Back to the gym

Late last month, the Indian government permitted gyms and yoga centres to open from August 5th, with sufficient social distancing and safety precautions. The Karnataka government immediately notified the order. Perhaps to take time to prepare, and give coaches who had gone out of state to return and complete their home quarantines, my gym began only yesterday.

And I went today.

Initially I was a bit sceptical. Not from the safety perspective – the gym had put in place several safety measures such as limiting the number of members in the gym at the same time. I was sceptical more from the perspective of the safety measures which could have been restrictive.

To cut a long story short, I managed to deadlift while wearing latex gloves. I had been highly sceptical of whether I would be able to do this. Usage of disposable latex gloves in the gym was a regulation that the gym had enforced, and justified saying that the government regulations now mandated it.

I had to use an app that the gym asked me to install to book a session. Since I’m not interested in their classes, and don’t want to go there when too many people are around, I booked an “open gym” session for this afternoon.

Before I got there I had to print out a declaration form saying that I don’t have covid (and basically indemnifying the gym if I caught it there). So I went to this shop close to the gym, printed it out and then headed to the gym. I had bought some cloth masks over the weekend since I wanted something “breathable” (I didn’t want to take off the mask at the gym). Compared to my usual wildcraft mask, this seemed so peaceful that it sort of felt “illegal”.

I was welcomed at the gym by Abhijit, the housekeeping guy. He took my printout, asked me to sanitise my hands, took my temperature and oxygen readings, and then sprayed me with some disinfectant. He explained the rules. There were boxes drawn all over the gym. I was supposed to keep all my belongings in one such box. Any equipment I used was to also go into that box – it would later be sanitised.

I warmed up with some dead hangs (and got reminded of that pull up bar that I’ve spectacularly failed to install in my balcony – after two attempts). And some leg raises. And then got down to business.

This is among the longest gaps I’ve taken in terms of lifting weights after I seriously started in 2014. My left shoulder hurt as I gripped the empty bar on my shoulder for my squat. I went through with the motion.

So there is this theory about force behaviour change – when there as a series of London Tube strikes in 2014, people were forced to change the way they travelled – involving alternate routes and connections, and even some alternate modes of transport. What the study found was that once the strike was over, some people stuck to the new alternatives they had found during the strikes. In other words, the forced  behaviour change led people to discover more optimal  behaviours.

I think that might have happened to me to some extent. Having been denied the use of the gym for the last five months, I’ve experimented with other exercises I could do from home. Having read Convict Conditioning, I started doing the progressions of pushups, squats, (sleeping) leg raises and bridges.

Prior to this, for the last six years I had stuck to a standard regimen of parallel back squats, shoulder press, bench press and deadlifts (in the last year or so I had added sumo deadlifts and front squats to my repertoire). This had allowed me to significantly improve lower body strength but my upper body strength had stalled.

The bodyweight exercises at home have had some interesting results – I now “naturally” squat deep (calves touching hamstrings), and I did the same today even with loaded squats. And my upper body finally shows signs of improvement, with all those pushups (though inability to install my pullup bar means my upper body might be growing weirdly).

So for the first time ever, with a barbell on my shoulders, I squatted deep. It was comfortable. I progressively increased the weights but didn’t go too heavy (don’t want to start my comeback with an injury). And then it was time for some deadlifts. My earlier fear of whether it could be safely done with latex gloves proved unfounded. However, again I stuck to lower weights (I have this problem with deadlifts that at lower weights my form is sometimes imperfect. The weight doesn’t “Force me to do it correctly” like higher weights do).

I must say I seriously missed this. This evening I felt the hungriest I have ever felt in the last six months. I’m sure to be going back regularly, at least once a week (possibly two). I’m going to continue with my bodyweight exercises, not wanting to give up the “alternate gains” I’ve had over the last six months.

By the time I was done this evening my mask was soaked, as were my clothes. I hope I wake up up tomorrow in a position to move.

Ramayana and Weight Training

There are several interpretations of the Ramayana. As AK Ramanujan compiled, there are more than “three hundred ramayanas“. In some versions, Ravana is Sita’s father. In others, he is her brother. Yet others have been written from Sita’s point of view. And some from Hanumantha’s. And some from Ravanas.

In fact, the Ramayana (contrary to the sanitised Ramanand Sagar version we were fed by Doordarshan) is a fascinating enough epic that there can be millions of interpretations of the story. So let me add mine.

