The Story So Far
In the first article in this series, I gave some of my history as regards Weight Training, detailed some of the problems that I encounter and defined some of the terminology on which non weight-trainers tend to get confused. In this second article of the series, I will begin the story of how I, as a Chronic Fatigue sufferer, got back into Weight Training and give a rundown on the equipment that I use or have used.
Getting Started - Slow and Steady
April 27th, 2007 - with the Summer heat gone, I dusted off the weights and started, very gently, to exercise. Unfortunately, I did not keep a log when I first started other than very terse comments in my journal along the lines of "exerc". I do, however, recall the principles to which I worked which were:
- Just a couple of light sets of just a few exercises.
- Leave any problem areas well alone. (This meant that I was only training arms, chest and shoulders initially.)
- Adequate recuperation - one day on, three days off.
This may sound fairly pathetic, but I was pathetic when I started. Only a month or so before, just getting out of a chair was a major exercise. Going to pick something for dinner from the kitchen garden was a killer.
At the outset, things were none too pleasant. I would suffer from myalgia just by getting tired (OK, I was - and still am - tired all the time; this was when I got more tired) - exercise made it worse. It wasn't too long before I had a wrist injury - and not from exercise. This is when I became interested in the gadgets that I describe at the end of this article. Then, with my wrists protected, my elbows started playing up (my limb joints have been the bane of my life). Using ordinary elbow braces, I was able to continue.
Progress seemed slow, but if you consider that I am writing this less than 9 months after I started, it really wasn't. I was able to add exercises to my routine and also to decrease the time I needed to allow for recovery. To those inclined to ask "how much" and "when", there is only one answer: "listen to your body".
After a couple of months, I had introduced a split system - one day of "push" exercises, a couple of rest days, then a day of "pull" exercises. As time went by, I was able to bring my rest days down to one. Every now and then I would try to exercise for two consecutive days - every time I regretted it. It would wipe me out for days.
Reviewing my situation in August, I could see that I had made good gains in strength (by then, I had been recording all my workouts on a spreadsheet for some time), no longer suffered from myalgia except on very rare occasion, and had managed to clear up long-standing lower back problems through the introduction of deadlifts. My bodyweight had not really budged but, much to my delight, I found that my body composition had: a drop in fat mass and a slightly greater gain in lean body mass. (As determined using an electronic skinfold caliper, the "FatTrack II".)
Whilst I have experienced some surprising (to me) strength gains since last April, other than body parts that have only recently started to be brought into play (legs, for instance), progress has slowed down somewhat. My general health has not improved significantly and I still have a fair bit of intra-abdominal fat to worry about. However, exercise is just one part of the equation; it is something I can do to help manage my condition and - as they say - every bit counts. What is more, I am enjoying my workouts - there is no motivation quite like looking forward to something.
Having now given a brief summary of my experiences, I will go on to describe the equipment which I have been using.
Until recently, I have used a series of cheap, sometimes folding, weight benches. The one shown in the picture - if you can make it out from the background clutter of my office - was what I used last year to "get back into it". The bench could be set at three levels of incline (plus flat), had an attachment that could be used for leg curls and leg extensions and an almost unusable preacher curl attachment.
For the beginner, such benches are a fairly affordable option that does not take up too much space - especially those that can fold up. If, for some reason, you find that you are not getting on with Weight Training and decide to stop (I would try to dissuade you - try changing your routine, seek professional coaching, think of the joys of coronary heart disease and osteoporosis) - you haven't wasted too much investment and can always put it in the shed, cart it down to the second-hand shop, or list it on eBay.
Many of these cheaper benches are quite flimsy - especially those designed to fold. I found that as I made progress and used heavier weights, the bench shown did not feel too secure - with my 105kg (approximately 230lbs) bulk plus the weight being lifted, the bench was also rapidly approaching its maximum rated weight. The uprights that catch the bar were also too close together for me, I could not get sufficient weight on the leg attachment - so I decided that it was time to change. I was making enough progress and felt sufficiently committed to upgrade to something better.
Unlike the small, beginners' benches, power racks are big. They also do not replace having a bench - you need a bench as well if you plan to do bench presses and a number of other exercises. It took considerable planning, measuring and marking the floor of my office with pieces of duct tape before I was confident that I would even be able to get one in and still use it. My office, which is only 4 metres (just over 13 feet) by 4 metres, required considerable re-arrangement and the banishment of many things to the shed (including the old weight bench) before I could get the power rack in and assembled.
