with testosterone and probably not coping with real life very well, but in this controllable little corner of the universe, these baboons can act out their WWE wrestler fantasies. They get off on acting out in front of strangers—finally someone is paying attention to them.
The Macho Boys have a captive audience: the gerbil-wheel aerobic machine riders. The captive cardio audience— whether they like it or not—has a ringside view of the free weight area. The boys can’t help but to act out in front of an audience with profanity, posturing, yelling, back and face slapping, while screaming fitness platitudes. These boys are starved for praise and attention, because outside this finite fitness universe they are mostly losers, barely getting by. In stark contrast the early morning fitness crowd is sincere, with careers and responsibilities. Yet they can exhibit delusional arrogance as unwarranted and outrageous as that of the testosterone-poisoned evening crowd. Morning is the time for sophisticated sophistry.
I am not a big fan of pomposity. Oscar Wilde once described the moralistic preaching of an opponent, “He speaks with the easy assurance of the blissfully ignorant.” I see Wilde’s blissfully ignorant types each and every morning. Yesterday morning I arrived to squat. My strategy was—as always—simple: work up to a single ‘top set’ of five reps in the ultra-deep, paused back squat without wearing any gear. I thought that after my top set of five, if I still had any gas, I would perform one additional higher-rep/lighter poundage squat set of about eight reps. Then I would leave. Squat and leave. Can’t get much simpler then that.
After I squat, I walk to the locker room, strip, and sit in a scalding steam room. After being boiled alive as long as I can take it, I immediately take an ice cold shower, then return to the horrific steam room. I go back and forth three times. It takes me longer to steam and shower than to squat. I love to steam, sauna, or whirlpool after a workout. It purposefully heat the body before dousing it in cold water. The heat opens the pores; the cold water snaps the pores shut, squeezing out toxins. After two or three rounds of heat and cold, I actually enter an altered state. The super intense, endorphin-releasing, hypertrophy-inducing squats have shattered me—in the tradition of ‘that which does not kill me makes me stronger.’ Add a body-shocking steam/sauna/whirlpool/cold shower session can create a fitness-induced acid trip. And I am totally down with that, actually it keeps me coming back for more….
But, I digress—back to the training session…
I set up a barbell in a power cage in the right front corner of the free-weight section. I placed the safety supports a few inches below the deepest point of my squat range-of-motion. So, if I have to eat a rep, I can ride the squat bar down to the pins, slide out and not get squashed like a cockroach. I loaded the barbell to 135 pounds and stealthily glanced around the large facility—naturally the bulk of early morning attendees are on the carnival ride, gerbil-wheel, high-tech cardio machines. I’ve used this facility for years and in the early morning could predict with 80% accuracy which trainee will be sitting, standing or riding atop their favorite cardio machine—using it the same exact same way as yesterday or tomorrow. Humans are creatures of habit. But, habit is bad when it comes to physical progress. To trigger progress we need true exertion.
The facility has 40 high-tech cardio devices—ten per row, four rows deep—like battle tanks in formation. What a huge financial investment. Many of these machines have built-in TVs even though the gym has three 60-inch Sony TVs hanging high. All the gerbil-wheel riders can watch TV and hopefully distract themselves from the mind-numbing drudgery of riding these cardio devices. No matter what day, or cardio machine, everyone had one subtle, startling, disturbing commonality: no one ever changed or improved the shape or contours of their physique. They all looked exactly the same as the day I first say them.
That’s mean to point out, isn’t it? In our politically correct culture, pointing out a lack of tangible results is rude, hateful, disrespectful and just plain mean. “Now just a doggone minute Mr. Rude Neanderthal, these morning trainees are sincere, disciplined, intelligent, hard-working individuals. They get up at the crack of dawn and drive to the facility to exercise! They serve as wonderful examples to our youth and are to be praised, not damned, by a missing-link, win-at-any-cost, strive-for-excellence type like you. Who elected you Pope, Mr. Mean Man?!”
How horrible of me to point out that these shining examples are getting zero results for all those hours engaged in their mindless gerbil-wheel activity. Couldn’t the PC police at least collectively hook up all the diligent, result-free cardio machine riders to some master generator that could provide free electricity to poor people? At least the collective effort could be put towards the collective good—exercise Marxism, “From each according to his ability to pedal, to each according to his electrical needs and inability to pay.” The lack of cardio results for these exercisers is directly proportional to the amount of sweat being generated by the group—zero. In aerobic world, no sweat equals no results, and lots of sweat equals lots of results. The PC folks would call this “an inconvenient truth.”
