On Friday, I was lucky enough to have the day off from work, and my boyfriend had taken it off too. I decided to splurge on a guest pass to his building’s roof deck – which meant not only could we relax and sun ourselves all morning, but I also had access to his gym. I’ve already impressed him a few times with my weird ability to run a marathon and be fine immediately thereafter; now it was time to impress him with my bionic weightlifting skills!
Or… not. I’ve gotten very used to having limited gym equipment, so the only strength moves that have been part of my repertoire have been those using dumbbells (thank goodness I’m currently living at a hotel that has a good set of dumbbells going up well past the 50 pounds a lot of hotel free weight sets max out at). The Rachel Cosgrove routine I’ve been doing lately also tries to do most lifts from a standing position, so I’m not bench pressing or anything like that. It’s a well known fact of exercise that you get good at what you train for, so I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that I sucked a lot at basically all the new stuff I tried… but I was still pretty darn embarrassed. Shouldn’t at least some of my hard work translate to other exercises?
(On the plus side, my boyfriend asked me to spot him for his own chest presses, and another guy in the weight room smirked and offered to do it instead. My boyfriend told him I’d be fine… and I was! Score one for being stronger than random guy thinks I look.)
It was when we hit the machine weight room, though, that I realized perhaps my weak performance couldn’t just be blamed on the change in routine. The whole time we were at the gym, I admittedly was playing around and not taking it too seriously. I hadn’t done machine weights in a while, and I hadn’t brought my cheat sheet of standard exercises with me for the free weights, so I was just bouncing around from machine to machine trying them all out. I was curious to see how I stacked up to my boyfriend on these – obviously I wouldn’t even come close to the level of weights he was doing (except on the leg press, where I was pretty proud to be able to rep out 1.5 times my body weight), but I wanted to know if I was at a quarter his strength, half his strength, etc. It was while trying this out on the lateral fly that I had a real aha moment.
I was busily doing 40 pounds (lame, I know) and having some difficulty, in part because I somehow thought that going up to 50 pounds would compromise my form to the point of injury. Meanwhile, my boyfriend was watching me and laughing at my funny scrunched up concentration face. “Come on, you can do more than that – I bet I can do the whole stack!” “Ha, no way!” I replied, and we traded places after he loaded the entire machine’s plates on the stack. I got ready for the show, expecting the bars to basically be immobile and figuring we’d get a good laugh out of it – when he actually managed to rep out the entire stack. Wow!
But what was craziest to me was not just the fact that he could do the entire stack (though I’ll be honest, I’ve never seen anyone do that on a machine before and it was pretty hot), but what he looked like doing it. In order to accomplish this feat, he had to put everything he had into it, and his whole body was shaking with effort. My muscles can get a bit shaky when coming to the last reps of a set, but nothing like this – I was honestly kind of concerned he might have a heart attack trying to impress me (though admittedly, I kind of have that on the brain lately). His whole body was shaking, from head to toe, and he reminded me of the normal guy that turns into the Incredible Hulk. Crazy looking, but also impressive – it worked!
I spent the next hour or so completely in awe at his prowess – and also remarking how scary he looked when he did that. (Dude could crush me!) He, however, pointed out that if you want to get stronger, you have to really work – and that he tries to exert that kind of effort every time he goes to the gym. He echoed the same sentiment that Rachel Cosgrove preaches – you can either work out long, or you can work out short but intense – and I realized that I have been doing this all wrong.
I thought I was following the Cosgrove philosophy in my lifting, since I always try to go up to the next set of weights. I do finish each workout pretty sweaty, which I thought meant I was working hard – but now I think I don’t put in anywhere near the level of intensity that I should. I like tracking the numbers of what I lift, since I think it encourages me to push harder, but I also think I’ve been kind of babying myself instead of seeing how far I can really go. Form is certainly important, but sometimes you need to take a chance on fewer reps and higher weight in order to really make gains – and getting totally shaky and dripping with sweat probably should be the rule and not the exception. How come I didn’t have this totally obvious epiphany sooner???
Later in the weekend, while discussing Alcohol-Free August, my boyfriend and I started discussing the Insanity program that I tried last year. He expressed an interest in giving Insanity a try at the same time we cut out the alcohol – and I agreed to that as well. (Such a good influence on me!) But while we’re waiting to kick things off in a few weeks, I think it’s time for me to give myself a kick in the pants and really try to challenge myself in my strength workouts in the meantime. I’ve realized that perhaps the results of Insanity aren’t so much coming from the program content, but from how the videos force you to push yourself to the limit. And I can do that on my own, can’t I?
Updated to add: perfect timing for this Greatist article on how to find your one-rep max! Challenge accepted :)