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My wife Janet asked me recently why I bothered to wear my glasses while doing cardio. After all, I really only needed them for driving, technically. The only reason I would wear them otherwise would be to have a clear view of objects and people that were further than about fifteen feet or so away. And that's why I do wear my spectacles - to watch the spectacle of the gym floor play out before me, in all its drama.
Even though I could just as easily catch shows like General Hospital or The O.C. on the little video monitor right in front of me on the stair stepper's digital readout, I find the characters and stories taking place in any large gym to be much more fascinating.
Janet has rashly accused me of being a gossipmonger at times, but I resemble that remark. As a keychain my daughter owns, which shows a cartoon woman on the phone, "I don't repeat gossip, so I'm only going to say this once."
Actually, I have learned that I can stay out of trouble by not interfering in melodrama, but simply observing, much like anthropologist Jane Goodall did with chimps in Africa for years. I swear, if those apes had some weights to screw around with, you might not even be able to tell the difference between baboons and some of the buffoons at my gym.
| Who Is Jane Goodall?
Dame Valerie Jane Morris Goodall, DBE, is a British primatologist, ethologist, anthropologist, and UN Messenger of Peace. She is well-known for her 45-year study of chimpanzee social and family interactions in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania, and for founding the Jane Goodall Institute.
The Gym Show
Late afternoons are the best time to sit back and watch The Gym Show. I typically train in the morning or early afternoon, when the place is stocked with retired folks and frumpy housewives. These aren't like TV's Desperate Housewives - unless you mean desperately wishing they could stuff their faces with donuts and flavored coffee with whipped cream, while looking more and more like Teri Hatcher and Eva Longoria by the day.
Nope, there was no excitement when I trained (and don't I wish they did look like them!). But occasionally I would come in later to do cardio, and get my fix of the best reality show not on television. The interactions of the gym members were something I always like to have a front-row seat for.
You had the Gottis and the Abercrombies, the young studs I wrote about a few months ago, plus their assorted little groupie chicks. Eventually, all of them would end up dating each other, not unlike the old Beverly Hills 90210 show. All that was missing was a set of good and evil twins and a couple cases of amnesia to really liven things up.
Then you had the blue-collar guys that trained after work, eager to get their pump on and move some hefty iron after a long day of working in public transit, law enforcement, auto repair, or whatever it was these fellows did to earn a living. Some of them were fairly well built and strong, and the king of them was a man I'll call Tom.
At one time, before he slightly tore his pec, Tom would regularly bench press 405 whenever he trained chest. From what I gathered, he trained chest at least twice as often as he did anything else. Being able to press that much weight at a bodyweight of about 190 lean and vascular pounds made him the idol of the teenagers that filled the gym during the evening rush hour, all of whom worshipped at the altar of the bench press.
This suited 40-year-old Tom just fine, because he happened to like young girls, and I mean really young - like 17 or 18 years old. Even though I am still in my mid-thirties, I look at teenage girls and see them as children, probably because I have a 12-year-old daughter myself. Not Tom. He looked at these teenyboppers and saw fresh, unspoiled meat, or new cars with very low mileage.
Unfortunately for him, most of the girls considered him not to be a refined, older man, but just an old man. His hair had started to recede and thin out a while back, and now he sported the clean-shaven dome that looked good on a few guys, but made most others look like baldies that had lost the follicular war. Tom was one of the latter.
We've all heard that women supposedly find bald men sexy, but I have a sneaking suspicion that bald men started that particular rumor in hopes that it would catch on. At least they don't have to worry about dandruff anymore.
Those Crappy Reps
So there I was doing my cardio, and miraculously, Tom was training not chest, but back. In fact, he was doing chin-ups. This really made me take notice, because chin-ups are about as common these days in gyms as portable 8-track players.