No one sweats in this aerobic squadron. They kinda/sorta exert themselves, but sweat is in short supply in this little community. They obtain zero collective results because they all do the same favorite exercise in the same way, without varying pace, duration or intensity, over and over again. Obviously, their bodies have long since neutralized any “training effect” these pet cardio strategies initially produced. Using one cardio device exclusively, performing the same workout over and over while exerting sub-maximal effort, cannot and will not produce any tangible results, it’s a physiological impossibility.
I return to squatting, and step under the squat bar, un-rack it, step back and perform 10 reps. On reps 1-5 I feel stiff and awkward, but by the last rep of the set I feel awake. I will take this same weight again in two minutes. Light weight lifted for a few sets flushes the blood and hones technique.
I hit my second set with 135—it feels good, tight and precise. I load the bar to 185. As is my habit between sets, I like to stroll to a nearby set of windows and watch the early morning racquetball players; these men are mostly overweight, but are sweating their asses off. Some are quite quick and agile, despite being chubby. At least the R-Ball players are exerting themselves, sweating buckets, and getting some real cardio benefits.
While watching the R-Ball players, my attention fell on a slightly underweight individual working out in the resistance machine area. This 30-something was 5’8″ and weighed around 150 pounds. He had a slightly athletic build and looked like a successful accountant or tax attorney that might compete in 5K events. He caught my attention by performing plyometric leaps onto a two-foot bench, which is hardly dunk height. He did a manic set of eight leaps on and off the bench immediately followed by a set of deltoid-isolating standing lateral raises with a pair of 5-pound dumbbells. I was dumfounded. I wanted to quiz him on his strategy. I am sure he would eloquently explain—with the easy assurance of the blissfully ignorant—the incredible benefits of his cross-pollinated exercise strategy.
I slipped around the corner and did another deep and precise 5-rep warm-up set with 185. Then, I loaded 225 on the squat bar and slipped back to the R-Ball window to watch my man work—and he did work—at least in terms of exercise volume. He’d perform a pathetic set of eight little leaps my 5-year old grandson could do before grabbing tiny dumbbells my grandson could handle. It was all so serious: leaps, lateral raises, leaps, lateral raises. Even though he wore only a t-shirt, I didn’t see a drop of sweat. While he had the exercise volume bases covered, his exercise intensity was non-existent.
I tore myself away from watching “Sky King” long enough to dispatch 225 for 5 reps. This felt good and I loaded the bar to 275. Now I needed to get serious. In the free-weight section a husband and wife duo began their exercise routines. The stern woman started with worthless shallow walking lunges which she performed while facing the mirror, transfixed by her own image. Her pompous husband was a tall good-looking guy wearing a big-ass lifting belt and gloves. He started his “grueling” workout with standing dumbbell curls. He grabbed a pair of 15s off the dumbbell rack and stood five feet from the mirror, staring as if trying to hypnotize his own image. I hit 275 for 5, which was a 50 pound jump and didn’t feel quite as snappy as I had hoped. I loaded the barbell to 315 and checked on the leaping lateral raiser who was still at it. I reckon he had 5-6 super-sets under his belt at this point and still wasn’t sweating.
The older women roll in at 7AM. I hit my first squat set at 6:35AM and am feeling antsy—I want to get the hell out of here because the facility is getting overcrowded. The older women use the resistance exercise machines in the most pathetic, detached, and clueless fashion. They’ll do a half-assed set of 8 reps at 30% of their capacity then sit on the device as they “recover” for their second of three sets. They’ll sit on a machine for 15 minutes to complete their three sets, and take mortal offense if you ask to use the machine for a quick set. They spend more time and effort rubbing the machines down with disinfectant after their sweat-less sets. There’s no contagious sweat anywhere on the machine. You’d think there had been an outbreak of Bird Flu!
Everywhere I look I see people engaged in mindless, result-free exercise. Everyone is in motion but no one is training. In fact, 99% of the 70+ people using the facility could be bowling, playing golf, disco dancing or playing badminton and getting the same results—none—while having a lot more fun. But they’d lose their patina of fitness nobility. “Look at me! I am noble, disciplined, and up at the crack of dawn doing fitness!” This is the same self-importance I see in the joggers who insist on running along major highways, facing oncoming traffic while making eye contact with all the drivers. “Look at me! Praise me! I am doing fitness!”” They could be jogging in beautiful, quiet, picturesque neighborhoods one block away, but that would deprive them of the attention. Never mind they’re inhaling toxic exhaust fumes with every breath, it’s all about their need for attention.
