Here at Lean, Solid Dogs, we aim to foster cross-cultural appreciation among fellow Pointy Headed Intellectuals for the rich folkways of the Toxically Masculine Hooah (TMH) community. #intersectionality
So it warmed my heart when readers asked, “OK, so what are the reasons to lift extra-thick barbells that are too big to hold onto securely? That sounds dangerous.”
First of course, thick handles strengthen your grip, and if you have a strong grip and strong abs, you are strong enough for most real-world purposes. There is even a sub-sub-culture of lovable weirdos who specialize in feats of grip strength like ripping decks of cards, bending nails with their hands, or deadlifting heavy weights with just one or two fingers.
But there are other, geekier reasons for fat barbells like “specialized variety.” After you master the essential lifts (viz. squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, and pullup), you get stronger faster if you stick to those few exercises but inject a tiny bit of variety into how you do them. There are virtually endless teensy details that you can vary: you can switch up the order or speed of your exercises, change the width of your grip or stance, shorten or lengthen the range of motion, or switch barbells for dumbbells, or mess with your sense of balance by lifting blindfolded. You can even switch to a version of the exercise that purposely gives you bad leverage, like “diamond pushups,” where the tips of your index fingers and thumbs touch each other and make a diamond shape. (Try one right now; it’s fun.)
Bad leverage is what you get with extra-thick-handled bars: their center of gravity is farther outside your grasp and therefore wobblier. (Imagine holding a sledgehammer. It’s easy to control if you hold it just under the head. If you choke down farther, you can’t lift it or control it as easily. And if you hold it all the way down at the end of the handle, that dinky 8-pound head suddenly feels uncontrollably heavy.
This brings us to the other great benefit: increased muscular tension. You have to fight harder to hold on, and so you will be recruiting many more muscle fibers up and down the arm and chest and back, and that means you will be creating more muscular tension. In short order, you learn to create more muscular tension at will, and that is pretty much the definition of strength. Long story short: because the thick handles force you to clench everything harder, you learn to tense up harder whenever you want, i.e. you learn to be stronger.
In recent years, companies who sell this thick-handle equipment also claim that if you use it, you will get not just stronger arms but bigger ones too. (Remember, “big” is a different quality from “strong,” but it sells more product.) Will that really work? Indirectly, it could: if you get a lot stronger and then you employ that strength in bodybuilding-type training at some future time, yes, you will grow more than a weaker person. But in the near term, I am skeptical that the average exerciser will get her money’s worth if she just wants bigger arms. She will certainly get neurological improvements (viz. the ability to contract more muscle at will) and stronger “stabilizing” muscles, the dozens of small, aesthetically insignificant postural muscles that help you balance an awkward load), but that stuff doesn’t make you look swole in a tank top.
Lastly, is it dangerous to use these things? Won’t you drop them? Yes, you probably will at some point, so make sure it’s not on your face or your dog. If you’re smart enough to avoid that, they’re perfectly safe. (The big rule is just that you mustn’t use these things with a “false grip.” And if you don’t know what a false grip is, (1) congratulations, you are probably a normal, well-adjusted human being with a normal sense of values and perspective, and (2) you probably aren’t yet experienced enough to need this kind of equipment. Wait until you can bench press substantially more than your own body weight. You will progress faster that way.
The Goofy Yoga Shorts. Never mind what the smart-alecks say [looking sideways at Lee], these were SOOOOO practical. They didn’t bind my legs and, when wet, they drip-dried in no time.
Caffeine and Sugar. I drank the equivalent of six or seven cups of coffee. I only regret not drinking twice that. And on Ultra Scott’s advice, I broke out of ketosis during the event and inhaled a pound and a half of chocolate. He was so very right about this: I did get momentarily tired, but I never got exhausted.
Kettlebells: More than ever, I think that if you have only one conditioning tool in your toolbox, it should be a kettlebell. If someone asks, “What is the single thing you could do to prepare for ten different physical challenges, chosen at random by a smiling, demonic taskmaster?” you should answer, “Kettlebells.”
The glasses strap: They look dorky, but one poor sod lost his glasses in the surf.
2. Terrible Ideas: Four of the Many
Boonie hat: If it wasn’t getting sucked off my head in the surf, it was obstructing my vision. It’s perfect in the climate where I live, but for these events, it’s a wool beanie or nothing.
Not layering: I knew we’d get wet and cold, so why didn’t I pack some kind of underlayer? After Surf Horror™, other people changed into something dry and looked very happy, whereas I was a trembling wreck.
We all made it! The all-night ruck confirmed some clichés that are cliché for good reason:
1) People metamorphose in shocking ways. A bantamweight guy who struggled with sand bags early in the night turned into the Incredible Hulk around 5am. Either he was free-basing something or he’s really, really a morning person.
2) When you feel completely smoked, you’ve only used 10% of your work capacity.
