Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Lifting in the 5th Dimension, Part Eleven - Thomas Foote

Free Play

Dogma Blues

I have a perplexing fondness for routine. Just now I remembered an early professor who took the care to label me "dogmatic". Unfortunately, he was right. It strikes me as one of many facets of a need for security and predictability. That's not so strange. But it is a tendency which can take a lot of the fun out of working out. 

I find I get very "either/or". For example, take a look at this note I once wrote myself:

Today I watched rigidity do its dogmatic walk across my mind. I decided to run rather than lift and felt it necessary to envision a whole career of jogging. Finally, I realized that I just felt like running TODAY. 

It sounds silly, but once I had decided to jog rather than lift, I felt a compulsion to redefine my identity as a "runner" rather than as a "lifter". I get like that.


As a treatment for this strange affliction (rigor mortis of the imagination), I have self-prescribed periods of "free play" with weights. To some extent, there is a parallel with dancing "just for fun". Being no dancer, I must accept on good faith that a lot of dancers have no destination on the floor. Rather, their "purpose" is to enjoy the dancing experience. Play is like that. As a kid, I was a marathon play freak. I mean, I played incessantly without goals, objectives or routines. The very idea of structure seems antithetic to play. I'm sure that statement will offend someone with good intentions to mold the clay of young minds, etc. . . but I can just imagine my utter lack of enthusiasm for "structured play activities".

Free play with weights is specifically the antidote for the Dogmatic Blues. for this purpose Path Finder chose to do a one-handed lift called a Snatch. I first saw this move demonstrated by a couple of guys who said they usually worked out at home. It seems appropriate that people who were outside the mainstream did something fresh. There's probably a tendency, around gyms, for a certain homogeneity of routines to set in. Well, the One Hand Snatch looked like fun. So I tried it.

It was!

The Snatch

Basically, the Snatch is much like the Clean; that is, it is a coordinated, explosive movement. It takes balance and concentration. For these reasons it is specifically suited to our 5th Dimension. It is crucial to calm and clear the mind before a snatch so that you can focus on the moment. It must be something like a shot-put as opposed to a tug-of-war. Instead of a long, slow pull you must bring everything to bear on/in an instant. Once you get the general idea, teach yourself the move, and don't over-complicate things. There are plenty of how-to and technical materials available for you later on. But for now, don't worry about doing it "right" with a bar or a dumbbell or turns with both if you so choose. That kind of thinking just defeats the notion of play.

Before Powerlifting became an organized sport in the late '60's, strong men used to do what they called Odd Lifts. To my mind they probably had much more fun than do competitors at modern meets. These guys would see who could do the heaviest or the most one-arm presses with a bar or dumbbell, or heaviest bent-press, or see who could fold the most beer caps in a limited time. There was no real set routine of odd lifts and some of the strength or endurance feats were both awesome and creative.

I don't really have a "routine" of free exercises. (Hey kids, you want some structured play!) You have to discover free play for yourself. So remember, next time you enter the weight room feeling burned out, give yourself some slack. Try fooling around a little with some odd lifts. See if it doesn't rekindle the fun you once knew. Simply suggestions here, not the dictates of some taskmaster bent on directly increasing your P.R's as rapidly as humanly possible.

Low-Tech Purist

Here we talk about sweat. Much maligned and misunderstood, sweat is the bane of the polished armpit and the odor profiteers. Once I read about a Zen master whose personal recipe for enlightenment was to work up a daily sweat. Sweat - the baptismal water of the weight lifter. It's messy. It stings my eyes. It wrecks my grip and IT FEELS GOOD.

Machine Masters

At the gym where I usually work out, they recently installed about 14 hi-tech contraptions. Hi-tech is the current buzz word that has been added to the training vernacular, as a prefix, much like new-improved was once tacked onto laundry detergent. First we had James Bond level sports watches and running shoes described in quasi-medical jargon, and now "hi-tech" weight training equipment. Soon we'll be reading about the new-improved hi-tech training equipment, because once the prefix qualifiers begin they gain the capacity to reproduce like cancer cells, as with new-improved, extra-strength, heavy-duty, cutting-edge laundry soap.

Hi-tech people don't know how to work up a clean sweat. They don't appreciate it. I went my gym's free hi-tech training clinic. From there I saw a lot of nice folks, dressed in designer sports wear who did not sweat. Nor did they toil, and not at all did they smile. Absent was the familiar huff-puff, grunt-groan, and clash-crash of people happy to lift weights. The machines whispered on the bearings as their gliding parts guided solemn-faced exercisers through their paces.

At the threshold of this converted weight room I was greeted by the attendant. Before I could know the joy these machines held for the faithful, I had to be indoctrinated. I would have to see an orientation film and relearn a proper training approach. Water bottle and clip board mandatory. "Station" is what the anointed call each of these exercise machines. And the rules! Thou shalt not get in front of thy brother at his next station, thou shalt not perform more than one set per station, thou shalt not . . . 