In my opinion, the Ramayana is a shining example of the virtues of Strength Training, especially barbell training. I’ll illustrate this with two key episodes from the epic.

The first is Sita’s swayamvara, where Rama beats off all competition to be able to marry Sita. The test is rather simple. There is a rather heavy bow that the suitors should lift and then string. My interpretation is that most other suitors who had come to the swayamvara were “convenational gymmers” who spent hours every week honing their biceps and triceps and ignoring training their large muscles.

Basically, like most “gym rats” you see at most conventional gyms, these suitors focussed on the lifts that made them look good rather than those that gave them real strength. Rama, on the other hand, practiced simple barbell lifts, and was especially adept at the deadlift. So after all the shower-offs had failed, Rama walked up and deadlifted the bow (the weight was such that no other lift was possible) and strung it. And married Sita.

The other episode comes much later in the epic, when the scene of action has shifted to Sri Lanka. Angada, the monkey prince, has gone to Ravana’s court in the form of an advance party to negotiate Sita’s release before Rama declared war on Lanka. Ravana insulted him, and so Angada refused to budge until he had had an audience. Various members of Ravana’s court tried to physically dislodge him (as Angada had challenged them to do so), but Angada remained firm, with his feet firmly planted in the ground.

Clearly, Angada did squats, and members of Ravana’s army who fooled themselves into strength by solely concentrating on the arms didn’t realise that someone (who squatted) could have such heavy and firm feet. And so they failed to dislodge him.

Now to find episodes from the epic that show the virtues of the press and the bench press.

Pregnancy and deadlifting

The so-called Sympathetic Pregnancy Belly, which is caused due to something known as the Couvade Syndrome, is not a myth. As the expectant mother’s abdomen swells, to make room for the baby growing within, her partner’s belly starts swelling up as well.

Having personally experienced this, I can think of several reasons due to which this happens. Firstly, the expectant mother (“mother” for short) is encouraged to eat nutritious fattening food during pregnancy, which is sometimes too tempting for the expectant father (“father”) to let go of.

So as the baby grows within the mother’s belly, the father becomes fatter as well, ingesting the same nutritious food his partner has been instructed to ingest.

Then, it is a custom that when you are pregnant, people call you home to feed you lunch/dinner (sometimes you go out of your way to solicit such invitations). It is also custom that these invitations are extended to the father as well, and with rich foods and desserts being staples at such meals, it further contributes to the sympathetic  belly.

And then there is the lack of exercise. With your partner experiencing pains all day, and not being able to walk too much, you prefer to spend time with her doing nothing rather than going out on those romantic long walks of the yesteryear. You take pity on the partner and start taking your car out for even the shortest distances. Even when you travel, you limit your activity so that the partner doesn’t get stressed. And your tummy grows.

Under normal circumstances I wouldn’t have minded growth of my tummy along with my wife’s, but the problem in this case is that my triglyceride levels have shot up as well (thanks to all that eating and little exercise). With the nutritious foods the partner consumes being too tempting to let go of, dieting is not an answer. And hence I’ve decided to resume deadlifting.

Among all the different kinds of exercise I’ve done in the past, the deadlift stands out because of the sheer volume of mass you move in the course of the exercise, and the extent of your body that gets exercised in the process. It is an utterly tiring exercise (you need to make sure you’ve eaten well enough before you embark on it), and if you are deadlifting regularly, no amount of dessert eating can have any impact on your triglycerides (last October, when I was deadlifting sporadically and eating without restraint, I recorded my lowest ever triglyceride numbers since I started testing that thing).

And there is one other major advantage to deadlifting as well – you can continue lifting your partner well into the pregnancy. While both the father and mother put on weight during the pregnancy (as documented above), under normal circumstances there is no addition to the father’s muscle mass. Consequently, it becomes progressively harder to lift the mother through the course of the pregnancy, a task that would have been trivial in ground (non-pregnant) state!

And what better way to be able to lift the partner, than practicing to lift heavy weights? And where else can you lift the kind of weights you can lift when you are deadlifting?

Unfortunately I had given up deadlifting for the first part of the pregnancy, and hence I’ve fallen well behind the curve. I find it extremely hard nowadays to lift my wife, and I’m not proud to say that. Hopefully, having resumed deadlifting, I should be able to make up for this in a few days now! Watch this space!

One final question for those who deadlift – deadlifting what weight (as a function of N) can prepare you to lift a human weighing N kgs off the floor and cradle her in your arms?