The photograph shows my power rack and bench. I was only just able to site the camera far enough away to get it all in. On the wall opposite the rack (behind the camera) is the air conditioner that actually allows me to use the rack in anything but the winter. (See the heat section in the first article.)
So, what is a power rack? It is, essentially, a steel frame on which attachments can be fitted to hold a barbell at different heights/positions. Safety rails may be positioned just below the lowest travel of the bar in an exercise to prevent one getting trapped if unable to complete a lift. The safety rails have given me much more confidence in handling heavier weights and can be a boon to those training solo.
My particular power rack (a Bodymaker HMP2, for those who are interested) also has high and low cable attachments.
All in all, my power rack has enabled me to introduce many new exercises and to perform some of the old ones with considerably more comfort and safety.
Were my office bigger, I would probably have gone for a power rack of slightly more robust construction (greater wall thickness of the steel box-section). What I have is what would fit - just.
Companion to the power rack, I also have a calf block. This is a metal block like a small step that allows one to exercise the calf muscles in isolation (only front part of foot on block). The reason that I have this is that I have figured that calf isolation exercises may help strengthen my ankles which have a habit of collapsing and turning over - painfully - when I am least expecting it.
My collection of bars consists of:
- A pair of spin-lock dumbell shafts
- A 7 foot standard bar for use on the rack. (Note - weight bars and plates come in two main types: Olympic, a 50mm diameter bar and standard, with a diameter anywhere between 24mm and 28mm.)
- A 5 foot standard bar for off the floor use (I can't fit anything longer in the space where I perform these exercises); this wretched thing has spin-lock collars which are a total pain. I plan to replace this with a regular 5 foot bar with ordinary collars in the near future.
- An EZ-curl standard bar
- A standard tricep bar
It would hardly be Weight Training without actual weights! I have a variety of cast iron plates, some of which I obtained as a set, the others more recently as I needed them. Some of my older plates have rather poor engineering tolerances and will only fit on the 7 foot, EZ-curl and tricep bars with a bit of deburring of the holes - some not at all. I have a lot of weight plates though, and can make up weights up to about 140kg quite easily, without having to use too many plates.
To round off the review of my equipment, I will describe 3 "gadgets" that I use:
- The "Manta Ray". It had been quite some time since I had been able to squat. My bench, back in England, had a squat stand attachment, but this is an exercise that I never found comfortable due to the bar pressing on my spine. The power rack is a fine device for squats - especially with the safety bars - but does not overcome this problem. The "Manta Ray", however, does. I now positively enjoy doing squats. This lump of blue, moulded plastic clips onto the bar (only loosely, as it is actually designed for an Olympic bar) and transfers the load across the trapezius. At the time of writing this, I can squat 8 repetitions at 125kg (275 lbs), which would be quite unthinkable without this little gadget - not with all that weight concentrated in one spot.
- "New Grip" gloves. Gloves is perhaps not quite the right word. The consist of a dense foam pad which covers the palm and an elastic strip that goes over the fingers. This is then attached to a wrist strap by Velcro. The whole thing takes strain off the wrist (I have terrible problems with my wrists - very prone to injury) and cushion the palm. I will not perform any dumbell exercise without them (once again, due to my wrists) and also use them with the wrist straps loose when performing the bench press - the foam makes the pressure of a heavy bar far more bearable.
- "1 Ton Hooks". This gadget comprises a rubber-coated metal hook which is hung from a padded wrist brace by a strap. They remove the limitation of strength of grip (or flaky wrists) from exercises such as deadlifts and shrugs.
There are those who may consider the use of my gadgets cheating. I do not feel this to be the case; they just enable me to perform exercises that would otherwise give me problems due to my own mechanical issues. Certainly no more cheating than wearing shoes to exercise - something I do not do. (I spend most of my life barefoot and wouldn't have it any other way.) For those who are interested, all of my gadgets were obtained from the very nice people at Intafitness. (They also do alpha lipoic acid for a good price - I use it to assist diabetes control.)
The Next Installment
The third and final article in this series will be a conclusion and a list of resources that I have used over the few months to learn about what I am doing and to obtain various bits and pieces. Read Part 3.