3) The mental chatter (雜念) that Buddhists hate so much stops for almost nothing. During surf torture, I had the added torment of Rod Stewart’s “Do You Think I’m Sexy” on autoplay in my head and I was obsessively analyzing the beach stench of putrescent sea life. (Final conclusion: it smelled half like brimstone and half like unwashed baby bottoms.)
4) Shared adversity bonds people. “Ain’t nobody Superman,” as an old coach said, and even strong performers sometimes flag and need to be “carried” along by the others, so everyone gets chances to take care of everyone else when they’re weak and needy.
“ἢ τὰν ἢ ἐπὶ τᾶς” –Spartan moms in a time before enlightened parenting
I am ready to ruck! I’ve trained for weeks, obsessed minutely over man-toys Vitally Important Equipment Choices,™ and I just managed to give myself a second-degree burn with a piece of paracord that caught on fire. (Don’t ask.) But now I’m ready!
The event isn’t a race where participants compete against each other but a quasi-military model where we’re all on the same team and the fun is to carry out ludicrous challenges dreamed up by the race director. (E.g. “Next, jump in the water and then schlep your backpacks, a sandbag, and this telephone pole to the top of that hill. You have 30 minutes. Go.”)
I’m intensely curious about who shows up to such an event. I’m guessing it will be one part military types, one part mountaineers, and two parts people like me, hyperactive desk workers who did Tough Mudders and then asked, “Now what?”
Anthropologically, I wonder where these people will come from. These events are culturally very Red: run by ex-soldiers with commemorations of deceased service members, flag-centered ritualism, and plenty of American civic religion. And yet they are holding this particular event in San Francisco, the Vatican City of Blue America. I love juxtapositions like this and wonder whether I will meet a lot of other category-straddling Purple weirdos like me.
Gear is laid out all over the living room floor and I’m about to scrunch it into the pack like Tetris pieces. From toe to head we have: hiking boots with mesh sides (Moab Ventilators) to drain water; East German army socks and Fox River sock liners; yoga shorts that make me look like a pole dancer; tough Flecktarn shirt with huge pockets; Swedish surplus rucksack that was supposed to be a birthday present for Michelle Skadisdottir (sorry, dude!) that I pimped out and filled with the regulation 30# of weights; British surplus windbreaker; boonie hat (because the logs scrape your ears) with a headlamp; and pocket knife, Ibuprofen, and duct tape (because Macgyver).
A mentor of mine says, “A piece of exercise equipment is valuable in inverse proportion to its cost.” Meaning that if you spend $5000 on a Bowflex machine, you will receive no benefit from it, but an implement you make for $1 will be almost invaluable.
By that measure, this is my pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
With a few days before The Great Ruck-Off to rehab dinged up joints, I reached into my disused bag of powerlifting tricks and pulled out the grand old Tire Sled. The most important tool for powerlifters after a barbell, the sled mends broken bodies by pumping blood and synovial fluid through overstressed joints with moderate work and light poundages. And just like yoga, it wakes up the stabilizing muscles of the thorax, elbows and knees, and shoulder and hip girdles and teaches them to coordinate in funky, unaccustomed combinations.
To accomplish that, you just pull the sled up and down the block in every conceivable way: forward, back, sidestepping, cross-stepping, bent over double, one-handed or two-, hands overhead or thrust out front or behind your back or between your legs, rowing, pressing, extending, curling, whatever. The sled is to the horizontal plane what the kettlebell is to the vertical plane: endlessly versatile and wonderfully therapeutic. To paraphrase what powerlifting great Donny Thompson says about kettlebells, the sled works the tissues without killing them.
There is nothing to count here: no sets, reps, or poundages. This is just active recovery. You pull it, work up a lather, get pleasantly tired, and then go happily about the rest of your day.
I had my first encounter with one of the hill dwellers who, I’d been cautioned euphemistically, “isn’t real social.” As it turned out, we just ignored each other. I was taking a break at the side of the road, he was watering Some Kind of Plant Life 100 yards away, and neither of us acknowledged the other. Moments later I was on my way.
When you wander far into the boonies alone, it is an act of faith in people. Where phone service is hours away and the sheriff another hour or two after that, anyone you happen upon with a vehicle or a friend has an almost insuperable advantage over you, and if they wished you harm, they could do it with a free hand and complete privacy, and they would probably get away with it forever.
And yet the people I meet in the middle of nowhere prove cordial and downright benevolent. Most recently it was a couple of thick, rough men with neck beards in a Suburban who stopped to exchange a few words and offer water or a lift, and as they rolled away their parting words were “Stay safe.” I marvel at how nice people are even when they have no reason to be.
I’m not offering an ecstatic panegyric about the innate goodness of humankindpersonkind, just noticing that we are such social animals that even in settings where we can harm people with impunity, we mostly still do the opposite.
It doesn’t hurt that both parties can virtually take it for granted that the other is armed: an armed society really is a polite society. But by itself that would only explain a wary indifference, not the warmth, concern, and fellow-feeling that’s actually out there.