I never made it through the whole orientation. I never even made it past the door where the attendant stopped me. I must've smelled of low-tech and they picked up the scent. 

Free Weights

My favorite workouts were in my college field house before it was "improved". The old field house was poorly lit and had a dirt floor. It also had a smell all of its own. The part of our brain which responds to smells is very, very old, and the responses from it can be powerful. The smell from the old field house used to escape into the hallway and rise up to greet you when you left the locker room, so your juices were already on their way to pumping before you saw the weights.

In that dimly lit and steamy field house both the weights and our spirits were free. On that grungy and dusty old dirt floor you could let the weights drop or dig in your shoes for a good hold. You could spit and drip sweat on that floor in a primal rut that might disgust some people's sanitary preferences and I loved it.

Then hi-tech hit my personal heaven! The old dirt floor was replaced by some rubberized half-plastic composition that was poured in seamless beauty and hardened to form the anonymity of sameness. The free weights were safely enclosed within wire mesh like rabid, disease-carrying animals. Now, the once proud plates and bars sat under bright indoor lighting, on a shiny artificial surface, surrounded on all sides (and overhead) by a cage. But the improvements and humiliation weren't  over yet. Once the machines arrived the free weights were moved into a store room and the bright new creations invaded the cage. I abandoned the sorry place for my back yard and old iron plates. 

The Price

I knew there was no free lunch. Those machines didn't come to us like a fabled warrior, extending an open hand to show he carried no weapon. There was a price. One hand of hi-tech was ready to grab you like a puppet-master, while the other fastened a long train of baggage to your neck. Hi-tech demands that you consider your relationship with it. To be thorough, one must recognize that a thing includes what you "think" about it. Hence your relationship to a thing cannot be separated from the thing itself. I say tree and what do you see in your mind? Think Christmas and do you see the same tree? Your memory of 'tree' is not a singular thing. Go ahead. Sit still for a few minutes and think 'tree' and be sure to add yourself to these thought pictures . . . how many different scenes do you see while thinking of you and 'tree' . . . 

They're not just 'weights'. Your mind carries every relationship you've ever had with them along for the ride. You might say the weights 'contain' a piece of you, a very integral part of your being, if you're bent that way, and I can only hope you are. If not, feel free to move along now. Antiseptic hand rinse and overly-scientific data available at the exits. 

A given weight plate appears to be an indifferent hunk of iron to those still uninitiated. Drop it on your toe if that's what it takes to wake up. No longer do you feel indifferent about either your toe or the weight plate. It's a start. You have become involved in an intimate relationship with free weights. My own relationship with free weights is very special to me. They are predictable yet unpredictable. They are challenging to no limit, yet give the impression to some that they are inanimate. They are a means to an experience I cherish. They are intensely beautiful in their combination of simplicity and functional cleverness. Eleiko, will you marry me?

Iron, Transcendence, Lines & Design. 

Man is an ancient toolmaker and his best tools are his simplest. Long before we ever heard hi-tech jargon, like ergonomics or bioengineering, the graceful curves of a scythe handle had evolved to transfer a man's energy into effective work. Some tools, such as the scythe, transcend their function with an enduring beauty which grew from necessity. Its lines are an analysis of need. Its form holds the secret of its maker's form, who bent it to his need. 

Free weights with their interchangeable plates are such a tool. Their parsimony of form reflects their elemental purpose. One enters into a relationship of ancient simplicity with these weights that are so aptly called "free". You pit yourself against the bar with direct and single-minded aggression. When a man met his foe in single-handed combat, he also met the current measure of himself. In the same way, you have a measure of yourself each and every time you lift real weights, dependent on that combination of mental, physical and spiritual energy levels you rise or fall to on that particular occasion. Again, you can't put your foot in the same river or lift the same weights twice. But how does I get my biseps to groe?

I just don't see this kind of relationship being possible with machines or any other guided movement contraption. When you strap your body into a device that literally wraps around you and/or allows only a single isolated range of motion you lose the control. You have entered into a relationship which demands freedom of movement and choice as its price. If you love something, strap it into a machine and wait for its soul to die? And these machines don't come with a dowry and in-laws either. 

As I discovered at the gym where I used to work out, the machines and guided devices bring their rules, regulations and only one road of motion. No style, please, we're orderly. And like I said before, this new breed of 'lifters' don't know how to sweat properly. They have trouble even making noises from the gut. Their machines eventually rob them of a lifting soul, of all sense of play, and in an efficient 30 short minutes, just two times a week, you too can lose your training humanity.

As I discovered in the summer back yard and winter garage where I now work out, I can still grunt and sweat with my weight friends of choice to my heart's content. And what do I do with these friends of mine while we are both intensely alive? 

Why, we scale mountains and slay dragons, of course.

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