It's so much easier to sit down at a nice comfy lat pulldown station and pull the bar down to you than it is to hoist your own bodyweight up toward the sky. And I'll admit it - I actually counted how many reps this Tom guy did for his first set - 18! These were not the strict, slow reps with a pronounced squeeze of the lats at the top of the rep, and a controlled negative to feel them stretch. Nope, these were rapid-fire reps - bam, bam, bam! There was no pause at the top whatsoever, and Tom even did a little bounce at the bottom every time to rebound back up.
Ha! I thought smugly to myself that these were cheating reps, worthless for stimulating growth. Maybe I couldn't do quite as many reps, but instantly my mind provided all my wonderful excuses to justify why. Not only was my form far superior, but I also weighed about forty pounds more than Tom at the same height. Still, he did two more sets, getting roughly fifteen reps each time, and somehow his back looked like it had pumped up pretty well from those crappy reps.
That night I thought about how I had always been wrong before whenever I thought I was absolutely sure that one training technique was better than another. Now I was wondering if strict form was the only viable way to train, or perhaps cheating reps, with constant, piston-like motion, had their role as well.
Trying Something New
As it so happened, back day was the next morning for me. Randy had the day off, and was waiting by the chin-up bar between the cable crossovers. It had been at least a month since we had trained back together, but starting with chins was fairly standard with us.
My feeling was that because it was such a demanding exercise, it made a lot of sense to hit it while you were fresh. Today, I had a surprise in store for young Randy.
"We are going to use crappy form on chins today," I announced.
"What?" Randy reacted as if I told him I had discovered a new cardio technique that involved taking turns kicking each other in the groin for thirty minutes. Actually, I bet someone has already thought of that. Didn't they do that on MTV's Jackass once?
"Yup, that's right. I just want to try something, if you'll indulge me." Stepping up on the plastic milk crate that us 5-8 dudes required to reach the bar, I took a wide grip and proceeded to knock out eighteen reps, in exactly the same herky-jerky form that I had watched Tom do. Indeed, my lats were starting to get a very decent pump.
"You're up, same thing," I told Randy. For a moment he eyed me as if this were some sort of test, and I was just waiting to punish him should he actually go through with that cheating form. Then he grabbed the bar and got fifteen reps himself. As soon as he dropped down, I stepped up and did another sixteen reps.
The last time I remembered doing more than fifteen reps of chin-ups had been in ninth grade Junior Marine Corps ROTC as part of the test to earn my PFT (Physical Fitness Test) ribbon. Back then, I had stood at 5-1 and weighed 110 pounds soaking wet and with two pocketfuls of change. The only mission the Corps would have found me suitable for was Operation Munchkin Land.
A Change In Opinion
When we had each completed three sets, I made my assessment. Even though what I had just done went against everything I believed in with regards to exercise form, I could not deny that A), I had gotten significantly more reps than usual, and B), the cheating style had stimulated my back in a different manner than my standard perfect form.
I decided that from then on, I would start to experiment with incorporating 'cheating' form here and there, or at least to loosen up from strict form at times. I had been deriding pro's like Ronnie Coleman for years about how horrible their form was, all the while denying that perhaps loose form had a legitimate place in any bodybuilder's training regimen.
Two-time Overall Team Universe champion Skip La Cour had written several times in the past about the importance of striking a balance between perfectly strict form, which can severely limit the amount of weight you use, and loose form, which can take the stress away from the target muscle as well as increase your risk of injury. Once you find that balance, as he did, muscle growth is almost unlimited in potential. I vowed to find that balance myself.
In my head, I silently thanked Tom for providing the final piece in the puzzle that encouraged me to try something different. But gratitude only goes so far. If he hits on my daughter in a couple years, all bets are off! As the overprotective father in the classic teenage comedy Clueless tells his daughter's would-be suitor, "I've got a .45 and a shovel - I doubt anyone would miss you."
About The Author:
Ron Harris is the author of "Real Bodybuilding: Muscle Truth from 25 Years in the Trenches," available at www.ronharrismuscle.com.
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