I hit 315 for 5 ultra-deep paused reps, which felt heavy. Not good. I decide on one more set and add a 25-pound plate on each side—my top set of the day would be 365 for 5. I had to get my game face on for this one. I took the entire two minutes between 315 and 365 psyching myself up. As an Old Pro totally attuned to his body, I knew after the 315 pound set that I was having an off day. Anything less than 100% effort, and I would not make 5 reps. That would be an unacceptable outcome. Psyched and ready, I stepped under the bar and snapped it out of the rack. I set up and began, reps 1-3 felt heavy as hell and sluggish, rep 4 felt like I was lifting a house and rep 5 was a tooth-grinding, pants-splitting, tomato-faced effort which required 101% of my diminished capacity to complete.
I racked the weight and collapsed onto a nearby bench. Even though I was having an off day, I felt really good about the set. I’d worked hard enough to trigger hypertrophy and release endorphins. I never broke form while working through the squat sticking point and had pushed my guts out. My legs were shaking and I felt like I’d been run over by a garbage truck or struck by lighting. I actually laughed out loud when my brain said, “Hey, what about that 8-rep back-off set?” After my body-crushing set with 365, I would have only been able to use 50 pounds! On a good day, that same 365 would feel light on my back. At rep 5, I’d feel like I could perform one, two, or—on a super good day—three more reps. On those days I would perform a back-off set of 8 with about 315. But not today. Today I was toast, fried.
I had bled so much energy and exerted so much pure hellacious physical effort on the 365 pound set that if I had attempted an 8-rep back-off set I would have had to use so few pounds that there would have been no “training effect” or adaptation. After the 365 x 5 set, if I used willpower and continued to train, I’d throw myself down the black hole of catabolism and overtraining. Even so, it would take my legs 4-5 days to normalize after today’s 101% 5-rep effort.
Make no mistake, I purposefully traumatize my body. I am successful when I shatter myself, from neck to calves. I glanced at my watch: 7:05AM, my entire session had lasted for 29 minutes. The gym was suddenly a beehive of activity. On the floor mats by the racquetball window, a spandex-clad personal trainer was starting his 7AM “weightlifting for women” class. The pompous personal trainer with perfectly dyed hair, sparkling teeth, and Botox forehead insisted his class of a dozen middle-aged women spend a full 30 minutes “stretching out to avoid injury” before their 30-minute all-machine submaximal weight training session. To his credit, he made sure that the women thoroughly cleaned their machines with disinfectant when done.
By now, the gym was packed, and there was manic activity everywhere—mindless, directionless, useless exercise that was obviously not producing results for anyone. Yet no seemed to notice or mind. Personal trainers pretended to train and trainees pretended that they were getting results. Everywhere, everyone was exercising, but no one was training or exerting nearly enough effort to burn fat, spark hypertrophy, create endorphins, or cause an adaptive response. No one was sweating or progressing. Yet, in this society, it’s enough to show up and the prevailing sentiment seemed to be that everyone deserves a participation trophy, winning, success, and results are overrated. And that most people are not destined to become winners—the overemphasis on winning and results is unhealthy! We used to have a motto at Chaillet’s hardcore gym back in the 80s, “Effort is no substitute for success.” Nowadays the motto would be, “Strive for mediocrity! Feel good about yourself!”
I literally wobbled as I walked out of the gym after my workout and steam/ice baths. I was physically blasted yet as centered as a Zen monk. My mind was silent, the ‘thinker,’ the ‘little man inside your head’—as SEAL trainers label the conscious mind—had been bludgeoned into silence by the degree of intense physical effort and severity of the steam/shower. I was experiencing my predictable blissed-out altered-state of exercise nirvana. My legs were so shot that pushing the clutch to the floor was hard. I had body tremors all the way home. I drank my post-workout smart-bomb shake and then lied down. I went into a virtual coma for an hour and swore I could feel my body growing and reconfiguring. Exerting this degree of effort meant I only needed to squat one time a week. I needed four to six days to fully recover.
A high-intensity, low volume, minimalistic training approach can enable you to experience the same blissful, endorphin-releasing, hypertrophy-inducing, result-producing workout that I experienced in my squat workout and that I experience in all my workouts to varying degrees. Let’s vow to stop mindless exercising and instead embrace intense training. Participation trophies are for losers. We’re about creating success and results. In one of his movies, the great Sean Connery muttered these immortal lines, “The losers whine and moan and complain about the unfairness of it all—the winners kick ass then go home and F@#K the cheerleaders!”
Amen to that my Brother. Iron Bible words to live by.
Marty Gallagher, author of The Purposeful Primitive, is an underground legend. Mentored by a Hall-of-Fame strength athlete as a teenager, Marty set his first national record in 1967 as a 17-year old Olympic weightlifter; he set his most recent national record in 2013 as a 63-year old powerlifter. He is a former world powerlifting champion who turned his attention to coaching athletes and devising individualized training templates for the finest strength athletes in the world. Read more about Marty here.